A hip Chinese restaurant with a trendy bar converted from a shophouse in Boon Tat Street could have gone wrong so easily.
The food could have veered towards East-West fusion, for example, and ended up confused. Or the dishes could have come in pretty individual platings, but arrive at the table lukewarm as a result.
But the Dining Club, which opened on the second level of Sum Yi Tai slightly more than a month ago, is hip without losing the soul of traditional Chinese cooking.
It is a cosy space that seats only 30 in the main dining room and another 10 in a private room. Large floral prints hanging on the walls, brocade cushions on plush sofa seats and glittering chandeliers create a sense of Oriental opulence without going over the top.
The soothing notes of retro Cantopop by singers such as Leslie Cheung and Paula Tsui waft across the room, filling up the lulls in diners' conversations.
With the lighting turned down, the mood is relaxed - ideal for a gathering of friends at the end of a working day or a short lunchtime reprieve before going back to do battle in the citadels of finance just around the corner.
While the ambience is styled to draw in the working crowd, the cooking would also please a finicky grandmother. The menu is filled with old-fashioned Cantonese dishes and a couple of Sichuan offerings. Some dishes are given a slight twist to give them a taste unique to the restaurant, but others stick pretty much to traditional recipes.
Among the refreshed dishes is a Crispy Fried Salmon Skin With Salted Egg Yoke & Lime Zest ($12). The zest is the extra touch and it adds a new dimension to the flavours of this popular appetiser. At the same time, it lightens the rich texture of the salted egg yolk.
But it is not consistently applied. The first time I have the dish, the aroma of the lime is obvious, but at a second dinner, it is very subtle and appears only as an ending note.
The Chilled Jelly Fish With Citrus Spicy Dressing ($14) is also different from the version at other restaurants. Instead of being sweet, the dressing has a tartness that makes it taste bright and light. The acid makes the jellyfish seem crisper too.
The Wok Fried Sweet & Sour Pork With Lychee ($26) is also a change, with lychees replacing the usual pineapple. This common dish, found in most zi char stalls, is almost perfect here. It is rare to find such a delightful combination of crisp batter and tender meat in the deep-fried pieces of pork. And the sauce, too, is a good balance of sweet and sour flavours.
The Braised Marble Goby Fish With Roast Pork, Tofu & Shitake Mushroom ($48) is a treat for the olfactory senses when the lid comes off to unleash aromas of Chinese wine, ginger and shallots. But in the mouth, the dish comes across as a little under-seasoned. Perhaps the chef makes it lighter because many diners these days do not eat Chinese dishes with rice, unlike in the past. Still, I think he has toned it down a tad much in this instance.
But he gets it right with the Pan Fried Minced Pork With Crispy Salted Fish ($28). Here, bits of salted fish are sprinkled on top of the pan-fried pork patties and not mixed into them. This makes them less salty than the traditional version and perfect for eating on their own. The patties are juicy and I like the coarser texture of the handchopped, not ground, meat.
The Szechuan Style "La Zi Xia" King Prawns with Chilli & Peppercorn ($30) is more Hong Kong than Sichuan in style. Do not expect the tongue-numbing sensation of Sichuan peppers or the sweat-inducing heat of chilli oil. The dish is tasty, but I am disappointed with its lack of spice.
Still, there is much to like about the Dining Club.
What I especially appreciate is that its hipness does not come at inflated prices. Instead, you pay what you would in a smart, family- friendly Chinese restaurant in town. Except you will feel a lot more relaxed here.
THE DINING CLUB, SUM YI TAI
25 Boon Tat Street, tel: 6221-3665
Open: 11.30am to 2.30pm (Monday to Friday), 6 to 10.30pm (Monday to Saturday), closed on Sunday
Price: Budget about $50 a person, without drinks
•Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter @STahyoke
•Life paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.
This article was first published on July 05, 2015.
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