Even as you ponder whether or not the cooking gas fairy fiddled with the meters at the Paradise Group of restaurants so the chefs could get their wok hei for free, another little conundrum has popped up at the newly opened Xin Yue Modern Chinese restaurant - where the food tastes just like it does at Taste Paradise, but apparently isn't owned by them.
"No, no," says the lady who answers the phone in Mandarin. "It's separate." Instead, the link lies in Xin Yue's chef-owner Fung Chi Keung - the Pine Court restaurant alumnus who spent almost a decade shaping the menus of the group's restaurants since he was recruited by founder Eldwin Chua in 2006 to work at his first Taste Paradise in Mosque Street.
The former group executive chef has certainly built up a following over the years, judging by the lunchtime din, the sighting of some minor Mediacorp starlets and the proliferation of congratulatory bouquets that crowd Xin Yue's entrance and sidewalk facing Mohamed Sultan Road. It's not the snazziest of locations (it's not Ion Orchard), being next to Ippudo ramen in a row of Japanese-centric mid-range bars and grills.
But if you share the opinion that there should be more independent Chinese eateries carving their own niches instead of relying on a big group's central kitchen, Xin Yue is a welcome new entrant to the scene.
The Hong Kong-born Singaporean chef styles Xin Yue as a modern Chinese restaurant, even if the decor and staff don't quite display any Occidental tendencies. Mandarin is still the preferred lingua franca, and the senior servers haven't quite shaken off their instinct to make you sign up for more expensive menu options where possible.
This is a place where foie gras, truffle and roast lamb rack are peppered regularly throughout the menu even as the chef takes liberties with classics such as suckling pig and braised shark's fin. There's a whole section devoted to "Chef's Exquisite Appetiser" - flaunting the likes of pan seared suckling pig with Thai-style salad (S$18); pan-seared foie gras with lava egg (S$18) and lobster salad with French-style duck leg.
What's less than exquisite is the pricing, which must have been decided by someone using a precise methodology best described in local parlance as suka suka. A decent sized piece of pan-seared foie gras served in a pleasing sweet-savoury brown sauce serving as an earthy moat for a bobbing soft boiled egg and an unnecessary crisp of Spanish jamon offers a heftier mouthful than the postage stamp-sized sliver of crisp suckling pig skin layered on a piece of hard toasted mantou and an even thinner layer of shrimp paste sandwiched in between.
However delicious the skin actually is, and the mildly mouth-puckering salad of shredded green mango, S$18 should have got you at least two pieces.
Incidentally, if you want a combination of the two, you can pay S$25 for a smaller portion of liver and one piece of suckling pig skin on toast. But on our first visit, we notice that the egg has somehow escaped, leaving just a trail of egg white as evidence of its quick getaway.
Our server also confuses our order of double boiled soup of the day (S$12) for the item just above it in the menu. We end up forking over S$48 for a big pot of diluted double-boiled quail with chuan bei herbs - they may as well pour it out in glasses and have us sip it throughout the meal instead of tea for the amount of water they use for the soup.
The cooking is as erratic as its pricing, with our first dinner being an underwhelming evening with fresh but bland marble goby lightly braised in a claypot with garlic, ginger and spring onions - the tender, mild flavoured flesh so sorely needing a sauce with more punch.
The pedestrian Spanish kurobuta pork (S$16 per person) is culturally confused (they either mean Spanish iberico or Japanese kurobuta) and possibly baking soda treated.
The so-called house special of home-made fish noodles (S$10 a person) is let down by a lingering fishiness even if the noodle texture itself has a nice spring to it.
A subsequent lunch yields more promising results, with wacky dim sum creations such as a crispy seafood cheong fun (S$6.80), pan-fried seafood dumpling with curry sauce (S$5.20) and deep-fried cod and mushroom (S$8.80) turning out surprisingly good. Despite its anaemic monochrome presentation of thin rice flour roll stuffed with crispy battered shrimp, the cheong fun packs an addictive textural punch.
The curry sauce accompanying a fried seafood puff is mild enough not to clash - the puff is good enough to eat on its own but the sauce gives it a welcome kick. Even bland cod comes to life when its silken flesh is encased in a nori-wrapped cone of shatteringly crisp rice flour batter.
Among Chef Fung's arsenal of recipes from his Taste Paradise tenure is his signature superior shark's fin in supreme broth (S$38 per person) - a Japanese stone bowl filled with unctuous, rich sticky broth resulting from hours of slow cooking superior stock with fish maw till it releases its collagen goodness, with a cigarillo of fried spring roll pastry for you to dip into it. With a good serving of whole fins, it's one of the best values - if not the most politically correct - on the menu.
If you want to play it safe, the roast rack of lamb (S$16) - or make it one lamb chop - in red wine sauce is another of his mainstays.
Dessert doesn't escape his "modernist" touch, from an oddly pleasing deep fried pomelo cheesecake (S$8) with mango puree (crisp-battered slightly melting cheese isn't such a bad idea) to refreshing aloe vera and lemongrass jelly in a sour plum syrup (S$6).
Wavering quality and cock-eyed pricing are probably the two standout issues facing Xin Yue. Otherwise, there's an overall soundness to the food - it's the calibration of flavours that needs a relook. Maybe they want to call in a good food fairy to give their kitchen a once-over while they're at it.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on February 2, 2015.
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