Putting on the glitz

We knew the time would come when a Chinese restaurant wouldn't want to be Chinese anymore.

It isn't enough to put your staff in black jackets and earpieces like security agents guarding the last Peking Emperor - sorry, duck.

The Western evolution won't be complete until you bring out the clubby lounge gear, pump up the volume and groove with the bar crowd who wants some midnight party action and a deejay playing tracks.

And such is how we ended up in the new Chinese restaurant Mitzo with a Spanish server telling us which dim sum to order.

Looking as if a Christmas tree imploded and sent baubles and tinsel flying into all the right corners, Mitzo is loud but stops short of getting in your face.

The space-age baubles and mirrored surfaces make you feel like a laser light show is going to come on at any time, but the effect is softened slightly by the polished white Corian-like table tops and multiple plump cushions against long comfortable banquettes.

And yes, this is a Hakkasan wannabe (executive head chef Nicky Ng hails from Hakkasan New York) - the Michelin-starred Cantonese-food-in-cool-surroundings concept created by London entrepreneur Alan Yau in 2001 before he sold it in 2008.

Time will tell whether it succeeds on that premise but for now, it proves that so long as you get your food right, it doesn't really matter how you package it.

Hakkasan and its sister Yauatcha had a habit of recruiting their chefs from Singapore restaurants such as Tung Lok and Summer Pavilion so it's no surprise that its New York chef Ng is a Tung Lok alumnus who was once deputy executive chef at Club Chinois.

Now that he's come full circle back to Singapore, it's up to him to provide Mitzo with a "back-door" route to replicating the Hakkasan concept.

Whatever his brief, the food at Mitzo puts paid to our earlier low expectations when our charming, exuberant but totally non-Chinese server rattles off specialities which he thinks we should try.

The table snacks of mixed nuts tossed in seaweed powder piques our curiosity, and we're even more encouraged when the funky-sounding deep-fried softshell crabs in curry floss (S$26) turn out to be beautiful golden brown crisp fritters with a crunchy-creamy centre of roe-enhanced crab. The dusting of fine-textured fish floss seems rather unnecessary but it does add interest.

A steamed dim sum platter feels pricey at S$38 for four pairs of crystal-skinned dumplings that are literally bite-sized: a carrot-coloured bag of minced crab and chicken with cordyceps flower; siew mai topped with the tiniest baby abalone; a scallop and shrimp dumpling with minced truffle on top for an enticing fragrance; and a simple har kow.

They're not shining examples of dim sum and they seem to have lost heat in the time it took to arrange them in a fresh bamboo basket, but they're more than adequate.

We would have bypassed the char siew (S$15) on the menu if our server didn't insist that we have it.

Think tender, marbled pork belly - with just a thin layer of fat - rubbed down with hoisin and maltose so the fire it's grilled in gives it that characteristic sweet-smoky-charred fragrance, encased in whisper-thin crackling sugar.

Yes, it's very sweet, you can't have a lot of it, but we love it.

Order too, the black truffle crispy roast duck (S$36 for half). If they will do it, ask for the truffle sauce to be served on the side so it doesn't mar your enjoyment of the glossy, deep bronze-hued bird with (reasonably) crisp skin and thick, juicy meat with barely a trace of fat in between.

The gooey truffle sauce, on the other hand, seems more like a misguided effort to globalise a dish that doesn't need it.

Chef Ng has all the basics of Chinese food covered, from simple double-boiled soups - chicken and papaya (S$12) served with deboned pieces of meat that haven't had the flavour boiled out of them, and a clear seafood broth with fresh lobster chunks (S$16), black fungus and gingko nuts - to the wok hei of fried noodles.

The crystal vermicelli with XO sauce (S$22) more than passes muster with its full wok fragrance and slippery slices of chicken that may have been tenderised but is weirdly all the better for it.

The only backfire, if any, would be in dessert, which isn't quite as well-executed as the savoury menu.

A creamy mango sago with ice cream and pomelo bits (S$8) is pretty ordinary, while you can't find the macadamia nut ice cream for all the batter it's coated in, in the pricey S$28 ice cream tempura.

The exterior of the tempura is attractively light and crumbly, but it gives way to an unpleasant doughy layer that puts you off from doggedly biting on till you reach the ice cream.

If your idea of Chinese tea is not to serve it in a pot but to steep it with vodka for a grown-up tipple, Mitzo's got a host of Asian-inspired cocktails that will curl any emperor's pigtails.

But what we like is that when you go beyond the shiny bits, Mitzo is an old-fashioned Chinese restaurant at heart.

Rating: 7


10: The ultimate dining experience

9-9.5: Sublime

8-8.5: Excellent

7-7.5: Good to very good

6-6.5: Promising

5-5.5: Average

This article was first published on December 27, 2014.
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