Straits Express at Kallang Wave has an original concept.
It is built around the food of the Straits Settlements, which comprised the three territories in the region under British colonial rule: Singapore, Malacca and Penang, which also includes Province Wellesley on the Malayan mainland.
What the areas have in common is a Peranakan community, which came about when Chinese immigrants married local Malays. But the cuisine of these Nonyas and Babas has quite notable differences. Those of Singapore and Malacca are closer to Indonesian cooking, while Penang Nonya food has strong Thai influences.
The three-month-old Straits Express - express here refers to a train and not the speed at which the food is served - offers mainly Singapore Nonya food by local chef Philip Chia. There is also a section of Penang Peranakan and hawker dishes by Penangite Frankie Ooi.
Malacca is not represented, but another local chef, Mr Bermuda Say, takes charge of Anglo-Hainanese dishes, a legacy of the British Empire.
Judging from my two visits - the first invited and the second on my own - I give my vote to the local Peranakan dishes.
I've tasted Chia's food previously, when he consulted for hotel food promotions and ran a private dining venture from his home. But he really comes into his own at Straits Express, with a menu of old-fashioned Peranakan dishes learnt from a bevy of aunties and friends in his youth.
There is no fixed recipe when it comes to Peranakan cooking as every family has its own and each Nonya would insist her way is the correct one. But most would approve of many of Chia's dishes.
The perennial favourite, Ayam Buah Keluak ($16), is well executed here, with the shells of the Indonesian black nuts stuffed with a mix of mashed kernel and minced pork that tastes rich and addictive. The gravy is thick, with well-balanced flavours of the nut and spices.
It's a decent serving for the price, with two nuts and enough chicken to be shared between two and four people.
The Babalicious Beef Rendang ($15) is good too, with chunks of beef shin simmered in spices and coconut milk until the meat is tender. I especially like the gelatinous bits attached to the meat, giving it a variation in texture that is very pleasant. It is not too chilli-hot either.
Another dish that turns out well is the Nonya Chap Chye ($9.50), a dish of mixed vegetables, such as cabbage, carrot, lily buds and mushrooms, as well as dried beancurd sticks and glass noodles.
The vegetables are simmered until nice and soft and all the ingredients have absorbed the flavours of the fermented bean paste used to season the dish.
The Babi Pongtay ($14) is slightly undercooked the first time, but perfect the second time I order it. The chunks of pork belly are tender enough for the fat to melt in the mouth, while pieces of bamboo shoot and mushrooms serve to tone down the heft of the fat-laden meat.
There are, however, dishes that fail to impress. The Bakwan Kepiting Goreng ($8) sounds interesting, but the crab meatballs, usually cooked in a soup, are too compressed and the meat is ground too fine. They feel and taste like they are manufactured in a factory.
As for chef Ooi's dishes, I like the Penang Fried Seafood Kway Teow ($9), which has good wok breath and is peppered with seafood such as prawns and squid that are cooked just right.
But his other dishes are less successful.
The Enche Kabin ($9), a Penang Peranakan fried chicken, lacks the aroma of spices it is supposed to be marinated with. And the chicken wings are dry, which suggests they have been sitting around too long after being fried.
The Penang Lor Bak ($8), the northern version of ngoh hiang, is also dry.
I have tried only two dishes from the AngloHainanese section and both are disappointing.
The Hainanese Pork Chop ($12.50) is hard and dry and the Ox Tail Stew ($18.50), while tender enough, is underseasoned.
The oxtail also tastes like it is cooked separately from the sauce, as none of the sweet-sour flavour of the vegetables in the gravy penetrates the meat.
This article was first published on March 8 2015.
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