In 3 years living in the States, I have not come across a single Chinese fine-dining restaurant on her shores. Since I have not been long enough to Beijing or Shanghai to really understand their Chinese fine-dining scenes, I shall confine the following speculations to just Cantonese fine-dining. Classic Chinese fine-dining seems to be concentrated in the Cantonese cuisine, which is geographically in South China. This explains the numbers of Chinese fine-dining restaurants in Hong Kong and Singapore, and to lesser extent Malaysia and Indonesia.
My 4 hypotheses for why Cantonese fine-dining doesn’t exist in the US (correct me if I am wrong please!) are the following:
- Ingredient Conservatism. Cantonese fine-dining restaurants prize ingredient quality, and they have been reluctant to experiment with North American ingredients, or indeed most European ingredients in general until the Michelin Guide came to Hong Kong and gave Lung King Heen three stars for experimenting with foie gras and truffles.
- Existing fine-dining institutions are Western. Many talented Asian chefs (e.g. David Chang of Momofuku Ko) tend to apprentice in French/Italian kitchens, due to the existing global prestige of these kitchens (again, the Michelin Guide, and Top 50 Restaurant List).
- More subtle to appreciate. Cantonese fine-dining involves a dizzying array of soups, in which the skill involved is more subtle to appreciate than a fatty slab of foie gras blowtorched to perfection.
- Where the Money is. Fine dining concepts spread by the international travels of a moneyed class, and a restaurant is sustained by a stable base of moneyed regulars. The large number of French and Italian restaurants in the world reflect the travels of international financiers in the post-WWII reconstruction era. As a corollary, the emergence of New American fine-dining restaurants is concentrated geographically in California and the Northeast US, which are the two richest regions in the US today. Similarly, the regular clientele for Chinese fine-dining is almost exclusively Chinese tycoons, which tended to be concentrated in Hong Kong and to a lesser extent Singapore up to the 80s (when mainland China was still modernising under Deng Xiaoping from almost 3 decades of Mao rule). These HK and Singapore tycoons, having found their economic base in the region often on networks of patronage and influence, almost never emigrated to the US. This is why Chinese fine-dining today still seems to be an East Asian phenomenon, from the eastern seaboard of China to the heart of Southeast Asia.
Address: 190 Orchard Boulevard, Singapore 248646, Four Seasons HotelTel: 6734 1110
It is pleasant to benefit from close proximity to old towkay money in Singapore, since that means the occasional urge to splurge on Cantonese cuisine is easily gratified. Singapore has a number of Chinese (Cantonese) restaurants gunning for 3* Michelin in the Singapore guide, whenever it comes. Chief among those is Tong Le, which is Tung Lok group’s signature restaurant in OUE building, where dinner goes for 500++ a pop (comparable to Robuchon’s 16 course tasting menu on Sentosa for 530++). One can get dishes from Shinji (Tokyo’s 2* Michelin Sushi Kanesaka’s Singapore branch) to provide a sashimi complement to dishes from every Tung Lok restaurant in Singapore.
One of the pretenders to the throne of best Chinese in Singapore, is Jiang-nan Chun (translated as “South of the Yangtze River during springtime”) at the Four Seasons Singapore, helmed by their new chef Alan Chan.
Chef Alan Chan is a Hong Kong native who has lived in Singapore since 2001. He joins Jiang-Nan Chun from Crystal Jade Dining IN at Vivocity where he was Master Chef. Alan recently collaborated with his counterparts at three-Michelin star Lung King Heen (Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong) and the two-Michelin star Zi Yat Heen (Four Seasons Macao), so he’s reinforced his direction and benchmark for Jiang-Nan Chun here.
The restaurant specialises in Peking duck, a Singaporean favorite, and is generally a refined chapalang (Singlish for grab-bag) of every Chinese cooking style, befitting Alan’s status as a former Crystal Jade master chef. The Crystal Jade group is a famous Chinese restaurant chain in Singapore (and soon San Francisco!) that has restaurants for all manners of Chinese cooking, from Cantonese, to La-Mian, to Xiao-Long-Bao, to Sichuan, Shanghainese, and Peking-style dishes.
In recent years, I have noticed that Chinese fine-dining restaurants in Singapore have tended to go from the banquet, multi-dish style format, to a French Nouvelle Cuisine, multi-course, one-dish-one-person format. I consider this ample evidence of the influence of the Michelin guide, casting a long shadow from the erstwhile East Asian dining mecca of Hong Kong, which received their guide in 2009. Our meal had both individual and communal plate formats, because we chose to go ala-carte for our dinner.
Syrupy sweet, from the lychee.
Roast Meat: Traditional Charcoal-roasted, Glazed Pork ‘Char Siew’ (4.75/5)
A sweet sauce coating juicy belly pork bits (which tend to be moist from fat). Strong pork flavour, the only feature of the charcoal-roast was the burnt end at the tip.
[Comparable to my dad’s char siew (which is the best)! My dad thought this was better, but let’s not kid ourselves dad – yours is the best.]
Roast Meat: Roasted Crispy Pork Belly (5/5)
Fantastic juiciness in the pork belly, it was accentuated by a great mustard mix. Usually the horseradish in the sauce is overpowering, but this house mix had a delicate sourness that may be a gentle lemon mixed in with a mild horseradish taste. I hypothesise it is Dijon mustard based.
Peking Duck (5/5)
Peking duck is best prepared when there is no fat on the underside of the skin. This takes patience and skill from the carver, who must earn his/her service charge carving the duck. It is excellently prepared, with wafer-thin crispness and a great sweetbread skin, garnished with cucumber and flower-carved onions dunked in cold water, and sauce.
Soup: Double-boiled Fish Cartilage Soup with Superior Fish Maw and Bamboo Pith (5/5)
This is a thick soup, which is full of the gelatin of fish cartillage, and made thicker with fish maw and a textural contrast of springy-spongey bamboo pith. The soup was well prepared without an overt smell of fish.
Baked Cod Fillet with Miso Sauce (4.5/5)
A clean follow-up to the thick soup, this featured the very Japanese touches of tofu, miso and fish eggs.
Simmered Sea Perch with Beancurd Skin and Wolfberry in Carrot Broth (3.5/5)
This was a bit tasteless, and while the beancurd skin had an interesting texture with the fish, it felt like a soup had been drizzled on a fish and I was eating two dishes at the same time.
Crispy Noodles with Morel Mushrooms, Shaved Summer Truffle (3.5/5)
The value-add here was the morel mushrooms, which provided an interesting mace-like shape and texture to the dish. A crispy biscuit of noodles had the morel sauce poured on top of it, which was a more refined take of drowned-crispy noodles one sometimes finds in Vietnamese restaurants. The truffle shavings had no smell and no taste, and added little to the dish.
Wok-fried Lobster with Spanish Chorizo, Minced Pork and Eggplant served in Claypot (5/5)
An old Crystal Jade favorite of eggplant and minced pork, is spiced up with lobster and Spanish chorizo. The combination combines soft texture of eggplant with chewy bits of mince, perked up by spiciness of chorizo, and the sweetness of lobster meat and the ridiculous decadence of deshelled lobster claws.
Poached Young Spinach with Fresh Beancurd Skin and Japanese Black Garlic (4/5)
A herbal soup poached bed of spinach had bits of black garlic on it as a value-add. How does black garlic taste? Like wolfsberry (goji), actually. The garlicky taste was subdued.
Second Preparation of Peking Duck: Duck Fried Rice (4.75/5)
An excellent fragrant fried rice that smelled wonderfully of duck meat.
Pre-dessert: Calamansi Juice
Double-boiled Superior Bird’s Nest with Rock Sugar (5/5)
Well-prepared. The magnificent soft-hard texture of birds-nest is highlighted simply.
Double-boiling refers to putting a pot of X inside a bed of boiling water – this ensures that there is no fluctuation in the water content of the stew of X one is making. It is very similar to sous-vide, and actually making double-boiled soups is relatively easy nowadays, one just needs the automated Chinese double-boiler, and set it off at the start of the day and one has a nice soup at the end of it.
Post-Dessert: Osmanthus Jelly and Pineapple Tart
Much of the night’s cooking was technically expert, and I especially enjoyed the roasts and soups. Singapore has an embarrassment of riches on the Chinese fine-dining scene, and I am quite interest in seeing what happens if and when the powder-keg of Michelin rankings in thrown into their midst. I do hope that Cantonese cuisine will wend its way into the US and reach a wider audience sometime (maybe 3-5 years down the line?). Until then, happy Chinese dining in Singapore & HK!
Memory: Peking Duck, Lobster Chorizo Eggplant, Bird’s Nest, Roast Pork Belly, Fish Cartilage Soup