The name is Chan. Chef Chan. Yes, that Chef Chan. But not the man. His restaurant. Actually, not even his restaurant – just the name. The food, though, is Chef Chan’s. Except that he has nothing to do with it. It’s another guy. We think his name is Michael. But Michael isn’t the one cooking in the kitchen. Then if it’s not him, and not Chef Chan, who is?? Oh his name is Wong. Chef Wong.
Stumped? Well, don’t be, because names aside, a crispy roast chicken is a crispy roast chicken by any other chef.
Still, if you were a fan of Chef Chan Chen Hei – who made his name at Hai Tien Lo and then his namesake restaurant in Odeon Towers – you will find him here. At least in name, and in poultry.
That’s because his former protege Wong Hong Loong is recreating his sifu’s old school Cantonese classics in a private dining setting, in an equally private colonial bungalow in Scotts Road. It’s a pop-up by the TCC group – which also runs Ki-Sho, Buona Terra and Indocafe next door – with the aforementioned Michael, who bought the Chef Chan name from, well, the real Chef Chan, who has left Singapore, presumably for Hong Kong.
How much cachet the name has now is another story, but so far it’s enough to draw his old customers and new anti-social ones looking to social distance in style.
Here, there are just two tables of five, each in its own private dining room – ours lined with wine cabinets and stuffed Chesterfield sofas. The retro-ness is its charm – exuding an air of old-rich that extends to some of its clientele and their cars in the tree-lined driveway.
Chef Wong doesn’t come out at any time because he’s the only one in the kitchen, so your food magically appears at the door in the hands of cheerful servers. Priced from S$128 per person, your menu is customised beforehand with the chef who sends you sample menus to mix and match.
Ours is a S$138 per head line up of safe evergreens, executed not so much with flair, but practised routine. To kick off, there’s suckling pig skin – bite-sized wafer thin rectangles over a pillowy fish cake that’s an unexpected surf and turf combo that works rather well. We’re also introduced to Swatow-style deep-fried tofu – bland in taste and character on the inside but delicately crisp outside, to be eaten with a salt water and minced chives dip. Which proves mildly entertaining as we try to scoop up as much of the chives as possible to break the monotony of the tofu.
It’s showtime as two people lug in a 9kg winter melon neatly fitted into an earthernware pot – steaming hot and filled with double boiled superior stock. The sight of it is enough to transport us right back to our ancestral village during Chinese New Year – if we knew where it was.
The stock is as it should be, delicate but not diluted, fragrant and barely seasoned. A fat, crunchy prawn and scallop add extra dimension. Melt-in-the-mouth melon flesh and boiled chicken are served separately, either for eating or as proof of the good stuff that went into making the soup.
Any doubt that Chef Wong is the true successor of Chef Chan disappears with the arrival of his signature crispy roast chicken. All the fat under the glistening, golden skin is gone, leaving just a crisp layer draped over lightly brined meat that’s tender and moist enough that you can almost forgive all the dried out duds you’ve eaten before.
A whole steamed grouper is done textbook-style with no frills. Just properly steamed, doused with a clear treacle-hued soy sauce mixture and drizzles of cooked oil. The fish itself is fresh if not best of breed, although the cheeks yield a precious morsel of flesh.
Somehow, the quality of the ingredients doesn’t quite stand out, which is why the sautéed wagyu with capsicum falls short. Either the meat has been cooling its heels too long in the fridge or it’s not the best grade. Same with the underachieving lobster ee fu noodles that seems content to coast with a passable but nondescript sauce, and half a lobster that’s fleshy but lacking in natural sweetness.
For some manufactured sweetness, the yam paste wins out for its velvety smoothness and overall comfort, even if the water-logged gingko nuts try to spoil the fun.
While the food feels like it’s stuck in a bit of a time warp, there’s merit to Chef Wong’s cooking which needs just a bit of a push to get it in gear. The private dining concept works really well in this colonial space – especially when you can also cross-order from Ki-Sho and the other restaurants if you want to.
For now, it’s up to Chef Wong to assert his own identity. Chef Chan has had his run. It’s time for the crispy roast chicken to serve a new master.
27 Scotts Road. Tel: 6737-0895
This article was originally published in The Business Times.