xi yan maxwell chambers

Xi Yan Maxwell

28 Maxwell Road
#01-15/16/17, Maxwell Chambers Suites
Singapore 069120
Tel: 6220 3546
Open daily for lunch and dinner: 11am to 3pm; 5.30pm to 10.30pm

Restaurant menus are not normally our choice of reading material, but once in a while, you get a good one. For example, we never fail to crack up at the words “Salivating chicken with century eggs and konnyaku noodles”. It’s just the imagery that pops into our head – as in, it’s bad enough to be a chicken meant for the cooking pot, but what injustice to have a drooling disorder as well.

The author of this subtitle malfunction is Xi Yan – a Chinese restaurant that started out as a successful Hong Kong speakeasy by a chef named Jacky Yu, which came to Singapore in 2005 and also became successful as a private dining concept in Craig Road. It was refreshingly modern for its time, with offbeat creations like the fowl above, shredded and folded into a Sichuan chilli oil dressing with century egg and slippery mung bean noodles, adding up to an umami bomb designed to get your salivary glands worked up … ok, we’re sure it sounds more mellifluous in Chinese.

This is not our first time at Xi Yan, but we still get a kick out of this dish, for both its name and taste. But Xi Yan Maxwell is new – a revival of its original Craig Road concept to serve a more upmarket clientele than its casual joints in Shaw Centre and I12 in Katong. Smack in the Central Business District in the newly white-washed Maxwell Chambers with its heritage vibe and a courtyard in front, it’s Xi Yan’s attempt to regain the in-the-know fine dining cachet it once enjoyed. To fit in with the times, it’s got a three-in-one concept of private dining, general (open to all) dining, and a bar.

(RELATED: Contemporary Chinese: How Singapore restaurants are serving up traditional cuisines with a twist)

There’s always been a genteel sincerity about Xi Yan and you still find it in the new location. We’ve never had a restaurant manager so concerned about us ordering too much food. You can almost see the panic rising in his face when you keep ticking things off against his better judgment. Definitely someone to appreciate more than the ones armed with the proverbial parang behind their backs.

The food does have mood swings, although not quite as volatile as the sporadic airconditioning which must be operated by a very petty leprechaun. He lets you stew in a mild, not yet uncomfortable state of not being cool; and just when he rachets the stuffiness up to the point when you’re ready to yell at someone, he lets the temperature go into free fall, blasting you with a shot of iceberg-level exhaust.

In between, we run through a playlist of Xi Yan’s old-new repertoire. After polishing off the addictive pickled guava snacks, we set upon a giant whole momotaro tomato (S$12) split into wedges and doused in a creamy savoury-sweet-tangy sesame sauce which is a Xi Yan classic and doesn’t disappoint. The tomato is reticent in sweetness or character so it’s more of an excuse to enjoy the sauce itself.

Bouncy pork patty triplets (S$9)are suitably resilient with a touch of saltfish and a whiff of Chinese wine.

The Hakka yam abacus with sea cucumber (S$18) could take some notes from it, though – the yam “seeds” don’t quite hit that chewy sweet spot, and a vague powderiness afflicts some of them. The fragrant stir-fried nest of mystery bits make up for the shortfall with wok-hei and pepper-infused shredded seafood bits, too-hard dried shrimp and lovely bits of sea cucumber that could be mistaken for jellied pork belly.

We’re confirmed fans of the seafood white beehoon in special broth (S$32), if only because the broth is rather special. Milky white and intense stock made from a proper, unstinting simmering of good stuff lays the groundwork for other ingredients that don’t quite do all that work justice. Beehoon that’s not given enough time to stew into silky soup-infused strands and seafood (fairly large shrimp, clams and rubbery squid) that doesn’t shine are a bit of a setback.

We rather like the grilled Kagoshima A5 wagyu, even if, at S$40 for a teeny 100 gm steak, it’s like paying studio apartment prices with their higher psf cost. It’s more melt-in-mouth texture than beefiness, but still enjoyable with a dash of sweet mint-lemon or sesame-wasabi sauce.

And finally, despite its grand entrance, the pagoda/pyramid dongpo pork (S$32) of braised belly slices layered over a mound of preserved vegetables doesn’t impress with its pale demeanour and superficial sweet-savoury gravy. We’ve seen better pyramids too – if we were a pharoah, we would demand a re-build.

The sweets here are simple but endearing, especially the tang yuan (S$6) with its chewy glutinous rice dumplings filled with ground peanuts and salted egg yolk – surprisingly good – and black sesame. Also comfortingly familiar is coconut ice-cream (S$8) on old-school sago pudding and lashes of gula melaka.

Xi Yan is no longer the bright young upstart it once was, and has settled into comfortable middle-aged predictability. Once it sorts out its opening-stage jitters, it’ll likely be a reliable standby for decent cooking and rehashing a silly old joke or two.

(RELATED: Chinese restaurants are bringing back old-school dishes for a new crowd)

This article was originally published in The Business Times.