You know how some women – after a breakup or period of pre-wedding beautification – like to get a transformative haircut? Or someone in a witness protection programme who gets plastic surgery and a brand new identity but (in some movies) is forced to turn from meek store owner into original butt-kicking, gun-toting badass to save his family and community? Fine, that’s not really relevant here but the whole change of identity, fresh outlook and (it being Chinese New Year) tossing out bad karma totally applies to the former Osteria-Mozza-turned-Nostra-Cucina-turned-180-degrees-into-Mott32.
And what a change it is. You can’t tell that a pizza or Mario Batali once crossed the floor of what is now the lavish Singapore outpost of the Hong Kong-based, mod-Chinese dining hotspot that serves dim sum with a large side of designer savoir faire.
You feel like it should be louder, bigger or blingier like some of MBS’s Las Vegas-esque collaborations with the Tao Group tend to be. It’s extravagant but it’s controlled opulence with quality finishings, rich leather, muted lighting and a private club ambience. In tribute to Singapore, Mott 32 identifies as garden-specific, with greenery sprouting everywhere – not real but very authentic-looking preserved leaves.
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As a concept, Mott 32 is classy and stylish but not anything that Alan Yau hasn’t done before in the days of Hakkasan and Yauatcha (and to a certain extent but not quite, with Madame Fan). So clearly its appeal lies in the reputation it’s built up in Hong Kong and the level of Chinese food it offers here.
You can peer into the kitchen from the dining room courtesy of glass panels behind which cooks fire up their woks or tend to the impressively inflated ducks hanging in the chiller.
The ducks are fine-looking specimens and star as the in-house signature Apple Wood Roasted 42 Days Peking Duck (S$108). They’re about 2.8kg each and raised to Mott 32 specifications in Malaysia – not frozen in Ireland.
We have to give it to them for the effort to serve fresh meat, but the nature of Peking Duck – or ducks of other persuasion – in Singapore is that they will never achieve an optimal level of succulence or crispness no matter what technique is applied to them.
And so it is that the skin does not shatter at first bite; the breast meat, though well-endowed, remains on the dry side and somewhat under-seasoned. The leg meat shows the most promise but there isn’t enough of it. But what we will write home about are the luscious pancakes made by a Beijing baker and sent to all of Mott 32’s establishments. They are pearly-white crepes with a chewy resilience that maintain their texture – not like the wimpy pancakes we’re used to that turn into floury powdery sheaths upon first contact with air.
We would also pen a postcard about the char siew, which seems to deserve a fancier description such as Barbecue Pluma Iberico Pork with Yellow Mountain Honey (S$48). It has the texture of a baby’s thigh but is taken from the back of the neck of black acorn-chomping Spanish pigs where lean meat and fat fuse together into sweet, glistening and lightly charred umami-rich morsels.
Lunch is only served from Feb 11 but there is evening dim sum to tide you over. The South Australian scallops are barely discernible in the hot and sour xiao long pao (S$10), but that’s because you’re too busy trying to catch every drop of the clear, tangy broth that bursts out of the dumpling skin. In the same way, we’re too distracted (and quite delighted) by the runny yolk quail egg that’s stuffed into the siew mai (S$9) to notice the minced Iberico pork and stray bits of truffle. The only letdown is the dumpling skin for each – akin in texture to thicker night drapes as opposed to gossamer sheer day curtains.
If the hot and sour soup of Bayswater’s Four Seasons restaurant is your comfort food whenever you’re in London, you’ll find that same familiarity in Mott 32’s version (S$18) although it’s of infinitely better quality. It’s got a good kick of spice and packed with everything from shredded bamboo shoots to shrimp, jellyfish, black fungus and the requisite layer of chilli oil on top. If you’d rather avoid the heat, the collagen-thick (almost too thick) fish maw soup from long brewed fish bones and chicken (S$25) recalls the texture of shark cartilage without the stigma, and there are bits of fish maw, conpoy and garoupa meat to luxe it up.
Mott 32’s head chef Chan Wai Keung excels in Szechuan cuisine, so if you’re looking to spice things up, both the Poached Garoupa Fillet in Szechuan Pepper Broth (S$98) and Signature Lobster Mapo Tofu (S$98) will make you break a sweat. The blanket of dried red chillies and clumps of peppercorns warn of the tumult behind the calm facade of milky fish broth. One sip and the mala effect takes hold, even as you relish the salty and savoury depth and its long tingly finish. The garoupa fillet is also very fresh, perfectly cooked and a mild foil to the assertive broth.
The same hot-and-sour trope continues with the mapo tofu but to good effect – mild cubes of tofu coddled in a gravy of salty, tangy, nose-tingling spice with chunks of lobster meat as your reward. Copious amounts of white rice are required to do this justice.
As you can tell by now, eating at Mott 32 is not a cheap affair. If you’re a high roller doing some comparison shopping, a whole Empurau will set you back S$140 per 100gm, and Australian lobster a mere S$45 per 100gm. Or you could splurge on a whole Japanese dried abalone at S$1,080. Even for more earthly appetites, most non-vegetable main dishes average in the S$40 to S$60 vicinity.
Desserts are the weakest link in the menu. A recommended soy ice cream with strawberries (S$12) is not the greatest combination of slightly savoury soy sauce-enhanced vanilla ice cream, and white chocolate-covered strawberry mousse. Individually, they have no reason to exist – but eaten together they make more sense, but not in a memorable way. The steamed egg white with black sesame (S$9) is what a life free of imagination must taste like – a bowl of blobby white nothingness with a streak of black sesame that we scrape at just for the sake of tasting something else.
Mott 32 doesn’t break any culinary moulds, but like any pretty package, it’s something you want to open just to see what’s inside. It’s a present that keeps on giving, so go on and explore.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.