One wouldn’t normally associate an identity crisis with a restaurant, but that seemed to be the case for Shisen Hanten – or Szechwan Fan Dian as it was known for a few weeks after it soft launched at Mandarin Orchard Singapore late last year. The name change confused a few diners: Was the cuisine Chinese or Japanese?

It turns out that this is the 15th outlet for the chain of Chinese restaurants from Japan that serves Japanese interpretations of Sichuan cuisine otherwise known for its fiery flavours. The first restaurant opened in the 1950s, when Chinese chef Chen Kenmin migrated to Japan. Known as “The Sichuan Sage”, he was a regular on Japan’s NHK television channel, teaching home viewers modified Sichuan recipes to suit the subtler palates of the Japanese.

Today, his grandson, Chen Kentaro, heads the chain, flying to check out the Singapore branch every quarter. It’s a beautiful, chandeliered fine-dining space with a regal ambience. The booths nearest to the windows overlooking Orchard Road provide ample space and privacy for business lunches.

The heat of the kung pao chicken was tempered by sweet flavours.
The heat of the kung pao chicken was tempered by sweet flavours.

Food-wise, we appreciated that it set out to meld the overzealous tang of Sichuan cuisine with Japanese flavours but were disappointed with the signatures. The mapo tofu, a well-known Japanese favourite, was suitably spicy but getting to the silken beancurd required digging through what looked like an oil spill.

Many consider chilli prawns, or ebi chilli, to be the quintessential “Nippon-ised” Chinese dish popularised by Chen’s grandfather. Here, the excellent chilli gravy was gentle enough to suit the Japanese palate but the prawns had that unnatural crunch commonly found in the fare of other Chinese restaurants. Had they relied only on the firm freshness of the prawns, this dish would have been a hit.

The items we would return for do not have the same history. We loved the kung pao chicken for its crunch and balanced mix of heat with sweetness. The spicy noodle soup, or dan dan mian, was also excellent for having more bite than the drier versions. Laced with just enough chilli, the soup was a real pleasure to slurp up.

Culinary purists might baulk at these renditions but we think Shisen Hanten has the potential to draw diners who appreciate a subtler take on Sichuan cuisine in a fine setting.

Level 35, Orchard Wing, Mandarin Orchard Singapore.