The fate of Taste by Tunglok, it seems, rests on a chicken.
A happy chicken, we might add – the poster bird of kampung chickens which eats pineapple enzymes and lives stress-free for 70 days has its entire CV plastered on the first page of Taste’s menu.
Organic, sustainable and healthier – the buzzwords attached to this officially named Santori MD2 free-range fowl – also describe the food here, or at least its intentions.
Taste is on the right track in pushing the food awareness agenda, but it needs to get everyone on the same page, from the kitchen to the menu to the front of house staff, to get the message across.
The restaurant takes over the space once occupied by Royal Pavilion – a Chinese restaurant we enjoyed but had trouble keeping on our radar. Its low-key location in the Park Regis is a factor – in the CBD, but not near enough to be part of its buzz.
But it’s nice and quiet and parking is easy, if expensive. Don’t expect complimentary coupons from the hotel; but you can offset your parking fee with a S$2.50 ticket from the restaurant. It’s weird but S$2.50 is still less than the over S$8 you might have to pay after a meal here.
To get you to come more often, Taste will need to work a bit harder to get from a “we aim to be sustainable” to an emphatic “we ARE sustainable” playbook.
There are some good initial signs. Such as the happy chicken, which is slow-cooked for hours with fish maw to produce a milky but light broth studded with goji berries and bone-in chunks of dark meat with an impressive suppleness and subtle umami.
There isn’t the heaviness of conventional versions amped up with shark cartilage – you can have second helpings without the weight of shark-guilt or gooey collagen pulling you down.
It’s pricey, though, at S$55 for a clay pot that’s enough to feed two with one refill each. The fish maw is suitably resilient and gelatinous in texture – they’re not the “real” McCoy, as they come from the barramundi used in its braised fish head dishes. Points for reducing wastage. The fish, too, described as Australian barramundi, are from local farms. As we tend to judge our fish head curries by the size of their eyeballs, we discriminate against the barramundi’s teeny peepers. Potentially to our detriment, as we hear they’re rather good.
We go the vegetable route instead, since Taste offers organic greens done in myriad ways. We make the right call with dou miao lightly braised in a milky superior stock and goji berries (S$28). While the greens are in peak condition, it’s the broth that wins us over – a similar, not-as-intense profile as the fish maw soup, but with enough lip-smacking depth and low, if not zero, MSG.
Without a consistent approach to sustainability, Taste lapses into familiar territory as a garden-variety Chinese restaurant, with results ranging from decent to indifferent. The servers are sweet and attentive, but a little too well-trained in protecting your handbag with a napkin and clearing the table of stray menus to really espouse the virtues of eating responsibly.
Pan-fried Spanish Iberico pork (S$15) which must have chalked up some carbon footprint along with frequent flyer miles, is a non-event – a small fatty steak grudgingly marinated and decorated with some random bits of pineapple and grapes that might have been salvaged from the dessert section.
Deep-fried prawns in Sichuan spice (S$38) have more life in them – a generous tower of shrimps coated in a crisp, seasoned batter and a bed of crispy rice that adds enough heat to the snap and crackle of the puffed grains. The good-sized prawns are fresh and split length-wise to harness extra crunch, and more efficient jaws will make short work of the shells and head.
It’s a slow evening when we visit, and we suspect a little apathy seeped into the kitchen that day too. We order the barbecue platter (S$38) on a whim, and a plateful of meat appears, prepared by someone determined to punish us for our fickleness. Soya sauce chicken, char siew and roast pork belly that might have been fresh and juicy at lunch time appear dishevelled, dispirited and likely pre-chopped, with any succulence long whacked out of them.
Fried rice with bits of prawns and scallops (or squid) baked in lotus leaf with a thin layer of gratinated cheese (S$28) would be passable, if not for the latter’s damp pungence that wafts into your nostrils and destroys what goodwill you may have towards it.
Thank goodness for the deep-fried red bean pancake (S$6.80) and durian with black glutinous rice and ice cream in coconut (S$12) that help to sweeten any ill feelings.
What Tunglok has achieved is to give us a taste of good things that could come; if the happy chickens have some other enthusiastic edible friends, we’ll welcome them too.
Taste by Tunglok. Level 1,Park Regis Singapore. 23 Merchant Road. Tel: 6818-8851
This article was originally published in The Business Times.