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My final meal after two days in Singapore consisted of chicken rice, steamed rice cakes and a mug of kopi gao, thick coffee with condensed milk. This was breakfast at the hawker stalls in the Tiong Barhu market, and by then I was in a position to pass on a couple of restaurant recommendations to two locals I had met over dinner.
The first was to Sharanjit Leyl, the region’s longtime BBC business broadcaster. No sooner had she asked me where I had eaten well than I was able to produce a business card that not only piqued her interest but also made her smile.
It was not the name of the restaurant, Chao Shan Cuisine, which intrigued her but its address, 85 Beach Road. This, it transpired, was five minutes from her office, yet Leyl had never eaten there. This is not entirely surprising as this part of town, close to Raffles Hotel, is full of good restaurants. Chao Shan, however, stands out not just for the food but also for Nancy Seah and Koh Hoon Liang, the couple who run it.
They serve Teochew cuisine, the food from a coastal region of the Chinese mainland, whose people began to settle in Singapore in the 19th century. Teochew cooking is not considered to be the most refined of Chinese styles but perhaps that is why I enjoy it so much. The approach is simply to take good ingredients and let their flavours speak for themselves.
At Chao Shan, prawn balls and a sausage of pork liver were the prelude to a signature dish of roast suckling pig (ordered in advance). Its skin was the most magnificent lacquered amber, the meat sweet and succulent. But even better was a whole red snapper braised in vegetables, ginger and garlic and an excellent rendition of the oyster omelette that is an oft-abused staple of this cuisine. Dishes of gai lan (Chinese broccoli), spinach and fried flat noodles with chives prompted another friend, also on her first visit here, to exclaim, “This is excellent, I’m coming back.”
While the credit for this must go to chef Koh Hoon, I would return to watch Nancy Seah in action. With her phone constantly abuzz, she oversees her restaurant from a corner redoubt with an acute eye for detail and a determination that nothing will escape her attention.
Shortly after I had passed over Chao Shan’s details to Leyl, I fell into another conversation about restaurants with hedge fund manager Nick Harbinson. He was explaining that while Singapore’s Chinese restaurants are much less expensive than the recent flowering of European alternatives, they are not conducive to a leisurely dinner over which a deal can be discussed.
I thought of Harbinson the following day at the end of a meal at New Ubin Seafood comprising a series of excellent fish dishes and four great bottles of wine that our friends had brought. These were enjoyed from top-quality Riedel glasses which this very basic restaurant supplies free of charge – and there is no corkage.
The catch is that it is a 15-minute drive from the central district in the Sin Ming Industrial Estate. Ubin’s neighbours are paint shops and auto-repair businesses – not the most salubrious, although the sight of a vintage green convertible MG in immaculate condition did make me envious.
This restaurant began in far more verdant surroundings, opening in 1986 on the still-unspoilt island of Ubin off the Singapore coast.
During the couple of hours we sat at one of the eight tables in the air-conditioned section, I took in an incongruous array of fixtures and fittings. Bowls and spoons in orange plastic; a couple of fish tanks; several blackboards, one of which still featured Christmas specials; and, at the back, box upon box of Riedel glasses. Michelle Nicholas, described on the restaurant’s card, as “entrepenuer (sic) and owner”, has cleverly deduced that the way to the hearts of Singapore’s many wine-lovers is to provide them with the best accoutrements for their drinking pleasure.
This is amplified by some extremely good cooking via a series of dishes that introduced me to the Chinese concept of wok hei, whereby the ingredients are cooked in a wok at such a high temperature that the requisite smoky flavour is imparted but nothing burnt. Squid with honey; prawns with salted egg yolk; crab bee hon, braised and fried; and rice cooked in beef dripping – all had this magic ingredient.
Despite the wine, we left quietly: several waiters were already napping on chairs before the evening shift.
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