This article was also published in the Financial Times.
My final meal after a two-day stay in Singapore was the ritual breakfast of chicken rice, steamed rice cakes and a mug of ‘kopi gao’, the local coffee made with condensed milk, at the hawker stalls in the Tiang Barhu market. And by then I was in a position to pass on two restaurant recommendations to two locals I had met over dinner shortly after we arrived.
The first was to Sharanjit Leyl, the region’s long-time, highly respected BBC business correspondent. No sooner had she asked me where I had eaten well than I was able to whip out a business card from my wallet that not only piqued her interest but also made her smile.
It was not so much the name of the restaurant, Chao Shan Cuisine (pictured above by Zakaria Zainal), which intrigued her as its address, 85 Beach Road. This, it transpired, is no more than a five-minute walk from her office and Ley had never eaten there.
This is not entirely surprising as this part of town, close to Raffles Hotel, is full of restaurants, most of good quality and keenly priced. Chao Shan stands out from its neighbours in that it has a glass frontage, which means that it is cool inside, although on busy evenings tables spill out on to the pavement. But it is distinctive not just for the food but also for Nancy Seah and Koh Hoon Liang, the happy 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 100 years ago. (Teochew is another way of spelling Chao Shan.) Teochew cooking is not considered to be the most refined of the many different styles of Chinese cooking but perhaps that is why I always enjoy it. The Teochew approach instead is to take good ingredients and let their inherent flavours speak for themselves.
Prawn balls and a sausage of pork liver were the opening prelude to their signature dish of a roast suckling pig a friend had kindly 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 a staple of this cuisine but is also a dish that can be easily abused. Dishes of gai lan, spinach and fried flat noodles with chives prompted another friend, whose thin waist belies a healthy appetite, 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, looking very relaxed in T shirt, shorts and flip flops, I would return to watch Nancy Seah in action. With a constantly busy mobile by her side, she oversees her restaurant from a corner redoubt with a smile, 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 Ley, I fell into another conversation about restaurants with hedge-fund manager Nick Harbinson. He was explaining a particular dilemma – that while the Chinese restaurants are much less expensive than the many European alternatives that have opened recently, the former are not particularly conducive to a long leisurely dinner with wine that can often establish the basis for a deal.
I thought of Harbinson the following day at the end of a meal atNew Ubin Seafood that comprised not only a series of excellent fish dishes but also four bottles of great wine that our friends had brought and that were enjoyed from top-quality Riedel glasses which this most unusual if very basic restaurant supplies free of charge – and there is no corkage!
The catch, although we felt that this only added to Ubin’s charm, is that it is located a fifteen-minute drive north east of the central district in Block 27 of the Sin Ming Industrial Estate. Ubin’s neighbours are a series of 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 utilitarian air-conditioned section, I saw an incongruous array of fixtures and fittings. The bowls and spoons are orange plastic; there are a couple of fish tanks; several blackboards, one of which still features Christmas specials; and at the back, box upon box of expensive Riedel glasses. Michelle Nicholas, described on the restaurant’s card, as ‘entrepenuer’ (sic) and owner has sensitively deduced that the way to the hearts of the many wine lovers in Singapore 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’, where 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 asleep on chairs before their busy evening shift.
Chao Shan Cuisine 85 Beach Road: tel: +65 6336 4543
New Ubin Seafood 01-174, Block 27, Sin Ming Industrial Estate; tel: +44 65 6466 9558