Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Hot Seat Hip Cuisine

Jiang Nan Chun @ The Four Seasons Hotel
190 Orchard Boulevard ,
Singapore 248646
Tel. (65) 6734-1110
Fax. (65) 6733-0682

More often than not, Chefs come and go while the restaurant stays on. This is also what causes the standards perception of the restaurant to fluctuate. Jiang Nan Chun at the Four Seasons is one such place and this legendary restaurant has a reputation for turning their Chinese Executive Chefs into celebrities. If u happen to be the chosen one to step into the shoes of two of their previous chefs who have gone on to become culinary darlings for the media, then u are in for a hotter seat to keep things going. Chubby bubbly Chef Steven Ng has been in this hot seat that had been filled previously by other excellent Chinese Executive Chefs like Sam Leong and Jeremy Leung.
What I like about this place is its modern concept of allowing its patrons to choose and plan their own menus from their ala carte selections. Chef Steven has also embarked on an ambitious promotion program featuring the cuisines of the Southern States of China rotated on a monthly schedule. Currently the region in focus is Yunnan and there is a selection of significant dishes featuring ingredients from this subtropical climate region. Complimenting the menus was a selection of fine Chinese tea blends. I chose a light rose flavoured Eight Treasures Tea whose floral notes were accompanied by other ingredients like apricot kernels, dried longan, wolf berries and anise root. I would say the tea was very nice, very refreshing.
We started off with a Dim Sum amuse bouche which was a Steamed Siu Mai with a touch of Ginger Spring Onion Puree. The dainty little morsel was made with a filling of crunchy prawns and topped with tobiko. I liked the idea of the sauce with the dumpling as this balanced out the seafood character of it. Two bites of the dumpling and it was gone.
Specially ordered for N was the Soy Braised Chicken which was also our starter. Flavours of superior soy sauce and rose wine came through very well but I find the sauce a little too salty on its own for my taste. However with plain rice, it does help to take off the slightly over salty perception of the sauce. Skillfully carved and chopped up to a nice boneless portion, the meat was very tender on bite and its skin was smooth with the flavours of soy, wine, spices and herbs. Because of the slightly over salty sauce, I would rate it a second to Hua Ting’s version.
The Three Treasures Soup featured a rich meaty essence that tasted of dried scallops, ham and a superior stock. I have always preferred essence type of soups than starch thicken ones in fine Chinese restaurants as I feel it takes a lot more skills for a chef to produce a consommé quality kind of soup than the latter. Two delicate pieces of premium dried shitake mushroom and bamboo shoots stuffed bamboo pith garnished the soup along with a pair of wolfberries.
From the main courses onwards, our selections take a split with Mum and N taking on the Steamed Barramundi with Dong Cai Topping while I opted for the Baked Cod Fish Fillet on Scrambled Egg Whites. The Steamed Barramundi was very fresh but a little over cooked which was fortunately saved by a moist dong cai topping and a superior soy sauce. A quick sauté of finely sliced black fungus, ginger and spring onions complimented the fish dish giving it and extra dimension in both flavours and colours.
My baked cod fish fillet was a piece of art. Resembling like a fish on clouds, the sweet soy marinated codfish sat on gently wine flavoured scrambled egg whites. The serving plate was painted artistically with thicken dark soy and a fine sprig of chervil crowned the Swiss Matterhorn shaped like fillet, giving the whole dish a touch of elegance. On taste, it’s hard to go wrong with codfish unless it is not fresh. I like the caramelized edges that gave the moist juicy flesh a fragrant roasted note.
At this point, I must mention that this restaurant does not serve rice out of a rice cooker. Rather the chef chooses to steam individual bowls of rice and u can tell when they serve it to u as the rice comes straight from the steam and it is not fluffed at all. For second main courses, we opted to share two meat items instead and a poultry. N took on the Steam Minced Pork Patty with Water Chestnut while mum and I took on a classic Sweet and Sour Pork and the Crisp Skin Duck Yunnan Style with Pickled Vegetables respectively.
The steamed pork patty was very soft to the point of crumbling due to too much bicarbonate of soda being added to it. The minced meat was a melt in the mouth tender but that wasn’t what I was really looking out for. Rather I would say that I like the additional dimension of fresh shrimps that contrasted the soft meat with a firmer bite and the crunchy bits of water chestnuts. It acted as a go between and helped to bridge the other two ingredients so that upon chewing, u go from the softness of the meat to a firmer bite and onwards to the ultimate crunch of the water chestnuts. Because it was served on a pool of superior soy sauce, it was getting bored for me again.
The Sweet and Sour Pork arrived as a disappointment. I have learnt from older generations of Cantonese Masterchefs that Sweet and Sour Pork is one of the black stars of the kitchen. It is easy to prepare and easier to get it wrong for the wrong reasons. Benchmarks include a crispiness of the deep fried pork cubes despite being coated with the sauce which must constitute a fair amount of good quality plum sauce versus an equal amount of ketchup and chili balanced out by sugar and vinegar. The rest of the ingredients are irrelevant. Unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way an it tasted more of overcooked pork cubes soaking too much of the sauce that causes it to lose that important crispiness dimension. It also reeked too much of the ketchup used and other flavours were lacking. The best reference I have had so far is still Sik Wai Sin’s version (See earlier post titled “Sweat It Out” April 07)
My Crispy Skin Yunnan Roast Duck with Pickled Vegetables was nothing to shout about. It was drizzled with a fruity plum sauce by the time it arrived and that caused the skin to loose its crisp. What I like rather was the home made pickled vegetable that was similar to “Kiam Chye” or salted vegetable but less salty and sweeter. Credit must however be given to the tender duck meat and the quality of it. Why? It’s because even my mum, who doesn’t like duck meat due to its gamey character, could take on two pieces of the carved breast meat. Overall the duck was nice but the description in the menu was a little misleading for me.
We all share the same vegetables and since spring season means fresh porcinis from Yunnan were available, we opted for that from the special promotions menu. These lovely earthy and musk flavoured mushrooms from Yunnan which is a fungus haven with more 600 edible varieties were sautéed in a spicy fermented beans and chilli oil, paired with red capsicums and Hong Kailan. The mushrooms were very good at picking up the spiciness and savoury characters from the fermented beans, creating a harmonious burst of flavours on the palate.
Desserts were a selection of Double Boiled Hasma with Red Dates, Sweet Almond Cream with Sesame Dumplings and a novel Crispy Rice Wafers with Maltose and Sesame Seeds. While the first two desserts were rather normal and usual, I liked the Crispy Rice Wafers as a break away from the usual norm. The sweet malt taste and nutty sesame fragrance was very pleasant and I had a fantasy of having it paired with a very cold kirsch flavoured crème patisserie and berries resembling a French mille feuille. Besides desserts, complimentary Chinese Petit Fours were also given and N liked the chrysanthemum cookies very much. I found the Red Bean and Green Tea Pudding Jelly more interesting of its contrasting colours and taste. Overall there were hits and misses for this restaurant and it would be a tough challenge to uphold or elevate Jiang Nan Chun to its status set by Chefs Sam Leong and Jeremy Leung during their tours of duty here.

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