Friday, July 13, 2007

Beauty Lies In the Taste of the Beholder

The Seafood Paradise Restaurant
91 Defu Lane 10,
Swee Hin Building
Tel: 6487 2429
Open daily from 5 to 11.30pm
Mon-Fri opens for lunch too 11am-2pm
In an industrial area shared by plastic engineering, food manufacturers and automobile workshops, hunger in the workforce here is usually calmed by a quick fix at the nearest available canteen. The last thing that comes to mind is a seafood restaurant out of nowhere that serves great food at decent prices. Here I am talking about Defu Industrial estate where it seems to be a culinary desert until Seafood Paradise came along. I have read a few different articles and blogs on the restaurant and it seems to me that the taste of every individual is still very subjective and personal. It is something that I can accept out of every human. But what seems scary to me is that some opinions were expressed with the writer in the wrong state of mind to appreciate the food that was served. I could sense from the blogs that the writer was sulking from other reasons like being angry with a relative as they left for the restaurant and hence vented his frustrations by picking on every dish that was served. Others commented that the dishes ordered tasted ordinary and were not flavourful. Others complain of waiting too long for their food to arrive (half an hour in a full packed restaurant??Come on, would u rather have your seafood cooked fresh or pre prepared so that when u order its just heat and go?). Then there were some who gave thumbs up to the food citing experiences that would make u salivate as u read.
Just like all the others who commented, I have my fair share of hits and misses about this restaurant. We came here because of the food and also we needed to get something in Hougang area. From the look, it seems that the restaurant has just gone through renovation and new menus have been launched with the old favourite items still being kept on the list. The crowd was like the old Kheng Luck in Upper East Coast, making the restaurant filled to the brim with some tables spilling over to the drive way. Though we made a reservation for a table, we still had to wait for another fifteen minutes before we could have one. One grouse that I had was that the restaurant could not facilitate typical Chinese restaurant tea service and the beverages were still being served coffee shop style. In the end we settled for coconuts after seeing the opposite table having their Chinese Tea in mugs with individual tea bags.
Food wise, we ordered one or the two of the controversial dishes mentioned in other blogs and reviews and we were advised to wait at least half an hour as the kitchen was extremely busy given the size of the crowd. Fair enough given that we were informed ahead as the size of the crowd validates their advice. The wait took twenty minutes.
First to arrive was the Shanghainese Cabbage in Superior Broth. It is as described, baby Shanghainese Cabbages cooked in a slightly thickened broth with wolfberries. Being a simple dish, there was nothing special to expect, hence I do not understand what the other writers were looking for in their comments. Rather, I found merit through the superior broth which was pleasantly savoury enough without overwhelming the natural sweetness of the cabbage. I am sure there was MSG in the broth but I give credit instead of criticism that the chef is skillful enough not to abuse the image-badly tainted taste enhancer which many people treat it like some kind of food poison, thanks to the media’s over hyping on the wrong information. The wolfberries gave colour contrast to the dish and biting on each berry gave a nice slight tinge of sweet and a gentle burst of subtle sourness against the savoury stock.
One of Singapore’s classic seafood favourites is Crispy Baby Squid. These little pieces of squid are first blanched and sun dried before being puffed in hot oil to a crispy crunch. They are then tossed in a sweet and sour sauce sometimes with some dark soy added too. For the first time after having eaten this dish in many different places, we got it served nestled in a beautiful noodle basket. The sauce was just perfect enough to coat the baby squids without turning them soggy. The best way to appreciate the crispy morsels was to have them with the bouquet of coriander leaves that served not only as garnish, but a breath refresher too.
We ordered a Sichuan Cereal Tofu which sounded interestingly new and aroused my curiosity. I guess we were misled by the way it was written on the menu as there was hardly a single grain of cereal in the dish. The Homemade Tofu was deep fried and crowned with a Bolognese like sauce of minced pork except it was flavoured subtley with spicy ferment bean paste (Dou Ban Jiang) which perhaps gave it a subtle Sichuan character as describe in the writing but we could not find an explanation for the cereal part of it. Nonetheless, the home made tofu which was made from steaming soy milk with egg white till it coagulates. It is then cooled and deepfried to a nice golden brown before the mince pork sauce is ladled over it. A garnish of enoki mushrooms and tobilko (flying fish roe) made the dish livelier. Though the name was misleading, the dish does have its own merit where the smooth tofu synchronized very well with the savoury meat sauce and mushroom toppings, creating a harmonious balance of comfort, umami and visual appeal.
Another new dish that caught my eye from the table next door was the Smoked Bacon Rolls. Similar to Devils on a horseback, the smoked streaky bacon was used to wrap around a piece of cheese, deep fried and served smother with a sweet and sour lemon plum sauce. The saltiness of the bacon and cheese actually went very well with the fruity sauce but I found the amount of sauce too overwhelming for my taste. As the sauce was great on its own, I would prefer to have the bacon rolls drizzled with it that totally coated around. This would allow the flavours of the smoked bacon and cheese to come through more easily.
As crabs were their specialty, we order the one style that many people talk about. We chose to have the crab cooked with vermicelli in a superior broth. The roe filled crustacean arrived in deep dish platter covered with the slightly thicken broth resting on the bed of glass noodles braised in its own stock. The first thing that caught us was the whiff of wine aromas which was validated upon tasting the broth. It reek of the generous amount of wine used, giving it an extra oomph of wine flavours. The rich stock did not taste of much of crab flavour but had other subtle characters of dried scallop and ham notes in it that went very well with the sweetness of the crabmeat. To be fair from the point of cooking, its takes time to extract out the crab flavour from the shells of the crustacean and by then their meat would have shrink considerably which may result in complaints of poor quality crabs being served. Though I did not get a crab flavoured broth as many have expected, I am contended to get a meaty crustacean that was not overcooked and shrunk, but still succulent and sweet to go with a rich broth of other profiles that married well together. Perhaps the chef could consider buying cheaper flower crabs for stock making but there again there will always be a supply issue of these wild crustaceans that could affect the quality of the broth if it were to depend so heavily on it.
On conclusion, Seafood Paradise may possibly have a new chef now at helm since their last review while their service was reasonably good without implementing service charge as most places do. Sometimes bloggers and writers should also know what to expect and demand when evaluating certain dishes. Don’t expect abalone taste profiles when what u order is just a $6 plate of vegetables or tofu that u already know its going to be cooked with garlic and oyster sauce. It would be more reasonable to expect the “wok hei” in the dish and have something nice to work on than pick on unrealistic sky high expectations. As for prices, just remember that food costs alone is always 30% or less of the selling price that you see on the menus in order for restaurants to be profitable. They are not cooking for charity neither should they overcharge. More importantly, most reviews especially media published ones should be constantly updated for readers at least once a year like the Michelin or Zagat systems so that restaurants will keep their efforts to maintain consistency or further improve themselves.

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