Behind this bright orange-red wall on the 2nd level of 38A Craig Road, a memorable Asian culinary experience is about to unfold. But first, you need to locate this wall and there are no signboards (neon or otherwise) at street level to assist you. In fact, you will not even see the number 38A until you step into a small garden walled-enclosure and walk towards a staircase lighted with flickering tea-lights.
Welcome to Xi Yan
, a dining experience that would probably only be repeated once every quarter, for no other reason than its reservation book being completely filled with 3 months advance bookings. With only 6 tables accomodating 6 to 12 guests per table, the long waiting list is explained, tho' that certainly does not explain why anyone would agree to wait that long for a table, considering that most of us scream bloody murder at our wait-staff when made to wait longer than 30 minutes for a table at any Chinese restaurant. To understand the reason(s), you need to make a reservation at Xi Yan for dinner.
Xi Yan, which started life in Hong Kong five years ago, has only given birth to its Singapore branch not more than 5 or 6 months ago. With no neon signboards, no ala carte menus and strict dinner commencement times ("we like to start dinner promptly at 7.30 p.m., please don't be late
", Kent, the manager tells us), we feel as if we're attending a personal dinner party at a friend's home. And this feeling asserts itself when you enter the dining area made warm by the red accented walls, wooden floors, deep maroon curtains, accented lighting and lovely Chinese paintings hung on and left standing against the walls, and most importantly, the warm smiles of the service staff.
Dinner is a 12-course affair. There is only one set menu, and guests dine on whatever the chef dishes out for the night. You may say, isn't that just plain arrogance? Or maybe, it's just confidence on their part that you are likely to enjoy most if not all of the courses?
Our 1st appetizer, the "Prancing Lobster in Dual Sauces" was an excellent start to the evening, served with a mint sauce and a light chilli-belachan sauce. Personally, I couldn't get enough of the mint sauce, with its added touch of butter. Even after the last of the lobster meat had been polished off the plate, we insisted on retaining these two dipping sauces at the table.
The 2nd appetizer, Japanese Tomatoes in Sesame Sauce
, was a delightful eye-catching display of huge chilled red tomatoes (cut into wedges) and drizzled lavishly with a sesame sauce (made, I think, with sesame paste, a touch of vinegar, soy sauce and a bit of sugar). One of Xi Yan's signature dishes, I'm told, and easily reproduced in the home kitchen - now if I can only find those huge Japanese tomatoes without having to empty the contents of my wallet too drastically
The 3rd appetizer, Cold Tofu with Pork Floss, had soft silky-smooth tofu topped with fried shallots, pork floss and crumbled salted egg yolks, sitting in a huge bowl of tasty shabu-shabu sauce mixed with a bit of soya sauce and sesame oil. A very simple dish, with that touch of difference given by the salted egg yolks and the lovely sauce.
By now, you will note that Xi Yan does not serve exotic or expensive food items. Its strength lies in the various sauces prepared as accompaniment to the dishes, its excellent food presentation style and that quirky single (or more) different ingredient(s) that changes an ordinary dish into a culinary experience. More than once during this dinner, we had a couple of smacks to the head while exclaiming, "now, why didn't I think of that before?".
The 4th appetizer, Stewed Radish in Abalone Sauce, had radishes which had fully absorbed the flavors of the abalone sauce in which it had been stewed. The soft radishes contrasted well with the topping of spongy fish roe, crispy bacon bits, and bits of shredded seaweed. Doesn't it look lovely and appetizing - this is saying a lot for radish, a humble vegetable which is not exactly a favourite for most?
The 5th and last appetizer, Cloud Ears with Wasabi, is basically crunchy cloud ear mixed with a shabu shabu sauce heavily tinged with wasabi and sesame oil. This salad-like dish (which I liked for the 'wasabi-kick') was the only one that had some left-overs in the bowl, partly because not many of my dining companions are wasabi-lovers and largely because after 5 courses, everyone was waiting for the first of the main courses to appear, and had begun to pace ourselves to achieve maximum mileage for this dinner.
The 1st main course, Roast Pork Cheek, arrived in a long platter garnished with thin strips of kaffir lime leaves and diced lime pieces at the end of the platter. Xi Yan does not serve exotic, but it sure serves an unusual part of the pig that is truly tender. Place a few diced pieces of lime on the thin slices of 'sophisticated char siew', and dip into a fish sauce mixed with lime juice, sugar, shredded kaffir lime leaves, sliced chilli, chopped shallots and parsley, and enjoy the wonderful combination of tastes created.
The 2nd main course, Spicy Sichuan Chicken
, or its Mandarin name "Kou Shui Ji" (Salivating Chicken) lived up to its 'moniker'. Steamed tender chicken served on a bed of 'konnyaku' vermicelli and diced preserved eggs on the side (to reduce the heat of the dish), and mixed in a 'mala' Sichuan hot and spicy sauce, garnished with roasted peanuts, sesame and chopped parsley. This dish comes in three degrees of 'hot' - (1) original, (2) medium and (3) mild. We settled for medium and that was plenty hot for most of us, cos' Sichuan peppercorns have a tendency for slow but steady increase in burning-tongue sensations.
3rd main course, Shrimp Sauce Garoupa with Pomelo, saw a very fresh fish coated with shrimp paste (har cheong) and deep-fried, creating a nice contrast of salty flavors from the crispy outer skin of the fish against its sweet tender flesh. Again, the bed of pomelo and bits of diced water-chestnut with a tangy lime dressing was an interesting accompaniment for this deep-fried fish.
Having earlier espied this 4th main course from the menu, Crab Roe Glutinous Rice, we had waited with bated breath for its appearance. Served in a lotus leaf on a bamboo steamer, the steamed glutinous rice mixed with dried shrimps, black mushrooms, shredded dried scallops, diced yam and crab roe, was fragrant and had absorbed the taste of the crabs which had been steamed on top of the rice. This was a huge favourite at the table, evidenced by the lack of any substantial grains of glutinous rice at the end of this course.
Having gone thru' 5 appetizers and 4 main courses culminating in the carbo-strong but delicious glutinous rice, we were quite ready to throw in the towel. At this stage, Xi Yan throws in its trump card - it served a platter of fruits (slices of apple, chinese pear, jambu and guava) which had been soaked in a sour plum juice (mixed with sugar and some ume plum wine). A wonderful palate cleanser, the fruits incredibly stirred the appetites again! Truly, we were just being plain greedy. The next course was a clear Coconut Chicken Soup
, basically a chicken herbal soup with an extra ingredient, coconut slices.
The last main course arrived, a simple bowl of Braised Mushrooms with Pickled Cucumber. I didn't think I could stomach anymore food and yet, with chopsticks in hand, I place a morsel of mushroom in my mouth. Immediately, the woody smoky flavors of the mushrooms (which had been stir-fried with lots of wok-hei) exploded in my mouth and unashamedly, I did not stop at one.
Dessert was the Xi Yan Tang Yuan
, glutinous rice balls served in a bowl of sweet ginger soup. Our waiter challenged us to identify the 5 ingredients wrapped within a single tang yuan (rice ball). We managed to nail the first four down to (1) chopped peanuts (quite obvious), (2) sesame seeds (another obvious one), (3) chopped candied melon (we are good) and (4) butter (we were patting each other's backs). The last ingredient escaped us as it is so totally alien to traditional tang yuan filling - bits of salted egg yolk.
Kent, the manager, had warned us beforehand that the whole 12-course affair would take a full 3 hours. He wasn't joking. When we downed the Xi Yan cocktail (a concoction of lime juice, whisky and honey) served by the chef himself (quite a cute young capable fella), it was quite close to 11 p.m. but just like a good dinner-party at a friend's place, we had not realized how fast the time flew. Is it deserving of another visit? Well, my next reservation is in March 2006! Care to join me?
[by the way, cost per pax came to about $100 (our table had ordered a bottle of wine) - that's almost the cost of one ang-pow for a wedding dinner]Xi Yan 38A Craig Road Singapore 089676 For Reservation: 9695 4957