Tuesday, December 06, 2005

You say private dining, I say Xi Yan.

Xi Yan
38A Craig Road
Singapore 089676
Tel: 9695-4957
(By reservation only)

Xi Yan, the first of its overseas branches from Hong Kong, has been the talk of the town since its opening. This private-dining, reservation only restaurant, has taken our little dining city by storm, and is fast becoming one of the harder places to get a reservation. By a sheer stroke of chance, I managed to chance upon a table. I called to find out if there were anymore tables open for December as a surprise dinner for a friend who was coming home from Europe. Unfortunately, they were fully booked out for December and for most of January, but they just had a cancellation for the next day, and it was mine if I was interested, “yes!” was my reflex answer, following which, all I had to do was gather eaters. Gathering eaters was not too difficult a task, I made a few calls, and in an hour or so managed to gather a dozen other interested diners and dinner was set.

There is only one menu per night, depending on what fresh produce is available, and so if you have food allergies, you should probably tell them beforehand, especially since liberally use peanuts for one of their house specialities. The dinner averages 3-3.5 hours, and they serve you 13 courses. The menu does change to a certain extent, but the house signatures – Japanese Tomato in Sesame Sauce, Spicy Sichuan Chicken and Xi Yan Tang Yuan more or less are permanent features in each daily menu.

Despite the banquet fashion and nazi-styled menu, the atmosphere is rather laid back and the food is not too pretentious. The exquisite food comes in huge serving plates and bowls, placed on the lazy susan, leaving you to portion out your own food. Here’s the dinner, course by course.

This Australian baby was gently cooked to retain its natural sweetness. The sweetness of the lobster was also contrasted with the mint sauce and belachan sauce that it was served with. The dips were milder than they sounded, but the flavours complimented and brought out the sweetness of the lobster.

Wow, who knew tomatoes came in these XXL sizes. These huge organic Japanese tomatoes are grown on the outskirts of Tokyo and were the size of my fist. Here they serve it while the tomatoes while there are 90% ripe to retain some firm texture of the tomato. The simple combination is rather phenomenal, with a hint of natural sweetness, the firmness gives it a bite and the creamy sesame sauce and the visual presentation made me think about ice cream – giant scoops of tomato ice cream that is dripping with a caramel coloured sesame sauce.

This Chinese twist on the Japanese cold tofu dish was delightful. An interesting combination of a various simple ingredients created this delectable number. The pork floss provided balance a candy-like flavour to salty sauce and salted egg topping. Serving it on cold rather that hot tofu was a good way of keeping the dish light, simultaneously adding another dimension of texture.

This was perhaps my least favourite dish. A little too spicy for me, and I might have just preferred it as a nibble at the start of the meal, rather than as a dish.

Cooked with kung pao sauce and fresh pepper corns, the taste was surprisingly delicate. Expecting something really spicy, the white pepper shrimp was nectareous with a gentle wisp of spice from the white pepper.

The sticky finger licking good glaze that covered the ribs was divine. The ribs were caramel sweet but had complex flavour from the vinegar based marinade. It was a like a hybrid between kung ba pao and stewed pigs trotters. Although not fall off the bone soft, the glazed Zheng Jiang ribs sticky sauce taste and aromas lingered on our lips.

Before this dish is served, the wait staff will ask the level of your gung-ho-ness and how spicy you would like your Spicy Sichuan Chicken. At the pinnacle is the hellish hot tongue numbing chilli level followed by a medium level spice and the mild. The solution is to ask for mild or medium heat (if you are confident enough) and request for more sauce on the side. The chicken was succulent and the Sichuan sauce was laced with sesame oil making the dish extremely fragrant. The chicken is also served with konnyaku noodles which drinks up the sauce and provides another texture and century eggs to dowse the fire in your mouth.

The pungent and extremely aromatic prawn paste that is traditionally used on chicken and served as the ubiquitous ha chong kai in every tze char stall in Singapore, was appointed another purpose in the culinary world. The prawn paste (rather than shrimp sauce) gave made the skin crisp and fragrant. The smell arrests you before the fish arrives, and when it does, it is quite a sight, the gaping grouper resting on the bed of pomelo. The grouper was very fresh and cooked well, retaining its natural juices and the pomelo added some tartness to balance the strong prawn paste.

Although the crabs are the most visually striking thing about this dish, they are not the main attraction of the dish but what lies beneath. The glutinous rice that cushion the crabs that have been infused with Shanghainese crab roe and the crab’s sweet juiced during the steaming process. Making the roe enriched rice sweet and indulgent.

As a palate cleanser, this was a welcomed change. Despite the general consensus of “I’m so full already” around the table, when this fruit platter arrived, it was quickly consumed. Instead of having the conventional sour plum salt powder at the side as a dip, the fruits were soaked in sour plum syrup. The play of sweet and sour on the fruits was refreshing and calmed the palates down for the next course.

Judging from the name of the dish, I was expected a luxurious rendition of tom yum chicken soup. Instead, we were served a chicken consommé with floating wolf berries and a slice of mature coconut flesh. The soup was delicate in flavour, but the coconut flesh was just too hard, I just did not get how it worked together.

The mushrooms were a little disappointing, in comparison to the other dishes which were bolder in taste.

Bobbing in a warm sweetened ginger soup, the signature Xi Yan tang yuan is perhaps the most extravagant tang yuan ever made. Visually symbolic and comforting, the tasty tang yuan is rather cheeky once in your mouth. With the multi-filling of peanuts, white sesame seeds, candied melon, salted egg and butter, the tang yuan danced on the tongue with a variety of flavours and textures, perfectly rounding off the long dinner.

With regards to the food, the main influences in the food are Chinese and Thai flavours and ingredients. The flavours are bold and there is a high level of commitment to fresh produce here. The dishes were fantastic, but among the spectacular, there were a few rather big question marks. The hard coconut flesh that was too tough to chew? The order of the menu seems rather particular as in our opinion (consensus between dining companions) that the mushroom dish seemed really out of place, making the dish less enjoyable and taking away from the fruit platter that came before. I just do not get it.

The other half of the success of this place is Mr. Tan Keng Siong and the wait staff that he heads. They work in perfect synchrony with the kitchen and with the one wait staff to one table ratio; they are attentive and friendly without being obtrusive. Together, the food and the service do make this place an interesting and decadent dining experience. I guess that pretty much explains the rather full reservation book for the next few weeks. If only all wedding dinners were this enjoyable.

Pay: S$88 nett a person.

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Blogger Samantha said...

Hi Joone!

This dinner looked really lovely, and thanks for taking the photos! A couple of friends and I are thinking of having dinner at Xi Yan in early February.

Do you know if they only accept reservations for entire tables? Would two or three of us be able to make a reservation for dinner?

Thanks for your help!

2:52 PM  
Blogger J'adore... me! said...

hieee! hee loved your post, reliving the happy memories of my dinners there, yum! seems like the menu doesn't change that much though, been there twice now and think i tried every one of the dishes you had too. the garoupa/pomelo and lobster/two sauces featured both times, maybe they're staple items too? anyway not complaining! *off to make reservation for feb* and yah ken is great! ciao!

3:45 PM  
Blogger joone! said...

samantha: the dinner is pretty fantastic and good value for money. Unfortunately the minimum reservation number is 6, mainly because of how the food is served. So get more friends!

j'adore: heh. I see you have turned into quite a fan of xi yan!

6:35 PM  

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