Monday, May 2, 2011

Private Dining: Xi Yan in Singapore

The world of private dining is both interesting and sometimes a bit walk ins. Reservations only. Private environments. Often times, a bit on the pricey side...but the promise of a special meal. Interesting and very good ingredients bekons. Hold that thought...

Our local watch group meets about quarterly for some dining, watch chat and just catching up with each other. This quarter, we had decided on Xi Yan...a little restaurant, tucked away somewhere near Tanjong Pagar. The restaurant has no frontage so to speak, the only way in is via a small staircase. But once inside, one is transformed into a very cozy and interesting space.

The decor is quite beautifully done, with big paintings simply placed on the walls almost everywhere. It is quite apparent that the owner must be an art lover. Started in Hong Kong by the celebrity chef Jacky Wu, the concept of private dining is one where instead of going to a restaurant, one visits the chef at his home, and eats whatever he has selected for the day...kind of an omakase.

Fresh flowers adorn each table, and the evening when we were there, we were the only guests, but we were some 22 pax, occupying 2 large tables.

We had the chef's menu, comprising of some 10 dishes...quite a menu...and perhaps I may let the cat out of the bag by saying that the servings were rather best to come hungry.

Starters...of which there were 3:

First off the house favourite of green house tomatoes in wasabi sesame sauce.

The tomatos were rather large. The set above serves a table of 10 to 12. The wasabi sesame sauce completely envelopes the whole fresh, cooked tomatos. The dish characterises the house style...fresh, good ingredients. Allowed to shine and the taste of the principal ingredient coming through. In this tomato dish, it is certainly a winner! The tomato was fresh, beautifully a tinge of sweetness coupled with the characteristic richness but mildly acid tomato flavour. Beautiful.

The next dish was the crispy xiangsu duck with Chinese plum sauce

The dish looked like a dish of prime ribs...but not so...this was the duck appetizer dish. It seemed to me that the skin of the duck was removed, and roasted or fried till crisp. The remainder of the fat and meat was probably mashed, and mixed with nuts, and roasted till cooked, and the crispy skin returned to adorn it. The dish tasted mildly of duck, and the nuts were quite nice. The plum sauce was essential to bring out the flavours as without it was rather bland.

Next, cloud ear with wasabi

Black cloud ear, cooked mildly in a mild wasabi sauce. This dish was particularly difficult to photograph, as the black cloud ear afforded little contrast to show the texture of the ingredient. Taste-wise it was rather light, mild tasting, with the character of the cloud ear shining through with just a hint of wasabi.

At this point, some of us were already almost full, when the waiter - superb chap...knowledgable and very polite, no service faux pas throughout the evening, announded that this is the first of the main courses - the oolong tea smoked chicken with mango salsa.

Excellent dish. Easily my favourite for the evening. The chicken was carefully smoked with oolong tea. Looks like it was roasted, but the flavour and aroma of the fresh oolong was quite apparent on the table. The chicken was only very mildly seasoned, if at all. This was the key feature of the Xi Yan cooking...the flavours of the ingredients allowed to shine with minimal seasoning and salt. The mango salsa lifted the chicken to another level, quite a masterful blend of sweet and sour and spice. Great dish. Most shiok!

The peppercorn crabs were next:

For me this was a bit of a let down. The crab was a little small...we had two for our table of 9. So the meat was not as fat and flavourful as I would have liked...perhaps I have been spoilt by the 2kg Sri Lankan crabs elsewhere. These were rather small. The meat was reasonably tasty, the peppercorn again providing subtle support to the sweetness of the crab. But I wished for fatter crabs.

The zhengjiang spare ribs was next

When delivered to our table, it smells reminiscent of coffee pork ribs. This dish has a rather strong porky flavour. Some may like it, but for me, I prefer a milder, less gamey flavour. The pork was also a bit on the tough side, perhaps a nod towards a healtier dish as it was not as fat and rich as most spare rib dishes.

The fish dish was steamed fish with pickled olive and black bean paste served on a bed of hor fun"

I quite liked this dish. The garoupas were steamed to perfection, and more or less encrusted by the olive and black bean paste. The perfectly cooked done-ness of the fish was not extraordinary in a restaurant of this caliber, but the pairing of the mild pickled olive and black bean paste was quite a stroke of genius. As was serving it on a bed of lightly cooked hor fun. Made the hor fun dish light and not oily. And nicely imbued with the very fresh fish flavours. Another winner for me.

We next had a chicken coconut soup, which I didn't soups, especially clear soup like this was rather boring to was a clear soup, with a slice of coconut flesh. The coconut was very hard, totally unexpected as I had imagined a soft, tender young coconut flesh to adorn. But the soup was full of flavour. Both the chicken and coconut flavours were apparent, and melded nicely. Not bad.

The final dish was the stir fried mushrooms with picked cucumber.

For me, this was a quintessential mushroom dish. The mushrooms were fresh, and luscious. Very plum and rich flavours...robust even. I hardly tasted the pickled cucumbers, but that was fine...I was luxuriating in the flavours and wonderful texture of the mushrooms.

Desserts was a Japanese black sugar ice cream, which I found as a nice way to cap the meal, but in no way exceptional.

When I arrived at the restaurant, we were introduced to the owner Thomas Choong, who recognized me as someone familiar, and we eventually traced it to a common emplpoyer some 10 years ago. This review is written with this disclosure, and also without prejudice that I know the owner.

As it was a dinner of the horological enthusiasts, we could not resist putting our watches on the table for that table shot....apologies to non-watch collectors. But for those who are, the theme of the evening was watches purchases below S$1000 or pre-1970. For the eagle eyed, there is one watch on this table which breaks both rules...but the excuse for that watch being present is that it is probably the first one to be delivered in Singapore and the owner picked it up just before coming for this dinner.

Overall, Xi Yan makes good on its promise of a light meal, expertly prepared, and beautifully presented in a cozy yet private environment. Highly recommended.

Xi Yan Private Dining
38A, Craig Road, Singapore 089676
6220 3546 (10.00am - 10.00pm)
Email :
Reservations only.

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