Friday, 5 September 2014

A Review of Shisen Hanten, Singapore - Is this Iron Chef quality?

The Wife and I met up with our favourite Singapore foodie Victoria and her husband M for dinner a couple of weeks ago. The venue: Shisen Hanten, the local branch of the Szechuan restaurant chain founded by Japan's "God of Szechuan Cooking", Chen Kenmin, and now managed by his son Chen Kenichi, the "Szechuan Sage" and "Iron Chef Chinese" in the cult Japanese gastro-sports series "Ryoori no Tetsujin".  Apparently, the Singapore branch is run by Kenichi's son, Chen Kentaro.

Now, the heroic deeds in Greek mythology were performed mostly by the children of the gods, not their grandkids.  I don't know, maybe their divine powers get too diluted after two cross-breedings with mere mortals.  Hell, even the grandchildren of the LORD were relegated to being nameless footnotes in a Dan Brown novel.  I was hoping that Kentaro could avoid the same ignominious fate.

Son of the Szechuan Sage: Chen Kentaro
Once you descend the escalator to the restaurant's reception, your first impression is one of SPACE.  I mean, you could seriously fit small villages in the spaces between the tables.  The ceiling is elevated, presumably so they could fit in the private room on the mezzanine overlooking the main dining room.  It is a great contrast to the crammed, bustling and noisy dining room at your typical Chinese restaurant.


The dishes arrived in a very haphazard order, so I will report on them as they arrived.

Rice: Hokkaido Rice


It seems these days like restaurants tag the word "Hokkaido" next to an ingredient to justify charging you a rip-off price.  I am the worst variety of rice snob, and this "Hokkaido rice" (yes, it costs about three times the price of a regular bowl of rice if memory serves me right) does not impress me.  I don't know what were the special attributes of "Hokkaido rice" are supposed to be, but this bowl of rice did nothing for me texture, flavour, aroma and appearance-wise.

Chen's Prawns in Chilli Sauce (S$45++ medium)


This is perhaps Chen Kenichi's most famous dish, and a preparation that doubtless saved his skin in numerous close-fought Iron Chef contests.  I like it; the sauce is nowhere near as spicy as I would have imagined or preferred, but it allows the crystal prawns to shine through with their crunch and sweetness.  In retrospect, I should not have been surprised, given the Japanese emphasis on flavour of the produce and the Japanese dislike for overly spicy food.  All the same, it was not any more impressive than a decent to good chilli crab sauce.

Chen's Famous Mapo Doufu (S$30++ medium)


Thankfully, Shisen Hanten does justice to a very classic Szechuan dish, not pulling any punches heat- or flavour-wise.  The beancurd is cooked so that it still retains its texture, while the sauce is laden with meaty umami and, of course, the lip-tingling, tongue-numbing juju of Szechuan peppercorns.  Delicious, but one of perhaps only two dishes of the night that I would order again.

Soup: Stewed Fish Fillet in Super Spicy Szechuan Pepper Sauce (S$39++ medium)

SH_photoGallery_650x800_spicyFish

So there I was, sipping contentedly on a lovely Gruner Veltliner that Victoria and M brought, when this monstrosity of a dish arrives, served in a claypot and topped with layers of dried red chillies.  It is perhaps the worst thing that I have put in my mouth all year, with all the complexity of muddy riverwater overlaid with bilgewater and notes of vinegar, spliced through with inexplicably hot chillies and a bucketload of the ubiquitous Szechuan peppercorns.  Actually, I was grateful to have the peppercorn overload for once because having a numb palate meant I couldn't taste any more of this rubbish.  But unfortunately, it coated my mouth with a uniquely awful tartness which ruined the Gruner for me for the rest of the night.

Vegetable Course 1: Eggplant in Spicy Chilli Pepper Sauce (S$18++ small)


Good.  The eggplant is well-cooked, and there was a little sweetness which I think came from some brown bean paste but the copious amounts of spice and chilli oil were starting to get to me by this point.

Vegetable Course 2: Browned String Bean with Ground Pork (S$18++ small)

The string beans were properly browned, and full of fragrant wok hei, while the mince was very well-seasoned (maybe too well-seasoned) and rich with the nutty sweetness of fried garlic.  This reminded me of my favourite dish from a very old school Szechuan restaurant which opened in Fair Park in Ipoh back in the mid-1980s (it was Ipoh's first and to this day, only, Szechuan restaurant and was called "Restoran Szechuan").   I was glad to be taken on a trip down memory lane with this excellent version.

Dessert: Apple Tart at Bistro du Vin, Scotts Road

Birds' nest, mango pudding, aloe vera jelly, hashima.  The desserts on Shisen Hanten's menu are about as unique as frickin' wasabi prawns, so I had this wacky idea of paying Les Amis an impromptu visit and asking the very talented pastry chef Cheryl Koh to do us a mini degustation of desserts.  Unfortunately, Les Amis was booked out for a private function; I will leave you with that thought for a moment, on how much money it would cost to book out Les Amis for Friday dinner.  We retired instead to the adjacent Bistro du Vin for a solid but unspectacular apple tart with salted caramel ice-cream.

Conclusion

There is a lot to like about Shisen Hanten: the space and atmosphere and a couple of genuine stand-out dishes.  Service is nigh on clueless but well-intentioned, and prices are reasonable for a restaurant of this level especially after a 15% Amex discount.

However, I can't help but feel that it is living off its Iron Chef association a fair bit.  On this Friday evening, the restaurant was barely a third full, and I recognised the distinct cadence of Japanese from various corners of the room.  Whatever its merits, it clearly has not captured the imagination of the Singaporean dining public and for sure, there are better Szechuan restaurants in town.  

You can visit for the novelty of eating at an "Iron Chef's" restaurant, or even for the novelty of eating Japanese-inflected Szechuan food.  But is there enough to compel first-timers to return?  I'm really not too sure.

SHISEN HANTEN
Level 35, Orchard Wing
Mandarin Orchard Singapore
333 Orchard Road
Singapore 238867
Tel: +65 6831 6262
www.shisenhanten.com.sg 

2 comments:

  1. Szechaun definitely a wine killer. Shisen sounds like one for the Trendies - "Iron Chef one lorr... shiok food man!" Good review, enjoyed the read. btw, is it pronounced Eye-Ron?

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    1. Thanks Brian, you do know Shisen Hanten now has two Michelin stars, right? ;)

      It is actually pronounced "AI-YAAAAAAAAN!!!!!"

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