When it comes to food, Singaporeans love trying out new places to eat. Ordinarily, people are indisposed to travelling long distances just to eat something, no matter how good it is. Sure, once in a while they'll have a craving for Katong laksa and go all the way to Katong for it, but when was the last time you had dinner with a large group of people at Changi, when you all live in the West?
But to try out a new place, even the ends of the earth aren't far enough. So it was that when my mother suggested this new place in Geylang she'd heard so many good things about, everyone was game, even though Geylang is like the ends of the earth and then some.
Sha Tin Kitchen is one of the many unpretentious eateries that can be found in Geylang, that offer very good food at very attractive prices (well, mostly). While service and ambience may be rough around the edges, the unusual Cantonese food served by chef Tonny Chan at Sha Tin is cuisine par excellence, and definitely worth checking out.
The place itself is unabashedly casual; you could walk past it without actually realising that it was a restaurant. If you have sharp eyes though, the numerous reviews and the full house inside would indicate that the food here is pretty appetising. In fact, it was so crowded that the restaurant gave away our reservation to an earlier group, hoping to do one more cover, which resulted in us waiting a good twenty minutes for the table to be cleared. Here you see my father animatedly relating the tale of how he managed to park the car nearby and avoid getting it scratched by indignant storekeepers.
If you do go to Sha Tin Kitchen, don't go on a weekend for dinner. If you do go on a weekend for dinner, go later, at about 9pm or later. If you do go before 9pm on a weekend, expect the place to be more crowded than a madhouse in summer. Reservations are a must, of course. Expect to eat cheek by jowl here, as the crowd doesn't begin to thin until at least 9.30pm. Also, there is only nominal air-conditioning, so dress very light and try to sit under the fan.
Chef Tonny Chan has had years of experience cooking Cantonese food in Hong Kong, but the food he serves is rather unlike that which you get in Crystal Jade or other Cantonese restaurants. In fact, I've never seen Cantonese food quite like this before. Not that it was bad, of course. Variety plus quality is always a winning combination. But we let the food speak for itself, yes?
First up was a dish of crispy deep-fried eel skin, served with some glass noodles and bowls of broth in which to dip your eel skins. I really enjoyed this, and starters like this just set the tone of the whole meal; you know you're going to get good food. The skin was exquisitely crunchy, and the accompanying broth not only softened it up a bit (yet it retained its crispiness), it also perfectly highlighted the flavours of the dish. Best of all, for all that deep-frying, the skins weren't oily at all. Now that takes some serious skill.
Our next dish is more commonly seen during Chinese New Year, but you can order it at Sha Tin year-round. Known as pen cai, or vegetable pot, Sha Tin's version is a claypot full of goodies like prawns, broccoli, chicken, mushrooms and scallops braised in a luscious, gellatinous brown sauce that is absolutely delicious but probably bad for your cholestrol (as all New Year dishes tend to be). The broccoli was a bit overcooked and soft, but apart from that, this dish was a winner too.
As if to assuage our cholestrol fears, the next thing to arrive was a big dish of egg whites. I have no idea how these were cooked, but they were cooked very well, just the right balance between being runny and being solidly overcooked. Again, some serious skill involved. I remember wondering what happened to all the egg yolks, and my pondering was partially answered when a raw yolk was poured into the dish and mixed around. For all of you worrying about salmonella, live a little more dangerously! Besides, the residual heat from the egg whites cooks the yolk enough to kill the bacteria. Hopefully. In any case, this was quite nice, though I've never really been fond of egg whites. The way some of the others were shovelling their way through them though, I take it that it's a great dish if you're into eggs. Goes well with soya sauce or vinegar.
The obligatory fish course, of course. I cannot remember what fish this was, but it wasn't the sturgeon Sha Tin Kitchen is famous for. Steamed and served with a sort of garlic dice/puree, the fish was beautifully steamed, and complemented by the garlic, which was sweet and mild. I'm told this fish contains a lot of natural proteins and gelatin, which gives the flesh a bit of texture without it being flaky or hard.
It took me a while to remember what this was, but it eventually hit me. What you're looking at is black pepper duck breast with kai lan (Chinese kale). Not any duck too, but duck flown all the way from Perigord, France. Don't ask me why the restaurant would need Perigord duck, they just do. The duck was tender and soft, but I did think the pepper sauce was a bit strong for it.
As dinner was winding down, we were served some lobster bee hoon. I find it interesting how even the smallest things reveal telling details about a chef's level of proficiency. In this case, the bee hoon was very fine, and like the fried eel skins, hardly oily at all. Still, I didn't really enjoy this dish, as I thought the bee hoon was a bit dry, and lobsters, it seems to me, are just prawns that are harder to eat.
Our last order for the night was a dish of braised vegetable greens and fish maw, which I passed on, on account of my being rather bloated from the other courses.
Expect prices to come up to about $20 - $30 per person, depending on how much you're ordering and how many people are eating. Service is generally good, even though they didn't have that many staff and the restaurant was packed. The only real complaints I had were that parking is exceedingly difficult, the air-conditioning was close to non-existent and they gave away our table!
Sha Tin Kitchen (casual, Cantonese)
511 Geylang Road (near Lorong 27A)
Tel: 6747 2483 / 6744 7087
Opening Hours: 11.30am - 2.30pm and 6pm - 11pm
Location: 1/5 (not to mention parking is a bitch)
Overall: If you're in the market for something new, or are sick of eating the tired mainstays of Cantonese cuisine, then this is the place for you.