Monday, June 11, 2007

Review: My Humble House, Tung Lok

Last weekend, I went to a brilliant and convenient restaurant for the family and I wanted to post about it. It's run by Tung Lok. Coincidentally, so was another restaurant that I reviewed now about a month ago (The 13-course degustation at the Humble House). Since I didn't like that, I thought I would post the positive and the negative reviews back to back, starting with the one that I didn't like.

I didn't not like all of it, I was just very honest in my review that not all the dishes were consistent or good. I felt bad because so much trouble went into preparing it, because they rolled out the chefs to greet us and because I know the Street won't publish it because I would probably sink their advertising revenue. I don't really care though. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I don't care at all.

So here it is, my uncensored, considered-too-scathing review of My Humble House. In time to come, you may see gentler and more loving, glowy reviews of this same meal, which will be re-writes of what I wrote. You have been warned.

Tung Lok opened My Humble House at the Esplanade in 2002 as a break-through "artistic restaurant", aiming to elevate the design of the contemporary Chinese restaurant beyond the realm of the expected. Since then, there have been many other Chinese restaurants aiming to achieve a more French style and décor, for example, the Majestic Hotel and even My Choice Chinese Kitchen.

The restaurant itself is a collection of interesting and eye-catching furniture pieces. Whether you appreciate the décor is a separate issue- does it clash, or does it complement? Do you want to eat on plates painted with Chinese inspired parakeets, in black chairs with dramatic, extended backs like a carved piece of arching wood, surrounded by bright green chiffon curtains? Personally, I don’t like it but it looks a darn sight better at night than during the day. The place is one of the “Top 10 Romantic Spots in Singapore” as voted by the Taiwanese travel trade.

The worst part of the vibe is that the location is out of sync with the idea of fine dining as the Esplanade is largely empty and attracts the wrong crowd with an incoherant mish-mesh of shops. Even Space @ My Humble House, the more déclassé restaurant next door, has reduced its menu to just four local dishes, despite the expensive décor.

While the maitre’d is friendly, the wait staff are not that well trained, especially the junior wait staff. When I enquired about the ingredients in the welcome mocktail, the question was met by a blank “I don’t know..some guava and milk maybe”. The most interesting thing about the service is probably the extremely high slits and bared waists of the women servers in their tight Chinese costumes.

My Humble House has always had an 8-course degustation menu but in celebration of their recent 94th placing in “The World’s 100 Best Restaurants List” published by UK’s prestigious Restaurant magazine, the restaurant has come up with a expanded degustation of 13 courses.

The very memory of this meal sort of bowls me over and makes my stomach flop. Realistically, you need to be a big eater to really appreciate the length and richness of so much food, for the rest of us mere mortals, expect to have to be rolled out of the restaurant by the time you’ve sampled all the dishes on offer.

The first course was a traditional style sashimi in sesame oil, which was somewhat too traditional. It came out as slices of tuna, marinated in sesame oil, while the ingredients were fresh, I felt the concept could really be skipped. It tasted a bit like eating a steamed soon hock, with all the cilantro garnish, except it wasn’t steamed. The second course was a wasabi prawn, this was different from the usual wasabi prawn in that the tempura was heavier because of the use of egg yolk. The taste, rather than being spongy-light, was very solid.

The third dish was not all that different, a huge wok-fried oyster in lemon citrus sauce. It was well-fried, tender and creamy. The oyster was also coated with a thick sauce which tasted of coconut, curry spice, lemon and cilantro. While it was a good accompaniment to the oyster, I found the taste a little too thick and flat for my liking. The oyster was served on a pretty half shell with a bed of purplish-black glutinous rice. While just there for effect, it would have been a more powerful effect if the rice had also been edible or hid plumes of escaping nitrogen smoke.

The fourth dish was a steamed chawamushi with century egg, hot and sour consommé. The chawamushi was presented in a teacup with the steamed egg taking up about a centimeter at the base of the cup and the century egg pieces embedded into the egg. The rest of the cup was a clear hot and sour broth. This was the first dish that fell a little below standard, while it was refreshing and at least light, I prefer my chawamushi in the old-school style, that is, smooth and with a comforting taste of chicken or stewed pork broth. This broth was spicy and contrasted too much with the smooth egg, while the century egg, having been immersed into the steaming process for too long, had turned hard and chewy. The different flavours grated on each other, rather than producing any real epiphany in taste.

The fifth dish was a baked shaksfin in abalone juice, which was a thick, dark orange colour from having been concentrated so much. It was an interesting dish because the sharksfin was relatively dry on the outside but sweet and moist on the inside. The shaksfin was a thick piece and you could taste the quality in the dense strands of meat- really enjoyable. The sixth dish was a crispy pork rib, with a cherry tomato in a sweet and sour plum sauce. This was yet another dish that showcased the strong colours and tastes that are a result of the chef’s cooking style. The combination of flavour and texture was excellent. The crispy pork had a lot of fat and the juices were trapped into the baked skin, while the lightness and fresh juice out of the petite cherry tomato were a great counterpoint. I also liked the effort taken to skin the cherry tomato whole, the delicate, shivery, translucent bulb of a tomato was very pretty when contrasted against the rough, brown exterior of the pork rib.

By this time, you will probably start to feel a bit full if you are here for lunch but there are at least seven more dishes to go! The seventh dish and eight dishes of a thick fish maw and marble goby, confirmed the idea that the sauces from the chef are too thick. This was not the light and gentle soy sauce based flavour that one associates with Chinese steaming but a stew- the inside of the fish piece wound up being beautifully soft, white, fleshy and flaky but the outside had turned into a tough and thick skin, then coated with a sauce that this time, was both galicky and gelatinous. Not my favourite combination but some other traditional diners will like it.

The ninth and tenth dishes were both meat dishes, which sent our stomachs packing. I had thought the meal would wind down with green vegetable dishes but there’s actually a dearth of that in the degustation menu. The ninth dish is a pan-seared wagyu beef with warm curry sauce. The wagyu was fantastic, the texture was tender yet firm but the sauce was too regular, too salty and too wet, such that it ran over the top of the wagyu and over the plate. The meat would have been excellent if the sauce was just infused and not slopped over the top until the taste was overpowering and a bit weird when combined with such a good but small slice of meat.

The tenth dish was a roast marinated baby lamb with shiso lead, garnished with raisin and wolfberry compote. This was another excellent dish, although the shiso taste was not really there and the minced leaf bits had charred in the roasting. The lamb was well roasted although a bit lacking in flavour (they need to change their lamb supplier) but this didn’t matter as the sauce was a tasty blend of different tastes- foie gras, port, walnut, apricot (probably from the raisin) and plum. This and the crispy pork were the best dishes on the extensive menu.

The eleventh dish was an interesting presentation of baked assorted wild mushrooms wrapped in paper. The mushrooms had melted into their own juices to create a flavourful sauce, unfortunately the mushrooms had also melted onto the wax paper and the dish wound up being also rather thick and gooey.

The twelfth dish was a “la mian” with shredded drunken chicken. This was probably one of the only subtle dishes in the menu and thoroughly enjoyable if only for the contrast. The la mian comes in a clear soup with seaweed and a nest of chicken shreds infused with Chinese wine.

The dessert of chocolate soufflé with caramelized jackfruit, vanilla ice cream and mixed fruits was thankfully, small, though also not light. The batter was soft and the center had been filled with a jackfruit puree, which is an original idea.

This is where I want to make the point that I am not alone in my apprehension about this meal. The Wine and Dine Asia One team has also reviewed the restaurant, if you read here . They said "barely discernible nibble of jackfruit inside", what this means is that the puree, having been cooked and shredded, no longer tasted of jackfruit and had I not known what it was, it could have been any other unidentifiable yellow fruit mash.

I'm not the only one that called several of the dishes, including this one "ordinary" and the experience "dining fatigue". My take is that as with most degustations, the spread was mixed, some dishes were very ordinary, some were excellent but few were truly sublime. The food overall was traditional, not extremely creative but well-prepared with quality ingredients. My biggest gripe was that the flavours were uniformaly heavy and rich, I wish that the dishes had been more deft and prepared with a lighter hand, especially on the sauce.

At $120 a meal, ie. about $8 a course, it was not actually a steal, given that the dishes usually had just one piece each but considering the quality of food and the good cooking, it’s pretty decent value if you’re looking for a meal that will fill you up past dinner and the next morning. From a culinary stand point, this meal tastes like a good starting point but it needs work. I'm sorry, that's just the truth.

My Humble House
#02-27 Esplanade Mall
Tel: 6423-1881

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