The Pan Pacific Singapore has a rich history of serving excellent food in Singapore including long-standing Cantonese cuisine, popular with locals and visitors. The newly refurnished and relocated award-wining Hai Tien Lo was transformed from the dated 37th floor space to an impressive contemporary Oriental dining venue for small intimate meals and extravagant gatherings, with views into the atrium on the 3rd floor.
I managed to catch up with Master Chef Lai Tong Ping for a sneak peek into his Christmas menu.
He is no stranger to the highly competitive Cantonese cuisine scene in Singapore as the creator behind some of Hai Tien Lo's popular seasonal dishes. This humble and soft spoken head chef brings a contemporary twist to traditional Cantonese dining by providing new interpretations to recipes that have been tried and tested for thousands of years.
I was thankful for the opportunity to taste test his Cantonese Christmas, where in typical Chef Lai style, he hoped to create a memorable Christmas dining experience. His inspiration was the use of Cantonese cooking techniques on traditional American and European festive ingredients. The end result was a 6-course set meal to wow diners and tantalise their taste buds.
The traditional American-influenced Christmas table is always crowned with a roast turkey. Unfortunately this is one poultry that is difficult to cook as the breasts tend to dry out while waiting for the legs to cook. Instead of handling the entire bird, Chef Lai decided to only work his culinary skills on the breasts. I'm not a big fan of turkey but the result was slices of perfectly roasted turkey that would make his European counterpart proud. I particularly enjoyed the use of ume or Japanese plum in lieu of the traditional cranberry resulting in a deliciously fruity, sourish sweet sauce to accompany the meat.
2) Braised Shark's fin with Crab meat and Garlic served in Young Coconut / 椰盅蚧肉蒜头鱼翅羹
There was nothing traditionally festive about this dish but I love the taste-texture combination of shark's fin and crab meat in a rich broth and the little touch of Thai with the use of the young coconut. It has become a must-have luxury item on any upmarket Cantonese menu. In typical Chef Lai style, the portion of shark's fin was whole and sizable and the pieces of crab meat were fresh and chunky. The broth was thick and rich superior stock with a little swirl of cream to remind me of Xmas. I would definitely return to Hai Tien Lo for this dish on any other day.
3) Pan-fried Rack of Lamb in Black Pepper Sauce accompanied with Fresh Oyster Salad / 沙律生蚝伴黑椒羊小扒
Lamb is not a common meat in traditional Cantonese cuisine and its use brought together the West and East elements in the Xmas menu. I congratulate Chef Lai on his excellent handling of the lamb rack that easily equalled, if not surpassed, the Victorian lamb cutlets I had at La Vita Buona Wine Bar and surpassed those of Little Press in Melbourne. It was done pink, tender and still bursting with flavour. I wasn't sure about the relationship between the battered oyster and the succulent lamb but it was light on the palate and reminded me fondly of similar I had by another chef-friend at Darriwill Farm Cafe Restaurant. Chef Lai's Cantonese version of the Japanese kaki-fry may have been inspired by conversations with the Keyaki chef.
4) Baked Boston Lobster with Butter in Superior Stock / 上汤牛油焗玻龙尾
Instead of the local spiny lobster, Chef Lai used the Boston lobster to draw the mental association with Xmas in the US, where the ingredient originates. The use of butter is again an American and European technique to treat this marine crustacean. I could not fathom how the half lobster tail was baked by judging the dish before me. Another wow dish in Chef Lai's menu not because it was a high expense item but the lobster was cooked to tender-chewiness and the superior stock heightened the sweetness of the fresh succulent meat. The challenge is also ensuring that the combined flavour of the salty butter and superior stock is not overpowering.
5) Stewed Fried Rice with Smoked Duck in Egg White and Conpoy Sauce / 蛋白干贝汁烟鸭烩饭
I found Chef Lai's ingenious ways of representing Xmas elements in this dish interesting to the palate in several ways. Firstly smoked duck is usually an appetizer in Western cuisine but applied in the final main course here, likely as a replacement for the familiar Hong Kong roast duck. Secondly the stewed fried rice was a taste-texture novelty. To heighten the contrast of taste and texture while combining the flavours of the rice and sauce, I felt the rice needed to be further wok-fried and drier to balance the lightly flavoured conpoy and egg white sauce. I must congratulate Chef Lai on his technique as each individual morsel of duck breast carried the right amount of smokiness and tenderness that would any European kitchen proud.
The surprise dessert turned out to be a sizable deep-fried ice cream which triggered an immediate image of the delicious hot jam doughnuts at Melbourne's Queen Victoria Market. Another of Chef Lai's efforts to bring some festive sweetness to close his Cantonese Christmas menu. This dish may look simple but it requires the right batter ingredients and consistency coupled with a deep container of very hot oil to produce the warm, crispy shell around the still cold ice cream, which the chef had managed to pull off nicely. I found the ice cream portion too generous but the combination of light, crispy batter with sweet vanilla and chocolate centre encouraged continued indulgence.
By the time dessert was served, I had nearly reached my consumption capacity. True to Hai Tien Lo form, the menu did not lack in quantity and I found the combined portion of all dishes to be satisfying without over-eating. The culinary techniques applied by Chef Lai to pull off his fusion of East-meets-West creativity resulted in an enjoyable gastronomic journey over 6 courses. So this festive season, consider celebrating a Cantonese Christmas with family, friends and Chef Lai.