Thursday, 20 February 2014

Sin Huat Eating House - A Meal That Left Me Crabby

Do I trust a foreign food personality to tell me what’s good on our local streets? Apparently not! Sin Huat Eating House won Mr. Anthony Bourdain’s heart and he sang praises (loads of it) on his TV series.

I had heard things about this restaurant. Its owner Chef Danny was known as the Food Nazi of Singapore and diners gladly paid through their noses for his superb, fresh seafood. You didn’t order your meals, so much as have the orders dictated to you by the chef, who would then cook your meal personally. And you wouldn’t know the size of your portion, or its price until the receipt arrived.

Because of this, I took a long time to convince myself -- and save enough money -- to have a first-hand encounter with this much talked about chef.

The restaurant was pretty quiet on the day of my visit, save for two tables of eight and five, and ours. One of my eating companions was a regular and the chef knew him well. Chef Danny offered a rather limited menu, and it seemed 90% of his dishes were de-rigueur with the regulars. We were no different.

Chef Danny delivers his food packed full of very strong flavours, especially garlic. A Singapore celebrity chef once told me, “If I boost my stock and flavours to the maximum, customers would be so overwhelmed that few would be able to tell the difference between good and mediocre cooking”. Chef Danny seems to subscribe to this philosophy.

A case in point was the Steamed Frog’s Legs with Essence of Chicken. Eight bottles of Chicken Essence were poured into a plate of eight perfectly steamed frogs, with garlic. With such an avalanche of robust chicken flavour, little culinary skill was needed for the dish to pack a wallop.

There were other instances. The dish of steamed scallops was overdone but the heavy bath of bean paste sauce was enough to mask its faults, along with much of the intrinsic flavour of the scallop. A similar sauce was used on the fried/braised crayfish. Again, I had to rely largely on my sight to discern what meat I was eating.

A few dishes stood out though. The stir-fried kai lan – usually a simple, supporting dish -- was delicious. It had the right amount of garlic, and the vegetable was crisp and flavoursome. Though it wasn’t cheap, I would gladly pay for it. On the other hand, the MOST cut-throat dish of the evening was the blanched dog conch or simply gong gong to the locals, served with a very tasty dip that was most likely a concoction of oyster sauce, garlic, chilli and buckets of processed flavouring. At $25 per kg, the owner of this restaurant could easily have bought a bungalow in a prime district in no time – if he hasn’t already done so.

The steamed squid was well executed and it was my 2nd favourite dish of the evening. Again the garlic was slightly heavy handed. To his credit, Chef Danny’s handling of the steaming times for the seafood in most of his dishes was near impeccable. However, his main seafood ingredients lacked the flavor of what they were -- they didn't stand out but were buried under his overly strong sauces and dips.  I suspect this is Chef Danny’s trick: to mask and/or distract from his inability to balance his spices and sauces with finesse.

The final dish of braised crab mee hoon was my main purpose for coming to this restaurant; after all this dish made Chef Danny famous in this infamous red-light district. It consisted of two medium crabs and a handful of mee hoon. The mee hoon was very tasty, but lacked the flavour that mattered the most – that of the crab itself. How come? I wondered. Crab imparts a distinctly robust and sweet flavour; and two crabs’ worth of it would certainly have made its presence felt in the dish. Was it buried under heavy MSG or chicken flavouring? I wasn’t sure. But it led to my companions and I consuming ¼ of our national water reserves during the meal and after we got home that night.

Here is my concluding shot: when a foreign food personality or two visits some eatery in Singapore and delivers an encomium, we fall for it hook, line and sinker. Are we so insecure in our own judgments? After all, we, of all people, should know our own food better than anyone. This thought came to me strongly on this occasion. To whip up a tasty dish is not difficult: just load it with MSG and off-the-shelf broths. It's the mastery of precise cooking times that, in my opinion, is Chef Danny's ONLY true achievement. The textures were unfailingly right -- but where were the delicate flavors of seafood? I couldn't detect any of it in all the dishes that I ate. And to me, that's a major letdown.

P.S. I doubted the eight of us could have eaten 3 kg of dog conchs and 3 kg of scallops; but that was what the receipt said.

Sin Huat Seafood Restaurant
659/661 Geylang Road
Telephone: 6744 9755


  1. Excuse me, sir but your RSS feeds seem not to be working. I tried to subscribe to it and it shows your blog items way back in 2012 only. Can you fix it? Thank you very much. :)

  2. No doubt that Bourdain has long since lost his credibility on matters of food, but K.F. Seetoh still stands behind Danny -- and Seetoh knows all. Personally, I have always liked Sin Huat, although their pricing practices are concededly not above criticism.