Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Reputation – Bane or Blessing? A Visit to Desmond’s Creation

Chef Desmond Chia needs no introduction. He was one of two sons of the founder of Sik Wai Sin, one of the most reputable zi char restaurants in Singapore, famous for its limited but well-executed Cantonese menu. Diners were known to brave the heat at the non-air-conditioned Sik Wai Sin, waiting hours for a superb “home-cooked” meal. And while his brother presided over the steamed dishes at the restaurant, Desmond was the “man behind the fiery wok”, honing his skills with fried dishes for 13 years.

So when Chef Desmond decided to open his own restaurant, Desmond’s Creation, I had high expectations of it. I arrived at 11.45 am sharp – the opening time shown on their official operating hours; the shutter was down, finally opening at 11.55 am.

It soon became obvious that Desmond ran a tight three-person operation -- two men including himself in the kitchen and a woman manning the dining room. To their credit, and my amazement, things proceeded smoothly throughout the busy lunch hour and food was served without hiccups.

It was also instantly obvious that Desmond was not a risk-taking chef. The menu remained small and 99% of the dishes were “imported” from Sik Wai Sin. My hopes rose even higher upon seeing this, as I reckoned that nothing could possibly go wrong with such a small number of dishes – dishes that the chef had cooked for umpteen years.

The first dish to arrive was Braised Black Bean Pork Rib with Bitter Gourd. Usually, the black bean paste would be well sauted with the meat, and then with the vegetable. Here, I tasted nothing of the “fragrance” of a well-fried dish; it felt like the whole dish had been braised without undergoing fire.

Fried Beef Kailan, which came next, was decent. The vegetable was well fried and perfumed with “wok hei”. The downside was that some beef was cut not across the grain, leaving it a little on the tough side. Also, it would have been perfect had the chef sprinkled on a dash of Chinese wine before serving.

When we were ordering and had asked for tofu, the woman told us bluntly that this dish would come with “big” prawns. I suppose that was how restaurants maneuvered to increase revenue; I also got the impression that those who ate at Desmond’s Creation didn’t mind paying for slightly more “premium” food. Either way, the prawns proved over-cooked and hard. To make the matters worse the tofu was over-fried too. What we ended up with was a plate of hard prawns, dry tofu and diluted gravy.

Steamed Minced Pork with Salted Fish was a personal favourite of mine since I was a kid. In Chef Desmond’s version, he hand-chopped the pork, and this alone earned him loads of brownie points in my book. The glitch in the dish, however, was that he over-mixed the meat, causing the protein to over-bind and making the meat hard rather than crunchy.

But my biggest problem with this dish was the salted fish used. As noted earlier, since the customers were prepared to pay slighter more for their food, Chef Desmond should have opted for better-quality salted fish. The best salted fish (梅香马鲛鱼) for this dish would have been Spanish mackerel aged between 10 months and 3 years. The fish would be prepared by salting and sun-drying it for another 2 years minimum, which would leave the flesh slightly pink near the bones and with a pungent and ‘fleshy’ scent.

Even the portion of the salted fish that Chef Desmond used was too small for the amount of pork in the dish. The salted fish should have been of an amount sufficient to pervade thoroughly the meat and gravy during steaming. In the end, I could only detect a whiff of fish when the plate first landed on the table, and when I actually ate the salted fish itself.

Another downer was the Sweet & Sour Pork. The meat morsels were too small, slightly burnt, and too thickly coated with batter.  The sensation was of eating sweet & sour pork -- in its vegetarian version.

Steamed Fresh Carp with Bean Paste was the best dish of the meal. It was brilliantly executed -- Chef Desmond timed to perfection the cooking of the fish, and the bean paste was well balanced with a cocktail of sourness, sweetness, and savouriness.

These were dishes I had grown up eating from zi char stalls all across Singapore; so, like I said, I had high expectations. Perhaps too high. Perhaps by going it alone when he did, the chef bit off more than he could chew; perhaps his skills and experience fell a little short of his dreams. Perhaps.

Desmond’s Creation or Sik Bao Sin
592 Geylang Road
Telephone: 6744 3757