The chicken, the rice, the laksa… when and where have I tasted this before? That would be just a couple months ago at another Singaporean-Malaysian restaurant not too far from here.
The déjà vu is hardly coincidental. Asian Family’s founding father Arron Ye Siong Lai comes from an impressive culinary background that includes stints at the Mandarin Orchard hotel’s famous Chatterbox restaurant in Singapore and, more recently, Hainan Shaoye at the WTC next door. Whether Lai’s decision to set up Asian Family just down the road from his former digs was deliberate or not is open to speculation, but sure enough foodies are already pitting the two venues against one another, comparing fowl with fowl, rice with rice.
While it’s easy to lump Asian Family together with Hainan Shaoye, it’s important to realise that Lai’s new enterprise is targeting a totally different demographic. This is already apparent in the restaurant décor, which is surprisingly unfussy from someone who’s spent most of his career at high-end eateries. The space looks almost like a canteen with stackable, black plastic chairs and a kitsch mural of Singapore. Long story short – this is definitely one place that puts full focus on the food.
The menu reads like a standard anthology of traditional Singaporean and Peranakan dishes. Hainan chicken ($58/quarter) is the kitchen’s appointed mascot and the famous bird arrives at the table, deboned and carved into uniform, two-bite pieces. The white meat is impressively tender for a cut so lean – a result of careful and steady slow poaching. But the real sign of Lai’s mad chicken-handling skills shines through the blanket of pale-yellow skin, which is firm and greaseless with a slippery layer of gelatin snugly sandwiched just underneath it. The dish does stumble a little on the level of its raw ingredients, and consumed alone the chicken tastes fairly mild and muted. Thankfully, this is just a minor problem, easily resolved by giving the chicken a quick dip in the pots of homemade chilli sauce, minced ginger and Kwong Cheong Thye dark soy sauce to help coax the flavour out of the meat.
What really is insipid though, is the bowl of warm chicken broth that is served alongside the sliced poultry. But where the soup disappoints, the rice ($15) steps up. The simple rice is one of the highlights, cooked in a herb-enriched chicken stock until it forms distinct, flavour-swelled pearls with a lustrous sheen.
The restaurant’s other supposed weapon – the seafood laksa ($72) – on the other hand, falls short of expectation. The generous portion of noodles is enough to feed two with a liberal load of scallops, fishballs, sliced fishcakes and crabmeat bobbing about on the surface. Thick rounds of slippery rice noodles carry a well balanced sauce that traverses between sour and spicy, but the broth would benefit from an extra touch of coconut milk for a fuller body and headier sweetness. It satisfies, but hardly wows. Likewise for the stir-fried eggplant ($52), which sees fat, pulpy wedges of aubergine soaked and softened in a thick chilli sauce.
The grilled sambal stingray ($58) is a much better effort. The spiciness is more pronounced than the laksa and cuts straight through the supple and smoky stingray flesh. Asian Family also does a mean chai tau kueh ($58) – a popular street snack of cubed turnip cake stir-fried in a mess of eggs, veggies and dark soy sauce. The dish is authentically sloppy with the sprouts and grated carrots providing a nice contrasting crunch to the soft daikon cake.
To end, the kitchen offers a choice of three traditional Malay desserts, including pandan pancakes ($38) rolled and stuffed with a delicious, moist and flaky mixture of grated coconut and palm sugar.
No doubt diners will continue to compare Asian Family with Hainan Shaoye and other restaurants like it. But so long as the food is done well, does it really matter which chicken came first?
264-269 Gloucester Rd, Causeway Bay, 2836 9000. Daily 11am-11pm. Meal for two: around $350.
|Venue name:||Asian Family (Closed)|