Singapore may be small, but we are inundated with choice when it comes to eating out. Sometimes, this can lead to the first-world problem of CHOICE(!) ANXIETY(!!) If, like us, this leads you to becoming a sad creature of habit who keeps eating at the same old places, check out our bite-sized JUNK food reviews for what you should be eating next (or not!).
Shisen Hanten has been one of those places that seems to have been a “Shall we? Or shall we do it another day?” place. We’ve rain-checked it countless times, probably because in a sea of ever-changing dining options locally, having a fancy Chinese meal tends to hold station as the forlorn backup plan, let alone a Sichuan one.
That would be the case for us at least.
But perhaps a slight resistance to visit has also something to do with the way Shisen Hanten has been billed: multi-generational Chinese / Japanese family of chefs grow incredibly successful fine-dining Sichuan restaurant chain across Japan; opens first overseas outlet in Singapore to much fanfare. It may seem a bit convoluted, but in actuality, Sichuan cuisine is big in Japan. And with 3 consecutive double Michelin stars under their belt, perhaps it was time to pull our collective fingers out, get to Shisen Hanten, and get down to business.
We visited on a weekend, and we decided on the lunch set, which may or may not have been the best option – more on that later.
The restaurant itself is lovely – it’s rare to get these cavernous, double-volume-type Chinese dining rooms anymore in Singapore.
The menu was a promising read, familiar yet intriguing enough in parts: Trio of Dim Sum, Classic Peking Duck, Foie Gras Chawanmushi with Crab Roe Soup, Stir-fried Prawn with Chili Sauce, Chen’s Mapo Dofu with Hokkaido Rice, and a Trio of Desserts to close.
We made quick work of the meal and tore through the dishes to find inspired flavours that successfully drew on the chef’s cultures, as well as ours; the flavours confidently adding up to more than the sum of the ingredients. The stand-outs were the Foie Gras Crab Roe Soup, with neither star ingredient out-singing each other and yielding a surprisingly balanced dish.
The same can be said for the stir fried prawns with a sweet chili sauce that riffed off chili crab sauce, having a pleasingly granular texture that added complexity to the fried mantou when the latter was used to wipe down the bowl. The closing dish of Mapo Dofu was again masterfully handled and elegantly understated flavour-wise – with the pungency and heat of the Sichuan peppercorns reined in by a luxuriously dense, meaty, buttery sauce, and the richness of that cut by the sweet and chewy Hokkaido rice.
Which unfortunately brings us to our “but”.
But why then did this quality meal ALSO feel like it was banged out like a dinner service at a Chinese wedding banquet dinner?
The potential of each dish repeatedly promised to take us somewhere throughout the meal, yet the consistent heaviness and/or room temperature of each course always left us hoping for a sequence of dishes, or okay… JUST ONE perfectly executed dish to bring the meal to a head. But that never arrived.
We thought the meal would get going once we got past the preamble of the Trio of Dim Sum (featuring room temperature siew mai and chee cheong fun) or the Peking Duck (which had pancakes which were too doughy and thick), but what we got were repeated hiccups that kept the food feeling atrophied and kept cutting down our expectations with each course.
Is this asking too much from a weekend dim sum brunch set? Just a punter-style meal for punters, so eat it and beat it? Maybe. But at the same time, is this a justification too far on our part? Yes, it is.
So we close this review feeling a bit let down, even at $50++ which is entirely reasonable for what we got. Despite flashes of skill, the meal did feel like it was queued up on the dish-out, dispensed on demand.
Based on the deftness of the flavours and the excellent service, we’ll be back, and if anything, this review should essentially encourage you to give Shisen Hanten a go, but avoid the set meals.