Flavors at Zhongshan Park serves primarily Peranakan cuisine, with a smattering of western cuisine like fish & chips, to cater to the international tastebuds of hotel guests. I vocalized my wonderment at the restaurant's very "cheena-pok" name, and got a brief history lesson from one of my fellow reviewers and the hotel staff. Apparently, the area where the hotel is standing at is called Zhongshan Park, named after the grandfather of the Chinese revolution, Sun Zhong Shan (or more widely known as Sun Yat Sen, his dialect name), who'd stayed in Singapore briefly while raising funds for his revolutionary efforts. The house that Mr Sun stayed in is still standing, and has been preserved into a museum of sorts, and the hotel is right smack beside it. Hah, bet you didn't know this little titbit of local history either, did you?
As per S.O.P., the Hubs and I dropped by the restaurant for a revisit when we went down to Balestier to shop for lighting. While walking the entire stretch of Balestier Road (we got a really good cardio workout hunting for a very specific lamp: the modern interpretation of the Banker's Lamp), we realized that this historically seedy place is slowly but surely being revitalized. The Ramada Hotel, Days Hotel, Ibis Hotel and adjoining mall and Chinese garden-ish park, with their family-friendly retail and F&B options, has made Balestier Road more than just charge-by-the-hour-for-romps budget hotels and lighting and bathroom hardware shops.
Having tried the food at the tasting and at the revisit, I have to say that I'm really liking the Peranakan fare here. The Hubs, who's half-Baba as well, gave this restaurant his stamp of approval. The price points here are, admittedly, a little steep, BUT, considering the premium ingredients that go into the dishes (the more luxurious cut of beef cheek is used here in the rendang), a meal here is reasonably value-for-money. My take is that this place would make for a fairly elegant dining with large groups of friends or business associates that won't break the entertainment expense account.
We also enjoyed the service here. It may be due to the fact that the restaurant was barely occupied during the revisit, but the waiters were so sincere and attentive and genuine that one can't help but appreciate them.
At the invited tasting, we kicked things off with the Kueh Pie Tie, sweet turnip braised with pork belly and topped with par-boiled prawns in a pastry cup, and a chicken rice-styled sambal served alongside. This was really quite addictive and awesome.
At the revisit, this starter ($14.90) was very well received. The cups of juicy radish, made incredibly flavoursome with sinfully fatty pork belly, were devoured in seconds. This is probably the most memorable rendition of this Nonya appetizer ever.
The Pork & Cucumber Salad, was a slow-cooked pork confit tossed with fried and raw shallots and cucumber strips. At the tasting, the dipping sauce of chinchalok (fermented baby shrimps) and half a lime were served on the side, so we could moderate how much of each we added to the salad. I actually thought the salad was good enough on its own without the need for the salty pungency of chinchalok. That said, a fork-dipped bit of sambal was brilliant in grounding the refreshingly clear salad with a fragrant spiciness.
At the revisit, the chinchalok was tossed in together with the salad ($14.90). Even though I'm not a fan of chinchalok (its pungency will linger in your breath for a long looooooong time after), the flavours melded pretty well. The raw shallots lent a sharp bite to the salty chinchalok-dressed pork while the cucumbers provided a crisp balance.
At the tasting, the Nonya Itik Tim dumped chunks of roasted duck into a soup with sour plum, pickled mustard green and tomatoes, resulting in a weak but overtly salty soup base lacking in depth of flavour.
At the revisit, I was glad that the chef had taken on board our feedback at the tasting, and properly simmered duck meat and bones into the soup ($20.90). I could taste the duck essence this time, but there was still room for improvement. The duck bones could be simmered for another hour or so for a richer, more well-rounded base.
The Ayam Buah Keluak, braised chicken with keluak nuts, was pretty good as well. The gravy was thick and rich, with a roasted nutty accent and a slight hint of tanginess, while the chicken was moist and tender.
At the revisit, although the hue of the gravy was noticeably lighter and the consistency thinner, the gravy was, nonetheless, rich and full-bodied. We thought the chicken was very well marinated and pleasantly fork-tender. ($26.90)
The Beef Rendang, beef cheek braised in a rich spice paste and then simmered in coconut milk with lemongrass and tamarind waters, is a must-try here. Because beef cheek is used here, the meat was plastic-fork-tender.
At the revisit, the beef rendang ($24.90) was less oily, which was great, but had a less toasty, nutty flavour. The beef was still awesome though, and I maintain, an absolute must-try. The beef was braised so thoroughly that it totally melted in my mouth. Lipsmackingly good, I say.
The Chilli King Prawns 'Singapore Style', 2 gargantuan prawns, heads on but shells off, bathed in a sweetish tomato, chilli and egg-drop gravy should not be missed out on. This is the prawn version of our locally beloved chilli crab.
At the revisit, the King Prawns ($22.90) were as delicious as ever. These were perfectly cooked, meaty and fresh. The gravy, a little sweet-ish and tangy from a liberal hand with the tomato ketchup, was deceptively spicy. We found ourselves sniffling a fair bit thereafter. Needless to say, the Hubs wiped the luscious gravy clean off.
The Stir-fried Slipper Lobster, in a lightly spiced black bean paste with bell peppers and sweet onions, was quite a hit as well.
At the revisit, the crayfish ($26.90) was perfectly cooked through, retaining its moisture and softness with nary a hint of rubbery texture. We loved how the spiced black bean paste complemented the delicate seafresh taste of the crayfish.
For dessert, we had the Durian Pengat with Pandan Jelly with gula melaka ($16.90) at the tasting, but were way too stuffed to try this at the revisit. In any case, I'm not a fan of durian so I'm like the worst person to judge this. That said, the pengat was very smooth, and the pandan jelly was a nice contrast to the rich durian. Note that the gula melaka needed to be manually folded into the durian though, it'd settled all the way to the bottom so some parts were lacking in sweetness but when we got to the bottom of the martini glass, it was a sugar overload.
We also sampled a deconstructed version of their Chendol ($12.90), and this was quite disappointing. There wasn't enough gula melaka, and the green jelly bits were frozen solid when they should have been slippery soft.
The cocktails here are quite something, and the resident mixologist fuses the east with the west admirably. The cocktail with cucumber and mint, virgin of course because I don't drink and drive, was a refreshing, crisp balance to the rich gravies of the Nonya fare.
Another cocktail which caught our eye was the one with curry leaves, 7-Up, vodka, lemon and ginger ale. This Indian-influenced drink is like a watered version of the muruku. Awesome.
As usual, to avoid falling into the food coma, I finished off dinner with a Latte, rich and creamy and frothy. Just the way I like it.
Many thanks to InSing and HungryGoWhere for the invite and Norman, Rae and Stephanie of Ramada Hotel for hosting the tasting.
Flavours at Zhongshan Park
Ramada Singapore Hotel
16 Ah Hood Road
Tel: 6808 6846
Opening hours: weekdays from 6am to 10.30am for breakfast; 12noon to 2.30pm for lunch; 6pm to 10.30pm for dinner
weekends from 6am to 10.30am for breakfast; 12noon to 3pm for lunch; 6pm to 11pm for dinner