That's one way to beat the crazy-long waiting times at Hai Di Lao: dining at the most inopportune times, i.e. weekday afternoons, or any day after 12 midnight. Incidentally, afternoons from 12 noon up to 5pm is also the time allowed for reservations.
Price-wise, Hai Di Lao is a little on the upmarket end of steamboat restaurants, but as the saying, "you pay peanuts, you get monkeys" goes, uncompromising quality must be paid for. A sound logic to me...besides, I'd much rather pay top dollar for freshness than to find a rat in my food at a cheap(er) place.
The 313 Somerset branch is notably more sleek, albeit a tad utilitarian in design, than its Clarke Quay counterpart. Ask for the semi-circular booths. It's very New York-esque. Also, this branch feels much airier, by virtue of its significantly higher ceilings.
The Sichuan Spicy & Tomato Split Pot Soup Bases ($18) comprises 2 must-try flavours here. The Tomato, which Izzy was raving about, lived up to the hype. The chicken stock base was kicked up a notch with the sweet tang of tomatoes, but was light and watery enough to refrain from being too heavy or minestrone-like. The Sichuan Spicy, spiked with lashings of peppercorns, dried chillis, cloves and garlic, was tampered with thick fat leeks for a well-balanced broth that the spice-loving Hubs took to like fish to water.
These 2 flavours, in comparison to Tanyoto's versions, were a good 2 notches better. The Hubs didn't like Tanyoto's tomato soup one bit, but loved Hai Di Lao's rendition. Its delicate, savoury flavours (by virtue of its chicken stock base), and thin texture complemented just about every other ingredient dunked into it.
The Seafood and Mushroom Split Pot Soup Bases ($18) were both sweetened by red dates and wolfberries. The mushroom soup was earthy and wholesome, but I didn't think it made the must-try list. You can replicate its earthy flavours by ordering the mushroom platter and dunking the whole shebang into any other soup base. The seafood stock, enlivened by mussels, prawns and clams for an umami sweetness, rounded off my top-3 of soup bases at Hai Di Lao.
An absolute must-order, the Assorted Mashed Meatballs ($11 for half portion) is a mix of the handmade mashed shrimp paste, cuttlefish cake with spinach paste, handmade beef cake and handmade cuttlefish cake. Your assigned waitress/er will help you free-form the balls into the soup.
A variation of that is the Assortment of Meat Balls and Mashed Meat ($11 for half portion), with handmade mashed shrimp paste, cuttlefish cake with spinach paste, beef ball and fishball. I don't know how they made these so incredibly bouncy and juicy.
The Fishballs ($4 for half portion), a completely plebian ingredient, I know, but I liked it anyway!
The Black Pork ($8 for half portion) is the only pork worth ordering. Its exquisite marbling is sufficiently decadent to skip the (more sinful) pork belly.
The Sliced Chicken ($6 for half portion) was fresh, delicate and succulent.
A better option is the Cumin Chicken ($6 for half portion), which was an unexpected discovery. You wouldn't think to season chicken with cumin, but the combination of this with the tomato soup base was absolutely brilliant! It tastes like shashouka but given an Oriental twist with steamboat.
The Mushroom Platter ($9 for half portion) is perfect for the indecisive mushroom-lovers. You get a little bit of the beech, oyster, shitake, king oyster, shitake and enoki varietals.
We particularly like Shitake Mushrooms ($3 for half portion) so we got extras of that.
The must-try seafood, Cod Fillet ($7 for half portion) is flaky, swimmingly fresh and be careful to fish it out quickly. It cooks in under 10 seconds in boiling hot stock. You can see it curling up as soon as it touches the soup.
Another must-order is the Crispy Fish Skin ($4 for half portion). My favourite way to eat this is to dunk the crispy critter into the soup to steep in its flavours. It'll soften a little, but it'll retain a bit of a lovely crunch still if you ladle it out quickly.
The Deep-Fried Tofu ($3 for half portion) makes for a wonderful sponge for mopping up all the delicious broth.
The Fried Tofu Skin ($3 for half portion) is another wonderful soaking agent; it unravels into a silky ribbon when dunked into the boiling broth, mopping up the delicious soup in the process.
The Fresh Tofu ($3 for half portion) makes an excellent pairing with any of the soup bases with its clear clean flavour and baby-bottom smooth texture. Just be careful when dredging it out, it breaks apart easily.
Another regular of my steamboat orders, the Quail's Eggs ($3 for half portion) was perfectly soft-boiled, so make sure you get it out as soon as it heats through. It'll be hard-boiled otherwise.
I like Lettuce ($3 for half portion) because it stays crunchy and provides a refreshing counter-balance to the soup bases.
Complimentary Before-Meal Watermelon was instrumental in dousing the fire in our bellies.
Complimentary After-Meal Fruits
Hai Di Lao
313 Orchard Road
313 Somerset #04-23
Tel: 6835 7337
Open daily from 10am to 4am