Note: This is an invited tasting. Gratitude to the hosts and fellow tasters.
Note 2: Show this article to the staff at New Taste when you visit, and get a 15% discount off a la carte items! Promotional items not included; offer is valid until 30 November 2015.
Every now and then during our tasting, a beautiful sound emanates from the kitchen and fills the austere, homely surroundings at New Taste (新嘉飨), the sound that is one of the signatures of Chinese cuisine. It is the sound the stove makes as it is ramped up for a round of stir-frying – a continuous, steady roar, half lion, half thunder, promising plenty of wok hei. And there are dishes at our tasting which pack plenty of that energy and heat – as well as one that doesn’t, but turns out to be the high point of the evening.
But I’ll get to that later. New Taste, having opened in June, certainly stands out in its environs. Occupying two shophouses on the old side of MacPherson Road (the other side is mostly industrial buildings now) is partitioned into two sections, though the kitchen does serve both sides. On one side is steamboat buffet, with an option of three stocks and individual pots. But the key question is: why would you want to cook for yourself when you can have chef and owner Cao Yong cook for you?
For chef Cao, who is still in his mid-20s, has garnered impressive victories on the culinary competition scene, even if he is a little bashful to talk about it. Just earlier this year, after winning a series of local selections, he led a team to the World Championship Chef Shanghai competitions (where he was also the youngest member), taking the Singapore team to victory. Now, in this four-month-old restaurant, he has set out to create a Chinese cuisine with local characteristics, especially from the zi char tradition.
The starters waste no time in proclaiming this intention. Sliced pork belly with minced garlic, a classic Sichuan dish, has been made daintier and more moderate, emphasising the tender, chilled pork instead of garlicky sharpness. Smoked duck breast glistens with fat and goes down smoothly, while spring roll skins are wrapped around a potato and cream cheese mixture well-suited for dipping in his spicier, lighter rendition of sambal chilli, made daily in the premises.
The tofu with truffles is a simple enough concept, cubes of tofu fried until firm with an absorbent skin, then doused with a sauce rich in fungal flavours. I can go on about the crunch of the shimeji mushrooms, how the tofu has also been made in house and is a vibrant, yielding mouthful, but you know you’re really here for the truffle. So here it is – the sauce has been spiked with truffle oil, with its nose-filling whiff, but slices of the fresh stuff are laid delicately on the tofu cubes, for an altogether more complex (and less abrasive) rush. We are told with refreshing frankness that the pairing of truffles with tofu is made partly with an eye on the bottom line. Well, consider me a happy consumer, especially when the tofu somehow still shines through the veil of truffles.
Honey wings is a curious mix of styles and good, old-fashioned knife skills. The sauce, which has completely suffused the meat, is inspired by the much loved (or loathed) Marmite wings, though the stingingly salty black goo plays second fiddle to honey and the aroma of rice liquor. Deep fried, no doubt with that roaring stove, it boasts a bubbling crust packed with wok hei. The meat has been peeled from the bones for convenience, to ensure the meat is crisp all over, and no doubt to show off a little. Well, they’ve got it, so no harm flaunting it.
The highlight of the meal, though, is a mix of showing off and deep subtlety. Chef Cao, before striking out to open New Taste, was a hotel sous chef, and one of his signatures was porridge – specifically lobster porridge. Now with his own domain, he has substituted one crustacean for another to produce the crab porridge, which appears as a golden pond with a crimson claw sticking out before it is portioned.
In its broad strokes, gruel is the simplest of dishes, offering plenty of ways to zhuzh it up; the crab porridge here doesn’t miss any opportunity. Crab shell is boiled with pork bones to make the soup base, which is then given the golden tinge with pumpkin (barely discernible) and freshened up with ginger. To this the rice must have been added at a late stage, because the grains have been infused with the broth without leaking too much starch or losing its chewiness. At New Taste, Indonesian mud crab is used – the female we got has leaked much of its roe into the soup for another layer of richness, while the white flesh fills every nook and cranny. It’s stuff you need to crack and dig around in, but the sheer fullness of the crab – probably from being boiled, which doesn’t drain its juices like frying would – makes it worth the effort.
And at what price all this? I don’t normally talk about the cost of a meal, but New Taste, with its truffle slices and succulent crabs, somehow manages to do this with most mains below 20 bucks. The crab porridge, at time of writing, is selling at almost exactly 20. No doubt the location is one part of it, MacPherson not being exactly the hottest stretch of restaurant property for miles around.
But much of it is also excellent menu design and a great work ethic, considering the number of things they make in house, including a mild, almost flowery lemongrass jelly pudding. We are regaled with stories of the culinary competition process during the meal, where it turns out that all those TV cooking competitions come pretty close to the mark; you get a box of stuff and a time limit and work it out from there. In Chef Cao’s case, it turns out to be good training. And if the physical location of the restaurant seems intimidatingly remote (even though it isn’t really; Tai Seng MRT is about 8 minutes away, give or take), the potential position of New Taste – as a young, up-and-coming chef’s first venture into innovative Singaporean Chinese food – should not be underestimated. It’s worth getting your hands coated in crab aroma for.
476 MacPherson Road
Hours: Daily, 11.30am – 3pm, 6pm – 10pm