They do pay attention to their looks at Hong Tai Yang, but it’s the aroma that catches you. It’s complex – little tendrils of something greasy, aquatic, are mixed with the spicy-salty smell that clings to every place that sells (or proclaims to sell) Chongqing hotpot or Sichuan food. It’s vague, wispy, but there, even when we are the only ones in for dinner this early. And the smell is key. Their English name may say ‘theme restaurant’, but the theme is not for the eyes.
Before we go on, I’ll just say this – if you are quite health-conscious, you should probably look away now. Selegie Road has plenty to please the palate of any who seeks to eat healthily, but Hong Tai Yang cleaves to principles that have animated Sichuanese cuisine – principles like ‘more oil never spoiled a dish’, which a friend told me once while teaching me how to make the alluring, complex fish-fragrance (魚香) sauce of her homeland. In Sichuan, ‘healthy’ means they managed to pick out enough Sichuan peppercorns so the finished dish doesn’t physically hurt your mouth. Still with me? Good.
The menu here is actually quite long, but half of it is devoted to the ‘theme’ of grilled fish. You choose from two sizes, medium or large, and three kinds of fish, seabass, catfish or patin (which is also a catfish, but never mind), and a sauce. The friendly server is anxious to point out the spice levels of the eight different sauces, from the Mala Temptation (‘big spice’) to the fish-fragrance (‘just small spice’). Then it comes to you on a metal tray over a warmer.
The rest of the menu, meanwhile, is on a walking tour of China, mainly the north. One example of this is the pot of Chinese sauerkraut – made from Napa cabbage, like kimchi, and unlike the German variety – and sliced belly pork. With the fermented tang of the cabbages dominating, there’s little need for seasoning to make a bold soup, but there’s plenty of seasoning anyway, including dried chillis whose heat lingers round the fringes and ends of each mouthful.
There is an option to have a single fish two ways, so we do that and get half a fish bathed in ‘salt and pepper’ and the other in fish-fragrance. The first flavour, despite its name, is not actually very peppery or too salty (not by Chinese restaurant standards, anyway). Rather it is the liberal helping of white onions and their sweetness and crunch that dominates, along with the Sichuan peppercorns which lie in ambush and appear as a burst of high citrus, followed by buzzing numbness. Incidentally, it turns out the citrus flavour is not a random fluke; the Sichuan pepper plants come from the same family as the citrus fruits, and the seeds do contain compounds like limonene, which smells like, well, take a guess.
Between the two, though, I prefer the spicier fish-fragrance (鱼香) sauce. This is one of the Sichuanese classics too, an odd mix of umami from doubanjiang, deep sweetness and chilli that is more frequently seen with eggplants or pork (where it really imparts a sort of seafood-like flavour). It is also possible that its assertiveness can mask the muddy taste of the freshwater fish that landlocked Sichuan eats. But here, even when paired with a sea fish, it still works its magic. And there is some skill in the grilling of the sea bass too; heat has coaxed the fats from the fish, a mild fragrance that nonetheless stands out even with the heavy sauce.
It’s all good, it is, but for some reason I didn’t really find a standout at Hong Tai Yang. I suspect the fault is my own, for not really exploring the restaurant’s ‘theme’ and its full potential. But the concept of the place is itself disjointed. See, the fish is actually supposed to be more than a dish in a meal, but pretty much the meal itself, in the vein of other places like Chicken Pot. You have the option to add all sorts of stuff in with the fish, from vegetables to luncheon meat. We don’t get any of it, but the fish is still substantial enough for both of us.
But if that’s the theme, then why the remainder of the menu, which is mostly rather standard (if well executed) Chinese fare? The staff, while polite and smiling, have clearly been trained to direct customers to the fish. And it’s a mean grilled fish, made by someone who clearly knows and cares. In my opinion Hong Tai Yang would do well to focus on what it does well, and you would do well to go there. Do bring more friends – it’s likely to be quite a hearty affair.
Hong Tai Yang Theme Restaurant
1 Sophia Road
Peace Centre, #01-08 (map)
Hours: Daily, 11.30am – 4am