The burgeoning Singapore dining scene continues to evolve at a mindboggling pace, indeed somewhat defying gravity, if not completely brushing aside all the global doom and gloom as if the financial crisis did not even exist.
Population growth and immigration is now a hot potato in Singapore with a ‘White Paper’ in circulation forecasting around 6.9 million people by 2050 (actually 6m by 2030) however, the worst kept secret is that ultimately Singapore will grow to a megacity more likely to have around 10 million GDP obsessed people.
The reality–on the ground now–is there are few cities or more accurately metropolis’s in the world that have recently seen such a frenzied growth of new restaurants within a short period of time than Singapore and the culinary landscape has changed so much with a few years it almost impossible to keep up with the new openings, and closings for that matter.
I read somewhere something like 629 new licensed outlets opened in the space of a year, at the same time 524 closed! This Merry-Go-Round of ambitious restaurateurs and dreamers (amateurs) is bordering on the ridiculous and yet some say it is just keeping pace with the population boom and who knows when the music will stop.
Other hospitality industry Intel is that Michelin-stared chefs and restaurant groups from Europe (Italy, France, Spain etc) are piling in to Singapore because they are struggling so much back in moribund Europe; with such a bleak outlook in the EU and conversely euphoric growth here, the deluge of new operators shows no signs of letting up.
Thus, we have become so spoiled for choice in Singapore with two or three new restaurants opening every day the diner is fast-reaching saturation point with a worrying sense of complacency; that is I sense most are oblivious to the issues of oversupply and stress on human resources that will eventually see the bubble burst.
The two integrated Resorts (AKA Casinos) are throwing everything but the roulette table at ‘it’ to attract consumers and dominate the dining scene, and Sentosa Island has seen so much new development the Singapore ‘mainlanders’ are now holidaying for a week there just to get around it!
It is surprising though, with all this influx of new concepts, European Haut Cuisine and a plethora of new establishments I am largely unimpressed with most of it and all I see is a deterioration of service standards (and that’s going from a base of pedestrian), a dilution of restaurant sustainability and the cost of dining out escalating to an absurdly high level, to the point where it is more expensive to dine out (and live) in Singapore than London.
So, there you have it, my take on the current Singapore dining scene. However with all this new restaurant activity it does bring up the much asked question, what is the ‘Best’ restaurant in Singapore–at present? That is with the assumption we are talking about restaurants proper–not street food or local eateries–and whilst it could include less formal (casual) restaurants, realistically it’s going to be aimed at the higher end although not necessarily confined just to ‘fine dining’.
Whatever the choice or accolade, it is always going to be highly subjective and I am sure my “Best Restaurant in Singapore” will meet with a degree of criticism or disagreement however, I think it is important to understand my criteria which includes a conducive user-friendliness and affordability, but for the most part my paradigm is showcasing Singapore to overseas visitors and that means a more local flavour, as in Asian; I don’t see the value in taking someone from say Italy to an Italian restaurant here–capice.
Jade Palace Seafood Restaurant in the basement of The Forum Mall not only meets my needs for entertaining overseas guests with a cuisine that truly symbolises Singapore, it also serves as my ‘regular’ restaurant; a place where I want to dine without hesitation and know I can expect genuine Cantonese cuisine and unwavering service.
Even more importantly, it is overall very affordable and in terms of the quality of the produce, actually its outstanding value moreover, the extensive wine list is not only one of the best cellars in Singapore, the wines are priced practically at retail. And if that’s not user-friendly enough for you, there is no corkage charge for BYO and you still get to drink out of proper glassware and enjoy excellent wine service–extraordinary really, in a town where people are slugged $50 even $100 per bottle corkage.
Another box that Jade Palace ticks for me, it is an individual, family owned and run restaurant; almost becoming a rare thing in a commercial restaurant-group dominated environment. The most visible of the proprietors, Mr HO Kin Fung, your host and steers the front of house with an indefatigable precision and assuring sense of calm in what can appear at times to be a totally chaotic restaurant and for the uninitiated, observing animated discussions (or what would appear to almost be an argument) over the menu and what is fresh, this is all part of the Cantonese sociocultural vernacular.
And don’t try to impress by breaking out in your best Mandarin either as the first language here is Cantonese, and not only because Mr HO is originally from Hong Kong but you will find the old guard of Singapore still speak Cantonese and sometimes Teochew as these are the main dialects of the immigrants that come out from mainland China to Malaysia and subsequently Singapore.
Moving around the dining room with repose yet the authority of a Sergeant-Major, Mr HO offers advice on specials of the day, at times giving a nodding assurance to a table as the Uncle who looks after the live seafood parades a vigorously wriggling fresh fish or lobster straight out of the tanks; or sipping a wine with eyebrows raised in agreement with those who offer him a glass from the wines they have brought in and there are many serious bottles drunk here and everyone wants Mr HO to have a taste, which he happily obliges. All the while he’s scanning the room constantly and motioning/commanding the suited service captains and an army of waiters.
For all the complaints about poor, impersonal service in Singapore (ok much of it warranted) there is no such issues here; indeed I can’t recall ever having a bad experience at Jade Palace and I must have been here 100 times or more over the last seven years.
I should qualify this in pointing out the service might not be entirely to the catholic western expectations and one should not expect to engage waiters in deep conversation (Mr HO takes care of this) or expect them to be totally in tune with your (western) way of dining. The captains will attend to you and ensure everything progresses along to the best of their ability and the waiters go about their work diligently, but please do not be frustrated with the staff because of your lack of Cantonese or Mandarin.
One also needs to bear in mind, this is an extremely busy restaurant, indeed it’s an amazing sight to see, on a Friday evening, with hoards of well-heeled (read wealthy) Indonesians, Malaysian, Thai’s and Burmese having descended on Singapore for a weekend of eating and shopping. Between the tourists and the local regulars, it’s a feeding frenzy with the tanks of live fish and seafood–their speciality– emptied by the end of the night.
Predictably, I rarely see many Caucasians (western Expats) in Jade Palace and I can’t help thinking that many Expats are intimidated by the language gap and perhaps the ubiquitous massive Cantonese menu that can be somewhat confusing if you are not familiar with Chinese cuisine. I also sense that the no fuss style of service in Cantonese restaurants (which can indeed be brutal when you’re in Hong Kong) is misinterpreted for rude or bad service; but really, it’s more a question of one assimilating rather than your expectations.
You should not worry too much about such issues at Jade Palace, as everyone speaks English perfectly well enough to get you through the menu, and anyway Mr HO will be summonsed for his eloquent and expert advice.
Obviously fresh seafood is the speciality here although there is much more to the menu and depth of repertoire of Chef HO Kin Yan, brother of Mr HO Kin Fung, who is rarely seen outside of the kitchen being way too busy behind the woks. I personally enjoy their Claypot Rice dishes, in particular with chicken, lap cheong (Chinese sauage) and yun cheong (Chinese sausage made with liver), a rather hearty dish that goes well with a soft red wine towards the end of a meal.
Another favourite is deep-fried frog legs and young ginger, which I like to have served as a starter and pair with an Austrian Gruner Veltliner, the peppery-spiciness in the wine picking up brilliantly on the slices of deep-fried ginger (a wonderful, palate-teasing flavour on its own) and the tangy freshness balancing the deep-fried-batter oiliness. Similarly, prawns or squid fried in garlic, salt and chilli is a good way to start and open up the palate.
You should always check with Mr Ho what fresh, live seafood has come in; it might be enormous oysters from the icy-depths of Norway that are brilliant poached in soybean sauce and spring onions; or razor clams bathed in garlic. Another favourite of mine is Boston Lobster with fresh ginger and spring onions–you will be amazed at how much the best spring onions can heighten the flavour of lobster–and served with a White Burgundy or good new world chardonnay, something like Kumeu River Chardonnay from New Zealand, is a sublime combination.
Whole steamed fish is the paramount dish here and you need to have a discussion with Mr HO on what type of fish or sauce is appropriate to your needs, and I say needs in the sense that both size of your group and how much you want to indulge (or impress) is vital; piping fresh, live fish having a certain cost factor. Equally, the famous Singaporean Chilli or Black Pepper Crab is well-executed here and a bit of a must-have if your entertaining overseas visitors.
I should interject at this stage and say that dining at Jade Palace, or any Cantonese restaurant for that matter, is best suited to groups of 6 to 8 or 10 people where you can order banquet style with many different dishes communally shared, to take full advantage of the kitchens seemingly endless repertoire. That is not to say, dining as couples does not work, but clearly you get to explore more flavours and textures when there are more people and some of the best meals I have experienced at Jade Palace have been with our wine drinking groups and an endless procession of dishes incorporating fish, seafood, chicken, duck, pig, lamb, beef and just about every know part of the food chain.
The Chinese roast lacquered duck is excellent here, so are roast chicken dishes and the char siew and crisp-roasted pork belly or whole roasted baby pig as good as you can get, indeed all their BBQ meats and poultry are of the highest quality. There are always other meat and poultry specials too, often of a more western nature; it could be Wagyu beef from Australia or Lamb racks from New Zealand, sometimes quail or pigeon from France, or a Kurobuta pork from Japan. There’s even a whole leg of Jamón ibérico wheeled around and carved at the table, this superior Spanish ham something the Chinese have really taken I liking to.
Many people come to Jade Palace purely for Dim Sum and although not their absolute strength, they do it perfectly well with many of the popular standards and most regulars actually add in other dishes from the extensive list of excellent rice porridges (congee), soups, char siew sou (barbecued pork meat pastry) or anything you want really; Dim Sum is just the starting point.
Vegetarians are also well looked after here, very much part of the Teochew culture which is well recognised for its healthy cuisine. One of my vegetarian favourites is grilled baby bamboo shoots which have a wonderful crunchy texture and smoky flavour and could well be something that westerners should catch on to, catering for vegetarians friends at that ubiquitous carnivorous BBQ.
The restaurant is located in the basement of The Forum Mall, just next to the Hilton on Orchard Road. There is convenient basement level 2 & 3 car parking although this does fill up quickly on the weekends during the day with a lot of high-end designer shops in both these buildings.
They are open every day from 11 to 3pm for lunch, 6 to 11pm for dinner, which means you can come with the kids early and be done by 7.00pm easily–how good is that–and there is so much on the menu that suits children’s tastes. Indeed, ‘family’ dining is what underpins this restaurant and the Cantonese and Teochew culture; it is the family gathering around the table sharing in a big banquet feast that is the essence of Chinese life, and Singaporeans eat a lot–frequently!
Catering to this communal dining, the restaurant has a number of private rooms and can also section off areas for private functions, from 20 upwards to 60 people; there is nothing more impressive and conducive to conversation than a large round table that can seat up to 12 people. Whilst they take walk-ins, especially early and later in the evening, and are experts at juggling tables, I would suggest you always make a reservation to avoid disappointment; it’s a busy place.
In summary, Jade Palace Seafood Restaurant is Singapore’s most user-friendly restaurant with consistently excellent food and service with commendable affordability for both food and wine. The locals know it, the tourists know it, but ironically the people who moan the most about their not being enough mid-range dining in Singapore, the Expats, don’t know it.
It has been established 15 years now and deserves every bit of recognition it has from its loyal clientele, but it deserves much more recognition than the ‘Johnny come lately’ restaurants that the press and unknowing diners are presently preoccupied with.
Jade Palate Seafood Restaurant is my “Best Restaurant in Singapore” and my favourite local. And whilst you can bring your own wine here without paying any corkage, unless I am with a wine group, I generally prefer to buy off Mr HO’s excellent wine list as many of the wines are priced below retail anyway. Although I must have a word with him about the lack of New Zealand Pinot Noir in his cellar.
For further reading on the Singapore dining scene, click here for the Wandering Palate’s “The Best of Singapore – An Ang Mo’s View”. Please note that this article reflects the scene as it was around 2 years ago and will be updated soon.