Canton Paradise, I12 Katong

Ever since I returned from Tokyo, I’ve been making it a point to attend at least one event from each of the PR agencies and brand managers whom I’ve become well acquainted with (or at least, I thought, I was well acquainted with) – I call it my unofficial “farewell” tour. In these volatile times, you have to. Could I even make it till next Friday? No one knows. My first ever event was hosted by Sixth Sense PR at the Fullerton Boathouse for a vegetable luncheon. It’s only fitting that my last event (out of pure coincidence since I was to miss the next day’s event) be hosted by Sixth Sense as well.

I was genuinely raged that Keidi had once again, failed to show up for the event, and I could hardly be blamed. I had to personally vouch for her, convincing the brands and agencies and all, and again and again, she disappointed me with her presence, or rather, lack of. Then again, this wasn’t her first time, so… on with the show.

Canton Paradise is Singapore-based Chinese restaurant chain’s attempt at covering the well-loved and well-known sub-division of Chinese cuisine that’s often mistaken as encompassing all of Chinese food. It might be hard to believe, but Cantonese cuisine doesn’t actually come from Hong Kong. It is actually from Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, romanticized from the similarly spelled word meaning Guangzhou in Portuguese. To be more precise, Shunde, once a distance away from Guangzhou but has now been absorbed into Foshan; which is in itself, being absorbed into Guangzhou as either expands, is generally considered to be the birthplace of Cantonese cuisine. You need to keep this in mind, because Hong Kong has done a pretty successful job in adding in its own flavor and mixed heritage and culture into Cantonese cuisine, and presenting as its own. If you’re not aware, you may wonder why things aren’t served the way you know them to be. To lessen the culture shock, Paradise Group, and its keen sense of innovation and reinvention, has made certain dishes more palatable and welcomed by local Singaporeans yet still retaining the original essence. Yes, that means no dogs orother “exotic” meats here.

The owners of Paradise group (I’ve decided) have a somewhat overbearing obsession of Sichuan cuisine, so as with EVERY Paradise restaurant, expect to see a small but substantial range of Sichuan dishes at Canton Paradise, which I suppose is very important. After all, Singapore companies, encouraged by China’s “go West” policy, have been heavily investing in western China, as well as force-feeding western Chinese, particularly those living in Chengdu and Chongqing, the delights of Singapore cuisine.

This is what would happen if a Char Siew Pau, RotiBoy and a BoLuo Bun had a three-way, and gave birth – this would be it. This leap of innovation is surprisingly good. This leap of innovation and creativity is a surprisingly good combination, and some diners will enjoy that it’s not as filling or “heavy” as the original, which ironically, may be the reason why others might not like it.

These are allegedly, Australian kampong chicken. Kampong chicken are more or less regarded as healthier choices because they’re organic animals that roam around the farm, allegedly. The truth is, allowing chicken to basically run amok is a stressful undertaking, so farms these days, are “cheating” by factory-raising these species of chicken instead, and branding them as “kampong chicken”. I don’t know if these Australians are really organic or not, but they taste really good, and have a very strong poultry aroma that is rarely had in Singapore. Unlike Singapore, Hong Kong or Shanghai, the steamed chicken is not served with garlic chili or scallion-ginger oil or soya sauce. It is however, served with a sauce tray full of concentrated chicken stock, which is really tasty if you have it with rice or congee.

Personally, I’ve always preferred Cantonese-style cheong-fun (it’s essentially flattened rice flour usually wrapping a savoury meat and drenched in a soy sauce-esque sauce.) than the Hokkien ranges (same, but instead of a savory sauce, it uses a sweet sauce, and there’s an overdose of sesame). This dish blends both Singapore and Cantonese cuisine to form something magical – “chai po” or preserved turnip from Chwee Kway (rice cakes) generously stuffed in the cheong-fun. Just absolutely wonderful. If you love your chwee kway and love yur chai po, this is something you’ve gotta try.

Char Siew, in the flesh. Again, I prefer Cantonese roast to Singapore roast (yes, Singapore Chinese been separated from China long enough to spin off Chinese cuisine) because the latter’s often too dry, tasteless and difficult on the gums too – it’s less refined, and more crude, let’s put it that way. Minus the Asian-style BBQ sauce, the pork belly has a consistency that’s on par with the land of the rising sun! And that’s a compliment.

People in Singapore shriek whenever they see some semblance of pure fat such as this dish above. Yet, they complain that food here is getting blander and blander, not knowing that fat is an essential part in cooking. “Lard” isn’t bad, it’s only bad when you take it in excess, just like every single thing you do. This is a tad caramelized, which seals in the flavors, and gives it a very nice and attractive glaze. Like a hard candy with a surprise centre, you’re gonna find yourself unlocking the richness of it – the punch, if you will. You’ll probably not want to eat it on its own beyond the first piece, and like your own spice regulator, you can have it with rice or congee, or popping it in as you eat other “blander” dishes.

Cantonese cuisine, in its essence, is very simple cooking, since spices are hardly used, and when used, are merely for decorative purposes only. This dish, Spring Water Tofu with Lingzhi exemplifies the cuisine, completely. It’s hard to describe this dish – it’s comfort food, simple and hearty, yet extremely satisfying. Having said that, I may be biased because I lurve tofu.

Remember I mentioned about Sichuan dishes? (Points) Face-to-face, this looks like the soup of death – looking extremely potent complete with the recognizable Sichuan chilies and peppercorns. Before you turn away, I was informed that the chefs have toned this down quite a tad, and it’s actually more fish stock than chillies and peppercorns, the latter two of which were not given a real chance to permeate its spices into the soup. Having said that, these chilies are real potent, and while great effort’s been taken to reduce the spice level for Singaporeans, do approach this with caution.

Having tried it, I’ve to agree. The spice level’s been toned down, and you won’t need anything beyond three sips of water or tea before the spices are diffused. The peppecorns however, provides a numbing sensation, and with its generous portion in the soup, can get pretty long-lasting. So, you wanna make sure your next dish isn’t something too bland, or you won’t taste a thing.

I simply can’t comment on this simply because the numbing sensation from the previous dish had convinced me that this dish, thinly sliced Pork Belly with Salted Fish was actually Sliced Beef in Black Pepper Sauce.

Beansprouts with vemicelli. This didn’t work out as well as I thought it’d be, simply because it had an overwhelming wok-burnt taste which I felt, was not in good taste.

Paradise, put sesame paste instead of custard in this, and you’re all set to go.

Now, the real conclusion. Canton Paradise is Paradise group’s first real answer to the highly popular mid-ranged Crystal Jade Kitchen. The food’s faultless. Paradise tends to innovate, recreate and reinvent – sometimes it works, but sometimes, I just wish they’d do things old-school not because I like it old-school, but because I know they can do old-school to perfection, and I wanna taste that. The service staff, I notice, are not as refined nor intuitive nor as friendly as their competitors. Service staff in Chinese restaurants need to have an attitude of a butler – resourceful, intuitive, and omnipresent but never meaning to intrude. I can understand they want to keep themselves somewhat exclusive, and kinda have to, because their decor is too extravagant to be replicated on a large scale, but if that’s the route they’ve gone, quality, location and visibility is very important.

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