In recent months, there has been a renaissance of interest in dim sum across the island.
While established names like Crystal Jade and the Paradise Group of restaurants have been dutifully serving fresh tasting bite-sized treats, the spotlight on Chinese dim sum only really took off when Hong Kong’s Michelin starred restaurant Tim Ho Wan opened its first Singapore restaurant. This surge in popularity of this food trend has even prompted some debates about whether if this is a start of a “Singapore dim sum culture”. Exactly what constitutes a “dim sum culture”, I’m not sure, but there’s no denying that unlike the burrito and burger trend, this is one that’s not going to die out.
Anyone who’s hot on the trail of liu sha bao, Chinese dim sum’s new starlet, will surely find themselves at the door of Victor’s Kitchen. After all, 8 Days magazine food editor Rachel Chia staked her reputation on it, singling out this Bencoolen stand above all other classic dim sum heavyweights like media favorite Majestic restaurant. When the media hones in on the underdog, you can bet it’s going to attract quite a bit of attention, and it has. While it has a measly average of 60% approval ratings on sites like Yelp and HungryGoWhere, it’s raved by popular revered food sites like Daniel Food Diary, Seth Lui and Lady Iron Chef.
I’ve been clocking up restaurants serving this new darling of dim sum in the past few months, counting Swee Choon and Canton Paradise as some of my choice picks, so expectations for Victor’s Kitchen – which reportedly serves up the best – were high.
The restaurant’s interior is completely functional, completely utilitarian, almost makeshift in its setup, and it works. For visitors to Hong Kong, the salon almost recalls the complete lack of aesthetics which defines so many of the eateries in the alleyways of Mongkok and Tsim Sha Tsui. Singaporean diners however, might be put off by the Northeast Asian archetypal “eat-and-go” concept.
It has taken me several weeks to write about Victor’s Kitchen, in part because I suspect I came with very high expectations and left mostly disappointed. So, I wanted it to sit for a while, and write a more objective review.
Now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that while the liu sha bao wasn’t bad per se, I wasn’t blown away by it. The custard bun is all about contrast of flavors and textures – the push and pull of it all, using the savory to amplify the sweetness and the play on the varying textures of the bun and the custard itself.
Alas, the custard itself, unfortunately enough, doesn’t quite live up to its name. I’m not sure if it’s due to technique or a (rather unusual) trait that they’ve decided to adopt, but the custard isn’t as liquid as its contemporaries. In fact, it was almost completely separated into two: the sweetened salted egg yolk custard (staining the bun yellow beyond the bun chamber), and the fragrant savory melted butter which springs diners a burst of nasty surprise when bitten into.
I love dishes which incorporate alcohol as an ingredient…if it has got alcohol in it, I probably love it. It’s not that I’m an alcoholic or anything, but there are genuine properties in alcohol which seem to enhance flavors and tenderise meat in a manner that no other non-alcoholic marinade or ingredient can. The Steamed Chicken with Chinese Wine embodied my passion for alcohol-infused dishes, with the poultry absorbing the blinding flavor and intoxication of the rice wine while enhancing the flavor of the meat.
The Hong Kong style Pan Fried Cheong Fun was, in my opinion, a fun dish – attempting to reconcile the Singapore (Hokkien) and Hong Kong (Cantonese) iterations of this classic rice cake dish. The rice cakes are pan-fried if only to give it an added fragrant charred flavor. It’s then marinated in a plain soy sauce and served with two condiments by the side: a sweet sauce that recalls the local version, and an oily but delicious preserved turnip puree as a nod to the Cantonese variant. The thing that really clinched the deal for me was the combination of the micro bursts of savory dried shrimp in the rice cake, and pairing it with the salty preserved turnip puree. The layers of savory, and that gradual contrast was just mind-boggling and simply delicious.
While Victor’s Kitchen has several noteworthy dishes, it is let down completely by disastrous classics. The Siew Mai and Victor’s King Prawn Dumpling was straddling between borderline mediocre to downright offensive. Have you ever bought those ready-made dim sum at your local convenience store or petrol stations? Yes, I agree that their chicken buns are brilliant, but have you tried the siew mai and har kow? You can tell that they’re manufactured because they are clones of one another, not that it’s a definitive sign (Din Tai Fung and Paradise Dynasty’s xiao long baos are perfect but they’re completely handmade). The most telling of all are the fillings – the mash of minced pork and shrimp are so tightly squeezed that the whole thing just becomes an undiscernable square chunk of “something”. That’s the feeling, and impression I got from Victor’s Kitchen’s versions. The dumpling skins were lacking in moisture, and were far too thick.
As fancy as the name the char siew bao had – Rose Wine Char Siew Bun – it was less than satisfying, mostly due to the char siew. When you pry open the bun, it’s immediately obvious why they got this classic so far off. It had more sauce than char siew, and the sauce seemed a little diluted and bland.
I’m sure you can tell that I’m not very happy with Victor’s Kitchen, and I don’t think I’ll be coming back at all really.