It’s always nice to pop into a new restaurant and recognise faces. It’s even nicer to pop into a cleverly reinvented old restaurant, and spot unexpected faces. Which could be why Chap Chay feels fresh, yet faintly familiar.
I’m at The Raintree Hotel on St. Mary’s Road, for a sneak peek into their new Asian restaurant. This used to be Lemon Grass, offering ‘Oriental food’ and an inexplicable Mongolian barbeque. After a couple of forgettable meals, my only brush with the restaurant in recent years was when I limped there from Havana (next door) and their maitre d’ chivalrously helped me plaster on a couple of band-aids. A particularly clumsy dance partner had just stepped heavily on my toe, in an ungainly attempt to do what he thought was the Lambada.
Both Havana and Lemon Grass have been closed for renovation for most of this year. Now they’re finally ready to welcome back customers with an all new look, and crew. Executive chef Jaideep Kanungoe emerges from the kitchen beaming hello, along with Peter Tseng, executive sous chef. Tseng was the chef behind The Park’s extremely successful Thai restaurant, Lotus. Kanungoe, also originally from The Park, moved to Tuscana, and then Kryptos. Both chefs are young, focussed and disciplined, with proven track records. Which bodes well for the restaurant. Flashy openings are relatively easy, but what makes a restaurant work is an ability to maintain consistency and stay imaginative.
Chap Chay aims to be a contemporary take on the most popular strains of Asian cooking — Chinese and Thai, without descending into chilli-chicken and green curry clichés. The focus is to create food that’s fresh, fast and healthy.
Our server Kim is all traffic-light red lipstick and smiles as she guides us through the menu. The staff, like the restaurant, are discreetly sassy, in keeping with its modern vibe. Instead of the heaviness of Oriental furnishing, there’s sleek furniture and a restrained décor. The centrepieces are the Chap Chay tables: Two heavy horizontal ingredient showcases set in front of the show kitchen.
Chap Chay means ‘mixed vegetables,’ implying a quick home-cooked meal. Inspired by this style of cooking, the chefs have created a format where customers choose vegetables from one table, meat from another, add noodles, and finally sauce. I pile my glossy bowl with snappy snow peas, crisp lotus root, broccoli, sprouts and a healthy helping of assorted green leafy vegetables. I add one of their 60 gm containers of lamb to my tray, feeling pleased with myself.
Vegetables and lean protein for lunch — I’m feeling so virtuous I’m considering asking for permission to wear a tinsel halo to the gym. Then Chef Tseng points out piles of glistening freshly-made noodles. Flavours change every day, he says, counting them off on his fingers. “Basil, tomato, garlic, onion, egg… In rice, vermicelli, whole wheat and soba noodles.” I take a squiggle of tomato noodles, and choose their ‘secret’ chap chay paste, before handing my tray over to the solemn Taiwanese chef.
In enviable synchronisation, he fires the wok, tumbles in an egg, and passes the vegetables to the Chinese chef, who swiftly blanches them in boiling water. As flames leap around the wok, he stirs in a dash of vegetable stock and sauce and hands me a warm fragrant bowl. It’s an intensely satisfying meal, with well balanced flavours and a riot of texture. My friend is less fortunate, her Thai basil sauce isn’t the best match for basil noodles, and the dish has a faintly astringent quality to it.
If you’re feeling indulgent, dip into the appetisers. We sample fish cakes redolent with lemon grass and caramelised pork spare ribs. Crisp lotus roots that taste of honey and wobbly spinach and corn stuffed dim sum with translucent skins. Dessert is a tasting platter featuring elegant green tea tiramisu, cool with mascarpone. Sticky black rice featuring a singly juicy litchee. And fried ice cream encrusted with crisp panko crumbs.
Remember, this is a pre-opening lunch, so the staff and chefs are on high alert, making slip-ups in food and service highly unlikely. However, this is undeniably a restaurant with potential. Potential that it will, hopefully, live up to. Because the next time someone squashes my toe in Havana, it would be nice to drown my sorrows in rich Vietnamese coffee and juicy nested shrimp.
Chap Chay opens in a week. For details call 2430 4050.