[UPDATE: This restaurant closed end March 2010, which is a pity!]
Chinese cuisine is incredibly varied, thanks to its wide geography and subcultures. However, the majority of Chinese restaurants in Singapore is of the Cantonese variety. So when we see a new Chinese restaurant popping up, it's hard to get excited...unless it's offering something really quite different.
Enter "Duo Le" at Orchard Central, the first Shaanxi fine-dining restaurant to set up locally. Talk about exotic (for me, anyway). Before this, I could not even point to where Shaanxi was on China's map. Somewhere vaguely in the middle, was all I knew.
Shaanxi (陕西) province is not to be confused with neighbouring Shanxi (山西). Shaanxi is where you will find historical Xi'An, which is its capital city and home to the famous Qin Dynasty terracotta warriors. Not surprisingly, Shaanxi cuisine is also called Qin cuisine. With such rich history spanning various dynasties, Shaanxi cooking offers diverse tastes with styles adapted from many ancient styles.
A Shaanxi meal often comprises several cold dishes followed by hot dishes (Duo Le's menu is largely divided into cold and hot dishes). We learned from owner Eric Yang that folks in Shaanxi like to take their time savouring their food, and it's not unusual to see dinner stretching into three hours. That is the life!
I liked many items from the cold selections. The walnut kernels with black fungus are refreshing. These pristine white-fleshed walnuts are specially imported from Shaanxi. The dressing is gently salty, spicy, sweet and sour - it energises all your tastebuds at once.
Pork is the most common meat used in Shaanxi cuisine. This is Duo Le's secret recipe pig's knuckle, which is served cold and resembles a terrine.
I'm not sure if this is Shaanxi in nature, but Duo Le does some amazing tricks with vegetables. Here's fresh celery with homemade seasoning. I don't know how they cured it, but the celery is completely rid of its obnoxiously fibrous and vegetal quality. It's crisp, refreshing and tastes like celery should!
Noodles also feature more than rice in this Northwestern province. I read that Shaanxi noodles are typically wider, longer and thicker than their Beijing counterparts. You can also add "chewier". These handmade noodles have a certain QQ quality, thanks to a unique noodle-making method. Shaanxi natives like Eric are especially particular about the texture of these noodles.
Shaanxi cuisine leans more towards the strong and savoury - salt, garlic, onions, chillies and vinegar dominate. And because Shaanxi is situated between Shanxi and Sichuan, there are natural influences from both regions (sour and spicy respectively).
This dish above of boiled sliced chicken and cucumber with homemade chili oil is similar to the Sichuan version. It's served cold, and is quite good.
The hot dishes continued with "Dry scallop stew with winter melon". Winter melon always has this homely taste to it. The warm and soft flesh is comforting and clean-tasting, but best taken with a dollop of scallop for flavour.
Now this is an unusual and possibly modern invention. We were asked to guess what it was, and no one got it. Seafood mashed potatoes. It certainly isn't anything like the Western mashed potatoes. This was much more dense and gummy. The seafood broth was nice though.
"Sichuan chili oil and dried chili with sliced fish" is similar to Sichuan's "Shui Zu Yu" or "water-boiled fish". Oh, it looks deadly but it's not as fiery as it looks. Still, your tongue will tingle after a while as the heat sets in.
Sorry for the grainy photo, but this and the ones below were taken with an iPhone. My DSLR camera ran out of juice at this point in time (utterly unthinkable and unforgiveable!). But I must show you the rest of the dishes!
We were also asked to take a gander at what this dish was. Can you guess by looking at it? This one I recognised the minute I popped it into my mouth. It's what the Japanese call "nankotsu" or the cartilage in the chicken breastbone - one of my favourite items. The "special flavour chicken gristle" was well-seasoned and crunchy with moist bits of chicken flesh. This was better than popcorn chicken.
Eric says they try to keep cuisine at Duo Le as authentic as possible, with minimal adjustments to suit local palates (less oil and salt). Duo Le does also borrow a little from Cantonese cuisine for some dishes, so those who are not used to Shaanxi cuisine can take comfort in something familiar. What they do not compromise on is freshness and quality. Each dish is prepared a la minute (even the chopping of ingredients), so there's some waiting time involved.
For example, the "Special Shaanxi marinated meat in baked pancake" above. These signature snacks are each prepared and baked only upon order, so you'll need to wait for about 20 minutes. The buns are soft yet flaky, a good canvas for the strong-flavoured meat. Incidentally, the buns are baked separately and the meat is stuffed inside only afterwards. Normally the bun is sliced horizontally but here it's halved in the centre.
There is another version which tends to be more popular with women - spicy tenderloin, served with pancakes. Maybe it's the vegetables. I can't decide which one I prefer. One's hearty and meaty, the other is spicy and crunchy.
Deep-fried prawn wrapped with homemade sauce and potatoes. Where are the potatoes? Try looking again. They're the finely shredded bits coating the prawns. Tiniest fries ever! And these are all hand-sliced! Amazing knife skills! Plus the chefs get to slicing the potatoes only upon order. There is no pre-prepared pile of potato filigree in the kitchen.
There's a touch of cheese in the special sauce the prawns are marinated in. This dish was unanimously the crowd favourite. We wanted a second helping but did not order it quick enough. It got sold out! Oh, he who hesitates...
We rounded off the evening with fresh fruits and little bowls of Chinese red dates. These are incredibly fragrant and sweet, almost ambrosial. Red dates are also believed to be good for promoting blood circulation. Eric says if you eat these regularly, you will have rosy cheeks!
I learnt a lot from this dinner and am charmed by the restaurant's name. "Duo Le" translates to mean "much joy/happiness", which is aptly what food should bring, especially when enjoyed with family and loved ones. The restaurant is the first overseas venture, and the third in a successful chain in China. I'm glad they're bringing more variety to the Chinese dining scene in Singapore.
Warmest thanks to Fenix for arranging this dinner, and to Natalie of the Far East Group and Eric of Duo Le for being such wonderful hosts. Check out Ladyironchef and Miss Glitzy for their reviews.
P.S. Duo Le is now having buffet lunch and dinner Mondays to Wednesdays for S$19.99++ and daily High Tea for just S$6.99++ (pdf of the menu items here). Check out their CNY menus on their website too.
181 Orchard Road
#08-09/10 Orchard Central
Open daily 11.30am – 10.30pm