Spicy Sichuan in Singapore

I’ve always been partial to spicy food and get my regular fix from Thai, Malay and Indian eateries, with occasional visits to Sichuan and Korean restaurants in Singapore. When I saw that PARKROYAL hotels and the Discovery loyalty program were running a 30% off promotion until end December, I thought it was a good time to make a return visit to Si Chuan Dou Hua Restaurant.

Given the proximity to an MRT station and the nice views, we usually go to the branch on the 60th floor of UOB Plaza 1, but the promotion was limited to the restaurants physically located within PARKROYAL hotels and so we ended up at Beach Road.

The restaurant entrance is to the right of the main lobby, marked by a vertical black signboard with its name in nice cursive Chinese calligraphy. As you enter, you’ll see the same signboard inside, this time on a cream-coloured background with gold lettering.

The gold-theme is repeated on the dividers separating the private rooms, with gold-motif etched flowers bordering on over-kill but just managing to stay on the right side of good taste. The tables in the main dining hall were generously spaced out, because, you know.

For the same reason, the table had a QR code for a digital menu and contactless ordering. I tried it out but didn’t quite like it. There were no photos, except on the splash screen, and it just didn’t have the same feeling as flipping through a physical menu with enticing pictures of signature dishes.

So we ended up browsing the well-worn paper menu with pretty photos. If you’re ever on ordering duty but don’t know what to order, it’s always a good idea to choose the dishes with the largest and most beautiful photos. Be careful though, unless you’re prepared to splurge, stay away from the abalone, lobster and live steamed fish.

Si Chuan Dou Hua also has a dedicated tea menu, showcasing all kinds of tea from different Chinese provinces. Prices are per pax and include free-flow hot water refills. They usually have one choice on offer at a lower price, which, on the day we were there, was the light-tasting and refreshing 白毫银针 white (i.e. unfermented) tea from Fujian.

I went with their Eight Treasures Tea (八宝茶), made with chrysanthemum, dried longan, lily bulb, wolfberries, red dates, rock sugar, mai dong and one more thing (does water count?). It usually comes with a table-side show of a tea master wielding a copper pot with a long spout, acrobatically and dangerously pouring boiling water into your tiny tea cup.

The table setting is simple and comes with an appetiser of braised bean curd and orange-soaked Chinese yam together with some chilli bean sauce (辣豆瓣酱). My cup was filled by the waitress using a boring teapot and I asked her where the usual tea master was. “Stuck in China” was her reply, which was to be expected I suppose.

Another big change was how they served each dish. The usual family-style service where everyone helps themselves from a large communal plate or bowl was replaced by small and pre-plated individual servings.

This was fully understandable given the current situation, but it felt like a strange and unfamiliar way to have a meal in a Chinese restaurant. It detracted from the social experience, not to mention the huge increase in dishes that had to be washed, but it is what it is.

We ate there twice and sampled a wide variety of dishes; dinner the first time followed by lunch with The Old Folks two weeks later.

I felt that the soups were average, but The Wife was quite fond of the hot and sour soup (酸辣汤). The appetisers were much better, especially the sliced pork with garlic and chilli (蒜泥白肉) and the chilled chicken with spicy bean paste (口水鸡).

The pork was not overcooked and overwhelmed by the garlic, though it was not as spicy as I’d liked. The chicken didn’t have that problem. The Sichuan pepper and chilli oil really got my mouth watering, living up to its literally-translated name — saliva chicken.

I saw that they had sliced pig ears (麻辣耳片) on the menu and insisted on placing an order. It’s admittedly an acquired taste, especially the chewy yet crunchy texture, but it’s something I don’t see often on menus and I order it whenever it’s available. If you’ve never had it before, give it a chance. You might find that you actually like it.

The dumpling in sour and spicy stock (酸辣抄手) was from the dim sum menu and each order was for four pieces. It was so strange to see each piece served in its own tiny little bowl. I empathised with its loneliness and quickly put it out of its misery.

The seafood and meat mains were just as good, if not better. Similar to Dong Po Rou (东坡肉), the braised pork belly with honey sauce (樱桃肉) was sweeter and less jiggly but just as favourful. The stir-fried shredded beef with green chilli (青椒牛肉丝) was nice, but my favourite was the prawns and diced chicken with dried chilli (宫保龙凤球).

It’s overly dramatic to compare prawns and chicken to dragons and phoenixes, but the kung pow sauce was well balanced with just the right amount of spiciness. I usually prefer my food super spicy, but I happily made an exception for this dish.

For me, the one dish that must be ordered at a Sichuan restaurant is the Mapo Tofu (麻婆豆腐) and it must be as numbingly spicy (麻辣) as humanly possible. Unfortunately, while I could clearly taste the Sichuan pepper and the spicy bean paste, it just wasn’t powerful enough for me. It’s a matter of preference, and this didn’t meet my mark.

The eggplant with minced meat with chilli and garlic sauce (鱼香茄子) was cooked just right, not too mushy and not too hard, but the sauce was just average. I’m probably not being fair to the dish due to the lingering disappointment with the mapo tofu.

The stir-fried Wa Wa vegetables (砂锅娃娃菜) was also a bit underwhelming, but for a different reason. I order it because it had a big beautiful full-page spread in the menu and looked really delicious, especially when served in a piping-hot claypot.

I completely forgot that it would be pre-portioned and served on plain old white plates. Parts of the vegetable were charred, proving that it did spend at least some time in a claypot, but visual element was lost.

What made up for the disappointing vegetables was the spicy noodles and bean curd with Sichuan pepper sauce (酸辣豆花面). The soft silken bean curd went really well with the noodles and tart broth. I would happily have just this one dish for a meal, any day of the week.

We finished up with desserts — bean curd with wolfberries (枸杞甜豆花) for me and salted egg yolk custard bun (流沙包) for The Wife and Old Folks. The bean curd dessert at Si Chuan Dou Hua is always good and the addition of wolfberries was a nice touch. But then again, given that bean curd (豆花) is technically in the name of the restaurant, I’d assume that they would make an effort to make sure it was good.

The 流沙包 was interesting because it was served in probably the world’s smallest bamboo steamer, barely larger than a child’s fist. I asked our waitress if this was how it was normally served, and she clarified that the micro-steamers was specially ordered because of the current situation. Respect.

All things considered, both meals at Si Chuan Dou Hua were really good and the taste and quality of all the dishes were consistently high. Of course, the spiciness of some of the dishes didn’t quite meet my expectations, but that’s just a matter of personal preference.

If I had to choose my top three dishes, they would be the 口水鸡, 宫保龙凤球 and 酸辣豆花面, shown again below. My mouth started watering as soon as I saw the 口水鸡; it was that good.

The average of the two meals of four pax was around S$180 inclusive of service charge and tax, or about S$45 per person. The 30% PARKROYAL x Discovery discount brought the price down further, for a compelling cost/performance ratio.

Our usual Sichuan place that provides even better value-for-money is Old Cheng Du Restaurant in Chinatown, just beside Exit A of the Chinatown MRT station.

Prices there are easily one third of those at Si Chuan Dou Hua and they are more of a casual eatery for everyday meals. Portions are generous and flavours are robust, which is how I like my Sichuan food!

Their 麻婆豆腐 is my favourite in Singapore, even though (or maybe because?) it’s swimming in chilli oil, and perfect with a steaming bowl of white rice. Their other Sichuan dishes are similarly boldly seasoned and powerfully flavoured.

One particular favourite of The Wife is their double-boiled fish (沸腾鱼), served in a huge silver vessel. The first time we ordered it, we were taken aback at the size and reminded the waitress that we ordered the small portion. She gave a big belly laugh and replied that this was small, and that large was even larger.

Do not order this unless you have at least four people, and even then, go easy on additional dishes because it’s humongous. But even though large quantities of dried chillies and Sichuan peppercorns are floating on the surface, it’s actually not that spicy and quite safe to eat.

Even after eating there more than ten times over the years, we always leave feeling very full and satisfied. Whenever we have cravings for spicy Sichuan, this is our go-to place.

We have not visited Sichuan before and may yet make a trip to Chengdu in the future. The Old Folks have been there before though, and shared that even though the food is less spicy and oily in Singapore, the taste is quite close to the original.

It’s good to know that (almost) authentic spicy Sichuan food is readily available in Singapore, whether it’s at a casual eatery like Old Cheng Du or a fancier restaurant like Si Chuan Dou Hua.

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