Monday, August 04, 2014

Review: Ujong

Ujong is set up by Chef Shen of Wok and Barrel. Part of the Teng Bakery in Raffles Hotel has been converted to Ujong restaurant and the antique-style tables and chairs give a very coffeeshop/old-style kopitiam feel to the place. A few tables have disconcerting glass tops that peer into tacky displays of retro paraphenalia, e.g. miniature wooden clogs, nonya slippers, etc. I dislike the commodification of nostalgia but I understand the anxiety about heritage that Singaporeans face as landmarks disappear and all that is left are the memories of food.

The Concept
Chef Shen seeks to elevate local or home-style food by using premium ingredients and perhaps by using traditional techniques in the kitchen. The menu consists of familiar sounding items like Nasi Lemak, Bak Chor Mee, Hae Bee Hiam Noodles and various curries, but if you dig a little deeper in the description you'll find that the Bak Kut Teh is made with kurobota pork and pasta substitutes for many of the local noodles. We were a party of three and I'd been warned that the dishes are heavy and substantial so we were restrained in our ordering.

The Food
The Bak Kwa Pork Ribs were sweet, unctuous and slightly sticky; not as sticky as actual bakwa but pleasantly so. They had a good pork taste but were very rich and I kept eating all the cilantro garnishes to refresh my palate.

I asked for sambal and we got two types: one a slightly dark red paste rich in aromatic dried shrimp and another light and fresh paste with an onion base. These were welcome accompaniments to all the dishes.

The Hae Bee Hiam capellini had a sharp tang of roasted dried shrimp and went well with the bouncy texture of capellini. This dish could have been brightened by fresh-cut deseeded red chilli. This was my favourite dish as it looked appealing and I love the pungency of roasted dried shrimp.

The Bak Chor Mee had five-spice pork on a bed of fettucine. The pork was rich and aromatic, but the noodles were heavy; I felt linguine would have been a better. Fresh-cut spring onions would have lightened the dish considerably.

We also ordered a side dish of "healthy alternative baked turmeric eggplant". Whilst it is traditional for eggplant to be deep-fried, anyone who has cooked eggplant will know that this soaks up oil like a sponge. I looked forward to this healthier version because I love a baked nightshade, however this was flavourless and lacklustre. The crispy fried shallots and soft eggplant made for a nice contrasting texture but as someone used to sambal eggplant, salted fish eggplant, or grilled eggplant with miso, I was disappointed. The application of the tasty haebee-based sambal did go a long way to remedy the eggplant. It's strange that eggplant can be so misunderstood when taken outside the context of traditional dishes. I recall a similar disappointment with the Green Pepper Eggplant at Casa Bom Vento (do not order it).

The portions at Ujong are very large and Chef Shen makes no allowances for refreshing your palate. It would seem that the taste of tradition comes as an domineering mother or father expressing their love for you with food. You'd do well to eat or you'd be refusing their love. Each dish is very heavy and substantial and would be very challenging if eaten by a single person. Having a variety of dishes to share alleviates the heaviness of each dish.

The dishes needed brightening with fresh herbs, e.g. cilantro, spring onions, or floral accents like capsicum or deseeded chillies. A tray of condiments like pickled green chillies, fresh chillies and calamansi lime wedges would have gone a long way in lightening the meal.

The Experience
We concluded the evening with a dessert of pulut hitam pudding with coconut ice-cream and gula melaka sauce. This was recommended to us by the friendly staff, whom I suspect may be quite senior in the team that run the restaurant. She preferred this dessert to the "Shendol" as that is known to be an enriched version of traditional chendol.

I am quite blown away by the pulut hitam pudding. The black glutinous rice is ground into flour and this made into a steamed cake not unlike huat kueh. The delicate honeyed notes of the black rice flour come out and match perfectly with the coconut ice-cream. The gula melaka sauce just takes the cake (pun intended) and is our very own salted caramel.

Service was very friendly, unobtrusive but then again we were the only ones dining on a a public holiday Monday. Prices were reasonable for the large portions of high quality meat.

This would be a place I would bring people who have left this region on the second diaspora, e.g. my family. Many of the dishes feel like they've been developed for incredible fussy and astute home tastebuds, e.g. my mother who can taste MSG in the parts per billion, and seek to extend and question what local taste is and should be.

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