June 1, 2017

A 2 Michelin starred restaurant bent on introducing Japan’s best love Szechwan cuisine to Singaporean audiences

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Lunch time at Shisen Hanten, and the crystal chandelier illuminated high ceiling room is bathed in natural light. The scene is as such: the gentle pad of well-shod waitresses’ feet and clientele that looked fluent in the language of high net worth make the ambience a little intimidating.

The first of its kind to make a debut outside of Japan, Akasaka Szechwan Restaurant or Shisen Hanten as it is popularly known was founded by late Chef Chen Kenmin in 1958. Highly regarded as Japan’s “Father of Szechwan Cuisine”, his legacy lives on through his son, Chen Kentaro who diligently picked up the tools of his trade under his father’s guidance. Awarded with 2-Michelin Stars in 2016; the establishment is highly lauded for propelling Chinese cuisine to a more glamorous vantage point. It’s only uncanny that the restaurant is perched on the 35th floor of Mandarin Orchard which sports some sweet city views. Do request for a window table.

The menu is long and rambling, as do most other Chinese restaurants, but the waitresses at hand are patient guides. It also helps that their signatures are clearly represented, the familiar favourites on re-runs as you scroll through their Instagram geo-tag feed. Serves are small—suitable for a group of two/three, and 4 to 5 dishes should suffice. They arrive in quick succession, so there’s no chance of anyone wasting away between courses.

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The Foie Gras Chanwanmushi with Crab Roe Soup, a point of pride for the restaurant, is as high-minded as it implies. An elevated play on the ubiquitous side dish, it’s heightened to the point of being sacrilegious. Decadence stems from every bite as copious amounts of duck liver are churned into the egg custard. The thickened agglomeration of superior stock and sweet crab meat is as extravagant as it is exotic.

Perusing the menu, one can’t help but notice the affordable pricing structure—a rarity given the luxurious surroundings and stars allocated. The crowd-pleasing Sautéed Chilli Peppers and Chicken for example, is $28 and arrives as a heaping tumble of moist meat morsels, fried shallots and flecks of Szechuan peppercorn that send you off in all directions, each with their own propelling intensity. To put things simply, it is a beguiling plate of fried chicken. The spicy heat doesn’t hit till a minute after that first nibble. Before you know it, I am sputtering, faltering to my initial skepticism of having iced water—still, the punchy flavours are incredibly hard to resist.

Heatseekers, take heed, Shisen Hanten creates the hinterland of your food fantasies—evident in their dedication to the fiery red tones in all their dishes across the board, making Tabasco taste like tomato sauce even.

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A bit tongue stunned? Let’s take it a notch further with the Stewed Fish Fillet in super-spicy Szechwan pepper sauce. I watch in closemouthed fear as the server gregariously sieved through the volatile ceiling of chilli to retrieve ladles of cloyingly oily broth graced with smooth, buttery cod, bean sprouts and tender cucumber. The soup is a bit of work to get through, the enriched broth at first sip approaches a potent thoracic warmth, before cumulating in a knockout when the hellish searing heat from the chilli oil and floating platform of dried chilli takes ownership over my virtuous palate.

At this juncture, I’ll have to make a disclaimer that I’m severely averse to spicy foods. The choice to avoid an overdosage is mainly to protect my taste buds and to keep them intact. Hence, at this stage of the game, I don a warrior’s mask with pride. The inauguration is complete.

At Shisen Hanten, the Ma Po Doufu is a chimerical treat that one should never miss. I boosted my authenticity ratings with this offering—silky beancurd dressed in a beautifully spicy meat sauce flavoured with bean paste that has been aged for three years. The pearly bowl of steamed Hokkaido rice cuts through some of the tingling heat. Composed of homemade beancurd yielding a jiggly texture of dreams and a luscious tongue-numbing spice that coats the mouth like morning rays of sunshine on dewy fields. Spoonfuls in and you’ll come to understand this restaurant’s stellar achievements by Michelin standards.

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Not to be missed, the house specials Almond Pudding and Mango Pudding offered our palates a cool refreshing respite. Don’t be fooled by its fuss-free appearance, the conjugal bliss of egg custard and fresh cubes of mango flaunts Shisen Hanten’s mastery of unflawed simplicity. The wobbly dessert is neither excessively sweet nor too pursed-lips tart and has just the right level of creaminess.

This is Szechwan food, admittedly a bit haute Chinese; still its elegant balance of sweet, salty, spicy and bitter is admirable. Coupled with killer city views, sombre ambience yet chic aesthetics, it might just be your next go-to and fail-safe destination for Chinese gastronomical offerings.