Singapore - Old School Hainanese at Mooi Chin Place
I was put on the scent of this place by Chowhounder klyeoh, and was very much looking forward to my visit last Friday evening.
At the grand old age of 77, Mooi Chin must be one of Singapore’s oldest continuously operating restaurants. At the core of its longevity is its menu of “Hainanese” staples, including their famous pork chops and mutton soup. Despite the name, these dishes do not owe much to Hainan. Rather, it was developed by “cook-boys”, mostly of Hainanese descent, who worked in the kitchens of the English colonials in late 19th / early 20th century Singapore and Malaysia. As the cooks moved on to open their own eating establishments, a distinctive cuisine was made available to the public, a fusion of their employers’ preferences and the tastes of their childhood.
Mooi Chin was a legend in its time, serving the great and the good of young Singapore. In the 1960s, due to its location at Funan Centre across from the old Supreme Court, it was a favourite of lawyers and judges looking to refuel their forensic minds.
But as times change, so do tastes. While it remains in the hands of the founding Wong family, Mooi Chin is now living a double-life as the all-day dining restaurant at Bugis’ Landmark Village Hotel, a slightly run-down local 3-star establishment. This is unfortunate, in a couple of ways. A quick flick through the very long menu takes you to the “Chef’s Recommendations” – Hawaiian Pizza, Spaghetti Bolognaise, Fish & Chips, Tiramisu. Secondly, the hotel houses a KTV lounge, which means pained squeals reminiscent of the sounds at a pig slaughterhouse periodically waft across the foyer, never an ideal accompaniment to your dinner.
On the plus side, the hotel location means you get air-conditioning, tablecloths, a carpeted floor and quite comfortable seats. It is not very often that you get to enjoy traditional old school food in such an environment.
When we arrived just after 7, the place was packed with large family groups. Within 20 minutes, the place was deserted and we had it to ourselves. I was wondering whether it was the bloodied axe in my hand or my body odour that scared everyone away, but soon after, we could hear strains of Celine Dion as re-imagined by drunken Chinese businessmen and their paid hostesses. Right.
On to the food. A couple of members of our dining party (lawyers, incidentally) were not feeling too good so we had to mix up the robust traditional dishes with more delicate fare.
Hainanese Pork Chop ($12++) - The pork was nice and tender and the crumb coating was crispy. The sauce also had a strong hint of cinnamon. However, I doubt it was something I could not have prepared myself.
Steamed Tofu, HK-Style ($12++) - Good balance of flavour, with the fried shallots adding a nutty sweetness to the soy-based sauce. From the texture and the look of it, the silken tofu was bought in. Again, pleasant enough but nothing you could not do at home.
Kailan ($12++) - The kailan was simply stir-fried with garlic and probably a little oyster sauce. Very fresh, with a nice "snap" to the bite.
At this point, I was wondering where it was all going. Like I said, it was all OK but there was nothing particularly exciting or superlative. Then the sambal pomfret arrived - I had very, very high hopes for this dish, and it certainly looked the part.
Sambal Pomfret ($35++) - Good, but I cannot put it any higher than that. The fish was fresh and well-cooked, firm but never at risk of drying out. The sambal, on the other hand, fell short of my expectations. It was lightly sour, with elevated notes of chili heat. It was a soprano compared to the rumbling, emotive bass of the sambal at Old Lai Huat, and unfortunately not a bravura performance. While Lai Huat's rendition is addictive, crack cocaine to a chilli fiend, Mooi Chin's is simply good (but also less oily). Lai Huat's version is also fried so that the fins and smaller bones become crunchy little edibles, so Mooi Chin's is also more one-dimensional in texture.
Dessert - I had a bowl of orh nee, the rich Teochew yam paste ($4++), which was not of any particular interest. The portion was also rather too large, meaning it got tedious about a quarter of the way in. A mango pudding ($3,50++) tasted of packet custard with the vaguest suggestions of the fruit.
Mooi Chin’s food is not bad, but it costs a fair bit for what you get. The tofu and vegetable dishes cost $12 for a small plate – Lai Huat would give you the same for $6. And as I mentioned above, the pomfret at Lai Huat was superior, definitely in the sambal stakes if not in fish quality.
The service here is hit-and-miss, with a couple of mainland Chinese waitresses being completely unable to converse in anything other than Mandarin. On the other hand, they do have quality stemware (even down to Champagne flutes, shiraz glasses, etc., but inventory is limited so please drop them a line in advance and let them know how many and what types of glasses you need for your table) and do not charge corkage.
Towards the end of the night, a European tourist walked in and ordered a Hawaiian pizza. I wondered if he was aware that he was dining at a living slice of Singapore's culinary history. But as times change, tastes change. While it is clearly no longer at the peak of its powers, it is a decent place for traditional Hainanese cooking in comfortable surrounds, and has certainly survived the passing decades far better than the younger Dragon Phoenix.
MOOI CHIN PLACE
390 Victoria Street
#03-12A Landmark Village Hotel
Tel: +65 6392 1600
The current Mooi Chin is no longer the same old Mooi Chin I went to four decades ago. The standard has deteriorated greatly. I still go there just for nostalgic reason, less for its culinary standard. It was not located at Funan Centre in the 60s, more like near the current Raffles Hotel (but I forgot the exact alley); then they moved to Ang Mo Kio, and then Funan Centre (I recall towards the 90s) before settling now in Golden Landmark Hotel. Unfortunately, everytime they moved to a new location, the standard deteriorated further. It is kind of sad that the current generation of owners have not kept up with the original spirit of the old Mooi Chin.
Also, you have missed a few of its signature dishes: Dark Soya Sauce Chicken, Sambal Prawns (unfortunately, nowadays their prawns are not fresh), Foo Yong Hai (again, standard has deteriorated to the point that it is no longer any different from other Tze Char place but in the old days, their version stands ahead of others) and Abalone chicken soup. I would not bother with its kailan or tofu, or even its pork chop. Sambal Pomfret is its signature dish too but I long more for its original version.
I would be a regular if the old Mooi Chin is back.
FourSeasons - the original location of Mooi Chin was in Purvis Street, also known as Hainan Street 2 among the Singapore-Hainanese community. It opened in 1935. We had a Hainanese family friend who brought us there in the early-70s to get a taste of Hainanese mooncakes from a coffeeshop owned by his family. In the old days, the Hainanese formed the majority in that area - Middle Road was Hainan Street 1 and Seah Street which borders Raffles Hotel was Hainan Street 3.
Mooi Chin moved to Ang Mo Kio in 1980 (http://www.soshiok.com/article/12870) but I have no recollection of that since I was in Australia at the time.
Many of the younger generationsof the Hainanese there had migrated overseas - our family friend and his family/siblings/parents to Sydney, and their neighbors who ran/owned Chin Chin restaurant migrated to Perth.
Thanks Four Seasons. Perhaps my "sources" are mistaken ;)
Noted also on the dishes, although as I explained, a few members of our party needed tofu and veg for various reasons. That said, how you deal with a simple order of greens is a decent test not only of your kitchen but of your sourcing of fresh ingredients, which is something we can't take for granted in Singapore.
Thanks so much for reporting back, Julian. But how sad to hear of Mooi Chin's turn for the worse. Hawaiian pizza?!!
I really liked their sambal pomfret but, of course, the one you recommended at Lai Huat was way better! I wondered how the dark-sauced chicken which FourSeasons mentioned in his post would taste like today, but after your description about Mooi Chin's current state of affairs, I *don't* think I'm in a hurry to go there!
That's what i find sad about Singapore - the later generations failing to keep up with the passion, hard work and commitment to details of their forefathers. Every process undergoes a "short cut" - how to do it faster, simpler, cheaper - at the expense of quality & taste.
That was why I'm absolutely in awe of those hawkers in Malaysia who maintained their standards through the decades, passing down their cooking secrets to the later generations.
No, thank you for the recommendation, klyeoh. Like I said, it wasn't bad and I'm very glad I got the chance to try it. And if you are keen to return for a go at the dark-sauced chicken, post on this thread and we can try it out when you are next back...
Not trying to excuse anything, but this is the first time that one of the Wong family is not running Mooi Chin's kitchen; the second-generation chef-owner passed away in 2009. The current third generation owner Jason Wong is an IT manager by profession: http://www.soshiok.com/article/12870
Agreed with you on the hawkers. But cooking is a very difficult and often thankless life, and I guess they know first-hand from running a successful business that they don't want their kids to have to put up with the same hours and conditions to make a living. It is sad, but I completely understand where they are coming from, and I am not sure whether Malaysia will remain the same looking forward over the next couple of generations either.