Over the years, fusion cooking has become so abused that many restaurateurs sound a bit apologetic when they use the term to describe their food.
But now, so many restaurants – Asian and Western – mix up cooking styles and ingredients from different parts of the world in their cooking, it is often no longer something to be remarked on.
Still, not many push the concept as boldly as Xin Divine, a modern restaurant that opened in Duxton Hill about two months ago.
Owner Jolin Lee ran a private-chef outfit for two years before deciding to sink roots in a restaurant.
And as she already works with a chef who cooks French food, another who cooks Sichuan dishes and a third who does Cantonese cuisine, she decided to put them all in the kitchen.
They put their heads together and came up with a menu that is evolved from classic Chinese dishes, updated with new cooking methods and plated like Western fare.
So, you get something called Sichuan Style Tortellini ($18), which is inspired by the spicy dumplings from the Chinese province.
However, the chilli oil is turned into a foam with reduced oil and heat, leaving the sauce to taste more of black vinegar. The dumpling is filled with minced kurobuta pork and wrapped like an Italian tortellini. It looks Western, but tastes unmistakably Sichuan.
Then, there is Grilled Octopus Tentacles ($18), in which the tentacles are sprinkled with cumin powder for a Sichuan touch. What looks like pasta strands under the octopus are thinly sliced yellow beancurd, another common Sichuan ingredient.
What could easily have ended up as a gimmick does not because the chefs get the flavours right most of the time. They are recognisable, yet not copies of the dishes that provide the inspiration. That makes the food here exciting and impressive.
This would include the Chinese Wine (Nu Er Hong) Shark Bone Soup ($28). The soup is a typical collagen-filled broth brewed with baby abalone, dried scallop and baby Chinese cabbage.
Inspired by how some people would add brandy to their shark’s fin soup, the restaurant serves the dish with a small cup of nu er hong.
One is encouraged to first taste the soup on its own (good), then with half the wine added to it (better) and, finally, with all the wine poured in (not so good again, unless you are an alcohol fan). The halfway point is the best because the Chinese wine perks up the broth without drowning out its flavours.
Only one dish does not work for me. The Secret Recipe Chilli Lamb Rack ($36) is based on the aromatic spicy grilled lamb from China’s western regions, but it falls flat in comparison. The sous-vide meat is bland and though it is topped with a nice paste of ground dried chillies, the flavours do not meld.
The serving sizes are for one person, which means small. Besides a la carte, there are two dinner set menus at $98 a person for six courses and $128 for seven courses. Because the portions are the same, the sets offer better value.
The menu also includes a selection of snacks meant for the first-floor bar, which is not fully operational. These ironically come in much bigger portions because they are meant to be shared.
The two I try are excellent, though the Signature Sichuan Chilli Chicken Chunks ($16) may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
It is a traditional rendition of laziji, often called firecracker chicken in Western menus for its fiery spiciness. It gets my mouth numb and my brow beading with sweat. I love it, but I have a feeling not everyone can take the heat.
The other is the restaurant’s unique version of XO Carrot Cake ($12), in which the pieces of rice cake are covered in a batter of mixed flours and deep-fried till crispy.
They are then tossed with shrimp in a housemade XO sauce of dried scallop and Parma ham. The dish is unlike any served elsewhere, but is good in its own way.
The elegance in the cooking and plating is reflected in the restaurant setting. The second-floor dining room is covered in pastel hues and flowing swathes of fabric hang from the high vaulted ceiling.
The soft ambience works whether one is there for a romantic dinner, a business gathering or a meal with friends. I do not see it as a place for family dinners, but that could work, too, if one does not have kids or old folk who may find it difficult to negotiate the flight of stairs.
Xin Divine is different, but it is also familiar. Unlike some experimental restaurants where I go, “oh, how interesting”, after tasting the food, but have no desire to eat it again, I have been thinking about a number of the dishes since eating there twice.
Because it delivers what, for me, is most important regardless of cuisine genre – good food.