One of the few good things to come out of the credit crunch is that it's going to force many restaurants to seriously rethink their marketing strategy. More than ever, the average diner will insist on quality and value for money; save the bells and whistles for when the good times roll around again. This thought occurred to me again and again over the course of two dull dinners at the newly opened Empress Jade – surprising given that supremo Jereme Leung is consultant chef. It just goes to show what a double-edged sword a celebrity endorsement can be.
Things got off to a rocky start when we showed up in early January only to be told that there was a mandatory $4 charge per person. 'You can't have dinner here otherwise. It's for the Christmas decorations and the snow show,' the front desk said politely, though by the weary look on his face, you could tell he'd already been in a few skirmishes with other outraged diners. 'And it comes with a cable car ride.' Here's a tip: it's never acceptable to force diners to pay for your Christmas decorations and then disingenuously throw in a cable car ride they never wanted. It's the worst kind of rip-off. We will remember it and always hold it against you by never coming back. And for the record, every hour on the hour for ten minutes, the snow-making machine outside the echoing, glass-encased restaurant blew out a charmless swirl of dandruff that only increased my resentment that I had been forced to pay for it.
As for the food, by all means serve upmarket, nostalgic zhi char if that's your speciality, but have the decency to dress it up. At an average of $50 a head without wines, we deserve that much. Without exception, every dish looked as if it had just been bought from your local HDB zhi char joint and then slopped into white serving bowls. Which wouldn't be so bad if the food wasn't either bland or unbearably sweet, as if a diabetic had been let loose in the kitchen. The pork liver soup might have been triumphantly homely, but it tasted like half a bag of sugar had been poured into it – while the other half-bag went into the soupy tang kui-infused lamb brisket, which had the texture of overtenderised meat.
The watery stew of chicken braised with bitter gourd tasted as if it, too, had been tenderised. The sweet and sour pork was passably good and vinegary, but for $18 you were better off visiting Eng Hoon Street. The ee fu noodles were a complete mess of stodgy noodles clumped unattractively with tasteless pork strips, while the crinkled bundle of cellophane cut open to a wet, overly salted chicken. At one stage, my dining companion murmured that she was still eating only because she hadn't eaten all day and was hungry. Which is not the kind of response you want to hear for $50 a head.
And the desserts? Almond soup, so weakly flavoured it might as well have been dish water, was served with toasted almonds so ferociously burnt they tasted like woodchip. The red-bean soup was equally watery and fl avourless. And it was hard to tell if the anaemic barley soup scattered with tiny clusters of tasteless agar jelly and quail eggs had made its way accidentally in the desserts section. Were there any positive notes in this gastronomic fiasco? A few. The spinach wilted with salted and century eggs were good, as was the mango pudding, but neither was any better than Crystal Jade's version. The spritz of Two Sisters cologne on the hand-towels was a nice touch; the staff knowledgeable and on the ball. And the view across the canopy of trees down to the harbour, especially if you sit on the alfresco timber deck, is really very special
But was any of this enough to redeem the entire experience? In the old days, an annoying empress would have slipped some poison in her evening tea. Now, that's nostalgia.
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