Singapore has always dallied uneasily with its past, especially where its historic buildings are concerned. You get the feeling that the island’s past is a little like that extra set of silver cutlery stored up in the dusty attic – everyone knows it’s valuable, but no one has much use for it.
Case in point: the old Clifford Pier, spruced up and facelifted beyond recognition at the princely sum of $6 million, for its new restaurant tenant One on the Bund. Amid all that marble and fancy chinoiserie furniture, there is nothing – no plaque, no sepia-toned photographs, no historical reference – nothing to hint that this landmark was once an important destination for generations of migrants and travellers arriving at, or departing from, the colony. Even its new name catapults you not to Singapore’s tropical past, but to Shanghai’s art-deco excess.
Inside, Calvin Yeung pulls off a hat-trick of roles. He is the owner, executive chef and interior designer of this vast, echoing, ultimately lonely space. In fact, there is room enough for two restaurants and a bar out on the timber-decked verandah facing the upcoming Sands casino. Something tells you that Yeung found himself with a little more real estate than he knew what to do with.
Food-wise, this is the millennial successor to Beijing’s Green T House (decorative twigs on huge bowls), our very own My Humble House (handwritten menus and smartly dressed wait-staff) and London’s Yauatcha (the jewel box of Western desserts). The cooking is Shanghainese – in other words, lots of chilli, oil and animal parts like braised crunchy pig ears and pork cheeks in chilli broth – though Yeung is smart and dresses it all up.
And so, golden fried prawns (chewy to the bite) were tumbled over a huge bed of lurid red chillis and topped with a scatter of fried fennel seeds. Steamed pork dumplings, looking like fat pigs in a blanket, astonished with their incredibly light, doughy skin. Translucent matchstick cuts of pork shank and leek were sautéed in onion oil – this is a dish that you could almost eat on its own with just steamed rice (which, by the way, is superbly grained, though you’ll be floored by its $4 per bowl price tag). Quite superb for its intense flavours was the rice fried with salted fi sh and a hint of ginger, as were the nuggets of deep-fried fish fillets coated with creamy salted egg yolk. Meanwhile, the noodles – served dry or with soup, and made fresh in the show kitchen by burly men – were a masterclass in technique, springy to the teeth and light as silk threads.
A low point was the perfectly cooked, tiny calamari spoilt by an inky, vinegary onion sauce that was far too watery. The desserts were equally disappointing; the cheesecake was rubbery, the sesame seed macaron a little chalky and the lemon tart tedious.
And despite everyone busily talking into their microphones, service was, to be blunt, terrible. Blank looks were the norm to any question. Midway through one meal, the paper serviettes were, without any prompting, suddenly replaced by cloth napkins. Plates and bowls remained unchanged even after several courses. The wait-staff also attempts the party trick of not writing down orders, but their memory lets them down. Our waitress flipped the menu pages back and forth at our table (and again, later at her computer terminal), desperately trying to remember our orders. To cap it all, our question as to why the white steamed rice cost $4 was answered with a shrug which – despite everyone’s good intentions – more or less sums up the general verdict on the restaurant.
Main courses $18-$42.