With my faith in the Michelin Guide restored after an excellent meal at Les Amis, my next meal – breakfast was out of the question after the gourmand feast the night before – was lunch at Shisen Hanten. It is Singapore’s only two-star Chinese restaurant. What’s more it was located in my hotel, the Mandarin Orchard, so I rolled out of bed after the usual harrassment from the cleaners that my ‘do not disturb’ sign was getting in the way, and headed up to the 35th floor.
I was greeted and taken down some steps to the main dining room which was bedecked in chandeliers and seated at a table that could comfortably have taken four.
On the table were some pickles and chillis along with what I took to be a spicy sauce in the Szechuan style that is the foundation of the broad menu. These were curious and rather below the quality of similar dishes of kimchi and pickles which had been ubiquitous during my time in Seoul.
Menus were brought by the first of my many waitresses. Jasmine tea was poured and I made free to order a glass of Champagne as it was clear I had a fair amount of reading to consider.
Firstly there was a business lunch menu that was very reasonably priced for two-star dining. While I could happily have gone with that, it felt a little constraining so I attempted to plot a course through the many pages of the a la carte.
I was helped by a starter described as ‘five signature starters’ which seemed like the thing to order. I had a soup course, opting for crab and corn, then for main I settled upon the steamed sea perch in soy sauce.
The signature starters arrived very promptly and looked quite neat and tidy. They were an odd confection with the first a little bowl of citrusy jelly fish which immediately made me think of Chas n Dave and jellied eels.
Then there was a couple of delicate pieces of wagyu beef. A single de-shelled prawns was topped with a little branch of purple flowers that looked very pretty but didn’t seem eatable. Pieces of barbecue pork, presented in the same style as the wagyu were probably the highlight. Things were rounded out with shredded chicken topped with peanut sauce which was very pleasant.
These struck me as canapes not signature starters and collectively they showed good flavours but were rather incoherent. The skill involved in preparation and presentation seemed well below Michelin level.
The soup that followed was similar to the routine crab and sweetcorn soup served in every Chinese takeaway up and down the land. It was a decent version of this classic soup but fine dining it was not.
The main course of steamed perch was a very good piece of sensitively cooked fish on a bed of two types of noodle. The sauce packed the expected salty goodness. I think as a fish course on a tasting menu it wouldn’t have looked wildly out of place on a one-star tasting menu. But as the centrepiece at a two-star? I’m afraid not.
I actually hadn’t eaten all that much, so decided to give their trio of desserts a try. Again, this was short on elegance and refinement. One dessert was some sliced strawberry and watermelon. This was refreshing on a typically warm and humid day, but fine dining? Nope. The coffee mochi was like Turkish Delight for texture. The cold almond pudding was just that.
I’d had quite a nice glass of off-dry Riesling to accompany things and I enjoyed the tea. The food was just such a mismatch for expectations, though. This was a good, at times very good, Chinese meal but how the Michelin inspectors have concluded that this is at the same level as Les Amis is baffling in the extreme.
I mentioned in the Les Amis review that I had a very underwhelming experience at the newly revamped Pierre Gagnaire place in Seoul, which like Shisen Hanten is a hotel restaurant previously recognised at two-star level. Gagnaire was simply so unimaginative that I left with nothing to write about. Shisen Hanten was very pleasant but starts to build the case that Michelin inspectors have a blind spot for glitzy hotel restaurants across Asia.
As a side note, at the end of the meal I was presented with a comment card and a list of the names of all the waitresses that attended to me. I know that many hotels run incentive schemes where if any staff member is positively mentioned by name in feedback a bonus point accrues. In Almaty, I was told that five mentions meant you got a cake, rather oddly. The same presumably applied here. Presenting the list of names in this way felt really odd, but I played along and wrote effusively about all the names listed. For reference, the service was attentive but unremarkable beyond that.
So overall, Shisen Hanten served me a very pleasant lunch. The main course fish was an assured and well-crafted dish. However, when a place has two Michelin stars on a plaque at the door it has to do rather better than this to impress. The pricetag was mercifully reasonable – aided by a 20% discount because I was a hotel resident – so if you haven’t dined at a two-star place, want to, like pretty good Chinese food and have a spare S$50 at a lunchtime, come visit next time you’re in town. But check-in your starry expectations at the door.
Blythe scores Shisen Hanten
3.5/5 for food
3.5/5 for presentation
4/5 for setting
3.5/5 for service
giving an overall 14.5/20
I ate: signature starters, crab and corn soup, steamed sea perch, trio of desserts
I drank: Champagne, Riesling
I wore: linens
Total bill: S$136.10
Address: Mandarin Orchard Hotel, Orchard Road, Singapore