Within the realm of coffeeshops and eating houses that anchor Singapore to high quality, local food one sometimes finds a place that is a cut above – usually older than most – and often overlooked by younger, well-heeled diners searching for the newest hotspot or longest queue. And one of those old joints is Westlake.
Westlake’s location on the second level void deck of a large HDB housing estate is uncommon. The void deck is lined on both sides with little shops – bicycle stores, hairdressers and local sundries for the residents of the towers looming above. There are also a few eating houses with local fare and even an Italian pizza/pasta joint. At the far end sits Westlake, a stronghold of the community for nearly forty years and known by informed foodies as a place to get some really special food.
There are so many good things to eat in this unassuming, pastel green establishment. Like the
Sichuan Hot & Sour Soup
. I stand by the theory that you can tell the quality of the Chinese restaurant simply by this dish. If it’s good, then the cook knows what he’s doing; if it’s bad, that losing streak will probably continue through the meal. And if it has that freshly opened, tinny flavor and sticky sheen of chemical preservatives, you are best to kindly ask for the check and flee, never to see the inside of the place again.
So when Westlake’s version was set before me I surreptitiously leaned in for a look. It was chock-full of classic ingredients, mushrooms, tofu, drips of egg and so much more. And the taste delivered everything its appearance promised. The flavors mischievously wavered between a tickle of burn, the cleansing bite of sourness and a soft yet deliberate crunch of almost-sweet vegetable. Its silky base was free of any gelatinous, artificial texture. It was finished with a healthy dusting of white Chinese pepper and a swirl of sesame oil, lest one forget its Chengdu origin. It was the best I’ve had in Singapore.
Then there were the
. Now I generally prefer steamed or boiled dumplings, with their smooth skins and moist, meaty insides. But at Westlake the fried dumplings are a must – unless you do not like golden brown skins that are crisped so perfectly you can feel their tensile surface before you even put one in your mouth, Your bite is a satisfying cracking into a light, porky filling blended with chives and ginger and a hint of garlic. A dip in one of the sauces and the skin still holds its uncommon crispness while absorbing the dark soy and chili addition. Imagine the absolutely addictive texture of great
roast pork – now imagine that same sensation in a dumpling. That’s what you have here. Pure heaven.
Next came a plate of
Gong Bao Chicken
which delivered more Sichuan flavors; a bit unusual for a restaurant which is decidedly
Sichuan. The dried chili’s were large and cut into healthy chunks, softened slightly in the wok and delivering a spice and smoke burn that was tempered by a tingling of glutinous rice wine vinegar in the sauce. The chicken was tender, contrasting nicely with the crunchy water chestnuts and strands of spring onion. This ain’t your usual “Kung Po Chicken” from your neighborhood
back in the States. This is the real deal, straight from owner Mr. Lim Long Law’s own background of favorite foods.
And speaking of favorite foods, the next dish,
Kong Bak Pau
was it; the cat’s meow and Westlake’s main event. It starts with a platter of lusciously braised pork belly with remarkably tender skin, a thin band of fat and soft, juicy meat, slathered with a rich dark soy-based sauce which you have to resist (
) just eating with a spoon.
Beside the platter is a pile of
. But not just any old steamed buns,
, so pillowy and soft. The great noodle makers of Asia, most notably Japan, understand the benefits of alkalinity in their dough – a firmness to the noodle that enables it to keep its structure and texture even after floating in a hot bowl of ramen. It’s a magical construct for dough and at Westlake they’ve decided it’s not just for noodles anymore. The result is a bun that’s firm and springy with a tight, off-white skin and a dense, cushiony interior. It absorbs liquids effortlessly without becoming mushy or falling apart like a traditional bum -- the consummate delivery system for the
pork and sauce. The
Kong Bak Pau
alone is worth the trip to Westlake and indeed is the main draw for those who know. But combine it with the other great dishes and, like me, lose your mind.
I could end here, hopefully leaving you drooling and dialing for a cab or, even better, an airplane ticket to get you here. But why stop now?
Because I would be remiss to disregard the gorgeous
Chicken/Prawn Yam Basket
, an interpretation perhaps of that much-loved creation of Chef and Heavenly King Hooi Kok Wai. A wonderful combination of flavors from land and sea, accented by crisp, delicate vegetables in a light sauce and encircled by crisp-fried, deliciously-starchy yam paste.
Then there was the
Black Pepper Sri Lankan Crabs
, drenched in piquant black pepper sauce that is tempered to just a subtle burn by first being sautéed in butter and soya. Again, balance is the guiding principle behind this dish, with the sweet chunks of barely-cooked crab waltzing delicately with the spicy sauce. Like Mozart for the mouth.
Steamed Bean Curd with Kang Kong
came next. It’s the kind of dish you don’t expect to enjoy at first glance, but simply can’t help yourself once you taste it. Soft bean curd, cooked down to an opaque, gelatinous chowder supported small squares of steamed pumpkin and salted egg, all encircled by steamed greens.
The flavor was delicate and satisfying, like silken tofu with added flavors, and texturally complete with the thick curd “glue” holding the dish together and merging the flavors into one. It was a good way to begin our gentle descent from the sky-high robustness of the dishes which preceded it.
The feast ended like any good Asian feast should: with a plate of soft noodles. The
Chee Cheong Fun
noodles were rolled up and doused with a smooth brown sauce and a scattering of sesame seeds. A dollop of slightly spicy sambal added a little umami burst to the otherwise soft bed of featherweight noodles that acted as a gentle comfort food finish.
The last item – as a savory dessert – was a bronzed, toothy
Spring Onion & Chives Pancake
which merged the savory flavors of the meal with a fresh, green sweetness from the onions and chives. It was crispy on the outside and soft and flaky inside, acting as the perfect closer to a memorable meal of old-school dining.