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Local gone luxe: Why zichar from Famous Treasure at Capitol Piazza is worth the (very long) wait

It is an offshoot from Famous Kitchen, known for its seafood-centric menu and different Chinese cooking styles in Singapore.

Famous Treasure
13 Stamford Rd
#02-28 Capitol Piazza
Tel: 6881-6668
Open daily: 11.30am to 2.30pm and 6pm to 10.30pm

We dined at a famous restaurant the other day. In fact, not only is it famous, it’s a treasure. If you don’t trust us, ask the restaurant – which is nothing if not a great believer in self-affirmation.

Famous Treasure takes over from the Four Seasons Chinese Restaurant, which, by the way, is itself a rather famous roast duck restaurant in London that came to Singapore thinking it could replicate its success. But it foolishly neglected to prefix its name accordingly, so it is not just unfamous here, it has gone kaput.

Assam fish head

Now it’s out to play with the big boys in town, transporting its entire menu from its flagship kitchen to the gentrified, if somewhat quiet, surroundings of the refurbished Capitol cinema. Judging by the speed – or lack of – in its service, you kind of suspect the chefs must have taken the MRT from Sembawang, and the train broke down along the way.

We visit on the second day of its opening after all, so some leeway is in order. At first, we don’t mind because our appetiser is so delicious – snap-crackley salted egg yolk fish skin crisps (S$12) that splinter into delicious shards of warm, savoury and crunchy goodness, fragrant with deep-fried curry leaves.

Figure out a way to package these chips without losing their crunch and they can easily outsell the likes of Irvin’s and Golden Duck, we muse. The restaurant can just sit back and wait for the money to roll in without worrying about impatient diners. As it is, we could have drawn up a business plan for the chips, devised a year-long promotional campaign and applied for a bank loan online while waiting for the next dish.

But don’t get mad. Just wait. Ration your chips and eat one every 3 minutes so your mouth has something to do without snapping at the sweet, well-meaning servers who are totally at the mercy of the kitchen. Eventually, they’re able to serve the next dish, and there is joy and relief written all over their faces.

Ours, too, as the wait has not been in vain. A deep, dark, glistening gravy pools around a platter split into three compartments of thinly-sliced, soy-braised duck meat (could be a little more moist); pliant, wobbly slices of beancurd; and skinny but gnawable wings (S$24). The braise is a rough, in-your-face brew of soy and spices, not mellow like at an upscale Teochew restaurant. You want to fill up on the gravy with lots of rice, and entertain useless thoughts like going out to work in the field to burn off the excess calories.

Squid stir-fried with chinchalok

In case you need more energy to think such thoughts, add a plate of squid stir-fried with chinchalok (fermented tiny shrimps) and lady’s finger or okra (S$18) – lovely curls of just-cooked squid scored with cross-hatch pattern and tossed in a spicy, briny sauce thickened with slippery chunks of the okra.

You probably want to stick to the convenient list of house specials if you don’t want to risk any surprises such as an insipid soup of the day (S$7) of double-boiled old cucumber with an inexplicable hint of astringence. The only astringence we welcome is in the very good Assam fish head curry (S$35 for half a head) which doesn’t rely on sweetness for kick but a rich rempah-and-tamarind mixture that’s thick, tangy and robust. You’re not doing justice to the dish if you just focus on digging out all the fleshy meat and gelatinous bits of the head – you must ladle that gravy over copious amounts of rice to fully appreciate all the carefully-proportioned ingredients in the mix.

Fans of the Kuala Lumpur-style Hokkien fried noodles (S$18) will find a commendable version here. The joy comes more from the fat, chewy noodles that don’t seem to go soft, doused in lashings of rich, oily black sauce like the Chinese version of squid ink pasta.

Cast aside all social graciousness and dig into the noodles and fat shrimp, avoiding the useless, dry pork strips. It’s a little one-dimensional as KL Hokkien mee really is after you get over the initial novelty.

Famous Treasure also does a satisfying orh nee (S$8) – traditional sweetened yam paste with gingko and pumpkin. Little bits of water chestnut add an extra crunch. Glutinous rice flour balls stuffed with black sesame in ginger syrup (S$8) is ordinary, but still a comfy sweet end to the meal.

The restaurant targets your cravings for home-style cooking with no ambitions to be anything else. It does it with some pride which is why you can forgive the kitchen hiccups. Maybe Favourite Delights is a more suitable name than Famous Treasure, but at least we can say it serves up a few gems.

(RELATED: 3 new modern Chinese restaurants for you to try)

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photos: BT/SPH & Famous Treasure