Backing onto a wall at the Asian Civilisations Museum with a front glass facade that opens to the outdoor terrace on the banks of the Singapore River, Empress suggests nothing of a conventional Chinese diner. This 86-seater flagship concept is the most recent addition to The Privé Group’s crown jewels, decked out with a contrasting palette marked by dark finishes and natural materials juxtaposed with diminutive elements of Chinese art. In the daytime, the restaurant is bathed in natural light, which gives it a spacious, airy feel, while a dusking sky brings about a sense of intimacy and quiet elegance.
Turning out gorgeous communal and individual plates at lunch and dinner to a crowd mostly made up of executives who work in the vicinity, the menu sees a medley of offerings built on much-loved traditional Chinese dishes. But some are clearly designed to push the boundaries of authenticity. A starter of crispy aromatic duck salad is assembled with baby spinach, micro herbs, pomelo, nashi pear, goji berries, cucumber, spring onion and Chinese fig. A delicate plum-citrus dressing weaves the ingredients into a tapestry of bright, fresh and clean sweet flavours, anchored by little crisp parcels of battered and fried duck meat.
Other dishes are relatively less elaborate, but display an equally meticulous consideration of composition and balance. And there is perhaps no finer example of this than the signature Triple Roast Platter of char siew, crackling roast pork, and sticky and sweet pork ribs. Deep, glistening, rich, smoky and sticky with a pronounced taste derived from maltose, the char siew is nothing short of impeccable. Standing next to it in stark contrast are four cubes of roast pork, each a tiny ivory tower of fat and meat capped with a brown crispy skin. These are just as good as the pork ribs, which have a delightful texture that provides some resistance to the bite.
Plenty of enjoyment can also be had in the soups. King Prawn Dumpling in Supreme Broth, served in a stone bowl, has a sizeable scallop dumpling and kampong chicken wading in a highly aromatic pool of comfort. The teapot soup, featuring a similar stock base but with the introduction of pumpkin, is brought out in a Chinese clay teapot with a seafood dumpling and crispy spring roll served on the side. While the latter offers relatively more depth and complexity, both soups have a lovely thickened consistency achieved with long periods of simmering.
Singapore Chilli King Prawns is a tribute to one of our country’s most iconic culinary creations. Shelled, wok-fried and doused in a rich orangey-red sauce, the prawns are plump, meaty and firm. It’s a dish that starts off really well, but the chilli sauce unfortunately lacks adequate heat to sustain, segueing into a somewhat soulless mixture with an overarching sweetness.
Seared Angus Beef Tenderloin Cubes are seasoned with a light hand and quickly stir-fried over searing heat with sliced onions, retaining much of its tender texture and natural flavour accented with a touch of black pepper. To go with these, there’s the light and fluffy fried brown rice, cooked with several types of grains and studded with hon shimeji mushrooms, asparagus, goji berries and pine nuts.
Desserts present some intrigue, as you won’t find mango pudding, aloe vera jelly, or hashima. Eschewing the predictable, Empress puts out inspired selections, several of which showcase East and Southeast Asian produce in unusual but perfectly executed preparations. Cempedak lends itself well to a generous serving of crème brûlée with a paper-thin caramel crust. Longan makes a surprising appearance in a sticky date pudding sitting in a puddle of gula Melaka butterscotch, bejewelled with walnuts and sided by a pretty goji berry vanilla swirl ice cream.
Empress effortlessly blends technical mastery and finesse with ostensible simplicity. In some instances, it feels like Executive Chef Ricky Leung plays it a little too safe, which might be understandable for an establishment that, three months into opening, is perhaps trying to find its feet — it is, after all, The Privé Group’s first venture in the Chinese dining scene and the clientele it anticipates may be accustomed to lighter, more restrained dishes. But Empress has undoubtedly drawn a clear line between itself and other Chinese restaurants in this city and it might not be unreasonable to anticipate even bolder creations when the outfit comes into its own.
Empress, #01-03 Asian Civilisations Museum, 1 Empress Place; Tel: 6238 8733