Last Updated: July 4, 2017
Tucked away in a far corner of OUE Downtown Gallery is non other than Chen’s Mapo Tofu. Serving Chinese-inspired Japanese fare, this is a fuss-free dining option in town.
A sister concept by Shisen Hanten, the Japanese restaurant that was awarded two Michelin stars in 2016, we were definitely looking forward to trying the dishes.
The interior boasts a certain modern Japanese aesthetic to it with its warm interiors and bold splashes of red.
The tables in the centre of the restaurant are packed somewhat closely together, so this is definitely not a place you’d want to stay too long at for chatting. There are, however, a handful of booth seats as well which would be my preferred option.
After ordering, diners will be given a numbered paper slip, where you’ll then have to wait for the screen to call out your number.
When your number is called, head to the collection point and collect your order.
We started our meal with the highly-recommended Szechuan Popcorn Chicken ($4). After popping the first piece into my mouth, I couldn’t help but break into a little smile.
These little chunks of crispy chicken packed a serious punch in terms of spiciness and savouriness. Extremely addictive.
The Dan Dan Mien ($8.80) was a decent effort. With a light, nutty and mildly spicy broth, it made for a savoury but not overpoweringly jelak meal. Which I’m sure diners returning to the office shortly after will appreciate immensely.
The minced meat was well-marinated and had just a slight chew to it, which is how minced meat should be: a good balance between lean and fatty.
However, the noodles were a little too soft for my liking. Admittedly, I did leave it in the broth for quite some time before tucking in — that’s how engrossed I was in enjoying the popcorn chicken! — but even so, the noodles were limp and had no chew to it at all.
When the Tonpolo Don ($10.80) arrived, I couldn’t stop gushing over the beautiful sheen on the thick slabs of braised pork belly!
Initially, I was a little worried that four pieces of pork would not be filling enough. But after digging in, I realised just how meaty each piece was and my doubts were duly dispelled.
Seriously, just look at that.
The fatty layers were incredibly tender, resulting in a luxurious mouthfeel with a light layer of fat coating my entire palate. The lean layer (the bottom of the pork belly) was decently soft, but unfortunately still had a little too much chew at the centre of it.
Overall, definitely a better-than-average rendition but still a little short of being sublime.
I did a double take when I saw the Kaisen Katayaki ($12.80). Doesn’t it totally remind you of the sheng mian dish at neighbourhood zi char stalls?
The crispy noodles covered in a gloopy, starchy gravy was a very comforting and familiar experience. However, I did feel it was overly salty.
The seafood were fresh, with the prawns being crunchy and succulent, while the squid had a nice yielding chew to it.
However, I must admit that while there was nothing inherently wrong with the dish (save for the overly salty gravy), I had a hard time justifying its price tag — Essentially being a dish of sheng mian, $12.80 feels very pricey considering how we could get something very similar for around $5 in the heartlands.
Finally, the long-awaited namesake dish of the restaurant: the Mapo Don ($8.80 ala carte, $9.80 set meal with pickles and a drink).
Thick, spicy with a slight tingling sensation from the Szechuan peppercorns, each mouthful was packed with flavour. What makes it extra enjoyable is definitely the usage of the Japanese shortgrain rice, which boasts a springy chew that is absent from the regular Thai rice that we tend to encounter more commonly.
Notably, the spiciness level isn’t as high as the Chinese version of the dish despite its aggressive red-orange appearance. Instead, it is mellower and the spice plays a supporting role instead of dominating the entire dish, which I appreciated.
The result is a great balance of mouthfeel between the springiness of the rice and the smoothness of the tofu, which kept me reaching for more.
In fact, special mention goes to the tofu which still managed to shine through with its delicate soy flavour — a testament to the thoughtful balancing of flavours in this dish. Undoubtedly (and perhaps unsurprisingly) the best main course of the day, though simple.
While there were almost as many hits as misses, don’t let that sidetrack you. The restaurant is, after all, called Chen’s Mapo Tofu for a reason and I would still recommend coming here for a fuss-free lunch if you’re in the area.
Just stick to their signature Mapo Don and don’t forget to order a side of the ultra-addictive Szechuan Popcorn Chicken while you’re at it!
Expected Damage: $9 – $17 per person