Cast off thoughts of wall-to-wall seafood tanks, fluorescent lights and late-night indiscretions from the kitchen staff of your favourite fine-diner. XOPP does not offer these. What it does do, though, is offer a roll-call of Golden Century classics in among new-wave dishes in a setting with better design and a little more wiggle room around the edges.
That’s the pitch anyway. This place is about a coming together of old and new say the briefing notes for Kengo Kuma’s bird’s nest of a building that houses the restaurant at Darling Square. And so says XOPP, a second act for a grand institution 30 years into its lifetime, led by Billy Wong, the son of Golden Century‘s founders, Linda and Eric Wong.
Does it work? In the design, at least, they’ve managed to avoid the funereal quality of the Wine Bank – the team’s other recent project – choosing to work with the circular flow of the mezzanine by keeping the sightlines open, and styling it in a way that happens to match the Nike Savvas installation that hangs into the food court below. Glassware and chopsticks are in shades of orange, bowls and plates in shades of green, while the ceiling – mirrored black with inset Chinoiserie fabric – recalls the panelled floor of the Millennium Falcon, if only Han Solo had had a fondness for Schumacher prints.
The food is just as considered, striking a balance between tradition (aided, no doubt, by the GC-trained chefs in the kitchen), and innovation (realised with the help of Zachary Ng, a chef honed by years at Sepia). So it is that the pork ribs served at the bar are rightly crunchy, and the crisp-skinned chicken – served with two sauces – is just that.
Ng’s more ambitious dishes bring some Western ideas into the fold – pork cheek on a celeriac purée topped with mustard seeds, say – but stay true to the principles of Cantonese cookery, enhancing and emphasising the natural taste of the ingredients. Like the cheek, siu mai have a sweet, clean taste, while chicken-liver parfait – served with fried bread – is lifted with Shaoxing. The parfait-in-a-jar presentation might be hackneyed, but the flavour isn’t.
Others reach further into China, but labels aren’t the game so much as enjoyment. Wong grew up with the hum of Golden Century’s dining room as a soundtrack, and his trick has been designing a menu informed by how people actually use the restaurant, without judgement.
It’s a surprise to see no live fish on the menu (it’s lobster, crab or pipis), but you’re ordering the pipis anyway. This is the party piece, the Signature Dish That Matters, even. The sweet clams are wok-tossed until they pop open, sauced in XO, then served on fried vermicelli (classic) or with savoury doughnuts and an extra bowl of sauce (less classic). It tastes of the sea and garlic and spice and funk in the same way it does at the original. A dish worth naming a restaurant after? Sure.
Not everything’s a hit; the typhoon shelter cauliflower is too oily. But the XO prawn roll in a fried bun, usually a bar-only snack, should be a nailed-on main-menu item. Ask, and staff might sneak it to your table. This kind of adaptability works in their favour, because the rest of the service can be chaos. It’s improving, and the tone is right, but there’s a way to go yet.
Jon Obseiston’s wine list, meanwhile, hits familiar notes: large, mostly French or local, with an emphasis on classic chardonnay, pinot and benchmark shiraz. Wines made for Golden Century – riesling by Henschke, chardonnay by Tyrrell’s – have been designed with matching in mind. Loose-leaf tea (an ask, rather than offer scenario) and Tsingtao keep things on the straight and narrow.
Dessert is more a curve. There are no watermelon slices, but there is a watermelon granita served over curd. It’s nothing special, but it’s fresh and playful. The lava custard buns riff on the breakfast-as-dessert thing, while the foaming bubble-tea panna cotta hits on an enduring classic.
New spins on classics can be fraught, and it was hard to tell where XOPP would land. Happily, the integral parts are in the right spots, and at its best it manages to take those things that made the original what it is, but still forge an identity of its own. If this is the future, the future is golden.