By SeeFoon Chan-Koppen

Chinese Foodies of my acquaintance have generally clung to the belief that pork-free restaurants are somehow lagging behind in the taste department when compared to their pork-serving counterparts and that a Chinese meal without pork is like cooking without soya sauce.

Well here in Ipoh, the Yuk Sou Hin at the Weil Hotel has consistently proven them wrong and now with the new Chef Chong Chee Yee at the helm of the revamped Chinese restaurant at the Kinta Riverfront Hotel, renamed Zui Xin Lao Seafood Restaurant, the myth of pork-free Chinese not being good enough will be shattered even further.

Chef Chong Chee Yee who hails from that ‘altar’ of Chinese gastronomy in Ipoh, Overseas Restaurant in Greentown, will soon be winning over pork-free naysayers (as well as our Muslim friends) and have them flocking to Zui Xin Lao for his delectable cuisine.

On entering the restaurant, one is immediately struck by the bank of fish tanks on the right, an aquarium of blue, each housing its captive catch, ‘tualang’ prawns or Udang Galah, medium sized abalone, medium sized Turbot flounder, Dragon tiger Garoupa or Loong Fu Pan, large Patin fish, Tilapia and Canadian oysters. The variety of fish changes regularly depending on availability but they are all live.

I went on two separate occasions and had the opportunity to sample their signature dishes the most notable of which were two which I will describe first.

The Baked Tilapia arrived encrusted in its thick blanket of salt and the crust cracked open at the table. Because the Tilapia had been sitting in its own tank of clean oxygenated water for a few days, there was nary a taste of muddiness to the fish and the fish was baked to just the right degree of ‘doneness’. The only thing I would have asked for would have been some virgin olive oil to drizzle over the fish (as I had in years past when eating this same dish in Italy) but as it’s not the Chinese custom to use virgin olive oil, I desisted! Our Tilapia for 10 people was RM132.

The next two clay pot specials are also signature dishes, with the only difference being the choice of meat. On one occasion I had the Lamb Brisket Clay Pot, a brimming simmering clay pot chockfull of lamb chunks, bean sheets and water chestnuts, and served with the most well-blended Fu Yu sauce. Now there is Fu Yu (preserved Chinese white bean curd or what some call Chinese cheese because of its distinctive fragrance and texture) and there is Fu Yu and the one used here is obviously top quality. Mixed with garlic, scallions, sesame oil and whatever else the Chef puts in, the sauce lifts the broth and the meat chunks to superlative heights, without which the claypot would be just plain mutton soup. Another option is to have the chicken and duck meat combination in the same umami broth. Tong Hou or Chinese Chrysanthemum greens are served raw for cooking in the broth after the meat has been fished out. RM45 for a small clay pot enough for 5.

The Hakka Siew Chao was light and had good ‘wok hei’ (wok spirit), a diced mix of Tsoi Po or preserved Daikon radish, long beans, slivered almonds, firm tofu, mushrooms, chilli and dried prawns, served with lettuce cups – RM39.

The Yin Yang Fried Rice deserves praise as it is an interesting departure from the usual run-of-the-mill fried rice which I usually avoid. Here, the Chef mixes his own ‘Fan Chiew’;   just as my grandmother would inadvertently produce when the rice which had been cooked over fire (none of your modern day rice cookers then) for just a bit too long and the bottom of the rice pot would have a slightly baked crispy layer, with fresh cooked rice and fries up a storm with the usual garnitures. The surprise crunch of the crispy bits of rice juxtaposed amongst the moist fluffy grains was interesting and delectable to boot – RM39.

Their Kwai Fah Meen was unusual. Thin egg vermicelli was stir fried with salted egg yolks, fresh egg, slivered carrots, bean sprouts and crab meat in the style of the famous Kwai Fah Tse (sharksfin which is no longer politically correct PC to order) and served with lettuce cups for wrapping – RM44.

Stewed soft bean curd squares served in a thickened soya based sauce with Chinese marrow and shimeji mushrooms was beautifully umami. RM3 each with a minimum order of 4 pieces.

The Garoupa Fish Head in clay pot is worth coming here for in addition to all the other temptations. Thick  chunks of very fresh Garoupa fish head, first deep fried and braised in a dark soya sauce with scallions and ginger till caramelized and each piece with its thick umami coating was heaven on the tongue – RM40.

We were then persuaded to try the Live Udang Galah or River prawns. The Chef’s special recipe called for grilling the prawns which were in the shell, butterflied, topped with a cheese and tomato sauce with Shimeji mushrooms, broccoli and cauliflower florets; which I had initially felt to be too ‘wannabe’ western but which to my surprise turned out to be delectable. RM121 for 4 medium/large prawns.

I was told that they could do the same for the oysters from Canada at RM17 per piece.

As for Chinese desserts, I usually avoid them, not having ever developed a sweet tooth but here at Zui Xin Lao, I have to admit to a new found passion for three of them: their coconut custard cream served in a whole coconut where you get to scoop out the young coconut meat RM13; their purple sweet potato balls coated in fresh grated coconut with a pandan lotus paste filling. RM2 each ball. And their steamed Almond and Egg white custard, velvety smooth almond custard that glides down your gullet faster than ice cream – RM9.

I will certainly recommend Zui Xin Lao to my prejudiced friends to take a new look at pork free dining. Call the amiable Restaurant Manager Cheng Choy Peng for any other recommendations.

Zui Xin Lao Seafood Restaurant (Pork Free)
Kinta Riverfront Hotel and Suites
Jalan Lim Bo Seng
Tel: 05 245 8888 (hunting line) 05 245 8818
Manager Cheng Choy Peng: 017 780 1207