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Ben Yeo & Partners Spend $1Mil On Mod Chinese Restaurant In Little India Conservation House

The casual-chic Tan Xiang Yuan serves a superbly crispy roast chicken cooked by the protégé of a popular Cantonese chef. 
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Ben Yeo, 44, is serious about creating an F&B empire. In the past two years, the actor has started five concepts – online biz SG Chee Cheong Fun, food stalls SG Umami, Geon Bae Lok Lok, Charcoal Fish Head Steamboat Restaurant, and beer garden, Playground. His newest baby, mod Chinese restaurant Tan Xiang Yuan, opens November 15. 

Situated in a two-storey conservation house in Little India, Tan Xiang Yuan is Ben’s biggest and most ambitious venture yet. The chic restaurant which offers “mid- to high-end Chinese cuisine” like Peking duck, luxe seafood hotpot, double-boiled soups, and live seafood, cost almost $1 million to set up.

The bulk of the cost was spent on renovations and outfitting the detached house at 1 Dickson Road — around $800,000. Though Ben and his four partners from the steamboat biz, including chef Cao Yong (they also have a few other sleeping partners), knew they would have to splash big bucks to transform the “pretty rundown” space previously occupied by a coffee shop, they decided to go for it. 

“We like heritage buildings, so when we saw this house, we fell in love with it. It looks like a kampong house too. Though it is located in Little India, Dickson Road was home to the Chinese community, so we felt it is in line with the food we’re offering,” Ben tells 8days.sg.

Despite dipping his toes in many businesses, Ben has no intentions of quitting showbiz. “Acting is my main job, while the F&B businesses are my ‘investments’. I still devote more time to hosting and acting as I have partners to take care of the businesses. If Tan Xiang Yuan does well, I hope to open another outlet next year,” he says.

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Planned to open another zi char joint originally

It was never Ben’s intention to start a modern Chinese restaurant. The team had originally planned to open a second Charcoal Fish Head Steamboat outlet, but changed their minds after seeing the charming space.

“We felt it would be a waste to run a zi char restaurant in such a nice place,” explains Ben, “so we decided to offer mod Chinese cuisine instead as Cao Yong (who was part of Team Singapore at the 2015 World Championship Chef Competition in Shanghai) is familiar with it. We are not trying to win any Michelin stars, but if we do win awards, then thank you very much.”

Kitchen is helmed by chef Chan Chen Hei’s protégé

Though the restaurant’s name is very similar to the Chinese moniker of their zi char stall — Tan Xiang Fish Head Steamboat — this is not an elevated version of the stall. 

Tan Xiang Yuan features a completely different menu created by Cao Yong and their head chef Lim You Chai, 54, protégé of the once popular Cantonese chef Chan Chen Hei of Hai Tien Lo and now-defunct Chef Chan’s Restaurant fame. You Chai worked under Chef Chan for 14 years. His last stint was assistant cook at Long Beach Seafood Restaurant in Dempsey for eight years.

Interestingly, Ben had worked with You Chai during his teens when he was attached to Hai Tien Lo as an intern while he was studying culinary arts at SHATEC.

The look

With its mix of old, modern and oriental touches, the 100-seat (30 indoors and 70 outdoors) eatery, which occupies the ground floor of the conservation house, exudes casual sophistication. The alfresco courtyard is designed like a garden, complete with lush potted plants, a metal “moongate” and rickshaw. Some of the house’s original elements such as the timber windows and doors were left as is to add old-world charm to the space.

While the facade of the house was left untouched, the interior was completely overhauled. Done up in cement screed, woody tones and punctuated by retro and Chinoiserie accents, it gives off a cosier vibe. 

The design also takes cues from the restaurant’s moniker (tan means charcoal in Chinese). Splashes of black can be found on the artfully chiselled concrete bar and charcoal tiger mural feature wall. Drawn by American artist Sean Dunston, the mural cost $9,000 and took one week to complete.

Illuminated by mood lighting, the restaurant exudes a completely different vibe after dark. 

The menu

The menu here leans towards Cantonese cuisine with a contemporary twist. According to Ben, it features “more than 80 dishes”, including signatures like charcoal seafood hotpot, Ying Yang Seafood Hor Fun, live seafood and dim sum platters. 

“Besides lunch and dinner, we want customers to come here for high tea too. Instead of cakes, we offer dim sum and a variety of desserts like orh nee, fried mao shan wang and egg tarts. You can have coffee too,” he says.

Fans of the old Chef Chan's Restaurant can also expect his famed dishes like crispy roast chicken and sauteed diced beef with black pepper sauce. 

“I miss the roast chicken. The last time I had it was at Chef Chan's Restaurant at the National Museum of Singapore [before it shut in 2015], so when I met Chef You Chai again, I asked him if he still remembers how to make this dish. [When he said yes], I knew we had to offer it,” says Ben.

Hand Drizzled Roast Chicken, $48 (8 DAYS Pick!)

Peculiar name, awesome roast chicken. The skin, with most of the fat underneath rendered off, is thin and crunchy, while the meat is perfectly tender and juicy – even the breast. To achieve this, the chook is marinated in an upright position overnight to remove as much moisture as possible. It is briefly deep-fried in high heat to create a crispy skin while keeping the meat moist and tender, and then “drizzled” with hot oil for around eight minutes to further crisp up the skin. However, only 20 birds are available each day thanks to this time-consuming cooking method, so call to order in advance.

Yin Yang Seafood Hor Fun, from $22 for small 

Hor fun done two ways. Wok hei-laden san lou hor fun cooked with sliced red grouper, squid, prawn, and scallop is topped with deep-fried hor fun strips. Give the noodles a good toss so you get crunchy and airy hor fun crackers with every bite. But don’t leave it sitting out for too long as it gets soft quickly.

Seafood Hotpot, $98 (8 DAYS Pick!)

If you’re a fan of Ben’s charcoal fish head steamboat, you’ll definitely want to order this luxe seafood version swimming with delicacies like abalone, prawns, fish maw, scallops, and red grouper slices. Made by simmering prawn shells, old hen, pork bone and chicken feet for 12 hours, the rich yellow-tinged broth is bursting with umami and collagen. Very comforting. If you want add-ons, you can choose live seafood from the tank. Our only gripe is we have to sit outdoors if we want to order the hotpot due to the strong smoke from the burning charcoal.

Mao Shan Wang Durian Chilli Crab Ball, $20 for three pcs

Think of this as a charcoal-infused deep-fried yam dumpling puff with a durian puree and chilli crab centre. Unique, but rather confusing, with piquant, tangy and pungent flavours hitting your palate all at once. Comes with refreshing sour plum-infused cherry tomatoes.

Angelica Black Pepper Crab, $10.80/100g

An elegant interpretation of black pepper crab plated in the form of a sculpture. To enhance the aromatic flavours, the Sri Lankan live crab, weighing around 1kg, is stir-fried with finely ground dang gui (Chinese angelica root) and black pepper. With its earthy and sharp flavours, this is a level up from regular black pepper crab.

Handmade Fish Curd with Luffa Melon, $20 for small 

Not tofu but fried “fish curd” handmade with fish paste and egg. Taste and texture-wise, it resembles tofu, and is a little bland, but drenching it with superior stock gravy helps give it some flavour.

Bottom line

Well-executed contemporary Cantonese dishes by a veteran chef in a casual-chic setting – this might be Ben’s best F&B offering yet. The perfectly cooked roast chicken here alone is worth a visit. Our only grouse? There are limited birds sold daily and only 30 indoor seats available at the mostly alfresco restaurant, so make a reservation early if you wish to enjoy your meal in air-conditioned comfort .

The details

Tan Xiang Yuan opens Nov 15 at 1 Dickson Rd, S209493. Opens daily except Mon 11am-11pm. Last order at 10pm. Tel: 8058 5527. More info via Instagram

Photos: Kelvin Chia

No part of this story or photos can be reproduced without permission from 8days.sg.

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