Dining Out 2 minutes 12 January 2021

Behind The Bib: Chen’s Mapo Tofu

Fragrant, spicy mapo tofu with a mala kick is the namesake dish of this affordable offshoot of two-MICHELIN-starred Sichuan fine dining restaurant Shisen Hanten.

Chen’s Mapo Tofu
6A Shenton Way, #02-29
Downtown Gallery

Most guests come for one thing at two-MICHELIN-star Sichuan restaurant Shisen Hanten in the Mandarin Orchard Singapore: its signature Chen’s Mapo Tofu, a dish of silky tofu stir-fried in a spicy, fragrant Sichuan pepper inflected sauce, refined over three generations of illustrious Japanese father-and-son chefs. The dish costs a pretty penny at the swanky fine dining restaurant, but now, its fans can tuck into it without burning a hole in their pockets at Shisen Hanten’s casual offshoot Chen’s Mapo Tofu.

Watch Behind The Bib: Chen's Mapo Tofu here.

A CBD favourite, Chen’s Mapo Tofu is located on the second floor of Downtown Gallery right in the heart of Shenton Way. Running the show is executive chef Liew Tian Heong who worked with Shisen Hanten’s Chen Kentaro to develop the menu and concept for the casual eatery which opens its second outlet at The Star Vista in February. 

Chen’s famous namesake dish is reincarnated as Mapo Don here. Beyond the spice and tongue-tingling mala effect from Sichuan peppercorn, the meat sauce is deeply flavourful and fragrant as a result of the dou ban jiang, or fermented broad bean paste, that the eatery specially imports from the Sichuan-Pidu district. Carefully cooked with silky soft tofu upon order, the mapo tofu is then served on a hot bed of fluffy Hokkaido white rice.

(Photo: MICHELIN Guide Digital)
(Photo: MICHELIN Guide Digital)

“Chef Chen Kentaro and I have a close working relationship. In 2017, we decided to open Chen's Mapo Tofu and we did a lot of research and development to do our best to create flavours that would appeal to the Singaporean palate,” explains Liew. That was when the duo hit upon the idea of serving their essentially Sichuan dishes Japanese donburi-style, served over rice.

The concept was a hit with the office crowd in the business district who thronged the restaurant at lunch hour for its concise and clever menu which also offered value meals with drinks as well as rice-and-noodle combos with half portions of the eatery’s starring dishes—the Mapo Don and Dan Dan Mien—for the best of both worlds.

Chen’s Mapo Tofu received the Bib Gourmand distinction in the MICHELIN Guide 2019 selection, a recognition given to establishments that offer diners very good value for money, with a complete and high-quality menu priced at a maximum of SG$45. “When Chen's Mapo Tofu received the Bib Gourmand in 2019, we were elated,” said Liew, who still personally trains and guides the chefs through the preparation of the dishes to maintain consistency. “We felt that all our hard work and sacrifices had been recognised.”

(Photo: MICHELIN Guide Digital)
(Photo: MICHELIN Guide Digital)

What To Order

Of course, the namesake Mapo Don ($10.50) is the must-order dish on the menu, featuring a spicy, fragrant meat sauce stir-fried with clouds of soft tofu and served on fluffy short-grain rice from Hokkaido. Chen’s Nasu Don ($11.50) is an underrated star on the menu. Eggplant is deceptively hard to cook right in stir-fried dishes, and the eatery’s version hits all the right notes cooked in a toothsome pickled chilli sauce with the purple gem-like hue of the eggplant skin retained. Dan Dan Mien ($10.50) is another favourite, with the choice of springy Japanese ramen noodles in a nutty, spicy soup, or dressed simply in a peanut sauce with a heap of minced meat. As a side dish, MICHELIN Guide inspectors also recommend the Szechwan Popcorn Chicken ($5) with its crispy crust and juicy centre.

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