The exact origins of Hainanese Chicken Rice are unknown. Best guess is that it was created by migrants from Hainan Island in China, based on the famous Hainanese dish, the Wenchang Chicken. It's certainly not a dish found in Hainan itself. Popular across Southeast Asia, it has arguably gained greatest fame in Singapore, where it has been adopted as the de facto national dish.
Most of the, numerous, chicken rice places on the island nation are rather modest, coffee-shop types, save for Chatterbox at the Mandarin Orchard, a luxury hotel on Singapore’s most famous shopping street, Orchard Road. Chatterbox also happens to be one of the oldest, and most renowned chicken rice restaurants in town, a reputation it is not slow to play on, using the phrase "Taste The Legend" as its tagline. Chatterbox used to be wildly popular - I remember having to queue for ages for a table many (too many) years ago, when I was but a wee lad. Since then, the word was that Chatterbox's standards had steadily deteriorated, along with the crowds. I certainly know that in the latter years of my childhood, Chatterbox ceased to be a compulsory stop on trips to Singapore. It was to my great surprise, then, that my friends in Singapore suggested Chatterbox for lunch, when I visited them recently. But fair enough, the locals know best; I guess Chatterbox had managed to fix whatever had ailed it in the time since my last meal there, which I estimate, conservatively, at 15 years prior.
We arrived at 12:20pm, on a Saturday afternoon - bang in the middle of what should have been the peak lunchtime hour - the Chatterbox of yore would have had a queue around the proverbial block. Today, we were able to walk straight in, which I initially thought was a result - we had managed to nab one of the last few tables before the crowds came in - only to spy, upon being seated, a fair number of spare tables, tables that were to remain vacant throughout the lunch service. It was a large room, admittedly, but so was the space the restaurant used to occupy, and fill many times over, on the ground floor. Perhaps its astronomical prices had put people off - a plate of chicken rice was a whopping $27 - easily the most expensive on the island I have no doubt.
We all had the Mandarin Chicken Rice, and also got a serving of Mandarin Fried Chicken Wings: marinated with five spices and chef's secret recipe sauce, to share.
The fried chicken had a decent flavour to it thanks to the 5-spice marinade, but was over-fried. As for the "chef's secret recipe sauce" - nothing all that special. It was passable.
The chicken rice, meanwhile, was bouncy and well-oiled; the poached chicken moist and tender, and came in a delightful light, sweet soy sauce. It was, by all accounts, a very good rendition. But whilst there was nothing wrong with it, there wasn't anything particularly blow-you-away about it either. And given it's longstanding, "legendary" reputation, and claim to be the very best in Singapore, that qualifies as a disappointment.
In a nutshell...
Was this an enjoyable chicken rice meal? Sure. Was it one of the better chicken rice meals I've had? Definitely. But was it blow-me-away good? No. And at $27 a pop, I class that as a failure. I actually wouldn’t have minded paying the whopping prices here, if the dish was in fact as good as advertised; but it simply wasn’t. To those of you who have thus far refused to cough up such an inordinate amount for a plate of humble chicken rice - you ain't missing that much.
Mandarin Orchard, 333 Orchard Road, 238867, Singapore
Average Price: SGD 40