Venue Review: Merlion Restaurant & Wine Bar
Even before Merlion Restaurant officially opened on the lucky date of July 7, 2007, its towering white statue of a lion head atop a fishtail was turning heads on Stevens Creek Boulevard in Cupertino.
The fanciful merlion, a replica of Singapore's tourism icon, has helped make the 146-seat restaurant a landmark at the Marketplace shopping center across the street from Cupertino Square. In the evening, the dining room's two-story rotunda glows from within.
Owner William Chang, a Singapore native and chief technology officer of Stryker Corp., has pulled out all the stops with this ambitious new Asian fusion venture, his third restaurant in the South Bay. (Chang also owns the Great Mall Mayflower in Milpitas and Prima Taste in San Jose.)
Another merlion, this one a marble fountain, guards the entrance courtyard, and a smaller statue of the fictional beast reigns in the dining room. Intricately carved teak panels back the long, gleaming bar. A curving wine rack rises almost two stories behind a wall of glass, and a handpainted mural of Singaporean history embellishes a private dining nook. The exhibition kitchen sparkles with stainless steel.
It's a theatrical setting with an ambitious pan-Asian menu and prices to match. Yet the dining experience didn't measure up to the restaurant's glossy image on my visits. Service was well-meaning but inept, and the food rarely hit the high notes. To make matters worse, the cushy booths encircling the dining room were uncomfortable, their benches placed so far from the narrow tables that diners have to perch on the edge to eat.
Traditional dishes, such as the hot and flaky roti flat bread with a subtle curry dipping sauce ($6.95), are the kitchen's strength. The banana flower salad ($7.95), which draws on Thai and Vietnamese traditions, is a lovely blend of crisp textures and bright, citrus flavors.
Sambal prawns ($16.95), on the other hand, had a disturbingly spongy texture beneath their mildly spicy tomato sauce. And some of the more innovative offerings give fusion a bad name. Among them is the signature oven-smoked Chilean sea bass ($25.95), marinated in a sticky, sweet Chinese barbecue sauce. Its assertive sauce overwhelms the mild flavor of the nicely cooked fish. Oddly crunchy gnocchi seem mismatched with the beef rendang, the cubes of beef tender as pot roast, swimming in a coconut gravy.
Sweetness is the common denominator for too many dishes, including the char kway teo rice noodles stir-fried with Chinese sausages, shrimp and eggs ($12.95). It works, though, in the Thai meugkum and prawns wrap ($7.95) -- seven spinach leaves, each topped with a tiny wedge of lime, a small shrimp, ginger and roasted peanuts and coconut -- for which the sweet dipping sauce serves as a foil for the lime.
Service was problematic. At dinner, our chatty server would have been better suited to a coffee shop than an upscale restaurant. Although Merlion bills itself as a restaurant and wine bar, there was little evidence she had been trained on the topic. First, she misidentified as merlot the glass of Domaine Fournier Sancerre ($12) -- a French white wine -- I ordered from the four-page list dominated by respected California labels. Then, when she returned from the bar, she reported, ''Our bartender says we may be out of the Sancerre. He's going to surprise you with something else.''
I declined the surprise and asked her to check to see they were truly out of my choice. A few minutes later, a charming manager arrived, bearing a glass of white wine that she couldn't identify beyond saying it was from Sterling winery. I turned it down, too, in favor of a dependably crisp Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc ($10). We never saw the first server again. Days later, I noticed I had been charged for the Sancerre rather than the less expensive Crawford.
Lunch service was better -- wine wasn't an issue. But pacing remained a problem. My companion and I had barely touched our pleasantly spicy potato samosas ($7.95), wrapped in outsize wonton wrappers and deep fried, when bussers began crowding our small table with everything else we had ordered.
Then we were all but abandoned and had to flag down our server to order dessert. When lunch for two runs nearly $68 before the tip, it seems only fair to expect more attention than you get at the corner sandwich shop.
Western influences are strong in the desserts, from the satisfying warm chocolate chocolate cake ($8) with vanilla ice cream and fresh berries to an agreeable coconut rum tiramisu ($8), creamy pastry cream layered in a glass sundae cup with papaya, pineapple, strawberries and cake crumbs.
For sheer drama, it's hard to beat the summer delight ice ($7.50), a creative take on the traditional Singaporean shaved ice dessert. A sculpted ice bowl -- filled with fresh berries, melon and mango -- balances artistically atop a mountain of shaved ice striped like a rainbow with lemongrass, rose and sarsi seed syrups. Buried inside are grass jelly, jackfruit, palm seeds and red beans.
Merlion shows its potential best when it sticks close to tradition.