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Venue Review: Merlion Restaurant & Wine Bar

Newly opened Merlion still finding its way
By "Aleta Watson"

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.

Singapore influences
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.

Overly sweet

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.

Decent desserts

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.

Reviews & Comments
CRITICS REVIEWS
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Sunday, October 14, 2007 - Aleta Watson

Three months after its official opening, this dramatically decorated Asian fusion restaurant is still finding its way. Service is inept though friendly, and the food is inconsistent. (Aleta Watson, Mercury News)

(Full review)
USER REVIEWS
Feb 28, 2008 - Bingo Book
I got coco powder in my Vodka

So here's the story. My friends and I decided to stop by here and get a bite to eat before seeing a movie. It was just opening so we figured we would support a new local business. The food was decent, but perhaps just not my thing. California fusion restaurants can be like that. It depends what aspects of food they want to fuse together, and in this case it was interesting, but nothing I felt strongly compelled to come back for.

The drinks are pretty expensive, so I figure these must be the highlight of the place. They had a pretty impressive looking bar, so it seemed like a safe bet. I look down the list and I see a chocolate vodka martini. Since I had completed my meal, I decided it was time for dessert and ordered it. For reference, it was called the Silver Surfer. What I got back was a martini glass of vodka, with what appeared to be crushed up coco puffs (the cereal) floating on top. I guess this was the aforementioned chocolate. All in all, a really "meh" drink, and considering it was $8.75, it was crap.

I definitely recommend giving it a shot. It deserves at least that, but be warned, it could be as big a waste of money for you as it was for me.

Aug 15, 2007 - emcg48
Great Food! Excellent Service

I decided to try out this new restaurant in my neighborhood for my brother's surprise birthday party. I had friends and relatives coming from SF and the East Bay so I was really hoping that this restaurant would work out. We were there at 7:30PM and liked the service so far...then at about 7:50PM, the power went out. We hung around for a bit waiting for the power to turn back on. The staff was amazing in keeping us informed and making sure that we were okay. They gave us some options of "cold" food items that didn't require cooking. We were a large group and finding another restaurant on a Friday night would have been difficult. Finally, the GM, Andy, offered to seat us at the outside patio while his kitchen staffed cooked up our order (it would be too smoky inside). So, we stayed and the kitchen staff cooked under candlelight! I kept telling myself, I hope that the food is good! It was! It was great! The sea bass was cooked perfectly. Noodles were yummy! The Basil Chicken will have you swooping the sauce out with your rice. It made it all worth it and to top it off, the restaurant staff went above and beyond making sure that we were okay. Highly recommended. If you are looking for great Asian Food cooked with a differrent flare....huge selection of great wines...excellent service....try Merlion in Cupertino! Plenty of parking and a great looking restaurant.

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Jul 06, 2007 - pobrien
Food okay, decent wine list, difficult decor

That about sums it up. The food is your typical Asian fusion fare with some interesting changes such as those made to their lettuce cups. The wine list is decent but expensive (especially relative to their food pricing). Its the decor that leaves me struggling for words... I suppose the best description is one step down from P.F. Chang's. They've intermingled nice, quality furnishings with cheap touches such as floors that look linoleum and an iconic Merlion made of plastic. It is worth stopping by as the food is unique enough that you may love it.