Restaurant review: Merlion

  • Photos by Alysia Burton
By Columbus Alive
From the May 10, 2012 edition

The merlion — a wild chimerical creature with the torso and tail of a fish (the “mer” part) and the roaring head of a lion (you got it!) — is a symbol of Singapore and the logo for our city’s only Singaporean restaurant, called … Merlion Noodle and Rice. Open only a couple of weeks, this inexpensive little Clintonville spot already has garnered a heap of fans.

So what’s Singaporean cuisine like? Well, that combo critter the merlion provides a clue, because Singaporean food is a hybrid, too. Its largest influences arise from China (most Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese), Indonesia and Malaysia (Singapore resides between those last two nations). Still, flavors from other cultures pop up in Singaporean dishes (Merlion Noodle and Rice makes a mild but quite nice, lemongrass-scented Thai-style chicken-and-potato curry plus samosa-like spring rolls) due to Singapore’s crossroads location and 63-island makeup.

At Merlion, you’ll find lots of satisfying soupy and interesting (if sorta oily) stir fry options that’ll happily engage palates of Chinese takeout lovers, but also arouse semi-exotic and spicy food seekers (always request “spicy” seasoning here). Speaking of take-out, though Merlion frequently attracts a nice little crowd, its ambience might best be described as “spotlessly clean.”

Before getting to Merlion’s memorable food, I recommend ordering one of their slightly unusual housemade drinks (both $2) like soy milk (bright, perfectly sweet and with a hint of Playdoh on the back end) or, my favorite, iced chrysanthemum tea (tastes like green tea ice cream but is creamsicle orange).

Two entrees are available only on weekends, but they’re worth a special visit. Bak Kut-Teh ($8.50, and a must!) is a homey and rustic soup with an insanely wonderful pork broth kissed by Chinese five spice. In this addictive liquid bob springy and sausagey meatballs, huge pork hunks (of belly and rib bone provenance) and tofu (in “skin” and spongy block form).

Hainan Chicken ($7.50) is Merlion’s comforting version of a classic dish. It was hacked-up and simply but perfectly poached chicken (skin-on and bone-in) enjoyed with soy-saucy sprouts, cilantro, scallions, a gingery hot sauce and cardamom-y rice.

Here’s some fine everyday Merlion fare:

• Mee Goreng ($7.75) Lively and spicy lo mein-like noodle stir-fry with jalapenos, hefty chunks of tender chicken and plenty of veggies (e.g. bok choy, zucchini, scallions)

• Char-Kway Teow Mee ($7.75) Similar to a less-spicy mee goreng but with tons of Chinese-style barbecue pork rib meat, plus thin and thick noodles

• Singapore Laksa ($7.50) A gigantic serving of tofu and chicken noodle soup with a milky broth and hint of chili heat