The Straits Times, July 1, 2010
By Ng Kai Ling & Lim Wei Chean
Shock for guest at RWS restaurant who goes with waiter's recommendation
SINGAPORE: When it comes to fish, it pays to know your soon hock from your sultan.
Wild-caught species of the latter are exceedingly rare, and can cost more than $300 per kg at restaurants here.
Now, a debate is brewing about whether customers should be told upfront if an item they order comes with a price tag that is off the charts.
It was sparked by the case of a customer who wanted to be known only as Mr Liu, who went to the Feng Shui Inn restaurant at Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) with four friends from Hong Kong on June 12.
Mr Liu originally wanted to order a soon hock or Marble Goby dish, but when told that the restaurant had run out of it, he went with a waiter's recommendation and ordered sultan fish instead.
He told the Chinese evening newspaper Lianhe Wanbao that the waiter did not tell him the price of the fish, but he assumed it would be about the same price as soon hock, which costs about $90 per kg.
But Mr Liu said he and his friends got a shock when they received a bill for $1,224 for the 1.8kg fish.
He complained and received a 15 per cent discount. But his main grouse was that the waiter did not let him know the price of the sultan when he recommended it.
When contacted, RWS spokesman Robin Goh explained that Feng Shui Inn serves a very premium clientele. He said: 'It is not always appropriate to state menu prices to high-end customers who have come to expect certain discretion, especially when they entertain high-level guests. This is a practice shared by most high-end restaurants.'
For customers who are not familiar with the restaurant's menu, the staff are trained to check prices with them and to offer the information to those who ask, he said.
He added it is not uncommon for their customers to order items costing more than $1,000, but he conceded there may have been a 'lapse of judgment' concerning Mr Liu's group.
Consumers Association of Singapore president Yeo Guat Kwang said the onus is on the restaurant to let the customer know the price so that he can make an informed choice.
'Cases like this highlight the need for some businesses to enhance their standard operating procedures. They need to highlight the price to their customers, especially when the difference is so great.'
Other high-end restaurants like Pan Pacific Singapore's Hai Tien Lo and Peach Garden said it is 'standard procedure' to inform customers of the price when it comes to premium items.
Mr Eldwin Chua, managing director of Paradise Group Holdings, said: 'We don't dare offer guests premium fish or dishes without letting them know the price.'
The sultan fish, also known as mad barb or ikan jelawat, is a freshwater fish found in rivers in Malaysia, Thailand and Laos. It commands a high price tag because they are rarely caught in the wild, said suppliers and chefs here.
Mr Andy Cham, who runs fish trading company Sai Kim Enterprise in Malaysia, said that because of overfishing, there is very little stock left in the wild. 'Most sultan fish in the market are reared in fish farms.'
Such farm-reared fish, which can grow up to 60cm long, cost as little as RM10 (S$4.30) per kg, but wild-caught fish can sell for at least RM60, added Mr Cham. Add export and other associated costs, and the price balloons.
Mr Eric Teo, executive chef at Mandarin Oriental Singapore, said that suppliers sell the fish at about $300 per kg if they are caught alive.
A Straits Times visit to Feng Shui Inn found that sultan fish is not listed on the menu, but staff said customers can check their tanks for special fish, which are available depending on supply.
Mr Liu told Wanbao the taste of the fish was 'OK' but did not leave a lasting impression.