Saturday, March 19, 2011

I have seen the light, and it is glorious

Having never lived anywhere in Singapore but the East side of town, I naturally maintain an irrational allegiance to the foods that can be found here. For the longest time I thought myself backed up by fact, for it’s hard to argue with the assorted wonders of Geylang, Katong, Joo Chiat, East Coast, Eunos – I could go on. But this past week my eyes were opened to some of the hawker foods found in other parts of town, and I humbly stand corrected. It is not just the East – you can find good food in any neighbourhood.

Foong Kee
6 Keong Saik Road

I had heard about this famous wanton mee and roast meats stall for the longest time but never had the opportunity to try it, for my allegiance to all things East resulted in a rather insular pattern of eating. But since I found myself in the neighbourhood of this institution, I decided to give it a go. I arrived as the lunch hour was winding down, so street parking was easy to find, and a seat miraculously opened up exactly as I stepped into the store.

It’s become cliché by now to refer to hawker stalls as “no-frills”, but there is really no better descriptor. The lack of frills is evident not just in the décor, but also in the whole setup of the establishment. This is eating at its most efficient: you come in, you place your order, take a drink from the cooler if you fancy one, then find your own seat and wait. Sometimes you share a table with complete strangers. Communal mugs of chopsticks and other utensils are whisked from table to table and you take what you need. Unless you’re a fan of peeling wallpaper, there is nothing about your surroundings to inspire aesthetic appreciation. If you’re lucky, your food arrives in five to ten minutes, and you scarf it down wordlessly. There is no room for sentimentality, no need for conversation or pause. It feels almost wrong to dally or take a photo of the food. For someone that enjoys dinner table conversation and post-dessert lingering almost as much as the food itself, it’s strange that I enjoy this mode of dining so much.

And boy have I been missing out. The noodles here are springy and alive, coated generously in a black sauce more savoury than sweet. The char siew is the piece de resistance – marbled with fat and charred to a crisp on the edges. The other components leave much to be desired – wantons are nothing to write home about, and the soup is purely utilitarian – but it all makes for a rather satisfying meal nonetheless.

Siang Hee
Blk 89 Zion Road, #01-137

It is imperative to find and maintain a group of people – amongst your network of serious foodies – with whom you can eat tze char. This mode of dining is best with more people – 5 or 6, or more – since you can order many dishes. Unfortunately, a bigger group means more scheduling difficulties, more individual dietary restrictions or preferences to cater to. It’s hard to find a group of people who you can count on to always be there for good tze char, and are always game to try anything.

I met up with my tze char buddies the other night at Siang Hee after discovering that Bernard had never tried it. It had been a while since I’d been there too, so I was curious to see if it had changed. It had not. It was the same dingy corner in the same block of flats along Zion Road. The clientele was exactly the same – a group of taxi drivers meeting for dinner, either at the end of their day shift or the start of their night one; assorted couples and families. The menu was still the same, and the famous dishes – I am glad to report – have not lost their lustre.

Siang Hee is famous mainly for two things – their roasted pork knuckle (or ter kah) and the deep fried prawns in pumpkin sauce. Both had not changed a lick, although the pork knuckle was a little dry on this occasion. We also had the French beans and a dish of their house-made toufu, but while passable they were not as transcendent as the two star dishes. We also ordered a plate of hor fun with fish slices, which was a little disappointing.

In any case, as long as they keep making their two specialties, I will continue to come here. Parking is cheap and easy, the breeze makes outdoor dining bearable, the auntie who runs the place is friendly and the food is cheap. That last factor is the true winner, I think.

Sungei Road Laksa
27 Jalan Berseh (Top 33 Kopitiam)

For someone who has grown up in the East, I guess it was complacent to think that versions other than Katong laksa could never compare. I had heard of the famous Sungei Road laksa, but I must have sampled an inferior knock-off once and written it off since. So when two of my colleagues, whose love of laksa and appreciation of quality are beyond reproach, both chose this as their favourite laksa, it was time for a re-evaluation. After ascertaining the location of the true Sungei Road laksa, I was off.

I was told that two things would guide me to the true Sungei Road laksa – the long queue, and the huge pots of gravy warmed by charcoal fires. I reached the place mid-afternoon, so there was no queue, but the sight of the huge pots and the smell of the coal fire were unmistakable.

The Sungei Road laksa has adopted a different business model – to sell cheaply to many – from the Katong laksa franchises – which practice product-price differentiation. The Katong stalls, whichever the original one may be, price their product higher and in fairness, do give you more quantity and better quality ingredients like prawns and thicker, better slices of fishcake. The Sungei Road version comes in small bowls and is priced at a ridiculous $2, but has no prawns, and only a few measly thin slices of fishcake. That is no matter, though, because the true star here is the gravy. Less lemak, and more oily than Katong, it is nevertheless better balanced and delivers a more powerful kick of umami. The noodles here, too, edge it slightly – the ones used here retain flavour better and are cooked to the perfect texture.

As a lifelong Eastie it pains me to say this, but I think I might prefer this version to the Katong laksa.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The fabric of community

Restoran Oversea
No. 100 Beach Road, #01-27 to #01-37,
Shaw Leisure Gallery, Shaw Tower
Singapore 189702
Tel: +65 6294 2638

I have begun to feel more and more that doing business, as it were, is about so much more than just dollars and cents. It’s about, among other things, making an imprint on the fabric of society – about bettering the lives of others through your product or service. The best business ideas come out of making someone’s life just that bit easier, efficient or enjoyable. It sounds trite, but it is, I think, rather apt especially in the restaurant world, or small business in general. You don't just go to a restaurant because you want to take it easy and not have to cook or wash up; you go because you want to enjoy yourself and have a good time eating out. The best restaurants, in my view, are the ones that transform their local community and become an indelible part of it. They become – slowly, bit by bit – part of the lives of their customers, until a community coalesces around them. Families trooping to a particular restaurant for regular Sunday dinners, or couples going back to a place because it’s the restaurant they went to on their first date – a restaurant is often so much more than just a place to eat.

So when restaurants close, the loss is not just the loss of a place to eat. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as much a fan of regeneration as anyone else, because it also means that a new set of folks are pursuing their dreams, making their own imprint on the landscape and community. I can only hope that the ones who were there before have moved on to bigger, better dreams. In any case, the ground floor restaurant space at Shaw Leisure Gallery – for so long Ah Yat Seafood Palace – was recently opened again as the first Singapore branch of Restoran Oversea (海外天), the famous Jalan Imbi restaurant in KL renowned for its char siew.

I met Winnie for dinner there last night, and the new owners had definitely spruced it up a little bit. A sleek if somewhat overwrought bar counter defined the room, and the fish tanks that had housed Ah Yat’s live seafood were replaced by booths. A ceiling to floor screen marked out what was for all intents and purposes a private room. There was a reasonable crowd for a restaurant that had only been open for a month, but it was by no means packed.

You have to pre-order the char siew, as you do with their 功夫汤 – a soup specialty of theirs, which Winnie had done. When the char siew came it glistened under the bright white lights of the restaurants, and it was all we could do to hold off attacking it while we took a photo for posterity. I’ve met people who are religious about taking photos of their food and I always wonder what they do with the photos, and why they take photo-taking to the extents that they do. Some don’t even consider the aesthetic quality of their subject. I’ve seen people take photos of green bean soup, which looks – even if you do it well – like an unidentifiable green mush. Why do they do it? I can never understand. For me the enjoyment of the meal comes first, and sometimes I am so overwhelmed by the urge to eat that photos be damned. And if the photo-taking puts off what happens to be perfectly charming conversation and the mood of the moment, then I often think better of it. In this case I had promised my colleague that I would take a photo of the char siew just to show him the quantity you get, which isn’t a lot for twenty bucks.

But I suppose you do pay that sort of money for quality, which the Oversea char siew definitely is. Fatty, succulent and carved into substantial enough cubes to be a gloriously meaty bite, it compared very well with the version in KL and indeed other versions elsewhere. It was a little sweet at first taste, but then I found that eating it together with the Chinese parsley added tartness and improved the experience.

The 功夫汤 – gongfu soup – was a cheesy take on gongfu tea: medicinal soup double boiled in clay teapots. What this meant was that by pouring the soup out into miniature teacups, you could drink the soup on its own without the ingredients. Of course, you could also open up the teapot to get at the various pork cubes, dried scallops and all other manner of goodness hidden within. It was certainly a very interesting presentation and it didn’t hurt that the soup was delicious – intensely flavoured, yet light and refreshing.

I think that since it is early days for the restaurant, they are still working out what their popular dishes are, and the right quantities of ingredients to stock. As a result, they had run out of several of the things I had wanted to try. The XO duck tongues, claypot pork ribs and roast duck were all out. We wound up ordering a couple of other "second choice" dishes to round out our meal, but they didn’t hit the heights of the char siew and the soup. The sambal eggplant could have been great, but they hadn’t salted the eggplant enough beforehand so it was still a little bitter; and they hadn’t cooked it long enough, for the skin on the eggplant was a tad too firm for my liking. I like my eggplant mushier. The teppanyaki beef rib was well flavoured and tender, but alas, nothing out of the ordinary.

Expanding overseas (pardon the pun) is never an easy thing, especially for restaurant chains. Setting up a whole new supply chain, sourcing and procuring ingredients, hiring, dealing with a whole new set of regulations, approvals, permits – it is a significant investment of time and resources. So you shouldn’t do it if you’re not planning to stay. I hope Restoran Oversea is here to stay; from what I have seen I have no doubt that they do good work and can become a local institution. For their sake I look forward to many more families trooping there for their Sunday dinners and couples headed there for first dates or anniversaries.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Adventures in China, part 1 of hopefully many to come

Bing Sheng Restaurant
33 Dongxiao Lu, Guangzhou, China
+86(20) 3428 6910

I’ve recently been reading Calvin Trillin’s Tummy Trilogy, which should be required reading for any serious foodie. I believe the person who first told me of the books some four or five years ago may have used the same words, but for some reason I have only now gotten around to it. Now that I have, I am likely to repeat those words to anyone who will listen. No matter, because the books hold up remarkably well despite the years, and the joy that Trillin experiences in travelling and eating around much of America is just as heartwarming in the seventies as it is today, perhaps even more so.

I honestly believe that there is a lot of good food in America and most of it does not get much acclaim beyond local or regional press, or word-of-mouth. I myself have spent a lot of time chasing the regional specialties that America has to offer, from barbecue in Texas (and Kansas), through Creole/Cajun cuisine in New Orleans, or the Low Country fare in Charleston. Today, as much as around the time Trillin wrote his books, there are many kitchens, diners and restaurants dotting the US of A which do good and honest work. I have been fortunate enough to taste the specialties of many of these places but I am sure there are many more I have missed out on.

For America in the seventies, consider China today and you have worlds upon worlds of similar possibility. So many regional cuisines, so many places to eat in, so many things to try, and only one stomach, only one lifetime in which to try as much as you can. I think the Chinese are one of the most inventive when it comes to food. Much of this may be bred by necessity, but often it results in some rather spectacular dining. I was in Guangzhou recently and had a chance to experience the highs and lows of travel eating.

One of the problems described by Trillin in his travels across America is the finding of the best places to eat. You're on unfamiliar ground both literally and figuratively, and while it may be easy to corner a random stranger for a recommendation you can never be quite sure if it's going to be a good one in the end. Some people are, horror of horrors, most decidedly not as particular about food as you are. It’s all very different now, of course, with the Internet and with mobile telephony and the wealth of information we have at our fingertips these days - which was demonstrated wonderfully when it came time for lunch. One of my companions whipped out his Blackberry, texted his friend in Hong Kong and instantaneously got a recommendation on where to eat. After spending a few minutes online locating the restaurant and how to get there – we were off. The recommendation in question turned out to be one Bing Sheng Restaurant, which in itself meant nothing to us at the time. It was only after I’d gotten back and Googled the place a little more did I realize that it was a rather well-regarded restaurant with lots of history (and several branches). Good on them.

If you travel much in China (and especially coming from a small dot of a country like Singapore), one thing you will be hit by constantly is the scale of things – everything is often very much bigger. Bing Sheng itself is one of those banquet restaurants housed in its own building (with a separate cottage in the yard for supplies – imagine that!). I didn’t walk around, but from the three storeys of seating space it looked like it could seat at least 400-500 people at full capacity. That, to me, is mind boggling. That would mean feeding a thousand people every night if they did just two turns, and to do that requires a platoon of cooks and a battalion of waiters and runners and dishwashers, not to mention enough bulbs of garlic to fill a small apartment. The sheer logistics involved in running a restaurant of that size was all I could think about as we sat down to order.

There were a couple of dishes that had been recommended to us so that left us less room to maneuver around the menu, even given our capacity to stuff ourselves. Given the standard of living in China and its currency position, eating out is still insanely affordable for tourists, so we had no hesitation in over-ordering. The captain rolled her eyes at us more than once while taking our order, though that might have been due either to the staggering amount of food we ordered, or the equally staggering and infinitely maddening indecision we displayed in ordering it. We had arrived at the tail end of lunch hour, so while the fortunate thing was that the restaurant was emptying, they had unfortunately run out of several dishes we wanted to try. In particular the roast goose.

One of the implications of having such a large restaurant is that your kitchen must be designed accordingly, to be as efficient as possible. This means dividing responsibilities into stations, it means cooking several orders at once to save time. What this means to the customer is that food can come out at very different timings. (Obviously the kitchen is not going to hold your food while the rest of your order is being finished, there would be no space on the pass to keep every table’s order.) It is something you have to deal with at all Chinese restaurants. If you are not particular, it is not much of a big deal. But if you are particular about having your food available at timings reasonably close to one another, or even about the order in which you eat things (I like to drink my soup first, then eat my animal protein before vegetable; starch is always the last before dessert) – then it is cause for despair.

In any case, Bing Sheng does serve up some pretty tasty food, so I couldn’t complain too much. The very first dish we got was one of goose intestine in black bean sauce, which was spectacular. Other special mentions included a dish of char siew done two ways – one more traditionally roasted and the other deep fried. The deep fried version used unimaginably fatty cubes of pork, and was done such that each cube exploded upon contact into a mouthful of pork fat flooding the tongue. Let’s get this straight, this was sinful as hell. But god damn was it ever worth it.

My favourite dish of the meal, however, came as a bit of a surprise. We had ordered a random tofu dish (the requisite vegetable protein) just by looking at the pictures on the menu and pointing, and it turned out to be pieces of tofu fried first to give the skin texture, then braised in superior stock together with wild mushrooms and wantons. For some reason they called this 水鬼重豆腐, which literally translates into “tofu as heavy as water ghosts”. I think the rationale was that the pieces of tofu in stock looked like corpses floating in water. I don’t know what marketing genius came up with that idea. The tofu I suppose was smooth enough and had good flavour, but the real winner here was the stock, which was bursting with umami yet light enough to slurp by the bowlful.

When you travel to an unfamiliar place and you don’t have the time to do the hard yards and research your meals beforehand, stumbling as we did upon Bing Sheng was a godsend. Not everything was great there, of course – a dish of watercress fell way short of expectations – but as a whole it had been very, very good indeed. I just can’t imagine that place at full capacity. What chaos that must be!

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

What would you pay for?

Waku Ghin @ Marina Bay Sands
10 Bayfront Avenue
Singapore 018956
Tel: +65 6888 8507

So despite all my rhetorical remonstrations about the rising price of fine dining in Singapore, in the end I’m still a sucker for it. I still want to be wowed, I still want to be shown a good time. Maybe those good times don’t come along as often as I’d like, but they represent a luxury that I am unwilling to forego completely. Shanaz was in town the other week, and we took the opportunity to try one of the celebrity chef restaurants at the Marina Bay Sands casino – Waku Ghin, by Tetsuya Wakuda.

What is it that you pay for, anyway, at these places that see fit to charge such astronomical prices? The way I see it, I’d gladly pay such high prices for several things. First – the cost of quality, fresh ingredients. It is not cheap air-freighting, say, fresh-caught seafood from miles and miles away on a daily basis, and ensuring that the seafood reaches your table in a time better measured in hours rather than days, all the while making sure it stays fresh. Secondly, I’d pay for talent. If the guy’s a good cook, you’ve got to hand it to him. But seriously, I know these restaurants have to pay a little more to attract skilled front and back of the house professionals, and the staff-to-customer ratios at these places are often really low – to ensure an unforgettable, pampering experience for the diner. Then there are the costs of training and retaining these folks – not an easy thing to do in the rough-and-tumble culinary world where turnover is unlike any other industry. So, I really can’t begrudge a few dollars on menu prices if the people are good at what they do. Thirdly, I’d pay to see effort. The effort chefs put into developing, honing, fine-tuning their recipes; changing them seasonally. The effort that the waitstaff puts into creating a magical evening for me; or the effort that the dishwasher makes in ensuring spotless dishes or cutlery. If people are busting balls, I would willingly pay what it took to get them to do so.

It seems a little callous to reduce the cost of a good meal to such basic elements – there are other things you might pay for as part of the fine dining experience: a good location or view for instance. Or you might think the extra work, research and development needed for molecular gastronomy may be worth paying a few extra dollars for. Or perhaps the costs needed to maintain a comprehensive winelist may be something you’re willing to foot (although I’m pretty sure that the markups on wine more than cover those). In any case, after our meal at Waku Ghin it was abundantly clear which of these elements your money was really going towards.

Waku Ghin is Chef Tetsuya Wakuda’s first establishment outside of Australia – his flagship restaurant being Tetsuya’s in Sydney. The concept here though, is different from the Sydney restaurant. At Waku Ghin, food is prepared and served teppanyaki style, at one of a few counters with immaculate iron griddles and granite countertops. Each of the counters is enclaved away from the others, and there is a drawing room in the corner of the restaurant – overlooking Marina Bay – where you retire to have your dessert and petit fours after your meal, which is in itself part meal, part demonstration.

The interesting thing about Waku Ghin is that they welcome and are even happy for you to take as many photos and videos as you want. I didn’t bring my camera, so I had to be content with taking the odd iPhone shot while Shanaz went a little obsessive compulsive with her photo-taking. She’s promised to send me the pictures, but she’s also promised me lots of other stuff before, so we’ll see if she makes good this time.

At the start of the meal our chef brought out the fresh seafood in a carton for us to ogle and I must admit I was slightly aroused at this sight. (I did not, of course, disclose this to my dining companions.) The ingredients, with their deep, rich, natural colours, looked as if they had only been caught hours before. Not even at farmers’ markets or wet markets had I ever seen ingredients this fresh, this succulent, this appetising. It was all I could do to stop myself from reaching out to caress them.

We started with a terrine of duck and foie gras which was technically excellent but unfortunately not memorable. To be fair, it’s not the best lead-in going from oohing and aahing at raw lobster tails, a two foot long trout, and other assorted tasty ingredients – to eating two tiny cubes of terrine and foie gras. They were delicious, don’t get me wrong, but our thoughts were unfortunately elsewhere. I will also say, though, that this dish was, like everything else, meticulously and scrupulously executed. There was just the right amount of vinaigrette on the frisee, just the right balance of greens to protein – no more, no less. I couldn’t help but think that everything had been painstakingly measured, portioned and prepared and it was a tone that carried through the rest of the meal.

The next appetiser was raw Botan shrimps marinated with sea urchin and topped with caviar. Now, you and I both know that appetisers are supposed to be flavour bursts, to open your palate in preparation for the main course(s), but there was little that could have prepared us for the explosion of umami that was this dish. The waitress touted it as one of Waku Ghin’s signature dishes, and I certainly enjoyed it very much. It came with a little spoon you were supposed to use, and I took a little-boy pleasure in cleaning off the dish.

Marinated Botan Ebi with Sea Urchin and Oscietre Caviar

We then moved on to a dish of trout, slow cooked to a deep orange, tenderly placed atop a Belgian endive and paired with a Japanese seaweed sauce. There was a healthy cracking of black pepper atop the trout, which I loved, and which made the kick from the seaweed sauce more pronounced. This was no ordinary peppercorn, it was woody, tart and spicy beyond the pepper you and I use at home. By itself this might have already been my favourite dish of the night, but what sealed the deal was the salad of endive leaves and pear that accompanied it. The vinaigrette for this dish was spectacular – a perfect balance of sweetness and sharpness. I asked the waitress to find out what was in it and she came back with the perfunctory answer of ‘red wine vinegar, honey and olive oil – that’s it’. Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if that is really it. There has to be crack cocaine in it, because it wasn’t even funny how fast I inhaled that salad.

Slow Cooked Tasmanian Petuna Ocean Trout with Witlof and Yuzu

At this point, the first of the chef’s theatrics began on the griddle in front of us, with the cooking of Alaskan king crabs atop a bed of sea salt and covered with bamboo leaves. They were finally served drizzled with lemon scented olive oil, but to tell the truth they were – while very good – a little bit of a letdown after the elaborate show of preparation.

The next course was lobster braised in stock, and involved yet another intricate kabuki. First, the lobster pincers and tails were sauted with garlic and shallots, before lobster stock and fresh tarragon added. Our chef made a big show of ladling the stock over the lobster pieces with a spoon but the entire time he was doing it Shanaz was cringing on the edge of her seat. From where she was sitting she could see the ends of the lobster meat curling up, and her worst fears were realised when – after le montage au beurre and the addition of lemon zest – the lobster was served to us a tad overcooked. This set Shanaz off wailing about the injustice of this callous treatment of such quality ingredients, and for good measure she threw in a jibe about tarragon being a ‘common’ herb. (What can you do; women, they’re always throwing in something completely unrelated when making their point, and making the argument about something else instead.) I knew better than to come back with a snide remark, though, and so kept my mouth shut, and when I looked over at her plate after a while she had finished the dish anyway.

Braised Lobster with Tarragon

Snide remarks aside, I do have to agree with her that our lobster was overcooked, and that it was a terrible way to treat ingredients of this quality. The final product was still pretty tasty – it was pretty hard for it not to be given the ingredients – but the knowledge that it could have been better coloured our enjoyment of it slightly. I remarked to Shanaz that never in my life had I had the opportunity to work with such premium ingredients – and indeed, few home cooks ever will.

The next two courses were of beef – first a piece of Japanese Wagyu striploin rolled into a tiny pillow of awesomeness, served with maitake mushrooms. The beef was incredibly fatty, with salt and pepper the only adornment it needed. After that came cubes of Australian Blackmore steak with fresh grated wasabi and citrus-soy. The star of the show here, I thought, was undoubtedly the fresh wasabi. It was not as pungent or spicy as the processed wasabi we were used to eating, but had an almost soothing burn when paired with the beef. My steak was a little overcooked for my liking, but I wolfed it down nonetheless. (Shanaz’s, I thought was perfectly rare so there were no complaints from her this time.)

Grating wasabi

We then had a course of chicken consommé with rice and small fillets of snapper, which was impressive for the pure and strong taste of the consommé. Clearly this was not a consommé made from your average industrially raised farmbird. I don’t know what exactly it was made from, though, and by this point I was too full to care. Before dessert we had a shot of Gyokuro tea, an expensive kind of green tea that differs from the normal green tea in that the leaves are grown under shade or at least shielded from the sun for at least two weeks before harvesting. This gives it a distinctive sweet aroma, while producing a leaf with less catechins (the source of bitterness in teas) than normal green tea. It was made with lukewarm water, and in all made for an interesting experience to drink.

Dessert was steady if not spectacular – a chilled strawberry shortcake served in a martini glass, followed by the house cheesecake, which was almost too fluffy in texture. We then had several cubes of Japanese melon with cracked black pepper on top – which was interesting because the melon was not only incredibly sweet, but had also had something done to it such that it completely disintegrated in your mouth upon contact. The experience was a mixture of eating a solid piece of melon and drinking melon juice, and one that was very interesting indeed.

For the most part, Waku Ghin is spectacular food that will please you if only for one reason – the quality of its ingredients. I take nothing away from the ability of our chefs and waitstaff for the night, but with ingredients this spectacular, you don’t have to do much to them, and Waku Ghin wisely refrains from doing so. But you pay a pretty penny for the luxury of these ingredients - $400++ a person. I personally don’t know they manage it, but to be able to get crab legs from Norway, lobster from Canada, trout from Tasmania, Wagyu from Japan and Blackmore steak from Australia – delivered fresh daily is an incredible accomplishment. (Sure, the environmentalists will have their say, and with good reason too.) The trick that Waku Ghin pulls is therefore not one of cooking, or presentation, although they have those tricks in abundance too. The trick it pulls in rather one of procurement. Chef Tetsuya has undoubtedly built up an impressive network of suppliers who can get him these premium ingredients with the timing and regularity he requires. That, in the end, is what you pay for, at Waku Ghin.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Haute cuisine, haute price

Bonta Italian Restaurant & Bar
207 River Valley Road, 238275
#01-61 UE Square River Wing
Tel: +65 6333 8875

The recent price inflations in the Singapore dining scene can roughly be divided into three phases – what I like to call the French wave, the Japanese wave and the casino wave. The first wave probably started about 10 or so years ago, wrought by the classical haute cuisine places like Le Saint Julien and Saint Pierre and characterized by a marketing gimmick called the degustation menu. At the time you were looking at paying $150 - $180++ for these fancy meals. Then about 5 years ago the top Japanese places started muscling in on the high-end market, with their kaiseki and omakase dining, and the magical 200-dollar psychological barrier was broken. Suddenly, thanks to places like Akashi, Shiraishi and Goto, the price point for fine dining got pushed up to $200 - $250++, and in the boom years of ’06 and ‘07 $300++ was not an uncommon sight. Finally, last year, the casinos opened, and brought with them the high-end celebrity chef restaurants. That just blew the church doors wide open and today, a meal at Kunio Tokuoka will set you back $750++.

Now of course you have to adjust all these for natural inflation, but even then the upward tick in fine dining prices is significant enough to cause the average foodie some worry. I may exaggerate a little by only listing the prices of the top-end places, but the reality of the situation is that many of the second-tier or middle-of-the-road restaurants follow the lead of these places. It used to be that your average middle-income earners could still look forward to a fancy dinner for two on birthdays and anniversaries, but the way things are going, fewer and fewer folks are going to be able to afford that luxury.

I bring all this up because of my recent meal at Bonta Italian Restaurant. Bonta, of course, is the restaurant that generated much controversy when they started doing a white Alba truffle promotion during the fall months. Now, Bonta is otherwise probably considered an above-average Italian eatery, with prices slightly on the expensive side but nowhere near those of the places mentioned above. But September through December of 2009 they offered what they called the Ultimate Indulgence Menu – a six course feast incorporating sinful amounts of white truffle and Beluga caviar – which they priced at $1000++. Yes, that is the per-person cost, before wine and taxes. It was, naturally, immensely popular and has since become an annual affair, but also caused much consternation among foodies for breaking new ground price-wise.

In any case, I finally visited Bonta for the first time when we took several business associates visiting from Japan there. It is a charming space, if rather narrow, with deceptively high ceilings and dark, lustrous velvet curtains beside a ruby red wall motif. We were seated in the smaller private room, which was cut off from the main dining area and as a result, quiet throughout dinner; or should I say, only as noisy as we were ourselves.

One of the must-tries at Bonta is their famous goat cheese soufflé bread. This is an incredibly light roll that comes in a cup, but which has risen to twice the height of the cup. The goat cheese adds a decent flavour, but the true quality of this bread lies in its impressive crumb structure and texture. Large pockets of air, wispy grain, and pillow-soft to the bite – it was all I could do to stop at one.

(Note: the secret to creating such bread lies in a few factors. Yeast is very important. In Singapore, you cannot get fresh yeast, so the handling of your dry yeast must be spot-on to achieve light, voluminous bread. Yeast is most effective between 30-35 degrees Celsius, and must be given time to grow, so where and how long you proof your bread is key. Then you have to be very careful with the water you use. Hard water inhibits yeast growth, which results in dense bread; but if the water is too soft it prevents the formation of flour gluten, which you need for a crumbly texture and good bite. Finally, you have to mould your dough cross-grain, in order to create that wispy effect. There is clearly a skilled baker at work in the Bonta kitchen.)

We had deep fried zucchini flowers filled with mushroom ragout to start, served over rocket (arugula to some of you) and I was silently glad. Despite the little I had heard about Bonta I was half expecting another one of those frou-frou places that uses its food to make a statement – whether about the chef’s cooking philosophy or some other exalted ideal. What I found at Bonta was simple, uncomplicated, yet very refined Italian cooking – the kind that I associate more with New York City than Italy, really, but the kind that I absolutely adore.

Our second course was angel hair shrimp scampi, to which the chef recommended adding sliced chili padi. An unusual twist, but not so unusual once you find out that Chef Luca, prior to coming to Singapore, spent five years in Jakarta (and can speak Bahasa Indonesia), and loves spicy food. The pasta itself I thought could have been done a little better, but the addition of chili padi gave it an interesting kick which elevated the dish. It was, however, a twist not recommended for persons with palates unused to spice, as our Japanese associates quickly bore testimony to.

The main course was bistecca alla fiorentina, and Chef Luca had prepared a huge haunch of meat. He explained that the beef he used came from Chianina cattle, a large and muscular breed of cattle prized for its high quality. Again, the beef was simply done – olive oil, lemon, balsamic – and I could not complain. We also had a side of goose leg confit, which I thought particularly well done. Traditional confit calls for curing the meat with salt before cooking, a step which some actually omit. Salting it preserves it for longer and adds flavour, but dries out the meat, so you have to be quite careful with this step. Chef Luca had done a wonderful job.

To accompany dinner we drank a Tignanello (vintage unknown) that we had brought – the drinking of which by any sane measure should constitute an occasion. But later in the night we moved on to a 1999 Tua Rita Redigaffi, which was so sensational that nobody could go back to the Tignanello. Redigaffi is 100% Merlot, which makes it an anomaly amongst the Super Tuscans, but I felt it married the brio of Tuscan terroir with the stateliness of Merlot wonderfully. It had an intoxicating bouquet and was a huge wine, rich and velvety and very sensual.

So at the end of the night the food bill came to around $1000 for the seven of us, which was rather reasonable I suppose. The other reason why fine dining is so expensive in Singapore, which I failed to mention before, is because everything has to be imported, and Bonta – like many other places which emphasise quality and authenticity – is very guilty of taking this to its natural extreme. All the key ingredients, the cheeses, the balsamic vinegar, even the beef – are imported from Italy. Not only do you pay for transportation, but – especially for the fresh ingredients – you also pay a premium for processing and proper storage of the ingredients so that they remain fresh and suitable for use.

Bonta aside, at the end of the day, are such prices worth it? And even if they aren’t, what can the consumer do about it? Precious little, I’m afraid. Sooner or later these price increases will trickle down to the casual eateries and the mom-and-pops. I only hope that by then, my wages will have seen a corresponding increase!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Calling for teams to compete in chili cookoff!

It was inevitable. One of my favourite events of the year when I lived in DC was the annual chili cookoff that my friends and I organised. If there was one thing better than a hot, spicy bowl of red in the dead of winter, it was getting to eat many spicy bowls of red all in the same sitting. That's why I loved the chili cookoff. That, and the daytime drinking.

So even though it's not really right for it in Singapore - I'm bringing it back! Chili cookoff in January, y'all - see the flyer below for more info.

We are now looking for participants to compete in the Chili Cookoff. If you think you make a mean chili and have the cojones to prove it in the heat of competition, please email chilicookoffsg(AT)gmail(DOT)com for more information. You can enter individually or as a team of up to 5 members.

We are also looking for judges! If you’re from Texas and enjoy a good, spicy bowl of red, please also get in touch with us at the email address above and tell us exactly why you deserve to be a judge for the event. If you don’t have Lone Star heritage but want to be a judge, by all means write us too, but you should at least know the difference between real Texas chili and the crap that passes for chili in Cincinnati.

Let the trash-talking begin!

Monday, August 09, 2010

A restaurant by any other name...

Chin Lee Restaurant
Block 115 Bedok North Rd, #01-285
Singapore 460115
Tel: +65 6444 5554

What is a restaurant, anyway? Does it have to have white tablecloths, and fancy cutlery? Does it have to have waitstaff? Or bricks and mortar, for that matter? If it is just – a la Janette Desautel in Treme – one chef pushing her large portable grill around, is it any less of a restaurant if it puts out good, honest food that people enjoy and come back for?

I struggled with this question during lunch today at Chin Lee Restaurant. Despite the name, Chin Lee is most decidedly not where you would expect to find a “restaurant” as you understand it. Located at the void deck of a block of flats, it nevertheless has unequivocally modern trappings, even if the décor is a mishmash of garish colours and uncertain influences. (Winnie pointed out what seemed to be a Chinese watercolour ripoff of Monet’s Water Lilies – or “Chinese impressionism” as she put it.) I can only hypothesise that the place had to have grown from humble beginnings in that void deck – expanding and improving to its current, air-conditioned settings.

Karen had recommended this place for its excellent Teochew fare, and we all trooped there for a well-deserved lunch after our tree-top adventure at the nearby Bedok Reservoir. After all that scampering and ziplining we had built up quite an appetite, and I think even the waitress was shocked at the amount of food we ordered.

I will readily admit that I don’t know much about Teochew food, except for the usual ubiquitous dishes – hae zho, steamed pomfret with salted veggies and sour plums, etc. But the Teochews, along with the Hainanese and the Cantonese, qualify as one of those dialect groups who love their food, are fiercely protective of their own cuisine, and know quality when they see it. A good Teochew restaurant – or one that has, like Chin Lee, built up a staunch following – seemed certain to promise much.

We started off with two quite delectable appetisers – pork jelly and fish maw soup. The former was pig trotters boiled down to gelatin, then frozen along with solid pieces of braised pork, into a jelly. This was firmer than some versions I’ve had elsewhere (suggesting the use of lecithin or some other emulsifier) but was nonetheless quite tasty. The fish maw soup – like all soups in Chinese restaurants – came woefully underseasoned, which was invitation enough to douse it with black vinegar and pepper. There wasn’t enough fish maw, and despite a strong (to quite strong) shot of black vinegar, the soup lacked the kick I expected.

The rest of the food arrived thick and fast – and disappeared with similar speed. The pomfret was nice and light (but cooked too long, I felt), and the hae zho, while one of the larger versions I’ve seen and containing large water chestnut pieces, was just this side shy of the version at Joo Hing. The tofu with straw and button mushrooms came in a rich, silky sauce that made my heart ache for some white rice to eat it with.

Special mention must be made of the coffee pork ribs, which were beaten and tenderised to the right point – enough not to present a difficulty eating them, not too much that it lost its chew. They were also flavoured wonderfully, showcasing the smoky, bitter tang of coffee. I tend to shy from ordering this dish because while it can be excellent if done well, the potential for disaster is high and I have had some pretty terrible versions of this dish. Chin Lee gets it right on the money, for my money.

The fried mee sua and luo han zhai were flat notes in an otherwise enjoyable experience, and by the time it came to dessert I was tapping for mercy. I still pulled my shit together to take a bite of orh nee, though. Now, I like orh nee (yam paste), a Teochew dessert classic, and I would venture to say that many others do. But it’s become one of those dishes that I continually taste and reject. I think subconsciously I have built up this idealised notion of the perfect orh nee – I’m not sure based on what, even – and every version I taste now can never come close. Every time I eat orh nee I always wind up pushing the bowl away, often empty, and saying it was good, but not great. I don’t know what it is I’m looking for in orh nee. Hopefully someday I will find it.

The version at Chin Lee is – you guessed it – good but not great.

It is hard not to call Chin Lee a restaurant. What else could you call it? An upscale hawker stall? A swanky coffeeshop? After eating at Chin Lee I am more and more swayed to the belief that if you put out hot, piping food and have people clean their plates and ask for more, then you can call yourself what you damn well please.

A room with a view - wasted

Si Chuan Dou Hua
80 Raffles Place
#60-01 UOB Plaza 1
Singapore 048624
Tel: +65 6535 6006

I believe strongly that the design of any place should incorporate its greatest and most distinct assets. In the case of Si Chuan Dou Hua @ UOB Plaza, this is the spectacular view of downtown Singapore. Along with that is the wondrous natural light that it gets, being at the top of one of Singapore’s tallest skyscrapers and – unlike other restaurants closer to the ground – bathed in sunshine that is unfettered by the collection of other buildings around it.

Unfortunately, the designers of this place chose to hide these assets behind a labyrinth of thick walls. Granted, these walls are of dark, sensual teak, and very good to look at in their own right, but one can’t help feel cheated after travelling 60 floors – via two elevators, three if you come from the basement carpark. I expected a grand view, and I didn’t get it. The windows are aesthetically well designed too, but ultimately not enough to let in the light, and inexplicably fitted with blinds and framed with cross sections.

For the crowd that the restaurant targets, though, it might make the most sense. I imagine that the restaurant serves mostly the business lunch crowd – who want to feel cocooned away in private rooms, with only occasional reminders of the heights they occupy. Indeed, the perimeter of the restaurant – the areas with the most access to the view and the outside light – had largely been set aside for these private rooms, leaving the inner chambers of the restaurant with little natural light and without an inkling of the tremendous view that lay beyond those teak walls.

I was at Si Chuan Dou Hua recently for a workshop, after which they fed us with dim sum. I have to say, the dim sum here is surprisingly very competent. One wouldn’t expect a Sichuan restaurant to be well versed in what is a primarily Cantonese genre, but I found out that the chefs (Malaysian) had trained in Hong Kong, and you can’t get much closer to the source than that.

The pastries that I tried – a pancake of chicken floss and a seafood sesame bun – were exquisite, and the pastry itself was first-rate. Working in my line I have begun to develop an appreciation of the possible highs and lows of texture, of crumb structure and of mouthfeel that bakers can accomplish – and I can say that the chefs at Si Chuan Dou Hua know what they are doing.

Because prawns are an integral ingredient in so many dim sum staples, exercising care in the choice and use of this ingredient is paramount. The ones used at Si Chuan Dou Hua are juicy and succulent – especially in an excellent beancurd skin dish – and if they had ever been frozen, I certainly could not tell.

There were a couple of missteps, though. The dan dan noodles came in a sauce which was all heat and no flavour. Spice is well and good if it accentuates, or imparts flavour, but to numb the tongue and not offer a reward with that shock is just cruel. Another disappointment was the house beancurd. I bought a couple of orders to take away, and – conscious of the importance of consuming them “fresh” – sat down to eat it at the earliest opportunity. But the beancurd was not as smooth as some versions I’ve eaten, and also came in a syrup that was not sweet enough by some distance. It was actively disappointing, and for a restaurant that references beancurd in their name, quite a letdown indeed.
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