Friday, 19 December 2014

Maximising Your Dining Dollar in Singapore - Tips for Young Players / Diners

Unless you have been living under a rock the last few years, you would be painfully aware that the cost of living in Singapore has been getting higher and higher.  Unfortunately, that of course includes dining, where it seems virtually impossible to get a decent three-course meal for under $50.  Where's a budding gourmet to start?

I was once a broke uni student with a nasty emerging addiction to dining at good restaurants.  Granted that I wasn't too broke because I held down a part-time job while studying.  However, I was always conscious that I got the most bang for my limited bucks.  

Over my last seven years living and dining in Singapore, I've learned a few valuable lessons, some the hard way.  Below are a few brief pointers for those just getting started on their careers and their foodie addictions, who may not be quite sure where to start, or think they lack the cash to enjoy the best Singapore has to offer.  Now some of these will not endear me to my friends in the F&B industry, but at the end of the day, I am a consumer advocate and I hope that it at least gets a few youngsters started on their gastronomic journeys.  I also hope that whoever in the industry is reading this takes a long-term perspective and appreciates that these interested youngsters are the ones whom they should cultivate and groom into loyal customers.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

My 100th Post - Wine Trade Masterclass with Olivier Humbrecht, Master of Wine, at Salt Tapas & Bar, Raffles City

It's taken me a rather long time, but after 34 months, I've finally reached my 100th post.  And it is fitting that I celebrate this milestone with one of the artisans who originally inspired this adventure, Olivier Humbrecht of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht.

Olivier Humbrecht, Master of Wine

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Good Eats in Ang Mo Kio - Here's My List, So Please Share Yours

I have been living in Ang Mo Kio for just over a year now.  During my time here, I've found a few good places, but from my experience, it is not really a gourmet paradise in the manner of the Whampoa / Balestier district.  I'm not sure whether it is the fact that it is a old township with a high population density, but the place seems disproportionately overrun with mediocre chain outlets.

I thought I would share my list of recommendations here, with the hope that my readers who are local residents or frequent visitors to the area will chip in with their suggestions.  I should qualify this by saying that I haven't had the opportunity yet to check out every nook and cranny of this district, especially the area behind AMK Hub, so any pointers are greatly appreciated.  

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Tis The Season for the King of Cheese! Adventures with Baked Mont d'Or

I was having lunch with a chef friend (Ah Lam's Abalone Noodles, if you were wondering) a couple of months ago.  We were talking about food trends, Gordon Ramsay's impending arrival at Marina Bay Sands (which has since been confirmed), etc.  Apropos of nothing, he suddenly became very excited.  "And Mont d'Or season is starting"!

Sunday, 26 October 2014

A Review of Attica, Ripponlea, Melbourne - A Quintessentially Australian Experience

I recently had a very memorable evening at Attica, Australasia's sole representative in the World's 50 Best Restaurants 2014 (at number 32, having reached its highest ranking of 21 in 2013).  It was a great experience, and certainly one that I would recommend to anyone who hasn't visited before.  But I need to warn you: if you turn into a pumpkin at midnight, don't even think about visiting.  If you have planned a late night rendezvous with your mistress (or manstress, to be inclusive), give them a call and tell them you will be late.  In short, if you don't have a minimum 4.5 hours for dinner, go somewhere else.

Attica head chef Ben Shewry
I first met Attica's head chef Ben Shewry at the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants Forum earlier this year, and he struck me as a down-to-earth, no-bullshit kind of guy.  Out of all the dreamers patting themselves on the back and talking about the significance of their culinary philosophies, Shewry was the only one who dared acknowledge that we were talking about things that did not concern the vast bulk of the world's population, and why it was important for chefs, cooks and producers to focus also on cheaper ingredients.  Right there, I resolved to visit Attica when I was next in Melbourne, and so I found myself there one chilly spring evening with my father-in-law, R.

Guests have two choices of menu: an eight-course tasting menu, or an eight-course vegetarian tasting menu, both costing AUD190 (around US 170).  Tonight, the place is packed, tables very much closer together than I normally expect at a restaurant of this calibre.  And I was pleasantly surprised to hear that most of the accents in the dining room were Australian - it seems that even on a Thursday night, the locals had come out to support their champion.

Bread Service: Sourdough Wholemeal with Caramelised Wattleseed, Macadamia Nut Purée with Cold-Pressed Macadamia Oil and Fried Saltbush Leaves; House-Churned Butter


While you are deliberating (or not) over what you will eat, bread is served.  The butter is excellent (any butter with that colour has to be excellent, right?), and the saltiness and crispiness of the saltbush leaves, contrasted against the cool, slight sweetness of the macadamia puree, is utterly irresistable.

Attica is the kind of place where they will take around 50 minutes to serve up snacks which aren't on the menu.  Here's what we had on the night.  I'm not going to comment on each item individually as I have neither the time to write it out, nor do (should!) you have time to read it.  In short, very labour-intensive, very well-thought-out dishes, attractively presented, but remarkably subtle, with none of the dishes providing the sudden exclamation mark that makes you sit up and take notice.

Snack One: Cow's Milk Cheese set overnight, Cold-Pressed Hazelnut Oil, Artichoke Thistle Honeycomb


Snack Two: Shaved Button Mushroom, Society Garlic Flower, Walnut Purée, Cold-Pressed Walnut Oil


Snack Three: Wallaby Blood Pikelet, maaaaate


Snack Four: Lightly-Pickled Carrots from Ripponlea Estate, Mustard Seed, Honey and Turmeric


Snack Five: Broad Bean Flower, Sheep Milk Yoghurt, Mustard Seed Oil, Vinegar Powder, Dried Roasted Pumpkin Seeds


It's already 8.30 pm and we are just starting on our menu...

First Entrée:  WA Snow Crab, Garden Sorrel, Mandarin Gelée, Native Pepperberry


Fresh and sweet snow crab meat contrasts beautifully against sorrel compressed in verjus and grapeseed oil, with the lot set off with a mandarin gelée at the base of the plate.  Not for the first time, I notice the prominence of acidity in Shewry's plates, and this seems to be one of the unifying themes across the menu (along with a clear fetish for cold-pressed oils and nut purees).  And given the length of the menu and the amount of food served, this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Second Entrée: Salted Red Kangaroo and Bunya Bunya


Think a cured kangaroo tartare with the crunch of heirloom carrots and pomegranate, and you wouldn't be a million miles off.  This is a very nice variation on kangaroo, which is usually interpreted on Australian menus as medium-rare rump (in whichever restaurant you are in, the waiter will always want to demonstrate his knowledge of eating Australian fauna by stressing that that kangaroo must be served medium-rare so as not to dry it out).  The vinaigrette cuts nicely through the gamey kangaroo, and the pomegranate pearls add a much-needed fraicheur and crunch.  Delicious.

Third Entrée: "Minted Potato, Medium Rare": Potato Cooked in Brown Butter, Sauce of 18 month-aged Pyengana cheddar, Mint Vinaigrette, Blanched Garlic


There are few things I enjoy better than a good potato.  Two of these things are good garlic and good cheese, so it should be no surprise that I absolutely adored this dish.  For me, however, this potato was more rare than medium-rare, stoically refusing to yield before the provided knife.  A++ for the conceptualisation but A- for the execution.  I would love to try it again with the potato cooked correctly.

Fourth Entrée: "142 Days on Earth": Variations on Red Cabbage from Ripponlea Estate (blanched outer leaf and poached heart) Smoked Egg Paste with Tamarind and Ground Wattleseed; Emu fillet with Beetroot, Davidson Plum, Lemon Myrtle and Rosella (native hibiscus)


R shared with me his favourite childhood recipe for emu: "Get a rock and your emu, place both in a pot and boil for eight hours.  Chuck the emu out and eat the rock".  This wasn't so bad, thanks mainly to the livewire acidity of the Davidson plum.  The emu, however, seemed to have the texture of a processed ham, so I'm not really sure what they did with it.  Maybe R wasn't bullshitting me after all...

By the way, the rather odd name of this dish comes from the fact that the kitchen team waits exactly 142 days from sowing to harvest the red cabbage from their Ripponlea Estate farm.  Ripponlea Estate is a name that recurs again and again in your waiters' descriptions of the dishes.  What is it?  It is a National Trust-listed 1880s mansion and estate down the road from the restaurant.  What the Estate website doesn't say is that the National Trust leased a part of its sprawling gardens to Attica, so that it could grow fresh vegetables and herbs for use in the restaurant.  It boggles the mind how they managed to convince a bureaucrat to give them such permission, but I guess it proves if nothing else that anything is possible.

First Main Course: King George Whiting Roasted in Paperbark, Oyster Pearl Meat Butter, Lemon Myrtle


This dish comes with a health warning: don't cut too deep with your knife or shards of the paperbark will come away with your fish.  The fish is moist and perfectly cooked, with the pearl meat adding texture and a marine salinity.  The lemon myrtle is elusive, but there is just enough of it here to keep things fresh and lively.

Second Main Course: Berkshire Pork with a Pepperberry and Native Pepper Crust, Rotten Corn and Lemon Aspen; Broad Bean Leaves with Chardonnay Vinaigrette


I love the pork, which is very nicely cooked (if anything just a tad under).   The rotten corn is a tribute to Shewry's New Zealand heritage, inspired by a Maori technique of preserving corn through fermentation.  The crust, however, adds an acrid spiciness which kills everything else on the plate and has me reaching for more water.

The pork is accompanied by a bowl of broad bean leaves, dressed with a chardonnary vinaigrette and sprinkled with sea salt.  Broad bean plants are grown on the roof garden, at an extremely high density so the plants devote all their energy to vegetative growth without proceeding to flowering.

Interlude: A Visit to a Garden

After coughing out the last bits of my pepperberry crust, we are asked if we would like a tour of the rootop garden.  I was tempted to say "No, it's past my bedtime already" (it was around 11.35 pm, if memory serves) but I just went with the flow.

On arrival, we are presented with an Anzac biscuit-inspired marshmallow and a cup of tea straight from a boiling billy, salty, meaty, sweet and fruity all at the same time, which reinvigorates my tired bones.  And amidst all of this charmingly faux Australiana, what should I see there but a Singaporean pastry chef wearing a Drizabone, an Akubra hat and tending to the billy?  It's all a bit surreal, but I wonder if my recent lack of sleep has been taking its toll.


First Dessert: "Pears and Maidenii": Lavender, Chrysanthemum Petals, Dehydrated Pear Skin, Roasted Balled Beurre Bosc Pears, Cheese Ice Cream with Maidenii Vermouth


I love this dessert.  I love its homely, rustic colour scheme, I love the textural contrast between the crunchy pear balls, lightly icy ice-cream and crispy dehydrated pear skins, and the restrained tartness of the cheese ice-cream.  The influence of the Maidenii, a vermouth distilled from native Australian botanicals, is minimal.  Good thing too because I asked for a straight thimbleful of Maidenii and it made me retch.

Second Dessert: "The Industrious Beet": Mandarin Sorbet, Italian Meringue, Freeze-Dried Mandarin and Coconut, Sauce from Boiled Oranges, Isomalt


The "beet" in question was the sugar beet, not the beetroot as I thought from reading the menu.  This is probably the first (and only!) conceptual error Shewry has made.  Sugar beets?  Bloody un-Australian, if you ask me.  But the sugar substitute and sugar beet-derivative isomalt is used in this dish, so I guess he was at least being truthful.  But personally, I thought "industrious" would have been a better adjective for the humans who worked so hard to create isomalt from the sugar beets, but let that pass.

The wine match of 1998 Chateau Coutet is the only wine on the pairing which I recognised on paper, but it didn't amount to much on the palate.  R simply states "It's not sweet enough".  He's right: it packed neither the sugar nor the acidity to match the dessert.  As it was, it will give me an excuse to open a bottle of 1995 Coutet Cuvee Madame when R visits us in December.

Petit Four: Pukeko Egg


Nothing with chocolate and salted caramel can possibly be bad, and neither is this, but I like it more for the concept and how it fits into the meal's narrative, than for the actual taste.

Conclusion

It was about 1.20 am by the time we left, and I really need to thank R for being such a good sport (anyone who spends six hours in my company without complaining deserves some sort of bravery medal).  In addition, his various anecdotes about Australian geography and flora made the meal seem more real to me, not just recitations from a memorised screed, so I really couldn't have asked for a better companion.

If this doesn't sound too pretentious, it seems to me that beyond just his ingenious utilisation of native ingredients and a narrative as respectful of nature as it is awash with larrikin humour, Shewry has developed his own cuisine acidulée a l'Australienne.  In almost every preparation, including dessert, he has finely judged the acidity to ensure that the diner's palate remains interested, and always on the lookout for the next bite.  There are no rich sauces, no over-reductions, just balanced, fresh ingredients with the ever-present tartness.  His cooking is truly unique and, more importantly, happens to be bloody delicious.

The dining room at 12.45 am, I kid you not!
A word on the service: the waiters were all very knowledgeable and eager to explain the techniques and processes behind each dish, as well as the wine pairings.  The manager, Banjo Harris Plane, is the epitomic combination of professionalism, youthful energy and Australian charm.  But as for the wine pairings (A$115 a head; feel free to ask the staff to divide it between two), while I approved of how they went with the food, I would not choose to drink them on their own.  When a winemaker scratches the Spanish words "La Cosa" (meaning "The Thing") on the wine bottle without any sense of irony, maybe you shouldn't be surprised when you get an unfiltered wine with the kick of an unshod wild horse and little bits of lees floating around your glass.  Perhaps it is the unique character of Shewry's dishes that make more conventional pairings impossible, but I dare suggest that a bona fide wino may be left wanting a little more.

The real irony is that Plane, a Master Sommelier candidate who sat for his final exams this month, has actually assembled a very balanced wine list with a couple of well-priced gems.  But most of the guests seemed to be maiden visitors and went with the wine pairing, which was a shame.  If I should ever darken Attica's doors again, and I hope I will again before too long, I'll be sure to give the list the attention it deserves.

Dining at Attica is more than just a meal.  At 6 hours and costing the best part of five hundred bucks, it is an event and personally, I reckon it's time and money very well-spent.  I can't really comment on whether it really is the World's Xth Best Restaurant, but a meal here is almost guaranteed to be a very memorable one.

ATTICA
74 Glen Eira Road
Ripponlea VIC 3185
Australia
Tel: +61 3 9530 0111
Email: meet@attica.com.au
Reservations accepted one month in advance, and are absolutely essential.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2015 - Big Changes on the Way

Now approaching its third year, the rules for the annual Asia's 50 Best Restaurants have undergone major changes. I believe that all in all, these changes are positive, but I question their timing and motivation.

In short, Asia's 50 Best will be split off from the World's 50 Best. What this means in practice is:


1. There are now two separate pools of voters in Asia, one for the World's 50 Best and one for Asia's 50 Best.  The Asia's 50 Best voters are all resident in Asia.


2. Any votes cast by World's 50 Best voters (even those resident in Asia) for Asian restaurants will count only towards the World's 50 Best, but will not count towards Asia's 50 Best.


3. Voters previously cast four votes in their demarcated "region".  Now, Asia's 50 Best voters can cast up to four votes for restaurants in their country of residence, and the remaining three for restaurants in other Asian countries.


4.  The number of voters will be increased, so the influence of each individual voter (along with his/her particular biases and eccentricities) will be diminished.

I believe these are positive changes for various reasons. In fact, when Asia's 50 Best was first being conceptualised, I suggested to the organisers that it should be kept wholly separate from the World's 50 Best. After all, the concept of restaurant dining, and even more so that of restaurant criticism, is historically a Western bourgeois one. In many parts of Asia (with perhaps the most notable exception of Japan and its long tradition of kaiseki-ryoori), until the last few decades, the best local cooking was often to be found in private households.  According to David Thompson, until recently, there was, a social prejudice in Thailand against eating out in restaurants.  How then, could the voters fairly compare apples and oranges?


Secondly, because of the Western roots of restaurant criticism, the professional critics on the voting panel, whether consciously or otherwise, have a predominantly Occidental mindset where staff knowledge and correctness of service is as important as the food.  Most Asian gourmets do not care that the coarseness of the restaurant waitstaff was outdone only by the coarseness of the worn carpet, but only that the food should transcend divinity.  Separation of Asian restaurants may help to create a distinctly Asian paradigm of what matters in a restaurant experience, as opposed to just pandering to an Anglo-Franco worldview.

Thirdly, the new rules also eliminate a selection bias, which I believe ended up skewing the results of the annual poll. Imagine you are a food critic in Europe and a voter in the World's 50 Best. You decide to take a week's vacation in Southeast Asia. You've heard about Nahm, Andre, Gaggan who topped the 2013 list. You fly out to Thailand and Singapore, eat at those places and are duly impressed, fly home and cast your votes for them. Not a mention for the local eateries which you, as a foreigner, would never have heard of without a local connection. This reinforces the spiral which perpetuates the dominance of the list toppers.


A second aspect of selection bias is in favour of the global cities / air travel hubs regarded as "must-dos" in the itinerary of the globetrotting food critic.  In Asia, these cities would today include (in no particular order) Tokyo, Bangkok, Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong and maybe Kyoto. My hypothetical Euro food critic would be far more likely to visit these cities than any other in Asia, meaning the restaurants in those cities would be the likely beneficiaries of a disproportionate number of votes from outside their home regions.  After all, why should my hypothetical Euro food critic waste his time visiting a city with no restaurants on the list?  The lesser the influence of these limited, result-distorting trips on Asia's 50 Best, the better.


This bias is compounded by the main systemic weakness of the World's 50 Best.  Perhaps due in no little part to the jaded palates of the critics and chefs who make up the voting panel, it has ended up being a poll of the World's 50 Hottest and Trendiest Restaurants, or the 50 Restaurants Most Likely to Elicit Some Sort of Visceral Reaction.  If you want to be part of the hot trend, you have to visit the popular restaurant NOW: today's Iggy Azalea (not Iggy's) will very likely end up being tomorrow's Jennifer Lopez.


My last point will sound almost xenophobic, but what the hey. This is an Asian list. What do I care what some food critic in France, Brazil, Russia thinks about Asian cuisine, when the depth of Asian cuisine in these countries is, to put it mildly, indifferent? What do I know about their exposure to and knowledge of Asian cuisine?  Read Andy Hayler's reviews, for example. The man is a veritable walking encyclopaedia of European gastronomy, and I was a huge admirer of his work covering the Michelin-starred beat in Europe. His critiques of Japanese restaurants, on the other hand, are uncharacteristically laconic and replete with mistakes, of which his typos are the least egregious.


But I question why the organisers decided to introduce these major changes now. I suspect that in part, it was because Asia's 50 Best threw a massive spotlight on Asian restaurants, at the expense of other regions without their own regional awards.  Look at how Asian restaurants performed in the World's 50 Best in 2013 and 2014 (the first World's 50 Best list compiled after the inaugural Asia's 50 Best list was introduced):


2013:  7 restaurants in the Top 50 with one in the Top 20 (Narisawa at No. 20) and a further two ranked in the Top 35, 9 restaurants ranked 51-100

2014: 7 restaurants in the Top 50 including three in the Top 17 and a further three ranked in the Top 37, 10 restaurants ranked 51-10.

While the total number of restaurants in the Top 50 and Top 100 have not changed much, the top Asian restaurants managed to improve their positions significantly.  Bearing in mind it takes a lot more votes to make headway towards the top of the list, the top six restaurants have clearly benefited from being the top names in Asia's 50 Best.

The other disadvantage of the changes is that with two different voter bases, the relative positioning of Asian restaurants will not be the same on both lists.  Restaurant A could trump Restaurant B on Asia's 50 Best, whereas B could beat A on the World's 50 Best.  While diversity of opinion is positive, sending out mixed messages from the same stable and brand (if not the same voting panel) is less so.


But what's done is done, and all we can do now is await the results that will be announced in February next year.  I'm hardly staking out a revolutionary position in predicting that there will be massive changes in Asia's 50 Best 2015. It might not even be too much of a forlorn hope to witness a decline in the cult of the marketing genius that is the celebrity chef, and a rise in fortunes for those eateries that value substance and authenticity over nitro-bollocks and flashing light shows.


Saturday, 27 September 2014

A Review of Burlamacco Ristorante, Amoy Street - Marred by Inconsistency

As my regular readers know, I maintain a directory of BYO restaurants in Singapore and their corkage policies.  But every once in a while, a friend would ask on a Whatsapp group conversation: "What restaurant can I bring my own wine to on a (insert day) evening?"  My good friend D would inevitably respond "Burlamacco in Amoy Street".  This got me wondering whether D had some financial interest in the restaurant, and I finally had the chance to put it to the test when D hosted our regular monthly wine tasting dinner at, you guessed it, Burlamacco!


Sunday, 14 September 2014

A Review of Jaan's Ultimate Krug Menu - The Triumph of Experience

After my maiden visit to Julien Royer's Jaan early last year, I wrote that while the meal was supremely enjoyable, I had the sense that the young Royer, who had just turned 30 at the time, was still in the process of finding his voice.  But a year is a long time in the life of a chef and a restaurant, and a visit a couple of weeks ago left me with conflicting thoughts: is Royer, with an extra year of maturity and experience under his belt, perhaps the best fine dining chef in Singapore today?


Friday, 5 September 2014

A Review of Shisen Hanten, Singapore - Is this Iron Chef quality?

The Wife and I met up with our favourite Singapore foodie Victoria and her husband M for dinner a couple of weeks ago. The venue: Shisen Hanten, the local branch of the Szechuan restaurant chain founded by Japan's "God of Szechuan Cooking", Chen Kenmin, and now managed by his son Chen Kenichi, the "Szechuan Sage" and "Iron Chef Chinese" in the cult Japanese gastro-sports series "Ryoori no Tetsujin".  Apparently, the Singapore branch is run by Kenichi's son, Chen Kentaro.

Now, the heroic deeds in Greek mythology were performed mostly by the children of the gods, not their grandkids.  I don't know, maybe their divine powers get too diluted after two cross-breedings with mere mortals.  Hell, even the grandchildren of the LORD were relegated to being nameless footnotes in a Dan Brown novel.  I was hoping that Kentaro could avoid the same ignominious fate.

Son of the Szechuan Sage: Chen Kentaro

Saturday, 23 August 2014

A Remarkable Peranakan Lunch with Candlenut's Malcolm Lee and Ascott CEO Lee Chee Koon

I was recently invited to a remarkable lunch hosted by young Peranakan chef Malcolm Lee of Candlenut Restaurant, and Ascott Serviced Apartments' CEO Lee Chee Koon.  The occasion was the launch of a Peranakan cookbook authored by Lee to celebrate Ascott's 30th anniversary, and which will be placed in Ascott properties worldwide.  I saw a delicious irony in Lee being enlisted by Ascott to celebrate such a significant milestone, given Malcolm's heralded Candlenut Restaurant is housed at the rival Dorsett Residences near Outram Park.  But evidently, neither Malcolm nor Ascott (nor Dorsett!) were particularly concerned about this.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

A Review of Iniala Beach House, Phang Nga - Big Luxury in Little Paradise

So there I was, sitting at the back of my airport pickup from Phuket International and snacking on a caviar tin full of chilled passionfruit spherifications topped with a dainty mint leaf, when my friendly driver makes a throwaway remark.  "Oh Khun Julian, you are so lucky that you didn't fly in last night.  Last night, the police wrongly arrested a local village man for rape, so the villagers started demonstrating and blocked the bridge.  You wouldn't have been able to come to the resort!"

Bridge?  What bridge?

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Storing Wine in Singapore - A 2014 Update

I have been meaning to update my 2012 post on wine storage options in Singapore, and despite my tendency to procrastinate, my hand was recently forced - my wines were evicted! (well, kind of...)

An Eviction of a More Serious Kind...

Saturday, 26 July 2014

A Review of Restaurant Labyrinth, Singapore - No Bull?

One of my favourite Greek myths when I was growing up was that of Theseus and the Minotaur.  Theseus, the son of Poseidon and legendary founder-king of Athens, volunteered to be sent to Crete with an annual tribute of seven youths and seven maidens fair, who would enter the maze known as the Labyrinth.  In the Labyrinth, Theseus would encounter and slay the vicious Minotaur, the hybrid man-bull which demanded fresh human flesh as part of its diet.

Unlike Theseus, I was hoping, as I entered Singapore's Labyrinth, that I wouldn't have to put up with any bull.

Cooks in Action at Labyrinth's Counter-Style Kitchen

Friday, 18 July 2014

Restaurants in Darwin, Australia - Very Much Hit and Miss

I just returned from a week in Darwin.  Now, a week is a long time in Darwin, especially as I didn't have any plans to visit any of the Northern Territory's beautiful national parks.

Darwin is, in a word, expensive.  It's difficult to keep a simple meal of Chinese takeaway below A$15 (S$ 18) per person.  I visited a simple Chinese takeaway on the fringe of the city, and was charged A$13 for a single serve of fried rice.  These are prices that compare with, and in many cases exceed, what you would find in the international cities of Sydney and Melbourne.  And much like in Perth, where salaries were supercharged by the resources boom, the quality that you get does not justify the prices charged.

Friday, 27 June 2014

A Review of Hua Ting Restaurant, Orchard Hotel, Singapore - Classic Cantonese at its Best

Hua Ting at the Orchard Hotel is another old warhorse of the Singapore restaurant industry.  22 years old this year, it has amassed so many World Gourmet Summit Awards of Excellence and other assorted paraphernalia that I don't think it even bothers displaying them anymore.  My friend M recently hosted a banquet at Hua Ting to celebrate his 50th birthday, so it was a great chance to re-acquaint myself with an old favourite.

Hua Ting Restaurant
The entrance to Hua Ting Restaurant (courtesy of Hua Ting Restaurant)

Friday, 20 June 2014

Wine and Hawker Food at Ah Lam's Abalone Noodles, Balestier Road (and a short review of Morton's The Steakhouse, Mandarin Oriental Singapore)

Whatever your views on Singapore politics, you cannot deny that the members of the ruling People's Action Party have excellent taste when it comes to food.  Former Prime Minister and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is apparently a big fan of Les Amis (which also happens to be one of my favourite restaurants), and I have seen a senior cabinet minister or two there on my visits.  Non-Minister MPs and their grassroots leaders set their sights correspondingly lower, and I once read that the local MPs around the Balestier / Lavender / Little India area liked to frequent Ah Lam's Abalone Noodles, at the corner of Balestier and Race Course Roads.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

A Review of Bistecca Tuscan Steakhouse, Singapore

I received an email from Bistecca's GM Craig Hemmings a few weeks back, asking if I wouldn't mind listing Bistecca on my BYO Restaurants directory.  He mentioned something about Sydney, which must have triggered some memories from years past because his name sounded very familiar.  Surely enough, it was the same Craig Hemmings who was previously GM at Quay and Guillaume at Bennelong, two of Sydney's finest restaurants.

A house-branded Laguiole knife at Bistecca Tuscan Steakhouse

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Support Singaporean Chefs! Yew Eng Tong and Aaron Wong at the Bocuse d'Or Asia 2014

Because you have to, right?

It doesn't really matter whether or not you are Singaporean; hell, few of the guys in the photo below are!  But these very well-known and generous chefs are donating their skills and time for a fundraising lunch on Saturday, 31 May 2014 in support of Singapore's mission to bring home the ultimate honour in global cooking competitions: the Bocuse d'Or.

From top left (l to r): Stephane Istel, Bruno Menard, Julien Royer, Christophe Megel, Yew Eng Tong (Candidate), Frederic Colin, Khoo Wee Bin, Aaron Wong (commis)

Saturday, 17 May 2014

RIP Laurence Faller of Domaine Weinbach, One of My Favourite Winemakers

Claudius, uncle to that troublesome Dane Hamlet, lamented that "When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions".  So it was when earlier this week, I learned that Laurence Faller, winemaker and co-owner of Domaine Weinbach, had passed away on Monday night at the tender age of 47.

The formidable women of Domaine Weinbach (l to r): Colette, Catherine and Laurence Faller

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Jade Palace Dim Sum Banquet with Alsace Pinot Gris

The Alsace Society reconvened at Jade Palace Seafood Restaurant for another of our periodic varietal wine workshops.  Having already showcased the great Rieslings and Gewurztraminers of Alsace, the spotlight this time was on Pinot Gris, that chameleonic, intense yet oddly "in between two stools" variety.  And because restaurants were toeing a tough line on minimum spends and corkage policies on this Mothers'  Day weekend, Jade Palace (not to be confused with the now LVMH-owned Crystal Jade Golden Palace), that reliable standby and friend to all wine-lovers in Singapore, provided us with a double private room for what turned out to be a very long and enjoyable lunch.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

How and Where to Buy Cheap / Good Value Wine in Singapore

Cheap wine in Singapore...an oxymoron, perhaps?  But why is this the case when taxes and duties on wine in Singapore are eminently reasonable (compared to Australia, Malaysia and even most of Europe)?

The answer is simple: trade mark-ups, which can easily exceed 200% for everyday wines.  The eagerness of wine merchants to pass on the recent 25% alcohol excise hike was, unfortunately, par for the course.  Couple this with a succession of bad harvests in Europe and consequently escalating prices, and what you might once have taken for granted is now looking a little less affordable.

So what do you do?  Like a contrarian and resourceful little rodent, you burrow deeper and harder to find sources of cheaper and better value wine.  I set out a few tips from my experiences below, and would welcome any further ideas from readers.  Contact details for my recommended merchants are at the end of the post.

NB: Please bear in mind that in writing this piece, I am NOT proposing the substitution of Chilean bulk wine if you are used to drinking decent Bordeaux.  Please also note that I have not been paid to give publicity to anyone's business.

Friday, 11 April 2014

RIP Steven Shaw, eGullet Founder and Proto-Food Blogger (1969-2014)

Steven A. Shaw, a.k.a. Fat Guy, the founder of eGullet and one of the world's first name food bloggers, passed away on Tuesday aged 44.


I am not going to recite a list of his achievements here, nor will I recount to you how well I knew him, because I didn't.  Like most eGullet members, I had some interaction with him.  It was perhaps the measure of the man that he always tried to help his fellow members.  I cold-emailed him a few years ago for a quick interview for an article I was writing about a kerfuffle brewing on eGullet (I can't recall for the life of me what it was now), and he graciously engaged with me in a back-and-forth over a couple of weeks.  

After we wrapped up and I thanked him for his time, he said it sounded like I really liked restaurants, and he sent me a few chapters from his book "Turning The Tables".  The book's premise was that it would teach an everyman guest how s/he could get the best treatment from restaurants, and its thesis was simply "do unto restaurants what you would have them do unto you".  From my limited engagement with him and those who knew him, that was how he approached life in general.

For us here in Asia, eGullet's influence was not particularly far-reaching, due mostly to the fact that it was fundamentally a "Western" (i.e. North American and Western Europe) board and its participant base here in the East was not large.  The Asian boards on eGullet are essentially moribund these days, but Shaw's and eGullet's legacy, of making food blogging a part of the cultural mainstream, has had a massive impact on the restaurant and hospitality industry worldwide, especially in Asia.  How many of you bloggers reading this has ever taken a freebie from a restaurant?  How many of you PRs reading this are looking for the right blogger on which to spend your social media marketing budget?  You are only doing this because it was Shaw's (and his partner Jason Perlow's) pioneering efforts at the the turn of the millennium that made the world first realise that a free-posting forum, with random unedited scribblings about food, could reach a large audience and influence opinion.

But more fundamentally (and certainly this is true for me) it made us realise that there were fellow nuts out there who also engaged regularly in the quasi-intellectual analysis of food, and that being part of this community was always educational, sometimes even enjoyable.  This blog, and my stop-start food-writing career, owes its very existence to eGullet, and the few years I happily posted there.  I also met a few dear and very unique friends through its pages.  I shan't mention their names here to save their blushes but in particular, I enjoyed finally meeting a hulking North American gentleman who spends ten months a year in a fenced-off compound in the Gulf States, only to spend the remaining two drinking, eating and causing mayhem to make up for lost time.  Or the linguistic consultant in Melbourne who speaks eight languages fluently and also happens to make some of the best macarons you will find anywhere.

But, of course, what struck me the most about Shaw's passing was that his very worthy life came to an end far too quickly.  How many of us, caught in the ecstasy of a spoonful of a particularly exquisite double-boiled soup, the crunch of a gorgeous artisan pain au levain with Normandy butter, or even your first sip of 1990 Armand Rousseau Chambertin, felt like you could go on living that moment forever?  The tragedy of life is that you can't, and in the rat-race that we all run, it takes the passing of a giant like Steven Shaw, at the tender age of 44, to remind us again of that brutal truth.

Vale, Fat Guy.  Thank you for being a small part of my life, but for transforming it in a way that I could never foresee.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Champagne Lunch with Two Michelin-Starred Philippe Mille from Les Crayeres

Chef Philippe Mille from the two Michelin-starred Les Crayères of Reims, Champagne, was in town recently for the World Gourmet Summit.  Together with Champagne grower Alexandre Penet, he was hosting a one-off lunch at Raffles Grill paired with Penet's Champagnes, so I didn't need too much persuading to check it out.  Together with Singapore Foodie Victoria and her husband M, we returned to Raffles Grill with some serious expectations of a great afternoon.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Chinese Herbal Cuisine at Majestic Restaurant - A 2014 WGS Masterpiece

Last week at the Majestic Restaurant, I had one of the most unique dining experiences in recent memory. Cooking with Eu Yan Sang herbs, executive chef Yong Bing Ngen produced a masterful six-course showcase in Chinese herbal cuisine.  Paired with a selection of vintages from Hugel et Fils of Alsace, not only was this meal a true eye opener, but it also enabled a critical examination of one's own deeply-held prejudices.


Restaurant Majestic 大華

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Celebrating 20 Years at Les Amis - Improving Like a Fine Wine

Les Amis racks up its 20th birthday this year, quite an achievement when you consider the fickleness of the Singaporean dining public.  I could be wrong on this, but I have good reason to believe that Les Amis is the longest-lasting, oldest independent (i.e. not in a hotel) "Western" cuisine restaurant in Singapore's young history.  Just as remarkable is the fact that it has remained in the one spot throughout those two decades, whereas stalwarts such as Iggy's and Saint Pierre have had to relocate in their much shorter existences.

Friday, 7 March 2014

A Review of the New La Strada, Scotts Road, Singapore - Italian by Les Amis

La Strada, the Les Amis Group's Italian trattoria, is like Uncle Tom Rowley's anecdotal "bloody opera singer" in the Rumpole books - it just keeps popping back.

In its first reincarnation, it was a ristorante-cum-pizzeria that occupied two lots of prime Claymore Hill real estate (its name, Italian for "the street", signified Les Amis Group's physical occupation of the entire stretch of Shaw Centre west of the carpark ramp).  It then underwent renovations and came back as a trattoria, sans pizzeria, and before long, sans its founding chef, Italian-Australian Leandro Panza.


It closed soon after, and its former premises were taken up by more Les Amis Group concepts, the phenomenally successful Caveau Wine Bar and Annam, a rather less successful attempt at Vietnamese fine dining (I visited Annam on a couple of occasions, and it was the only time I had been genuinely disappointed at any of the Les Amis Group outlets).  Annam's demise paved the way for the rebirth of La Strada, now under the management of my former Les Amis colleague Danny Zhang.

I was here for a wine dinner featuring the redoubtable Tuscan winery Marchesi Antinori. At $98++ for five courses and matching wines, I didn't have too much to lose, and it would (hopefully!) be a pleasant way to re-acquaint myself with an old friend.

First Entree: Norwegian Scallop Carpaccio, Citrus Fruits and Horseradish Emulsion
Wine Pairing: 2012 Castello della Sala Bramito del Cervo Umbria IGT


They say you eat with your eyes first, and let me tell you, my eyes were not impressed.  Without being rude, this honestly reminded me of something my little girl threw up once.  Thankfully it tastes better than it looks, very clean and fresh-tasting with the fruit-horseradish combination putting me in mind of the wasabi prawn dish so often encountered these days at Chinese restaurants.  It was a fair bit underseasoned, however, and a little sprinkle of salt perked it up no end.  The wine, 100% Chardonnay from Antinori's Umbrian estate, was delightfully smoky and stone-fruity, not entirely unlike Mr Rapet's 2009 Pernand-Vergelesses Clos du Village, albeit less structured than that distinguished wine.

Second Entree: Char-Grilled Cardoncello Mushroom with Baby Asparagus and Prosciutto
Wine Pairings: 2010 Antinori Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG; 2008 Antinori Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG


I had never before encountered a cardoncello on my plate (which is not to say that I have encountered one in a random dark alley or somewhere similar), but it was wonderful: meaty, crunchy and tinged with a sweet char from the grill, while the prosciutto added a needed salt-hit.  The puddle of chicken jus, though, struck me as being a very French touch.

Wine-wise, the Marchese Chianti was way too young and unforgiving to be enjoyable, but the Badia a Passignano opened up nicely after an hour or so to reveal some lovely black fruit.  Patience will be well-rewarded with this wine.  Thankfully, Monopole (who sponsored the wines for this dinner) brought a lot of stock with them, so we had an adequate supply of well-aired wines even towards the end of the evening.

Third Entree: Braised Beef Cheek Open Raviolo with Baby Spinach and Ricotta Cheese
Wine Pairing: 2010 Tignanello Toscano IGT


An open raviolo is no raviolo.  Not being racist or wanting to discriminate against bottomless pasta dumplings, but the pasta-filling ratio is a relevant concern for discriminating (oh hell, whatever) gluttons such as myself.  Once I re-calibrated my expectations, it was a good dish, and smooth.  That was the one word that kept recurring in my head as I ate this: smooth.  The beef was braised to a delightful tenderness, the spinach was beautifully blanched, and topped with nubbins of ricotta which semi-melted in the heat, making the whole dish even more smooth.  Like the scallop, it was again underseasoned.  I couldn't help wondering at this point if the kitchen was under orders to underseason the food so as to let the wine take centre stage.

As for the Tignanello, it was good.  I can't say much more because it was stubbornly closed.  There were masses of extraction and savouriness somewhere in there behind the oak, but they didn't reveal themselves even with double-decanting and a few hours of air.

Main Course: Oven-Roasted Spanish Suckling Pig with Cabbage Confit and Caraway Jus
Wine Pairing: 2010 Solaia Toscano IGT


When I saw this dish, my mind ambled into the Tardis and flashed back to 2011.   I tasted it, and my palate jumped into a Delorean back to the same year.  What was happening that year...good God, this was a dish from Les Amis!  Not just any dish, but the signature suckling pig that I was helping to dish out, and subsequently ordered on numerous occasions following.  It was as lusciously fatty, crispy, meaty and satisying as I remember, made all the more poignant from not having had it for a couple of years.  I went across to Timothy Goh, who seems to be presently heading up both the wine programme for the Les Amis Group, as well as its sister company Vinum.  "This is the Les Amis suckling pig!" I accused.  "Yes", said Tim.  "You know who is the chef here (at La Strada) now?"  Well, no; it turned out to be Joon Kian Pow, who was formerly senior sous to Armin Leitgeb at the mothership.  Another mystery solved for the evening.  It also explained why the previous dishes had a bit more of a French aesthetic than you have a right to expect from an Italian trattoria.

It also turns out that Tim had asked for this dish as he thought it would be an excellent pairing with the Solaia.  I'm not brave enough to disagree with Tim about matters vinous, and he was spot-on as always, with the protein softening the tannins of the wine and bringing out a more sensuous texture and feel.  Again, I felt the Solaia was still extremely tightly wound, and needs many more years to show but a fraction of its potential.  It was more approachable than the Tignanello, though, and was clearly a wine of more distinction.

Dessert: Tiramisu
Wine Pairing: 2007 Castello della Sala Muffato della Sala


A very nice, classic tiramisu, although I would have preferred a higher proportion of the espresso-dunked savoiardi biscuits to break up the textural monotony of too much mascarpone.  The Muffato della Sala, an intriguing blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Grechetto, Traminer and Riesling is rich with honey, flowers and lychee, but the finish drops off completely, leaving me a little unfulfilled.  Maybe I've just been spoilt by having drank too many excellent Alsace VT and SGNs (and recently, Sauternes as well, I am ashamed to admit).

Conclusion

I am glad La Strada is back.  I think they have taken a risk by taking on an old Les Amis hand as head chef, not in terms of the objective quality of the food, which is terrific, but in terms of (a) how authentically "Italian" one expects the food to be, and (b) public perception.  And from what I've had tonight, it isn't the most authentic Italian restaurant around the place, although the flavours and spirit clearly have an Italian inspiration.  I suspect I may need to order from the regular menu to comment further on this point.

But the product is very good and the new team appear to be holding up well; they managed to serve a delicious tasting menu to every diner in a full house without getting into the weeds.  Front-of-house was stretched at times, especially when it came to providing bread (absolutely critical for a wine dinner at which such serious wines are being served), but it was friendly and accommodating when I managed to flag them down.

All in all, a very enjoyable wine dinner, and the perfect excuse to see La Strada back in form again after all these years.

LA STRADA RISTORANTE
#01-11 Shaw Centre
Singapore 228208
Tel: +65 6735-6656
www.lastrada.com.sg
Reservations recommended

Monday, 24 February 2014

Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2014 - The Full List (and Risers and Fallers)

It is that time of the year again when some restaurateurs and chefs in Asia hold their breath, and others feign indifference.  Regardless of one's views of the system, all crave its recognition, if only for the undoubted financial benefits which a listing bestows.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Ipoh 2014 - What's Still Good, and An Interesting New Trend

OK, you've put up with my rant about the bad news from my recent Ipoh visit, so now I get to tell you about the good news.  But whether it is in fact "good" depends a lot on what you value.  Perhaps you are, like me, a member of the Ipoh diaspora and want to return to the town of our memories, the town of our childhood.  Or perhaps you still live there, and you want to see the food scene develop with modern trends, new ideas, become more global (and, I guess, inevitably more expensive) in its outlook.  And this is happening; a French restaurant recently opened which serves a RM294++ (US$100) six-course dinner menu.  I didn't go there on point of principle, but it is a sign of the coming apocalypse trends.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Ipoh 2014 - Famous Eateries in Decline

I have just returned from my annual Chinese New Year retreat in Ipoh.  In amongst all of the family duties and obligations, there is, of course, a lot of recreational eating.  As much as possible, I try to catch up on how the food scene is developing, as well as re-living the fond memories of my childhood.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Bar-Roque: Stéphane, His Mom, Two Hugels and Me (and Fifty Guests...)

The Alsace Wine and Gastronomy Society reconvened at Bar-Roque Grill on the 11th of January to welcome back to Singapore Etienne Hugel, 12th generation proprietor of Hugel et Fils, and his freshly minted wife, Kaoru Hugel, the Asia ambassador for Govino (the award-winning, durable, shatterproof, stemless wine glasses).  

As well as celebrating the Hugels' return to our sunny island, we gather to toast their recent marriage as well as the Society's first anniversary.  With the support of Hugel's exclusive importers Monopole, Etienne had eight vintages specially shipped over for this auspicious occasion, a super treat for members.  And to top it all off, we had La Mère Istel, Sabine, helping her son Stéphane in the kitchen!  This is apparently a very potent alignment of factors, because we had 50 attendees, the first time we have broken the half-century for a Society gathering.  The English batsmen would have been proud!

Pictures in this post are courtesy of Professor Roland Yap.

The Alsace Corkscrew Man, by Ralph Steadman

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Closing Down of Guy Savoy, Singapore - So Long, and Thanks For All The (Crispy-Scaled) Fish

This afternoon, I received an email from Guy Savoy MBS' Executive Chef and General Manager Eric Bost confirming the sad news: that Guy Savoy at Marina Bay Sands Singapore would serve its last dinner on Sunday, 2 February 2014.

Crispy-Scaled Sea Bass, Swiss Chard, Ginger and Vanilla Sauce

Thursday, 9 January 2014