Sunday, September 28, 2008

Singapore - Nanbantei

Ever get that good feeling when you tuck into something you had when you were young, and it transports you back to the good old days and the happy memories you have.. having lunch at Nanbantei does that for me.

Nanbantei - the robatayaki franchise from Japan has been at Far East Plaza for as long as I can remember. It was one of those blue moon treats for me when Mom and I got sick of eating at the Scotts Picnic Food Court, yes remember that one? Far East Plaza/Scotts Shopping Centre used to be such after-school hangouts, being the nearest malls to my secondary school in the '80s.

After more than 20 years, the Obento lunch box at Nanbantei is still excellent value for money at S$12.50. With 5 yakitori skewers and a rice box topped with minced pork, braised mushrooms and seawood, it is a scrumptious lunch and nutritious too! Accompanied by miso soup and a dessert of mochi sitting on a bed of Azuki red bean, it is a full meal.

While Nanbantei is not the best robatayaki joint in town, it is pretty darn good and is close in taste to its Tokyo counterpart, which I had occasion to try a couple of years ago. And for me, it is the added nostalgia which takes me there every now and then...

Hong Kong - The Taiyaki

The new favourite snack in town - the Tai Yaki or literally "grilled snapper". But other than a shape, there is no fish involved. The Tai Yaki is the traditional Japanese pastry shaped like a fish and filled with mashed red bean filling. This snack has been revamped to include more up to date fillings like cream cheese, green tea paste, chocolate, etc.

The Tai Yaki, a new hole-in-the-wall outlet on Russell Street at Times Square in Causeway Bay goes one further. With a new pastry which is now crispy rather than the traditional doughey texture, it has "gourmand fillings" on offer - 4 to be exact.

I tried 2 out of 4 and was happy with both.

The Italian had a tomato based sauce with sausage, onions and corn, was like eating a calzone pizza, but much crispier. While the sauce was not spectacular, it was a nice combination of textures and flavours.

I liked the only sweet option the best - the French. With liquid custard, and dusted with Cinnammon, it was ecstasy! Especially on a cool evening, the hot custard spilling into the mouth is just warming to the soul. Just don't scald yourself!

I will try the Keema and German next time and promise pictures beyond the sign. Enjoy!

Hong Kong - L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon

In the wake of the financial crisis - the falling of Lehman Bros and the acquisition of Merrill Lynch, it was indeed a historic week, in proportions possibly only topped by the Great Depression... perhaps this was why we were able to get reservations at Robuchon's at short notice, albeit only at the counter - which turned out to be the best seats in the house, since you can see the buzz in the open kitchen and the processed wizadry in the creations.
The menu was divided into 3 parts - a tasting menu (which did not look too exciting and was a bit much food), the tasting portions menu and the entrees section. The Tasting Portions menu was the most exciting and we decided to order a selection from there to get a good feel for the place.
The amuse bouche was a yummy layered concoction of goose liver mousse at the bottom, and topped with a cappucino of creamy foam, and laced with good aged balsamic vinegar to cut through the grease. Very good!
We ordered the following:
1. sea urchin in a lobster jelly, topped with cauliflower cream - good sized sea urchin of the Hokkaido/Canadian variety, very sweet and its flavour brought out by the lobster jelly, then ending off a sweet note with the subtle cauliflower cream.
2. baby squids stuffed with chorizo and accompanied by vine tomatoes. The freshness of the squids cooked just right (still tender) combined well with the spiciness of the Chorizo and the baked vined cherry tomatoes were so naturally sweet, they made biting into the next squid that much more delicious.
3. Steak tartare and hand cut fries. The very good quality steak held well together, probably with an egg, had bits of gherkin to add a dimension into the beefiness of the tartare. The hand cut fries were so fresh you could literally taste the potato it was cut from.
4. The foie gras and Wagyu beef burger continued along the same lines with more fries! Yeah! But this was no fast food. The foie gras and burger were each high quality pieces and were cooked just right - about 70% to give a crisp yet runny bite between the 2 mini buns. The accompanying sauce was a bit too reminiscent of a sweet Thai chilli sauce for my liking so I avoided it. If you really need to, Heinz ketchup would be better.
5. Although we were quite full by this time, we decided to go one more into the entree section to try the deep fried whiting fish. And while not spectacular, it did not disappoint. The whole fishies, deep fried to a light crisp served with the creamiest mash in the world, were excellent. Each bite of fish, with a home-made tartar sauce and a dash of mash, made for a burst of textures and flavours.
6. Dessert was their signature souffle - served with almond ice cream. While very competent, cooked just right, it was not spectacular and we vowed to try the chocolate concoctions the next time we visit.
The espresso cappucino was disappointing since the beans were a little burnt but the petit fours were excellent - with perfectly made macarons and fruit jellies. Yums.
All in all, a very satisfying meal and not overrated for the place that it is. We were already planning the next visit as we were exiting, to try the other yummy creations from the tasting portions menu. Remember to get a counter seat - you can't get to eat that part of the menu otherwise!
Robuchon's is at the 4th floor of the Landmark mall, down at Central, Hong Kong - best accessed by the escalators.

Hong Kong - Isola

I keep forgetting to blog about Isola - the Italian bar and restaurant at IFC mall, down in Central Hong Kong. One of the biggest reasons is the rush I typically have to get through since it is a great pre-movie pit-stop. And yes, the Palace IFC is my favourite cinema in Hong Kong, clean and has the best pop corn around. Ok, I digress..
Isola has simple Italian classics where you can just appreciate each dish for the good quality basic ingredients, and is never over-sauced. My favourites are as follows:
1. the thin-crust Parma ham and Arugula pizza
2. the sea urchin and clam linguini
3. the hand twisted pasta with seafood in a tomato based sauce
So if you need a yummy meal before a movie, give Isola a shot! Mamma mia!!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Singapore - Tatsuya

Wow! 50th post !! I thought this milestone should capture an extraordinary meal and Tatsuya did not disappoint, thanks to a counter table manned by Sasaki san and Goh san who delivered one of the better Omakase meals I've had. What an excellent dining experience this was!

The amuse bouche of smoked duck on a bed of lightly dressed salad with pine nuts was a nice start albeit ordinary. It certainly did not give us hints of what was about to hit us.

Course 1 - salmon roe in a refreshingly light ponzu drizzle served chilled. What a delightful way to whet the appetite on a hot and humid day.

Course 2 - a steamed snail subtle in its own flavour, and tender with a firm bite displayed the freshness of the snail - might have been picked from a park nearby (kidding!).

While waiting for our sashimi platter, we ordered an extra of fugu mirin - grilled Fugu fish served with an eggy Japanese mayonaise - very much like Singaporean grilled pork (bak kwa) without any guilt! Perfect.
Course 3- the Sashimi platter is one of the better ones I've had in Singapore. Of course, it was all fresh and served at the right temperature. A nice combination of flat fish with ponzu and ginger, toro, salmon belly, ark shell, scallop and sweet shrimp - all wondrously combined to deliver different textures and sweetness.

Course 4 - After the sashimi, came a warming thickened broth with generous dollops of crab meat encircling a whole radish, while not my favourite vegetable, was surprisingly crunchy and sweet and made me a new fan. If radishes are always like this, I can used to this..

Course 5 - the grilled sweet Ayu (river) fish. One of my favourite fishes to be grilled, it unfortunately is not widely available and I've only had occasion to eat it a grand total of 3 times since discovering it in Takayama not too long ago. The happily high Japanese gentleman who was chatty all night, upon seeing it, excitedly grabbed my chopsticks from my hand and proceeded to flatten the fish with my chopsticks so that the cooked meat, combined with the bloody innards of the fish to deliver a nice blend of flavours. He also pulled out the centre bone before retuning my chopsticks and leaving me to enjoy my fish.

Course 6 - Aburi sushi seemed to be the specialty of the house, especially when you start counting the number of times the blow torch was used in front of me. The combination delivered to us was each excellent in its own right. While the salmon belly and file fish are more common, they were nevertheless good. But of special mention is the very good beef, which hails from a region next to Kobe and is 95% as good as the real thing. The marbling is of course not as good but I like some meat as opposed to all marbling and gave a nice texture although not chewy at all. Very very good. My other new favourite is the botan ebi, topped with slightly spicy japanese mayo, bound by a seaweed flake, seared with the blow torch before being topped with caviar. Such decadent delight! Mmmm... I can still imagine the flavours bursting in my mouth..

Course 7 - While we would have liked more of the same, our tummies were reluctantly protesting and we soon got served musk melon and momo peach... a naturally sweet ending to an extraordinary meal. I can't wait to be back!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Singapore - Beng Thin Hoon Kee

As far as Fujian restaurants in Singapore go, Beng Thin Hoon Kee is an institution - since 1949 to be exact. And very surprisingly, my 4 colleagues (all Singaporean women from various generations) had not heard of it. I'm like "duh: where have you guys been?".. and so off we went to initiate them into Fujian food in Singapore.

Access is a tad confusing especially with refurbishment works at OCBC center but just remember to take the car park lifts to level 5 and you'll see the very Chinese entrance right there.
I ordered what I felt (from my teenage years) to be the definitive Fujian degustation menu - Beng Thin's specialties from as long as I can recall:

For starters, the duck salad with neatly julienned cucumbers and honey dew melon, drizzled with plum sauce and tossed together made for a refreshing and appetising beginning to a hearty and nostalgic adventure. Always a good choice since Fujian food tends to be on the heavy side.

Next, the "hae chos" (prawn rolls with water chestnut, etc.) rolled into a sausage, cut up into manageble pieces, then deep fried to a golden brown, served with a yummy tar-like textured sweet and black soya sauce.
The star of the restaurant is the oyster omellette - eggs and tapioca starch mixed and fried to a thin crisp - like a crispy crepe, served with mid-sized oysters laced with a little bit of chilli, the ultimate in combining textures of creamy oysters with crispy crepe. Oh so good.. and not greasy, perfect!

The pork belly stew served with a Chinese hamburger bun shaped like a semi-circle with a red dot is the traditional Fujian family dish, where young and old gather and bond over a hand-held bun stuffed with strips of the tender pork belly slathered in the rich soya sauce. You don't have to use your hands at the restaurant though..

The other "must try" is the Fujian noodles with shrimp and pork, which you can drizzle black vinegar over to cut some of the alkalinity from the yellow noodles. I do NOT eat this anywhere else because of the grease and alkalinity from the noodles but Beng Thin manages an exception in my books because of the stock they use for the gravy, rich with seafood and pork. And a relatively light hand with the oil.

If you need your fibre, the stir fried "dou miao" (pea shoots) is pretty good.

Finally, if you need a sweet ending, Beng Thin is well known also for its "Or Ni" (sweet yam paste with steamed pumpkin and ginko nuts). However, being of Teochew ancestry, I beg to differ. The Or Ni is competent but nowhere near the quality I am used to from a true-blue Teochew eatery.

But where Fujian cuisine is concerned in Singapore, Beng Thin wins hands down.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Singapore - Patara

Having recently been back from great eating experiences in Bangkok, it was dicey going Thai back in Singapore but being outvoted, the apprehension had to step aside.. The overall experience wasn't bad but of course, very ordinary compared to what I had savoured last week.

The fresh pomelo salad was very refreshing and combined with the piquant fish sauce, lime and dessicated coconut, made for a great appetiser. Contrast that with the soft shell crab served with green mango salad, the latter was disappointing, since the oil used to deep fry the crab was not as fresh as it should have been.

The soups were hearty but both were salty - the fish maw soup had a nice touch of being garnished with quail's eggs, which broke the monotony of it all. The tom yum with prawns was more fiery that we thought it would be and so we could not finish it all.

For 5 people, we had 3 mains which were each good sized portions.

The garouper fillet with 3 sauces was a nice fish and chips type fillet made from fresh garouper slices deep fried in beer batter. The 3 sauces were separately a fish sauce based sauce which was yummy, the other tamarind and sweet chili sauce were more ordinary but the 3 made for a nice merry-go-round of tastes form one single dish.

The green curry with chicken was competent and had juicy pieces of thigh meat, and so was juicy as compared with most which tend to serve the curry with breast meat.

The kailan with roast pork was tasty from the salted roast pork. The chef made a good effort to shave off the older parts of the kailan and so was more crunchy than this variety is usually, and made for easier chewing. May be a little salty overall for some but fine if eaten with rice, speaking of which the olive rice was a nice combination of fluffy rice with cashews, lime bits, fresh shallots, and the might chilli padis. Remember to remove the chilli padis if you are not used to having your tongue on fire.

Desserts were disappointing since the dessert buffet spread was quite blah and they did not have the unusual tamarind sorbet, nor egg yolk/pandan ice cream which I wanted to try. My friend who settled for the mango sticky rice was happy enough with her choice but would have been happier if the mango was sweeter.

If anyone is looking for Thai food in a central location in Singapore and in a comfortable environment with pleasant service (they did bring the ladies a chair each for our respective handbags) Patara is worth a visit.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Singapore - Hibiki

I'm not much of a tourist but we did end up at the Singapore Flyer - to Build-a-Bear for a special 8 year old.. and so after an exciting 45 minute session of breathing life into a "bear", well actually a Hello Kitty decked in a pretty pink t-shirt, and short denim skirt, with designer pink Skechers to match, and for extra money, has a beating heart and says 6 different things, we were thrilled to bits and peckish.

Hibiki sounded decent by most reviews and so we decided to give it a shot. We weren't terribly hungry and so ordered an assortment of little dishes to share over sake.

First up, the clams sauteed in butter and sake with mushrooms and green onion. Tasty enough but nothing to shout about.

The monk fish liver was served unusually crowded by more stuff than usual... with an especially tart ponzu sauce, and yam. The yam neutralised the usual exciting burst of liver creaminess with the ponzu and did nothing for the dish.

We ordered some kushiyaki - the Japanese green pepper with spicy mentaiko was unusual and the mochi wrapped in a sliver of pork was competent.

The sesame (Goma) tofu was cooly refreshing and creamy with a nice bite to the texture and was a welcome change to the previously saltier dishes.

The soft shell crab roll with avocado was disappointing since the oil used to deep-fry the crab wasn't the freshest - not rancid but just not fresh.

All in all, a competent but mediocre meal and just not that great... unfortunately. I may give it yet another shot but only if I have to build another bear, and if the grease of Popeye's next door is still not enticing enough.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Singapore - Mellben Seafood

On a rainy night, there is little better than a piping hot claypot of crab beehoon (Chinese for spaghetti made from rice flour) and so with that in mind, it was off to Mellben Seafood we went - meandering through the Toa Payoh estate to get to a coffee-shop style restaurant at Block 211, Lorong 8 in Toa Payoh, with tables pouring onto the sidewalk since the restaurant itself was too small to accommodate all the customers waiting to tuck into the signature dish.

The crab beehoon did not disappoint, with a rich and milky broth with an obvious hint of crab roe, with the orange film over the top. Chock full of goodness which had been brewing for a while.. The crab was a tad overcooked for my liking but perhaps that was the price to pay for a good stock. But I slurped up all the beehoon (major carbo load - good thing I worked out before dinner!)
The Guiness-marinated, then grilled pork ribs were also very good since they used a tender cut close to the cartillage and so tender meat, accompanied by a nice crunch from the cartillage, with all the goodness of a sweet Guiness made for a sinful mouthful of yumminess!

And with the holler of 2 competing durian stalls next door (my theory is they are probably one and the same owner) dessert was readily available. Your pick of Malaysian D24s or some "smelly shrimp" grade was laid out in full glory. Surprisingly, very good (since I have a preference for the sugary and creamy Thai ones)!

So a very satisfying meal to warm the soul on a pouring night, complete with a sweet ending - PERFECT!

NOTE: Reservations are highly recommended.