Friday, December 31, 2010

Best of 2010

Last day of 2010, what a year it's been!  And since I'm sworn off sentimental reminiscing, here's a quick recap of my 2010's food escapades.

Most interesting travel meal - Khmer cuisine at the Meric.
First formal meeting with HK-based foodies - Club des Chef des Chefs Gala Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental HK
Best cheese tasting event with HK-based foodies - Mont d'Or Cheese at Classified
Best Modern Italian in HK - The Drawing Room
Best Modern Italian in Singapore - Gattopardo
Victor in HK's Froyo battle - Yo Mama
Best hotel - Park Hyatt Beijing
Best staple in Happy Valley - Cheong Kee
Best new found eatery in Happy Valley - Gusto
Best fun Japanese in Beijing - Hatsune
Best Omakase meal in Singapore - Ooi Japanese Dining
Best Hakka birthday - Kong Hing restaurant
Best restaurant we had to say goodbye to - Tuscany by H (thank goodness Gold has reopened in its place)
Best Shanghainese in Hong Kong - Liu Yuan Pavilion
Best Shanghainese in Shanghai - Dian Shi Zhai Restaurant
Biggest letdown that did not live up to hype - French Window
Best casual Italian in Singapore - Bruno's (to be reviewed!)
Best coffees in HK  - Fuel Espresso and Kitamura

In other food news, my weekly Chinese soups have been great, thanks to Aunty May and Aunty Ping of Happy Valley Tai Hing grocers fame.  Of course, I love my Hurom juicer, and have said goodbye to processed juices.  Getting to meet the famous Mr. Nobu Matsuhisa in LA of Nobu fame, thanks to new pal SB.  Finally meeting my cyber foodie mates from HK, twice no less, despite a hectic travel schedule.  And after much debate, it does not seem tuna supplies from Japan will be interrupted?  My Toro is safe for now... bring out the Sake!

Aside from the primary obsession with food, there was time to work of course, and work I did to fund the primary.  Who didn't?  But we are after all, smarter than the average pigeon, and therefore can juggle other accomplishments like..

On the health front - recovering from a a bad bout of illness caused by the Beijing summer pollution, recovering from comatose butt syndrome caused by too many plane rides in coach, and getting stitches for the first time over a kitchen mishap.  I still am a certified scaredy cat though.  I also learned the hard way that Vietnamese coffee and French Champagne do not mix despite the historical colonisation period, at least not in my body.

On the tennis front, great to see that Federer survived a "bad" year and caps it off with the ATP Tour Finals championship trophy with a victory over Nadal, no less...  Sweet.  His tweener shots have now been iconised and he remains my tennis hero for yet another year, making it 7 glorious years.  Justine Henin hasn't been so lucky with what was a promising comeback unfortunately waylaid by injury.  May 2011 be even better for them.  Personally, I have perfected my Federer backhand (only I need be the judge of that since this is MY Blog).  I just need to work on his serve now...

In family news, we welcomed Jodi, the new beagle into the family.  Steffi is still getting used to her, especially after the latest fight where Jodi drew blood.  I also enjoyed spending time with Zachary, my nephew who has grown up really fast in his first year.  I also welcomed by own baby, a new 325 convertible.  Love, love!

In other news, I rediscovered reading and knocked off the entire Millenium series over 2 months.  Movies were a limited pastime this year but I enjoyed the chick flick Sex and the City 2 (for those who thought it was lame, it is a chick flick for crying out loud, and more importantly, no tears required!).  In other movie news, I cannot believe that Hurt Locker edged Avatar for Best Picture.  Who needs another war film??  The passing of Rue McClanahan marked the end of a era for me, having grown up watching her as Blanche Devereaux in one of my all-time favourite sitcom "Golden Girls".

In world cup news, the amazing talent of Paul the Octopus superseded the Spanish victory in my opinion. it was more important watching him make the prediction than watching the matches themselves.  Paul's passing is a loss to us..

In personal entertainment, my favourite toy of the year is the Sing-a-ma-jig!  Did you get yours yet?  My advice, you cannot get less than 2.  Best to form a choir!  Lately, AngryBirds and snorting pigs have taken over my holiday season.  Arggh!

Overall, it wasn't too bad of a year.  I am thankful to have happiness and health.  Thank you for reading and here's wishing one and all a happy healthy and successful 2011!  

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Singapore - Tenza Izakaya

One of the things I did to prep for Christmas was to eat non-Christmas food.  Aside from going vegetarian, which I cannot do in a sustained fashion, going Japanese is always a good option.  Instead of doing the usual rounds, we decided to try something a little different, and out of neighbourhood as well.  Venturing into the heartland of Sunset Way's new-feel neighbourhood of five-foot ways lined with eateries and bars, we maneuvered our way through the old HDB estate to arrive at Tenza Izakaya, which just passed its 6-month birthday.

We changed our minds about sitting al fresco, and landed ourselves in front of Chef Donny's work area, perched on 2 high chairs, and overlooking a very open kitchen.  It wasn't a very cool kitchen to peer into, but we still like to see our food prepped in front of us, and the 6 chefs in their different stations at work.  Unfortunately, it was a fairly quiet night so some were just observing.  With that, we just instructed Donny to "hit us" with his best shot.  Even then, he was quite polite to tell us what he planned ahead of each course.  

Some cold appetisers to get us started while we each ordered a Yuzu cooler and a cold Junmai Ginjyo to begin the ride.

Norwegian Salmon roe with cameos by threads of omelet.

Ankimo liver slice with a sharp Ponzu sauce.

Pregnant Kelp garnished wtih Bonito flakes.

Steamed Rape Blossoms with clams.

The appetisers were of good quality, although since not all of us were having sake, I might have gone with a more balanced selection that was not so heavy on salt.  The 2 types of roes while enjoyable, can be overwhelming without alcohol, and detract from the liver and the sweetness of my favourite of the rape blossoms.  

Assorted Sashimi Platter of Hirame, Shima Aji, Smoked Makceral, Ark Shell Clam and Toro.

The Sashimi Platter was the winner of the evening.  A good balance of lean to fatty, textures of crunch to creamy and of course, each very fresh having arrived the day before.  Apparently they don't ship everyday, or they ship different items daily.  Even then, good storage ensured that the cuts were delightful and each retaining their individual goodness.  

Shirako (Cod milt or sperm) in clear soup.
The quality of the Cod Milt was fresh and creamy, but given that, I may not have selected soup as a platform to showcase this.  In other places, my favourite is to tempura (just like enjoying fried milk), or lightly sear this to lend it a smoky flavour.  Even sashimi with a Ponzu sauce would work.  The soup unfortunately did not do it justice and for those not used to eating it, may cause a little squirminess.  

Grilled Fish.
I forget the name of the fish that was grilled for us.  It was an "ok" at best, since there wasn't much flavour to it, and the flesh was just a tad to firm. 

Sakura Shrimplets

Chef Donny was also kind to offer us some Sakura shrimplets which can only be enjoyed for a short window before they are typically sun-dried and used for flavouring dishes.  They were fresh-water sweet but because there is very little flesh, I thought the shells, etc. interfered with total enjoyment of the miniature crustaceans.
11-hour braised Kuro Buta Pork

My suspicion with this dish was unfortunately played out.  Failing to seal the meat before braising or just over braising caused this to be shoestring tough.  While the sauce was very hearty and tasty, the cooking process did not do the good pig justice, and only the bamboo and spinach garnishes were enjoyable.  

Ume Onigiri

To end, we shared a rice ball stuffed with preserved plums and this is always a nice finish especially for Asians who love their rice.  And the rice here is pretty decent, still fluffy and there was just enough plum to favour but not overwhelm.

Home-made Mochi dusted with icing malt sugar
The mochis were well done, very soft and chewy and came apart easily with a bite.  I would have preferred a drizzle of Kuromitsu (brown sugar syrup) over this to give it a little more kick but otherwise the icing did little to enhance the quality of the mochi.  

Home-made Goma ice cream

Just to add to our bursting waistlines, Donny wanted us to try his home-made Sesame ice cream.  I'm generally not a fan of this flavour since it tends to leave an oily aftertaste, but I have to admit this was very good.  Perhaps having bits of sesame (rather than grinding it too finely) lends bite while not allowing too much oil from the toasted seeds to mar the texture of the ice cream.  Well executed.  

Overall, a decent experience, and a casual place to enjoy fresh catches from the waters of Japan, in Singapore's favourite garb of casuals.  Just don't come in your pajamas.

106 Clement St 12
Sunset Way
Tel: +65-6773 0093

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas y'all!  I hope the festive feasting has been rewardingly good.  This year, we ordered a bone-in Premium Honey Glazed Gammon Ham and a Rosemary Roasted Sakura Chicken from the Mandarin Orchard Hotel.  It was a first for us, but given last-minute decision making, it wasn't like there was a lot of choice since most butchers had stopped taking orders from around December 15.

Fingers crossed, we picked it up on Christmas Eve afternoon, and wow!  It was a feat to lug the ham to the car, at about 7kg, not including condiments, nor the chicken.  But it was all worth it.

The ham was roasted to retain its juices, which were still spilling when we carved it out about 4 hours later.  Marinated to a sweet finish from the honey, and a hint of spice from the clove picks randomly scattered over the leg, it was not like most commercial salted-to-death hams.  The accompanying gravy was just short of treacle consistency, and with a hint of Christmas spices.  Definitely festive and worth the effort of carving it.

So good that I enjoyed leftovers with crusty sourdough bread for Christmas brunch today.  I can't wait to make a hearty winter melon soup with the left over bone I kept.  It's not quite Yunnan ham, but I think it will be a good take on the classic anyhow.

The Sakura chicken was also very well roasted, although the rosemary wasn't obvious.  The finish was more oriental and very succulent, very much like a cross between a Hainanese steamed chicken (a la Mandarin's world-famous Chatterbox chicken rice?) but with a browned skin.  The unfortunate thing was that the skin did not retain any crispness at the end of the journey home, but it was still enjoyable.

Overall, a satisfying merry Christmas and another add to my Christmas list of places to order from.  For those who still want to do a party before the year is up, the goodies are available until Jan 1.  Enjoy the rest of year, and may you all have more success in feasting 2011!

Mandarin Orchard Singapore
333 Orchard Road
Singapore 238867

Tel: +65-6737 2200

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Siem Reap - Abacus Garden Restaurant, Bar

Over my 5 days in Siem Reap, dinner at Abacus was probably my best meal.  Since the owners and head chef are French, it was reasonable to go with the French options than the local offerings.  And they did not disappoint.

I was happy to find Orangina but realized over my stay that this is a pretty standard soda offering in these parts.  A la French influence. 

Our amuse bouche was a pomelo salad topped with a hard boiled quail's egg and drizzled with a sweet black soy sauce.  A clean and refreshing way to begin the meal and yummy too.

The tuna carpaccio with a green salad lightly dressed with a vinaigrette and shaved parmesan was very good.  Generous portions of sashimi-grade tuna drizzled with a tangy olive-oil based dressing was a nice change from the usual beef carpaccio.  The salad used local leaves which were unusual and interesting in flavours, almost herbal.  But it was surprisingly well paired with the Parmesan and not at all out of place on the platter.

The other appetizer of the grilled scallops were just as good.  Very fresh scallops that were only lightly seared to seal off a juicy and moist inside, paired with a light mesclun salad with little balls of goat cheese that added the richness to the dish.  Serving the cheese in little balls strewn around the platter was, I thought, very clever.  Since the cheese can be strong for some, the diner can decide exactly how much is enough without having to tip toe around the dish or avoid it totally if it had already been integrated into the salad dressing. 

The mains of the braised lank shank with lentils was way better than it looked, since it looked so one-dimensional when served given that it was just one color.  There were only 4 bright spots around the plate, unusually given off by the yellow baby spuds, which were surprisingly full of spud flavour.  But this dish is the plat de resistance.  The fall-off-the-bone meat was probably the best meat I had on the trip.  This had to be imported.  It was so soft and tender, but with a slightly strong lamb taste.  On its own, it might have been overpowering especially for non-lamb lovers.  But the pairing with the lentil gravy was very hearty and yummy.  I did mop up the gravy with whatever bread I had left and was even offered another basket by the server who caught my enthusiasm. 

Dessert ended our meal on a very high note.  The naturally sweet apple slices were stewed well to just leave a little crunch for texture so that the juicy sweetness comes through as you bite down.  The filo pasty tart ensured that this was not a heavy finish but an airy buttery lightness, which fragrance would make one happy to carry to bed.  But the surprise with the Kampot pepper, broken down and crushed to release its signature fragrance, with just enough heat to entice but not to overpower.  No other words, just plain “very good”. 

Love it when things come together and it did the night I dined there.  This may be the one place I would pay a repeat visit too.  

Tip: if they haven't paved the 100m on the little road and you're going by Tuk Tuk, get off at the main road and walk the 100m.  Otherwise, be prepared for a really rough ride, especially on the way out, after you've stuffed yourself with a lovely meal.

Directions: Road No 6 to the Airport, pass the Angkor Hotel, and turn right at the ACLEDA Bank; the restaurant is located 100 m, on the left-hand side.  

(+855) 63 966 156
(+855) 12 644 286
(+855) 92 318 528

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Siem Reap - Meric

Al fresco seating at the Meric
One of the finer “local” meals we had in Siem Reap was at the Meric Restaurant.  Housed within the boutique Hotel De La Paix, we definitely were not going to just have breakfast there every morning, and let up on the opportunity to try their famous Khmer tasting menu.  And going on a Wednesday night meant that we got to enjoy a traditional Apsara dance performed by the children’s charity that the hotel supports.

Pounded wild eggplant with crispy pork (background)
Local Cresson Salad with Chicken (foreground)
To start, the salad was made unique through the fragrant Cresson leaves.  The unusual taste and smell of this local leaf (a type of watercress) lifted an otherwise common salad dressed with peanut sauce.  While we enjoyed the eggplant puree, we are still scratching our heads as to where the crispy pork was.  Was it so finely ground into the puree that it leant taste without being present by itself?  We should have asked but were distracted between the dancing and devouring what we had on our plates.

Pan fried butter Cat Fish wtih Green Mango Sauce
The second course of the butter catfish was probably the winner of the night.  The smooth but firm flesh of the fish was well grilled to give off a smoky but not burnt taste.  And the accompanying green mango salad was tangy and refreshing.  A perfectly executed course, even if almost identical to its Thai cousin but without the use of a deep fried cotton fish. 

Braised beef shank with palm sugar and star anise
The beef shank was in sweet contrast, literally.  Stewed as best as it can be – and I say that having experienced that meats here are just generally very lean, chewy and bordering on dry.  Marbling is either unappreciated and/or unavailable.  I definitely did not see any fat cows while cruising through the farmlands on my Quad 4-wheeler.  But the beef here was comparatively easier on the teeth, and quite tasty.  The quarter hard boiled egg was a nice touch, but I thought the garnish of fried shallots did nothing except distract the diner.

The duo of Khmer organic rice (white and brown) served in a banana leaf bowl was good, and the mix was a nice play on tastes and textures from the 2 different grains.  It also served us critically well through the next course.

Stir fried frogs with holy Basil
My stir fried frogs were rather ordinary since I grew up eating frogs.  In fact, I found the meat to be, yes again, too tough as compared with the frog legs I normally eat.  The basil stir fry would have been a winner if the dish wasn’t so salty overall.  I almost ran out of rice – quite a challenge considering the portions were generous.  B who does not eat frog, had a stir fry of prawns with Kampot pepper.  Tasty enough was alas the pepper didn’t come through as the sauce was also too salty and masked any goodness the pepper had to offer. 

Pork rib with young jackfruit and coconut milk sour soup
The spare ribs in jackfruit curry was pleasant enough although it was again rather ordinary.  Slightly sweet from the fruit, but unfortunately not fragrant enough as it should be given the qualities of the fruit.  And of course, pork that was just a tad tough and not as enjoyable as ribs should be. 

Assorted Khmer Sweets
The sweet ending was “ok”.  Unfortunately, if you’re used to enjoying Thai desserts, this course seemed to pale in comparison.  The tapioca in coconut milk served in a glass was the best, alongside a pumpkin custard on sticky rice drizzled with palm sugar.  The other 2 tapioca based desserts were bordering on bland and a little too tough to work through and not enough incentive since I was getting full. 

Overall, we appreciated that the chef created an enjoyable meal through the use of a broad variety of local herbs and spices.  Here, we didn’t have to worry if the produce was washed in clean water, or that sources of the meats might have been suspect.  Our venture to the wet market certainly did not leave us with much confidence.  Given the circumstances, I would definitely recommend that visitors to Siem Reap come and stay at the De La Paix, and eat at the Meric.  It’s probably as close to 5-star as you would get in this town for a while.  

PS. you probably gathered that there wasn't much lighting outdoors, thus the quality of the photos.  

Hotel De La Paix
Sivutha Boulevard
Siem Reap
Tel: +855-63 966 000

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Siem Reap - Khmer cuisine

Cambodian food, or Khmer cuisine, hasn’t really excited my palate like the awesome temple ruins have. Walking along long corridors at Angkor Wat with carved murals of life as it was between the 10th and 12th centuries in Cambodia, one cannot help but think about what could have been if this Kingdom had not been lost to the many wars throughout the centuries. Only as recent as 1998, when Pol Pot finally passed on, did this Kingdom really open up and repair itself, something which it is still doing.  The destruction is still visible, especially of land-mine victims, who are trying to move on with their lives, some sadly as beggars, others as buskers, or more happily as sculptors in local Artisan institutions, etc.

The comparative lack of investments in agriculture is also obvious. While similar in climate to the rest of the region, with produce of similar varieties, the quality is unfortunately not as desirable as its rich neighbour, Thailand, which has some of the best produce in the world.

With a relatively small population in Siem Reap and the province which it sits in at just under 1M people, there’s a disproportionately large number of westerners who have decided to settle here, especially the French, a relic of the times when Cambodia was under French colonial rule. The result is naturally French influenced cuisine, and just like in Vietnam, the baguette rules here too. Locals seem to love it stuffed with a locally made pate, and fresh vegetables, which I was unfortunately too “chicken” to want to risk.

Going local at designated tourist stops is considered safe. However, street food is really not something that the guides recommend you do unless you want to risk your vacation or bringing home a souvenir you hadn’t intended to.

As for royal Khmer cuisine, the locals say it doesn’t exist. What does exist is “fine” Khmer cuisine, which essentially internationalized Khmer food presented in a western way. It’s really quite decent but for fans of Thai and Vietnamese food, there’s not much of a “wow” factor. Garlic and shallots are employed more overtly in Cambodia and so tend to cover up too much of the natural tastes of the food. What I do like is Kampot pepper – such a versatile spice, that it even went with a dessert I had.  Brilliant!  Of course, basil (similar to the Thai variety) is also widely used, lifting a lot of the dishes from their sole dimension.

Overall, there is now enough of an international crowd and so consequently, cuisine that you can get in touristy Siem Reap is also international.  But don’t expect big city type standards, it’s not that kind of place, yet.  Perhaps with progress, there will be enough affluence to demand it.  For now, just come and be wowed by a rich part of history that this little town can certainly boast of.

Anyhow, more to come, of memorable and perhaps not-so-memorable meals, complete with photos, over my 5-day, once-in-a-lifetime trip to Siem Reap.  Stay tuned.