Sunday, April 29, 2012

Singapore - Pepenero

Pepenero is the newish Italian restaurant, in the also newish food enclave that is Telok Ayer, on Stanley Street to be precise.  Shophouses which used to be in the general trading business, dried goods or provision stores are now trendy restaurants, patiserries and bars, giving the CBD in Singapore yet another option for dining out. 

The setting within is modern yet an unusual choice of olive green walls gives it a slightly electic finish, but comtemporised by large black and whites.  High ceilings provide an airy feel although the place feels that much more spartan because there is so much room overhead and there is little between the tables and the wood lined ceiling. 

Service is professionally friendly and servers are more than able to make recomendations, which is perfect since there aren't asterisks on the menu to indicate what's good.  It's not a huge menu but there is something for everyone.  The map in the menu showcasing dishes off the menu as specialties from different regions in Italy was a nice touch.

Bread Basket with Olive and Sundried Tomato Tapanades
A tennis workout prior meant I wolfed down the bread and breadsticks pretty quickly.  Bread was a nice chewy texture although a tad too airy.  Bread sticks in contrast had pepenero and were dense.  The 2 tapenades made for great alternates.  Table olive oil was decent although the balsamic was thin and too tart for my liking.

Roast Octopus with mashed potatoes, olives and tomatoes
Quite the piece de resistance.  Octopus was grilled right, with a hint of smokiness but not overly done to be chewy.  And coupled with a milky mash, given acidity from the olives, then sweetness from the cherry tomatoes, quite perfect really.

Linguini with clams, sea urchin and Bottarga
What looked like anaemia on a dish came smelling and tasting like the sea, only sweeter.  The combination of clams and sea urchin seem to work, giving the broth a sea sweetness which was quite addictive.  I lost the last spoonful and a half to our server since I was distracted and am still thinking about what could have been.  Pasta was competently al dente but it was really all about the broth.

Milk-fed lamb chops Milanese style
This was a remix of the classic Veal Milanese.  Well breaded and well deep fried.  I still prefer veal but this was definitely a very close call, especially if you're a lamb fan.  The balsamic vinegar based sauce on the bottom added a nice balance of sweet and sour, and the fresh arugula/tomatoes of the true Italian variety were very good accompaniments.


After a great meal, dessert wasn't as much of a wow.  It wasn't bad at all but it paled slightly in comparison to the rest of the meal.  Perhaps we should have ordered something else.  This version of tiramisu was the dense kind that I like, but had way too much cocoa powder and got in the way of inhaling/exhaling at the table, resulting in a cocoa dusted tablecloth.  Oh well.

Surprisingly good experience overall.  As an aside, we thought we'd figure it out, but I suppose we have to go back and ask the chef why his place is named after black pepper.  It certainly wasn't because the food needed a little pick-me-up as we went along. 

14 Stanley Street
Tel: +65-62225808

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Kobe - Kyukyoryuchi Cafe 旧居留地珈啡庵

One of the many things I love about visiting Japan is the coffee.  For a nation of predominant tea drinkers, they take their coffee seriously.  And Kobe is no different.  In fact, its significance historically as an international port means that it has a very credible heritage with cafes, patisseries and could pass off as any cool European city, only much cleaner.  

We went in search of the alternative to Kobe's Nishimura since we like supporting the underdog from time to time.  From what little information we could find, Kyukyoryuchi has been around since 1971 roasting beans everyday.  Its motto of “being better, not bigger” certainly resonates with me, so off we went, in search of it, literally, since we were not well equipped with a good map and google maps was just not doing its thing.

The silver lining to getting lost is appreciating the city and its architecture, a thing that's easy to do when you're not trying to rush for a meeting.  

Stained glass inside a mall

An old temple right in the old settlement area

Old buildings in old European colors and style

Turns out that the building Kyukyoryuchi Cafe is in is a pretty new commercial building with swanky shops.  But tucked away in the basement, it manages to retain its old world charm with old wooden furniture, and very dim yellow lighting that French cafes from days gone by boast.

My Brazilian
I order a Brazilian at the recommendation of our smiley server and like any good Japanese cafe, it is served in fine porcelain (don't think this was bone china) with a little muglet of cream on the side.  A well balanced cuppa with just the right amount of acidity and has a smooth, almost sweet finish.

French Toast
But the biggest surprise was the French toast.  This is easily the best French toast I've ever had in my life.  The use of a Danish-like bread that was fluffy yet dense (almost scientifically at odds with each other) was a wonder in itself.  The egg coat was gorgeous with a light glaze and strawberries with icing was exactly what they were - icing on the cake (bread).  It's been 3 weeks and I still think of it and when I will get another chance to eat it.

Kobe city has a really good vibe to it and 6 hours just didn't cut it.  Will definitely have to make plans to visit and stay in the city next time.

Kobe Chuo-ku Akashi-cho 31-1 
Kyukyoryuchi Building, B1F
Tel: +81-78-3311070

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Kobe - Arima Onsen Hotel Kinzan 欽山

It was ominous the day we arrived.  The freak typhoon that would claim 4 lives in Japan this spring was upon us.  Ok, great.  No Mount Rokko, no sightseeing.  I was thinking - this was the divine intervention forcing me to relax.  Stuck in a ryokan, there is nothing to do except soak in the onsen, eat like an emperor, watch the rain pelt down on the bamboo garden. Very Zen....

Bento Lunch
All this internalizing while I eat my humble bento box lunch.  I was expecting a plastic boxed lunch to go.  I was happy to be wrong.  Promising start already.

Fresh brew of green tea and sweets of red bean jello and soda crackers
As we settle into our room, and discovering the unexpected joy of wi-fi in a ryokan (albeit an unsteady signal), tea is served.  This is the life.  Fresh cuppa with Japanese traditional sweets of a red bean jello and soda crackers (Tansan Senbei) made with water from the region that is high is carbon dioxide.  It's probably more accurate to refer to them as wafers given their texture.  Quite addictive, they now add a variety of flavor offerings, including ginger, sesame and seaweed.  It's also become more international with brands like Kobe's Fugetsudo offering chocolate, strawberry and vanilla also.  All this while the aroma of tea leaves seethe over the heat of tea lights, giving off a scent that's pleasantly soothing and not at all intrusive.

Source of the Carbonated Water
The Arima onsen town isn't big and you can just about cover the essentials in a matter of the better part of a day.  But like all onsen towns, and Arima is the oldest of them all, they are pretty in a traditional Japanese sort of way and it's great to soak in the relaxed atmosphere of old businesses still plying the trade in the same shop their families have been in for generations, from making soda wafers to making pickles or other foodie goodies.

Temple in Arima onsen town
Of course, if you like temples, every town has at least one significant one where you can clap your hands and say a prayer or catch a sip of holy water, all for good luck.

View of hotel's bamboo and koi garden
But mostly, we like the sanctuary of the ryokan and of course soaking in its onsen (hot spring) where clear and "rust" colored waters have their respective healing properties.  It's just relaxing to soak before a big meal.  Might be psychological or I'm just plain greedy but I swear that a 10 minute soak does wonders in opening up the appetite.

Dining in a ryokan is almost always Kaiseki style, a traditionally multi-course dinner in Japan, and designed to balance the body's various nutritional needs.  The Kaiseki way of dining is likely originally from Kyoto, since that is the old capital.  Kinzan's solitary Michelin star does not let it down and the food is impeccable and extremely low in oil and salt, allowing the natural flavors of the fresh local produce to come through.

And of course, presentation is plain pretty.

Agedashi bamboo in a shrimp and sea cucumber broth
And innovative combinations so simple yet so flavorful.  This dish of a lightly battered Agedashi bamboo (seasonal) in a shrimp and sea cucumber broth is naturally sweet that I could not help but lick the bowl clean.  Good thing we dine in the privacy of our own room.

Assorted Pickles with rice
Even the pickles are of the highest quality with a focus on preserving taste rather than just killing the vegetable with an overdose of salt.

Since we were staying 2 nights, we chose a different menu for the second night.  And since we were in the Kobe area, it would be wrong to leave without having the city's world renowned beef.

Sliced Kobe beef for Sukiyaki
So we were treated to a Kaiseki meal focusing on beef sukiyaki the second night.  And this has to be one of the best beef experiences my entire life.  So marbled, so soft, so tender, yet so full of beefy flavor.  The way beef was meant to be eaten.

The biggest difference between a resort and a ryokan is the latter's focus on meals and the set times at which meals must be served.  One cannot just show up and eat.  There is a preparation process which entails precise time keeping.  So there is a set time for tea, dinner and of course breakfast.

A full-on traditional Japanese breakfast
But if this is what you can get to tuck into every morning, the regimen isn't so bad.  So if you can endure disciplined relaxation with perfect Japanese hospitality, check into a ryokan and your tired body may be forever grateful.

1302-4 Arima-cho, Kita-ku, Kobe, 
Hyogo 651-1401
Tel: +81-78-904-0701

Monday, April 2, 2012

Hong Kong - Bridges Okinawa Robata Dining

Friday night and no reservations.  That’s a darn tough thing in Hong Kong, especially in Causeway Bay.  So we thought we hit the jackpot when we arrived at Bridges and were told there was availability after having been turned away at 2 other places already.  It was a bonus when we saw that they were part of the En group which boasts Rakuen, our favorite Okinawan place in Hong Kong.  
Bridges’ advantage is space.  There is actually lots of it by Hong Kong standards.  Seats are comfortable and tables big enough.  There are also tatami lined rooms if you feel like doing the Japanese living room thing but I prefer to keep my shoes on when dining out, unless I’m in flip flops. You can also have a decent conversation without having to battle neighboring diners and the regular shouts of “irrashaimase”!  Unfortunately, space seemed to be the only thing which saved the day at Bridges.  
If the kitchen at Rakuen was a 10, Bridges was a 5.  Food wasn’t bad but it certainly was mediocre, at best.   Perhaps the 2 more competent dishes of the night:
Grilled Ox Tongue with Miso and Sichuan Pepper
The grilled ox tongue with Miso and Sichuan pepper was pretty good.  Tongue was tender and miso was the sweet kind and good with Sake.  Takes a little savouring before you can actually taste the Sichuan pepper though.
Clam, Sea Urchin and Jewel Leaf Tempura
This was decent although we wished they had used better produce though since they weren’t necessarily the freshest.
Okinawan classics were only passable.  

Okinawa Home Made Peanut Tofu
The peanut tofu wasn’t as fragrant as Rakuen's and a little too chewy.
Stir fried Bittergourd with Okinawa Pork
This was tasteless and disappointing especially if like me, you've been spoilt by Rakuen and Yakichi, also in the same En Group.
Stone grilled rolled Wagyu with spring onions
The biggest rip off of the evening was so-labeled grilled rolled Wagyu with spring onions on a hot stone.  Overly salted and not a good cut but priced for a cut that is meant to be 10 times better.  Never again.
Minced Toro Handroll
My minced Toro handroll was tasteless (if that’s even possible).  A real waste really.  
Baumkuchen with Black Sugar Ice cream
The supposedly house dessert of Baumkuchen (german for tree cake) tasted more like tree bark.  Our server insisted on taking a bite after we left it and insinuated we didn’t know what real Baumkuchen tasted like.  Oh well.. I’m gonna go to Kobe to be educated since my education at Ginza queuing a long time for the famous one is nothing to count for. 
Enough said.  

6/F, Cubus, 1 Hoi Ping Road, Causeway Bay
Tel: +852-3428 2131