Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Review: Xi Yan

This has been a season of feasting! I was treated to a lovely and large meal, in honour of the birthday of our generous and beautiful hosts, A. (and T. too, thank you guys very much)!

The private kitchen concept was pioneered in Hong Kong, where the lack of space and high rentals meant that restaurants were a bit expensive to set up and maintain, especially on a small scale. People started to think up creative places to cook meals, sometimes in their own homes and in abandoned warehouses and offices, setting up just a couple of tables and taking reservations online or by word of mouth. There would be just one menu per night, depending on what fresh produce was available and what the chef felt like cooking.

Xi Yan, if you didn't already know, was the first official private kitchen dining concept in Singapore and it was a duplicate of a similar restaurant in Hong Kong by chef/owner Jackie Yu. It opened some years ago and I had actually been to the place pre-opening, thanks to an intrepid lady J. who had secured tables before the restaurant launch. (The downside was that we had to eat next to all these Chinese TCS stars and wound up appearing briefly on television for their little epicurean show-and-tell publicity video).

The dinner then, though good, was painfully long, lasting about 3-4 hours and the service left quite a bit to be desired. There was also something very artificial and ackward about eating in small confined space with just two other tables, one felt more than slightly pretentious while the server (loudly) called out that the rice noodles had been specially picked from the baby leaves of cliff weeds in Yunnan and pickled by the fresh spring get the idea.

So I never came back, although I'd wanted to bring my family (but fell short of subjecting them to a continuous 3.5 hours of conversation). I was terribly interested to see what had become of the place as it's near my office and appeared to be stubbornly remaining open, year after year. The first dish remained the same and one of my favourites, momotaro tomatoes marinated in a sesame sauce. Absolutely refreshing, juicy-sweet and delicious.

I was pleasantly surprised at the speed of the service. The first few dishes are all a bit like appetizers and were served in a quick fashion (unlike the previous time). They had also shortened the introductions and explanations for each dish and the dishes remained pretty creative. This was the foie gras somen.

This was the grilled eggplant in seaweed sauce, very tender and moist. The only complaint that I have about the food now, is that the dishes were not always hot, rather, by the time they reached the table and definitely by the time they were served, they were at best lukewarm, including the soup and the meat.

This dish was scallops stuffed with beancurd and it was probably one of my least favourite dishes, although it was still tasty, it left less of an impact than the other starters.

After the four starters, they brought out the main dishes. Instead of a regular family-style Chinese service, Xi Yan brings out each course seperately, to allow for more attention to be focused on the fresh ingredients and presentation of each plate. This was the US Prime beef, it was nuanced and succulent and the meaty marinated taste was lovely, although it was not hot.

The second dish was shredded fresh potatoes, which was a simple but well-prepared dish. The first time I came, they were championing their lobster dish, which was a huge plate of crustaceans purportedly with their feelers still twitching. This took up a lot of the kitchen's energy and focused the whole meal around the first plate. This time, the mains seems much more manageable and I think that helped with the whole flow of the dinner.

This was one of the dishes that I didn't enjoy too much, the lemongrass chicken stuffed with vegetables. Although I appreciated the workd involved in rolling the chicken around the stuffing, the chicken was a bit rubbery and the combination somehow both less than tasty yet a bit too oily. By this time, the girls were getting a little full from the combination of tastes and small portions. I noticed though, that the kitchen has already decreased the number of courses served.

This was the last main dish before the intermezzo, a dory fish dish, very reminiscent of usual Chinese cooking and not too special. I'm probably a bit biased against fried fish dishes, unless they are very elegant, being a big fan of steamed Asian fish. While I appreciated the little touch of basing the fish on a salad of pomelo, I didn't really feel that it added much in terms of the cohesion of the tastes.

The surprise of the night, for me at least, was the basil ice cream with fresh fruit. It was fantastic, I usually never like basil ice cream because of its overpowering, almost herbal taste but this one was light, refreshing and the interplay of flavours between the ice cream and the fruits, diced strawberry and apricot, was impeccable. I could have eaten a huge serving of this!

The last two courses were more bulky, carbohydrate-type items, I guess in place of the traditional (and horrid) e-fu noodles and mangy egg fried rice that gets served at the end of wedding dinners. These were much more polished, the pumpkin, shrimp and basil soup was very comforting, though it could have been piping hot. Also, the shrimp imparted a slightly fishy taste to the soup, I prefer to serve pumpkin or cauliflower soup with crab or lobster claws standing in the middle of the soup, rather than cooking the flavour with and into the soup, unless the seafood is incredibly fresh.

The mushroom and pickled cucumber dish was a bit too simple, though a nice way to end of the meal, given especially that we were very full by this time. It had been a racous, convival and animated dinner with company and conversation that I throughly enjoyed. I think that was a big part of the meal as well as the pleasure of sharing good food and wine.

The birthday cake was a lychee log cake, I had thought at first that the menu read log cake with lychee and I was sceptical but this was actually a lychee sponge with lychee ice cream, which was fantastic. It brought back kiddish memories of Artic Rolls but this was entirely a sophisticated, grown-up version with an alcohol-anointed merange crust that they lit and flamed at the table. Again, I could have had multiple helpings of this and we all agreed that it was a wonderfully refreshing and sweet end to the meal.

I thought I had brought an Australian white and two French reds but upon arrival, I discovered that the Keyneton Estate Euphonium is a red and worse, it is a blend! Shock shock horror. I must not have been very sober when I bought it.

However, the bigger surprise was that it was quite brilliant. It was a delicious clear, crisp, clean taste, which easily outshone the Lagrange (although to be fair, T. voted in favour of the Lagrange and it has a full woody musky body that will age much better than most any Australian wine). The Keyneton Estate is 63% shiraz, 18% cabernet sauvignon, 10% merlot, and 9% cabernet franc grown in the Barossa (Eden Valley and Barossa Valley).

We drank a 2001 which I had picked up in a bargin liquor store in Melbourne for I seem to remember A$36 (but remember I wasn't sober so who knows what the price really was). You probably can't find that many 2001 vintages here but you can find the 2004 in Crystal Wines at River Valley in Singapore, I believe for about $60.

If you're in Australia, buy some bottles of the 2005 which I've heard is a great vintage. The Henschke wines are very nice, what I had meant to bring, was one of their Adelaide Hill Sauvignon Blancs, which are crisp, clear and dry. Don't buy your Henschke wines at Culina though, I was just there last weekend and indignantly pointed out the completely rip-off prices (I believe $130-160) that were stickered on.

The Henschke vineyard is known for their premium wine, a shiraz called Hill of Grace, this will set you back perhaps A$500 and while it's smooth, I remember it as a pleasant wine and not really one that blows your socks off. You're probably better off investing in a solid French red, really or buying another, similar Eden Valley red like the Keyneton.

I've gone on a bit about the wines haven't I? Henschke is owned by Lion Nathan in Australia and I very much regret that I forgot to ask them what was the best buy in their stable the last time we met. I really do think this is a wine worth collecting as it's a very recognizable and somewhat premium Australian brand hence its pricing power may improve with time.

The second wine was a 2004 Chateau Lagrange, which is a winery in the Saint-Julien appellation of the Bordeaux region of France. This has been bought by the Japanese whiskey company, Suntory and has undergone a revival in recent years. The wine, after the Keyneton Estate, was musky and a little sediment-y, though it was hard to miss its full, strong, powerful body. It was too young to drink and will mellow and smoothen out in time, I was just curious and brought the bottle along but we really should have drank the third red of a St. Emilion 1997 vintage, which we sadly, never got around to.

We also had a Macallen 12 year and a 1978 port. The port was particularly special, it was a gift A. had bought from the storybook Parisian purveyor called Ryst Dupeyron on rue du Bac. They've been in business for the better part of the last century and have bottles on display and for tasting, in annual chronological order, dating back to the 1950s.

The meal was truly fantastic because of all its elements and I had a great time. I'd encourage you to go to Xi Yan, especially if you've never been. The private kitchen experience and the quality of the food make it a very special place to have a meal.

Xi Yan
38A Craig Road
Singapore 089676
Tel: 9695-4957
(By reservation only)

Recipe: Custard Pie with Figs, Apricots and Strawberries

Having made a very gloopy version of this tart for our girls' Christmas lunch, I hunted round for a more dependable version. Here is the recipe for a 9 inch tart that will feed 6-8 people.

You can either use a pre-frozen tart shell or else make your own
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 Tbs sugar
1/2 cup chilled (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut in pieces
2 Tbs ice water
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

Place flour and sugar in the bowl of a food processor, and process for a few seconds. Add butter, and process until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the ice water then the egg yolk, processing only until the dough holds together.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface. Place on a sheet of plastic wrap. Flatten, and form into a disc. Wrap, and refrigerate at least 1 hour before using.
Preheat oven to 350F and blind bake the tart shells: roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface, lay into tart shell, cover with parchement paper or foil, pour dry beans or pie weights on top and bake for 15 minutes, then set to cool.

6 strawberries
8-10 figs
6 apricots, halved and without pitts
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup ground almonds
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. almond extract
slivered almonds

Whisk the sugar and the eggs until pale. Slowly add the milk and creme fraiche and whisk until combined. Add the extracts and ground almonds and whisk one more time. Slice half the fruits and lay them on the tart. Slowly pour the batter in between and on top of the fruit. Sprinkle some slivered almonds on top and bake until the custard is set and the tart is golden brown.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Recipe: Peach Orange Vodka with Pomegranates

Back when I was in graduate school at Harvard, a combination of loneliness, academic monotony and a spoilt Californian attitude toward winter hit me pretty hard and I decided to take up a mixology class. After the class, we were told that we could hire ourselves out through the student work agency, to bartend and help serve at private house parties and school parties, I guess to earn back the cost of the course.

This proved to be a very interesting way to spend my time in school because, one, you met some really interesting professors that way (since they were usually the ones hiring out these cheap students to help out at their home functions), two, I discovered some beautiful art because the emeriti are allowed to personally borrow works out of Harvard's a hundred and something musuems on campus and three, well, the prices of basic goods in a snobby specialty place like Cambridge is such that living costs really are very high.

This side-line came from and sparked off a long interest in mixing drinks, which is somewhat antithecal given I'm not a big drinker at all. That being said, I'd be the first to admit I have my days when I need-need a drink and I am a huge-huge fan of creative fresh fruit and alcoholic cocktails!

I couldn't get all the ingredients in the photo but you want to get either premiuem peach juice or squeeze a couple of fresh peaches (my dad, not a particularly sympathetic mixologist, looked at me like I was mad).

Mix this with strained orange juice (fresh or yes, ok, you can go Tropicana or Florida Natural) and two ounces (or more but you want it to be refreshing rather then reeking alcoholic) of Absolut Peach Vodka or a cleaner vodka like Grey Goose. Top it up with ice peach tea (I prefer Pokka to the Seasons brand, it's lighter) and seltzer. Then mix in pomegranate seeds (throw in all the juice as well) and sprigs of mint.

To serve, pour over ice chips and top with more pomegranate seeds. This is a brilliant way to get conversation flowing when you're having a dinner party and what I love about mixing cocktails is that the fresh fruit combinations are endless and colourful.

Try tastes like Absolut prickly pear with clear green pear juice and muddled mint, Orange Grey Goose with Cointreau, tangerine pulp and lemon peel (add a drop of lemon essence), pomegranate martinis with chocolate covered mint sprigs. And that's before even getting into the more savory options.

Recipe: Baked Figs stuffed with Rosemary Goats Cheese and wrapped in Prosciutto

That is an unwieldy name for a small packet of goodness. I felt like I should just post the photos as they would be terribly self-explanatory but perhaps I should just say also that the combination of the sweet juicy figs, infused with prosciutto saltiness and the melting goats cheese and herbs is ridiculously good and complex.

I made this for our Christmas lunch and although they taste best just emerged, out of the oven, as a warm, wobbling, bleeding plump fig (the greedy vultures ate half the pan!), they elicited mmms of approval after an appreciative silence around the table.

I used Turkish figs, since that's the kind readily available in Singapore but if you can get French figs or Australian figs (figs are definitely one of the foods I traffic across borders), it would taste much sweeter. I washed and dried 15 figs, chopped their stems and bottoms off and lightly peeled off the purplish skins.

You don't have to peel off the skin, except sometimes it's a bit dried up or slightly tannic. Then you core the fig, push in a sprig of rosemary (without the stem) and stuff in a small cut piece of goat's cheese. Or mozzerella for friends who don't like the taste of stronger cheeses.

Then holding the stuffed fig gently, you want to wrap it in a slice of prosciutto or parma ham. I like to start wrapping from the side with the exposed cheese, so that you use the ham to kind of wrap it in and prevent the cheese from melting out of the fig into your roasting pan. It usually takes less than one full slice of parma to cover the fig, so you can economize on the parma slices if you're an efficient wrapper!

These are now very pretty little parcels, which you can prepare beforehand. You put them in the oven at 150C for about 10-15 min, it doesn't take long and you want to be sure that the prosciutto doesn't completely crisp up. You still want it soft and salty, not hard and crunchy. Think more ham than bacon.

An interesting combination, if you have the time, is to thinly and lightly drizzle these with cold acacia or manuka honey. Yum.

Review: Prive

The new brainchild of Michael Lu (Superfamous, Cicada) and Yuan Oeij (Brown Sugar), Prive is accesible via Keppel Bay Drive, across a thin bridge, right before the Carribean apartments in the Keppel/Marina area of Singapore.

It's a very interesting location. The day I was there was a little grey, so it wasn't as pretty and there's too much construction and narrow waterways around it to ever really be pretty I imagine, but it is going to be part of the new face of our downtown riverfront bay area.

J. with her usual resourceful sophistication and generousity, had kindly arranged a dinner in the private room of the restaurant and I was eager to see this new place for myself. Prive, I decided, is in a rather ackward position, wedged at the bottom of the new Keppel Bay Drive building and with a promontory out toward the waterfront. To be sure, the day we were there did not show off the location in its best light but I was still a little puzzled by the layout of the space.

The dining room is quite compact, with about 12 tables and the private room, off to one side, even more so. The inside of the restaurant is fairly dark with heavy damask curtains and warm lighting. Given its location, it is very secluded and good for a quiet dinner.

There are not a whole lot of pictures of the food as I was distracted by taking photos of people and also, I was so ravenous by the time dinner was served, that I ate up all the food quickly, without pausing to take more photographs. The menu was a three course meal, a scallop carpaccio, a beef tenderloin or a fish dish and a choice of a grand marnier souffle or an apricot filo parcel for dessert.

I'm quite prejudiced against scallop carpaccio because I usually feel that scallops, at least, in Western style, are best pan fried. When sliced up for carpaccio, they are invierably very fishy tasting and immaterially slim and slippery to boot. These were also paired with a sprinkling of ikura and some fishier slices which tasted like bottarga. If I hadn't been so hungry, I would have nibbled and left the rest.

The bread was good though and the tenderloin was much better than the starter, although it was similarly a bit lacking in presentation, the slab of beef was served with exactly three fingerling potatoes and two little sticks of salad leaves. They forgot my neighbour's order completely, causing her to sit without food while the table started eating their mains.

The desserts were pretty normal, the apricot filo was slightly crumbly on the inside and it was pleasant, the souffle was quite thick and had not risen much, as you can see from the photo. It tasted alright though it lacked perhaps the light airiness and folds of my favourite souffles.

Prive brands itself as a New York style restaurant with a selection of roasts, steaks, seafood platters, risottos and pastas. I didn't try a variety of dishes, so perhaps the others are more spectacular, or the restaurant was still going through teething beginnings but I did find it quite pricey and I don't get how it's New Yorkish at all. There is also a bakery cafe which serves fresh pies and bread, sandwiches, soups, salads, waffles, milk shakes, cakes and desserts.

No 2 Keppel Bay Vista
Marina at Keppel Bay
Singapore 098382
Telephone: (65) 6776-0777

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Review: Borgo

It's a very strange thing, that generally people tend not to be familiar with the eateries that are located closest to them. I've been to Brazil (the churrascaria) as well as Corduroy and Finch only once, and there are plenty of restaurants along the Bukit Timah stretch I've not tried.

One such is Borgo, an Italian restaurant that's been around for a year or so now, and was fairly well-received when it first opened, only to be overshadowed by flashier places like Il Lido and Bonta. Visiting a year after it's opened offers a chance to see what the restaurant has matured into and affords opportunities to guess if it'll stick around.

Borgo is fairly tiny, accommodating at best thirty or so people, and the restaurant was fully packed on a Saturday night. Such a small restaurant requires very service staff, resulting in the slightly strange situation of there being an equal number of people in the kitchen as there were outside it.

Reputedly, one of the chefs, Mimmo, is an alumnus of Il Forno, which would explain a generous offering of pizzas and roasted meats, which is grilled by the chef behind a plexi-glass screen so the whole restaurant can see what he's doing.

One of my constant bugbears in local restaurants is the quality of service. Coming back from the UK, the difference is very stark - few waiters in the UK would interrupt you in the midst of conversation, let alone touch you on the arm to do so. Other noticeable lapses was a mistake in recording an order, and not knowing who ordered what.

In terms of food though, I was suitably impressed by what Borgo had to offer, in terms of both quality and quantity. Take the pumpkin gnocchi, for instance. It came on a huge plate, quite sufficient to share between three people. Although gnocchi in general tends to be rather heavy, and the addition of the creamy pumpkin sauce even more so, it's manageable if shared between a number of people, and the pumpkin sauce made the dish deliciously sweet. A sprinkling of cured ham provided a salty counter-balance, to offset some of the sweetness and creaminess.

Like Carluccio's in the UK, Borgo offers a wild boar pasta, a dish I particularly enjoy, as it escapes the tedium of a spaghetti bolognese, yet being familiar enough that you're not unpleasantly surprised when the dish arrives. The sauce, in particularly, was satisfyingly rich and meaty, with a richness more evocative of tomatoes and mellow earth than the strong red wine and powerful red meat you tend to get with bolognese.

The pizzas, which I unfortunately did not try, seemed serviceable enough, though there were reports that the seafood pizza (which to me is an aberration in itself anyway) was not very well-received, and I think the general consensus is that Borgo is not particularly strong in seafood.

This was the case with the seafood pasta, that came served in a parcel of aluminium foil; it was unfortunately left unfinished by the end of the meal.

What it is strong in, though, is meats. The bistecca Fiorentina is served in a mouth-wateringly large mound, sliced into pieces to reveal a rare, burgundy interior. This 700g monster (to be shared) is a must for any serious carnivore. Other meaty offerings include the grilled lamb chops and US prime steaks; this is not exactly a place a vegetarian would feel comfortable in.

Additionally, Borgo has the distinction of serving one of the better panna cottas I've tried in local Italian restaurants (and I've tried quite a few). Borgo actually does two versions; their regular one served with a strawberry coulis, and a Christmas special served with what looked to be cookie crumbs and a chocolate sauce. I didn't try the Christmas special, but from all accounts it was firmer and a slightly odder combination than their usual panna cotta.

A great restaurant that does Italian favourites properly; Borgo is the sort of cosy place you'd come to on a date or to have dinner with a friend you haven't seen in a while. Stick with the house specials and you won't be disappointed.

Borgo (Italian)
789 Bukit Timah Road
Tel: 6466 7762

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to all! Colin and I will be cooking and feasting with family over the next couple days and we would like to wish all of you and your families a warm, blessed and joyful Christmas! Whether snowy or sunshiny, we hope your Christmas is filled with good cheer and holiday spirit. Thank you for your support and love over the past year!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Review: Cicada

Is it just me or are there a lot of birthdays in December? I won't comment further on what that means about procreation seasonality but can I just say that between Christmas feating and Birthday treating I'm about ready to sponsor some Botanic Garden running...calling all floggers...ensure another year of good eating! Come to the flogger event at the Botanics, no it's not a picnic you jammy sods!

I digress. I've found a lovely little spot. The food is good, in fact, it's pretty yummy delicious. It's by Michael Lu, he owns the Indochine group. There, I thought I'd better get the bad news out of the way.

The good news is, its a gorgeous spot, the food has been consistent every time that I've been and it's still empty enough (and hard to get to) that you'll not be disturbed by anybody. Given how fishbowl-awful crowded Singapore has become of late, I love that.

The times I've been have always been at night, so it's never been optimal to take pictures of the surroundings. Basically the restaurant is opposite Col Bar, ensconced deep in Portsdown Road and surrounded by a jungly area (and around that jungle, the Biopolis but let's suspend our urban imaginations for awhile).

It's very green and far-flung and beautiful, rather like Dempsey used to be before it got flooded by a storm of restaurants cells and expat inmates. The restaurant is a low-lying bungalow that houses a restaurant cum bar in a small indoor area of perhaps 10 tables and an outdoor area which would be windy and beautiful on the odd days that it doesn't rain this December.

The menu is quite small which I thought was brilliant, given the quality of the items was high and one really doesn't need to overextend the kitchen. There are about 6 soups and salad dishes, 8 or 9 mains and 5 desserts from cakes, pavlova to profiteroles. The beverage list is far more extensive than the food menu.

Given that we forgot to bring wine (and to ask their corkage, oops), we decided to get cocktails and a flaming lamboughini for the birthday girl. The green apple martini is quite brilliant, light and refreshing, thought I've heard all the fresh fruit martinis are good. The mojito was a bit strong and overwhelmingly sugary brown. The drinks are fairly expensive, I don't see why a martini should cost, I think it was, $12.

We tried two salads, the Caesar Salad with Crabmeat which had a very tasty dressing and came with a poached egg. The use of crabmeat with the caesar was a welcome change from chicken or a plain salad, it tasted great.

The second salad was the Rare Beef salad and again, the quality of the beef surprised me, it was full of flavour and made a good contrast to the light vegetables. So far so good....

For mains, we had the Slipper Lobster Capellini, which was a little wet but had a beautiful depth and chunks of lobster that contrasted well with the tomato base vodka sauce and the small cubes of vegetables.

The main that really surprised me was the 'Infamous Cicada Burger'- I had heard from reviews that it was good but it was in fact, outstanding. The patty was unbelievably juicy and the topping of Gruyere and Gongonzola cheese as well as some long stemmed mushrooms offset the beef very well. The warm, happy feeling from this burger probably shot it to second on my list of favourite burgers in Singapore and I wasn't surprised to discover that this is actually a Wagyu burger, even though apparently it's not advertised as such.

C. had a parpadelle tossed with dried duck confit, which while simple and just a tad too oily but I'm probably splitting hairs here, was very tasty, especially the teased slices of duck meat. I like that they sprinkled the pasta lightly with parsley, its really quite a nuanced flavour and dish but it does pack a punch.

M. had a fillet of sea bass with cream sauce served with cherry tomatos and long beans. The texture of the fish is soft yet supple, it was very good and buttery. The mains were all delicious and well-prepared. I wasn't disappointed and my friends, whom I had brought to the restaurant, were pleasantly surprised.

We had the profiteroles with fragelico cream and the apple tart with fig and honey ice cream for dessert. The profiteroles were brilliant, very different to the ice cream ones at PS Cafe, these were solidly filled with wine-cream but the taste and texture were fantastic and much more tasty and substantial then the ones at Au Petit Salut, which I'm not a big fan of (they taste overwhelmingly of just chocolate sauce).

The apple tart had absolutely heavenly ice cream. The tart itself was fine though without a real kick.

The service staff could use a little work though, they interject to remove plates and amongst the rather odd things they told us were "we don't have extra plates" and "your mains are ready already, sorry, can we serve it now please".

7 Portsdown Road
Singapore 139298
Telephone: (65) 6472-2100