Friday, February 19, 2010

Review: Imperial Treasure Super Beijing Duck

One of the new Chinese restaurants in town is the Imperial Treasuer Super Beijing Duck in Paragon. Their menu features the Beijing Kao Ya, or Beijing roasted duck, made famous in China's capital. I am a big fan of duck and make an effort to go for Kao Ya everytime I am in Beijing, so I was excited to see if this measured up.

The short answer is that it does, the duck here is actually not as fat (which is a good thing I guess) and it's smaller but it does have a tender, sweet taste and is very well cooked and presented. It's not cheap though, costs about $68 a duck but I guess that doesn't deter anyone because we saw at least 20-30 ducks go by in the time we were there! I would estimate that the restaurant might do 200 ducks a day.

The chefs will bring the duck to your table and carve it up, then leave you with pieces of skin to eat with a dip of sugar and dark sauce and a platter of sliced duck to roll in the pancakes. If you don't choose to have the remainder meat cooked into a noodle, remember to ask for the carcass to bring home, makes for very good porridge or noodles.

While the duck is the main focal point of the meal here, the other dishes are just as good, if not, I think, better. My favourites are the stir-fried shark's fin and crab with chicken consomme, which was a masterful combination of tastes and the slow-cooked egg white with a hint of truffle oil.

The first time we were here, we ordered dim sum and fried noodles, both of which were excellent. We had the works and ordered a full spread of Cantonese dim sum like char siew pastries and rice rolls, though nothing out of the ordinary. The dim sum was of an impressively fine quality and measured up to the usual, consistent Imperial Treasure/Crystal Jade standards.

The second and third times, we had the more substantial dishes, which were all very good. The only thing I would avoid is probably the sauted large prawns or hard-shelled yabbies fried in egg yolk- I found them tough, overcooked and over-salted. Also, I'm sure they were pretty pricey.

The restaurant is now so full, it can be hard to get a reservation but hopefully that will die down now that we are past Chinese New Year. They are clearly doing a brisk and affluent business and the managers told me that they had been receiving applications from staff from the Crystal Jade Golden Palace, also on the same 5th flor of Paragon. If you feel generous, or if you are fortunate enough to receive an invitation, you should definitely go!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Review: DOMVS

DOMVS at Sheraton Towers has been around for a very long time, yet I've never had a meal there. Finally, after my mother had had an enjoyable lunch there, we decided to have a family lunch at the venerable restaurant one Sunday afternoon.

Notwithstanding the grandeur of its entrance, the price of the set lunch is decent, considering the generosity of the serving sizes. A two course set lunch is $29, while a three course set lunch will cost you $35.

On a Sunday, the restaurant is unnervingly empty, but presumably it fills up a bit more during the course of the week. Heavy drapes cut you off from the hotel lobby, preserving a personal space that soothingly allows you to enjoy the quiet company of your dining companions, insulated from the hustle and bustle of city life. The only jarring inconsistency is that the waitresses are somewhat ill-equipped for their jobs, as they can be difficult to understand and are not as at ease with the contents of the menu as they should be.

Apart from being generously portioned, the set lunch menu is also exceedingly expansive: each course offers you a selection of four or five different options, so you're pretty much spoilt for choice. Speaking of the generous portions, the parma ham with melon was a magnificent affair: it looked like a cascading waterfall of cured meat, and if anything, there was probably not enough melon to go around.

The tuna salad was a magnificent affair: a towering mound of tuna topped a bed of crisp lettuce leaves, surrounded by a moat of hard-boiled eggs.

The bruschetta was very good: the bread was not the typical toasted crostini, but resembled a slice of sourdough Poilane bread. The tomato concasse was fresh and sweet, though the restaurant could have been more generous with the basil, and the bruschetta could have benefitted from a little balsamic vinegar to give it a hint of sharpness.

I always enjoy mushroom risotto, but there was a slight difference of opinion concerning the one at DOMVS: I thought the rice grains were undercooked, whereas my sister felt they were exactly al dente. No complaints about flavour, though; the risotto was packed with earthy, mushroomy goodness.

DOMVS does good pastas, as you'd expect: my sister was happily tucking into her duck pappardelle, which was meaty and robust.

The set lunch is not all pastas, though, if you have a slightly heartier appetite, you might opt for something more substantial, like the beef cheek that's been braised to melting, silky tenderness.

Alternatively, there's a crayfish cappellini, which comes with two generously-sized crayfish, the fresh crustaceans split into halves for your convenient consumption.

The dessert for the day was a mango charlotte with a berry sorbet. This was a surprisingly enjoyable dessert, despite the fact that I don't usually like fruity cakes. The mango charlotte was light and fluffy, with a zesty flavour from the mango cream, which was matched by the refreshing, tangy, sweet-sour sorbet.

The cream component of the panna cotta was actually pretty decent, if a little firm, and presentation of the dessert was fairly spectacular, but this was marred by the strawberry syrup that had been liberally doused over the panna cotta, and which tasted somewhat metallic. The fresh berries were a nice touch, though.

Lunch also comes with complimentary petit fours, if you can still manage an appetite by this point.

DOMVS offers a generous set lunch at a fairly affordable price, with food that is of high quality and will leave you both satisfied and satiated. The restaurant is also a fairly private affair, creating an overall ambience that is alluring, classy yet understated. One of the more underrated restaurants in town, DOMVS is definitely worth a reservation.

Lobby, Sheraton Towers Singapore
39 Scotts Road
Tel: +65 6737 6888

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Review: My Little Spanish Place

For some strange reason, Spanish restaurants in Singapore don't seem to have a very long life expectancy. Perhaps related to that fact, Spanish restaurants in Singapore don't seem to be very good. The last one I went to, Bodega Y Tapas at Orchard Hotel, was not particularly good, and I've heard the Tapas Tree in Clarke Quay isn't great either.

So we decided to go try the new burger shack set up by Island Creamery, only to discover, while looking for a parking lot, a quaint little place along Bukit Timah called "My Little Spanish Place". We ambled over to take a look, and after some confusion with whether or not the restaurant was fully booked, secured a table for dinner at the month-old restaurant.

Barely a few weeks old, the restaurant was nonetheless almost completely full on a Saturday evening (we took the last available table), though that's partly due to the fact that it's very small. Helming the kitchen is a Spanish lady, while a young Spanish man I assume is her son takes care of the front of house, together with what appear to be a Singaporean couple. Ochre walls evoke an Andalucian feel, as if you've stepped into a Spanish hearth.

I was hoping to find that the tapas here would be affordably priced, but I suppose that was a little too optimistic given the location. Tapas range from below $10 to the twenties, with most falling in the teens, while the prices of the paellas start from $34 and increase with the size of the paella (e.g. for 2 or 4 or 8 to share). Still, price is relative, and depending on the serving size of each helping of tapas, the prices might not be that bad.

The tortilla de patatas was stated on the menu to be "Spain's national dish", and is really a sort of potato omelette. I'm not entirely sure whether this is meant to be served warm or cold, but the one I had was just barely luke warm, which may be off-putting to some diners. The aioli that accompanied the tortilla was rather good, however, with a silky sweetness that enriched the tortilla, though some lemon juice would have added balance.

One of the pinchos we ordered consisted of skewers of baked mushrooms, topped with minced garlic and shrimp, on a bed of toasted bread. The bread was excellent, as were the mushrooms (which were bursting with juice and olive oil), but the garlic was not sufficiently cooked, resulting in a very pungent and bitter sensation when the whole thing was consumed.

Next up was pinchos moruno, or skewers of grilled pork and green bell peppers. Sadly, some of the pork cubes were undercooked and still slightly pink, otherwise this would have been quite tasty, especially for the carnivore, as the pork had taken on a smokey char that accentuated its meatiness and gave it a texture not unlike beef.

The house paella was filled with traditional ingredients like prawns, chicken, squid and peas, and featured the essential crispy layer of fried rice at the bottom of the pan, but I felt that too much oil had been used, leading to a rather greasy mouthfeel rather than that of smooth, glossy, saffron-scented rice grains complemented by a generous medley of ingredients.

Unfortunately, they were out of churros con chocolate, but there was an intriguing reference to leche fritta or "fried milk" on the dessert menu. My curiosity piqued, I asked the Singaporean waitress what exactly "fried milk" was, hoping for some enlightenment as to the mode of preparation or at least a more evocative description which would enable me to have a better idea of what it was I was thinking of ordering. I was rather annoyed when the answer I received was, "er, it's like...uhm, I guess it's... fried milk." Quite apart from being totally unhelpful, that response suggests I am incapable of reading. In any event, she finally conceded that it was a sort of milk custard that was deep-fried, which, as it turned out, was exactly what it was. The texture of the custard was very soft, curdy and pillowy, while it'd been coated in rice flour, making it taste rather like rice krispies. Since both milk and rice are rather bland, some sweetened whipped cream was provided to make things a little more interesting.

My Little Spanish place serves up generally competent and authentic Spanish tapas cuisine, however, almost every dish was marred by a slight imperfection, which I hope is only because the restaurant is so new that they've not had time to iron out all the kinks yet. Prices are not exactly low, which is another reason to ensure the food is up to scratch: while there may not be many other Spanish restaurants around, I'd rather eat a burger than unsatisfactory tapas.

My Little Spanish Place
619 Bukit Timah Road
Tel: +65 646 32810

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Recipe: Pastel de Tres Leches

I've written at length about the wonders of the Tres Leches cake and I am ashamed to admit that after my years in the US and in California of all places, I never actually sampled this dessert before.

When I was in New York, it happened to be on the Cafe Lalo menu, again, a place that I've been to often. This time, however, S. pointed it out and ordered one for himself. The spongy, delectable crumb, oozing a sweet, wonderful milk, was quite a revelation and was my introduction to this Latin American favourite that a few cultures like to claim as “their own.” This cake has become such a hit in the US that Martha Stewart even crafted a version, probably of the non-so-Latino variety.

Theories abound as to how it was first introduced, some claim the cake’s origins began in Mexico, while others argue that it was perfected in Nicaragua and later adopted by Cuba. Another theory posits that in order to get Latin American housewives to use evaporated milk, a canned goods company crafted the recipe. There are as many adaptations as there are cake recipes- some use coconut milk, others melted chocolate or cajeta (dulce de leche), pineapple or banana.

I tried two recipes, Alton Brown's from The Food Network and this second one adapted from The Cocina Cubana Club (by Pascual Perez and Sonia Martinez). The one I am posting is the second, which was far superior to Alton Brown's version, which was essentially a butter pound cake. It was too dense (partly because we didn't allow the liquid to soak for long enough) and heavy. This version is a sponge cake, which is a much better alternative and it produced the light, sweet cake that I remembered.

The sponge cake was a cinch to make, the proportions below were enough for 2 cakes. I made them in springform pans, so that we could also soak it in the pan. (I don't think these cakes can be made without a springform pan, though I will try making a square cake next time). You must soak the cake overnight and I would advise using less condensed milk than evaporated milk because it would otherwise be a bit too sweet. I would also use the flat tbsp of rum or brandy, it brings out the natural sweetness of the taste and helps to neutralize the milky taste.

For toppings, we whipped cream as a spread (you can also use Paul's thickend cream) and topped one of the cakes with sliced strawberries, which made it look very quaint-ly old-school daiquari-like. For the second cake, I used a pineapple that I had received for Chinese New Year, chopped it up and cooked it with vanilla bean, into a pineapple jam which I spread on top of the cake. We served them over two dinner parties. Delicious!

Pastel de Tres Leches

5 large eggs, separated
1/3 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cream of tartar

1 can (12 oz) evaporated milk
1 cup sweetened condensed milk
1 cup heavy (or whipping) cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 Tbsp dark Cuban rum

Fresh whipped cream or good quality vanilla ice cream
Sliced fresh strawberries or mango

1. Preheat oven to 350oF. Generously butter a 13 x 9-inch baking dish. (I used two 9 inch diameter spring form cake pans)
2. Beat 3/4 cup sugar and the egg yolks until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Fold in the milk, vanilla, flour and baking powder.
3. Beat the egg whites to soft peaks, adding the cream of tartar after 20 seconds. Gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and continue beating until the whites are glossy and firm, but not dry. Gently fold the whites into the yolk mixture.
4. Pour this batter into the buttered baking dish.Bake the cake until it feels firm and an inserted toothpick comes out clean, about 30-45 minutes. Let the cake cool completely in baking dish. Pierce the cake all over with a fork, taking care to not tear it up.
5. Combine the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, cream, vanilla and rum in a mixing bowl. Whisk until well blended. Pour the syrup over the cake, spooning the overflow back on top, until it is all absorbed. Store refrigerated, overnight.

Review: Trattoria Lafiandra

Trattoria Lafiandra started life as a tiny restaurant in Prinsep Street, and I don't recall being very impressed when I was there - the food was fairly cheap, but that was pretty much as memorable as it got.

The restaurant has, however, either moved or set up a new location at the Singapore Art Museum, which is a good spot right in the centre of town, tapping on a ready supply of tourists and SMU students. The new Trattoria Lafiandra is also much bigger, boasting alfresco dining capabilities and could probably accommodate thirty diners easily.

Trattoria Lafiandra has decided to opt for a traditional decor, with chequered tablecloths and trompe l'oeil wall paintings, making it seem as if just beyond the brick walls (also painted) next to you lie idyllic Italian scenes (e.g. wine by the seaside), setting the mood for a relaxing, hearty meal.

Fresh burrata cheese is always a delight, and the burratina alla coratina was very a enjoyable combination of a pillowy bag of curdy cheese paired with a sweet Roma tomato. I did not, however, notice any coratina olives in the dish.

That good start continued with the pasta, a home-made tortelloni with mushrooms and cheese in a gorgonzola sauce. I was concerned the sauce might be overpoweringly strong, but oddly it was quite mild, and tasted much like a normal cream sauce. On hindsight perhaps we ought to have ordered the hand-made ravioli with ham and ricotta cheese in cream porcini sauce, but the tortelloni were satisfyingly plump and perfectly al dente, which is always welcome in a pasta.

One thing the restaurant needs to work on is service. It's not bad (in fact the staff are rather friendly), but the problem was that the burrata, the tortelloni and the pizza with mozzarella and parma ham all came at once. This wouldn't have been so much of a problem if the restaurant had assumed, as I suppose they must have, that we were simply sharing the appetiser but having individual main courses (though I still think starters and main courses should not be served at once), but we had in fact intended to share all three dishes. So while it's true that we should have clarified that the three dishes should be served consecutively rather than concurrently, it would have better if the restaurant had asked if we intended to share, especially since that's what trattoria-style dining is all about, or at the very least waited till we'd finished our starter before serving us the mains.

In any case, the pizza was somewhat cold by the time we came to it, and I felt that it was a bit too floury and underbaked. In fairness, however, it was not drenched in olive oil, as some meaty pizzas tend to be, and the balance between the ingredients was well-managed: a sufficient quantity of parma ham with a light coating of mozzarella cheese - no unglamorous stringiness.

I didn't try the profiteroles, as I'm not a big fan of them anyway, but as usual, I couldn't resist ordering the panna cotta. Paired with a tart berry coulis, I thought the panna cotta was rather good. It wobbled magnificently, and if it had been just a bit less firm, it would have been exceptional. Be warned though, this version is made with what looks to be double cream, so it could be too rich for those who are on a diet in preparation for/because of Chinese New Year!

Trattoria Lafiandra has come a long way since its humble beginnings in Prinsep Street, and I'm impressed at the progress. Prices are about mid-range ($20ish for pizzas and pastas, as I recall), and there is limited free parking at the Art Museum itself (tell the security guard you're visiting the restaurant). Due to its location, Trattoria Lafiandra is not thronging with customers, which makes it an ideal venue for a stately business lunch, or a romantic dinner after a weekend date at the museum!

Trattoria Lafiandra
71 Bras Basah Road
#01-02, Singapore Art Museum
Tel: +65 6884 4035
Opening Hours: Daily from 11.30am to 3pm, and 6pm to 11pm.