Monday, May 30, 2011

Review: La Strada

Increasingly, I find very little reason to venture into Orchard Road. The profusion of concrete, glass and human throngs invariably means that it's one of the hottest places in this country, and, unless I have some reason to buy something from them, window-shopping at mall after mall seems rather soulless. Additionally, I have always felt that the Orchard Road district suffers from a disproportionate lack of good food, despite the crowds and spending power it attracts.

That is not, perhaps, quite true of Scotts Road, which has four restaurants owned by the Les Amis Group in a row. Of these, one of the cheapest is La Strada, a contemporary Italian restaurant that is Les Amis' way of expanding its market share out of high-end, refined food of the sort offered by its flagship restaurant as well as FiftyThree.

With its glass frontage, La Strada is brightly lit during the day, an advantage that is fully exploited by the white tablecloths and the wooden furniture. A good balance of starkness and naturalness - neither too uptight nor too casual.

As I spent some time waiting for my lunch companions, I had plenty of opportunity to sample the bread basket, which was fairly generous. In addition to grissini, the restaurant offers a number of varieties of bread, from foccacia to mini-baguettes. You risk, of course, eating too much bread, but that is your own affair.

Three course set lunches at La Strada aren't too expensive at $36, and you are given a wide selection at every course (although not a few of these come with a price supplement). The garden salad was a melange of ingredients, both exotic and quotidian: radish, red cabbage, tomatoes, pomegranate seeds and fresh greens. Laced with a tart dressing, it was both healthy and enjoyable.

My linguine al granchio was packed with flavour from the fresh mud crab flesh. The tomato sauce was not creamy, being white wine-based, and was therefore quite enlivening and piquant, given the chilli that had been added.

La Strada's linguine vongole was also deftly handled, which is rare for many restaurants, because the level of turnover is not always sufficient to ensure that the clams are fresh, and the white wine sauce is often watery and thin. At La Strada, however, not only were the clams scrupulously fresh and clean, they were also fairly numerous, and the white wine sauce had just the right balance between clam juice and white wine, properly reduced, so that it was rich and tasty, but also fresh and piquant.

My mother also enjoyed her main course of pan-fried fillet of barramundi with salsa verde and aceto balsamico, which was unsurprising, as the generous slab of fish, although simply presented, looked like it had been cooked perfectly.

La Strada has been around for a while, and under the stewardship of the Les Amis Group, it's easy to see why. It may not be the cheapest place to eat in Orchard Road, but it is probably one of the better ones. Service is friendly and well-trained, the set menu offers a considerable amount of variety, and the food itself is of a fairly high quality. So the next time you're out shopping in Orchard Road, why not plan an enjoyable meal at La Strada?

La Strada
1 Scotts Road
Te: +65 6737 2555

Monday, May 16, 2011

Recipe: Pandan Chiffon Cake

We are the featured recipe on the brilliant Notabilia's "Cooking with" series! P. is a transplated-to-Singapore teacher and writer, who has brought with her a keen sense and compassionate eye for all that is unique, artistic and fun in our little island. Her blog has a wonderful way of surprising me with the diversity that I should be better appreciating in my own home and I'm sure, if you're a dedicated Singaporean, that it will do the same for you. See the full post here.

"I have often teased Weylin, of Only Slightly Pretentious Food, pi-02-05-03 (a lifestyle blog), and dear friend, that she should quit her coporate-y day job and become Singapore’s answer to Martha Stewart. In her spare time, she cooks, decorates, flower arranges, designs, letterpresses, and crafts. Mark my words, “One day.”

Pandan chiffon cake is one of my favorite local treats. I’ve wasted many coins at Bengawan Solo, a local bakery, to cure my fix."

o o o o o

Pandan cake was ubiquitous when I was growing up in Singapore. I never liked the colour green in baked goods nor the strong taste of bottled pandan flavouring so, for years, I shunned it in stores and at parties. Then one day, a wonderful family friend and fellow baker made this cake, from a recipe that she claimed was augmented out of one of those thin, simple “Asian Baking” type paperbacks that you can buy near the check-out counters of NTUC.

The aroma of her home-made version lingered through the house and the warm, inviting, and dense fumes of coconut coming from the oven drew me immediately into the kitchen. I never knew that pandan cake could smell like this! I realized that the recipe really draws and benefits from the use of local produce but you must take the time to use fresh pandan and coconut milk. It might seem tedious to grind pandan leaves for essence but trust me, the cool, green, full-bodied, and fragrant taste is entirely worth it. This cake quickly became a favourite in my family too and is one of the few desserts that my mother and aunts, who can’t take a lot of (and anyway, dislike) rich cream cakes, really enjoy. It’s relatively healthy, very light, and a cake that really celebrates living in the tropics!

Pandan Chiffon Cake

18 stalks pandan leaves
1 coconut, grated, or 300 ml coconut milk
9 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 tablespoon caster sugar
8 egg yolks
160 grams caster sugar
150 grams cake flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Make fresh pandan extract by blending the pandan leaves and a small amount of water (just enough to liquefy the pandan leaves) in a blender or a food processor. Make sure the pandan leaves are very finely ground. Strain the liquid and let it stand refrigerated, overnight.
2. The mixture will separate into two parts, water on the top and a thick, green juice that sinks to the bottom. This is the pandan extract and this recipe calls for 2 1/2 tablespoons of this juice. Gently pour away the water. If you have excess pandan essence, freeze it in ice cube trays for subsequent cakes.
3. Pre-heat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius.
4. Buy fresh grated coconut from a wet market (300 ml is about 1 coconut’s worth of milk) and extract the fresh coconut milk by squeezing it from the grated coconut. To extract the coconut milk, you have to add a little water to the ground coconut and then wring the damp coconut in a cheesecloth or towel. I gave the recipe to a friend who was wringing dry coconut until her helper said, “Mam, must add water first.” Only buy the fresh coconut on the day of baking, as it will not keep more than a day.
5. Beat the egg whites with cream of tartar and the tablespoon of caster sugar until stiff. You can omit the cream of tartar, as I do, but your cake will have larger air pockets, as the cream of tartar helps to bind the beaten egg white tightly together.
6. In a separate bowl, add the remaining 160 grams of caster sugar to the egg yolks and whisk. Add the coconut milk and the 2 1/2 tablespoon of pandan extract together, then add the cake flour, baking powder and salt.
7. Fold the egg white mixture into the egg yolk mixture gently and pour into a bundt pan. This recipe works best with a bundt pan to ensure that the chiffon rises and bakes evenly.
8. Bake the cake for 35 minutes, cool and slice the cake out of the pan with a thin bladed knife.
o o o o o

P. of Notabilia welcomes recipes from Singapore and beyond for her monthly "Cooking with…" column. Priority is given to original recipes that have not yet appeared online. Contact her at her blog if you have something to share!

Recipe: Strawberry and Rhubarb Pie

Here are the first of the Rhubarb photos. I decided to make three sweet desserts with the rhubarb, a strawberry rhubarb pie, a lemon and rhubard cake and rhubarb crumble ice cream. I've been reading about rhubarb since my earlier post last week and I now know that it's a relative of buckwheat and it is a traditional and Chinese medicine. In 1542, rhubarb sold for ten times the price of cinnamon in France and in 1657 rhubarb sold for over twice the price of opium in England.

Hothouse or strawberry rhubarb is sold from January and field-grown or cherry rhubarb is sold from March. I also learnt that the National University of Singapore studied the toxicological and anti-neoplastic potentials of the main anthraquinones from Rhubarb, so why isn't it sold here! Apparently only a quarter of rhubarb is sold fresh and the rest is sold frozen or for industrial purpose.

This pie is really easy to make and surprisingly delicious and comforting. I say surprisingly because rhubarb can be an acquired taste. If not well-stewed with sugar and lemon juice, it has a very vegetable-like, celeriac taste, with an open, slightly tangy and bitter note right at the end that doesn't always sit well with people, especially, as I discovered, young children. In this recipe though, the rhubarb cooks in its own juices and that of the strawberry, which helps to naturally sweeten and flavour the pie filling.

With the proliferation of blogs nowadays, I find it very rare that I turn to a paper cookbook anymore. How did we bake in the days before the internet? This recipe came from Smitten Kitchen and it is ridiculously, unthinkingly easy. You can use any pie dough recipe, either her butter flaky pie dough recipe or, as I like to use, Dorie Greenspan's perfect butter pie crust recipe from her book Paris Sweets (her crust incorporates ground hazlenut, which I feel gives it a bit more body and flavour). I always make a large quantity of dough, roll it out between parchment sheets and then roll them away and freeze them for sudden use. It's a godsend that these things can be frozen!

Roughly halve the strawberries (quarter, if they are large) and chop up the rhubarb. I left my fruit pieces fairly large, just slightly under an inch for the rhubarb, so that the filling would be more chunky. I used a large punnet of strawberries and 2 sticks of rhubarb. Toss them all in 1/2 a cup brown sugar, grate in a few slivers of lemon rind and add a 1/4 cup of fast-cooking tapioca.

I wasn't sure what this was, so I used tapioca flour and it turned out fine, essentially the tapioca is used to thicken, to produce that goopy smeary goodness that we know of as pie filling. While the fruit is macerating, bake the bottem half of the pie at 160 degrees C. It should be baked blind (weighed down by beans or pie weights) at first, then baked uncovered for another 5-10 minutes to a pale brown.

Pour the fruit in and slice up the remaining dough to make the lattice grid. When laying on the lattice, make sure to tuck the ends of the dough down against the sides of the pie base, I find using the new dough strips as tape at the sides helps to keep the pie together and the filling inside the caviy. While I was baking the pie, I realized that I didn't have a proper deep pie dish and had to improvise using a tart pan that was a bit too shallow.

Place the pie back in the oven, turn down the heat to 140 degrees C and bake for an hour or so, until the filling has thickened and the fruit is cooked through. You can brush the lattice with an egg yolk glaze or butter to make it brown and shiny. After baking, cool the pie throughly. This will help the filling, which may be a little runny when you remove the pie from the oven, harden slightly and set. Having used a tart pan, I set the pie on a plate while chilling, so that the filling wouldn't run all over my fridge!

Slice up the pie with a sharp knife, pushing all the way to the bottem when cutting. Serve in wedges with vanilla bean ice cream and mint leaves.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Review: Da Luca

Now that, increasingly, I rarely go out for meals, it's usually my father who susses out new eating spots.

We went to one of his most recent discoveries, which turned out to be almost a hop, skip and jump away from our place, is a casual Italian trattoria in Goldhill Plaza called Da Luca. Helmed by the eponymous Luca Pucciani, formerly of Garibaldi and Gunther's, who has decided to strike out on his own, Da Luca is a rare Italian restaurant amidst the profusion of Japanese eateries (which, in the current climate, tend to be somewhat under-patronised).

Located on the ground floor, just adjacent to the car park, the restaurant is cheerily lit, with simple checkered tablecloths and earthenware crockery, which, with some imagination, makes you feel like you're deep in the rustic Italian countryside, which I suppose was the intended effect.

Some reviews online have, predictably, criticised the service. I say predictably not because the service is actually poor (far from it, in fact), but because, first, the service industry in Singapore is widely-acknowledge as being somewhat deficient, and second, Singaporeans just love to complain about other people, without casting an equally critical eye on their own expectations and behaviour. Coming back to service, Chef Luca pops out periodically to engage the customers, his affable personality certainly makes that an enjoyable experience, while head waiter Razib is solicitous, attentive, and professional. While some of the part-time waitstaff may of course be less well-trained, as long as you make enough of an effort to be patient, understanding, or even friendly, I fail to see why service here should be off-putting in any way.

One of the special starters for the day was a crab salad served with Hawaiian papaya. I had originally envisioned a leafy salad with shredded crabmeat and some diced papaya, so I was rather surprised with what was eventually served, which was a creamy crab dressing atop a papaya half. I must say I did not really enjoy this - although the papaya was delightfully sweet, the crab emulsion was too creamy and rich for my taste.

The restaurant has a fairly wide selection of pizzas, although, as with all pizzerias, I tend to find that only two or three are particularly alluring. The prosciutto e funghi was generously sprinkled through with sliced ham and mushrooms, and, as thin-crust pizzas go, was pretty decent.

As I've remarked before, the ubiquity of Italian restaurants in Singapore means that, after a while, dishes start looking suspiciously familiar. A stracci with braised rabbit looked like a mix n' match off L'Ancora's menu, so it was perhaps unsurprising that there was also a braised duck pappardelle, which was something of a star attraction at Garibaldi, and which I eventually had. The pasta came in wide strands which were rather filling, so it was fortunate that the portion wasn't too large. The duck ragout was sweet, robust and tasty, with the duck shredded very so finely that it was almost a sauce.

One of Da Luca's best dishes is undoubtedly the pork chop. I am not normally fond of pork in Western cuisine, as I'm a red meat sort of guy, and as such consider pork to be the poor, anaemic cousin of beef and venison. However, the pork chop here is really quite excellent. It's meaty and tender, with a rich mouthfeel, pairing perfectly with the roasted potatoes and field mushrooms that it is served with.

We did not have an opportunity to try the desserts, but there was a complimentary helping of what appeared to be Italian petit fours: light, airy fingers of dough, dusted with icing sugar, and to be enjoyed by dipping into a thick custard sauce.

Da Luca is a homely Italian restaurant that has the potential to become a neighbourhood favourite if its standards remain consistent, which is great when you find tire of going to posh, upmarket restaurants, but would like to simply chill out with a bottle of vino rosso and a hearty lasagne.

Da Luca
1 Goldhill Plaza, #01-19/21
Tel: +65 6258 4846

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Review: House

You know what I don't like about brunch? I mean sure, you get to wake up late and meet up with friends, sit on a sunny veranda listening to the birds chirping and watching the flowers bloom, and eat a sumptuous meal that would otherwise be the stuff of dreams, but what I really dislike about brunch is that you only get one meal when you could otherwise have got two!

Only joking. I rather enjoy brunch, with its connotations of the weekend's languid embrace. Every once in a while people will ask me where's good to go for brunch. There are the usual suspects, like Rider's Cafe, Jones the Grocer and Mimolette, but each of these has its drawbacks. The food at Rider's is outstanding, but you have to make reservations a year and a day ahead. Jones has great atmosphere but somewhat dismal service, while Mimolette seems to reside in the shadow of Rider's. One of my current favourites, therefore, is House, which I find strikes a happy compromise between atmosphere, food and service.

In terms of atmosphere, the decor is fairly eccentric, with glass, concrete, chalkboards, and stencils all making an appearance. There's even a strange sort of indoor pavilion you can dine under.

A crowd-pleaser is the House truffle fries, which I suspect suffers from a surfeit of truffle oil. It's not bad, by any means, but I feel that for a dish like this, less is probably more - what you want is a truffle aroma, not a truffle deluge.

House has a very extensive menu, but it's comforting to see that they offer a traditional fry-up: toast, scrambled eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes and sausages.

If fried stuff isn't your thing, there is also comfort food like bay prawn capellini topped with pecorino cheese. Crunchy prawns packed with umami goodness, and spicy heat from fresh cut chillis, what's not to like?

The mushroom risotto was an attractive dish as well - diced tomatoes and thyme leaves added vibrance, and the risotto is cooked with a rich veal jus. I thought it would have made more sense to cook the risotto with mushroom jus, though, as the intensity of the veal stock rather overwhelmed the delicate flavours of the mushrooms. The risotto however, was well-cooked, al dente and glistening, without being stodgy and filmy.

The warm strawberry shortcake is a (H)ouse specialty - alternating layers of strawberry and cake, doused with vanilla bean cream. I'm not a fan of strawberries, but it certainly looks pretty (though we perhaps could have done with a bigger portion).

My favourite dessert, however, is the bitter chocolate tart, which is everything I think a chocolate dessert should be - intensely dark and decadent, with the right balance between sweetness and bitterness. Big enough so you don't feel shortchanged, but small enough so you don't suffer from a chocolate overdose, it's a perfect way to round off a long, relaxing weekend brunch.

8D Dempsey Road
Tel: +65 6475 7787

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Miscellaneous Food: Kimberley Hotel Restaurant

After reading about his fantastic meal at the Kimberly Hotel, I followed Chubby Hubby's lead and headed there for a meal while last in HK. I dragged many of my friends with me to sample this meal, especially after hearing that a large group was neccesary to try all the delicious and large portions. After a lengthy planning period, we had a great group, with two in particular who trekked out to make the initial booking and to make a pre-payment, which is neccesary if you want to have the roast piglet.

As often mentioned, the facade of the hotel is faded and the inside of the restaurant looks even more like something out of Macau, with gilt and tufted chairs everywhere, fake pussy willows and peonies and a complimentary karoke monitor stuck to one wall. One thing that I felt Chubby Hubby's post didn't stress, is how huge (huge, not large) the portions are. In the end, we didn't wind up with as many people as I thought, thanks to last-minute flakers (don't you hate those!) and we drastically shortened the menu but this is how much food we had left over. We felt awful about it and each bag did go home to worthy families.

We started with separate dishes that were reminescent of a "cold dish" or "leng pan" that you find at wedding banquets. One was salt and pepper squid, one was a deep-fried salmon skin. I forget what the others were, since even those two excellent, crackly dishes were clearly too generous to be finished. One of the odd dishes that we were served was a large basket of char siew pao. Even though it was very tasty, we all thought it was a bit out of place and filled up our much-needed tummy space.

We then had a lovely double-boiled soup and the salt-baked chicken, followed by a giant crockpot of lemongrass braised beef ribs. All of the dishes were excellent, piping hot, fresh and with clean, distinct flavours. Suffice to say that we were full mid-way through the meal but we kept eating and eating determinedly.

That is, until the roast piglet showed up. It definitely lived up to the hype of being a thing of beauty and the crispiness, the succulent, light mouth-feel of the skin and the sticky glutinous rice, ah, it's too much! It was a truly lovely dish and one that, I think, is probably best executed in an industrial restaurant kitchen. Everyone oohed and aahed over the tray that was wheeled in, posed for photographs and munched their way satisfiedly through their slice. An excellent highlight!

There were a couple of vegetable dishes in between the middle and the finish, which we could hardly manage but the ending was particularly sweet. They brought out bowls of noodle that were really simple and resembled maggi noodles (or the instant mee goreng type noodles) - I don't know if it was the combination of chives, dark soya sauce or onion oil but they were fantastic! Not just delicious but comforting in that unexpected yet spot-on way.

And, just as we thought we were done and way too full for any dessert, they brought out hot-steamed malaikou, wafting it's warm, lightly-caramelized fragrance across the table. The best malaikou I have had, in memory - I would eat it anytime. Overall, it was easily one of the best meals I have had in Hong Kong and I would definitely return with my family. You should try it!

Kimberley Hotel Restaurant
28 Kimberley Rd, Hong Kong
Tel: 2723 3888

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Ruminations on Rhubarb

It's been a busy winter travel season- just last week, I glanced at my passport and was shocked to realize how many countries I had traversed in the last few months and what good use I had made of my scarf and boots this year. It wasn't until last week that Z. and I both had a few precious days off from work and could indulge in a short holiday.

Thanks to the generousity of D. and S. and J., we spent a spring sun-filled week revisiting old haunts from my brief time in London and soaking up the wonderful food and scenary in Tuscany. Although I had planned to do nothing but lounging and reading, of course, we got caught up in making the most of our visit. This was particularly because we stayed with our friend S, who is a practicing chocolatier and showed us the most marvellous, windwhirl, suspension-of-reality time in London, with a morning walk though Notting Hill, followed by Sunday breakfast at Ottolenghi and a drive through the Richmond deer park to visit Petersham Nursery.

We're now safely back in the little red dot (in time to cast a vote) and boy, were our suitcases weighed down by large rocks of Italian hams, cheeses, mushrooms, olive oils and bottles of Pimms and packs of hot chocolate for Colin. If you were a customs officer, you'd probably think Singapore was at war! One of the more odd purchases that I stuffed into my case was a long, wrapped package of fresh, organic rhubarb. I have an unhealthy fascination with rhubarb, fuelled by its inavailability in Singapore. Every time I see it, when in a temperate-climate grocery store, I get an uncontrollable urge to make a pie, or a tart, no matter whose house I am staying in.

There's just something about it that says springtime, raddiocio and rabbits, even though I know that as a child, I probably wouldn't have eaten rubarb. Even now, I don't like celery, unless stewed into a soft and fragrant odori. Oddly enough, the rhubarb plant actually originated from Asia and it has been suggested that it was often used by Mongolians (one of the places I've been in the last few months is Mongolia and I can confirm that they do not use it anymore!), the plant grew wild along the banks of the Volga and was thought to have been brough there by Eurasian tribes like the Huns or Mongols. Apparenly, it also has a long history in traditional Chinese medicine but its use in food was a recent 17th century innovation, after sugar became readily affordable.

The stalks of rhubarb can be light to dark green or rose to pale red and the leaves are toxic. I picked all my stalks to be really thick, thinking it was like picking sturdy celery but I've since discovered that, if I want to cook my rhubarb in long pieces, I should have chosen the more delicate and pretty stems. I was glad to read that I could also freeze them for later use but I'm not sure I'll need to for these are the desserts that I've devised to make over the week- Strawberry Rhubarb Pie, Lemon Rhubarb Cake, Rhubarb Crumble Ice Cream and an intriging Rhubarb Beetroot Cake. Any other suggestions?