Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Recipe: Marble Butter Cake

This is one of the first recipes I learnt, when I was just 6. I have fond memories of a family friend making it in Cameron Highlands (we were on holiday but she decided it wasn't a holiday without a freshly-baked cake straight hot out of the oven, pretty insightful for a girl of just 14).

She'd shopped the area's meagre shops for ingredients and wheedled some equipment from the kitchen. I was the little kid, so when it came to filling the cake tin, she let me drop alternating spoonfuls of the plain and chocolate batter into the pan. That and the versatility of this recipe- it can be made plain or flavoured with coffee or orange rind, are what I've always liked about this recipe.

250g butter unsalted
225g sugar
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence or seeds from a vanilla pod
225g + 2 Tbsp self-raising flour
3 Tbsp dark cocoa (prefably dutch processed Valronha 72%)
1 Tbsp brandy

1. Preheat your oven to 170C degrees and line a round cake pan (I like the easy slicing of a loaf tin, so that's what I use).
2. This is a classic creaming recipe, meaning that you cream butter and sugar together in an egg beater, until it is light, pale and fluffy. For this recipe, you would want to use a good quality butter as it is a main ingredient.
3. Add the eggs one at a time. Add the seeds from one vanilla pod or a tsp of vanilla essence.
4. Sift the flour, salt and baking soda into the mixture.
5. Pour in the brandy and mix quickly. You may be tempted to skip the brandy, especially if there are children eating the cake but don't! The alcohol burns off, leaving a beautiful nutty, savory-moist crumbly texture to your cake.
6. If you are making a plain cake, you can bake it as is. If not, then add the flavouring, like 3 heaped Tbsp of grated orange rind. For marble cake, seperate a third of the batter and mix it through with dark cocoa powder. Then, drop spoonfuls of the cocoa and plain batter alternately in the cake pan. If you are a purist, run a chopstick through the length of the pan to "marble" the colours, or if you like a cow-coloured marble cake like mine, then don't!
7. Bake at 170 degrees for 45 min. If the top of your cake is cooked, cover it with some alumninium foil (so that it stays tender, rather than burnt) and continue with the rest of the cooking time. Turn the cake out after cooling and serve warm for tea with milk or coffee!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Review: Soprano

It is sometimes a great pity that restaurants that garnered good reviews, like the Cicada, close down before I ever get round to trying them.

It is an even greater pity when the restaurants that replace them are probably not as good, as I discovered when dining at Soprano, an Italian restaurant run by the same owners of Donna Carmela at Greenwood Avenue, and which has taken over the premises of The Cicada at Portsdown Road.

Soprano actually has a lot going for it: it looks beautiful at night amidst the dense darkness of Portsdown, and the owners keep the business all in the family, so they're affable and will make you feel right at home.

That explains why the place was pretty packed on a Sunday evening, which contributed to the somewhat pervasive warmth within the restaurant. I suspect that none of the numerous air-conditioning units was actually switched on, resulting in some very still air.

Soprano is let down the most by its food, however. It's true that they claim to offer rustic, homely Italian food, but standards are standards.

I was intrigued by the various nibbles brought out together with the bread: pickled pearl and red onions, as well as mushrooms, served as old fashioned amuse-bouches to whet the appetite before dinner.

Dinner, however, was not particularly satisfying. Soprano offers a number of variations on bresaola, and I had the one that came with mushrooms, which turned out to be a pate-like mushroom paste that smothered the raw beef. In terms of presentation, this was not the most attractive of dishes, and in terms of taste, it was not particularly spectacular either.

Soprano has an amazing array of pastas, from the traditional spaghettis to the exotic, ear-shaped orecchiettes. Sauces are not always changed correspondingly, however, though as you'd expect, not all pastas are paired with the same sauces. The crab ravioli comes with a chunky tomato sauce, though a sweeter, cream-based tomato sauce may have been more luscious.

My squid ink linguine vongole was a great disappointment. First, the pasta was not fresh, which is deadly when it comes to squid ink - the noodles simply tasted stringy and bouncy (rather like a bowl of Chinese noodles). Second, I suspect the clams came from a can, or else the restaurant has a very poor supplier: there was almost no meat to be had from any of the shellfish, as the picture very clearly reveals. Sad little flecks of clam-flesh were all that could be teased out of the shells. Finally, when I requested for chilli to be omitted, I was informed that the chillis they used were not spicey, so imagine my chagrin when peeking up at me from under a clam were sliced chilli padis, which most certainly are spicey (50,000 to 100,000 on the Scoville scale).

Soprano is so new that they haven't had time to change Cicada's website, so a Google search for "Cicada Restaurant Singapore" still returns "http://www.thecicada.com.sg". Hopefully by the time they get around to updating the website they'll also have looked into improving the food.

7 Portsdown Road
Tel: 6472 2100
Opening Hours: 12 noon - 2.30pm, 6pm to 10.30pm

Review: Le Figue

Restaurants with French names have a really hard time in Singapore. Ivan has documented how Absinthe's name has been butchered, and I suffered some physical discomfort at hearing someone announce we were going to dine at a new restaurant called Le Feegyoo.

This much-mispronounced new restaurant, as it turns out, is Le Figue, a French-themed restaurant that has replaced Whitebait and Kale at Camden Medical Centre. Named after the fig (though with an ungrammatical masculine "le" instead of the feminine "la" because chef Kelvin Lee wanted part of his name incorporated), and pronounced the same way in French as in English (after all, no one says "the plagyoo"), Le Figue is only a month old, but is already showing promise.

Intriguingly for its venue, Le Figue has decided not to maximise the use of its dining space - there are only a few tables and a capacity of, at best, 30 people. The interior of the restaurant is quite spartan, lines are stark, and the white and brown colour tones do not soften the austere dining environment. A narrow glass panel allows diners to look through into the kitchen, which seems to be all the rage these days.

A hard-boiled quail's egg was served as the complimentary amuse-bouche, with the yolk scraped out and replaced with a carrot veloute. An interesting concept, but a little too deconstructed for my liking.

However, Le Figue is not so postmodern that it does not include classics like French onion soup, though without the usual floating, flambeed gruyere croute, which comes instead neatly perched by the side.

My starter of porcini risotto with freshly shaved black truffles was a very classy affair. The risotto grains were just a shade under-cooked, but the blend of robust porcini, earthy truffle, piquant parmeggiano and creamy, luscious risotto was compelling and irresistible.

Others ordered the pan-fried foie gras with fig compote, which is delicious. The fig compote lends the jammy sweetness the rich foie gras needs, while the blini the lovely liver rests on bulks up the dish.


An intermezzo followed; red fruit sorbet. Pleasantly palate-cleansing, I was looking forward to the main course.

Despite comments from my family that Le Figue's menu is rather limited, there is actually quite a lot to choose from if one wants to be adventurous. There is the usual fish course, which I of course did not order, but I believe it was a cod dish.

For those who fancy slightly darker meats, there is a stunning dish of duck breast elegantly plated with a strip of soothing cucumber and some root vegetables. The duck breast was slightly too undercooked for the ladies' tastes, but the staff were very accommodating and whisked it back to the kitchen for some extra cooking.

Le Figue offers some beautifully cooked lamb chops that are not only gorgeous and meltingly tender, but also come with a substantial amount of meat on the bones, which is not always the case when ordering lamb cutlets. Paired with an assortment of vegetables, I can think of no cleaner way to enjoy lamb.

My main course of boneless quail stuffed with haricot beans, foie gras, duck gizzard and mushroom ragout was a revelation: technically complex, the quail emerged very succulent (possibly courtesy of some sous-vide treatment, though I speculate), moistened by the melting foie gras and sweetened by a slight drizzling of balsamic vinegar. My only regret was that the dish is far more substantial than it appears - the haricot beans fill you up very quickly.

While Le Figue does not have a dedicated cheese trolley, the fact that they do have a cheese board is extremely encouraging, and shows that the restaurant's dedication to French food is not just skin-deep.

Desserts are elegantly put together, with a happy combination of classics and reinventions. One of the latter is the pistacchio creme brulee, served with fresh berries and a Tahitan vanilla bean ice cream, which I thought looked a little firm, but will appeal to nut-lovers.

A variant on panna cotta, Le Figue serves milk jelly with organic lemon and a champagne emulsion. Think of it as a jellied fruit cocktail.

Continuing with the fruit theme, you can also try the caramelised apple served on a flaky sable pastry with chantilly cream.

There is also the ubiquitous warm chocolate cake, just in case one does not feel like being healthy.

Conveniently located off Orchard Road, being situated in Camden Medical Centre means there is never a shortage of parking lots, and the restaurant is so hardworking that unlike many joints, it does not close one day of the week. Service is disarmingly helpful and friendly, as the restaurant patiently took my call and accurately verified my inquiries. In addition, Le Figue offers a very competitively priced set lunch at $28, which I think is quite a steal for the kind of food you get.

All in all, I think Le Figue is a magnificently underrated restaurant, and I hope to return in the not too distant future to see how the fig has ripened.

Le Figue
1 Orchard Boulevard
#01-01/02 Camden Medical Center
Tel: 6887 5383
Mon-Sun: 12pm-2.30pm, 7pm-11pm

Friday, July 24, 2009

Review: Saraceno Ristorante

Berjaya Hotel at Duxton Road has, I am told, a very long and distinguished history, though just what this history is I have never quite discovered. The tasteful nude portraits adorning the walls of the lavatories, however, hint at something slightly less genteel.

Nonetheless, it was with some regret that I learned the hotel's French stalwart, L'Aigle D'Or, had closed, and had been replaced by a new Italian restaurant, Saraceno. Still, I had fond memories of L'Aigle D'Or and was keen to see if the newcomer would live up to its illustrious forebear.

My first impression of Saraceno was that the air-conditioning was very strong. Good news on the numerous nights Singapore is muggy and warm, but not so comfortable on the equally numerous nights Singapore is lashed by stormy downpours.

Apart from temperature, the restaurant creates an impression of ample space; diners are seated a decent distance from other patrons, though this does not mean that boisterous conversations do not still penetrate your own private tete-a-tete.

Our amuse-bouche took the form of a chicken parfait with fava beans, which was tasty enough, but somehow just seemed like a miniature starter, rather than the intricate morsels designed to tantalise the tastebuds.

I ordered a helping of prosciutto with porcini mushrooms, which had a nice rippling of fat and was quite delicious.

I find that some sort of vongole dish is becoming increasingly popular, which can be a dangerous thing, as some unscrupulous restaurants put it on their menu but serve you clams out of a tin. Saraceno's version came with plump, voluptuous clams that definitely had not seen the inside of a tin, but sadly the dish was let down by a few features: the pasta was overcooked, rather too much oil had been used, and an excessive use of chilli had obliterated the delicate perfume of white wine. Still, none of this is irreparable, and I hope that these minor infelicities do not, in the long run, detract from the wonderfully luscious clams.

One of the desserts Saraceno offers is both unusual and inventive. Ravioli di ananas comprise thinly shaved pineapple slices curled over lemon sorbet with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. The tartness of the pineapples, the citric fizz of the sorbet and the sweet acidity of the vinegar create a panoply of flavours that refresh the palate.

More traditionally, Saraceno also offers a warm chocolate cake that is quickly becoming de rigueur in all self-respecting restaurants. Suitably warm and delectably unctuous, I think the best defence against all those who rail against how plebeian the warm chocolate cake has become is that it's now essentially a comfort food, rather like creme brulee.

Saraceno can afford to fine-tune some of their cooking, but their prices are quite reasonable and service is both prompt and personable (the table next to me managed to cajole the waiter into bringing them some "Chinatown roti prata" instead of bread; and they really did bring some roti prata!). The restaurant is as yet undiscovered, and with enough discerning patronage, has the potential to become a diamond in the rough (no aspersion intended on the Tanjong Pagar area).

83 Duxton Road, Berjaya Hotel
Tel: 6438 9638
Breakfast: 7am - 10.30am
Lunch: Noon - 2.30pm
Dinner: 6.30pm - 10.30pm
(Closed on Sun)

Review: Firestation Hillside Gastrobar

One of the most sought-after dining spots is, as Hungry Go Where terms it, the "hidden treasure". This is the restaurant that is slightly off the beaten track, either literally or metaphorically, far enough from the madding crowd that the jaded and cynical diner feels a long-forgotten stirring in the pit of his stomach: the feeling of excitement at trying a new eatery that multiple visits to endless franchises no longer evokes.

Tucked away in Upper Bukit Timah Road, where the eponymous old firestation used to be, the Firestation Hillside Gastrobar (FHG) is just next door to Raw Kitchen Bar. Unlike Raw, FHG occupies a larger floorspace, which allows them to offer diners the choice of an air-conditioned indoor area, or al fresco dining. Despite the restaurant being quite full on a Friday evening, sitting outdoors was surprisingly pleasant; numerous fans keep the air circulating, and my secondary school Geography lessons seem to recall that hills enjoy naturally breezy environs.

FHG, as the name suggests, is both a restaurant and a bar, which is great if you're looking for a relaxed evening of tipples and casual dining. The cocktails here are not spectacular, but FHG boasts an extended happy hour (5pm to 9pm on their website, but I remember happy hour starting again from 10pm to midnight; call to inquire), and on Fridays, live music by a soulful Anne Weerapass. In short, fabulous ambience.

Service is also warm and friendly, occasionally a little over-enthusiastic, but I'd rather keenness than disinterest, so there's really nothing to complain about on this front.

In terms of food, FHG does not pretend to offer haute cuisine, but sticks to familiar, homely starters like squid rings and chicken wings; as well as more robust mains of pizzas and pastas. Prices are reasonable; it's possible to order food to share without breaking the bank.

An initial appetiser of asparagus wrapped with parma ham was simple and unpretentious, but I would have preferred the parma ham to have been uncooked and more thinly sliced.

The fried squid rings were, unfortunately, more disappointing, as the squid rings were limp and unexciting, while the thick, heavy batter tasted too floury and could be pulled completely off, rather as one skins a squid, ironically enough.

I feel like gnocchi is a very misunderstood pasta dish in this country. Made well, it can be sublime, but more often than not people avoid it like the plague, claiming that it is sticky or rubbery. FHG's version is indeed rather large, with gnocchi the size of lego blocks, but is stocked with duck confit, mushrooms and truffle oil. Excellent combination for those with hearty appetites.

Perhaps someone will claim pizzas are misunderstood, but I did not quite enjoy this offering. Called the "Big Five", it features chorizo, chicken, salami and mushrooms, but overall lacked character.

FHG is definitely a charming spot tucked away from the clamour of suburbia, which can make it somewhat aggravating to reach on the first try (ignore the two U-turn signs (only 50m apart(!)) opposite the firestation). Relaxed, laid-back, and soothing, FHG is a lovely way to end a weekday with some quiet conversation and honest food at affordable prices.

Firestation Hillside Gastrobar
274 Upper Bukit Timah Road
Tel: 6465 0600
Opening hours: 5pm - 12am (Closed on Mon)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Review: 7atenine

I am not generally a fan of buffets, as I think food should be freshly-prepared and consumed at the peak of its perfection, rather than laid out for hours as it loses moisture and attracts bacteria.

However, there are also the "new generation" buffets, where a never-ending stream of food is served to you without you having to walk to any buffet counter. The newest and most talked-about of these is 7atenine, which offers a "tapas" buffet for lunch, meaning you are given about 15 courses of bite-sized morsels, with an option to request further portions of dishes that you enjoyed. 7atenine also offers an Express Lunch, but really, it's obvious that people come here for the full monty.

7atenine boasts an al fresco dining area, but I imagine that during lunch most people prefer to sit indoors, where the air-conditioning is fairly dramatic, cooling the entire restaurant despite the fact that the door is left wide open.

The restaurant's menu is divided into various themes, i.e. "from the sea" or "from the land", and you can specify particular preferences when ordering. Otherwise, however, you give the chefs discretion to prepare your meal, and you'll receive a mix of tapas. A recurring trend with many of the buffet dishes is that they can either prepared far in advance, or do not require very much preparation, which obviously makes a lot of sense, given 7atenine's concept.

Our first dish was a summer vegetable and feta cheese terrine, which was rich and creamy, but I thought it undervalued the summer vegetables: blitzed up into a terrine, their vibrant colours and fresh texture were inevitably sacrificed.


Blogger is having trouble uploading this photo, and Flickr seems unable to resize it to the dimensions I want, so you'll just have to live with some extra-large photos. The tuna tartar with wasabi cream and tamago was a juxtaposition of textures, but not so much tastes: the wasabi cream was not very strong, and the tuna tartar did not, for some reason, emerge as forcefully as I thought it should have done.

Another recurring trend at 7atenine is that its hit to miss ratio is not very promising. It is generally very difficult to mess up Caesar salad, but because the lettuce leaves were all julienned, they tasted limp and lifeless instead of crisp and bursting with vibrance. Nor did it help that the salad was rather too lukewarm for my liking.

The apple and ham salad was also well-intentioned, seeing as how ham and apple sauce is a fairly classic combination. Unfortunately, the salty ham hock was somewhat overpowering, and the cucumber ribbon splayed rather than sliced when I attempted to assault it with my knife and fork, creating a bit of a mess.

The pasta course was a serving of green tea pasta garnished with seaweed and a poached egg. The pasta was served chilled, rather like a green tea soba, and while this was by no means bad, I thought the dish was, overall, not as well-balanced as it could have been. The green tea pasta was (and was meant to be) fairly neutral in taste, and though the poached egg provided a natural, rich and unctuous yolky sauce, that too was also a bit bland. I thought a pinch of sea salt could have done much to perk up the pasta.


The last of our appetisers took the form of beef tenderloins served on hot stones. These arrived sizzling and sputtering, exuding a delectable trickle of meat juices, and you could see the meat visibly cooking on contact with the stones, achieving a subtle gradation from brown to pink to red.

Leaving the "starters" segment of our meal, the initial main course was not very promising. Supposedly a zucchini cream soup, the stock used was far too strong, and the dish ended up tasting like green chicken soup, with no hint of the delicate zucchini at all.

I'd heard a lot about 7atenine's chicken wings, and their "love them or hate them" clothes pegs. Personally I think they're quite cute, though I am a bit dubious as to their functional utility (some have suggested they're meant to prevent your fingers from getting dirty but that seems unlikely). Chicken wings are chicken wings - very difficult to get wrong, but not very much you can do to make them outstanding either.


The next course was my favourite of the meal: udon parmesan and truffle sauce. Something like a cross between a carbonara and a creamy mushroom sauce, this worked very well. The heady aroma of truffles, the heavy stickiness of the parmesan, and the starchy udon melded into each other, absorbing and cross-infusing, and the end result was a delectable, albeit rather rich, carb-heavy dish.

The following dish I was not quite so fond of, however. Billed as "tomato sushi", it was exactly what it sounded like: a sheet of nori wrapped around some rice, which enveloped raw tomato and was topped with (what I assume was) tomato foam. This didn't really work for me: I don't really see the point of combining a fruit with rice and calling it sushi.

The fish course was a pan-seared salmon with asparagus, which was competent, though somewhat unremarkable. This is not necessarily the fault of the restaurant: salmon is one of those unrewarding foods that, even if perfectly-executed, never quite achieve sublimity; yet when they are slightly mis-cooked everyone thinks you're useless.

The wagyu beef sirloin with polenta was not that satisfying; sliced rather thinly the meat soon became cold and dry as the precious moisture quickly leached out.

I always feel that desserts are the worst part of a buffet, and 7atenine was really let down by its desserts. The apple tarte tatin was not at all pleasant; the apples were jarringly tart and the pastry surrounding it was thick and stodgy.


The final dessert were strawberry eclairs served with strawberry gazpacho. The eclairs were decorated with some shockingly pink icing, which was very sweet, while the strawberry gazpacho, if memory serves, was rather sour.

7atenine pioneers a brave concept, but its execution, as yet, leaves much to be desired. There are many more misses than hits, which is a great pity, as the food is innovative and inspired, and is trying to avoid being labelled as "gimmicky". Hopefully 7atenine can work out its teething problems and provide Esplande-enthusiasts something other than the arts to be excited about.

8 Raffles Avenue
#01-10/12 Esplanade Mall
Tel: +65 6338 0789
Mon-Thu: noon - 3pm, 5pm - midnight
Fri: noon - 3pm, 5pm - 2am
Sat: noon - 2am
Sun: noon - midnight