Saturday, November 28, 2009

Review: Osvaldo

There's been a dearth of new reviews recently because publicity about new restaurants seems to have dried up, and for some reason I've not been that keen to eat out at restaurants that are not exactly new but that I've not yet visited.

To celebrate a cousin's birthday, however, we made a reservation at Osvaldo, a newish Italian restaurant opened by Osvaldo Forlino, the chef formerly of the eponymous Forlino. Located in Tanjong Pagar at the revitalised Maxwell Chambers, Osvaldo is the new favourite restaurant among the bankers, lawyers and other professionals in that part of town. The restaurant was packed, which was unsurprising for a Friday night, but I've been told a reservation is essential even at lunch.

Given Osvaldo Forlino's culinary CV, a comparison with Forlino is inevitable, though somewhat misleading. Unlike Forlino, Osvaldo exudes a much more casual charm - copper pots and pans adorn the walls, and large glass panes allow you to look directly into the kitchen as the chefs prepare the evening's meal. Osvaldo himself is constantly mingling among the diners, adding a personal and personable warmth to your dining experience and contributing to the energy and liveliness of the place, ensuring that dinner is never a staid, formal affair. The restaurant therefore has a much more family-style trattoria feel to it, something which also expresses itself in the food, which is much simpler and more rustic than the offerings at Forlino, but certainly not, simply by virtue of that fact, inferior.

As befits family-style dining, we ordered a series of appetisers to share, and individual main courses.

The fresh burrata was almost to die for: an enormous bag of ivory cheese surrounded by beautiful pink ripples of parma ham. Silky smooth on the outside, with curds of mozzarella on the inside, the cheese was creamy and luscious, and demolished quickly.

Bruschetta - the classic Italian starter - were also good: crusty toasted crostinis topped high with diced tomatoes that were bursting with sweetness, and flavoured with a generous sprinkling of fresh basil. Simplicity itself, and lovely for it.

Unfortunately, no one ordered a pizza as a main, but the spicy salami pizza we shared as an appetiser was very tasty and suitably thin-crusted, though a little wet from the oil extruded by the cheese and salami.

The main courses were almost uniformly pastas, as someone had told me that Osvaldo's pastas were particularly yummy.

There was a prawn linguine, which looked somewhat plain, though it seems to have been well-received.

The special of the day was vongole, which were easily transformed into a spaghetti alle vongole. My mother seemed to enjoy this, and she is known to be very demanding when it comes to vongole.

The spaghetti carbonara also passed muster, according to I., who declared that carbonara, though a simple dish, is often mishandled by restaurants.

Osvaldo's duck tagliatelle was delicious: the pasta was drenched in a dark, rich sauce that could easily have been something meatier, such as venison. I thought the pasta was slightly overcooked, though given that I was having leftovers, that may have simply have been due to the fact that the noodles had been sitting in hot sauce for fifteen minutes.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am not a great fan of seafood, but one of the things I was very tempted to have was the seafood stew, which featured prawns, squid, clams and mussels in a rich tomato-based broth laced with white wine.

The restaurant's meat dishes seem rather dry, starting with the osso bucco, which was not in the usual Milanese style. Instead, it was served almost nude, with some roasted potatoes. Osvaldo explained that his cooking philosophy takes after his mother's: ingredients should be fresh, and food should be served simply, without pretentious crockery and garnishings to detract from the flavours and smells of what you're eating. While I have great sympathy for this approach to cooking, I do think that sauces, when used discriminatingly, elevate rather than dilute a dish.

Similarly, my roasted rabbit was slightly dry, which is a shame, since, given that rabbit is such a rare ingredient in Singapore, it seems an unfair representation of an otherwise lovely meat, and might put diners off trying rabbit again even when it is served in different ways. Osvaldo does get brownie points for even having rabbit on their menu though.

If you ask Osvaldo nicely, he may even bring out some eggplant and chillis that have been preserved in vinegar and white wine, a great touch that reminds you just how much this restaurant revolves around homely cooking and down-to-earth food.

Osvaldo also has an extensive range of desserts, which is particularly appealing way to end an Italian meal.

Although there is the ubiquitous tiramisu, there are also a number of other desserts you don't often see.

For instance, the ice cream "spaghetti" is a cute riff on spaghetti bolognese: ice cream is piped into squiggles and stained with some strawberry sauce to create an optical illusion that easily fooled my father, who could not quite figure out where the ice cream came from.

Similarly, the chocolate bombe is an interesting dish: a frozen core surrounded by additional layers of ice cream or chilled mousse, and coated all over in cocoa powder.

Osvaldo also brought out some adorable Italian meringues for us to try. Looking like little clouds that had been caught and frozen in dry ice, the meringues sandwiched a small blob of cream, working on the same principle as French macarons. Cute and sweet, what's not to like?

Osvaldo is a great new addition to the Italian restaurant scene - warm, welcoming, unpretentious, with good food and service, at prices that are relatively decent. I'm sure that as the Forlino family get used to their new digs, the food emerging from their kitchen will be of an increasingly high standard, and Osvaldo will become, if it isn't already, the new favourite haunt in the financial district.

Osvaldo Ristorante Italiano
32 Maxwell Road, #01-03 Maxwell Chambers
Tel: +65 6224 0978
(Closed on Sundays)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Miscellaneous Food: Truffs

At the risk of sounding like a true snob, let me tell you about a pet peeve of mine - supermarket chocolates and people who give you supermarket chocolates. Don't get me wrong, I love supermarket chocolates, stocking stuffer chocolates that take me back to wonderful childhood places of delight (a Violet Crumble for example, when you bite into that honeycomb, yum, or a Cadbury Top Deck comes to mind, or even Kit Kat, Yan Yan or those hugely nostalgic Japanese biscuit mushrooms with caps of chocolate). What I'm referring to are those seemingly omnipresent boxes of mixed chocolates that always have eponymous names and colours, the swirly gold decor or the European-esque-sounding names, the kind you can buy at NTUC or Tangs.

It's because sometimes I do something nice and I'm not expecting anything at all in return, but then I get a box of those. Or for some reason, I get one and I think to myself, well, they are like carnations, yes, they are lovely in some way, for example, carnations are very nice in a pomander and similarly, seashell chocolates look very nice topping buttercream frosting on cupcakes, and I appreciate the thought, I always appreciate the thought. But I'm not really a chocolate person and these seahorses don't taste like chocolate. At all.

Because when we get down to it, these seashell chocolates are neither white chocolate nor milk chocolate. They aren't smooth, or raw, or textured, they just, kind of taste like a very monotonous and heterogenous vegetable oil content and some of the shapes (usually, as I have learnt by unpleasant experience, the ones wrapped in red aluminium foil) are filled with pretty rank, nasty-tasting alcohol.

I've been recycled these for Christmas. Long after Christmas itself. And in those instances it does make me feel rather bad. Sort of in the spirit that I'd rather not have received anything, which I had not asked for, then something that no one else wanted, or something generic to fill the need-gap. I'd rather received almost anything else from a supermarket. A candy bar, a box of tissue, a jug of milk or orange juice, a bag of flour (always useful!) or a bottle of dish washing soap. You know? Just anything simple and common and immediately gratifying. I care about people, I have never cared about presents and I really believe it's not about the price, it's the thought, that someone you knew and cared for thought of you as not chocolate seashells.

The reason I'm saying this thought aloud, is that a week ago, I came upon a beautiful counter-example, the anti-example if you will, of supermarket chocolate. This is beautiful, rich, sinful (or sin-cleansing, depending on how it affects you)) chocolate, melded with clever design and packaging. I think the photos are fairly explanatory but let me just say that I am not a natural chocolate person and I was so excited to see this masculine-smooth creamy brown box enveloping a thin plastic film and wrapped with a suede ribbon. Even the card, stamped with vintage botanical drawings of the cocoa bean, suggested a really special treat in store.

Imagine my surprise that the store location was a skip and a hop away from the office, tucked upstairs behind the Ocean Fishhead Curry stall next to Amoy Food Center. Hurray for Singapore, modernizing and maturing into this growing phenomenon of the rise of the independent food entrepreneur. By this, I don't really mean the Breadtalk chain or some expat-come-early like Emmanuel Stroobant but rather, home-grown local, commercial coffee cafes, bakeries and chocolate shops that really meld design with culinary skill, technique and dedication. These little homages to craft remind me of New York and the kind of specialized stores one can find there.

I have great memories of living in Soho and wandering from bread shops to chocolate stores; tiny little hole in the wall places that only did one thing but did it really well - chilli chocolates or down-south pecan pie or freshly-baked onion rolls - at 5am in the morning. I think it's really a sign of maturity that the Singapore market is so quickly going down that path, where people are willing to travel to buy these and chefs are willing to stake their reputation and their business on perfecting their small product offering. Of course, the flip side to this is that Singapore is likely to become more and more expensive a place to live - after all, the returns to specialization are a close corollary to luxury inflation!

This shop was no different: it was a cosy, spanking-new lab with a gorgeous carrera marble table top for rolling truffles and tempering chocolate. The owner, Teng Ei Liang is passionate about chocolates and left both his finance degree and job at the Singapore Tourism Board to pursue a Cordon Bleu course. His specialty and love turned out to be the traditional art of truffle-making and so now he juggles a full-time job with this new venture, which was borne out of making gifts for friends.

Truffles are so named for their visual similarity to the truffle fungus, and a chocolate truffle is traditionally made with a chocolate ganache center coated in chocolate or cocoa powder, usually in a spherical, conical or curved shape. The first truffles were cast in France in 1895 and later gained popularity through Prestat of London in the early 1900s. Other fillings may replace the ganache: cream, melted chocolate, caramel, nuts, berries, assorted sweet fruits, toffees, mint, marshmallow, and, popularly, liquor.

Ei Liang was telling me that despite several requests, he has tried to keep the purity of the truffle and his French ingredients alive by restricting his product to four varieties, the 55% Equiteur, the 66% Antilles, made of beans from the Carribean, the 70% Honduras, a rich, slightly bitter chocolate from Criollo and Trinitario beans and the sugarless truffles for diabetics, made with a small addition of artificial sweetener. Apart from the rise of dedicated food craft and local single-product food entrepreneurship, there is a second trend in food represented here - as people become more affluent and more concerned about what they eat and where it is from, there is a greater focus of harvesting and advertising around pure origin, single estate sourcing in ingredients, particularly in dairy and meat products.

It is a 2 day process to make truffles and they have to be kept at cool temperatures, as anyone who has taken the time to craft these will have found out. The pricing is not cheap, at $24 for a box of 9 or $48 for a box of 18, but that is partly because of the cost of making and storing them. They are like rock explosions of deep, textured notes of dark and light and forgetfulness and personally, I could eat one of these and keep the memory of that chocolate for weeks.

It's a bit like things that may not be great for you, maybe the right way to enjoy it is you eat a little bit and that's it. Not a lot, everyday. These are not for everyone or every time, I know, but I hope that everyone can experience them in some way. To me, they hit that mark of being a little luxury, having luscious quality but helpfully small proportions and it's a plus that they make great gifts for your special loved ones.

I'm well aware that I've now ruined my current Christmas gift surprise but I did think that it would be fairer to let you all know that Truffs is now taking Christmas orders and that you can take a visit to explore this little lab on your own - call Jo-lin to order your fix today!

179a Telok Ayer Street
Singapore 068627
Mon - Fri : 12pm - 7pm
Sat : 12pm - 4pm
T: +65 9088 2736

* As advised by my better half, I should clarify that:

(1) The post is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, I am not suggesting that people who buy chocolate assortments are not sincere or that you judge people by their gift-giving (or lack thereof) or what the gift is and what it costs.

(2) I am saying that I personally don't like them and have received a disappointingly large number of these from people that I would have considered to be closer than a quickie trip to the supermarket aisle. I have given these to other people before as well, but after thinking about it and the other more practical and personalized gifts that I could have purchased or made, I don't anymore. But, you are free to disagree with me!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Recipe: Fall Plum Tart

Are you one of those people who clips recipes from magazines or is forever jotting down a random idea or another (a pepetual notebookist)? I am, or at least I was, until I realized that they kept building up.

So I started folders for my different interests. But the folders kept building up. So now, at least for the "recipes" folder, I've resolved to cook my way through them, beginning with this Italian Plum Tart recipe that I found off goodness-knows-where.

It was though, very good. We brought it to a family event and there was hardly a slice left for me or D. at the end of it, so I'll have to make it again and not share it this time *grin*

The recipe was also pretty simple and didn't call for anything esoteric. The only thing I had to pick up from the store was a punnet of black plums but you can also use purple or pink plums.


(this can be made one day in advance)
1 1/4 C all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 Tbsp (23.95g) sugar
1/4tsp sale
7 Tbsp (113g) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and chilled

1/2 C sugar
3 Tbsp (75g) unbleached all purpose flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 pounds plums (about 24 small prune plums)
2 Tbsp (30g) unsalted butter

1. In a medium bowl, rub the butter into a mixture of the flour, sugar and salt till it resembles a coarse meal. Work quickly to keep the butter cold.Stir in 3-4 Tbsp of cold water, adding just enough each time for the dough to hold together without getting wet. Flatten teh dough into a 6 inch disk and chill for an hour or until the next day.

2. Preheat the oven to 425F, roll out the dough and cover a pie pan. Prick the surface of the dough and bake it blind, by lining the bottom with aluminium foil (or parchment paper) and filling the pie with pie weights or rice/beans.

3. Bake 10 minutes, then remove the paper and bake for another 5 to get a nice golden-brown colour. Whisk together the sugar, flour and cinnamon to make a filling ,which you will use to sprinkle on the bottom of the pie and on tht top of the sliced layers of plums.

4. Dot the top of the plums with butter. For myself, I found that the plums dried out a bit in the baking, so perhaps you could also experiment with a frangipane almond filling as in here

5. When slicing the plums, try halving them, then shearing them into thin layers. Arrange in a concentric pattern around the tart and bake 10 minutes. reduce the oven temperature to 350F and bake until mixture begins to bubble around the edges, 30-35min. Cool and serve warm with vanilla ice cream. Should serve about 8-10pp.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Recipe: Risotto with prawns and asparagus

I am, as the Chinese have a habit of saying, a fan tong (rice bucket). Rice is probably my favourite carbohydrate, and at least one meal of the day has to have rice in it, otherwise I'll feel ill. Some people, however, despite liking rice, are not fond of risotto, usually because they don't think it's real rice. This puzzles me, as the same people are usually more than happy to eat both noodles and pasta. In any case, despite my liking for the substance, I've never actually cooked risotto before, usually because it requires slaving away over a hot stove, and the chances of landing up with overcooked sludge seem very high.

Due to a friend (who is not as helpless a cook as he claims) going on and on about his midnight risotto-making, however, tempted me into cooking risotto for lunch this afternoon. After a few references to Bill Granger, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay's cookbooks, I decided all risotto recipes were basically the same, and didn't look that difficult.

Ingredients (Serves 1)

500ml chicken stock
1 glass (200ml) of white wine
100g risotto (I used Carnaroli)
Olive oil
25g of butter
1/4 onion, finely chopped
2 or 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
20g parmeggiano-reggiano
1/2 chilli, finely chopped
1/2 lemon
5 asparagus spears (more or less depending on taste)
5 medium-sized prawns, peeled (more or less depending on taste)
Parsley, to garnish

1. In a saucepan, bring the chicken stock to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer, so that your risotto doesn't cool drastically when you add the stock.

2. In a separate saucepan, lightly pan-fry your chilli, prawns and asparagus with the garlic in some olive oil until they are just cooked, then remove them and keep warm.

3. In the same saucepan, heat the olive oil and half the butter. Once the butter has stopped foaming, add the chopped onions, and cook till they have softened, but not browned.

4. Add the rice, letting the oil and butter coat the grains with a film of fat. Make sure your onions do not burn.

5. Pour in the white wine, which should sizzle satisfyingly as the alcohol cooks off. The wine will be absorbed quite quickly by the rice as you stir it.

6. Once the wine has been absorbed, add a ladle of hot stock to the rice. Stir the rice continuously on low heat to allow the starches to be released.

7. Once the stock has been absorbed, add another ladle of hot stock, and stir continuously over low heat.

8. Repeat this process, adding a new ladle of hot stock once the previous ladleful has been fully absorbed. It takes about 20 minutes before the rice becomes rich and creamy, so you should keep tasting as you go. You'll know when you're getting close, as by the fourth or fifth ladle the absorption rate of the rice falls dramatically, stirring requires much more effort, and the individual grains seem to merge into one another. What you're aiming for is a soft, creamy texture, and a "give" (not a crunch) when you bite into a grain.

9. Once the rice is cooked (but remains al dente), take it off the heat, add in the cheese and butter to enrich the risotto, and let it rest for two minutes to let the flavours develop.

10. Meanwhile warm your prawns and asparagus back up (in the empty saucepan that used to hold your stock), and squeeze a liberal amount of lemon juice over them.

11. Plate up by stacking the prawns atop the asparagus, and garnish with some roughly-chopped parsley.

NYT article on service

51. If there is a service charge, alert your guests when you present the bill. It’s not a secret or a trick.

52. Know your menu inside and out. If you serve Balsam Farm candy-striped beets, know something about Balsam Farm and candy-striped beets.

53. Do not let guests double-order unintentionally; remind the guest who orders ratatouille that zucchini comes with the entree.

54. If there is a prix fixe, let guests know about it. Do not force anyone to ask for the “special” menu.

55. Do not serve an amuse-bouche without detailing the ingredients. Allergies are a serious matter; peanut oil can kill. (This would also be a good time to ask if anyone has any allergies.)

56. Do not ignore a table because it is not your table. Stop, look, listen, lend a hand. (Whether tips are pooled or not.)

57. Bring the pepper mill with the appetizer. Do not make people wait or beg for a condiment.

58. Do not bring judgment with the ketchup. Or mustard. Or hot sauce. Or whatever condiment is requested.

59. Do not leave place settings that are not being used.

60. Bring all the appetizers at the same time, or do not bring the appetizers. Same with entrees and desserts.

61. Do not stand behind someone who is ordering. Make eye contact. Thank him or her.

62. Do not fill the water glass every two minutes, or after each sip. You’ll make people nervous.

62(a). Do not let a glass sit empty for too long.

63. Never blame the chef or the busboy or the hostess or the weather for anything that goes wrong. Just make it right.

64. Specials, spoken and printed, should always have prices.

65. Always remove used silverware and replace it with new.

66. Do not return to the guest anything that falls on the floor — be it napkin, spoon, menu or soy sauce.

67. Never stack the plates on the table. They make a racket. Shhhhhh.

68. Do not reach across one guest to serve another.

69. If a guest is having trouble making a decision, help out. If someone wants to know your life story, keep it short. If someone wants to meet the chef, make an effort.

70. Never deliver a hot plate without warning the guest. And never ask a guest to pass along that hot plate.

71. Do not race around the dining room as if there is a fire in the kitchen or a medical emergency. (Unless there is a fire in the kitchen or a medical emergency.)

72. Do not serve salad on a freezing cold plate; it usually advertises the fact that it has not been freshly prepared.

73. Do not bring soup without a spoon. Few things are more frustrating than a bowl of hot soup with no spoon.

74. Let the guests know the restaurant is out of something before the guests read the menu and order the missing dish.

75. Do not ask if someone is finished when others are still eating that course.

76. Do not ask if a guest is finished the very second the guest is finished. Let guests digest, savor, reflect.

77. Do not disappear.

78. Do not ask, “Are you still working on that?” Dining is not work — until questions like this are asked.

79. When someone orders a drink “straight up,” determine if he wants it “neat” — right out of the bottle — or chilled. Up is up, but “straight up” is debatable.

80. Never insist that a guest settle up at the bar before sitting down; transfer the tab.

81. Know what the bar has in stock before each meal.

82. If you drip or spill something, clean it up, replace it, offer to pay for whatever damage you may have caused. Refrain from touching the wet spots on the guest.

83. Ask if your guest wants his coffee with dessert or after. Same with an after-dinner drink.

84. Do not refill a coffee cup compulsively. Ask if the guest desires a refill.

84(a). Do not let an empty coffee cup sit too long before asking if a refill is desired.

85. Never bring a check until someone asks for it. Then give it to the person who asked for it.

86. If a few people signal for the check, find a neutral place on the table to leave it.

87. Do not stop your excellent service after the check is presented or paid.

88. Do not ask if a guest needs change. Just bring the change.

89. Never patronize a guest who has a complaint or suggestion; listen, take it seriously, address it.

90. If someone is getting agitated or effusive on a cellphone, politely suggest he keep it down or move away from other guests.

91. If someone complains about the music, do something about it, without upsetting the ambiance. (The music is not for the staff — it’s for the customers.)

92. Never play a radio station with commercials or news or talking of any kind.

93. Do not play brass — no brassy Broadway songs, brass bands, marching bands, or big bands that feature brass, except a muted flugelhorn.

94. Do not play an entire CD of any artist. If someone doesn’t like Frightened Rabbit or Michael BublĂ©, you have just ruined a meal.

95. Never hover long enough to make people feel they are being watched or hurried, especially when they are figuring out the tip or signing for the check.

96. Do not say anything after a tip — be it good, bad, indifferent — except, “Thank you very much.”

97. If a guest goes gaga over a particular dish, get the recipe for him or her.

98. Do not wear too much makeup or jewelry. You know you have too much jewelry when it jingles and/or draws comments.

99. Do not show frustration. Your only mission is to serve. Be patient. It is not easy.

100. Guests, like servers, come in all packages. Show a “good table” your appreciation with a free glass of port, a plate of biscotti or something else management approves.

Bonus Track: As Bill Gates has said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” (Of course, Microsoft is one of the most litigious companies in history, so one can take Mr. Gates’s counsel with a grain of salt. Gray sea salt is a nice addition to any table.)