Friday, December 10, 2010

Review: The University Club

You know food is taken seriously in a country when even schools play host to excellent restaurants. When I was in university, a good dinner was when the dining hall hadn't burned the potatoes, but with The University Club, the students at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have no excuse for not impressing their dates on Valentine's Day.

Located in the gleaming Shaw Foundation Alumni House, on Kent Ridge Drive, the restaurant can be a little difficult to get to if you don't drive, although there is a fairly extensive bus network within NUS itself.

The University Club is run by the owners of the Prive Group, so it's not surprising that the restaurant looks fantastic: an expanse of wood panelling greets you as you step out of the elevators, and when you enter the restaurant proper you realise that it's really quite a large, spacious set up.

Cleverly, however, diners are ushered into a smaller, more intimate antechamber where a large window affords a great view of the kitchen, and floor to ceiling glass windows allow a generous amount of light to come through, brightening up the dining room and ensuring that the decor is shown off to its best advantage.

The complimentary amuse-bouche was a little cherry tomato that had been hollowed out and filled with some beef carpaccio. Not bad as an introduction, though the tomato understandably lacked sweetness and juiciness.

The soup course was unusual: I do not believe I've ever had a mushroom consomme before. This was made mainly with shiitake mushrooms, which I think was unfortunate, as it gave the dish a distinctly oriental flavour, almost as if it were a herbal chicken soup. Perhaps something more earthy and robust, like cremini or portabello mushrooms, would have been a better choice.

My main course was a seafood risotto, which is an unusual choice for me since I generally prefer meats, but I'm glad I ordered it - topped with a generous helping of mixed shellfish and molluscs, the dish succeeded because of the rich stock used to cook the risotto. It was like getting two dishes in one: a starchy, filling risotto, and a piquant, fragrant bisque.

The University Club also does a credible slice (more a slab, really) of roasted pork, with a generous amount of crackling. While it looked delicious, it might be too heavy for delicate feminine appetites.

Dessert was a flourless chocolate cake, which was decadent, but rather too rich (someone once told me that that's because eggs and butter replace whatever flour used to be in the cake, which, as Wikipedia explains, is not so different from molten chocolate cake). Replacing the coffee ice cream with something tart might have helped to balance it all out.

Overall, The University Club scores fairly well above average across almost all categories: food is interesting, though perhaps not yet truly exceptional; service is prompt, efficient and friendly; and prices are fairly reasonable. Perhaps it's not too late to be a student again.

The University Club
Shaw Foundation Alumni House, Level 4
11 Kent Ridge Drive
Tel: +65 6779 8919

Opening hours: Noon to 2.30pm, 6.30pm to 10.30pm (Mon to Sat)

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Review: Where to Eat in Singapore (2010 edition)

What's odd about this post is that I'm only writing it now, it really should have occured to me that with Singapore's tourism rate growing at 20% and the integrated resorts doing a brisk trade, it would only be a matter of time before I had friends planning end of year trips to Singapore and asking for food recommendations. One of the key attractions of Singapore, apart from the Universal Studios, the Zoo and Night Safari, the monolithic new gaming floors and the property market, must surely be the food. Food here is very varied, both in type and along the price range, so it really depends on what you are looking for.

The Hottest in Town: Andre, 53, Le Bistrot Sommelier

This category might be a bit irrelevant, as you can't exactly swan in without a reservation. In fact, if you're into hip and hot, then you'd better pick up the phone and book now because these places are solidly booked two weeks in advance. 53 is a clean-lined shophouse (think: wishbone chairs in oak) helmed by an unknown upstart Michael Han, a law-student-turned-Fat-Duck protege who markets a nice blend of molecular and substantive. Although I truly enjoyed my meals there, I have to say that lunch was better value than dinner, one does need to upsize the main portion (you pay $5 more) and he's barely changed the menu since the restaurant started.

Andre is the new 53, a schmancy hotelier-melded shophouse of rococo Paris and Danish naked glass lights to feature Andre Chiang (formally from Jaan)'s nouveau cuisine. His meals are marvellous but probably still best described by my mother as "a bit, a bob and lots of flair on the side", expect to pay up to $280 for dinner and $120 for lunch. Le Bistrot Sommelier is the rustic project of Patrick Heuberger, who left Au Petit Salut to start his own intepretation of a Parisian bistro. A little hot under the collar and a little too white in clientele but it's fully booked all-night on a Tuesday and every other night for that matter.

What these restaurants all have in common is that they are helmed by a cute chef, have gorgeous, or at least, authentic-to-some interiors and to be fair, have consistently good food. Why do people go there? Probably becuase they like eating with yuppies and they know they are in for a Really Good Meal. If you can't get in, you can pay more to try the brand names in the integrated resorts, or try Valentino's, a rustic residential area eatery opened by an Italian family of chefs, Osvaldo, a rustic banking area eatery opened by another Italian cooking family, Au Petit Salut, a beautiful house serving traditional European classics in a forested area of old barracks, The White Rabbit, a beautiful garrison church serving modern European classics in a forested area of old barracks, Bistro Soori, a beautiful shophouse serving modern European classics in old Chinatown, Bedrock, a beautiful steakhouse den boasting a mesquite grill and Imperial Treasure's Super Peking Duck, serves gorgeous thin-skinned Peking Duck, truffled egg white and sauteed Sharks Fin with clear consomme in the shopping district in town.

Good for the Soul: PS Cafe Dempsey, Candlenut Kitchen, Akashi

This category is for those who are here with family and don't want to blow a huge amount on food, just have a quality meal or an enjoyable ambience. I don't know a single local who hasn't gone to Candlenut Kitchen and loved it but given the Singaporean bias for imported chefs, this local eatery seems to be flying under the radar. Chef Malcolm won the Miele Guide scholarship for up and rising chefs and his rendition of Peranakan favourites is as clean and refined as they come. I think it's brilliant cooking and you get enormous returns on your dollar. A hearty meal here seldom stretches over $30 a person, save room too for their creative and delicious dessert.

Akashi is the cheap and cheerful Japanese eatery for all those who aren't having a serious sashimi craving and their quick turnaround and sake-d chefs assure you of a fresh and loud meal. Try the outlet at Orchard Parade Hotel for classic broad-brushed Japanese decor and excellent rolls and sets. If you are craving something more raw, go to Yoshida Sushi (but only sit at the bar) or Tetsuya's.

PS Cafe Dempsey, if I were being honest, would probably not be in here if we were just talking about food. There is little to choose from between House and PS Cafe in Dempsey, both are beautifully outfitted restaurants that are a hip treat for the eyes. When the food comes though, stick to staples like the good Caesar salad and gorgeous truffle fries. PS Cafe wins out for their backlit, tropical setting, nestled within the raintrees and their hunky, warm suite of desserts.

Rich, Full and On the Street: Tiong Bahru FC, Ghim Moh FC, Sammy's Curry, Ming Kee Live Seafood

Singapore food centers are our pride and joy, these are not air-conditioned food courts (which are sub-par because they are in the basement of shopping centers), rather, these are in the heartlands of Singapore, usually squared between a housing development board flat and a wet market. Stalls selling roast meats, laksa, chicken rice, ipoh hor fun noodles, satay, spicy otah fishcake, local desserts like the ice kachang and warm ginko nut soup, these institutions are always buzzing with local flavour and great, cheap meals. Where else can you feed a family for less than $15?

I've chosen the two, Tiong Bahru and Ghim Moh which are not quite so heartland and therefore a cheaper cab ride to get to, although personally, I do actually think they've got some of the best food. Be adventurous when you go and if you really aren't that adventurous, then the best food court is in the ION shopping center in Orchard Road, try the wonderful fishball noodles and fried hokkien mee but know that you're missing out on the Real Deal.

Sammy's Curry is also an institution and to be honest, I am not entirely sure it is the best. Most times that I've eaten there, my ears are ringing too loudly for me to tell that the taste is good but I'm told that it is, so who am I to argue? Personally I prefer the pay-what-you-will, volunteer-staffed Annalakshmi or the Chindian Copper Chimney but my family does love the fishhead curry at Sammy's.

There must be as many Live Seafood places in Singapore as there are...I don't know, government campaigns. Most, similarly, are well-publicised but may or may not be all they are cracked up to be (Jumbo or Long Beach Seafood at East Coast being an exception). If you have already done the East Coast trek or are looking for something less touristy, try Ming Kee Live Seafood at Macpherson Road. Apart from its very authentic atmosphere and toilets, it has excellent crab bee hoon with giant crab pinchers and other specialties like coffee-guiness roasted pork ribs and steamed neck clams and garoupa.

Best for a romantic meal:: Andre, Bistro Soori, Au Petit Salut, Le Bistrot Sommelier

Best for a meal with the family/mother-in-law: Candlenut Kitchen and Imperial Treasure Super Beijing Duck if your parents only eat Asian, PS Cafe Dempsey if you have kids but want to maintin your cool factor, Au Petit Salut if your mother-in-law is posh, Le Bistrot Sommelier if your mother-in-law is fun

Best for teatime or souvenir shopping: Black or Papa Pelheta's for coffee, Truffs for local chocolate, Chin Mee Chin for sugee cake, Killiney Kopitiam for local coffee and kaya toast, ETA Artisan Sweets for cupcakes and macarons, TWG and Prima Cafe for copycat historical tea and DIY Singapore food mixes.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Miscellaneous Food: New York 13

In this last month, it feels like I've been away to the moon and back. After weeks in New York, Paris, Beijing and Australia, I've finally slowly dealing with the build-up of jet lag. So now that I have nothing better to do than sit in bed, listen to my neighbours pad around upstairs, while eating corn pops and thinking about how I really should be going for a run, I'm instead running through the "I ate" list.

I thought about doing comprehensive write-ups about each place but you know, I hate bringing my camera to restaurants when I travel. Sometimes I just like to eat in peace, eat to recoup after a hard day's work, eat to be inspired, eat to enjoy the company of friends. There was a lot of that over the trips, so I feel very blessed.

I didn't have that many days in New York because the time was punctuated by short trips out of the city. We had also been there not a year ago, when we had a magnificent meal at 11 Madison Park (possibly my favourite in New York) and stopped in at City Bakery, Morimoto and Jean Gorges. So this time, I wanted to try places that we hadn't been to. Of course, on the first day, I broke my own rule, we went to brunch at Balthazar. Only because as I told myself, I was nostalgic for my old neighbourhood. We really should have tried our luck instead at Lombardi's in Little Italy, New York's most famed and mile-long busy pizzeria.

Balthazar was same-same, crowded-crowded, even on an off-peak hour, sourdough bread, eggs benedict, cuppuccino, like a post-flight shot to the heart. Filled to the brim with Birkin-toters and with the cafe noise reflecting off the mosiac and mirrored surfaces. The food at this Keith McNally institution is also really consistent, which is what has kept it in stylish business since 1997. We wandered down Spring Street and found this ridiculously good designer closeout and consignment store called Roundabout (two stores in Soho and the UES) for Blair Waldorf-type clothes. Shoppig at that store was possibly the best meal of the day.

We also walked into Kee's Chocolates, opened by Malaysian Kee Ling Tong when I last lived in NYC. Unfortunately, the place seems to have become a little run-down over this time, boasting a small cold box with a few sparse small pieces of truffles. The cocoa was fine-grained but light on taste, disappointing and not worth the extravagant $2.50 a piece.

This being Friday, we wandered over to the Union Square Farmers Market, which offers Hudson Valley duck, beautiful local-produce like short ribs and steaks, vegetables, honey, lavender and stalls upon stalls of fresh fruit, juices and hot cider. It was a lovely place to walk around and while away a happy hour. The market was surprisingly small, with more produce than cooked food, so afterward, we walked toward Chelsea and Mario Batali's new foodmarket, Eataly.

I'd read a New York Times article about how Eataly offers Italy by the pound and it was just that, exclusive, exquisitely presented and expensive. Eataly is actually a collection of a ambitiously-large, high-end grocery and small food counters serving up cheeses and Italian cold cuts and larger food stalls with dining areas for hot food.

The place has been opened only a few months and is packed to the brim, I think it's a unique proposition and despite the inflated prices, will continue to be popular and profitable, it has the buzz and je nai se quoi of consumer happiness. After stocking up on some lobster mushrooms, pear mustard jam and Ronnybrook chocolate milk, we continued uptown toward Madison Square Park for the always-hits-the-spot Shake Shack burger. Sitting in the sun and having one of these has to be a to-do stop in New York sightseeing.

Before our trip, I stalked the Momofuku sites and booked us dinner at Ko and Bo Saam. I went in with low expectations, having read that "David Chang is a chef made by an internet" and Z. is notoriously anti any food place that he deems too "pretentiously artistic". The Momofuku Ko experience was a knock-out, it transported me back to days when cooking was aspirational (which for me, is a big compliment). We sat on a single bar counter and watched the magic as the three chefs wove their way through about 10 dishes, each well-balanced, well-proportioned and just over the edge enough to be curious.

My favourite dish was an appetizer, lychee with a riesling gelee, topped with pork-floss-like shavings of foie gras torchon. Who knew all those tastes would go together? It was like a flavour explosion, the supple lychee, the slippery jelly and fluffy pile of savoury goodness. It was such an excellent experience that Z. and I were silent all the way through the eating but talked about the meal all night and all-trip.

Unfortunately, the experience was slightly marred by the surly service and dining environment. We were sandwiched between a bronzed, old Californian couple who kept up a stream of constant, basic questions and for whom every dish was pronounced "Jus Wunnerful!" and another group of truly obnoxious New York twenty-somethings whose selfish, literally screaming American laughter and conversation was interrupted only by their flashing phone camera photos of their respective housemate's "walks of shame". Between the two, I felt more poorly for the sweet grandparently couple, who were ignored and sometimes humiliated by the snarky, adolescently-monosyllabic replies of the chefs:

"What are these mushrooms, you said, in the soup?"
"Where are they from?"

and later "How is the lunch here different?"
"Its just Different"
"But what is different about it?"
"It's a totally different menu"
(sidenote: Lunch is 16 courses and can take up to 3 hours)

and still later when the chefs had started prepping dishes for the next day
"is that salt you're putting on the pork"
"exasperated look. if I put THIS much salt on, it would be, UNEDIBLE"
(he was dusting a flour coating before searing the pork ribs)

If there was one bad taste in your mouth after Ko, that would be it. Even so, I wholeheartedly recommend jumping through all their internet booking hoops to get seats if you're in NYC. It was very worth the trouble.

The following Monday, we wandered into the Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg (Jewish mysticism, ah, New York, you still surprise me) and the Baxter and Leibchen vintage Danish furniture warehouse in Jay Street while on our way to the old institution that is Peter Lugur's Steakhouse. Stepping across the old creaky floorboards in this 1887 brick-walled Bavarian beer hall, you get the feeling that this place is for Rudy Guliani-like mob bosses and grumpy German waiters, which is pretty much how it is.

The steak served is a USDA prime dry-aged porterhouse, with creamed spinach, thick murky sauce in a gravy bowl and fried potatoes. Of course, New York loves restaurants that specialise in one thing, so a decent-hour-dinner reservation has to made ages in advance. We'd come for lunch, a really heavy, sleep-inducing lunch. We had fried bacon (really thick-cut ham), which was excellent and beef was very good, thick yet flavourful, crispy on the outside and moist, pink and juicy on the inside. Was it the best steak I'd ever had- well, maybe not, it was a little too rough for me but Z. felt it was the best, particularly for flavour.

In a case of bad timing, we were booked that same night for Ssam Bar, which is Chang's Korean-inspired 8 to 12 people share one pork butt made into lettuce wraps eatery. Again, I didn't have huge expectations and we had a group of just 5 people. There's not much point blogging photos of the famously huge pork butt because it's been done to death (here) but suffice to say, the pork was juicy, deep and oily-savoury sweet, paired with the cold oysters, sticky rice and soft lettuce, it was quite gorgeous and definitely something to try at home cum Christmas. Please don't go with less than 8 people, as we discovered, that only leads to wasted food and I was sad we couldn't try any of the yummy sounding side dishes, like soft shell crab, cold tofu and uni.

For me, the Ssam Bar menu was a bit like Solociccio in Panzano, unabashedly overdosing on meat but David Chang's restaurants in general were all very on-trend and honestly, very clever. Pork butt for example, is a premium pork cut but its a relatively cheap meat, Bo Ssam, as a dish, is widely available and known (there's even a Martha Stewart recipe for it, though I suspect that was more in response) but it took his concept restaurants to popularise the idea and to package it in this formula that draws in big groups and lots of high-margin boozing through pre-sold internet reservations. Compare the $17 you would pay for a 10 pound pork shoulder, to the $200 that he charges and you'll quickly realize that David Chang is a brilliant businessman and chef, hugely deserving of his burgeouning food empire.

After dinner, we went next door to the Milk Bar, I had heard lots of good things about the ice creams, cookies (but then it's quite common to hear raving about dessert) but most of all the Crack Pie, so named for its addictive, brown sugar and creamed egg filling. We bought one and ate it the next morning on the way to the airport, it really was deliciously salty and sweet. In case you want to make some Momofuku magic yourself, Bo Ssam is a great party dish, here is a perfect example of some restaurant-turned-home-cooking from the Sydney food bloggers picnic. In fact, there are so many devotees to David Chang's Momofuku franchise that I found many blogs that have done the Julia Julie here and here for the crack pie recipe.

On our remaining day, we walked to H&H Bagels at their Midtown location for a steaming hot lox and smoked salmon poppy seed-sesame bagel and the uptown Cafe Boulud for lunch. I had debated Boulud, Boulud Bakery and finally we just decided on the very good value seasonal set lunch at Cafe Boulud, priced at $35 for 3 courses ($28 for 2). We had a simple clear mushroom, barley and root vegetable consomme, a seared seabass (although their duck confit looked excellent) and porcini mushroom risotto.

The cooking at Cafe Boulud is flawless, even good value (I later read that the chef is a James Beard Rising Star award winner) and the other dishes that I saw on the menu, like the braised beef cheeks, braised short ribs, roasted fig with cheesecake cream and port reduction, warm apple brioche with cinnamon anglais and salted caramel ice cream sounded like our meal tasted, heavy and chock-full of French goodness.

If there is one criticism, it's that the menu and the plates were not particularly creative and the environment was a bit stifling, rather like a business lounge with dark oak brown light shades and carpeting. The clientele was white and well-heeled but all seemed to be there for the very reasonable prix fixe and many new each other, with lots of none-too-discreet back-slapping going on. Still, I was impressed with the level of food and the friendly initiative of the waitstaff. If we had more time in NYC, I would have preferred to go to Boulud itself, or Boulud Bakery. Still, compared to what DB Moderne is going to cost in the casino in Singapore, I guess it was good to eat on the Boulud franchise for just $35.

For dinner, we stayed on the UES (which was near where we were staying) and went to Sushi of Gari. This little sushi place is a tiny bar and appendix set-up and has a very comprehensive menu. The appetizers like the hijiki salad and ankimo (monkfish liver) were well-done and the mains were fairly well-sized. They are particularly known for their creative sushi pairings and toppings but the sushi slices are not that generous. Still, after a week without Asian food, it really hit the spot and it is well-known, although I was told we would have been better of at Sushi Yasuda.

On our last day, we decided to go to the High Line entrance on West 18th in Chelsea, this is a 1.45-mile (2.33 km) New York City park built on a section of the former elevated freight railroad spur called the West Side Line, which runs from West 12th-20th, and which has been redesigned and planted as an aerial greenway. On our way there, we walked past a sidewalk cafe and saw the loveliest brunch plates with mounds of crispy bacon. So after we were done walking, we hightailed back to Westville, Chelsea.

This cafe is the bomb, they advertise themselves as simple, high-quality ingredients in fresh, eclectic American cuisine and I was impressed by the freshness and unpretentiousness of the decor and food. The cafe was dominated by a high blondewood bar and tables, transparent hung lighting and heavy glassware.

We ordered a scrambled eggs with crispy bacon, fried tomatoes and portugese muffin, with a second dish of asparagus with parmesan reggiano and a poached egg, washed down with a frothy-smooth cuppucino. The dishes were served with a side of salad and crispy, floured-and-fried fries that were an incredible taste revelation. I wished we could have had the meal space for their battered codfish and the char-grilled Newport steak and if you're in town, I'd definitely recommend a post-flight pick-me-up at this charming place.

80 Spring Street
New York, NY 10012
(212) 965-1785

32 Spring Street
New York, NY 10012-4173
(212) 941-7994

Kee's Chocolates
80 Thompson St
New York, 10012
(212) 334-3284

200 5th Ave
New York, NY 10010
(646) 398-5100

Shake Shack (multiple locations)
Southeast corner of Madison Square Park,
near Madison Ave. and East 23rd St.
Phone: 212.889.6600

Momofuku Ko
163 1st Avenue @ E.10th Street
(212) 500-0831

Momofuku Ssam Bar
207 2nd Avenue @ E. 13th Street
New York, NY 10003
(212) 254-3500

Peter Lugur Steakhouse
178 Broadway
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 387-7400

H&H Midtown Bagels
1551 2nd Avenue @ E. 80th Street
New York, NY 10028-3902
(212) 734-7441

Cafe Boulud
20 East 76th Street @ Madison Ave
New York, NY 10021
(212) 772-2600

Sushi of Gari (multiple locations)
402 East 78th Street @ 1st Ave
(212) 517-5340

Westville Chelsea
246 W 18th St @ 8th Ave
New York, NY 10011
(212) 924-2223

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Review: Jade

Disclaimer: This meal was generously sponsored, but the content of the following review is entirely my own.

Despite the Fullerton Hotel being one of my favourite hotels, I must confess that I have very rarely dined there, and so I was thrilled to have been invited to a special Peking duck food tasting at Jade, a classy Chinese restaurant located on the second floor of the hotel, and one of the 10 restaurants featured in TimeOut's inaugural Dine Out Tasting Event.

As it was a Sunday night, we had the restaurant virtually to ourselves, and we were able to drink in the beautiful setting: the delicately restored finishings of what used to be the old colonial Post Office; the carefully embroidered, virgin white tablecloth; and the tasteful use of verdant bamboo shoots all contributed to serene surroundings. It felt as if I was having dinner on the opulent set of the movie The Banquet.

Our meal commenced with an amuse-bouche of chicken mousse, which was a small pyramid of chicken pate that had been slightly browned, served atop a slice of celery, which had been blanched and refreshed to preserve its emerald green hue. The celery was therefore fresh and crunchy, with the unmistakable tang providing a good counterfoil to the rich chicken mousse.

Our first course was a roasted Peking duck with marinated orange peel, hoisin sauce and cucumber wrapped in a Chinese pancake. Clearly an attempt to combine both such Oriental and Occidental classics as Peking duck and canard a l'orange in one dish, I felt this was let down by the dryness of the Chinese pancake, which tasted floury and chalky, rather than the smooth and elegant wrapping Peking duck is famous for. The zestiness of the orange, however, was an interesting tough, which worked better than I thought it would, cutting through the sweetness of the hoisin sauce and giving the dish an added complexity.

The next course was a luxurious silky chawanmushi with diced duck meat, wild mushrooms and black truffle slices. Sadly, Chinese truffles were used, so there wasn't the same sort of aromatic pungency, but the chawanmushi was excellent. It is always a great pleasure to eat a chawanmushi so smooth it feels like you're drinking a liquid rather than eating a solid, especially when it's flavoured with a rich, tasty duck stock and packed with cubes of wild mushrooms.

Our soup course was a duck bone consomme with duck meat dumplings, lemongrass, chilli, coriander and fresh porcini mushrooms. I was very impressed that Jade uses fresh porcini mushrooms, as these are extremely difficult to find in this part of the world. The consomme would have been better, I think, if the chef had not attempted to inject a Thai influence - drinking a spicy soup that was reminiscent of tom yam was somewhat disconcerting in a Chinese restaurant, and I didn't think the combination was successful. Nonetheless, the dumplings were exceptionally good, for they were full of meat, and the skin was so delicate and supple that it was a wonder they didn't simply disintegrate in the soup.

An intermezzo followed, in the form of a black sesame lemon sorbet. Clearly, the kitchen in Jade enjoys using exotic or unusual ingredients in surprising combinations, for this is one of the very few occasions I have seen sweet granadilla used as an ingredient. The fruit, which is closely related to the passionfruit, resembles frogspawn, but is mellow and sweet (though less so than passionfruit), and a little crunchy. The sweetness complimented the earthy nuttiness of the black sesame very well, while the hint of lemon, and the icy coolness of the sorbet, did much to cleanse the palate, in preparation for the next dish.

Sauteed Peking duck with pan-seared foie gras, roasted garlic and green asparagus was artfully cooked and presented, with a crispy, inverted basket adorning the dish. Pairing duck with foie gras is perhaps a bit rich, but I suppose that is not really a relevant consideration when eating a six course dinner.

I was by this time rather full, but managed to find some space for the pineapple fried rice with diced duck meat, crab meat and nyonya chilli served in a crispy money bag. Here again, I felt that the creativity of the chefs had not been put to its best use: the strong taste of the nyonya chilli was not appropriate for the fried rice, which was otherwise extremely appetising, for crabmeat had been supplied in abundance, and the sweet fragrance of the pineapple had permeated the rice grains.

Dessert did not, unsurprisingly, feature any more duck. Instead, we were treated to a bowl of shaved coconut ice with fresh strawberries and mango cream. I always enjoy the heady scent of coconut, and when it is made into cream (or better yet, ice cream) without losing any of its allure that is even more remarkable. The strawberries were a little too tart for my tastes, but the mango sauce was satisfyingly sweet.

Overall, Jade's Peking Duck menu was not perfect, but at $58 per person, it is very reasonable for the generous amount of food you get, and one can't help but admire the chef's attempts to reinterpret some classic dishes. If duck is not your thing, Jade also offers a host of other set menus, with prices ranging from $48 to $98 per person, as well as a la carte dishes that are fairly affordably priced.

Fullerton Hotel
1 Fullerton Square
Tel: +65 6877 8188

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Review: Seven on Club

Editorial note: This review was requested by TimeOutSingapore. We were not paid for this review but we did not pay for the meal.

We arrived at Seven on Club Street on a weekday night and were one of the only tables at this cozy eatery. Club Street in the last few years, has become occupied by random furniture, bridal and eateries, from high end flower stores to seedy golf simulators and unfortunately, has lost quite a bit of its crowd and cache.

Seven on Club Street markets itself as Modern European and indeed, the food runs pretty conservative to the core, like the fake flowers in little black vases on each table. The decor of the place pairs heavy wooden beams with bright yellow decals and the place is helmed by Chef Jason Lee.

The first course was his take on the caesar wrap ($16), with a parmesan crepe rolled over a mix of lettuce, tomatoes and chicken. This was my least favourite dish, as there was too much oil, leaving my lips oily after eating. The tomatoes were local, light-coloured, grainy and watery.

We started dinner at 8.15pm and waited till 8.40pm for the first course but thankfully, the pace of the meal picked up as we went along, with the mushroom cuppuccino of porcini and wild mushroom ($8), arriving at 8.50pm. This was slight contradiction, as the cuppuccino, rather than being light and frothy, was a dense, solid puree of mushroom and bay leaf. It was small and thick and a tad salty.

The angel hair pasta of garlic prawns cooked in spicy sundried tomato pesto ($26) and was rich, hot and spicy. Although it was well-cooked, the pasta and garlic was overwhelming and again, left a thick, oily residue on the plate. I would have preferred the pairing of a hot pasta with heaped topping of cold, sweet ebi prawns to really bring out the contrast.

The main courses were really the star of the meal, at 9.15pm, we were served the basil crusted chilean seabass ($32) and the grilled tender and juicy beef loin fillet ($28). When I found out that Chef Jason used to cook at Chijmes, at Capella and the Upper Room, it did not surprise me. His main courses and even the presentation, were bright, big and strong flavours, the sort that would stand out in a show theatre or a darkened dancefloor dining room. At times, I felt that the flavous were too obvious, for example, I would have liked the basil crusted Chilean seabass with a blander and lighter sauce like a frothy-sweet carrot reduction, rather than laced with saffron sauce, tomato and parsley oil and balsamico reduction. However, the crispy tastiness of his seabass and tenderness of the beef loin were really good and the composition of the plating was very pretty indeed, almost theatrical, with the creation of a saddle on the loin with two peeled asparagus.

The dessert of piping hot individual Valrhona chocolate fondue ($14) was the passe epitome of Modern European but I did see on the regular menu, some more unique choices like coconut pudding and lychee panna cotta which I wish we could have tried. The chocolate fondue is Chef Jason's signature and to be fair, it was a lovely dish, warm, runny and rich on the inside.

Overall, I found the food well-prepared but not particularly imaginative, although there were mains on the menu like pork loin and duck breast. The menu is fairly small and concrete and not very good value for the pricing but the restaurant does boast a very attractive $28 set lunch. The service for the night may have been overwhelmed by our presence but that goes no way toward explaining the unsmiling, awful service- I've gotten more smiles from old granny stewardesses on British Airways. They were more sulky than stoic, didn't ask what doneness we wanted the meat, didn't top up the bread and of course, didn't refill the waterglasses.

Seven on Club
7 Club Street
Tel: +65 6327 9663
Closed on Sundays

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review: Procacci

Disclaimer: A family acquaintance owns a part share in this restaurant, and was aware of our visit. I do not regard this as in any way compromising the honesty or objectivity of the following review, but you are welcome to form your own conclusions.

Regular readers will know that I had, not too long ago, visited Customs House along the Marina Bay waterfront, and extolled the virtues of the marvellous view one is afforded with during the day. Even more recently, I dined at the same area at night, and the view is no less enchanting. People are always asking me for recommendations of places to take their significant others on "special occasions", and there are few better places than the bay area, where you catch a concert or theatre performance before making your way over to the Fullerton district for a sumptuous dinner with a bountiful view.

Customs House currently has a handful of restaurants, serving all manner of things from an oyster buffet to Cuban cuisine, but for the time being we were sticking with something safe: comforting and familiar Italian food at Procacci, which was originally (and still is) one of Florence's oldest gourmet shops specialising in truffle based products. The Procacci in Customs House, however, is a full-fledged Italian restaurant, started by a group of wine connoisseurs keen on importing the Procacci concept into Singapore.

The interior of the restaurant boasts sensuality: light-coloured parquet flooring contrasts sharply against a striking, jet-black bar counter and dark mahogany tables. Thankfully, the restaurant did not subscribe to the popular habit of dimming the lights to create atmosphere - that might be good for whispering sweet nothings, but is terrible for photography.

I generally do not expect much from new restaurants, but we all agreed that dinner that evening was rather exceptional, starting with the calamari, which is more often than not badly done. Procacci, however, got it exactly right: the squid was fresh, tender and succulent, while the batter was light, and fairly crisp (which is no easy feat in our humid weather). Unsurprisingly, the calamari was consumed rather rapidly.

Next, we tried the mozzarella cheese, which was served in medallions that had had basil oil drizzled over them, and with thinly-shaved prosciutto ham. The ham, as you can see, is beautiful: glistening with a good quantity of fat that makes your mouth water just to look at it. The cheese was perhaps a little on the dry side, and the combination of ham and cheese, although classic in other contexts, is a bit too rich when it is just the creamy mozzarella and the oleaginous prosciutto.

The salumi dish was a colourful medley of salami, pepperoni, mortadella, and other cured meats, mixed with various grilled vegetables, a few olives, and some sticks of hard cheese. Simple, cheerful and tasty - why can't all food be like this?

The final dish in our spread of appetisers was a vitello tonnato, or thinly sliced veal with a creamy tuna and caper sauce. In Procacci's case, I believe they use beef rather than veal, which is somewhat more humane. Again, I was fairly impressed with this: the restaurant managed to strike the right balance with the sauce, which was piquant without being overpoweringly salty or spicy.

Moving on to main courses, although most of us were too full or unadventurous to order a main course (that was not a pasta), one member of our group took the plunge and settled upon the lamb chops, which came served with some white shimeji mushrooms, and were an excellent choice for a number of reasons. First, they had a sizeable amount of meat on them, and hardly any unappetising gristle or sinew; second, they were deftly cooked to a blushing rose; and third, they were robust and juicy without carrying an overly strong gamey scent. Easily one of the better lamb chops I've tasted in an Italian restaurant.

I ordered a porcini mushroom risotto, and was also quite pleased with my meal, as the rice was cooked al dente, as you can see: the grains melding comfortably into the rich, buttery sauce, and so nearly into each other, but retaining just enough of their individuality to be distinguished. The porcini mushrooms were fresh and meaty, while diced onions added a hint of delectable sweetness to the broth.

I did not try either the prawn capellini or the crab penne, but, as I did not hear any complaints from anyone who did, I assume that they both went down quite well.

Again, we went slightly overboard with desserts and ordered a smorgasboard, beginning with the tiramisu, which I always find is a bit difficult to be objective about, because it's one of those things no one can agree on: some people like the sponge fingers swimming in coffee or alcohol; some people believe that there should be no alcohol, while others think there should be nothing but. Personally, I like my tiramisus a bit on the dry side: the biscuit base should not expel fluid when I bite into it, and the mascarpone/zabaglione should be stiff rather than mushy. Procacci's tiramisu satisfied my requirements, and while a bit low on the alcohol content, it was packed with caffeine, so it really would be churlish to complain.

I cannot remember the exact name of this dessert, as it was in Italian, but it was described (not inaccurately) as a millefeuille. A picture is worth a thousand words, however, and this really was a gorgeously-presented dessert. The puff pastry had risen to magnificent heights, and the light dusting of icing sugar on top was reminiscent of a light snowfall, while the strawberries were a full-blooded, crimson hue.

The profiteroles are filled with chantilly cream rather than vanilla ice cream, and are slathered with a dark chocolate sauce before being sprinkled liberally with almond flakes.

A similar abundance of almonds is to be found on the chocolate tart, which is a shame, as I hate almond flakes, but otherwise the chocolate tart was quite outstanding, as the tart filling was dense, dark, rich and intense, while the crust was savoury and crumbly. Accompanying the tart is a small bowl of citrus fruits, which I assume is to aid in cutting through the richness of the chocolate, though I think that is the point of dessert - no one serves ice cream with a slice of lemon, after all.

In any event, a similar bowl accompanied the panna cotta, which was very good. Wobbly, creamy and flecked through with vanilla beans, the panna cotta here is among one of the better ones I've had, which is saying quite a lot, considering my fairly high standards here.

If it's not already clear, I was impressed with Procacci. Italian food is frightfully common in Singapore, and often it ranges from uninspiring to downright awful. The food at Procacci, thankfully, is of a fairly high quality, and while prices cannot be said to be a bargain, neither are they exorbitant - they are on par with higher-end Italian eateries like Garibaldi or Oso - and for what you get, I think it's worth the money. Perhaps, even, the place to splurge for a "special occasion".

70 Collyer Quay
#01-04 Customs House
Tel: +65 6532 9939

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Recipe: Darjeeling Tea Tart

A few months ago, I had a very surreal experience. At the house of a family friend(the house belongs to a Queen Mother, so let's call her royal highness Princess Ice) I tried a Darjeeling Tea Tart, leftover from a dinner cooked by a scion-turned-private-chef. Let's call him Chef Princeling. This tart was dreamy in its soft suppleness yet perfectly balanced with a great wallop of flavour. The tart dough was crispy, yet crusty and savoury. In short, it was a remarkable tart.

So I immediately began to back-engineer it. From the edges of the tart, which showed minute signs of defrosting and curdling, I felt that the filling had to be some sort of cooled custard, probably an emulsified cream, like in Pierre Herme's Lemon Cream, found in Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home To Yours.

When I asked after Chef Princeling, the haughty Princess sniffed that the tarts cost more than $50 to make each because he used very expensive tea dust, branded at more than $40 for just a few grams. Stung by the ridicule of this insinuation (I can be a food purist, no doubt but I paticularly detest price-related food snobbery) and with just a name and an incomplete analysis to build a dream on, I turned to the All-Mighty Facebook, where princes apparently reside because I found Chef Princeling. Who, being the princely sort that he is, offered the recipe, a tart-making demonstration and an invitation to a ball. A ball where they would roast a whole Babi Guling and ten thousand fowls beside.

The funny thing is, when I picked up the recipe, I laughed outloud to see that it was straight out of Dorie Greenspan's Paris Sweets. And, alright, in the name of full disclosure, I was a little disappointed that the recipe wasn't a unique one born of his own sweat and tears (what can I say, Karen aka MadBaker's culinary tenacity has spoilt me) but still, a prince who researches from Dorie Greenspan and holds royal feasts, is admittedly charming. Somehow, in the midst of all Dorie's fancier recipes, this cookbook gem had been passed over. I could barely find any reference to it online and only belated discovered that there is actually such a tart on sale at Fauchon (and I didn't get to taste it while in Paris).

I wound up passing on Chef Princeling's baking demonstration, as his kaleidescopic timing proved too much for my macaron schedule, so that left just dinner at the castle. While that wasn't Ibu Oka, there were almost ten thousand crowded bodies beside, as I found out there was more to the private chef gig than met the eye.

Having spent too much time swanning about in the la-la land of privledged excess, I decided that, much like Drew Barrymore's new-age Cinderella, I was going to roll up my own sleeves and clock in some kitchen experimenting of my own to discover the secrets of this recipe. Armed with my loyal troupe of guinea-pig mice friends who ate their way through 8 tarts of varying thickness and texture, I now present a very tried-and-tested recipe for a Darjeeling Tart that is truly, the stuff that fairytales are made from.

Sweet Tart Dough
290grams unsalted butter, prefably French
1 1/2 cups or 150g powdered sugar
1/2 cup ground roasted almonds or roasted hazlenuts
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp vanilla essence
3 1/2 cups or 400g all-purpose flour

(1) Beat the butter in an eggbeater until creamy and softened, add the sugar and mix till combined
(2) Add the eggs, vanilla essence and ground nuts
(3) With the beater on a slow tempo, add the flour and stop the mixer as soon as the dough begins to clump together. Do not overwork the dough.
(4) Divide the dough into 4 lumps, wrap with clingfilm and refrigerate overnight. Let it thaw for 20 minutes before using. If more than 3 days old, store in freezer.

This recipe is fairly complex but not difficult to execute. The tart base is so good because it has a high proportion of butter, which, as she says in her book, makes the dough soft and hard to work with. When I make this dough, I tend to add 1/2 - 1 more cup of plain flour than is called for in the recipe, which makes it easier to handle but not as melt-in-your-mouthfeel. If you do not add the extra flour, you will notice that the dough is almost literally butter.

The addition of ground nuts to the dough subtlely alters the taste and gives a bit more bite to the tart base. Dorie suggests using ground hazlenuts, as they do in Fauchon, rather than ground almonds. I recycle the ground nuts that were too large to pass through macaron sieves, so I use a mix of 1/2 almonds and hazlenuts but from my experience, a larger proportion of hazlenuts tastes noticeably better.

Not working the dough overly keeps it suppleness and keeping the dough refrigerated overnight is very important for drying out the dough to develop a good crust and it can also be frozen for future use. This recipe makes enough dough for 3 9-inch tart pans and frozen tart dough (that you've forgotten about) when you need a quick dessert? A Godsend.

If you aren't the sort that likes to fiddle with beans and pie weights, refrigerate the dough pressed into the tart pan and transfer it, still cold, into the oven. That way, the tart will keep its shape better and stay relatively flat. If it does start to rise, throw a sheet of parchment over the and a tea towel into the tart center to weigh it down.

Darjeeling Tea Tart filling
1 1/2 cup of neutral water, like Volvic
2 1/2 Tbsp or 15g of premium-quality Darjeeling loose-leaf tea
3/4 cup sugar
4 eggs, beaten
1 tsp powdered gelatin
225g unsalted butter (prefably French), cut into 8 pieces
Prepare a tart base, bake and cool thouroughly

1) Boil the water and steep the tea for 5 minutes (I steep it for at least 20 minutes)
2) In a metal bowl, mix the eggs, sugar and 3/4 cup of tea together. Set this bowl over a saucepan of boiling water on the stove. With the heat on, stir the custard ingredients together until it starts to thicken. Stop when your whisks leaves tracks in the custard and the texture becomes like a smooth porridge, should take about 10-15 minutes depending on the heat. Whisk frequently, scraping down the sides and bottem of the bowl, so that the custard cooks evenly without scrambling.
3) When thickened, remove the bowl from heat and refrigerate until the mixture is completely cooled.
4) Sprinkle the gelatin powder on 1/4 cup of the remaining tea. Microwave for 15 seconds to dissolve the gelatin. Pour into the custard while the custard is still warm and whisk to mix.
5) After the custard has cooled completely, pour it into a blender and with the blender going, add the pieces of butter, which will thicken the mixture. Keep the blender on till the filling is completely mixed and thickened.
6) Pour into the cooled tart base and refrigerate for at least 3-4 hours before serving.

The Darjeeling tea filling is really a creative genius spin that brings out the best chemical properties of eggs and butter, it sounds nifty but if you follow the steps closely, you should get a result that really bedazzles the senses. Like most french dessert recipes though, a small misstep and you'll wind up with an abject failure. Trust me, I've tried more times than I care to remember.

The first part is that the tea steeped has to be as strong as possible. You need about 3/4cup of strong tea for this recipe and I've discovered that you lose about 1/2 cup of water in the brewing process, so when I usually start with 1 1/2 cups and wind up with 1 cup of strong tea. This tea is made into a custurd and then a cream, so the tea taste can become quite milky and diluted. Bearing that in mind, I use about 4 Tbsp of loose-leaf tea, instead of the prescribed amount in the recipe and I actually think that if you increase the amount of tea even further, it would improve the taste of the eventual tart.

I was told by Chef Prince that using tea dust, instead of tea leaves, would help the taste to infuse better. I suspect that if you grind your tea leaves before infusing, or boil the tea leaves with the water, this might help to get a stronger tea. I also tried blending the tea and tea leaves after steeping (marginally more effective).

I don't actually like Darjeeling Tea, I find it astringently tannic and musky but when I first came to this recipe, I dug around in the recesses of my pantry and by happy coincidence, found a can of Mariage Freres Darjeeling Princeton loose-leaf tea that I had been gifted with. This was a rather pricey tea to begin experimenting with but it did make a kick-arse tea flavour. Later on, sceptical of Princess Ice's "$40 for a few grams of tea dust" judgementalism (and rightly so, since tea dust is the reject of the gourmet tea manufacturing process- the smaller the particle, the lower the quality and price), I experimented with regular tea bags. These were not exactly economical, as I had to use 12 tea bags at a go and even then, the tea was watery, weak and milkier in taste.

While in Paris, I picked up a big can of Twinings loose leaf Grand Himalayan Darjeeling tea. At $7 euro for 200g (as opposed to Mariage Freres at $12 euro for 100g), I made two exact tarts, one of which was the Mariage Freres and the other which was 1/4th the price. The difference was visible from steeping, the more expensive tea was a lighter brown shade, with a rich crema on the surface. However, in a blind taste test of the two eventual tarts, most of the 8 testers said there wasn't an appreciable difference, although all 8 were able to identify the more expensive tea and the most cited reason was that the Mariage Freres tart had the kick and aftertaste of a "second, floral aroma".

When making the custard over a bain-marie, make sure to use a metal bowl, the first time I used a glass bowl and we were whisking forever. I've found that a Kitchen Aid metal mixer bowl has a narrow base that could be easily submerged and it's thick handle doesn't transmit the heat, enabling me to hold the bowl while whisking. It also went conveniently from bain-marie to freezer, where the metal surface enabled the custard to cool quickly.

I make my gelatin mix with the leftover tea, rather than using water as in the original recipe (gelatin does not melt as easily in tea but it doesn't really make a difference, as long as the powder dissipates completely). You must add in the gelatin mix while the custard is still hot, to give the gelatin a chance to mix evenly but must cool the custard throughly before proceeding to the next step of blending in the butter.

If you try to emulsify the custard when it is still warm, the butter will simply melt and the mixture, rather than thickening, will grow even more liquid. The texture of the tart should be firm but airy-light and velveteen, not gelatinously hard but definitely not soupy.

If you emulsify the butter correctly and at a cold temperature, you should need no more than the 1 tsp of gelatin set out here. If the mixture is not cold when you blend in the butter, then you will likely find that you wind up with a filling that doesn't set, or need 2 tsp at least of gelatin to help it set. Of course, if you are trying to cut down the butter content, then you are best advised to increase the gelatin amount but it's really the butter that gives the gorgeous lightness to the tart filling.

The emulsified tea cream tastes superbly of tea and upon hardening in the fridge, can be used as a filling for macarons. I suspect, given who pioneered this method, that this might be the way that Pierre Herme makes the filling for his jasmin tea macarons. I've also tried this same method for a Earl Grey tea tart, it can be done but did not taste as good, the taste was not as characteristically tea-like and was somehow heavier, more flat and bitter.

In her recipe, Dorie Greenspan gives an additional recipe for buttery hazlenut strudel which she strews on top of the tart. This seemed gratitously fattening and it would muck up the beautiful smooth glossy surface of the tart, so I omit it but it's also because I'm not a crust person. If you are, you might like to make the streudel and you can find the recipe in her book.

Review: Pontini

From one Italian hotel restaurant to another, I was recently treated to a meal at Pontini, the flagship restaurant of the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel, by my generous cousins W and K, as it was my birthday and they had not seen me in a while.

The restaurant is quite a lovely, spacious affair, with fairly magnificent views across the Singapore river, and a live pianist to boot. Parking is also a breeze, and the restaurant is generous in its dispensations of complimentary parking tickets. You shouldn't have too much difficulty reaching the restaurant after work, especially if you work in the Central Business District, though you might bump into the rabid Zouk crowd if you linger too long over dinner.

Pontini also has a dedicated pizza oven, which is gas-fired, but they compensate by burning a few sticks of wood in the oven, which makes a big difference to the taste of their pizzas, as they emerge with a wonderful smokey aroma.

I was a bit dismayed however, when, as we placed our order for a pizza with parma ham and arugula, the restaurant told us that they had run out of arugula leaves. The only thing worse than an Italian restaurant with no arugula is a French restaurant with no butter, but thankfully the damage was mitigated when the restaurant suggested replacing the arugula on the pizza with mixed salad leaves. Not a perfect solution, but better than having no pizza at all, I suppose. Apart from that, the pizza was delectable, boasting a remarkably thin crust which was crispy, and not too moist.

Pontini's pastas are not very large affairs, which is a good thing for those of us with small appetites induced by a persistent influenza bug. The vongole I thought a bit too salty, but the other pasta dishes looked pretty good.

Moving on to desserts, the molten chocolate cake is warm and oozing with melted chocolate, but not so rich and viscous that you feel ill after eating it, which is sometimes the case with cakes that are too dense and dark.

The panna cotta, however, is rather bizarre: it comes as two hemispheres of firm (perhaps too firm) cream, surrounded with dehydrated wild strawberries and watermelon sorbet. Although red on white is a natural colour contrast, the texture of the dehydrated fruits was not complementary - they felt somewhat leathery and worn out - and the pairing of watermelon with cream is not a natural flavour combination.

Thankfully, the meal ended on a high note, as the tiramisu was both delectable and inventive. The cream was pillowy, and not rigid, while the sponge fingers moist, but not soggy. Creatively, instead of soaking the sponge fingers in coffee, and allowing that to percolate through the cream, cubes of espresso jelly were added instead, which ensured that the tiramisu retained the requisite caffeinated kick, but without upsetting the overall moisture content.

What distinguishes Pontini from other Italian-themed hotel restaurants like Basilico or Prego? For one thing, the pizzas at Pontini are outstandingly thin, and that crusty smokiness will be sure to make your mouth water. In addition, because Pontini does not, unlike Prego, attempt to cater to enormous crowds, you will find the ambience here pleasant and soothing, and the waitstaff are, by and large, not harried or frazzled. Even if the rest of the food is not always consistent, these qualities alone would make Pontini worthy of serious consideration if you are looking for a slightly more upmarket lunch venue, or a romantic dinner spot.

Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel, Level 2
392 Havelock Rd
Tel: +65 6233 1133