Sunday, July 17, 2011

Miscellaneous Food: Chocolate Figs and Cocoa Nibs

Guess what I did this weekend? Okay, no prizes. I was very fortunate to have two gifts, one of some chocolate ganache and the other, the company of my friend C. for a day of baking. When I reflect on the activities that I've had around blogging and food, one of the most rewarding must definitely be the friends that I've made in the process, people who not just share similar interests but who have brought so much laughter and friendship into my life.

When I say a day of baking, I really mean that it was mammoth. Ambition, much like smoking and obesity, must be catching, for we encouraged and encouraged each other over the week to make not one, but three desserts.

To keep things simple, we made only chocolate shells because I had been generously gifted some chocolate ganache from E. my always-effeversent chocolatier friend. He runs what is in my opinion, the best and most stylish chocolate store in Singapore, so I am really grateful for some of his produce to improve my macarons.

I also wanted to use up two products that I had bought in my travels (I am always doing this, accumulating a pantry full of weird and wondrous ingredients that I afterward struggle to use up).

These were cocoa nibs and chocolate covered dried figs from Australia, which we sliced up and buried in the ganache. I still have some other interesting ingredients up my sleeve, ie. in my pantry, like chocolate covered coffee beans.

The macarons were the easiest part of what we made this weekend and were piped and dried rather quickly. We moved on to making something really exciting, a delicious chocolate and chestnut mont blanc, which I'll show you next.

But first, more gratituous pictures of the products. Gotta love these Wilton trays, they look so professional and stack neatly into one another, so they are a cinch to store in bulk as well. A friend asked me what the allure of macarons is and for me, it's consistency, a drive to produce blindingly exact rounds, each more similar in that marvellous light, airy texture, dense flavourful filling and perfect compact shape than the next.

I was really pleased with how these turned out, high feet, rich ganache and a little surprise in the middle. Next, I'm thinking of sanwiching the ganache with a square of fluffy, home-made vanilla bean marshmellow or perhaps a strawberry marshmellow. I wish I wasn't so busy with work, I dream about making up a roster of flavours and selling these online!

This is a picture of what I did with them afterward. Made up gift boxes that I packed with the intense passionfruit cupcakes, mont blancs and a tube-sleeve of chocolate macarons.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Review: Novus

Disclaimer: The meal on which this review is based was made possible and paid for by the good people at FoodNews, a food media consultancy, to whom I should acknowledge my substantial thanks for their unstinting hospitality.

Earlier this year I had lunch at Novus, a modern European restaurant situated in the delightful National Museum of Singapore (which, to my great shame, I must confess to never having properly visited). I had quite enjoyed that lunch, and was looking for an opportunity for a return visit, so it was by happy coincidence that I received an invitation to a tasting of a new summer truffle menu the restaurant was unveiling.

For some reason, I had always thought that Novus was a molecular gastronomy restaurant, and as such it was never really on my radar. After two visits, however, I can safely say that that is a misconception, save for the fact that executive chef Stephan Zoisl, having spent some time in Heston Blumenthal's kitchen in The Fat Duck, has incorporated a few valuable avant-garde techniques in his cooking.

Novus is a very large restaurant, and that is evident from its mouthful of a name: Novus Restaurant, Bar, Cafe & Courtyard. The restaurant itself has a long central bench/couch, with tables on either side of it, and flanked by another row of tables against the tall arch fix windows, which in the daytime let in a generous amount of sunlight. With a seating capacity of 48 in the main restaurant, 60 in the dining room, 60 in the cafe and 50 in the courtyard, Novus is an ideal venue for events and conferences, and is often used as such. The size of the main dining hall also meant that the lighting that evening was a little dim, so some of the photos may not do sufficient justice to the food, but I'll try to make up for it with a more detailed review.

An amuse-bouche of tuna tartare and salmon roe, atop a petite crostini drizzled with aceto balsamico combined both sweet and sour, with just enough saltiness from the roe to awaken the appetite for the meal that was to follow.

One of the things I really like about Novus is the amount of care that goes into making your dining experience a pleasant and memorable one. Capitalising on the idea of a museum visit, Novus thoughtfully prints little placards containing bite-size tidbits of information about each dish, and waitstaff place them next to you as they serve each course, ensuring that you are never left wondering what has gone into your food, and more importantly, contextualising the key ingredients of your dish, so that, for instance, you appreciate what goes into the making of buffalo mozzarella. Oddly, however, there was no information card on the summer truffle, which I have since discovered is a species of truffle, visually similar to the black truffle, but of a less intense aroma, which was evident throughout the meal, as, despite the generous truffle shavings on many of the dishes, I was surprised to find that the scent of the truffle did not dominate, as I had expected, but languished subtly in the background.

We were served multiple dishes from each course to showcase the summer truffle, beginning with a veloute of Jerusalem artichoke. I quite enjoyed the mellow nuttiness of the soup, which went particularly well with the delicate flavours imparted by the truffle shavings.

The foie gras anglaise was an unusual method of cooking the goose liver: the main event was a custard made with duck consomme and goose liver parfait, within which was also concealed gingko nuts, stuffed morels, roast foie gras slices, duck confit, all topped with truffle slices. This version of foie gras was not really to my taste, unfortunately, as I found the custard rather runny. On the bright side, however, the fats in the foie gras were able to soak up the perfume of the truffle slices, making each mouthful an almost ephemerally truffle-scented one.

Novus's version of beef carpaccio uses 200-day aged grain-fed Black Angus beef tenderloin, with a quivering poached egg in the middle, surrounded by mozzarella spheres and cherry tomatoes, and sprinkled over with shaved pecorino. The carpaccio came in generous quantities, so much so that the dish nearly resembled a beef tartare in its robustness (and the poached egg), so I was grateful for the luscious mozzarella pearls and the juicy tomatoes, which made the dish less heavy, and more complexly textured.

Main courses were up next, beginning with some ocean trout stuffed with summer truffles and konbu seaweed, resting on a bedding of parsley creme and potato sabayon, and adorned with cottage cheese gnocchi. One of the drawbacks, I think, of having a "themed" menu, is trying to figure out how to incorporate the themed ingredient with the main ingredient, and the trout dish was an example of this. I really enjoyed the trout and its accoutrements: the fish was silky and melting, the gnocchi was soft and supple, and the parsley creme was lovely, but I could not quite tell how the truffle added to, or improved on, an otherwise fantastic combination. To me, the truffle shavings seemed like a distraction at best, rather like the proverbial gilding of the lily.

What of the next dish, which was an organic chicken breast stuffed with truffle salsa and cooked en sous vide, served with root vegetables and truffled potato gratin, and sauced with a dark glaze? Here I thought the addition of the truffles made sense, in that the delicate flavour of the chicken benefitted from an extra fillip. As for the chicken itself, this was where the advantages of sous vide cooking presented itself, for the chicken breast was moist, juicy and tremendously tender. I was not, however, much taken with the potato gratin; for some reason, it was swimming rather unabashedly in cream.

The last of our main courses was an impressive plate of sliced Black Angus beef tenderloin, with wild mushroom duxelles and black summer truffle, a colourful melange of new potatoes, radishes, celery and bell peppers. Accompanying this kingly offering was a side dish of "triple-cooked French fries" - potatoes boiled, chilled, fried, chilled again, and then deep-fried. It is difficult to do justice to this complex dish, which seemed a riot of sensations, textures and colours. The tenderloin was exceptional - uncompromisingly meaty, with just a hint of truffled earthiness - and the French fries were likewise an artful combination of technical sophistication and gastronomic fulfillment.

I was having more than a little difficulty taking shots of the desserts, so the restaurant very kindly turned up the lighting (seeing how well the dessert photos turned out, I did think I should have asked for more lighting from the start). Truffles no longer made an appearance at dessert, but were replaced by more conventional ingredients: in this case, a layered creation of white chocolate and raspberries, draped with dark warm chocolate sauce. I was a little sceptical of the white chocolate to begin with, but my doubts were put to rest as I savoured the mild creaminess of the white chocolate and the contrasting tartness of the raspberries. While perhaps one of Novus's simpler dishes, it was nonetheless undoubtedly effective in its powerfully concentrated flavours.

A signature dessert at Novus has to be the Valrhona Chocolate Test, an indulgent series of mini-desserts arranged in ascending order of cocoa content, namely, a 38% aerated chocolate mousse, a 55% chocolate souffle, a 66% chocolate creme anglaise, a 72% chocolate truffle and a 85% chocolate sorbet. Like something out of the mind of Willy Wonka, this is quite simply a chocoholic's fantasy, and it exhibits the kitchen staff's keen familiarity, if not facility, with chocolate-work. An outstanding tribute to a wonderful ingredient, the Chocolate Test was intoxicatingly enjoyable.

Our final dish for the night was an updated version of a fruit salad: an elegantly abundant assortment of seasonal fruits (blueberries, mangosteens, oranges, raspberries, strawberries), served with chocolate crumble, elderflower granite, wild strawberry espuma and cassis ice cream. Beautifully assembled, and with just the right amount of sugar and citrus, this was the perfect end to a sumptious dinner, cutting through some of the richness of the preceding courses.

Overall, I can't help being impressed by my two visits at Novus. Many of the dishes reviewed above are available for lunch and dinner (some on the regular menu and some only on the seasonal truffle menu), and in them is revealed Chef Zoisl's willingness to push the boundaries of both taste and presentation with his innovative and captivating style of cooking, as well as his ability to stay true to classic, simple flavours and combinations. Set lunch, at $32 for two courses and $40 for three, is prix fixe even with seasonal menus featuring white asparagus and summer truffles, and so is an excellent way of trying some of Novus's more unique offerings without having to break the bank. While prices are higher for dinner, given the generous portions, the inventiveness of the cooking, and the thoughtfulness of the service, I would not say they are unreasonable; rather, if you are looking for something apart from the usual French and Italian fare that eating out always seems to present, or a dinner destination with a charming and evocative ambience (with complimentary parking upon request), Novus might just be Exhibit A.

Novus Restaurant, Bar, Cafe & Courtyard
93 Stamford Road, 01-02 National Museum of Singapore,
Tel: +65 6336 8770

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Review: Osteria Mozza

After telling people that I'd been to db Bistro Moderne, I began to receive advice that I simply had to try Osteria Mozza, located right next to db Bistro Moderne and opened by celebrity chef Mario Batali, of Spotted Pig and Babbo fame.

Mozza has a rather irritating policy of having fixed seating times, so our reservation was for 8.15pm (the earlier seating was at 6.15pm), and consequently dinner did not begin till close to 9. That having been said, however, one sees the good sense of such a policy during the weekend - people were still streaming in at 10pm on the Saturday night that we were there.

Much like the original restaurant in Los Angeles, the eatery in Singapore comes as a pair: an upmarket osteria on the left, the centrepiece of which is an amazing "mozzarella bar"; and a casual pizzeria on the right.

Osteria Mozza has a rather extensive menu, and there were about twelve appetisers to choose from, such as an excellent grilled octopus with potatoes, celery and lemon. While it may have sounded simple, the octopus was truly delicious. I was expecting a baby octopus, and was a little apprehensive at seeing a tentacular segment from what was obviously an adult specimen, but my caution was put to rest when I tried some: the octopus was charred and smokey, and accentuated by the fresh and zesty celery strips and lemon juice.

A towering column of butter lettuce leaves with hazelnuts, bacon, gorgonzola and egg was Mozza's version of a garden salad. A beautiful combination of colours, and an amazing array of textures - leafy lettuce, crunchy hazelnuts, creamy gorgonzola and soft, supple eggs - meant that this dish was quickly devoured.

Although resembling a crab cake, this appetiser was in fact a crispy pig trotter with frisee, apple and mustard, and was, as you can see, unfortunately taken under rather poor lighting conditions.

After that, it was on to items from the fabled mozzarella bar, such as burrata with grilled asparagus, brown butter, guanciale (unsmoked bacon made from pig cheek) and salty breadcrumbs. Burrata and asparagus is not the most common of combinations, but if you think about it, not entirely unnatural, for the blend of slight bitterness with rich creaminess works well in a typical asparagus-hollandaise dish, so why not here?

The ricotta with raddichio, spiced walnuts, honey and fried rosemary I didn't enjoy quite so much, but I put this down mainly to the fact that I prefer burrata to ricotta, and because I don't like walnuts or the sharpness of raddichio.

There was nothing to dislike, however, about a platter of buffalo mozzarella with parma ham. A large dollop of soft, luscious mozzarella, on a bed of blushing pink ham, is quite easily my idea of comfort food. Both cheese and ham were some of the freshest I'd ever tasted, and I could probably have eaten a second and third helping in lieu of a main course.

As should be clear by now, I'd gone to Osteria Mozza with quite a big group, which was conducive to sharing. The restaurant, very obligingly, serves its pasta in two sizes - individual and family portions - so we had a family crockpot of maltigliati (flat, ribbony pasta that's like tagliatelle on steroids) with duck ragu, which was rustic and completely satisfying.

The linguine with clams, pancetta and spicy chillies, however, was rather less impressive, as the addition of the pancetta left an overpowering sensation of saltiness. The chillies, too, were slightly overwhelming, which obscured the delicateness of the clams.

Mains, fortunately, were universally well-received, beginning with the braised short rib with horseradish gremolata. Meltingly tender and unctuous, it was unfortunate that we only ordered one helping, although given that most people were already full by this time, that was probably for the best.

I have often remarked that I am not very partial to fish, but even I had to admit that the grilled whole snapper with herbs and extra virgin olive oil was delectable: the snapper, although a little small, was wonderfully fresh and sweet, and scented through by the herbs that had been stuffed into its belly. The olive oil which the fish had been cooked in, when mixed with lemon juice (from a whole lemon which had been grilled together with the fish), as well as the fish's own cooking juices, created a mellow, citrusy sauce that accentuated the fish's clean taste.

Finally, the meal's piece de resistance was a large porcini rubbed wagyu rib-eye bistecca, which was a thing of beauty. Intensely meaty, but with a perfect, melt in your mouth quality, this was probably why our ancestors became carnivorous.

Osteria Mozza, unlike some of the other celebrity restaurants in town, is not merely a flashy name without any substance, but is a credible contender to being the best Italian restaurant in town. However, as is to be expected with a restaurant with that sort of reputation, the best Italian meal in town is not likely to come cheap. So, save up for a special occasion, and splurge on a deliciously big meal at Osteria Mozza!

Osteria Mozza
2 Bayfront Avenue
B1-42/46 The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands
Tel: +65 6688 8868

Review: Sol Tasca

I was reading one of the foodie interviews in the papers the other day, and the interviewee commented that there was still a lack of good food from (amongst other regions) Indochina in this country.

To that I would add that there is a severe lack of good Spanish food, although to be fair My Little Spanish Place was not really bad - merely imperfect.

It was with some curiosity and interest, therefore, that I learned that two new Spanish restaurants have opened recently: Sol Tasca at the Fullerton Waterboat House, and Sabio at Duxton Hill. As Sol Tasca was closer, and since Groupon was offering a discount, I made a reservation and sat back to wait.

Well, that's not strictly true. I was early, so I decided to examine the restaurant and take more photos while the light was still good. As can be seen, the address of the restaurant at the Fullerton Waterboat House is not entirely accurate: it is not actually in the Waterboat House; rather, it is under it. To be more precise, it is under the bridge, which means that it can be quite warm, as the air is somewhat still, unless you are seated in an exposed area by the bridge, with a fan to improve air circulation. Perhaps to make up for the less than ideal location, Sol Tasca offers what it calls "the longest happy hour in town", and a live band from Wednesdays to Saturdays (who are actually quite good).

Sadly, however, the food, while tolerable, was not at all memorable. The patatas bravas, for instance, were little cubes of potatoes that looked like they had not been sufficiently fried, and the spicy tomato sauce that covered them looked, at best, poorly prepared, and at worst, manufactured.

The next tapa (incidentally, there seems to be some disagreement over whether the singular of "tapas" is "tapa" or "tapas") was sauteed mushrooms with balsamic vinaigrette. Now, I love mushrooms, and there was nothing actually wrong with these, but the problem with this tapa, as well as most of the other dishes, was that it simply did not taste Spanish. Unlike the tapas from My Little Spanish Place, there was no hint of that hearty earthiness that characterises Andalucian cuisine, with its liberal use of garlics, peppers, olive oil and sherry. The mushrooms, although certainly palatable, were, to put it bluntly, boring.

The sauteed chicken with garlic and chilli continued the disappointing trend. Some of the chicken pieces looked like they were not fully cooked, and those that were tasted no different from ordinary cooked chicken.

The beef balls in sherry tomato sauce, at least, stood out, for they boasted a robust flavour that was quite unusual, and they were bathed in a rich, full-bodied sauce. Their irregular shapes also advertised that they had been hand-made, which is, of course, only proper.

Finally, then, was the main event: seafood paella. As you can see, the lighting by this time was rather poor, but you can just about make out the mussels, peppers and prawns. When the paella first arrived, I thought it was decidedly small, but after some digging, it turned out that the paella dish was much deeper than I had thought. Unfortunately, more was not necessarily better; the paella seemed to me a rather insipid helping of stodgy rice and questionable seafood.

Sol Tasca is a nice place to come after work, where you can chill out to a jug of sangria and the soothing strains of "Oye Como Va", but for good Spanish food, go to Spain.

Sol Tasca
#01-04 The Fullerton Waterboat House
Tel: +65 6533 8913
Closed Mondays

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Miscellaneous Food: Florence and London

We were fortunate to recently take a much-deserved break from work for a trip to Tuscany and along the way, we stopped by in London to visit with some friends. The winding country roads took us to some beautiful, rustic villages, which I remembered well from previous trips there in 2007 and 2009 and while it was good to visit old loves like Solociccia in Panzano, written about here and La Giostra in Florence here, we also found some even more amazing restaurants, primarily in Florence. (In the other areas, we ate mostly in little family-run agriturismo farmhouses or cooked fresh produce at home, purchased from farmers markets)

I would highly recommend both these places, it was like soaking up the sunshine and rawness of the countryside. The first is Trattoria 4 Leoni, set in a beautiful side-street courtyard, perfect for the midday shopping stop and for watching beautiful people. Try the hand-made pastas, especially the pear argula ricotta ravioli , the duck ragu papardelle, the frito misto or the calamari. Their dishes were really delightful, delicate yet with robust flavours. The location is fairly central, just off the commercial stretch so I would recommend the place more for lunch, that way you can fully appreciate charming the semi-outdoor location and charming tuscan crockery.

The other place is definitely a dinner place, also fairly central but out of the small, tall nexus which borders the Piazza della Signoria and a slight trek outward to where the Opera is. This place is called La Sostanza and Frommers calls it "Il Troia" or the through, because people have been lining up at the long communal tables since 1869 to enjoy huge amounts of some of the best traditional food in the city. Despite that omnimous name, I have to say that this was the most mind-blowingly delicious and inspirational meal I had had in a long while.

It is a typical hole-in-the-wall, tiled, cramped, busy and flooded with noise and kitchen aromas, one of those eating experiences that you know will be good because so many people can't be wrong. We had heard of it from a friend whose wife is a Hermes reseller and who is frequently in Europe, he did not recommend it to us, rather he ordered us to go here and so we dutifully made a booking (absolutely necessary as there is not a spare seat in the house, on any night). Upon sitting down, we were entertained by the local family who runs the place, half of whom communicate in no English and a number of hilarious, typically Italian gestures. The menu is short and simple, starters are things like chicken soup with dumplings, or a peasant form of brodo, or ribollita, common to the Tuscan countryside.

There are two mains that are particularly popular, the Bistecca Alla Florentina, which is sliced thickly and slapped over a charcoal grill at the back of the restaurant, and the Petti di Pollo al Burro, the thick chicken breasts fried in butter. The bistecca was excellent, I've had many of them in my life and this ranks as perhaps one of the top two.

When we arrived, I spied a huge block of fresh butter sitting on the marble kitchen counter and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the chef pick up a small frying pan and shovel a large icicle-shape pick of butter into it. This was thrown over the charcoal grill and he started to flour and batter some chicken pieces. These were then fried into a sweet, caramel brown, entirely immersed in the crispy hot butter.

It might look like nothing on earth but looks are deceiving. The flavour was out-of-this-world good, it was like a glorius meld of chicken and cotten candy, like eating the first fried chicken you'd ever tasted, probably like the first chicken Adam and Eve ever tasted. The fried chicken in butter at Sostanza should really be amongst the 10 foods to try before you die. I've been jogging every week since I've been back and I still feel guilty about this dish.

Just to cap it off, we had two slices, because it was that wicked good, of their meringue cake, topped with tiny, sweet wild strawberries, known in France as "fraises des bois".

On the way back through London, we were fortunate to stay with D. and S. who are also big foodies. Of course, we clattered through all my old memories, the roast duck at Goldmine and Four Seasons in Bayswater, the cupcakes at Hummingbird Bakery, sandwich stores near LSE and the Petersham Nursery but the most rewarding part was being introduced to new places, like Ottolenghi in Notting Hill, where we went for Saturday brunch. Turns out I'm really behind the curve, when I looked it up online, the chef is dead famous and has been writing recipe columns for The Times, there are too many blogs with odes to the place and even Colin said he'd already been there when he was studying in the UK, some three years ago!

Shaded by a white awning, this small unassuming cafe afforded a beautiful variety of savoury and sweet treats. It's rare that a place can successfully do both but here, you really could choose between thick quiches, tomato ricotta tarts and quinoa salads, as well as lemon marscpone tarts, muffins, chocolate slices and everything was so well-done. The flavours were rich and sweet, full-bodied and colourful. The tastes slanted a little toward the Medittaranean, as most of the new restaurants are but were generally what I've come to refer to borrowing from world cuisine. I'm so inspired that I actually want their cookbook (a Huge compliment, I don't hold with cookbooks generally) and I've printed a few of their recipes to try soon.

What a wonderful, recharging break! For those looking for some decent but inexpensive places to stay, check out The Hempel and The Arch in London and Residenza Il Maggio and Giglio Bianco B&B in Florence. In London, the hotels were delightfully modern and luxurious, in Italian cities of course, the rooms will be more rustic but they were well-cleaned and safe. We paid about 130£ and 80 Euro for some very central, lovely stays and service.

Trattoria 4 Leoni
Via de' Vellutini, 1-red
50125 Florence, Italy
055 218562

Trattoria Sostanza
Via Porcellana, 25/r, Florence, Italy
055 212691

63 Ledbury Road
London W11 2AD
020 7727 1121

Residenza Il Maggio
Corso Italia 13
055 2658185

Giglio Bianco B&B
Via Romana, 28
50125 Firenze, Italy
Tel. +39 055225873