Thursday, January 26, 2012

Miscellaneous Food: 10 new food-related products to try

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the saviour of the US and their horrifically poor infrastructure and transit systems is their astounding ability to innovate. Nowhere is this more evident then in the humble neighbourhood grocery store, on the baking and laundry aisle. It's for this reason, then whenever I find myself in the fertile womb of the motherland of consumption, I take stock of all the product that I find myself drawn to.

In no particular order, here are the top 10 things that I loved from my latest trip. If you have space in your grocery basket, or just feel like indulging a need (or want), give the following great products a whirl.

1. Scharffen Berger chocolate

I am a big believer that the quality of baking chocolate cannot be compromised. It's for this reason that I use mainly Valronha chocolate, particularly in Asia where I suspect independant retailers mix chocolate. I've rarely found a better baking chocolate to use but then my friend introduced me to this one, which has a robust flavour and smooth texture. It is a stronger, more open, more American taste than Valronha, which I actually like, particularly for breads and cakes. This really is a lovely, quality chocolate.

This brand was founded in Berkeley and was the first American company in 50 years to produce artisinal but manufactured chocolate from bean to bar, using small-batch processing and a high cocao content. It was the brainchild of Robert Steinberg, a physician who was diagnosed with cancer and given 50% chance of surviving 10 years. He immediately threw up his day job and started to search for what he wanted to do, stumbling upon chocolate making and interning at Bernachon chocolate in Lyon, France. He started the company with his ex-patient, John Scharffenberger, who had some capital from exiting his sparkling wine business and they made chocolate out of their homes.

The company was eventually bought by Hersheys (20 years later) who combined it with their other purchases of Joseph Schmidt and Dagoba, then moved the operations entirely to Illinois. The quality and taste, thankfully, has remained intact and the Hershey's distribution has enabled them to be carried in all major US supermarkets. Sadly, the Hershey's outlet here doesn't carry the product so I'll just have to rely on the internet and friends for now.

2. OXO Cherry Pitter

I bought this clever device to pit grapes, olives and cherries and I guess it was kind of an indulgence becuase you can always just spit the seeds out. It makes it that much easier to juice cherries though and the splatter shield works like a charm, I was wearing a white shirt and there wasn't a single stain from a whole bag of cherries. Also, the hit rate is not perfect, there were three seeds in the bag of cherries that weren't removed but it's on the whole very effective and the loud pop that the device makes everytime it bangs out a pit, is oddly satisfying.

3. Mango Pitter

At the counter, as I was paying for my cherry pitter, the counter staff recommended their favourite pitting device, the mango pitter. According to them, it works like a dream and takes all of a few seconds to core a mango. I was also attracted to this because we eat a lot of mangos at home and they are time-consuming to dissect. One advantage of this, from what I can see, is that it cleanly removes the seed, without the need to hold the slippery core and slice around it so that you don't waste the parts near the seed. The only thing that stopped me from buying one (well, other than my dear dad who takes pride in his mango-slicing skills) is that while I am keen on pitters for small fruits and turgid fruits, I was just a bit sceptical of how pretty the mango would emerge from this harsh treatment. True to form though, in America, there is a separate pitter or slicer for almost every kind of fruit, there is also a similar one for apples and apricots. If durians were popular in America, they probably would have invented a durian pitter too by now.

4. Avocado Cuber

I find that in Singapore, perfectly ripe avocadoes are quite a rarity, unless you buy the really expensive Japanese supermarket species. They are usually slightly too ripe, or else they are the Australian avocadoes that tend to be somewhat tough. Slicing them is thus usually a messy business and makes your salad look ugly. If you, like me, get really frustrated at using a spoon in an avocado, try this nifty little device.

5. EatSmart Precision Pro Digital Kitchen Scale

I find my digital kitchen scale one of the most important pieces of equipment and I can't quite remember the days when I used to use a manual green plastic weighing scale (and I'm glad they are over). Digital weighing scales give you more precision and accuracy in measuring and baking results and they help save you time too, by allowing you to tare (reset to 0) with your exisitng containers, bowls and added ingredients. I wish all recipes would be fully converted into a system of weighed ingredients, rather than measured in metric or cups.

I live in fear that the batteries in my digital kitchen scale will fail at some point, or like most devices in the tropics, that moisture will get into the screen or the battery compartment. When I saw this new kitchen scale, I found myself wishing that my existing scales had a shorter shelf life and would die quickly, so that I could be justified in then replacing it with this set.

The EatSmart Precision Pro Digital Kitchen Scale is a reasonable $25USD, compared to the $70SGD that I spent on my simple Tanita scale. It is matt and stainless steel, the buttons are tab buttons (as opposed to rubber buttons that you depressed, on the previous scale) and the number display is clear and large. Best of all, it takes regular, not watch-sized batteries. 2838 unanimous 5-star reviews on Amazon do not lie.

6. Seal and Grip by Gladwrap

This Gladwrap product is actually now available in Singapore and a few of the more upscale Cold Storage groceries have the full range of Gladwrap items, including ice cube bags, colourful sandwich lunch bags and insulating bags. This functions like clingwrap, except that each side is coated to be slightly adhesive to each other, forming a tightly sealed packet around your food or vegetables. I find that this helps to keep fresh herbs healthy for longer (very important in not wasting food) and is particularly good with meats and doughs. It is much neater and dryer than using clingwrap, so I have just one roll of this in my drawer for the occasional use.

7. Method All-Purpose Cleaner

It was late at night, after an afternoon of stewing beef rendang and my friends had turned in but I was stricken with jet lag so I decided to indulge in a bout of compulsive cleaning. I contemplated her stove but could only find an all-purpose cleaner, so, not holding out too much hope, I absently sprayed it on the stove and was completely surprised, no, shocked even, when a simple, quick wipe yielded a shiny surface and a towellete full of cleanly-swept grease and dried remains. I have a small obsession with kitchen cleaning tools, particularly surface-cleaning tools like stainless steel wipes, glass cleaners, stone cleaners (that don't corrode natural stone, ceramic or laminate) and I must say, this is the best, or at least one of the best all-purpose cleaners I have tried in a long time.

I found out from my host (bless friends who do their research) that Method was founded in Berkeley and is a green cleaning brand that makes natural, biodegradable product for laundry and home care, similar to Mrs Meyers and Seventh Generation. The best thing about their product suite is that it is inexpensive ($2.70 a bottle at Target) and wide (includes a Pro-Chef granite cleaner, nursery sterilizer and leather wipes). Their founder, Adam Lowry, is a champion of the treehugger movement, that is, codifying and making legally binding, social and environmental business practices of climate conciousness, responsible sourcing and sustainable development. If you have a moment, google their business and read about their ethos and practices, it's very inspiring. And we all know that making all-purpose cleaners inspiring is a mind-bending paradigm.

8. OXO food storage containers

This was my favourite thing from my friends' kitchens. I have a hidden tupperware manic deep inside me and if these OXO food storage containers were available here, I'd buy enough to stock my pantry. I love that these are air-tight and help to create a vacumn-sealed environment. They also come in all sizes, you can buy a set and then top it off with a extra containers. I use Lock and Lock containers myself but they aren't as sleek, they aren't air-tight and they don't stack the way these do.

9. SodaStream Genesis Home Soda Making Kit

Ok, I'll admit it, this is a little white elephant but how cool would it be to make your own sodas! This is the kind of thing that is probably better to try at your friend's home, rather than bring one back to your own but what do I know, I don't even drink carbonated drinks. If you do, I think it is much healthier to make them yourself out of fresh juices or cordials, rather than turning to that Coke or isotonic drink. You can even use it to experiment with molecular food. There are many kind of soda mixers but I'm told that this one, made and patented by the company SodaStream is the best one. Available at Williams-Sonoma, major department stores and various other homeware stores for about $100USD, plus $10 for CO2 capsules.

10. Hurom Juicer

As the world gets caught up in healthy living, single origin food products and being born to run, masticating slow juicers (this refers to juicer with a turning or screwdriver motion, rather than a crushing and press motion like regular juicers, this is thought to retain more natural fruit fibers and prevent oxidation) have become the talk of the town. Almost every single major homeware and natural store I went to was peddling some form of this juicer as a health "essential" and I've seen it on countless videos, blogs and Facebook updates. This is the most well-known one and by all accounts, the most efficient in removing pulp and juice from fruits and vegetables. We now have one at home, thanks to an over-enthusiastic (some would say slightly fanatical) convert to the juice diet, so I'm qualified to give a well-researched review.

Compared to most other juicers, this juicer is certainly quick, fairly convenient, space functional and effective in getting the most out of your fruit. I've been impressed by the volume of juice, the colour retention of the juice, its ability to juice nuts (almond milk and soyabean milk) and even frozen fruit. It has a lot of applications even in cooking, you can use the pressed vegetables for essence or soups and frozen fruit for smoothies and popsicles. However, like all juicers, it does have up to 5 parts, 7 if you count the two container jugs and it is a pain to wash up after but again, not more than your typical juicer. It is also pricey, retails at $359USD, although admittedly, not much more so than most masticating juicers. I don't know if I truly believe the hype of juicing (without the collorary disciplines of moderate diet and exercise) but if I could find some way to go long the manufacturer of the Hurom Juicer and short the Breville Group, I would.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Review: Standing Sushi Bar

One of the great things about my present office, and something that I will definitely miss when I leave in a few weeks' time, is the fact that it has its own gym, which I tried to frequent at least twice a week. I like to leave the television on while using the gym, and during one of my last visits,  Channel News Asia was screening a documentary on how small business can use social media to their advantage. One of those small businesses that was featured was a restaurant called "Standing Sushi Bar", owned by one  Howard Lo, who some may better remember as one of the finalists in a "reality" show also starring Denise Keller.
Standing Sushi Bar has two locations, with one establishment at the Singapore Art Museum in Queen Street (the other is at Marina Bay Link Mall), a great lunch location that draws office-workers, Singapore Management University students and probably not a few guests from nearby Carlton Hotel.

I was a little surprised to find that, contrary to what I had expected from its name, no one was standing. Presumably the name stems from an earlier point in the restaurant's history, but they couldn't afford to give up the goodwill when they expanded.

Our host had organised a set lunch for us which began with a light salad that was delightfully fresh: the cucumber slices were firm to the bite, the lettuce leaves were pleasantly crunchy, the cherry tomatoes were juicy and sweet, and the sesame seed dressing brought everything together in an understated liaison.

Chicken, mostly deboned or butterflied, and enoki mushrooms wrapped with meat, both cooked yakitori or kushiyaki, infused with grilled smokiness and drizzled with lemon juice, were a both excellent, and proved that Standing Sushi Bar had more to offer than just sushi.

That was not to say, of course, that the sushi wasn't good; far from it. An assortment of sushi, featuring such stalwarts as salmon, tuna, mackerel, yellowtail and tamago, was beautifully prepared, with a topping that, if not generous, was at least decent, with just enough wasabi to keep things interesting, but not enough to steal the show.

A light serving of udon to wash down the sushi. When I was a child, I had a particularly disagreeable bowl of udon while at Haneda Airport, and that memory has haunted me ever since, which is why I generally do not order udon voluntarily. I am happy to report, however, that this bowl of noodles was entirely enjoyable.

Dessert took the form of macha ice cream with azuki bean paste. I am not particularly fond of Japanese desserts, but then I generally find that nothing really goes wrong with green tea ice cream.

Standing Sushi Bar, from what I can see, is not, and does not aim to be, a cutting-edge restaurant determined to push boundaries and challenge assumptions. Instead, it is a relatively compact, introspective restaurant that's aiming to grow its business - which is basically doing familiar foods very well - not unlike the early days of the Akashi. Set menus (set menus are offered for lunch and dinner at the Marina Bay Link Mall branch) and promotions (see the website) form part of that strategy, which seems to have been successful so far.

Standing Sushi Bar
8 Queen Street
#01-03 8QSAM
Tel: +65 6333 1335

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Miscellaneous Food: New York 14

A trip to a major city in the US these days hardly needs any prefacing. New York in parcticular, with it's acrid taxi fumes, incessant noise and car horns and cold but sophisticated new year's spirit and dress sense, was a real shock to the senses and sensibility.

A run-down of the places we visited and ate, with few pictures (it's hard to get away with a set-up in a restaurant). In general, I didn't double over any places from my last trip (read about our trip from a year ago here) but as you well know, you can eat multiple times a day in New York and never visit any place twice.

On the first day, I literally, stopped in panic upon alighting from the plane. I was overheating in my coat, in the open winds of New Jersey and I thought, oh fish, have I possibly, taken the wrong plane and wound up in Miami? Luckily for me, it was simply a balmy winter day and miracle of miracles, it continued to be so for most of my trip. On that first night, owing to having miscalculated the time, I arrived in Williamsburg at 8pm instead of 8am and we went to L'artusi in the West Village for dinner.

Bathed in a warm yellow light, the place was still jumping crowded. It was one of those ridiculous New York institutions where the bartenders are full of clever, charming banter, they serve small plates of world cuisine (doesn't everyone these days?) and old rich-looking people are seated in tables in the restaurant, while hip overdressed youngsters crowd standing-room only, three-deep at the marble bar where the "oh my gawd, the food is so Goods" were just hurting my ears.

Yes, I'm awful but only slightly pretentious, remember? Old rich people by the way, are a wonderful indicator of food quality and consistency, though less of value. We weren't terribly hungry, so we split a plate of grilled octopus, risotto and cheeses. Sure enough, it was all excellent and well-cooked, although the octopus was slightly rubbery. Then it was back home to Sweet Williamsburg to sleep off the intermiable plane ride.

The next day, I had the pleasure of a New Year's Eve tour of Williamburg that started with a cup of Gimme Coffee. This chain is also in the West Village and in Chelsea Market. I've drank a lot of cups of cuppuccino and an awful lot of good ones but this one, was sublime. It was possibly one of the top 5 cuppucinoes I've had, so if you are in the area, seriously, try it out for a cup of smooth, caffeneited deliciousness. We then hightailed it to Red Hook, where I had the most interesting experience at Red Hook, Lobster Pound.

The shop has these large wooden tanks, like ponds of Japanese onsen baths. Instead of people, lobsters swim by the hundreds in these tanks and they sell these lobsters, scooped fresh in nets. If you like your lobster fresh, sweet and cheap, then this is the place for you, with $15 whole steamed lobsters and wonderfully hot buttered lobster rolls. We had a lobster each (cue: gasp) and a warm, buttery Connecticut-style lobster roll (as opposed to the Maine-style cold lobster with the traditional mayonnaise and celery). Afterward, we ambled our way onto the Brooklyn Bridge and into Maison Premier, a 1930s Prohibition-style bistro for oysters and cocktails. We had about 14 oysters, all different kinds, and this was only a selection from their list of over 50 oysters and clams. The quality is good and so is the selection but the prices are not cheap, so best to come on the weekdays for their $1 specials.

It was New Year's eve after all, so we rolled into Brooklyn Star for dinner. Brooklyn Star is best known for Southern Cooking, I hear they have the best breakfast grits in town, but for New Year's eve, they were serving a set menu that was more European than Southern. This was hip but simple things like a roasted tomato soup with a side of bone marrow on toast. They also served a fantastic roasted pigeon for mains and the only slight let down was truffle honey over sharp cheese, raisins and two chocolate truffle balls from Momofuku for dessert. It was good but felt a little outsourced. I noticed though that for brands that make it big in New York, there is almost a wholesale business to other restaurants, for example, Gimme Coffee serves Balthazar pastries and many places stock H&H Bagels.

The next day, I was not intending to eat but I walked past a Momofuku Milk Bar , which can now be found all over the city and walked out with a crack pie and a packet of apple pie truffles, both were comforting and absolute sugar perfection as always. I joined some friends at Evergreen Cafe for dim sum, usually Chinese food is the pits in New York and I was surprised to be introduced to this little cafe, right in the heart of the obscure Upper Far East, with pink tablecloths and really decent dim sum. I was brough there by a family friend who has HK roots and this is a great recommendation for if you live in near that area. One of my discerning, only slightly pretentious foodie friends asked me, well, is it you know, Red Star quality (the question made me crack up so mea culpa!) and my answer was, it's not Imperial Treasure quality but the siew mai and steamed glutinous chicken rice were excellent and the fan juan and char siew bao were really yummy and definitely far more refined than Red Star. I'm Cantonese and I don't eat bad dim sum yo.

Of course, since I was uptown, I stopped at H&H Bagels for a poppy seed and lox bagel fix and and then made my way back down to the Village to The Spotted Pig for an early dinner. I met with two lovely foodie friends and we had really high expectations, given the hype that the Spotted Pig has created over the last year. However, we were sorely disappointed, the place was crowded and loud, reminiscent of a college sports bar. We had to wait over an hour for a table (they don't take reservations) and then when shown to one, we were told that there was a 30 min wait for burgers because the fries were on backorder. To add to the confusion, we couldn't tell who the waiters were, as they were changing shift and they don't wear any kind of uniform. This is New York and there were many strange people at the bar, the servers seemed the most alternative of them all and the service standard was about the same.

The burger was good but I didn't think it was worth the wait, especially with the famous beanspout-thin shredded mass of fries, which wound up soggy by the time they were served. We were able to order from the all-day brunch menu as well as the dinner menu but turns out that they were about the same and many items were unavailable. After two noisy, slow hours here and three dishes later, we cut loss and went to Veniero's for cheesecake.

I've been coming to Veniero's for many years now, simply because I think they have the best cheesecakes in town (and they are sited in the Lower Far East, close to where all the Momofuku restaurants used to be when they started out). The New York cheesecake is creamier and smoother than the Italian cheesecake but both are really good, I brought one back for my hosts and the two families finished off the whole cake after dinner. The stained glass and wood decor is old-school Italian bakery and the service is really poor. The clientele is also deep Bronx Italian, we waited in queue only to have this large elderly group jam their way past us and rub shoulders with the manager! What a night!

After few days of work, I returned to New York to stay with a dear friend who is one of my few friends interested in both fashion and food. Needless to say, this made for a truly carefree and uplifting break, it's just happy to be with someone to whom you don't have to explain why you have to step into every Williams and Sonoma shop that we pass. Of course, New York is also the best city to walk, catch up, gossip, shop, eat and bake. I feel privledged to know of a handful of people who have more kitchen implements than I do and she definitely has earned her spot high up that list, you should check out her lovely and instructional blog

On the first day, we did a tour of the city's beautiful properties near Central Park and then went to Bouchon Bakery for lunch. I don't quite understand why there is such a big hype over the bakery, except that perhaps this is the New York outpost of the Napa outlet, so maybe the experience is different. The food is very good, we split a juicy turkey (I know, a paradox), cranberry, caramelized onions sandwich and a luxuriously smooth pumpkin soup and some truly excellent bread, but it seemed more a little atrium place for ladies who lunch. We went to the Time Warner building primarily to also go to Williams and Sonoma and Whole Foods to buy ingredients to cook a group weekend dinner of Nasi Lemak and Beef Rendang and not because we needed a heavy lunch because that night, we went to Peter Lugar Steakhouse for dinner.

Peter Lugur is an absolute institution, if you plan to go, please make a reservation at least 5 days in advance. The place is huge, an entire Germanic townhouse, in Williamsburg, just near the water. From the train across to Brooklyn, you can see the engraving painted on the brick wall and the set up is just that, hale and hearty. Stepping in is like going back in time, darkwood floors and beams and a wave of testosterone from the fat cat, gold Rolexed bankers at the bar. I guess they can afford $130 steaks more often than the rest. Peter Lugur does do smaller ladies cut or rib-eye steaks but the piece de resistance is their porterhhouse, which you just order per number of guests. We had rare steak for two and medium-rare steak for three, potatoes mash and their marvellous fatty creamed spinach.

The smell that hangs about the air gets you hungry (particularly on a cold day) and the meats come sizzling on the dish, with hot oil spooned over them. There is also thick pouring jugs of sauce but you really don't need it because the beef is so tender, juicy and flavourful. This is an amazing steak, the only one that I think can compare is the Bistecca Florentina but even then, it's a different kind of texture (tougher) and flavour (more gamey). We decimated the plates in front of us, all the way to the bone and then we had key lime pie with schlag (a mountain of sweet German whipped cream), each of us really had eaten more than our fair weight. Red wine, good steak and conversation with friends, that alone was worth a week of New York traffic, street noise and sooty air.

The next day, we did a really random but fun browse and shop at the discard outlet of Mokuba Ribbon and Lace and Kleinfeld's bridal where Say Yes to the Dress is filmed, then finally made it to a late lunch at Lombardi's in Spring Street for pizza. This graffiti-lined corner store is actually large and cavernous inside but it forms a line out the door on most days, from its claim of being the best and oldest pizzeria in New York. We went at 2.30pm and even then, there were diners. The thin-crust pizzas come in a regular and large size, (we shared a plain magharita and mushroom pizza) on old-fashioned aluminium stands and although I don't know that they are the best pizza I've eaten, it was very good. I think what gave it an edge is that they use fresh basil and rounds of fresh mozzerella for the pizza. It isn't particularly cheap, at $16 for the regular and $22for the large but the size is very generous.

That night, I went for a whole duck dinner at The Breslin, at the Ace Hotel. This place is known for their lamb burgers but ever so often, they serve whole animal meals, like duck, lamb or chicken. I would have prefered to actually be served different parts of the duck in individual dishes, like rillete, duck confit, duck breast l'orange, but what it was was more like an Asian serving of three whole roasted ducks with various sides like pomegrate salad, brussel sprout gratin and baked potatoes in duck fat. The sides in particular were delicious but the duck was actually a bit soft and mushy, so the meat had all but lost it's beautiful striated texture. Also, although the Breslin is clearly very hip, it was also very dark, which made it hard to focus on food and it was very impersonal- although advertised as a chef's table, this just means a large rectangular wooden table outside the glass of the kitchen, not that there actually is a chef or that he comes round to meet the table.

I really think a lot of restaurants are starting to emulate the Asian or Chinese style of family meals or meal service, perhaps following the success of David Chang's Bo Ssam at Ssam Bar. Part of this is because it's really much easier to serve Asian style meals, you just prepare the main dishes and put them in the center of the table, no need for service staff to take orders, change cutlery or for the kitchen to dovetail a cooking schedule that depends on courses. Intead of all that work to prep, station and finish courses, you just put out three roast ducks and feed 10 people at a go. The other advantage of course, is the cost angle, where each person pays you $130 for much less variety of food and grocery cost (in Bo Ssam, it's $120 for a $20/pax cost in pork butt) and that your liquor bill at the end of the day, because you insist of minimun group size, will more easily sustain your restaurant.

Of the three meals that cost about $130 (Breslin, Peter Lugar and WD-50), I felt Peter Lugar was the most worthwhile, with a toss-up between the Breslin and WD-50, with the latter being slightly more expensive but then also with far more work involved in preparing the dishes. These meals were also inclusive and priced up slightly because of wine and I felt that dollar for dollar, the pricing probably matched some of Singapore's more swanky restaurants, like those at Marina Bay Sands or Dempsey.

The next day, we had brunch at Westville Chelsea. I had been there before and had a wonderful scrambled egg and bacon set, this time I was adventurous and tried their breakfast burrito, stuffed with avocado, cheese, tomatoes and ground meat. Perhaps because I'm not a natural Mexican food fan, I didn't like it as much (not because it wasn't excellent, I just missed the crispy, crackly bacon). Our dining companions also had the stuffed french toast (with cream cheese and berries) and that was really yummy. After brunch, we wandered all the way down the High Line (a beautifully urban elevated railroad) to Chelsea market and East Village shopping, then I went to a mozerella-making class at Murray's, a cheerful and amazingly-stocked cheese store.

This class was really fun and well-conducted, on this basis, I would encourage anyone who is interested, even children, to sign up for classes at Murray's. Our teacher was a beautiful would-be actress and cheese enthusiast, she led us through a tasting of 5 different soft, fresh cheeses, with a generous freeflow of champagne, white and red wines. Then she walked us through a technical lesson in the casein proteins in milk and how this is manipulated through the cheese-making process through the addition of an enzyme, rennnant, to cause the coagulation of milk. She explained that there were vegetal rennnants, which came from the thistle plant (this was discovered in Spain and Portugal, when sheep wandered through thistle brush and produced coagulated milk), microbiotic rennant and then animal rennant, which is taken from the fourth stomach lining of an unweaned bovine. Of course that makes perfect sense as only unweaned animals can convert milk to solid protein nutrients; this was discovered by a Boudoin who was crossing the dessert with milk in a bag of sheep's skin lining. We were given samples of curd, as well as some to bring home and we had a hands-on submerging and shaping of mozzerella and burrata balls. This class had also cleverly worked in time for us to retail shop in Murrays and peruse their long cheese ailse and racks of dairy and fruit and nut products.

After class, I joined some friends at Wylie Dufresne's WD50 for dinner. I was glad that my friend had picked this restaurant, from Dufresne's Top Chef appearences, as I had sampled molecular gastronomy at Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck in Bray and decided that most of the dishes (like oyster and passionfruit) were parings of tastes that were odd and a little off. The one dish that I liked the best was the most traditionally cooked beef stew, which was phenomenal but hardly molecular. The whole dinner, in terms of taste, was somewhat stilted and never really achieved that happy satisfaction for me. Well, I have to report that WD50 was much the same, all of us felt it was strange that glowing online reviews had praised the food and the experience and these reviewers clearly eat there extremely often. While it was not bad, certainly it was very interesting, I would stop short of calling it delicious or even tasty. I'm not sure that I would eat there more than once, as the food is more weird than comforting.

The tasting menu is very long and has ample food, you start with small plates which grow larger and more substantial. The few dishes that jumped out at me were the poached egg in the shell, pumpernickel, caesar dressing, lily bulb, which was an egg served with a cracked edible egg shell on the side. We were told that this was edible kaolin clay, which had been thinned out, speckled and formed over a balloon, then popped and cracked to resemble a real egg. Another dish was the rock shrimp, miso noodles, chicory, yuzu, this was actual noodles spun of solidified miso soup (a really odd taste) and dusted with dehydrated chicory. As you stired the dish together, some of the noodles melted slightly to form a noodley, gooey mess that tasted like all its component parts together but nothing like the original. The best items were the desserts of apricot

Babka, Cake and Bake, Sourdough at Brooklyn Kitchen.

Maison Premiere
298 Bedford Ave, between Grand St & 1st St
Brooklyn, NY 11211
Neighborhood: Williamsburg - South Side
(347) 335-0446

50 Clinton Street,
New York, NY 10002-2401
(212) 477-2900

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Review: Santi

I have been surprisingly busy as I prepare to start a new job, and as such I've been prevented from blogging about one of the more enjoyable meals I had in 2011.

Much has been written about all the celebrity chefs who have set up shop in Marina Bay Sands, and of course the untimely death of Santi Santamaria made instant headlines, but it was not till fairly late in the year that I finally had a chance to have a meal in Santi. Tapas are served at the bar (go figure), and if the high bar chairs are not to your liking, there is a row of low seats next to the glass walls which are only slightly less uncomfortable. The front of house is rather dimly lit, too, so most of the photos are not fantastic; until I had the bright idea of holding the plates up to what little light there was.

There are some cuisines for which it is extremely difficult to find a good restaurant, and Spanish food (tapas in particular) tends to be one of them, as evidenced by my rather ambivalent reviews of the various Spanish tapas bars I've tried. Given Santi's reputation, however, I was fairly optimistic of finally having credible tapas.

A small morsel of roasted zucchini and mushrooms on lightly baked bread was just what was needed to whet the appetite.

Like any tapas bar worth its salt, Santi offers food in both tapa and racione portions, with prices of the latter roughly twice the former (although in some cases they were considerably more). I love gazpacho, and at $4 for a tapa and $8 for a racion, Santi's Gazpacho Andaluz was very affordable, and quite delectable: fresh and spritely without being sour, sweet and rich without being cloying, and with a slight savoriness hinting that the tomatoes had been roasted to concentrate their flavours.

Santi offers two kinds of ham - Iberic Lomo and Iberic Ham "Joselito" - but I didn't really want to pay $60 for the "Joselito", and $10 for the lomo by comparison didn't seem so bad. While there was certainly nothing wrong with the thinly-sliced ham and the toasty croute that it lay atop, I did think that it was probably one of the more overpriced tapas on the menu.

Manchego cheese, I feel, is superbly underrated, and Santi serves up wicked cubes of manchego drizzled with an unctuous oil to accentuate the delicate, slightly astringent pungency of the sheep's milk. Eating this reminded me of my college days, when I would buy wedges of manchego from the market to eat with seedless green grapes as my weekly indulgence; it's quite disturbing to think I haven't had this delicious cheese since then.

Soon, it was on to the hot tapas, and I had originally ordered a tapa portion of prawns "al ajillo", only to discover to my dismay that for $8, all you get is two prawns. The racione portion isn't much better; you get six or seven prawns for $30. The prawns are given a marvellous heat from the garlic and the chillis, though the garlic could be somewhat overpowering for some, and the amount of oil used was, I thought, more generous than the number of prawns in it.

The mushroom "revuelto" had a lovely creamy texture, with the eggs clearly having been slowly cooked to ensure that they were not over-scrambled, but all said and done, this was essentially scrambled eggs with mushrooms which, at $8, was probably not the best bargain in the house.

A dish of forest mushrooms and asparagus, however, was a much more sensible order (and, incidentally, no longer seems to be on the menu), as it's not something you're likely to prepare at home. Earthy, juicy mushrooms and the distinctive, slightly ferric asparagus, lightly seasoned with salt flakes, are impossible to resist.

My favourite tapa, however, was definitely the octopus "a la plancha". Supple and yielding, the grilled octopus had a wonderful char that imbued it with an extraordinary smokey flavour, and a large dollop of salmorejo, or tomato cream, gave it an extra fillip of sweetness. At $6, this was the dish that offered the best returns.

Although part of the fun of ordering tapas is not knowing for sure which you'll like the best, that can also be a significant downside, especially in Singapore, where tapas are not exactly cheap. Another problem is that tapas tend not to be that substantial, leaving you hungry even after you've had a few orders. Consequently, croquettas are almost always indispensable, and Santi's version features a rich bechamel filling, and after a few of these, you should be feeling pretty full, so I suggest only eating them towards the end of the meal.

At some point I was getting a little bored of tapas, so I decided to order some of the main courses found at the bottom of the tapas menu. One of the more intriguing (which now no longer seems to appear on the menu) was some roasted pork ribs, which look really phenomenal in the photo, but they took something like half an hour to arrive, and when they did, they were rather tiny; hardly what I would call a main course, and barely enough to share (which was the whole point of the dish). Given that they weren't that cheap either, it's far more advisable to pass on the pork rack, and order the next main course instead.

Our final dish was a tender, quite possibly sous vide, chicken breast (also apparently no longer on the menu), glazed with a fine, almost syrupy sauce. Although a main course, this didn't cost much more than the tapas, and is highly recommended should it ever make its way back onto the dinner menu.

Santi undoubtedly serves up the best tapas in Singapore, but you should certainly expect to pay for it. This can be mitigated if you stay away from the more expensive items, and stick to those that are really worth it (e.g. gazpacho, manchego, octopus, chicken), and stay away from the fixed price tapas menu, which offers you a fixed number of tapas and a drink. Skip the drink and use the money to order a la carte, and before long you'll be planning your next trip to Andalusia.

10 Bayfront Avenue #L2-03, Casino Level 2,
Marina Bay Sands
Tel: +65 6688 8501