Saturday, November 22, 2008

Pu Dong Kitchen: Eating Shanghainese in Singapore

with Prof Horolographer and Dr. Mycroft

Pu Dong Kitchen is an old foodie favourite...kind of almost forgotten, but not quite. And always a pleasure to visit every once in a while. The service is variable, though when you get to know the Shanghainese owners and staff a bit, it is a bit more friendly. The ambience is more akin to a school canteen than a high end restaurant...bright flourescent lighting, minimalist furniture albeit possibly rosewood chairs. No frills, you get the picture.

But the food is excellent. I will start with what some foodies describe as to-die-for braised pork knuckle or Dongpaoro. This dish is as characteristic to Shanghainese cooking as is Xiao Loong Pau and Guotie (more of these 2 later).

A fairly large, boneless chunk of pork leg, stewed carefully in a thick black sauce...slowly to bring out the tenderness, and possibly drain out the fat. The pork skin glistens, and beckons one to eat it. The portion cost $30, some feel a bit on the pricey side, but methinks if it tastes good, its a reasonable price to pay.

But before we delved into the tasting, we thought we'd conduct a scientific test. The Mycroft's theory of pork leg goodness. Yes, the famous Dr. Mycroft of TimeZone fame, whose Mycroft's Psychosis is the bane of watch collectors the world over, has another theory...this time on something even closer to his heart. He theorises that the quality of the fat and collagen in a given cut of pork leg can be determined by how many times and the frequency the said meat wobbles after a strike is given to the table which holds the plate.

He conducted the test himself, with Prof. Horolographer, being the legal expert in attendance as hey, I am just the photographer. The chunk of meat passed the test easily - the meat stayed in wobbly motion, crossing the threshold 10s mark easily...perhaps a new record.

Cutting the meat open reveals sinews which are tender, with collagen rich connective tissue providing some of the stickiness some foodies just crave.

The outside can be seen to have absorbed the colour of the braising liquid, and the flavours as well...a mix of spices and thick, dark soy sauce. But the insides are virginal in the hue - perfectly cooked pork. Tender, juicy, and extremely tasty. Intermingle the taste of the muscular tissue with a small amount of epidermal fat and collagen, and the taste is heavenly. Superb does not begin to describe the mouthfeel as a piece of the skin/fat/muscle enters one's mouth, and generously give of its flavours.

Picture above shows the muscle end of the pork leg. Note that the layer of skin and fat is quite thin, even though this piece of boneless meat passed the Mycroft Test.

Starch came in the form of Lamien with scallion oil. The noodles were hand made, and nicely drawn into consistent strands. The black sauce, which I was given to understand is scallion oil...I had imagined it to be like the version served by Crystal Jade Shanghai's with onion oil - but this was a thick, black, soybean like sauce, and topped with scallion strips. Horolographer loved the noodles, as did I.

We also had the Xiao Loong Pau...a Shanghainese delicacy.

Typically, this is a thin skinned dumpling, containing some minced meat in hot rich soup within the thin walls of the skin. The fineness of the XLP is judged by a three prong evaluation criteria. The thin-ness of the skin, how delicate it was presented - at its best, it should be coyly semi-translucent and opaque. Also by the richness of the soup as one bites into it carefully. And finally, how tasty the minced meat treasure it contains was. As one of my favourite dishes, I have tried XLP in Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and curiously for me, my memory recalls a glorious XLP introduced by DannyNY in Chinatown New York.

I was preparing for the event of the great spillage of soup creating great flavours in the mouth as I bit delicately into the XLP, hoping to suck the soup. But this was not to be. First, the skin was beautifully opaque and though it a texture which promises to be delicate. But when I felt the skin as I picked up the dumpling with my chopsticks my impression was that the skin was firm rather than delicate. On my lips, this suspicion was confirmed. And a bite into the dumpling, with the expectation of hot, rich soup was only rewarded with a moist minced meat interior, sans soup. The meat was very tasty, but no soup. Delicious, but not quite what I expect from XLP.

The next dish presented further interesting twists.

The Guotie, presented as pale, dumplings heaped unceremoniously together. Flipping it over drew some ahhs from present company, and revealed a golden brown, crusty, crispy caramelised base.

This dumpling should come with a warning! Popping one into the mouth, and biting the skin would result in hot, rich soup spilling forth. This was a complete reversal between Guotie and Xiao Loong Pau...XLP should have hot broth, and not Guotie. But this was an interesting twist. Both were very tasty. And once we got over the strange twist, we enjoyed both dishes very much. In my opinion, the XLP and Guotie was way better than the one served by Din Tai Fung.

Of course, this blog advocates healthy, balanced, not balanced with fat and collagen as one might be led to expect with a cursory examination, especially with Dr. Mycroft providing medical would surmise a cholesterol heavy diet...but not. I must always have vegetables.

Unremarkable, but absolutely essential. In fact, this was the first dish to be served, and we ate our vegetables dutifuly, including Mycroft...before we even indulged in the pork leg. We were good boys, we are.

Overall, a superb meal, with great company and good conversation...if you know us...especially my evil twin Mycroft and me...we switched topics with each breath...from cameras, to watches, to food, to vacations in Japan and whatever else. Great fun.

Pu Dong Kitchen
271 Bukit Timah Road
#B1-02 Balmoral Plaza

Tel: 6732 8966

Photo notes: shot with usual equipment. But many shots were taken using a tripod - Manfrotto table tripod with a Kangrangpoche ball head. I think the tripod imparts a sharpness only achievable with a completely still camera. Our server came up to us and asked if we were intending to open our own Shanghainese restaurant. I said, made her day when I told her we loved the food so much we had to take away memories. Horolographer has his Canon G9 with him, and was also snapping photos.
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