Saturday, August 30, 2008

Loy Sum Juan, Singapore

One of our favourites, our family have been coming to Loy Sum Juan for nearly 20 years. Famous for its prawn paste chicken...har cheong kai, and Cantonese dishes, Loy Sum Juan is the gold standard to compare fried chicken.

My first taste of their iconic har cheong kai was way back in 1990, when the restaurant was still in Outram Park. And I have been coming with my family since they moved to Tiong Bahru Plaza...initially under the management of the older gentleman...always impecably dressed in a suit. After his passing, the restaurant is now managed by his son who is the chef and his daughter who keeps the business humming. They have kept the tradition going, and I have not found any compromise to taste.

The classic chicken was in top always is. I sense a taste of tau joo in the belacan and prawn paste in the thin, almost non-existant batter. This provided a fragrant, piquent character to the dish. Full of flavour. I don't know what else is used, but the chicken is extremely crispy, and very tender and moist inside. I can only think of deep frying in a very large pot of very, very hot fat. Magic!

Super delicious, this dish keeps me coming back year after year. The chilli sauce for this fried chicken is also specially prepared by the restaurant for this dish. Somewhat similar to chilli used in Chicken Rice, but more diluted, it kept the chicken great company, complimenting in both taste and mouthfeel. With each mouthful the explosion within the mouth of the tender, rich, fat chicken, the crispy skin, and the spicy sour taste of the chilli is wonderful.

The restaurant is also famous for the steamed Song fish, but today we didn't order that. Perhaps another day another blog Instead, we opted for pork ribs, and done with coffee sauce.

Glistening in the dark, beguilling sauce, the pork ribs were slightly tough, very fat, but tasty.

The sauce was a bit sweeter than I would have liked, and altough I could not detect the blend of coffee used, and it blended nicely with the pork. The sliced, roasted almonds are also a nice touch, and provide some crunch.

We also ordered a soup prepared with 3 types of egg - century egg, salted duck egg, and chicken egg made the stock very rich, and tasty. Whole garlic was used for flavouring, and interestingly had a powdery feel, leading me to believe it has been brewing for a while in the soup...certainly not the typical garlic which will tend do be crunchy, and pungent in taste when bitten into. Typically cooked with kau kee, we opted for spinach, as I prefer the vegetable.

To round up the meal, we also had soft japanese egg tofu in a hot plate. A cast iron plate was heated, and when it reached cooking temperature, it was greased, and beaten egg was poured over...allowing it to cook under the heat of the plate. A light sauce of minced pork, prawns and spices was then poured over the cooking egg. And finally the tofu added.

Loy Sum Juan
302 Tiong Bahru Road
#06-03/04 Tiong Bahru Plaza

p.s. I am also trying out shooting with only one lens...the 100mm macro lens - an old lens I usually use to shoot watch pictures, rather than the usual 17-40mm I usually use for food. The restaurant was rather dark (for the camera), and I had to push the ISO to 1600 before I can get reasonable hand held shots with a 100mm lens with an aperture of f/4. At 100mm, the depth of field is smaller than with a wider lens. Will try a small tripod, and/or a flash next time and shoot with a smaller aperture to get deeper depth of field.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Search for Ramen Part 2: Tom Ton, The Central

Tom Ton is a branch, owned by the same Mr. Takagi who also owns Tampopo. Tom Ton specialises in tonkatsu dishes, while Tampopo specialises in ramen. But both stores have extended their menu to include almost everything Japanese...ranging from simmered dishes to shushi and shashimi.

It takes a brave man to call his ramen shop Tampopo. The Japanese cult movie, Tampopo tells a story of a widow's dream to create the best ramen shop in the world.

The very same Spicy Korubuta Shabu Shabu Ramen, which made its name in Tampopo (now on the ground floor at Liang Court) is available in Tom Ton.

The Kyushu style pork bone soup was prepared over 2 days of constant high heat boiling of pork bones, extracting the marrow, and all the goodies of the bones to produce a superior stock. I asked for reduced salt, and the soup was very tasty, nicely balanced, with a good robust pork flavour. In spite of the liberal and colourful sprinking of chilli, the ramen was not too spicy.

The ramen was on the safe side...thin ramen was used, and cooked just slightly softer than al dente texture I prefer. This contrasts with the much firmer bite and eggy taste of the ramen used by Menya Shinchan.

But the centerpiece is the kurobuta slices. Kurobuta, literally black pig, is the pork equivalent to wagyu. Berkshire pigs, which are black and hence the name, are reared in a stressless environment, causing the meat to be tender, and full of flavour.

The taste is truly testimony to the added care to raise the pigs. thin slices of belly meat is quickly boiled and added to the bowl. The texture certainly is very fine, very tender, and beautiful flavour. The pork was a bit fat, but that's what gives rise to the rich taste and soft, tender texture.

The speciality for restaurant is certainly the katsu pork. We ordered the Black Pork Katsu with pink salt served atop a bowl of rice.

The slice of loin pork used was fat, but oh-so gorgeous, satisfying. The meat was tender, and very beautiful flavour. The crust was very crispy, and somehow did not retain the oil despite being deep fried. My personal best is still Katsukura in ANA Building, Tokyo (will blog about this soon), but this was pretty close.

Pink salt, liberally coats the sides of the bowl, and a sprinkling is also on the vegetables supporting the katsu. Pink salt, from Bolivia is a hand harvested rock crystal salt. The characteristic rosy pink hue, and speckled. In addition to its sodium chloride (salt) content, Pink Salt is remarkably rich in other minerals including Calcium, Potassium, Magnesium, Iron and an array of other essential and trace minerals.

The taste is subtle...I am not sure in a blind test, if I can correctly identify this from more normal rock salt.

The dish came with one of the most interesting miso soup I have seen. This was rich miso stock, but also brewed with vegetables and herbs and more kurobuta pork. Very fine, rich tasting, and not at all salty like most miso soup. This was a delight.

We also had the kurobuta tofu...see the theme of kurobuta? Many dishes are adorned with this very special, great tasting pork.

The stock was rich, possibly soy with rich pork bone stock...but lighter than the soup of the ramen. The tofu was the rough, cottage style tofu...very delicate soy flavour provided a nice counterpoint to the rough texture and the rich taste of the pork.

As the shop had a beautiful sushi counter, I ordered the namesake Tom Ton Shushi.

This proved to be a mini-disaster. Comprising of a cut roll with 6 different sushi ingredients - I can identify salmon, tuna, another fish, tamago, crab stick, cucumber. The taste is a riot, none of the ingredients was allowed to bloom. The sweet tamago clashed with the mild taste of the salmon and tuna. Wierd.

Other than the misadventure of the sushi, the meal was a great success. The ramen is one of better ones in Singapore, as is the katsu don.

Tom Ton
06 Eu Tong Sen Street #03-88/99
The Central(Above Clarke Quay MRT)
Singapore 059817

Java Dreams, The Central

Peter's comments in italics.

You know how it is with some places (or people) that you find you can just "click"" with at the first encounter? Well, that's what happened for me at Java Dreams Coffee & Roastery (B1-46, The Central) on this rainy Sunday afternoon...

Ok, I'm not a real serious2 coffee afficianado (like me dearest hubby) but I do need my coffee almost daily, and I do like good coffee places with the right feel and of course, the brew itself must live up to expectations. So after a pretty good lunch at Central, hubby, son & I, decided to give Jave Dreams a try.

Hubby ordered his usual Espresso (double shot), I ordered a Cappucino and we also decided to try a piece of their Chocolate Truffle cake.

The espresso came larger than one expects. It was not quite up to hubby's standards. He felt that the coffee beans may have been over-roasted but finished it nonetheless.

For a store who takes the trouble of roasting their own coffee...check out the Die Dietrich roaster in the corner. what a beauty! This raised hopes...unfortunately, too high. I don't know what they use in their blend and who the roastmaster is, but the results are a bit disappointing. The coffee displayed in vats on a wall looked over-roasted...the beans were oily, and very dark. I also spied a vat of green beans on the lower right.

A picture of the gorgeous roaster.

The espresso machine is a high tech, computer controlled 2 group affair by Nuova Simonelli - looks like their Premier Maxi. A machine which should be capable of hammering out excellent espresso all day. Temperature control should be spot on, group pressure perfect, and if barista technique is equal to the task, the espresso should be syrupy, concentrated, with great mouth feel and show an excelelnt head of crema - reddish brown and characterised by some tiger striping. See earlier post on espresso lessons.

This double shot tasted consistent with an over-roasted bean - bitter, bland, lacking body and had poor, thin mouthfeel. Also, the crema was very thin, in a pale colour, indicating over-extraction...also evidenced by the large volume of the shot.

My cappucino,on the other hand, was quite pleasing to the eye and this was because the barista dressed it up with choco-latte art! (see picture, see picture!!).

This ain't excatly truly Ally McBeal-frothing and moustche-making style cappucino, but hey, who caress when its good-looking! After sipping it, chocolate well-stirred in, I found this capp. tasted pretty satisfying and not too bad at all.

A strict cappucinno would not have chocholate syrup added - a traditional Italian barista would freak out (!!...he would also freak out by a customer ordering cappucinno after breakfast time...Italians only drink espresso after breakfast cappucinno...but that's another story) I would classify this as a mild latte mocha, rather than cappucinno. The latte art made by the chocholate syrup was quite nice...the spider's web was crisp, and well defined. Nice.

As for the chocolate truffle cake, it was less rich than I had hoped for. But it was good enough to get son, Edward, interested and happy in polishing it all up. It was, rather a bit more moist than the picture suggests.

All in all, it wasn't so much that the coffee and cake were to "die for", but there was something about this small cosy cafe that "clicked" for me today. Perhaps it was the lazy jazzy Norah Jones croonin'away. Or perhaps it was the unpretentious big red coffee roaster placed inconspicously at the corner, not out at the front centre of the shop. And a couple of colorful coffee-themed posters (one had "Whole Latte Love" on it) casually on one wall. Nice. Very casual and unobtrusive, as a real good coffee hang-out should be.

Best part was, it wasn't chock-a-block packed with noisy people like your every other self-service coffee shop in town. That's what probably did it. The place allowed me and my best guys to take our time to sip our cuppa, flip some magazines (as did son after cake was wiped off plate) and basically, just kick back and enjoy the moment. Aptly named "Java Dreams", this place could certainly make one forget the hustle and hurry of life for a while with its quiet ambience and pleasant smiling staff who remained discreetly behind the counter but were there to respond when you needed them. Unlike some haughty local cake and desert places which refuse to serve one water for free, even if you're paying gastronomical prices for its cakes/pastries. Iced water here was given freely and happily when asked for. These were the small things that made for a great relaxing time when hanging out here with family/friends. I hope this place doesn't become another coffee place turned Starbucks later. I hope it remains this casual and cosy enough for one to slip into, hold and sip that cuppa for a while and be lulled away into Java Dreams..zzz.

Java Dreams
6 Eu Tong Sen Street
#B1-46, The Central

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Pagi Sore and Mr. Teh Tarik Cartel

With comments by Edward in italics.

Indonesian cuisine is a favourite of the family. Hot, spicy, pungent, is a cuisine which is principally Malay, but heavily influenced by India, the Middle East, China and Europe.

I used to love the food and excellent service at Sanur, especially the branch in Centerpoint in the 90s, but have found them to be on the decline since. Pagi Sore - meaning morning and evening in Indonesian was first established in 1989 in Duxton, and moving to Amoy Street, and finally settling in China Square.

A traditional starter is belinjau crackers. Made from the germ of the belinjau tree, it is deep fried, and served with excellent home-made sambal belachan. The slightly bitter taste of the cracker, compliments the spicy, fragrance of the sambal belachan.

Sambal is a condiment made by pounding various kinds of chilli with toasted belacan. Belacan is made from a paste of fermented prawns, and sundried to form cakes. The cakes are then grilled, and packs a wonderful, intense fragrance, and salty taste of concentrated prawns.

It is bitter normally, so I much preferred it with the sambal.

Rice was served in a kinda nice ketupat (dumpling) style...wrapped in a banana leaf, the rice was fragrant, fluffy. I am not sure if the rice is cooked in the banana leaf, but I suspect not, as it remained wonderfully fluffy, so probably it was steamed, and wrapped while still hot in the banana leaf. The heat is sealed within the leaf, which also imparts a gentle fragrance to the rice.

First dish was a fried chicken dish - Ayam Goreng Bumbu. The chicken was fried to golden brown. Bumbu is a typical Indonesia spice...made from a blend of spices would include cinnamon, star anise, coriander seed, cumin seed, cardamom and chili, crushed up and cooked down into a gravy, Somehow, I found this dish to be nothing really special, just regular fried chicken.

The skin was... umm... sweet, I don't really know, but it was different... in a good way.

The beef rendang was heavily smothered in gravy...this was a healthier version than the traditional Malay rendang, which uses grated coconut in the gravy. The gravy is thick, smooth, and lacks the crunch of grated coconut, but still remains very tasty.

The meat used was a cut comprising of much connective tissue which can tend to be tough, but becaus rendang cooking method is over a long time in spices and coconut milk, the beef was rendered tender, and flavourful. The collagen in the connective tissue provided some textural interest to the tongue in contrast to the soft fibrous meat.

Their version of petai served with prawns proved to be very special. Petai is made from twisted cluster bean. The beans used in this dish were smaller than those found in the wet market. I suspect they are possibly Indonesian sourced...compared to the more typical Malaysian or Thai cultivars which tend to be larger, and less fragrant. The smaller petai were crunchy, and very fragrant. the special sauce of sweetish sambal belachan added zing and completes this class act.

The centerpiece was the fish. Leather jacket fish, de-skinned, and with the head removed was used. Called the Otak Kukus, it was cooked otak style. Typically otak is prepared by either steaming or grilling a mixture of fish paste and spices (typically chillies, garlic, shallots, turmeric, lemon grass and coconut milk) wrapped in a banana leaf. But here, they used a whole fish, and cooked so that the otak paste surrounds the fish.

I didn't like the coagulated coconut milk of this dish, too watery. I prefer the grilled version in which the coagulated coconut milk is firmer, with chunks of ground fish embedded.


Cooked to perfection, the meat was soft, tender, and had great texture and an imbued with the sauce condiments. Excellent taste. This a dish to return to the restaurant for.

Excellent meal in one of the better Indonesian restaurants in town. Surely, for me, a worthy successor to the Sanur crown.

After lunch, we walked over to Mr. Teh Tarik Cartel...a curiously named stall...but is quite a traditional mamak coffeeshop.

The teh tarik, tea made from a special tea dust and sweetened with condensed milk as only the Indians know how to. This style of tea is commonplace in Singapore, Malaysia and India, and the strong bitter tea conterpoints nicely with the very sweet and creamy condensed milk. The Singapore/Malaysia version features an interesting spectacle of tossing the tea from one container to another...sometimes over a distance of an entire armspan of the master-brewer. A generous froth appears at the head when the mixture is poured into a cup.

An iced version is also available, the same method of preparation is used, and the mixture then poured into a glass of ice cubes, ass shown below picture right.

Also available, shown left was an milo version...milo was made as a chocholate drink, tarik-ed, and poured into ice, and a generous sprinkling of powdered milo is dusted over.

The Dinosaur didn't have a spoon-straw which made eating the milo powder difficult.

This goes well with a very simple kampung style potato curry puff. Potato curry is stuffed into a pastry wrapping and deep fried. This version is typically served room temperature, in contrast to the Chinese version typified by Old Chang Kee which is always served hot.

As can be seen, the pastry is lightly fried...only managing to be a light yellow golden in color.

Pagi Sore, Indonesian Restaurant and Mr Teh Tarik Cartel, both in China Square.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Schweinshaxe at Radeberger Spezialhausschank, Dresden

Schweinshaxe, or pork knuckle is a German, or some say, Bavarian speciality which has parallels in Chinese cuisine. Schweinshaxe is usually made with a leg of pork, usually the lower part of a leg, which is crust of crispy crackling. The "sio ter kar" is a similar variant in traditional Chinee cooking.

In the beautiful German city of Dresden, a typical serving of this dish, done Saxon style can be found at the Radeberger Spezialhausschank. This is a micro-brewery of the famous Saxon beer - Radeberger, brewed in-premises. The entire restaurant looks like a river boat, both inside and outside. comprising of 3 floors of restaurant space...the ground level is the bar with two giant vats of beer being brewed. One floor up via a narrow ship's staircase leads to the main dining hall, and another set of stairs leads one to the roof terrase, which is level with Brülterrase for lovely al fresco dining.

A half liter glass of Radeberger is the correct way to start the meal.

Note the nice 1 inch of head...carefully measured by the bartender. The beer was very nice...slightly bitter, but very creamy, with strong hints of hops.

The Schweishaxe was served on a bed of sauerkraut and two Saxon potato dumplings.

The lower leg of a pig, known as a hock was used. As I understand it, the leg is braised in herbs and spices like carrots, celery, leeks for a long time to make the meat moist and tender. The long braising also allows the meat to absorb the flavours of the spices. The hock is then roasted at high heat in an oven. The roasting is to allow the fat to drip out of the meat. This can be batch processed early in the morning. On receiving an order, the skin is scored, and basted in a sauce of beer and the remainder of the braising liquid. And then deep fried to create a crisp crackling, and a crispy golden crust.

See the crispy crackling, and moist, tender, fall off the bone meat. In between, typically one would find connective tissue (good source of collagen) and fat. But as the hock has been roasted prior to deep frying, the fat has melted, and drained off.

The Saxon dumplings are made from potato, and have a springy, spongy texture. Sauerkraut is made from shredded cabbage, fermented by various types of latic acid. Sauerkraut, in German meaning sour cabbage, is a typical German dish, much like kimchee in Korea and is a good accompaniment to any meal. Especially so for heavy, greasy meats like schweinsaxe and sausages, where the sour taste of the sauerkraut helps cut the grease, and relieve the umami sensors from firing all the time.

We also had a serving of duck confit, done German style.

In contrast to the typical slow cooked French confit du canard where a leg of duck is slowly cooked under a slow and low fire for a long time, in its own fat and juices, the Saxon style is to make the confit similar to how they do their schweinsaxe. The result is a crispy skin, crispy outer, and very moist, tender meat.

Interesting meal, but very heavy (lots of meat).

Radeberger Spezialhausschank, Terrasenufer 1, Dresden. Entry also possible to top floor terrace directly from Brülterrase.

Photonote: getting white balance right is a big challenge here. Apologies for gory colour. The restaurant was dark, and walls are timber - rich brown...completely wreck havoc on the color temperature. I used flash, reflected off a plate, but still no go. Should have done the white balance from Pringles cap thingie.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Li Bai, Sheraton Towers, Singapore

To celebrate my mother's 76th Birthday, she decided on a small party for the family. She had already decided that she wanted to have "Fu Tiao Jiang" for her birthday, so we narrowed down to the restaurants who are well known for serving this rare delicacy.

Immediately Spring Yu Chun Yuan came to mind. They claim to have invented the dish in Fuzhou in 1876. I even made a recce trip to Far East Square to look at the premises...which reminded one of an old Kung Fu was housed in a temple like building, with a beautiful courtyard. But unfortunately for the date we had chosen, 15 June fell on a Sunday, and they are not open on Sundays. So we fell back to another perrenial favourite of fine Chinese cuisine: Li Bai in Sheraton Towers.

The restaurant is named after the Chinese poet who lived in Tang Dynasty famous for his Taoist peotry. Some years ago, when Sheraton Towers was first opened, the restaurant was infamous for its advertisement which boasted proudly that the dining experience in Li Bai was no small matter. Even the chopsticks were made of ivory, and jade platemats were used. This drew some flak from some quarters, and though they still use the same cutlery, the hotel is smart enough to keep a quiet pride about it.

We elected to an 8 course traditional chinese dinner.

First up was the amuse bouche. Interesting that these days, Chinese restaurants have adopted the French tradition of an amuse bouche - to amuse the palete before the main events. These are always little appetiser snacks, specially prepared by the Chef as an appreciation for the business. The amuse bouche in this case was pastry plums - which were steam soft buns, filled with lotus seed paste and egg yolk.

Detail showing the egg yolk. The lotus seed paste filling was smooth, sweet but not overly so. The bread was lightly steamed, so was fluffy.

The starter was barbequed boneless whole suckling pig wiht preserved bean sauce. Presented deboned, but laying on the plate arranged like a pig:

Detail showing the delicately roasted, crispy skin, a small layer of fat.

Then the entre, the main course was served. The Buddha Jumps over Wall or Fu Tiao Jiang as it is called is a seafood stew comprising of prized ingredients. The story goes that while the dish was being prepared, a passing Buddha, who is typically vegetarian, found it so wonderful that he jumped over the wall to sample the beautiful fragrance.

Served in a special porcelain pot, double boiled very slowly over a fire for many hours, the soup is made from the finest ingredients like sharks fin, whole abalone, chicken stock, sea cucumber, pig tendon, etc.

Typically this is the most expensive dish in a menu. A serving good for 10 people normally costs in the region of S$1000, and comprises of layers after layers of the good stuff. This version was no different. The broth was very fragrant and rich. The initial taste is that of a rich stock, but a bit bland. It takes a moment before the depth of the taste begins to develop. The palate then reveals the more complex flavours as the abalone, sharks fin, cured ham becomes more apparent.

The thrid course was sauteed fresh scallops and shrimps with asparagus. This dish had a delicate sauce, allowing the chef to show the fresh scallops and prawns in good stead. He had first singed both the fresh scallop and the prawn (yes, the menu described them as shrimps, but at this size, I think they should be called prawns), so there was fragrant wok hei.

The wok hei is a characteristic in Chinese stir fry cooking and is only possible in a commercial kitchen with the necessary high powered stoves. A typical stove is usually equipped with several, sometimes up to 6 jet like nozzles, where a mixture of kerosine and compressed air is injected. The resulting jet, is not unlike what gives the thrust on a jetplane, a very powerful, and intense flame. As such, most Chinese Chefs are male, as such a flame requires the cook to move the food at high speed, and often requires flipping the heavy wok...requiring much physical strength. A typical stove like this can generate some 150,000 BTU/hr. In comparison a regular home stove generates no more than 15,000 BTW/hr.

The next dish was the deep fried fillet of garoupa roll topped with crabmeat sauce.

The sauce was light, but had wat tan, a technique where a raw egg is beaten into hot gravy, cooking it in the process and creates floating streams of egg white and yolk within the sauce. This technique is commonly used also for hor fun. Crab meat and eggs were liberally scattered in the sauce.

The garoupa was fresh, and quickly deepfried so that it retains a succulent meat within a slightly crispy outer layer.

The chicken dish was the pompously named "Imperial Chicken with Ginseng". This was one of "jiak por" dishes...heaty, but nourishing. The presence of the ginseng imparted a bitter aftertaste to the chicken, which was poached.

Vegetables came served like a ying yang sign, signifying harmony. Baby pai chai were stir fried, and completely drenched in a rich, thick gravy of crabmeeat and shredded dried scallops. I personally liked this dish very much. The crunchy vegetables contrasted nicely with the smothering gravy, and the rich taste of the crab and scallops.

And for starch, as if, after a meal like this, we still needed more starch...was fried rice vermicelli (bee hoon) with seafood. This was also very well done, with good wok hei and a very fragrant gravy.

Dessert was a mixed platter of fresh fruits.