Monday, September 22, 2008

Wood Restaurant, Vivocity Singapore

With Jems and Dr. Mycroft.

Smoked meats are a staple in the beef towns in American states like Texas and interestingly in Montreal. A typical cut used is the brisket...a cut of meat from the breast or lower chest - the pectoral muscles form the bulk of the brisket. In Hong Kong cuisine, the ngau lam is usually coupled with collagen rich tendons to balance the sometimes tough muscle tissue. But a traditional Jewish method, as is practiced by the famous institution of Schwartz in Montreal (I once queued outside the tiny restaurant for about an hour in Montreal winter, minus 20C! to sample this delightful delicacy) is to smoke the marinated brisket over a low hickory fire. The resultant flavour is a smoky, tender slice of muscle which, depending on the degree of marbling of the beef can be very tender and tasty.

Wood Restaurant in Singapore promises the same enticing experience. The restaurant is at one end of the walkway (broadwalk?)in Vivocity, just below the cinemas. As one enters, one is greeted by a hostess at the front desk. The interior looked very dark from the entrance lobby, looked more like an evening entertainment club than a restaurant. As one enters, a long dark corridor leads directly to a beautiful glass cellar showcasing some very interesting wines. Flanking the corridor are private rooms, and this leads to the very bright dining hall...perhaps its just the contrast from the dark corridor, but it was lunchtime, and the sun was streaking in from the full length glass walls as the restaurant faces Sentosa.

We started with a shared plate of Wood signature chicken satay with spicy peanut sauce.

The smell which greeted us as the dish was presented was very woody, smoky. Chicken breast meat was used, and all three of us find it a bit on the dry side. I thought the flavour was quite interesting, but Mycroft demanded more fat...and would have prefered thigh or drumstick with a good helping of skin. He reminisced a yakitori meal we had comprising bishop's nose and grilled chicken skin. This doctor loves his fat.

The mildly spicy sauce was very thick, had plenty of ground crunchy peanuts. Not quite like the super thick sauce they serve on board SIA. But much thicker, and less oily than those found in Kajang.

I had read earlier that the Cardamon coffee 12 hour smoked wagyu brisket is the dish to try. Even the name was enticing. So I ordered that, as did Dr. Mycroft. Jems chose the 2 course set lunch comprising of a Spinach Salad, Chinese Sausage and quail egg in Oriental sauce and the House aged tenderloin with mash and veal jus.

The brisket was quite tender, and had a wonderful smoked flavour. Again Mycroft found the meat a bit dry and was not sufficiently fat. I guess his umami sensors felt unloved. My cut was slightly more marbled and as a result was more tasty. The charred bits hanging on the sides were smoky and full of flavour, but was dry. I am not sure what grade is the wagyu, but the marbling seems to be quite slight. In comparison, Schwartz's smoked brisket was wonderful, melt in your mouth whilst retaining the smoked flavour. Their charred bits were crunchy and as one bits into it, the fat exploded in the mouth, providing great sense of pleasure. But that's half way across the world in Canada.

The salad was very interesting. A concoction of leafy spinach and quail egg in a thin sauce, the chef chose slices of fried Chinese sausages as a topping. The crispy saussage added crunciness, and a beautiful rich flavour and a punch to the mild salad. The dressing was also very mild.

Jems' serving of tenderloin was also very lean. She cut me a small cut to taste, and I found it to be reasonably tender but the lean cut made the meat a bit dry to the palate. I don't normally like jus reduction, so would ask for jus on the side. The red wine reduction technique used will typically result in a thick, sour sauce. Although the two slices of tenderloin was generously covered in jus, it was not sour, but had a mild veal flavour.

Perhaps the cuts of meat was selected for a more health conscious crowd than the 3 of us. We generally felt the meat was too dry, and would have loved more fat.

We then adjourned to Bon Bon Tea one floor up for some dessert. We all tried crepe with ice cream.

The crepe was not as thin as those typically found on the streets of Paris. It was crispy on the outside and still soft on the inside. Reminds me of roti prata. I had hazelnut chocolate filling (I guess Nutella, also a common filling in Paris) and a huge scoop of hazelnut gelato. Mycroft and Jems both had the Bounty Cream on the side of their crepe, and had Hazelnut and Ameretto ice cream. The ice cream was very rich, slightly on the sweet side, but quite tasty and satisfying. The hazelnut flavour was evident in my scoop. And strong taste and smell of toasted almonds was clear in the Amereto.

Wood Restaurant
1 Harbour Front Walk
#01-53 VivoCity
Singapore 098585

Bonbon Tea
1 Harbour Front Walk
#02-141 VivoCity
Singapore 098585

Photonote: The Wood shots were high ISO - 1600. Though the entire wall was glass, where we sat was rather dark. Our table had a tungsten ceiling lamp shining on the table. This usually wrecks havoc on the white balance. White balance was done with a calibration shot of the white table cloth as white reference using custom white balance. After I took the last photograph, the waitress came by an told me, quite politely, I must say, "Sorry sir, our food is not for photoshoot" which I replied, "OK...I am actually planning to eat it." I don't understand why I cannot take photographs of the food I ordered and will pay for, especially when I am not disturbing other guests as I am not using flash, and not shooting them. The Bonbon shot was taken at ISO400.

Disclaimer: I actually went to school with the owner of Wood, but we have lost contact for some 20+ years, and only recently got in touch with each other. He was not in the shop when I visited as he was travelling. The staff did not know me, nor were they expecting me, and I believe had no special treatment.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Depot Road Zen Shan Mei Claypot Laksa, Singapore

Laksa is a food of, rich, tasty, enriching. To eat a bowl of steaming hot laksa on a hot day takes great passion. And today, a team of 8 colleagues decended on the busy Alexandra Village to sample this very famous laksa vendor. Formerly from Depot Road, hence the name, is served with super thick coconut milk in a claypot. The old couple who used to run the store in Dover, keeping the crowd waiting and scolding you like an old grandaunt if you come to remind her that perhaps she might have forgotten your order. I understand they sold the name to the current owner at Alexandra Village.

The soul of laksa is in the gravy, and comparing gravies to famous Katong laksa, the Dopot variety is thicker, more creamy, and way richer. The superior mouth feel is probably due to the cholesterol laden thick coconut cream used. The gravy may not be the healthiest, but the taste is excellent, firing the umami sensors and gives great, great satisfaction. I do seem to remember, though, that the old store in Depot Road was even richer, but sans any hint of coconut...there were rumours that they used evaporated milk.

A spot of the spicy chilli provides a sharp counterpoint to the richness of the gravy. And additional cockles are available for an extra dollar, makes the bowl even more tasty, just enough to edge this as my favourite in Singapore...note the cockles in the picture below is not fully cooked, but the heat of the claypot soon cooks the cockles to perfection.

Strips of taupok completes the taste.

Thick beehoon is used. But regular yellow noodles is also available. We did not order the yellow noodles as I feel the kee of the yellow noodles makes the taste even richer, and overkill on the creaminess scale.

Definitely one of the best laksa in my books in Singapore. Curiously the other laksa I really like is the one served in SIA's First Class Lounge in Changi Airport when the chef is in session. Almost as rich, creamy, and balanced with spiciness.

Wash this down with an avocado shake from the other side of the hawker center...and one is in near-foodie haven. Also rich tasting, it is very refreshing, and cooling.

Zhen Shan Mei Claypot Laksa
Alexandra Village Food Centre
Blk 120, Bukit Merah Lane 1 #01-75

Photo note: shot without flash on the 17-40 f/4L, at ISO400. Shutter speeds range from 1/25s to 1/40s. Raw processed with Adobe Camera Raw, pushing exposure, recovery, fill light and black levels.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Eating Indian: Mirchi at Esplanade, Singapore

Indian cuisine has a special place in my heart. I don't know why, but it appeals to me right to the my very core. Spicy, rich, fragrant, pungent, tasty, satisfying are all adjectives which come to mind when I think of Indian. Especially so in India, where the produce, seafood, meats are super fresh.

But also in almost any big city, its a cuisine I can count on to have a good meal. Be it in Geneva (I will blog about Gandhi's Cafe at Rue de Neuchâtel later), Bangkok (the thali in Bukhara at Thanon Sukhumvit is amazing), Kuala Lumpur or Penang, or Sydney (Zaffran at Darling Harbour is a great Indian restaurant). Of course in India, in New Delhi (especially Bukhara at Sheraton Hotel) or Mumbai, or even Karachi or Dakha or Colombo the taste and falvours are incredible. My postulate on why there are so many great Indian restaurants abroad is that Indian spices travel better than Chinese or Thai. Indian food in India is still a bit better than outside, but internationally Indian restaurants are close. Closer than Thai restaurants outside of Thailand, or Japanese restaurants outside of Japan, or even Cantonese outside of Hong Kong (and Singapore, Malaysia).

Kin and I went to catch the last performance of Puccini's the Grand Opera Turandot in the Esplanade for the 08 season. This was quite a good season by the Singapore Lyric Opera, the orchestra was magnificent, and singing quite good. We took this opportunity to eat Indian.

The fine dining scene for Indian cuisine has been characterised by Northern Indian cuisine, whilst the lower end is epitomised by Southern Indian banana leaf style. Both are great, and sometimes I have a craving for the rich, creamy nothern stuff, and at other times, I love the more base, sour, spicy taste of the South. Tandoor at the basement of Holiday Inn Parkview, Rang Mahal at the Pan Pacific Hotel, and lately Song of India have led for a long while. And more recently a few upstarts have started to make their mark. Mango Tree Coastal in East Coast is one such example. And Mirchi - A Taste of India, run by the folks at Harrys Bar (who also used to own Chicos and absolute favourite Mexican restaurant which sadly is no more...though it would be fair to say I love Chicos and Charlies when they were under the original management) is another.

Starting with a rather typical appetiser of papadams. The one served is the toasted/roasted type. Two versions were slightly spicy and the other not. Not surprisingly, being the fat lover that I am...I prefer the deep fried variety - more fragrant and better mouth feel, so the papadam had an uphill battle to win my affection right from the start.

Tough job for the papadams, and I found it to be dry, and sticks to my teeth. But the condiments which accompanied was inspired. Three small steel bowls contained a sweet mango chutney, a tangy mint chutney and salty variety.

I did not care much for the salty version...and as a freudian slip forget what it was, forget what it was. But the mango was supreme. Sweet, beguilling, it had sour undertones sufficient enough to cut the coyness from the sweet, and allowed the dish to be predominantly sweet. The mint chutney was very refreshing, and kept good company for the mutton/lamb...cutting the grease and richness of the meat.

And Biryani is special to me too...I never cared much for it while I was growing up...most of the time preferring white rice with my Nasi Kandar over Biryani. But suffice it to say, that I had my eyes opened when I first sampled its fragrant, enchanting delight in India. It totally captured my imagination. Most of the biryani's served by the eating houses and coffee shops in Singapore are no more than mere flavoured rice. But a well done example in India - say by the Copper Pot in Mumbai, is by necessity oily, rich, but hugely satisfying. The gosht biryani, lamb marinated in curd, and cooked in a pot sealed with dough so the cooking is done by dum (steam) is a style of Hyderabadi biryani known as kacchi.

The basmati rice used was thin, almost wirelike, and dyed with saffron and spices. Very fragrant, it was less oily than those I have tasted in India, which frequently comes almost drenched with ghee - super sinful (cholesterol and calories wise...but oh, so good). Burried deep in the pot - my mental image is one of a pot of one digs into it, one is rewarded with more and greater treasure, one finds chunks of very tender lamb. I found the lamb to be lean, and as a result, not as tender as it can be. The very best lamb usually come on the bone, fat exuding from the entire piece, and so tender it disintegrates on touch. Mirchi's was lean, and though tender, did not quite reach the ultimate tenderness. But overall, the lamb biryani was excellent enough for me to place this as one of the best 5 in Singapore.

We also had Murg Methi - a chicken curry-like dish. The thick gravy which was very rich, fortified with ground cashews. The chicken was extremely tender, and flavourful. The spicy, peppery chicken was very tasty. Really very rich in taste, it went extremely well with the naan.

Roti in particular naan is the staple in India, especially the North, more so than rice. And one of the hallmarks of a great Indian restaurant in India is the superlative naan. When I am in India, the naan is often so fluffly and tasty, that I keep nibbling after I am completely full after a meal, that this is the stuff which drives me to overeat. The Mirchi variety was very well done, actually excellent. We had the butter naan as well as a plain naan. Both were fluffy and light, and tasty. But compared to the best, it could not rival those I have eaten in India. It lacked the very last bit which encourages me to continue to nibble when I am full. But this is very good naan, and we are talking about the very last bit of excellence.

The dhal makhani was another must try. Black lentils are slow cooked,and was rich, thick, creamy...I suspect a large amount of butter and cream was used to achieve this great taste. Each grain of lentil was distinct, but almost melting into the creamy gravy. This is a full, rich, delicate taste. Truly superb. This is definitely one of the best dhal I have eaten.

Service was a delight, especially so for a Singapore restaurant. The waitress who served us was very knowledgable, polite, fast, and very professional. The ambience of the restaurant was very romantic...dark, with beautiful Indian accents decorating. Clever use of curtains allowed temporary rooms to be partitioned off to allow some measure of privacy for events.

A Taste of India
The Esplanade
8 Raffles Ave #02-23

Photo note. The restaurant was very dark, and use of a flash was mandatory. I bounced the flash off the neutral colored ceiling. I quite like the results.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Thanying, Amara Hotel Singapore

Thanying has been a hallmark of high dining, Thai style in Singapore for 20+ years. I remember a colleague introduced it to me in 1988 when our office was in IBM Towers (now Fuji Xerox Towers) and Thanying was situated at one corner of Amara Hotel.

To me, it remained one of the best Thai restaurants in Singapore. One of my Thai colleagues explained to me that Thanying is a title given to a lady of high rank, usually within the court. The implication is that the owner/chef used to cook for His Majesty himself, and thus would be the best of the land.

Indeed, the food was consistent, and was a standard bearer in its time. But success got the better of them, and they opened a large restaurant branch in Clarke Quay which never seemed to take off. I too became less of a fan, and had not dined there for the last 5 or 6 years. The Clarke Quay establishment was soon closed for lack of business - also due to refurbishment of the Clarke Quay, and I understand at one point the owners changed hands. Recently I heard the original owners have returned, and quality was improving. They have now still two branches, one in Amara and another in Sentosa.

Fast forward to today, there are a few more good/great Thai places to eat in Singapore than in those days, and I returned to sample if they have gone astray. Other Thai restaurants of note that I like in Singapore include the newish, hip Bangkok Jam in Great World City, Aroy in Funan Centre, Suan Thai in Killeney Road, and Patara in Tanglin Mall (BTW, though the same chain as Patara in Geneva, the quality of the cooking is immensely different...the Swiss restaurant is not only very expensive - Phad Thai for CHF50 per plate!!, but also inferior. The Bangkok main branch in Soi Assumption, however is excellent. I have a post in Timezone somewhere which I will dig out later on this fascinating restaurant in the heart of Bangkok). But I digress.

We started with the stuffed chicken wing. Giant chicken wings, seriously huge, were de-boned, and stuffed with minced chicken, chestnuts and other ingredients, and deep fried.

Crisp from the deep frying on the outside, and beautifully golden brown, biting into it was hugely satisfying. The red chilli sauce which accompanies was also excellent. Sweetish, spicy, with a tinge of was radiant in red.

My all time favourite Thai dish is phad phet kapow moo. Short Thai lesson (I am not proficient in Thai, but understand some words) Phad means fry or to fry. Phet mean spicy (hot). KaPow is Thai Basil leaves. And Moo is pork.

This dish is deceptively sauce, minced pork, chilli, basil...stir fried in a hot wok...but to get it right with the right balance of taste is not easy. The dish had to be at the same time spicy hot, salty, slightly sweet, slightly pungent, while remainding well balanced. The Thanying chef excelled in this. One of the best I have had in Singapore. Sure some roadside stalls would whip up one in Bangkok for B30 and taste even better, but in Singapore, this is hard to beat.

One dish I love in the old Thanying, but not found as good elsewhere is the paneng nuer. Paneng is thick red curry. And nuer is beef. The same dish can be done with pork, but I prefer beef.

The thick curry smothering the beef was excellent. Great taste and texture...curry must not have a powdery texture so common these days where the chef takes a short cut and instead of preparing the sauce from ingredients from scratch, use a curry powder. Though curry can be excellent with curry powder, my mom's chicken curry is superb in this and all other aspects, but often times, especially in restaurants where the chef is not fastidious enough, the powdery taste persists.

The beef, however was a bit tough. It was heavily striated muscle tissue, and tough to the palate. I wonder if the chef had used a grade 8 wagyu, would be an interesting dish.

The traditional side dish with the panang is fish...thin, whole, including bones have been deep fried till the whole is crunchy. Interestingly though the fish is deep fried, no oil residue, in fact it was dry to the touch and no greasy taste persist. The crunchy saltiness of the fish works hand in glove with the rich smothering curry very well.

The mixed fried vegetables which used to be very good, was a let down.

A variety of vegetables - young corn, brocolli, mushrooms, carrots are quickly stirred fried with fish sauce (nam pla) in a hot wok is a common dish in Thailand. The vegetables were still very crunchy and not overcooked, the sauce tangy, salty and hot, but was a tad too sweet. The Thais have this habit of adding sugar in almost everything, and usually an even hand ensured only a pinch of salt lands on the wok and provides some counter-taste to the spicy, salty sauce. But this time, the sugar was a tad in excess, and spoilt the dish. Aroy in Funan makes a fine version of this dish, and is my preferred kitchen to sample this.

Friedn crispy catfish in mango salad (yam pla duk foo) was the next dish. My most memorable tasting of this dish was some 8 years ago in Anna's in Thanon Withayu (Wireless Road) in Bangkok. That was my first encounter with this dish...and I waas amazed at how this dish was created. The fish were crispy flakes, more like whipped fried eggs than fish. I understand the traditional method to prepare this is to scrape the catfish meat with a fork into tiny bits, and deep fried till golden brown.

Firm mango is used as an accompaniment. Firm, still not fully ripe, the mango was slightly sour to the palate, and not sweet. It provided a firm bite and good counterpoint to the wispy, crisp fish. A sprinkling of roasted, cashew nuts and a sweet, sour, spicy hot sauce complete the dish.

I love Durian Khao Niao (durian with sticky rice), and some restaurants would serve you this dish even when durian is not in season, and it is hard to find good durian. Thanying chosed not to. And instead offered the mango variety - khao neow mamuang.

This time, a sweet Thai Honey mango, fully ripe was used. But as the Pakistanis exporting Mangos found out, the Thai preference is for mangos which are sweet, but with a slight sour tang. Pakistani mangoes are totally and completely sweet. And when first exported to Thailand, the exporters could not understand why their sweet mangos were not popular in Thailand.

The glutinous rice was firm to the bite, and very sweet, and thick coconut milk was poured over the rice. Delicious.

BTW, the restaurant also featured a full buffet table of desserts...beautiful to look at, excellent to eat.

Overall, definitely one of the better Thai restaurants in Singapore, and certainly one of the more expensive ones...of those I listed above, only Patara is similar in price. Lunch for 4 of us was almost S$130, while a similar meal in Bangkok Jam would probably be no more than S$80.

165 Tanjong Pagar Road
#02-00 The Amara

Photo note. I experimented with a different raw processing workflow this time, per recommendation of a good friend who is an excellent photographer.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Search for Ramen Part 3: Santouka, The Central, Singapore

The search for the perfect ramen continues. Of course, the holy grail bowl of ramen does not exist, but the search, and the process which involves imbibing bowls of ramen is surely quite satisfying and not only a journey but a destination in itself.

Santouka Ramen in Singapore is a branch of a very famous chain from the city of Asahikawa in Hokkaido, Japan. They also have several branches in the US, and in a recent roundup by rameniac, the LA store came up No. 1. BTW, Rameniac is a great resource site for ramen maniacs.

Many Singaporean bloggers have also reviewed their ramen, and today I went to see what the fuss was all about. The menu went at lengths about how they prepared the soup, how the temperature of th soup was kept just right...not too hot, never boiled as this destroys the flavours, but right for slurping. Also a "limited edition" ramen attracted two of my watch collecting buddies...supposedly only 60 servings of the Tokusen Toroniku ramen is available each day.

Toroniku - Japanese for choice pork is made from pork from a pig's cheeks...precious little is available, as each pig only yields about 200g to 300g or so of this delicate, melt-in-your-mouth meat. The ramen was available in 3 flavours of soup: Shio (salt), Shoyu, Miso and Kara-Miso. The Shio flavour is the most popular in Singapore and indeed in Japan as well.

So special is this cheek meat toroniku, that it deserved served in its own plate, with some accompanying toppings. As if to announce its superiority over typical chasu in ordinary ramen which is served semi-floating in the broth along with the toppings and noodles.

In the topping plate was Japanese green onions, bamboo shoots, wood ear musroom (kikurage), a slice of fishcake, and a pickled plum (umeboshi). The plum is one of the signatures of the Santouka chain, and a nice touch to balance the rich broth with a tinge of sourness.

As can be seen from the pic, the meat seems to have a rough looking texture with identifiable muscle fibres with what looks like plenty of collagen and probably fat. As I pop one in my mouth, I felt like making one of the expressive "oishi" faces that one sees on Japan Hour on TV...this was really delicious. The meat was truly melt in the mouth, like butter...disintegrating on contact with the tongue and taste sensors...excellent, excellent tenderness. Interestingly it did not taste greasy, but richly satisfying.

The noodles came swimming in a rather smaller bowl than is typical in Tokyo style ramen. The soup looked very thick, creamy, and had a wonderful aroma. Slurping the broth provided a great sense of was rich, powerful. Perhaps I am a heavy salt eater, but I found the original Tom Ton soup and even run of the mill Ajisen soup to much saltier. Readers are reminded that I had asked for reduced salt Tom Ton, and was richly rewarded. But here, I did not even have to request for less salt. It was perfect.

The noodle served was Asahikawa style - thick and curly, cooked al dente. The egg noodles were specially made to be shorter, and had the qualities of being able to absorb soup well, and prized for this reason. The typical hakata style ramen is thinner, and longer.

Overall, one of the best bowls of ramen I have tasted. Everything was right. The noodle style, done-ness, the rich, satisfying soup, the gorgeous pork. My eating companions, remember those watch collectors, agreed. One of them, a great friend and eating buddy, incidentally a medical doctor who imbibes butter and fat like there's no tomorrow...pronounced it better than Tom Ton in everything except for the kurobuta pork. Makes me wonder if Santouka does the pork cheeks from korubuta if it will meet with his approval.

We also tried the gyoza, and despite looking great, was a quite ordinary to the palate. Especially after such an amazingly delicious, rich bowl of ramen.

Ramen Santouka
6 Eu Tong Sen St
#02-76, The Central
Singapore 059817