Monday, March 30, 2009

Cafe Weasel: Vietnam's answer to Kopi Luwak

Just came back from Vietnam...bought some green beans Weasel
coffee...apparently similar to Kopi Luwak, but less gross. Kopi Luwak is a special coffee offered by the Indonesians. Kopi Luwak is not only famous for its alledgedly superior taste and aroma, but also for its extremely expensive prices. For the uniniaiated, it is it is coffee from the defecated remains of the berries that are eaten by civet cats (Bahasa Indonesia Luwak). Apparently the Vietnamese version, the same civet cat (for some reason translated as weasel) ingests the coffee berrys, and partially digests the flesh...the beans in Kopi Luwak are defecated, but as I understand it, for Weasel Cafe is regurgitated. The special taste and flavour of the beans are attributed to possibly two factors...only the best and berrys are selected by the cats, and the digestive system enhances the flavour of the beans.

I am not sure which is nearer the truth, but the beans I purchased are almost 99% peaberries. Coffee are berrys, and each yield two half beans. In a Peaberry, instead of two beans, it develops only one. This is a biological anomality, the single bean becomes round shape, instead of the typical bean which is round, but flat on one side, where it faces a mirror imaged twin. Peaberries are treasured by coffee lovers because the flavours are more intense.

Drinking coffee in Vietnam is an favourite passtime of the locals. There were many cafes, in the vein of those in Paris along the streets of Ho Chih Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi. The preferred method of brewing is with the ubiquitious filter perched atop a cup, where hot water is poured over the grounds and allowed to slowly filter through the device and collect onto the cup below, which is frequently lacecd with sweetened condensed milk.

The coffee is always very strong, dark, and have a vanilla taste. Rich and robust, it was quite a delicious cup.

I purchased a kg of green beans from Mai Ly Coffee suppliers at Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chih Minh City.

This was the only beans available in green, and 1 kg costs US$10. Mai Ly also sells other roasted beans and also ground coffee. I met the owner Mai Ly herself, and she claims she roasts the beans herself.

From inspection, looks like peaberries, and the greens do not seem to have been sorted. When I poured out a portion for roasting, I discarded the blackened and shrivelled beans, and only used those which looked whole, complete and good.

As can be seen, mainly peaberries.

I roasted my first batch of about 150g. I made a mistake during the roasting. The roast profile is such that the first crack was very soft I missed it, and thought the second crack was the time I realised that, it was too late, and I have over roasted the beans.

The resultant beans were full French roast, very very dark.

From left to right...greens, first crack, somewhere along, second you can see very dark.

Note also, the beans were not uniformly roasted, and I suspect this is because of the variable quality of the greens.

Taste wise, because it was very dark roast, the character of the roast
took over, and the character of the beans are more or less lost. The
grinds needed to be much finer than my regular single origin beans to
get proper extraction. At the centre notch of my Mazzer Mini, the
coffee just runs through. Not sure if its due to over-roasting.

here is a video of the extraction on my machine:

Click here for movie

the extraction was quite ok...about 32s, slightly on the long side.
The volume is a bit high for a double espresso. In the video, you will
see the espresso start, then a steady flow, and it stopped, and
restarted...this is because on the Elektra Microcasa a Leva, a double
espresso requires a double two pours.

The first 17 or so seconds is the pre-infusion. At about 18s, pressure
is released by the machine, and the piston forces water through the
grinds at 9 bar pressure. The first pour starts about 18s in the
video, stops at about 30s, and the second pour starts about 35s into
the video. The entire pour of double stops at 55s.

As alluded, the over-roasting made the espresso bitter. Heavy taste, no
specific flavours come out. In Saigon, the coffee using their filter
had strong vanilla taste. But my own roast, this was not apparent.
Bold coffee taste and flavour.

I will roast another batch when I return from Tokyo after Easter.

I may not be updating this blog for a week, as I am on vacation in Basel and Dresden...though I always hope to be able to update the blog when I travel, truth is, I often end up too tired by the time I get back to the hotel room, and the time change doesn't help.

Photonotes: This is the first post using a portable, smaller camera than my usual EOS 1Dmkiii. All photos were shot with the Panasonic Lumix DMC LX-3, a little camera, but very capable, as you can see with the results, as long as we keep the ISO below 400. The fast lens at f/2 helps get steady shots.

The video is also shot with the LX-3, one of the very first videos I have ever shot in my life. So pardon the inexpert handling, but the quality of the camera, shooting in HD, and reduced size to load faster is quite good.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bangkok eats: See Fah

with Janet and Kennard

Arriving on a Sunday for a whole week of work is not fun. But we had to do so for the 3rd IATA World Cargo Symposium in Bangkok's Centara Convention Centre. As a first treat, we headed for See Fah - a fairly traditional, home styled restaurant in Central World. Billed as a Chinese Restaurant, we found the place to serve traditional Thai cuisine very well.

For starters we had the pad thai kung.

As we shared a portion, the picture above was my portion. Pad Thai uses a kind of kway teow which is different from those used for Penang CKT or Singapore CKT. The Thai version uses a dehydrated kway teow, which is made from pure rice grains, and contains no oil. The kway teow is rehydrated by soaking in warm water just before frying, and the firm-ness of the noodle becomes a variable that the cook can play with to achieve what she wants - al dente or soft. This plate of pad thai was expertly fried, the noodle just a little softer than al dente, and blends seamlessly with the eggs, prawns, cubed tofu, vegetables. The bean sprouts were particularly very large and fat, and unlike those served in Malaysia and Singapore, were left raw by the cook to be added only by the diner. I usually mix it in quickly into the hot noodles, and allow it to cook - as there is no active heat source, this leaves the sprouts to be a bit rare and crunchy. A sprinkling of dried chilli flakes makes it a lovely starter.

We also had the tod man pla - Thai fish cakes.

A Thai speciality, the fish cakes were savoury and tasty. Nice flavour. The texture was a bit springy, but cuts easily with a fork/spoon, but retains some resistance to the bite. Eaten with the sweet and spicy red chilli sauce, it was very good.

Tom yam kung is another quintessential Thai dish.

This was not the clear soup variety, but came with a cloudy, brownish soup which was rich and fragrant. Straw mushrooms provided some savoury umami to the tastebuds which are assaulted by the astringent, spicy and sourness of the soup. The prawns were de-shelled, and very fresh, with a good flavour of the sea.

We also ordered glass noodles with king prawns, which came in a claypot

Yet another traditional Thai dish, this one was cooked with a twist. Typically this dish is cooked in a claypot, with the prawns halfed, and glass noodles over a bed of pork lard. The lard provides flavour and fragrance. Generous sprinkling of freshly cracked black pepper and spring onions are usual accompaniments. But the See Fah version is rather special that it contains dried Chinese mushrooms which provided a punchy, rich flavour which was ably fortified by slices of prime back bacon. The bacon provided ample flavour, umami and richness not experienced in lesser variants. This was quite wonderful.

For desserts, we decided to stay Thai traditional...and had one serving each of khao neow mango and khao neow durian.

Khao neow is Thai for sticky rice, or glutinous rice. This is a staple in the North Eastern Thailand province of Issarn, and often eaten with fried chicken. It is also a favourite for dessert in cakes and kueh, but also in with durian. Served with durian, Thai durian is used. This is frequently less fragrant and more fleshy than the Malaysian variants. Thai durians are scientifically farmed, and harvested from the trees mechanically. Malaysian durians are allowed to ripen on the tree and fall, and then picked up for sale.

A thick, sweet coconut milk accompanies this dish. The durian was Monthoong, and quite fragrant. It was a bit bitter, but mainly very sweet, creamy and soft. It want very well with the coconut milk and sticky rice. I returned two days later after dinner at another restaurant with Dr. Mycroft, who also happened to be in Bangkok that day, to have this as dessert. He too loved it.

The mango was not to be left behind. Served dry with Thai mango, with a small amount of first pass coconut milk, and a sprinkling of sugar, it too was delicious. The Thais prefer their mango to show some sour undertones over a sweet base, and for the fruit to be smooth, fiberless. This is unlike Pakistani mangoes which are extremely sweet, super smooth texture.

We enjoyed the meal at See Fah very much, and will keep this on the map for further visits.

See Fah Restaurant
Level 6
Central World
Tel. 02-255-6368-71

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Oriole Cafe and Bar: espresso to satisfy at great food too!!

with Prof. Horolographer, SJX, RobG and DaveG

Had wanted to drop by for a long time, ever since I was alerted of the presence of this new eatery, chill out bar, espresso haven. Colin Loh, a friend from the Singapore Greens Group (a group of fanatic coffee lovers, home roasters, and espresso freaks) told me that John Ting, Singapore's Barista Champion 2008 and 2009 is resident barista has setup shop just across the road from my office...I yearned to go have a try.

I first dropped by during the First Latte Art Shakedown...discovered John and Oriole's owner Keith Loh (SBC 2009 second, SBC 2008 4th) were fun folks.

So this time round, I wanted to sample the food...

First off...some starters:

Spicy calamari.

These were rather tasty bits of calamari, battered with a spicy batter, deep fried. The calamari was a bit overcooked, and slightly tough, but tasty.

Second started was Grilled prawns bruschetta:

Interesting, methots...prawn bruschetta? Usually, in Italy, bruschetta is just plain grilled bread, topped with virgin olive oil, tomatoes, mozarella, and sometimes...if the chef is daring, proscuitto. This was my first encounter with prawns. But the prawns were fresh, the grilling very delecate...leaving the prawn in an almost raw one can savour the prawn flavour and taste...and crunchy texture...very nicely done...the bread was crisply toasted, and the diced tomatoes provided some bite...goes well with the virgin olive oil drizzled over. Nice dish!

Now the mains. The young man of the group...12 year old DGan had the biggest entré: the burger...topped with a fried egg, it looked wonderful. He affirmed with big smiles, and approving looks as he devoured the burger.

SJX had the braised beef cheeks with tagliatelle:

He too grunted his approval between bites. The beef looks very well braised in its own jus. One to try for a next visit.

RobG had the beer batter fish and chips.

Fresh fish, I suspect snapper, is encased in a very crisp, mildly flavoured batter. The batter was made lighter by adding beer to the mixture and allowed to rise...allowing the beer to create within the wet batter, making the dough lighter, and when deep fried in hot fat, resulting in batter which is crisp, and provided the structure to contain the moisture of the fish within. The fish was tender, moist and full of flavour. Quite lovely. A simple dish, done right.

Horolographer and I both had the Philly Cheese Steak.

I always had a soft spot for Philly Cheese Steak. My first encounter was the now defunct (in Singapore...still doing well in the US), inexpensive, food court variety...a shop called Steak Escape. Edward loved the PCS as well, and often the two of us would sneak away from shopping...he would have been no older than 4, perhaps 5 years old then, to have a PCS. Later, in the US, I sampled the awesome Pat's King of Steaks in Philadelphia, who invented Philly Cheese Steak. Pat's (and Geno, which I haven't tried...but reports of poor service at Geno have discouraged me...) are the hallmarks to judge by. My memory of Pat's is good...though I didn't like the cheesewiz. There is something primal about eating a sliced rib eye in the concoction of onions, provolone cheese, fried in tallow/butter and a soft, toasted long hoagie bun.

The Oriole version was excellent...albeit a bit on the small side...the bread was soft, nicely toasted...not too crisp, but enough to provide some bite, the insides were smooth and soft. The beef...I think ribeye like at Pat's...was sliced, fried, and rolled into a neat pile. Onions were beautifully caramelized and some green bell peppers were added. I am not sure if they used Provonce cheese, but the cheese tasted good, and I was thankful no Cheese Whiz. Both Horolographer and I loved it. I would go back just for this sandwich.

For desserts, we shared a Chocholate Fudge Cake, and a Carrot Cake. The Choc Fudge was super, super rich. Didn't take a pic...was a rather largish slice. The carrot cake was about the size of a regular cup cake...

My slice, showing a nice generous icing was rich, and creamy. The cake itself was moist, yielding small chunks of carrot bound within the cake. Very nice. Reminded me of the original Carrot Cake offered by the original Coffee Club way back when they first opened in Holland Village in the early 1990s. Both Oriole's cakes were a tad too sweet for me.

And finally the coffees. The piéce de résistance...the espresso. This was my espresso doppio:

Nice thick crema, moulting on the crema suggest a good cuppa. I did not see my cup being pulled, but I went to the espresso machine. Saw a mother of a machine...a 3 group La Marzocco, and a smaller GS3. Beautiful machines.

The heavy, brewing, was done by the magnificent 3 gruppa La Marzocco. The resulting in Singapore...befitting that it was pulled by the Keith, who placed no. 2 in Singapore Barista Championship mentioned, John Ting, who also worked in Oriole was placed no 1, but he was in Reservist.

Even though the glamour is always stolen by the espresso machine, the grinder is the most important piece of the espresso equipment puzzle. Get the grind wrong, forget about espresso. Two very large grinders were took pride of place. One was a Mazzer Super Jolly (I use the Mini myself at home). A big grinder is better than a smaller one because larger grinders operate at lower burr speeds...translating to a smaller amounts of heat generated by the grinding...resulting in helping preserve the flavour of the grinds better. Each cup was ground to order. This ensured that the coffee is fresh, and never stale. Ground coffee have a shelf life for the connoiseur of about 1 minute. Beans must be ground for each cup, immediately before brewing.

The volume was just a bit long for a doppio...but still within regulation size. An espresso should be about 1 fl. oz in size...and a doppio (double in Italian) should be no more than double the size. The crema held a spoon of sugar for about 30/40seconds, testifying to the fact that it was a result of correct brewing and not a gimmick. Proper crema has foundation and structure, and can support a teaspoon of sugar for a while.

The coffee was viscous, almost liquorice like. Superb mouth feel, good body, beautiful aroma and a long after taste. This is actually very very good espresso. Mecca in Sydney (at Grace Hotel's side by King Street) serves a more potent version, but the Aussie version achieves this by actually serving a double ristretto...when you order an espresso doppio. The espresso made my day!

Oriole Bar and Cafe
96 Somerset Road
Pan Pacific Serviced Suites
tel: 62388348

Keith also owns Bedrock Bar & Grill just adjacent...a fine dining establishment.

Photonotes: The restaurant was rather dark, so I had to shoot at ISO6400 to ensure a shutter speed, with my preferred aperture for sharp hand held shots without IS.
I think a bit grainy, but still you think so?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Baa, baa, black sheep: French cuisine by an Indian chef?

with Prof. Horolographer, Prof. Massi, Dr. Mycroft and SJX

A fellow makan kaki - mien3 once told me that there was a little French place, tucked deep in Serangoon area, and helmed by an Indian chef...with mindblowingly good food. Coming from mien3, that was indeed a compliment.

I went with my friends to seek out the place. An email reservation was promptly and politely confirmed by chef Ratha himself. It was raining heavily that morning when we had made reservations to do luncheon there, and the entire (rather small) restaurant was completely deserted when I arrived. Throughout our meal, we were the only guests. The place was simply decorated, with a few "black sheep" photographs.

The menu was simple as well...three starters, plus a soup of the day (was Mushroom soup), three main courses, and two desserts. Ratha explained his fixed prix menu for déjeneur at S$25, and included any combination of two courses, but excluding the pan fried foie gras.

We had to have the foie gras, so amongst the 5 of us, we shared two portions.

The serving size of the duck foie gras was about the thickness of two slices Gardenia bread, and possibly about 3/4 the size of a slice was $22. It was cooked to perfection...just a bit medium-rare on the inside, and slightly charred and crisp on the outside. I remarked that I am quite amazed by quality control of duck livers used in foie gras these days. Almost all were good, only very few had veins, and in most in recent memory, the fat was distributed evenly, and the texture smooth and spotless. Contrast this with 10 years ago, when foie gras was more a novelty than a standard offering. In those bad old days, a good restaurant would serve something sublime, but if anyone dared to attempt a budget foie gras, it would mostly be difficult - veins, uneven fat distribution, lumps, et al.

The Black Sheep version was excellent. Horolographer thought it particularly suitable to his disposition, as did Mycroft. The foie gras accompanied by crisp toasts and a bed of greens, and the usual fig. The dish was enjoyed by all. I can imagine a dry champagne, perhaps Duetz might be a good accompaniment.

We also had the Ceasar's Salad.

The romaine lettuce used was reasonably fresh, and the dressing was freshly made. Some lightly stir fried garlic prawns and slices of hard boiled eggs were thrown in with bits of toasted bacon and crisp croutons into the salad, and provided a very nice taste contrast to the lettuce. The portion was sufficient, and the salad was tasty. .

We had 4 orders of the confit du canard.

I am a big fan of confit du canard, after one fateful dinner at Chez Dumonet-Josephine in Paris one evening years ago. This restaurant, famed for its confit and old world charm is a monument of the French bistro. Charming interior, excellent cooking. In Singapore, the standard is, um, lower, but I could always satisfy cravings for confit du canard at the now defunct Sebastian's at Hillcrest. Not quite as good as Chez Dumonet, but more accessable.

Confit refers to the French method of cooking where usually a whole leg of duck or goose is preserved, typically by slow cooking in its own rendered fat, cooled, and stored in jars together with the fat. The leg is removed for cooking to develop the wonderful crust, and the fat can be reused for more confit. This was the way meats were preserved before refrigeration. The typical recipe is simple enough, rub salt, garlic, and chefs would have you believe some secret herbs and spices, to the leg of duck, cook in a pot deep enough to contain the whole leg in its own rendered fat (actually fat from several ducks, often several liters are needed). Cooking can take as little as two hours or as long as 10. When done right, it is meltingly tender, fall of the bone meat, not too salty, and a deep, crisp wonderful crust encapsulating the leg.

Chef Ratha's version was reasonably close, but no cigars. My memory of Sabastien's confit was superior to Black Sheep's in terms of overall taste, especially in the all important crust and the restrained and near-subtle salt of the meat. Sabastien's had a hang-together one flavour overpowering the other.

Ratha's confit was tender, fall off the bone, but the meat was a tad salty. Horolographer thought it very salty, and the duck did not quite agree with his sensitive palate. The crust, though looked lovely, was also not as crispy as it should be. I suspect the provenance of the duck used is also different. Overall, not a bad effort, but not one to assume the crown for Singapore's best confit du canard, now left vacant with the demise of Sebastian's. Needless to say, I should restrain myself from comparing to Chez Dumonet's.

JX had the lamb shank in red wine reduction.

Red wine reduction is a typical French style of cooking where sometimes up to a whole bottle of red wine, often of good vintage and from a good house (cook with only what you would drink on the table), reduced so that most of the alcohol evaporates, and the wine is very concentrated. As I understand it, the wine actually reacts with the proteins in the meat, and acts as a tenderiser and flavour enhancer.

I didn't taste it, but it looked wonderful, and JX seemed happy with his choice.

A bottle of nice, full bodied red, like St. Emillion would have complemented both duck and lamb nicely, but this was a working day lunch, so we chose not to imbibe in any alcohol.

Then 4 of us went for the souffle. Horolographer decided to watch his diet, and received a scoop of ice cream.

It looked wonderful...the creme patissiere was excellent, overflowing the cup, and pushing itself up and out, creating the super light souffle. The baking caused a thin, slightly elastic, almost crisp crust to develop on the outside. The patissiere was Kalua flavoured, and was served with a scoop of dark chocholate ice cream with a few almond slices thrown on top. I found the pastry a bit too sweet, but it went well with the ice cream.

Total bill for 2 orders of foie gras, 4 Ceasar's salad, 4 confit du canard, 1 lamb shank, 4 Kalua souffle, 4 espressos and 1 cafe latte came up to $180.

The Black Sheep Cafe
35 Mayo Street
Singapore 208316
92721842 or 6292 5772

Friday, March 13, 2009

Aston Prime: the steak that tries...

with 35 other ieaters

When ieat organized a makan session to taste steaks at Astons...I was immediately intrigued and signed up. Brought the whole family there...including my sister who was visiting from Penang and my mom...who normally is not keen on western food.

So off to Aston's Prime at Joo Chiat we went. Aston's is famous (infamous?) for great steaks, value for money and long, long queues outside their stores islandwide. So is this value for money chain going to be able to increase the level of steaks in Singapore? You bet! So read on.

The whole ieat gang took up the entire restaurant, and the occassion was to test out the new sizzling hot plates that Aston just bought, and to for the team to provide critical feedback to Aston. Aston was generous enough to donate the entire takings for the evening to charity. Well done Aston.

I had the opportunity to sample quite a few steaks. Of those which stood out were the following:

My cut of porterhouse was quite nicely done. I had requested for Chicago medium - a style where the outside is charred crisp, and the inside remains warm and medium. I guess Aston didn't understand what I wanted, and delivered a perfectly nice medium porterhouse.

My preferred cut for a steak is a slab of Porterhouse, well marbled, dry aged and done Chicago Medium. As I have blogged before, Peter Lugers serves the best I have tasted, and Mamou's in Manila is a close second. My thoughts on a good steak have been documented here.

Dry aging of beef is a critical step to good steaks. Aging generates flavour. The enzymes within the meat attacks molecules indescriminately, turning flavourless large molecules to smaller, flavourfull fragments. They turn protein into amino acids which are savoury to the palate and glycogen into glucose. Glucose provides the sweetness you can detect in aged beef, and provides the sugar for the important Maillard reaction.

Enzymes called calpains weaken the supporting proteins that hold the contracting filaments of muscle together. Others like cathepsins also weaken the collagen in connective tissue. This causes more collagen to dissolve into gelatin during cooking making the meat more tender and succulent. The weakened connective tissue squeezes the meat less which means it loses less moisture during cooking.

To qualify to be a porterhouse, the meat must be at least 1.5"thick. Aston's porterhouse was a little on the thin side...about an inch thick, perhaps a little less, and closer to a T-bone steak than a porterhouse, although the T-bone is usually taken further posterior of the carcass than porterhouse.

The porterhouse is the preferred cut for steak lovers and those in the know because it actually comprises of two cuts of meat. The tenderloin is the larger part of the porterhouse, separated from the toploin by the bone. The tenderloin is the most tender cut, but may not be most flavourful.

The toploin is also known as sirloin, and is more flavourful, but tougher than tenderloin. (supposedly, an English king was served toploin and he was so pleased with the meat, that he drew his sword and knighted the meat...henceforth known as Sir Loin)...toploin is also known as New York Strip.

The porterhouse, being with bone, the meat is usually more tasty. Indeed this is the standard steak served by the legendary steakhouse Peter Lugers.

My cut from Aston, as I mentioned was done standard medium. The meat was as it should be, tender where it should, and flavourfull where it should. But I wished for a bit more tenderness on both cuts - a tenderness and nuttiness which can only result from 14 to 21 days of dry aging. And for the meat to be a bit more marbled. The porterhouses served that evening was also a bit variable, pointing perhaps to the fact that Aston could tighten quality control of the though mine was standard medium, others had theirs too well done resulting in a dry steak.

I ended up in a discussion with Aston, and challenged him to come up with the goods, so to speak...make a Chicago Medium steak. He was as passionate about steaks as I was...or perhaps more...afterall he owns a chain of steak houses...wish I too owned a chain of steakhouses...anyway, he was game, and tried with the NZ Black Angus ribeye.

The outside was seared nice and charred black by his griddle. As it sat, it glistens and beckons. This was a winner. The Maillard reactants, Dr. ieat explained that indeed the reducing sugars are found within the muscles, so the browning of the meat is Maillard Reaction, and charring made a wonderful smokey char flavour. But cut into the steak, and it was beautifully medium inside.

The cut steak above shows Chicago Medium as it should be done. And as can be seen with the rough sinews of muscle, the steak was a bit lacking in marbling.

On tasting, it affirms my wish for dry aging of the beef. During the dry aging process, the natural enzymes within the beef can do some pre-digestion of the sinews during the aging, producing characteristic tender and nutty flavour only present in dry aged beef. And as with the porterhouse, I also wished for a more marbled cut...not wagyu grade 9 level of marbelling. Just USDA Prime.

Here is how the meat looked before cooking. Note the vein of fat in the middle characteristic of a ribeye:

Aston also cooked up a NZ Black Angus strip loin, done up Pittsburg style, which is also known as black and blue or Chicago rare.

Note the rare interior shown in the insert, but charred crisp exterior. The steak remained quite tender, but the same wish for dry aging remains.

In all, the steaks served at Aston's were excellent, and the only thing that kept them from being great in my books has been repeated throughout this article, but stands repeating:

1. start with USDA prime beef, with requisite marbling
2. dry age the beef from 14 to 21 days

Read also ieat's report found here.

467 Joo Chiat Road
Tel: 6344 2447
1130-2200hrs (Opens Daily)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Krua Apsorn: The Princess' chef cooks for us

with Prof. Thanet Makjamroen in Bangkok

First apologies for taking a week off without any postings. I was attending and chairing some sessions in the World Cargo Symposium, where 705 of the air cargo industry's decision makers were participating in the IATA organized event. As such, days tend to start early, and end late. However, I managed to find some time on Saturday to eat with my good friend Thanet.

Prof. Thanet is a gem of knowledge of Thai cooking, and it is always a great joy to dine with him. He has a special knack for little restaurants, which always turn out to be excellent. This time, it was no different. He took me to a almost non-descript looking restaurant...simple place, much like the thousands of air conditioned eating houses that dot Bangkok.

Krua Apsorn is a discrete looking place...simple, plastic tables and chairs, with plastic table coverings, bright florescent lighting. Located near the National Library, and far from the madding crowd. The walls were simply decorated with pictures of the chef and owner with the late Princess Galyani. The chef is Paa Daeng; Paa in Thai means aunt.

She first cooked for the Princess Mother Srinagarindra (mother of the current King Bhumipol Adulyadej) and her daughter, Princess Galayani Vadhana, was in 1969 when she worked at Irrigation Department. The princesses loved her food so much that Paa Daeng was asked to accompany the Princess Mother when she traveled to the provinces until her death in 1995, and after that with Princess Galayani until Paa Daeng retired and opened her own restaurant.

The appetizer was somewhat unusual. The dish was listed as Miang Kana.

Served in a white porcelain plate, with three leaf shaped protusions. At one end were kailan leaves (known in Thai as Kana. Interestingly in Teochew, the same vegetable is also known as kana). On another leaf was some diced young ginger, diced Thai lime with skin intact (this was the thin skinned variety), some Thai green mini-chilli..which packed some power! And some cubed onions. On the third leaf was some roasted peanuts, dried shrimps, and pork rind. And taking center stage was a sweet sauce.

The technique was to fold the leaf into a container, as shown by Prof. Thanet in the insert picture. The rest of the ingredients were piled into the leaf container and the whole ensemble popped into the mouth in one fell swoop.

The mix of tastes were interesting. Powerful (if you added the chilli), sweet, pungent, and savoury all exploded in the mouth.

Next, the grilled river prawns.

This was quite special as well. The prawns were huge, probably measuring at least 8 inches from tip of the head to the tail (with its feelers chopped off). Two prawns were presented, each half-ed and grilled on a charcoal fire.

A closeup to the prawns show the beautiful orange/crimson fat, which is stored in the head of the prawns. Prof told me that the river prawns can only survive in very clean waters, and cannot be farmed, as for some reason, farmed river prawns had the same huge head but without the fat, and had very tiny body resulting in no meat.

The fat was scooped and eaten with prik nam pla (sliced chilli in fish sauce), and tasted wonderful. Full of flavour, umami and provided excellent mouth feel...contrasted with the slightly tart nam pla and the pungent sting of the chilli.

I was surprised that prawns this huge were not tough, but the meat was very tender, sweet and had a nice clean palate. Very nice.

We had the gaeng luang lai bua - lotus stem yellow curry, and combined this with Thai omelette with crab meat.

The curry was sans coconut milk. The soup was made from prawn stock. This provided the base foundation with a distinct flavour and taste of prawns. But built over this was a soup which was astringent but with sour overtures coupled a pungent spiciness. The lotus stem was soft, but provided some resistance...a bit like asparagus spears cooked well done, though less fibrous.

Thai omelette is a speciality I am always amazed with. How can a dish so simple that anyone can do be elevated to an art that only a few can execute? A light, slightly crisp exterior gave way to a luscious, gorgeously fluffly, umami-rich interior as one cuts open the thick omelette. Whiffs of crab and egg...beautiful.

The astringent property of the soup goes very well with the rich, slightly greasy omelette and the rich taste of the crab meat within. Good touch.

Another speciality is the mussels. Called Hoy malangpoo pad cha, this was stir fried in fish sauce, with basil leaves and chilli.

Done with pork, it reminds me of a dish known as pad phet kapow moo - my absolute favourite Thai dish. However, the mussels pad cha is stir fried slightly differently from pad krapow. Pad cha uses krachai (lesser galanga (?)) and kafir lime leaves. Krachai is related to Kha (galanga), the ginger-like looking roots used in coconut soup with chicken in yet another Thai favourite tom kha kai. And done the Apsorn way, a twist with fresh green lipped mussels...this takes the dish to another level. The mussels were fat and succulent. The characteristic toughness one sometimes associate with mussels gave way to the expert cooking and resulted in mussel meat which just almost melt in your mouth.

The crab with Thai asparagus was also another speciality. Nuer poo pad prik luang was its Thai name...and it was essentially deshelled crab, fried with long beans and Thai yellow chilli.

The dish was rather milder than most Thai concoctions, but the magic of the ingredient mix, how each goes with the other, even in an unusual combination such as this testifies to the genius of the chef. Simple looking dish, but fantastic tasting.

Their char grilled stuffed chicken wings. This dish is so popular, that diners were advised to order a day in advance, because it often ran out during the day. When we arrived, Khun Thanet told the owner he wanted me to sample the wings...she said that they were sold out, but later managed to find 2 wings.

First off, the wings were enormous. Huge wings, cut open, de-boned, and stuffed with its own meat, minced with pork and other ingredients. And char grilled. It had such an amazing colour and texture. Absolutely delicious.

And finally dessert. In the tradition of Michelin starred chefs, the sorbet was made inhouse.

Called Coconut i-scream (sic...that's what the menu says), it is actually a sorbet made by freezing fresh coconut juice, mixed with the flesh of young coconut. The sweet, fresh taste of young coconut was present, and the sorbet was an excellent way to end a meal.

The fine owners:

From left to right, Paa Daeng, her daughter and her sister.

Ingredients are as fresh as it can be, I won't be surprised if the crab was live, and I am certain the river prawns were live. These simple, but super fresh ingredients, coupled by a control of the fire and spices only derived from years of experience and inspired cooking is able to elevate everyday dishes above the mundane. The balance of taste, flavours and fragrance was in perfect dynamic tension. No one flavour overpowers another...many Thai dishes are overpoweringly hot and spicy. None of Krua Apsorn's are. Harmony is perhaps the best word to describe them. Each dish is special, and finely balanced. Each, has its own twist, and each delicate and sublime.

Krua Apsorn
Samsen Road
(between Wat Rachathiwat and National Library, opposite Suan Suantha Institute)
GPS Latitude = 13°46'26.22"
GPS Longitude = 100°30'22.68"