Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Blessed Christmas, my friends. And may 2010 bring good health, great prosperity and wealth

Christmas is a time to reflect on the birth of the Christ child. How God, in His immeasurable love for us, sent his son to save us.

In Dresden, Germany, this tradition is celebrated with a bread known as the stollen. It is a sweet bread, encrusted with a topping of icing sugar, and filled with candied fruits. This bread is similar to the Italian panettone.

I received this package from Dresden, from our friends at A. Lange & Söhne. Opening the box reveals the stollen, wrapped in paper to preserve the freshness.

Much like a fruitcake, but with no butter and eggs, and bread-like the stollen is quite delicious, slightly moist, toough much drier than a fruit cake inside. The flavours are mosly similar. The bite of the bread complements and shows off the candied fruit and nuts within.

Have a Blessed Christmas, and look out for posts on Penang food as I travel back to Penang where I grew up, next week.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mirchi: still a favourite

with Kin

I have a passion for Indian food (ok, a passion for any food, but Indian is one of my favourites) Indian colleagues know this, and everytime I am in Mumbai, Delhi, or other Indian city, they are proud to show me their cultural heritage in cuisine. Thus, I have eaten at many excellent, some famous, some hidden, restaurants in India.

Back in Singapore, it is hard to find a restaurant which really brings home the flavours of India. But to its credit, Indian cuisine travels well. A good approximation exists in many countries - in England, even in Geneva (my favourite is a small establishment called Ghandi Cafe at rue Neuchâtel). I attribute this to the fact that Indian cuisine depends on dry spices, which are able to be transported easily to approximate the taste of the motherland. Yet, still India is the place to go to for the gastronomic delights.

One of my favourites (among others like Song of India, Rang Mahal, Tandoor) is Mirchi. I wrote about a meal there last year which was excellent. And since then, have introduced Mirchi to a number of my friends and colleagues, all garnishing praises for the food.

But one quiet Sunday afternoon, when Edward was away at BB Camp, Kin and I decided to indulge ourselves. Indulge is the correct term, as Indian cuisine, especially Northern Indian is packed with heavy ingredients - mutton/lamb, butter, ghee, more butter and more ghee. I was a bit surprised that the place has changed! Instead of Mirchi's Restaurant, it is now called Mirchi's Kebab Factory. Decor has changed too...though still with strong Indian accents, it is now more modern and brigher...and smaller too, the bar area is now converted into a corridor.

We started with half a chicken, barbecued in a tandoor oven. This is a cylindrical clay oven, often fired up with charcoal to temperatures of 480C...very hot.

The chicken was excellent. Tender, juicy, succulent. The chicken is marinated in a mix of yogurt and spices...the cayenne pepper and chilli gives the chicken the characteristic red hue. And the heat of the oven, cooks the chicken to a crisp outside, while the insides remain tender and juicy.

Their Dhal lentils cooked over a low flame for hours, with large amounts of butter and cream to achieve a smooth, creamy texture...

This is one of the richest dhal I have ever eaten. Smooth, creamy, rich. Very good. I am not sure if its the new environment which is psycologically causing me to ponder, but I remembered the dhal of old Mirchi (before being renamed Kebab Factory), to be yet even richer..., richer than any I have sampled in India.

But rich is good, as long as it is not coy, and this dhal is not the least coy.

We also had the Lamb Biryani:

Superb as ever! The old Mirchi had the biryani served in a stainless steel pot, but the new Kebab Factory serves it on a deep porcelain plate. I prefer the old pot...keeps the dish hot. But taste wise, the mutton, or rather lamb was tender, delicious (shiok!), and the rice was superb long grained basmati. The ghee provided power to the taste, lubricating, flavouring. I recently waxed lyrical over Bismillah's lamb biryani, but lamented the lack of ghee held Arif's creation back a bit...kind of like holding back on the last bits of flavour...which Mirchi's chefs has managed to release in their version. Totally reminded me of the biryanis I had in India - at Bukhara at ITC Sheraton Delhi, or at Mahesh's in Mumbai, and the small restaurant in Defence Colony.

And of course, we cannot miss on the Indian rotis...naan:

on the left, plain naan, on the right, garlic naan. Both magnificent. With the tandoor oven, the naan is fluffy, beautiful fragrants wafts into your nostrils...and really nice mouthfeel. Slightly burnt on the outside...the charred parts imparting a smokey flavour, and really moist, fluffy inside.

But overall, still very satisfying. I can't help but feel the management is cutting some corners with the new branding image...more modern, and less luxurious. For example, the superb mango chutney which was part of the condiments tray served gratis is now removed, but the green peppermint sauce is still superb.

Mirchi's Kebab Factory
8 Raffles Avenue
#02-23 Esplanade Mall
Tel: +65 6334 5590
Daily 12pm – 3pm, 6pm – 11pm

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dining in Korea: Bok Chung at Myeong-dong

with office colleagues

Christmas lightup at Myeong-dong area in downtown Seoul. Individual buildings, especially the high end department stores were brilliantly and beautifully lighted up for Christmas.

Seoul in recent years have been becoming a popular location for Singaporean vacationers to visit, especially during winter. The soap operas from Korea are increasingly popular, and many are interested to try out adventures like skiing, tasting new and exotic foods. I have been coming to Seoul, fairly regularly as part of my work, for the last 10 years or so. And in the beginning, I found the food to be different...the tastes were strange, and practices equally unusual. In those early years, I stuck to galbi (beef ribs, barbecued on the table in-situ) and bulbogi (marinated beef, stir fried or barbecued) and could not fathom the tastes of kimchi, octopus and others. The culture of barbecued beef with copious amounts of alcohol (sohju or beer), a table full of side dishes, and then some carbs in the form of cold noodles, or sticky rice drowned in soup seemed a bit different to me.

But in recent years, I have become more used to Korean cuisine...and even liking it. Kimchi now tastes quite delicious. Cold, springy noodles are fine. The beef remained as wonderful as ever. Bilimbab - where you mix in ingredients with bean paste, chilli, vegetables, meat in a hot stone pot is now a treasured delicacy to me. Octopus...when grilled is good...haven't worked up the guts to try live, whole octopus yet. And the beef remained superb.

Beautifully marbled, cooked to medium rare on a stainless steel pan over a gas was superb. Not quite as tender or melt in your mouth as a similar grade wagyu...I guess its the preferential treatment the Japanese pamper over their cattle showing the difference. But still excellent, excellent beef.

The restaurant also had some exotic dishes...first up, Korean fugu...

Fugu, or pufferfish is a great delicacy in Japan. I did try it once in Tokyo at a rather famous fugu restaurant...the sashimi was sliced from fresh fugu, expertly sliced so that it is paper thin...almost transparent, transluscent quality to the meat. And beautifully displayed on a plate. The taste was very mild...almost tasteless, but the texture was a bit tough, springy, crunchy. The puffer soup in Seoul was simliar. The soup itself was quite had a strong fish flavour, but not fishy...if you know what I smelled like fresh fish, concentrated flavours. The meat had a tough, springy, crunchy consistency, and was rather mild in taste. Interesting.

We next sampled a taboo dish...known in Korean as "all seasons meat"

A special breed of canine, only bred as food is used. The meat was reportly from the belly, and looked rather fat. The taste was very mild...reminiscent of pork, but the dark meat looked more like beef. Eaten with condiments of ground sesame, ginger, vinegar and sesame oil:

Koreans believe this to be a tonic for men, and although the law prohibits its sale, it is openly sold, and forms a part of Korean tradition. Interesting to sample, but for me, its just for a taste, to experience.

Bok Chung Korean Restaurant
#2-9, Myeongdong - 2ka, Chung - ku, Seoul, Korea.
Telephone : +82 2 774 6226

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jiang Nan Chun - The Four Seasons Singapore

invited by The Hour Glass and De Bethune - an independent watch manufacturer

Dinner with David Zaneta, co-Founder of the incredibly creative De Bethune watches is always interesting. David is a livewire, with deep knowledge of the watchmaking industry...having spent many decades within, and have always wonderful insights on the people, characters which make this industry. David is an accomplished quintessential Italian gentleman...stern, and tough looking on the exterior, but a very warm and personable person inside...but with an attitude which comes from confidence, and from not having to act in any particular way other than to please himself.

But I digress. This is a food blog, so on to the food.

Dinner was held at the private room at Windows East at Level 20 of the Four Seasons Hotel in Singapore, and food catered from the famed Jiang Nan Chun - a cantonese restaurant within the restaurant. I have eaten several times at Jiang Nan Chun, and it is one of my favourites for fine Cantonese dining. And the food impresses this time as well.

First course is a trio of traditional roast pork, crispy peking duck and prawn salad.

Quite a traditional combination.

The pork was interesting. At first glance, it looks too dry and devoid of fat to be any good...but with the first was a bite sized morsel, one realises this is something special. The skin was very crispy, flakey...and the meat was surprisingly moist, juicy with (of course) no hint of fat. Flavour was all there. Shiok.

The duck was rather special too...the chef must have mastered the art of crisping the skin...the duck skin was perfect...with a touch of sweet sauce. And a special touch to improve the perception of crispiness was provided by the deep fried, but lightly so, bean curd skin, which complemented the duck skin with not only the texture, but also flavour. Again, the duck was devoid of fat.

After the duo of crispy delicacies, the prawn pales...though it was fresh, and quite nicely done with just enough salad cream to hint at richness of the prawns.

Next a soup, in the spirit of the "lai thong", or daily soup which is a mandatory component of a Cantonese meal came next. Jiang Nan Chun is famous for their lai thong, and this was no exception:

Double boiled spring chicken with fish maw, dried chanterelles and black truffles. Interesting ingredients. A kind of fusion, I think...while spring chicken, fish maw and chanterelles are traditional cantonese ingredient, black truffles are not exactly common in this cuisine. But the chef was masterful in blending the ingredients together. The predominantly cantonese flavours of the lai thong was omnipresent...but the palate was teased with the black truffles floating in the soup.

We were then served sauted lobster in salt and pepper:

Although the menu read sauted, the lobster looked like its been deep fried. The meat was fresh, sweet, succulent. What more can I say...lobster is one of the easier dishes to cook...the base ingredient of live lobster is already so tasty, either boiled, baked, steamed, or sauted, it is easy to bring out the flavours.

Finally the fried rice.

The rice was wok fried in a fierce fire...the wok hei was ever present...and fried with crabmeat and garlic. Shredded dry scallops which have been lightly boiled to re-infuse moisture is added as a topping. The rice was fragrant, with no hint of oil or richness. I found it to be a bit dry, and did not allow the crab to fully develop, but I think many health conscious diners would prefer this dry-er fried rice.

And dessert was cream of mango with sago and pomelo

Quite a traditional cantonese dessert, except the chef decided to spice it up with a few slices of strawberry. The berry complemented the pomello bits within the smooth creamy mango. Nicely done!

And of course, for those who are keen on watches...the watch David was wearing...the De Bethune Dream Watch.

Jiang Nan Chun
The Four Seasons Hotel
190 Orchard Boulevard
Tel: 6734-1110
Open daily: 11:30 am –2:30 pm
6:00 pm –10:30 pm

Monday, December 7, 2009

Should all restaurants serve free tap water?

special rant blog entry, rather than usual restaurant review...Andy Rooney (Sixty Minutes) style

I don't understand these restaurant owners. Plain water, iced or warm or hot...costs almost nothing to serve. I am already in your restaurant, and already will be paying for food...why can't you serve me a glass or two of plain iced water?

Some atas (meaning high class and posh - though some are wannabee atas) establishments insist on selling bottled water like Evian, San Pellegrino, Perrier or the like. While I do like the effervescence of sparkling water once in a does make some food taste better...but I don't like to be forced to have to buy a bottle at $6 or more.

Bakerzin used to refuse to serve free iced water, forcing the diner to buy a bottle at $1...admittedly not expensive for a bottle of mineral water, but what's the logic? They have since reverted to serving free water. Bravo Bakerzin.

One Italian place I was at recently - Lafiandra insists that you order one drink before serving free iced water. Strange, and totally illogical. When I dined there recently...see entry before this one, we ordered a bottle of San Pellegrino and a bottle of house wine...and after we finished those, they gladly, and without having us to ask, topped our glasses with free iced wter.

Another - Peperino lists Iced Water in their menu at $150 per glass during Happy Hour! The right column in blue indicates the price after Happy Hour. This is one way to discourage Singaporeans, who are always mindful of value for money, not to ask for iced water.

In Hong Kong and China, a cup of free hot tea is customary. Of course, its not the best tea in the world, but a welcome for a weary, thirsty diner, who may have been on his feet all day. Afterall, he is going to spend money on food.

In France, I believe the law mandates that patrons be served free iced water...of course, most restaurants and bistros try to get you to buy expensive water by seemingly offering only two choices, "plate ou gazeuse?"..."flat or sparkling?", but you can always ask for "un carafe eau" and they have to oblige with tap water with ice.

In Switzerland, Germany, Italy, UK, and US, a glass of iced plain water is served immediately when you are seated.

In a traditional coffee shop, who may not serve food, or where the food is offered by stalls who are not related to the drinks shop landlord...I can understand...the old timer's "ice kosong" and being charged 10 cents. But in a restaurant, the drinks and food are the same owner!

A restaurant owner I know told me that sometimes diners abuse the free water policy, and demand to be served liters of water for hours after they finish their meals. But my retort is, why punish all of your customers when those who abuse the system are the minority? Why not politely tell them that after 2 carafes, the next ones are at $3 each?

Here is one blogger's response...she lists places which do not serve free water.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Lafiandra: The Italian's Italian Restaurant?

with Kin and Prof Massi and Prof Francescca

My friends Massi and Francescca are guardians of Italian tradition...especially so for Italian (in particular Florentine) cuisine, as they are both from Florence, and fiercely loyal to the culture. I hold their taste to high regard, and are arbiters for all things Italian.

Massi suggested Lafiandra for our dinner...I browsed the web menu, and found Costata di Manzo alla Fiorentina...I have been always a big fan of a good steak. (yes, regular readers know how big a fan I am). And have always been on the lookout at Italian restaurants for the illusive Chinina cow from Italy offered as bistecca alla Fiorentina. Typically, this is a large (yes very large...min 3 finger thick, according to Dario Cechini: the most celebrated butcher and steak-monger in Italy.) The Chinina cattle is known to be very large, so the meat yield is very high...meaning large steaks are possible, but very lean meat. Dario would have his beef aged to his specifications, but at Lafiandra, the chef and owner Cataldo, uses Australian cattle which is not dry aged. More about the steaks later.

The restaurant is situated on one wing of the Singapore Arts Museum...the other arm houses Dome. And the decoration within is quite nice...cozy, sophisticated European.

The web reviews of the restaurant is not very good...but most of the complaints were of poor service and that they don't serve plain water until you order drinks. I think this is a rediculous policy, along with the similarly silly notion of charging for plain water in a restaurant. We ordered a bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling water...and a bottle of their house red wine: Montepulciano d'Abruzzo from the house of Farina...a nice red - very soft tannins, delicious fruits, if a bit one dimensional.

Francescca skipped into the kitchen and persuaded Cataldo to add Parmigiani cheese and Rucola onto the Pizza Bianco.

This was a delicious pizza. Pizza bianco is pizza dough, baked on its own, and then topped with ingredients. The regular bianco served at Lafiandra comes with tomatos, basil and olive oil. But the addition of rucola and parmigiani cheese made the pizza even more special. The base dough was excellent...very thin, crispy, and very tasty.

We also had Burratina alla Coratina:

A special kind of soft mozzarella, known as burratina is served with ripe tomato, drizzled with olive oil. The burratina is quite special...made by combining mozzerella with outer layer consisting of fairly solid (rubbery) mozerella, and a soft, almost liquid core of mozzerella and cream. The tomatoes were quite fresh, and added some acidity to the mild, but rich cheese.

And Massi's favourite eggplants: Involtini di melanzane con mozzarella

Pan fried sliced eggplant rolled with mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce. I enjoyed this dish very much...though Kin thought the tomato sauce was a bit overpowering, I felt it provided the acidity to slice through the rich tasting eggplant.

We shared two Second Plates:

The risotto:

Risotto ai Porcini was excellent. We found it to be a tad too salty, but still quite delicious. The mushrooms were wonderful...fragrant, with bits of succulent mushroom embedded within. The rice was cooked to perfection, and has absorbed the broth very well...this makes tasty risotto, and makes it different from Asian methods of cooking risotto, the uncooked rice is stirred and broth (either chicken, vegetable or other stock as the chef chooses to bring out a particular flavour) one cupful a time, until the rice is cooked, and usually just al dente.

We also had fresh tagliatelle:

Tagliatelle alla Boscaiola: Flat ribbon pasta with bacon and mushrooms in tomato cream sauce. The tagliatelle was freshly made with just flour, water and eggs on premises. Fresh pasta, when cooked maintains a soft, kway teow like consistency, and not possible to do al dente. The tomato cream sauce was very nicely done. Massi loved this pasta, while Kin and I were a bit was tasty, but not mind-blowingly so.

Next: the main event...the steak.

The piece of meat was substantial. Recommended for a min of 2, it came on the bone, and promised to be a min of 1kg. As can be seen, it was well charred...but the black exterior was not charred crisp, and some sauce has been used to marinate the meat before putting it on a hot skillet. I can detect traces of rosemary leaves still clinging to the steak. Note the groove along the wooden board used to serve the steak...this is for the blood to run off the steak as one carves it...indicting that the steak should be done rare or medium a good piece of meat should be.

A closer look at the huge piece of beef. This was from Australian (I suspect Black Angus), grass fed cattle. Served on the bone, and uncut...the honours of carving the huge steak being left to the diner. I did the honours and cut it into large bite sized slices...a la Peter Lugers...but not being a master carver...this task was not the easiest to accomplish...but I managed...
Cut open, revealed medium rare as we had ordered.

As can be seen, the cattle has been grass fed, and shows little marbling...the fat remained at the sides of the beef. I later spoke to Cataldo, and he confirmed that the beef was not dry aged. The meat was still excellent...provide good bite for the mouth to masticulate, but we found it to be bit tougher than the best of the genre. The lack of marbling also contributed to playing down on the beefiness flavour. And as the meat was not dry aged, the characteristic intense beef flavours and foie gras flavours were absent. As it were, this is an excellent piece of meat, tasty, albeit a bit chewy, but very good. Would have been better if it were grain fed for 300 days or so, and then dry aged for 21 days...might have rivalled Mamou's or Peter Luger's.

Desserts next. We shared two desserts, both were nice, but not outstanding in any way.

The tiramisu had a generous sprinkling of chocolate, but had a distinct lack of alcohol, though the flavour of coffee was quite strong. The mascarpone cheese was mild, and slightly sweetened and maintained the characteristic near liquid consistency which makes this quite satisfying.

A nut encrusted ice-cream was our other dessert order...this was not made inhouse, but purchased.

We ended with coffee and some liquor: limoncelli and grappa.

The double espresso looked a bit too tall...tasted ok...little mouthfeel, no heavy liquorish sensations. Finish was short. But this is not unexpected from commercial beans, in this case from Segafredo.

The cappucinno clearly looked like it was made with an automatic machine...the foam was too high, and featured an indentation characteristic of the automatic coffee machine. Its taste was unremarkable.

Overall, we enjoyed the meal...a good meal with good friends and great conversation is always a great joy. The restaurant delivered as promised...this was good, traditional, Italian cooking. Not spectacular Michelin style, but good, home-cooked feel. We found the service to be attentive, the servers knowledgable, and good...and other than the silly policy on plain water (they did offer plain iced water after we finished our wine and sparkling water), service was efficient and good.

71 Bras Basah Road
Singapore Art Musuem
Singapore 189555
Tel: 68844035
Mondays to Sundays
(Lunch)11.30am to 3pm (Last order at 2.30pm)
(Dinner)6pm till 11pm (Last order at 10.30pm)