Mellben Crab at Toa Payoh: Not Up to Standard

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I was keen to have crab again and this time we tried Mellben at Toa Payoh. It’s supposed to be famous, therefore it should be good, no? After much discussion, we ended up ordering two kinds of crab beehoon,  an oddity called Playboy Chicken, and stir-fried baby kailan. The sad thing is that the kailan (not pictured) was probably the best part of the meal.

The Playboy Chicken was tempting only in name. It was deep-fried breaded chicken under some grated radish topping and sweet-sour chilli sauce. In other restaurants, this would probably be named Thai-style chicken. Interestingly, the menu also listed Thai Apple Chicken, probably much the same except with apple instead of radish. How unimaginative! Taste-wise, the chicken was quite blah. I can’t remember much of it as I write now. Two words: Don’t Order.

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The crab fried in beehoon came very badly presented as crab parts were all over the place and we had to dig out the crab carapace and style this dish ourselves for the shot. I think we did quite well here, our crab has a certain piratic charm here. This dish would have been the best of the lot if not for way too much pepper in the brew. We kept imagining the scene in the kitchen where someone spilled the whole pack of pepper powder into the beehoon (oops!). Otherwise, it had decent flavour. Decent flavour until our mouths and throats went numb from the pepper. The crab itself was fine. Someone commented that the shell had some use after all: protecting the succulent flesh from the pepper sauce!

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The pièce de resistance was the claypot crab beehoon with extra-large crab. Here, extra-large seemed to mean extra-old and extra-tough and extra-stringy. FAIL on the crab front. The beehoon was nice and chewy, it would have been great if not for the soup. My dining companions said that the soup tasted like something out of a can, like Campbell’s cream of something (crab?) soup. Needless to say, we weren’t pleased at all by Mellben at Toa Payoh and had to compensate by going to Ji De Chi for dessert.

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About $150 for six people.

Mellben Seafood
Block 211 Lor 8 Toa Payoh
#01-11/15
Tel: 63533120

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Oil-Free Laksa Leaf Salad

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I’m going through a laksa leaf craze now and am trying different ways to use it that’s different from the typical laksa lemak dishes. I’ve been wanting to make an oil-free Eastern salad and this came together. If you can’t find laksa leaves, you can use a soft leafy herb like mint or basil. Replace the jambu with apple if you can’t find that either. Add extra lemongrass if you can’t find torch ginger.

The most important thing about this salad is that all ingredients, especially the herbs, must be absolutely fresh. I made this a few days late as I wasn’t able to cook on schedule, and the laksa and torch ginger weren’t as fragrant as I like. Read my blog, learn from my mistakes!

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Ingredients:
1 red chilli, chopped
½ jambu, diced
5 cherry tomatoes, quartered
5 calamansi limes, juiced
2 tsp fish sauce
good handful laksa leaves, chopped
one stalk lemongrass, base only, chopped
torch ginger, chopped
10 local lettuce or Romaine leaves, sliced into strips
2 tbsp ground peanuts

Method:

  1. In a large bowl, combine the chilli, jambu and tomatoes with the lime juice and fish sauce. Set aside for the flavours to mingle and get on with the chopping for the other ingredients.
  2. Add the lemongrass, torch ginger and lettuce, tossing gently. Taste and adjust seasoning by adding more lime juice or fish sauce. Add some sugar if needed.
  3. Just before serving, sprinkle over the ground peanuts.

Serves 1.

Great Unpretentious Food at Azhang

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Do you have plans for the weekend? Have you already booked a place for a special meal out? Well cancel them and go to Azhang instead.

Tym had just been to dinner there and she raved to me about how she couldn’t wait to go back. Now that certainly whet my appetite and I managed to subtly persuade Yi-Ling (of durian-gasm fame) that she really needed to go there for her seafood fix.

It’s on the River Valley Road side of Mohammed Sultan Road, just opposite the bak ku teh place. The place was empty and rather dimly lit as we opened the door. There was no one about, the lights in the display fridge were off and the menu stand and chalk board had been brought inside. We timidly ventured further in and were seriously thinking of leaving. Good thing we saw someone in the kitchen, probably Ava, and knocked on the glass panel. They were open!

We went with one of Ava’s suggestions for wine, a Mount Nelson Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Forgot to get the vintage, but I guess it doesn’t really matter. Pale yellow, it had a great nose with lots of sweet lychee. On the palate, it was medium sweet and was fruity with lots of green flavours, especially green apple. It finished quite well on a short mineral note.

For starters we shared the grilled corn salad that’s been raved about by so many. I was blown away by the depth of flavour from such simple ingredients. The juicy corn really worked with the coriander, spring onion and garlic.  Ava was very forthcoming about what they put in the dish and explained that the trick was controlling the grill so the corn was done just right. This is so refreshing compared to other places that guard their secret recipes practically with their lives.

Pardon the odd lighting below. I had to employ Yi-Ling as my key grip using the light from my mobile phone!

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Seafood being the theme of the night, we started with the grilled squid. Oh my was it good. The charred goodness of the outside and the just-chewy inside was such a great combination. Initially I thought the squid would probably need some lime squeezed over but I was wrong. It was good the way it was and equally good with the excellent sambal belachan on the side. The part to fight over was the tentacles. Yi-Ling and I staked our territorial claims very quickly here. The tentacles were at the (good) edge of burnt to a lovely crisp. The partnership of crunchy, smokey and squidy-fishy was sublime.

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I had my reservations when Yi-Ling ordered the grilled salmon belly. Not being a huge fan of the fish, I fear salmon that arrives overdone, too fishy and too oily. The version here dispelled all notion that salmon could be bad. It was well seared on the outside and still raw on the inside, the perfect doneness.

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I really liked the thoughtful touches here. Ava set us a carafe of water so we could top up our glasses as we liked and so that she wouldn’t hover and disturb our conversation. She also very promptly provided another place setting for a friend who joined us later so that she could pick at our food.  It cost about $100 for salad, two mains, two glasses of wine and a lime juice.

Conclusion? It’s a homey, unpretentious place with good food, good wine and great service. Do yourself a favour and go for a great meal there. Like Tym, I’m already planning when to go again.

Azhang
6 Mohamed Sultan Road
Singapore 238956
Tel: 6836 3436

Shanghai Street Eats: More Dumplings

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Mum is very particular about cleanliness and is not surprisingly cool towards street food. Rare is the day she’ll pull up a stool and slurp noodles by the roadside in a foreign country. Of course, with the NEA hygiene assessment system she’s more than happy to enjoy her local makan.

This was one of the rare times she agreed to eat at a hole-in-the-wall establishment in Shanghai. We were at the Yuyuan/Chenghuang Miao area doing some shopping and were delayed at the tailor. There was no way I was going to have anything at Nanxiang, the famously overhyped xiao long bao place. I’ve never liked it and find that stuff at Din Tai Fung, while still not the best, is far superior.

As we walked down a little alley to escape the tourist hordes, I spied a few little places and persuaded my mum to have lunch here. It had to be good since it was full to the gills when we passed by at 11.30 (the local lunch time). We stood awkwardly by the racks of dumplings trying to figure out how to order. Good thing they soon figured out that we weren’t exactly local from our dress and weird accent.

Here, they sell the shui jiao (boiled dumplings) by the liang, about 50 g. Noticing our still-uncertain expressions, the boss-man suggested that we take three liang and he’ll give us an assortment of the different flavours. I think there must’ve been something like eight flavours at least on display that day. There were beef, pork, lamb, chives and other vegetables with various combinations of preserved vegetables and aromatics.

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We identified at least three different flavours of the freshly boiled shui jiao and slurped them down alternately with the vinegar and chilli paste provided at the table. These dumplings were the sturdier northern version, more like Polish pierogi than the more delicate Cantonese ones.

The boss-man came over to check how we liked the food and told us that he came from Dongbei, that’s why his shui jiao were so good and so different from the usual Shanghainese pap. Well-said, boss-man!

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Surprisingly, Mum said she enjoyed this meal and said that next time we could get some raw ones to take home for a hot pot so Dad could try some too.

I’ll find out the address and post it next time I visit Shanghai.

Secret Eats: My Favourite Crab Beehoon

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When I eat crab, I like to actually taste the succulent flesh and slurp up all the crabby flavour instead of having too much sauce masking the crustacean. It’s no surprise that having crab done beehoon style is my favourite way to eat crab. My second favourite is pepper crab but that’ll take up another post another time.

There’s a cze char place in a Pasir Ris coffeeshop that serves my favourite crab beehoon. It’s not the typical Mellben variety with thick beehoon and milk. This one uses skinny beehoon and skips the milk, giving the dish a naturally creamy finish from crab roe and good stock. I can’t tell exactly what goes into the soup/sauce/jup but it is so flavourful I always ask for extra jup when ordering.

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The crab is invariably fresh, though the last time I went, my quibble was that while it was still fresh, it hadn’t hit the platinum standard of freshness I know the place for. Still, my friends were impressed.

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This place does other things well too. They have a good chef who imparts wok hei to every dish. I like their olive fried rice (zhao pai chao fan) and broccoli with scallops. Go with their suggestions for vegetables, they’re invariably well executed. We had stir-fried spinach (heng chye) with garlic and it was great.

The whole meal came up to $69 for two crabs with beehoon and the stir-fried vegetable. It fed four very happy people.

Hint: the place is in a coffee shop in Pasir Ris and it’s not a branch of Mellben. Happy hunting!

Shanghai Street Eats: Yang’s Fry-Dumplings

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A friend brought me to what turned out a deeply unsatisfying meal at Three on the Bund. I had barely seared scallops on a shockingly insipid saffron risotto garnished with prosciutto chips at the cafe on the top floor of the building. The view was great though majorly overpriced.

On our way back to his apartment, I insisted that he take me to eat good street food. He sure acted fast as no sooner than I spoke, we were at an old favourite, Yang’s Fry-Dumplings (xiao yang sheng jian guan). First we joined the short mid-afternoon queue to make our order and pay up, then clutching greasy receipt in grubby hand, we crowded round the fryer to await our serving of the good stuff.

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Despite the uniforms and youthful staff, it’s still quite a traditional shop in that you can see the dumplings made and fried in front of you. The dumplings consist of minced meat wrapped in dough and fried gently on only one side. The top comes out steamed and the bottom crisp and brown.

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Brandishing our two packets of dumplings, we rushed back to my friend’s apartment nearby. Even though they’d sat for a while, these little packages of heaven were still very excellent. The sturdy flour wrapper was still crisp on the bottom and came apart in the mouth in a burst of meaty juices. It was so good I didn’t bother hunting down vinegar for it. I scarfed down a whole pack of six (or was it eight?) on a full stomach. Good thing too, because that night I ended up at another overpriced and overhyped too-cool-for-the-average-proletariat place.

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I’d had this before a few years ago and I’d forgotten how good it was, especially contrasted against the many pretenders and chi-but-awful places in Shanghai’s food scene. It’s one of the few places that, despite its overexposure, still remains really excellent.

Yang’s Fry-Dumplings
54/60 Wujiang Lu
Puxi, Shanghai
Nearest underground station: Nanjing West Road

Durian-gasm

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Let me just set the record straight. One of my greatest shortcomings as a food fanatic is that I don’t eat durian. I know, I’m remorseful and shamefaced, but I just cannot bring myself to it.

However, a friend of mine does, and she loves durian so much she ordered the Durian Double-Boiled Milk and Egg White at Ji De Chi with extra durian. In her defence, she’d been durian-deprived for a while. The server did a double-take and told her that the dish already had durian in it. To that Durian Queen firmly told her that yes, she wanted the durian-flavoured dessert with extra durian. And so this arrived.

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In her own words, Durian Queen said the extra durian topping looked like turd. But she tried a bite and suddenly claimed that she was having a durian-gasm. Digging further into the, er, white stuff that was durian flavoured, she found hidden depths of more durian badassness goodness.

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I’m sorry for being remiss in reporting the flavour and texture of the dish, suffice to say the non-durian-eaters at the table just gaped in awe at Durian Queen smacking her lips, probably having multiple durian-gasms. At the end of it all, she scraped her bowl clean of the last morsel and licked her spoon off too. ‘Nuff said really.

Ji De Chi
8 Liang Seah Street #01-03

[edited: Mon 23 Feb 2009, 12.41 pm]