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

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]

Chronicles of MPT: Seng Kee Mushroom Minced Pork Noodles

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I’m the biggest fan of meepok tah, whether fishball or bak chor flavour. It’s my default if I can’t decide what to eat at the hawker centre.

Since Mum and I were in the area, we dropped by Seng Kee Mushroom Minced Pork Noodles at Eunos to check out the hype. The smallest bowl of bak chor mee cost $4 and was slightly smaller than the typical $3.50 food court bak chor mee.

The sauce was good. I could tell that the mushrooms were stewed for ages to get out all that yummy mushroom flavour. The chilli was decent though I’d like it to be much hotter than this. Making this extra delicious were the tiny bits of fried lard that added crunch and sinfully good oily porkiness. If I’d never tried bak chor mee before, this would be pretty darn It. The missing ingredient was good ol’ black vinegar. A generous dash of that would take it straight to heaven.

Noodles-wise, it was only OK. While the noodles were the better thicker variety, they were too soft and needed either vinegar or a change to fresh blanching water. The beansprouts were a nice touch for adding crunch. I love beansprouts in my MPT. The fish dumpling was decent, though my mum got one with the filling missing!

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The soup was quite something. As the bowl was set down, I could already smell it! Check out how much stuff has been boiled in it in the picture below. It’s sweet with pork and soy beans, deeply savoury from the dried sole (that’s where the smell came from) and redolent of chinese herbs like wolfberry. I liked it but my mum found it too rich.

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Notwithstanding the tiny dried scallops sprinkled generously over the vegetables, we found the $4 dish overpriced. There were only about three heads of xiao bai cai on the plate, topped with two bland mushroom halves. The sauce was rich and full of seafood flavour and the dried scallops rather tasty. Still, I couldn’t help feeling cheated because all I really wanted was enough vegetable to balance out my meal.

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Verdict? While it certainly is better than the average bak chor mee, the difference in quality isn’t that great. Go there only if you’re in the area.

Seng Kee Mushroom Minced Pork Noodles
316 Changi Road
Tel: 6345 7561

November in China: The Wrong Side of the River

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I visit Shanghai once a year. Each time I’ll stay with my parents who live on the wrong side of the Huangpu river.  Real Shanghainese only like being on the Puxi side. The irony is that these “real Shanghainese” people are invariably migrants from the rural Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui provinces, and those who’ve lived on Shanghai land for centuries are the farmers from Pudong. Many of the original Shanghainese of vintage cheong sam and period films had largely fled the country when the Communists took over.

With its ever-competing skyscrapers built one after another in a Babel-esque race to the heavens, Pudong is hardly a louche part of town. As Jin Mao Tower and the IFC Building tower over their competition, it’s hard to believe that the other buildings are already taller than your average skyscraper.

On an unusually fine day, I went across the river to Puxi and returned by the incredibly cheap ¥0.50 ferry from Dongmen Lu on the Puxi side to Dongchang Lu at Pudong. It was perfect weather to take a panaroma or two of the buildings, just that a bit of patience was needed to wait for the advertising ferry to pass. These ferries go up and down the river at all hours showcasing brightly lit advertisements to both sides of the river.

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Mum calls the Jin Mao Tower the “bottle” and the IFC Building the “bottle opener.” The Pearl Tower is now relegated to one corner of the skyline. You can just about spot its spire in the extreme left hand side of the photo below.

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As we drew closer to shore, the Pearl Tower came into view. Sadly or not, depending on your views on ghastly architecture, this Shanghai icon is slowly being literally obscured by the new buildings coming up around it. It is gradually being replaced by the IFC Building as the prime destination for tour group visits.

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Dodging motorbikes and bicycles, I scrambled off the ferry and headed over to what was once the tallest building in the world. At the moment  I visited in November 2008, Taipei 101 was the tallest. As I write, the Burj Dubai has already caught up. Looks like the race will continue wherever the new money is. Look carefully at the top of the IFC Building and you’ll see the bottle opener part of it. Legend goes that the rectangular hole was supposed to be a perfect circle. It was changed to the current design because of fengshui reasons. Another legend goes that it was designed by the Japanese and the shape of the building is meant to be a katana in the heart of the business district. A circle at the top of the building would allow the sun to shine directly through, far too reminiscent of the Japanese rising sun for comfort.

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Rumours or not, this building is incredibly imposing, especially right at its foot. It’s near impossible to get the whole building into one frame. I must have craned my neck till it was almost 90 degrees to my body!

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It’s expensive to go up the tower. I found it a bit too cheesy to do it this time because I’d just concluded a hardcore backpacking trip in the region. Going up would blow pretty much what had been a whole day’s budget. It was just as well that the weather turned bad. Mum told me that on bad days, the top of the building would be swathed by clouds and groups going up would pay the same prices but see absolutely nothing. Buyer beware!

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[edited 5 Mar 2009 7.50pm: Mum pointed out that the ferry price was and, at the point of writing, still is ¥0.50, not ¥2.]

A Constellation of Prata

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I don’t know what cunning folly took us when we decided to go to The Prata Place for Sunday lunch. My brother topped up the petrol specially for the long drive out to Upper Thomson. It was pretty crowded from the breakfasting masses when we arrived at about noon on Sunday. A pair of regulars were chased off to a smaller table to accommodate our party of five at the crowded cafe.

Even though each of us ordered something different, we hardly had a quarter of what was on the menu. We started off with crisp uppatham (pappadum) redolent with whole cumin. The paper thosai arrived next, a crisp cone accompanied by four types of curry and chutney.

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Everyone enjoyed the paper thosai. Most of it was crispy and the thicker base veered towards soft and chewy. I enjoyed that part the best because the thicker parts showcased very well the characteristic fermented rice flavour.

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The masala paper thosai was made of the same excellent stuff.

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The difference was that it had a delicious masala filling of spiced potato and frozen mixed vegetable.

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Now the curry chicken was top notch. It was thick with spices and was incredibly rich and, well, chickeny. The plus point was that it had a different spice mix from the other curries, so we didn’t feel like we were eating the same side curry for the thosai and prata. I alternately dipped  my thosai with that and the other curries.

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I haven’t had murtabak for a while and was quite surprised to see this thin crispy version instead of the traditional thick and soft one. The change made it a far more manageable portion, though I suspect the calories were about the same from the extra oil. There was plenty of well-marinated chicken from good parts, unlike other places that serve you dried up leftover chicken.

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It was good quality and I enjoyed it, though deep down I still prefer the traditional thick version.

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We also had paper prata and mushroom egg prata. Both were good with crisp outer layers and soft chewy inner layers. My brother liked the mushroom one because it had lots of large size mushroom slices. I wonder where they sourced their jumbo canned mushrooms.

For dessert we had the banana prata. It worked so well because of the cooked banana pulp inside. They used local bananas so it had a slight sour tang which really hit the spot. I can imagine it working well with chocolate sauce or condensed milk too.

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We couldn’t resist the chocolate prata. It was a special paper prata with chocolate sauce and chocolate rice on top.  It tasted like a local and extra unhealthy version of chocolate crepe. (What’s the difference between paper prata and special paper prata? They fold the special prata into the roof shape and charge you 20 cents more.)

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To wash all the oily, artery-clogging goodness down, we had teh bing and teh halia. The teh bing was the best I’ve had in a long while. I had to stop myself from drinking the smooth, fragrant brew at one go. It was just the right sweetness too. Those who had teh halia said theirs was good too. Plenty of ginger fragrance but not too biting on the tongue.

Five drinks, two packs of uppatham, two thosais, one murtabak, four pratas and one chicken curry cost us $33. Excellent value.

The Prata Place
1 Thong Soon Ave
Springleaf Estate