Bukit Timah’s BK Forture

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Sis-in-law took the whole family to a coffee shop-style restaurant that supposedly had really good hamdan (salted egg) crabs. Since the focus of dinner was really the crab, we whizzed through the other dishes quickly. The cappuccino ribs scored full marks for imagination but didn’t do that well for taste. It was coffee ribs with cocoa powder and evaporated milk drizzled on top. The coffee part was nicely dark and bitter but the cocoa powder just didn’t do it for me.

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The herbal chicken was supposed to be another signature dish but I felt that it wasn’t particularly special. Overcooked chicken with herbs: sure, it’s comfort food but I’m not going all the way out to that part of Bukit Timah for this dish.

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They misnamed the fish. It should’ve been called assam curry fish instead of Thai-style fish. The taste was great as the fish was fresh, the curry spicy and the vegetables tender-crunchy. Bro insisted on taking this picture with the red snapper’s mouth gaping open. Too bad the camera couldn’t capture the steam and bubbles coming out of its mouth. It was horror-movie cool (that is, if you were a fish watching a horror movie).

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Then came the piece de resistance! Now this is what I’d call a heart attack on a plate. As if the cholesterol in the crab isn’t enough, I don’t know how many (neither do I want to know how many) salted egg yolks were mashed up to make the savoury rich sauce. In fact, it was so rich that most of us gave up. Shockingly, no one fought over the last pieces, although Dad was very naughty and had some even though he had to go for a cholesterol test the next day. Only DC stuck it to the end, polishing up the last bits and impressing Mum on the way. All in all, it was very decent stuff though not quite as good as the first time I had crab done this way in KL. Still, barring going all the way up north, this definitely hits the spot.

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BK Forture
887 Bukit Timah Road
Tel: 6469 5957

March in Laos: Along the Mekong in Huay Xai

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Unlike most travellers who were using Huay Xai as a transit point between Thailand and Laos, Siamesecat and I made our way to the border town for some monkey business. (More on that next time.) We spent a little time cooling our heels here at this tiny strip of huts along the Mekong. I wished “Visit Laos” year would come round more so they’d get a new sign. While the town appeared fairly nondescript, it was so laid back that it was almost worth the couple of days spent here.

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The streets were tidy and well-kept, lined by lots of pretty flowering shrubs.

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The main focus was of course the river. The slow boat from Luang Prabang ejected its passengers, grubby from the two-day journey, along Huay Xai’s banks. Everything in this town seemed to point to the river.

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Even the local temple, with its so-tacky-it’s-cool dragon balustrade, pointed to the river with the long flight of stairs up to the shrines themselves.

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The stairs undulated their way down to the river, reminding devotees returning from prayer exactly where the source of life was for this town.

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Strangely enough for a riverside town, this place was incredibly dusty. Even this cutie-pie of a dog had its fur messed up with brown. It lived at our guesthouse and at the end of our stay we still couldn’t figure out whether it was a white dog or a brown one.

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March in Laos: A Long Bus Trip

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Our next stop was Huay Xai, right on the border with North Thailand. By plane, it was only an hour away but the schedules and prices just weren’t suitable. Our next options were either to take the slow boat up the Mekong that would take two days or the bus that took a third of a time, just 15 hours. That’s Laos for you: when they do slow, they really show you what slow means.

To make things hopefully less painful, we took the overnight bus that was scheduled to leave Luang Prabang at 4.30pm. Lord knows why they even bothered with the precision of :30 because we sat around in the bus till 6pm before it finally pulled out of the terminus.

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The funny thing about Lao buses is that they are never full. Siamesecat and I were thankful that we arrived in time for the bus as we got a double seat to ourselves. Slowly the bus filled up, mainly with locals and some rowdy backpackers at the back. No chickens yet. Then there weren’t any seats left. Still, the bus wasn’t full. To our amazement, the conductor whipped out some plastic chairs to line the aisle, so more people squeezed on. They started tying to the roof big sacks of what was probably rice and after a while, we headed off.

As we trundled off, it dawned on us why the journey would take so long. The bus seemed to stop every hundred metres or so to pick up more passengers. The bus was never full. Soon, even the plastic chairs in the aisle were filled up and there were people standing in between, hanging on for dear life as if on a 15 minute commute rather than a 15 hour one. We gradually dropped off the sacks of rice. They landed heftily on the ground with muffled thuds as the night turned pitch black. At one point, a motorcycle putted up and there was a bit of commotion and grunting on the roof. Soon, the rider squeezed his way on board, helmet on head to free up his hands for holding on. At the only dinner stop, we all trooped off the bus and gawked at the amazing sight of the motorcycle lashed to the roof of the bus. We hurriedly grabbed some dinner, looed, and rushed back to reclaim our seats, thankful that we were kiasu-Singaporean enough to “chope seat” by leaving our packs on it.

The bus started to pick up speed as we drove through the mountainous, truly sparsely inhabited area of the far north. It felt like we were the only ones hurtling through the dark lonely night. A few hours after the dinner stop, the driver flipped on the tape deck and loud Thai remixes of 90s boyband songs came on. After a couple of turns on repeat, the rowdy backpackers at the back started heckling and demanding that the driver switch it off. Siamesecat and I kept quiet, we agreed that it was  better to be deaf and alive than just dead if the driver needed the music to stay awake. We were glad when the driver simply ignored the heckling and kept going.

The cheerful Thai boyband pop became a bizarre counterpoint as lightning started flashing around us. For split seconds, we saw the trees and slopes lit up in dark grey-green around us. Then came the thunder and the accompanying driving (!) rain. Siamesecat and I were now doubly thankful that we decided to keep our bags with us instead of putting them on the roof. It was worth the lesser discomfort of having to fold ourselves into a semi-crouching position with feet on bag on floor than to discover our possessions sodden beyond salvage the next morning. Music still blaring, we drifted off to sleep. The closed windows misted over as we continued on our way.

I woke intermittently and as dawn crept up on us, this lovely sight greeted me:

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There was more. The valleys were clouded over and in the morning sun was nothing but stunningly beautiful.

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We were firmly in the hilltribe area. Curious kiddos did the usual, stopping their play to stare and wave. We saw villages slowly come alive as the doors to stilt huts slowly opened and tribespeople emerged on their daily business. Some went to work on the mountain slopes, others took goods to the market and still more laid out their wares on mats along the road.

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Exactly 15 hours later, we pulled past the Red Cross building at Huay Xai. We made it in one piece! I(n any case, true to Lao-style, the place was shut.)

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Knees creaking, we went off in search of a guesthouse.

Mid-Week Herb Pasta

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As always, I hoped to finish up some things languishing in the fridge. I had two sad lemons and some fairly fresh coriander waiting around. A quick trip to the supermarket got me basil instead of the flat-leaf parsley I was hoping for, but rooting around in the freezer got me some butter and chopped shallots. I meant to have some kind of meat with this but was too tired to sort that out, so it was just chopped herbs and butter in this simple clean-tasting pasta. I’m sure this would go amazingly with some grilled fish, although DC thinks it’ll be phenomenal with lamb rack. We’ll just have to try both out before deciding!

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Ingredients:
linguine
1 generous knob butter
2 tbsp chopped shallots
good splash of dry vermouth, sherry or white wine
1 pack basil leaves, finely chopped
1 pack coriander leaves, finely chopped
zest of 1 lemon

Method:

  1. Boil the linguine in plenty of salted water till just approaching al dente.
  2. In a hot pan, melt the butter then gently saute the onions till slightly coloured.
  3. Add the vermouth, turn up the heat and bubble till reduced by half.
  4. Toss in the pasta, chopped herbs and lemon zest. Stir over low heat. If the pasta is not yet al dente, add a little of the water used to boil the pasta and stir till ready.
  5. Check seasoning and serve garnished with a lemon wedge and a sprig of basil.

Serves 2.

Basement Restaurants at Liang Court

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I wanted to have Okinawa food again and DC suggested trying Ichibantei at Liang Court. While not strictly an Okinawan restaurants, it served pretty decent food. The deep fried mini prawns were pretty good even though they didn’t quite have the oomph of the version done at Nirai Kanai next door. I liked how they were so crispy everything could be crunched up nicely. The only problem was making sure that I put the prawn in  my mouth tail first, if not I’d get pricked by the spikes on its head.

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The goma salad wasn’t particularly exciting, though the deep fried noodles add a nice touch.

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An unexpected find was the pork belly ramen. I wasn’t expecting much but I liked this quite a lot. The soup was rich and the noodles firm and bouncy. It’s runner up to my favourite at Ken’s.

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Last dish here was the deep fried prawn roll with tai and mentaiko. I liked how the rich grilled mentaiko topping went really well with the prawn. While the tai added a smooth, almost silky dimension, the delicate flavour was a little overwhelmed by the prawn and mentaiko. A bit of a pity as this imaginative dish could have been that much better.

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The desserts at Ichibantei weren’t very inspiring, so we headed over to Tampopo Deli where we tucked into the tart pudding. It was lovely! The tart at the bottom was buttery and nutty (almonds?) and went really well with the rich caramel pudding on top. The syrup topping and real cream gilded the lily incredibly well. It’s a simple pairing that worked incredibly well. Definitely a winner.

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Ichibantei
177 River Valley Road
#B1-50 Liang Court Shopping Centre
Tel: 6338 0393

Tampopo Deli
#B1-16 Liang Court Shopping Centre
Tel: 6338 7386

1 for 1 at Zambuca

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I was lucky. It was my cousin’s birthday and First Uncle and Aunt asked me along to make up the numbers for the 1 for 1 offer at Zambuca. It was a four-course meal that started with an amuse-bouche they called “tomato tea.” It was pretty well executed as the very pale yellow tinged liquid tasted startlingly like tomato. I wonder if it was just strained fresh tomato juice but it was very good as something to tickle the palate.

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I picked the scallops with muesli as a starter. True enough, two small scallops made a plural; even though I felt the portion was far too small, one really couldn’t complain about misrepresentation on the menu! The scallops were fresh and the barley-currant mix added an interesting texture to the dish. It was a pity the foam didn’t taste of very much, otherwise this would have made a rather imaginative and unique starter.

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The crab, caper and anchovy angel hair pasta was a bit of a letdown. It sounded like it had such promise on the menu but the execution fell flat. The capers and anchovies were too salty, while the crab was a bit bland. The flavours just did not meld well. This was probably the weakest link in my dinner.

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The beef pretty much saved the disappointment of the pasta dish. Here, however, was where there definitely was misrepresentation. The menu said that the beef was aged but it certainly did not taste like it. Also, I was shocked that the restaurant could overcook my beef. I asked for rare but it came out on the medium side of medium rare. Having said all that, it was decently flavoured so I didn’t bother to send it. In any case, I couldn’t be too fussy because I wasn’t paying anyway. The onion was decent though too sugary as the chef cheated when he caramelised the onions. The sprouting broccoli was a nice touch though.

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Last of all was dessert. My cousin got a bonus tiramisu complete with candle and singing waiters. That was a lovely touch and it was good for the rest of us greedies since she needed a lot of help to finish her extra dessert. For my own dessert I had creme brulee with rhubarb compote. It was a typical creme brulee, rather forgettable and the rhubarb compote wasn’t particularly flavourful. Nothing to complain about yet nothing particularly exciting.

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I know that this post isn’t particularly glowing. It was great stuff since it was free for me: I guess it’s one of those cases where the food was up to standards but not particularly remarkable but the company more than made up for it.

Zambuca Italian Restaurant and Bar
Pan Pacific Singapore
7 Raffles Boulevard Level 3
Singapore 039595
Tel: 6337 8086

March in Laos: Up the Mekong

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Siamesecat and I took a trip up the Mekong to visit the Pak Ou caves, famous for its retired Buddha statues. We took one of these wooden boats and put-putted slowly up the river.

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On the muddy banks grew the occasional pair of majestic banyans, roots entwined in a charming embrace.

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We passed by typical idyllic scenes of daily life, here appearing to be quite authentic and not a show for the tourists.

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Ours was the true blue experience as we pulled up alongside a petrol shop-boat to top up the fuel tank.

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We stopped at a flight of cement stairs leading up to a little village that specialised in local whisky.

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Glutinous rice whisky (lao lao) of all sorts of interesting flavours was laid out for sale.

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There was the usual scorpion one for virility…

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… and snake too for the same. There was also the less common centipede which was so big we wondered how it got stuffed into the bottle.

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They gave out samples of the regular version. We tried out shots of the mild stuff that was quite pleasing as it was sweet and light, then progressed on to the full strength (40%) stuff that was smooth but not quite worth lugging around the country, especially considering the makeshift distillery it was made in.

We were somewhat taken aback when the villagers proudly showed us their distillery shack. This setup is it: three barrels, a wood stove and a bunch of earthenware jars. We soon moved swiftly on.

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Spirits of another sort awaited us at the Pak Ou Caves where old Buddha statues were deconsecrated and put out to pasture. It was behind an amazing cliff face, looking rather like it came out from a movie set.

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Inside were Buddha images in various stages of age and wear. Some didn’t look quite that old and others, well, had seen far better times.

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There really were hundred and hundreds of these images. I wonder if anyone’s ever done a count.

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There were statues in every nook and corner of the cave, all of them crowding even to the edges of the rock shelves. I think that was the most Buddha images I’ve ever seen in one place. Crazy stuff.

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March in Laos: Eating in Luang Prabang

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Laos in general and Luang Prabang in particular had lots of great food. Siamesecat and I started off one misty morning with a glass of thick, sweet and strong coffee chased down with a glass of steaming hot tea. Sitting on a wooden bench watching the morning bustle while sipping hot robust coffee was one of those subliminal moments of the trip.

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After having our caffeine and sugar fix, we table hopped to the next stall and tucked into the typical breakfast of foe (yup, almost exactly like Vietnamese pho). I don’t know how they make it so tasty, but thin flat rice noodles with hot broth, topped with herbs and raw vegetables to your preference hit the spot for me every day.   This morning the noodles came with pork strips and tomato. I could have noodles three times a day and not get sick of it. The trick was to experiment with the toppings provided at the table. They typically have salt, sugar, msg and chilli powder but there’s normally lime, basil, coriander, mint, sweet chilli sauce, various types of belachan (fermented shrimp paste) and fish sauce. I especially liked trying out the pongy variations of belachan at the different places.

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Foe is normally served in really small portions, which was fine with us because it gave us all the more reason to snack along the street. Here I’m stuffing my face yet again at a barbecue stand selling grilled animal parts like spicy minced pork patties, water buffalo jerky and belly pork. It was all mmm good.

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For lunch, we again had noodles, the one here a beef version with popped rice cracker-cakes on the side. If you look carefully you’ll spot the two small tubs of belachan on the table. One was the typical shrimp one and the other made of tiny river crabs. We noticed a lot of Lao people take a chilli padi, dip it in belachan, take a chomp and double dip it while waiting for their noodles. I guess the heat from the chilli kills the germs.

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Heavily fortified by all this food, Siamesecat and I proceeded to wander the streets. It was evening when we came across this vampire-phobic cat lying on a bed of garlic. It was obviously bed time.

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It looked incredibly satisfied at the end of that yawn!

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As the sun began to set, Siamesecat and I decided that we really should have something quite special. While we both loved noodles and never got tired of them, we had to try the slightly fancier food too.

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We found a restaurant along the Mekong and enjoyed the view while waiting for our food.

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This place served mainly set menus catering to tourists. We figured that it was as good as any other. Not having any locals to take us to truly authentic places, at least this would allow us to try a bit of everything.

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The set dinner started with watercress salad, a fresh minty salad with sharp watercress and other herbs dressed in a type of mayonnaise. Then it progressed to dried pork sausage with very spicy buffalo skin dip. The pork sausage was like a slightly less fatty salami with lovely smoked overtones while the dip had strips of rather tough buffalo hide bound by a fiery chilli paste. Crispy sheets of dried riverweed with sesame seeds helped to balance out the fire but the extremely spicy beef stew didn’t help things out.

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Siamesecat and I then hit the night market for incredibly cheap buys like a beautiful silk and cotton mix pair of fisherman pants for about USD2.50. There were pretty handicrafts and all sorts of ethnic and hill tribe knick knacks on sale. Apparently a lot of these items were brought over the border to Thailand for sale in their own tourist markets.

I stopped to buy something that couldn’t be exported easily to Thai tourist markets: more food. Supper that night was baguette filled with ping kai (barbecued chicken) and lettuce. It was up to me to choose my sauces again. This time it was at least three kinds of chilli sauce, two of which had some kind of fermented seafood incorporated within, and two types of soya sauce. Amazing.

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Herbal Black Chicken Soup

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The weather hasn’t been particularly good lately, so i thought I’d make some herbal chicken soup to top up the defences. This soup is incredibly simple to make and the flavours are clear and strong. If I could be bothered to, I’d put it in a slow cooker to double boil during the day so that I can return to a nice brew. Since I wasn’t very organised this time, I simmered it over a gentle flame for about an hour. This way, the chicken was still tender. I would probably have saved it for breakfast sandwich filling but the taste was so good that I keep picking at it over the next day or so and there was none left for mayonnaise and bread.

The American ginseng is meant to relieve heatiness and stress and the wolfberry  supposedly is good for the eyes, it’s also great to balance out the bitterness of ginseng. You can easily buy the ingredients from any traditional Chinese medicine shop.

I’m not sure how it affects the medicinal value of the soup, but I like to poach some (regular) chicken fillets in the soup to enhance the flavour of the soup. Get a pot that is just big enough to fit the chicken and put in just enough water to cover it all. This way you get a lot of chicken and ginseng flavour. Try it, it’s fantastic.

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Ingredients:
black chicken
4 chicken fillets
2 generous pinches of American ginseng slices
1 generous tbsp wolfberry

Method:

  1. Bung all the ingredients in a suitable pot with lid and fill up with water till it just covers the chicken. Cover and simmer on low till it just starts bubbling. Poach the chicken fillets for about 10 minutes, then remove.
  2. Simmer on low with bubbles just breaking the surface now and then for one hour.
  3. Season to taste with sea salt and serve.

Serves 2.

Dear Dessert at Camp

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DC and I were stuck for options one evening and we ended up at Camp for dessert. While the food was fine, it was horrifyingly expensive. A juice and dessert each cost us slightly more than $40.

Nevertheless, the strawberry shortcake was rather good. I liked how fresh strawberry was baked into the tasty cake. The creme anglaise instead of boring vanilla ice cream was a very welcome change. While the presentation in mess tin was quite cute, the high sides of the tin made it hard to dig into the food, so it kind of evened out plus and minus.

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The green tea and tofu tiramisu was quite interesting. It was hardly tiramisu to me as there wasn’t liqueur nor coffee in the mix. I could only taste the macha powder sprinkled on top, no green tea anywhere else in the dessert. The cake layer was kueh bolu and the cream layer had a centre of tau hway which I liked very much. It was a very imaginative dessert, though I’d probably not order it again as it didn’t really wow the tastebuds.

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House, Barracks and Camp
8D Dempsey Road
#01-01 to 06 Tanglin Village (Dempsey Road)
Tel: 6475 7787 / 6479 9212