The Malt Vault

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Fishball was introduced to a little place in Ann Siang Hill that specialised in single malts. The Single Maltoholics congregated at the very aptly named Malt Vault. It’s a small place, cosy with soft seats round low tables and some space by a short bar; all augmented nicely by nostalgic jazz videos playing on two screens behind the bar.

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The whisky menu was staggering. It was divided into the requisite regions of Scotland: Islay, Speyside, Island, Lowland and Campbeltown, each section replete with an eyeboggling array of whiskies. Faced with the paradox of choice, we asked the owner for recommendations. To his question of what sort of whisky we liked, the responses “peaty,” “smokey,” and “Islay” all came up. We started name-dropping our favourites from Ardberg and Laphroaig to Lagavulin. Three of us girls were very taken by the recommendation of the 1979 Caol Ila, while Mfluder had the Bunnahabhain, Jeff the Ardberg 15 and DC the Laphroaig 1998.

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Our drams arrived in proper tulip-shaped glasses that I thought very pretty. We then merrily tasted each other’s whiskys, the proceedings getting merrier the more we tasted. The Laphraoig didn’t disappoint with its characteristic wood and hospital (!) nose, smooth smoke and salty finish. My favourite of the evening was my own Caol Ila. At a whopping 60%, this fella came with a sledgehammer alcoholic kick, but oh the vanilla, honey and spice start. Chased by refined smoke and finishing off with mild salt, this was definitely a keeper. After a few sips, some orange peel came through. Such a good one to savour.

Tricia, Jeff and I scored a coup. As we tasted Jeff’s Ardberg 15, Tricia thought it tasted like cheese, while Jeff thought it was more like smoked bacon. I detected vanilla. When the owner came over to give us some pointers on the tasting, he gave exactly the same words right back to us! Now all we need to do is keep drinking together!

Aside from whiskys, Malt Vault also does exclusive Scottish beers. James and his girlfriend had Belhaven Scottish Ale, which according to Tricia is probably the smoothest, creamiest ale she’s ever tried. When Fishball finally turned up, he asked for his bottle of  Bruadar whisky liqueur. It was honey and sloe berries spiked with whisky and at first sniff was something like a body wash from The Body Shop! It was straightforward (the expected honey and berry nose and sweet taste) and very easy on the palate. Not a bad way to end the evening.

Malt Vault
Basement No. 12 Ann Siang Road
Tel: 9026 3466
mr.malt@maltvault.com.sg

Isetan Supermarket’s Hokkaido Fair

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Isetan Supermarket has quite a few themed fairs and the Hokkaido Fair is a regular fixture there. I try to get there for it’s always dependable sushi sets. This time, there were snow crab boxed rices. DC’s was the bigger one. It had uni (sea urchin), my favourite ikura (salmon roe), sake (salmon), cooked salmon, and crab claw pieces.

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Mine had mainly shredded crab, lots more ikura than DC’s box, and uni. It also had more pickles, which I liked loads. The crab was juicy and delicately oceanic, and the uni was creamy and had that characteristic almost-ammonia whiff. I guess I’m not the biggest fan of uni given that smell. But of course, it was the ikura that sends me to heaven. I cannot say too many times how much I love the bursty-salty fish egg goodness. Coupled with the perfectly cooked rice gone a touch beyond al dente and the lovely pale pink daikon pickle, this rice box was so good I didn’t even need the soy sauce to go with it.

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Because we both skipped breakfast, we thought it perfectly reasonable to order Hokkaido ramen too. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite as wow as we thought. Fortunately, we only ordered one bowl, the special seafood ramen. Only 50 bowls of this flavour were made each day. It had a fair bit of seafood in it: crab claw, uni, shrimp, squid and a skirted scallop. It was all pretty agreeable, but not so exquisitely fresh or flavourful that I would devour the whole thing by myself. I liked the noodles a great deal though. They were done perfectly al dente, just the way I like it, and I guess just the way the Japanese like it.

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I can’t wait for the next Hokkaido Fair!

Isetan Supermarket
50 Orchard Road Shaw House
Tel: 6733 1111

Restaurant Prices at a Coffee Shop Stall: Big D’s

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I’d probably be lynched by fans of Big D’s (including the friend who told me about it) when I say that I think the food is expensive. It could well be that the chef buys nothing but the best cuts and uses the best ingredients. It could also be that the chef doesn’t have enough bulk to warrant good prices from his suppliers. I found it a little disconcerting to pay restaurant prices for something at a coffee shop stall.

Nonetheless, the food was very good. DC and I shared a kurobuta pork chop ($28) and an anchovy pasta ($17). I liked how the pork was charred outside and just about done on the inside, with a smidgen of pink right in the centre of the cut. It was strangely difficult to cut (no steak knives here) but was just the right firmness I expected – slight give from the marbling of fat and good heft in the mouth. Plus, it had good porky flavour. The accompaniments were passable. I liked the slow-cooked peppers and surprisingly, also the baked beans. They were quite different from the canned version and are something like American Southern beans. Pretty yummy.  I’m on the fence on the strange sweet accompanying sauce (pineapple?) but DC didn’t mind it at all. I didn’t like the overly starchy mashed potatoes, and DC didn’t appreciate the stall telling him that he couldn’t change the mash to french fries because they “wouldn’t go.” Well, overly starchy mash doesn’t go with anything in my books.

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I liked the anchovy pasta. The spaghetti was on the verge of soft that was still acceptable, though I’d have preferred it more al dente. I suppose they cater more to the popular taste for soft noodles. The anchovy sauce was punchy, robust and of course redolent of anchovies. A bit of chilli added some kick to it. However, I think it’s not quite worth the price as anchovies aren’t that expensive. My plate only had a smallish heap of sauced pasta on it and nothing else. Sure, I’d only ordered just that but it’s a tad pricey no? Plus, I really ought to banish the thought but seeing as I could tweak the idea further at home and add all sorts of lovelies to it for half the price, I was slightly dismayed. It was still good though!

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Big D’s Grill
Blk 46 Holland Drive
#01-359

Diving the Similans: Eating at the Villa After

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The Vijitt has a beautiful infinity pool to match its beautiful grounds. We admired it every morning at breakfast and had a dip a couple of times. Too bad it wasn’t quite as good as the diving the past week!

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Food at the resort was very good. I liked the breakfast, the buffet spread was decent and they provided fresh juice to order. DC, however, has higher standards. Good thing the a la carte menu for dinner met his standards! There were two restaurants inside, one the main restaurant looking out at the pool and the other an intimate Thai restaurant in a beautiful house facing the beach. It was this restaurant that had fabulous food. I liked how refined the cooking was.

Here we’ve got a delicate soup that tasted like a very sophisticated tom yam. It showcased the vibrant taste of fresh herbs and aromatic roots to a T. Didn’t hurt at all of course to have fresh juicy prawns to add to it. The clarity of the flavours was astounding. I’m fairly drooling thinking of it as I type.

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Another dish was rather oddly named as fermented smoked shrimp. It turned out to be deep fried dried shrimp with deep fried lemon grass bits and peanut, all tossed together with herbs and chilli. While the shrimp was a bit of a chewy-crunchy mouthful, the deep seafood umami flavour permeating this dish really worked. It’s nothing like I’ve had before and a definite re-order. (What am I saying, all the dishes featured here are definite re-orders.)

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Yet another re-order was the salad of winged bean and shrimp. There’s something magical about the combination of savoury fish sauce, tangy lime juice, seafood and crunchy greens. The topping of dried coconut and fried shallots brought it to another level. What can I say except “yum!”

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Last dish to feature is the simple yet very skillfully made crab omelette. It was crisp at the edges and still runny in the centre. Of course, the crab was fresh and sweet. It was such a satisfying counterfoil to the rest of the dishes. I could eat here every day!

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The Vijitt Resort Phuket
Friendship Beach
16 Moo 2, Viset Road, Rawai, Muang, Phuket 83130
Tel: +66 (0) 76 363 600

Diving the Similans: The Villa After

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After all that hard work diving, a couple of days at a nice villa was definitely in order. DC found the Vijitt Resort online based on its reputation. It didn’t hurt that the place appears in Francis Ford Coppola’s list of top resorts in the world. and what a beautiful place it was! The resort only has individual villas, there aren’t any rooms in a building. Each had a private entrance and a little garden filled with aromatics. I especially liked how they grew a lot of pandan outside our villa. When we emerged for breakfast in the morning, the fragrance was such an uplifting start to the walk to the restaurant. What was even better is that the resort recognises that the grounds are quite big, so there’s a buggy service that takes you wherever you like in the compound. It was great how cheery staff would come up on the buggy and ask if we needed a lift. Most times we waved them off so we could enjoy the walk and the view, but having one at beck and call and also for when the sun was beating down was just fantastic.

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There were excellent views from the villa. Here’s what we saw from the balcony and bath tub. It overlooks the southern shore of Phuket and what passes as its beach. It was incredibly lovely to see the old coconut trees towering majestically over the villas. The resort claims that they built the villas round the trees and not a single one was cut down to build the resort.

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I shall be coy about the room itself, go have a look at the resort website to have an idea of the layout. But what was really nice was the pseudo-outdoor shower. It’s actually sheltered so you’d still need to turn on the shower if it rains. The shower is built in a kind of lean-to bamboo shack with a window that opens out to the lovely view.

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It was really nice having a shower and enjoying the view at the same time. I liked how thoughtful they were in planning the villas. It’s really hard for someone to peek at you while in the shower, so no worries about privacy.

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After all that rave review, would I stay there again? Unfortunately, no. It’s mainly because they had a major mosquito problem. The resort is located in a rather swampy area and despite their efforts to fumigate and place mosquito coils (upon request) in the villa, there was no way of keeping them out. Didn’t we close the verandah door and windows? Yes. We had both airconditioning and fan on at full blast at night but still got bitten. Puzzled by the mystery, DC looked at the finishings carefully and realised that there was a large gap in the sliding verandah doors, so mosquitoes could get in anyway. I was kept up all night scratching, it was that bad.

The other problem with the Vijitt is that the maintenance isn’t that great. I think they chose cheap finishings and didn’t do it up properly. For instance, the metal hand grip of one of the sliding doors in the bathroom came off. We realised that even though there were holes for the screws, the panel was simply glued on. Nonetheless, that didn’t affect our stay at all, just that I wonder if the place has longevity. The resort is currently just over a year old and while definitely not run down, it looks like it could do with moreTLC. Please go if you’re immune to mosquitoes, and go soon!

Diving the Similans: Things on a Wreck

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Our last dive in the Similans was at Boonsung Wreck. It used to be a whole boat at the bottom of the sea, but the tsunami lifted it up and smashed it into four big pieces. Ironically, this makes for richer marine life as there’s more space for coral to grow and therefore more places for fish to hide and spawn. Among which were these bored, listless looking longfin bannerfish mooching about the place.

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There were quite a few moray eels and here was one of the few blackspotted morays I’ve seen. It wasn’t too pleased with its hole because soon after I took this picture, it departed and tried to fight a white eye moray for space but sadly was soon defeated and had to go back to its lousy old hole. Poor guy.

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Then there were goby shrimp and their shrimp gobies. It’s cute how all the shrimp does is shovel gravel out of the hole. Talk about a menial task. The goby just guards the hole and darts in at the first sign of trouble. The shrimp never shovels past the middle of the goby’s body. It was so hard to get close enough to take a good picture. This is the best I got.

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Then there were these two lovebird cuttlefish who stuck together despite showing their alarm colours. I think there were too many divers hovering over them and no crevices big enough for them to hide in.

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Last of all was the only set of nudibranch eggs I saw on the trip. It was funny how there weren’t a huge number of nudibranchs in the Similans. The ones I saw were the rather common and boring ones, so it was such a treat to see the ribbony sheets of eggs. See how each pink dot is an egg? I wonder how these things survive without being eaten by predators, they’re so obvious. Maybe they’re poisonous to most fish.

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Boonsung Wreck was a nice easy wreck to dive at. While the viz wasn’t the best, I liked how there was stuff both on the wreck and around it. It was a relaxing end to the diving.

Diving the Similans: Things That Made Me Sad

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Several things on the trip made me sad. One of them was the first injured fish I’d ever seen. I noticed this fish being unnaturally still on a sandy area. I thought it odd that somehow it didn’t quite seem alert and did nothing to move away or show that it noticed me when I moved in closer. Then I noticed that there was something wrong with its tail. Looks like it’d been bitten off and the fish was just waiting to die.

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At least it’s natural for fish to get predated upon and go places to die. This sight here wasn’t at all natural and I was upset because our dive guide smeared himself on the sea floor to just for a picture. No doubt he wasn’t lying on living coral, but there are also creatures that live in the sand and they have equal right not to be disturbed like that. Especially not when their homes cave in when a diver lands smack in.

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At least the schools of fish made me happy. Just watching the fish soup swirl past put me in a better mood.

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Doesn’t it do that for you too?

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Diving the Similans: Things in Crevices

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There was lots of other good stuff at Koh Bon. A lot of these were crevice dwellers. Some of them were quite shy and it was fun to wait for them to emerge and observe them doing their thing. During the dive, I only saw the two white eye moray eels in the hole and spent ages trying to get a good shot. It was only when I reviewed the pictures out of the water did I notice that there was also a fimbriated eel at the back of the hole. Look carefully above the middle white eye moray’s head and you’ll see its yellow head splotched with black.

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There were other oddities such as this warty orange thing. I have no idea if it’s a coral or a worm or something else, but it’s incredibly pretty nonetheless.

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Then of course there are the ubiquitous Christmas tree worms. They come in lots of different colours and are invariably embedded in brown coral. When you go too close they suddenly withdraw and the entire thing retreats instantaneously into the hole.

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I admit the lighting in the next photo isn’t great but try to spot what’s there. Hint: it takes up quite a bit of the photo. This fella is a master of disguise.

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Can you see it’s a reef octopus? It’s one of the biggest specimens I’ve seen and its tentacles looking quite menacing. Needless to say, I didn’t stay longer than necessary for a few snaps.

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Our dive guide spotted this ornate ghost pipefish quite by chance and he was visibly pleased to be able to point it out to us.

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It’s related to the seahorse and it’s such an odd fish for always being upside down. It’s one of my favourite fish because it’s so pretty and sightings of these aren’t that common.

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Towards dusk, the crustaceans started coming out. Here are some durban dancing shrimp. They’re cute because they always hang out in groups and like to face the same direction.

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It also helps that they’re not painfully shy and are quite happy to pose for pictures. They’re such funny stripey little red things.

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Then there was this lobster with the longest feelers ever. I had to resist the strong urge to pull it out of its hole by its feelers!

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The identity of this crevice dweller stumps me. I looked through my entire fish ID reference book and I can’t find a fish that has a head that looks like My Little Pony! I think it’s a type of blenny, anyone have any ideas?

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And the last of the lot: a banded sea snake! This is probably only the third one I’ve seen and I’ve done a far number of dives. They’re supposed to be several times more poisonous than the most poisonous land snakes but aren’t aggressive. I guess that’s a good sign.

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Diving the Similans: Manta Ray

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We’d left the Similans proper and gone up north to Koh Bon where we had a few decent dives but without seeing much that made us go “wow.” DC and I chatted with Vincent, the guy behind Black Manta, who joined in for this trip and he suggested we go with him for the next dive. Hope was up when Vincent came back from the recce dive saying that he saw mantas!

We were very hopeful in the first 20 minutes of the dive but the hope started to fade as the current picked up and the visibility got worse. At one point the whole group was clinging for our lives to a coral outcrop and there wasn’t much to do except hold on tight and not turn my head lest the current rip off my mask. And then Vincent started pointing. We strained our eyes trying to figure out what it was and then our eyes focused and we saw the manta looming in the distance.

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It then disappeared and then for quite a while we hung back in a more sheltered area rather than by the outer walls of Koh Bon. Soon, we noticed that the divers in the far group started to get excited and swim out further. The manta was back!

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Calmly and unhurriedly, it came past, flapping its wings sedately. The slow strokes belied the strength and speed of the motion as we had to hurry to keep up with the big ray.

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This one was a beauty and huge too! Its wingspan must have been at least 4 metres.

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It seemed to want to get closer and play with us as it wheeled and came round a few times.

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Each time it seemed as if it was teasing us by leaving and then turning round in a sedate circle to come back and check us out.

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It was almost as if it was saying to us, “You puny humans, look how tiny and helpless you are and look how big and lovely and graceful I am.”

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It came up magnificently close.

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So close in fact that my camera couldn’t take in the whole creature!

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I could see clearly its eyes, mouth flaps and gills as it sailed past. If my regulator wasn’t in my mouth it’ll probably have been agape at this majestic sight.

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Soon it was over and the giant manta ray wheeled for the last time and swept back off into the distance.

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Diving the Similans: Beach Time

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It wasn’t all underwater action in the Similans. We stopped at two different white sand beaches there, one a rather rocky beach on a bright sunshiney day.

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This place is called Donald Duck Bay. Quite obvious from the picture eh?

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It was nice to just poke around on the beach, looking out at the view…

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… and watching startled crabs scuttle for their lives to the water.

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Another beach we spent a little time on was much more beautiful. It had the smoothest white sand that Singapore probably could never hope to import. Just too bad about the overcast weather though.

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Here we also spotted crabs, this time duelling hermit crabs.

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