Candlenut Kitchen

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Misa and I were overdue for a catchup and we chose Candlenut Kitchen for that. We were sad that Trish and Adele couldn’t join us, maybe a little because we missed their company, but mainly because we were severely limited in how much we could eat! It was very gutting (pun intended) that we only had space for two mains and a dessert. We had to choose our dishes wisely and started with Misa’s perennial favourite: assam fish ($16.80). I thought it a very good version, though not quite as rich in flavour as I’d like. While flavourful from the assam and laksa leaves, I found the gravy a little watered down. It would not go well in DC’s house (he’s Peranakan). Still, a decent rendition – good for desperate times when you can’t get the home-cooked version.

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I read good reviews about yeye’s curry ($12.80), a white curry made with white pepper instead of the usual chilli rempah. On first chew, I thought it very similar to a mild version of Thai green curry and was a bit let down. The texture of the gravy certainly was very similar as it was very thick and lemak. It went really well with the chunks of chicken thigh. After a few more bites, the subtlety of the dish starts to come through and the magic of the pepper starts to weave its spell. It’s spicy yet gentle in its kick, with a level of complexity that’s hard to describe. I’ve been remiss in my posts and this dinner was had slightly more than a month ago before Christmas. My mouth still waters as I write this, it’s worth the trip just for this one dish.

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For dessert, we had the Christmas special dessert which is sadly off the menu now. It was a bombe Alaska of sorts, with chestnut, banana and chocolate. While we both thought it a bit too sweet with the honey drizzled on top, the banana and chestnut combination was pretty addictive.

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This is a restaurant with very good potential. I’m already plotting my next trip back!

Candlenut Kitchen
25 Neil Road
Tel: 6226 2506

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The French Kitchen

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I went with family to French Kitchen to check out their set lunch ($36++). It’s not an easy place to get to as it’s in a pretty remote (!) part of the CBD. Check out Central Mall on the map first before you go, it’s not the more centrally located Japanese mall. Our party got there easily enough, ordered and started to wallop our amuse bouche. It was quite nice – tomato bruschetta, parmesan crisp and truffled pumpkin soup – but not very exciting. I thought it rather boring overall because bruschetta, tomato and parmesan are too common, plus nowadays everything is over-truffled. Don’t get me wrong, truffle is nice, but I’d like my foodie world to be less awash in truffle please.

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My lobster bisque was very nice. I liked the touch of tempura prawns (OK so they’re called beignets, but they sure are tempura to me) with its softly crisp texture. Too bad the batter got soft really quick, so the second one wasn’t quite as yummy.  I think they spent too much time fiddling about with pouring out the bisque at the table. They should just stick the pot on the table and leave it as a free for all for barbarians like us me. Still, they did good by leaving the head and tail unbattered so I enjoyed the crispness of the prawn shell all the way. The bisque itself was decent but not quite robust enough for my liking. I guess the chef was trying to be purist by using only lobster but couldn’t afford more than what he used for the set menu. I think it would’ve been better with crab or prawn in it too. As for the leek custard, it was soft and comforting but not quite my thing as I’m not the biggest onion fan. A well executed dish nonetheless.

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My main was quite a standard dish, so no marks on originality. Wagyu beef cheek has been done to death, but this was a well executed version. It was meltingly tender and not too rich, and with rocket as a good foil to the richness. The eggplant caviar with truffle was a bit underwhelming for something that was really just eggplant mash. Decent, just don’t expect too much from the eggplant.

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I wasn’t sure about the fries – had one, found it way too salty and passed the rest to my brother and the rest. They happily chomped it up.

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The dessert was only average, ending the meal on a bit of a letdown. The sabayon with wild berry ice cream didn’t make much of an impact at all. All I remember was rich, spongy custard with ice cream that tasted very faintly of, well, berries. Didn’t help that the strawberry garnish was sour. I’d expect much more for a restaurant of this standard. Looking back at the picture, the sliver of pastry was very good though, very short and crisp, falling apart beautifully on the tongue.

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My verdict? The French Kitchen has solid execution and well made savouries. Don’t expect a great deal of creativity; go there for the classics and for the good value set lunch.

The French Kitchen
7 Magazine Rd (off Merchant road)
#01-03, Central Mall
Tel: 6438 1823

Modern Thai at Kha

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Hort Park is a special place for DC and me. We go there regularly but never quite during dinner time till this one time we went to Kha, a modern Thai restaurant. It’s run by the same person who does boutique hotels, one of them being Jia in Hong Kong. It’s cute how the names of the two places are linked: “jia” means “home” in Mandarin while in Cantonese, it’s pronounced “ka”. In Thai, kha is a modifier word for females to use at the end of a sentence to make it polite. (The equivalent for males is “khup”.) What a clever way to name the restaurant. I like!

I was pleasantly surprised already when they served the complimentary appetiser. Instead of the typical prawn crackers with sweet chilli sauce, they gave us popped rice biscuits with red curry sauce. It made for a zingy start to the meal.

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We ordered two appetisers and a main so that there’d be space for dessert. First was the crispy catfish with sweet pork and mango salad. It was very good – tangy and slightly spicy with plenty of texture. I’ve always liked the crispy floss-like texture of catfish done this way. They did right not to mess with the classic combination of catfish and young mango strips. I also liked the extra crunch of the peanuts but felt that the pork wasn’t necessary.

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Our second appetiser was banana flower salad with young coconut and chilli. I didn’t like this one as much. It still had the classic sweet-sour-spicy combination so characteristic of Thai salads, but I felt that the texture of banana flower didn’t lend itself well to a salad as it was too “siap siap” – you know that nasty tannic texture, a bit too sappy? The young coconut helped a little but didn’t help much to give interest for flavour. Interesting idea that flopped.

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The main we shared was very good! It was baked half sticky chicken stuffed with coriander and lemongrass, paired with stir fried pineapple rice. The sticky chicken was marinated in some kind of sweet dark sauce hence the stickiness from all that sugar. It tasted Asian but not quite vehemently Thai. The meltingly tender chicken paired nicely with the pineapple rice for a very safe, crowd-pleasing main. I liked how they used some unpolished rice to add flavour and texture. Good call.

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For dessert, we went for the baked pumpkin custard with coconut ice cream. The pumpkin custard is very typically Thai. This version was very nicely made, with smooth silky and not too sweet custard. It went very well with the rich coconut ice cream, a very nice end to the meal.

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Too bad the drinks weren’t as good. We wanted to enjoy the view outside and had our post-dinner drinks there. They tasted as bad as they looked. Don’t drink the aromatic pear mojito – the pear was somehow oxidised and brown; it left a very grainy feel in the mouth. The khao lao rum looked less bad and tasted OK. It was just another sweet drink. Both were very weak, so Kha is not a place for getting smashed.

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My verdict? A nice place for a romantic meal, just skip the drinks. I hear that they are moving soon. It’s a pity as the space is really quite lovely. Check it out soon!

Kha Restaurant
33 Hyderabad Rd
Tel: 6476 9000

September in Bali: Last Pampering

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It was time to call it wraps in Bali. I’d spent about 3 weeks diving in both Bali and Komodo and while I enjoyed it all greatly, it was time to take a break from being underwater. What better way than to do it in style – at one of the Nusa Dua resorts. I was lucky enough to get a free ride from Permuteran to the airport from a very generous Spanish couple. It was there that I met my aunt for our pampering at the resort.

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We stayed at the Hyatt, a lushly landscaped resort.

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My aunt found a great deal on it and we spent four days lazing around this resort.

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Most of the time was spent at the swimming pool, a free form one that snaked round the premises. It was lovely wandering from one coil to another, exploring the little surprises round the corner.

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One cute surprise was the slide, big enough for adults even! I enjoyed going down a few times, it was pretty fast. But soon I got embarrassed because little kids were going both before and after me.

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At breakfast, we had a choice of the open air patio or comfortable airconditioning inside. The open air patio gave us a beautiful view of birds enjoying the grounds too. They were fairly tame and I didn’t have to zoom too much to catch good shots.

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This little fella was our breakfast companion as we sat by the lily pond. In exchange for his companionship, we gave him a few morsels of bread from our table.

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And after spending the day lazing in the pool, we had dinner at Jimbaran beach. Here we had the typical spread of barbecued seafood, and here I also wave goodbye with my crab to the end of the Bali series.

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September in Bali: A Mucky Secret

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The other highlight of being in Permuteran was diving at Secret Bay. I don’t think it’s that big a secret anymore, but not as many divers go there. It’s a muck diving place, meaning that less of the casual divers and more of the serious divers go there. Why? Because muck diving is all about diving in places with less than white sand and very little coral. The atmosphere can be very depressing because of the low light and poor visibility conditions. Nonetheless, there are plenty of weird and wonderful creatures to see.

I strongly suspect this to be the Kodipungi lionfish, with its separated pectoral fin rays. It’s so beautiful and flamboyant against the dull grey sand.

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What surprised me next was the Banggai cardinalfish, something that is supposed to be very rare. When I’d last dived in Manado, I was told that these fish were only found at Banggai Island and the Lembeh Strait. Balderdash!

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Their blue-black colouration with the almost fluorescent white spots was mesmerising.

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There were also plenty of razorfish among the sea urchins. They were funny creatures that seemed to stand upside down on their noses to hunt for food.

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When pursued, they’d turn ninety degrees so they could make a quick getaway, but were otherwise always nose to the ground.

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Another rare find was the hispid frogfish. It was hilarious how each had a disarmingly charming white pompom on its forehead. This pompom acted like a lure to bring in prey. In a gulp, the poor fish would be gone.

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Another odd fish was the cockatoo waspfish that liked to pretend to be a leaf swaying in the water. Very strange.

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Less strange was this octopus that (for good reason) refused to budge from its hole. The best I could do was to take a blurred shot of its tentacles. Pity.

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Other inhabitants of this freakish side show include the striped puffer with its dark blotch around the base of its pectoral fins making it look recessed and mutated.

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Reflecting the green seaweed was this unidentified goby. It would’ve been difficult to spot if it was just a few inches into the seaweed.

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Easier to identify was the spotted shrimpgoby with its distinctive white iris and black markings. It was surprisingly how I managed to get close enough without startling the shrimpgoby.

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Almost completely camouflaged until it started moving was this peacock flounder with its weirdly asymmetrical eyes.

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Another well-camouflaged fish was this orange and black dragonet, its only giveaway the orange lips.

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There were more – this crocodile flathead, if left alone, would soon change colour to blend in with the sand below.

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There was also this really ugly pipefish that looked like a piece of random trash in the water. No wonder it’s called muck diving.

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Secret Bay was one of the few places where I saw full-sized seahorses, like this thorny seahorse. I was so thrilled by this find! Even though we’re told that pygmy seahorses are very rare, somehow I feel that full-sized ones are even more so because guides tend not to look out for them. What a great find.

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Another unexpected find was this whole pile of schooling catfish in the wreck of a little rowboat.

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Even more surprising was this ornate ghost pipefish floating along obliviously above the seething mass of catfish.

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Other than that, there was a truly horrifying sea centipede, another first for me (and hopefully last).

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And then there were the ubiquitous nudibranchs, though this time nothing I’ve seen before again.

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Check out this scrum of beautiful blue and yellow ones too. Lovely huh.

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And rounding things off, here’s a video of something not seen that often – a white-eye moray eel out of its hole in search of prey. Enjoy.

September in Bali: Menjangan Island

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I was in Permuteran to dive two very different locations. The first was Menjangan Island, also known as the island of the deer. To get there, we had to abide by a whole bunch of rules. I like multi-coloured signs like this and I especially liked the rather paternalistic exhortation to make sure all your diving equipment was attached securely to your body.

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While the diving at Menjangan Island wasn’t quite as spectacular as the other places I’d dived for this trip, it was very relaxing as there weren’t any challenging currents. The water was beautifully blue as usual and while there weren’t as many pelagics, there was still the odd gem or two. This yellow-spotted trevally was one of them.

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Here also was the second time in my diving career I saw a school of squid in broad daylight. The last time I saw a school of squid, it was my first dive. It took more than a hundred dives to see them again.

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Closer to the reef were plenty of longfin batfish. Here, they seemed almost excessively friendly, changing quickly from their day colours…

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… to night colours as they came in close, as they did when wanting to be cleaned.

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For some really odd reason, one of them swam right up to me, as if it was expecting me to do the cleaning honours for it.

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There were plenty of parrotfish around. I’m surprised how little photographed these fish are. I think it’s something to do with how shy they are and how they just don’t stay put in one place.

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There were others like this grouper that I can’t find in my fish ID book…

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… and more familiar ones like this Indian doublebar goatfish hovering over some coral.

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Some of the fish came in schools, like the two-spot snappers in their brownish grey raiment.

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Others were more solitary, like one of my all-time favourites, the juvenile harlequin sweetlips. I can’t get enough of its unique polka dot pattern.

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Some fish lived in crevices, like this yellowbarred jawfish emerging in search of prey.

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Others like this fire dartfish seemed to simply hover in one place posing for the camera.

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There were other fish that lived in crevices, and some of these you won’t want to get too close to. This fimbriated moray eel is one good example.

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Some were small and really difficult to get close to, like the goby. I can’t tell for sure whether this is a common ghostgoby.

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I think this is a large (!) whip goby but as usual, I can’t be sure.

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Other fish are much more easily identified, like these panda clownfish, also known as Clark’s anemonefish. They were so at home among the stinging anemones…

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… as was this anemone shrimp.

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Rather camera-shy was this hermit crab, which hid its face swiftly under its shell as the camera clicked.

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And then the ones that didn’t seem shy at all – the nudibranchs. I saw a white flabellina that seemed to mimic the coral it was on.

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There were others that were even more unidentifiable, like this strange blue one with an orange and white strip outlined by deep blue running down the middle.

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I tried to take some nudibranch portraits, some not quite coming out as I’d like as the flash refused to fire.

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And others came out much better, with a pensive, slightly lonesome feel that seems quite at odds with the experience of being a nudibranch, perhaps.

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September in Bali: Out of the Water

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I returned to Bali and took a short break from the diving. From my base of Permuteran up in the northwest of the island, I spent a day relaxing Bali’s Lake District, enjoying the cool air at Tamblingan Lake.

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It was lovely to admire a body of water and not feel the urge to dive in. I enjoyed the feeling of the cool air and being warmed by the sun instead of hiding from its much fiercer rays when down by the sea.

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We then headed to Jatiluwih to view the rice terraces. The intense green terraces were a marvel of human ingenuity and tenacity, and the coconut trees up on higher and cooler ground was a surprise to me.

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I was particularly tickled by how entire herds of ducks would take over harvested fields. They were probably scavenging for the scavengers that scavenged on the spent grain and leftover sheaves.

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Going closer, it seemed as if the entire field was quacking in symphony.

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We stopped by at the Botanic Gardens to admire the fountains…

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…  and the various, sometimes rather impressive greenhouses. This one was a desert hothouse, aridly beautiful in the stark light.

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And there were lily ponds galore, with the noon sun reflecting itself in the water.

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Our last stop was the Gitgit waterfall, a picturesque stream of water cascading down into a shallow pool, covering everyone below in a fine mist.

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Again, there was plenty of that wonderful green that made a good break from the diving.

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