The Best Seafood Pasta Ever

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DC and I found ourselves at Club Street one evening and he led me to an old haunt (to him). It was about time he introduced it to me!

Cugini is a charming little trattoria with colour-coordinated cyan menu covers matching the cyan chairs and cyan aprons worn by the waitstaff. Such a cute touch!  It’s dimly lit for the romantic feel and also to make food photos look less appetising despite my camera’s fabulous low light setting.

I liked how they added a little character to the ubiquitous bread basket by adding cherry tomatoes to the bread and providing a zingy horseradish dip. Yummy dip, though I’m not a big fan of how Italian bread tends to have a more collapsed texture compared to regular stuff. It’s probably because the bread is more proofed. DC loves it, so it’s just me!

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I ordered the Pizza Fiorentina ($20.90), with spinach and egg on top. I was rather dismayed that the egg came fully cooked, looks like the wood-fired oven was that hot that they couldn’t cook it any gentler. It was a very decent rendition, with a substantial enough crust that was thin but not so thin as to make it difficult to hold up with the fingers for eating the barbaric way. I liked how rustic the thin crust was. That said, it’s something that absolutely had to be eaten piping hot from the pizza stone, otherwise it gets soggy and slightly stodgy. Also, the tomato sauce tasted like they didn’t do a great deal to canned tomatoes to make it. I haven’t got anything against canned stuff, but the tomato base on pizzas absolutely needs to taste fresh and zingy. This one didn’t quite hit the mark. All in all, a decent rendition, though not worth a special trip for.

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Now what’s worth a special trip and an extra special mention is the phenomenal seafood spaghetti ($24.90). It’s off the menu and DC, having been there before, knew to ask. I tell you, it’s the best seafood pasta I’ve had in my life (at least as far as I remember). Oh my, it was the sauce that made it so incredibly. Where the tomato sauce on the pizza fell short, this one made up for it and more! It was thick, zesty and very full of flavour. There was plenty of clean seafood flavour, and probably a hint of white wine in it. I don’t know how the chef managed to pack so much seafood taste into the sauce, I could just eat the spaghetti and the sauce on its own… And talking about the spaghetti! Oh my, I thought I knew my al dente, but this al dente rocked my world. It was made so perfectly that the stars aligned at that point (and I probably should’ve gone to buy 4D). Let me attempt to describe it: there was chewy and yielding, there was tenderness, and there was noodle that was cooked through; it didn’t have a hint of durum hardness that you sometimes have to bear with for the sake of al dente, there was any sogginess that came with overcooking. This was, quite simply, the epitome of pasta and sauce. Now, it would’ve rated perfection in my books except for… the seafood. The fish was fresh and cooked just right, but the prawns were rather overdone and a bit meh. There wasn’t any other seafood, which was odd. I do love the crunch of slightly overcooked squid. So here’s my sad face about the seafood part not quite being up to par. But I must stress that the pasta and the sauce are probably the best thing that’s happened to me food-wise this year.

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Do yourself a favour and eat the seafood pasta.

Cugini
87 Club Street #01-01
Tel: 6221 3791

Quick(ish) Eats: Burger Shack

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We weren’t expecting to go to Burger Shack. Really, we wanted to have something a bit lighter, like the duck bak kut teh at Penang Kitchen. But we passed by and were really hungry. So we did. We went easy by skipping the fries and having a vaguely virtuous salad to compensate.

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Mine was the lamb burger. It was pretty decent with a fairly juicy patty that was spiced just right so that I could still taste the lamb. I quite liked the large juicy slices of portobello mushroom in it too. Next time if I wasn’t too famished, I’d pick out half of the chunky slices of onion. Thankfully, both our burgers had lots of onion, so we ponged each other to happy death the rest of the afternoon. (Oh yes, DC had the black pepper beef burger. I thought it was OK. The sauce was quite run of the mill pepper sauce, not that I was expecting anything really special anyway.)

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They tried to do the shake-shake thing with the salad, which is a good idea since you decide how much dressing to go in. It’s quite a nice Japanese-influenced one with plenty of soy sauce in it. As for the greens themselves, just take a look at the picture below and judge for yourself whether you’d like that kind of salad. It was passable for me in a pinch, but if I’m in my normal fussy mode, my response’d be NO ICEBERG PLEASE KTHXBAI. But I wasn’t, so it passed as my serving of greens for the meal. That, and the pongy onion.

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It’s a great place for a fairly quick burger. Try the spaghetti meatball next time, so many people were having it, maybe it’s good. Oh yes, and the lemonade was quite decent. This place is quite decent and the wait isn’t too long.

Burger Shack
559 Bukit Timah Road #01-01 King’s Arcade
Tel: 6466 3477

Ayam Penyet Ria

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We found ourselves at Ayam Penyet Ria at Lucky Plaza on recommendation from DC’s friend. The crowds and high turnover rate spoke for themselves and we happily settled in with some drinks. DC’s happy soda wasn’t quite the Southeast Asia backpacker joint variety, it being a very innocent (!) combination of rose syrup and condensed milk topped with 7-Up. Despite the incredible amount of sugar, he seemed to quite like it. My avocado juice started off really well, with plenty of thick avocado pulp mixed with runny gula melaka. Towards the end, it got really bitter as they inadvertently blended some avocado skin into the juice too. I had to get another sweet drink to rinse away the bitter taste!

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We started with some tahu telur, firm beancurd (taukwa) dipped in beaten egg and deep-fried, then topped with peanut sauce (Indonesian style) and garnished with vegetable shavings. It was very decent for fast food, with good quality taukwa and a very nice runny peanut sauce. It was slightly spicy, slightly sweet, yet not quite like satay sauce. Good stuff to start off the meal.

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We went for the more unique dishes and didn’t do the ayam penyet (smashed fried chicken). Instead, DC went for the empal penyet, or smashed beef steak. I was convinced that deep-fried beef was going to be overcooked and tough, but DC’s judgement was true. The beef, being smashed before it was fried, was decently tender and tasty. It went well with the crispy bits and the chilli sauce. Now that chilli sauce was jaw-judderingly spicy, as is typical of ayam penyet chilli. It was also very, very yummy. A lot of super spicy chilli sauces stop at being super spicy and aren’t a great deal more than chilli paste. This chilli sauce actually had flavour aside from simply “very hot”. They’d obviously used good belacan and added other spices that really added to the flavour. Sadly, I couldn’t eat more than a dab or two at a time, but it went well with both fried meat and the accompanying tempeh, tahu and vegetable sides.

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Mine was the lele penyet, or smashed deep-fried catfish. The catfish wasn’t smashed at all, maybe they’re referring to how the scattering of fried crispy bits on top make it look sort of smashed. I don’t know. The accompaniments were the same ones and the chilli sauce the same fabulous stuff. My fish was very excellent. It was succulent on the inside, and really crispy on the outside. I like how they fried it such that I could crunch up much of the fins and tail without having to spit any bones out. Also, with careful dissection, the fish wasn’t too bony. Plus, most of the small ones were soft enough to scoff down together with the tender white meat.

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It’s extremely good value. Treat it somewhat like fast food with slightly higher standards, and be warned that it’s not for chilli wimps!

Ayam Penyet Ria
304 Orchard Road #04-25 Lucky Plaza
Tel: 6235 6390

A Whirlwind Work Trip: 24 Hours in London

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The last leg of our trip was in London. It was a pity that I only had slightly more than 24 hours in one of my favourite cities.

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I didn’t do much in terms of leisure except take photos from my hotel window at High Street Kensington. It was a bit of a shock to come in from high, hot summer in Milan and Paris to a cool welcome in London. I had to put on my jacket to go out, it was that cool. London was the same grey it has always been.

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I was fortunate enough to have an evening off to catch up with old friends, Lucy…

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… and Naseem. They were kind enough to travel all the way to my neck of the woods just to have dinner.

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Lucy chose the very yummy Lebanese restaurant, Falamanki. They had fantastic drinks like this honey and avocado smoothie. The lusciously blended avocado was topped with amazingly fragrant honey and an aromatic sprinkling of ground pistachios. Very good indeed.

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I went on to have the mixed grill, a selection of chicken and lamb marinated and grilled in various ways, accompanied by a tart tabbouleh to cut through the meat. It was good stuff, though not as good as the company I had for the evening. It was lovely to catch up again after so long!

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Falamanki
221 Kensington High Street

It was a long, tiring and sometimes gruelling trip, what a lovely way to end it off meeting with old friends.

A Whirlwind Work Trip: Summertime in Paris

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The next part of our trip brought us to Paris where we stayed at Le Grand Hotel, run by the InterContinental. It was indeed a nice hotel with typically Parisian and very opulent rooms. There were soft beds (which my head of delegation didn’t like – oops) and plush carpets. There was also peeling wallpaper and the shower flooded the whole bathroom.

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Something weird happened: as I was settling in, room service rang and set up this elaborate set of drinks and cookies in the room. It was well and good until I excitedly rang my boss and asked if he was enjoying the complimentary drinks. (He wasn’t.) Then I realised that the welcome card had the wrong name on it! Horrified, I called our local representative office who booked the rooms for us to check if that was the name of the secretary doing the booking. (It wasn’t.) So I took their advice to “just whack.” and did exactly that. If you didn’t mind the odd service, the InterCon Le Grand is a nice though horribly over-priced place to stay. Thankfully, we had a free upgrade so the rooms were expensive but not quite horribly expensive for the company.

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We had a while to wander about town and enjoy some cakes at Laduree, which was thankfully still open on a Sunday.

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It’s such an institution there and if you haven’t tried their macarons, you haven’t really tasted one before. Their desserts are all very yummy too.

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Laduree
16 rue Royale 75008 Paris (there are also other branches in Paris, CDG and Versailles)
Tel: +33 (0) 1 42 60 21 79

Thereafter, we went for a bit of a meander through town, passing by the Place de la Concorde and the gardens in the area. There were so many people out in the later afternoon after the shops were closed, simply enjoying the sun. While it was inconvenient for us that we weren’t able to shop in the little time we had in Paris, I liked the idea of life going on in the daytime in spite of the dearth of shopping and commerce.

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I took the requisite touristy photos at what I think is the Place de la Concorde and its obelisk.

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And I grabbed some other pictures of the beautiful buildings sitting pretty in the afternoon sun.

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One of them could be Hotel Crillon, but I can’t be sure. The weather was too beautiful for it to matter.

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On the day with business meetings, it was a rush from stop to stop, with quick photos taken out of the rented car window.

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And this is the only decent shot I got of the Eiffel Tower, taken in the distance.

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When we finally got back from our business meetings, it was only to get a quick round of shopping before the shops closed. One of the incongruous ones I saw was this thoroughly modern Apple shop in an obviously old and well-preserved building.

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We finished off our Paris leg of the trip with a lovely meal at Oscar Restaurant, a favourite of our local representatives. I started with a lovely giblet salad topped with a duck liver terrine. It was typically Parisienne and a much wiser decision than my earlier choices of stodgy food in Milan.

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I was feeling quite heaty from all the travelling and eating (and being stuck in a boardroom for a whole afternoon without getting even a sip of water – poor organisation on the part of the hosts). The beef tartare as a main was very welcome. It was the best one I’ve had, the fresh and tasty raw beef being seasoned just right and not being overwhelmed by the pickle and onion chopped into the mixture. The fresh herbs and side salad helped lots too. By now, my dining companions were looking askance at my rather different choices and wondering what I was going to have for dessert.

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I eschewed the usual chocolate puddings and ice cream and gunned straight for the Faiselle, a type of sweet cheese topped with creme fraiche and accompanied with berry coulis. It was just the right creamy ending to my dinner.

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Oscar Restaurant
6, rue de Chaillot 75116 Paris
Tel: +33 (0) 1 47 20 26 92
Closed for Saturday lunch and on Sunday

A Whirlwind Work Trip: My First Michelin Star Experience

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We were very fortunate to be treated to a good dinner, my first Michelin star experience at the one-star Tano Passami L’Olio. The name literally meant “Tano, pass me the olive oil.” Chef Gaetano is very big on olive oils and treats it almost like wine in how he pairs each carefully, selecting carefully which oil he uses to finish each dish. We went for a tasting menu of sorts, starting with this amuse bouche.

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Unfortunately, it wasn’t a Wow! moment, more of a “hmm this is rather good.” It was interesting how the mousse was finished of with olive oil but I don’t remember a great deal more than that.

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The next dish was quite interesting – raw prawns Milanese-style marinated in citrus and anise, accompanied by pink grapefruit and cheese mousse and graced with caramelised peas. I wasn’t sure about the peas as they were semi-dry, with texture reminding me a bit of wasabi peas, just not as crunchy. I liked the fresh, fresh! prawns that were singing with the zing of the sea (go figure that out, I’m taking things up a notch – it’s a Michelin-starred place yo) and the grapefruit and cheese mousse was nice, though it tasted a bit like it was meant for baby food, but what lovely fine dining baby food it was!

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Now it was the next dish that really brought things up a notch. The caramelised quail eggs on tuna mousse was a revelation. The first one after going in the mouth went crackle! pop! and there were surprised looks all round the table. Then understanding dawned and we gleefully went with the second one. First, the sensation of caramel on the tongue, as it was an egg-shaped creme brulee with crackly crust all round. Just a little pressure with the teeth and tongue and the delicately cooked quail egg burst, coating the tongue with runny yolk. The tuna mousse made for a savoury counterpoint to it all. And the raw tuna in minted olive oil? Gilding the lily with its freshness.

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Our expectations went a little higher with the pasta course and we were not disappointed. We were presented with lemon risotto cooked in vegetable and milk and finished off with chocolate. I was a bit wary of this as I wasn’t sure how dessert-like a lemon and chocolate rice dish would taste. But no, this was deeply savoury, rich and wonderfully al dente. At the same time, the lemon flavour sang through and the bitterness of the chocolate balanced out the flavours. It was another eye-opener. Next time I’m in Milan, I’m coming back just for this dish.

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We were surprised by how full we were getting at this stage, we really hadn’t eaten a great deal, but it shows how satisfying the food was. We were very glad that the main course came in small portions. Small though the portion was, it was somehow the perfect portion. The roe dear saddle glazed with basil and wild berries and again finished off with chocolate was excellent. It was done very rare, the way I like it, yet wasn’t bloody (which the rest of my table seemed to like more). I think the meat must have been well hung because it was the tenderest deer I’ve had. Again, Chef Gaetano had a way with traditionally sweet foods, turning them into savoury wonders. The chocolate he personally grated over each portion at the table made all the difference again in balancing out the sweetness of the sauce and tempered the deep game flavour of the venison. Wonderful.

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What really won the rest of the table over (I was head over heels by then, no need for further wooing) was Chef Gaetano’s impeccable and very sensible wine pairings. He recommended two reds, only one of which I managed to get a photo of. This Humar Rogoves from the Friuli region was very reasonably priced at about €30 and was just right for the deer. In the words of the chef, it was a “sweety wine, very nice.” And indeed it was! Nicely balanced, sweet yet not overly so, it went better than expected with our deer in berry sauce.

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Then came the usual sorbet palate cleanser.

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And finally dessert. The almond cannoli filled with almond mousse, candy lemon, citrus cream and almond marmalade was lovely. The pastry was crisp and light as air and the mousse filling also light and sweetly lemony. It was a lovely contrast to the dark chocolate blob (I never found out what it really was), but the mousse and chocolate sauce was a deep, delicious contrast. It was a sly way of crowd pleasing, not particularly inventive but just the right to end a good dinner.

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Tano passami l’olio
via Villoresi, 16 ang. via Pastorelli, Milano, Italy
Tel: +39 02 8394139
Email: tano@tanopassamilolio.it

A Whirlwind Work Trip: Sightseeing Milan’s Duomo and Other Escapades

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As it happened, we had a weekend off and spent a glorious summer Saturday enjoying Milan. First was a revisit of the Duomo I last saw 10 years ago. Then, it was grey and swathed in scaffolding. Now, it’d been restored to a beautiful white and tan.

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The hotel was just round the corner and I was too lazy stand far enough back to get a good shot of the Duomo in all its glory. You’ll just have to imagine what it looked like with the sun starting to shine hotly down its spires.

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The inside, while pretty awe-inspiring in its sense of space, was pretty grey like the last time I saw it.

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Nonetheless, the rose window was a beautiful sight to behold…

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… as were the many minor side nooks…

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… and the beautiful stained glass.

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I stood for ages admiring the rich colours of the religious scenes.

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But the roof of the Duomo beckoned too. I paid a few euro to get some exercise climbing up the stairs. It was lovely to see the skyline with all the old buildings, not a skyscraper in sight.

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On the roof, there were delicate carvings on the flying buttresses repeating themselves over and over again.

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And more of them framed the brands of the shops down below.

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It was time to answer the call of commercial Milan and go shopping! And right next to the Duomo stood Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, apparently the world’s first shopping centre.

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It was beautiful inside, with a lovely glass ceiling and big shopfronts, rather unlike modern shopping malls.

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Then the photos stop because I started shopping. I walked the entire Quadrilatero, those few streets housing the biggest fashion brands in the world. It happened to be the first day of the sale and outside the major brands like Gucci, Prada and Miu Miu, long lines formed just to go in. I had to take a break after a while and ended up in Cafe Cova eating the most expensive wild strawberry tart I’ve ever had. To be fair, it was rather big, but paying something like €20 for a piece of confectionery made me blanch.  At least it was really yummy before the bill came!

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