A Whirlwind Trip: Getting into Milan

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I went for a work trip in July last year and was lucky enough that it involved a whirlwind trip of the shopping capitals of Europe, with the first stop being Milan. We took the red-eye flight which meant that we got off the plane early enough to have breakfast at a bar just before our first meeting. We were thankful for the Italian custom of drinking espresso like water and helped ourselves to copious amounts of the brew to keep us awake in the business discussions.

One of the companies we met was very hospitable and brought us to Trattoria Del Drago for a very welcome lunch. The trattoria was set in a little garden and there was a lovely relaxed vibe to it. We had a lovely white wine to go with our lunch, the Picol 2008 (14%). It was a light and crisp sauvignon blanc with a lime flower nose and plenty of slate in the finish. It was a lovely accompaniment to our appetiser.

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And what an appetiser it was! A typically Milanese starter of seafood carpaccio, this is Italy’s answer to sashimi. There was impossibly fresh salmon, tuna and white fish with two types of prawns. It was all dressed lightly in olive oil and was wonderfully tasty, each bite bursting with the sweetness of the sea. I would definitely go back there just for this dish, far away as it may be from the touristy areas of Milan.

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My main was an orecchiette in a tomato cream sauce and a meat I cannot recall, probably chicken. Sadly, it wasn’t mindblowing and it was forgettable in my seafood-dazed, jetlagged stomach.

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Trattoria Del Drago
Via Pusiano, 63, 20132 Milano, Italy
Tel: +39 02 2720 9849 ‎

Our last meeting was, curiously, in an old Roman building that housed the Milanese headquarters of a high tech company . We got through that aided with plenty of hot espresso from thermos flasks, drunk by the shot in tiny plastic cups. We thankfully sank into Hotel Spadari al Duomo, probably the most reasonably priced 4-star hotel of that standard in the area. It was a lovely and very modern hotel, with large enough and very comfortable rooms. 

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In contrast to the Duomo just around the corner, even the artwork on the walls was modern. I liked how the minibar was included in the price of the room (non-alcoholic drinks only), so I didn’t have to worry about finding a convenience store for water. It was a lovely touch especially coming in on a hot day.

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But the feature I liked best was the shower. There were three showerheads in there: a regular handheld shower head (not shown), a rain shower and a waterfall shower! It was fantastic standing under a wall of warm water after a long, long day simply enjoying the pressure of water against skin.

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It was a great hotel with very prompt and excellent service, from emailing for reservations to getting our excellent breakfast every morning to making reservations to depart for the airport. Well worth it!

Hotel Spadari al Duomo
Via Spadari 11 20123 Milano
Tel: +39.02.72002371
Email: reservation@spadarihotel.com

But no rest for the greedy. Before long, we had to regroup for dinner. We went for an early dinner nearby so that we could head back to crash out. An institution and therefore tourist hangout in the area was Trattoria Milanese, a pretty down home type place with unfortunately less down home prices. Still, it was considered reasonable for the area.

We started off with a mix of appetisers. On my plate are parma with melon; tomato with mozzarella and basil; and half a perfectly ripe, luscious summer fig. While not super fantastically good, I think the ingredients travelled far less than it would have if we had the meal back home in Singapore, making it fresher and tastier somehow.

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I made the classic glutton’s mistake of ordering osso bucco with risotto. Mind you, it was yummy and very well made, especially the osso bucco with its unctuous marrow just begging to be sucked dry. The risotto was no slacker either, al dente and richly aromatic. I managed to finish about a third of the plate and tried to parcel as much away to my dining companions as possible. It was such a pity that I couldn’t take away any for later.

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Full to bursting as I was, my greed yet again overreached and I found myself not simply ordering apple sorbet for dessert, but also nodding amicably when the waiter asked if I wanted it doused in Calvados. Unfortunately, the sorbet wasn’t at all tart and was a bit flat on taste, and the apple liqueur was more bitter than aromatic. Still, it sozzled me nicely and at the end of the meal I had to walk carefully so that I wouldn’t stumble on the cobblestones and fall flat on my face in front of the highest ranking person in my organisation.

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Trattoria Milanese
Via Santa Marta, 11, 20123 Milano, Italy
Tel: +39 02 8645 1991 ‎

Thankfully, I made it back to the hotel in one jetlagged, sleep-deprived, espresso-ed out, stuffed-to-the-gills and pretty much sozzled piece. Another lovely waterfall shower later, and I was fast asleep, dreaming of my weekend to follow.

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An Experiment with Olive Oil: Apple and Cherry Cake

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First up, this is one of those recipes that didn’t do too well. I was intrigued by Nigella’s recipe of a cake that used olive oil and I thought it’d be a healthy alternative to a butter cake. Plus, with apple and cherries (I substituted those for the original raisins), what could go wrong?

Nobody except me seemed to like it. DC said the olive oil smell made him think of chicken rice. Don’t ask me how that man thinks, but in my world, chicken rice isn’t made with olive oil. My mum asked whether it was supposed to be bread or cake. I guess they thought it a tad dry. I wonder what’s wrong with my taste buds because I found it moist enough, and not too horribly sweet. I liked how the apple and cherry brought in bits of texture and flavour to the cake and thought it was a nice homespun type of thing to eat for breakfast.

All the same, if you’re game for something controversial, or have run out of butter and there’s nothing except olive oil and apples in the kitchen, then please try this recipe and let me know if you got any better reviews!

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Ingredients:

100g dried cherries (I just used an entire 120g pack, go ahead to substitute with raisins)
100ml rum
150ml olive oil
200g sugar
3 eggs
350g plain flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp  cream of tartar
½ tsp salt
4 apples (smallish), peeled, cored and coarsely chopped

Method:

  1. Butter and flour a 20 cm springform cake tin.
  2. Heat cherries with rum in a saucepan, bring a boil and then take off the heat, allowing the rum to soak into the cherries. Alternatively, soak the cherries in rum the night before.
  3. Preheat the oven to 180ºC.
  4. Using the whisk attachment of a cake mixer, beat the oil and sugar together briefly, then add in the eggs one by one. Beat for a few minutes till well incorporated.
  5. While the mixture is beating, measure out the dry ingredients and sift them together. Fold into the egg mixture. The batter will end up quite stiff.
  6. Then drain the cherries and mix with apples (this is to make sure that the apples and cherries are well dispersed in the batter), then stir it into the cake batter. Give it a few good stirs to spread out the fruit evenly, then dollop the batter into the springform tin.
  7. Bake till a cake tester comes out fairly clean, i.e. no wet batter and only bits of crumb, about 1 hour.
  8. Let the cake stand in the tin for about 10 minutes, then turn out and leave to cool. Slice and let plenty of people try, I’d like some comments please!

Absinthe: Starts Off Great, Then Falls Flat

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It was my birthday. DC took me to French bistro Absinthe for a nice dinner. For some reason, it was #1 on the best restaurant list for tripadvisor.com. We wondered whether it was worthy of its title. The seasonal tasting menu didn’t excite us – too much standard fare and not a great deal that would challenge our tastebuds. We went a la carte instead and it was totally worth it.

I started with seared scallops very simply done. One thing I really didn’t appreciate was realising that the “small herb salad” was miniscule side leaves plated on using tweezers. A small pile I understand, but 3 tiny leaflets do not a small herb salad make. DO NOT LIKE! The scallops themselves were good – well seared on the outside till I got the unmistakable and absolutely sublime charred shellfish flavour, and pretty much raw in the middle. Be warned that the scallops aren’t sashimi-grade because it was a little fishy on the inside. That’s fine with me because I quite like fishy things (especially belachan). The rich lobster hollandaise sauce was a nice foil to the seafood and pastry stick was very nicely short and melt in the mouth. I really like the seaweed flavouring they painted onto the pastry stick. If they sold them in boxes I’d totally snatch them up for an office snack. Oh and DC’s dry sherry went very well with this dish – held its own against the creamy fishiness. I think it was a Perez Barquero Grand Barquero Fino and the nutty, crisp aroma was just the thing to go with my scallops.

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DC liked his special of the evening of kurobuta pork with aniseed sauce. My sampling piece was decent though not mindblowing. DC really enjoyed it though. You’ll have to wait for him to comment to find out why it was that good.

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Then my main. I don’t know what they did, but the lamb rack was so simply done yet so darn good! It was beautifully medium, just as requested and the flavour of the meat just shone through. I think it’s about buying good meat and treating it with respect and love. It was tender, juicy and very tasty, yet not gamey. So good. What really gilded the lily for me was the cep mash. I love wild mushrooms and mixing ceps into the mash was such a masterful touch. So masterful that it was one of the reasons why I ordered that dish. Yummy fragrant cep mash and exquisite lamb made me a happy, happy girl.

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DC went for the classic bouillabaise. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was like beyond acceptable. I think I was too engrossed in my lamb. Again, wait for him to comment!

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And the dessert. I wish I could say better things, but it was a horrible nasty letdown. The apple souflle, while not deflated, was an absolute flop. First off, they used overly coarse-grained sugar to line the souflle ramekin. Did the chef run out of caster? It completely defeats the purpose of light ethereal sponge when you crunch into sugar. Didn’t help that the souffle was too small to escape from the side edges, which in the absence of coarse sugar would actually be the best bit of the souffle. The accompanying apple sorbet was way too sweet and not very aromatic. And the strawberry garnish? Sour. FAIL.

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So if this is America’s Got Talent, they’d have gotten the first buzzer by now. What got the second buzzer? DC made reservations for a birthday dinner. They FORGOT the birthday dessert. After our souffail, DC asked if I had space for more dessert. We’d been on an eating spree that day and I wasn’t too keen on a repeat fail. So we didn’t remind them. DC paid up and we left. That’s all. So much for attentive service, particularly because they have a habit of going through their reservations and calling to remind you the afternoon of the big dinner. Inexcusable.

I’d return for the appetisers and mains, then head off somewhere where they actually care about finishing off great and respect their desserts. You’ve been warned.

Absinthe
48 Bukit Pasoh Road
Tel: 6222 9068

Private Affairs

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DC took me to Private Affairs one Friday night to cheer me up after a stressful week. We weren’t sure about whether this place would last as we were the only ones there that night. We opted for the Luscious Dinner 4-course set ($98++). DC had a duck carpaccio that he liked a lot but didn’t leave a lasting impression on me. My Alaskan king crab, though, was wonderful. It really was lusciously seafood-y and briny, and bursting with fresh juiciness. The avocado mousse and passionfruit cream had just the right level of richness to complement the crab and the squid ink tuile provided a nice bit of contrast with its delicate crispness.

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For mains, DC had the Maine lobster. When I tried it, I almost regretted ordering what I did because the lobster, like my crab appetiser, burst with fresh, well, lobster flavour. It wasn’t your typical vaguely rubbery tasteless boiled lobster. This one was expertly cooked in a buttery foam, making me want to devour it shell and all. In fact, I think DC gnawed as much of his lobster shell as he could!

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Remember I almost regretted my order? But I didn’t. My main course of Welsh lamb loin held its own. Again, it was expertly cooked so that the lamb loin was tender and flavourful. Accompanied with the soy bean mash and the rich, intense jus of lamb and olive, this was very very good. (Unfortunately it paled against another dish I’ll blog about next time, but that’s a story for another time.)

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Our third dish was a pre-dessert. DC had a yummy cheese platter and I had a sorbet. Both were competent though not particularly anything to rave about. Plus, the lighting in the restaurant is so dim that it was impossible to get good pictures anyway. Good thing we were the only diners that night so we took pictures with flash whenever the wait staff weren’t looking (!).

For the real dessert, DC had peach tofu with salted caramel and lemongrass ice cream. The purple thing is a lavender sheet, which I felt tasted a bit like one of those  portable soap sheets for washing your hands. I liked the tofu a lot. It was very tender and smooth, more like tau fa than actual tofu. It was a bit like eating peach-scented egg tofu that was sweet.

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I had the chocolate mousse with miso sponge. The miso sponge was a very inventive touch to an otherwise tired dessert. I’m so glad he didn’t go down the molten choc cake route. Here, the miso sponge was very tender and very savoury, making for a lovely contrast to the sweet chocolate mousse and the deep flavour of the dark chocolate chips. It’s a pity he put pop rocks in the dessert. The dark chocolate “sand” is a bit overused in molecular gastronomy and I really don’t like the popping on my tongue.

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That dinner was good enough to send us back to Private Affairs a few weekends later for a semi-buffet brunch celebration. It was good value for money at $68++ per person without alcohol. The food wasn’t quite as exquisite as the dinner we had, but it was still pretty darn good. The idea was that we ordered whatever we liked from the brunch menu, from typical breakfast staples like mini-muffins, yogurt, pancakes and eggs, to brunch staples like fresh oysters, to more exciting things like cured sardine, panfried scallops and coffee ribs with a twist. All these we could order as many servings as we liked. For the main course, each chose one. Everyone liked their own main courses and I naturally felt that mine of melt-in-the-mouth sous vide French chicken was especially nice. If you want a taster for Private Affairs, the brunch is the way to go.

Private affairs brunch

Unfortunately it was third time unlucky when DC and I returned to Private Affairs. We tried out their celebratory 8-course menu for October consisting of greatest hits in the chef’s repertoire. There was the familiar course of many dishes, with some good and many others falling flat. I was deeply disappointed by the lack of quality control and lack of service recovery for a restaurant that aspires to this calibre. First, even though I made an email booking just like the previous brunch (with acknowledgement from the PR manager), they lost our booking and took a while to get us a table. It didn’t help that, unlike our first experience, the restaurant was full as there was a big group taking up much of the restaurant with a separate special menu and a few other tables doing the a la carte option. The kitchen was obviously not ready for this onslaught and some dishes came out different from described in the menu. For instance, the raw Hokkaido scallop with lettuce gazpacho jelly came with  a pool of bright green liquid instead of jelly and there was no way of eating the dish properly as we weren’t provided with spoons. We just had to fish out the scallop from the watery liquid and the wait staff later whisked away the plates, only looking slightly puzzled when I pointed out that we had no spoons and weren’t able to enjoy the dish properly.

No less, two dishes stood out. The kurobuta pork cheek with blood orange jelly was very good. I’m not sure about the slightly odd gel-like texture of the accompanying avocado gnocchi but the pork cheek itself was done so that it was meltingly good. The slightly tart and sweet blood orange jelly really lifted the flavour very well.

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The second noteworthy dish was the apple cake dessert. Again, there were parts that I didn’t quite agree with, in this case the apple cinnamon spaghetti. DC liked it a lot and slurped up mine too, but I found it a bit too molecular gastronomy, and too reminiscent of past biology experiments dealing with calcium alginate gels. It was a cute idea nonetheless. What blew me away what the apple cake itself. It was essentially an apple-flavoured cross between mousse and semifreddo, with apple jelly in the middle. I loved how it was just on the verge of melting and how the clean green apple flavours shone through very well. The lemongrass ice cream was a lovely light yet creamy accompaniment to the cake. Thumbs up!

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It was the last part of the dinner that disappointed me. The PR manager came over to chat with us. No matter that she didn’t apologise for the mix-up in reservations. She asked how the food was and I responded that it was patchy. Taken by surprised, she asked why and was reluctant to probe much further after I asked how much she wanted to know, showing her the brief notes I took on my slip of printed menu. She did concede that the lettuce gazpacho was meant to be a jelly and not liquid, and then said that the chef designed the menu out of popular dishes. Telling us that other people liked the menu certainly does not make me like a less than ideal experience more.

In short, this restaurant has lots of potential as the chef is obviously very talented. His kitchen and staff do on occasion let him down. It took me a long while to decide to post about this place as I have very mixed feelings about it. If you take my experience as a gauge, you’d probably get a good experience two-thirds of the time. For me, unfortunately, I’m not going to come back for a little while.

Private Affairs
45 Joo Chiat Place
Tel: 6440 0601

 

Pretty Cakes at De Ste

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De Ste has some pretty, and pretty expensive cakes! After having dinner at Oriole, we strolled past in search of dessert and discovered that whole cakes are discounted by 40% after 8pm. For those interested in smaller cakes, the one-person portions are similarly discounted from 11am to noon. We couldn’t resist the good deal and ended up taking home a Stefano’s Grandma Cake. Look at how big the box was! It felt like we were taking a hatbox home.

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The cake itself was much shorter than the box, probably because they use the same size box for all their big cakes. Some of the other cakes were rather… architectural. The Grandma cake tasted really nice, something like an apple streusel on a cake base. It was scattered with meringue and chocolate chips and tasted like it had some liquor inside. There’s a catch to getting the cake late though – it’s a bit soggy by the end of the day, so not a good idea to buy to give away.

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De Ste
Discovery Walk at 313@Somerset
313 Orchard Rd, #01-25/25A
Tel : 6836 5344
Email : 313.Somerset@deste.com.sg

Skinny Pizza

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Skinny Pizza is a great place for me to pretend that I’m far away from the office. It’s a bit pricey but it’s probably as far from the Suntec Food Court as you can get. The downside though is that it’s right next to Strip, and DC’s overactive imagination kept thinking about fur flying over the low partition!

The pizzas here are very filling, it helps to share with friends! Even though the pizza base is very thin naan bread, the rich toppings make it incredibly filling. The best ratio for me is two people to one pizza. At least that way there’s a chance for some side dishes like the yummy sausage.

This time, however, there were three of us and we went for two pizzas instead. First up was the mushroom and truffle pizza. Here the mushroom veloute was smooth, rich and deep and with a punch of earthy truffle flavour. The onion helped cut through the earthiness and bitter herby rocket is always a plus in my book. However, after a slice of this I was ready for something else. It’s not something you’ll want to have loads of at one go.

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I felt that the squid ink base pizza fared much better. While not being particularly original, here was where the freshness of the ingredients and flavour combinations made in heaven really worked. The squid and prawn coated with tomato salsa and fresh flat-leaf parsley burst with seafood and herb sweetness. Needless to say, that was the star of the day.

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Other pizza flavours of note are the Provence and Ratatouille flavours which are both kinda similar. Pretty decent though.

I also like the apple cider here. It’s sweet without being overly so and is nice and light: a bit like dry sparkling apple juice. Like they say in the menu, it’s a great complement to the pizza.

Skinny Pizza
#01-002 Suntec City Galleria
Tel: 6333 9774

The Hottest Chicken Wings in Singapore

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One Friday evening, DC and I headed out to Seletar to have a cosy little night out at Sunset Grill, famed for having the hottest dish in Singapore: its buffalo wings. I remember reading an article in The Sunday Times about an intrepid reporter hunting down the hottest dish in Singapore and the Level 30 chicken wings landed her in hospital! I was so chicken (!) that I asked the waiter whether they’d serve me Level 0.5 wings. He obligingly let me have two regular wings and four Level 1 wings in our order of half dozen.

The regular wings were pretty good as they were, well seasoned by pepper and they came hot and crispy. I’d definitely eat these without the chilli again.

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I realised that the hot chicken wings were painted with chilli sauce and I suppose the level goes up according to the number of times the spicy, slightly vinegary sauce was painted on. This made the chicken less crispy, but still good. I couldn’t eat two at one go and ended up alternating between that and the plain ones. It was just spicy enough for me to handle without gasping for water, a good start to dinner.

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I chose pork chops for the main course and found them a little bit dry, especially away from the bone. I liked the canned apple sauce that came with it, but the rest of it wasn’t remarkable at all.

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DC went for the special of the day, deepfried tenderloin steak with potato and vegetable. It was surprisingly well done as the steak wasn’t greasy but slightly crisp on the outside and still very rare on the inside. I liked that the meaty taste came out nice and clean. Thumbs up!

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I’d definitely return for the lovely ambience as the place is practically in the middle of nowhere. It’s next to the Singapore Youth Flying Club and overlooks the runway, so you’ll see the occasional plane landing or taking off. The sun sets directly in front of the place and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a spectacular sunset. We weren’t as it was a bit cloudy that evening, but it was still lovely sitting under the one large raintree in the area and after that going for a stroll to walk off the worst of dinner.

Sunset Grill and Pub
140B Piccadilly
Singapore Flying Club
Tel: 6482 0244