Esquina

Esquina is the name of an Argentine tango album that I like a lot: so much that when I lost the first copy, I bought a replacement from amazon.com. It’s unfortunately out of stock now, but thankfully the earthy, soulful music lives on in mp3 form in my hard drive. Esquina also means street corner, and this is exactly where Esquina the tapas bar is – wrapped round the corner of Jiak Chuan Road and Teck Lim Road. Chris and I had wanted to try this for a while and we soon found ourselves there one Friday evening. This place doesn’t do reservations, just turn up relatively early so you get a seat. I was stuck in the mother of all traffic jams and didn’t make it there till far later than the 6.15 sweet spot we agreed on. Luckily, there was still room outside and we settled in after asking the staff to give us the next table that became available inside. It’s a packed and fairly rowdy place, just like what a tapas bar should be.

Outside, the light was beautiful enough to capture my sangria nicely. Chris had heard great things about it and I do agree it goes down a treat – sweet, smooth and fairly inocuous until you realise you made the mistake of gulping it down to cool yourself. It’s definitely got some hard stuff in it. To properly cool yourself, go for the cold water the waiter serves up straight away once you get seated (nice one!). Sip the sangria slowly because the sweetness masks how strong it is, and you do want to enjoy the cinnamon flavour. Plus, it is a rather small serving. It is, after all, a reasonable $12. Strangely enough for a tapas bar, we couldn’t find this on the menu and there was no suggestion that there were variations of sangria. There’s a decent winelist though, so you could check that out.

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Now we were here for the tapas and drinking is rather secondary to the food for us lightweights. (We only pretend that we can drink, really!) The oysters with Vietnamese dressing came first. At $5 a pop, they were fairly reasonably priced. I liked how they came balanced atop a seaweed and salt bed upon a rustic chopping board. They certainly made a pretty sight. The oysters were fresh and went fairly well with the sauce. However, I failed to see the Vietnamese link as it was more sweet and sour than herbal, bracing or tart. No chilli either. While a pleasing combination, Chris and I still find oysters au naturel (with maybe a small squeeze of lemon juice) far better.

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The scallop ceviche with radish salsa was much more inspired. At $19.50 for four portions of scallop, it wasn’t bad value. The tart soy dressing and mustardy kick of the baby leaves went really well with the crunchy-sharp radish salsa and the delicate brininess of the scallop.

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Next up was the grilled baby romaine salad with anchovies, manchego and truffle honey ($9.50). It was a great take on a green salad because the grilling made the romaine hearts tender yet retaining crunch. It was a fantastic combination because the foil to the textures of the vegetable was sour-salty-fishy from the anchovies, salty-umami-slight pungence from the cheese, and a delicate sweetness from the honey. I didn’t taste any truffle, but that hardly made any difference to the lovely flavours and textures of the dish.

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The light began to fade as the rest of the dishes turned up, like the heritage tomato salad with sherry dressing ($13.50). Unfortunately, this course was a bit faded too. It was a nice enough salad, with meaty red, green and yellow tomatoes dressed well with a sweet sherry vinaigrette. Chris really liked the green tomatoes and the funny soil-like garnish on the plate.

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Then came one of the specials of the evening – hens egg with asparagus and foie gras butter ($21). First, I don’t understand what’s with restaurants these days padding out the names of common ingredients just to make it sound more high class. An egg means a regular chicken egg unless otherwise noted, like quail egg or duck egg. As far as I know, there isn’t such thing as a rooster egg, so what’s with this funny distinction? (Me ordering: We’ll have the egg special; Server: Ah, the hen’s egg?; Me: ?????) Rant aside, this dish was rather eggsellent. It consisted of tender roasted asparagus on a shallot-lentil base and topped with a poached (hen’s) egg. Accompanying it was what  had been described as a piece of foie gras “that big” (our server indicated about the diameter of a ping pong ball). It was more like foie gras butter (not terrine or pate, so temper your expectations). The idea is really the very British concept of egg and soldiers, just made more upmarket with the hen’s egg. OK fine, not the egg but the asparagus and foie gras butter. So this is what you do – butter the toast liberally with the decadent spread and dunk into the egg, trying not to drip too much in the journey from dish to mouth. There’s not going to be enough bread, so here’s where the asparagus comes in. It’s roasted till tender and go beautifully with the mixture of soft-cooked egg and lentils and shallot.

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The last dish we had here was the baked bone marrow with snails and parsley and horseradish pesto ($24). DC had turned up by this point and was happily scarfing it down, the more exotic foods being his eating specialty. I wasn’t too sure about this. While I enjoyed the theatrics of this dish – great presentation of bone and pretty shallot and herb topping hiding the less pretty dark brown snail filling, the perfectly toasted bread sitting just so at the side, and the painting of parsley pesto on the final third of the plate – I found that the snails overwhelmed the bone marrow. I like how the more conventional places do bone marrow as if it’s a very rich spread to toast. Here, the chef probably wanted to take it a notch further with snails, but I found that the rubbery gastropod simply took away from what should have been an unctuous, mouth-filling toast sensation. Plus, I couldn’t detect any horseradish either. Nonetheless, DC really liked it.

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Here’s where our experience came to an abrupt end. The staff didn’t come back with the inside table even though there had been some turn over inside. When asked, they seemed to have forgotten and instead wanting to put us on the waiting list which entailed another 30 minutes or so before getting into airconditioning.  We weren’t too happy to have been kept outside in the heat for so long, so we called for the bill and went elsewhere for Round Two. While each of the servers were friendly and seemed competent enough, their communication with each other wasn’t great. Upon arrival, the server who first saw us pointed us to another lady who seated us, then the first server came back to take our order. They missed out DC’s wine as the order hadn’t been made through our guy, and our indoor table request was clearly lost because we must have asked the wrong person. It’s a strange practice that wouldn’t win a lot of fans if they keep losing communications like that. Nonetheless, the food is generally good and not too horrifically priced for a tapas place. Too bad DC didn’t get to order the Iberico pork and foie gras burger and Chris didn’t get to try the desserts. The lesson probably is to be more patient. But for the more impatient, like us, yummier treats awaited just across the esquina. To be continued!

Esquina
16 Jiak Chuan Rd
Singapore 089267
Tel: +65 6222 1616

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Quick Eats: Soup and Salad

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There’s a new salad place at Citylink Mall that’s both good and shockingly good value for money. I went for the $10 set lunch consisting of a soup of the day, a basic salad (the cheapest one on the board), and a small freshly squeezed juice. The juice wasn’t as small as I expected and they didn’t cheat by putting a huge lot of ice. My green apple juice was still sweet (I’m assuming no added sugar) and very refreshing. I went for a safe choice for the soup: mushroom. It was velvety and smooth and very flavourful – not your usual Campbells stuff.

The soup and nicely toasted bread were themselves quite filling, but the generous salad rounded off the meal so much that I thought I wouldn’t be able to finish the portion! I liked how they had nice leaves like rocket, mizuna and baby spinach leaves. The system works so that you can choose a few kinds of each category according to the price of your salad. I was quite happy with the basic one because I wanted to go vegetarian for that meal. For the more expensive salads, the extra price goes for added meat and seafood ingredients. They had quite a wide range of dressings, just that I can’t quite remember what sorts they had. I went for the Asian dressing, which I quite liked even though it was slightly too sweet.

Mescluns
Citylink Mall (opposite HMV)

April in The Philippines: Warm People and Strange Bands

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The Philippines is full of the loveliest people ever. They are so warm, friendly and plain trusting in their hospitality. There was the breakfast lady in Coron who gave me the best and cheapest morning meals ever who told me that it was dangerous to travel as a lone girl (not once in The Philippines did I feel at all unsafe) with that look of earnest concern on her face. There was the friendly shop assistant at the mami stand, where I stopped for a quick snack, who insisted that the water wasn’t safe for delicate stomachs like mine. There was the friendly security guard who gave me directions in the middle of nowhere (more on that in a bit).

Most crucially, there were Natalie and Derrick, a couple I met in transit at Manila airport. Our planes were delayed as usual and we somehow struck up a conversation. Natalie was Filipino and Derrick Australian, they returned to The Philippines often to see her extended family. After just about an hour of chat, they gave me their contact number and invited me to stay with them in their service apartment in Manila when we three got back into town.  Natalie even suggested making arrangements to let me in should I get back earlier than them!

Taking things on the cautious side, I went to visit instead when I returned to Manila and we went out with Natalie’s niece, Anne-Marie and Pristine, her daughter. It must be pretty cool for Natalie to be such a young grandaunt. Pristine was such a sweet 8-year-old. She held my hand and called me Tita (aunt).

After dinner, I adjourned with Natalie and Derrick to a bar for some drinks. Here’s where we met the T-Rex. It was rather amusing as I had to peer past it to see the rather bad but amusing cover band. The girls wore midriffs, which was fine for the slim ones, but one of them had way too much baby fat still. The boys weren’t hot at all and the lead singer couldn’t help but hog the limelight even when he was doing backup for a girl song. So amusing.

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Natalie and Derrick later sent me back in a cab right to the doorstep of my guesthouse. They also insisted that I text them the moment I got safely inside. It was another moment where I felt guilty for not trusting enough.

April in The Philippines: I Will Survive

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After two days of uneventful diving at Panagsama Beach in Moalboal my young, fairly incompetent dive guide asked if I karaoked and if I wanted to join him and his friends for a session that evening.

Alan, mysteriously called Noel by everyone in town, claimed to be 23 years old, but I thought he acted and looked more like 18. His mother named him Alan; he couldn’t tell me why everyone called him Noel. No, he wasn’t born on Christmas Day and neither did he join the dive shop that day. I alternately called him Alan and Noel just to have a little bit of variety. He was extremely quiet and grunty, which I attributed it to his not-so-great English and the fact that he’s barely finished adolescence. (“Will we see bull sharks?” *grunt* “You saw the whaleshark but you didn’t tell me!!!!” *grunt*) I tried teasing him to get him to open up a bit more, but it didn’t work, making it even more  boring than it already was. Hence my surprise at the karaoke invite.

I couldn’t figure out where Days Bar was, so I just headed out to the general vicinity of the dive shop and there he was, baseball cap perched just-so on his head, coolly tugging at my sling bag to get my attention. (He didn’t say much, remember?) He gestured across to a dimly lit room in a shack next to the bar. It had a karaoke machine that took5 pesos (about SGD 0.20) per song. Only his friend Boi, whom I’d met earlier lurking on the diveboat, was there. I felt like a cornered animal. Alan told me that the girls were working next door and would join us soon. Gulp.

Alan and Boi picked their favourite songs from the thick index listing songs from Pinoy favourites to English oldies to the latest-ish pop hits to even hymns and gospel songs (Great is Thy Faithfulness on karaoke anyone?). Alan then asked if I had change to feed the machine. I pulled out a handful of change feeling like their sugarmummy. Boi disappeared for a while and came back with a glass and a one litre bottle of Red Horse (extra strong!) beer. Apparently they needed a little help to start singing. Boi took a sip from the glass and then passed it round.

The first song Boi massacred halfway and then passed the mike over to Alan, who mumbled his way through the next verse and chorus. I started to feel a bit uncomfortable when the video screen showed lots of scantily clad bikini girls on a low budget shoot. Later, it turned out that there were only two videos that kept getting repeated. One involved the model dancing awkwardly on the beach with a fixed smile while doing the 70s double fist twirl. It then cut to another model on all fours lifting her leg in a porno-type pose and giving a suggestive smile. The second video was the entertaining one: first, a close up on a pair of warthogs, complete with tusks. A bikini-clad model posed nearby, inching away from the hoggy pair, smiling uneasily at the camera. I couldn’t help but smirk.

I was relieved that Alan and Boi don’t force me to sing. I kept telling them (quite truthfully!) that I didn’t know any  of the songs! They then announced that they were going to sing one of their favourite songs. I had an exercise in keeping my face straight when I saw the title “Don’t touch my birdie”. The boys sang with such gusto I really couldn’t laugh. They also scored 96% on the machine. See lyrics I googled below:

Don’t Touch My Birdie (apparently a popular Pinoy song)

Look!
Up in the sky!
It’s a bird! Aaayyy!
Bird Nga!

Kapag ako’y nababato
Pinaglalaruan ko ang birdie ko
Ang cute cute naman kasi
Kaya ko siya binili

My birdie is my bestfriend
Ang dami naming maliligayang sandali
Madalas ko siyang pinapakain ng birdseed
Mahal kita o birdie ko, ‘wag kang lalayo

Chorus:
Don’t touch my birdie
Resist temptation please
You don’t have to grab my birdie
Just call it, and it will come

Ang birdie ko ay nakakatuwa
Parang cobra na mahilig manuka
Kapag nilabas na mula sa kulungan
Tuloy-ttuloy na ang aming kasiyahan

Di naman ako madamot talaga
Ayaw ko lang na hinahawakan s’ya ng iba
Ang birdie ko ay medyo masungit
Konting hawak lang siguradong magagalit

Repeat Chorus:

Interlude:

It will come

Bridge:

Huwag ka sanang magalit sa akin
Tuwing ang birdie ko ay aking hihimasin
Sana’y maunawaan mo
Mahal na mahal ko ang birdie ko
Pati mga itlog nito

Repeat Chorus: (2x)

Coda:

It will come
It will come

Thankfully the girls appeared at this point. They worked at the bar next door and dressed accordingly though They were very nice, all friendly and curious where I was from and why I was travelling alone. They belted out the songs with great relish, leaving Alan and Boi only two more songs to massacre.

Another one of those keep-a-straight-face moments came when at the end of a Filippino song, Boi calmly told me that the song was “I swallowed it all.” Thank goodness I’d finished my own drink at that point! Boi elaborated to say that it meant the guy swallowed all his pride. Oh my.

The evening ended when we all ran out of change and I scampered back to my room. I survived Pinoy karaoke!

Beer and Pinot Noir

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I met up with Tweych for dinner and drinks. It was a pity that our sushi dinner hardly stood out especially considering that the place claimed to fly in fish daily. I didn’t like how loosely the rice was packed and felt that the fish wasn’t particularly fresh. It wasn’t frozen but neither was it fresh. However, I enjoyed the standing sushi bar‘s Suntory Premium Malt’s (5%) which is supposedly hard to find in Singapore. It was a lovely pale yellow, very malty as expected and also surprisingly sweet. It went down fairly well with the sushi although I think Asahi Super Dry would probably do better at cutting through the seafood.

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Not being particularly satisfied, we headed to Moomba for wine. Our resident wine expert Tweych picked out a New Zealand pinot noir, the 2007 Wairau River Home Block Pinot Noir (13%). Like most pinot noirs, it was light red and of course still very young. There was plenty of heady cherry, strawberry and red currant in the nose and it went down very smoothly. The only problem was that I felt like I was drinking alcoholic Ribena. The feeling only damped slightly after about a glass or so when the mild tannins started showing through. It was not bad, but I’m still not quite convinced when it comes to pinot noirs.

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Standing Sushi Bar
1 Raffles Place
#B1-02B OUB Centre
Tel: 6533 7078

The Moomba Wine Shop
52A Circular Road
Tel: 6438 2438

Tea of Sorts at Oriole

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Of all meals, the gang met up for tea at KK’s favourite coffee place, Oriole. I can’t remember why but DC had missed lunch and used that as an excuse to order up his usual storm. The chicken quesadillas were pretty decent: they were well-stuffed with a good proportion of cheesy chicken and tomato to onion, though the overall dish wasn’t super flavourful.

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I liked its take on squid rings. Here they warned us that there was chilli and that it wasn’t crispy. I’m not sure how they did it but they somehow coated the fried calamari very evenly with some sort of chilli-tomato sambal. The squid was chewy and slightly tough, just the way I like it and the chilli had good kick. Excellent.

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Shinta decided that he must have seafood risotto for tea. That, apparently, was also his dinner so he was justified. Justified or not, his choice was impeccable as usual. The risotto was as it should: creamy yet al dente with clean seafood flavours well-accented by tomato. The grilled fish on top gilded the lily. I’d definitely order it for myself next time.

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I decided to go the slightly more sensible road and had an affogato for my mid-afternoon snack. The version here is more dessert than rich drink as it had chocolate-coated honeycomb and walnut (?) stirred into the ice cream. The ice cream was rich, the espresso bitter and strong, and the crumble toothachingly sweet. It’s one of the best versions of affogato I’ve had, almost eclipsing my all-time favourite hazelnut affogato.

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Oriole Cafe and Bar
96 Somerset Road
#01-01 Pan Pacific Serviced Suites
Tel: 6238 8348

Wild Oats and Cider

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It was a long trek up to Mount Emily for this drinks session. Good thing the aircon was cold and the drinks came very promptly. The specials of the evening were two ciders, Weston’s Oak Conditioned Medium Sweet (4.5%) and Weston’s 1880 Extra Strong Premium (8%).

The Oak Conditioned Medium Sweet was pale yellow, sweet and very fragrant with lots of, well, red apple flavour. It tasted a bit like alcoholic Zapple, just a little less sweet. I liked it. If you’re not careful, it’s very easy to quaff it like a soft drink.

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The 1880 Extra Strong Premium was darker and heavier. It had a bit more depth and had a bit more bitter and fruit to it. Still quite Zapple-like. This time it tasted somewhat like Zapple mixed with a hoppy beer.

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Long hike up notwithstanding, Wild Oats is a great place to chill out. The music is down tempo and unobtrusive and the building is old colonial, very atmospheric. We didn’t get our act together and order what are supposed to be very fabulous chicken wings or hot dogs, but we’ll do so next time.

Wild Oats
Emily Hill
11 Upper Wilkie Road
Tel: 6336 5413