Zhuge Liang Restaurant

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We were in the Jalan Besar area and decided to check out Zhuge Liang Restaurant, specialising in Sichuanese kaoyu (literally, barbecued fish). The difference here is that the fish is cooked in two steps: barbecued first, then simmered in a spicy broth at the table. It’s quite unlike the usual idea of a barbecue. Here, it’s done fairly well and in a pretty mild broth compared to its competitors in other parts of town. We ordered the patin fish ($38) and had it done pao jiao (literally, soaked peppers) style and wondered how spicy it’d be. Not that much, because it turned out that pao jiao meant brined peppers, which mellowed the spice a great deal. The fish was smooth textured and tasty, and the broth was full of leek, cucumber and celery. We added some tang oh vegetables ($2) to complete the dish.

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We also ordered some chicken ($18) to complete the meal. This one is called the tao yuan xiong di lian (literally, peach garden brotherhood), which was skewers of chicken and soft bone in a far spicier sauce than the fish. It too came in a hotpot of sorts, this time not in a broth but a spicy sauce. If only the fish had been in this sauce, I’d’ve liked it so much better! Still, the chicken was done very nicely, the soft bone gave a surprisingly moreish texture to the skewers, half-chewy and half-crunchy, which I liked.

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To wash everything down, we had a very light Harbin beer ($6) that came ice cold and rounded off the meal nicely.

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Be warned, though, that this restaurant has no English menu and the (very attentive and lovely) wait staff are from PRC, I doubt they speak English. Ask for the menu with pictures if your Chinese isn’t up to scratch. The staff were super sweet and accommodating in trying to make sure the food was to our taste and the standard of service was one of the best I’ve had in a long time, notwithstanding the feeling that we were in China. I say that eating in a place that reminds me of China restaurants isn’t a bad thing at all.

Zhuge Liang Restaurant
27 Foch Road #01-02 Hoa Nam Building
Tel: +65 6396 8858

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Quick Eats: Good Value at Huber’s Bistro

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DC and I wanted something quick and not bank-breaking in the Dempsey area and we were surprised that something like that actually exists! It’s Huber’s Bistro, same place as the Butchery. We were very happy to see the reasonable prices and, being absolutely famished, made our choices quickly. My veal sausage with spatzli ($12.90) was decent. The sausage was of the more-meat-less-filler variety, definitely German-style as I like.  The spatzli was pretty decent, I liked that it had been pan-fried with some browned edges. The problem was that it was a hot day and I was soon stodged out by the spatzli. It’s much better suited to much cooler weather.

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DC was much less blinded by hunger when he ordered and wisely chose the daily special barbecued beef brisket panini ($8.90). It was tender and nicely marinated in crisp, toasted panini. I liked that they cared enough to create more interest with crunchy red cabbage, soft lettuce and tasty browned onions. Very good.

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Huber’s Bistro
18A Dempsey Road
Tel: 6737 1588

Smokey’s

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We saw Smokey’s one of those days wandering in the Joo Chiat area and it was a nice coincidence when Fee suggested going there for dinner. As it name hints, it specialises in smoked barbecued items. For starters, we had jalapeno poppers, those breaded and deep fried mild green chillis stuffed with sin. Oh my the cream cheese oozing out really worked, gimme more!

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Fee insisted on ordering a serving of fish and chips despite my misgivings that this was a smokehouse specialising in ribs for crying out loud! Boy was I mistaken, these are possibly the most unique fish and chips ever. They’d somehow been marinated in smoke, then battered and deep fried till almost ethereally crisp. The fish was smooth and tender, almost nostalgic in its old school fish finger-like consistency. It was the combination of smoky marinade and really great fish and chips that won me over. In fact, this to me was the best dish of the night. The fries were also good, crisp outside and fluffy inside, though they didn’t hold up once they got cold. The coleslaw was very decent, with both white and purple cabbage. I liked that the veg tasted fresh and the crunchy stuff wasn’t overwhelmed by onion. Thumbs up!

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The star of the show was meant to be the ribs. DC wanted the St Louis ribs, so a full rack it had to be.  I must admit they were well marinated and quite nice. Too bad they were rather dry, as it they’d been left on a low barbecue for too long. No doubt there was a disclaimer in the menu that the ribs here weren’t pre-cooked and therefore wouldn’t fall off the bone in tenderness. But these fellas were dry and hardly a shot from tenderness! It was a disappointment to me, especially after the fish and chips stole the show.

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Be odd. Come here for the fish and chips. Oh yes, the portions are big too. A full rack of ribs, a portion of fish and chips and the jalapeno poppers stuffed up two big eaters and two medium eaters big time.

Smokey’s
73 Joo Chiat Pl
Tel: 6345 6914

Pepes

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I finally got round to trying Pepes with DC and his parents. I’d heard quite a bit about how it’s a reincarnation of the former Sanur, just that a few dishes were tweaked so it’s slightly healthier and less oily. We started with the tauhu telor, the ubiquitous stack of tofu deep fried with egg and served with kicap manis. It looks like there isn’t enough kicap manis in the picture, but this is the good healthy bit: it’s up to you how much or how little sweet black goodness you want on your tauhu telor as they provide extra in a side saucer. It’s great how the deep-fried egg bits were softly crispy and had none of that nasty oil ooze. They used very tasty good-quality tofu as well. A winner!

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Next was the sup buntut which I enjoyed a lot. The soup had clear, bright flavours and very tender oxtail. DC commented that it tasted like they added Maggi seasoning, but I thought it was fine. Maybe Maggi seasoning adds that authentic Indonesian flavour?

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The sayur lodeh was average with nothing particularly memorable, neither was there anythingparticular to complain about.

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But the beef rendang really lived up to its hype. It really was very excellent. Don’t be deceived by the gloopy looking gravy. (I’m guessing that it’s like that because they use a food processor for the rempah, but I’m not that much of a purist so not complaining about that.) The mix of spices, together with the coconut and the gentle heat of the chilli was an epiphany. I also liked how the meat was quite tender (though beef somehow never gets quite as tender as mutton) and came in large pieces all the better to mop up the sauce with.

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The barbecued squid was a bit of a pleasant surprise. They updated this traditional dish by topping it with chopped ripe tomatoes and they really added oomph! I liked the interplay of charred chewy squid with smoky sweet sauce and sweet, tart tomato. Another good dish.

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Get there before 7pm and you’re more likely to get a table, otherwise call ahead.

Pepes
391 Orchard Road 04-16 Ngee Ann City
Tel: 6836 3456

April in The Philippines: Island Hopping Like the Swallows

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El Nido literally means “The Swallow,” in reference to the many creatures inhabiting the limestone cliffs. I read in an inflight magazine that harvesting their nests for birds nest soup is still a thriving industry. But for now, I was far more interested in the tourism side of things.

We headed out on the island hopping tour on one of those eponymous outrigger boats. The first stop was Small Lagoon, nestled within a circle of limestone cliffs. It was a popular spot…

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… especially for canoeing.

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It was accessed through a little gap in the cliffs and made for a natural sheltered swimming pool. The bottom was nothing but pure white sand and the sides of the cliffs had interesting little creatures to stare at. Freediving a few metres down, I saw a moray eel and some shyer tropical fish. In the main part of the lagoon, there were plenty of white jellyfish. These didn’t sting and it was fun holding the squidgy mass in my hands. There was also a little cave at one end of the lagoon. As I squeezed through the little entrance I saw a shaft of light lighting up the centre of the dark cave. It was beautiful.

We moved on over the clear water that ranged from deep blue to azure to green and shades of pale jade according to the depth of the water. Contrasting with the sand that was so white I had to squint at it in the sun, this was the colour sea is meant to be. I soon gave up thinking up new names for the shades of blue and sat back simply enjoying the view.

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Next up was Big Lagoon, simply a sheltered area of otherwise open sea surrounded by several limestone outcrops. It was beautiful like the rest of the lagoons in El Nido, but not particularly special as the snorkelling was marred by the dynamite holes in the coral.

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Next, we pulled up at this secluded beachlet.

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The boat was simply driven up onto the beach as the fine sand didn’t seem to be capable of doing much harm to the hull.

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Here there were many purple jellyfish, again harmless. They were quite large and often got washed up onto the beach to perish in the heat.

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While the tourists frolicked in the shallows, the boat crew busied themselves with lunch. Here they took barbecue to a fuss-free level. Back in Singapore, it normally takes at least an hour and lots of paraphernalia to get the fire started and at least another hour before there’s the hope of getting any decently cooked food at all. In El Nido, the fire was started with just a few sticks of charcoal, a dash of lighter fluid, some dry twigs taken from the beach and one match.

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Soon after the fire was started and got going, the fish was set on the grill…

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… and lunch was ready in a jiffy. I timed it: only 30 minutes! And what a delicious meal it was! Freshly grilled fish adorned with soy sauce and lime, plus cabbage salad dressed with vinegar, was such a treat on the beach.

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After lunch one of the guides took me out snorkelling. The water was amazingly clear and the coral beautiful. He brought me up to a giant white stinging jellyfish and showed me how to stroke the top without getting stung. Cute and quite fun!

Then on to Secret Lagoon, a pool of water completely surrounded by cliffs and entered by a hole at the side. It felt pretty much like a cave without a ceiling. It was quite strange that this place was dry during low tide as all the water drained out then.

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Our last stop was Seven Commandos Beach, the significance of which was lost to me. I liked the water more than the beach and ended up chatting with the boat crew most of the time there.

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They soon busied themselves with coconut leaves. Doing what, I wasn’t sure.

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But soon it was apparent. They fashioned little animals out of the coconut leaves. I got a bird…

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… a fish…

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… and a grasshopper. It was very imaginative and skillful work, fitting mementos to end the lovely day.

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April in The Philippines: Donsol

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We flew into Donsol and were surprised to see in the background Mt Mayon, most likely the most active volcano in The Philippines or the world(?). However, we were intent on our purposes and only stopped to take a picture of the symmetrical peak as we left the plane.

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It was the Donsol Tourism Office that was our first stop. We had to first register here and listen to a briefing, complete with cool video of whalesharks, before venturing out for whaleshark watching the next day.

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We were to get out in an outrigger early the next morning, fins and mask ready for snorkelling with the whalesharks. The hard work was mainly to be done by the shark spotters who would balance on the flimsy looking masts of the boat.

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Having nothing much else to do, we watched the sunset over the lovely bay…

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… observed the fishermen coming back with their dusk catch…

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… and enjoyed a barbecue dinner of fresh seafood. After which, we adjourned to a neighbouring bar for beers and the largest grilled prawns ever. Each was longer than my hand and were thick and juicy. What a way to start the whaleshark leg of the journey!

March in Laos: Eating in Luang Prabang

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Laos in general and Luang Prabang in particular had lots of great food. Siamesecat and I started off one misty morning with a glass of thick, sweet and strong coffee chased down with a glass of steaming hot tea. Sitting on a wooden bench watching the morning bustle while sipping hot robust coffee was one of those subliminal moments of the trip.

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After having our caffeine and sugar fix, we table hopped to the next stall and tucked into the typical breakfast of foe (yup, almost exactly like Vietnamese pho). I don’t know how they make it so tasty, but thin flat rice noodles with hot broth, topped with herbs and raw vegetables to your preference hit the spot for me every day.   This morning the noodles came with pork strips and tomato. I could have noodles three times a day and not get sick of it. The trick was to experiment with the toppings provided at the table. They typically have salt, sugar, msg and chilli powder but there’s normally lime, basil, coriander, mint, sweet chilli sauce, various types of belachan (fermented shrimp paste) and fish sauce. I especially liked trying out the pongy variations of belachan at the different places.

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Foe is normally served in really small portions, which was fine with us because it gave us all the more reason to snack along the street. Here I’m stuffing my face yet again at a barbecue stand selling grilled animal parts like spicy minced pork patties, water buffalo jerky and belly pork. It was all mmm good.

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For lunch, we again had noodles, the one here a beef version with popped rice cracker-cakes on the side. If you look carefully you’ll spot the two small tubs of belachan on the table. One was the typical shrimp one and the other made of tiny river crabs. We noticed a lot of Lao people take a chilli padi, dip it in belachan, take a chomp and double dip it while waiting for their noodles. I guess the heat from the chilli kills the germs.

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Heavily fortified by all this food, Siamesecat and I proceeded to wander the streets. It was evening when we came across this vampire-phobic cat lying on a bed of garlic. It was obviously bed time.

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It looked incredibly satisfied at the end of that yawn!

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As the sun began to set, Siamesecat and I decided that we really should have something quite special. While we both loved noodles and never got tired of them, we had to try the slightly fancier food too.

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We found a restaurant along the Mekong and enjoyed the view while waiting for our food.

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This place served mainly set menus catering to tourists. We figured that it was as good as any other. Not having any locals to take us to truly authentic places, at least this would allow us to try a bit of everything.

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The set dinner started with watercress salad, a fresh minty salad with sharp watercress and other herbs dressed in a type of mayonnaise. Then it progressed to dried pork sausage with very spicy buffalo skin dip. The pork sausage was like a slightly less fatty salami with lovely smoked overtones while the dip had strips of rather tough buffalo hide bound by a fiery chilli paste. Crispy sheets of dried riverweed with sesame seeds helped to balance out the fire but the extremely spicy beef stew didn’t help things out.

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Siamesecat and I then hit the night market for incredibly cheap buys like a beautiful silk and cotton mix pair of fisherman pants for about USD2.50. There were pretty handicrafts and all sorts of ethnic and hill tribe knick knacks on sale. Apparently a lot of these items were brought over the border to Thailand for sale in their own tourist markets.

I stopped to buy something that couldn’t be exported easily to Thai tourist markets: more food. Supper that night was baguette filled with ping kai (barbecued chicken) and lettuce. It was up to me to choose my sauces again. This time it was at least three kinds of chilli sauce, two of which had some kind of fermented seafood incorporated within, and two types of soya sauce. Amazing.

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