Semi-Authentic Bolognese Ragu

I was looking for an old bolognese recipe from Delia Smith that involved chicken livers (love them!) but came across an even more authentic version from the Accademia Italiana della Cucina. Sadly, it involved very expensive ingredients, like pancetta in large proportions, and impossible to find ones, like triple concentrated tomato paste. Everything else, however, was relatively easy to find, and was surprisingly simple. I was surprised to find that there isn’t any garlic in true-blue bolognese, neither is there bay leaf or other herb. I substituted bacon for pancetta and passata (sieved tomato puree) for the tomato paste. The hint of tomato adds to the flavour backdrop and the surprise ingredient was milk, which added richness and unctuousness to the sauce. The only embellishment allowed was porcini mushrooms. I was delighted because I have a giant bulk bottle of dried ones bought at a very reasonable price at the gourmet store. This, together with the bacon, tomato and red wine added melded wonderfully with the beef to give an unbelievably rich and complex sauce, better than anything at even the most “authentic” Italian restaurant in Singapore.

It freezes really well and I now make it in bulk. Check out the quantities I used for 1kg of minced beef! First I minced all the solid ingredients as finely as possible. Onion, carrot and celery went into my mini electric chopper and came out in tiny bits. I unsuccessfully asked for my bacon to be minced at the butchers, but the Culina counter doesn’t do it! My electric chopper didn’t do very well chopping up the bacon, so much of it was done by hand. Will try to partially freeze the bacon next time, or get a better chopper.

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It was then a simple, but rather laborious task of first browning and releasing the fat from the bacon and then sweating the vegetables in the rendered bacon fat (mmm… bacon!). Then add the meat and keep stirring, followed by the rest of the ingredients. It makes so much that my giant wok can barely take all of it, and gets quite watery at the beginning especially when I couldn’t get triple concentrated tomato paste and had to substitute passata instead. But bubbling it for about four hours and stirring every now and then yields a thick brown sauce that clings easily to noodles.

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I like my spaghetti bolognese, as inauthentic as it is, and served it with a hurried grating of parmesan cheese and blanched green vegetables. When I defrost a portion for dinner, I tend to cook the pasta (sometimes using linguine or penne) till bordering al dente, and fry the noodles in the sauce, adding a bit of pre-salted cooking water from the pasta till it’s al dente. It’s a wonderful post-work dinner when you can’t imagine doing any laborious cooking yet want something comforting. Plus, it’s fairly healthy considering that it’s about 50:50 meat to vegetable content.

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Ingredients

3 big handfuls dried porcini or as much as you can spare
5 onions
5 carrots
8 stalks celery
500 g bacon
1 tbsp oil
1 kg minced beef
200ml passata
200ml red wine, white wine or vermouth
200ml milk

Method:

  1. Rinse the porcini briefly and soak in a little water to soften.
  2. Chop finely the onions, carrots, celery and bacon.
  3. In the biggest pan you can find, heat the oil gently and add the bacon, frying till most of the fat is rendered and the bacon bits are golden brown.
  4. Add the chopped vegetables and sweat for about 10 minutes or till vegetables are translucent.
  5. Turn up the heat slightly to about medium-high. Add the minced beef and break up any chunks. Keep doing it till the meat is browned in parts and you’re having trouble keeping the mixture from burning.
  6. Add the passata, wine and milk. Stir till all the stuck on bit at the bottom of the pan are scraped up.
  7. Strain the porcini, keeping the soaking liquid. Cut up any large bits and add both porcini. Filter the liquid to remove grit (I normally use a paper stock bag as a filter) and add the liquid to the pan.
  8. Turn down the heat to the lowest possible and simmer for four hours, stirring occasionally.
  9. Add salt and pepper to taste before serving on hot pasta. Or let cool completely and freeze in single or double serving bags.

Makes a lot, probably about 20 servings.

The Best Prime Rib

What do you do when you have big eater coming over for dinner? Cook a prime rib of course! Ours came by special delivery from Huber’s and was reasonably priced considering how gargantuan that wodge of meat was. It was just the right occasion to try out a slow cooked recipe from Serious Eats. I was so amazed by how simple to cook and how amazing the prime rib turned out.

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It arrived at 11am and I quickly fired up my oven to 70 ºC before lovingly massaging the joint with black pepper and sea salt. Once it was ready, I set it on a rack in a tray and bunged it in, setting the alarm for 4 hours later.

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Then I got round to making some herb butters by chopping up some herbs (rosemary at the left front and chervil at the right back) and smushing them with a bit of sea salt into soft butter. The lot was patted into a log and wrapped in cling film and fridged.

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After 4 hours, I checked and the joint wasn’t ready yet. It wasn’t until 6 hours later that my meat thermometer registered a healthy 50ºC and we were ready to get on with the next step. I left it out to rest for a while (uncovered because I was busy with everything else!). It looked terrible for that long wait before F and R turned up.

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But they finally did, and I cranked up the oven to 250ºC and bunged the whole lot in for 10 minutes. The results were beautiful! (And check out how the joint dwarfs my chef’s knife!)

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Look at those Flintstone-worthy slabs of rare meat!

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Here, after having rested a bit, so it got more red.

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We happily apportioned the pieces, not realising at first how freakin’ big each of the intial slices were.

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The most desired part was the end, so that we could get at the yummy burnt bits with crispy fat. The other side was of course completely red.

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Then it was time to eat! We anointed the prime rib with all sorts of goodies like pesto sauce (from our minestrone starter), the herb butters, porcini and red wine sauce made with the beef juices, Dijon mustard, and bits and bobs from our appetisers – marinated roma tomatoes, olives and cured beef tongue. It was all super good with a lovely red that F and R brought.

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The next day brought more joy with the leftovers. I laid cold slices of prime rib over some salad leaves, cooked chickpeas and leftovers from the deli, then drizzled over some dressing made from mustard, balsamic vinegar and a touch of pomegranate molasses. Lovely!

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Here’s the recipe:

1 piece of bone-in prime rib (mine had 2 ribs and weighed almost 3kg)
coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 70ºC.
  2. Rub the prime rib generously with salt and pepper, then bung in the oven for 4-6 hours.
  3. Check the internal temperature after 4 hours (50ºC for rare, 55ºC for medium rare – anything more and you’re on your own, sorry). It’s unlikely to be ready at this stage, so stick back in the oven and prep the rest of your dinner – cook soup, bake bread or whatever.
  4. When the inside is ready, take out and leave on counter while you crank up your oven to 250ºC or the highest your oven goes.
  5. It should take about 30 minutes or so before your oven gets to the right temperature. Now gather everyone for dinner, have the first course or whatever.
  6. Replace the prime rib in the super hot oven and leave for 10 minutes or almost burnt, whichever is earlier.
  7. Take out and carve.

Feeds 6 big eaters. Leftovers keep nicely for a week, if any longer freeze and it’s still beautiful a month later.

Guan Hoe Soon

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My uncle took us to Guan Hoe Soon, apparently a venerable institution of Peranakan food. I didn’t have the best memories of them at my last visit there many years ago, but this time, Guan Hoe Soon redeemed itself with excellent renditions of sambal prawns ($12), beef rendang ($12) and sambal timun (complimentary starter). The prawns were fresh and sweet, and the sambal was topnotch, flavourful and well-balanced so that it was hard to tell exactly what went into the sauce. The beef rendang was tender, a rarity for this dish, and again with very well-balanced flavours. I liked also how they did the sambal timun so simply and well, because a lot of places take the attitude that free starters are a take-it-or-leave-it affair.

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The ngoh hiang ($10) and sambal kangkong ($10) were decent, but nothing special to travel for. The ayam buah keluak ($12) was a disappointment, partly because they mixed the buah keluak with meat but mainly because the sauce was rather anaemic.

Other than that, the desserts were decent. Most order the cendol ($3.50), which the others reported to be good.

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I had the sago gula melaka ($3.50), which was, again, decent but not worth going back for. I wasn’t sure about the ice ball because it took way too long to chip through and tended to freeze the sago to unappetisingly hard little blobs. Otherwise, the gula melaka was nice and thick and I think the coconut milk freshly squeezed.

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Come here if you’re in the East, on a budget, and have a craving for Peranakan food.

Guan Hoe Soon
38 Joo Chiat Place
Tel: +65 6344 2761

Mmmmortons!

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DC and I had a special occasion to celebrate and celebrate we did! We dressed up and went to Morton’s for a blow out meal. The onion bread that started our dinner was an omen of things to come – see how huge it is? We only nibbled a  bit of the soft bread while waiting for the typical show and tell that the menu was about.

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Already being forewarned that we would eat until we couldn’t eat no more, we shared half a dozen fresh Pacific oysters ($36.50) to start. They were fresh and sweetly briney, going very well with just a squeeze of lemon juice and less well with the cocktail sauce and grated horseradish. The saltines – crackers in cellophane packets – were an inexplicable, yet totally American addition to the appetisers.

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Then came the mains. DC was rather restrained (!) and went for a 400g double cut filet mignon ($97). Sorry for the poor lighting in the picture, but look at how high the steak is. It was done nice and rare. While a very tender cut, it wasn’t the tastiest I’ve had. Perhaps in aging the meat, all the blood is drained out and a lot of the taste is gone. Either that, or my main stole the show.

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When the server showed us the live Maine lobster ($50 per lb) in the menu demonstration, I knew that I was destined to have it. It was 3.5 lbs and was baked in butter. They even gave me a bib so that I could get cracking! This was lobster like I’ve never had before. I never really understand why people like lobster so much, because I’m such a fan of the tender, sweet flavour of crab. This lobster was incredibly sweet, tasting of the sea. It was firm and full of flavour, needing only a dab of melted butter at first, then a squeeze of lemon as the richness of lobster and butter began to sate. The head bits were the richest parts of the lobster, and the best part was that it could be eaten with a spoon. The lobster was amazing, huge and way too much for me. I gave up after eating half the lobster tail and a chalky tasting claw (weakest link). DC had to help with the rest so that I could have room for dessert.

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We finished off the meal with a slice of key lime pie, compliments of the restaurant. The custard part was tart and incredibly sweet, for once the cream was an absolute must so as to cut through the sweetness of the filling. It was a fitting end to our calorie-laden and very American dinner.

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At Morton’s, the service is impeccable. People come here for celebrations and the staff do their best to make everyone feel like it’s a special treat. In fact, it seemed that half the restaurant was celebrating birthdays. For us, the staff went all out to make sure we were OK (three different staff, from the manager to our own server asked if the food was fine and that we were having a good time) and even printed out a menu with our names and a congratulatory message on it as a souvenir. As an overall experience, Morton’s, while terribly expensive, is worth the while, simply because you and the food are the stars for the night.

Morton’s
Mandarin Oriental Singapore
Fourth Storey
5 Raffles Avenue
Tel: +65 6339 3740

A Long Brunch at St Regis

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My brother treated us to brunch at the St Regis and what a champagne brunch it was! It was well-priced compared to other hotel brunches at $170++ with champagne and $138++ without. What I didn’t like was that there wasn’t an option with just one glass of champagne, that I would’ve gone for. They offered a la carte glasses of champagne for $40, which made it more expensive than the option with free-flow champagne. Pfft.

No less, the spread was excellent. While not quite as extensive as other places, there were very few filler dishes. I liked also that the quality of the ingredients was excellent. Case in point were the oyster and ham selections. There were three types of oysters from various regions – all were good, and the memorable ones were the fine de claire from France. I love their briny, minerally flavour. The ham selection was more impressive, with four or five different types. I remember the parma and some of the air dried beef types, but everything was blown away by the entire leg of bellota ham carved out in tempting slivers. The flavour of the fat from acorn fed pig blew everything else out of the water. You have a choice: either eat the other hams first or go straight for the bellota. No other way.

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What made this buffet special was that the food wasn’t all from the buffet table where we helped ourselves. The waiters regularly came round with small bites, such as this sampler platter of (L-R) tomato gazpacho, tuna tartare, foie gras in the style of creme brulee, deep-fried silver bait, and marinated olives. I enjoyed the gazpacho and tuna tartare a lot – so refreshing, while my mum and aunt adored the foie gras. There were plenty of other yummy bites brought round, including cubes of braised beef cheek, deep-fried prawn in a pastry net, pan-fried foie gras and truffle risotto. All very good.

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There was plenty more in the buffet spread, including an inventive quinoa salad, heirloom tomatoes and a good assortment of salads, from seafood to pure vegetarian ones.

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The mains were a la carte and each person could order only one dish. After the incredible spread from the buffet line and the bites brought to the table, I think one would be hard pressed to even contemplate finishing two mains anyway. I had the beef tartare (this dish seems to feature regularly on this blog) with truffles, which was a good rendition, though the flavour of the beef could have shone through more strongly. Perhaps my palate had been jaded by then. Perhaps the best options would be either the beef tenderloin or the Hokkaido scallops, if they don’t change the menu every week.

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We were stuffed by now, but had to press on. There were desserts aplenty for us to get through. It all seemed to pass in a blur, but the standout was the giant raspberry macaron. Here was one of the few places that did macaron well and accompanied it nicely with good produce. The raspberries were tart and on the verge of sweet, a good foil to the sugary macaron. The rest of the desserts were decent, the only grouse being that the fresh fruit selection wasn’t very good.

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Brasserie Les Saveurs
St Regis Hotel, 29 Tanglin Road
Tel: +65 6506 6866

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: 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

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

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