Half a meal at Bistro Soori and a Re-visit to Tea Chapter

By the time we left Esquina, it was barely 8pm on a Friday evening and we were worried that all the nice places in the Chinatown area would be packed and we weren’t sure they’d give us a table just for dessert. Here’s where Bistro Soori really shone. It’s just diagonally across from Esquina and couldn’t be more different. It is a quiet dinner place, more for an intimate first date than raucous socialising. The place was fairly empty and almost entirely taken by reservations, but thankfully there was a lovely place overlooking the prep stations at a bar counter and we were very happy to sit and watch the chefs at work while proceeding with our gluttony. When presented with the menu, we couldn’t help thumbing through the rest of the courses instead of simply zeroing in on the desserts. Here’s where we all exchanged slightly guilty looks at our greed and asked each other almost simultaneously if we could share the one dish that caught our fancy – the uni, scallop and prawn risotto ($35).

The chef started preparing it right in front of us. I was surprised by how quickly he put it together, first carefully removing two generous strips of uni from its wooden bed and mashing one while reserving the other, then taking half-cooked rice from one jumbo tub in the fridge, and adding broth and various seasonings to the pot. The risotto was plated carefully and finished with a fluorish of grated cheese and baby basil leaves. I was slightly taken aback by how soupy it looked and I was bracing myself for the worst, until spoon hit tongue, I chewed, and an epiphany occurred. Could it be true? We just had a very good tapas dinner, could this surpass that? It was indeed. The first thing that hits when tasting this dish was the clarity of flavours. The taste was of the sea – slightly briney, and tasting intensely of slate and mineral. Then a hint of yuzu rang out and there I was again, reaching out for my next spoonful of risotto. With the fresh uni, it was full of that strange quality of creamy seafood that only sea urchin has. The prawn was lovely enough, but the scallop was amazing. It was seared just so and sliced to let out the juices. The risotto with scallop juices was simply astounding. To completely let go with my histrionics and overblown comparisons (this is me all excited about the dish), it was as if we were released from Plato’s Cave and finally got to taste risotto and scallop and sea urchin in their ur-forms. I think it’ll go down a treat with a bone dry, minerally sauvignon blanc or muscadet. DC thinks it’s a lot of fuss about a dish, but this is the best I’ve had for the year so far. Go try it and taste for yourself!

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Back to the matter at hand: dessert. We ordered pineapple cake with coconut cream frosting ($12).  The cake had a strange gummy texture, as if a heavy flourless batter had been shot through with bubbles. The closest texture comparison is the local kueh ambon with its vertical chambers. DC really loved it. One of the chefs told us that the cake was fat-free and had been made by using a foam canister to extrude the batter into the tin, that was how they achieved the heavy lightness. The coconut frosting was quite good too, that I’m sure had plenty of fat in it!

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Chris absolutely had to have her pandan souffle ($12). She’d been here before and fell in love with this dessert at her last visit. The small cake came out super high with a yummy brown top. It tasted a lot like traditional pandan chiffon cake, just far softer and moister. It was light and lovely. I could eat two on my own! The little biscuit on the side was a good contrast as it was slightly salty, a nice plain foil to the aromatic pandan.

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I very much hope to come back here soon, but that will have to wait till another day!

Bistro Soori
2 Teck Lim Rd
Singapore 088380
Tel: +65 6438 3802

In the mean time, other diversions awaited. The night was yet young and we traipsed around the area looking for another place to either have more food or for a drink. Since we’d all driven there separately (so eco-unfriendly, I know), we couldn’t drink anything alcoholic. We also reached the limits of our greed and were very glad to come across Tea Chapter at Neil Road. It was a $7 minimum order per person for the tea, so that meant that we had to get something that was worth at least $21. We chose the silver needles white tea ($28) and our server very kindly made the first pot for us.

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First, she poured the hot water into the little teapot to steep before transferring it into a beaker when the time was up.

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When we wanted to enjoy it, we poured some into the tall cup to enjoy the aroma, and then into the short cup to sip the tea.

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The tea was very enjoyable, especially between the various steeps of the tea. It went from delicately floral to more tannic and robust from the first pour to the fifth (that’s the maximum you can go). But more fun was watching Chris and DC play Othello. Not surprisingly, Chris won: she has plenty of practice playing against her son. Me? I just sat back and tried my hand at brewing the tea.

Tea Chapter
9 Neil Road
Singapore 088808
Tel: +65 6226 1175

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

Candlenut Kitchen

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Misa and I were overdue for a catchup and we chose Candlenut Kitchen for that. We were sad that Trish and Adele couldn’t join us, maybe a little because we missed their company, but mainly because we were severely limited in how much we could eat! It was very gutting (pun intended) that we only had space for two mains and a dessert. We had to choose our dishes wisely and started with Misa’s perennial favourite: assam fish ($16.80). I thought it a very good version, though not quite as rich in flavour as I’d like. While flavourful from the assam and laksa leaves, I found the gravy a little watered down. It would not go well in DC’s house (he’s Peranakan). Still, a decent rendition – good for desperate times when you can’t get the home-cooked version.

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I read good reviews about yeye’s curry ($12.80), a white curry made with white pepper instead of the usual chilli rempah. On first chew, I thought it very similar to a mild version of Thai green curry and was a bit let down. The texture of the gravy certainly was very similar as it was very thick and lemak. It went really well with the chunks of chicken thigh. After a few more bites, the subtlety of the dish starts to come through and the magic of the pepper starts to weave its spell. It’s spicy yet gentle in its kick, with a level of complexity that’s hard to describe. I’ve been remiss in my posts and this dinner was had slightly more than a month ago before Christmas. My mouth still waters as I write this, it’s worth the trip just for this one dish.

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For dessert, we had the Christmas special dessert which is sadly off the menu now. It was a bombe Alaska of sorts, with chestnut, banana and chocolate. While we both thought it a bit too sweet with the honey drizzled on top, the banana and chestnut combination was pretty addictive.

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This is a restaurant with very good potential. I’m already plotting my next trip back!

Candlenut Kitchen
25 Neil Road
Tel: 6226 2506

136 Hong Kong Street Fishhead Steamboat

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One night I had a dinner at a new place recommended by my aunt. We had a boisterous family gathering round an eponymous fishhead steamboat. It was chockful of chunky grouper fishhead in a rich, flavourful stock, all augmented by plenty of fresh vegetables and yam. The yam practically melted in the mouth after spending a while in the soup. It was a great dish for sharing in a group.

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To accompany the steamboat were deep-fried pork spareribs that were fairly decent. It was blown out of the water by the next dish.

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I spied this dish at another table and insisted that we order a portion of it: prawn sang meen. The  crispy noodles bathed in thick yet not too gloopy sauce was simply heaven. I don’t recall anywhere else that does the noodles so thin and crisp and plain yummy! The juicy big prawns with plenty of orange milt helped a lot too. I’m still dreaming of this dish.

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Not satisfied by just one serving of crispy noodles, my cousin insisted on another one, this time fish. I don’t know how we could be relatives but this cousin doesn’t even like prawns, hence this version. It had the same to-die-for crispy noodles and yummy sauce, but I felt that the prawn version was far better.

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136 Hong Kong Street Fishhead Steamboat
291 South Bridge Road
Tel: 8288 3368

Yang Gui Fei

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We discovered this little restaurant while wandering around Chinatown looking for a quick dinner.  I liked the gentle pun in the name, as the character for Yang was “sheep” instead of  the usual character for the legendary Chinese consort’s surname. Yang Gui Fei specialises in Xi’an cuisine, and is run by Xi An people. We only seemed to hear mainland Chinese accents from the other patrons and had high hopes that the food would be authentic!

As per our usual practice, we ordered a bit more than expected, starting off with some typical Chinese cold starters, such as these pickled long beans.  When they first arrived, I was a bit dismayed by how bland and faded they looked. But looks belay much flavour and zing. The beans were refreshingly spicy and sour,  plus fermentation did wonders to add to its flavour. They were super yummy and also deceptively spicy – on first bite, they were mildly hot but the more I ate the hotter my mouth got and I couldn’t eat more than two in a row before having to cool off my mouth with something else.

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We also had a plate of seasoned enoki mushrooms, similar in its savoury umami seasoning, just not pickled and only mildly spicy. They were a good interlude between bites of beans!

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The star dish of this place had to be the mutton. We ordered the mutton kebabs and also tried out a few chicken ones. These were well-marinated, but the chicken kebabs were definitely juicier and more flavourful than the mutton ones. The mutton ones unfortunately don’t quite match up to what I remember in Xi’an. It all became clear when the proprietress told us that they used New Zealand lamb and not proper grown-up and gamey mutton. Maybe they should change to a Muslim supplier from Tekka market and make it truly Muslim-style like in Xi’an.

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Here’s a close up on the spice mix that goes into the marinade.   Yum!

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The next dish we ordered brought back fond memories from my holiday in Xi An.  “Biang Biang” noodles are thick, flat and very chewy noodles seasoned with a spicy  vinegary dipping sauce. The texture of these noodles are far from the usual slightly limp and soft Chinese noodles. They are the epitome of al dente yet are nothing like any Italian noodle. I don’t know what type of flour they used nor how they developed the gluten in the noodles to get this lovely firm noodle with loads of bite . It was wonderful.Word of warning:  one bowl of “Bian Bian” noodles is plenty for two.

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Yang Gui Fei restaurant
18 Smith Street
Tel: 6100 0629

July in Vietnam: A Viet Chinatown

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Hoi An is one of those paradoxical places: right smack in the middle of traditionally China-hating Vietnam yet if you’re dropped randomly into the town for a look round, you’d think it to be China. Except of course that if you’ve been to China before you’d know better. It’s like a really prettied up version of a Chinatown, what Singapore’s Chinatown would aspire to be when it grows up. It was full of Chinese characters and dragon motifs, yet the odd thing was that no one there spoke any Chinese at all.

My first stop was at the Fujian Assembly Hall, oddly named jin shan si or Golden Mountain Temple in Mandarin. It had such a grand facade that I bet any Chinese trader that would have been suitably impressed.

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Other halls were less impressive, like this tumbledown one on the edge of town. Unlike the others, it hadn’t a name and wasn’t featured in the guide book. Still, the dragon motifs were incredibly beautiful.

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It looked amazing even in silhouette.

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Other typically Chinese places were the temples. The eaves were beautifully, ornately decorated and very impressive to look at.

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Not being a frequenter of temples at home, I was taken aback by these very cool joss sticks that were twirled into cone shapes.

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As it burned, each joss stick gave off plenty of slightly sweet smoke that wafted past the eaves.

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Other traditional houses had craft showcases, like this one with lantern making demonstrations to make the colourful lights still used extensively in the town.

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Of course, not everything looked bright and new and restored. Here’s a little courtyard of a shophouse turned museum, looking very similar in style to Peranakan houses in Singapore and Malacca. I think it’s the tiled fountain against the wall that’s so typical of Chinese-influenced houses in the region.

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And last of all was the Japanese Covered Bridge, oddly not looking anything particularly Japanese at all. It was quite similar to the one in Hue, just that this one was on the edge of town and not in the midst of paddy fields.

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Here, the bridge god was a dog, and a strangely Egyptian-looking one at that. How strange.

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Chongqing Grilled Fish

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DC found out about Chongqing Grilled Fish on Facebook when he noticed that a friend was a fan. Intrigued, he looked it up and found that it had quite a following. So there we were on a Sunday night to try it out, this time with my parents. It’s a typically China-type place run by PRCs and the menu reminded me quite a bit of the casual little places that dot Shanghai. We started with the cold cucumber with garlic, which I thought was quite decent. Mum’s used to much finer stuff in China, so she wasn’t too impressed by this rendition. My standards are obviously lower, so I ate most of it.

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It was the kou shui ji (saliva chicken) that didn’t come up to my standards this time. I’d spent a little while in Chengdu and Chongqing, and had really good Sichuan cuisine in Shanghai, and this version is but a pale imitation. By Singapore standards, however, it’s passable. It’s got a fairly fiery sauce atop tender chicken. What was missing was the numbing sensation from Sichuan peppercorns. A pity as it could’ve been much nicer!

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I thought the dongpo rou (braised pork belly) was pretty good. Dad showed his concurrence by walloping so much of it that DC hardly had a chance. Yes, China makes better, but this comes close. They used leaner pork than the norm in China, which is always a good thing, and braised it nicely so the meat fell apart easily in the mouth. Yum.

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Next was the three-egg spinach, again quite decent but nothing particularly special. It’s not a hard dish to get right.

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And now the piece de resistance! The preceding dishes on their own wouldn’t quite have made it to this blog, but the fish just blew me out of the water. It came piping hot over a charcoal brazier, fish already grilled and cooked through. It was covered in the xiang la (fragrant and spicy) sauce and accompanied by beansprouts and celery. We ordered some extra vegetables to cook in the gravy and boy was it excellent. First, the fish somehow never got rough-textured from being overcooked. It was tender to the end. The sauce, true to its name, was spicy and fragrant and the teeniest bit numbing, which I miss a lot from that few days I spent in Sichuan. The charcoal kept the dish warm and cooked the extra vegetables gently so all the flavour from the sauce permeated through. I also liked how there was enough oil in the dish to give the classic Sichuanese slow burn of heat. At first I thought the dish wasn’t quite as spicy as I expected and I made a mental note to order one level up the next time (we ordered the least spicy version). But as I ate and ate (and ate) and slurped up the gravy, I found my mouth getting hotter and hotter, until at the end I was sniffing and almost gasping from the heat. This is a definite must-eat. I’m coming back again soon!

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Chongqing Grilled Fish
18 Mosque Street #01-01
Tel: 6225 0087

Quick Eats: Temple Street Desserts

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Mei Heong Yuen is famous for its excellent desserts. The standards are still high despite its popularity and the sheer volume of people and corresponding desserts passing through. I went for the tang yuan in ginger soup. The glutinous rice balls were soft and chewy and came in black sesame and peanut flavours. I liked the peanut one more as the filling had bits of crunch while being just the right sweetness. It contrasted nicely with the spicy ginger soup. Such traditional comfort food for me.

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Slightly less traditional was the shaved ice that was new to the menu. I like how they took a new-fangled idea and made it their own with the almond snow ice. It’s basically a block of their signature almond cream frozen and shaved into delicate layers. Same familiar flavour, quite a different and incredibly novel texture. I liked how the very slightly grainy almond layers melted in the mouth.

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I’ll definitely be there again soon, sooner if it’s a hot day!


Mei Heong Yuen Dessert
65-67 Temple Street
Tel: 6221 1156

Secret Eat Revealed: Chinatown Fish-Head Beehoon

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Remember that place I told you about before? I think it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. This place needs recognition. It’s run by an old couple in a Banda Street food court. Not sure where Banda Street is? It’s the place overlooking the carpark next to the Buddha Tooth Temple, kinda across the road from Maxwell Market.

I went back there with Delightt and this time we brought our men with us. The fish head beehoon was as good as ever, perhaps better this time as the beehoon was perfectly done. I liked how the soup was still cloudy with no milk added and plenty of good flavour from the fish head and bones. It was hard to eat the fish pieces because tongue had to navigate between fishy grooves to find tasty meat and spit out the spent bones. It was one of the few places where the second visit after so long was better than the first!

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The nice stallholder auntie recommended chicken with bittergourd and black bean sauce. It was good too! There was plenty of wok hei in the dish and both chicken and bittergourd were well-cooked. The chicken was tender and just cooked through while the bittergourd was nicely braised yet not too soft. The chef has real mastery over his fire here!

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Come here for good Cantonese fare, just be prepared to wait as there are lots of regulars and the old man at the wok isn’t very quick on his feet.

Blk 5 Banda Street
Corner near restrooms

Quick Eats: That Shanghainese Place

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Hypodermically likes this place along New Bridge Road near the junction of Mosque Street. Even though it’s one of the many China eating places along the stretch, she still calls it That Shanghainese Place. The best part is that the menu isn’t particularly Shanghainese. The mind boggles.

We started off with deep-fried squid. This stuff was surprisingly good as the batter was light and less greasy than expected. It stayed crisp even after cooling a bit and the chilli salt with msg gave it extra kick. The squid inside was  just the right degree of chewy and not mushy at all. Thumbs up!

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Then came the spicy braised eggplant. Wow, it was pretty good too. Squishy mushy eggplant and spicy, deeply savoury chilli came together in a slightly gooey dark sauce. Wonderful.

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It all added up to be a tad too greasy and we skipped the noodles. Those dishes were enough for two girls trying to stay fit and look fab, so the other dishes will have to wait for another day.