A Good Brunch at db

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We’re not sure how it happened, but one Sunday I found myself at Daniel Boulud’s swanky cafe at Marina Bay Sands with DC, Shinta, KK and Eeyore. We opted to share some starters and then proceeded to our own main courses. The first appetiser was the quail ballotine en croute ($22), basically a baked pate of quail and foie gras enclosed in a pastry shell. It was well executed and tasty. Maybe I’ve had too much airline food but this reminded me a lot of the stuff you get on the plane if you eat just the quail part. But with the foie gras centre, things are all good and yummy. I quite liked the pickles at the side, especially the bit of shiitake pickle – a refreshing change to the usual carrot and cucumber pickle.

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The spicy tuna tartare ($23) was good in that the ingredients were impeccably fresh and flavourful. The chef had a very light hand in the spices as it was hardly spicy to my palate, yet paradoxically heavy on the salt. Perhaps he was going for the cured salmon style while I was expecting more sashimi salad.

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The chop chop salad ($15) cost more with shrimp ($21). We counted 4 shrimp, making them $1.50 each, which isn’t too bad considering that they were, as is the standard at this restaurant, fresh. What I enjoyed throughout the meal was that every ingredient in each dish seemed to burst with freshness and was pretty much picked at its peak. I normally tolerate bits of wilted salad leaves here and there, sometimes even at the best places, but at db, it seemed like they did a proper freshness QC. Very good! Here, again, the salad was very tasty and fresh, though nothing inventive or mindblowing. $15 for a fresh salad with watermelon, sweet and juicy though they were, seems a bit steep to me.

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For mains, DC went for the piggie burger ($24) which had a beef patty topped with pulled pork. My tasting portion of beef patty was well seared on the outside and nicely juicy in the outside. I didn’t taste much pulled pork and think the patty is delicious enough to have on its own. Maybe I’ll go for this one next time.

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KK and Eeyore both had the original db burger ($35), which had braised short ribs in the middle of the meat patty and foie gras on top. I didn’t find my tasting portion very special and didn’t even notice much of the short ribs. One thing though was that the foie gras was tiny and I was very lucky that the piece KK cut for me had a tiny sliver that barely caught my attention had it not fallen onto my plate. But the fries at this place are da bomb. I think they’re probably the best fries I’ve had in recent memory. These are definitely twice fried, they’re super crisp on the outside and somehow slightly waxy and moist on the inside. I wouldn’t call it fluffy, but somehow the texture worked really well. The flavour was great too, and they salted the fries just so. I wonder if they put beef or goose fat in the oil to make it taste that good.

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Shinta had the barramundi grenobloise ($34), again an impeccably seasoned dish. My tasting portion of fish had a lovely crisp crust of skin that really added to the juicy fish. Excellent.

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Finally, my dish. I went for the grilled yellow fin tuna ($36), which I felt was the weakest link of the main courses. The tuna was of decent quality. I’m belabouring the point here, but the produce offered at this restaurant is faultless. However, the flavour of the tuna somehow didn’t sing and I felt that the corn fricasee was a tad too stodgy despite being lifted by the spicy, mustardy watercress. Plus, I could hardly taste the hedgehog mushrooms that I ordered the dish for (yes I put dishes with mushrooms at the top of my order list). While it was a decent rendition of tuna, it was sadly very forgettable.

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For dessert, we were stuffed and none of the other desserts appealed to us, so we went for the warm madeleines for the table to share ($8). Considering that the rest of the dishes were fairly pricey, we were expecting no more than one madeleine per person in that portion. We were very happily surprised that the madeleines came piping hot instead of warm and there were plenty to go round. Even Shinta, who was on a no-carb diet, dipped in and there were so many that no one fought over the last piece (a rarity in this crowd). I liked how each delicate little cake had almost crisp edges of darker golden brown that really added to the tender texture of the morsel. The subtle orange peel flavour added to the yummy ending to the meal.

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I like db Bistro Moderne and think it’s got good, fresh, well executed food and efficient, attentive service. Price-wise, it’s not cheap as we paid $66 per person for all the food above plus a glass of wine and a fruit punch (don’t order the fruit punch, it tastes just like the type you get at post-event buffets). However, I’d say it’s quite worthwhile, as opposed to truly value for money, as the produce really is fresh (there, I’ve said it yet again!). I’d return, though probably for a chi-chi splurge than for a regular work-night dinner. Oh yes, and I’d return for the fries!

db Bistro Moderne
B1-48 The Shoppes Marina Bay Sands
Tel: 6688 8525

Blue Cheese Biscuits

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I’m going to admit upfront that I’m not the biggest fan of blue cheese. But I wanted to make something a little special for two important men in my life. I knew that it had to be something special and something that wasn’t the usual type of baked good that comes out of my oven. I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone by getting a recipe from Nigella. (The other “bird” of course being me wanting to try out every single recipe in her book.)

These blue cheese biscuits really rocked, they were aromatic, robust and very tasty. In fact my aunt, who usually just pecks at food, ate up the entire plate of ugly bits after they were warm out of the oven! They’re also a very good introduction to blue cheese. While still tasting emphatically like blue cheese, the biscuits have a more tempered and less punchy in-your-face flavour. While I could only take a bite of blue cheese before getting overwhelmed, I could snack on these little gems for ages. I especially like the green-blue pistachio-y hue of the biscuits, makes them look so pretty in the jar for giving away.

A note of caution: it gets very, very pongy on the preparation and even more so when baking. My cheese-averse mum had to banish herself to the balcony while I made them. A couple of days later, she was still complaining about the smell in the kitchen storeroom (beats me how the smell got there!).

On the ingredients, I’d say don’t buy a very expensive blue like a roquefort. I snagged a schizophrenic blue from Fairprice that was labelled Danish on one side and British on the other for $7 and had cheese to spare. The cheese should probably be quite salty, but if it isn’t, add a pinch of salt. Lastly, Nigella’s recipe called from blue cornmeal. Needless to say, my local supermarket hadn’t any in sight, despite there being both a Cold Storage and a Fairprice Finest (which sucked, it didn’t even have blue cheese!). I resorted to getting some corn thins, a sort of health cracker like rice cakes, and crushing them for a cornmeal substitute. They gave a nice, slightly chewy texture to the biscuits fresh out of the oven. The only(!) problem was that they went soft soon after and needed a little (pongy!) while in the toaster before crisping up nicely. Next time I’ll try doing them with all plain flour instead, or with the prescribed blue cornmeal and tell you the difference.

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Ingredients:

175g blue cheese
100g unsalted butter
2 egg yolks
125g plain flour
50g corn thins, crushed to a powder
1 beaten egg for glaze

Method:

  1. Squish the cheese and butter together, then mix in the egg yolk till it forms a pungent blue-green paste. Using your hands, work in flour and corn thin powder till just combined into a soft dough.
  2. Shape into a rough disc, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for half an hour or till ready to bake. It’s a good time to preheat the oven to 200ºC at this point.
  3. After the dough has been nicely chilled, dust a large piece of aluminium foil with flour and roll out the dough to about half cm thickness.
  4. Cut the dough into little squares about 2 by 2 cm. Transfer to a lined tray. Gather together the scraps and roll out and cut. Glaze the biscuits with the beaten egg.
  5. Bake the biscuits for about 10 minutes till just tinged golden at the sides.
  6. Remove and cool on a wire tray. Eat warm or leave to cool and store in an airtight bottle.

Makes about 100.

August in China: Zhuang and Dong Food

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In the Zhuang village, one of the local specialties was bamboo sticky rice. Glutinous rice was soaked in water and mixed with corn, mushroom and carrot. The mixture was then stuffed into a bamboo section then roasted over a charcoal fire. The fragrant rice would swell to fill up the whole container and form a delicate layer of rice paper coating the entire length of bamboo. It was delicious.

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It’s probably one of the earliest convenience foods. Locals would take the prepared raw bamboo packets with them as they went into the forest to work. For lunch, they would build a fire and cook the bamboo packets. Et voila! Lunch on the go. The best part was that the packaging is biodegradable and left in the forest. Free hands to take timber back to the village.

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For the tourists’ bamboo rice, grills were put behind the restaurant. Check out the nifty built-in handle carved out of the bamboo.

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At the Dong village, we ducked into this little noodle shop for lunch.  It was the only food shop in the vicinity and it had only one dish on the menu. The best part was watching our noodles made before our eyes outside the little shack. This was mingling with the locals at its best.

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As we eagerly waited for our noodles, this group of boys happily slurped theirs down. They were eating with such gusto, it had to be good.

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And it was! This version was slightly lighter than the one in Yangshuo. It had far more fresh vegetables (pumpkin shoots, very yummy) in it and there was the option of adding extra chilli to taste. Wonderful. It cost all of ¥3 per bowl.

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August in China: A Walk in a Dong Village

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Just like its bridges and drum towers, Dong village houses are made of local wood. They blend charmingly into the forest, although some villages are much better kept than others. The first picture is of one that tourists frequent more.

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This slightly dustier village was a bit poorer, perhaps because tourist buses didn’t stop here. In this village, Willy and I had an odd sense that the people were wary and suspicious of outsiders. Even the curious children weren’t as open as I expected.

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Nonetheless, I was glad to see that there was some kind of government care in this village. At least the poster shows that they’re bothering to do something about female infanticide, reminding the minority groups that girls are a valuable part of their community.

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In the other villages, prosperity was showing in the form of spanking new houses. This one was very near to the main road. Everything was made from scratch from local timber. Nothing seemed to be metal or prefab.

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The villages didn’t have a proper sewage system. They relied on the age-old system of ponds, algae and ducks.  An outhouse  was built in the centre of each pond and presumably rotated between the ponds. Some of them were pretty clean, with melon creepers vines growing along the borders of the ponds.

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Others were equally pretty, with the red algal bloom. It was only after some thought that I realised why the algae was doing so well. They probably allowed the algae to grow, then drain the resulting water into the paddy fields as fertiliser and allow the ducks to get at the algae. Whether it’s correct or not is another matter,  it’s all pure speculation on my part.

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The back of the village opened out into the valley. The flattest parts at the bottom were filled with paddy fields, while the higher elevations had other crops like tea and corn.

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As we strolled along the back paths, villagers went on with their hard work on the land.

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On the other hand, we tourists went on to climb halfway up a slope and enjoy the beautiful views.

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I could stare out at this scenery every day, it’s so amazing.

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August in China: Zhuang Country

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Going up the hillside to reach the village and its rice terraces was hard work. Most of us chose to burn our own calories going up, but others chose to burn cash instead. Enterprising locals would take tourists in a sedan chair for that moment of feeling like a king or at least minor nobility. It was unsurprising that most of those going up by chair were on the plump side. And I wonder how the fella in the picture managed to take a good video with all that bumping up the stairs.

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At the bus bay there were many Zhuang women making their handicrafts while waiting for tourists groups to buy their wares. Here you can see their long hair bundled up carefully. They never cut their hair as it’s a much prized symbol of beauty and probably fertility too. Here, all the craftswomen were married matrons. The unmarried girl keeps her hair firmly under wraps as it is only to be unveiled on her wedding night. Our Han Chinese tour guide warned the men to be careful not to accidentally uncover a girl’s hair or he’ll end up being married straightaway. He then said that he was a bachelor and would be happy to be the fall guy and marry a Zhuang girl on some hapless tourist’s behalf. I found that rather tasteless and offensive.

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No less, Zhuang hair was really a sight to behold. It was thick and black with not a strand of white or silver in it. I wonder if the older ladies simply wove their hair from younger days into their do, but I just can’t think how it could be done. There are apparently many herbal concoctions for making the hair black and glossy, but here they focussed on selling knick knacks and bags to the tourists.

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After being piled into a minivan and driven down and up more windy mountain roads, we ended up at another village where most of the domestic tourists elected to go for the optional cultural show. Most of the foreign tourists milled around outside, simply sitting around and soaking in the village atmosphere, watching corn dry.

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We heard sounds of the cultural show going on inside, complete with traditional songs and raucous mock wedding rituals.  Later, some of the tourists emerged with lipstick and such painted on their faces by enthusiastic villagers. It was amusing but slightly disturbing as I felt that the villagers had no choice but to do this just to earn a living.

Outside, we didn’t fare that much better as we bought imported iced drinks from the hawkers. Thankfully, the local vendors largely left me alone, preferring to target my Polish friend who looks a bit like an off-duty Santa Claus. I sensed that the children were probably more curious about these odd looking people than anything.

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Touristy as it was, I don’t regret going on this package tour. It cut a whole lot of hassle and was probably cheaper and easier than going it on my own. Travelling completely solo wasn’t easy, so I often joined tours to meet people. On this trip, I met some fellow tourists as eating partners that evening. It was fun taking A and T out to explore the Guilin food scene as they got to eat in some very local restaurants with no English menu and I got to sample lots of different dishes I couldn’t have done on my own.

I also observed a solo tourist who suddenly appeared in the village as we waited for the performance to end. He sat for a while on his own near two old village elders. After a while, a vendor came by offering little trinkets but he plumped for a cold beer instead. Soon he was taking a picture of the vendor and then of the village elders. It was amazing how he drew them in so unobtrusively and unexploitatively. If I had more time, I’d probably have done what he did: find his own way around the villages, sit around and interact with the locals in an authentic way, then hitch a ride back with a tour bus.

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Great Unpretentious Food at Azhang

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Do you have plans for the weekend? Have you already booked a place for a special meal out? Well cancel them and go to Azhang instead.

Tym had just been to dinner there and she raved to me about how she couldn’t wait to go back. Now that certainly whet my appetite and I managed to subtly persuade Yi-Ling (of durian-gasm fame) that she really needed to go there for her seafood fix.

It’s on the River Valley Road side of Mohammed Sultan Road, just opposite the bak ku teh place. The place was empty and rather dimly lit as we opened the door. There was no one about, the lights in the display fridge were off and the menu stand and chalk board had been brought inside. We timidly ventured further in and were seriously thinking of leaving. Good thing we saw someone in the kitchen, probably Ava, and knocked on the glass panel. They were open!

We went with one of Ava’s suggestions for wine, a Mount Nelson Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Forgot to get the vintage, but I guess it doesn’t really matter. Pale yellow, it had a great nose with lots of sweet lychee. On the palate, it was medium sweet and was fruity with lots of green flavours, especially green apple. It finished quite well on a short mineral note.

For starters we shared the grilled corn salad that’s been raved about by so many. I was blown away by the depth of flavour from such simple ingredients. The juicy corn really worked with the coriander, spring onion and garlic.  Ava was very forthcoming about what they put in the dish and explained that the trick was controlling the grill so the corn was done just right. This is so refreshing compared to other places that guard their secret recipes practically with their lives.

Pardon the odd lighting below. I had to employ Yi-Ling as my key grip using the light from my mobile phone!

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Seafood being the theme of the night, we started with the grilled squid. Oh my was it good. The charred goodness of the outside and the just-chewy inside was such a great combination. Initially I thought the squid would probably need some lime squeezed over but I was wrong. It was good the way it was and equally good with the excellent sambal belachan on the side. The part to fight over was the tentacles. Yi-Ling and I staked our territorial claims very quickly here. The tentacles were at the (good) edge of burnt to a lovely crisp. The partnership of crunchy, smokey and squidy-fishy was sublime.

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I had my reservations when Yi-Ling ordered the grilled salmon belly. Not being a huge fan of the fish, I fear salmon that arrives overdone, too fishy and too oily. The version here dispelled all notion that salmon could be bad. It was well seared on the outside and still raw on the inside, the perfect doneness.

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I really liked the thoughtful touches here. Ava set us a carafe of water so we could top up our glasses as we liked and so that she wouldn’t hover and disturb our conversation. She also very promptly provided another place setting for a friend who joined us later so that she could pick at our food.  It cost about $100 for salad, two mains, two glasses of wine and a lime juice.

Conclusion? It’s a homey, unpretentious place with good food, good wine and great service. Do yourself a favour and go for a great meal there. Like Tym, I’m already planning when to go again.

Azhang
6 Mohamed Sultan Road
Singapore 238956
Tel: 6836 3436