A Cambodian Bug Encounter

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I’d known of this Cambodian place for a while but just never got round to trying it out until now. We started with a fairly standard pomelo salad that I thought tasted a bit too weird for my liking. While it had almost Thai flavours of fishy smoked fish, some sweet, some sour, and some chilli, it was fairly toned down in terms of the four standard flavours. There was a herb in it that I didn’t appreciate – it was a bit too earthy and bitter-smelling (though not actually tasting bitter at all), a bit like off garlic.

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The other starter was much better: steamed minced pork paste with preserved fish roe. It was very unusual, like a cross between a warm pate and meatloaf. I scooped spoonfuls of the smokey, fishy meat mixture onto the raw veggies and enjoyed the almost salted egg-like flavour. I never knew that eggplant could be eaten raw and I happily walloped the spongey vegetable with the meat. It went surprisingly well.

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DC saw the writeup on crickets and tarantulas on the wall and immediately wanted to try them. I told him I could probably stomach a cricket or two rather than a hairy spider leg so he ordered this off-menu. My heart sank when the deep-fried crickets arrived. The fellas were fried to a dark crisp – so much so that their carapaces were almost black, making them look like skinny cockroaches. Ewwww. Feeling slightly queasy, I attempted a few times to spear one with my fork but failed as the little buggers (literally!) were fried so hard and crisp they were impossible to spear. DC and I picked out one that looked least like cockroach and I gingerly ate its thorax and abdomen. Honestly, it didn’t taste like much aside from deep-fried. There was a very slightly sour aftertaste but not much. So there was half a cricket in my stomach and the other half – black and winged – still sitting on my plate. I hid it in my rice and hastily chewed it up, and swallowed. Then I looked up and saw DC calmly, and with great enjoyment, crunching up the rest of the plate of crickets. This is the reason why I’m a wuss and I’m with this very brave man with the appetite for adventure. If he can put up with bug-eating, who knows what other crap he can put up with!

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OK so enough with the wussing out – the last dish was their signature dish of fish amok. I’d tried it in Cambodia before and was expecting something thick yet still fluid, somewhat like Thai green curry. This version was like a non-spicy otak. The flavours were very similar and the fish was moulded in a slightly runny coconut custard. DC and I both liked the delicate flavours and the soft-firm texture of the fish. Thumbs up!

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We didn’t manage to get dessert as the banana sago dish I wanted wasn’t available. Service here is generally very sincere and warm, though slightly dopey and haphazard. Be patient with them and you’ll have a good experience.

Khmer Delight
922 East Coast Road
Tel: 6449 1529

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

Modern Thai at Kha

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Hort Park is a special place for DC and me. We go there regularly but never quite during dinner time till this one time we went to Kha, a modern Thai restaurant. It’s run by the same person who does boutique hotels, one of them being Jia in Hong Kong. It’s cute how the names of the two places are linked: “jia” means “home” in Mandarin while in Cantonese, it’s pronounced “ka”. In Thai, kha is a modifier word for females to use at the end of a sentence to make it polite. (The equivalent for males is “khup”.) What a clever way to name the restaurant. I like!

I was pleasantly surprised already when they served the complimentary appetiser. Instead of the typical prawn crackers with sweet chilli sauce, they gave us popped rice biscuits with red curry sauce. It made for a zingy start to the meal.

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We ordered two appetisers and a main so that there’d be space for dessert. First was the crispy catfish with sweet pork and mango salad. It was very good – tangy and slightly spicy with plenty of texture. I’ve always liked the crispy floss-like texture of catfish done this way. They did right not to mess with the classic combination of catfish and young mango strips. I also liked the extra crunch of the peanuts but felt that the pork wasn’t necessary.

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Our second appetiser was banana flower salad with young coconut and chilli. I didn’t like this one as much. It still had the classic sweet-sour-spicy combination so characteristic of Thai salads, but I felt that the texture of banana flower didn’t lend itself well to a salad as it was too “siap siap” – you know that nasty tannic texture, a bit too sappy? The young coconut helped a little but didn’t help much to give interest for flavour. Interesting idea that flopped.

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The main we shared was very good! It was baked half sticky chicken stuffed with coriander and lemongrass, paired with stir fried pineapple rice. The sticky chicken was marinated in some kind of sweet dark sauce hence the stickiness from all that sugar. It tasted Asian but not quite vehemently Thai. The meltingly tender chicken paired nicely with the pineapple rice for a very safe, crowd-pleasing main. I liked how they used some unpolished rice to add flavour and texture. Good call.

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For dessert, we went for the baked pumpkin custard with coconut ice cream. The pumpkin custard is very typically Thai. This version was very nicely made, with smooth silky and not too sweet custard. It went very well with the rich coconut ice cream, a very nice end to the meal.

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Too bad the drinks weren’t as good. We wanted to enjoy the view outside and had our post-dinner drinks there. They tasted as bad as they looked. Don’t drink the aromatic pear mojito – the pear was somehow oxidised and brown; it left a very grainy feel in the mouth. The khao lao rum looked less bad and tasted OK. It was just another sweet drink. Both were very weak, so Kha is not a place for getting smashed.

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My verdict? A nice place for a romantic meal, just skip the drinks. I hear that they are moving soon. It’s a pity as the space is really quite lovely. Check it out soon!

Kha Restaurant
33 Hyderabad Rd
Tel: 6476 9000

Braise

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DC took me to Braise for our anniversary dinner. It was a lovely place with the best service I’ve experienced in Singapore: warm and attentive yet unobtrusive. They noticed that I was cold and not only gave me a shawl, they also made sure that my hot water was topped up all the time.

It was too bad the tasting menu wasn’t very exciting, so we went a la carte. Still, the chef sent out an amuse bouche of some kind of pate on a sliver of toasted baguette. I don’t remember what it was, all I know that it was rich, very tasty and left us both wanting me. I suspect it’s a fish rillette of sorts. We’ll have to see whether it makes its way to the main menu before telling.

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DC’s starter was just his thing: a rich and unctuous pairing of foie gras and sweetbread. I wasn’t sure of the spongey-grainy texture of the sweetbread, but DC loved it. It’s pretty difficult to get parts like pancreas in Singapore.

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I had half a dozen fines de claire oysters au naturel. They didn’t even need the lemon, they were so fresh. I loved how the sharp, slightly briny taste mellowed into mouth-filling savour. It was a pity they didn’t have a muscadet to go with it, that pairing is made in heaven. I was so sad when I ate my last one, enjoying the aftertaste for as long as I could. It’ll be a while before I get oysters of that quality again.

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Now for the mains. Mine was a straightforward roast beef in jus, paired with braised beef cheek, savoy cabbage and decadent, decadent buttery mash. It was a good dish that tasted far better than it looks in the picture. (The problem with romantic settings is that pictures just don’t come out well at all.) The beef was nicely rare, just as I like it, and the beef cheek the expected melt-in-mouth tender. Coupled with the very buttery mashed potato, it was a tad on the rich side, which DC quite predictably loved. Needless to say, I finished the savoy cabbage quite quickly as it was a good foil to all the butter and fat.

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I think DC may have had the more interesting dish. His grilled fish with capellini was quite different as fish and cheese are not commonly paired. The pasta was doused in a very cheesy stock that wasn’t at all stringy. It was as if the essence of cheese had been distilled and used to flavour the pasta, without having any actual cheese in it. I can’t even imagine how they made this. The fish itself was good too, with a nice gratinated crust. It was ordinary in a good way.

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Dessert was a bit of a pity. I didn’t understand why they had to deconstruct a trifle. I liked the apple jelly and granite, it was just a pity that the custard was starchy. It showed that either the head chef was off-duty or hadn’t any confidence in his custard-making skills or both. I liked the cinnamon donut, but wasn’t sure of the point of it. Yes yes, I know that it’s the deconstructed trifle sponge, but it didn’t really add anything to the dessert. Braise would do better if they hired a better dessert chef.

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In summary, we’ve got outstanding starters and very competent, somewhat creative mains. Avoid the dessert and you’ll have a fabulous dinner.

Braise
60 Palawan Beach Walk
Level 2 Sentosa
Tel: 6271 1929

Sake-To-Me Indulgence

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It was Mfluder’s birthday and the inimitable Tricia, together with Mr and Mrs Sailorboy, put together an amazing dinner at then-new Kiraku. (Sorry Mfluder for posting this late, happy birthday plus 8 weeks!) Almost 20 of us took up the centre of the restaurant (not enough space in the private room) for Mfluder’s Sake-To-Me Night of Indulgence and made enough noise for 40! Mrs Sailorboy arranged for a special menu and the restaurant graciously gave us, among other things,  little bites to start the meal. The first little bite was fish liver. It tasted like rather fishy foie gras, not too bad but I probably wouldn’t want more than the few morsels in the bowl.

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Then they probably ran out of fish liver because the rest of the late ones streaming in got this rather nice unagi starter. Boy were Hypodermically and I pleased that we got there early as we got two types of nice bites!

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Because Hypodermically and I couldn’t wait for the rest to arrive so dinner proper could start, we ordered a very competent sashimi salad that was very fresh and left us hankering for more.

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The first dish was the star of the entire dinner: oyster chawanmushi like nothing we’d tasted before. This truly brought chawanmushi to a new level. The uber-soft egg custard lay under half an inch of clear broth. Taking an exploratory spoonful of the broth, I tasted dashi broth and ginger. Dipping my spoon gently into the custard, I got ready for the egg part. And the silky yielding custard was an epiphany of oyster. I don’t know how they got it so soft and how they got the oyster bits just cooked without tasting at all fishy, but this is top of my list in chawanmushi. It’s the best one I’ve had. Ever.

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Next came assorted sashimi, which was fresh, though not astoundingly fresh like on lucky days when you intercept the shipment straight from Japan. I liked it even more when Hypodermically agreed to swap her maguro for my salmon. The sweet prawn was quite nice…

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… but even nicer was Mrs Sailorboy making sure that everyone surrendered their prawn heads for frying. Now these deep-fried prawn heads made for an ideal snack to go along with sake…

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… which by now everyone was downing. The owner gave us what seemed like a free flow of very good, very smooth sake that kept coming. I don’t remember very much what it tasted like because DC didn’t let me take more than a few sips. Before you think he was being evil (though he normally is, heheh), he didn’t want me to repeat a Smokin’ Frogz. We also shared a small bottle of very lovely (even better than the free flow stuff!) sake between the four or five of us in the vicinity.

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Next up was the tempura, nice and crisp. Good standard, though not particularly special.

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But the sushi was very good. Somehow the rice was done perfect: balanced perfectly on the edge of hard and flavoured with just the right amount of vinegar. The three here beat my Singapore gold standard of Isetan supermarket sushi (go try it for yourself before you scoff). Excellent.

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Emboldened by the excellent sushi, we rather paradoxically ordered more sashimi. The otoro was amazing. Having not been to Tsukiji market, I obviously don’t know what otoro is supposed to be like, but this one was another epiphany. Even DC was uncharacteristically uncharitable: we had to split the last piece. Being on the more despotic side of the relationship, I obviously got the slightly bigger and therefore better half.

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It was a pity that my favourite ikura gunkan didn’t fare as well. Here, they soak the salmon roe in sake which gives it a rather interesting alcoholic edge. I prefer it done the normal way where you can really taste the fish oil. It didn’t help that the sacs were quite thick, so the ikura wasn’t as bursty as I like.

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Everyone else oohed and aahed and loved the oyster sashimi. It was so big that it had to be served cut into little bits. I felt that it was a competent and fresh enough oyster. However, it just doesn’t beat oysters in the half-shell that still taste of the sea. This one somehow didn’t. It felt more like it belonged in a (very) high-class or luak.

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The savoury courses finally came to an end with sukiyaki and shabu shabu.

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True to form, ours wasn’t any old sukiyaki or shabu shabu. It came with wagyu beef…

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… and kurobuta pork.

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No pictures of the cooked product because we were busy squabbling and fighting over who was hogging (pun intended) the beef and the pork. All’s fair in love, war and eating. Amen.

Now the last course was something off-menu. Even the owner only tasted it the night before when the chef had finished the cake. It was a lovely strawberry cheesecake, very rich and homey tasting. It was unanimous, everyone wanted it to be put on the menu.

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Kiraku
55 Market Street
#B1-01
Tel: 6438 6428

Quick Eats: Sugee Custard

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It was the Ramadan period. DC and I were driving to our favourite dive shop when we saw sugee custard being sold by the side of the road. It was the one next to Zam Zam (good for murtabak, not for biriyani), I suspect it’s New Victory Restaurant. In another one of our fits of greed, we slowed down and did one of those clandestine drug deal-type swaps. Except that it was just money for custard.

Luckily the car park was just the next block away. If not I don’t know how we’d be fighting over it and driving (DC though, not me) at the same time. I only just managed to snap this shot in the dimly lit car park before we wolfed it all down. The custard was just the right sweetness and was smooth and silky, studded with soft little beads of sugee (semolina). Having had poor renditions of raisin and almond in the past, this version restored my faith in the combination.

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Exactly how good was it? After our visit to the dive shop, DC promptly dragged me back across the road and bought two more tubs for his parents. Now that Ramadan is over, I hope for your sake that they’re still selling it.

New Victory Restaurant
No. 701 & 703 North Bridge Road (Opp. to Sultan Mosque)
Singapore 198677
Tel: 62986955 / 62983502

[edit: DC confirmed that it’s indeed New Victory!]

Dear Dessert at Camp

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DC and I were stuck for options one evening and we ended up at Camp for dessert. While the food was fine, it was horrifyingly expensive. A juice and dessert each cost us slightly more than $40.

Nevertheless, the strawberry shortcake was rather good. I liked how fresh strawberry was baked into the tasty cake. The creme anglaise instead of boring vanilla ice cream was a very welcome change. While the presentation in mess tin was quite cute, the high sides of the tin made it hard to dig into the food, so it kind of evened out plus and minus.

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The green tea and tofu tiramisu was quite interesting. It was hardly tiramisu to me as there wasn’t liqueur nor coffee in the mix. I could only taste the macha powder sprinkled on top, no green tea anywhere else in the dessert. The cake layer was kueh bolu and the cream layer had a centre of tau hway which I liked very much. It was a very imaginative dessert, though I’d probably not order it again as it didn’t really wow the tastebuds.

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House, Barracks and Camp
8D Dempsey Road
#01-01 to 06 Tanglin Village (Dempsey Road)
Tel: 6475 7787 / 6479 9212

Chin Mee Chin

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Chin Mee Chin is an East Coast institution. I wonder how many generations have run that venerable old coffee shop. You have to eat in at this place, there’s something about the round marble table tops, the dark wood chairs  and the Old School mosaic floor that make the experience so special. Those and the glass  cases filled with all sorts of baked temptations.

What draws me here is the great kaya toast. Here it’s done on a well-toasted bun lovingly slathered on both sides with their signature kaya. It’s thick and very sweet compared to other famous versions. It’s also very very good. I indulge only occasionally because the butter probably bypasses my digestive system and goes straight from throat to  heart. Mmm mmm good!

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The custard tart is one of those cult favourites of the East Coast set. I think it takes growing up eating these to appreciate them. It wasn’t such a big deal to me. The custard was acceptable and the pastry tasty, but it didn’t make my toes curl in bliss.

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Chin Mee Chin Coffeeshop
204 East Coast Road
Tel: 63450419

Self-Saucing Pineapple and Passionfruit Crumble

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I had this for a very decadent breakfast and I need to tell you how gorgeous it is. I love crumble, I like passionfruit and I adore custard. The problem with crumble and custard is that the custard is an extra fiddly step and is also incredibly fattening. For the record, I am a crumble Nazi and it’s against the law to eat crumble with ice cream. Unless it’s an incredibly hot day and you’re in Singapore. Sigh.

Nigella gave me some inspiration with her self-saucing gooseberry crumble recipe. I had passionfruit and pineapple, and everything just clicked into place. The gula melaka was a logical sweetener to keep to the tropical theme.

Why crumble for breakfast? Mum used to make apricot crumble for breakfast on weekends when we lived in Germany. It is such a comforting childhood memory. Also, a friend of mine claimed that passionfruit taken at night makes for a poor night’s sleep, so I make sure I only take passionfruit in the morning. It’s a silly superstitution I know, but humour me here.

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Ingredients:
120 g butter, frozen
200 g plain flour, frozen
3 tbsp sugar

1 passionfruit
¼ small pineapple, chunked
2 tsp gula melaka
1 egg yolk
4 tbsp cream

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Method:

  1. Remove the butter and flour from the freezer. Cut the butter into slices, then bits and using your fingers, rub it into the flour. You should get lumps of various sizes.
  2. Stir in the sugar and set aside. It’s worthwhile to make a larger batch of crumble topping to freeze for later. Then you can have crumble on demand.
  3. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
  4. Stir the gula melaka into the passionfruit pulp and pineapple chunks until dissolved, then place into a shallow ovenproof bowl.
  5. Beat the egg yolk and cream together till combined, then stir into fruit mixture.
  6. Spoon the crumble over the mixture. Make sure it’s a very generous layer.
  7. Put in the oven for 25 minutes. Make sure you have something inside to catch the spills, it’s likely to bubble over.
  8. When it’s browned on top and bubbling below, take out carefully and allow to cool for 10 minutes before almost burning your mouth trying to get at the tart, sweet, fragrant, gorgeous goodness.

Serves 2-3, depending on how much you want to share.