Ootoya

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Ootaya has been in Singapore for a while and they just opened a branch in Suntec City. The mains were fresh and cooked fairly healthily, tasting like home-cooked fare. Mine was a mixed bag as the pork balls with tendon just tasted a bit gristly, though still a notch above the mystery-meat balls served at economy rice stalls. I loved the onsen egg, essentially a chilled soft boiled egg, but I have a soft spot for those and this was cooked just right till the whites turned, uh, white and the yolk hadn’t yet set. Shinta and CH both enjoyed their mains and I especially liked this grilled pork dish that we shared. The pork had a layer of fat on it that charred slightly and reminded me of the reason why pork is just So Good.

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CH went for the Kyoto Uji matcha green tea mousse that came with milk ice cream, mochi and red beans. The green tea mousse was very intense and quite excellent as the bitterness of the tea comes through robustly. Much better than most insipid green tea concoctions.

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Shinta and I shared the castella parfait, a trifle made up of cake cubes, ice cream and plenty of cream. Oh I think there was jam or some kind of fruit sauce in it, but who cares? Cake cubes soaked in melted ice cream and accompanied by good quality whipped cream make my day any day.

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Ootoya
3 Temasek Boulevard
#B1-057 Suntec City Mall
Tel: 6837 3718

Spruce Tacos

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I’d anticipated going to Spruce Taqueria for a while but its opening hours just didn’t do it for me. Not working in the area, it was practically impossible for me to make it there for the week-day lunch only opening hours. Imagine my joy when Travis tweeted that they now serve tacos in the evening between 5.30 and 7.30pm at Spruce itself. Sure, it’d take a bit of a rush there from work, but at least it was doable.

DC and I got there at 7pm and only went in after they assured us that tacos were still available. The head server must’ve thought we were totally bonkers when suddenly we lit up and rushed in upon hearing the taco affirmation. Last orders for tacos were taken at 7.15 so we had to quickly decide how much we wanted. There were three flavours: short rib, snapper and pork carnita. We went for the short rib and pork carnita first. When these arrived, it looked manageable to have more, so we quickly added to our bonkers quotient by asking for the third snapper flavour while just starting our first tacos.

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Only two pictures because they all pretty much looked the same. In order of yummyness, we both agreed that the snapper was the best, followed by the short rib and then a distant third with the pork carnita. Each dish consisted of two tacos and each taco came with two tortillas topped with filling, then taco sauce, shredded cabbage and guacamole, and garnished with plenty of coriander, which unfortunately looked a bit sad in patches. It was finished off with bits of radish and lime. The lime was a bit of a mistake because we’re both big lime fans and ended up squeezing too much on it. The sour drowned out much of the taste of the pork carnita. A pity.

The carnita was basically pulled pork and a bit stringy, though the sauce helped. I liked the tenderness of the short rib but wasn’t sold on how the flavour was drowned out by the rest of the taco. The fish surprisingly held up very well to the robust flavours and its soft, almost mushy texture was a nice counterpoint (plus it was much easier to eat, less effort to bite through the taco).

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The dragon breath later was terrible but it was definitely worthwhile.

Spruce
320 Tanglin Road
Phoenix Park
Tel: 6836 5528

Just a week later, DC and I were fortunately to be in the area on a weekday and we made it to the taqueria itself. The stand is perched at the top of hill, way to the right along the little curved street just coming up from Spruce itself. They were pretty slow to serve the food even though it looked like a fast food shack. Didn’t help that lots of stuff was already sold out by 12.45pm, like beef tongue and watermelon agua fresca. Disappointed, DC went for the short rib taco set that came with tortillas, salsa and lemonade. It was just as good as the tacos sold downhill for twice the price. I’m glad it’s consistent.

I went for the salad bowl, basically the same pile of stuff arranged differently: filling, salsa, guacamole and taco strips crisped to turn into tortillas. I liked the extra dollop of sour cream, it complemented the fiery salsa and filling of mushroom and poblano chiles very well. Plus, the salad is great for avoiding the greater part of the dragon breath (though you still get some).


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

July in Vietnam: A Day in Hanoi

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Hanoi on its own was fairly charming. Near the Old Town is the famous Hoan Kiem Lake and a rundown little pagoda, Thap Rua, sits on a tiny islet close to the far side of the lake.

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On the other side stood a Chinese temple, Ngoc Son Temple,  that could be reached on foot over a bridge. While fairly pretty, it seemed very generic to me, far too much like the Chinese temples at home in Singapore.

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Inside, I was fascinated by some ornamental statues, like this rather spaced out looking phoenix.

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I thought it was pretty cool and almost cartoon-like. What do you think?

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I wandered the streets till I found an appetising looking place, striking gold when I stumbled across this stall selling spicy pork noodles. It came with a whole host of different pig parts, from mystery sausages and pork balls to intestines, tendons and other unidentifiable parts. I was very pleased to findwhat I later discovered to be the de rigueur pile of herbs and vegetables that I liberally added to my noodle soup.

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Needless to say, it was wonderful and I had to get a picture to commemorate the occasion of Enjoying Good Food.

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And I was off to wander round the Old Town, but not before gawking at this rather odd Communist sculpture, the Martyr’s Monument. I suppose it’s saying that technology is the best (from man holding plug in centre), if not guns are good too (man at side), failing which the women would wipe everyone out with swords. I’m still puzzling over the gender implications of this. If anyone could translate the words at the base of the statue I’d be grateful!

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The Old Town consists of a warren of streets, each having its own specialty product. There’s a street of nothing but stainless steel kitchen fittings, another of mirrors, a third of traditional herbs and medicine, yet another of lanterns, and a mind-boggling array of others.

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I was a little wary of the watchful eyes on me and didn’t get any good pictures of each street. A pity. However, the sight of these two trees being trucked to goodness knows where was a surprise find. It drew the eyes of everyone on the street, including motorcyclists peering round to check that they weren’t about to topple.

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And then there was the St Joseph cathedral. It’s a bit surprising to find a lovely cathedral in the middle of Communist Hanoi, but there it was! I thought the Gothic structure was pretty cool…

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… as were the sober grey granite walls on the side.

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Inside, the breathtaking view from the nave.

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It’s wonderful how they managed to get the stained glass so beautifully done I almost felt like I was somewhere in Europe.

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After all that wandering in the almost unbearably humid weather, I needed a good dinner. This came in the form of Cha Ca La Vong, labelled grilled fish on the menu, but really fish fried in turmeric oil together with local vegetables over a charcoal brazier. It was delicious and also very oily.

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There wasn’t a great deal to see in Hanoi but it was a good introduction to the rest of the country. Next stop, Ha Long Bay.

Hajah Maimunah

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Hajah Maimunah is the grandmummy of nasi padang places. It’s got lots of very excellent stuff. Make sure you get there early so you get the best selection. There’s always  a queue, so try to avoid the peak lunch period. The day we went, the stars of the meal were the grilled parrotfish and the tahu telor. The parrotfish was done to perfection as parrotfish is very often overcooked. Here, the firm flesh that so easily goes tough and rough was just yielding and incredibly fresh and sweet. Coupled with the kicap manis with chilli and lime juice, the fish was all I really needed. But wait! There was the tahu telor. The tower of good quality taukwa was deep fried till crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. It was another triumph of deepfry and sweet sauce.

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Other good things of note: begedil, grilled chicken with sambal, sayur lodeh. The begedil was soft and flavourful, I always love these potato patties. The grilled chicken with sambal chilli was tender and the sambal full of complex spices. The sayur lodeh had heaps of tender vegetables and very yummy tempeh inside. The beef rendang was good too, with an incredibly aromatic rempah, the only downside was that the meat could have been a lot more tender.

Another excellent thing about the place is the incredibly array of desserts there. There are quite a few different sweet soups like green bean soup and boiled bananas in coconut milk. We didn’t have room for that and took away some kueh-kueh. There’s such a mind-boggling variety there. All I can say is that all the ones I tried were good!

Go try other dishes there and let me know what else is good!

Hajah Maimunah
20 Joo Chiat Road #01-02
Tel: 6348 5457

June in Thailand: Food Festival and Other Sukhothai Eats

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Tom and I pulled into Sukhothai in the evening and we settled into a charming guesthouse (that would later steal money from the stash we put in safekeeping with them, unfortunately). We wandered out onto the street looking for food and chanced upon a banner advertising the Sukhothai Food Festival. It was just on the opposite side of the river from our guesthouse and nicely within walking distance. The place was bustling but not too crowded, just right for soaking in the atmosphere yet getting our food with no problem.

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There was loads of stuff on offer, from salads and fish cakes to rice with dishes and plenty of fruit and desserts. Here was where I introduced Tom to the joys of rambutan and my favourite, mangosteen. But let me show you just the highlights. I particularly liked the salt grilled river fish. The tilapia-like fish was coated generously in salt and grilled over a charcoal fire. When it’s on the plate, just lift off the skin, scales and salt and all. The interior is steaming hot and incredibly juicy, heavenly with the spicy lime and chilli dipping sauce.

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Then there were the grilled jumbo-sized prawns. Oh my, how fresh and succulent and good these babies were. It was Tom’s first time eating proper prawns, so I taught him how: grab and pull off the head, being careful not to let the juices dribble out, then quickly suck out the brains; peel carapace off body section by section, dip in sauce and devour. There’s something just so magical about charred crustacean. Like my prawns, I lost my head and blew my daily budget getting more. I’d just have to eat less the next day. (As if.)

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The most fascinating thing I saw of the festival was this dessert stand. It made gossamer-thin pancakes, even thinner than paper-thin, somewhat like Singaporean popiah skins. With the pancakes came a bundle of coloured spun sugar, a bit like cotton candy. Eat by rolling sugar in pancake then popping in mouth. It was a great dessert and we stood for ages at the stand, mesmerised by the deft twirlings of the chef slapping dough ball on hot slab to make perfectly round pancakes in perfect timing.

The food festival was so good we went there two nights in a row, but of course that’s not all we saw of Sukhothai cuisine. I read in the guidebook of a place that specialised in Sukhothai kway tiew noodles. It took little coercion to get Tom in on the hunt and after one failed attempt (it was closed), we sat down to two variations of the exceptionally thin flat rice noodles. The first was a bowl of scalded noodles with toppings, somewhat like the Vietnamese noodle salad bun thit nuong. It had bits of boiled pork, deep fried wanton skin, chai poh (preserved turnip), grated peanut, beans and herbs, all topped with lime and fish sauce. The medley of flavours was refreshing and a delicious change from the usual soup noodles or fried noodles.

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Speaking of which, the fried version was very yummy too, thanks to the generous sprinkling of deep fried lard over it. It was somewhat like pad thai minus the ketchup and shrimp. While both were delicious, I think the unfried version was slightly more unique.

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Stomachs sated, we were satisfied enough to head out to the attractions of Sukhothai.

A Tatsuya Birthday Dinner

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In a fit of extreme generosity, Dad brought us to Tatsuya’s for my birthday dinner. We went for the seasonal omakase, which was many kinds of sublime. The thought that all the seafood had been flown in either fro Tsukiji or Fukuoka fish markets made the food even more delicious.

The first course was a duo of anglerfish liver and fresh ikura (salmon roe). The anglerfish liver was made into a pate. Smooth and unctuous with just a touch of fishiness to remind you that it’s fish not fowl, it was contrasted delicately with a light vinegar sauce. Sorry Kiraku, this version rocked my socks. And the ikura! As it is, ikura is one of my all time favourites. This version came with every single delicate egg sac intact and only very lightly sauced. The only pity was that there were two or three eggs that weren’t as fresh as they should be. It was still good though, because the others, each so incredibly bursty, made up for it.

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Next up was probably the best dish in the meal. I know the picture below doesn’t do it justice, but the crab tofu with century egg sauce was out of this world. I felt like I was eating crab chawanmushi because the tofu was so thick and rich. The crab formed a matrix that held the tofu together – succulently, just sheer crabily. The textures and flavours came together beautifully from the softness of the tofu to the yield of the crab and crunchiness of the shrimp roe to the earthiness of the century egg. It’s the one dish I’d go back for again and again.

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The sashimi plate came next. The fish was all fresh and good, though the otoro and amaebi weren’t the best I’ve tasted. I liked the yellowtail and swordfish, especially the dressed yellowtail in special sauce. I also liked how the waitress told us that everything on the plate could be eaten. The sprig of tiny pink flowers tasted vaguely of lavender and was an excellent interlude to the fish.

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The next dish was what we all felt was the weakest link. It was the simmered item: Japanese yam cakes with yakitori chicken and leek then sprinkled with yuzu. The yam cakes were still slightly crisp from the deep fryer (!) and had a very pleasing slightly starchy texture. I’m glad it didn’t have the gummy texture of the raw version. Now the rest of the dish somehow seemed unbalanced because the chicken was far too sweet and salty and the leek too pongy for my taste. I didn’t intend to have onion breath from a Japanese dinner!

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What followed was better than the preceding dish. Grilled barracuda topped with mentaiko mayonnaise and pickled ginger stem was quite good. It was a bit too rich for Mum and she pushed it to Dad. DC loved it though, mentaiko and especially mayonnaise are his favourites. I liked how the fish was grilled: slightly charred on the outside, moist perfection on the inside. The mentaiko mayonnaise was rich and full of oily fishy goodness.

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The next dish redeemed all the sins of the preceding dishes (bar the crab tofu of course). The sushi was amazing. Start first with the amberjack topped with caviar. Savour the unadulterated freshness contrasted with the dark, deeply savoury caviar. Then go for the swordfish aburi. Enjoy the contrast between cooked and fresh fish, and charred rice. Now have the sweet shrimp topped with prawn roe. Can you detect that special aroma of almost burnt crustacean? Ready for the otoro aburi? It’s pretty good but save the scallop with foie gras for the last. It’s that good. Smooth sweet scallop with fatty foie gras coming together in perfection in your mouth. Mmm…

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The waitress came round and asked if we were full. If not, she suggested the house temaki specialty. We were full but not about to pass up the house specialty. The waitress returned, urging us to quickly eat before the seaweed got soggy. My initial thoughts on the first bite were “quite normal what, salmon skin, prawn roe, cucumber, rice, what’s the big deal?” Then it dawned on me. The textures were an epiphany. There was firm rice, crispy salmon skin with a touch of rich mayonnaise, crunchy bursty roe, and fresh crisp cucumber. Wrapped with freshly toasted seaweed, it was an exploration of four kinds of crispy. Amazing.

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We ended the savoury courses with a fantastic miso soup made with fresh baby clams. It was amazing how many clams I could fish out of one regular bowl of miso soup. The clams made the soup amazingly deep and richly seafoody yet not at all fishy. The miso rounded it all off nicely. Another coup for the chef.

When we finally surrendered to the waitress, she brought out the dessert of sweet pear, pomegranate and persimmon. The first two weren’t particularly special, but I liked the persimmon. It was sweet and yummy, though I’m not sure it’s that much nicer than a regular one at the peak of ripeness.

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One strange thing about this place is that while the food is posh and incredibly expensive, the waitresses talk quite loudly and seemed to treat us like friends, not so much customers. It nice and we felt at home quite quickly, but it seemed rather out of sync that the waitresses practically shouted orders at each other, so it’s not a place for a quiet dinner. It took a bit of getting used to though!

While of course not perfect, the meal was very good. DC said it’s the best Japanese he’s had in Singapore and he’s an authority given his extensive eating at these places. Definitely a place for celebrating birthdays and bonuses.

Tatsuya Japanese Restaurant
Goodwood Park Hotel
22 Scotts Road
Tel : 6887 4598

April in The Philippines: Wrecks and Good Food

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Coron is less than an hour away by plane from El Nido. By ferry, however, it takes an eternity. I caught the morning ferry and only got there 10 hours later. Nothing much happened on the way, save that we saw an eagle of sorts kept as a house bird.

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The scenery wasn’t quite as good as that in El Nido. The limestone crags were still draped with lovely green, but the cloudy skies turned the water a dull grey-blue.

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We finally arrived as the sun was going down. Thankfully I’d booked ahead and the dive resort was right where the boat dropped us.

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Coron is famed for its wreck diving. An island surrounded by shallows, its warm waters are ideal for diving year round. It was this same shallow water that stranded a whole fleet of WWII Japanese warships and all of them went down under Allied fire. I didn’t yet have my underwater camera at this point, so all I have is this photo of the dive brief.

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I wasn’t particularly keen on wreck diving. All wrecks look pretty much the same to me and marine life on wrecks hardly seems varied enough to sustain my interest. I feel that wrecks, being dead things, are very unnatural and it’s quite spooky even in the day time to go there. The idea that people died there, that I’m diving a grave site is quite unnerving.

Obviously, I enjoyed mealtimes a lot more. The crew made excellent food and there was plenty to go round.

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Aside from the food, other things caught my fancy too. Here is the entrance to Barracuda Lake. The lake is enclosed within the island and to get there, we had to scramble up and down craggy rocks. Only some bits of the way was a proper path connected by wooden planks. And if that doesn’t sound hard enough, we had to do this with full scuba gear on. OK fine, so we hung the fins round our necks, but you get the idea. It was awful!

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The dive itself was fantastic though. I didn’t see the barracuda, later someone told me others had spotted it on the other side. What an experience it was! Fresh water running into the saltwater lake somehow forms a film on the top which traps heat from the sun. It results in (relatively) cold water of 30ºC at the top and warm water of 38ºC at the bottom. It felt like diving in a nice warm bath. I loved it. At 10m, there’s a halocline where salt water and fresh water meet in a hazy muddle. It’s really strange to pass through that transition. I saw the bottom at the shallower part of the lake and it was made of a strange kind of earthy, soft sand. You could dig your arm right inside and still not reach anything hard. Squeamish about odd encounters with the unseen, I only reached in up to my elbow. The dive guides told me that someone had once taken a photo with his head buried in the sand like an ostrich!

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As usual, the food was excellent, with fresh grilled fish at practically every meal. It was great.

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While we’re still on the topic of food, there was this great French place on Coron that served up amazing food, especially considering that we were hours away from freshly imported gourmet food. I had the booziest coq au vin ever, so full of red wine that I had to go back to my room to lie down before heading out to check my email and then head back Coron Bistro for some very good apple tart.

Spruce: A Birthday Dinner

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The DC’s birthday was long overdue so I booked a table at Spruce so that we could try their famed ahi tuna starter and their supposedly famous burgers. The ahi tuna certainly didn’t disappoint. It’s a western twist to negitoro: chopped tuna sashimi was seasoned and dressed with olive oil for unctuousness and sprinkled with chives, then eaten with some of the best baguette I’ve had in a while. Creamy avocado slices on the side lifted it to sublime. I’d go back there again just for that one dish.

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The problem with having the best dish first is that the rest of dinner, though competent, was a bit of a letdown. I liked the squid salad with rocket and roast lemon. I hate to complain about such a minor detail like fiddliness, but it was a bit of a mess trying to get to get the lemon juiced. It was a nice touch though, and enhanced the herby sharp rocket very well. The squid wasn’t too bad, but I’d prefer it a bit more charred so I can taste the smokiness.

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The burger wasn’t too bad either. The staff noted that we were sharing and were nice enough to instruct the kitchen to divide it up and skewer each half carefully. DC liked the tender patty, it was quite juicy and tasty, with good beefy flavour. I liked the chips: soft and fluffy on the inside and nicely crisp outside.

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The meal went downhill after that. There was a side of what were supposedly grilled mushrooms drowned in a lacklustre and vaguely vinegary (wine?) sauce, then a ginger steamed sponge. I don’t know why the presentation was so bad because the ice cream was half melted by the time it got to us (see the picture). Presentation aside, the cake itself was decent, though nothing to shout about.

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Service-wise, this place had great intentions. It was sweet of them to bring out a ginormous piece of chocolate cake for DC. The waitress came out with the candle ablaze and singing the birthday song. It was a pity that this was only after I’d asked for the bill and was preparing to go. Nevertheless, it was a nice touch. I’ll definitely be back for the ahi tuna and perhaps for other starters, but I’ll give the sides a miss.

Spruce
320 Tanglin Road
Phoenix Park
Tel: 6836 5528

April in The Philippines: Donsol

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

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

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

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

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… observed the fishermen coming back with their dusk catch…

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