La Braceria: My Current Favourite Italian Place

La Braceria came up in a search for newish Italian places in town. I’ve since been there a couple of times and the food was excellent. Here’s a combined review of what I’ve eaten there. First, you have to have the antipasti platter with creamy cheese, assorted cured meats and grilled vegetables. The first time, we had a beautiful burratta, which is cow’s milk mozzarella augmented with cream. It was beautiful – rich, creamy and decadent. The grilled vegetables were a stunning counterfoil as they were masterfully cooked – tender, uber yummy (somehow very tasty from vegetable goodness rather than addition of herbs) and charred in the right places. Then the cured meats. They had mortadella, which I’m not super fond of, and parma ham. The parma ham is one of the best I’ve had in Singapore. It’s not over-salted like most parma ham that makes it to our shores. Rather, it was delicately flavoured and very moreish.

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The next time I was there, they hadn’t any burratta, but they made up for it by serving bufala (made from buffalo milk and not augmented with cream – buffalo milk is already much richer than cow’s milk) instead. It was equally yummy. Though less creamy than burratta, it had a pristine, almost grassy flavour. The grilled vegetables were excellent as always and the mushrooms were juicy and succulent like the last time. I was so glad that they had more of the tiny little shrooms this time. And the parma ham? Still as good as ever. They have a great produce supplier!

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On my second visit, they had a special of airflown mussels. Though a small serving for about $20, they were well worth it. The small morsels were plump and juicy and bursting with the sweet flavour of the sea and the white wine it was cooked in. We asked for more bread to mop up the juices even though there was plenty more food coming.

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The next dish, crab linguine ($22), is a firm favourite. The first time I ordered it, I wasn’t sure if it was worth my while because there didn’t seem to be a great deal of crab in it. Sure, the tomato base was buttery and rich, but there was something slightly lacking. The strange thing was that I kept picking at it, and before long, I found that I couldn’t stop eating it! The second time round, they seemed to have fixed the problem and we all had to fight for our portions of crab linguine. Definitely something to order over and over again. What’s lacking in actual crab chunks is made up for in sheer flavour.

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Then came the pizza. It’s decent, but not mind blowing. The magherita pizza was well-received by a discerning 7 year old but I didn’t find anything special about it. (By the way, the Slurpee in the background is from 7 Eleven and not from La Braceria!)

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On visit #2, the pizza crust was still the same – not quite thin enough to be nicely crisp but decent enough. But the topping we chose was nicer. The pizza alla braceria was topped with mozzarella, beef tenderloin and porcini. The beef was yummy as I could just taste the blood on it, too bad it was a touch overcooked. The porcini was perfect, though. It was soft and slightly truffly. Excellent.

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Also on visit #2 was the roast pork special. The rest thought it, well, special. I thought it was well executed but lacking oomph. The meat had bite yet was tender (belly pork, see) and the crackling just about crispy but not light and heavenly.

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On visit #2, we didn’t have space for dessert, mainly because of lack of will. Because on the first visit, the Braceria cheesecake was a little underwhelming. It was a bit like eating a solid block of cream, as if the cream was whipped till light and frozen, but was somehow not freezing cold. I guess it was good execution, but didn’t do anything to me flavour-wise. Save your calories for the antipasti and pasta.

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La Braceria
5 Greendale Avenue
Tel: +65 6465 5918

Pizzeria Mozza

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It’s not easy to get a table at Mozza. The first time we went, it was an impomptu treat from a regular and we had no idea of the privilege we had then. The next time, we called, hoping to get a reservation for the following evening, only to be told that we had to wait till the week after. So wait we did, and it didn’t disappoint. Make  sure you order lots of antipasti, they’re generally very good. We started with the chicken livers, capers, parsley and guanciale bruschetta ($17). The coarsely chopped liver paste on crisp toast is one of my favourite starters here, I love the not-quite pate texture of silky yet not completely smooth. The bacon crisp on top of guanciale (apparently bacon made from pork cheek) really was gilding the lily. Yummy. If you have space, also try the fagiole one, that’s pretty decent too.

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It seems a bit of an overkill to order bread to go along with our starters especially after the bruschetta, but the  fett’unta ($6) was really quite something. It’s a peasant-style bread cooked in a pan with olive oil to a very crisp crust, very yummy but also on the oily side. Eat with plenty of the next starter…

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… the prosciutto di parma and buffala mozzarella ($32). The buffala was creamy yet not heavy and was the perfect accompaniment to the salty prosciutto. We walloped it all with the bread. If you’re not so keen on ham, try the house made mozzarella with tomatoes, really excellent too.

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The marinated baby peppers with tuna ($16), while decent, was a bit of a weak link. It tasted like a starter on a hotel buffet line, which is not to say it was bad, it simply didn’t blow anything out of the water. Over-priced.

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We went for the pizza with ricotta, oyster mushrooms and shallots ($33). What I like about the pizzas here is that they are made to order and the ingredients are fresh, fresh, fresh. They even make their own ricotta in house. The ricotta was creamy and beautifully yielding, the perfect contrast to the crisp, fragrant bread base. Here, the pizza base is quite substantial, not the same as the thin crust variety that is so a la mode. This way, you get to really taste the bread and remember the pizza is in the end, bread with toppings, rather than toppings on a bread base.

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For dessert, the three of us were quite full from all that bread, so we share the banana gelato pie ($17). It’s basically banana ice cream on a biscuit base that’s topped with whipped cream, dark caramel sauce and plenty of toasted hazelnuts. I liked how it wasn’t as tooth-achingly sweet as the butterscotch budino we tried the last time, but considering how it’s really just a slab of ice cream with caramel sauce and hazelnuts, it’s expensive, no?

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Service-wise, this place is fairly OK as the staff are responsive and quick to take orders. I do, however, have the feeling that it’s not as good as when it first started. Maybe they aren’t able to retain good staff. Aside from that, though, there is this tendency for them to watch our plates like hawks and whip them off once empty, even if others at the table were still enjoying their food. Prevalent as the pratice is, I find that rather rude and offputting. I suppose they train their staff to do that to keep people moving. Doing that encourages people to finish quickly and get out, rather than lingering.

Considering how expensive this place is, I think it really takes away from the experience. I like the food, but I do not like the prices. I suppose one pays for the fresh produce and the privilege of dining at Marina Bay Sands.

Pizzeria Mozza
B1-42/46 Shoppes @ Marina Bay Sands
Tel: +65 6688 8868

The Best Seafood Pasta Ever

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DC and I found ourselves at Club Street one evening and he led me to an old haunt (to him). It was about time he introduced it to me!

Cugini is a charming little trattoria with colour-coordinated cyan menu covers matching the cyan chairs and cyan aprons worn by the waitstaff. Such a cute touch!  It’s dimly lit for the romantic feel and also to make food photos look less appetising despite my camera’s fabulous low light setting.

I liked how they added a little character to the ubiquitous bread basket by adding cherry tomatoes to the bread and providing a zingy horseradish dip. Yummy dip, though I’m not a big fan of how Italian bread tends to have a more collapsed texture compared to regular stuff. It’s probably because the bread is more proofed. DC loves it, so it’s just me!

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I ordered the Pizza Fiorentina ($20.90), with spinach and egg on top. I was rather dismayed that the egg came fully cooked, looks like the wood-fired oven was that hot that they couldn’t cook it any gentler. It was a very decent rendition, with a substantial enough crust that was thin but not so thin as to make it difficult to hold up with the fingers for eating the barbaric way. I liked how rustic the thin crust was. That said, it’s something that absolutely had to be eaten piping hot from the pizza stone, otherwise it gets soggy and slightly stodgy. Also, the tomato sauce tasted like they didn’t do a great deal to canned tomatoes to make it. I haven’t got anything against canned stuff, but the tomato base on pizzas absolutely needs to taste fresh and zingy. This one didn’t quite hit the mark. All in all, a decent rendition, though not worth a special trip for.

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Now what’s worth a special trip and an extra special mention is the phenomenal seafood spaghetti ($24.90). It’s off the menu and DC, having been there before, knew to ask. I tell you, it’s the best seafood pasta I’ve had in my life (at least as far as I remember). Oh my, it was the sauce that made it so incredibly. Where the tomato sauce on the pizza fell short, this one made up for it and more! It was thick, zesty and very full of flavour. There was plenty of clean seafood flavour, and probably a hint of white wine in it. I don’t know how the chef managed to pack so much seafood taste into the sauce, I could just eat the spaghetti and the sauce on its own… And talking about the spaghetti! Oh my, I thought I knew my al dente, but this al dente rocked my world. It was made so perfectly that the stars aligned at that point (and I probably should’ve gone to buy 4D). Let me attempt to describe it: there was chewy and yielding, there was tenderness, and there was noodle that was cooked through; it didn’t have a hint of durum hardness that you sometimes have to bear with for the sake of al dente, there was any sogginess that came with overcooking. This was, quite simply, the epitome of pasta and sauce. Now, it would’ve rated perfection in my books except for… the seafood. The fish was fresh and cooked just right, but the prawns were rather overdone and a bit meh. There wasn’t any other seafood, which was odd. I do love the crunch of slightly overcooked squid. So here’s my sad face about the seafood part not quite being up to par. But I must stress that the pasta and the sauce are probably the best thing that’s happened to me food-wise this year.

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Do yourself a favour and eat the seafood pasta.

Cugini
87 Club Street #01-01
Tel: 6221 3791

Zucchini, Potato and Carrot Parmagiana

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I love zucchini and had some hanging around in the fridge asking to be used differently from the usual pan searing and anchovy pasta combination. Coupled with some old and on the verge of moldering potato and carrot, I flipped through my recipe books and found Antonio Carluccio‘s recipe for parmagiana. Since I had a bit of time, this was it!

You can use any sliceable vegetable for this, just make sure that they are well dried using paper towel before preparing them for the dish. For the cheese, I didn’t have any mozzarella, taleggio or the eponymous parmesan, so I settled with the cheddar I had. It’s a good melting cheese with very nice flavour, so it worked too. For the tomato sauce, I had a jar of pasta sauce from a while back that I again hadn’t got round to using.  Be warned that  the quality of the tomato sauce  is very important. Some of them can be quite tart, so you’ll have to taste and moderate if necessary by perhaps adding a little sugar, or plain using  a decent brand of sauce! I also had some aglio olio spice powder consisting of garlic, chilli and random herbs, so some of that went into the dish too. It all worked out to be a happy use of leftovers to make a yummy, satisfying dish.

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Ingredients:

2 large zucchini
2 medium carrots
2 large potatoes

1 jar tomato pasta sauce

4 rashers bacon, diced
plenty of olive oil
flour for dredging, about 4 heaped tbsp
3 eggs, beaten

150g cheese, thinly sliced or grated

Method:

  1. Slice the vegetables into long slices, as far lengthwise as you can. You’re looking for long, fairly thin slices of vegetables, about 5mm thickness for the root vegetables. For the zucchini, it can go a bit thicker depending on whether you like to bite into mushy zucchini goodness or prefer less of the mushy burst. Pack the slices into paper towels and leave to dry for about an hour or until you get back round to them.
  2. Meanwhile, get out a big casserole dish that looks like it could fit all the vegetable slices and more. Spoon out a thin layer of pasta sauce and coat the bottom of the  dish.
  3. In a sturdy frying pan, saute the bacon dice in a little olive oil till brown. Sprinkle on top of the pasta sauce layer.
  4. Preheat the oven to 180ºC.
  5. Add some salt and pepper to the flour and mix well. Standby the beaten eggs.
  6. In the same frying pan, add plenty of olive oil till the bottom of the pan is coated. Get ready to fry over medium heat.
  7. Dredge each vegetable slice in the seasoned flour, then coat with egg. Let drip till most of the egg has dripped off, then fry, turning each piece as it turns golden brown.
  8. When golden brown on both sides, transfer each piece to the casserole dish.
  9. When a layer of vegetables has completely covered the pasta sauce, spoon over more sauce for the next layer and also sandwich in a few slices of cheese.
  10. Proceed till you’ve exhausted all the vegetables and cover with a final layer of pasta sauce, topping generously with cheese.
  11. Bake for 30 minutes, turning down the temperature slightly if the cheese starts to burn.
  12. After removing from the oven, let rest for a few minutes before slicing and serving.

Serves 6.

Tavolo

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We found this understated gem of an Italian restaurant sandwiched in the middle of several Japanese restaurants on the third floor of Parco Millenia.  As it’s directly opposite Nantsuttei, we’d had ample opportunity to scout it out and we noted that the restaurant was suffering from a serious lack of clientele.  Originally we’d put it down to poor food quality, but eventually we decided to give it a try – mainly because the poor Italian chef sitting at the restaurant looked so desperately despondent!

The menu was a bit unusual, so we tried a little bit of everything.  We noticed that there was only one soup option, so we had to have it.  Nothing that special, it was a simple cream of zucchini but it was well-executed and not too salty or creamy.

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The next thing we tried though was something else.  It was advertised on the menu as a “piadina”, or pizza bread.  Intrigued, we ordered tomato and mozzarella version.  It was delicious!  The bread crust was nicely toasted, crispy and flavourful.  The ripe tomato and especially the rich mozzarella topping complemented the bread’s flavour perfectly. DC particularly liked it and almost overate before getting to our pasta course.

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Next up was the homemade fettuccini with squab ragout.   It’s quite hard to find squab in Singapore, so I was a bit worried that the dish wouldn’t be well-made.  But it turned out perfectly.  The sauce was a nice thick consistency and a little bit nutty and full of meaty, slightly gamey flavour.  It definitely didn’t taste like chicken, though if I was told it was beef, I’d believe it. The only thing that gave the squab away was the occasional little  bone that I had to pick out from the sauce. I liked the pasta immensely. It was freshly made with plenty of egg yolk and cooked till just al dente. Excellent stuff.

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DC went for the fettuccine with sea urchin and bottarga (salted cod roe).  The waitress warned us that some people didn’t like this dish as it was rather fishy, but DC’s always up for a challenge when it comes to food; plus for him, the fishier the better.  True enough, the dish was rather fishy due to the bottarga. After getting over the first fishy mouthful, he reported that the unique flavour of preserved fish roe and sea urchin really hit the spot. I wasn’t too convinced as I’m not fond of the slight whiff of ammonia that accompanies sea urchin that isn’t absolutely fresh from the sea (an impossible feat in Singapore), though I can understand how the umami and sheer in-your-face essence of the sea can really hit the spot.

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So far, we’d had two unique dishes – the piadina and the bottarga/sea urchin pasta.  We were looking forward to the dessert.  DC ordered a chocolate sausage, while I ordered semifreddo.  Unfortunately, the chocolate sausage, while interesting-looking, was a bit of a disappointment. The log of chocolate and bread (panettone?) was crying out for intense dark chocolate to be used and for far less of a sugary crunch. It was an unfortunate but immediate fail.

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The semifreddo, on the other hand, was something else altogether.  The semifreddo, half pudding, half  melting ice cream, was smooth and caramelly with plenty of almond for crunch. I especially liked the burnt caramel sauce that rounded it all off nicely on a slightly bitter-sweet note.

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If you’re interested in good Italian at a reasonable price (Citibank had a discount running here!), heck out Tavolo.  Unfortunately, most people go to Parco Millenia for Japanese food and give this place a miss, so I don’t know how long this restaurant can survive.  Catch it quickly before it’s gone, especially the piadina!

Tavolo
9 Raffles Boulevard
#03-07 Parco Marina Bay, Millenia Walk
Tel: 6423 1123

OChre: Flawed but Good Value

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DC’s father insisted that we try out OChre despite us wanting to dress down. We finally got round to getting me out of my usual casual garb (think T-shirt, three-quarter pants and slippers) and into a nice dress and heels. We were pleasantly surprised by this place as the food is pretty good and the prices pretty decent. The cooking is almost classic Italian, with a Japanese sensibility to it. No surprise from a Japanese chef trained in Italy. There’s a restrained elegance to the dishes done well, and a disconcerting feeling of blandness and not quite bringing out the ingredients’ full potential in those not so well executed.

We opted to share the antipasti and primi plati before having our own mains. The first appetiser of tomatoes and bufala was decent as the tomatoes were ripe and sweet and the bufala creamy and fresh. I wasn’t sure about the tomato jelly as it was basically solidified tomato soup that didn’t add much to the flavours and didn’t help to unify the dish. Decent but no a reorder.

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Next was the tonno vitello, slow poached veal topped with tuna sauce. Everyone else seemed to like it, but as it’s not my favourite dish, Ican’t quite comment on the execution. The only thing is thatI felt that it wasn’t a great deal different from the  more downmarket version at Riciotti. I liked how the veal was tender and didn’t like how the cooked tuna in the sauce made it all quite rough in texture.

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The last appetiser was the crowd pleaser: Hokkaido scallop carpaccio with parma ham. The scallop was impeccable, sweet and very slightly briny at the same time. The parma ham was passable, not great, and somehow didn’t quite go with the delicate scallop. Eaten separately, I think this works well, but not both ham and scallop in the same bite.

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I think the ravioli is where the chef really shone. I don’t remember much of the filling (was it kurobuta pork?), just that the little parcels were nicely al dente with chewy, salty filling, and oh the sauce! The sauce was a creamy mushroom sauce with ceps in them. I cannot tell you how much I love the soft texture and gently yet seductively woody flavour of ceps. Cooked into the amazingly creamy sauce, this really made my evening.

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The oyster and saffron risotto was a decent rendition, again not much different from a version at another restaurant, this time Prego’s. I liked the asparagus bits in it, but wasn’t too enamoured by how they couldn’t bring out the clean briny flavour of fresh oysters in this dish. While the oysters were definitely fresh, there was a hint of fishy that I can’t quite place or explain. Perhaps cooking the oysters slightly affected the delicacy of the risotto. Perhaps I also didn’t like that the rice was a bit too hard for my taste. Who knows.

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The chef’s specialty is the duck risotto. I thought it was quite different as it broke away from the mold of risottos being defined by the stock it’s cooked in. This time, I think the chef used water instead of stock and the rice had a very clean taste, quite akin to that of watery porridge made with Thai jasmine rice. Studded in the risotto were cubes of smoked duck, lending little taste explosions of gamey salt to the tongue. It was a good dish but again the rice was too hard. I prefer it cooked a tad more, probably 30 seconds more stirring in the pot and I’ll be a happy camper.

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On to the mains. DC and I shared a beef with foie gras and they portioned them out nicely onto two plates. The funny thing was that they didn’t ask how we wanted the beef done and protested that we should go with the chef’s preference of medium rare. We both like our steaks Bloody and vetoed that in favour of rare. It was almost comical how the waiter kept asking if we were sure. I liked the steak and accompanying vegetables very much, it was all very well executed and the natural flavour of the beef shone through. The foie gras I felt was superfluous and added nothing to the dish. I’ll give it (foie gras, not steak) all to DC next time.

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For dessert, DC and I shared a mille feuille, which we felt was the best dessert of the evening. (There was also panna cotta and creme brulee, which seemed slightly disappointing to the rest.) It was puff pastry with pistachio semi freddofilling. The semifreddo was excellent, being smooth, creamy and full of toasted pistachios. The pastry was a bit too difficult to handle: while crisp, it was a bit too hard and impossible to cut out to eat with the semifreddo filling. Nonetheless, taking a bit of pastry and a bite of semifreddo, this was a great dessert.

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A few last words on the service: fairly attentive though a bit lacking in the common sense department. One chose to make slightly disparaging comments of the very old Burgundy that DC’s father brought for dinner, not realising that though it wasn’t a Bordeaux (hey Bordeaux doesn’t automatically make a wine good!) it was a good vintage from a respectable vineyard. Later when asked our opinion on the food, one of them rather snippily said that the risotto was done that way in Italy. That certainly wasn’t the case in my recent trip to Italy (more on that later, oh my, one Michelin star heaven!) where risotto was done al dente rather than just off the verge of crunchy. Last, they didn’t do anything to clear away the bread basket that was obviously in the way, just says that the attentiveness is a bit of a show.

OChre’s definitely flawed, but the food has lots of promise, just having one or two things in each dish that if tweaked, would take it right up there in the good food stakes.

OChre
181 Orchard Road
#11-03/04 Orchard Central
Tel: 6634 0423

La Nonna: Good but Flawed

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La Nonna’d been on my to-try list for a while. We went there one gloomy Sunday for a pick-me-up lunch. I liked how hot bread came quite swiftly. There was the crispy flat bread and the softer bun to choose from. The bun was very tasty with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar provided at the table. Nothing like hot bread to start a meal. The only problem was that the flat bread wasn’t that great and the bun was the type that would go stale once cold. Everything had to be eaten hot and eaten now.

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We ordered a couple of specials as appetisers. The first was pan-fried mozzarella wrapped in pancetta. It was a rather decent dish that was pretty well executed especially with the drizzle of balsamic vinegar as a finishing touch. Two flaws marred the dish: first, the cheese was a rather run of the mill mozzarella. Next, the cheese wasn’t oozy at all. The best part is that if the cheese was good, it wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t oozy. And conversely, if the cheese was oozy, it wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t very good!

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Next up was the spicy sausages. These were very tasty, but I felt that they were so heavy-handed with the spice that I couldn’t quite enjoy the meaty flavour. A little more restraint with the chilli and it would have been just perfect. The new potatoes on the side were excellent, particularly paired with the mustard. Again, another dish where a little tweak would have made it just perfect.

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Next came our main course of the house special pizza. It had asparagus, truffle and a runny egg on it. The combination was very good, especially the truffle and egg. I liked how the truffle aroma was just right, enough to entice but not too heavy to drown out everything else. By now you must be wondering about the downside. It was the crust. It tasted and looked frozen as the edges were too uniform and the flavour too flat. Freshly made pizza dough always has the most amazing medley of smells which this version lacked. Again, such a pity.

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After the mains, we had a cappuccino to recuperate. Here I had no complaint as the coffee was rich and robust. Thumbs up.

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And then dessert. DC and I are split on this. I liked the crust but wasn’t sure about the apple filling. DC found the crust too hard and liked the filling a lot. He also liked the rather novel combination of chocolate ice cream with apple tart. I wasn’t sure. Here, it wasn’t so much good but flawed, it was more good but controversial!

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La Nonna seems to be a restaurant that’s on the brink of going downhill. There’s lots of promise in the food and good flavours to be found, just that the chef needs to be vigilant and not cut corners. All its flaws are very much fixable, I hope they do something about it soon.

La Nonna
76 Namly Place
Tel: 6762 1587