Quick Eats: Tsuru Tsuru Tei

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DC and I found ourselves at The Central one work night. Despite wanting something light, we were lured in by the siren call of the deep-fried black pig ramen. I thought to order a salad to help lighten the meal and ended up ordering the only salad on the menu: avocado salad ($7.80). At least there were vegetables. I liked how the leaves were fresh and there were quite a lot of avocado chunks. The onsen egg was a lovely touch to top off the salad, I love eggs with still-runny yolks and barely set whites. Yummy!

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And now for the piece de resistance, the koumi ramen ($15.80). I apologise for the poorly composed photo. It was a work night, it was late and I was tired. The basic ramen below the rack containing the deep-fried pork, though not among my favourites, was decent. The noodles were fairly firm on arrival but got soggy towards the end. You just have to eat fast to enjoy the firm texture. The soup was a decent tonkotsu style broth, very milky and unctuous with plenty of collagen dissolved in it. I think it had loads of msg too, so watch out before you over-indulge.

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Ah… and the thing that lured us in! The deep-fried pork rib was fairly decent, though not as crispy as we’d anticipated. Still, the meat was substantial and tender, and the batter fairly light. I’d prefer it slightly less sweet, but for something that’s not too expensive, I’m not quibbling too much.

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Tsuru Tsuru Tei
6 Eu Tong Sen Street
#03-88/89 The Central @ Clarke Quay
Tel: 6327 7887

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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

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

July in Vietnam: A Viet Chinatown

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

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

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

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It looked amazing even in silhouette.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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July in Vietnam: Going Where the Locals Go

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In spite of my past experience on the back of a motorbike, I decided that it would be better to sit on the back of a motorbike than try to cycle on my home. A splitting headache from a hangover sealed the deal. I was driven through beautifully green rice fields on the way to the Japanese bridge.

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It’s a beautiful bridge in the middle of nowhere, built in the Japanese style to give shelter to the locals in the heat of the day.

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I’m not sure how true it is but legend says that a childless Japanese woman left money for a bridge to be built in her memory so that people would pray to her in her afterlife. In such hot weather I guess more snoozing than praying is done here!

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I stopped for a light and very healthy lunch at a little place along the Perfume River. The rice pancakes stuffed with herbs and pork and washed down with plenty of cold weak tea did wonders to restore me for the rest of the afternoon. The bowl of bun thit nuong, thick rice noodles topped with the usual herbage and barbecued meat did the trick to keep me full till dinner.

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And then it was off to the Thien Mu Pagoda, famous mainly for being the monastery from which a certain special monk originated. It was on a lovely bend of the Perfume River and was quite pretty to look at.

Thien Mu Pagoda, from Wikipedia

Within, there were more halls with Fun with English signs. I have no idea what a “lish” is and how it could be beaten though.

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And here is the car of the monk who drove to Saigon, poured petrol on himself and set himself on fire while meditating. All this in protest of the American interference in South Vietnam. This image was supposedly broadcast all over Western media and played a pivotal role in the anti-war protests in America.

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And then calling it a day, I went to where the locals were – flying kites in the park.

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For dinner, I walked down to Dong Ba market and sat timidly down on the miniature plastic stools surrounding a chao long lady. The rice porridge was thin but the ingredients fresh. I thought I knew my pig parts, but this was a revelation. There was the usual meat, liver, small intestine and congealed blood cube but other stuff I couldn’t identify: large intestine cut longitudinally? strange sausage? bone marrow? Accompanied by basil and a squeeze of lemon, even the blood went down nicely. That hardly made a dent in stomach, so I switched sides and hefted myself 2 metres down to the next lady selling bun thit nuong, which is grilled pork over cold bun (thick rice noodles). Yummy and incredibly cheap (5000 dong approx S$0.45).

I was full by then started to walk back towards hotel. But a chicken noodle stall tempted me and I sat down to a delightful bowl of mung bean noodles (tanghoon) in chicken stock with generous lashings of chicken shreds. Ended up ODing on chilli. While Vietnamese food isn’t particularly spicy, even its “fiery” Central cuisine, I swear their chillies are the hottest in SE Asia. Even Thai chilli padi cannot beat them. There’s a very innocuous looking big yellow chilli that tricks you into thinking it’s going to taste sweet like yellow capsicum but boy does it pack a wallop. I made the very stupid mistake of rubbing my left eye after touching the chilli, ending up crying silently into food for 10 minutes.

(Sorry no photos, the lighting was too poor for the camera to work fine.)

Still, a good foodie end to a good chillout day.

Saboten: Finally a Contender for Tonkichi’s Title

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I was thwarted yet again by the long queue outside the tonkotsu ramen place at Parco Marina Bay and opted to give Saboten a go instead. This chain from Shinjuku seems like a slighter more upmarket version of Tonkichi. Bizarrely enough, its name means “cactus” and it was chosen to represent vitality of all things. Go figure.

Anyhow, the free flow of finely shredded cabbage and yummy salad dressing made me very happy from the beginning. The cabbage was fresh and the two dressings so yummy I couldn’t quite decide which was better. The black stuff was soy, vinegar and yuzu dressing and the creamy brown one a sesame-based one. I ended up mixing the two so the salty soy-yuzu one was ameliorated by the creamy sesame. What a promising start!

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I went for the curry loin. The loin came with an immense amount of rice and curry sauce. Just too bad that the curry sauce was very authentically Japanese because it was a bit too sweet for my taste. Thankfully, DC was there to save the day and he appreciatively slurped up quite a bit of it on my behalf. Now the loin was very tasty, made from fresh pork and fried to perfection. I liked how the fried panko crumb bits had some heft to it, matching the pork nicely. This is not a dish for dieters as the loin was rimmed with a fairly substantial layer of fat. It gave the meat an interesting gradation from meltingly tender near the fat to substantial and almost tough towards the outer part. All good in my book!

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DC had the oyako don and he liked it. In his words, it was sticky and sweet. The meat was tender and flavourful, just too bad that the panko crumbs were a bit soft by the time it got to him. Special mention has to be made at this point for the pickles. While they don’t come free flow, the freshness and quality really shone through. I finished them in a flash and was dismayed when the waiter apologetically told us that they had to charge for extra if we wanted more. Oh well.

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At least there was dessert to compensate: green tea ice cream in nicely chilled bowls. Not bad, though we were there for the tonkatsu, not the ice cream!

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Saboten
#P3-01 Parco Marina Bay, Millenia Walk
Tel: 6333 3432

Ramen Showdown: Nantsuttei

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It’s official. Nantsuttei is now top of my list of best ramen in Singapore. It’s also pretty reasonably priced as far as ramen in Singapore goes. The queue here isn’t as feral as the one at Ippudo. For lunch, as long as you avoid 12.30 to 1.30 you’re all good, and for weekday dinners after 8pm is normally OK too.

I first tried the comes-with-everything noodles plus an egg. It came with a huge sprinkling of spring onions that seemed to occlude the rest of the toppings of chashu, beansprouts and special garlic oil. The first thing I bit into was the egg and it was eggy goodness all the way as the white was lightly salty from the braising and the yolk just set so the very inside was still slightly runny. So far it’s the best egg of the major ramen shops. As far as the chashu was concerned, it was rather run of the mill. Nothing much to write home about on the taste and tenderness.

Next was the noodle. It was just the right firmness for me, with enough bite for interest and not so hard that I felt that it was undercooked. The wonderful thing about the doneness of the noodles was that the noodles still tasted good when I got to the bottom of the bowl.

Then the soup. I wasn’t sure about this because it was quite salty and not particularly rich as ramen broths go. It was pretty acceptable though. I also wasn’t too keen on the slightly burnt and carcinogenic taste of the black garlic oil that makes the place famous.

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On another visit, I tried the dragon ramen. It’s basically the same ramen minus the OTT spring onion topping and with spicy bean and minced meat paste. Now this may not be particularly traditional, but it made all the difference to the soup, making it my all-time favourite. I liked the flavour of the spicy paste because the taste of the fermented bean really came through. It also muted the burnt garlic taste, making it Very Yummy.

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Nantsuttei doesn’t have a great deal to offer in terms of sides, only chopped chashu rice and gyoza. The gyoza isn’t too bad, it’s nicely burnt in parts on the outside and meatily juicy on the inside. Decent enough when you’re hungry and want more than ramen to fill the belly.

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Nantsuttei
P3-06 #03-02
Millenia Walk 9 Raffles Boulevard
Tel: 6337 7166