Absinthe: Starts Off Great, Then Falls Flat

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It was my birthday. DC took me to French bistro Absinthe for a nice dinner. For some reason, it was #1 on the best restaurant list for tripadvisor.com. We wondered whether it was worthy of its title. The seasonal tasting menu didn’t excite us – too much standard fare and not a great deal that would challenge our tastebuds. We went a la carte instead and it was totally worth it.

I started with seared scallops very simply done. One thing I really didn’t appreciate was realising that the “small herb salad” was miniscule side leaves plated on using tweezers. A small pile I understand, but 3 tiny leaflets do not a small herb salad make. DO NOT LIKE! The scallops themselves were good – well seared on the outside till I got the unmistakable and absolutely sublime charred shellfish flavour, and pretty much raw in the middle. Be warned that the scallops aren’t sashimi-grade because it was a little fishy on the inside. That’s fine with me because I quite like fishy things (especially belachan). The rich lobster hollandaise sauce was a nice foil to the seafood and pastry stick was very nicely short and melt in the mouth. I really like the seaweed flavouring they painted onto the pastry stick. If they sold them in boxes I’d totally snatch them up for an office snack. Oh and DC’s dry sherry went very well with this dish – held its own against the creamy fishiness. I think it was a Perez Barquero Grand Barquero Fino and the nutty, crisp aroma was just the thing to go with my scallops.

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DC liked his special of the evening of kurobuta pork with aniseed sauce. My sampling piece was decent though not mindblowing. DC really enjoyed it though. You’ll have to wait for him to comment to find out why it was that good.

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Then my main. I don’t know what they did, but the lamb rack was so simply done yet so darn good! It was beautifully medium, just as requested and the flavour of the meat just shone through. I think it’s about buying good meat and treating it with respect and love. It was tender, juicy and very tasty, yet not gamey. So good. What really gilded the lily for me was the cep mash. I love wild mushrooms and mixing ceps into the mash was such a masterful touch. So masterful that it was one of the reasons why I ordered that dish. Yummy fragrant cep mash and exquisite lamb made me a happy, happy girl.

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DC went for the classic bouillabaise. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was like beyond acceptable. I think I was too engrossed in my lamb. Again, wait for him to comment!

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And the dessert. I wish I could say better things, but it was a horrible nasty letdown. The apple souflle, while not deflated, was an absolute flop. First off, they used overly coarse-grained sugar to line the souflle ramekin. Did the chef run out of caster? It completely defeats the purpose of light ethereal sponge when you crunch into sugar. Didn’t help that the souffle was too small to escape from the side edges, which in the absence of coarse sugar would actually be the best bit of the souffle. The accompanying apple sorbet was way too sweet and not very aromatic. And the strawberry garnish? Sour. FAIL.

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So if this is America’s Got Talent, they’d have gotten the first buzzer by now. What got the second buzzer? DC made reservations for a birthday dinner. They FORGOT the birthday dessert. After our souffail, DC asked if I had space for more dessert. We’d been on an eating spree that day and I wasn’t too keen on a repeat fail. So we didn’t remind them. DC paid up and we left. That’s all. So much for attentive service, particularly because they have a habit of going through their reservations and calling to remind you the afternoon of the big dinner. Inexcusable.

I’d return for the appetisers and mains, then head off somewhere where they actually care about finishing off great and respect their desserts. You’ve been warned.

Absinthe
48 Bukit Pasoh Road
Tel: 6222 9068

Private Affairs

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DC took me to Private Affairs one Friday night to cheer me up after a stressful week. We weren’t sure about whether this place would last as we were the only ones there that night. We opted for the Luscious Dinner 4-course set ($98++). DC had a duck carpaccio that he liked a lot but didn’t leave a lasting impression on me. My Alaskan king crab, though, was wonderful. It really was lusciously seafood-y and briny, and bursting with fresh juiciness. The avocado mousse and passionfruit cream had just the right level of richness to complement the crab and the squid ink tuile provided a nice bit of contrast with its delicate crispness.

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For mains, DC had the Maine lobster. When I tried it, I almost regretted ordering what I did because the lobster, like my crab appetiser, burst with fresh, well, lobster flavour. It wasn’t your typical vaguely rubbery tasteless boiled lobster. This one was expertly cooked in a buttery foam, making me want to devour it shell and all. In fact, I think DC gnawed as much of his lobster shell as he could!

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Remember I almost regretted my order? But I didn’t. My main course of Welsh lamb loin held its own. Again, it was expertly cooked so that the lamb loin was tender and flavourful. Accompanied with the soy bean mash and the rich, intense jus of lamb and olive, this was very very good. (Unfortunately it paled against another dish I’ll blog about next time, but that’s a story for another time.)

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Our third dish was a pre-dessert. DC had a yummy cheese platter and I had a sorbet. Both were competent though not particularly anything to rave about. Plus, the lighting in the restaurant is so dim that it was impossible to get good pictures anyway. Good thing we were the only diners that night so we took pictures with flash whenever the wait staff weren’t looking (!).

For the real dessert, DC had peach tofu with salted caramel and lemongrass ice cream. The purple thing is a lavender sheet, which I felt tasted a bit like one of those  portable soap sheets for washing your hands. I liked the tofu a lot. It was very tender and smooth, more like tau fa than actual tofu. It was a bit like eating peach-scented egg tofu that was sweet.

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I had the chocolate mousse with miso sponge. The miso sponge was a very inventive touch to an otherwise tired dessert. I’m so glad he didn’t go down the molten choc cake route. Here, the miso sponge was very tender and very savoury, making for a lovely contrast to the sweet chocolate mousse and the deep flavour of the dark chocolate chips. It’s a pity he put pop rocks in the dessert. The dark chocolate “sand” is a bit overused in molecular gastronomy and I really don’t like the popping on my tongue.

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That dinner was good enough to send us back to Private Affairs a few weekends later for a semi-buffet brunch celebration. It was good value for money at $68++ per person without alcohol. The food wasn’t quite as exquisite as the dinner we had, but it was still pretty darn good. The idea was that we ordered whatever we liked from the brunch menu, from typical breakfast staples like mini-muffins, yogurt, pancakes and eggs, to brunch staples like fresh oysters, to more exciting things like cured sardine, panfried scallops and coffee ribs with a twist. All these we could order as many servings as we liked. For the main course, each chose one. Everyone liked their own main courses and I naturally felt that mine of melt-in-the-mouth sous vide French chicken was especially nice. If you want a taster for Private Affairs, the brunch is the way to go.

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Unfortunately it was third time unlucky when DC and I returned to Private Affairs. We tried out their celebratory 8-course menu for October consisting of greatest hits in the chef’s repertoire. There was the familiar course of many dishes, with some good and many others falling flat. I was deeply disappointed by the lack of quality control and lack of service recovery for a restaurant that aspires to this calibre. First, even though I made an email booking just like the previous brunch (with acknowledgement from the PR manager), they lost our booking and took a while to get us a table. It didn’t help that, unlike our first experience, the restaurant was full as there was a big group taking up much of the restaurant with a separate special menu and a few other tables doing the a la carte option. The kitchen was obviously not ready for this onslaught and some dishes came out different from described in the menu. For instance, the raw Hokkaido scallop with lettuce gazpacho jelly came with  a pool of bright green liquid instead of jelly and there was no way of eating the dish properly as we weren’t provided with spoons. We just had to fish out the scallop from the watery liquid and the wait staff later whisked away the plates, only looking slightly puzzled when I pointed out that we had no spoons and weren’t able to enjoy the dish properly.

No less, two dishes stood out. The kurobuta pork cheek with blood orange jelly was very good. I’m not sure about the slightly odd gel-like texture of the accompanying avocado gnocchi but the pork cheek itself was done so that it was meltingly good. The slightly tart and sweet blood orange jelly really lifted the flavour very well.

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The second noteworthy dish was the apple cake dessert. Again, there were parts that I didn’t quite agree with, in this case the apple cinnamon spaghetti. DC liked it a lot and slurped up mine too, but I found it a bit too molecular gastronomy, and too reminiscent of past biology experiments dealing with calcium alginate gels. It was a cute idea nonetheless. What blew me away what the apple cake itself. It was essentially an apple-flavoured cross between mousse and semifreddo, with apple jelly in the middle. I loved how it was just on the verge of melting and how the clean green apple flavours shone through very well. The lemongrass ice cream was a lovely light yet creamy accompaniment to the cake. Thumbs up!

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It was the last part of the dinner that disappointed me. The PR manager came over to chat with us. No matter that she didn’t apologise for the mix-up in reservations. She asked how the food was and I responded that it was patchy. Taken by surprised, she asked why and was reluctant to probe much further after I asked how much she wanted to know, showing her the brief notes I took on my slip of printed menu. She did concede that the lettuce gazpacho was meant to be a jelly and not liquid, and then said that the chef designed the menu out of popular dishes. Telling us that other people liked the menu certainly does not make me like a less than ideal experience more.

In short, this restaurant has lots of potential as the chef is obviously very talented. His kitchen and staff do on occasion let him down. It took me a long while to decide to post about this place as I have very mixed feelings about it. If you take my experience as a gauge, you’d probably get a good experience two-thirds of the time. For me, unfortunately, I’m not going to come back for a little while.

Private Affairs
45 Joo Chiat Place
Tel: 6440 0601

 

Restaurant Prices at a Coffee Shop Stall: Big D’s

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I’d probably be lynched by fans of Big D’s (including the friend who told me about it) when I say that I think the food is expensive. It could well be that the chef buys nothing but the best cuts and uses the best ingredients. It could also be that the chef doesn’t have enough bulk to warrant good prices from his suppliers. I found it a little disconcerting to pay restaurant prices for something at a coffee shop stall.

Nonetheless, the food was very good. DC and I shared a kurobuta pork chop ($28) and an anchovy pasta ($17). I liked how the pork was charred outside and just about done on the inside, with a smidgen of pink right in the centre of the cut. It was strangely difficult to cut (no steak knives here) but was just the right firmness I expected – slight give from the marbling of fat and good heft in the mouth. Plus, it had good porky flavour. The accompaniments were passable. I liked the slow-cooked peppers and surprisingly, also the baked beans. They were quite different from the canned version and are something like American Southern beans. Pretty yummy.  I’m on the fence on the strange sweet accompanying sauce (pineapple?) but DC didn’t mind it at all. I didn’t like the overly starchy mashed potatoes, and DC didn’t appreciate the stall telling him that he couldn’t change the mash to french fries because they “wouldn’t go.” Well, overly starchy mash doesn’t go with anything in my books.

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I liked the anchovy pasta. The spaghetti was on the verge of soft that was still acceptable, though I’d have preferred it more al dente. I suppose they cater more to the popular taste for soft noodles. The anchovy sauce was punchy, robust and of course redolent of anchovies. A bit of chilli added some kick to it. However, I think it’s not quite worth the price as anchovies aren’t that expensive. My plate only had a smallish heap of sauced pasta on it and nothing else. Sure, I’d only ordered just that but it’s a tad pricey no? Plus, I really ought to banish the thought but seeing as I could tweak the idea further at home and add all sorts of lovelies to it for half the price, I was slightly dismayed. It was still good though!

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Big D’s Grill
Blk 46 Holland Drive
#01-359

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

Ramen Showdown: Tampopo

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Tampopo at Liang Court gets mixed reviews for its ramen. Some people rave and others despise it. It’s my friend’s boss’s favourite and also near her office, so we met there for lunch.

We ordered their specialty,  Shabu Shabu Black Pig Ramen with Chilli. It arrived incredibly fast. Instead of the usual chashu, it comes with boiled kurobuta (black pig) slices, menma (preserved bamboo shoots) and spring onions. No egg, no seaweed.

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A spot of hasty half-hearted food-styling later, I finally got to taste my noodles.

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I liked the noodles very much. These Kyushu-style noodles were springy and almost crunchy. Excellent. The toppings were OK. The black pig to me tasted like decent pork. I don’t see why we should especially rave about black pig since regular pork should be good too. The fact that this pork is better than regular stuff in the market just means that our importers are bringing in the everyday stuff from inferior sources. The response should be to pressure our shops to stock better sources than to especially shell out for kurobuta.

Soup-wise, this version was only up to standard. It was strong on umami and salt, and was overall rather tasty. My friend commented that it was a bit too porky for her. I disagreed. Something was missing and I realised that it wasn’t rich enough. It needed either more collagen like the tonkotsu-style, or a bit more oil.

Overall, it was a bit telling that neither of us could finish our noodles. Surprising for her because my friend was famished; shocking for me because this Noodle Monster never leaves noodles in her bowl.

We ordered a sashimi plate to go with the ramen and oddly enough, it came quite a while after the noodles. The sashimi itself was awful as it wasn’t fresh. We couldn’t even finish it.

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Now the gimmicky-fun bit about this place is the conveyor belt. It’s not just any old conveyor belt because it links all the way to the table. There’s a little indicator light on the table to show that the food is arriving. Too bad we were too engrossed with catching up and analysing the ramen to notice our sashimi sliding up onto our table till it was too late!

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It’s a cute touch though a bit of a waste of manpower and technology. The moment the sashimi arrived via conveyor belt, a staff member stepped up and removed the metal disc from under the plate and set it down again. How bizarre. Why not just take it straight out from the kitchen by hand?

Anyhow, there’s still some fun with Japlish stuff: Please don’t put your hand in the conveyor tunnel all the time. I suppose it’s OK if you do it sometimes.

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Tampopo
177 River Valley Road #01-23/24
Liang Court Shopping Center
Singapore 179030
Tel: 6338 3186