A Whirlwind Work Trip: My First Michelin Star Experience

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We were very fortunate to be treated to a good dinner, my first Michelin star experience at the one-star Tano Passami L’Olio. The name literally meant “Tano, pass me the olive oil.” Chef Gaetano is very big on olive oils and treats it almost like wine in how he pairs each carefully, selecting carefully which oil he uses to finish each dish. We went for a tasting menu of sorts, starting with this amuse bouche.

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Unfortunately, it wasn’t a Wow! moment, more of a “hmm this is rather good.” It was interesting how the mousse was finished of with olive oil but I don’t remember a great deal more than that.

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The next dish was quite interesting – raw prawns Milanese-style marinated in citrus and anise, accompanied by pink grapefruit and cheese mousse and graced with caramelised peas. I wasn’t sure about the peas as they were semi-dry, with texture reminding me a bit of wasabi peas, just not as crunchy. I liked the fresh, fresh! prawns that were singing with the zing of the sea (go figure that out, I’m taking things up a notch – it’s a Michelin-starred place yo) and the grapefruit and cheese mousse was nice, though it tasted a bit like it was meant for baby food, but what lovely fine dining baby food it was!

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Now it was the next dish that really brought things up a notch. The caramelised quail eggs on tuna mousse was a revelation. The first one after going in the mouth went crackle! pop! and there were surprised looks all round the table. Then understanding dawned and we gleefully went with the second one. First, the sensation of caramel on the tongue, as it was an egg-shaped creme brulee with crackly crust all round. Just a little pressure with the teeth and tongue and the delicately cooked quail egg burst, coating the tongue with runny yolk. The tuna mousse made for a savoury counterpoint to it all. And the raw tuna in minted olive oil? Gilding the lily with its freshness.

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Our expectations went a little higher with the pasta course and we were not disappointed. We were presented with lemon risotto cooked in vegetable and milk and finished off with chocolate. I was a bit wary of this as I wasn’t sure how dessert-like a lemon and chocolate rice dish would taste. But no, this was deeply savoury, rich and wonderfully al dente. At the same time, the lemon flavour sang through and the bitterness of the chocolate balanced out the flavours. It was another eye-opener. Next time I’m in Milan, I’m coming back just for this dish.

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We were surprised by how full we were getting at this stage, we really hadn’t eaten a great deal, but it shows how satisfying the food was. We were very glad that the main course came in small portions. Small though the portion was, it was somehow the perfect portion. The roe dear saddle glazed with basil and wild berries and again finished off with chocolate was excellent. It was done very rare, the way I like it, yet wasn’t bloody (which the rest of my table seemed to like more). I think the meat must have been well hung because it was the tenderest deer I’ve had. Again, Chef Gaetano had a way with traditionally sweet foods, turning them into savoury wonders. The chocolate he personally grated over each portion at the table made all the difference again in balancing out the sweetness of the sauce and tempered the deep game flavour of the venison. Wonderful.

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What really won the rest of the table over (I was head over heels by then, no need for further wooing) was Chef Gaetano’s impeccable and very sensible wine pairings. He recommended two reds, only one of which I managed to get a photo of. This Humar Rogoves from the Friuli region was very reasonably priced at about €30 and was just right for the deer. In the words of the chef, it was a “sweety wine, very nice.” And indeed it was! Nicely balanced, sweet yet not overly so, it went better than expected with our deer in berry sauce.

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Then came the usual sorbet palate cleanser.

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And finally dessert. The almond cannoli filled with almond mousse, candy lemon, citrus cream and almond marmalade was lovely. The pastry was crisp and light as air and the mousse filling also light and sweetly lemony. It was a lovely contrast to the dark chocolate blob (I never found out what it really was), but the mousse and chocolate sauce was a deep, delicious contrast. It was a sly way of crowd pleasing, not particularly inventive but just the right to end a good dinner.

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Tano passami l’olio
via Villoresi, 16 ang. via Pastorelli, Milano, Italy
Tel: +39 02 8394139
Email: tano@tanopassamilolio.it

A Whirlwind Trip: Getting into Milan

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I went for a work trip in July last year and was lucky enough that it involved a whirlwind trip of the shopping capitals of Europe, with the first stop being Milan. We took the red-eye flight which meant that we got off the plane early enough to have breakfast at a bar just before our first meeting. We were thankful for the Italian custom of drinking espresso like water and helped ourselves to copious amounts of the brew to keep us awake in the business discussions.

One of the companies we met was very hospitable and brought us to Trattoria Del Drago for a very welcome lunch. The trattoria was set in a little garden and there was a lovely relaxed vibe to it. We had a lovely white wine to go with our lunch, the Picol 2008 (14%). It was a light and crisp sauvignon blanc with a lime flower nose and plenty of slate in the finish. It was a lovely accompaniment to our appetiser.

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And what an appetiser it was! A typically Milanese starter of seafood carpaccio, this is Italy’s answer to sashimi. There was impossibly fresh salmon, tuna and white fish with two types of prawns. It was all dressed lightly in olive oil and was wonderfully tasty, each bite bursting with the sweetness of the sea. I would definitely go back there just for this dish, far away as it may be from the touristy areas of Milan.

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My main was an orecchiette in a tomato cream sauce and a meat I cannot recall, probably chicken. Sadly, it wasn’t mindblowing and it was forgettable in my seafood-dazed, jetlagged stomach.

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Trattoria Del Drago
Via Pusiano, 63, 20132 Milano, Italy
Tel: +39 02 2720 9849 ‎

Our last meeting was, curiously, in an old Roman building that housed the Milanese headquarters of a high tech company . We got through that aided with plenty of hot espresso from thermos flasks, drunk by the shot in tiny plastic cups. We thankfully sank into Hotel Spadari al Duomo, probably the most reasonably priced 4-star hotel of that standard in the area. It was a lovely and very modern hotel, with large enough and very comfortable rooms. 

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In contrast to the Duomo just around the corner, even the artwork on the walls was modern. I liked how the minibar was included in the price of the room (non-alcoholic drinks only), so I didn’t have to worry about finding a convenience store for water. It was a lovely touch especially coming in on a hot day.

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But the feature I liked best was the shower. There were three showerheads in there: a regular handheld shower head (not shown), a rain shower and a waterfall shower! It was fantastic standing under a wall of warm water after a long, long day simply enjoying the pressure of water against skin.

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It was a great hotel with very prompt and excellent service, from emailing for reservations to getting our excellent breakfast every morning to making reservations to depart for the airport. Well worth it!

Hotel Spadari al Duomo
Via Spadari 11 20123 Milano
Tel: +39.02.72002371
Email: reservation@spadarihotel.com

But no rest for the greedy. Before long, we had to regroup for dinner. We went for an early dinner nearby so that we could head back to crash out. An institution and therefore tourist hangout in the area was Trattoria Milanese, a pretty down home type place with unfortunately less down home prices. Still, it was considered reasonable for the area.

We started off with a mix of appetisers. On my plate are parma with melon; tomato with mozzarella and basil; and half a perfectly ripe, luscious summer fig. While not super fantastically good, I think the ingredients travelled far less than it would have if we had the meal back home in Singapore, making it fresher and tastier somehow.

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I made the classic glutton’s mistake of ordering osso bucco with risotto. Mind you, it was yummy and very well made, especially the osso bucco with its unctuous marrow just begging to be sucked dry. The risotto was no slacker either, al dente and richly aromatic. I managed to finish about a third of the plate and tried to parcel as much away to my dining companions as possible. It was such a pity that I couldn’t take away any for later.

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Full to bursting as I was, my greed yet again overreached and I found myself not simply ordering apple sorbet for dessert, but also nodding amicably when the waiter asked if I wanted it doused in Calvados. Unfortunately, the sorbet wasn’t at all tart and was a bit flat on taste, and the apple liqueur was more bitter than aromatic. Still, it sozzled me nicely and at the end of the meal I had to walk carefully so that I wouldn’t stumble on the cobblestones and fall flat on my face in front of the highest ranking person in my organisation.

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Trattoria Milanese
Via Santa Marta, 11, 20123 Milano, Italy
Tel: +39 02 8645 1991 ‎

Thankfully, I made it back to the hotel in one jetlagged, sleep-deprived, espresso-ed out, stuffed-to-the-gills and pretty much sozzled piece. Another lovely waterfall shower later, and I was fast asleep, dreaming of my weekend to follow.

The Many Meanings of Slow Food: Zhen Zhen Porridge

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Zhen Zhen Porridge and Maxwell Hawker Centre are perhaps more famous for the long queues than the great award-winning porridge. I made the fatal mistake of meeting a friend there for lunch at 12.30 pm. Patting myself on the back for arriving early at 12.15, I put down my tissue paper and book bag on two seats in the classic CBD Tissue Paper Chope and went off to queue. As I’d not queued longer than 25 minutes before, I figured it’d only be a 10 minute wait by the time said friend arrived.

Boy was I wrong. When she showed up, I hardly moved from my original spot. Apparently some unmentionables in front had ordered takeaway porridge for their entire building. There was no choice but to wait. And wait. And wait. I finally made my order at 1 pm and collected 10 minutes later. It was almost an hour’s wait! By then my friend had finished her fishball noodles (no queue, not nice) and was eyeing dessert.

The chicken porridge was good as always, smooth and thick with ghosts of rice grains, generous portions of chicken thigh chunks and loads of toppings. They’d obviously spent ages boiling the grains off the rice. There’s plenty of spring onion, fried shallots, dong choi (preserved Tianjin vegetable) and sesame oil. It all comes together in a surprisingly crunchy and textured whole. Very yummy. I also like waiting for the egg to set a bit so I get swirls of soft just-set egg white and rich streaks of runny yolk, then as a prize I sometimes get a bit of yielding solid yolk. Mmm.

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I always have the yu-sheng as a side. No other stall I’ve tried makes it this way. Again, the theme is generous servings and toppings. I can barely finish the small portion. It’s made of slices of raw fish topped with ginger matchsticks, spring onion, fried shallots, toasted black and white sesame and sesame oil. Top it all off with a sprinkling of lime juice and some cut red chilli and the flavour combination is phenomenal. It’s almost the entire reason why I keep coming back for more.

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$4.50 for a chicken porridge with egg and a small yu-sheng. Go early or on an especially hot day where there’s less of a queue. Don’t dither with your order because the lady can be quite curt. Be brave!

Last Round of Yu Sheng for the Ox Year

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Chinese New Year is running its course, tomorrow being the last of the 15 days: You have one more day to get your yu sheng (raw fish salad).

Zhenjie’s version is pretty decent. The stall is in the central area of the newly refurbished Chinatown hawker centre. It’s hard to miss with the bright lights and garish signs, even if you can’t read Chinese characters.

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I was out with my mum and aunts and we had the $24 ikan parang version. I liked that they gave enough lime to give a good sour kick and plenty of  ground toasted peanuts for a satisfying nutty taste. This is one unhealthy salad, with too much oil from both the dressing and the crispy flour bits, too much sugar from the plum sauce and the candied wintermelon, and too much food colouring from the almost fluorescent red and green bits.  Even though I’m not the biggest fan of this unhealthy salad, it’s one of the better yu sheng I’ve had this season.

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We moved on to lunch proper at An Ji (Stall #02-194). Lucky thing we had a late lunch. The crowds had cleared by then and we saved ourselves a 30-minute wait. While this place is famous for steamed song fish, we’ve never ordered that. None of us like the muddy taste of the freshwater fish.

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We went for the yu peen sang meen (fish slices with crispy noodles) and the ngau hor (beef with flat rice noodles) instead. The yu peen sang meen is amazing stuff. They deep-fry the sang meen to order and they use the finer version too. The effect was seriously crispy noodles crumbling in my mouth with a satisfying crunch. Even after sitting for a while in the sauce, the noodles were still crunchy and didn’t collapse into a soft mass like inferior versions. The black bean sauce was smoky and yummy, with plenty of wok hei and the sang yu (snakehead fish) was of course fresh. It would’ve been even better with cut chilli, but they only provided chilli padi and I was too lazy to ask for normal chilli. The only grouse I had was that the sauce was on the salty side. Will have to remember to make a special request next time.

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An Ji really knows how to treat its noodles. I’d initially had reservations about the horfun because it looked too white, they hadn’t dry-fried the horfun beforehand. On the first bite, I was sold. The horfun was soft and yielding as my teeth sank into the noodle yet had a bouncy bite towards the end. The only term to describe is really with the Taiwanese coinage “Q.” It was a revelation that horfun can be this good. The sauce had a robust beef flavour and got extra depth from the black bean sauce. It was smoky with wok hei as expected. The downside was that they’d marinated the beef slices in bicarbonate of soda, giving them an odd spongy texture.

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Go grab your noodles from here, though don’t rush because they’ll sell it past Chinese New Year.