Back to Bali: Ubud

Ubud – the famed cultural centre of Bali.

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And instead of exploring the museum, art galleries and temples in the area, we did a cursory walk pace the palace…

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… and ducked into the market, where the action truly is. I was especially sad that we’d already had breakfast at the villa, because there was so much to try in the area. Turn up early so you get a good opening price. The shopkeepers here are very superstitious and tend to give good prices for their first customers. Choose from local herbs and spices (vanilla pods are very cheap, but are far inferior to the Madagascan versions), or little handicraft and spa souvenirs, or basketry. Then haggle, keep smiling and agree on a price. Watch bemusedly as the shopkeeper flicks the your newly handed over bank notes over the rest of the wares for luck. Go past the souvenir shops into the maze and find your way to the basement. That’s where the colour is, where you can wander around marvelling at the vast variety of local fruit and vegetables on offer. Pull up a stool at a food stand if you arrive early enough, otherwise risk trying the colourful iced drinks and coconut-based kueh (local desserts) that have been sitting around for a while.

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After a day wandering around in town, what better is there to do than go for a hearty dinner?

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We’d heard good things about Naughty Nuri’s. A friend who’d just been ate there twice in the trip, the second time because dinner elsewhere was disappointing and they needed something to make up for the poor show. We didn’t try the cocktails, apparently the place does really mean martinis. What we did have was the coldest Bintang beer in Bali. It went so well with the ribs.

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The famous ribs are grilled by the roadside on a surprisingly small grill for a place so jam packed with hungry diners. The ribs were very good – the meat was the right intermediate between tender and chewy, and marinade a straightforward kicap manis (dark sweet soy sauce) base. I liked it, but not enough to like the satay (essentially pork cubes dunked in the same sauce) too. This place seemed a bit one-dimensional to me, but I’d go back for the impossibly cold beers.

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Naughty Nuri’s Warung Ubud
Jalan Raya Sanggingan, Ubud
Bali, Indonesia
Tel: +62 0361 977 547

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Smokey’s

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We saw Smokey’s one of those days wandering in the Joo Chiat area and it was a nice coincidence when Fee suggested going there for dinner. As it name hints, it specialises in smoked barbecued items. For starters, we had jalapeno poppers, those breaded and deep fried mild green chillis stuffed with sin. Oh my the cream cheese oozing out really worked, gimme more!

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Fee insisted on ordering a serving of fish and chips despite my misgivings that this was a smokehouse specialising in ribs for crying out loud! Boy was I mistaken, these are possibly the most unique fish and chips ever. They’d somehow been marinated in smoke, then battered and deep fried till almost ethereally crisp. The fish was smooth and tender, almost nostalgic in its old school fish finger-like consistency. It was the combination of smoky marinade and really great fish and chips that won me over. In fact, this to me was the best dish of the night. The fries were also good, crisp outside and fluffy inside, though they didn’t hold up once they got cold. The coleslaw was very decent, with both white and purple cabbage. I liked that the veg tasted fresh and the crunchy stuff wasn’t overwhelmed by onion. Thumbs up!

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The star of the show was meant to be the ribs. DC wanted the St Louis ribs, so a full rack it had to be.  I must admit they were well marinated and quite nice. Too bad they were rather dry, as it they’d been left on a low barbecue for too long. No doubt there was a disclaimer in the menu that the ribs here weren’t pre-cooked and therefore wouldn’t fall off the bone in tenderness. But these fellas were dry and hardly a shot from tenderness! It was a disappointment to me, especially after the fish and chips stole the show.

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Be odd. Come here for the fish and chips. Oh yes, the portions are big too. A full rack of ribs, a portion of fish and chips and the jalapeno poppers stuffed up two big eaters and two medium eaters big time.

Smokey’s
73 Joo Chiat Pl
Tel: 6345 6914

Au Naturel at Zi Yean

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Zi Yean is one of those newfangled zichar places that serves up rather imaginative dishes. Its name means “natural” in Cantonese and we were rather amused by the very fitting “au naturel” chopstick holders.

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They’re specially printed with the restaurant name on the back even!

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Dinner started off with a very yummy double boiled soup with sea whelk, cordyceps and Sakura chicken. The special was tasty and full of chickeny goodness and umami flavour from the seafood. This is excellent for chasing away a cold. One problem though is that the quality varies from visit to visit. We went there for dinner two nights in a row and on the first night, the soup was perfect. The next night, however, the soup was oversalted, which kinda ruined the flavours. Pity.

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Next up was the spinach in superior broth. I liked how they added century egg and topped it with a sprinkling of crispy silver fish. With smooth, non-gritty spinach, earthy century egg and salty crunchy fish, this made for a killer combination that beats most other places hands down.

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I felt that the honey pork ribs were a bit of a weak link. It was your typical deboned pork rib in sweet sauce, tender enough but nothing in particular to rave about. Perhaps I just don’t particularly fancy sweet savouries.

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The final main dish was the most interesting: crab meat fried with egg white and topped with a raw egg yolk. The dish arrived piping hot and the idea was to quickly stir in the egg yolk so the gooey stuff coated the crab-egg white pieces. I liked the texture a lot as it had varying bits of chewy from the crab pieces and the dried scallop, that  coupled with the softness of the egg white was a winner. I like egg, I like crab, this is dish is kinda hard to beat.

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We had orh nee for dessert. The yam paste here is very nicely made though it doesn’t quite beat the grandmaster at Ah Orh. The paste is fairly smooth with little bits of yam embedded inside. It’s topped with soft pumpkin pieces and has very little oil. Avoid the accompanying coconut milk because they use the stuff from a carton. Less than fresh coconut milk mars the taste terribly. I like this version quite a bit because it’s good enough and it’s less oily than other versions.

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Other things worth eating are the home made tofu topped with bonito flakes and any of their basic stir-fry dishes. Go there with family or lots of good friends so you can try more dishes!

Zi Yean
Blk 56 Lengkok Bahru #01-443
Tel: 6474 0911 (Air-Con) / 6471 0253 (Non Air-Con)

Applebee’s

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Ever since spying Applebee’s from across the road at Oriole cafe, I’ve been wanting to check out this American chain diner. I remember reading a blog somewhere in which some random American girl (I know, not a particularly good source) said that it was her all-time favourite and was intrigued since then.

We started off with a Sour ApplebeeTini, an apple-flavoured martini with a cute stick of apple pieces to garnish. It was more apple juice than alcohol and  not particularly sour, though very palatable. This is one of those drinks that you could easily have on an empty stomach, it’s so mild. I’d imagine teenagers would adore this drink. Not your manly man type drink but very apt for the place and the food.

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DC the burger king ordered the Fire Pit Bacon Burger. It was a big burger with an even bigger portion of fries on the side. The seasoned fries were very good: soft inside and crispy outside. It was a good start already. The burger was very well seasoned, though I felt it a tad overcooked. It could be juicier but the melted cheese topping compensated nicely. No big deal with the jalapenos, they hardly added any heat but then again this is Singapore and we’re used to far hotter. I wasn’t very keen on the bacon because it was a bit too burnt and didn’t taste very bacony. But on the whole this was a very good burger with a nicely toasted bun, loads of ingredients that made a mess and excellent fries.

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I had the half rack ribs with Southern BBQ sauce. Those ribs were quite something. They were incredibly soft and tender with the meat practically falling off the bone and coupled with the sweet, smokey BBQ sauce, ambrosial. I don’t normally like sweet mains, but this was an exception. The accompanying coleslaw was surprisingly fresh and good quality. Coupled with the aforementioned excellent fries, this dish seemed pretty faultless to me!

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Now despite our full tummies, we couldn’t leave without trying dessert could we? There was no choice but to share a Maple Butter Blondie. The blondie was served  topped with vanilla ice cream on a hot skillet and maple butter sauce was poured on top to sizzle away. This was one of the few desserts that really worked the contrast between hot and cold, making it very special. I especially loved how the maple butter sauce caramelised on the skillet. Eating that those bits with the crisped up bottom of the blondie with cold creamy ice cream was such a sensation to savour.

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In short, expect loads of good, honest to goodness American food. None of it is gourmet, but it’s got me wanting to go back very soon!

[Edited to include the fajitas.]

So DC and I did go back another day. This time DC had the steak. Don’t bother with that sinewy excuse for meat, just head straight for the fajita combo. This sizzling plate of seasoned rice has lovely strips of beef and chicken nestled on a huge pile of  onions and peppers.

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Accompanying it was a generous plate of four tortillas, shredded cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo (basically onion and tomato salsa), sour cream and shredded lettuce. Making up the tortillas so that I didn’t overstuff them was a big challenge, I’m so greedy. I wanted a bit of everything inside and ended up squishing half the contents onto the plate by the time I got through the tortilla. It was very yummy though, with plenty of spice and smoke from the meat and onions and creaminess from the guacamole and sour cream. There’s enough for two people, so you could try sharing and ordering more starters and desserts. I certainly couldn’t manage a blondie dessert the second time round!

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Applebee’s
111 Somerset Road
#01-11/12 TripleOne Somerset
Tel: 6735 9671

Pseudo-Japanese Noodles

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I don’t call myself an expert on Japanese cooking, but when I feel like cooking Japanese for myself I make noodles with miso paste and dashi powder. Both are easily available from Japanese supermarkets. Miso paste comes in a bewildering number of variations. While the white version is more common, I like the deeper flavour of red miso. Dashi powder is simply Japanese fish stock powder. You could try making it from scratch, but since it’s msg and bonito anyway, I don’t bother and just buy it from the shop.

I like both soba and udon for this dish, but soba is easier to have on hand as it comes dried, unlike udon that needs to be bought fresh. I like the subtle flavour of green tea in chasoba best as it offsets the rather earthy flavour of buckwheat rather well.

One variation on the theme had me using some fancy Japanese tofu from Meidiya and some pork ribs I unearthed from the freezer. It’s definite worthwhile paying the $1 extra for good tofu, and this hits the spot for comforting and fairly healthy.

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Ingredients:

6 pork ribs
2 bundles of chasoba
1 tsp dashi powder, or to taste
¼ Chinese cabbage, cut into small chunks
1 box good Japanese tofu, cut into large chunks
2 tbsp red miso paste

Method:

  1. Put the defrosted pork ribs in a saucepan, cover with water, bring to a boil and simmer for about 30 mins or till tender. Remove the ribs from the stock.
  2. Cook the noodles according to packet instructions, then strain and run under the tap. Put into serving bowls.
  3. Bring the stock to a boil and add the dashi powder and Chinese cabbage, simmer till tender for about 3 minutes, then add the tofu.
  4. In a little bowl, mix the miso paste with a couple of spoonfuls of hot stock to dilute. It should be a runny paste before you add it to the soup.
  5. Bring the soup to a quick boil before ladling out onto the noodles.

Serves 2.

Bukit Timah’s BK Forture

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Sis-in-law took the whole family to a coffee shop-style restaurant that supposedly had really good hamdan (salted egg) crabs. Since the focus of dinner was really the crab, we whizzed through the other dishes quickly. The cappuccino ribs scored full marks for imagination but didn’t do that well for taste. It was coffee ribs with cocoa powder and evaporated milk drizzled on top. The coffee part was nicely dark and bitter but the cocoa powder just didn’t do it for me.

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The herbal chicken was supposed to be another signature dish but I felt that it wasn’t particularly special. Overcooked chicken with herbs: sure, it’s comfort food but I’m not going all the way out to that part of Bukit Timah for this dish.

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They misnamed the fish. It should’ve been called assam curry fish instead of Thai-style fish. The taste was great as the fish was fresh, the curry spicy and the vegetables tender-crunchy. Bro insisted on taking this picture with the red snapper’s mouth gaping open. Too bad the camera couldn’t capture the steam and bubbles coming out of its mouth. It was horror-movie cool (that is, if you were a fish watching a horror movie).

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Then came the piece de resistance! Now this is what I’d call a heart attack on a plate. As if the cholesterol in the crab isn’t enough, I don’t know how many (neither do I want to know how many) salted egg yolks were mashed up to make the savoury rich sauce. In fact, it was so rich that most of us gave up. Shockingly, no one fought over the last pieces, although Dad was very naughty and had some even though he had to go for a cholesterol test the next day. Only DC stuck it to the end, polishing up the last bits and impressing Mum on the way. All in all, it was very decent stuff though not quite as good as the first time I had crab done this way in KL. Still, barring going all the way up north, this definitely hits the spot.

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BK Forture
887 Bukit Timah Road
Tel: 6469 5957

Peranakan at the Arch

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We had Peranakan at the Arch,  opposite Raffles Hotel. It’s a convenient place to go for dinner as it’s in a quiet corner of the city. The place has lots of decor from Ikea, so it’s all simple and understated. I love the service here. First thing they ask is if you’d like iced or warm water. Our server was attentive and smiling all the time. She gave good suggestions for our orders and made us feel right at home.

The first dish was the winged bean salad with dried shrimp and sambal. The raw beans were crisp and tasted very green. They were tossed in a generous dose of  dried shrimp and fiery chilli and finished off with lime juice.  It was a great start to the meal.

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I enjoyed the squid in honey pineapple sauce. The sauce was sweet and tangy with a touch of chilli and the squid was cooked just right for me, chewy and on the edge to crunchy. My mum found it too tough for her liking.

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The sayur lodeh (mild vegetable curry) was a crowd pleaser. Cabbage and long beans were cooked till soft but not mushy in a satisfyingly lemak (rich with coconut milk) sauce. I could also taste the dried shrimp in the sauce.  That’s the reason why Peranakan food needs to be eaten with lots of rice. Thumbs up.

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Not wanting to be too greedy, we had only one meat dish, deep-fried pork ribs in lime and black sauce. This certainly isn’t a Peranakan dish but it sure is good. The deep-fried ribs were crisp despite being drowned in the sweet black sauce and they were very moreish. Calamansi lime halves and fried curry leaves were tossed in to add piquancy and fresh herbiness to the dish. Best dish of the evening.

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We were rewarded for our restraint for the main dishes. Dessert here was very decent. The sago gula melaka ($1.20) was cheap and good. Sure, it was a small bowl, but isn’t that all you need at the end of a meal? The sago came splashed with coconut milk and the gula melaka (palm sugar) syrup came in a little jug of warm goodness. The gula melaka was rich and caramelly while the sago was cooked till just soft, a perfect combination of sweet and bland.

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My brother had the pulut hitam (black glutinous rice porridge). It was coochengked with dried longan and finished off with coconut milk. I liked it because it was smooth and creamy without being cloying. It wasn’t too sweet and had a cheng (light) taste.

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Dinner for three came up to about $60. It’s reasonably priced considering the town location. While  my Peranakan friends would probably sniff at the not-quite authentic food, the cooking is good and it’s a worthy option for a quiet and convenient place for dinner.

The Arch Straits Cuisine
32 Seah Street
Tel: 6837 3132