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

July in Vietnam: The Fishing Village of Mui Ne

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I moved on from Quy Nhon to Mui Ne, bypassing Nha Trang because I wasn’t up to much partying after Hue (I chose not to post about celebrating Canada Day because of that awful, awful hangover) and I heard the diving there wasn’t very much different from Hoi An (with which I wasn’t impressed, that’s a story for another day). Mui Ne didn’t disappoint. I arrived as dusk fell and the idyllic coconut-trees-swaying-in-the-wind setting immediately started working its charm.

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Daytime augmented the coconut-tree charm and I soon found myself on the back of a motorcycle off to a nearby fishing village.

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Early in the morning, fishing boats return from the night’s work and the flotilla waits in the shallows for the coracles to come out to unload the cargo.

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The coracles are unique circular little fellas that are nimble enough to float on mere inches of water to bring in the catch.

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By the time this tourist arrived, most of the activity was tapering off and people were starting to relax after sorting and selling their wares.

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Many of them were still milling around the main bartering areas, leaving their little boats on the beach out of reach of the waves.

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The highlight of this visit really was getting up close to these boats. I’d not seen them anywhere else in the world and was very intrigued by how they managed to get anywhere. I imagine myself just going round and round in circles if I had to captain one of these! These boats were really just waterproofed baskets, no wonder they were simply left unguarded all over the beach. If one goes missing, just weave a replacement, easy!

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Coracles aside, there were other interesting things going on at the beach. There were bullock carts hauling fresh catch or selling breakfast treats.

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There were baskets upon baskets of fish on sale, mainly small to medium ones.

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And there were plenty of locals in the characteristic conical hats negotiating good prices for crates of silvery fish.

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Some areas of the beach were strewn with open shells. Here, plenty of sorting had taken place earlier in the morning where I’m guessing workers went through thousands of scallops, extracting the meat to be dried for export.

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Near the beach, fish were being salted and laid out to dry in the already fierce morning sun.

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And off I went to my next adventure, admiring how the sun glinted off the sea in waves of silver as my motorbike whizzed past.

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It was also a wonder how we got anywhere, considering that the bike’s speedometer needle didn’t move past zero! More to come next post.

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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

Isetan Supermarket’s Hokkaido Fair

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Isetan Supermarket has quite a few themed fairs and the Hokkaido Fair is a regular fixture there. I try to get there for it’s always dependable sushi sets. This time, there were snow crab boxed rices. DC’s was the bigger one. It had uni (sea urchin), my favourite ikura (salmon roe), sake (salmon), cooked salmon, and crab claw pieces.

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Mine had mainly shredded crab, lots more ikura than DC’s box, and uni. It also had more pickles, which I liked loads. The crab was juicy and delicately oceanic, and the uni was creamy and had that characteristic almost-ammonia whiff. I guess I’m not the biggest fan of uni given that smell. But of course, it was the ikura that sends me to heaven. I cannot say too many times how much I love the bursty-salty fish egg goodness. Coupled with the perfectly cooked rice gone a touch beyond al dente and the lovely pale pink daikon pickle, this rice box was so good I didn’t even need the soy sauce to go with it.

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Because we both skipped breakfast, we thought it perfectly reasonable to order Hokkaido ramen too. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite as wow as we thought. Fortunately, we only ordered one bowl, the special seafood ramen. Only 50 bowls of this flavour were made each day. It had a fair bit of seafood in it: crab claw, uni, shrimp, squid and a skirted scallop. It was all pretty agreeable, but not so exquisitely fresh or flavourful that I would devour the whole thing by myself. I liked the noodles a great deal though. They were done perfectly al dente, just the way I like it, and I guess just the way the Japanese like it.

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I can’t wait for the next Hokkaido Fair!

Isetan Supermarket
50 Orchard Road Shaw House
Tel: 6733 1111

A Tatsuya Birthday Dinner

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In a fit of extreme generosity, Dad brought us to Tatsuya’s for my birthday dinner. We went for the seasonal omakase, which was many kinds of sublime. The thought that all the seafood had been flown in either fro Tsukiji or Fukuoka fish markets made the food even more delicious.

The first course was a duo of anglerfish liver and fresh ikura (salmon roe). The anglerfish liver was made into a pate. Smooth and unctuous with just a touch of fishiness to remind you that it’s fish not fowl, it was contrasted delicately with a light vinegar sauce. Sorry Kiraku, this version rocked my socks. And the ikura! As it is, ikura is one of my all time favourites. This version came with every single delicate egg sac intact and only very lightly sauced. The only pity was that there were two or three eggs that weren’t as fresh as they should be. It was still good though, because the others, each so incredibly bursty, made up for it.

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Next up was probably the best dish in the meal. I know the picture below doesn’t do it justice, but the crab tofu with century egg sauce was out of this world. I felt like I was eating crab chawanmushi because the tofu was so thick and rich. The crab formed a matrix that held the tofu together – succulently, just sheer crabily. The textures and flavours came together beautifully from the softness of the tofu to the yield of the crab and crunchiness of the shrimp roe to the earthiness of the century egg. It’s the one dish I’d go back for again and again.

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The sashimi plate came next. The fish was all fresh and good, though the otoro and amaebi weren’t the best I’ve tasted. I liked the yellowtail and swordfish, especially the dressed yellowtail in special sauce. I also liked how the waitress told us that everything on the plate could be eaten. The sprig of tiny pink flowers tasted vaguely of lavender and was an excellent interlude to the fish.

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The next dish was what we all felt was the weakest link. It was the simmered item: Japanese yam cakes with yakitori chicken and leek then sprinkled with yuzu. The yam cakes were still slightly crisp from the deep fryer (!) and had a very pleasing slightly starchy texture. I’m glad it didn’t have the gummy texture of the raw version. Now the rest of the dish somehow seemed unbalanced because the chicken was far too sweet and salty and the leek too pongy for my taste. I didn’t intend to have onion breath from a Japanese dinner!

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What followed was better than the preceding dish. Grilled barracuda topped with mentaiko mayonnaise and pickled ginger stem was quite good. It was a bit too rich for Mum and she pushed it to Dad. DC loved it though, mentaiko and especially mayonnaise are his favourites. I liked how the fish was grilled: slightly charred on the outside, moist perfection on the inside. The mentaiko mayonnaise was rich and full of oily fishy goodness.

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The next dish redeemed all the sins of the preceding dishes (bar the crab tofu of course). The sushi was amazing. Start first with the amberjack topped with caviar. Savour the unadulterated freshness contrasted with the dark, deeply savoury caviar. Then go for the swordfish aburi. Enjoy the contrast between cooked and fresh fish, and charred rice. Now have the sweet shrimp topped with prawn roe. Can you detect that special aroma of almost burnt crustacean? Ready for the otoro aburi? It’s pretty good but save the scallop with foie gras for the last. It’s that good. Smooth sweet scallop with fatty foie gras coming together in perfection in your mouth. Mmm…

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The waitress came round and asked if we were full. If not, she suggested the house temaki specialty. We were full but not about to pass up the house specialty. The waitress returned, urging us to quickly eat before the seaweed got soggy. My initial thoughts on the first bite were “quite normal what, salmon skin, prawn roe, cucumber, rice, what’s the big deal?” Then it dawned on me. The textures were an epiphany. There was firm rice, crispy salmon skin with a touch of rich mayonnaise, crunchy bursty roe, and fresh crisp cucumber. Wrapped with freshly toasted seaweed, it was an exploration of four kinds of crispy. Amazing.

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We ended the savoury courses with a fantastic miso soup made with fresh baby clams. It was amazing how many clams I could fish out of one regular bowl of miso soup. The clams made the soup amazingly deep and richly seafoody yet not at all fishy. The miso rounded it all off nicely. Another coup for the chef.

When we finally surrendered to the waitress, she brought out the dessert of sweet pear, pomegranate and persimmon. The first two weren’t particularly special, but I liked the persimmon. It was sweet and yummy, though I’m not sure it’s that much nicer than a regular one at the peak of ripeness.

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One strange thing about this place is that while the food is posh and incredibly expensive, the waitresses talk quite loudly and seemed to treat us like friends, not so much customers. It nice and we felt at home quite quickly, but it seemed rather out of sync that the waitresses practically shouted orders at each other, so it’s not a place for a quiet dinner. It took a bit of getting used to though!

While of course not perfect, the meal was very good. DC said it’s the best Japanese he’s had in Singapore and he’s an authority given his extensive eating at these places. Definitely a place for celebrating birthdays and bonuses.

Tatsuya Japanese Restaurant
Goodwood Park Hotel
22 Scotts Road
Tel : 6887 4598

1 for 1 at Zambuca

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I was lucky. It was my cousin’s birthday and First Uncle and Aunt asked me along to make up the numbers for the 1 for 1 offer at Zambuca. It was a four-course meal that started with an amuse-bouche they called “tomato tea.” It was pretty well executed as the very pale yellow tinged liquid tasted startlingly like tomato. I wonder if it was just strained fresh tomato juice but it was very good as something to tickle the palate.

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I picked the scallops with muesli as a starter. True enough, two small scallops made a plural; even though I felt the portion was far too small, one really couldn’t complain about misrepresentation on the menu! The scallops were fresh and the barley-currant mix added an interesting texture to the dish. It was a pity the foam didn’t taste of very much, otherwise this would have made a rather imaginative and unique starter.

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The crab, caper and anchovy angel hair pasta was a bit of a letdown. It sounded like it had such promise on the menu but the execution fell flat. The capers and anchovies were too salty, while the crab was a bit bland. The flavours just did not meld well. This was probably the weakest link in my dinner.

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The beef pretty much saved the disappointment of the pasta dish. Here, however, was where there definitely was misrepresentation. The menu said that the beef was aged but it certainly did not taste like it. Also, I was shocked that the restaurant could overcook my beef. I asked for rare but it came out on the medium side of medium rare. Having said all that, it was decently flavoured so I didn’t bother to send it. In any case, I couldn’t be too fussy because I wasn’t paying anyway. The onion was decent though too sugary as the chef cheated when he caramelised the onions. The sprouting broccoli was a nice touch though.

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Last of all was dessert. My cousin got a bonus tiramisu complete with candle and singing waiters. That was a lovely touch and it was good for the rest of us greedies since she needed a lot of help to finish her extra dessert. For my own dessert I had creme brulee with rhubarb compote. It was a typical creme brulee, rather forgettable and the rhubarb compote wasn’t particularly flavourful. Nothing to complain about yet nothing particularly exciting.

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I know that this post isn’t particularly glowing. It was great stuff since it was free for me: I guess it’s one of those cases where the food was up to standards but not particularly remarkable but the company more than made up for it.

Zambuca Italian Restaurant and Bar
Pan Pacific Singapore
7 Raffles Boulevard Level 3
Singapore 039595
Tel: 6337 8086

Overpriced Hawker Food

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DC brought me to his favourite overpriced hawker food at Space@My Humble House. He strongly recommended the seafood carrot cake. It’s rather different from the plain rough-texture eggy version at the hawker centre. This version uses the smoother silken Hong Kong-style carrot cake, which takes the dish a few rungs up the class ladder. Of course the scallop and crab helped a bunch too!

I especially liked how the wok hei gave the dish a lovely smokey flavour and there were crisp almost burnt bits. Then the fresh seafood really took it places. Plump scallops and luscious crab are probably gilding the lily because it’s normally one or the other for me. Here, both together are just perfect. I only felt slightly guilty that I’d ditched my colleagues for this lunch!

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Space@My Humble House
8 Raffles Avenue
#02-25 Esplanade Mall
Tel: 6423 1881

An Accidental Lunch at the Moomba

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I suggested going to the Moomba for lunch with friend, thinking that it was a place for wraps and fancy sandwiches.  I’d mixed it up with its sister establishment, the Moomba Tuckshop. When I got to Circular Road, I realised my mistake. It’s a modern Australian restaurant, more fine dining than fancy sandwich. Luckily, my friend was happy to play along and, having no preconceived notions of what the food should be, we had an unexpectedly good lunch at the place.

The restaurant was pretty expensive, with appetisers going from $24 up, mains $25 up and desserts $12 up.  Since neither of us were big eaters, we decided to share an appetiser, two mains and a dessert. Swift mental calculations told me that the best deal was the 3-course lunch offer ($42) plus an a la carte main.

The appetiser was three Hokkaido scallops on a bed of watercress salad ($24). Each scallop was lovingly seared so it had a smoky crust giving way to the juicy still-raw interior. The seafood freshness really hit the spot. The accompanying salad was well executed as the spiciness of watercress was well balanced by incredibly sweet cherry tomatoes. The chef evidently chooses his produce very carefully.

The mushroom risotto ($25) was another winner. The risotto itself was studded with mushroom bits and perfumed with just enough truffle oil to tantalise. Covering half the risotto was a giant portobello mushroom, grilled to meaty perfection. Point to note: this dish was served at the edge of al dente, so you need to get to it fast before the rice grains go soft. We made the fatal mistake of chatting for too long before coming to our senses. Then we fell upon it and polished it off to the last grain.

Grilled kangaroo ($36) came next. It was surprisingly good medium done and could easily pass off as beef. Tasting somewhat like a cross between beef and venison, it was slightly more gamey than beef and had less of an iron tang than venison. The kangaroo was set on a pile of what looked like asparagus stems and had a few coins of purple sweet potato on the side. It was all faultless, so we could just focus on enjoying the food and the conversation.

Being on an adventurous streak, we went for the poached pear with blue cheese ice cream ($13). The ice cream tasted at first like baked cheesecake, with the accompanying mouthfeel. The only difference was that it had an extra savoury aftertaste.  It took another few spoonfuls before the blue cheese flavour came through. It was odd but somehow worked. Good for those who don’t like their desserts too sweet. The poached pear in red wine was too sweet for my liking. Having the pear and ice cream together, we felt that there was too much going on at the same time: soft grainy pear, sweetness, a hint of red wine, cold unctuous cheese and the salty pungency of blue cheese all together was  too overwhelming. While I’m unlikely to order it again, it was a fun experiment and I’m glad to have tried it.

Final notes: This place, like most chi-chi establishments, checks if you want still or sparkling water. They’ll pour  you tap water from pretty herb-sprigged bottles if you ask. Service was generally good: unobtrusive and attentive. One thing they need to work on is the pricing of their set menu. We expected to be charged a la carte prices for the cheaper mushrom risotto and pay for the kangaroo as part of the set, but the bill came otherwise. They were good enough to make the change in our favour, so kudos to them for saving us $20!

I’d definitely come back here again for its inventive food. The set lunch is good value since you get to choose anything from the a la carte menu, the produce is fresh and of good quality, and the cooking is top notch.

The Moomba
52 Circular Road
Tel: 6438 0141

P.S. Apologies for the lack of photos. It was a happy accident that I got to eat here so didn’t bring my camera.