Kumo – A Meditative Kaiseki

DC and I were celebrating a special occasion and, having been there once and enjoying the food immensely, we chose Kumo. We opted for the kaiseki menu at $168 per person. The chef showcases the ingredients of the season and his skill with the various courses. He also checked whether we had any particular dislikes or preferences before starting our dinner.

The first course came as a tasting appetiser platter. Unfortunately, the waitress wasn’t very experienced and didn’t give an description of our dish before disappearing to fetch our sake. We started from right to left, tasting the unagi topped with kinome leaf (it’s a kind of pepper plant and the aroma was similar to kaffir lime leaf, with hints of mint), then a jumbo-size broad bean that was half sprouted, a sweet vinegary lotus root, some kind of soft brown shoot, a boiled prawn that was a bit too sugary for my taste, something quite familiar – choy sum – that’s apparently a spring delicacy in Japan, and scallop with sweet yuzu sauce. It was all halfway decent, and would probably have been more interesting had I known what they all were without having to figure it all out with a Japanese cookbook on seasonal food at home. One problem was that the scallop was on the verge of being unfresh, forgivable in lesser establishments, but certainly not at a kaiseki place that’s celebrating the freshness of seasonal produce (and also the former fatness of one’s wallet).

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By then, the sake arrived and we were distracted by the not-quite stellar start. DC chose a bubbly sake, something we’ve not tried before. It’s called Takara Mio ($28 for 300ml) and scored -7 on the dry-sweet scale, the numbers decreasing as it got sweeter. The first hit of the sake gave the immediate impression of 7-Up, except with a sake nose. It’s hardly made for the connoisseur, and with only 5% alcohol, could well pass for a girly alcopop. We enjoyed the floral fizz, it was a lovely change from the usual sake.

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But I jumped ahead too fast to the sake. The sake bottle was accompanied to the table by a tray of pretty sake glasses and we each chose a unique one from which to enjoy our sake. What a lovely touch.

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The next dish was explained by a more knowledgeable waitress. It was sesame tofu and icefish in dashi. I wasn’t sure about the tofu on its own, because it was somehow rather bitter, but I liked the texture and aroma combination that made it very reminiscent of our local ahbaling (glutinous rice balls stuffed with black sesame). It was much better taken with the soup and smushed in the mouth so that it became creamy and fragrant. The icefish was quite like local white bait, just a bit bigger – rather like an intermediate between local and western white bait. Soft bones were part of the deal and it was a bit weird to feel them going down. The icefish had a nice delicately fishy flavour but wasn’t very special. The kinome leaf featured again, to my delight and the fern was only okay. I was a bit disappointed that it couldn’t last long enough from its trip from Japan as it was already browning slightly and wasn’t super fresh.

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Now the sashimi course was what grabbed my attention. Oh my, how many ways was it divine? The fish, for a start. Just three kinds, but fantastically chosen to showcase delicate white fish in the form of hirame (flounder), then oily white fish in the form of hamachi (yellowtail) and oily red fish in the star of otoro (tuna belly). First of all, the sashimi was supremely fresh and faultless. It was also cut perfectly – no sinews, no weird bits marring the pure taste of fish. Then the soy sauce. It had a deep, almost smoky flavour and really brought out the flavour of the fish. As if that wasn’t enough, the garnishes came into play too. There were pretty pink turnip slices, sour-savoury marinated chrysanthemum petals (not the usual bitter, yum!), mouth-numbingly hot mustard sprouts, marinated seaweed and freshly grated wasabe. The star of the garnishes was the sprig of pink flowers. Eat them on their own and it’s nothing special. But drop them into the soy sauce and you get an unexpected fragrance when eating the sashimi. And the otoro part – it was stunning with lovely marbling and flavour. I don’t even need to say it hardly required any chewing. Beautiful.

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The next course, while not as headline grabbing as the sashimi course, was nonetheless stunning. I loved the salted grilled hamachi cheek. The insides were very soft and flavourful from the fish oils and the salty-sticky-chewy-crisp bits of the skin was a lovely contrast. For the inside flesh that needed a little lift, there was some grated daikon that had a dash of soy sauce added to the top. The sideshows were stellar, with three kinds of tempura and four kinds of boiled items. The tempura was very interesting, all of vegetables that aren’t in your regular tempura set. There was a type of shoot with a delicate garlic-like flavour, a chrysanthemum flower (cooking seems to cook out the bitterness, and baby cabbage that was essentially a brussels sprout without the bitterness. Of the boiled items, the sweet potato tasted as if it had been soaked in pure sugar, which was such an oddity (assuming of course that the sweetness was all natural). Otherwise, the sweet bean, Japanese red carrot, and konnyaku (yam jelly) weren’t particularly special. I never quite understood the point of konnyaku in savoury dishes anyway.

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The performance started to sag at this point. It was still interesting, because they served different parts of the boiled octopus. There were the usual tentacles, but also part of the head, which contained tightly-packed roe. It was topped with the same creamy yuzu sauce as the scallop in the first dish. I wasn’t too enamoured by the flavours and textures of this dish, but it could in part be due to my guilt for eating octopus. See, I don’t normally eat octopus. When I went diving in Komodo, I was told that octopi are generally almost impossible to catch because they are so intelligent and are masters of stealth and disguise. Only female octopi get so hungry while tending their laid eggs that they throw caution to the winds and move out to get food. This is when they get caught, and the result is that the next generation of octopi die too, because their mother isn’t around to oxygenate the eggs. But I dunno, seeing that this octopus had unlaid eggs inside, perhaps it was simply a dumb one caught unawares? Who knows.

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The next dish was the weakest link in the menu. It was a seaweed stew with bamboo shoots and grilled scallops. We first tasted the seaweed stew, which was essentially pureed seaweed. It was strongly umami-flavoured yet strangely not very salty. Then I tasted the grilled scallop, but not before appreciating the delicate grill markings on it. This time, the scallop was top-notch fresh. The downfall were the bamboo shoots as they were way too salty, so much so that even a prolonged dunk in the seaweed stew didn’t do it any good. The balance was completely off, and hardly saved by the aromatic kinome leaf. Bad move.

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The next dish got a little better. It was done super simply – just boiled and dribbled with a delicate goma sauce. The green vegetable was Japanese butterbur, which is very much like celery except that it was tubular o-shape rather than celery’s c-shape. It was similarly fibrous, but hadn’t any particular flavour. The mountain yam was starchy and very slightly sticky, so DC initially thought they gave us potato by mistake.

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The tempura course was where things started to really pick up. I’ve not had wagyu tempura before so this was quite the revelation. The batter was very delicate so that it would complement the soft beef that was slow-cooked till the tendons were melting. I was glad to see the garlic shoot-like plant feature again. It was especially good with the dipping salt.

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By now, I was so full that the sushi course, signalling the end of the savoury courses, was a big relief. The chef cleverly left the best to the last. The first thing about the sushi was how prettily it was plated. Then as I ate each piece, I realised that the rice was firm and had a mouthfilling savour rather than the typical vinegary aroma of the regular type of sushi rice. By this time, the sheer number of courses and the effects of the sake had kicked in and I don’t remember each bite as clearly as earlier on with the sashimi. As expected, the fish was top notch fresh. What I liked was that each piece of sushi had some kind of topping as a play on the texture. The anago was delicately tender, going well with the crisp cucumber slice and the smoky aburi tai (torched seabream) came with a few strange chewy sticks of (yam? seaweed?) on the top. The┬ákohada (gizzard shad) came with ginger and spring onions on top and was very lightly vinegared, unlike the usual sharp blast when other places do it to less than fresh mackeral. There was a seasonal fish called sayori that had a shiso leaf and some of its own bones, deep-fried, on the top. It was rather special. The otoro came with an interesting chopped wasabe leaf topping that gave a whole different perspective of how we usually see wasabe. The best part was that they gave an extra dollop of wasabe on the side to dip the sushi with impunity. Yum.

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Dessert really was pretty much an afterthought. The sakura cheesecake was frozen and decent enough, but nothing special. Similarly, the fruits were only decent. I found it a waste to spend money importing Japanese strawberries only to find mine tart: it was hopeless to fight against the strawberry coulis. Aside from that, I liked the sweet-tart mango, which quite definitely didn’t come from Japan. And the mochi was decent with the red bean.

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I can’t decide whether the dessert was a letdown or a soft landing for the dinner. It definitely clarified how good the sashimi and sushi courses were, and in a way reset the palate back to the real world. I wish I had more occasions and a fatter wallet to have this more often.

Kumo
12 Gopeng Street, Icon Village, #01-58
Singapore 078877
Tel: +65 6225 8433

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Quick Drinks: Make Shake

Shinta took us to Make Shake one sweltering hot day after we finished our mee pok tar at Verdun Road (the chilli is still as good as ever and even better, their noodles are now done al dente). We absolutely needed something to cool us down. Thankfully there was Make Shake, a little milkshake stall at the basement of City Square Mall.

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We took a while deciding what to have because there was a mind-boggling array of choices. Either choose from a list of the popular flavours or customise your own. From the bases, you can choose malted vanilla ice cream ($2.90), chocolate ice cream ($3.40) or frozen yogurt (presumably plain yogurt at $3.80). Then you choose what to blend in from four categories at $0.80 a pop – sweet treats like Maltesers and Skittles, fruit like strawberry and lychee, sauces and powders like green tea and caramel, and biscuits like Hello Panda and Tim Tam.

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I went for the Green Monster, a blend of vanilla ice cream with mint and Oreo ($3.90). It was pretty good as it was nice and thick and the biscuit blended fine enough that I didn’t have funny lumps in it yet could taste the biscuit bits. The touch of mint was just right so it was refreshing and not at all like toothpaste. Shinta and Eeyore buddied up for the 2 for $6 coconut shake offer, but it wasn’t very good as the coconut flavour was a bit suspect. I guess coconut from a can just isn’t as good as freshly squeezed especially when you can get fresh coconut fairly easily in Singapore. KK had vanilla and lychee and seemed to like hers. She reported that the lychee was canned as expected. Mrs Eeyore had chocolate and coffee and was very pleased that it tasted exactly like a frappuccino. Right. DC had the strawberry with vanilla – it wasn’t very smooth and the strawberry bits were a bit too tart. Overall, they make a credible milkshake, though a bit too solid. DC and I prefer Once Upon a Milkshake, which is thicker and smoother. But if you’re in the area, the Green Monster is a great way to cool down.

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Make Shake
#B2-K2/K11, City Square Mall
180 Kitchener Road
Singapore 208539
Tel: +65 6834 3458

Salta

DC and I spied Salta, an Argentinian restaurant tucked away in a corner, when we wandered round Icon Village. It’s not along the main drag, so it’s not so easy to spot. Look for it in the alley between the artisan bakery and roast chicken place. We started with the empanadas (three for $8). They were somewhat like our local curry puffs, just baked instead of fried, and with beef and capsicum filling instead of curry chicken. It was decent, but not spectacular.

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We then opted for a Parrillada for two, essentially a mixed grill with short ribs, beef skirt, chicken, black hog, mixed sausage, lamb rack, grilled vegetables and potatoes ($81). It was an incredible amount of food, with two large pieces of each type of meat. They did the beef just as we like it – rare. I like how the meat was very straightforward, tasting uncomplicatedly of good meat. I liked how well they grilled the chicken thigh so that the skin was wonderfully crisp. Very good.

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There wasn’t space in the main platter for the vegetables. They were grilled perfectly and made a great foil to the meat. I don’t even remember the potatoes, but they weren’t needed as there was so much food!

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Needless to say, we hadn’t room for dessert. More’s the pity since I have a soft spot for dulce de leche. We need to go back.

SALTA Argentine Parrilla + Grocer
Icon Village
12 Gopeng Street #01-56
Tel: +65 6225 8443

The Little Fish Shop

The Little Fish Shop is a casual restaurant run by the people behind Greenwood Fish Market. It’s in a little corner of NEX and isn’t easy to find as it’s away from the main drag of the fourth floor. We ended up going to the fifth floor and coming down again through King & King Wong, the homewares shop, before finally stumbling upon it. Let’s just say walk-in customers probably aren’t its mainstay.

We shared a lobster bisque to start. It was quite decent, thick with crustacean goodness, although I suspect much of its richness may come from prawn and not lobster. It was very enjoyable still, given that it was less than $10!

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DC and I moved on to the hot seafood platter for two. It was massive. There was a wee bit of salad that attempted to make this a slightly healthier dish, but the fried soft-shell crab immediately puts paid to that idea! (I’m not a big fan of soft-shell crab, as it’s so hard to get it crisp without becoming oil-logged.) The grilled prawns were pretty decent, though could be fresher as one of them was on the verge of being mushy.

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I liked how they cooked mussels and clams together in a rich broth infused with shallots, chilli and parsley. The shellfish complemented each other very well and the sweetness of the broth made us wish we’d saved some of our bread for this (we’d wolfed it all down with the soup). We soon found that chips weren’t half bad dipped in the shellfish broth either!

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The calamari was probably the best part of the dish. I have a major soft spot for squid, especially grilled squid. This hit all the right spots with the squid done so just about chewy but not too chewy, charred nicely in parts and salted just so. It also went well with the tomato salsa on the side.

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DC liked the fish and chips more than me. The batter was good and crisp, but slightly too thick, and it absolutely has to be eaten hot or it will be disappointingly soggy and oily. The fries were well done, crisp on the outside and meltingly soft inside. Again, don’t wait for them to get cold. Few places can make fries taste good when cold. Remember, there’s always the option of dunking them into the shellfish broth!

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Little Fish Shop
NEX @ 23 Serangoon Central #04-15/16
Tel: +65 6634 7941
Email: fishshop_nex@yahoo.com.sg

Christmas Dinner at Gordon Grill

We never thought of Gordon Grill as a date spot, but a series of events led DC and I there one evening during the Christmas season. The others in the group had for some reason cancelled on us and we decided to go ahead with the 6-course Christmas menu ($116 per person) anyway. We were well rewarded.

The first course, cold angel hair pasta with marinated king crab and farm caviar consisted of a refreshing few morsels of al dente pasta with sweet crab, sour lime, salty caviar and finished off with earthy truffle. I found that the black truffle oil they used a bit overwhelming. Otherwise, it was a great dish that was straightforward and easy on the palate.

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The confit of ocean trout with avocado puree, sea vegetables and lime-soya vinaigrette was my favourite dish of the evening. I liked how each component was done just right on its own and complemented each other really well. The trout confit itself was wonderfully tender and juicy and I could taste a trace of the oil it was poached in. A nice foil to the fish was the lightly pickled daikon that was crunchy, salty and sweet at the same time. I liked the softness of the avocado and the strangeness of the bursty sea vegetables.

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Then the roasted duck foie gras with caramelised Granny Smith and raspberry sorbet. I’d have liked this better if I liked sweet things more and if I liked extremely rich dishes more. This was obviously DC’s cup of tea and he thoroughly savoured the dish. The foie gras was well seared on both sides though I felt that it would have been better if cooked in a pan for more crispness than when roasted. It was nice and melting on the inside. Accompanying the foie gras was an array of dessert-like nibbles, a bit like a substitute to the sweet Sauternes typically served with foie gras. There was the piece of tart-sweet Granny Smith flavoured with apple and vanilla bean sauce that I liked, the raspberry sorbet with freeze-dried raspberry powder on it that I really like, and two very interesting additions. One was a strange green steamed cake that I found too sweet and odd for my liking and the other a nut-covered foie gras terrine. The smooth terrine went very well with the crispy toast slivers and was a nice take on the Almond Roca style candies that I’m quite fond of. DC sure isn’t complaining that my portion was too big for me as he got to eat the rest of my foie gras.

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The final appetiser was the rich poultry consomme with black truffle ravioli and winter vegetables. I generally like consommes a lot and this certainly didn’t disappoint. It had the typical deeply savoury taste that I like so much and the winter vegetables were a nice, though unnecessary touch. I thought the black truffle ravioli was slightly overdone, but in the overall scheme of things it hardly made a difference. (Plus, have I mentioned that I’m a bit tired of restaurants using black truffle oil in practically everything in their menus?)

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And now for the main course of reindeer striploin with porcini mushrooms, barley, savoy cabbage and liquorice sauce. While the reindeer didn’t have a red nose, it was gamey and tender. Very well done. I also liked the al dente barley and the slightly bitter cabbage. Surprisingly after the preceding small bites, I was feeling pretty full by now and still couldn’t finish my meat. I think the memory of my last deer dish was too strong for me to appreciate something good like this, but not sublime. Again, DC was the happy recipient of it all.

IMG_4818And on to dessert! The chocolate mille-feuille with cocoa sorbet and marinated forest berries wasn’t very special because they copped out and used chocolate layers instead of pastry. The cake base also wasn’t anything to shout about. Generally acceptable, but not exactly a very satisfying end to the meal. This is something that we notice quite a lot in these “fine dining” restaurants. The chef is normally very good with the savoury dishes but falls flat on the dessert. It’s obviously unrealistic to expect the chef to be an all-rounder, so at least hire a good pastry chef, right?

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Now my dessert of mango creme brulee with armagnac ice cream was lovely. The rich custard was lightly scented with mango and its caramel topping was just the right thickness so I got enough crunchiness in each mouthful. I liked the short pastry blobs that crunch-dissolved in the mouth and found the ice cream a good foil for it all. It could have been vanilla flavoured though, I didn’t taste any alcohol in it.

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Overall, I think Gordon Grill has a good thing going. The standard of cooking is generally very good, with some brilliant ideas like the trout confit and the foie gras “dessert”. Execution-wise, it sometimes stumbles a bit, but not enough to detract from a good meal. The Christmas menu was surprisingly good value for money. I think we’ll be back again to try more dishes!

Gordon Grill
Goodwood Park Hotel
22 Scotts Road
Tel: +65 6730 1744

The Leica and the Bespoke Cocktails

And we take a short break from Africa. Let me bring you something much closer to home:

Even though Yi-Ling was back in Singapore for too short a while, we made good use of the time and hung out when we could. After an indulgent day wandering around looking at interior design ideas and going for a spa, we ended up at Bar Stories where the bartenders make customised drinks. We got there early at about 5pm on a weekday, making it the perfect excuse for Yi-Ling to order the famed Apple Pie drink. Alas, I was but a n00b and needed some prompting from our friendly bartender (I badly quote him: “No s**t drinks!”). I asked for something sour and refreshing, with no mixed alcohol (needed to recover enough to drive, see). It turned out to be an easily made up drink made with fresh passionfruit, sours, simple syrup and vodka. Decent if in a regular joint because I do like my passionfruit, but kinda meh in a place like this. Friendly bartender later christened it Boring Passion on our bill and told me that I should say if I didn’t like my drink (but I did like it, it was just kinda quotidian).

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Anyhow, I enjoyed my passionfruit drink and finished a good half of it while watching him make Yi-Ling’s Apple Pie. No wonder they only make it during off-peak: it took a good 10 minutes to make! First, he chopped some green apple and muddled it together with some cinnamon sugar. I didn’t catch what else he added, but there was this pretty spectacular bit where he took a blow torch and a spray bottle of angostura bitters and sprayed the bitters through the flame and into the mix. Very cool indeed. Then there was a bit more prep work with rimming the glass with more cinnamon sugar and finishing off the drink prettily with apple slices. It was a lovely drink, tasting very much like baked apple pie filling. Excellent stuff!

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We sat for ages at the bar enjoying the ambience and the decor. Check out the ceiling lights, I really liked how they hacked hanging lights into something a little more interesting. I think it helps a lot that the shop downstairs has the same sort of furniture for sale. In fact, the comfortable seats we sat one were for sale too.

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Then the exciting bit started. A photographer from Club Snap was testing out a camera. To be precise, it was a Leica S2 on loan from Leica’s distributor in Singapore. He’d arranged for one of the bartenders to make cocktails with plenty of blow torch action and took numerous shots like below, just from a much better angle and with infinitely more skill.

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By then, I was ready for my next cocktail and asked for something herbal and complex. Not to be outdone by the other guy, our friendly bartender pulled together some rosemary, plonked it into a tumbler and poured on some gin. He then nonchalantly lit it with a blow torch and walked away.

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When the flames died down, he came back and poured in a mixture of flamed angostura bitters, sours and simple syrup. To finish, he pushed in some crushed ice et voila! And my drink was served. I am not exaggerating: this is the best drink I’ve had. My first impression was that of bak kwa. While many think of sweet-saltiness first when they describe why they like bak kwa, most of bak kwa’s allure really comes from the smoky, mouth-filling flavour of charred food. It was this same smoky, mouthfilling flavour that somehow permeated each sip, even down to the last diluted drop (I was trying to conserve my drink and also not turn redder than I already was). This truly lived up to my request for something herbal and complex. Two thumbs up to the talented bartender for making my Rosemary Cooler work.

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Yi-Ling’s second drink was a complicated blend of mascarpone cheese, raspberry, butterscotch, frangelico, and goodness knows what else. It tasted like raspberry cheesecake and was promptly christened that. Slightly tart and rather sweet – a girl’s drink.

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This is when we got to handle a $45,000 camera and of course we have the evidence to show for it (photo below is courtesy of Dream Merchant Photography). Our photographer asked Yi-Ling if she could hold the camera to model it…

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… and here she is! Huge isn’t it?

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He also very kindly took a few more pics of cocktails and our friendly bartender (and us) and created this lovely quadtych in sepia for us. Again, credit goes to Dream Merchant Photography.

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Way past it got dark, we were finally ready to call it an end to a lovely chillout day, but not without first a visit to the pretty outdoor garden loo!

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Conclusion? Bar Stories is a lovely place to visit, especially in the off peak period. The cocktails are generally decent, and when they’re good, they’re very very good. Having said that, it’s not everyone’s cup of (long island) tea as the drinks are pricey at upwards of $20 each and I can see how it could be seen as pretentious. Nonetheless, I had a great time, partly because I was in fabulous company to start with, and partly because of the great staff. Being part of a Leica photoshoot of course added to the fun. Let’s hope we can squeeze in another visit before Yi-Ling flies off again.

Bar Stories
Level 2, 55-57 Haji Lane
Tel: +65 6298 0838

A Long Brunch at St Regis

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My brother treated us to brunch at the St Regis and what a champagne brunch it was! It was well-priced compared to other hotel brunches at $170++ with champagne and $138++ without. What I didn’t like was that there wasn’t an option with just one glass of champagne, that I would’ve gone for. They offered a la carte glasses of champagne for $40, which made it more expensive than the option with free-flow champagne. Pfft.

No less, the spread was excellent. While not quite as extensive as other places, there were very few filler dishes. I liked also that the quality of the ingredients was excellent. Case in point were the oyster and ham selections. There were three types of oysters from various regions – all were good, and the memorable ones were the fine de claire from France. I love their briny, minerally flavour. The ham selection was more impressive, with four or five different types. I remember the parma and some of the air dried beef types, but everything was blown away by the entire leg of bellota ham carved out in tempting slivers. The flavour of the fat from acorn fed pig blew everything else out of the water. You have a choice: either eat the other hams first or go straight for the bellota. No other way.

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What made this buffet special was that the food wasn’t all from the buffet table where we helped ourselves. The waiters regularly came round with small bites, such as this sampler platter of (L-R) tomato gazpacho, tuna tartare, foie gras in the style of creme brulee, deep-fried silver bait, and marinated olives. I enjoyed the gazpacho and tuna tartare a lot – so refreshing, while my mum and aunt adored the foie gras. There were plenty of other yummy bites brought round, including cubes of braised beef cheek, deep-fried prawn in a pastry net, pan-fried foie gras and truffle risotto. All very good.

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There was plenty more in the buffet spread, including an inventive quinoa salad, heirloom tomatoes and a good assortment of salads, from seafood to pure vegetarian ones.

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The mains were a la carte and each person could order only one dish. After the incredible spread from the buffet line and the bites brought to the table, I think one would be hard pressed to even contemplate finishing two mains anyway. I had the beef tartare (this dish seems to feature regularly on this blog) with truffles, which was a good rendition, though the flavour of the beef could have shone through more strongly. Perhaps my palate had been jaded by then. Perhaps the best options would be either the beef tenderloin or the Hokkaido scallops, if they don’t change the menu every week.

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We were stuffed by now, but had to press on. There were desserts aplenty for us to get through. It all seemed to pass in a blur, but the standout was the giant raspberry macaron. Here was one of the few places that did macaron well and accompanied it nicely with good produce. The raspberries were tart and on the verge of sweet, a good foil to the sugary macaron. The rest of the desserts were decent, the only grouse being that the fresh fruit selection wasn’t very good.

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Brasserie Les Saveurs
St Regis Hotel, 29 Tanglin Road
Tel: +65 6506 6866