Zhuge Liang Restaurant

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We were in the Jalan Besar area and decided to check out Zhuge Liang Restaurant, specialising in Sichuanese kaoyu (literally, barbecued fish). The difference here is that the fish is cooked in two steps: barbecued first, then simmered in a spicy broth at the table. It’s quite unlike the usual idea of a barbecue. Here, it’s done fairly well and in a pretty mild broth compared to its competitors in other parts of town. We ordered the patin fish ($38) and had it done pao jiao (literally, soaked peppers) style and wondered how spicy it’d be. Not that much, because it turned out that pao jiao meant brined peppers, which mellowed the spice a great deal. The fish was smooth textured and tasty, and the broth was full of leek, cucumber and celery. We added some tang oh vegetables ($2) to complete the dish.

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We also ordered some chicken ($18) to complete the meal. This one is called the tao yuan xiong di lian (literally, peach garden brotherhood), which was skewers of chicken and soft bone in a far spicier sauce than the fish. It too came in a hotpot of sorts, this time not in a broth but a spicy sauce. If only the fish had been in this sauce, I’d’ve liked it so much better! Still, the chicken was done very nicely, the soft bone gave a surprisingly moreish texture to the skewers, half-chewy and half-crunchy, which I liked.

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To wash everything down, we had a very light Harbin beer ($6) that came ice cold and rounded off the meal nicely.

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Be warned, though, that this restaurant has no English menu and the (very attentive and lovely) wait staff are from PRC, I doubt they speak English. Ask for the menu with pictures if your Chinese isn’t up to scratch. The staff were super sweet and accommodating in trying to make sure the food was to our taste and the standard of service was one of the best I’ve had in a long time, notwithstanding the feeling that we were in China. I say that eating in a place that reminds me of China restaurants isn’t a bad thing at all.

Zhuge Liang Restaurant
27 Foch Road #01-02 Hoa Nam Building
Tel: +65 6396 8858

Ayam Penyet Ria

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We found ourselves at Ayam Penyet Ria at Lucky Plaza on recommendation from DC’s friend. The crowds and high turnover rate spoke for themselves and we happily settled in with some drinks. DC’s happy soda wasn’t quite the Southeast Asia backpacker joint variety, it being a very innocent (!) combination of rose syrup and condensed milk topped with 7-Up. Despite the incredible amount of sugar, he seemed to quite like it. My avocado juice started off really well, with plenty of thick avocado pulp mixed with runny gula melaka. Towards the end, it got really bitter as they inadvertently blended some avocado skin into the juice too. I had to get another sweet drink to rinse away the bitter taste!

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We started with some tahu telur, firm beancurd (taukwa) dipped in beaten egg and deep-fried, then topped with peanut sauce (Indonesian style) and garnished with vegetable shavings. It was very decent for fast food, with good quality taukwa and a very nice runny peanut sauce. It was slightly spicy, slightly sweet, yet not quite like satay sauce. Good stuff to start off the meal.

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We went for the more unique dishes and didn’t do the ayam penyet (smashed fried chicken). Instead, DC went for the empal penyet, or smashed beef steak. I was convinced that deep-fried beef was going to be overcooked and tough, but DC’s judgement was true. The beef, being smashed before it was fried, was decently tender and tasty. It went well with the crispy bits and the chilli sauce. Now that chilli sauce was jaw-judderingly spicy, as is typical of ayam penyet chilli. It was also very, very yummy. A lot of super spicy chilli sauces stop at being super spicy and aren’t a great deal more than chilli paste. This chilli sauce actually had flavour aside from simply “very hot”. They’d obviously used good belacan and added other spices that really added to the flavour. Sadly, I couldn’t eat more than a dab or two at a time, but it went well with both fried meat and the accompanying tempeh, tahu and vegetable sides.

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Mine was the lele penyet, or smashed deep-fried catfish. The catfish wasn’t smashed at all, maybe they’re referring to how the scattering of fried crispy bits on top make it look sort of smashed. I don’t know. The accompaniments were the same ones and the chilli sauce the same fabulous stuff. My fish was very excellent. It was succulent on the inside, and really crispy on the outside. I like how they fried it such that I could crunch up much of the fins and tail without having to spit any bones out. Also, with careful dissection, the fish wasn’t too bony. Plus, most of the small ones were soft enough to scoff down together with the tender white meat.

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It’s extremely good value. Treat it somewhat like fast food with slightly higher standards, and be warned that it’s not for chilli wimps!

Ayam Penyet Ria
304 Orchard Road #04-25 Lucky Plaza
Tel: 6235 6390

Lombok: The Beach

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We finally got round to seeing the beach, going southeast to a different set of Gili islands from the usual Gili Air, Gili Meno, and Gili Trawangan. These Gilis were called Gili Nanggu and Gili Sudak. We drove about 2 hours down, following the winding road till we found the beach at Sekotong and rented a boat for the day. The boatmen took us in turn to each island, stopping first at the smallest one, a mere splodge of sand fringing the coast.

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It was a beautiful splodge of proper white sand, albeit rather coarse. This was a far cry from the brown beaches of Senggigi – I didn’t even bother writing about that. We circled the island, found a nice spot and enjoyed the water for a bit.

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Then it was off to the next island, Gili Sudak, where we took a walk along the beach, thinking it wasn’t such a big islet. By the time we got round to the edge of the island, we realised that it might be bigger than we thought. For a moment, we wondered whether we’d starve by the time we got back to the little cafe for lunch.

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But it wasn’t too bad. After crossing round to the back of the island, there wasn’t a great deal more to go and we again sat and enjoyed the beach. The waves were a little too strong for us to venture into the sea, so we saved that for the next island. We headed to our cafe for a simple lunch of nasi goreng and vegetable soup made with a chicken stock cube.

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Then it was more lying around on Gili Nanggu. We wanted to go snorkelling, but the conditions weren’t good enough. Close to the beach, the waves churned up too much sand and further away, the waves seemed a little too aggressive.

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We ventured into the island and found a little turtle conservation area. There was lots of little pools of  turtles of different ages. I think this little fella is a green turtle. We gawked for a while and then gave a little donation at the centre.

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Then we lounged under some casuarina trees for a nap and headed back to Lombok.

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Our final meal in Lombok was this fantastic sop buntut, also known as oxtail soup. Again, Ibu Rosa at Villa Sayang recommended this place. It was sop buntut as I’ve never known before. The place was someone’s front sitting room converted into an eating house. It appeared that there was only one dish served here. Everyone had generous portions of tender oxtail in a thick, almost stew-like broth. They’d obviously spent ages gently cooking the oxtail as the soup was immensely flavourful and unctuous with collagen. The flavour was so intense that the were lime wedges provided to cut through the richness. I also liked the very spicy chilli sauce accompaniment – alternating mouthfuls of soup, chilli-spiced oxtail and plain rice was enough variety that I didn’t even think of having other dishes for our meal. They were very generous with the oxtail as well: plenty of soft meat that couldn’t help but be flavourful, and almost melted tendon. I think I’d return to Lombok just for this amazing dish. It was definitely the best sop buntut I’ve had.

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And with that marvellous meal, we ended our relaxing trip to Lombok. I think I enjoyed the eating far more than any other activity there!

Lombok: A Trip South to a Very Different Kuta Beach

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DC and I had a rental car and we took it down south to the very sleepy Kuta Beach. We passed by lots of gentle-eyed buffaloes grazing along the road…

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… and ogled at the cute, lighter-coloured calves obliviously munching away.

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At a cafe, there was a sleepy dog that epitomised the laidback atmosphere of the beach. It lay on the trademark peppercorn sand of Kuta Beach.

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Look closely at the sand and you’ll see that the little granules are round, like miniature white peppercorns.

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We later went for a walk along the beach and found more of the peppercorn sand.

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It wasn’t a fantastic white beach, not quite even up to the (not that great) standard of Kuta Beach in Bali. But there were still great views and it was a lovely walk just before the rain started coming in.

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We walked up to a rock outcrop partway out of the beach and found some slightly macabre sights, like the remnants of a heron, perhaps…

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… and the lifelike remnants of a crab’s moult.

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Luckily, there was still some life out here, as evidenced by this cute little lizard skulking its way stealthily along the rocks.

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It was then time to make the bumpy, pot-holed trip back to Mataram. We took respite from the bad road conditions by stopping at a Sasak village to have a look round. The Sasak are the indigenous people of Lombok. They are mainly Muslim and traditionally live in huts with packed-mud floors and roofs thatched with the local long grass, alang-alang. The huts in which they lived I felt were rather nondescript, and the only structure of interest was the bale, or storage shed. Its characteristic structure is the symbol of Lombok and is replicated in concrete and wood all over the main city.

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What’s a village without chickens? This cute little chick was poking around the village grounds with its brothers and sisters, learning how to fend for itself.

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And having had our fill of sleepy beach and equally sleepy village life, we headed back to Mataram. Ibu Rosa at Villa Sayang recommended Restaurant Taliwang, a local place serving up Lombok specialties. I started off with a jumbo-sized coconut drink with honey. It was really good and such a godsend because Lombok food is very spicy!

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We ordered a whole array of dishes like deep-fried tempeh (I couldn’t get enough of it), deep-fried squid, grilled gurami and vegetable soup. All of this was accompanied by copious amounts of the fiery chilli sauce made with local belacan, a kind of fermented prawn paste.

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Belacan, the smelly delight, really came into its own when turned into the local delicacy, kangkung pelecing. Here, toasted grated coconut is piled on top of toasted peanuts, and boiled beansprouts and kangkung. The kangkung is a more tender, heart-shaped leaved version of the Singaporean kangkong. Toasted belacan is worked into a spicy sauce of chilli and tomato (and probably other secret ingredients) and then poured on top of the mound of veggies. The result? An in-your-face explosion of sour, sweet, spicy and fishy that hits the taste buds with a one-two (POW!) blow. Amazing. This is one dish that I have to attempt to recreate soon.

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Rumah Makan Taliwang I
No. 20 Jalan Ade Irma Suryani
Mataram, Lombok
(Ask at Villa Sayang for exact directions)

Yang Gui Fei

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We discovered this little restaurant while wandering around Chinatown looking for a quick dinner.  I liked the gentle pun in the name, as the character for Yang was “sheep” instead of  the usual character for the legendary Chinese consort’s surname. Yang Gui Fei specialises in Xi’an cuisine, and is run by Xi An people. We only seemed to hear mainland Chinese accents from the other patrons and had high hopes that the food would be authentic!

As per our usual practice, we ordered a bit more than expected, starting off with some typical Chinese cold starters, such as these pickled long beans.  When they first arrived, I was a bit dismayed by how bland and faded they looked. But looks belay much flavour and zing. The beans were refreshingly spicy and sour,  plus fermentation did wonders to add to its flavour. They were super yummy and also deceptively spicy – on first bite, they were mildly hot but the more I ate the hotter my mouth got and I couldn’t eat more than two in a row before having to cool off my mouth with something else.

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We also had a plate of seasoned enoki mushrooms, similar in its savoury umami seasoning, just not pickled and only mildly spicy. They were a good interlude between bites of beans!

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The star dish of this place had to be the mutton. We ordered the mutton kebabs and also tried out a few chicken ones. These were well-marinated, but the chicken kebabs were definitely juicier and more flavourful than the mutton ones. The mutton ones unfortunately don’t quite match up to what I remember in Xi’an. It all became clear when the proprietress told us that they used New Zealand lamb and not proper grown-up and gamey mutton. Maybe they should change to a Muslim supplier from Tekka market and make it truly Muslim-style like in Xi’an.

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Here’s a close up on the spice mix that goes into the marinade.   Yum!

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The next dish we ordered brought back fond memories from my holiday in Xi An.  “Biang Biang” noodles are thick, flat and very chewy noodles seasoned with a spicy  vinegary dipping sauce. The texture of these noodles are far from the usual slightly limp and soft Chinese noodles. They are the epitome of al dente yet are nothing like any Italian noodle. I don’t know what type of flour they used nor how they developed the gluten in the noodles to get this lovely firm noodle with loads of bite . It was wonderful.Word of warning:  one bowl of “Bian Bian” noodles is plenty for two.

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Yang Gui Fei restaurant
18 Smith Street
Tel: 6100 0629

The Tanglin Tree

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The Tanglin Tree is a vaguely Australian-inspired place just at the edge of town that’s nice for a quiet dinner out. It has pretty decent food presented in an equally pretty manner. DC had the teriyaki cod skewers, I had lamb cutlets with spicy lamb sausages and we shared three sides of fries, green salad and ratatouille. The fries were done just right: crisp outside, fluffy inside and with salt bits bursting on the tongue. The green salad was well-tossed in a tasty low-key dressing, but the ratatouille was a letdown. Hardly the stuff of epiphanies and childhood memories, it was too sharp and too mushy for my taste.

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DC’s cod was surprisingly good and beautifully presented, as you can see from the picture. I normally steer well clear of teriyaki and cod as I’m not very fond of sweet in my savoury food and I find that cod is often too fatty for my taste. This version was deftly handled with a light touch. It helped that the cod was in small pieces so that the excess cod oil would’ve oozed out in the cooking. Lightly crisp outside and meltingly tender inside, the cod almost made me regret not ordering it…

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… until I ate my lamb and was well pleased. Now, it’s not earth-shatteringly good, but an extremely decently executed dish. I didn’t feel like it was lamb overkill as the portions were restrained and well-proportioned. The cutlets were done just right, again the contrast of the right textures inside and out, and the sausages were nicely spicy without being overwhelming. It also helped that my food came nicely presented too!

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The most interesting thing for dessert was this flourless orange cake (goes to show how boring the dessert menu is). It was very dense, a change from the spongier norm. It was also surprisingly good as we found ourselves gobbling up it all up with the creme fraiche despite already being very full from our mains. Though not a particularly orangey cake, the interplay of dense and sweet cake with tart fruit and unctuous creme fraiche had a lot to speak for.

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The Tanglin Tree
56 Tanglin Road B1-01
Friven & Co Building
Tel: 6733 0992

Ramen Showdown: Nantsuttei

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It’s official. Nantsuttei is now top of my list of best ramen in Singapore. It’s also pretty reasonably priced as far as ramen in Singapore goes. The queue here isn’t as feral as the one at Ippudo. For lunch, as long as you avoid 12.30 to 1.30 you’re all good, and for weekday dinners after 8pm is normally OK too.

I first tried the comes-with-everything noodles plus an egg. It came with a huge sprinkling of spring onions that seemed to occlude the rest of the toppings of chashu, beansprouts and special garlic oil. The first thing I bit into was the egg and it was eggy goodness all the way as the white was lightly salty from the braising and the yolk just set so the very inside was still slightly runny. So far it’s the best egg of the major ramen shops. As far as the chashu was concerned, it was rather run of the mill. Nothing much to write home about on the taste and tenderness.

Next was the noodle. It was just the right firmness for me, with enough bite for interest and not so hard that I felt that it was undercooked. The wonderful thing about the doneness of the noodles was that the noodles still tasted good when I got to the bottom of the bowl.

Then the soup. I wasn’t sure about this because it was quite salty and not particularly rich as ramen broths go. It was pretty acceptable though. I also wasn’t too keen on the slightly burnt and carcinogenic taste of the black garlic oil that makes the place famous.

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On another visit, I tried the dragon ramen. It’s basically the same ramen minus the OTT spring onion topping and with spicy bean and minced meat paste. Now this may not be particularly traditional, but it made all the difference to the soup, making it my all-time favourite. I liked the flavour of the spicy paste because the taste of the fermented bean really came through. It also muted the burnt garlic taste, making it Very Yummy.

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Nantsuttei doesn’t have a great deal to offer in terms of sides, only chopped chashu rice and gyoza. The gyoza isn’t too bad, it’s nicely burnt in parts on the outside and meatily juicy on the inside. Decent enough when you’re hungry and want more than ramen to fill the belly.

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Nantsuttei
P3-06 #03-02
Millenia Walk 9 Raffles Boulevard
Tel: 6337 7166