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

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Tavolo

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We found this understated gem of an Italian restaurant sandwiched in the middle of several Japanese restaurants on the third floor of Parco Millenia.  As it’s directly opposite Nantsuttei, we’d had ample opportunity to scout it out and we noted that the restaurant was suffering from a serious lack of clientele.  Originally we’d put it down to poor food quality, but eventually we decided to give it a try – mainly because the poor Italian chef sitting at the restaurant looked so desperately despondent!

The menu was a bit unusual, so we tried a little bit of everything.  We noticed that there was only one soup option, so we had to have it.  Nothing that special, it was a simple cream of zucchini but it was well-executed and not too salty or creamy.

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The next thing we tried though was something else.  It was advertised on the menu as a “piadina”, or pizza bread.  Intrigued, we ordered tomato and mozzarella version.  It was delicious!  The bread crust was nicely toasted, crispy and flavourful.  The ripe tomato and especially the rich mozzarella topping complemented the bread’s flavour perfectly. DC particularly liked it and almost overate before getting to our pasta course.

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Next up was the homemade fettuccini with squab ragout.   It’s quite hard to find squab in Singapore, so I was a bit worried that the dish wouldn’t be well-made.  But it turned out perfectly.  The sauce was a nice thick consistency and a little bit nutty and full of meaty, slightly gamey flavour.  It definitely didn’t taste like chicken, though if I was told it was beef, I’d believe it. The only thing that gave the squab away was the occasional little  bone that I had to pick out from the sauce. I liked the pasta immensely. It was freshly made with plenty of egg yolk and cooked till just al dente. Excellent stuff.

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DC went for the fettuccine with sea urchin and bottarga (salted cod roe).  The waitress warned us that some people didn’t like this dish as it was rather fishy, but DC’s always up for a challenge when it comes to food; plus for him, the fishier the better.  True enough, the dish was rather fishy due to the bottarga. After getting over the first fishy mouthful, he reported that the unique flavour of preserved fish roe and sea urchin really hit the spot. I wasn’t too convinced as I’m not fond of the slight whiff of ammonia that accompanies sea urchin that isn’t absolutely fresh from the sea (an impossible feat in Singapore), though I can understand how the umami and sheer in-your-face essence of the sea can really hit the spot.

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So far, we’d had two unique dishes – the piadina and the bottarga/sea urchin pasta.  We were looking forward to the dessert.  DC ordered a chocolate sausage, while I ordered semifreddo.  Unfortunately, the chocolate sausage, while interesting-looking, was a bit of a disappointment. The log of chocolate and bread (panettone?) was crying out for intense dark chocolate to be used and for far less of a sugary crunch. It was an unfortunate but immediate fail.

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The semifreddo, on the other hand, was something else altogether.  The semifreddo, half pudding, half  melting ice cream, was smooth and caramelly with plenty of almond for crunch. I especially liked the burnt caramel sauce that rounded it all off nicely on a slightly bitter-sweet note.

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If you’re interested in good Italian at a reasonable price (Citibank had a discount running here!), heck out Tavolo.  Unfortunately, most people go to Parco Millenia for Japanese food and give this place a miss, so I don’t know how long this restaurant can survive.  Catch it quickly before it’s gone, especially the piadina!

Tavolo
9 Raffles Boulevard
#03-07 Parco Marina Bay, Millenia Walk
Tel: 6423 1123

Spruce Tacos

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I’d anticipated going to Spruce Taqueria for a while but its opening hours just didn’t do it for me. Not working in the area, it was practically impossible for me to make it there for the week-day lunch only opening hours. Imagine my joy when Travis tweeted that they now serve tacos in the evening between 5.30 and 7.30pm at Spruce itself. Sure, it’d take a bit of a rush there from work, but at least it was doable.

DC and I got there at 7pm and only went in after they assured us that tacos were still available. The head server must’ve thought we were totally bonkers when suddenly we lit up and rushed in upon hearing the taco affirmation. Last orders for tacos were taken at 7.15 so we had to quickly decide how much we wanted. There were three flavours: short rib, snapper and pork carnita. We went for the short rib and pork carnita first. When these arrived, it looked manageable to have more, so we quickly added to our bonkers quotient by asking for the third snapper flavour while just starting our first tacos.

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Only two pictures because they all pretty much looked the same. In order of yummyness, we both agreed that the snapper was the best, followed by the short rib and then a distant third with the pork carnita. Each dish consisted of two tacos and each taco came with two tortillas topped with filling, then taco sauce, shredded cabbage and guacamole, and garnished with plenty of coriander, which unfortunately looked a bit sad in patches. It was finished off with bits of radish and lime. The lime was a bit of a mistake because we’re both big lime fans and ended up squeezing too much on it. The sour drowned out much of the taste of the pork carnita. A pity.

The carnita was basically pulled pork and a bit stringy, though the sauce helped. I liked the tenderness of the short rib but wasn’t sold on how the flavour was drowned out by the rest of the taco. The fish surprisingly held up very well to the robust flavours and its soft, almost mushy texture was a nice counterpoint (plus it was much easier to eat, less effort to bite through the taco).

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The dragon breath later was terrible but it was definitely worthwhile.

Spruce
320 Tanglin Road
Phoenix Park
Tel: 6836 5528

Just a week later, DC and I were fortunately to be in the area on a weekday and we made it to the taqueria itself. The stand is perched at the top of hill, way to the right along the little curved street just coming up from Spruce itself. They were pretty slow to serve the food even though it looked like a fast food shack. Didn’t help that lots of stuff was already sold out by 12.45pm, like beef tongue and watermelon agua fresca. Disappointed, DC went for the short rib taco set that came with tortillas, salsa and lemonade. It was just as good as the tacos sold downhill for twice the price. I’m glad it’s consistent.

I went for the salad bowl, basically the same pile of stuff arranged differently: filling, salsa, guacamole and taco strips crisped to turn into tortillas. I liked the extra dollop of sour cream, it complemented the fiery salsa and filling of mushroom and poblano chiles very well. Plus, the salad is great for avoiding the greater part of the dragon breath (though you still get some).


Quick Drinks: Once Upon A Milkshake

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DC sniffed out this place. We whizzed by for some takeaway milkshake and ice cream. Though I didn’t try the ice cream, I’m already a fan! We had the Agent Strawberry flavour, a straight-up strawberry flavoured milkshake.

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Check out how thick the milkshake is. I’m not normally a fan of milkshake as I really couldn’t stand the ghastly over-sweet synthetic stuff McDonald’s used to hawk. This one made a convert out of me. The strawberry flavour shone through with clear flavours of sweet yet tart strawberry. It tasted almost like my weekend breakfast smoothies (just that homemade is always better) and was very very smooth. I really liked how the shake didn’t separate as it gets drunk. Some just turn into ice as you suck away the sweet milky part, but this one was pure strawberry goodness all the way to the last drop. Go try it, it’s very very good.

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Once Upon A Milkshake
32 Maxwell Road
#01-08
Maxwell Chambers
Tel: 9823 3779

July in Vietnam: A Day in Hanoi

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Hanoi on its own was fairly charming. Near the Old Town is the famous Hoan Kiem Lake and a rundown little pagoda, Thap Rua, sits on a tiny islet close to the far side of the lake.

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On the other side stood a Chinese temple, Ngoc Son Temple,  that could be reached on foot over a bridge. While fairly pretty, it seemed very generic to me, far too much like the Chinese temples at home in Singapore.

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Inside, I was fascinated by some ornamental statues, like this rather spaced out looking phoenix.

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I thought it was pretty cool and almost cartoon-like. What do you think?

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I wandered the streets till I found an appetising looking place, striking gold when I stumbled across this stall selling spicy pork noodles. It came with a whole host of different pig parts, from mystery sausages and pork balls to intestines, tendons and other unidentifiable parts. I was very pleased to findwhat I later discovered to be the de rigueur pile of herbs and vegetables that I liberally added to my noodle soup.

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Needless to say, it was wonderful and I had to get a picture to commemorate the occasion of Enjoying Good Food.

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And I was off to wander round the Old Town, but not before gawking at this rather odd Communist sculpture, the Martyr’s Monument. I suppose it’s saying that technology is the best (from man holding plug in centre), if not guns are good too (man at side), failing which the women would wipe everyone out with swords. I’m still puzzling over the gender implications of this. If anyone could translate the words at the base of the statue I’d be grateful!

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The Old Town consists of a warren of streets, each having its own specialty product. There’s a street of nothing but stainless steel kitchen fittings, another of mirrors, a third of traditional herbs and medicine, yet another of lanterns, and a mind-boggling array of others.

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I was a little wary of the watchful eyes on me and didn’t get any good pictures of each street. A pity. However, the sight of these two trees being trucked to goodness knows where was a surprise find. It drew the eyes of everyone on the street, including motorcyclists peering round to check that they weren’t about to topple.

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And then there was the St Joseph cathedral. It’s a bit surprising to find a lovely cathedral in the middle of Communist Hanoi, but there it was! I thought the Gothic structure was pretty cool…

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… as were the sober grey granite walls on the side.

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Inside, the breathtaking view from the nave.

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It’s wonderful how they managed to get the stained glass so beautifully done I almost felt like I was somewhere in Europe.

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After all that wandering in the almost unbearably humid weather, I needed a good dinner. This came in the form of Cha Ca La Vong, labelled grilled fish on the menu, but really fish fried in turmeric oil together with local vegetables over a charcoal brazier. It was delicious and also very oily.

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There wasn’t a great deal to see in Hanoi but it was a good introduction to the rest of the country. Next stop, Ha Long Bay.

Tonkatsu Sandwich Without the Sandwich

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I had a $5 voucher for Takashimaya’s food outlets at B2. Romankan Yokohama came to mind as I’ve been wanting to try their famous Tonkatsu Sandwich for a while. Somehow I got distracted by their sets and ended up with curry katsu! The curry sauce was very good. It was not too thick and starchy and had nice bits of carrot and shredded pork bits. And it was so good that DC, whose greed rivals mine, mopped it all up with the last bits of my rice.

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The tonkatsu itself was not bad. It was crisp on the outside and firm-tender-moist on the inside. In my view, Tonkichi still wins, although granted that it’s twice the price. This place is for times when you can’t afford Tonkichi.

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Romankan Yokohama
B2-04 Takashimaya

November in China: Of Wine and Stinky Tofu

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The drive from Ningbo to Shaoxing had much of the same dreariness. Knowing how similar tourist places were, we matched our expectations with the weather, bracing ourselves for yet another tourist trap.

Shaoxing city proper was a typical Chinese city with lots of grey buildings and little else. The tiny historic quarter was different. It had lots of old restored buildings, canals, and tiny lanes. We had to leave the car behind and transfer to the hotel’s minivan.

Our boutique far exceeded expectations. It was an old building with rooms surrounding a private inner courtyard. Mum and Dad were enchanted. I especially liked the slate roof and red lanterns.

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The rooms made it extra special. I had a traditional canopy bed, a mahjongg table and a rattan rocking chair. My parents had a modified opium bed with pretty carvings. The bedding, though, was thoroughly modern, with soft pillows and mattresses, unlike the typically hard beds in the rest of China!

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For breakfast, we had the local carb-rich fare: youtiao (deep-fried dough fritter), mantou (steamed bun), bao (steamed bun with filling) and watery rice porridge. The porridge was eaten with a cube of furu, fermented tofu in several styles. It was smooth, salty and almost cheesy, somewhat like goat cheese. Yum.

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Of course, that little bit for breakfast wasn’t enough. I had to conquer another frontier, chou doufu (stinky tofu), which originates in these parts. These are sold in push carts all over town, each claiming to be the best in town, each proclaiming to be stinkier than the rest. They can be spotted a block away, just from the special aroma reminiscent of rotting garbage.

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I bought two pieces of stink on a stick for ¥1. It’s actually not too bad. It’s crisp and salty on the outside and smooth and silky on the inside. Somehow the smell didn’t really bother me when I ate it. It just wasn’t very stinky when I got close. Mum kept her distance from me and Dad as we hit the museum.

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Soon we were hungry (again) and went to Shaoxing’s best restaurant for lunch. We had to order the famous cold dishes, drunken chicken and drunken fish. Not a regional specialty, but still good was braised firm tofu with fresh herbs. These were a fab departure from the usual oil-laden fare.

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The drunken fish was some kind of raw salted fish then soaked in shaoxing wine. It was salty and, well, fishy with a mild fragrance from the wine and a mild alcoholic kick. Great to nibble on with hot tea before lunch proper.

The chicken was something closer to home. Mum makes it quite often, though she does it Taiwanese style by steaming then dousing in wine. Here, the traditional way is to poach the chicken in wine and leave it to soak. It’s heavenly, like a  very grown-up interpretation of Hainanese chicken.

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Now after all that eating, we proceeded to the drinking, or rather the buying for future drinking. Shaoxing is especially famous for its rice wine. It has to be made from a particular lake in the town before it can be called Shaoxing wine. Though this being China, I doubt many wines are really made using water from that lake. Out of the myriad types, we chose hua tiao (medium, quite like sherry) and nu’er hong (dry and slightly savoury).

I think we spent enough to give this shop its year-end bonus. It had a mind-bloggling array of rice wines all made in the region. I can’t imagine how each bottle differs from the other, it’s quite different from regular wine where the grapes are different and the vintages are different. Here, the rice and water must be pretty much the same and while the wine is aged, it’s not done according to the year like wine. Yet, each brand claimed to be different and indeed the  ones we tried all tasted quite unique.

In the end, we bought six mini-bottles as gifts, three big bottles of good aged wine for personal consumption and one big bottle for cooking. The sales lady was taken aback by our request to have the oldest possible wine for cooking. Shaoxing natives normally use cheap new wine for cooking, but we found that we could tell the difference. She was horrified that we wanted to cook with a five-year old wine. We settled for a three-year old instead.

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