Just For Laughs

Because the flu is getting to my head and I thought this hilarious. I promise to write soon. Meanwhile, laugh, because ‘Laughter is an instant vacation’ – Milton Berle.

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Yellow, Orange, Red, EMBER!

Reliable, a place of consistency, is how I would describe Ember.

Multiple visits later, Ember still leaves me heady with content every time I leave the premise. Housed in Hotel 1929, a boutique hotel establishment, Ember serves up a modern European menu set to win your gut the moment you place your order.

Between my multiple visits, I’m pretty certain I’ve tasted almost everything on the menu. Maybe I exaggerate, but that’s the thing about heading out for a meal with a group – you get to pick from the plates of others you are with. Not the best table manners but definitely a good spread without the overeating. The thing is, Ember’s menu rarely, if ever, changes. That contributes to the consistency in quality of food and the loyal customer base who return time and again for that flavour they crave.

Located in what used to be the notorious red-light district of Keong Saik Road, Ember is a modest outfit with simple furnishings and an interestingly homely vibe afforded by the service staff who is alert and ever ready to stop by your table for a chat.

I judge a place by its bread, and that was the case in the entire week I was dining in Paris. No excuse for the capital of bread to let me down even along the dodgiest of streets but I digress. The point is, good bread revs up your appetite like how good diesel feeds a vehicle. The bread at Ember in one word is – addictive. Just take a look at the appetizingly ripe orange colouring on the bread, that colour evokes warmth and harmony and that is the experience of breaking into this bread. Warmed to perfection with a crusty exterior and a lukewarm, fluffy texture, the bread practically invites you to tear into it. As you chew and savour you get the sweetness from the sun-dried tomatoes and a hit of fresh herbs that is just beautifully addictive. There, that word again, you get my drift. Best part, its complimentary and they top it up every time the plate shows its face. Heed – portion control please.

Back in 2010 when I first visited Ember I remember having a lot of fun with the Oyster Shooters. The thing with food is, always have fun with it. If it can’t put a smile on your face, the calories are just not worth it. Our table of five took an oyster each and had each bite with a different sauce and one ‘genius’ actually had his oyster with a sauce combo and he said it tasted good. So go ahead, try your own mix-n-match till you get the right touch.

If you prefer a somewhat lighter starter, pick the toufu salad. I simply adore it. It’s just simple, unpretentious but if you’ve ever tried recreating a toufu salad at home, you would know what an uphill task it is balancing the flavors to create the symphony that is present in this dish. You can guess at the ingredients and you’re likely to have most of them at home and you may think its as easy as washing up the greens, tossing it in a bowl with that white sesame dressing but let me tell you honey, if you think that’s it, you’re sorely mistaken. Perhaps I lack that culinary finesse in the kitchen but I am pretty certain this toufu salad is not as simple as it looks and tastes.

If you like salads but need a richer flavor to justify the value of your course then my pick would be the pan seared scallops wrapped in parma ham served with a zesty salad. Clearly, the main star for this dish is the scallop but what the chef has cleverly done is develop the richness of the scallop and parma ham combination to accentuate the freshness of the accompanying salad. This is a definite wow factor if you’re out to impress a date and you decide to be an absolute chauvinist and take charge to order for your girl.

Foie gras – that rich butter I can’t seem to stay away from. Ember, to my knowledge, has two options for the foie gras lover in us. One, a deeply rich and mellow flavor that kinda reminds me of a mature man [pictured above] and the other, a refreshingly light version paired with apples. My favorite foie gras dish to date remains in that cafe in Paris, paired with poached pears, a symphony of flavors I will never forget. Back home here in Singapore, Ember does well to  satisfy my infrequent craves.

Introducing what I’ve come to associate with the mature man –  a dish so rich and mellow, the essence of maturity or a deep red wine. This pan seared foie gras topped with truffle and poached egg is a dish I would recommend individuals who are truffle lovers, or rich food lovers. When savoring the dish, please do it justice by breaking the poached egg over and slurp up every morsel and drop in combination. It’s an orgasmic experience if I may say so myself. Some companions of mine have mentioned that the truffle is overwhelming but it works well for me so order and savor at your discretion. Everyone tends to different tastes.

And oh, how can I miss the beautiful parma ham crisp that the dish is served with. Thinly sliced and baked [i’m assuming] to crisp goodness, it provides for a contrast in texture to the dish. It’s the first time I’ve had a parma ham crisp anywhere and I must say, if it came in a bag I wouldn’t be able to stop. Surprising, coming from a non-pork lover.

An alternative to the heavy flavors presented above, a classic pairing of foie gras with fruit is the Pan Seared Foie Gras served with Apple. My personal favorite remains to be the pairing that I savored at La Fontaine in Paris where the Obamas also dined when they were there. That dish remains unforgettable but hand on heart, this pairing served up at Ember will delight most ladies or diners who prefer lighter combinations with that rich butter.

That’s all the starters I’ve tried and they are among the most outstanding. My challenge is refraining from ordering these familiar flavors that I’ve come to love and trust, to venture beyond these and to explore the rest of the menu. Till I do that, the shares will remain as such.

Ah, the section where meals are made or broken – mains. I have tried six different mains at Ember and only one of which is seafood. The conclusion is that the meats are crazy good but I have to give the chef credit for his pan seared sea bass. It does not come as a top recommendation if you were to ask your server but this piece of fish is cooked and seasoned to perfection and is probably one of the best cooked fish I have had. The quality control of the food is excellent as well. We all know how easy it is to overcook a fish but on two separate occasions I have had the sea bass, the same moist consistency and sweetness of a good catch enhanced by a simple and light hand. I really am impressed by the quality of the food served at  Ember based solely on this sea bass dish.

I titled this snapshot ‘You can’t go wrong with beef steak’ but in reality, we all know how many things can go wrong with a beef steak. Satisfying for most men, or women who have a red meat crave. The kitchen gets the done-ness right every time, no matter your request and everything plated works in perfect harmony with the main. Nothing I can pick on, also nothing that I can particularly call out.

Two different groups, two rave reviews of the rack of lamb and both by women. Must be good. I typically shy away from lamb for fear of the gamey flavor that accompanies the meat, and especially so with meat this rare and pink. This seared rack of lamb however did surprise me in the taste department with a palatable richness that I quite enjoyed. In all honesty, I doubt I’d be able to polish this plate of lamb as a course for myself but it is a good bet.

That’s a close up for you to see how rare it actually is when served. You can’t dictate the done-ness for this dish and the server will actually check if you’re squeamish about having meat served so pink. Trust me though, given the done-ness, the dish went down well. Even for this chick who can’t quite stomach gamey flavors. In fact, it is hardly gamey.

The wagyu beef cheek was actually my virgin dish at Ember and also what sealed the deal for me as a restaurant worth a repeat visit. Everything you’d expect in a stewed dish like this – melt in your mouth rich flavors, yet able to still distinct the marbling of the beef cheek as you press into the bite. It was definitely a fine experience for me although admittedly, I have not ordered this dish since my first visit there.

As I build up to my favorite repeat order dish, I’d like to take the time to present to you what I’ve dubbed as the ‘crowd pleaser.’ The crisp pork belly has delighted so many table mates that I’ve lost count. Being a general non-pork lover, this dish is outstanding in how the skin is crisp beyond belief yet is contrasted with meat that is so moist and tender that you can’t help but remark at the chef’s skill and finesse. It’s a must order at every table, even if you don’t want it as your personal main.

The last but definitely NOT the least, the duck leg confit. I’ve not been able to break the spell of ordering a different main since the first time I stabbed my fork into this dish. It is pure amazement and a smile is curling on my lip as I revisit the past encounters where I’ve sunk my teeth into this duck leg. The meat falls off the bone and each bite is accompanied by the crisp skin and tied together beautifully with that rich sauce and sauteed mushroom. A symphony of textures and flavors. I love it. Period.

No meal is complete without dessert and I have a mere three to share, shame on me, I know. Starting with the sticky date, a must order when you dine with me because I’m such a sticky date nut. This one was underwhelming in every sense and I have never ordered it again. Nor thought about it for that matter. I’m just cringing recollecting this particular dessert, which is a very bad sign. 

Moving swiftly on, the tragedy that was the sticky date dessert buried, the apple tartine is absolutely divine. Perfectly caramelized, just the way I like it with that slightly charred perfume housed in a well baked puff pastry, this dessert is a hot pick at the restaurant and I highly recommend it. And oh, it is served with ice cream.

The best for last, presenting the chocolate fondant. There’s no turning away from this. Dark chocolate, fresh vanilla bean ice cream, moist cake, rich & gooey chocolate fondant. As them folks in Hollywood say, it is ‘amazeballz’. No regrets with this order.

So yes, I’ve presented a selection and it may be hard to pick a favorite, as I have experienced. Being the habitual eater I am, I have since settled for this standard order – tofu salad/ scallops with salad to start, duck confit for mains, ending with the chocolate fondant for dessert. Go ahead, make your own selection. Better yet, try something I haven’t.

So what makes Ember a place that has become a staple for me? Quality and consistency. These are the two ingredients that have won Ember a place in my heart. No other restaurant I have visited has been able to churn out the same consistency of flavor time and again no matter the period I’ve been away. Its that sense of reliability where you know you can return for that distinctive flavor or dish that you crave. That is also why, I have been and will be a repeat customer till the chef takes his leave or decides to put aside his discipline and pride.

GETTING THERE

Le Loir Dans la Théière, 4ème arr, Paris, France

Here’s my confession. Me and sweets, we go a long way back but Maze by Ramsay in London introduced me to the wonder that is citrus based desserts. You see, I’m under the impression I’m a compartmentalised eater. Savoury for mains, sweets for desserts and no room for anything in between. I now know I am wrong. That oft chance that was the lemon combo comprising a lemon refresher, lemon tart, confit lemons, Jersey ripple ice cream at Maze by Ramsay in London changed by compartmentalised eating ways BUT was nothing compared to the experience that was the tarte au citron at Le Loir Dans la Théière.

After shopping the lanes of Rue du Roi de Sicille and circling back to complete Rue des Rosiers in my hunt for vintage goods, it hit me that it was a little after 3pm and we hadn’t had lunch. Referring to my bible of research print outs we decided to check out Le Loir Dans la Théière to hang up our wearied limbs for a rest and to refuel for the day that remained to be unfolded.

I still remain undecided whether my research yield an inaccurate address or the shop had relocated several shopfronts down the street but my word is, as long as you’re on Rue des Rosiers, keep walking until you chance upon a maroon red door close to the intersection that is Rue Pavée.

TIDBIT – translated, Le Loir Dans la Théière is ‘Dormouse in the Teapot’

The cafe is inspired by the fantasy that is Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland and once through, you’ll see and experience the whimsical and the quirky as you pass in the enclosed space.

The touch I was really captivated by was the presentation of the tea time specials in white marker on mirror. We’ve all seen the chalk on board raw presentation but trust the French to bring a touch of elegance, class as well as hygiene to the regular chalk on board write-up.

So, how can you tell the popularity of a place? Easy. The rate at which items sell-out. Arriving at the tail-end of tea meant that there were no mains for us to choose from, lunch service is over ma’am [you should totally know that] and desserts are on display at the counter. We turn, empty plates on display with few to spare. We despaired but wearied and famished as we were, we buckled down and placed our orders. Despite the limited choices, it was a sweet reward. So imagine if you had options.

Starting with beverage, and I know this may come as a surprise to many but a good cuppa of hot chocolate, or au chocolat chaud in French, is a rare find in this capital. From day one, I’ve been on the hunt for that molten richness that would slide down my throat and invigorate my entire system but I had been repeatedly disappointed by cup upon cup of thin, over-creamed versions of hot chocolate. Persevered I did and Le Loir Dans la Théière answered my prayer with a jug so rich it can serve as a meal for an individual with enough to spare. This is a must order if you’re a hot chocolate fan.

The star of the place, the dessert that would make me propose to anyone at all – the famed tarte au citron. Many, I know will say this dessert is overkill. Too sweet, sugar rush, dental troubles and dare I say it? – THE CALORIES. But hey, you and I, we both live once and if you’re gonna count miserable numbers for the rest of your life I feel for you and I’ll eat on your behalf. The meringue on this lemon tart is “c’est magnifique,”  and the sweetness is balanced by the tartness of the lemon tart. Très bien.

The other  treats we had at Le Loir Dans la Théière did not disappoint either. The peach tart and citrus sponge with glaze were good by most standards but stacked against the winsome  tarte au citron, there is no comparison.

Oh! Word of caution. The servings are giganormous so please do order in moderation.

HOW TO GET THERE

Address: 3 Rue des Rosiers, 4ème , 75004 Paris

Reservations: +33 1 42 72 90 61

By tube: Stop at Saint-Paul, Le  Marais.

Pistoletto. Serpentine. Kensington. London.

What do you do when you find yourself caught in the drops of London’s perpetual gloom and you’re in a garden, vulnerable to the elements, to be more specific, Kensington Gardens?

Here’s what we did. We ducked into the next available roofed shelter we saw and we found ourselves at the doorstep of the Serpentine Gallery. The unacquainted, I was excited. I mean, what do you expect when you chance upon a place so named the Serpentine Gallery. In my mind’s eye, I saw multi-media presentation of serpents… you get my drift. Yes, I took it literally and yes, I was wrong.

The Serpentine Gallery is a modern and contemporary art lover’s hideaway and as we chanced upon the place fairly late in the day, we only had time for one exhibit – Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Mirror of Judgement.

I’m no connoisseur in the appreciation of modern and contemporary art but I loved Pistoletto’s use of raw materials [i.e. corrugated cardboards] to create an accessible maze of individual carved out spaces that is at once whole and separate entities reflective of the distinct point of views he tries to convey in his work.

The experience is almost one of self-discovery as you navigate the maze and approach each new space with hopefully, an open mind. Each space pays homage to a different religion – Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, beckoning the viewer to explore the depths of their reflection beyond their religious views. At least that’s what I got out of it.

Watch The Telegraph’s interview with the artist for more insights.

The feature that still haunts my memory is the one in the entrance/ exit – a well-shaft with a mirror placed at the bottom of the installation reflecting the circular skylight from the structure of the Serpentine Gallery. The sense of depth and wonderment hits you all at once and when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the reflection against the wide sky, the sense of insignificance and yet, a strange empowerment hits you. I walked away from that first instillation somewhat bewildered, in awe and curious.

Since my return from London, I’ve had the time to work on some background research and learn more about the exhibition I chanced upon as well as the man behind the work. Pistoletto has been referred to as the poet of the mirror, sage of the arte povera movement, both elements markedly distinct at the Mirror of Judgement exhibit. I am humbled at having had the honour of being exposed to his work and I do hope more Singaporeans get to be exposed to such exhibitions – on this dot of ours or when they’re out there exploring the wide world and all it has to offer.

Just for fun, while Googling information on the Serpentine Gallery, I chanced upon this Youtube video titled – Peggy Sue: Lover Gone [live @ Serpentine Sessions, Hyde Park]. Had to throw this in for the sentimental value of the nickname Peggy Sue which the Director at my ex-agency bestowed on me.

Break the Routine

Instead of the everyday – ‘How are you?’ and the routine reply of ‘Good,’ I’d better appreciate a different way of making your presence felt. Break the routine before everything else falls into pieces.

Shot: Postcard, Serpentine Gallery Bookshop, Kensington Garden, London, United Kingdom

I’ve got an Open Door Policy

At time of visit, 3-week old Open Door Policy was a serious charmer. Laid back wooden interior, shop house exterior charm, it was a perfect marriage of old meets new. Wine cellar-esque display, open kitchen concept, over-friendly [in a good way] service staff, I knew I was won over the moment I took my place at the table ahead of the rest of my table guests.

Nestled in my semi-corner, nursing a Pimm’s Club [cocktail of Pimm’s, citrus, cucumber, ginger beer], I had the luxury of time and space to survey the interior and I must say, I was impressed.

Modern with rustic touches through the use of brick wall effect and cork wood type storage areas, the overall effect of the interior does nothing to overwhelm but the sense of thought and spatial flow is evident in the set-up. I also love how all the table ware is already set-up and that touch of glass on every table just adds to the overall effect of communal dining.

Back to my order of Pimm’s Club, SGD17. Best cocktail I’ve had? Nope, not by a long shot but please my palette it did. Will I order it again? Yes. In all likelihood though, it’d be a bottle of white the next visit. Old habits die hard, so they say.

I’ll start with my favourite of the six starters available, the watercress soup with soft poached hen’s egg, SGD12. Admittedly, I was only drawn to it for the promise of a poached egg and was half expecting the soup to be served a la Chinese style with pork ribs and stalks of water cress boiled to soft perfection but I wasn’t let down. A thick and flavourful concoction that would turn every non-veg eater off, the soup was comfort in a spoon down to the very last mouthful. When served, make sure you break the poached egg in and stir it in well. I’d say it’s a not-to-be-missed when you pay a visit.

Another crowd pleaser, in fact, so good someone at the table ordered a second portion for his ‘dessert’ as he wanted to end the meal on a high is the steak tartare with truffle mayo and potato chip, SGD19. I’ve always been squeamish over steak tartare as I’m highly sensitive to the gamey flavour that comes with red meat but this dish was perfectly seasoned and the tartare carried a pleasantly refreshing citrus zing. The bread that accompanied the dish was well toasted and those accompanying chips, crisp perfection. And can I add, the presentation is superb. Served on a cutting board with bread stacked high on what I’ve come to identify as a receipt spike, it was a feast for the eyes before the belly.

The crispy chicken wings with curry, yoghurt and cucumber salad, SGD15, was underwhelming and we were left puzzled at what we had actually just devoured. I’d say, you can give this a miss unless you want to experience the feeling of being left underwhelmed.

So we had more than half of the available starters on the menu with the halloumi cheese with olives, white anchovies and crusty bread, SGD19, rounding off the list. I was first introduced to halloumi cheese at Artichoke and I loved how the texture had the consistency of toufu with a lightly salted flavour. So when the friend ordered the dish, I was already mentally recalling the flavours I had savoured at Artichoke and I guess expectations were set and it did not measure up to what I’ve had but good, nevertheless.

The famished and in need of satiation despite technically downing a starter each, we swiftly moved on to mains with three meats and one fish for the table. Let’s start with the only seafood on the table, the pan seared sea bass with artichoke, potatoes and rocket salad, SGD27, was well seared but again, I pretty much had an idea of what sea bass perfection was in my head and it did not meet that mark. For seabass perfection, try Ember and until I uncover another gem of a seabass dish, Ember will continue be my go-to.

Next up, the confit duck leg, puy lentils, sage and smoked bacon, SGD26, was satisfying but again, not the best I’ve had. It still is a good option given the narrow menu available.

My order of 48 hour cooked braised beef cheek with mochi potatoes, carrot puree and snow pea tendrils, SGD29, was well worth the penny and I felt a satisfied grin plaster itself on my face as I sliced and savoured each bite. Mochi potatoes, never had it, awesome. Carrot puree, too sweet, under seasoned and stood out like a sore thumb on the plate. Beef cheek, tender perfection.

Best presentation prize for mains has got to go to the pork belly with parsnip puree, braised quinoa and celery, SGD29. This dish ties with the beef cheek for best mains of the night for me. Not the best pork belly I’ve cracked my knife into but the use of quinoa and parsnip puree, brilliant. Honestly, I would give anything to dive into a plateful of quinoa right now. The bite still lingers.

Bringing on the sweets, I knew from first look at the menu that I would be having the chocolate and pistachio souffle, creme anglaise, SGD15. It’s the first time I’ve encountered a combination of its kind and let me down, it did not. Lightly fragrant and easy on the palette, I fell in love from the first dip.

According to the wait staff, the two desserts you can’t leave without were the souffle and the panna cotta and so order that we did, like obedient students in a well-disciplined class. The lime panna cotta with coconut sago, cashew nuts and mint, SGD13, was ok. Tad too complex with too many flavours which didn’t necessarily create a harmony for the palette if you ask me. I say this dish can be better refined and simplified.

Currently four weeks old, Open Door Policy is definitely getting some notice with its simple, well-executed menu. Not surprised if it continues to enjoy a full house turn out night on night. Be sure to make a reservation if you intend to venture out for a nibble.

GETTING THERE