Bistro Soori, Singapore

*please pardon the quality of the pictures. taken on the Samsung Galaxy Tab as the camera was not with me* 

Celebrating new beginnings, having had a new contract signed and an old one terminated, we created an excuse to indulge. You see, we have been on the gym diet for 2 weeks now and these long, full course dinners went out the window the minute we signed with the gym because evenings are the only time we can set foot in there. I do work, you know. So we made a collective decision to sneak in a break, feast and boy was it worth every calorie.

Bistro Soori, as the waitress tells me, is 15 months old and recently saw a change in the head chef and is now helmed by Executive Chef Benjamin McBride. I quote, “Bistro Soori is the symbiosis of an enhanced gastronomic experience within a designed space.” I typically steer away from such marketing speak, as a marketing person myself, because consumers recognise the spiel and may even fail to comprehend it. In layman’s terms, visit Bistro Soori if you’re looking for a restaurant to impress that date or client of yours as it boasts sleek designs, courtesy of the architect owner, Soo Chan [also the principal of SCDA Architects] and the food is belly satisfying, of which I will share more in a jiffy.

Reservations were made at 7pm and we were caught in the jam, as we were fretting over whether the staff had let our table go, my Blackberry started vibrating [i keep my phone silent at all times] and it was the staff calling to check if we were still coming. I loved that they did not threaten to let go of our table but rather, dialed us to ask if we were on our way. I knew that I was going to have a good night there because service goes a long way and I was right.

Arriving half an hour late [fashionably, if you ask me tho I hate being late], we had to valet park as Lim Teck Road and its entire vicinity is a nightmare to get parking after 6.30pm. How do I know? Cos Ember, another one of my favorite restaurants is located just a street down from where Bistro Soori is. Seated, we devoured the menu that was placed before us, decided and ordered in a heartbeat and a half. We hesitated a second with the dessert orders as we had each decided on a starter and main without an inkling on the portions.

No need for introductions, the humble bread. I prefer the foccacia tasting one [bottom slice] instead of the rye-looking one [top slice] but to each their own. Note, bread here is served with butter only. I’m sure you can ask for olive and vinegarette but we didn’t try.

Recalling that we had a movie to catch at 9.25pm, I thought to check with the staff on speed on service only after we placed our orders but were reassured that we’d be out of the joint by 9pm. In his words, “We’re only as fast as you eat,” and with a mutual smile the night was off to a food climax starting with starters [for lack of a better word].

This is one night where I did not suffer from food envy at all, loving both my orders starting with the Foie Gras Duo, Poached Pear, Brioche Crouton, Pink Peppercorn, Gastrique at SGD 21. The serving of foie was generous beyond words and the diner gets to experience it two ways – cold, stuffed and contrasted by the flavors of the sweet poached pear and hot, pan seared and buttery rich with the crisp toast. The crunch of the pink peppercorn was a delightful twist in flavors and also refreshing to the palate. Needless to say, I was impressed from the get go.

Another starter at the table was the Scallop, Pistachio Pesto, Arugula, Pear, Vinegar Gelee, Truffle Vinaigrette at SGD 19. Succulent, sweet, the scallops were plump, moist and well seared combined with the pistachio pesto, the dish was aromatic but lacked something to tie all the different components together. I failed to detect the pear in the dish, the arugula provided a slight crunch and refreshed the palate while the vinegar gelee tasted unlike most vinegar I’ve had in this short life time but every item seems to stand on its on and lacked that unity on the plate.

The slow-cooked short rib was worth every penny given the generous serving. Not the best short rib I’ve had but it got the basics right in being flavorful, moist and tender, breaking upon spear.

Without further ado, we approach the mains.

I was pleased beyond words with my order of shrimp, scallop, uni risotto although I was a tad confused by the dish sitting under mains as risottos usually fall under the starter category, not that I’m complaining. I love how there is an infusion of Japanese flavors with the generous use of uni in flavoring the stock and the overall dish. The seafood that accompanied the risotto were well-seared with the right crunch and texture of fresh and well cooked seafood. The basil leaves provided the perfect accent to break the richness of the dish and kept me wanting more till the last spoonful.

The Cured Roasted Pork Tenderloin, Braised Red Cabbage, Grain Mustard, GoldenRaisin, Pear for SGD 28 was an explosion of flavors in the mouth. It was at once sweet, sour, savory, tangy with a dash of heat in a single bite. I’m not a huge fan of pork but this, I kinda liked.

On the menu is also the Fish Of The Day served with Garlic Nage, Baby Spinach, Red Chili. I’m pretty certain the accompaniments on the dish do not match up to what’s on the menu but the sides were excellent, the touch of tang on the ‘shrooms and broccoli flowers was just beautiful. The cos was not that well cooked with parts of the fish overcooked and tough to the bite.
With two courses polished each, we had little room for dessert and settled on the best representation of fusion for the night – Pandan Soufflé, Strawberry Compote at SGD12. Light, fragrant and heartwarming, the pandan souffle is definitely a dish I would return for although I don’t care much for the strawberry compote that did little to enhance the souffle in any way.

GETTING THERE

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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

Patara, Tanglin Mall, Singapore

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Bangkok, Thailand for all the mundane reasons I share with every other fan of the city – Thai massage, shopping, and food. Yes, food. There are times where I find myself missing the flavors of Thailand and Patara Fine Thai Cuisine provides a good fix in a luxurious setting.

Located in Tanglin Mall, Patara Fine Thai Cuisine offers the perfect balance of privacy in a world class setting and refined humble fare with first class service. Last I was here, we had a private dining suite booked for a cosy and intimate affair.

For starters, we skipped the regular orders of curried fish cakes and the likes to savor a chef’s fine skill on display – La Tieng, a traditional filling of Atlantic crab meat, minced chicken and peanuts wrapped in egg nets. Pretty as a package when served, the flavors were a perfect symphony. The sweetness from the chunks [not slivers] of crabmeat, the fragrance of the nut enhanced by the crisp, airy crunch of the egg net was perfectly balanced with the use of herbs. Simply stunning.

What’s a meal without a salad? Yum Som-O was our choice to bring that balance to our meal and it was beautiful. Starting with a base of pomelo, the balance of tartness and sweetness provided a fresh pop and served as a beautiful counterbalance to the roasted coconut and sweet chilli jam that it was tossed in. The salad was topped with succulent prawns for that hearty bite of a protein. It was heavenly and I wished we had extra servings of this simple yet refined dish.

Tom Kha Gai was the soup of the day for us, a mild coconut galangal soup with chicken, it’s perfect for those with a low threshold for spice. This was especially comforting for me as a warmth spread through me in sharp contrast to the cold blast from the air-conditioning vent.

Moving on to mains, keeping in true Southeast Asian dining style, it was a communal treat with dishes served with rice. There are options for individual meals but what’s a meal without sharing and variety? I’m not a rice kinda person but I absolutely loved the Khao Klong, which is brown rice, that they offer as an alternative option to the usual Khao Suay, the usual fragrant jasmine rice. I first discovered the delight of brown rice at another fine dining Thai restaurant in Bangkok. The nutty flavor of the brown rice provides an additional layer to the dishes you’re savoring, there’s no better way I can describe it but to urge you to try it for yourself. Of course, not every restaurant provides you with that option but no harm asking right?

From the meat and poultry menu, we had the Moo Ob Ma Praw and See Krong Kae Yang. I’ll start with the less preferred of the two, the Moo Ob Ma Praw, which is slow-braised pork belly in coconut juice, coriander and cassia bark, was a touch too sweet for my liking. I’m rigid in that I can’t eat sweet meats, my mind just cannot comprehend nor process the flavors that I’m tasting. Meat is meant to be savory for me and I guess that’s why this dish was an immediate strike off for me. I definitely can’t pick on the cooking as the pork belly was perfectly braised, soft enough to melt in your mouth but with that spring that speaks of perfection in technical execution. The Thais do love their sweets and that’s one area I can’t reconcile with.

The See Krong Kae Yong on the other hand took me to the high heavens and back. The picture does no justice to the dish and I apologize for the bad photography. Each dish comes with 3 pieces only so do bear in mind the serving portions when ordering for the table. We managed to wing an order of 5 pieces as a single serve and that’s what I mean by service excellence as they catered to our table’s needs. Good service aside, this pan seared lemongrass rack of lamb is divine. Cooked to perfection, served medium rare, I was surprised to find myself diving in to the dish with much gusto. Typically steering clear of lamb because of the gaminess of the meat, he chef has somehow masterfully masked the gamey flavor through the clever use of spices like lemongrass. The accompaniments to the dish were more than just artful displays as they enhanced and accentuated the flavors of the main protein. The papaya salad provided a refreshing zing and served as a palette cleanser between bites, while the sweet rice rolls were crisp, savory complements that harmonised the dish. This is a MUST ORDER even if you are not a red meat eater, unless, of course, it’s a dietary restriction.

Having had seafood in our appetizer [crab] and salad [prawn], we decided to explore only one dish from the seafood menu and selected the Hoy Shell Nam Prig Pao. Once again, the presentation of the dish has been distorted and it’s my bad. The scallop was fresh, plump and succulent, as you can tell from the picture above and it was perfectly sauteed in chilli jam sauce with sweet basil.

For a balanced diet, we ordered the Pak Choy Nam Mun Hoy, a simple stir-fry of baby bak choy with oyster sauce.

Beyond stuffed, we hesitated to order dessert as we didn’t feel we would do the dessert justice given the state of our bulging bellies but… we caved, and I’m glad we did. The Kluay Thod Ice Cream Kati was mind-blowing. The coconut battered banana was fried to fragrant and moist perfection. Topped with a generous drizzle of honey that caramelised and adhered to the piping hot fried bananas, the dessert was served with ice cold coconut ice cream that took us all on a sensory journey to pleasure-dom. This is also a definite must order for a perfect wrap to your meal.

GETTING THERE

La Cantina in Venezia, Changi Village Hotel, Singapore

I’ve been here so many times I can’t even count the number of visits on both hands and I was appalled at how I’ve given this place the cold shoulder on this space of mine. So I’m making up for it by sharing all the dishes I’ve tried at this dining delight and I hope you find at least one dish that appeals to your buds, and I mean taste buds at that.

Nestled at the east end of Singapore, La Cantina in Venezia overlooks the lush greenery and shore of our island to provide a tranquil dining environment. I have rotated my dining experience from outdoor to indoor, lower deck to upper deck [pictured above] and I would suggest first time diners to take the alfresco seating overlooking the sea for an unforgettable experience. That lingering kiss of sea breeze, a sip of good white and you’ll feel all the frustrations and tension melt away from your shoulders as you relax into your seat.

I usually arrive famished from the long drive to what I would refer to as the ‘outskirts’ of Singapore and am always thankful for the hospitable greeting in a basket.

No complications, no fancy-schmancy pretentious appetizers, just straightforward well-baked bread. This home baked goodness evokes the image of an Italian mother dedicating her life to the ‘soul [sole]’ duty of feeding her family of 12 [don’t ask me where I got that number from], never wavering in her dedication and always producing the best for the satisfaction of her family. Served warm with olive vinegarette on the side, I always tell myself to go easy on the bread but ‘once you start, you can’t stop.’

Starting with cold antipasti, the Caprese is a staple order for me every visit for that unbeatable freshness of the tomato, the light creaminess of the buffalo mozarella, finished with the fragrant olive pesto drizzle for simple contrasts of textures and harmony of flavors that lingers on your tongue. Be sure to have fresh ground pepper sprinkled on just before you tuck in for that heightened flavor. Another good option is the Proscuitto E Melone if you’re in a large group and can afford more appetizers.

Just because we’re Singaporeans and we all love our fried food, the Calamari features regularly at our table and is a safe option for the hot antipasti. It’s not the best calamari I’ve tasted but somehow we just can’t keep ourselves from ordering it especially since I have calamari lovers for pals.

A sucker for thin crust pizza,  La Cantina delivers crisp goodness in a slice with sufficient bite and weight that distinguishes and prevents it from turning into a cracker. Pictured above is the Parma Porcini, my choice selection, for its hearty satisfaction – the thin crust is topped with a layer of pomodoro [tomato sauce] for that sweetness and tartness as a base, layer in the mozzarella for the gooey creaminess and touch of saltiness, add to that a generous spread of succulent italian mushrooms finished with a fresh and generous layer of parma ham. Is that a winning combination or what? The menu at  La Cantina offers a selection of 20 different pizza toppings to suit your palette and balance your table’s orders of need for options. If you are seeking a vegetarian balance to counter heavy meat orders, go for the Funghi Porcini that is equally heavenly.

Moving on swiftly to pasta and risotto, I do admit that the choice of 22 different dishes can be daunting to power through but those in the know would agree that the Linguine Al Granchio is the reason why every first-timer visits and why every repeat customer returns. This crabmeat linguine comes with generous chunks of crabmeat unlike the pretentious scrapes we get at most other restaurants. Tossed in a creamy tomato sauce, this is the winning factor of the dish as the sauce is perfectly balanced and leaves the diner diving in for more. I usually add a splash of tobasco sauce for that kick in a bite but it tastes perfect as served.

An alternative to crabmeat is the lobster option which is seasonally available only. When I tried this, I found the flavor to be wanting and preferred the regular Linguine Al Granchio to the fancier version.

Another pasta dish that I can’t stay away from is the Linguine Al Nerro Di Seppia which translates simply to squid ink linguine. A personal affection of mine, it is again not the best I’ve had but if given the liberty to order another pasta dish, this is my go-to due to my simple attraction to squid ink.

Main courses are also available and you cannot go wrong with the Filetto Di Manzo Al Gorgonzola. Medium rare tenderloin topped with gorgonzola cheese sauce, paired with the flavorful roquette, this dish goes straight to your heart. Most times, sides are neglected on dishes like this but the potato chunks on this is roasted perfectly that it actually leaves you craving for more.

If you’re a regular patron and are tired of the regular menu offering, La Cantina offers specials so if you’re not informed upon menu presentation, do check in with the staff on the special for the day. Being adventurous on one of my visits, I ordered the Lambshank Risotto just for a change of pace. The lambshank was cooked just right and the tender slices of meat fell of the bone by the forkful. Didn’t quite agree on the direction as the flavors were pretty mediterranean but I can’t deny the skill that went into the execution of this dish.

Despite my repeat visits, it is evident that I’m not an adventurous eater and am not out to taste test the entire menu. As mentioned, repeat visits are the result of the addictive flavor of the Linguine Al Granchio and I’ve clearly fallen victim to it.

GETTING THERE

Opening Hours: 
Tue to Fri
11am to 3pm and 6pm till Late
Weekends
11am till Late

Tel: (65) 6546 9190 Fax: (65) 6546 9153

Ain’t No Other Hound, Bangkok, Thailand

You know how that exotic face that you can’t place always captures your attention, keeping you guessing of the origin and lineage like a ghost in your mind’s eye? Well, that sums up Another Hound Cafe for you – a half breed that produces amazing results in unexpected ways. The menu features familiar Italian delights with a twist of Thai for an unforgettable tongue-tickle.

Featuring a chic interior against black painted walls, dark furniture and black coated metal grills, the space is a stark contrast to the elegance of the mall that is Siam Paragon which it is housed in –  in a good way, of course.

Visual spectacle aside, we quickly decided on our orders between the four of us. Starting off with a Greyhound’s favorite – Homemade Paté with Cognac and Fresh Peppercorns served with Crisp Toast. I won’t say its the best paté I’ve had and the promise of the Cognac flavor did not meet my expectations but i love the refreshing crunch and hint of spice of the fresh peppercorn, mixed in whole. The toast was done to perfection and that is a bonus in itself. I’d advise to order this only if you have 4 pax and up at your table or it can prove to be overwhelming. A serving of this will set you back by 150 baht which is oh-so-reasonable!

With our palate tickled, we anticipated the arrival of our array of main courses and i must say, the efficiency of the kitchen should be applauded. Every dish on our order was served back to back and if you’re not sharing dishes, this will ensure that no one at the table is left hanging while the others dance an awkward do-i-wait-or-do-i-start look and shrug.

Going with the pasta dishes first, we had a selection of Spaghetti with Thai Anchovy, Fettuccini with Shrimps and Champignon Cream Sauce and Spaghetti Cha Cha Cha.

Was this my favorite dish? No. Was it unexpected? Yes. The last thing you would expect spaghetti to remind you of is stir-fried noodles but this dish in particular did just that. Asian seasoning and style of cooking with an Italian staple produced a dish that perhaps was too exotic for my liking. The flavors were strong without being overpowering nor pungent with a right kick of spice that whets your appetite but i wasn’t bowled over by this dish which sets you back 180 baht and comes highly recommended on the menu.

Second time here, second order of the same dish, that’s a sure indication of the pleasure this dish brings. Like the name, the spices and herbs used in this dish dances in your mouth and creates a symphony of aromas that is unexpected yet in perfect harmony with each other. The squid ink pasta is al-dente with the right amount of bite and its flavor enhanced by the shrimps and scallops it is stir-fried with. What really places this dish on a pedestal for me is the use of Italian basil leaves that is so aromatic and light in contrast with the saltiness of the sea, it is just sheer genius to me what the chef has created with this. The use of chillies and green peppercorns adds a good spice level without being overpowering. This dance of flavors which i recommend for all to try is worth every 260 baht of it.

Simple, straightforward, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get dish, this proved to be a crowd pleaser with its familiar taste and detail to perfection. Pasta cooked to perfection tossed in a perfectly balanced cream sauce with well sauteed mushrooms and shrimps, the Fettucini with Shrimps and Champignon Cream Sauce will set you back by 220 baht.

If you’re vegetarian, fret not, Another Hound Cafe serves up vegetarian courses as well and we tasted one of their offerings and it was très manifique – Baked Spinach with Cheese. Absolutely heartwarming, it was food for the soul. When served, the bubbling browned cheese caused some major salivation and when we dug our forks in, that beautiful pull of springy cheese caused all of us to exclaim in delight as we fought to direct it to our mouths without causing a mess. The creaminess of the cheese and the fragrance of the baked spinach was an orgasmic delight and before long, that dish stood empty and all 180 baht of it was sitting happy in our bellies.

The gluttons we are, we were not satisfied without a proper entrée and that came in the form of a Grilled Pork Strip Loin with Spicy Thai Hot Sauce, similar to what you may find in Thai restaurants across the city. We had initially order the Grilled New Zealand Beef but it was unavailable – do order it as the steak is done to perfection and should not be missed. Back to the pork, it served its purpose in providing a protein balance to our meal and what’s uniquely Thai is the pairing with sticky glutinous rice and Som Tum salad and costs a reasonable price of 260 baht.

Main courses out of the way, dessert came hot on its heels and we settled on three with two orders of layered crepe cake and a chocolate lover [for me!]. True to its concept, the dessert offering comes under the franchise Sweethound and we palmed through the menu quickly making our choices.

I’m not a huge cream fan so I’m not the best judge of the next two desserts but from the reactions my pals had, it must have been pretty good with every bit of cream licked off the plates.

The Layered Crepe Cake – Chocolate Banana is what i would call comfort food but what makes this dessert outstanding is the layered crepe that anchors it. Multi-layered, light and mildly sweet, it formed a perfect balance for the heavy use of cream and generous slices of banana. For the amount of work put into creating the layers in the cake, I’ve gotta say 110 baht is money well spent.

An extra 25 baht for the Layered Crepe Cake – Mixed Berries, I’m guessing it’s due to the general cost of berries being higher than bananas. What this cake offers over the banana chocolate one is a tartness to contrast the sweetness of the cream to offer a delightful balance and mix of flavor which is worth every 135 baht.

The dessert that brought it home for me has got to be the Chocolate Lover, aptly named, to satiate the taste buds of chocolate lovers all over the world. This sinful delight is a wicked combination of all the chocolate-y sweet treats you can think of and crave. Starting with a drizzle of chocolate sauce to serves as a base, a scoop of chocolate ice cream is piled on followed by a scoopful of cornflakes for crunch. Next, layering in a handful of maltesers [this is when i start melting], topped with a slice of brownie with another decadent scoop of chocolate ice cream, this dessert is not even done yet! Popping in ferrero rocher for that hazelnut crunch, the dessert is finished with whipped cream, a dust of coca powder and sticks of picco to make this chocolate heaven. Needless to say, it proved to be too much and i suffered from a sweet coma after and that was just the small portion that we ordered, shelling out 125 baht for it.

All in, if you’re kinda sick of Thai food but still yearning for that local punch with a foreign flavor check out Another Hound Cafe to satisfy all your convoluted craves and enjoy the attention to detail that the owners has paid to the interior of the cafe.

GETTING THERE

anoirnan
map

Akher Saa, آخر ساعة – Cairo, Egypt

I had the fortune of visiting Egypt before the turmoil erupted and one of the top questions I’ve been asked is  -“Is there anything to eat there?” I had similar concerns heading out but I returned with a rounder belly and a knowing nod.

Akher Saa [آخر ساعة ] is but one of the many eateries we visited there and is a joint frequented by many a local. There is no sign in English outside but the crowds are a sure indication of the popularity at this 24-hour eatery.

The open-air cooking area lures you in with full-bodied wafting scent, almost curling a finger under your nose and hooking you in. On sight, the promise of an endless supply of meat kicks that stomach grumble into full gear, turning it into a frightening roar.

Noticing our curious stares, the ‘cook’ beckons us in with a quick flick to the meat and burger buns indicating that these are familiar foods and we should give it a whirl. And a whirl we did.

Settling at one of the tables we eagerly flicked through the menu only to find that every dish was in Arabic and we could not understand a single character on it. Refusing to settle for anything less we scanned the menu again and decided that a picture paints a thousand words and selected our main courses based on the images in the menu.

For the local experience at ordering, push through the multitude of men to order at the tiny window in the take-away section where you will then be issued a ticket. Proceed to the high counter up front on the left side of the restaurant and vie for a server’s attention. Apparently the locals rarely dine in the indoor cafe next to the order counter. I never found out why, perhaps the benches on the sidewalks have a romantic appeal..

Every main course you order is accompanied with baladi bread [a local Egyptian bread which is round, 15-20cm in diameter, 1-2cm thick and baked with whole wheat] and turshi [Egyptian pickles] which i believe is a common custom in the country. Much like the servings of varied pickles and side dishes at a traditional Korean table.

We tried rationing our intake of baladi breads but the condiments and side dishes combined with our famished bellies meant that we eventually ordered or rather, was served a second serving of the whole wheat breads.

The next couple of minutes was that of utter silence as our main courses arrived and we tucked in savoring every charred flavor of the meat, inhaling the buttery-soft rice with every mouthful, mixed with a refreshing crunch of raw lettuce to tie all the flavors together. The result was nothing short of sheer bliss.

With a satisfied pat on the belly, we took in our surroundings for the very last time. It was actually our last meal in Cairo as we packed up the next day and make our way to the airport. The end was no short of the beginning where the people of Egypt continue to dazzle us with their hospitality and friendly smiles.

GETTING THERE

BUTTERFLY GARDEN [Die Yuan, 蝶园] – Shanghai, China

Shanghai may be a melting pot of cultures and cuisines – from within (countless provinces within the country, each with their own style of cooking) and without. You’d be surprised to learn that the Chinese city is even more cosmopolitan than our little red dot, Singapore – that was my takeaway from my short trip there. What makes the city different from Singapore is its relatively strong heritage and influence that still permeates the streets, the people and the cuisine.

In Shanghai, you’ll find yourself spoilt for choice food wise but you cannot miss tasting Shanghainese cuisine. A good option that was recommended to us was 蝶园, which literally translates to Butterfly Garden. This theme of butterflies is carried through the interior of the restaurant with the trio of us being greeted by this ornate panel upon arrival.

If you’re under the impression or have heard horror stories of Chinese food being overtly oily or spicy, let me assure you, that is not what Shanghainese cuisine is. My best guess? Those dishes are likely from the Szechuan province where most of the food is 麻辣 which literally leaves your tongue numb and stinging from the heat/ spice.

What is Shanghainese cuisine you ask? So I’ve learnt, Shanghai does not have a definitive cuisine of its own. Rather, it modifies the cuisines from the surrounding provinces (mostly from Jiangsu and Zhejiang coastal provinces). What epitomizes Shanghai cuisine is the use of common ingredients – alcohol and sugar. The most common complains of the cuisine is a result of the overhanded use of the ingredients mentioned – the food is too sweet, there is too much rice wine or its too oily.

The key to an enjoyable Shanghainese meal is balance. A careful balance of flavors will ensure that the dish is not overwhelmingly sweet, reeking of alcohol or drenched in saturated fat. And 蝶园, Butterfly Garden, has perfected that balance.

A stone’s throw away from Xintiandi (a popular expat area), 蝶园 serves up 100% Shanghainese fare that will leave you craving to for more. Or at the very least, to try every item on its extensive menu. If you’re bad in mandarin, like me, do request for the English menu as you page through item after item of authentic Shanghai classics.

Our host recommended his top picks that includes a selection of cold dishes/ starters. Missed out on the names for several of the dishes, pardon me there.

This particular cold dish this is a mixture of familiar items in Chinese cuisine such as black fungus, beans, beancurd skin and innards of sorts. As mentioned earlier, unique to Shanghainese cuisine, the dish is sweetened and lends for a different rendition of regular Chinese cold starters.

The next dish, a specialty of the restaurant and a Shanghainese staple is cured pomfret that had a lightly salted yet sweetened flavor with a firm consistency in the flesh of the fish. I’m typically used to consuming freshly steamed pomfret and was pretty hesitant to taste this dish for fear of an overpowering fishy flavor but i must say i was pleasantly surprised.

The main dishes rolled in and a standout for me was the hong shao rou [braised pork belly in soy sauce]. At this juncture i have to declare that i’m a pretty conservative eater in that i don’t eat sweet meats – the notion is almost an alien concept that my tongue and mind cannot reconcile and accept. Needless to say, i was skeptical but willing to give it a whirl and boy did it take my mind by storm. The pork belly was fatty but not greasy, the texture firm yet tender without disintegrating on bite. The flavor, it blew my mind away. The soy sauce was in perfect harmony with the sugar, forming a tantalizing caramelised coat on each slice of pork belly.

To balance out the strong flavors of this dish, our host ordered light yet full-bodied accompanying dishes to complement and balance out the assault on our tastebuds. They included a dou si [finely sliced toufu slow cooked in stock with dried baby scallops] and stir-fied dou miao. 

These dishes were accompanied as with Chinese tradition – a bowl of white rice for a well-rounded diet.

Completing the meal with dessert, we bring in an other key ingredient of Shanghainese cuisine – rice wine. The dish, 酒酿圆子 [glutinous rice dumpling in fermented rice wine] kinda felt like a Fear Factor type dish for me. After all, who wants to have fermented food? I didn’t take to it too kindly and i would say that it is an acquired taste but it was an interesting experience to say the least. The flavor was complex, sour because of the fermentation of the rice wine, sweetened with wolfberries and likely sugar, with whole grains of rice that leaves a pop in your mouth when you press against it and a chewy dumpling that is almost tasteless.

I left the restaurant with a new found taste of Chinese cuisine and a crave for sweet meats. Only this one though. Bakkwa, lap cheong and char siu still does not make the cut for me.

GETTING THERE

Dieyuan Restaurant, Taicang Road Branch 

70 Taicang Road (near Songshan Road), Shanghai, China   上海市卢湾区太仓路70号(近嵩山路)

Reservations: +86 21 5383 733

Operating hours: 10:30 – 23:00

Budget: ¥ 80-100‎

Public transport: Metro Line 1 (South Huangpi Road),Line 10 (Xintiandi); Bus Lines: 109, 146/ 谈水路(地铁13号线 规划中) (373 m W)  地铁13号线(规划中)

Cuc Gach Quan – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

If you happen to find yourself stranded and starving in HCM w/o an inkling of where you can satisfy that tummy grumble, I’ve got a good spot to recommend.

Off the city track [that’s out of District 10 for you], tucked away in an isolated lane is a gem of a find – Cuc Gach Quan. Frequented by long-living expats in HCM, it’s a place that you can only find if recommended to.

Occupying the ground floor of a tube house, the restaurant will take your breath away upon entry. A visual treat, the owner has treated the space with such careful consideration that the narrow and tight space that is typical of a tube house cease to make its mark.

The entrance lures you in with its intimate and antiquated touches, bidding you to enter, much like a visit to a long-lost friend’s home. We couldn’t resist exploring the space, capturing the images on film despite the hunger pangs.

The visual treat only gets better – at least it does for me, indulging my love for all things that harks back to an age i can only read or learn about, but not live it.

It gets even better. With the promise of a Vietnamese meal, we settled at our table to give the menu a once over before deciding to leave our host the honor of selecting the dishes for us. After all, she’s been here more times we can count on both hands.

Cuc Gach Quan is a tribute to the owner’s grandmother, where the “true values of a ‘countryman’ are reigning under the motto “eat green, live healthy”, every action designed to demonstrate respect to our environment.” Perhaps it’s that sentimental value coursing through the space and dishes that appealed to me, but boy was i captivated.

Craving a drink to refresh from the day’s brutal heat, i settled on an order of guava juice [Nước ổi ép] that came served in such a unique manner, i was kept occupied for a while, remarking at the ingenuity of it all. Served in a glass jar, the bottle was corked with a strip of leaf held together by a wooden toothpick carrying through the theme of paying respect to the environment. Keeping the drink true to the fruit’s natural flavor, a side serving of honey accompanies the drink if you’re craving for a sweeter taste.

As i placed my lips to the straw for a sip, i noticed that this was no straw. Instead, it was a fraction of the stem that we Chinese know as “kong xin cai” or water spinach in  English. I’ve since learnt that this is also referred to as morning glory. Am no vegetation expert and stand corrected, so do let me know if it’s a case of mistaken identity.

Rollin’ on the chow, we started with lotus root salad [Gỏi ngó sen] which was perfect to beat the heat from the day. Refreshing, light, crunchy and sweet in a single bite, the dish prepped us for more to come.

Very much the Asian style of dining, we had a variety of dishes consumed with a healthy serving of rice. At Cuc Gach Quan, order the brown rice for a fragrant and healthy experience. The grains served here is fluffy with bite and nutty flavor to boot. Do not miss it.

The one dish that got us coo-ing after was the crispy sea bass with passionfruit Sauce [Cá chẻm chiên giòn sốt chanh dây]. This is where my friends will start to question my sweet-savory dislike but this dish packed a punch. Fresh sea bass, deep-fried and tossed in passion fruit sauce. The end result is a riot of flavors and texture with added crunch from the passionfruit seeds. This dish is a definite must-order.

Accompanying the star of the night, but not falling short in the flavor department included bitter melon with pork [Canh khổ qua hầm thịt]sauté morning glory [Rau muống] and fried tofu with salt-pepper and lemon sauce [Đậu hũ trứng chiên giòn muối tiêu chanh].

A meal is never complete without dessert and i present you the Vietnamese version of goreng pisang. Be sure to request for a side serving of condensed milk to be consumed with this banana delight to end your meal on a sweet note.

GETTING THERE