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Friday, April 29, 2005

Proustian Berries

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During the summer of 1994, I was lucky enough to land an internship with the International Herald Tribune in Paris. Even better, the studio apartment that I subletted from a friend who was studying there—she was gallivanting across Scandanavia that summer—was right over a wonderful little patisserie. Well, actually, it was 6 floors above, and this being Paris, i.e. no elevators, that meant that no matter how many wonderful pastries I consumed, the walk up and down from the studio would help me burn off all those extra calories.

My favourite snack that summer was composed of 3 simple things: a fresh croissant with a bit of nutella, stuffed with fresh strawberries. Any of you who have had the tremendous pleasure of enjoying farm-fresh French strawberries in June, at their peak, will understand my sheer enthusiasm for this berry. Unfortunately, most store-bought strawberries in other countries, including Singapore, suck. Fortunately for me, that summer I lived near a wonderful market, which I could walk to within minutes and often did. The strawberries I purchased from there and the other markets in town were tremendous. As were the many strawberry desserts offered at countless bistros. These berries were sweeter than any I had ever and, to this day, have ever tasted.

The above are some Japanese strawberries, purchased in Singapore at a Japanese supermarket at an exorbitant price. Sadly, while sweet, they are still no match for the berries of my youth. Hopefully, sometime soon, I can make my way back to France, this time with my wife, to feast on summer berries in June. That, in my opinion, would be worth travelling for.

Chiva Som Part 3

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Over the weekend, my wife and I took a Thai Spa Cuisine cooking class at Chiva-Som. It was, for me, an important part of the research I needed to conduct in order to be able to contribute intelligently to the resort’s forthcoming Thai Spa Cuisine cookbook.

I won’t go too much into the details of the course, nor will I divulge most of the cooking techniques or any recipes here. (For that, you’ll have to buy the book when it hits the shelves in September 2005). But I will say that as someone going into the course a tad sceptical of making Thai food healthy, the course really was an eye-opener.

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The food we prepared was delicious, despite being made with close to no salt and sugar, and no oil. In fact, I found that there was a clarity in flavour that is often missing in the Thai cuisine you find in most restaurants.

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The one method that I found most interesting was the substitution of cooking oil with vegetable stock, a technique which sounded a little odd at first but worked beautifully with the various dishes we made (pictured throughout this post). We made a clear and spicy mushroom soup, a spicy pomelo salad with prawns, a fish dish (they called it simply fish with Thai sauce), and a beef with red curry.

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The only substitution that I am sure some purists would object to might be the swapping of coconut milk for a combination of young coconut juice and skim milk. I thought it worked well but I am sure a lot of others won’t find the taste fatty or authentic enough. Anyway, to make a long post short, the experience was really enlightening and ever since returning to Singapore, my wife and I have been experimenting with some of the techniques learnt at Chiva-Som in order to make our dinners a whole lot healthier. That, of course, doesn't mean I won't be indulging in some delicious sinful foods from time to time, just that I can feel less guilty about doing so.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Chiva Som Part 2 - Whole Grain Croissants?

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Before coming to Chiva-Som, I don’t think I would have ever considered eating a whole grain croissant. And not especially one made with as little butter as possible. The idea alone is off-putting. It sounds like something a peasant-skirted fem-hippy with unshaven legs and armpit hair would make (um... no offence intended to unshaven fem-hippy readers). It would be hard and tasteless, edible only when soaked in a bucket of wheatgrass juice or herbal tea.

Croissants are supposed to be rich, buttery, and airy. A batch of dough calling for, say, 4 cups of flour usually requires around 1.5 cups of butter. The flour is also important. It should be normal all-purpose flour, milled finely so that the dough comes out smooth. Croissants shouldn’t be made with flour studded with kernels. Who has ever enjoyed a lumpy, grainy croissant?

Amazingly, I can now say I have. Among the many healthy baked goods featured in Chiva-Som’s breakfast spread are these croissants, made with whole grain flour and with very little butter. They are also quite small, less than half the size of the normal croissant. Surprisingly though, they weren’t awful. Far from it. In fact, they were really good. So good I had two each morning, spread with a bit of organic honey and a bit of fruit compote. (The one pictured is with citrus honey and blueberry compote.) They were light and crisp and not a bit oily. And to tell the truth, I really got hooked on them.

Unfortunately, the recipe doesn’t appear in the current Chiva-Som cookbook and since the book I am contributing to is specifically on Thai food, I doubt it will be in there either. My wife is considering asking one of her baker friends to work with her to come up with a recipe for these. If they do, you can bet I’ll post it here. Of course, if any of you have recipes, feel free to email them to me.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Chiva-Som Part 1

Chiva-Som means “haven for life”, and for the well-heeled guests who frequent this gorgeous spa in order to relax, de-stress and detox, that description is perfectly apt. Chiva-Som, located in Hua Hin, Thailand, is one of the world’s most famous spas, and its range of treatments, physical, mental and spiritual are well-reputed. For people seeking to rejuvenate themselves and their bodies, it’s a great place. For a foodie, however, the idea of spending 4 days in a spa, eating “health food”, i.e. close to no salt, sugar, fat, etc, was a little terrifying. On the 2.5 hour car journey to Hua Hin from Bangkok, I kept asking my wife is she didn’t want to consider pulling over for one last greasy but delicious bowl of…well, whatever street food we could find on the way. Her favourite response was a swat with her hand, giving me no more attention than your average pest, which I think she was beginning to think I was.

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Chiva-Som’s grounds are beautiful. This picture is taken just past the well-guarded entrance. Further inside, past the villas, are the main facility areas—spa, gym, yoga pavilion, bathing pavilion, and more rooms. The hotel’s pool and Thai restaurant, Taste of Siam, sit closer to the rather attractive white-sand beach. All in all, a rather idyllic setting.

But what about the food, you ask?

Our first meal at Chiva-Som really scared me. Arriving just a bit late for lunch (past 2pm), we were quickly ushered into the Emerald Room, the hotel’s international restaurant, and presented with what has got to be the healthiest buffet spread I have ever seen. Lots of raw and grilled veggies, a few salads—Thai and Western—and some other food items that I am sure would look palatable to a rabbit but not to yours truly. I was really beginning to fear that the next few days, I’d be living on multi-grain muffins and self-pity. Fortunately, my wife asked if there was an a la carte menu. After a couple minutes of twisting our waiter’s arm, we found out that, in fact, lunch came with 2-3 hot dishes made upon request, but because we were late, they were hoping we wouldn’t order them. Of course, we did. And I am so very happy we did. After a few minutes, we were presented with a spinach-ricotta parcel wrapped in philo with a red pepper sauce and a plate of green curry with seafood and brown rice. And both, while incredibly light and healthy, were delicious!

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The green curry, especially, impressed me. No oil, no coconut milk, but a ton of flavour. My wife and I had arranged for a Thai Spa Cuisine cooking course the next day, and after tasting this dish, I couldn’t wait to take it and question the chefs on their techniques. (The class I’ll write about in Part 3 of these posts.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Kitchen of the World

I was in Thailand over the weekend, having gone there to check out uber-health spa, Chiva Som, in Hua Hin (more on that in a later post). The drive to Hua Hin from the airport is 2.5 hours, so I had quite a bit of time on my very idle hands. Fortunately, I had my camera to play with, as well as copies of the Nation and the Bangkok Post, both excellent city newspapers. One article in particular in the Post caught my eye

It was titled "What's Cooking" by Kanokporn Chanasongkram, and is about the Thai government's Kitchen of the World project. Here's the first two paras of the article:

"When global gourmands pick their favourite food, what would be number one? French, Chinese, Japanese, Italian or Thai? In a number of recent consumer surveys, Italian turned out to be the top cuisine. As for Thai food, it ranks within the top five in many surveys and through the Kitchen of the World project the Thai Government aims to increase its popularity to become number one or number two.

“The three-year project, initiated by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, aims to develop the country's food industry. Ambitious goals include putting Thailand among the world's top five major exporters of food, promoting the use of Thai ingredients and condiments to produce authentic Thai dishes, and to increase the number of Thai restaurants worldwide from the present 6,954 to 20,000 by the year 2008."

To read the rest, click here: Article here!

This, in my opinion, is a great development. And Singaporeans should be taking note.

Our government is on the brink of investing billions into 2 integrated resorts with casino projects in hopes of boosting tourism arrivals as well as the economy. I should say I have nothing against the casino-resort; I've been for it even before the idea was floated.

But I worry that we are not investing into the future of our culinary industry, an industry that has already made Singapore famous internationally. And I don't think I am the only one to feel this way, given a few well-written articles and editorials that have appeared in the Straits Times over the past few weeks. We need, in Singapore, a culinary initiative of our own, not a copy of Thailand's, but one that serves our needs. We need to invest in promoting our greatest chefs, people like Sam Leong, Jereme Leung, and Justin Quek. We need to empower these chefs and others like them with PR and marketing skills. We need to document our food histories (because we have no one Singapore cuisine) and set-up proper culinary education facilities. We need to invest in R&D to refine our own cuisines and our food products. We need to invest in better marketing of our culinary products and eateries. We need to invite chefs from all over the world to come and experiment here, in state of the art kitchen-labs. We need to work with private operators to entice celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Thomas Keller, or Joel Robuchon to open establishments here. We need to invest in an organization empowered to help develop and enable our culinary arts.

I don't believe this is a far-fetched idea. We have the Design Singapore Council already. Why not a Creative Culinary Singapore Council?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

"Work" Trip

I love it when work and pleasure come together. I'm off tomorrow to spend a few days in one of the world's best spas, Chiva Som, in Hua Hin, Thailand. They've asked me to contribute to a cookbook they're producing on their famous Thai Spa Cuisine. I'll post substantially on the resort and the food next week.

Comfort Food 1

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Okay, it’s not the world’s greatest photo or the world's prettiest dish, but this is my all-time favourite stay-in-and-have-a-simple-meal-at-home food. It’s a steamed egg custard with minced pork and salted duck egg yolks and is one of the few things that I’d be more than happy to eat a couple times of week for the rest of my life.

I grew up eating this, thanks to a Cantonese “amah” that cooked phenomenally well. My mother, of course, makes a killer version. And, more recently, my wife has mastered it. (I should admit that while it is in fact a relatively easy dish to prepare, I’ve only made it myself a few times. My wife is much better at preparing Chinese food than I am—Europhile that I am—and this dish has become a solid part of her vast repertoire.)

To make this dish (for two), you’ll need:

150g minced pork
3 eggs
400ml chicken stock
2 salted duck eggs
1/2 onion or some shallots
2 cloves of garlic

You’ll also need on hand for flavouring some light soy sauce, sugar, Chinese wine, and sesame oil. Spring onions are a nice addition as well.

Prepare necessary equipment for steaming. Ideally a large wok with a steamer attachment. Get the steam going over a high heat. Marinate your pork with a bit of soy sauce, Chinese wine and sesame oil. Finely dice up your onion and garlic and stir-fry it with the minced pork. Add a pinch of sugar to taste. You should decide how much you want to add. The pork should be savoury with a subtle sweetness. Spread the pork mixture into a heatproof bowl. Wash your salted duck eggs, and crack them open. You only want to keep the semi-hard yolks. Nestle these in the pork mixture, either whole or broken up in bits. Beat the eggs with a pair of chopsticks. Combine it with the stock. Add a pinch of salt to taste. When the mixture is well blended, strain it into the bowl with the pork and duck egg yolks. Steam the bowl over high heat for 5-10 minutes, then reduce to a low-medium flame/heat and steam for an additional 15-20 minutes. The custard should be wobbly and set, but not hard. Sprinkle some soy sauce and sesame oil over the finished custard as well as some chopped spring onions. Eat it with rice.

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When done right, the silky smooth custard mixed with the savouriness of the pork and the salted egg yolks forms an unbelievably delicious combination. It is, as I mentioned, a simple dish. The whole process, though, does take a bit of practice, especially calculating just the right timing for how set you want your custard. (Of course, figuring out steaming temperatures on your own kitchen range can be tricky for some.) Ideally, the best way to make this is to do what I've done. Convince a loved one to learn how to make it for you.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Little Pigs and Fatty Cows

Last night, we got together with a whole host of friends at Mag’s Wine Bar-Bistro. I’ve mentioned Mag’s before, in my post on my favourite Singapore restaurants. Mag’s is a wonderful little restaurant that’s a bit of an anomaly in Singapore. It’s tiny, with one big communal table and a couple small ones; it’s owner-operated; that owner, Mag, is self-trained and one helluva cook; it’s menu changes daily, according to what’s in season; and it has an incredible wine list dominated by really expensive Old World wines. Here's a little snap of Mag.

Thirteen of us took over the communal table to celebrate Nikheel and Tina, friends who now live in Turks & Caicos, and who were back in town for a quick visit. (Yup, they’re the same couple who suggested the blind tasting dinner I wrote about a little while ago.)

Tina and Nikheel

We started the meal with a couple bottles of 2004 Isabel Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, and a truly amazing first course. My wife S, thinking ahead (and fortunately with her tummy) had arranged for Mag to roast a whole suckling pig. Because there was only one pig, we decided that instead of making it available as a main for only a couple people, it would be easier to cut it up and share it as a starter. It was delicious, with super-savory crisp skin and gorgeously moist meat.

For a second course, there were three available choices. I had a seared scallop salad, which was nice but was hardly a highlight of the evening. What I was waiting for was the Meltique (beef) striploin with Shabu Shabu sauce. When I last visited Mag’s, both S and another fetching female friend, L, had ordered this dish. In fact, they enjoyed their marvelously marbled steaks so much that they shared an additional order for dessert. As expected, L, here with us again, S, myself and a clear majority of the table ordered the Meltique. Here’s a quick shot of Mag plating some of the orders.

With the main course, we had some delicious and full-bodied 2002 Chateauneuf-du-Pape. (I forget, though, which one we had.) For dessert, we were offered a choice of either a Molten Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream or a Farmhouse Cheese Plate. Overall, the dinner was great. Great food, great people, good wines. I think (or at least I hope) everyone present enjoyed themselves.

After dinner was over, seven of us headed over to Townhouse and shared a yummy bottle of a 1999 Chateau Segonnes, Margaux. Which, in retrospect, was probably not the smartest idea. The extra glasses contributed to a pretty rough morning.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Snickerdoodles and Doggy Muffins

In a very commendable display of domestic goddessdom, S, world’s coolest wife, spent part of this weekend baking goodies for both me and the always-greedy golden retrievers. Yesterday, for Sascha and Alix, she whipped up some delicious looking blueberry muffins. She made two dozen mini-muffins (pictured below, with the red muffin liners) and a half dozen big ones.

I decided to try a bit of one of the muffins myself—can’t let the dogs have them all to themselves, I figured. While they smelled great, they were a tad bland (for humans that is), and the berries, unfortunately, a tad too tart.

This morning, S wanted to sleep in a bit, so I fed the dogs. Instead of the usual dry dog food, I decided to give them a treat. I plated one of the big muffins with a small handful of the dog food and then added some scrambled eggs and toast soldiers.

Later today, since I was obviously a little jealous of the dogs, S whipped out the King Arthur Cookie Companion and asked me what kind of cookie I would like. We decided on sugar cookies, of which there’s a whole chapter. There were many yummy sounding recipes, but the one that caught my eye was Snickerdoodles. I’ve loved the word ever since I first heard it but, to be honest, never knew what a Snickerdoodle actually was. Of course, when I found out it was a kind of cookie, I was really eager to try one… only, I never got around to it. No one I knew made them and no cookie shop I ever went to had them.

So, when S offered to make them for me, I was ecstatic. Essentially, it’s a sugar cookie laced with cinnamon. Truly delicious. Especially with a cold glass of skim milk. Yum!

Thanks S! (That’s from me and the dogs.)

P.S. Interestingly enough, when we later consulted Nigella Lawson's baking book, we noticed that a Snickerdoodle to her is something completely different. It's more like a donut. Maybe it's an American-British thing... the difference in definition, that is.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

An Hermes Garden Party Brunch

When I was a journalist, part of my job required me to go to a lot of launch parties and receptions. While many of these were fun, the food at most of them was, sadly, forgettable. Of course, the food was rarely the point of these events, so neither I, nor I suspect the other guests, really minded. That said, however, it is nice to go to an event in which the food is considerably yummy.

This weekend, my wife and I were invited to a brunch/fashion show presented by Hermes. The third floor of the flagship boutique on Orchard Road was turned into a garden of sorts, with white-washed wooden cut-outs of trees, dogs and other things you’d expect to find in your neighbourhood park. White wooden walkways demarcated a runway, while waiters, clad formally with bowties and white aprons, served juices, Louis Roederer Champagne and hors d’oeuvres, prepared by the Four Seasons Hotel.

Hermes had crafted white wooden "cigarette girl-style" trays for the food and wooden caddies for the drinks that looked like up-market versions of what milkmen in the 1950s used to transport milk bottles from house to house. I thought these were fantastic.

The hors d’oeuvres, as implied, were excellent. The chocolate tarts were especially well plated. The pictures here show only a small medley of what we were offered. The cauliflower soup was delicious, as was an escargot vol-au-vent (which I was too eager to devour to shoot).

After some food and drink, the show started. It was essentially a showcase of new accessories, and as you can imagine, they were exquisite. Of course, I had to remind my wife that we couldn’t afford most of the wonderful products on display and in the store. The best part of the show—and a tremendous surprise—was the entrance of a number of super-cute canine models. Yup, in addition to the human models, Hermes arranged for some really pretty puppies to show-off their collars and leashes. My favourite, by far, was an 8 month old huskie. Here’s two of the puppies on the runway.

I guess I should also note that the Sharpei, pictured above, had a little accident while walking the runway. Fortunately it was number one, and not number two.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Risotto with Braised Pork and Peas

I’ve always loved risotto. I love the way it tastes, the rich starchiness of it, punctuated with the umami-ness of freshly grated parmesan. I especially love risotto made with home-made stock. It’s comforting in a way few other foods are. I also love making it. It’s a dish that forces you to slow down, and after a long (stressful) day at work, that is often what one needs most—except, of course, a kiss and a hug from the wife and a couple licks and wags from the dogs. Risotto requires patience, which I’m not known to have. But for this dish, in order to make it just right, I’m forced to slow down, softly stirring the just simmering rice for anywhere from 20 minutes to half an hour. And it’s something I really enjoy. I enjoy the process. I also enjoy the anticipation of perfectly cooked risotto, and enjoying it with someone (or some ones) special.

One of the sweetest people in Singapore is the chef of the Tiffin Room at Raffles Hotel. Chef Yogesh believes that food tastes better when you “cook with love.” Whether that’s a love of the food, the people you’re serving, or both, I was never completely sure. But, in essence, he’s right. Food tastes better when it’s made passionately, for people you care about. And risotto is the perfect kind of food for this. It forces you to really spend time on it, on what for many would be an annoying, monotonous task. But to the ones cooking it, as Yogesh would say, “with love”, it’s hardly a chore, but something to take pleasure and pride in.

The above is a plate of some risotto my wife and I made last night. We used pulled pork (saved from the slow braised belly pork we made a few days back) and home-made pork stock. We added some peas for color and taste, and, of course, fresh parmesan.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Yummy Brownies

We recently purchased a copy of The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion, a great big volume full of yummy recipes. After a quick dinner (soya sauce chicken noodles—yum!), we decided to make something. I had some Reese’s peanut butter chips that I wanted to use. I had originally bought these to put in a home-made chocolate ice cream, but while the ice cream was fantastic, the chips weren’t. In this cold medium, they were rock hard and their taste a little too sharp.

So, in a bid to use them up, I decided to see how they would taste in a batch of Fudgy Brownies. The recipe for these appears on page 126 of the King Arthur book. Here’s a list of the ingredients that it called for.

Fudgy Brownies

6 ounces butter
14 ounces sugar
3 ounces cocoa
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 eggs
4 1/4 ounces flour

6 ounces chocolate chips

Instead of chocolate chips (which is actually one of a couple optional ingredients), I substituted the peanut butter chips. I also used Valrhona cocoa, giving the whole batch of brownies a little more class… okay, maybe not “class”, but it did give them a lovely bittersweet note. And who doesn't like Valrhona?

I’m not going to list out the exact steps to the recipe. If you’re really interested, you can buy the book (protect copyright!) or, if you are an experienced baker, you might be able to figure them out pretty easily. There aren't that many ways to combine the above ingredients.

I’ll just say it was fun to make these. Especially fun to make them with my wife—who, if I haven’t said before, is quite the hottie, especially when she's licking off chocolate from a well-coated whisk.

The brownies, by the way, turned out great. The peanut butter chips were semi-melted and gave the brownies a nice savory bite. The recipe also worked out well (meaning unlike some bakery cookbooks—ahem, Nigella—the prescribed temperatures were accurate) and I’m dying to try out the many other recipes in this book.

Monday, April 11, 2005

A Blind Tasting Wine Dinner

This weekend, my wife and I made dinner to celebrate the visit of two close friends, now living in Turks & Caicos, where they run one of the world’s best resorts (yah, tough life!). Four other friends joined us. At the suggestion of N—one half of the couple being celebrated—each couple brought along a bottle of wine, wrapped in foil or otherwise disguised. Each couple would test the other diners’ knowledge of wine through a series of multiple choice questions, things like, “Is this wine from Australia, France, or Chile?” or "Is this a Cabernet Sauvignon, a GSM, or a Merlot?"

S (my wife) and I came up with a 4-course menu and emailed it out to each couple, assigning a white wine for the first course, a red or white for the second, a red for the third and a dessert wine for the last. While we were up happy to host a blind tasting, we also wanted some assurances that the wines would match our food.

Our first course was something from Kimiko Barber’s book The Japanese Kitchen. It was a Beef Tataki rolled around cucumber julienne, topped with ginger, garlic and kaiware. With the beef, we served the white, which despite most of us thinking it was a French Sauvignon Blanc, turned out to be a Pouilly-Fume (Chardonnay) from the Loire valley (well, at least we got France right). It was the Chateau Favray 2003 Pouilly-Fume, and was excellent.

Our second course was Mac & Cheese. I’ve been enjoying tweaking Joel Robuchon’s truffled macaroni & cheese recipe over the past couple weeks, and have come up with a variation that I really like. I use mozzarella, comte, and gruyere in the sauce and then a sprinkle of parmesan (which I blowtorch) on top. Instead of fresh truffles, I mix Tetsuya Wakuda’s Truffle Salsa (available jarred at Culina here in Singapore) into the sauce. I also add a bit of bacon, which M Robuchon does not. With this, N had brought along a real surprise, a 2000 Moulin A Vent Beaujoulais by Georges Dubeouf (I later found out that M Dubeouf himself had introduced N to this wine). This is a premium Beaujoulais that actually takes to aging, but is already drinking well. As someone who hates Beaujoulias Nouveau, this was a treat.

The third course was a combination of a slow braised Belly Pork recipe by Tom Colicchio and a Lentils recipe from the Balthazar cookbook. The Pork is oven roasted in broth, first at a higher temperature for one and half hours, and then at very, very low heat for 3-4 hours. It was truly fork tender! We paired this with one of my favourite wines from a vineyard S and I had visited a few years ago in Margaret River, Western Australia, and fell in love with. Cape Grace makes incredible wines, especially, in my opinion, its Cabernet Sauvignon. We opened a 2002 (which, remarkably, was only the vineyard’s 3rd vintage) and floored everyone with just how soft, fruity, but full it was. (James Halliday rated it a 93/100.) If you have not tried this wine, I encourage you to find a way to get your hands on a bottle (unfortunately, the one we opened was the last from the case we brought back with us from our last visit).

For dessert, we had a Sticky Date Pudding with Orange Brandy Butter Sauce and a Seville Orange Marmalade Ice Cream (home-made of course). This was paired with a Torbreck’s The Bothie 2003, a deceptive but yummy Muscat. Most of us had no idea what to make of this wine, especially because it was clear in color. Of course, it didn’t help that P, who had brought the wine, was at this point of the dinner, too drunk to ask his questions properly.

Friday, April 08, 2005

A New Wine Bar

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to tag along with my wife (the food writer) and her editor as they checked out one of the city’s newest restaurants. Townhouse is an airy, comfortable and civilised space that ironically sits above one of the loudest and most popular Irish pubs in town. A joint venture between the company that owns said pub—Molly Malone’s—and a restaurateur famed for his fancy French cuisine and somewhat fiery wife, Townhouse is a sanctuary for wine lovers.

The wine list, lovingly prepared by Townhouse’s manager Tye (pictured above), is both huge and humorous. It boasts some 500 wines, 22 by the glass. But instead of offering up either no descriptions whatsoever or poncy oeneologist's terms—neither any help to novice wine drinkers—Tye has penned some pretty funny and simple descriptions on this amazing wine list. Some, like the one pictured here, are only one word long.

In addition to these cheeky descriptions, Townhouse offers up simple varietal descriptions printed on paper and wrapped around the vintage silverware. Here, for example, are two shots of a Champagne description that held my fork and knife together.

The menu is a simple and pleasing mix of seafood, charcuterie and bistro classics. We tasted a large variety of dishes, each paired with a different wine, as suggested by Tye. I started with a plate of 4 small items, followed by some escargot (pictured here) and then a chicken vol au vent. After that we shared a cheese plate and a selection of tarts.

While the food was good, the wines were better. I tried 5 different wines yesterday, leaving only around 495 left on the list to get through. And I’ll definitely head back. Townhouse is, as I mentioned, a lovely space for a quiet drink after work…or for a long, boozy Friday lunch.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Kurobuta Pork Ramen

Being Chinese, I love pork (well, there’s a sweeping generalization). So, when my wife and I spied some Kurobuta pork belly slices at our local Japanese supermarket, we knew we had to buy some. For the uninitiated, Kurobuta pork is darker in color than other pork—the color is a lovely red—and it is also well-marbled.

The pork is a Japanese specialty, but like Japanese curry, it came to Japan by way of the British (who knew they could influence food culture so much?). Kurobota pork comes from the Berkshire pig. These swine, also referred to as Japanese black hogs, were a gift of the British government in the 19th Century. What a tradition! Can you imagine that happening today?

“Oh, hello Prime Minister Lee, here’s a herd of swine, our nation’s gift to you.” It would create a diplomatic incident, and a none too positive one to boot.

Anyway, this particular pig, legend has it, was first eaten by Oliver Cromwell and his troops in Reading some 300 years ago. Since then, the Berkshire breed has been revered for its outstanding quality, texture and flavor. During the 1800s, the breed was refined and has been bred for consumption. In fact, in 1875, the American Berkshire Association became the first swine registry in American history and has maintained pedigree records ever since.

Today, restaurant chefs like to compare Kurobuta to Kobe beef. It’s rare, expensive (thankfully, not as rare or expensive as Kobe), fatty and very, very tasty. And of course, it hails from Japan, which makes it exotic to most Westerners.

We decided to devour ours with a soupy ramen dish (pictured above). We had some frozen pork stock—the leftovers of a very large pork belly braise—which we reheated with some konbu, garlic and ginger. We braised some Japanese leeks (one of my favourite veggies) in the stock as well. We marinated the pork in a combination of mirin, shiro miso, and soy and then fried it very carefully in some butter. A few hard-boiled eggs and chopped spring onions later, we had perfect Kurobuta Ramen! Yum!

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Chocolate Nemesis Part Deux

Ah, I've just discovered that The Guardian has kindly posted Mr Barnes' essay on the Chocolate Nemesis here in case you want to read it. Enjoy!

Chocolate Nemesis

One of the best food books I’ve read recently is Julian Barnes’ The Pedant in the Kitchen. Here’s a shot of its cover (click on the image to go to the Amazon UK site to buy it).

This little non-fiction book covers Mr Barnes’ attempts to learn to cook fabulous food at home. In it, he praises Gordon Ramsay, slags Nigel Slater, and writes hilariously about the Chocolate Nemesis, a legendary dessert from London’s River Café. His chapter about the Nemesis, in fact, is my favourite in the book. He relates to the reader how, among his social set during the mid to late 1990s, attempting to make the Nemesis was de rigueur at dinner parties. Unfortunately, while most tried, most failed, and Barnes believed it was partly because Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers purposely penned a not so complete recipe in their cookbook (the blue one)—forcing customers to return over and over again to their restaurant to taste the real thing.

While Mr Barnes’ friends never found success with this cake, fortunately, for my wife and I, my brother’s better-half J, she of the amazing homemade pasta, has mastered it. And it is amazing. It’s a super-rich, sweet, gooey, oozy cake with a slightly crisp crust on top. At least, that’s what J’s tastes like. I’ll admit I haven't had the pleasure of dining in River Café as yet, and therefore, have yet to try the real thing. But I can’t believe it’s much better than J’s version. Above is a picture of a slice I happily devoured just a couple days ago. (The picture, by the way, was taken with my new, sexy, itty-bitty camera, featured in the post before this one.)

On a really random last note, and not related to the Nemesis, here's a link to a really cool slideshow done by the New York Times on chef's with tattoos.

  • Chefs With Tattoos
  • Tuesday, April 05, 2005

    Not a Food Post...My New Gadget

    I’ve complained quite a few times about my Treo’s camera. While it may be fine for snapping quick cute shots when walking the dogs, in low light situations and for shooting close-up, it’s awful. I have one other digital camera, a Fuji S1 Pro I bought years ago, and it is great. Takes fantastic shots. The only problem is that it’s big, really big. Not only is this digital SLR a pain to lug around, it’s not exactly inconspicuous whipping it out in a fine dining establishment.

    So, I decided to splurge on a new toy. Pictured here is the new Contax i4R, a beautiful 4 megapixel camera with a Zeiss lens that’s smaller than a pack of cigarettes. It has a great macro setting and you can set your own white balance. Here, for example, under halogen lighting, is a picture taken on the Contax of my Treo.

    Shooting Sushi

    The other day, I had a quick lunch at Ajisen, a fast food Japanese ramen place in Funan Centre. To my great amusement, one corner of the restaurant was taken up by a makeshift photo studio set-up. I grabbed a table facing this set-up and watched as the hired photographer snapped a variety of sushi dishes for a new sushi restaurant that the owners of Ajisen will soon open in Ngee Ann City. It was great fun for me to see how the photographer lit the various dishes.

    Here’s a photo taken on my Treo (yes, as usual, the quality stinks like a teenager’s sweat socks).

    Sunday, April 03, 2005

    Doggy Cookies

    April 2nd was Alix’s second birthday. Alix, as you can probably tell from the picture below (hovering in the background) is the younger of our two Golden Retrievers. To celebrate, my wife S, in addition to feeding her a special breakfast of scrambled eggs, decided to whip up a batch of doggy cookies.

    The cookies are from the Three Dog Bakery Cookbook, written by Dan Dye and Mark Beckloff. The recipe she chose to follow is called the "party hearty mix-it-up-mix". The dogs (both Alix and her older "sister" Sascha) loved them, drooling appreciatively while they were cooling off.

    Amusingly, the dogs seemed to know right away that the cookies were for them. From the moment S started combining ingredients, the dogs wouldn’t leave her side. Alix even watched the oven while they were baking. Unfortunately, while I certainly tried, I couldn’t get a picture with either dog either holding or sitting in front of a cookie—they would eat it up the second I lifted the camera to my eye. Instead, S suggested I take the shot (above, on the left) to mirror the shot I had done of her chocolate sables.

    Saturday, April 02, 2005

    The Hardest Reservation in Singapore

    One of my favourite restaurants is also one I rarely go to. And that's because it's harder to get a table there than any other in town. Not that it's super-chic or anything. In fact, quite the opposite, Buko Nero is a small, humble 20-seater run (and staffed) by Oskar and Tracey, a lovely husband and wife team. Regulars book out most nights, and if you want to try this Italian-fusion "hole in the wall" (which is what "buko nero" refers to), be prepared to call 1 month in advance.

    This weekend, my wife and I took my parents. My father has been been asking us to bring him there for, well, the last couple of years. But like I said, you have to plan a month in advance.

    Among the tasty dishes we had, both my parents and I ordered the Tau Kwa Tower, a signature dish, and one of the few "fusion" dishes on the menu. It's a delicious plate of pan fried bean curd topped with veggies and sauced with kecap manis.

    My parents split, as a second course, a crabmeat and prawn pasta dish, with a very light spicy-tomato sauce. For a third course, they both had oven-baked cod. My father is digging into his here.

    I had a polenta-crusted trout served with cherry tomatoes and a variety of other greens. The sauce was a delicious reduction of a seafood bisque with cherry tomatoes.

    To finish off, I had two tiny slices of what Oskar calls "My Grandmother's Cake", a delicious, light, flourless, white chocolate cake, and a double chocolate cake. I much preferred Grandma's cake. Over dessert, we also discovered that this May marks the fifth anniversary of this super-popular little restaurant. Congratulations are in order to both Oskar and Tracey!

    Buko Nero, tel: 6324 6225

    Friday, April 01, 2005

    Picture of the Day

    It's been a slow couple of days. My wife is down with a nasty bout of food poisoning so we haven't been cooking anything exciting nor going out to eat. In fact, we're missing out on a large dinner with close friends tonight at Oso, one of our favourite Italian restaurants in town.

    So, this is a slightly random post. The below is one of my favourite photos, of a bowl of laksa I ordered from a small coffee shop on Liang Seah Street in Singapore.

    This picture was actually one of several I had to submit in order to pitch for the job to shoot the Lonely Planet World Food Guide to Malaysia and Singapore.