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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Even more shameless self-promotion: Vote for Chubby Hubby!

I just received an email from Mumu of A Curious Mix, letting me know that Chubby Hubby has been nominated as one of the World's Best Urban Food Blogs in the 2005 Urban Blogging Awards, hosted by Gridskipper (Thanks Mumu for the heads-up). Also nominated are awesome, well-known blogs like Chez Pim, The Food Section, and noodlepie, and some other cool blogs that I read occasionally, like A Full Belly, and Waiter Rant.

Well, given that this blog is up against the likes of the famed and fashionable Pim and the always amazingly informed Josh, I'm not sure of Chubby Hubby's chances of world blogging glory. That said, I figure it never hurts to try. So, if you like my blog, please click on over to a Gridskipper and vote for Chubby Hubby. Thanks!

The Green Fairy

During our adolescence, there are certain things that we all aspire to experience once we’re “old enough.” Some are quite commonplace, like driving or having sex. Some are more particular to our own personalities, like (for me for instance) getting a suit made on Saville Row, skydiving, dining under the stars at Lasserre with my wife, authoring my own comic book, and drinking absinthe.

I forget when I first read about absinthe. I may have first heard of it through an early teenage fascination with impressionist and post-impressionists painters, many of whom both depicted absinthe consumption and were themselves avid fans of the stuff. I heard the rumours that when consumed in large amounts, absinthe could induce hallucinations and visions, and that this was a great source of creativity and inspiration for some of the early 20th Century’s most celebrated writers, people like Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde and Rimbaud. The fact that it was a banned substance, illegal in almost all of the Western world, made it even more exciting and exotic. I remember watching Francis Ford Coppola’s version of 'Dracula', staring open-mouthed as Gary Oldman’s Dracula seduced Wynona Ryder’s Mina Harker over glasses of the Green Fairy.

Absinthe, for the uninitiated, is an extremely strong distilled anise-flavored liquor made from extracts of wormwood. According to popular histories, absinthe was invented by a French doctor, Dr Pierre Ordinaire, in 1789. It was said that he discovered the plant wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium) while in exile in Switzerland. He mixed wormwood and other herbs with alcohol to create a 136 proof (68% alcohol) elixir, which he employed in his treatment of the sick. As with so many other medical remedies (like Coca-Cola for example), absinthe was soon commercialized and by the early to mid 1800s was being sold by the bottle as a popular liquor.

During the early 20th Century, many countries, including the USA and France, where the bulk of it was being produced, outlawed this potent drink. Absinthe was a curious drink, with slightly (at the time) inexplicable properties. Visions, as mentioned earlier, were a reported side-effect. It was also known to have “miraculous restorative powers.” Essentially, what was really happening was that people were getting high from it. The principle active ingredient in absinthe is thujone, which comes from wormwood. Thujone is chemically similar to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which many of you might recognize as the principle active ingredient and psychoactive chemical in marijuana. Which means that people taking absinthe were simply getting stoned and drunk at the same time.

My first taste of absinthe came in 1997. At the time, absinthe was illegal (and I believe still is) in the United States and across most of Europe. Only Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic hadn’t banned it. And despite having visited, worked and/or studied in Europe many times prior to 1997, I had never visited any of these three countries. But in the Fall of 1997, I had quite my job and decided to spend a month with a friend from university slumming around different parts of Europe. In particular, I had planned to visit my closest friend from my first few years in primary school, whom I had just recently reconnected with after having lost touch for over a decade, and who was living in and working as a journalist in Prague.

It was great seeing her, and despite having not seen each other or spoken in 12 years, we were amazingly similar. We spent a fantastic week together, touring the sights and the many, many bars that were fast becoming a haunt for young expatriates who had heard of a scene akin that of Paris in the 1920s. And it was during this heady week that I tried absinthe, real absinthe, for the first time. It was powerful and delicious and also quite fun. I like the fact that absinthe requires specific accessories. To drink it properly, you set a specially-designed, perforated “absinthe spoon” over a glass, in which a bit of the gorgeously clear green liquid is poured. On the spoon, you place a sugar cube. Over this you pour cold water. The water dissolves the sugar into the drink, and as the water reacts with the liquid, it takes on a milky complexion. The water and sugar is used to offset the liquor’s strong, bitter taste, making it a delightfully refreshing, albeit still strong drink.

Here in Singapore, we can’t get the real stuff. I once carried a small bottle into the country though. My wife S, myself, my brother and 2 friends helped drink most of that bottle on one night, with rather memorable results. Especially for one friend in particular, who was gulping down Absinthe martinis—an ice-cold vodka, absinthe, and sugar syrup concoction I had come up with that night. Suffice it to say she passed out in the parking lot at the end of the evening, but not before attempting to French kiss my wife.

One gourmet store here brings in something called Absente, an absinthe like liquor that claims to be “Absinthe refined” and that’s legal all over the world. Instead of using wormwood, Absente’s manufacturers use a botanical cousin called Southern-Wormwood, which I am going to assume does not contain thujone. Absente is also a tad weaker, at 55% alcohol as opposed to the normal 68%. That said, it looks the same and has an almost identical taste and flavour. Which suits me fine, at least until I can get my hands on another bottle of the real thing.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

A good cheap eat

I, like so many others, love finding really small holes-in-the-wall that serve good food at really low prices. One that S and I like a lot, which we discovered through another local blogger, Cheryl, aka the baker who cooks, is Miss Clarity Café, on Purvis Street. S, in particular, has become addicted to the club sandwiches in this brightly colored, affordable eatery; they are, I must admit, some of the very best, biggest, tastiest and cheapest club sandwiches in town. I'm also a big fan of their oxtail and the fact that there's free wireless broadband--something every blogger likes to have available.

Another "cheap eats" that I've been going to a lot recently is a tiny café run and staffed by a young couple named Anthony and Ivy. Café Divine is on the second floor of The Adelphi, a shopping centre on Coleman Street, opposite Funan Centre, a well-known computer and electronics mall here. The café itself is tucked away, close to the entrance of the overhead bridge that connects the two malls. As mentioned, it's small, really small. It can seat maybe 18-20 people at its fullest. And at lunch on weekdays, it's always full. In fact, not only is the café regularly packed with happy, hungry customers having their lunches, but there's always a line of equally hungry (but since they aren't the ones eating, obviously unhappy) customers, waiting for one of the few, and thus very valuable, seats.

The café's interiors are rather non-descript--it's really just a space with some tables, chairs, a fridge for drinks, a counter and a small, open cooking area--but that only adds to the appeal. The focus here is on food--good, simple home-cooked food, and nothing else. Anthony, who cooks and serves (Ivy takes orders and serves) is really quite impressive. His cooking area, just like his restaurant, is small and humble. It consists of two woks, one filled with oil for deep frying and one for everything else. He also has a small fry pan which I've never seen him use. His menu consists of a big variety of Western, Japanese and local dishes. The most popular dish, from what I've witnessed, is the fish and chips. Friends and colleagues tell me that the cajun salmon is equally good. Also very popular is his fried rice and two hor fun dishes (beef and seafood). I'm particularly fond of his pastas, especially his version of spaghetti carbonara.

And almost all of it, as I said, is cooked in the same wok. Which gives the spaghetti carbonara this wonderful "wok hei" flavor that you'd never taste if it was cooked in an Italian kitchen. "Wok hei", for those that don't know, means "breath of the wok" and refers to a much-sought after and deliciously smoky taste that food cooked in a well-used cast iron wok over high heat can take on. I love foods that are imbued with "wok hei". Which is why, despite the fact that the carbonara here is hardly traditional or that authentic, to me, it tastes great. Of course, that Anthony ladles his carbonara with an enormous amount of delicious, smoky rich cream sauce just makes it that much better in my book.

Anthony's food is good. It's served fast and served hot off the wok. It's also very, very reasonable, which is another (and possibly the main) reason why the place is so often packed. None of the main courses run more than S$5. Some are even under S$4. Which for my colleagues and I, when we consider how much we might pay for worse food at other nearby cafés, fast food chains or restaurants, makes Café Divine a pretty simple choice when deciding where to lunch.

Of course, no owner-operated café would survive if the folks who ran it weren't supported by regular patrons. Which means they have to be the kind of people you want to support. I've never really spoken much with either Ivy or Anthony, but from the little I know of them, I'm pretty confident in saying that they're good people. They're always cheerful, even when faced with a line of impatient, hungry office people. They're really accommodating. And they work damn hard. Which I totally respect. And just one more reason why I keep returning.

Café Divine
1 Coleman Street, #02-07
The Adelphi
Singapore 179803
Tel: 6336 5836

Monday, November 21, 2005

Creamless creamed corn

There are some dishes that are entirely evocative. The kinds of foods that, when you eat them, make you think of a dozen other things. For me, creamed corn is one of those things. I love creamed corn. I love it for its simplicity, the fact that it's a dish based entirely upon the flavors of a single ingredient. I also love what it makes me think of. Crisp, cool nights. Fireplaces. Comfy sweaters. Orange and red Autumn leaves. The Indigo Girls' "Southland in the Springtime." Thanksgiving. Roast meats. Big group dinners with great friends. Don't ask me to explain why these things come to mind. They just do. There's no real logic to it.

Of course, I also love the taste. Part of this stems from my undying adoration of creamy foods. I dream of the perfect creamed spinach. The sight and smell of a freshly-baked Gratin Dauphinois gets my pulse racing faster. A well-made Chicken à la King puts a smile on my face. I love pastas with rich, thick, creamy cheesy sauces. Unfortunately, cream sauces aren't entirely the healthiest things in the world to eat too often. Which is something that my darling wife S, who is always trying to get me to eat more nutritiously, likes to remind me as often as humanly possible.

Which is why we both love Tom Colicchio's Creamless Creamed Corn recipe. Here's a way of making a sensuously delicious, super rich-tasting creamed corn without actually adding any cream. Colicchio's recipe (which you can see here), however, calls for fresh ears of corn, something which you might not always have lying around the house.

Over the past year or so, I've adapted the recipe, using frozen corn, which is something S and I always make sure we have a supply of in our freezer. That means we can enjoy this dish anytime we want. It's also both easy and speedy to make. And very quickly become one of our favorite side-dishes to eat with, well, just about anything.

Creamless Creamed Corn

Serves 2-4
1 bag (500g) frozen corn kernels
1/4 cup chicken stock
1/3 cup water
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, diced
1 tablespoon butter
salt and pepper

Separate 200g of the corn. Defrost in boiling water. Strain the corn and put it in a food processor or blender with the 1/4 cup chicken stock and 1/3 cup water. Purée until smooth. Strain the corn liquid and set aside.

Melt the butter in a high-sided sauce pan over medium-high heat. Sauté the onions and garlic in it until the onions are soft and then pour in the remaining 300g of frozen corn. When the corn gets warm, pour in the corn liquid. Lower the heat and cook for 7-10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Sunday brekkie meme and Pumpkin Custard Pie recipe

Andrew, over at Spittoon Extra has proposed a fun once-off food meme, posting the details of breakfast today, Sunday the 20th of November. More info on this can be found here.

S and I had a late, lazy but small breakfast this morning. We were going off to a friend's place for a homemade pizza lunch at 1pm, so we didn't want to stuff our faces too much. Also, by the time we had rolled out of bed and washed up, it was already almost 10am, so we didn't want to spend too much time in the kitchen. Our solution? A couple of Sara Lee croissants (from the freezer to the oven to the plate in 11 minutes) with some honey-baked ham and Kraft Singles.

Of course, we couldn't have breakfast without coffee. We're Illy espresso addicts. And, while our wonderful Francis Francis espresso machine is in the shop being serviced, we've taken to grinding the beans fresh and making coffee with one of our new Bodum Columbia "thermo press" makers. We love this coffee maker. In fact, we love its design so much we bought both the large and small versions of it. To serve, we used another new Bodum line we're quite taken with, the Pavina espresso cups.

It was a quick and casual brekkie, eaten at our dining table with our two hungry pooches circling around us, hoping (unsuccessfully) for table-scraps.

On another topic entirely, I've been getting some emails recently from people asking for the recipe to the pumpkin custard pie S made for me a while back. Must be a Thanksgiving thing. Anyway, here it is, as written by S:

Pumpkin Custard Pie, adapted from
The Perfect Pie by Susan G. Purdy.

It’s actually very simple. You need a partially prebaked 10-inch pastry shell (just use your favorite flaky pastry recipe, or buy a frozen pie shell at the supermarket).

For the filling:
2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
2 cups canned unsweetened pumpkin puree (or cooked and mashed fresh sugar pumpkins)
½ to ¾ cup granulated sugar, to taste
1½ cups milk or cream (the heavier the cream, the richer the pie)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
½ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Place a flat baking sheet in the oven to get hot.

In an electric mixer or in a bowl with a whisk, beats the eggs and yolk, then add the pumpkin and beat well. Beat in the sugar, milk or cream, melted butter, salt and spices. Set the pan containing the pastry shell on a flat baking sheet for ease in handling. Pour the filling into the prepared pastry shell, and set it on the preheated flat baking sheet in the centre of the preheated oven for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and a knife inserted into the custard 1 inch from the edge comes out clean. Do not overbake. The internal heat of the pie will complete the baking out of the oven. Cool the pie on a wire rack and serve at room temperature with whipped cream.

If you’re using a pre-made piecrust, the filling from this recipe may exceed what you’ll actually need. I also used organic pumpkin pie puree which was exceptionally sweet and tasty.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A love of great plates

My darling wife S and I are both devoted design fans. It's one of the things that we bonded over very early on in our relationship. The fantastic thing is that we also have amazingly similar tastes; we often find ourselves drooling over the same items in our favorite stores, be they chairs or cake stands. Over the half decade we've been together, (and once S successfully got rid of my "bachelor stuff") we've amassed a wonderful array of beautiful things to serve food on and with. And, from what I can tell, we're still adding to our collection.

So, I was very excited and flattered when contacted recently by Design Public, a very cool online design store that also maintains its own blog, and asked to take part in "Delicious Design", a week long blogging event it's hosting during which invited floggers are asked to write on the theme, "the aesthetics of food." This is a great topic.

I consider myself a highly visual person and great food to me has always been more than just its taste. As any restaurateur or chef will tell you, it's also about the presentation. This, in turn, can be broken down into two components. The first is the artistry that the chef demonstrates when plating a dish. You know, the swirling lines of sauce, the ingredients that are gingerly stacked in gravity-defying towers, things like that. Some chefs prefer to play with colors. Some chefs like height. Others demonstrate artful restraint, placing small portions of food on large, pristine plates. Others lean towards overabundance, overwhelming the diner with the amount and complexity of their ingredients.

The second component is the plate itself. It's both the frame and the canvas for the art that the chefs create. A great plate, a beautifully designed plate, can elevate a dish. It can take a good dish and make it great. And it can transform a great one into a culinary masterpiece. But don't get me wrong. Beautiful design doesn't mean over-designed. Let's not forget that the role of a plate is to present and enhance the pleasure of great food. The plate shouldn't overwhelm the food. It shouldn't compete for attention. Like the best designed dresses, which enhance the beauty and sex appeal of the women who wear them, great plates make food more appealing. Great plates should, though, always be well made.

As mentioned earlier, S and I have, what I consider to be, a great collection of plates, glasses, and other things which make our food look great and (to me) taste better. Some of these items are entirely frivolous, like our red-metal tiered cake stand. On the other hand, we consider our handmade Bison stoneware cake stands--of which we have three (in different sizes, 2 in white, 1 in black)--entirely necessary. We treasure our set of Thierry Cheyrou-designed Raynaud wide-rimmed porcelain plates. We will always be eternally grateful to family and friends who, through our wedding registry, helped us acquire a stunning selection of Tiffany's dinnerware, silverware and wine glasses. I'm particularly drawn to square and rectangular plates and S has allowed me to purchase several sets over the years. At the same time, I've indulged her obsession with searching antique stores and flea markets for Sheffield steel, bone-handled cutlery. We have specific flatware for specific dishes. We have certain plates we only use with certain friends. We even have some items we rarely use, preferring to admire them unadorned. And we love them all.

One of my favorites is a set of 10 Bernardaud wide-rimmed porcelain plates with the tiniest of serving spaces. We first saw them at Les Amis, one of Singapore's fanciest French restaurants. We loved them on sight. When we later saw them on display at one of our local restaurant supply stores, we immediately asked if we could purchase a set. Unfortunately, we were told that only bulk orders for restaurants or hotels would be entertained. Then, a few months later, when we were back in the shop, a staffer that recognized us told us that they had just gotten a large order for them and could help us piggy-back 10 extras if we were still interested. Of course, we screamed, "yes!" and all but hugged her. The picture above (which is actually also inset in the collage at the top) is of the plate, being used to present an abalone noodle dish.

The pieces that we're currently most excited about are a set we bought in Shanghai at an amazing pottery store called Spin. These handmade porcelain plates are beautiful. They're simple, white with a shallow bowl shape. Around the rim of each plate is a streak of red underglaze--a nod to Ch'ing dynasty pottery. Each plate is also unique, with a slightly different streak. Unfortunately, the plates are being shipped to us and won't arrive for another 4-8 weeks.

The only downside of being a foodie, design addict and slight compulsive shopper is that every time I enter a cool lifestyle store or great design shop, I have to be careful. There are just so many beautiful, tempting items which S and I would love to own and use. Of course, being unable to actually afford them all means that we better appreciate the ones we do eventually end up splurging on. The reward, though, is not in the act of buying them, but in using them--in finding just the right recipe with which to pair each new plate. And serving the dish, perfectly plated, to friends and loved ones.

Some more shameless self-promotion

One of the benefits of having worked in the media in Hong Kong around the time of the Handover was that there were so many great journalists, photographers and other industry professionals living there, or running in and out of the place all the time. One of the guys I became friends with and came to respect immensely was an Asiaweek writer named Joel Tesoro. Since our days in HK, Joel has gone on to write a book that was named a 2005 Kiriyama Prize Notable Book in Non-Fiction and is now slogging away at Harvard Law School (yah, real underachiever, eh?). Joel is also a contributor to Harvard Law's Global Voices blog. Earlier today, Joel posted an article that he wrote on a few Southeast Asian bloggers, yours truly included. You can click here to check out the article.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Wagyu and fries

I'll be getting back to my posts on Shanghai over the next week or so, but first I want to write about one of the best meals I've had recently. One of the great things about it is that I had it at home. Which to me is the best place to eat good food. Don't get me wrong. I love going out to eat. I adore discovering small, hidden gems. I get a kick out of eating in dingy street stalls and coffee shops that, in defiance of their appearances, serve fantastic food. I also love the almost theatrical experience of going to a high-class restaurant, from dressing up for the occasion to service that operates at a smooth hum to the unveiling of delicious and artistically plated food. But nothing beats eating at home, simply because eating at home is completely relaxing. You don't have to dress up. A pair of shorts and a T-shirt is fine, even with the fanciest food. You don't have to put up with any snooty sommelier when choosing what wine you want to drink. Just get up, go to the wine fridge and pull out whatever you feel like. You don't have to deal with noisy, annoying customers at the next table. The only people in the room are the ones you invite. And best of all, you choose exactly what you want to eat. There's no chance of sitting down, looking at a menu which has nothing appealing on it, or ordering something only to hear that the dish you've asked for is sold out. You (or your loved one) buy the ingredients. You (or your loved one) cook the food.

A few weeks back, thanks to famed-Nonya cookbook author and cooking instructor Shermay Lee, my wife S and I were contacted by a guy named Steve Loh. Steve is fronting a new company called The Upper Cut, which is bringing in top quality Australian Wagyu beef and selling it to both individuals and restaurants. The Upper Cut claims that most "Wagyu" on the market is actually beef from cows that have been cross-bred between Japanese Wagyu and Angus or a similar breed. Their Wagyu, they state, is genetically pure. And therefore much, much better, with better marbling and fuller flavor.

For those who don't know, Wagyu (or Kobe) beef is famed for its marbling (which in layman's terms refers to the wonderful streaks of fat running throughout the meat). It's equally well-known for its ridiculously high prices. To put it really simply, the more marbled the meat, the more you pay.

After a few emails and a couple of phone calls, Steve generously offered to let us try some of his Wagyu, hoping that we'd like it and then tell friends and chefs about his company. He sent over two steaks each (each weighing about 220g) of 450 day aged grain-fed Wagyu Striploin and 450 day aged grain-fed Wagyu Ribeye. Each had a marbling grade of 7. For reference, a top USDA Ribeye would have a grade of between 4 and 5. Wagyu, on the other hand and at the top end, can have a grade of up to 12. Here's a picture of two of the 4 steaks we were sent. The one on the left is the the Ribeye; the other the Striploin. As you can see, even at grade 7, these steaks are beautifully marbled.

We decided to invite two friends who we knew would really appreciate these gorgeous hunks of meat to join us. We also went out the day before our meal and splurged a bit, buying a brand-new Tefal deep fryer (model 4008002 pro-fryer). Both S and I are big fans of pommes frites. And while we've tried making them at home in the past, we've never been satisfied with our efforts. Frying them in a wok is just too messy. And oven-baking frozen ones has never really produced fries with the right texture. I'd been advocating for a deep fryer in order to make and serve better chips for quite a while, but S had always resisted. Buying a deep fryer to my darling and very health-conscious wife was the surest way to ensure that we'd never eat healthily again. (Oddly enough, the same idea never crossed her mind when she bought an industrial ice cream maker a few years ago--not that I'm complaining, her ice creams are out of this world.) So, I was slightly amazed when she (finally) agreed to buy one. I guess the prospect of eating a beautiful steak with substandard fries finally got to her. Here's a (press) picture of our new baby.

To complement the steak and fries, I made a mushroom sauce and S whipped up a fresh batch of Bernaise. We also set out some mustard and some organic plum tomato relish. We seasoned the steaks with a little salt and pepper--meat this good doesn't really need anything else--and seared them over high heat. I had been told by a chef-friend that I trust that this was the best way to eat Wagyu, seared almost to the point of crispy on the outside, but as rare or as raw as possible inside. After cooking, we let the meat rest for a good 5 minutes before serving it with a final sprinkle of Fleur de Sel.

The steaks were excellent. Full of flavor. Soft but not too soft. All of us preferred the Ribeye more than the Striploin. It seemed to melt in our mouths just that much more than the Striploin. But that's kind of like saying, "I liked the Porsche and the Ferrari, but I prefer the Ferrari; it had more zip." Quite frankly, we were damn happy to have both kinds of steaks and would have been equally ecstatic with either--just like I'd be happy with either the Porsche or the Ferrari. Of course, the problem with eating the Wagyu is that now, any other steak is not going to match up.

The pommes frites, I should also add, were exceptional. I can't believe we hadn't bought a deep fryer sooner. They were perfect, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. And easy to cook. We sprinkled them with some of the Murray River Lake Salt that I love and devoured them with the Bernaise and the tomato relish.

With the meal, we enjoyed a gorgeous wine, a Joseph Phelps' 1999 Insignia (red table wine). This wine was rated by Robb Report in 2003 as the best domestic (American) wine released that year. It's a beautiful, fruit-driven and jammy wine, soft and not too tannic.

As I said at the beginning of this post, this was a fantastic meal. Great company, beautiful ingredients, the perfect bottle of wine and all of it without leaving my home.

If you're interested in trying Steve's delicious Wagyu for yourself, please click over to the link below. While expensive, it really is worth it.
The Upper Cut

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Shanghai Part 2: A molten chocolate cake tangent and Jean Georges

I first ate Jean-Georges' molten chocolate cake some 10-11 years ago. It was at a restaurant on 105th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue in New York called Metisse. It had just opened and, as one of the resident food and movie critics (among other things) for my college newspaper, I made it a point to visit. Metisse was a revelation for Morningside Heights, a neighborhood with, at the time, only one high-end but much too pricey French restaurant, one New American casual place that I was a regular at already, and a bunch of greasy diners, Chinese and Indian takeaways. Metisse served French bistro fare, and served it very well. I quickly discovered that a good portion of the restaurant's opening team had come from JoJo, the upscale bistro helmed by Mr Jean-Georges Vongerichten, that had reawakened a passion for simple and regional French food among New Yorkers in the early 90s. I further discovered that most of the menu items were neatly copied directly from JoJo's menu, but at half the price. During that first meal, the manager/owner recommended I try what he called his "warm chocolate cake" for dessert. Now, I'm not normally a chocolate person--unlike my wife S who lives and breathes the stuff--so I wouldn't have normally picked this dessert, but since Monsieur seemed quite eager for me to taste it, I happily accepted.

It was marvelous. I remember being totally floored and excited when, after cutting into the small cake in front of me, warm liquid chocolate oozed from its dark, rich centre. It was both fun and delicious, especially with good quality Vanilla ice cream. For the next year or so, Metisse became my favorite restaurant. I dined there with friends almost every week, and almost each time had the molten chocolate cake. It was especially fun dining with friends that had never had or heard of this dessert before. As regular readers already know, I'm a big fan of phenomenal first-time experiences. It was great witnessing friends discovering this amazing dessert for the first time.

Over the next couple of years, this dessert, under various names (warm chocolate cake, molten chocolate cake, half-cooked, lava, etc), began appearing on more and more restaurant menus. The overwhelmingly positive response from customers and the fact that the cake was deceptively easy to make obviously made it a popular choice for chefs who knew about it. Then things exploded. By the end of the 90s, every other "Modern European" restaurant anywhere in the world was serving molten chocolate cake. While once upon a time it was a thrilling and unique dessert, it had reached its tipping point and fallen off into the realm of over-popular kitsch. What's worse is that chefs were charging ridiculous prices for this easy to make dessert. And just like that, within a decade, a dessert I once loved became a dessert I scorned and scoffed at when seeing it on menus.

S shared my mixed appreciation and contempt for this delicious dessert. Having discovered its simplicity, it became a recipe she turned to frequently during dinner parties but would never order in restaurants. She also decided to tell as many people as possible how easy it was to make, going so far as printing the recipe on the back of her namecards, thereby passing it to anyone she met (as a food writer, it was also a great namecard to give to someone--a real icebreaker). One year, we even created our own DIY kits (complete with molds, chocolate and instructions) which we gave friends as X-Mas stocking stuffers.

The man most often credited with creating this culinary "mistake" (that has since become a culinary classic) is, as mentioned above, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. I say "most often" because over the years S and I have read many articles, including one that quotes ex-Le Cirque pastry chef Jacques Torres, that states that while Jean-Georges may have made the cake popular in the USA and may in fact have been the first chef to put it on a menu in New York, it already existed in France. Vongerichten claims he created this dessert by accident in 1987 while working at the Drake hotel in New York. Paula Wolfert, however, asserts that it’s from the early 1980s, and either from Jacquie Chibois working at the Grey Albion in Cannes, or from Michel Bras. Well-known pastry chef Francois Payard said he had prepared desserts like that when he worked with Alain Senderens at Lucas-Carton in Paris. Regardless of its parentage, no one can argue with the fact that Jean-Georges was the one to make it famous.

I'm writing all of this because last week, during my jaunt to Shanghai, I had the pleasure of lunching at Jean-Georges' eponymous restaurant in the Three on the Bund complex. It's a beautiful, large, clubby space, with dark wood accents and plush, colorful banquettes. Chef Jereme Leung (from Whampoa Club) had made the reservation for us, so upon arrival, we were shown to the best table in the room (judging by the view) and offered complimentary glasses of Bollinger (big yum!). The 3-course set lunch menu was surprisingly reasonable at 198RMB. It also offered a surprising amount of choice, with 5 appetizers, 6 mains and 3 desserts to choose from. I ordered the crab ravioli with black pepper and sweet peas to start while S had the foie gras brulé, dried sour cherries and candied pistachios--a signature dish according to the restaurant's manager.

The foie gras dish (pictured here) was a winner. The combination of textures (soft and crispy) and flavors (savory and sweet) worked for me. My ravioli, while good, didn't blow me away, especially compared to all the other sinful hairy crab dishes we tried during our stay in Shanghai.

As an intermezzo between courses, we were offered a taste of another signature dish, king fish sashimi, mango and chilli-lemon granité. I remember that in RW Apple Jr's recent New York Times article on eating in Shanghai, he raved about this dish. But it didn't do anything for me, S or our two friends. The mango flavors and the chilli overpowered the dish; I could hardly taste the fish. And even worse, it totally killed the taste of the white wine we were drinking. For mains, S had veal tenderloin and shank, potato canneloni with liquid parmesan while I had duck topped with cracked jordan almonds. S's dish was good, cooked well. The meat was tender and the flavors well-balanced. Mine was, well, not bad, but nothing to call the folks at Michelin about.

The dish (as you can see) consisted of an uncut roasted duck breast topped with crushed candied almonds. On the side of the plate was a small potato disk and some salad/garnish. The duck, for my taste, was a little too tough and a little dry. I had ordered it medium rare but what I got was in between medium and medium well. I was also told that there was duck leg confit meat in the dish, but when it arrived, there was none to be seen. It was, in sum, a dish I wouldn't order again.

For dessert, we were given three choices. The only one I wanted... the one I knew I would try... was called quite simply, "chocolate." It was a trio of hot chocolate with coffee, Jean-Georges' famed molten chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream. I know I mentioned earlier that I had pretty much stopped ordering this dessert in restaurants. But this was different. This was Jean-Georges. This was where it all started. This was the original (well, if you believe Mr Vongerichten at least). S must have been thinking the same thing because within a second of looking at the dessert list, she too said she'd have the chocolate cake. It was perhaps the first time in a year that either of us had ordered one of these in a restaurant.

And it was good. Really, really good. Beautifully plated and perfectly made. It more than made up for the duck.

In all, the meal at Jean-Georges was good. The service was exceptional, the view stunning. The restaurant is sexy as hell, easily eclipsing the attractive young female hostesses who man the reception counter. The food, on the other hand, was not fantastic. It was very good, very well-executed, but not great. The stand-out dish--and I can't believe I'm writing this--was the molten chocolate cake.

Jean Georges
4th Floor
Three on the Bund
3 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu
Tel: 6321 7733

Molten chocolate cake, serves 4

125g butter; plus a little for buttering the molds
112g bittersweet chocolate, preferably Valrhona
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons flour; plus a little more for dusting

1. In the top of a double boiler set over simmering water; heat the butter and chocolate together until the chocolate is almost completely melted. While that's heating, beat together the eggs, yolks, and sugar with a whisk or electric beater until light and thick.

2. Beat together the melted chocolate and butter; it should be quite warm. Pour in the egg mixture, then quickly beat in the flour; just until combined.

3. Butter and lightly flour four 4-ounce molds, custard cups, or ramekins. Tap out the excess flour Divide the batter among the molds. (At this point you can refrigerate the desserts until you are ready to eat, for up to several hours; bring them to room temperature before baking.)

4. Preheat the oven to 450°F (230°C). Bake the molds on a tray for 6 to 7 minutes; the center will still be quite soft, but the sides will be set.

5. Invert each mold onto a plate and let sit for about 10 seconds. Unmold by lifting one corner of the mold; the cake will fall out onto the plate. Serve immediately.

Jean-Georges: Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef
By Jean-Georges Vongerichten
and Mark Bittman

Friday, November 04, 2005

Shanghai Part 1: Whampoa Club

I'll begin my report on Shanghai with the lunch my wife, S, and I had flown there to eat, a hairy crab meal cooked by chef Jereme Leung.

To introduce Jereme, a friend and fellow Singaporean, allow me to quote Patricia Wells, food critic for the International Herald Tribune. The following started a review that was published on 13 May 2005:

"It’s been a long time since I got up from the table after dining in a restaurant and whispered to myself, “genius.” But there’s surely a touch of that talent in the young, sure-footed Hong Kong-born Jereme Leung, executive chef at Whampoa Club, the bright, expansive Art Deco-style restaurant in the popular Three on the Bund complex in Shanghai.

"If there are revolutions in contemporary Chinese cooking today, then it is the gifted, ambitious chefs such as Jereme that will serve as the leaders. His food is not fusion, it is not confusion, it is not all about avocadoes and papayas with raw tuna. It’s good, honest, Chinese fare that’s been given a facelift, an update, a new look with no sacrifice in flavor. In fact, it’s more like a upgrade to first class. "

Now that's praise!

Despite S having helped Jereme write his cookbook, New Shanghai Cuisine, we had yet to eat at Whampoa Club. Our last trip to Shanghai was in 2002. At the time, Jereme had just moved there and was busy immersing himself in Shanghai and its food in order to create his own modern and delicious take on Shanghainese cuisine. Ever since opening Whampoa Club a year or so ago, he's been urging us to come and try it and the new cuisine he's been making.

A huge crab fanatic, S decided to time our first trip with the hairy crab season. Two other friends, both passionate foodies with professional links to the f&b industry, decided to tag along.

Whampoa Club is, as mentioned by Ms Wells, in the sexy Three on the Bund complex (located, quite obviously, on the Bund). In addition to Jereme's restaurant, there's also a Jean-Georges (which we lunched at as well and about which I will post later), an Aussie restaurant called Laris, a stunning contemporary art gallery, the Giorgio Armani flagship store in Shanghai, an Evian spa, and a men's and women's multi-brand boutique called Three. While the Jean-Georges is dark, clubby and warm, and Laris is light, sleek and feminine, Whampoa Glam is bright, bold and glam, with a nod to the Art Deco styles of Shanghai in the 1920s.

We were seated at a wonderful table with an unparalleled view of the Pudong and presented with glasses of Champagne--always the best greeting in any restaurant. Jereme came out to say hello and to tell us a bit about his Crab Feast Tasting Menu, which we all eagerly and greedily agreed to have.

Our menu started with a small amuse-bouche, and also the only non-crab dish (besides dessert) of the day. It was described by the waiters presenting it as "ice cream" and was composed of 5-spice beef and pureed potatoes in a cone. It's pictured at the top of the post.

Our next course was Shanghainese drunken hairy crab, crunchy pickled vegetable, and sweet vinegar shaved ice paired with stir-fried hairy crab powder, asparagus and mini taro. The hairy crab powder dish is served in an egg shell. S and our two friends loved the drunken crab (and in fact couldn't stop talking about this dish throughout our entire trip). Unlike them though, I'm not the biggest fan of either raw crab or Chinese drunken seafood dishes. I did however love the hairy crab powder dish. The various ingredients were layered within the shell, which meant that as you dug deeper into the dish, you would get more complex and intense flavors.

The next dish was my favorite of the meal, a stuffed crab claw with shrimp mousse, hairy crab meat and roe jelly. This dish was truly amazing. It was both delicious and totally surprising. What looks like a typical item from a Cantonese dim sum menu is in fact an El Bulli-influenced (as admitted by Jereme) combination of Cantonese and Shanghainese cuisines. More specifically, it's a combination of the Cantonese stuffed crab claw and a xiao long bao. Instead of the usual filling of minced prawns, these crab claws are filled with an amazing xiao long bao-like soup flavored with hairy crab meat and roe. To eat one properly, you have to remove the claw and suck/drink the soup out of the top and then eat the casing. Eating it any other way would result in hot soup spilling or, in some cases, spitting out all over the place. Here's a good example of how to eat one properly:

Our next course was a duo of hairy crab and shark's fin creations. Served in two bowls were braised hairy crab meat with shark's fin and crispy hairy crab dumpling with Chinese consomme. These were fantastic. The hairy crab and shark's fin in particular was exceptionally rich and satisfying, with a real, lovely umaminess about it.

Before our next course, these uber-chic instruments were placed in front of us. I had never before seen such attractive crab eating tools. I just couldn't resist snapping a quick picture.

And here's the dish that called for such sexy tools. It's a steamed hairy crab with 'Shao Xing' wine and baby clams.

The crab and clams are steamed in a bed of egg custard that's been laced with the wine and the natural juices of the clams and crabs. The dish, while messy, was delicious. That said, I have to admit that I'm not the best crab eater. Unlike my wife who can strip a crab of all its meat without sacrificing an ounce of elegance or getting her hands too dirty, I'm entirely inefficient and a real mess. So, while I enjoyed this dish, I also probably didn't do it real justice.

Next up was sauteed hairy crab legs with an array of autumn vegetables. This was a light and tasty dish. Also, since the crab meat was shelled, it was a nice stress-free dish after struggling with the previous plate. For our last crab course, we were served homemade egg noodles with hairy crab and crispy shallots.

Traditionally, ginger tea is served at the end of a hairy crab meal. S tells me it is because the heatiness of the ginger tea balances out the cooling nature of the crab. So to finish our meal, Jereme created an interesting dessert, a wild honey ginger tea, dates paste glutinous pearls, sweet corn and ginger ice-cream.

All in all, it was an excellent meal. The crab claw was, for me, the stand-out in a meal of outstanding dishes. And, after eating this meal, I have to agree with Ms Wells. Jereme has taken Chinese cuisine to a new place, and it is a place I wish more and more chefs could find their way to. He's managed to take traditional recipes, traditional dishes and ideas, and modernize them without sacrificing their integrity. He's preserved the vital soul of these dishes and represented them in new and exciting ways. And in so doing, he really has created a new Shanghainese cuisine.

Whampoa Club
5th Floor
Three on the Bund
3 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu
Tel: 6321 3737

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


Greetings and salutations! I've just returned from a fantastic eating and shopping holiday in Shanghai. I'll try and post about some of the great food I, my wife and 2 traveling companions consumed over the past week. But, first, something so many of you have been waiting for... the results of Does My Blog Look Good In This #10.

First, for those of you who emailed me on the 27th (October) or later, I apologize for not being able to sneak you into the judging. I had, before leaving town, emailed the judges the entries and while traveling could not add new pictures to the list.

And so, the best food shot posted by a food blogger in the month of September
is a beautiful shot of apples taken by Andrew of SpittoonExtra.

Andrew is also our Aesthetics Champ this month. The first runner-up in that category is a shot taken by Cookie Crumb of I'm Mad and I Eat. It's a great, slightly zen shot.

This month's Eatability Champ was taken by Stephen of Stephencooks.

It's a mouth-watering shot of some delicious-looking pear bread pudding.

Our Originality Champ is a delightful picture taken by Shauna of Gluten-free Girl.

Congrats to all the winners and many thanks to the 46 bloggers whose entries we evaluated and the few extras that came in a tad too late to take part. Also, huge thanks go to this month's judges:

Laura from Cucina Testa Rossa
Michele from Oswego Tea
Monkey Gland from Jam Faced
Tara from Seven Spoons
Lynn from To Short Term Memories

All the best to all food bloggers, friends and readers. Stay tuned for my super-yummy Shanghai report.