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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Shopping news

Singapore-based gourmands will be excited to know that Pantry Magic is opening the doors of its first Singapore shop on Monday, 29 Janaury 2007. For those who haven't visited one of their two stores in Hong Kong or its shop in Taiwan, Pantry Magic is a (relatively) new, Asian chain specializing in cooks' tools.

My darlin' wife S and I dropped by the new store while the proprietors were unpacking their wares and setting up their displays. It was pretty exciting to see all the gorgeous product just waiting for eager beavers like me to buy and bring home.

S was especially interested in the wide range of bakeware available while I was literally drooling over the gleaming copper pots and pans filling the store's shelves. We also really liked the roasting pans that they'll be selling. It's hard to find nice pans with upright handles. The store has a pretty amazing range of product. The prices are pretty impressive as well. Because Pantry Magic manufactures a good deal of their own wares, they are able to price their items at 30%-40% less than similar, imported products.

Pantry Magic Pte Ltd.
43 Jalan Merah Saga
Chip Bee Gardens #01-80
Tel: 6471 0566

A great gift and a very cool book

It's always wonderful to find something really cool that you can't wait to not only buy for yourself but also for as many friends as possible. The other day, S came home with the cutest new book. Irene's Peranakan Recipes, published by uber-cool design and custom-publishing firm Epigram, was originally produced as a Christmas gift for the company's clients. The very slick and slim volume was so well-received that Epigram has since decided to release the book for sale to the general public.

As design addicts, S and I were thrilled by Irene's Peranakan Recipes. While published in just 2 colors, it is gorgeously designed, with artful borders and cute illustrations. Everything from the choice of fonts to the fill-in-the-blanks shopping pages are stylishly and artfully well-thought out.

Not only is this great little book beautifully designed, it was produced with a lot of love. The project was brought to Epigram by Singapore Symphony Orchestra oboist Elaine Yeo. The recipes are her late mother's. Irene Yeo was a Teochew housewife and active volunteer who, in her later years, taught very popular cooking classes. I have to admit that I haven't had time to test Ms Yeo's recipes yet. S and I have already flagged a number of things we're itching to try. Hopefully, we'll get to them as soon as possible.

In the meantime, we'll be picking up a couple more copies to give to friends in the upcoming weeks. Irene's Peranakan Recipes makes a gorgeous and very cool gift. Currently, the book is available in most major bookstores in Singapore.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Teen titans

Sean preparing Prarie Oysters

Several weeks ago, S and I attended a pretty extraordinary dinner. It was a private affair, held at the house of a friend of a friend. Our meal was prepared by two chefs. Upon arrival, we were asked to select one of three cocktails, a blood and sand (scotch, orange juice, white vermouth, cherry marnier), a white velveteen (frangelico, white cranberry, vodka) or a Georgia mint julep (mint, cognac, apricot liqueur). After our (very strong but tasty) drinks, we were presented with menus that got our juices flowing. Dinner was going to be a 13 course affair with what looked like some pretty complex dishes. A meal like this would have impressed S and me no matter who was cooking. But given that the two chefs were teen boys, we were pretty much gobsmacked.

Borthers Jonathan and Sean Gwee, aged 18 and 15 respectively, are both articulate, polite, and obviously intelligent. They're also serious foodies. When we met, Jonathan was half-way through reading Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Younger bro Sean was working his way through Hervé This' Molecular Gastronomy. Now, I have both books. I've gotten through maybe a chapter of McGee's and haven't even opened This' work yet. And while I do intend to get to them one day, I will admit that both books are a tad intimidating.

The brothers Gwee have been cooking for years. Jonathan is most interested in pastry and dessert while Sean is into preparing meaty main courses. Last year, at the urging of family and friends, the brothers began to offer ridiculously well-priced, private degustation dinners.

Jonathan serving lemon foam

Here's the menu they served us, as written on their menu: Paté, chicken and duck livers with roasted butternut squash; Reduction of Salad, roast parsnip with thyme sauce, roast shallot with parmesan wafer, tomato jam with garlic crouton; Garlic Velouté, browned garlic soup; Prairie Oyster, raw egg with worcestershire sauce; Deconstructed Pork Belly, roasted salt pork, pork crackling and granny smith with demerera sugar sorbet; Risotto, flavoured with black olive and topped with buffalo mozzarella; Lemon, palate cleansing foam; Lamb, seared loin with pan fried gnocchi and red wine reduction; Beef, roast tenderloin glazed with marmalade accompanied by roots anna; Panna Cotta, with candied flower petals; Cannoli, filled with mascarpone and brandied cherries; Thyme, thyme ice-cream; and Chocolate, Valrhona Araguani chantilly. The food was impressive. It was executed confidently and deftly.

It was also presented with a good dose of humour. S and I were a little curious about the brothers' "Prarie Oyster". It's not that normal to serve your guests a hangover cure composed of raw egg at a dinner party. Younger brother Sean, assisted by a friend, brought out the raw eggs, a dozen glasses and a squeeze bottle of Worcesterchire sauce. He explained the origins of the Prarie Oyster while preparing each one -- essentially transferring each egg into a glass and squeezing the sauce over. He also advised us to bite into the yolk; it was the only way to appreciate the dish's flavours. When I did, I couldn't help but smile. The brothers had served us a mango-flavored version of Ferran Adria's very famous skinless ravioli, sauced with caramel. It was a cheeky, amusing, and impressive course. The boys are clearly fans of Adria and his peers. The "Chocolate" course turned out to be Adria's Frozen Chocolate Air (they found the recipe on the awesome Hungry in Hogtown. It was delicious. I couldn't believe how tasty, rich yet clean it was on the palate. The "Lemon" course was a yummy lemon foam.

My own personal favourite courses, besides the Chocolate, were the lamb with gnocchi, the panna cotta and the cannoli. I was particular impressed with Jonathan's cannoli shells. They were among the best I've ever eaten. Unfortunately, Jonathan is currently stuck in Basic Military Training, so the boys' private dining services have been put on hold for a while. When I last spoke with them, they said they might offer some mid-year and again at the end of the year. If you want more information, you can email them at (for Jonathan) and (for Sean).

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Four quick bites

S and I are admittedly a little boring. When going out for a meal, we tend to prefer dining in familiar favourites than checking out new places. There's a lot less risk. There's nothing worse than shelling out hard-earned cash on an awful or disappointing experience. It's so much easier to simply return to places where you know you'll get good food and good service. It's also a sad truth that for every new, great restaurant there are another half dozen out there that just don't cut it.

That said, we do try to dine somewhere new every couple of weeks. Sometimes, we go to places because friends have recommended them highly. A few times, we'll simply chance upon an interesting place. Some other times, we'll check a place out because we know someone there -- a manager or a chef, for example. And then there is occasionally a restaurant that, because of the buzz around it, is a must-try. Since I started this blog, S and I agreed on a simple rule. If a place doesn't pan out, we don't write about it. We only write about a place if we like it or we think it has potential.

Here's a short list of four restaurants that S and I have recently discovered. Most are new; one is slightly older than the others. All are interesting places worth watching and trying.

Garuda Padang Cuisine
It's always exciting to see what Tung Lok founder Andrew Tjioe has up his sleeve. When I heard that he was opening a nasi padang restaurant (and the group's first halal restaurant), I was both curious and excited. Garuda Padang Cuisine, located in Cairnhill Place, is actually a franchise of a successful nasi padang restaurant that was started in Medan in the mid-1970s. For those unfamiliar with this kind of cuisine, it's essentially rice served with a large variety of cooked foods, ranging from rendangs to curries. I dined at Garuda last week with my wife S and two friends. While it may be a little spartan, I like the all white and grey interiors of the large restaurant. I also enjoyed the food. Everything we ate was good. S and I liked that nothing was too spicy, which meant that we could really taste and appreciate the flavours in the various dishes we tried. And we tried a lot of things. Because the portions here are tiny, we ended up having to order a ton of food. Dinner worked out to roughly $34 a person--not exactly a steal, if you're accustomed to the prices you pay for nasi padang served at a coffeeshop, but it's pretty good value given that you're dining in a restaurant. I liked the ambience (especially that it was air-conditioned) and the food was good. S and I will definitely be coming back and we hope that you too will give it a try.

Garuda Padang Cuisine
Cairnhill Place #02-01 (Ground Level), 15 Cairnhill Road, Tel: 6735-4111

Garuda has opened a newer, smaller branch in Vivocity already:
Vivocity #B2-28, 1 Harborfront Walk, Tel: 6376-9595

S and I had been told that Borgo was worth a visit by many friends. This tiny, homey Italian restaurant, nestled into a crowded little stretch of Bukit Timah Road, opened in the middle of last year. It's almost embarrassing that it took us 6 months to try Borgo, but we're really happy we finally did. Borgo is small and when it's crowded, it can get a little ridiculously noisy. But the food is good. I'd even say it's better than good. It's not fancy fare though. Which is not a bad thing. The food here is simple, hearty and very tasty. I especially like the char-grilled homemade sausages. Amusingly, S prefered the chicken sausage while I preferred the pork one, which made it a cinch to share. I also like the cheese ravioli with "a light cheese sauce". These were deliciously savory and filling. I'll admit that S and I have only tasted a small range of Borgo's menu. We're looking forward to trying more dishes in the coming months. After all, I have a lot of eating to catch up on.

789 Bukit Timah Road, Tel: 6466-7762

Easily one of the prettiest new restaurants in town, Novus also has one of the best locations imaginable. Novus sits off the main rotunda of the newly renovated National Museum. The long, narrow room is divided in half. On one side is a sleek bar; on the other, on a slightly raised platform, is the bright, airy, and refined dining room. The food at Novus is elegant and contemporary. Aussie Executive Chef Dan Masters, German Executive Sous Chef Phillip Meisel, and their team are obviously highly competent at turning out beautifully plated and delicious European dishes. I really like the seared scallops with braised pork belly and chestnut puree. The pork was cooked to meltingly-soft perfection. The duck rillette is also very well-made. Another great dish -- albeit a pricey one -- is the slipper lobster served with slow-roasted veal. When I had this, the veal was prepared beautifully. Also good is the crispy-skinned seabass served with a little pasta, a saffron sauce and some rouille. I was impressed that the fish was tender, i.e. not the least bit overcooked. Also on the menu are three cuts of wagyu. I haven't tried them yet, mostly because they're priced rather high. (I am of course hoping I can sucker a friend into buying me lunch there sometime soon so I can order some.) Novus is a good place for a chic meal. It's the kind of city restaurant that most cosmopolitan cities have several of, and which Singapore needs more of. It's a good addition to our dining scene and I'm looking forward to seeing how it develops over the coming months.

National Museum #01-02, 93 Stamford Road, Tel: 6336 8770

Brasserie Wolf
S and I are huge fans of Brasserie Wolf. So are several friends of ours. Sadly, it seems there aren't enough of us (fans, that is). Whenever we eat at this traditional French bistro, we're just one of a small handful of filled tables. In all the times we've been there, the restaurant has never been more than half-full. Which is a real shame. Chef Philippe Nouzillat delivers really good, authentic bistro fare. His French onion soup is easily the best I've had in town. And I love his confit of duck and his steak with fries and homemade Bearnaise sauce. The decor, unfortunately, is a tad cheesy and theme parkish, you know, more Disney than Paris. But the food is very, very good. And it deserves your support.

Brasserie Wolf
The Pier, #01-13, 80 Mohamed Sultan Road, Tel: 6835-7818

Friday, January 19, 2007

A book and cuisine bourgeoise

One of the things that I've been fortunate to have had the opportunity to do over the past few years is work on a number of pretty nifty books. The latest one to see print is titled French Classics Modern Kitchen (okay, I'm tootin' my own horn a little here). It's the cookbook for the well-regarded and awarded, Singapore-based French restaurant, Le Saint Julien.

I had a great time working with Chef Julien Bompard on this book. It's always great to work with someone who is extremely passionate about what he does. Plus it was a wonderful way to get to really know and understand this talented and experienced chef. For those who have never eaten at Le Saint Julien, the restaurant serves classic French cuisine bourgeoise. And while the food may be presented in modern and elegant ways, Julien is a staunch traditionalist. You won't ever find him experimenting with Asian herbs or spices or trying to create new ways to re-imagine popular dishes. The very best food, as far as this Frenchman is concerned, is the food that his parents and grandparents before him dined on. His food is unapologetically and unabashedly French, which is something he takes great pride in.

A dinner at Le Saint Julien is always an elegant affair. Julien's wife Edith is easily one of Singapore's most charming hostesses. Her staff are also among the very best in town; they are polite, charming, never in the way but always on hand. Honestly, from my experience, the service alone is a darned good reason to visit Le Saint Julien. The restaurant is perfect during the day for a business lunch and equally fitting in the evening for a seductive dinner date. The menu, as I've said above, is filled with classic dishes. I would suggest trying the lobster bisque, not just because I love this rich soup, but also because this soup is what brought Edith and Julien together.

photos courtesy of Le Saint Julien

Many years ago, Julien ran the very well-equipped kitchens of Hong Kong's poshest French restaurant, Gaddi's in The Peninsula Hotel. Edith worked in the hotel as well. One day, Edith was asked to arrange lunch for some VVIPs at Gaddi's. After the meal, one of her guests told her that he simply loved the lobster bisque that Julien had prepared. "Could you get me the recipe?", asked her guest. "Of course," she replied. However, when she asked Julien for it, he refused to give it to her. Edith, to her credit, persisted and continued to try to convince Julien to share it with her. To his even greater credit, instead of giving her the recipe, he asked her out. In the end, the guest never got the recipe, but Edith and Julien both found love. (The recipe, by the way, is in the cookbook.)

Julien's food is rich, savory and filling. It's also very satisfying. Wine-lovers will be thrilled at Julien's amazing selection of French wines. To celebrate the launch of French Classics Modern Kitchen, I've convinced Julien to create a very special offer for OCBC cardmembers. If you and a loved one both order the menu extravaganza (degustation tasting menu) at his restaurant, you will not only each get a glass of Champagne (or a mocktail) on the house, you will also get an autographed copy of the cookbook for free.

Le Saint Julien
3 Fullerton Road
Singapore 049215
Tel: +65 6534 5947

Menu Extravaganza

Terrine of foie gras with Port wine reduction
Pan seared duck liver with orange sauce
Mesclun salad with confit, rillettes and pine nuts
Warm brioche

Signature lobster bisque with garlic aïoli

Seared sea scallops with yellow wine sauce “Arbois”
Tomato and anchovy fondant
Seared venison loin with crème de cassis dressing
Winter vegetable râgout

Home-made seasonal fruit sorbet

Classic caramelized chocolate mousse with berries
Coconut ice cream and pralines

Coffee or Tea with petits fours

$368 nett per couple
Each guest receives one complimentary glass of Champagne or Mocktail. Each couple will also be presented with one complimentry copy of French Classics Modern Kitchen autographed by Chef Julien Bompard. Valid with all OCBC cards. Promotion valid from 19 January to 31 March 2007.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Menu for Hope winners announced

Are you a big winner? If you made a donation to this year's Menu for Hope and purchased a chance to win some amazing prizes, you should head on over to Pim's blog immediately to see if you have won. To get there, please click here. Congrats to edwf, cookingismypassion, Spike, keaton, Sui Mai and Dave Boggs for winning the prizes that I sourced. Please email me so I can get the prizes and/or vouchers to you. I am very excited that I myself won a prize, a 10 course dinner for 2 with wines at Becasse in Sydney, generously sourced by Helen from Grab Your Fork. I am so planning my Sydney trip as soon as possible!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Pork and pasta

There's a specific word that, when I spy it on menus, always gets my juices flowing. And while it's overused a little these days and used inappropriately at times, I still get excited and just a little hungrier than normal when I see the word, "confit". I love foods that have been prepared this way. From Tetsuya's confit of ocean trout to a good old-fashioned duck confit, there's something simply satisfying about tucking into something that's been slow-cooked in fat and oils until it becomes soft and tender. Last week, S and I were on something of a confit kick. We decided to each make a confit dish. She worked on a quartet of duck legs while I tried out a recipe I've been dying to make for months, Justin Quek's pork neck confit.

The pork neck confit was a breeze to make. Marinating the pork neck takes just a few minutes; you then leave it alone for a half-day or so. The cooking process takes just an hour, after which you leave the pork alone while it cools. The only thing to watch out for is making sure the oil in which you are cooking the pork stays at a constant temperature (of 90 degrees Celsius). Store the pork for a day or so before eating. You can eat it as is, or slice it up and grill or fry it lightly.

The pork confit was delicious. S and I devoured it over 2 meals, one with friends and one by ourselves. We had it both times with pasta. The first time we made a super-simple but super-tasty dish. We tweaked a great recipe from Andrea Nguyen's Into the Vietnamese Kitchen for "Garlicky noodles with Maggi and butter". I'm not sure how many of you out there have cooked with or eaten foods with Maggi Seasoning sauce, but those of you who have will appreciate its umami savoriness. We added our pork confit and a fried egg to Ms Nguyen's easy-to-make recipe and created one helluva great comfort dish. For our friends, we made an awesome pork neck confit carbonara with a truffled pasta that we had surprisingly found at the Cold Storage in Raffles City (pictured at the top of the post). I love a good carbonara and the use of the confit in place of the usual pancetta made this a really rich and delicious dish.

As said, the pork neck confit was easy to make. It's delicious and versatile. I liked it so much that I've already bought another kilo of pork neck to make a fresh batch. This is something I plan on always having in my fridge.

Pork neck confit
1 kilogram pork neck
15 grams salt
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
3 bay leaves, crushed
1 sprig of thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1 litre olive oil
1 litre grapeseed oil

Make the pork confit ahead of time. Clean and dry the pork neck. Season it by rubbing it with salt, garlic, bay leaves, thyme and pepper. Wrap the pork neck with cling film and refrigerate it for a minimum of 12 hours.

Heat the olive and grapeseed oils in a pot that is able to accommodate the pork neck. Maintain the temperature of the blend of oils at 90 degrees Celsius. Scrape the marinade off the pork, but do not wash it. Place the pork in the oil, make sure it is covered by the oil, and cook it for 1 hour.

After 1 hour, turn off the heat and leave the pork to cool in the oil. Transfer the pork and the oil to a metal container with a tight-fitting lid. Keep it sealed and refrigerated for 1 to 2 days before using it. This allows the flavours to develop.

Pork Neck Confit Truffled Fettucine Carbonara
Serves 4 as appetizers
1/2 pound fettuccine
300g pork neck confit, chopped into small pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
2-3 tablespoons white wine
2 eggs plus 1 egg yolks
1 cup grated parmesan
1 tablespoon Tetsuya Truffle Salsa
salt and pepper

Beat the eggs and egg yolk in a bowl large enough to accomodate the pasta later. Add the parmesan and a bit of salt and pepper, to taste. Fry the pork neck confit with the olive oil. When almost done, add the white wine and let simmer for a minute or so. Meanwhile, cook the pasta until al dente in salted water. When ready, drain and quickly toss into the egg and parmesan mix. Stir until the sauce is slightly cooked. Stir in the truffle salsa. Then toss in the hot pork confit and stir again. Serve immediately.

Garlicky noodles with Maggi, butter, pork neck confit and fried egg
Serves 4 as appetizers
1/2 pound fettuccine
2.5 tablespoons Maggi Seasoning sauce
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 garlic cloves, minced
300g pork neck confit, sliced into thin pieces
4 eggs

Put the Maggi in a bowl large enough to later accomodate the pasta. Boil pasta in salted water until al dente. Drain and put in the bowl with the Maggi sauce. Use tongs to toss the noodles until the noodles absorb the sauce. In a 12 inch skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. When it foams, add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add the noodles and stir, using tongs or chopsticks. Spread the noodles out, increase the heat to medium-high and let the noodles cook undisturbed for a minute. Give the noodles a good stir and repeat the searing one or two more times. Meanwhile, quickly grill the pork neck confit slices and fry the eggs sunny-side up. Serve the pasta immediately, topping each portion with the pork slices and a fried egg.

Friday, January 12, 2007

NYE Catering

I mentioned a few posts ago that my wife S and I, plus 6 other friends, hired Chef Jimmy Chok to cook for us on New Year's Eve. We had also hired him, with stunning results, the previous year, so we were quite excited to taste this year's meal. (Sadly, I was still recovering from my bout of gastroenteritis, so I couldn't eat as much of the meal as I wanted to.) This was only the second time Jimmy has cooked in our place (the previous year another friend hosted the meal). The first was an amazing lunch that my father hosted for the late, great New York Times writer Johnny Apple. I think Jimmy had forgotten just how small and crowded our kitchen was. I noticed that when he was unpacking his produce, he was frantically looking around for storage space, counter space and fridge space. Nonetheless, he pulled off a very impressive meal.

We started our feast with crab cakes served with tomato chilli jam. Jimmy has always made wonderful crabcakes; these were no exception. We then had marinated angel hair pasta with sliced abalone. He had also made this for my pop's lunch and we loved it so much that we requested that he serve it at this dinner. Next were hot seared scallops in a manila clam laksa leaf infused nage. We had also eaten a similar dish at our lunch and again had requested for something similar. The laksa-flavoured broth was really nice. (Sadly, because of my wonky tummy, I couldn't drink it all down.) Then we had a confit of ocean trout belly with dashi jelly and avruga. For many of our friends, this was their favourite course of the night. The trout was beautifully tender and lightly flavoured. Our fifth course was a Maine lobster timbale with shellfish emulsion. This was rich and decadent. The final savory course of the night was slow cooked wagyu beef cheeks served with truffled mashed potatoes and grain mustard jus. This was a really yummy, rich and satisfying dish, a nicely sexed-up version of the best kind of comfort food. For dessert, we had S's "coffee and donuts" that I wrote about a few posts ago.

One thing I really like about engaging Jimmy is that he comes with two staff -- one kitchen-hand and one waiter (or waitress). The service is always polite and unobtrusive, which is important for home-catered affairs. Jimmy and his team also leave your kitchen spotless; in our case, I think he left the kitchen even cleaner than it was before. He's also very reasonable, with prices for a home-catered affair much, much lower than what you would pay at some of our finer restaurants. Which makes hiring him a no-brainer. Why blow a huge chunk of money somewhere when you can spend less, get equally if not better food than you would at a restaurant, and receive a chef's full attention?

Jimmy is the executive chef of The Academy Bistro, which is on level 1 of the new Supreme Court building. The Bistro is open every weekday for lunch and open Fridays for lunch and dinner. He is available on weekends and on weeknights from Monday to Thursday for private catering. To reach him, you can email him at I would highly recommend him to anyone looking to host a very special meal at home.

p.s. Sorry about the slightly grainy pix. We had dimmed the lights considerably that evening; I was shooting at iso1600 in order to get some kind of usable pictures.


Okay, nothing to do with food, but oh my lord do I want one of these babies! Don't know what it is? Click here. All I can say is, "Wow".

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Good simple duck and char siu rice

One of my favourite simple meals is a good plate of Cantonese roasted meats served with some rice. I'm partial especially to a beautifully roasted duck. The skin has to be just a tad crispy and the meat juicy and tender. And while I'm usually not a huge fan of char siu (barbecued pork), if it's done well, i.e. it's very umami, soft and succulent, it can be delicious.

While there are several very popular and famous places for duck and char siu rice around town, one of my favourites is little-known. Ming Kee Cantonese Roasted Duck is situated in Coffeetown, a small hawker centre tucked in a rather far-off corner of Rochor Centre (1 Rochor Road) in Singapore. I like that Ming Kee is never too crowded. Even during lunch hour, I never really have to wait too long for my food. Too often, we go to celebrated hawkers, wait for far too long in line, and then receive mediocre and underwhelming food. Ming Kee is the opposite. You get really good food here without the hassle of waiting in queue.

I also like that despite being an open-air hawker centre, it's never too hot here. S calls it smart tropical architecture. The seating area is well-shaded by the surrounding tall buildings. It's a surprisingly pleasant environment. You can eat here at noon on a sunny day without sweating through your lunch.

As said, the duck is good, as is the char siu. The one time I tried the siu yuk (crispy roasted pork), it was okay but not stunning. Ultra-finicky gourmets might find a few faults with the food here, but for a quick, reasonably-priced and fuss-free lunch, I think Ming Kee is just about perfect.

Ming Kee Cantonese Roasted Duck is open every day from 1030am to 7pm.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Coffee and Donuts

This past New Year's Eve, S and I hosted a small dinner party for 6 other friends. Because neither of us wanted to work too hard that night, we hired a super-talented chef, Jimmy Chok, to prepare our meal. Jimmy had also cooked for us the previous New Year's Eve. (I'll write more about the fabulous meal Jimmy made for us in an upcoming post.) Because we did want at least one course to come from us, however, S opted to make the evening's dessert. We spent several days discussing the kinds of things that she could make before settling on a duo of desserts that we felt would go really well together. She also decided that the duo would be called (her version of) "coffee and donuts".

The "coffee" in this combination is a vanilla panna cotta covered with a layer of espresso gelée. The "donuts" are bite-sized, sugar-coated, fried choux pastries with liquid chocolate fillings. The dessert was the perfect end to a great meal, served right before the fireworks went off (which we could partially see from our dining room window). Our friends especially loved the donuts. We had told them to eat each with one with just one bite, popping the whole thing into their mouths. The oozing chocolate centre was a delicious, bittersweet and sinfully yummy surprise. I, on the other hand, adored the panna cotta and coffee gelée (no suprise that this fat fella prefers the richer, creamier dessert). The panna cotta itself was lovely; it was smooth, satisfying and sweet. The espresso gelée carried the perfect flavor accent for the dish. Together, the two desserts worked really well. Vanilla, coffee, chocolate and citrus are all classic complimentary flavours. The two very different textures from the two desserts were a delightful contrast. And thirdly, the contrast of the warm donuts and the cold panna cotta and espresso gelée was really nice.

While time-consuming to prepare, this dessert is very much worth the effort to make. S used four different cookbooks for the four main components of this combination. You can make the panna cotta with espresso gelée a day ahead and you'll need to make the donuts a day or even two ahead. Which means that once you make this dessert, you can rest pretty easy the day you plan to serve this. The only fiddly bit is frying the donuts and dipping them in sugar right before serving. The recipes below include her annotations and comments.

“Coffee & Donuts”
Makes approximately 25 “donuts” and 12 small portions of panna cotta with espresso gelée

(Adapted from Gordon Ramsay’s Secrets)

80g bittersweet chocolate (I used a 66% cacao Valrhona and added 1 tablespoon castor sugar because CH prefers sweeter chocolate)
40g unsalted butter, cubed
3 tablespoons double cream (I used whipping cream)

Chop the chocolate into rough pieces and place in a heatproof bowl with the rest of the ganache ingredients. Place the bowl over a pan of simmering water and stir until evenly combined (the ganache should look smooth). Remove from the heat, cool, then refrigerate until firm.

Use a small melon baller to scoop approximately 25 balls of ganache. Place them on a tray lined with greaseproof paper and freeze until required.

(Adapted from Oriol Balaguer’s Dessert Cuisine)

200g milk (I used regular whole milk)
100g unsalted butter
100g weak flour, sifted (I used cake flour)
150g eggs (I whisked three large eggs together and used 150g of this)
2 whole pieces of star anise
1 vanilla bean (I used 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla paste instead)
1 cinnamon stick
1 orange zest (I used the zest of 1 orange)
1 lemon zest (I used the zest of 1 lemon)

Note: Balaguer calls for 70% cacao chocolate drops instead of a chocolate ganache in his recipe for chocolate "bunyols". My "donuts" are really tweaked versions of his "bunyols". If you prefer, you may opt to use chocolate drops instead of a ganache.

Infuse the milk with the butter, spices and zests (I heated the milk until small bubbles rose to its surface, took it off the heat and let the mixture stand for at least 30 minutes). If you choose to use a vanilla bean, presumably, you should split the vanilla bean, scrape the seeds and add them to the milk along with the other spices and throw the pod in.

Strain the milk. (I added my vanilla paste into the milk at this point.) Bring the milk to a boil, remove it from the heat and add the flour. Stir it with a wooden spoon and return it to a low fire. Continue stirring (using a smearing action) until it starts to pull away from the sides of the pan and begins to look like wet sand (it should also look shiny). Work it slightly in the blender at low speed. (I put it in my KitchenAid and worked it with the paddle attachment. This cooled the paste much faster than when I did it in my food processor.) Add the eggs gradually. Scrape the dough off the sides of the bowl and work it a little more until it is smooth. (If you prefer, follow the techniques in your favourite choux pastry recipe in place of the instructions here.)

Fill a piping bag with the paste. Fill ice cube moulds with the paste. Stop when each mould is only filled to the halfway point. Insert a ball of chocolate ganache (or chocolate drops) into each mould, making sure that it doesn’t push though the dough. Cover with more paste. Smooth down the tops of the dough with the back of a wet spoon. Freeze and unmould. Store in the freezer until they need to be served.

(Adapted from Italian Classics by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated)

1 cup whole milk
2¾ teaspoons flavourless powdered gelatin (reduce to 2 5/8 teaspoons if making a day ahead)
3 cups heavy cream (I used whipping cream)
1 vanilla bean or 2 teaspoons pure extract
6 tablespoons (2½ oz) sugar
Pinch of salt

Pour the milk into a medium saucepan and sprinkle the gelatin evenly on its surface. Let it stand for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with 2 trays of ice cubes and 4 cups of cold water. Measure the cream into a large measuring cup or pitcher. Slit the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the cream; place the pod in the cream and set the mixture aside. Place 12 small glasses on a tray small enough to place in your refrigerator.

Heat the milk and gelatin mixture over high heat, stirring constantly until the gelatin is dissolved and the mixture registers 135 degrees Fahrenheit (around 65 degrees Celsius) on an instant read thermometer (about 1½ minutes). Remove the pan from the heat. Add the sugar and salt; stir until dissolved (about 1 minute).

Stirring constantly, slowly pour the cream with vanilla into the saucepan containing the milk, then transfer the mixture into a medium bowl and set the bowl over the ice water bath. Stir frequently until the mixture thickens to the consistency of egg nog and registers 50 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius) on an instant read thermometer, about 10 minutes. Strain the mixture into a large measuring cup or pitcher, then distribute it evenly among the glasses. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until just set (the mixture should wobble when shaken), about 4 hours.

(Adapted from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course)

1 cup espresso (cold filtered)
1 teaspoon flavourless powdered gelatin
3 tablespoons sugar

Place ¼ cup of the espresso in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin evenly over it. Let the mixture rest for 5 minutes, until the gelatin softens. Bring the remaining espresso to a simmer in a small saucepan. Add the sugar. Stir until all the sugar is dissolved. Remove the saucepan from the heat. Add the softened gelatin mixture to the warm sweet espresso. Return the saucepan to low heat, whisking until the gelatin dissolves. Do not let the mixture come to a simmer. Strain through a fine sieve. Let the espresso mixture cool to room temperature. Gently pour it over each portion of panna cotta. Cover with cling wrap and refrigerate until set, about 1 hour.

To serve, fill a small saucepan with sunflower oil (the oil should be approximately 3 cm deep). Heat the oil to 150 degrees Celsius and fry the still frozen “donuts” for 5-6 minutes until they are golden brown and start to float. (You may need to adjust cooking temperature and time.) Drain and coat with castor sugar. Plate alongside glasses of espresso panna cotta and serve.

Friday, January 05, 2007


Each year, my wife S and I try to create a fun Christmas gift to give some of our friends. A couple years ago, we gave friends DIY Molten Chocolate Cake Kits. Each kit came with detailed instructions, chocolate, molds, and other essentials for creating this (way too) popular dessert. This past holiday season, instead of creating something edible, we decided to design something that would (potentially) enhance the restaurant-going experience. The intention was to create a tongue-in-cheek gift for friends with a good sense of humour.

The result was a little something we've named "Feedback: Calling Cards for Discriminating and Opinionated Diners". We created 4 different calling cards, printed (as you can see) on cream/off-white cardstock with a cutlery logo in 4 different colors. Two of the cards provide the user the chance to offer a restaurant either positive or negative feedback, depending on which words on their cards they cross out. This is the text on these two cards: "Wow! What a disappointing / fantastic meal. Truly, I'm amazed. I'm definitely telling my friends and never / definitely coming back here again." and "Hi, I just wanted you to know that the service in your establishment is staggering good / bad." With just a swift stroke of one's pen, the diner can tell a restauranteur what they did or didn't like about his or her restaurant. A third card is entirely positive, giving the diner a chance to tell a restaurant which food item they enjoyed most: "Thanks for the great meal. The appetizer / main course / dessert was particularly good today." And, of course, we left a line for our friends to fill in their names because if you feel the need to leave a comment, you should always have the courage to take ownership of your opinion.

The fourth card is meant to be used on fellow diners. It reads, "Hi there! I love your shoes / eyes / smile / appetite. Would it be a little too forward to ask if I could join you for dessert?" One friend has already complained to me that her husband has grabbed all of these for himself, to use on upcoming business trips. Each box that we gave away had 80 cards, 20 of each design. As you can see, we also made labels for the tops and bottoms of the boxes. It was really, really fun designing these and we've been happy with the response from friends. A couple of them are even trying to convince us to retail the cards. And while we're giving the idea some thought, for now, we're just happy with them being rather exclusive gifts for good friends. We just hope that if and when our friends do use these, they do so lightly and the restaurateurs who receive them either (a) see the humour in them or (b) take the opinions as real, heartfelt, constructive criticism.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Osaka (part 2 of 2)

Zen tempura experience

I'm a big, big tempura lover so I made it a point to ask our hotel's amazing concierges to recommend a good place to eat tempura. They suggested Ippoh, which they said is both the city's best tempura restaurant and one of Osaka's oldest. I couldn't pass on the idea of eating in a restaurant with over 150 years of history. As with all things in Japan, the experience was expensive but worth it. Ippoh is housed in a lovely old building. Upon arrival, S and I were asked to remove our shoes and were brought to a small tatami room. There, we were served one course, a refreshing soup. Then we were asked to leave our coats and our bags and were brought to another private room. Here we were served a gomatofu with wasabi and prawns. This was followed by a trio of artfully plated cooked food.

After that, we were brought to a third room. This one had a tempura bar with space for 6 people. The chef introduced himself and then proceeded to prepare our tempura on the spot. I have to say that after eating freshly made (and well-made) tempura, it is hard to go back to eating mediocre versions. The tempura was excellent, served crisp and hot. The chef instructed us which items were to be eaten with sauce, salt or no seasoning at all. We were each given prawns, a couple of fish, lotus root, gingko nut, fish roe wrapped in shiso, sweet potato, prawn wrapped in shiso, namafu (a glutinous rice flour and wheat flour dumpling), leeks, and a red bean pastry. We also had a side plate of sashimi and, to end the meal, a "tendon" (chopped up prawn and vegetable tempura served on rice). As said, the tempura was fantastic, but we thought that the other tidbits served us were okay but nothing special. All in all, this is a memorable (and of course) place to visit at least once.

Sushi heaven

If we could have, S and I would have eaten at Endo Sushi every day. Sadly, we were in Osaka from a Thursday to a Monday and it was closed on Sunday and we had to leave our hotel by 8am on Monday. Anyway, we did have brunch here on both Friday and Saturday. This tiny sushi bar is located in the carpark next to the Central Wholesale Market. It is open from 5am - 2pm.

You order by the plate here. Each one comes loaded with 5 fat pieces of sushi, chosen by the chef. One piece, however, will always be a wickedly fresh slice of otoro (fatty tuna). On the table, there are brushes soaking in bowls of soya sauce. You are encouraged here to brush your sushi with sauce instead of dipping, which makes perfect sense since most people wrongly dip their rice and not the fish into the sauce. At 1,000 Yen per plate, Endo is also one of the best bargains in Osaka. I really can't say how much S and I loved this place. This is a must-visit!

Another fantastic place, albeit much more ritzy (no pun intended), for sushi is Hanagatami at the Ritz-Carlton Osaka. S and I enjoyed an amazingly serene sushi lunch at this gorgeous and deceptively large restaurant. Hanagatami has a small sushi bar, an equally small tempura bar (which I plan on lunching at next trip instead of going to Ippoh), and a large area serving Kyoto-style Kaiseki meals. Sitting at the sushi bar, you don't even notice the rest of the restaurant. And as you would expect at a Ritz-Carlton, everything from the food to the service was perfect.

Yummy shio ramen

I'm a magazine junkie (which comes from having spent a decade in that industry); I like looking at magazines even if they are in languages I don't understand. I love looking at layouts and photography. One of the magazines that had been thoughtfully placed in my hotel room was the latest copy of GQ Japan. In it, there was an article on top ramen shops in the country's major cities. When I noticed that two of them had Osaka telephone prefixes, I quickly asked my concierge where they were located and if he had heard of them. One of them, in fact, was a less than 10 minute walk from where we were staying! We found Berashio easily and were thrilled by it. Berashio specializes in shio ramen. S ordered one with extra roast pork while I picked a Winter special, which came with pork, leeks, mushrooms, grilled scallops (yum!) and a pat of butter. We loved that they charcoal-grilled the scallops and pork in front of us. The stock was lovely and if it wasn't for the fact that the portions were so filling, I would have loved to have sampled other variations. This reasonable ramen restaurant is definitely worth a visit.


On our last night, a friend arranged a large group dinner at a good, reasonable and very casual shabu-shabu restaurant called Udon-chiri Nishiya Iori. The beef was lovely and the restaurant was relaxed and reasonably priced.

There are of course many more restaurants in Osaka we didn't visit. Four that I want to go back to try are Kawazoe, Nishi, the Harijyu Curry Restaurant (I was very excited by the huge line), and Becasse, a sexy-sounding French restaurant.


In Osaka, the best hotel (and the only one my friends recommended to me when I was looking for a place to stay) is the Ritz-Carlton, Osaka. This perpetually busy hotel is fantastically well-located in Umeda and is brilliantly appointed. It was perfect in December, right before the holidays. The lobby is furnished with a nod to 18th and 19th Century European opulance. The rooms, by contrast, are classic and very comfortable. The hotel has 4 pretty stunning restaurants, a Japanese, a French, a Chinese and an Italian. It also has two bars and a lobby lounge. The wine bar is really cool; it offers 25 different wines by the glass, including some pretty ultra-premium labels, stuff that you'd normally need to buy a whole bottle to taste. If you can swing it, get access to the Club Lounge on the 34th floor. It's very plush and comfy and they serve drinks and food throughout the day. Be warned though; all your fellow guests will be similarly circling the food tables waiting for the next delicious something-or-other that will come out from the hotel's kitchens. When we visited, the hotel was completely full. Amazingly, 90% of the Ritz-Carlton Osaka's business is domestic. Fortunately, everyone here spoke English perfectly (which is not the case for the rest of the city). And the concierges are amazing. Without their help, we wouldn't have been able to navigate our way through Osaka. These tireless and always helpful women made recommendations for us, made reservations, printed maps and gave us more help than I have ever gotten from any other concierge in any other city. Their help alone made staying at the Ritz a joy. (If and when you go Osaka and want to go to some of the places I've written about in this or the previous post, I suggest asking your own concierge for help. If you stay at the Ritz, I guarantee you'll have no problem.)


Osaka really amazed both S and I. We thought that Singaporeans lived to eat and shop. Well, they don't hold a candle to the people that populate Osaka. The city was a buzzing, utterly mad, utterly wonderful, eating and shopping playground. The city's two major shopping districts, Umeda and Shinsaibashi, were packed throughout our entire stay. The stores were full and the cash registers were ringing like crazy. The stores were also full of much cooler stuff than what we get here. Among our favourites were the 0101 department store in Namba for cool Japanese women's fashion, Hankyu department store in Umeda for men's shoes, the Tomorrowland store on Mido-Suji for really chic men's and women's fashion, and Doguya-suji and Hankyu department store for some nifty Japanese kitchen tools. Also, as expected, all the food halls in the department stores were pretty jaw-dropping. S especially liked the ones in Sogo in Shinsaibashi and Takashimaya in Namba. I can't even begin to describe the sheer joy we had going from pastry counter to pastry counter snacking on gorgeous and delicious sweets. In a class of its own, though, is the food hall in the basement of the Hanshin department store. More like a giant market, this food hall was simply amazing. You can get everything there from fresh produce to specialty cooked foods. Unfortunately, it's also perpetually packed. You'll spend just as much time elbowing your way through the crowds as you will trying to buy stuff to snack on.

A drink after all that food

Finally, I had to mention what is one of the coolest bars I have ever been to. There are 3 B Bars in Japan. Owned and operated by Baccarat, these sleek and stylish bars are located next to the French crystal brand's stores in Tokyo and Osaka. The Osaka B Bar is in Hilton Plaza East in Umeda. From the Ritz-Carlton, it's a short 10 minute walk. The bars are gorgeously moody and dark. Spotlights highlight each patron's drinks, which are served, as expected, in Baccarat crystal glasses. For those of us who can't afford a collection of high-priced crystal, it's a great chance to feel and use their products. The drinks, by the way, are also perfectly made and simply delicious.