Azhang, Mohamed Sultan Road
Whoa - who'd have known? I must have passed by this place (6 Mohamed Sultan, 6836-3436) and looked at their menu from the outside at least two or three times on my way to Papi and Banoo in the past few months. Each and every time, I was baffled at what kind of place it was, as the menu seemed to showcase a random selection of meat and fish, generally in a Western style, and yet with footnotes at the bottom that read something like, "If you like it spicy, do ask for our sambal belachan," which is a rather pungent local chili pepper and shrimp paste condiment common to these parts. In an effort to try to get some clarity on the situation one of those times, I asked what kind of food they served, and they replied with only a vague "grilled seafood"...and yet the grilled meat section on the menu was longer than the seafood list. With such an apparent identity crisis at hand, I dismissed it in my head and moved on.
And yet somehow, that "grilled seafood" phrase got stuck in my head, and this afternoon, a light grilled seafood plate sounded rather appealing. So I made my way down here tonight to give it a shot, and boy, am I glad that I did. Only when I sat down did I realize why they really could not define the type of cuisine here: it's almost as if this place were run by a normal guy who just really enjoyed cooking as a hobby and wanted to showcase some of his creations...like a private kitchen of sorts. There was no pretension here at all; just very honest and humble expressions on the proprietors' faces (such humility was further reflected in the simple wooden chairs and paper napkins). The chef was alluded to on a first name basis (Patrick) by the hostess, while the name of the restaurant seemed to have stemmed from his last name, Zhang. And the prices were fairly low with most dishes under S$20 (US$12.50) a plate. Now I finally understood why he placed that rice pilaf recipe in the menu...he's probably running this operation just because he's passionate about food rather than trying to create some unnecessarily upscale restaurant. Wow - respect.
So what was the food like? I started with the Roasted Corn Salad, which, as very openly stated on the menu, was butter-coated corn on the cob "roasted over an open flame until slightly charred...the grains are sliced off immediately to retain the juices, then tossed in extra virgin olive oil with minced garlic, salt, pepper, chopped scallions & cilantro...served on a bed of romaine with a simple salsa." This was amazing, tasting even better than it was described. This wasn't any pre-grilled corn either...they took their time to roast each ear of corn to order (don't come here if you're in a hurry). Sure, there were a few peculiarities, like the residual heat of the corn (and sliced chili pepper from the salsa) that seemed rather foreign in a salad. But that didn't matter in the end, as the simple seasonings were done to perfection to create something that I thoroughly enjoyed (no doubt the minced garlic helped quite a bit too).
The care that he took in the food was further reflected in the grilled calamari, which he said that he wasn't going to start grilling until I finished my salad, lest the calamari get overdone. Well, the squid itself was actually a bit bigger than I would have wanted, thus making me wish he had kept the body on the flame for a little while longer. But the tentacles were done to just the right amount of scorching, and the aforementioned rice pilaf that this sat on featured very satisfying olive oil overtones (and this is coming from a guy who doesn't really like olive oil). I was a bit disappointed to see the salsa from the Roasted Corn Salad appearing on the plate again here as a garnish, but it all worked out in the end. And yes, they did give me some sambal belachan to try too...while it was fine, I did pass on it since it overpowered the taste of the calamari itself.
So again, this was kinda as if one of your good friends were really into cooking, spending his free time on weekends creating new dishes, and then inviting you over to his house to eat for dinner. That meant that there were a few rough edges here and there, but his good heart still showed up in the dishes nonetheless (I grabbed some of his beef stew too, which was refreshingly light, as you might expect something homemade to be). They're a very friendly and light-hearted bunch here, as Patrick kept doing his rounds saying hello and asking for feedback, all the while with a glass of red wine clutched in his hand. Apparently they do have quite a number of die-hard loyal fans here, and they even have things like Shepherd's Pie that are only available if you pre-order it. They also have a private room upstairs and exclusive afternoon sessions serving local specialities like chicken rice. Yes, it's a confusing identity crisis that I never thought I would like, but I came away very impressed. Besides, who could complain when the sound system played Tony Bennett covers, and a variety of Scotch was at your disposal? What this place lacked in cohesion was more than made up for by a very endearing attitude. It was very down to earth, and I'm coming back to try more.