Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Crab Shack, Upper Thomson Road

A Three Piece Set of Flower Crabs

Just as USA Today ran a story the other day on seafood shacks in New England (and getting me excited about it in the process), someone had posted a suggestion to hit up this place in Singapore (227 Upper Thomson Road, 9451-9040). I was intrigued, considering that it wasn't common around here to eat crab straight like we do back home, with the possible exception of places like the Big Bird (but even then, it's still fairly local with its hot sauce, and obviously crab is not that place's focus). This place, with its checkered tablecloths and metal buckets and such, was clearly trying to model itself differently. We made the trek on up there tonight to check it out.

Now, one key thing to note with this place is that they use local crabs. Specifically, they use local flower crabs, which thankfully are much tastier than the super thick-shelled Sri Lankan crabs used in chili crab around here. In that sense, they reminded me a bit of the taste of Dungeness crab from back home. One would think that I would be all over that as a result, but the problem is that these crabs are small to the point where it is rather difficult to extract any usable meat from it (don't even bother trying to get at those pencil-thin legs...the claws are enough of a challenge as it is, and hence the meat is really in the body instead, and you've gotta dig underneath the gills and guts to get there). So actually, they are a bit more like those little blue crabs from Chesapeake Bay (especially since they steam the crabs here and serve them hot), but this West Coast kid hasn't had enough experience nor the skills with those to be able to eat these effectively. And no, they didn't give melted butter (and they definitely didn't give any Old Bay nor wooden mallets). Instead, they provided some sweet chili sauce that I passed on.

I've always believed that crab (and clams, for that matter) is not something that one should eat when hungry, since it takes so much effort to shell those things and only get a little bit of meat out of it in the end (almost seeming like "negative calorie food" like celery). Today's little flower crabs only went to prove that point further, and it was quite frustrating, to be honest. So we tried ordering some of their carbs to fill our bellies, such as the crab spaghetti and crab baked rice. And while neither were horrible, they still didn't quite do the job. The former dish came in a decently tasty thin sauce, but certainly wasn't the inspirational linguini al granchio from Cantina that we were secretly hoping for. And rather shockingly, the crab baked rice featured slices of cylindrical artificial crab in it. While it still tasted fine (interestingly, they also used those little dried shrimp used in Chinese cuisine), it just seemed a bit out of place for these guys to be using artificial crab in the rice. In the end, we had to pop across the street to the Roti Prata House in order to top this all off to the point of satisfaction.

So while I certainly loved the concept of this place, I doubt that I'll make the effort to come all the way up here again in the interests of eating. Instead, this would be a nice place to hit on a Sunday afternoon with some beer and the buddies, when one isn't really looking to eat for the sake of satiating hunger, but rather just as a socializing event when the food is relegated to a periphery activity. Unfortunately, I don't think that these guys are open in the daytime (it looks like they are sharing their location with a local hawker or something and only convert over at night). But they are open until midnight, so maybe that scenario isn't that far fetched after all. I've just gotta remember to eat *before* I come here.

Hwa Sin Korea Garden, Tanjong Pagar

Bulgogi

Consciously or not, I'd been hitting up nearly all the Korean places in the Tanjong Pagar area recently, with the exception of this one (34 Tanjong Pagar Road, 6221-7153). I had actually been to this place years ago, but didn't have a great experience, and hence never really had any huge desire to come back. I guess today I felt like rounding out the "tour" and hoping that maybe things would be different this time.

They weren't. I didn't realize it until immediately afterwards, but for some reason, I ordered the exact same thing that I got last time, and I more or less went through the same order of emotions too: disappointment at the boring selection of kimchi, disappointment at the cold service, and disappointment at the excessive sweetness of the bulgogi. The meat wasn't of the best quality today either. And despite the portable gas grills at each table, they cooked the bulgogi in the back for you.

Prior to this, I was gonna say that most of these places in the area really seemed to blend in together to me, and were generally all rather unremarkable. But after today, I can pretty confidently say that this is the place that I liked the least. Well, I haven't exactly tried a spread of dishes at each of these guys either, so I'm not the best qualified here, but if I had to pick a favorite of the group, then it would probably be New Seoul on Peck Seah. (But like I said, maybe that was just because of what I ordered.) A colleague told me afterwards that a new Korean place has apparently opened on the second floor of the Amara Hotel near Thanying and Santaro; maybe that will be a new contender, although I'm not getting my hopes up.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Dashi-shio Ramen from Miharu

Dashi-shio Ramen

We came down to the Gallery Hotel tonight to try to hunt down some yakitori joint that I had read about the other day, only to find out that they were full at 9 PM (!). Depressed and looking for a consolation prize, we wandered outside and hit up Miharu, a place we had not been to in a while. Some mild changes were afoot, including operating hours now running until 10 PM (they used to run only until 9 PM in the past), as well as something that I didn't think I had noticed on the menu on previous visits: a dashi-shio ramen. It was still full of Miharu's great quality noodles as well as a tasty broth, but I just wasn't in the mood for ramen tonight for some reason. Oh well. We'll have to try to hit up that yakitori place some other time.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Lorong 5 Toa Payoh Hawker Centre

Bak Chor Mee

A taxi driver told me a few months ago that Lorong 5 Toa Payoh Hawker Centre had some of the best selections around the island for claypot rice, bak chor mee, and fishball noodle. We stopped on by there tonight to see if there were any truth to his claim. There certainly were a number of cabs parked out front.

The stall with the longest lines was Song Kee Fishball Noodle (#1-354M), so we went ahead and got that first. The dry mee pok version seemed to be the popular choice. I liked how they had two different types of fishballs, one of which was coarser in texture and a bit tastier (or at least, relievingly different). But while the overall dish was spicy and oily, the mee pok was overdone to the point where it was mushy and thus still brought down the entire dish in the end. Maybe the other noodle options would be better.

Claypot RiceThe claypot rice available from stall #1-330M looked decent, but they needed us to wait 20 minutes. So in the meantime, I also grabbed a bowl of bak chor mee from their neighbor at #1-328M. This was quite different with a dark sweet sauce that just didn't appeal to me. The claypot rice came shortly after that. This didn't quite do anything for me either. I didn't taste bad, but the only thing that really sparked my interest was the crispy scorched stuff on the bottom, and even then, it was a bit hard to scrape off.

Hanging Fish SkeletonsI'm pretty sure that I won't be making any huge effort to come back here when there are others that I like better. I think the only thing interesting that I saw were these fish skeletons hanging from some lady's stall, but I was so focused on the skeletons that I didn't even look at what she was actually selling.

US Beef Kalbi at Pepper Lunch

US Beef Kalbi Set from Pepper Lunch

Here's Pepper Lunch's new kalbi dish featuring US beef, which they say is in celebration of their one year anniversary in Singapore. Now while this wasn't top quality beef at these prices (I did run into a couple tough stringy pieces), there was enough fat in these cuts to make this plate darned tasty (all the salt and pepper they dumped on this thing paired up quite well with the meat and rice too). I hope they keep this on their menu.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Ah Yat Seafood Restaurant

Lobster Sashimi

I wasn't expecting much from this place (Turf City Main Grandstand #03-01, 6883-2112). It seemed like just another one of those big Chinese seafood places (packed into an odd location too) that would probably just blend in with the rest of the landscape. Moreover, they were running some 50% off deal that suggested to me that they were trying to pull people in with prices rather focusing on the food itself. And yet at the end of the meal, I felt somewhat satisfied with it all. Maybe it was because I set my expectations too low, but either way, there were some interesting dishes that we came across.

Bamboo ClamThe first of these was something called a "bamboo clam." At a quick glance, I thought it was simply some clam extracted from its shell and steamed in a longitudinally halved bamboo stalk. But upon further inspection, I noticed the bivalve structure and realized that this was actually the shape of the clam itself (well that's new!). Anyway, the clam itself was tender and fresh, and I generally liked it, even if they overloaded it with too much garlic.

Peculiarly, next up was a single oyster on ice, complete with Tabasco, which was not something I'd expect out of a Chinese place (well, they didn't give any horseradish nor cocktail sauce). It was a huge one - perhaps five or six inches in diameter, which my brain instantly started flagging in my head as something that could not be any good if it were so big. Still, I went ahead and slurped it down. And while it lacked any edge in its taste, it was still clean and fresh with a smoother consistency than I was expecting. OK, this meal wasn't that bad so far.

The shellfish marathon didn't stop there. A big Australian lobster came next, whose tail was presented in raw sashimi slices on ice. You had the option of eating it as such (and yes, there was soy sauce and wasabi for us...was this really a Chinese place??), or you could shabu shabu it in a big claypot full of clear broth on the side using the metal strainers provided with each place setting. I tried both. The former was refreshing, if a bit tasteless (like fugu), although the firm texture of the lobster meat was something that I rather liked. The shabu shabu option turned out delicately too, even if the broth seemed artifically savory to the point where I assumed that they just loaded that thing up with a ton of MSG.

Anyway, that was just the tail...the rest of the lobster (head, legs, and claws) was taken back to the kitchen afterwards to be stir fried in a typical Chinese garlic and corn starch style. Normally I'm not a big fan of lobster either, but this one in particular tasted like saffron for some reason, with firm yet tasty meat that was easily extracted from the legs. I probably appreciated this dish the most out of them all. And no, it wasn't all about seafood here either. The Peking duck, which they served with egg wrappers but without shredded scallions, turned out so surprisingly crispy that we probably cleared that plate faster than the rest of the bunch (and yes, they took the remainder of the duck back to the kitchen to be stir fried into another dish later).

So anyway, in the end, this all turned out better than I was expecting. Would I return though? Probably not on my own accord. The 50% off deal appeared to be a bit of a gimmick, seeing that the pre-discount charge for the lobster was a whopping S$400 (US$235). I assume that they just inflated the prices up front so that the 50% discount could be applied afterwards, thus creating the illusion of saving money. (Can anyone confirm the going rate for a lobster these days? This was a big one...I don't know the weight but it served eight of us.) Still, I did actually enjoy that meal enough that I wouldn't mind if someone twisted my arm to come back here. Perhaps that's where that 50% off proved to have an (intentional or unintentional) sense of brilliance: there was so much of a draw and resulting turnover here that it kept the shellfish really fresh in the end.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Ju Shin Jung Korean Charcoal BBQ

Woosul getting ready for the grill

When I peered into this place (27 West Coast Highway #01-18, 6464-0872) from the outside, its big, brightly lit presence with scissors, a range of kimchi, and plastic jugs of cold water on each table (some of which you sit on the floor) instantly reminded me of Korea. Things continued to look promising, as they had green onion salad listed as a side on the menu, as well as nurungji, which I believe was supposed to be that scorched rice thing that I was trying to hunt down. They even had cool little disc things that looked like chalky mints, but were actually dehydrated and shrunken towels that expanded once you poured water on them.

We went with our usual favorites, kalbi and tongue, or in this case, galbisal and woosul, respectively. The tongue came first, and unfortunately struck the nerve that to me makes or breaks the thing very easily: it was sliced too thickly. This one in particular became rather rubbery, which didn't make things any better. And no, there wasn't much taste on its own, thus necessitating the dip into that lemon-juice and salt concoction.

The kalbi came next, and while it was tender, it simply was too lean and thus had very little taste to it. I had to dip it away in salt and pair it with a raw garlic slice (dragon breath alert) in order to get any bang out of it, and even then it was more of a salty garlicky taste rather than the natural taste of the meat (I wish they had given me some sesame oil to dip into at least). Hmm...while it was still very edible, it just wasn't quite what I was hoping for. (Interestingly, the namesake charcoal grills are inset into each table, but the waitress hovers over you to cook everything for you, which disappointed me too.)

And of course, there were the sides, half of which were a bit too sweet for me. Worse, they ran out of the green onion salad tonight, and this place's version of nurungji turned out to be nothing more than a bland rice porridge, with not a burn mark on the rice to be found. I never thought I would say this, but I actually liked Crystal Jade's Korean place better. Who'd have known?

Well, in retrospect, I realized that this place offered a better grade of kalbi that was only S$3 (US$1.70) more, presumably (and hopefully) with more fat in it for extra taste (a bit akin to getting the better quality beef at Aburiya). If I do come back here, I will definitely have to get that instead, and will have to find something else besides the tongue in hopes that maybe my mildly disappointing meal tonight was just my own fault for ordering the wrong items. I've also gotta remember to try to get here before 10 PM: even though they are open until 11 PM, we got a few evil stares from the staff tonight when we popped in at 9:50 PM, clearly because they were ready to go home early until we arrived and messed up their plans.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The "Big" Koobideh from Banoo

The Big Koobideh

Banoo is doing a larger sized koobideh now if you ask for it. It's still a tad thinner than the full-fledged deal, but it's good enough for now. Today's rice was a tad drier than I would have hoped too, but they're also giving a fatter cut of butter to go into it.

We also tried the maast o khiar and the mirza ghasemi. The former was a garlic yogurt dip while the latter was a warm eggplant and garlic-based starter that was a special for today. They were both fine, but my main draw here is still the koobideh. I wonder if that new Persian place at Clarke Quay is open yet or not.

Cha Cha Cha: A Shootout With El Patio

Cheese Enchiladas

Cha Cha Cha (32 Lorong Mambong, 6462-1650), I was told, is the better of the two Mexican places that sit right next to each other in Holland Village. Seeing that I was a bit bummed with its neighbor El Patio, we came to Cha Cha Cha for lunch today to see if it really were any better. The signs were encouraging at first when a fresh basket of chips and salsa arrived at the table even before ordering. Sure, it wasn't a very big basket, but the salsa's freshness and tastiness promised good food ahead. Score one point for Cha Cha Cha.

Jalapeno RellenosWe started with an interesting twist (or perhaps the origin?) of the American jalapeno popper: the jalapeno rellenos, which like chile relleno, were dipped in an egg batter (instead of bread crumbs) before deep-frying. Now, these didn't have any sauce covering it up in the end like chile relleno usually does, but that would have taken it too far away from the jalapeno poppers that they were probably effectively trying to present anyway. In the end, this was a respectable twist on it all; the score was now two points in favor of Cha Cha Cha over El Patio.

Then came the main courses: the cheese enchiladas and the beef soft tacos. A big sigh of relief came over me when the plates came and showed how these guys didn't do any of that lame sour cream drizzling all over the enchiladas (yay!). An evil grin also emerged on my face when I saw all the oil oozing out of the cheese and onto the plate. But this wasn't a home run either: instead of an enchilada sauce on top of the cheese, these guys put a scoop of chili con carne on top. The dish overall was still better than El Patio, and hence a full point should be awarded to Cha Cha Cha as a result, but the chili on the enchiladas warrants a half point penalty. The running score at that point? Cha Cha Cha had a two and a half point lead.

Finally came the beef soft tacos. Interestingly, they presented these unassembled, complete with a little red plastic tortilla keeper on the side as well as a glob of sour cream, guacamole, and salsa...kinda like what one does with fajitas. And as a result, they didn't do any of that lame sour cream drizzling all over it either. But the tortillas were way too big for tacos (again, it was more appropriate for big chunks of fajita meat, and was probably the same tortilla used for the enchiladas). And I prefer my tacos to be more of the simpler grilled-meat and onions variety, which to me is much tastier than this one. Well, let's give a half point here.

So the winner is - as expected - Cha Cha Cha, with a three point lead over its next door neighbors. If this really were some sort of Mexican-food-in-Singapore tournament, I suppose that these guys would advance to the next round to go up against the likes of Chico's & Charlie's or even Cafe Iguana. I'm not sure which would fare the best out of these at this point. Chico's & Charlies was guilty of that sour cream drizzling on top too (and it looks like their parents at Harry's have renamed the place after themselves recently). Even Cafe Iguana, whose tacos appropriately used smaller tortillas, was guilty of some serving me some horrendously stale chips a couple years ago. Well, I've already come to terms with that fact that I'm not going to get anything like I had back home while I'm out here, but at least I've filtered down the list to find at least some that are half-bearable.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Aglio Olio, The Singapore's [sic] Version of Pasta

Mushroom Olio - Spicy

With an ongoing discussion about the merits of localization lately, I kinda wanted to push this concept a little more by coming out to this place (China Square Center #01-40, 6327-3622), where they're definitely upfront - if not proud - about their localization: the tagline here is "The Singapore's Version of Pasta," complete with its grammatical imperfections and all. What makes the food local? They throw sliced local chili padi peppers into every dish, and even give you a four point scale between mild and extra spicy to choose from (Beppu Menkan comes to mind here).

To test this place out, we grabbed the namesake aglio olio, or at least, in a mushroom variety. When asked about how spicy the ratings were, the waiter told us that the two-chili rating, or "normal," was "within local tolerance," and that if it weren't spicy enough, one could always add Tabasco (a common practice for locals with Italian food here). We opted for the three-chili "spicy." We also asked for a recommendation on a second dish, and were told that the "bacon cream base" was popular, which we requested to be "normal" in spiciness.

Bacon Cream Base - NormalThe latter dish turned out better than I thought it would, with a rich creamy base indeed, and a surprisingly clean degree of kick that I didn't actually mind that much, and in fact admittedly rather enjoyed (I never would have wanted to put a bunch of chili padi on a creamy white sauce-based pasta on my own initiative). But the mushroom olio disappointed. While it was indeed spicier at a three-chili rating, there wasn't much of that garlic-browned-in-oil taste that commands the name aglio e olio. And in this case, I really didn't like the fresh chili peppers that they used - I would have wanted dried chili pepper flakes scorched in oil for that extra aroma instead.

Oh well. So closes another episode in the interests of exploring localization. I did kinda like the cream-based pasta, but I'll definitely pass on the aglio olio next time (if I were to ever come back, that is). At least it was pretty cheap at only S$9.90 (US$5.80) per dish.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

"Saliva Chicken" at Mapo Doufu Restaurant

Some might call it saliva chicken, but these guys call it Marinated Chicken in Sichuan Style

After another late night in the office (and being so busy that I forgot to eat dinner in the process, mind you), my stomach started thinking about that "saliva chicken" from Mapo Doufu Restaurant that we tried to get last night but got distracted. So this time we made sure to head straight here and order away. In the process, we also picked up some kind of chilled Sichuan noodles as well as some other kind of spicy cold noodle.

Sichuan cold noodlesThe Sichuan noodles surprised me - in a good way. While they were actually better described as warm rather than chillled, they had a spicy peanuty taste that reminded me a bit of dan dan mian (and I mean the peanuty variety, not the plain one) as well as some noodles that I once had off the streets of Shanghai.

Spicy cold jelly noodles or something like thatFor the other bowl of noodles, I was expecting them to be more like the rice-based (or is it potato?) noodles at Hometown. And while the seasonings tasted somewhat similar, the noodles were more like strips of Jell-O, if there were such a thing. The English translation on the menu said "jelly noodles" or something...I thought it was just a bad translation until I realized that it really was kinda jelly-like. Well, at least the seasonings were good.

And finally came the "saliva chicken," which I ended up liking the the best (OK - I should really stop calling it that - this place called it the Marinated Chicken in Sichuan Style, and yes, it did make me salivate). It was loaded up with all my favorite seasonings: cilantro, scallions, red chili oil, sesame seeds, etc. Yum. The chicken was tender, but the sauce was definitely the key to it. In fact, I liked the sauce so much that after I finished all the chicken, I grabbed a bowl of white rice and doused the remaining oil all over the rice just to have a vehicle with which to eat the sauce. It went down in a jiffy.

Any gripes? Yeah, one big one: the chicken came with bones attached, which slowed down my ability to enjoy this thing. And worse, in typical Chinese style, the bones were hacked up to the point where little annoying bits of bone were all over the place, thus creating a few speedbumps in the abovementioned rice inhalation procedure. If they only created a boneless version like they have at Chuan. Oh well. Chuan still beats this place overall (especially given some of the shaky things I had here last time), so it probably won't be often that I'll come back here to put up with the bones in this dish again. The only problem is that Chuan is not open until 2 AM like these guys are.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Restaurant El Sheikh, Pahang Street

Shish Kebab

This was a bit of a random find. After a late night at the office, we were actually on our way to go try some of that "saliva chicken", knowing that they were open until 2 AM. Yet on our way there, we stumbled across a nearby place (18 Pahang Street, 6296-9116) with Arabic music playing and people smoking hookahs outside. Whoa - another Lebanese place! (Lebanese-Turkish to be precise) And they were open until 2 AM too. OK, screw that other place...we're checking this one out instead.

I grabbed the usual hummos and shish kebab, both of which turned out better than I had expected. The hummos came in generous portions, and the shish kebab came complete with marks of flame broiling and half-raw-half-scorched onions too, all seasoned to the right degree. It wasn't all perfect though: the pita bread could have been fresher, and the stubby sticky red-colored rice seemed eerily reminiscient of that oddly-named "Spanish rice" that one usually got with "Mexican" food back in your elementary school cafeteria. The service was also a bit kooky.

Still, it was better than that Alaa El Din place. Whether or not I like it better than Al Hamra will demand a few more repeat visits to be sure, but this place is off to a good start. We'll have to come here for lunch one of these days. Note to self: they also had a place two doors down selling John Smith beer, albeit in a can.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

50% off the "New Menu" At Lawry's

English Cut

Lawry's is running a promotion this month, proudly boasting of 50% off anything on their "new menu," as long as you also order a prime rib too. I wasn't exactly going to turn down any deal at Lawry's, so we went over there tonight.

Oven Baked Rack of LambThe so-called "new menu" featured things like a Pastry Beef Tenderloin, Steam Baked Boneless Chicken Breast, and Pan Seared Salmon Filet. We went for the Oven Baked Rack of Lamb, which unfortunately I didn't like at all. Sure, it was tender and all, but the sweet honey coating and breadcrumbs on this thing was a huge turnoff for me (it almost seemed like cereal prawns...but on lamb chops). It's a good thing that the prime rib was required as part of the package then, as it still proved tasty as ever (I went for the thinner English cut tonight).

When I got the check in the end, I realized why this was actually such a good deal for Lawry's. Sure, it sounded like a huge discount at 50% off, but in the end, that only saved us about 15-20% off the total bill (after factoring in the prime rib, drinks, service charges, etc.). And yet Lawry's pulled us in for the kill. Well, it was worth it (the prime rib, anyway), but the price tags obviously don't warrant eating here all the time.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Dum Biryani from Gayatri

Dum Biryani from Gayatri

We came to Gayatri (122 Race Course Road, 6291-1011, with other locations at Robinson Centre and Hotel Meridien) to try to get a real dum biryani tonight. This time, it came packed into one of those metal bowls, whereupon the waiter inverted it in order to dump the stuff on a banana leaf (is this the real thing then?). Aside from that though, it didn't really seem that different to me. Sure, the rice was a little more moist and maybe had a touch more spices, but not by that much. There was a huge chunk of mutton shoved in there, but it was so big that it kind of lost its appeal after a while. I mean, it wasn't bad, and it certainly was filling, but I kinda liked the free raita and eggplant veggies better (gotta love those free refills scooped from those metal hand-carry cylinder things). Maybe its my fault for getting the mutton version. A sign outside claimed fame to a good chicken dum biryani instead.

Well, it definitely was cheap, with most menu items priced in single digit figures. And the service was super prompt (even without that wireless paging system on each table). I don't mind coming back to Gayatri, but the dum biryani didn't seem like anything mindblowing just yet (and the vindaloo was disappointingly mild, although I guess this isn't exactly the right place to get a blazing hot English curry). I should ask my co-worker where his favorite dum biryani place is so as to get the best example for me to try.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Fifth Season, Race Course Road

Tibetan Momos

I had a random conversation the other night with some Indians who had proudly boasted that Indian Chinese food was better than Chinese food itself. All the same, I'd also heard of mainland Chinese folks who had gone to India and screamed bloody murder upon seeing their culture's dishes being morphed into something unrecognizable. With something so controversial (not to mention an interesting discussion that ensued recently about localization), I knew that I had to come here to see for myself. Tonight, I made my way down to Fifth Season in Little India (28 Race Course Road, 6293-4842), a rather small yet decently-decorated place carrying the tagline: "A Dedicated Indian Chinese Cuisine."

Reading the first page of the menu was a bit educational too, as it explained how a big Chinese population developed in the Tangra section of Calcutta, and had localized some of their "bland Cantonese sauces" for the local Bengalis. Then a second phase started when Tibetans migrated to India and found jobs as Chinese cooks. The last words of the narrative were exactly what I wanted to see: "Just order and explore...Your quest for [the] best Chinese cuisine ends here." I had already planned to do the first part, but the verdict on the second part was yet to come.

ThukpaI started with a couple things that were apparently more Tibetan than Chinese: the momos and the thukpa. The former was actually a set of dumplings that were quite tender and tasty, and yet were paired with a hot sauce that was far from the usual Chinese garlicky stuff...in a good way. I gobbled those up pretty quickly. The thukpa soup noodles were interesting too as they technically weren't even on the menu, and yet the staff was happy to make some for me, with a warning that it was "spicy." When I got this bowl, it turned out not spicy at all, but the taste was very clean and savory, and in fact reminded me a bit of Burmese food. OK those worked for me. What's next?

The dishes then moved to the Chinese side of the spectrum, starting with the "Chilly Chicken" (and that's chili - as in peppers - rather than chilly - as in cold). They gave an option of a dry or gravy version. I really wanted to push this food to see how far it could go, so I intentionally ordered what sounded less appetizing to me: the gravy version. Fortunately, this turned out better than I thought it would. The dark brown colored gravy wasn't too bad and was still decently spicy and savory enough to be pretty tasty. But it wasn't anything that I would want to order again, as it actually reminded me a bit of American Chinese food. I guess I was hoping to see what Chinese food would taste like with a heavy dose of Indian spices (or something like that), but this tasted more American than anything.

White Gravy Chow MeinI was still a bit hungry, so I grabbed a couple more items, such as a chicken sweet corn soup, and a white gravy chow mein. They didn't sound like anything interesting enough that I would order on my own, but my co-worker from Calcutta told me that those are things that he ordered all the time back home (I asked him to recommend dishes that "Indians consider to be Chinese food, not what Chinese people consider to be Chinese food"). The corn soup was light, and I didn't mind it at all, but the corn-starchy egg-drop-laden stuff did remind me again of some Chinese food that I could get back in the US (nor did it seem very localized to India from what I could see). And the chow mein in the end was definitely different. The noodles that sat underneath this clear gooey topping were hardly even scorched by the pan (i.e., there was no chow in the mein!). This was my least favorite, and now I can see why I had heard about mainland Chinese screaming about this stuff.

In the end, I liked the more Tibetan-inclined dishes than Chinese. The "Chinese" dishes really seemed frighteningly like American Chinese food (which I guess makes sense to some degree if they were both Cantonese in origin), especially with the way that they loaded up common veggies across several of the dishes (American Chinese food oftentimes has senseless amounts of sliced carrots across the dishes, more so for the sake of giving the dish some color and mass than anything else). In fact, they also listed "American Chop Suey" as well as "Chinese Chop Suey" on the menu here (and no, I don't know what the difference is). Still, I found these Indian Chinese dishes to be a step up from those American atrocities like Panda Express and Mr. Chau's...at least these guys took a little more care in preparing the ingredients than those crudely cut veggie chunks at those fast-food American places. Well, if I come back, it will be more for the Tibetan stuff, and it won't be anytime soon. Maybe I'll go next door to their sister restaurant Mustard, which specializes in Bengali food.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Founder Rou Gu Cha Cafeteria

Bak Kut Teh

This is one of my favorite bak kut teh places on the entire island (347 Balestier Road, 6352-6192), mainly because they have an option for you to get the entire rib rather than it being chopped up into smaller pieces. Admittedly, it doesn't seem to make that much of a difference in taste (although today's did seem a bit fattier), but this guy makes the peppery variety of the broth that I like.

I was a bit surprised that he didn't give any garlic cloves though, and I wish that the salted vegetables were a touch more sour rather than having that mild tinge of sweetness that they exhibited tonight. In that sense, I suppose that Ya Hua has an edge up on this place, although I don't think that Ya Hua gives the full-rib option.

Anyway, like most bak kut teh places, these guys are open late, making this place great for post-drinking episodes. I don't know why they have the word "cafeteria" in the name, but these guys appear to be rather famous, with pictures of celebrities from HK/Taiwan plastered on the walls. The drawback of course is that lines sometimes form here too. Sure, I suppose it may be a bit overrated in that sense, but it's not unfounded either. I'm still happy to come here.

A Random Plate of Dum Biryani

Dum Biryani

One of my Indian co-workers says that his favorite dish in the world is dum biryani. I happened to see some guy selling it today at some random hawker stall, so I figured that I would give it a shot to see what it was all about. He gave me a choice of chicken or mutton; I opted for the mutton.

Maybe I got my hopes set too high, but it turned out to be nothing more than just a simple plate of rice and curry, together with some pickled vegetables on the side and a crispy papadum. Actually, I did rather enjoy the taste: this guy made his nice and spicy, and it all paired up very well (and the portions were very generous). It was quite satisfying in the end. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that it is my favorite dish in the world, but I'm sure that there are so many variations of this thing too that there are probably some great ones out there that will hopefully knock me off my feet.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Fishermen's Wharf, New Bridge Road

Snow Fish n Chips

A recent comment about Fishermen's Wharf (27 New Bridge Road, 6532-6468) must have planted a thought in my head to come here again. I also made such a big fuss of this place last time that I wonder if I had just gotten carried away with myself with all that exuberance; was it really as good as I had made it out to be back then? (It was over a year ago that I was last here.) I came here tonight to find out.

As with before, this place offered a wide selection of fish at varying prices, starting with the S$6.50 (US$3.80) Cream Dory Filet (I presume that they simply meant John Dory?) and going up to the most expensive S$15.60 (US$9.20) North Atlantic Cod Loin (as opposed to the North Atlantic Cod Filet, which went for a cheaper S$12.50 or US$7.35). Seeing that I seemed to feel so strongly about the John Dory last time, I wanted to see what this place could really be capable of if I went to the other end of the spectrum and picked the most expensive item instead: the North Atlantic Cod Loin.

North Atlantic Cod Loin Fish n ChipsIt came out in three thick strips (I suppose that's why it's the "loin"?) rather than one big flat contiguous piece. It was piping hot and tasted fine, but not to the point where it was worth the nearly three times the price of the cheapest John Dory (plus the chips were a bit cold). Still, it was relieving to have some down-to-earth fish & chips without any lame frills like a salad on the side. This was just a straightforward bunch of fish & chips, complete with vinegar, a rich tartar sauce, a fat lemon wedge, and a big bottle of salt.

Actually, the portions were a bit small, and I was still hungry, so I figured that I'd try another one. This time, I asked for a recommendation, and the cashier suggested the Snow Fish for S$14.00 (US$8.25). What's a Snow Fish? (especially in warm Singapore, of all places) The menu said that it was some rare local specialty with snow-white flesh. Well, I decided to take her word for it and try it. As it turned out, I didn't care too much for this one, not only since the meat was strangely stringy, but more importantly because the fish didn't taste very fresh. It only dawned on me afterwards that today was Monday (I hit myself on the face as Mr. Bourdain's voice repeated itself through my head). Indeed, the cashier offered her recommendation so quickly that it seemed like she had practiced it in advance. Well, at least the chips were hotter this time.

So these two experiences weren't as great as last time, but it made sense; I should have simply gotten the high-volume moving (and cheapest) S$6.50 John Dory instead. I'll still come back without any doubt though. They had some fish that they apparently meuniere, which sounded interesting. They also offered some lunch special at S$9.50 (US$5.60) that comes with Saithe Loin (I think that's pollack), cole slaw and a soda. In the worst case, I know that I can fall back on the John Dory. In the end, I didn't quite get to verify if my effusive comments from last time for the John Dory were really valid, but I know that I'll get plenty of chances again in the future.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Archipelago Brewery Company

Trader's AleI was just randomly walking down the street when I noticed this place (79 Circular Road) all nicely done up in wood decor and with twin fermenting tanks. I asked myself, "Whoa...is this a new microbrewery in Singapore?" I stopped in to check it out.

According to the coasters in this place, Archipelago was established in 1931 and was the first commercial brewery in Singapore before being sold off. But this place had only been open for three weeks, so I'm assuming that they revived the name more for marketing purposes than actually carrying over any of the beer. (A search online shows that this is actually run by APB, the behemoth behind Tiger Beer...kinda like Anheuser-Busch creating a "microbrew." They also apparently tried to use some Asian spices in the beer, such as lemongrass and tamarind.)

They had three beers on tap: the Trader's Ale, Straits Pale, and Traveller's Wheat. The first one turned out to be rather hoppy, which is a personal dislike of mine, so I moved on to the Straits Pale, which was fortunately maltier and smooth. (I don't like wheat beers, so I didn't even bother with the third.) Even though I liked the Straits Pale the best, I didn't like it so much that I would rush to come back here. The taste still seemed to stop short of what I'd prefer to have. That being the case, I'd much rather head over to Brewerkz instead (and no, they didn't appear to be serving food here).

Hot Stones, Clarke Quay

Ribeye

I kinda knew that this whole thing was a bit of a gimmick, but I was feeling a bit carnivorous tonight, and I thought that I had remembered eating something similar a very long time ago that was decently enjoyable. So I stopped by this place tonight (Clarke Quay #01-06, 6333-4868, with another location at Boat Quay) with the intention of checking it out. The idea, of course, is that this flat slab of a rock is heated to a scorching hot temperature and brought to you so that you cook your steak in front of you with it. I ordered a ribeye, and in less than five minutes, the hot platter was brought to me with a bloody red ribeye on it sizzling away. I was getting my hopes up too; the aroma coming from the neighboring tables was whetting my appetite. I proceeded to flip the steak and cook away, a bit akin to Pepper Lunch.

Unfortunately looks (and smells) can be decieving. While the meat was very tender, I took just one bite of it and I knew that something was wrong. The meat simply had no taste whatsoever; it was almost as if the beef was not aged or something. This was particularly important to me, as I'm a guy who hates putting sauces on steaks, opting instead for the natural taste of the beef. This was seriously one of the most bland things I'd ever tasted.

In light of that, I reluctantly tried dipping into the sauces in an effort to save the meal and get some more flavor out of it (maybe that's why the meat was bland, since it's common around here to cover steaks with sauces anyway). But none of the sauces agreed with me (sadly, the best one I could find out of them all was a wasabi-based cream). I tried salt too, but that didn't quite do the trick. I even tried using pieces that had more fat in them and scorching the fat as best I could to get more flavor out of it. Alas, none of these worked. Maybe I should have asked for some butter or something.

Oh well. I was warned ahead of time that this place was no good, but I guess I had to see for myself. And indeed, I did (even the potato salad on the side was bland). The only thing that I could see going for it was how quickly the food came (it's not like they needed to cook anything in the kitchen), but this advantage was quickly offset by the guy at the register who forgot to process my credit card at the end of the meal. I waited around naively for about ten minutes before getting up and walking up to the register myself, after which the guy realized that he had forgotten about it.

Botak Jones, Ang Mo Kio Ave 5

Stuffed Jalapenos

This place, if the story I heard is correct, is run by the (bald, or botak in Malay) guy who started Jerry's BBQ in Singapore way back in the day (until it changed owners). I was never a huge fan of Jerry's (it simply didn't come close to real BBQ), so I never really wanted to make a huge effort to come here either. But we were in the neighborhood today, so we stopped by (608 Ang Mo Kio Ave. 5, 6755-1225 with another location wayyyy out in Tuas).

In stark contrast to the restaurant setting of Jerry's, this was in an open food area with plastic chairs (known as a "coffeeshop" around here...and no, that doesn't mean Starbucks). It was surrounded by your typical selection of local food vendors, like noodles and rice and such. This stall though, was plastered with claims of "Authentic American Food" and slogans like "Damn Good Food at a Damn Good Price." A chalkboard hung on the wall with some of their selections (they also had stapled photocopied menus on yellow paper) where you placed your order then grabbed a random table for them to serve (and charge) you at.

We started today with the jalapeno poppers (officially called Stuffed Jalapenos here). I was a bit bummed upon my first bite to find that the cheese inside hadn't even melted all the way through yet, and that these in fact were still a bit cold in the center (there was also a little bit of water dripping out, presumably since these things were kept frozen until they needed to fry them). Despite that, the taste was one of the better ones that I've had in Singapore, and was fortunately inspirationally spicy in the process.

The Botak Burger SetNext up was the Botak Burger. The first thing that struck me was the shape of the patty, which was very thick but also very small in diameter, thus easily conjuring up thoughts of homemade burgers back home that always run into that exact same problem (i.e., the meat always shrinks into a big thick glob on the grill rather than the wide flat patties one gets in specialized establishments outside...cue Eddie Murphy's Raw here).

And indeed, it tasted like a homemade burger...the bun became a little soggy as the juice from the too-thick (and slightly lukewarm) patty leaked out onto it. While no one was going to complain about homemade burgers at a BBQ back home, people would much rather go out to eat a tastier (and flatter) grease bomb from a dedicated burger stand down the street instead. Similarly, this burger here wasn't any huge attraction for me. It tasted like a homemade burger, that's all.

Chili Dawg

Last but not least, we got the Chili Dawg, which came in a gargantuan-sized portion. The menu said they used their own "Whoopass Chili Con Carne" on the dog, but the chili here was boring to me. The sausage itself at least had a snappy casing, but the taste was also a bit of a yawner. And strangely enough, they put lettuce into this thing (in a chili dog??), and paired it with a jalapeno on the side. In the end, this thing simply lacked a greasy edge and was a far cry from Pink's.

Still, this place did beat my expectations, and admittedly I did like the coleslaw as well as the seasoning that they used on the fries (it seemed like paprika mixed with Lawry's Seasoned Salt or something). Then again, I set my expectations pretty low to begin with, seeing that I don't really like Jerry's BBQ. If I come back here, I'm definitely going to bypass the burger and the chili dog. I wouldn't mind trying that bacon-wrapped hot dog they had on their menu, or maybe even just a simple steak (I also noticed them bringing out malt vinegar bottles for patrons who ordered fish & chips). Hopefully they will get the jalapeno poppers right next time too.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Sop Buntut is Really Growing on Me

Sop Buntut

Here's another bowl of sop buntut from Bintan today. I'm really liking this stuff. Today's bowl was tongue-scorchingly hot (temperature-wise) but super savory and light that went well with the rice and crackers. The twists of lime added an extra dimension, as did the curiously green but spicy and oily (in a good way) sambal sauce, which had no fishy taste in it at all either (yay!).

The meat itself was of course tender, and I even tried to see if I could extract some bone marrow out of these, but unfortunately without much luck. Anyway, thumbs up on this stuff for me. I'm really liking it.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The New Harbour Cafe & Bar, Tanjong Pagar

Fish & Chips

This place (114 Tanjong Pagar Road, 6226-2657) had been mentioned to me a number of times in the past. And even though I walked by this place frequently, I never stopped to eat here, as my gut kept telling me that the food would be totally localized and not worth eating. But after hearing another mention of this place the other day, I figured that I'd give it a shot to see what all the fuss was about.

They had some lunch specials for S$11.90 (US$7.00), and today's fortunately happened to be the fish & chips that was once a topic of discussion in the past, so I went for that. The set started with a rather pleasant surprise: seafood gumbo. I didn't even realize that was the soup of the day until I took a first stir and up came a slice of okra. I asked myself, "Hey...is this gumbo??" I took a taste, and indeed it was, and a decent one at that (although my expecations were set very low). There was no rice, but hey, this was off to a better start than I had expected.

Then came the fish and chips itself. And here is where things took a turn for the worse. I had asked the waitress for malt vinegar, and in return, she threw me this puzzled look that pretty much said, "Why the heck would you want to put vinegar on your fish & chips??" It was almost as if she had never heard that request from anyone in her entire life. All right, well I didn't want to jump to any conclusions yet, seeing that I hadn't even tried the fish itself yet.

I had to do one thing first though: clear that annoying little salad thing out of the way (it's a pet peeve of mine, seeing that it is a bit pointless to put some leaves on a plate of fish & chips). But when I took a bite of the salad, I realized that they had put salt on it (and a lot too...it was really salty!). Whoa. Who puts salt on salads? (They put white pepper instead of black pepper on it too, which was of course also a bit odd.) My fears of localization were indeed coalescing now. This brought back memories of some French fries that I once had in Taiwan that had salt and pepper sprinkled on it by default. French fries of course need salt, but pepper?? We had asked why these folks in Taiwan had put pepper on the fries, and they said something to the effect of, "Isn't all Western food supposed to be seasoned with salt and pepper? Isn't that why there are salt and pepper shakers on the table?"

Finally I made my way to the fish itself, which interestingly wasn't battered, but rather was covered with bread crumbs first before hitting the deep fat fryer. OK, that actually wasn't too bad, and featured a very delicate fish inside that I admittedly enjoyed. And it was tongue-scorchingly hot from the fryer too, which was good, although the fries were not nearly as hot...clearly a sign of being deep-fried much earlier and sitting around for a while. They also only provided one stingy little packet of tartar sauce that barely lasted me one piece of fish, let alone two. And nope...no vinegar.

So what's the verdict? The fish itself was much better than I had expected, but all in all, my fears about localization weren't too far off-base. The first item on the menu, a "black pepper chicken chop," only seemed to further reinforce that perception. To be fair though, I did see some interesting things available, such as a number of types of escargot as well as burgers on the separate barfood menu that might be worth a try. And the food was served very quickly here, thus making it convenient for a quick weekday lunch. But would I recommend anyone to make an explicit effort to come all the way here? Based on today's experience alone, probably not. Maybe my opinion will change after I come back to try some of that other stuff, but I'm not getting my hopes up.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Lian He Ben Ji Claypot Rice

Claypot Rice

Located at stall #01-203 of the temporary Chinatown hawker center out on Outram Road, these guys are allegedly quite famous. What do they specialize in? Claypot rice, which is kinda like a cross between a paella and Pepper Lunch, but in a local way. It's basically rice with a few pieces of chicken, Chinese sausage, and salted fish placed in this claypot and put on a fire. Add some dark/sweet soy sauce and oil to taste, and mix it all up.

Unfortunately, I wasn't a huge fan. I could appreciate the smoky taste of the rice, but other than that, it was a bit tasteless unless I bit into a piece of sausage, which I found too sweet for my liking. There was some chicken in there too, but the hassle of gnawing on the bones and spitting them out was a turn off for me. And while I do like Chinese salted fish with rice, I grew tired of it by the time I reached the bottom of the bowl.

Actually, there was one part of this dish that I admittedly did enjoy a lot: the crispy burnt rice that got stuck on to the sides of the bowl, just like at Pepper Lunch. Be careful though; I actually scraped so hard to get those pieces off that I broke off one of the ceramic handles of the pot while holding it and ended up cutting my finger in the process. Boo hoo.

New Seoul Korean Restaurant, Peck Seah Street

Mul Neng Myeon

All that talk about Korean food looks like it subliminally planted a thought in my head to go get more today, as I found myself gravitating toward another Korean place in the area: the simply-named New Seoul Korean Restaurant (72 Peck Seah Street, 6324-3009). I picked up a bowl of the mul neng myeon, which is kinda like a Korean version of cold hiyashi ramen, complete with a side of mustard too. This one came with thin ice chips but very fresh ingredients as well as a full selection of kimchi. As is customary in Korea, they also provided a pair of scissors to cut the thin brown noodles into more manageable pieces. This was pretty filling after all the kimchi and the like, despite not having any meat in the entire process. It worked for me.