Saturday, September 30, 2006

Baguette, The Viet Inspired Deli

Saigon Baguette

A couple of comments were posted recently about a new banh mi shop in Singapore , so we came here (Raffles City Shopping Centre #B1-55, 6336-0057) tonight to check it out. I was quite impressed with the menu for this little stall at first, as they not only listed banh mi (called the "Saigon Baguette" here), but also some other old favorites of mine like bun thit nuong cold rice noodles, soda chanh, and goi cuon spring rolls. We got excited and basically ordered all of them.

First things first. The namesake "Saigon Baguette" used a wider and softer kind of bread, allegedly to help prevent from the usually harder crusted baguette from scraping the roof of one's mouth. I was a bit apprehensive at first about deviating from that, but fortunately the bread turned out commendably light and tasty (and yes, it did successfully address the mouth-scraping problem, although I don't think this new shape qualifies as a baguette anymore). The fillings generally turned out fine too, although the sandwich fell short in one huge way: it was slathered in mayonnaise, whose taste ended up dominating the entire sandwich and thus covering up the critical aroma from the pate and such that make banh mi so uniquely Vietnamese. The taste was still good on its own right, but I wanted banh mi really for the sake of that unique pate/cilantro/jalapeno edge, which the mayo covered up here.

The other items seemed to have echoed this "close but no cigar" approach. The meat for the bun thit nuong was grilled on a cool little contraption in front of us (which got me excited), but then it lacked things like the chopped-up egg rolls (and was also oddly served in an American Chinese takeout box, which made it a bit hard to eat the very short but thick noodles that they threw into it). Moreover, the rice paper spring rolls were not as freshly and tightly wrapped as they could have been, while the soda chanh had too much syrup and not enough fresh lime juice, thus creating a rather artificial taste.

Until I try that sandwich without the mayonnaise, this place won't be the kicka$$ source of banh mi that I was hoping to find in Singapore. But it is an encouraging start at least, and I've just got to remember how to approach these guys if I come back again: ask for no mayo on the sandwich, lower my expectations on the spring rolls, and pass on the bun and soda chanh.

Economic Bee Hoon for Breakfast

Economic Bee Hoon for Breakfast

It's common in these parts to eat noodles for breakfast, so I grabbed some basic bee hoon rice noodles from an Economic Rice stall today. There were some other dishes available to go along with it, but I just went for some simple cabbage to bring the total up to a whopping S$1 (US$0.60). Sure, it was a bit lukewarm, but I still cleared the plate easily, and the price was certainly nothing to complain about.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Sunset Grill & Pub at the Singapore Flying Club

Buffalo Wings Level #3 - sorry for the crappy photo hereThis place (140-B Picadilly, Seletar Air Base, East Camp, 6482-0244) was mentioned to me a while back, so it was good that we got to come here tonight, even if I was never a huge fan of the food at Jerry's. I'm glad to say though that this place significantly exceeded my expectations.

The buffalo wings, while discouragingly breaded and being some of the largest I'd ever seen with way too much meat on the bone (and looking like a horrible blob in the photo on the right - sorry...the lighting was bad outside), fortunately utilized the correct hot-sauce-and-butter-based combination that gave their "Level #3" (of a ten-scale spiciness) an excitingly lip-swelling kick that I rather enjoyed (a level 2.5 would be ideal for me if they had it). The chili, despite their typo on the menu calling it "chili corn carne" (to be sure, no, there was no corn in there either), was much better than I was expecting, as I happily ate the Texan ground beef and bean concoction. And the "nacho chips" (sounds a bit redundant there, eh?) were fortunately crispy, unlike some horrendously stale ones that I've had at places like Cafe Iguana.

Not all was perfect (the homemade salsa had a sweet tinge to it, and oddly, tartar sauce was provided instead of blue cheese dressing for the buffalo wings), but by and large, this place was much better than I was expecting. It's quite a bit out of the way though, so maybe it's time to give Jerry's a second chance. The last time I ate Jerry's was years and years ago (and in takeout form too), so maybe I just got a bad read last time.

The Line, Shangri-La Singapore

Shellfish on ice

I normally don't like hotel buffets. Technically this (22 Orange Grove Road, 6213-4275) wasn't quite your traditional hotel buffet, but rather a hotel restaurant with lots of cooking stations (like the StraitsKitchen or even Mezza9 at the Hyatt Singapore). Either way, I had my doubts at first, seeing that it was all-you-can-eat. But the few things that I picked from certain cooking stations surpassed my expectations. What was the first station that caught my eye? The shellfish bar, with a selection of crab, oysters, and clams sitting on a bed of ice, and complemented with lemon wedges, cocktail sauce, and Tabasco. I second-guessed myself with Kitchen Confidential ringing in my head for a moment, but these pieces turned out very fresh, probably because this place had constant turnover rather than the Sunday brunches that Bourdain went off on (then again, this shellfish bar did seem to be the least popular of the bunch today).

Carving tuna steaksOther items that I enjoyed included the carving station, which, instead of the usual roast beef or ham, was for huge peppered tuna steaks instead, with an option of getting the smaller seared version too (my choice). The lamb chops also surprised me with a salty but characterically tasty grease associated with such a beast. Yum. Rounding this out with some of my other favorites like grilled vegetables and a couple soups, I emerged impressed with this place. Granted, I didn't try any of the other stations (and there were a lot, like a Chinese noodle bar, a pasta bar, a sushi bar, and of course the dessert bar...and an Indian station too, complete with kebabs), which could have potentially been horrendous for all I know, but the few stations that I did select turned out much better than I would have hoped.

A catered fish dish with an some strange minty wasabi mashed pea stuff that was still oddly intriguingBTW, the Shangri-La is another venue that I'd like to throw onto my list of decent hotel catering, which I got to experience separately a few times in the past day or two. I was particularly impressed with some bacon that was some of the thinnest and crunchiest I'd ever had, only to realize afterwards that it was made from turkey (whoa - I never would have thought that!). And while my preference would still be the Fullerton or the Four Seasons, it was definitely far better than some of the other hotels around town.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Matthew Moran on SQ's International Culinary Panel

Seared sirloin with red wine butter, sauteed fine green beans and pont neuf potatoes

Our breakfast choices this morning ranged from an omelette to dim sum (the siew mai of which looked very similar to the economy class ones I got on the way out to LA) and all the way to the more extravagant "seared sirloin with red wine butter, sauteed fine green beans and pont neuf potatoes," the last of which was created by Matthew Moran of Aria Restaurant in Sydney. I've never eaten there, but steak in the morning sounded good to me. :) This was better than I expected. The meat quality, while not perfect, was tasty enough, especially with that red wine butter. The potatoes, green beans, and tomatoes all complemented the taste well too. This sure is a nice change from some of those omelettes on United that we keep getting in the morning.

One thing I noticed today too is that SQ offered an optional "Between Meals Menu" for this long haul flight if you got hungry. Normally airlines provide stuff like instant Cup O'Noodles or pre-made Saran-wrapped half-sandwiches or something for this purpose, but SQ actually offered things like rice porridge, basil pesto omelette, braised egg noodles, and spaghetti. Wow. I didn't eat any of those this time (grabbing just a simple banana from their fruit basket instead), but it was interesting to see them offering something so elaborate.

Note to self though: SQ's long-haul flights back to Singapore from both LAX and Newark depart at late evening times, which I'm not a big fan of. While it sounds nice on paper that you get in a full day in before getting on the plane, the problem is precisely that you're probably going to be tired as a result and want to sleep right after you get on the plane, which is not the best way to adjust time zones. Moreover, there are no shower facilities in the lounges at LAX nor Newark (and a surprisingly boring number of concessions vendors at both locations too), so you could run for literally up to something like 40 hours without a shower, depending on your timing (and surprisingly, they didn't automatically give out any toothbrushes here in Raffles Class, although I thought I remembered getting it in the cattle class package). I suppose that SQ times the flights this way in order to get people to connecting flights in Singapore in the morning, but since I never need to connect, I'll probably opt for other flights instead, unless I really need the extra time on the ground afforded by the non-stop flights here for whatever reason.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Beef Sukiyaki on SQ Book the Cook

Beef Sukiyaki

Fortunately my upgrade request went through on the return leg today, and of course, I took advantage of the opportunity to "book the cook." One of the selections from LAX was beef sukiyaki. Given my previously questionable experiences with Japanese food on airplanes, I wasn't expecting much. But yet another part of me kinda wanted to see if SQ could do any better, especially for something like sukiyaki; they couldn't possibly bring out a nabemono pot and raw egg in midair, could they?

They didn't. (Darn...deep down inside, I was hoping to be surprised.) It was still good though, being mildly sweet and tender like it should be, and it all went down very quickly. But lacking the egg dip (and dismissing stuff like the tofu for argument's sake), I couldn't help but think about how it effectively just became a bowl of gyu-don as a result, and that what could have been something as exquisite as lobster thermidor was subsituted with a bowl of Yoshinoya instead. BTW, the "standard issue" meal tonight, had I not booked the cook, was a duck breast stuffed with porcini mushrooms and wrapped in bacon, done by none other than Nancy Oakes (and with a spinach salad too, despite the E. Coli scare). I wonder if that were any sure sounded like it.

A bunch of appetizersOther than that, I don't know if there was anything else too notable aside from the fact that they didn't bring out satay as a starter (maybe that's only for flights leaving Singapore?). Instead, there were some small hors d'voeures like a "warm Thai style crab cake" as well as a Caesar salad with "roasted cajun spiced chicken," the latter of which turned out surprisingly spicy. The meal closed with some Haagen-Dazs served in porcelain bowls rather than the usual single-serving paper cartons with the little plastic scooper.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Feast From The East, West LA

A Small Chinese Chicken Salad

Why go to some place called Feast From The East and eat something called Chinese Chicken Salad when I'm just a few hours away from boarding my flight back to Asia? Because Chinese Chicken Salad is actually American rather than Chinese. And Feast From the East (1949 Westwood Blvd, 310-475-0400) is simply the one of the best at it. I used to come here a long time ago, and back then, they were just a tiny little hole in the wall with basically nowhere to sit. It looks like they have since expanded to have a full seating area, complete with silverware and food brought to your table. Wow...I guess they've been doing really well.

Anyway, what makes this one in particular so great is their ingredients: perfectly shredded chicken and generous heapings of almonds, sesame seeds, scallions, and deep fried wonton skin strips. Bring it all together with their mildly oily and sweet but killer sesame dressing, and all these random pieces suddenly hum together in harmony. Awesome.

They do have other things on the menu, but I've never tried any of it. To be honest, they don't sound like anything great, be it Vegetables & Black Bean Sauce, Teriyaki, or Spicy Thai Green Beans. Their Sesame Chicken Wings ("the best Asian fried chicken in town," so they claim) could be interesting, but I don't think I'd go out of my way to try it. For me, this place is good at the chicken salad, and that's my sole reason for coming here.

Cinnamon Graham Plane Snacks on UA

Cinnamon Graham Plane Snacks

The flight attendant on this quick UA hop back down to LA mentioned on the overhead system that she had a choice of cheese snacks or cinnamon graham snacks today. Without being specific about what kind of "snacks" these were, I got excited thinking that perhaps SkyWest, the regional operator for United Express here, was able to break away from the United mold and finally serving something other than those Plane Snacks, perhaps in the form of those little self-contained packages of cheese and crackers that we got as a kid (with those little red plastic sticks, remember?) or something. So you can imagine my dismay when she came by and handed out none other than...more Plane Snacks! Hmph.

She didn't even offer me a choice of flavors, actually. She just threw me a bag of the Cinnamon Graham version, which would have been my second choice since I prefer salty things over sweet ones. Fortunately, I was totally wrong about this. After opening this up, I was delighted with the light cinnamon taste, and quickly cleared this bag in no time. I liked it so much that I can pretty safely say now that it is my favorite flavor of the three that I've had so far. I finally realized at the end too why this was the case: this was loaded with cinnamon sugar. I'm a sucker for cinnamon sugar, especially on cookies.

Smoke from wildfires in California

On a side note, check out all the smoke rising from wildfires in California here (those are not clouds...that is all smoke...and look at how it's blocking out the sunlight underneath). This was on approach to LAX from the north today (cue: Bad Religion).

Race Street Seafood Kitchen, San Jose

Fish and Chowder Combo

This was another one of those fondly remembered seafood market-cum-restaurant places from my childhood (247 Race Street, 408-287-6280), although the word "restaurant" may be pushing it a bit in this instance. You're not served here; it's a counter where you carry your tray off to your seat. In contrast to other places like The Fish Market, this place is clearly more market than restaurant. But they do have a mesquite grill out front where lots of appetizing aromatic smoke visibly arises from the grill from quite a distance away.

And as good as the mesquite grill smelled, I opted for something nostalgic instead: a very simple fish & chowder combination, with cole slaw instead of fries. The clam chowder here (New England style this time) had won a number of awards, and I remembered it being pretty good. But for some reason, it just didn't do it for me today; while there were still lots of clams present, it simply didn't possess any huge edge when it came to richness or otherwise (thankfully some black pepper saved it somewhat). Maybe it had been so long that my mind blew it up into something bigger than it was, thus only setting myself up for a letdown. Well, it was by no means bad, but I guess I thought I remembered it being even better.

The fish was also something that came across a bit milder than I was expecting, although this was certainly still very fresh and crispy. I had to sprinkle some salt on it to give it some more taste though (and fortunately the malt vinegar and tartar sauce helped). The coleslaw was very fresh, although again, on the milder side of the flavor spectrum. Well, despite the mild disappointment, this was definitely still very fresh, and still the type of place that really sings to me. Maybe I'll try some of those mesquite grilled items next time.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Su's Mongolian Bar B Q, Santa Clara

The Merry Go Round BBQ

A half-decent form of Mongolian BBQ arrived in Singapore recently, but it still wasn't exactly the same as what I was used to, so it was fitting to come down to Su's (1111 El Camino Real, 408-985-2958) tonight for a greasy no-frills meal. Just as I would expect such a place to be, this place had thinly sliced meat, a circular grill for cooks to move around on, and a general feel of griminess (greasy tongs and countertops), with little or no regard for ambience (i.e., my kind of place). To further resonate with my heart, they offered sesame seeds and white pepper to sprinkle on after the cooks finished your bowl, as well as bottles of sesame oil (leaving a slimy residue on your fingers afterwards of course). Nice.

My bowlActually, I couldn't quite get my bowls to taste perfectly tonight, as I somehow kept getting too much oil at the bottom and not enough bite, despite my adjustments to the seasonings. I got a bit sick after a while too, although I suppose that's also my own fault for pigging out on three bowls (hey - in my defense, we skipped lunch today as we were too busy with meetings). Well, it was still quite satisfying going down; I nearly inhaled each of these bowls within a few minutes.

A Fortune CookieWhen we left, I saw something that I hadn't seen in a million years: the American fortune cookie. The owners here appeared to be from mainland China, but this place was screaming with American Chinese items, such as a bunch of useless egg rolls and fried rice on the side if you wanted them. I stayed far away from those so as to not to fill by valuable belly space with unnecessary food items that could be better occupied by the Mongolian BBQ itself.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors

Mint Chocolate Chip

Baskin-Robbins, better known for their "31 Flavors," is a franchise of ice cream stores from California that I haven't been to in a long time. In fact, it's been so long that I think that this is the first time that I've seen their new logo. Some things haven't changed though: my favorite of the 31 flavors has always been the Mint Chocolate Chip...and in a cup instead of a cone (I think it is just more of that mental conditioning that I got as a kid). The ice cream is refreshing, using only very thin pieces of chocolate in it instead of anything too brawny. They still have the pink spoon too.

We've got Ben & Jerry's out in Singapore now, but not 31 Flavors. Then again, there is always the S$1 (US$0.60) ice cream carts out on the street, which are surely much cheaper than the US$2.50 single scoops here.

Main St. Bagels from Northern California

A sesame bagel toasted with cream cheese, lox, and onions

This is a just a basic sesame bagel with lox, cream cheese, and onions from a local bagel shop that has a number of locations across Northern California. Sure, NorCal isn't exactly the capital of bagel-land that New York City is, but this sure beats any of that fake bagel stuff I got back in Singapore.

A Berry Lime Sublime Jamba Juice on the floorOn a side note, this is what happens when you put a tall Jamba Juice into your cheapo rental car's ultra-low non-supporting cup holders and make a turn into the bagel shop. Crap - I didn't even get to take one sip! It looks like Jamba Juice is serving matcha tea though.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Tommy Toy's Cuisine Chinoise, SF

The most elaborate table setting I've ever seen for Chinese food...and one of the only photos I could really post given the dearth of lighting in this place

I was a bit apprehensive about going to a restaurant that billed itself as "Haute Cuisine Chinoise," as that suggested a number of things that I usually make quite an effort to steer clear of: fusion and poshness. But I didn't have much of a choice in the matter tonight. Fortunately, this place (655 Montgomery Street, 415-397-4888) had received rave reviews from all over for being "classically elegant Chinese, yet contemporarily French in style and presentation." I suppose it was fitting then that it was situated in San Francisco's Financial District just outside of Chinatown. This was a very ornate fine dining establishment, complete with tuxedo-clad Cantonese(?)-speaking waiters pushing wheeled candlelit carts (it was very dim in there - sorry for the crappy photos as a result). Jackets are not required, but I felt underdressed without one tonight.

Carving the duckI went ahead and grabbed their Signature Dinner, which is a prix fixe six-course set that blares out at you near the start of the menu. It started with an Imperial Minced Squab, which is a very Chinese thing, served in a little lettuce cup and eaten by hand (they provided several sets of hot towels to wipe your hands with). Then the menu switched gears to a French seafood bisque, topped with a puff pastry. Both were fairly straightforward with nothing to object to by any means. The lobster then arrived, decorated with a number of raw scallion stalks, mushrooms, and almonds, all while sitting on a bed of vermicelli (kinda like Sin Huat's Crab Bee Hoon in Singapore). I didn't mind this cornucopia of things sitting on my plate and I actually ate it rather diligently, which means quite a bit coming from a guy who doesn't really like lobster.

Peking DuckThe Peking Duck that came next puzzled me though. This was served with the meat attached, thus becoming a far cry from the classic crispy skin one normally associates with this stuff. I couldn't tell if this was because it was a Cantonese place unsuccessfully trying to serve a Northern Chinese dish, or if it was because this was to be looked at as more of a French duck. Well, it was very tender and tasty on its own right, but calling it Peking Duck just seemed inappropriate (i.e., with all that meat attached, I ended up using a knife and fork to eat it instead of my hands). The meal closed up with some beef medallions on fried rice and some peach mousse.

In the end, this pretty much turned out to be as I had expected: generally decent quality food (and fortunately without suffering much of an identity crisis), but with an ambience that I personally feel is unnecessary and really can be done without (especially at a whopping price of US$67 for the Signature Dinner). What was even more interesting to me though was that nearly everyone in the restaurant that I could see was ordering the Signature Dinner, thus creating a huge amount of scale that these guys were undoubtedly leveraging into fat profits (apparently some of the a la carte dishes like the paper-wrapped fish were supposed to be pretty darned good though).

They even had a wall of fame upon entry, featuring photos of everyone from actors Bob De Niro and Nicholas Cage to politicians Mikhail Gorbachev and even Singapore's own Goh Chok Tong. It's funny though...if I really wanted to go to a celebrity-studded establishment for food, my heart would overwhelmingly choose Pink's instead, where the food is not only a fraction of the cost, but more importantly, it is food that really gets me fired up with a big fat happy smile on my face. The food at Tommy Toy's just didn't invoke that kind of a reaction with me.

Plane Cheesy Snacks on United Express

Plane Cheesy snacks

Here's just a variation of those Plane Snacks that I got on United Express last time. These were more like Cheez-Its, and hence without the dragon breath. Much better.

The Original Pantry Cafe, LA

Bacon and eggs from the Pantry

It doesn't really get more down to basics than this. This place (877 S. Figueroa St at 9th, 213-972-9279) is an institution in downtown LA, having been around for over 80 years and owned by former mayor Dick Riordan itself. Don't come here for fine dining; this is a rough and tough diner, complete with a counter, which is where I sat today. I had heard that it was once staffed with ex-convicts too, thus giving the place a bit of an attitude.

Grillin breakfast at the Pantry

So for breakfast today, I just got a simple plate of bacon and eggs. Not unexpectedly, the bacon was crisp and thin, while everything else went together well too. It's fun watching these guys go at it with these huge mounds of potatoes on the grill, as well as these flat metal slab things that they used to keep the bacon (or steak or ham or whatever you're ordering) nice and flat without curling up during cooking. They drizzled oil over the bread, flipped eggs, and made pancakes practically with their eyes closed. Pair this with some coffee or fresh OJ and you've got a great start to the day.

And breakfast is only part of the menu of course (OK, technically I was at their Bakery extension next door)...they're open 24 hours, and things like the hamburger steak are awesome grease bombs. There is such a ludicrous amount of food included between the huge loaves of bread, heapings of cole slaw, and sides of raw veggies like radishes that there is no way one can finish all of this and still be hungry. I think I remembered being able to eat several times off of one meal's leftovers.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Zankou Chicken, West LA

1/4 dark meat plate from Zankou Chicken

I'm normally not a huge fan of that light and healthy fast-food rotisserie chicken that is so common around LA (think: Koo Koo Roo), but this is one huge exception. Actually, I don't know if this is really considered "healthy" or not, but it is rotisserie, and it is darned f*ckin' good. My last time at their shop in Glendale was ages ago, and it looks like they have now expanded to West LA (1716 S. Sepulveda Blvd just south of Santa Monica Blvd, 310-444-0550). This is allegedly Armenian chicken, although I think they started in Lebanon before going over to Hollywood. Indeed, they also had those rotating schwarma/kebab spits here (did anyone watch Gordon Ramsay's F-Word a few weeks ago when they went to the kebab factory?).

Grilling schwarmaAnyway, the reason why this place kicks so much a$$ is because of the chicken itself. It is moist, tender, greasy, and salty all at the same time, and just completely knocks me off my feet. And to supercharge this even more, they provide this garlic sauce to go with it, bringing it to another plane altogether. The sauce is perhaps the most memorable (they call it "legendary"), but the sheer fact that this doesn't even require the sauce to be outstanding is a testament to how amazing this really is. I don't even remember them providing the hummous or the pickles last time...maybe that's because my memory of the chicken just made everything else pale in comparison. Rock on.

Banh Mi Saigon, Westminster, CA

Banh Mi Dac Biet

For all the fuss I kick up about trying to find a good sandwich, one of the best sandwiches in the world must be the Vietnamese concoction known as banh mi. Since I was passing by Little Saigon on my way up to LA, I veered off the 405 today to try to find a sandwich shop at random. After passing by so many pho shops that I lost count, I finally pulled into one shopping center to try my luck at finding a dedicated sandwich shop. And what do you blazing letters right in front of me there was a shop called Banh Mi Saigon (I think it was at 8940 Westminster Avenue?). No doubt there were plenty of other places to buy sandwiches in this vast area if I wanted to (I heard that Lee's Sandwiches is a big competing franchise). The cool thing was that it was almost like a Vietnamese Subway, with a wide selection of meat and fillings at your disposal, including round bread in case you prefer that over the usual baguette.

I opted for something that didn't seem to be on the menu boards, but one that I knew would be available: the dac biet, or the "special," which means that nearly everything is in it. I don't even know what mystery meat was in here (I think some BBQ'd pork and such?), but the key to making these sandwiches work was the cilantro, fresh jalapeno pepper slices, pickled carrots, and pate, all on a fresh crunchy and mildly sweet baguette (think: French colonial influence). Awesome. This stuff seriously rocks, and it was all only US$1.75. Sure, the portions aren't much, but I heard that there are places that you can buy two and get a third for free. And this was a lot better than a sandwich that I once got at PhoChine back at Wisma Atria. Too bad that there aren't more Vietnamese immigrating to Singapore...I would be all over something like this if someone would just do it right.

The Crab Cooker of Newport Beach, CA

Shrimp on a Skewer Spaced with Bacon

My dad used to bring me here (2200 Newport Blvd, 949-673-0100) when I was a kid, and it had been one of my faves since then, not only because of the food, but also because of its charming character. In contrast to the cookie-cutter fakeness of a chain restaurant, this place is full of little unique twists not commonly seen, be it the plastic breadstick containers on each table with the round cutout hole on top for easy dispensing, the big shark hanging from ceiling (and no, it's not like that place in Bangkok), all the way down to the glass candy dispenser and free postcards that you pass by on your way out of the restaurant. Like The Fish Market, this place sells some fresh fish on the side, but it is more down-to-earth, with everything from the restaurant side served on paper plates and with plastic utensils (something about that plastic iced tea cup with the lemon and coffee stirrer appeals to me too). Even the taglines are very playful gramatically, such as "Eat Lots A Fish."

World's Best Clam Chowder

Unfortunately, the steamed clams were out of season today (available between "October threw April," apparently). But I grabbed their "world's best" clam chowder plus the shrimp on a skewer spaced with bacon (it was tough resisting temptation to order nearly everything on the menu...who can resist Dungeness crab and Alaskan king crab legs??). I had forgotten that their clam chowder was more Manhattan style than New England (my preference), so it whether or not it was really the "world's best" was debatable, but it still went down well, with surprisingly big strips of clam sitting in there. I also got a bit excited when my shrimp skewers arrived, as the plate had two very simple yet requisite items on it that I hadn't seen in a long time: drawn butter and a wedge of lemon, which never really appear at seafood places back in Asia. The shrimp and Romano potatoes were done a little longer than I'd like (and weren't as rich as they could have been), but I still happily wolfed this all down. The coleslaw was also one of the best that I've had: simple, fresh, and clean-tasting. Yum.

Inside the Crab Cooker - with a big shark hanging from the ceilingThese guys have another location over in neighboring Tustin, but that's about it. I suppose that asking them to open a spot in Singapore would be out of the question. Heck, I can't even go to their spots in NorCal...but I guess we have The Fish Market or The Swan Oyster Depot up there. And while those places are also some of my faves, I still like the casual and fun ambience here.

Filiberto's, University Avenue, SD

Taco and Tostada Combination Plate

Another night in the Gaslamp Quarter meant another late night of post-drinking cravings for some greasy-a$$ Mexican food to satiate the belly. This time I made the effort to go out to El Cajon Boulevard, where I thought there was a Roberto's as well as Alberto's. You can imagine my disappointment when I arrived to find them both closed (it was only 2 AM - I thought that one of the hallmarks of the X-berto's genre was being open 24 hours??). Fortunately, around the corner (3446 University Ave, 619-640-0385) was one I hadn't heard of before: Filiberto's, which apparently has a number of locations across the San Diego area and even Arizona (they also proudly displayed the fact that they were open 24 hours). In true X-berto's fashion, this place was a drive-through only, and offered all sorts of cheap, fast grub. I went for my usual tostada and taco combination just to get the beans, cheese, and greasy hard shell taste that I was seeking.

Making BurritosUnfortunately, this only delivered on the first two fronts: the beans and cheese. The hard shell was not greasy at all, and actually all became a bit tough and to some degree bland. The hot sauce rescued this a bit, but it still wasn't enough. At least I had some horchata to wash this down, but this was a bit of a buzzkill in the end, especially given the extra effort I had to make in hunting this place down.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Gaslamp Strip Club, San Diego

Gaslamp New York Strip Steak

This was interesting. Billed as "A Steak Place," these guys (340 Fifth Avenue, 619-231-3140) have created an place whereby your backyard BBQ (or tailgate party) meets Scores, but in a Planet Hollywood theme restaurant kind of way. The idea is that you grill your own steak at designated grilling stations, all the while under the themed decor of a strip club, complete with dim mood lighting, racy names on the menu like "XXX-tras" (sides) and "Naughty Treats" (dessert), and even a "Champagne Room" in the back for large groups. (The staff is all fully clothed, albeit in short skirts.) I suppose that it is designed to appeal to the testosterone-fueled "I cook meat on fire" caveman instinct...but it's all done elegantly and tastefully enough that even those without a Y chromosome will find this place enjoyable.

They've got a number of cuts of beef here (plus the alternatives of skewered kebabs, one chicken dish, and one "sushi grade ahi tuna" complete with wasabi and soy sauce...I presume that it is "sushi grade" so as to encourage one to only to sear it on the grill rather than cooking it all the way though). I went for their signature and "full of flavor" Gaslamp New York Strip (hence, the "strip club," get it?), which was "midwestern corn fed beef marinated in olive oil balsamic vinegar and herbs" and aged 21 days. Kinda like at Morton's, these carcasses arrive in Saran Wrap, but unlike Morton's, you go to the huge professional grills yourself and throw it on the fire, where an entire station awaits with tongs, a wide selection of dry seasonings, and helpful tips like suggested cooking times, "grill your garlic bread last," and "start your steaks in the center of the grill to get nice grill marks, and then move toward the outside to finish cooking."

The grilling station at Gaslamp Strip Club

I'd still prefer a professional chef's experience and time here over the novelty of cooking it myself (and don't sit too close to the gets darned hot). I was quite surprised though at how nicely my steak turned out, with deep grill marks and meat that was "full of flavor" indeed, as it was of high enough quality that I didn't even leave any scraps on my plate. They also provided a "saucy sauce" that was surprisingly spicy (better than A.1.). But I didn't really use it too much, seeing that the meat was tasty enough on its own (and no, I didn't use any of the dry seasonings at the grill either).

Unfortunately, I think that was the only thing that I liked here. The shrimp cocktail we got as a starter did not have enough horseradish in the sauce, thus being yawningly mild. We opted for the optional blue cheese crumbles to go with the salad, but it just didn't pair right with the mildly sweet dressing already tossed into the salad. And the grilled mushrooms were not even in the same league as the orgasmically buttery and garlicky mushrooms at Morton's. Well, at least I didn't mind their homebrewed pale ale.

Upon leaving, I realized that these guys were also part of the Cohn Restaurant Group. Geez - that makes four times this week, and not by choice! I guess that these Cohn guys are all over the city...either that, or our corporate planner was getting some special deal with them or something. Well, at least it's good to see that they do have some variety in their offerings, even if they do come across as a bit commercialized.

Alambres Mexican Grill, San Diego

Tacos Carne Asada

One of my faves for late-night post-drinking Mexican grease bombs is Roberto's. But we were in the Gaslamp Quarter tonight, and conveniently enough, there was a Mexican place just around the corner, so we came here instead (756 Fifth Avenue, 619-233-2838). Ambience-wise, it was a notch up from Roberto's, but fortunately, this did not compromise the food quality. I got the Tacos Carne Asada, and true to form, it came with tasty grilled steak bits on top of several small tortillas without much else on top. I gobbled this stuff up, and the great selection of four different types of salsa (with fresh thin chips to boot) made this all the better. It wasn't the greasy sludge of Roberto's, but that was fine to me, as this was pretty much what my belly was seeking anyway. Mmm...

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Few More Dishes From The Prado, SD

Some cherry dessert - I can't remember the name

It wasn't my intention to go back to the Prado so soon. But this dinner was arranged by a contact who by sheer coincidence chose this place, without realizing that I had separately dined here just a couple nights before. I guess it does go to show how this place has a nice enough ambience that makes it popularly suitable for business meals. This time, I ordered a few different things, starting with the "tortilla soup with grilled chicken cilantro & cotija cheese." It was bean-based rather than what I believe are more common thin-broth ones, but it was spicy and satisfying.

Forest harvested wild mushroom risotto with a selection of seasonal mushrooms simmered with a traditional creamy arborio rice & white truffle oilNext came the "forest harvested wild mushroom risotto with a selection of seasonal mushrooms simmered with a traditional creamy arborio rice & white truffle oil." I wasn't as big of a fan of this, as it seemed a bit mushier (yet granier at the same time) than I'd like, although I think the mushiness (or creaminess, put more elegantly) is actually a key attribute of risotto (I don't eat enough risotto to really speak intelligently here). The scoop of what seemed to be whipped goat cheese or something on top was an interesting touch, but in the end, this was just too rich for me, and I didn't bother finishing it.

My dessert, some cherry tart-like thing, certainly looked pretty, but the taste was just very straightforward to me. I'm not complaining, and it definitely wasn't bad, but nothing really blew me away (aside from maybe the soup). So even after having come here a second time now, my take on this place is still the same: I can respect his talent and innovation, and it is a nice setting in a historical building and park, but I won't be yearning to come here (and I hope any future business meals will be at another venue, seeing that I've been here twice already).

Monday, September 18, 2006

Chef Deborah Scott's Island Prime Metro Steaks & Seafood

Okracoke Island Steamers: Manila Clams

One situation that I commonly find myself in at certain places is the urge to order all sorts of appetizers rather than going the "proper" way and getting a main course and the like. That was none the more true than here tonight at the Island Prime restaurant in San Diego (880 Harbor Island Drive, 619-298-6802), where I was presented with a number items like peel & eat shrimp as well as a warm spinach salad that sounded a lot more appealing to me than going for some grilled fish with mashed potatoes or something. In the end, I opted for a couple of my faves, the steamed clams and the wedge salad.

I was a bit surprised with the clams at first as they were of the larger variety (I prefer smaller ones), and were generally held brothless rather than sitting a butter, garlic, and white wine-based broth that I am accustomed to. Moreover, the clams were covered in parsley, which is something that I am not a huge fan of. Despite this, I inhaled these little suckers pretty darned quickly, as they were still very tender and bursting with a natural clam flavor. Some little cup of what appeared to be oil and Old Bay (or was it Lawry's Seasoned Salt?) helped kill the parsley taste for me. Being paired with some very thin, buttery, yet crispy slices of bread was a great combination too, thus really helping to make sure that I cleared this plate in record time.

BLT Wedge SaladNext came the BLT Wedge Salad, which was interestingly grouped with other salads on the menu under the guise of "kelp beds." It too came with a slice of bread, but this time was covered in a spicy spread that I wasn't expecting. It was good though, especially with some tasty seeds encrusted on it that helped flavor things up just the right amount. The strip of bacon wasn't as crisp as I would have hoped, but it still was tasty (it is bacon after all), and was a non-conventional yet effective way of accompanying the huge head of lettuce covered in Maytag blue cheese (which I learned afterwards to mean that it is from Maytag Dairy Farms in Iowa, started by the grandsons of the eponymous home appliance maker). Actually, this head of lettuce was so darned big that I got full already after eating it (and to think that I briefly contemplated getting an order of Alaskan king crab legs earlier on).

Anyway, I had my fun with appetizers. As I was leaving, I realized that this place is run by the Cohn Restaurant Group, who was also behind the Prado that I ate at last night. Of course, the chef is completely different, and the selection of venue tonight was not only purely coincidental but also partially out of my control. (Then again, I'm the guy who ordered iceberg lettuce wedges two nights in a row too.) This is in a nice spot though, sitting on stilts in the water and with a view of the city just across San Diego Bay, as well as the North Island US Naval Air Station on Coronado, where it looked like the USS Nimitz was in port today.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Prado at Balboa Park, San Diego

Lettuce Wedges

The chef at this place, Jeff Thurston, has a rather well-decorated Californian past, including time spent with Wolfgang Puck, Hans Rockenwagner, and even time spent helping Gordon Bierch (an old microbrewery fave of mine from back home) set up their food menu. His focus here (1549 El Prado, 619-557-9441) is a bit complex as a result too, focusing on "Latin and Italian fusion featuring a menu created with the freshest ingredients of the Southern California region." Actually, the first item that I got, the rather simple baby iceberg lettuce wedges, wasn't exactly Latin nor Italian, but it was refreshing, even if I wished that the blue cheese had a little more stank to it to give it a little more of an edge (they didn't come by with any cracked black pepper either - it was supposed to have it in it according to the menu, but I didn't see or taste any).

Adobo-Braised Pork Osso BucoThen came the adobo-braised osso buco, which was pork-based rather than veal, and had a surprising amount of meat attached but also a much longer and skinnier bone than I would have hoped...almost soup tulang-like rather than being short and stubby for easy marrow extraction. I could barely pull any out of this one, and I wasn't exactly going to bring it up to my face with my hands to try to suck it out at such a nice place (they didn't provide a marrow spoon either). Well, at least the meat itself was very tender, and uniquely spiced up adobo-style. Maybe I'd been too adjusted to non-American portions, but I could hardly finish it all, let alone all the veggies that he paired this up with (sweet potato plantain mash, sauteed white corn, tomato and zucchini, tomatillo-cilantro sauce). I finished off the meal with a "pear, forestberry & mango sorbet trio served in an almond-poppyseed florentine with a raspberry coulis." Strangely, the "trio" was only one big scoop, but it worked for me, especially with the buttery but crispy almond shell.

I am not a huge fan of fusion, so this isn't exactly a place that I would come screaming back to. But in general the food was impressive, and in many ways representative of the multi-cultural mix of "Californian" cuisine, if there were such a thing. Now it's just time to look for something that I am much more passionate about: more downscale and local food.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Crispy Carnitas at Old Town in San Diego

Old Town Famous Carnitas - Shredded Crispy for One

I remembered to order the crispy version of the shredded carnitas at the Old Town Mexican Cafe and Cantina in San Diego this time (2489 San Diego Avenue, 619-297-4330). Unfortunately, they still didn't seem as crispy as I remembered them (I think I prefer La Bamba up in Mountain View). Still, they were greasy and tasty, and you gotta love how scorchingly hot the chips and tortillas come out (even if the latter was surprisingly thick). And despite all the alleged awards this place has gotten, I've just gotta get out of this touristy area of San Diego. Well, this was close to the hotel, and it was more out of convenience after a long flight than anything. There's sure to be plenty of other food to come this week.

Shumai in SQ Exec Econ Class

Stir-fried noodles with roast duck and vegetables served with steamed pork siew mai

I chose the "stir-fried noodles with roast duck and vegetables served with steamed pork siew mai" as my meal before landing in LA. There's not much to say here, actually. It tasted like it looked (i.e., nothing special nor horrendous), although the siew mai were surprisingly hot and moist, almost as if they came straight from a bamboo steamer. The yogurt with mint leaf and papaya thing provided was fine too, but I didn't really eat anything else.

On a side note though, these wider Executive Economy seats on SQ's A340's weren't too bad in the end, with a surprising amount of legroom and laptop power to boot. But it still wasn't great for sleeping on these long hauls, as the back didn't recline much, and I still bumped into my neighbors' arms and such, especially with the lovely middle seat that I got on this full flight. And clearly, it's still "regular" economy class food.

Tung Lok Group on SQ Executive Economy Class

Wok-fried beef in black pepper sauce with garlic, vegetables, dry shrimp, and steamed rice

SQ is still running its International Culinary Panel (even in economy class), and today's featured chef was Sam Leong from Singapore's Tung Lok Group of restaurants. His exclusive creation today was "wok-fried beef in black pepper sauce with garlic, vegetables, dry shrimp, and steamed rice." I've never been a huge fan of the Tung Lok group, so this was a little better than I was expecting, with a fair amount of flavor coming from both the beef and veggies. That was also my gripe though, as the flavors were a bit too strong; a touch too much black pepper on the beef, and a touch too much of the shrimp in the veggies. Then again, in a pressurized cabin at 35,000 feet in the air, I guess I'd rather have a taste that's too strong rather than one that's too bland.

Nachos on SQ Executive Economy Class?

Lay's and Birch & Waite Eastern Sundried Tomato Dip

Someone was telling me the other day that SQ used to serve nachos as a snack (wow!) in their Executive Economy class on the non-stop A340 routes over to the States, but then they cancelled it and just gave peanuts instead. I wasn't sure what was right or not, but right after we took off today, the flight attendants started handing out bags of Lay's chips. More notably, these came with little cups of Birch & Waite "superior quality" Eastern Sundried Tomato Dip from Australia, which was a thick sour-cream-based dip that those paper thin Lay's chips could not stand up to.

They should have given us Ruffles or something..."Ruffles have ridges," right? (Tortilla chips might have worked too.) It wasn't nachos, but it sure beats a plain old bag of peanuts. Incidentally, they handed out bags of peanuts not long after too.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Projectshop Cafe, Paragon

Roast Beef Sandwich

Projectshop is actually a clothing store at Paragon (#03-41, 6735-6765) that strangely runs a cafe/restaurant on the side, complete with an extended seating area out in the common hallway near the escalators. I never would have wanted to eat at such a place, but one of my colleagues mentioned to me how this place wasn't too bad. In the interests of some tight time tonight too, we stopped here to see how good it could be as we were already in the building anyway.

I ordered a roast beef sandwich, which I figured would be pretty straightforward. What I got instead though was almost like Salisbury steak, complete with gravy and onions (but with strips of roast beef), sitting only halfway on top of a piece of bread, while the rest of it spilled over onto the plate. The second piece of bread was strangely placed with the mayo spread facing outwards, while the dry side touched the gravy on the inside. Clearly this wasn't the sandwich I had in mind, and I had to resort to using a knife and fork to eat this instead. The taste wasn't anything spectacular, and the meat was a little tougher than I'd like. I didn't even finish it all.

Well, to their credit, I did get some crushed mint and lime soda that was pretty good and unique. I can imagine if their desserts might be good too. But I was foolish to come here to order food. I'm going to have to talk to my colleague next week to see what it was that he ordered here that was so good, because clearly this thing wasn't it.

Outback Steakhouse, Singapore

Bread and Aussie Cheese Fries

It's rather interesting to see that Outback Steakhouse, an American chain restaurant serving faux-Australian food (it's really American food), runs a shop in Singapore (Millenia Walk #01-114, 6837-3242), where there are so many Australian expats around. Then again, it looks like they are so bold as to actually have a couple shops in Sydney too ( the locals take it seriously down there?). And no, it wasn't my intention to eat at two American chain restaurants in such a short period of time (both with variations of the deep-fried onion too, mind you); this venue just came out of convenience today before I scrambled off to a nearby meeting. Actually, I'd never even eaten this stuff back in the States, so I figured I'd try to see why there are always lines forming at these places back home.

Steak on a SaladAs expected, this place was screaming American chain restaurant all over, from the wood panel decor to the plasticky names of the dishes on the menu (cue: Office Space). And the food was pretty much as I expected, if not worse. Some steak-on-a-salad lunch special that I got was just a disturbingly salty and almost too-perfectly-uniform (i.e., seeming a bit pre-fabricated?) steak, sitting strangely upon a bed of lettuce that made it hard to cut the steak with a knife and fork. The Walkabout Soup consisted of crudely cut onions in a rather tasteless cheese base, while the bleu cheese dressing that came with the salad seemed like it came from a bottle. And while the cheese fries were probably the best of the bunch today with thin and crispy bacon bits, it was pretty stingy on the cheese.

OK, enough writing - this really is boring and something I'd prefer to forget if I could. Ugh...I should have known better than to come to a chain restaurant.