Saturday, March 31, 2007

California Pizza Kitchen, Singapore

Chipotle Chicken Pizza

I remember way back in college when CPK was the hottest thing around in SoCal, when people would flock to what at that time was a very different and innovative kind of pizza, be it the Peking Duck or Thai Chicken varieties. After enough times though, I grew a bit tired of it, and they had expanded to so many locations that I never really went back anymore. So while this location here in Singapore (The Forum #01-42, 6836-0110) has been around for ages, this was the last of places I thought I'd ever find myself at. Yet we stopped by today, partly out of convenience, partly out of at least half-decent memories of that Peking Duck pizza, and partly out of lack of alternatives (the Marmalade Pantry across the street was fully packed).

I immediately regretted it. All my worst fears about chain restaurants materialized, with the Chipotle Chicken pizza being just a monstrosity of unnecessary toppings (corn and beans??) sitting on crust that was too thick for my liking (and no, it was hardly the "HOT & SPICY" item that the menu claimed it to be). The Chinese Chicken Salad, I recalled, was also quite an addictive thing back in the day, but this was just way too sweet (was that Peking Duck sauce on it?). While my memory has faded, I was hoping that it would at least be somewhat like Feast from the East. It was not. What the heck did I ever see in this thing?

Chinese Chicken SaladWell, it has been so long that I really can't tell whether this was the result of any rapid commercialization of theirs or not. In all honesty, the food probably hasn't changed at all, and perhaps the only reason why I liked it back then was because I plain and simply didn't know better. So I guess while I may not be too happy about the years that keep getting added to my age, I can take comfort in the fact that it at least helps me to separate the wheat from the chaff. And after this rather unsatisfying meal today, I know that I won't need to come back.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Lagoon Leng Kee Beef Kway Teow, Singapore

Beef Kway Teow

There was a recommendation the other day to stop at this place (East Coast Lagoon Food Village, Stall 33) on the way back from the airport in Singapore. I wasn't quite sure which stall to look for, but when I saw the big "Beef Kway Teow" sign, I knew I had found it. Having eaten all of that pho over the past week or so though, the sweetness of this broth caught me by surprise, and not necessarily in a positive way. Fortunately, the mildly sour and grainy hot sauce saved this for me.

Now, I'm not exactly an expert in this dish, so admittedly I couldn't really tell the difference between this and other bowls. But the meat (and tripe) was impressively tender and of good quality, so I presume that that was one of the reasons why the Makansutra guys gave this place a full three chopstick rating. Due to the sweetness of the broth, I doubt that I'll be making any huge effort to come back to it, but I'm glad that I did try it (despite having eaten soup noodles for so many days now), so thanks for the recommendation. Keep 'em coming!

Pho Cong Ly, Ho Chi Minh City

Pho Bo Tai Nam

It was great to have gotten a tip to come to this shop, which was established by northerners ages ago to serve pho like they do in Hanoi, where it technically originated from. It was clear that the northern version took on much more of a purist approach, as was evident by the absence of any of those leaves that apparently southerners grew in abundance and used to localize pho to their palates. The only garnishes in this northern version were scallions, cilantro, and a bowl of raw onion slices on the side. I watched some of my neighbors squeeze hot sauce onto the onions, mix it up, and throw it all into the broth, so I followed suit.

After a squeeze of lime for good measure, this thing really lit up, with beef so tender that it practically melted in your mouth. The broth also spoke of a very pronounced beef flavor...almost like French beef bouillon, which wasn't what I was expecting, but I loved every single part of it. No, there weren't any of my favorite bean sprouts, but this was so good that it really didn't matter in the end. Nice one. That was a really unique and unforgettable bowl.

This place can be pretty hard to find though, especially since there aren't really any signs around. As best as I could make out, it was at 288 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia ("P8," whatever that means) in District 3, although it is tucked away into a back alley off the main street. I suppose that one way to locate it is to look for the Reetech showroom on the northern side Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, walk east until you come to the first alleyway, and then go north towards the back of the alley to where the huge crowds are, slurping away. Perhaps even more importantly, do note that they are only open from 5 AM to 10 AM (remember that pho is technically a breakfast dish), but if you've got a midday flight scheduled, then this wouldn't be a bad place to stop at on the way to the airport, luggage issues aside of course.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Lau De Truong Dinh (Broiled Goat Inn), Saigon

De Lau

I knew that we had arrived at a good place (105 Truong Dinh, 9304296) when each table was adorned with a minature grill for you to cook meat at. That was exactly what we got and more. These guys specialize in goat meat, sliced and marinated for you to grill away at your discretion. Once done to your satisfaction, dip it into some of that fermented tofu and chili sauce, roll it up with some veggies and rice paper, and eat away.

Actually, the rice paper part was optional, but I preferred it since the freshness of it all provided a nice counterpoint to the smoky goat meat. It tasted as good as it sounded. It was of course similar to Korean BBQ, but clearly Vietnamese instead. All of this got washed down well with some local beer, which apparently this food was designed to go with.

It then caught me by surprise when the grill was subsequently replaced by a clay pot full of a stew (similar to the lau from last night, and hence the name lau de). Various veggies and thin egg noodles got dunked into this thing for easy slurping, but what really got interesting was another ingredient that was brought out for dunking: pig brains. I'd never had brain before (get your mind out of the gutter, please), and never really thought to try it. But given what we had at here, I had to give it a shot. I was expecting it to be rather tasteless (or at least, taste in a bad way), but the brains were surprisingly rich and creamy; almost like a soft cheese. I don't think I got any smarter as a result of eating it, but it was much better than I thought it would be.

Well, the broth in the pot tasted pretty good after some more ingredient dunking, despite initially reminding me of instant powdered chicken noodle soup for some reason. It was a nice way to cleanse the palate. But the main draw for me was clearly the first half of the meal. Meat on a fire and beer are without a doubt a match made in heaven.

A Grilled Meat Sandwich Lady in Saigon

You could smell the aroma from upstairs

This is what makes Saigon so irresistable. This lady was sitting out on the street with loaves of bread and meat grilling on a fire, with an aroma that extended in all directions. Oh, how could one resist when presented with this, as she assembled the sandwiches on the spot with pickles and spices.

Banh MiSure, the meat was a little sweet for my taste (a bit bak kwa-like), but it contrasted so well with the bread, pickles and spices that I hardly noticed, wolfing the whole thing down in minutes. And all of this was only 5000 Dong (US$0.40). Rock on!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Eating with the Vietnamese Locals

Clockwise from upper right: Dieu Hong Lau, Okra, Dai Nam Bia, and Oc Buu

This is the kind of stuff that the tour guides don't tell you about. I hopped on the back of my local colleague's scooter (which is a story in and of itself if you've ever seen the weaving no-helmet carbon monoxide-laden traffic in Saigon) and headed out to what is known as bo ke, or basically sitting at a spot on the street near a very small river. The food taunters in this area were quite ballsy given that they actually stood out in the middle of the street trying to stop scooters from whizzing by to get them to come in and eat...and you thought those guys back at Singapore's Boat Quay were aggressive!

Anyway, we initially just came for dirt cheap beer (which they had in plastic bottles with screwtops so tight that they had to give nutcrackers to help you open them, BTW). But my colleague decided to order a bunch of local dishes, the primary of which was dieu hong lau, a stew of sorts featuring fish in a slightly sour and sweet broth. Grab some bun noodles, put it in your bowl together with some of the fish, veggies, and broth, and slurp away (dip in fish sauce as needed).

He also got us some oc buu, or river snails. Despite the French colonial influence in the country, this was definitely not the butter and garlic topped escargot that we've all come to love. This was steamed directly in the shell from what I could see, and seasoned only with some of that laksa leaf garnish on the side. Grab a toothpick, wiggle out the snail (it took some skill to get the inner piece of it out in one piece, BTW), dip it in a clear ginger-based sauce on the side, and eat it with the leaf. I'm not a fan of that leaf, so I skipped the last part, but it was still interesting to try this rather tasteless (but firm) creature.

We had a few other items like okra accompanied by a fermented tofu dip, but the value for me here was seeing the real local scene. A table next to us was very friendly and chatted us up as best they could too, and it was clear that everyone was having a good time.

Pho Hoa Pasteur, Saigon

Pho Tai Nam Sach

Unrelated to the big Pho Hoa chain from the US, this is another one of Saigon's famous pho shops (260C Pasteur, 829-7943). It's pretty cool to find a huge pile of leaves already sitting on your table here, not to mention other interesting items like bananas, some leaf-wrapped things, and even what looked like puff pastries and Chinese yio tiao.

This place had some of the clearest and simplest broth I'd tasted, and yet once I threw in all of the leaves and spices, this thing took on another character, again facilitating a very quick inhalation process. Interestingly, the bean sprouts that they provided were of the pre-blanched variety, which are apparently the default standard. While the raw version is perfectly acceptable, you usually have to make a special request for it.

It wasn't very much food though, so I tried unwrapping one of those leaf things on the side. I was expecting some kind of a rice cake inside but instead found some kind of meat-paste thing instead. It turned out to be quite tasty despite being at room temperature. (What are those pastries for though?) Anyway, score another good pho shop among what no doubt are many around here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Round-up of Vietnamese Drinks

Soda ChanhI usually try out some local soft drinks and such when hitting up other countries. And while there are a lot of them here in Vietnam, interestingly I didn't bother with many of them. Why not? Because of the ubiquity of soda chanh here. Having ordered it at nearly every meal, it was interesting to see mild variations of how it was made: most places gave you limes to squeeze yourself, and some places gave you sugar to scoop in yourself too (which was my preference, since I prefer mine more sour than sweet). Most places used very fine sugar, but some places used very granular sugar. Either way, it was always refreshing.

Saigon Special beerOn the beer front, one of the most popular brews (aside from Singapore's own Tiger) was 333. Not surprisingly, it was light and generally forgettable, but it was my preference over another beer called Saigon Special, which emanated a bit more taste (not necessarily in a good way). I preferred the so-called "red beer," or Saigon Do Export, over the Saigon Special too.

Ruou NepSome of the touristy areas of course sold bottles of liquor with snakes and scorpions sitting inside, but I didn't try any of that. One cool thing we did come across though was a Vietnamese version of moonshine called ruou nep. Made from sweet rice, this thing was nowhere as smooth and silky as sake. Instead, this was harsh on the throat going down, and amusingly was filled into empty plastic water bottles. Pair it with some pickled leeks and veggies as "bar snacks," and you've got yourself a party in the village waiting to happen.

And finally, one can't leave Vietnam without trying that infamous weasel coffee, or ca phe chon, whose top-quality beans are carefully selected by civet cats for their taste, passed through their digestive system, and then harvested and roasted before being ground into coffee. I could make a corny joke by saying that this stuff tasted like sh*t, but in reality it was really, really good. Even before grinding it, it emitted such a strong rich chocolate taste (hold the jokes now) that I knew that it had to be good, even for a non-coffee drinker like me. OK, I'll say it...this was one sh*tty coffee that didn't taste like crap.

Blue Ginger, Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnamese shabu shabu

Completely unrelated to the Blue Ginger back in Singapore, this was a bit of a touristy place (37 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, 8218-546), complete with traditional live music. But apparently this was also an upscale spot for local businessmen to talk shop, and hence our presence here tonight. Our gracious hosts did all of the ordering tonight, so I really don't know the names of the stuff that we ate, but they all tasted fine (and yes, many of them were of the lettuce-wrapped variety).

A couple interesting things did stick out though, the first of which included a sweet vinegar-based broth that one shabu-shabu'ed his raw beef into before throwing it into a rice paper wrapping and dipping into some fermented sauce. Apparently it's one of the famous seven courses of Vietnamese beef that one can order, even though we ordered it a la carte.

One Day SquidThe so-called "one day squid" was an interesting one too, the name of which was derived from the fact that these were hung to dry for only one day, thus still preserving some of the fluids inside the body. I loved its strong smoky aroma, and its saltiness made it great with beer too. Anyway, this was all interesting to learn from, but I have to admit that I'd probably still pick street food if I had the chance.

Quan Ho Tay, Saigon

Clockwise from upper left: banh tom, nam Saigon, and bun cha

When a restaurant is filled with locals and not a word of English to be found, you know it's gotta be good. That's the kind of place that my local colleague took me to today (20B Tran Cao Van, 824-3814), where they apparently specialize in three specific items: nam Saigon, banh tom, and bun cha.

The first of which were simple egg rolls, although done in a Northern Vietnamese style (although admittedly I'm still not quite sure how it differs from the Southern Vietnamese version...something about the rice paper, I'm told). Wrap it up into some lettuce, add some greens, and dip away into the sauce. The second item, banh tom, was a set of deep fried shrimp cake things, which were cut up and again shoved into a lettuce wrapper and dipped into the sauce.

The final item was bun cha, which involved no wrapping and was pretty much the thing that I unsuccessfully looked for in Can Tho the other day. This was the grilled meat thing that you tossed onto some noodles, added some thin sauce, and ate away. Big thumbs up here!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Pho 24, Ho Chi Minh City

Pho Dac BietHere is a bowl of the fully loaded pho dac biet from Pho 24, a chain so ubiquitous across Saigon that you'd think it were run by McDonald's (it isn't...the latter doesn't even have stores here, BTW). Meant to be a notch above the average streetside stall, this casual eatery's decor reminded me more of a Boston Market or something, except that all they serve is pho of course. It looks like they've expanded across the country and even into Indonesia and the Philippines.

Such mass production also got me worried about the broth's character, but it was still good enough for me to down the bowl pretty quickly, despite a mildly synthetic taste that I detected in it. They also offered trung ga, or a side of an egg yolk floating in a little bowl of broth on the side if you so chose. Well, the story here is really about convenience, and I'd go for it again if it were in a handy spot right when I needed a quick bite.

On a side note, I spoke to one of my local colleagues here and asked him where his favorite pho shop was. Surprisingly, he said that his favorite pho shops were actually in the US instead of Vietnam (sounds like some of my Korean colleagues' sentiment about Korean food in the US too), mainly because the quality of the beef there is better, thus creating a clear broth full of taste plus choicer cuts of beef to select from. Pho 2000 here in Saigon is supposed to be pretty close to US-quality pho though, according to him.

The Cai Rang Floating Market

Selling fruit at Cai Rang Floating Market

The Cai Rang Floating Market was pretty much the reason why we came down to the Mekong Delta on this trip. As expected, many merchants floated by selling all sorts of fruits and vegetables, while a few others sold stuff like coffee and noodle soup. This is a worthwhile experience, especially as you step into one of those little boats hugging the water; it's like the Pirates of the Carribean (the Disneyland ride, not the movie) on steroids. I suppose in some ways it's also a bit like the Vietnamese version of Venice...or perhaps even the possible inspiration for Kevin Costner's Waterworld. Whatever your fancy, try also heading up the river into some of the smaller tributaries afterwards...you can't help but think of Apocalypse Now too.

Ech Chien BoAfterwards, we stopped in the town of Can Tho for a quick bite. I grabbed some ech chien bo, which turned out to be butter-battered frog legs. Yes, they tasted like proverbial chicken, but just watch out for those darned annoying bones that I kept biting into. They definitely were not Chicken McNuggets.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

More Vietnamese Soup Noodles?

Bun Cha Day

There certainly is no shortage of food in this country. Everywhere you look, there is a stall selling food, usually of the soup noodle variety, but also plenty of sandwich stalls plus an occasional rice guy or dried squid guy. What's interesting to note though is that the soup noodles came in so many varieties beyond pho. In fact, I don't think I saw a single pho shop down here in Can Tho for some reason. Instead, we found all sorts of other bowls of random noodles here, all generally using a clear broth, but tasting quite differently from pho, including a nameless one that we got with a huge chunk of meat on the bone paired with slices of liver. Sitting in little plastic stools (reminds me of kindergarten) on a random patch of dirt can be quite a challenge too, especially when your legs have trouble fitting underneath a similarly small plastic table..this is a skill that I have yet to master, apparently.

Anyway, I later got some bun cha day, which I thought was going to be of the Hanoi variety with the dry noodles, roasted meat, and thin sweet fish sauce to douse over it with. Instead, this thing was another bowl of soup noodles, although with a slice of some kind of a cylindrical ground meatcake thing. She unfortunately included some of that Vietnamese coriander in here, which I'm not a big fan of, but if you like the taste of laksa leaves, then maybe this is something for you.

Hamburger in Tomato SauceBTW, here was an interesting can of "Hamburger in Tomato Sauce" that we saw at one of the supermarkets here. I didn't actually eat it, but it just sounded a lot like that Peking Duck in a can that I saw back in Singapore. Note to self: surprisingly, the cellular networks out here in Can Tho are voice only (not even a GPRS connection available).

Vietnamese Rice Krispies and Honey Smacks

Making Vietnamese Rice Krispies

Hey were Rice Krispies by chance based upon a Vietnamese snack? These guys here in the southern Vietnamese town of Cai Be heated up gravel from the nearby river (using longan shells as fuel, BTW), threw grains of rice in there, and stirred away until the rice popped like popcorn. After sifting out the gravel and husks, they were left with what was basically Rice Krispies.

Vietnamese Honey Smacks on top of Rice Krispie TreatsWith that popcorn analogy in mind, I was hoping that they would take the rice puffs and perhaps sprinkle some salt or ground up basil or something for a savory snack. Instead, they then mixed it with some kind of honey to thus make what were effectively Rice Krispie Treats, cut into squares just like the marshmallow-based version. This one was less sweet and sticky though, and apparently it was common to use your hands to crumble it apart while still in the plastic bag before dispensing. They even had some bigger ones made from wheat or something that were a bit like Honey Smacks.

Deep Fried SnacksNearby, we came across a lady with a cart deep frying all sorts of food, be they quail eggs, wontons, or what have you (no Mars bars, in case you were wondering). I pointed to a few items like egg rolls, string beans, and some kind of stuffed eggplant thing for her to fry. They tasted just like you would imagine, and was kinda like tempura once battered up (or maybe even that refried tofu stuff from Foo Kee in Singapore). Mmm...deep fried food: good in any culture.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Pho 2000, Saigon

Pho bo dac biet

This shop's claim to fame is the fact that Bill Clinton dined here some time ago, which in some ways worried me, since it seemed that they were playing off of that angle rather than the quality of the food itself. Indeed, this place is located smack in the middle of the city next to the big Ben Thanh Market, thus further suggesting to me that maybe this place spoke more about fashion over function. Nonetheless, the play worked, as it pulled us in here out of sheer curiosity. Would the food hold up though?

In general, yes. My pho bo dac biet arrived in a whopping sized bowl, complete with a (light) broth that was comparable to what I'm used to from back home, if you don't find it odd that I'm comparing a local dish to stuff from California. Sure, the meat balls were a bit smaller, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. They didn't bring out bean sprouts by default either, but in the end, this is the least that I would demand of a good refreshing bowl of pho, and it got inhaled pretty quickly as a result.

Anyway, that's all. I can mark that one as the third Bill Clinton restaurant for me then. What's next?

A Couple Banh Mi Variations

Pate and Pork with Bread

French bread appears all over the city here, from which of course those great Vietnamese sandwiches get made. Our first one featured a slice of pork sizzling in its own lard (evil grin) on a hot plate together with some pate. Shove all of that into some bread that was delightfully lighter than air, and mmm...enough said.

Banh Mi ThitThe quality of that bread unfortunately raised the bar so high that we were a bit disappointed when we hit a shop down on Ham Nghi, where several loaves of bread were on display. We grabbed a basic banh mi thit, whose bread was quite a bit more dense and thus less less inspiring. Still, the stuffings of pate, cilantro, and chili peppers kept things going, and one can't exactly complain at only 10,000 Dong (US$0.75).

A Couple Quick Streetside Snacks in Vietnam

Bun Bo Hue

Here's just a couple quick snacks picked off the streets of Saigon. The first was bun bo hue, which was not quite the spicy red thing that I was expecting. This was simpler and lighter than pho, yet still took off after throwing in all of the garnishes and spices. I don't know if this was the real deal (technically this was Saigon rather than Hue), but I can only assume that this was still more authentic than that other one I had back in Singapore. Well, I liked it either way.

Bo Bia NgotNext up was bo bia ngot, a little handheld snack of coconut, sesame, and sugar cane or something wrapped up in a little tortilla-like thing like a tiny burrito. Surprisingly, this didn't have that much flavor in it (no, it wasn't very sweet) and was a bit of a bore as a result, albeit still refreshing.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Quan 3 Mien Restaurant & Bar, Saigon

Cha Ca

Seeing that we're only going to be contained to the southern part of the country on this trip, it seemed worthwhile to come to this place (122B Tran Quoc Thao, District 3, 93-17096), which specializes in the three primary culinary areas of the country: Hanoi in the north, Hue in the center, and of course Saigon in the south.

Cha ca on a fireWe got a number of items, my favorite of the bunch being the cha ca, a speciality of Hanoi featuring pieces of fish sitting in a pot on a burner, which you then scoop out onto rice noodles and season to taste. Interestingly, this thing was loaded with dill weed, which I never would have thought would be an element of Vietnamese cuisine (it was also featured in some meatball things that we had). It wasn't bad (it definitely wasn't that diep ca leaf), but it just came across as odd to me since I always associated dill weed with Scandinavian herring instead.

Rice steamed in lotus leafThe other items we got, including some rather pricey fish (eel?) soup and some rice steamed in lotus leaf turned out fine, but honestly I didn't get that excited about this, just as with the restaurant food last night. I think it's best that we stick to street food from here on out. The street food out here has been amazing, but this upscale restaurant stuff just isn't as inspiring.

My First Fetal Egg - in Saigon

Hột vịt lộn

Back in college, I had a Filipino roommate who once reheated some balut in the microwave, creating quite an odor that pervaded the apartment, not to mention shock value when he plucked out the little beak and feathers from this fetal duck egg. I hadn't tried it at the time, but that definitely left a permanent mark in my head. I have yet to visit the Philippines myself, but when I heard that the Vietnamese eat this too, I had to give it a try while here in Saigon.

So we sat down at a stall today and ordered hot vit lon. After asking the lady for a bit of help in shelling it (she basically looked for the open end and smashed it with a spoon in order to open up a hole on top), I started scooping it out, the first body part being what looked like a partially formed head (complete with an eyeball) surrounded by some dark feathers. It wasn't as crunchy as I thought it would be, and actually went down rather smoothly, feathers aside.

The rest of the egg was more like a yellow yolk, albeit pervaded with dark blood vessels or something throughout. It generally had the same consistency as a yolk too, thus ending up tasting not that much different from a normal (unfertilized) hard boiled egg. In fact, the accompanying leaf tasted worse; it didn't look like diep ca, but it was just as disagreeable to my palate. The egg itself actually wasn't that bad, and it didn't quite have any odor either. I didn't even really need any of that salt that was provided.

Then again, there was one white section at the bottom of the fetus that wasn't quite as soft as the yellow yolk-like part, and thus couldn't quite be easily scooped into with my spoon. I gave up at that point, but I wouldn't mind eating this again if I had to. Just don't feed me any of those leaves!

Pho Oso, Dong Khoi, Saigon

Pho

This place (37 Dong Khoi) came as a recommended alternative to the more popular Pho 2000 and Pho 24 joints in the city. I wasn't quite sure what to expect here, especially when you're greeted with a loud "irasshaimase!!"

See, the owner, I was told, is Japanese, which I suppose also explains why I got what appeared to be thick chasyu slices in my bowl, in addition to the standard beef. The broth was also of the much darker sort...more like the kind at PhoChine back in Singapore rather than the lighter version that I'm much more accustomed to. Is this darker version supposed to be a regional Vietnamese variation? (Or perhaps a result of some Japanese localization?)

The place was adorned in dark wood furniture, and amusingly had a sign out front screaming, "No pay, no delicious." I didn't need to invoke this clause, as this was all pretty satisfying; I liked the black pepper sprinkled on top, as well as the full-length sprigs of green onion too. Anyway, this is sure to be but one of many, many bowls of pho to come on this trip, so let's see what else we're able to come across.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Com Nieu Sai Gon, Ho Chi Minh City

Shrimp rolls

Did you ever see that Vietnam episode of A Cook's Tour where those rice things were thrown through the air after the waiters smashed the clay pots that they were grilled in? This branch (59 Ho Xuan Huong Street, District 3, +84-8-9302888) was presumably a bit more upscale than the other location, but it still featured the theatrics for this dish known as com dap dau hanh nuoc tuong. Yes, it was a gimmick, but I was suckered in.

Com dap dau hanh nuoc tuongIt turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. Accompanied by a scallion and sesame topping, I had expected something spectacular, especially given my penchant for scorched rice as well as those seasonings. To my surprise, the dressing turned out to be sweet, and hence wasn't anything I particularly went nuts over. The rice was crispy, but a bit too much. At least it was only 15,000 Dong (US$1.15). Could the other dishes be any form of consolation at least?

Well, we did get a number of other items that fared fine, such as some prawn rolls, pork knuckle, and a bean sprout-filled pancake/omelette-type thing called banh xeo. But none of these were any runaway hits for me, and some of the other items, such as an allegedly sour soup called canh chua, again turned out to be too sweet (they filled the thing with pineapple slices). Some tiny fish in a clay pot didn't quite hit home either. I'm still glad that I came to check out that rice thing though.

Diep CaOn a side note, there were several different varieties of leaves accompanying many of these dishes. I certainly like sweet basil and mint leaves, but one leaf called diep ca must be an acquired taste, as the tiniest whiff of it makes my face clench up. I can't even really put my finger on what it smells like; apparently it has been referred to as "fishscale mint" (whatever that means), but I think that "soap" would be a better way to describe the smell. Then again, that's what naysayers say about cilantro, which I absolutely love...perhaps "pesticide" would be a closer description then. Hopefully one day I'll get over the taste of this thing (like I once did with shiso leaves), but for now, at least I can now physically identify it to be able to remove it before ingesting.

Vietnamese Spring Rolls...uhh...from the Hotel

Fried and fresh spring rolls

Here's a plate of fried and fresh spring rolls from the hotel. Yes, I'm quite embarrased to have opted for this US$9 ripoff, especially after having just eaten that dirt-cheap bowl of noodles off the streets. But hey - it was poolside, and we couldn't resist a quick nibble.

At least it was done very well (the fresh basil and shiso leaves helped), and it's not like it was delivered by a gimmicky boat or anything like that. Don't worry - we're getting out of the hotel soon. This is just to hold us over until dinner.

Noodles off the Streets of Saigon

A random bowl of noodles off the street

One of my favorite things in this world is a cheap, humble bowl of noodles off the streets of Asia. So after venturing out of the hotel here in Saigon today, we stumbled across a couple random folks sitting around on the streets selling noodles. I had no idea what this was called (nor exactly what I was getting), but I signaled for one bowl and paid my 10,000 Dong (US$0.75).

Makin' NoodlesThis was great. This was exactly what I had hoped for and more. With its rice noodles, thin broth, meatballs, and squeeze of lime, it wasn't that much different from pho (maybe that's exactly what I was eating?), but this did have cabbage, black pepper, and other goodies too. The chili provided a healthy kick, and in the end, I walked away satisfied and refreshed. Here's to more cheap kick-a$$ street food!

Bacon & Cheddar Toostie from O'Briens

Bacon & Cheddar Toostie

Here's the Bacon & Cheddar Toostie from O'Briens from here at Changi's Budget Terminal. It's the usual O'Briens: decently tasty but rather small portions (more George Foreman action here). Interestingly, they spread guacamole on this thing, even though it was hardly detectable (the red onion sure was though).

Anyway, a couple notes to self on this new budget terminal: the money changer doesn't take NETS, but there is a so-called laptop zone where you can plug in.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Marutama Ramen, Singapore

Kakuni Ramen

It's about time that some more shops opened at the Central! While the majority of units are still boarded up, at least a few more Japanese places have opened up, including this apparent transplant from Saitama called Marutama (6 Eu Tong Sen Street #03-90, 6534-8090). They did a lot of things differently here. Rather than the usual shio, shoyu, miso, and tonkotsu broths, these guys largely offered a chicken-based one that admittedly I wasn't a huge fan of, despite the heavy shot of oil and salt that they loaded into it.

Aka RamenWhat did get me really excited though was the aka ramen, whose rich broth is apparently brewed from seven different kinds of nuts (really??). More importantly, the noodles here were surprisingly thin (in a good way), reminding me a bit of Cantonese egg noodles. And how many times have you ever received a bowl of ramen topped with not the usual chasyu, menma, and negi, but rather cilantro, some kind of fishballs, and even a squeeze of lemon (yes, lemon). This mildly tangy yet rich concoction totally rocked, even before topping with a sprinkle of the garlic chips that they kept on the table. Yum.

This was also my first exposure to the concept of kaedama, which basically is a means for you to order a refill of noodles for just S$1 (US$0.65). The condition is that you must have some broth remaining in your bowl, presumably since that is what gives the noodles some flavor. Even then, they were accompanied by some salty sauce and even chili pepper flakes on the side. It's too bad that I couldn't rave as much about the chicken-based one though (it was fine, but I guess that I just don't like chicken that much). In the meantime, I'll probably focus my attention on that aka ramen...I'm still salivating over it.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Ka-Soh Fish Head Noodle Seafood Restaurant

Fish head bee hoon

Ka-Soh is a rather well-known run of shops in Singapore that has spread up to KL (and they even run that Yuzu-Shimizu place too). What is it so famous for? Its namesake fish head bee hoon, a local pot of rice noodles and fish stewed in a broth. The first time I had it was about four years ago, and I was floored by how they were able to brew the fish head long enough to infuse a whitish color into the soup (a bit like how tonkotsu broth gets its milky color from pork bones). And yet tonight, I was told by my companions that milk is actually poured into the soup to give it the color, which didn't sound right to me. Moreover, they didn't like the broth here as they felt that it was too bland.

A bit puzzled by this, I did some investigating, and I think I have it figured out. First off, the Ka-Soh guy told me that they do not use any milk in the broth, and that it's basically just brewed straight from the fried fish and bones, as I initially suspected. Yet if other places jumpstart it by using milk, then that probably explains why my companions were so disappointed in this one, since I'll bet that the use of milk creates a much richer taste. Can anyone confirm this?

Prawn Paste ChickenThey do of course have a number of other local dishes here, including prawn paste chicken, stir-fried venison, and three egg vegetable. They all turned out fine, but the fish head noodle is the main attraction here. There's no denying that the soup is thin and light, but I rather enjoy that, especially when accompanied by a good healthy dose of white pepper to go along with the fish slices. It's refreshing yet hearty...again, kinda like tonkotsu. If my theory about the broth is correct though, then I'd like to try some of the milk-based guys to see how differently they taste. (Do these guys use milk?)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Osteria Italia Restaurant, Bukit Timah

Penne Granchio

Just as we were thinking of Italian food last night, a very timely suggestion was posted about a place out on Bukit Timah, so we went to take a look. Located next door to the Hyundai dealership, this place (891 Bukit Timah Road, 6462-0838) was shockingly small: the dining room was literally not much bigger than my bedroom, and didn't really have too many tables to sit at as a result, excluding some of the tables outside. Size aside though, it did take on a bit of an upscale approach to the decor.

So how was the food? It was fine, and had some potential, although there were a few things to pick on. The lamb rack was very tender, but also seasoned so minimally that it lacked a "fun" edge (the cheesy potatoes underneath were good enough for me to inhale quite quickly though). The penne granchio had the right idea, although the pasta was slightly undercooked and the crab meat could have been fresher. The panna cotta and hot chocolate lava cake both did the job, even if the latter was quite amusing in appearance (as if someone had dropped it on the plate or smashed it from above to get the chocolate to ooze out).

Hot Chocolate Lava CakeBy and large, it wasn't bad. But yeah, it could be tough for these guys, considering that there are several great Italian places out on Bukit Timah already. Perhaps if we lived right next door, this would be a dependable neighborhood eatery to walk over to and grab a bite. But since we have quite a trek all the way out to the Bukit Timah area, we might very well just choose Borgo down the street instead (or simply just go straight to La Braceria).

Friday, March 16, 2007

Yumeya Japanese Restaurant

Gyu Tataki

This rather small shop (33 Mohamed Sultan Road #01-01, 6887-0282) was located a couple doors down from Hakata, serving typical izakaya fare, albeit with a rather heavy emphasis on sushi. We ordered our usual (non-sushi) favorites, many of which turned out fine. They did a few things slightly differently from what I was accustomed to though, most notably the gyu tataki, which came slathered in a dark and rather sweet teriyaki-like sauce, and was loaded with black pepper. To my surprise, I rather liked it, especially when paired with those paper thin slices of onion on the side. The impressively tender meat sure helped too.

Yakitori MoriawaseOddly though, the black pepper streak continued into the yakitori moriawase, which they had listed in their monthly recommendations. It still worked (as did the bacon-topped daikon sarada), but just interesting to see them take this tack. While I may not necessarily come scrambling back, I wouldn't be kicking and screaming if anyone dragged me here.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Jang Shou Korean Charcoal BBQ

Yang Nyum Galbi

Here's the yang nyum galbi from a Korean BBQ place at Esplanade Mall (#01-13, 6337-8880), which for some reason arrived in one big sheet of meat rather than bone-attached ribs. Normally I don't like places that cook the meat for you either, but in this case, it was convenient to have someone else use those infamous scissors to cut this giant sheet of meat up.

Unfortunately, the marinade was so sweet that this almost tasted like local bak kwa. I don't have anything against bak kwa (indeed, I do like it on its own), but for kalbi this was too sweet for me, and there wasn't any sesame oil lying around to help offset it either. I suppose that we could have ordered a non-marinated version, which probably would have turned out fine, but the sweetness of this will discourage me a bit from returning. My preference is still for Auntie Kim's for now.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Doc Green's Salads and Grill, Singapore

Dr. Rosen

Whoa...I thought this was a locally grown shop until I realized later that this is actually a chain from Atlanta that has somehow made its way over to Singapore. Well, the thought of something healthy sounded rather appealing tonight, so we stopped by this place in the new extension of Centrepoint Shopping Centre (#B1-111, 6720-0470).

Other than the franchise's origins, there were no major surprises here...just simple and fresh tossed salads plus a few other items like soups and sandwiches. The salads all went by various "doctor" names, like mine, the Dr. Rosen (cue: Fletch), which featured blue cheese crumbles, bacon, and egg, among others. I followed this up with another salad dubbed the Dr. Wild, which had some decent pieces of grilled Portobello mushroom in it.

I do worry about the location that they've chosen though; if this were over in the Robinson Road area, this would probably get a good amount of dependable busy office worker business. But Centrepoint seems to be the wrong place for this, and it was apparent by the lack of customers in here (sadly, McDonald's across the way was much more packed). Indeed, the salads weren't so spectacular that I'd go out of my way to come here, but if they had an outlet in the business district, then I might very well be in there from time to time just to get a quick and healthy lunch.