Saturday, August 30, 2008

Simply Bellissimo!

The occassion - To celebrate the birthday of a close family friend. The venue - Pontini, a reputable Italian restaurant located in the Grand Copthorne Waterfront hotel in Singapore. The result - a great evening filled with laughter, great wine and simple yet delicious Italian food.

We started with Pontini's freshly made wood fire oven pizzas (roasted vegetables, italian sausage and prawns with rocket being the three different toppings). The pizzas were all well made and had a deliciously thin, crispy base. Simple toppings using quality ingredients are the best in my book when pizzas are concerned - and Pontini delivered just that.
What followed was an entree sized pasta dish - spaghetti with pancetta, chilli and mixed mushrooms. Perfectly al dente freshly made pasta with yet again clean flavours. The salty pancetta was perfectly balanced against the earthy mixture of porcini and portabello mushrooms.For mains, I decided on a medium rare tenderloin steak which was served on a bed of spinach in a veal jus and balsamic reduction. Whilst not a particularly large serving - the meat was perfectly cooked and the uncomplicated accompanying sauce made this a more than satisfying dish.
We of course had room for the birthday cake - a stunning dark chocolate grenache cake to round off the meal with freshly brewed Italian coffee.
The service at Pontini's was spot on - waiters were readily available without being overly intrusive. The clean presentation of the dishes and the elegant private dining room also reflected the restaurant's approach to its food to a tee.
I thorougly enjoyed this meal - and what defined it for me is the fundamental appeal of Italian food - using the best ingredients available and cooking it simply but well.
Good Italian food should be unadorned, rich in flavour and beautiful in its simplicity... and Pontini's food is exactly that - simply beautiful.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

East of the Sun, West of the Moon

I found myself in the two capital cities of Malaysia recently - Kuala Lumpur in the West and Kuching in the East. And as much as I'll like to say that I feel a sense of belonging to this country which my parents once called home, I can't say I do. I attribute this to not having lived, spoken the language or made lifelong friends there. But the food in Malaysia is my connection. Malaysian food, in particular street food, is delicious. There's something genuine, wholesome and completely unpretentious about the wide variety of Malaysian food on offer.

Kuala Lumpur
I caught up with one of my oldest friends from Australia who moved to Kuala Lumpur for work a few years back. Knowing my eagerness to sample some of the local fare, he suggested that we head over to Jalan Alor for dinner. We checked in at "Wong Ah Wah" at the start of this food filled street. This old establishment serves up great local favourites which we eagerly ordered. The beef and chicken satays were flavoursome and moist, owing to the thicker cuts of meat used which had been well marinated. The barbecued skate was a thick cut of the firm fleshed fish and came with a side of sambal chilli that had a good amount of oomph. We also ordered barbecued chicken wings which were bites of sweet, savoury and gooey goodness. What was disappointing, however was the bamboo clams stir fried in black bean sauce. Whilst tasty enough, there was very little clam flesh encased .

But all was redeemed with a dish that Kuala Lumpur is famous for - the Fried Hokkien noodles in dark soya sauce. I had been told many a time by locals that this was one dish that I had to try - and I wasn't disappointed. Thick chewy egg noodles stir fried with pork, cabbage and a dark, almost syrupy rich sauce. What defines this dish however is the chunks of crispy pork crackling that are stirred through the noodles at the end of the cooking process. Very sinful - and very good.

The quintessential breakfast grub in Kuching is the kolo mee, a deceptively simple yet majorly tasty noodle dish which is loved by the locals. I have always adored this dish - curly noodles cooked just al dente, tossed in shallot oil, deep fried garlic and topped with stir fried pork mince, slices of char siew, and prawns. I was pleasantly surprised to find a variation of this dish by a popular hawker (Top 1 food centre in Jalan An Cheong) on this trip - instead of the usual sauce and toppings, this version was tossed with chinese black vinegar and served in a big bowl of tasty broth (consisting of chinese preserved cabbage, bean sprouts, hand made pork balls, prawns and fish cake). The vinegar in this dish reminded me of one of my favourite things to eat in Singapore - Teochew minced meat noodles, in which a liberal amount of black vinegar is also added. Curious, I chatted briefly with the hawker and sure enough, he revealed that he was indeed a Teochew Chinese and had prepared the noodles true to his roots. He became surprisingly passionate once we were on the topic and went on to describe how this humble noodle dish has numerous variations, influenced by hawkers of different backgrounds that prepare it. An unusual twist on an old favourite and one that I'll definitely come back to.
Feeling satisfied from a delicious breakfast, we then proceeded for something sweet - and decided on Yik Cheong, a local coffeeshop near the food centre that specialises in pastries. The owner recommended the puff pastry balls which we decided to try. Biting into the buttery, flaky pastry revealed an interesting mix of chicken floss encased in sticky lotus paste. The contrast of the salty and sweet in these tiny morsels was surprisingly good.
By the end of my short trips to both the East and West of Malaysia, I felt strangely proud to have such a connection to this country. Malaysians love their food. They also have a uniquely down to earth attitude towards eating - and a genuine passion for great tasting grub... And at the very end of the day - that's something I will always be able to definitely identify with.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Where time stands still

I spent most of my childhood in Singapore - and along with that part of my life are many fond food memories. Back then, having a steak dinner was a novelty and my dad used to love to bring us to a Russian steakhouse near our home for special occassions or treats.

The venue then was Shashlik restaurant, an iconic establishment off Orchard Road in Far East Shopping centre. Only in Singapore will you get a Russian restaurant run by elderly Hainanese Chinese waiters who bring your orders to the table in wooden pushcarts.

My dad especially loved the breadrolls that were always served piping hot and the signature Borsch soup (a rich tomato beef stew with vegetables served with a thick dollop of sour cream). The steaks were all served on sizzling hotplates which used to be the fad back then and served with unashamedly unRussian condiments - bottles of Heinz tomato and chilli sauce or English mustard that were presented on request.

Fast forward almost 10 years and I find myself walking into this same dimly lit establishment last night - and immediately I was struck by the familiarity of everything that is this restaurant. The same aromas and sounds from sizzling plates, the same decor of deep yellow table cloths and mahogany chairs, the same vibe of nonchalant service that is provided on a need to be provided basis. I was however saddened to see that only one of the original Hainanese waiters was still working in the restaurant. Surprisingly, I could still remember their faces and how each had their own mannerisms and quirks.

We started with the Borsch soup which evoked immediate nostalgia - memories of birthdays, anniversaries, etc came flooding back to me with each sip. This was the definition of comfort food - more than just a soup - I tasted the coversations, warmth and laughter that my family shared in this restaurant. Mopped up by the familiar piping hot bread rolls - I was a happy man.
The Oysters Mornay that followed were tasty - rich bechamel sauce and parmasean cheese smothered oysters which were then placed under a hot grill. Not exactly Russian and definitely not sophisticated - but to be honest, I couldn't have cared less.
Shortly after our starters, the familiar sound of the rolling pushcart arrived and we tucked into a medium rare Chateaubriand steak (which at Shashlik means a tenderloin steak with mushroom sauce made from canned champignions and served on a hot plate with sides of frozen mixed vegetables, crinkle cut chips and a lonesome grilled tomato). There was too much butter in the sauce (and the frozen vegetables as well I suspect) and the sides weren't exactly inspiring - but this was as unpretentious as they come. Everyone comes here knowing what they will get - a slice of how a foreign cuisine was adapted and used to taste when it was first introduced to Singapore.

As I sipped on the aromatic Hainanese coffee at the end of the meal - I remembered how dad used to love coming here. How he would always order extra servings of the soft breadrolls and smile at his first sip of the Borsch soup. And although I will no longer be able to see him do these things - I am glad that places like Shashlik exist to challenge the passing of time and perhaps - to simply allow its patrons to indulge in reliving the past.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

You are what you eat

This is a CT scan of my thorax. A friend recently told me that I should show more of myself in my blog - so here I am - literally pouring out my inner most self on display for the world to see.

But aside from showing off the damn fine specimen pictured above, I obviously underwent the scan for a reason. You see, this will be my second post on mishaps while enjoying my favourite past time - eating.

Obviously not having learnt from the chopsticks incident (see previous entry for embarrassing details), I once again found myself eating too quickly - and on this occassion it was a slow cooked Chinese braised beef that I had made for dinner. The recipe called for bean paste, oyster sauce and a bunch of aromatics, including cinnamon, bay leaves and star anise. Again unable to control my ravenous self when it comes to meal times, I found myself unintentionally swallowing what else - but a chipped star anise.

What followed was a few days of denial - that surely it can't be that bad. I was adamant that my body could take care of itself and that this foreign object would somehow be purged naturally (because our bodies do this sort of thing all the time). But I continued to feel pain everytime I swallowed and soon became slightly breathless. What also followed in these few days was constant mockery and jesting from friends and family alike - unable to believe how incredulous it all sounded.
Staranisititis afterall, is not a disease you come across everyday.

I also received a bunch of suggestions which were bordering on the ridiculous - from swallowing larger food objects whole to gulping spoonfuls of honey - but strangely these sounded entirely plausible in an absurd situation.

I consoled myself with more unbelievable thoughts - like how you are what you eat and since I had swallowed a star anise... I was one step closer to being... a star? (or somebody's niece for the cynical amongst you) Or maybe just like Spiderman, the ingested spice would grant me powers which I had yet to discover (like spraying Chinese five spice powder from my wrists at will). But I soon conceded that there was no radioactive spider involved - that I was talking about a spice used in Chinese cooking - and that I was a moron for swallowing it.

Thankfully, the doctor gave me the all clear and said that I probably had a scratch in my oesophagus which was causing the pain. Disappointingly, I don't even have a scan of a star-shaped object in my thorax to show for it (which the geek in me thinks would be pretty special). But I'm glad I have not caused any permanent damage from my reckless eating - things could have been a lot worse and staranisititis could actually have been dangerous - now that would be a situation I would find hard to swallow.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Eat & Drink

The Spanish have their tapas bars and the Chinese have their dim sum houses. The idea of small portions of tasty morsels to be shared amongst friends over a drink (whether it be a bottle of tempranillo or a pot of freshly brewed oolong) is appealing because it fosters a shared dining experience.
The Japanese equivalent of this form of dining is the izakaya - or literally to stay and drink. Izakayas are found all over Japan and are immensely popular with many such establishments creating innovative and incredibly delicious snacks to accompany sake or a cold Japanese beer. And given the regional nature of Japan's cuisine - each Izakaya boasts an interesting array of dishes which pay tribute to its region's produce and history.

The prefecture of Okinawa is the most southern of the 47 prefectures in Japan and was only incorporated into Japan about 100 years ago. Consequently, the southern islands still maintain their own distinctive culture, language and cuisine. Okinawan cooking tends toward stronger and spicier flavors than Japanese food, and is more heavily influenced by Chinese cooking styles. Okinawan Diner - Nirai Kanai is a charming, almost rustic izakaya located in the basement of Liang Court - a mall which is heavily patronised by the Japanese expatriate community in Singapore.
We started with a delicious grated daikon salad with sesame dressing. The simple salad was highlighted by wakame, bonito flakes, shiso leaves and cherry tomatoes.

The house specialty, slow cooked pork belly was also well executed with the meat meltingly tender. Being tempted by many of the dishes on the menu, we also ordered the okinawan okonomiyaki (try saying that quickly repeatedly) and the grilled ox tongue. Both dishes which were tasty but not particularly interesting.

The highlight for me personally, was the barbecued pork ribs with shio (salt). Soft pork bone which has been slow cooked until an almost gelatinous consistency is then barbecued and seasoned in sea salt. Simple flavours combined with lovely textures. Salty, juicy, gooey and crusty - all at the same time. Perfect with a refreshing glass of cold Japanese beer or sake.

I love izakayas... almost in the same way I love tapas bars and dim sum houses. Maybe its because you often find a huge variety of interesting dishes to sample. Or it could be that these places are often relaxed and loud conversations are welcome. But perhaps its simply that life's simple pleasures are condensed in such establishments - where good food, good drinks and good friends come together... and that's what great meals are born of.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

It all happened when my greedy, wolf-like inner self was unleashed at the dinner table. Devouring everything in sight with gusto, I bit into a chopstick mid meal and heard a cracking sound which instantly tamed the ravenous beast in me. I secretly wished that my teeth were superior in build and strength to the damned pair of melamine chopsticks - but then I was reminded that we humans are fragile creatures - even if it is in comparison to cheap eating utensils.

And so I find myself sitting in the dentist's chair while he does his work on my fangs, probably wondering how I had escaped from the Jungle book. He assures me that its going to be a simple procedure and tells me to focus on the overhead flat screen TV.

My mind wanders to my earliest memory of a visit to the dentist and I recall the free clinic that used to be located in my school as a boy. The "dentist" then was a heavy set woman who used to grunt her orders - ranging from "Open wider" to "Rinse that blood into the basin next to you - you're making a mess". Her dungeon consisted mainly of a dentist chair which seemed to be competing with the dentist on who could inflict more pain on the patient. There were also reams of fat manila folders which I imagined were used to contain pictures of her victims in their most excruciating moments.

The sound of the suction instrument brings me back to the present as I lie in plush leather comfort with soothing piano music cooing in the background. My dentist smiles and tells me to enjoy the DVD being played. "Maybe visits to the dentist aren't so bad after all", I think to myself. I try to concentrate on the episode of "Friends" and its the one where Monica writes a vicious review about a restaurant she ends up working in. Its hilarious and I try my hardest not to laugh with the 3 instruments that were tucked into my mouth at the same time. The dentist mid procedure, along with libraries, funeral services and public toilet cubicles are all venues and situations where breaking into uncontrolled laughter can be inappropriate - and in this case potentially painful.

Before I knew it and just before the credits started to roll, the procedure was complete and I was given a mirror to examine the results. The chip on my tooth was no longer and and I marveled at how painless it all had been. "You may want to chew a little slower next time" the dentist gently reminded. I nodded gratefully, thanked him, and went on my way - eager to wolf down my next meal.

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