Saturday, February 21, 2009

Warring Plates

Only in Singapore will something seemingly mundane and trivial become blown out of proportion into a fight for supremacy. I am of course talking about the humble Malay dish of Nasi Lemak - basically coconut flavoured rice with accompaniments and the all important sambal chilli.

Adam Road Food Centre is where the battle scene takes place - where two food stalls that are placed side by side serve this simple dish and draw crowds of compatriots who swear by their chosen camp as being superior.

Selera Nasi Lemak (pictured first) has won huge accolades for its product - so popular that it is rumoured that the Sultan of Brunei gets takeaway from here whenever he's in town. The use of Basmati rice results in beautifully fluffy rice lightly scented with alluring coconut milk. Their chicken wings are well marinated and perfectly fried, delightfully crispy and so addictive. But whilst many swear by the sambal chilli here, I found it a tad sweet for my liking and lacked the kick to bring this dish together.

Adam's Nasi Lemak (pictured second) has legions of fans for its offerings. The strength of their artillery lies in their sambal chilli which has a perfect balance of sweetness and heat. However, I found their rice less fluffy than its counterpart but this may be due to a heavier use of coconut milk in their recipe which some may prefer. Their chicken wings were noticeably less crispy and well flavoured - which was a bit of a letdown.

So which camp will I be eating on? Whilst I hate to take sides - Selera Nasi Lemak gets my vote for being the better overall package. It would be great if the two could produce something beautiful together for what they bring to the table... the world (or at least this part of town) would be a better place.

But just like any war, my guess is that these two will keep battling it out... if for no other reason than to give its followers something to fight for.

Selera Nasi Lemak
2 Adam Road
Stall 2 Adam Road Food Centre

Adam's Nasi Lemak
2 Adam Road
Stall 1 Adam Road Food Centre

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Ruined for Ramen

Since tasting the incredible tonkotsu ramen at Ichiran in Fukuoka (see blog entry "My deathrow meal"), I have been saddened at the prospect that I probably will have to wait for another trip to Japan in order to reconnect with the euphoria and pure bliss from this ultimate dish.

While having tasted greatness is something that I am deeply grateful for - I feel like I have been inflicted with ramen snobbery - every bowl of noodles outside of Japan that I have found to be pretty good in the past now tastes bland, ordinary and almost an insult to what the original versions should taste like. Yes... its true, I have inevitably become a right wing ramenist... discriminating every ramen's brothright and judging them by their texture rather than treating them as equals.

And so was the case at Menya Shinchan, a ramen specialist located in Robertson Quay in Singapore which has won a huge following with locals and Japanese expatriates alike for their handmade noodles. I ordered the spicy tonkotsu ramen - so wanting it to remind my taste buds of my experience in Fukuoka... but was sadly disappointed.

The broth was generic - lacking depth and richness found in the Ichiran version - and more importantly was low on the umami factor which is so crucial in a good bowl of ramen. The noodles while al dente didn't have the texture and consistency that made every slurp as delectable as what I wanted it to. I also found that the addition of menma (simmered bamboo shoots) distracting and unnecessary (but that's just a personal preference).

It wasn't that Menya Shinchan makes a bad bowl of ramen... I would probably have enjoyed it more if I had tasted it prior to my trip to Fukuoka... but I have been ruined for ramen... a bigot to all tonkotsu ramen outside of Japan... but I remain unrepentant - it's their fault or all tasting the same anyways.

Menya Shinchan
30 Robertson Quay
#01-05 Riverside View

Monday, February 16, 2009

Twisted fork

Wafu pasta restaurants have been sprouting up all over Singapore of late - putting Japanese twists on what is essentially an Italian ingredient.

I prepared my own simple version today - essentially an alio e olio with the addition of scallions and shallots and topped with teriyaki glazed chicken and chopped chilli.

Strangely, I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would have. Perhaps its because I much prefer traditional sauces and ragus on my pasta... or perhaps its because I think a dish needs to have an identity to be memorable (somehow Japanese and South East Asian influences confuse rather than connect the palate).

But it was nevertheless tasty - the sweet teriyaki glaze a perfect backdrop to the heat of the chillis and the beefiness of the onions... and simple too, taking all but the time it takes to cook the pasta to prepare. And as far as quick and tasty lunches go, you won't have to twist my arm to try this one again.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Eating in the past

There are a few things that I always come back for whenever I'm in Singapore - Bak Kut Teh for breakfast definitely makes the list as comfort food that reconnects me with my early memories of growing up in Singapore.

The combination of a potent, peppery pork rib soup and a full bodied pot of chinese tie guan yin tea which you brew at your own pace is the ultimate pick me up as the first meal to the day. Whilst many may cringe at the thought of having meat, rice and soup for breakfast - I love it.

My family and I have been coming to this eatery in Tiong Bahru for yonks - it may not serve the best bak kut teh around but we have seen it go through a few changes in its name and ownership. It's for this reason that we feel a strong connection from being witness to the passing of time at a shared table here.

The best time to come is as early as you can in the morning (breakfast is served from 6:30am) while a blanket of tranquil blue still envelopes the Tiong Bahru area. At this hour, your dining companions are more than likely the elderly who have been frequenting this eatery even before you were born. But just like me, I think they will keep coming back to gather at a table here... if only to keep eating in the past.

Old Tiong Bahru Bak Kut Teh
Blk 58 Seng Poh Lane

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sinful Sin Huat

Singapore has made its mark on the global food map - featuring strongly in the recent Asian equivalent of the Michelin guide with its range of high profile, high calibre, high end restaurants. But ask me about the single most memorable meal I've had in Singapore and its actually found in the most unlikely of places - Geylang, the red light district of this conservative island.

Sin Huat is one of those places you are more than likely to miss while in the area - an old style coffeeshop with cracked tiles, plastic chairs and bathed in a sea of green tinged fluoroscent lighting - it makes almost no effort in its decor or ambience. The service can be at most described as aloof and the prices - astronomically high given the settings you are dining in (be prepared to pay around $70 a head for your dinner). One could be forgiven for thinking that the owner of this restaurant really couldn't care less about your dining experience.

But it's clearly and purely the food that draws the crowds in night and night again to this humble eatery - probably the best seafood you'll ever taste cooked to absoute perfection in the simplest of ways. The chef Danny Lee is a bit of an enigma - a pig farmer turned self trained cook, he insists on taking orders for every table and cooks for each table one at a time - resulting in waiting times of about 40 minutes for your food to arrive. But you never hear complaints while dining here - I think it's because everyone who makes the pilgrimage here knows what they're buying into... and the brilliant food is well worth the wait.

We started with fresh (and everything is fresh here - Danny never stores his seafood in refrigerators and everything is sourced from the fish tanks on order) scallops steamed in their shells and smothered in an incrediby addictive black bean sauce. We then had the steamed squid topped with garlic and scallions which were cut into calamari rings at the table... this was cooked perfectly - the calamari lusciously tender and delicious paired with the simple seasonings. We were then blown away by the steamed prawns in garlic, scallions and chinese wine... so fresh, so succulent... so good. Danny's handling of seafood is astounding with the natural sweetness of his ingredients shining through and highlighted by his closely guarded sauces.

But what was the climax to this already incredible meal was hands down what this place is famous for - the crab bee hoon. Sri Lankan crabs simmered in an addictive broth with thin rice noodles, scallions and crab roe... this is flavour to the max with incredible "wok hei" permeating every slurp. Tucking into this dish - decor, service and pricing became almost petty issues that not once crossed our minds... really brilliant stuff.

Sin Huat makes a trip to sin city well worth it and dares to challenge the notion of a fine dining institution. It probably will never feature in the Michelin guide and will most certainly offend many who expect more for what they pay... but with food this good - I really couldn't care less.

Sin Huat Seafood Restaurant
659-661 Geylang Lorong 35 (at the corner of Geylang Rd)
Tel: 6744-9778

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Just for health kicks

I'm back in Singapore and the first thing I've noticed is that my diet here isn't as healthy as it is (or should be) when compared to my lifestyle in Australia. The in your face availability of guilty pleasures propositioning you at every corner in this gastronomic island makes a salad lunch sound like a ridiculous option.

Thankfully for dishes like Lei Cha Fan (literally "Thunder Tea Rice") available at some hawker centres, there's hope yet for weak willed eaters like myself. Basically a Hakka specialty, it derives its name from the preparation of the accompanying tea soup which requires heavy pounding of various herbs and nuts. The dish itself consists of brown rice and an assortment of vegetables, tofu, peanuts and crispy anchovies as toppings. This is a vego's dream - the different textures and flavours more than making up for the lack of meat in this dish.

I love this dish because it tastes and feels like a hawker's detox remedy - but I know that one man's meat may be another man's poison. The accompanying soup is not everyone's cup of tea (literally) and may take some adjusting to. The relatively bland vegetables may also be boring to some... but if you're in desperate need to tear yourself away from the indulgence of the abundance of greasy temptations - Lei Cha Fan may just be the perfect antidote.
(click for locations)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Cool as Hell

Hellenic Republic is the sister restaurant of the uber cool Press Club in Melbourne. Inheriting the family genes, this fresh faced dining room is understated in its delivery of modern Greek food in chic surroundings.

We stopped by for a weekend breakfast and were immediately drawn to the refreshing menu here. Nothing overly pretentious, you instead get an interesting range of breakfast items to give you that all important kick start to the day.

From a creamy spanakopita topped with poached eggs to a refreshing watermelon salad with chopped mint, fetta cheese and toasted almond flakes… the food here is simple but good. The modern Greek take on standard fare here was definitely evident in the lamb ham sandwich (cured ham, fried egg and cheese in sourdough) and the omelette of loukaniko sausage and potatoes.

I also enjoyed what was labelled on the menu as “yesterday’s gemista” – basically a baked tomato stuffed with rice. The use of rice that had probably been from a risotto like dish for dinner service the previous night actually meant that the flavours were deliciously mellow. Served on crunchy hot sourdough toast with crumbled fetta – this is a great vegetarian breakfast and one that’s sure to satisfy.

Our well informed waitress was also great in helping us navigate through the Greek translations of the menu – showing what a difference professional service makes. I glanced at the dinner menu on the way out and whilst I have had limited exposure to Greek food previously, I felt confident that the process of discovering it would be a pleasant one on my next visit... and I sure as hell hope there's going to be one.

Hellenic Republic
434 Lygon Street
Brunswick East

Swine Dining

My brother is an extremely gifted photographer and has started to turn his hobby into a side business – one that I know will be hugely successful with his incredible talent. I happened to be in Melbourne on his first paid wedding shoot and he was kind enough to let me tag along. The shoot was long but really enjoyable and at the end of the night, he had managed to pull together a really fantastic set of photos for the newlyweds.

Whilst the reception was held at The Prince, one of the most highly regarded restaurants in Melbourne – and the venue was in the centre of St Kilda which is packed with well known eateries, we instead craved for the simplest of foods for our supper – Cantonese roast pork.

And so we headed to our favourite spot in Melbourne for that specific craving (we have many) – Pacific BBQ Cafe in the City. This restaurant is not fancy – but it does great Cantonese roast meats. I pigged out on Charsiu pork and Siew Yok served with steamed rice topped with a fried egg. This is fast food at its best – the crackling on the perfectly roasted pork sending me to swine heaven.

Perhaps it was the long day of being out and about with my brother on his photo shoot – or perhaps it was the novelty of having something completely informal after a formal event… but our simple meal was probably the best celebratory supper I could probably have asked for.

Pacific BBQ Cafe
213 Lonsdale Street
Melbourne Vic 3000

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