Monday, March 30, 2009

More than just numbers

Fi53fty three is creating a huge buzz in the culinary hive of high end restaurants in Singapore… and its not just about the numbers with this gem. Housed at number 53 in a refurbished heritage shop house on the quaint Aremenian Street, the 2 story restaurant makes one bold statement in keeping to only 7 private dining tables, seating a maximum of 28. Helmed by the young Singaporean head chef Michael Han, widely regarded as the next big thing here, the equation here is nouvelle cuisine done with panache.

We popped by to sample the lunch menu which offered a choice from three appetisers, mains and desserts. For starters, the air dried wagyu with beetroot and hibiscus granita was visually stunning. The latter was a refreshing palate cleanser contrasting the salty, fatty cured meat.

There was also a brilliant cold pasta dish of spaghettini in a konbu dressing and topped with (of all things) toasted hay (yes – the stuff horses eat). Refreshingly light yet packed with umami flavour, this was beautiful to look at as well as to eat.

What was outstanding however was the fruit salad of Japanese cherry tomatoes, amao strawberries and compressed watermelon smothered in a rich, zingy and salty horseradish cream. This dish is a perfect starter, awakening and refreshing the palate at the same time – and the clever contrast of ingredients is something that you’ll probably have never (or expected to have ever) tasted before. My only gripe with this dish is that the chef could have been less heavy handed with the horseradish cream – which whilst a perfect contrast for the fruit salad, was quite rich and a little overwhelming towards the end.

For mains the seared beef flap (served deliciously rare) accompanied by light as air potato soufflé and crunchy potato bits was deceptively simple but done very well. This less “luxurious” cut whilst slightly chewy had great flavour and was a joy to eat. The pan fried wild barramundi with a crispy baguette again proved that you don’t have to dress a great ingredient for great results.

The only letdown for me personally for an otherwise impressive lunch was the desserts. Whilst clever in the complementing of the base flavours, the roasted figs with olive tapenade served with Szechuan peppercorn ice cream tasted far too medicinal for me.

The chocolate caramel enoki mushrooms with raspberry granita and peanut cream on the other hand was interesting – the tart elements taking the edge nicely off the otherwise very sweet chocolate caramel.

But back to the numbers – with only 7 tables to serve in one seating, at least 5 chefs (including sous and assistants) in the kitchen, and 4 service staff, the name of the game here is an intimate dining experience.

From freshly baked bread served in a bag packed with heated stones to keep its contents warm, to fussing over the preparation and presentation of each dish (I observed 4 chefs crowding over our plates before our meals were brought out.

Nevertheless, one can’t help but wonder about the long term success of Fi53fty three as a business operation given its obvious high cost per dining customer. But with food this good and the reservation book being filled weeks in advance since opening, all that's left to do is the math.

Fi53fty three
53 Armenian Street

Monday, March 16, 2009


One of my favourite food cravings whenever I'm back in Singapore is a dish that is unique to this country - Bak Chor Mee - literally minced meat noodles. This dish created by the Teochew Chinese here is composed of al dente egg noodles tossed in a heady vinegar sauce and topped with a variety of minced pork, sliced pork, pork liver and meat balls.

Whilst this ubiquitous dish is literally available at every corner, ones that are worth coming back for are few and far between. Overcooked gluggy versions to greasy bland tasting types, this is a case where oodles doesn't necessarily mean good noodles.

Thankfully, my personal pick for a good bowl of bak chor mee can still be found at Tai Hwa Pork Noodles in the sleepy suburb of Lavender. The masterpiece here is composed of perfectly cooked noodles doused with just the right amount of piquant black vinegar, topped with fresh pork bits, including the incredibly addictive meatballs which are made on the premises. The pork bone broth is surprisingly rich yet clean tasting and is the perfect accompaniment to your bowl of bliss. Deceptively simple, bak chor mee is a testament to how simple things done well can be extraordinary.

Tai Hwa Pork Noodles
Block 466 Crawford Lane
Lavender (behind MRT station)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

梅菜扣肉 - Deconstructed

When it comes to cooking, I've always thought that if it ain't broken - don't fix it. But sometimes curiosity gets the better of me and I start wondering if I can put a successful twist on a classic recipe.

This was the case with my take on the much loved 梅菜扣肉 - a typically Cantonese claypot stewed dish of pork belly with salt pickled chinese vegetables. I've always found this dish comforting and the depth of the sauce that comes from slow simmering of the pickled vegetables - simply alluring.

What I have done here is add an additional layer of texture by firstly slowly simmering and thus infusing the pork belly with pickled vegetables. I then crispen its skin under a hot grill to form a crackling as you would with roast pork. The result? Deliciously crispy skin encasing melt in your mouth pork belly accompanied by that much loved classic sauce. I guess even if it ain't broken, you should still always try to have fun.


1.5 kg lean pork belly (ask your butcher to leave the skin on
5 cloves garlic (leave skins on)
5 shallots
2 slices ginger
4 medium sized stalks of pickled vegetables (I like to used half of the salt pickled version and the other half of the sugar pickled variation)
3 Tablespoons of rock sugar
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablepoons light soy
2 tablespoons dark soy
3 stalks spring onions bunched up in kitchen string

1. Firsly soak the pickled vegetables in water. Rinse out and do this a few times until water runs clear. Remove thick stalks and discard and finely chop remaining vegetables.
2. Tie pork belly with kitchen string (to retain its shape while cooking) and place in large stock pot with garlic, shallots, ginger and wate. Slowly simmer this for 50 minutes and discard water.
3. Add remaining seasonings to pot and fill with water again - on a constant low temperature, simmer again for approximately 75 minutes. Leave pork belly to cool and marinate in sauce.
4. Remove pork belly from sauce and set aside. Poke skin with fork and rub with salt. Leave for 15 minutes and pat dry moisture from skin.
5. Place pork belly under a medium hot grill until a crispy crust forms. While waiting, reduce the sauce and season to taste. Remove pork and cut into large bite sized pieces. Plate by spooning reduced sauce with pickled vegetables onto a heated plate and placing pork belly on top.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Cheek to Cheek

Heaven… I’m in heaven. I’ve finally found a tonkotsu ramen in Singapore that reminds me of Ichiran ramen which I have been raving about since my trip to Fukuoka late last year.

Santouka ramen is located in Central shopping centre, a Japanese themed mall filled with Japanese eateries serving everything from yoshoku to tonkatsu. Hailing from Hokkaido, Santouka is reknowned for this region’s version of tonkotsu ramen. And it is good – the broth here is rich, creamy, complex and simply soul warming. So rich and intensely flavoured in fact that it definitely isn’t one for the faint hearted. And whilst I still think that Hakata still makes the best pork bone broth, the version here is pure bliss.

The star of the show here however is the sliced meat to accompany your noodles. Unlike the normal char shiu you get in other establishments, Santouka uses toroniku (braised pork cheeks) as the accompaniment. I was impressed with the pork belly used at Ichiran – but was blown away by Santouka’s version. Melt in your mouth, so beautifully marbled and tender – this luxurious part of the porcine was oh so good.

What makes it all the more special is the limited qualities of this prized meat available (each pig has 200 to 300 grams worth) which limits sales to 60 servings per day – a real treat.

The noodles here are competent and done Asahikawa style which are thicker than Hakata ramen and slightly curly. They were cooked firm to the bite as they should be - but I felt lacked the delicious texture that made Ichiran so special. The gyoza served here was also competent but I still much prefer the version served at that other Fukuoka ramen icon, Ippudo, for its crisp texture and juicy fillings.

Nevertheless – I’m not complaining – a great broth, outrageously good char shiu, well cooked noodles… and most importantly, a reminder of what heaven tastes like without having to buy a plane ticket to Japan. A definite must try.

Ramen Santouka
6 Eu Tong Sen St
#02-76, The Central

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