Monday, June 02, 2014

Review: The Tippling Club

 


I did not realize that the Tippling Club had moved from Dempsey Hill to Tanjong Pagar until recently. I had never been to the old Tippling Club at Dempsey despite a lot of rave reviews. Not being a fan of molecular gastronomy nor expensive cocktails, it seemed to me a place that I might enjoy, once and never return to, so I never got around to the opportunity, even though it had placed in the Asian Miele guide within the top 20 restuarants and was also part of the top 50 restaurants in Asia. C. had been once and was unimpressed with the experience, which additionally coloured my view.

I finally had the chance when I was invited there for lunch and was pleasantly surprised. I definitely had my reservations- that this would be an expensive and unfulfilling lunch filled with sauces and espumas and marshmallows, lots of unpleasant or gooey mouthfeel and a hungry belly at the end of it. I was proven wrong, in fact, it was a most inventive, delicious meal and I am thinking about going back and introducing some friends to the experience.

The old space was 42 seats around a curved counter, but the new Tippling club offers bar seats as well as regular table seats, in front of the kitchen. The service is excellent and knowledgeable and the chefs work silently in the background. The restuarant is in a lovely, quiet spot along Tanjong Pagar road and natural sunlight filters into the space, lighting the quirky, green decor.

I was initially a little shocked at the prices, 12 courses $160/$260 with wine, 28 courses $265/$415 with wine) and even those of the set lunch (2 courses $42, 3 courses $57) and pre-theatre menu (6-8pm, 3 courses, $70). The set lunch and pre-theatre menu consist same items except the latter comes with a glass of wine. The dishes are all described in a very ad-hoc modernist way, like 'black soil. snail espuma' and so it makes you feel like you are getting very little for the money, but that's not true, as we were treated to three innovative amuse-bouche before our set lunch began and then a selection of petit fours after, which filled us up and I felt, made the experience and price worthwhile, at least for the 2 and 3 course set lunch.

I wished that I had been there at dinner to experience the drinks- which I've heard come as bubbling martinis or as purple cough syrup in brown glass bottles, with medical labels!
 
 

Our three amuse bouche were an interpretation of the local curry chicken in the form of curry foam topped with crispy rice; three bell peppers in a squid-ink tempura, with a sesame, soy, wasabi dip and theatrical metal tweezers to pick them up with and a test-tube of clear, cold tomato essence soup with a pipette straw of basil extract.
 
 
 
 

We tried the tomato tart, the smoked eel and the Kohada, which was served as a sushi, three really beautiful dishes. I had the most 'boring' starter, the pea ham soup with 62 degree egg.
 
 

Most of us had the risotto with charred tomato, burrata and basil and the roasted barramundi with milk, braised parsley root and garlic soup.
 
 

I was blown away by the attention to detail and the preparation of the food, from the thin, drying of the meats to the solid jellies made of tomato, the long, slow cooking and the playful presentation.  Despite this, the food retained the fullness of their taste and freshness.

 

The show-stopper was the additional dessert that we added on, the Cassis and Violet souffle, with a yoghurt, white chocolate mini magnum that was simply out of this world. Although I didn't like the very artificial looking violet sugar sprinkled on the top of the souffle, it was wonderfully light and risen and I was amazed that they had baked it in a glass, double-bowled cup. The magnum combination of yoghurt and white chocolate was just brilliant.

 

There was nary a sour note, if I had to pick one, it would be that the grains of the risotto were too tough and it had so much rice that we ran out of ingredients to eat it with. The tomato tart (roll) and the dessert of souffle were the best things, I felt. After the meal, we were given petit fours, an apple doughnut, a chewey nut meringue and a tie-dyed, liquid filled chocolate sweet, that sated our sweet appetite.



I notice that the appetizers and mains also rotate very often, so that going there should always be an inventive, novel and special experience. While this is a good place for a date, I think it is fun to go in a bigger group to be able to appreciate the diversity and creativity of the dishes and becuase these experiences are more fun when shared and discussed.


Tippling Club
38 Tanjong Pagar Road, Singapore 088461
T: 6475 2217
Lunch: M-F, 12-3pm
Dinner: M-Sat, 6-11pm
Bar: M-Sat, 12pm-12am

Review: Diamond Kitchen for Makansutra Dinner

 
 

Diamond Kitchen is an air-conditioned zi char place opened by two young businessmen, at Laguna Park, at the base of a large condominium complex in East Coast. Don't go expecting atmosphere, as it is along the stretch of shops with a tuition center and childcare, with a very similar space. The ceilings are clapboard, gussied up with the tackiest of chandeliers and there is a mock white brick fireplace in the center, stuffed full of tablecloths and toilet paper rolls.

We were, in any case, there for the food, as part of the Makansutra Dinner outings. These BYO dinners are arranged for a fixed sum, in this case, our 10 course dinner, very reminiscent of a Chinese banquet wedding, was $50. I did a rough calculation on smaller portions of the dishes and you could have paid slightly less, about $40 a head for an ample dinner for 4 people.
 


The first item on the menu for the night was the appetizer, San Lau Chicken. This is an interesting take on a cold dish, which is usually the first platter in a Chinese banquet. The cold, jellied drunken chicken is shredded and mixed into julienned celery, radish and mu er, wood ear mushrooms. I really liked this dish, it tasted of deep sesame and retained a good crunch. One of the dinner guests commented that the skin had been left on the chicken, which made for some fatty bits which they felt should have been omitted. Dinner had taken a fair while to get started and service was slow and inadequate but as far as food goes, so far, so good. 
 
 

The second dish was a Superior Chicken Soup, which came in a robust black pot. It was full of soft chicken pieces, red dates and Chinese dried mushrooms. The soup was piping hot and very strong and flavourful. Definitely one of the favourites of the night.
 
 

The next dish was the Steamed Sea Bass Hong Kong style. I had read that the managers of the restaurant are so particular that they go personally to select their fish at the fisheries early in the morning. The sea bass was really large and it was impressively cooked, flaky and fresh, however, the taste was slightly bitter and muddied, it didn't have that sweet taste of fish flesh that you hope for. The sauce and condiments were suitably sharp and tasty.
 
 

One of my favourites was the Beancurd in golden pumpkin sauce, I really liked how the beancurd was fried, with a good give in the skin and creamy soft on the inside. The pumpkin sauce though, could use some work. I tasted no pumpkin at all and if I had been blindfolded, it would have simply been a starchy, sweet and smooth soup.
 
 

The Salted Egg Sotong had really good flavour, but I wish that they would have used a larger sotong, these sotong seemed to have shrivelled into small bits and the coating, while flavourful, was hard. I was disappointed not to have the live steamed prawns that I had seen online, they are thrown into a wooden bucket with hot coals and seem to be the highlight of this restaurant.

 

The next dish was Champagne Pork Ribs, I was hoping for large, bone-in pieces of pork rib but no luck there! These were small, narrow nibbles of pork ribs but they were very tasty. They had been well marinated and fried to a soft but chewy texture. I am told that Champagne is a partial misnomer, most of the pork ribs are marinated in Seven-Up to get that springy, turgid texture. If I were to compare these and the pork ribs at Ming Kee seafood in Macpherson, I like Ming Kee's coffee ribs about as much as I like these ones, but Ming Kee had large, satisfying pieces, which is nice to have in pork ribs!

The Sweet Potato leaf in Claypot was quite unremarkable, it was fairly spicy is all I remember. The Kam Heong Crab is also one of the highlights of this restaurant. I had never had Kam Heong before and the spicy, dark red paste reminded me of Sichuanese ma la and has the same effect of making your mouth a little numb. The sauce is made from dried prawns, or hae bee, curry powder, birds eyes chilllies, oyster sauce, soy sauce, shallots and curry leaves, basically a mish-mesh of South East Asian flavours. I don't know that I like it, it is really overpowering. The sauce is used for chicken, lala, crab. I've always prefered my crabs plain steamed with ginger, so I'm not a good judge of sauces, but this is closer to a dry black pepper crab than the very wet chilli crab.

I enjoyed the Bee Hoon with Clam in superior stock but some of the clams were slightly sandy. I felt that could have been more attention paid to this, but the soup was very tasty. Again, I read that they boil over 10kg of clams to get this stock and it certainly had a good briney kick of clam flavour. I don't usually like Chinese desserts and I'm not a fan of yam ornee (paste) at all, so I was quite surprised that I really liked their Yuan Yang Yam Paste. I suspect this is not because it was that unusual, but because the dessert was drenched in coconut milk!

The yam paste is not savoury and cooked in lard, which I always find an odd combination, rather the yam and sweet potato had been steamed and with coconut milk added, making it a lighter and more refreshing end to a heavy meal. 

All in all, this was a very enjoyable meal with the unusual setting and good company. I am not sure it's a place I would have come out to on my own, nor that I would have found it by myself, within the condo complex. I think it would be booked solid during weekends as there is ample parking, local food at a decent price and must benefit off the large residential hinterland in this area. The staff looked very harried and I really salute the two young people for running a full restaurant with such a wide menu, not an easy ask at all. It's definitely something to be supported, if Singapore's local cuisine is to prosper and progress. 

The restaurant's prices are reasonable and I was sorry to not get to try some of their other dishes like the sweet and sour pork ribs. Their pork dishes, for example are $12/18/24 for the small, medium and large portions, as are their tofu dishes and the sweet and sour pork rice or pork rib rice, costs $6 per plate. Definitely worth a try if you are wanting a meal in the East Coast over the weekdays or are thinking of a family treat over a weekend. 

Diamond Kitchen
5000F Marine Parade Road
Ground Floor Laguna Park, (parking costs $1)
Singapore 449289
64480629
Reservation@DiamondKitchen.com.sg
http://www.diamondkitchen.com.sg/

Friday, May 16, 2014

Recipe: Vanilla Browned Butter Raspberry Jam Madeleines


I have a new discovery, Natalie Eng's gorgeous food blog here. She is a Singapore who splits her time between Singapore and Paris and has apprenticed at some of the top Parisien restaurants. Her cookery is mostly baking, but she has also included some food recipes as well. Her blog is just gastronomy to the eyes, I couldn't believe that she was barely 19 years old and had such a beautiful eye for photography. What a gift.

I sent her blog to some of my friends who are themselves gifted bakers and we all ooh-ed and aah-ed over her talent and beautiful bakes. I've been inspired by several of the items that she has blogged about and when I looked at the recipes, I was even more in love. She weighs everything and has helpfully laid out all the ingredients by weight and all the notes you need to achieve a good result. I love that her batch size is small and well-controlled.


This was the first of her recipes that I undertook to try. I have never made Madeleines but her pictures were so beautiful and moorish that it spurred me to borrow some madeleine pans at once! Browned butter is clarified butter or ghee, basically you heat butter until it starts to show brown flecks, then you skim off those charred and bitter bits and what is left is a golden, hazlenut- smelling concoction that smells divine. It is a great way to spice up your baking.

I love that this recipe uses honey and indeed, her tips, which included wiping the pan after brushing with melted butter and baking at slightly higher heat, did result in great, risen madeleines, although I felt the texture was a bit dense. I wished I had mini Madeleine trays as I think the smaller size helps with both the rising and the bite-size portion control.

I sandwiched my madeleine batter with a little spoonful of raspberry jam, I felt it cut through the butteriness of the batter and gave it a bit of a surprise. These were just delightful to eat warm, with a crisp skin and a soft interior, straight out of the oven. I baked these with K (this recipe is very simple and suitable for kids, especially if you have already made and refrigerated the batter) and the two girls chowed their way through the madeleines and the crumbs.

Since then, I have had a piping bag of madelaine batter in my fridge, as it is such a versatile thing to have lying around. I make the batter and then rest it in the piping bag, I think I could also freeze the batter for sudden desserts. I will definitely be returning to Natalie E's blog for more inspiration to bake and more deliciousness.


Vanilla Browned Butter Madeleines:
(adapted from the Le Meurice)

90 grams browned butter
15 grams honey, I used the best quality I had
70 grams eggs
25 grams milk
65 grams sugar
5 grams vanilla bean paste
100 grams T45 flour, I used regular all-purpose flour
4 grams baking powder

Directions:

1. Make a browned butter and strain out the burnt fats using a muslin cloth. Add in the honey and stir to melt it. Set aside to cool slightly.
2. Whisk the eggs, milk, vanilla paste and sugar together.
3. Sift the flour and baking powder together.
4. Add the dry ingredients into your egg mixture and mix gently till well combined and then add in your browned butter. Mix till just homogenous. Cling wrap upon contact and leave in the fridge to chill for about 1 1/2 - 2 hours.
5. Preheat your oven to 230C without ventilation. Grease your madeleine molds lightly and wipe down with a kitchen paper to remove any excess oil. Fill each mold with 6g of batter and bake for 2 minutes or till the humps have appeared. Open the door, rotate the tray and let some steam out, and finish the baking in the last minute.
6. Unmold immediately and serve warm with a cup of tea and an assortment of jams.
7. Note: if you're using normal madeleine sized molds, fill them with 25g of batter and bake at 210C.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Review: Cicheti, an Italian restaurant in Kandahar Street



The blogspace has been lighting up of late with posts about Cicheti, an Italian restaurant located in a shophouse in Kandahar Street. The restaurant is very new- which in Singapore means 3 reviews as opposed to 90 on HungryGoWhere, with a paid-for-by-the-restaurant photo gallery and booking hotline. I jest.

Does it seem to you that Singapore is just filled with Italian restaurants? Many of whom do well enough to bring their entire families over? And yet, very few of them stand out as having food that is hot to the table, home-made, consistent and not overpriced?

If that's your impression too, then we are in sync. I am hard-pressed to name my favourite Italian place in Singapore, this for a cuisine that seems to be one of Singapore's favourites. People are always asking me, so what is the best Italian restaurant in Singapore? And honestly, I can't name a favourite. I can name some good ones, should you be willing to pay and I can name you some that I pop into once in awhile if I have a craving for pasta, but something that tastes like Tuscan sunshine or a rustic Italian kitchen? Maybe it's like saying you can buy a Vespa but you can't have the riding-a-Vespa-with-your-scarf-trailing-down-cobblestone-Florence lifestyle.



I think with Cicheti though, I've found one that I will go back to and bring friends to for a good meal and a long conversation and that's saying something. Sited near the corner of Kandahar and Baghdad Street, the whole area echoes gently at night of the kind of character and energy that you find in only a few places in Singapore. I'm a little partial to this area as you can tell, but how can you not be, when you are up the road from the best Nasi Padang and sarabat Teh Tarik in Kampong Glam, from little industrial hole-in-the-walls serving everything from old-school Singaporean pastries to Vietnamese noodles and tripping over teenagers smoking shisa on the five-foot way, in the shadow of the giant Golden mosque.

The shophouse itself is nothing special and neither is the restaurant's decor, if you didn't know this is where it was, you would walk past completely. I like Baghdad Street because it's a fairly quiet street, fronting a chain-link fenced empty lot. There is little street parking so you would be well warned to find a multi-storey carpark and walk a couple short streets.

When you enter Cichetti, the first thing you see is the glassed up work space of the pizza chef, which includes the stone pizza oven suspended from the ceiling. The shape of their oven is like a cement Hershey's Kiss, kind of organic and modern at the same time. The restaurant is a mish-mesh of textures from the map-stencilled floor, to the tiled walls, some with faux drawers. The tables are rough-hewn dark wood with industrial metal-backed chairs. The restaurant seats 20 below and up to 30 (but comfortably probably 20) upstairs, it has 3 or 4 little outdoor lover seats (read: non-airconditioned) and a rooftop patio.


It is an ideal place for a date or a dinner party (upstairs), intimate and casual but stylish. There were, I noticed a lot of groups of young and professional women. It is not the place to bring your 70 year-old father, unless there is a nice table upstairs available. This being a narrow shophouse, it gets a little hot when the bulbs have been burning too long and the door is left open.

The service is unusually sweet and lovely. Never, in Singapore, have I been greeted as we sat, by a waiter who introduced himself cheerfully, nor welcome knowledgably with specials. At least, not at this price point. The waitstaff asked the two young-ish children at the next table how they found the food. I recognized the manager for the restaurant who told us that he had come to join his friend, who was the owner-operator of the restaurant. I guess time will tell but for now, I think this is a place with a lot of heart and where the food still tastes really small batch home-made and with the right balance of time on the stove and fresh herbs.


I say for now because I notice from earlier reviews, that the corkage has been re-priced from $35 to $45 (which is pretty punitive for a place with $20 pizzas) and the cost to book a 20 seat party on the second floor is $3000 on a weekday and $4000-5000 minimum spend on Friday, Saturday, excluding drinks. The reason, the manager explained, was that they would shut down their typical 30 seat takings although even he was hard-pressed to explain how their arranged menu would encompass $200 worth of food per person at $20 a pizza or $25 a pasta. This being Singapore, they are already full for some private functions.

The menu makes the bold claim of being intriguing yet accessible, which is an interesting assertion for Italian food- not comforting, familiar, and the like. The restaurant still has specials on trial, like their excellent octopus and T-bone steak and they plan to revamp their menu in July, dropping out some less popular items and putting in items like uni pasta (which did originate from Italy). The interesting thing is, the men behind the counter were all young and they were all local. The only Italians, were the couple of tables of middle-aged ones with their families. The restaurant was booked through the Friday night and there were still odd couples streaming in at 8.30pm and 9pm.


Cicheti is typically small-plate snacks or sides at bacari in Italy, a sort of Italian izakaya, if you will. Oddly enough, the restaurant isn't really snacks at all but maybe the new trend, which runs through my next couple of reviews, is that eating holes are trying to get you to drink more, so the food just accompanies your higher-margin drinks? The one-page landscape menu is very condensed into Appetizers, Pizzas, Pastas, Mains and Desserts, with perhaps 8 choices of each, something that I really appreciate (I hate pages and pages of pastas, a sure sign they are going to taste the same).

To start, we had the burratina cheese with grilled pear and parma ham. The burrata was light, fresh, cold and just excellent. It used to be that unless you went to Oso, you couldn't have a good burrata (and they would cost $50, airflown). But I find that both Cichetti and Burlamacco (on Telok Ayer Street) have very good burrata too. The combination with grilled pear was both unusual and very tasty, the parma was a little pale and weak for my taste.


We also had the calamari and the special, grilled octopus with haricot, and just to make it healthy, the mesclun salad, which was not very interesting but well executed with very sweet bi-coloured corn and a good size for one or to be shared. Depending on how you like your calamari, you will either like their home-made breaded coating, or like me, find it slightly thick on the tongue (I admit it gave it more texture and depth). The grilled octopus was wonderful, turgid, charred and lemony, which made a good contrast with the thickness of the beans. I appreciated that they used a large, fat octopus and not a small or thin tentacle.


Our mains were the meatball tagliatelle, the seafood cioppino and the baked sea-salt encrusted sea bass. The pasta was hearty and had a good depth to it, although as always the case with meatball pasta, it didn't have an overwhelming number of meatballs. The seafood bisque was excellent, it tasted fresh, from the mussels to the fish to the tomatoes- this is always my fear with ordering cioppino. This had almost a lobster bisque quality and we sopped up the soup with the bread. I had my doubts about the sea bass, I tend to be prejudiced that fish is expensive, salt crusts are a fancy way to disguise stale meat, like thick sauces, and I've had incredible salt crust baked fish in Portrugese coast, hauled out of the seaside, that would be monumentally hard to beat.

The presentation of the sea bass, in a plain Japanese department-store metal tray, also doesn't really reassure, but the fish was succulent, juicy and fresh. There was no bitterness to the fish, it was sweet, lemony and meaty. At $38, this was a fairly large fish which formed most of the main course for 3 people, so I felt it was an acceptable price and far less than dedicated seafood restaurants would charge for a fish this size.


We didn't try any of their pizzas but I watched the process and product of the oven and it looked good, with a thin crust and a good char. The four cheese pizza and plain magharita pizza are meant to be the best. These are also the more basic flavours so hopefully there will be some interesting variations on the menu soon.

The desserts were probably the weakest point of the whole meal, the salty molten chocolate cake is their best-seller and it is very good, a balance of sweet and savoury that takes away from the rich guilt of chocolate. They gave us a complimentary tester dessert which was a meringue covered in a nutty almond crust, drizzled over with a thick chocolate. Their chocolate needed to be a bit thinner but this we really enjoyed, especially crunching through the generous nut exterior.


The last dessert, which was the tiramisu, was poor- weak cream-filled marscapone in which I could barely taste any cheese and a soggy tasteless sponge that dripped watery coffee. Tiramisu is supposed to pack a punch and this one felt more unfulfiliing than a limp handshake. I felt like making one for them, because it is such a hallmark of an Italian restaurant and really, not a difficult thing to make!

The waiter's response to an earlier diner's diss of the tiramisu was very cute though, she said "well, it depends on your perspective, everyone likes different things". To me, that was telling of the positive service, particularly that the manager later acknowledged the sales numbers show the same and they are working hard on upgrading their dessert selection.

Cicheti
52 Kandahar Street
+65 62925012
www.cicheti.com

Review: Muchachos, Burritos in Singapore


The odd thing is that people always ask me, what kind of food is your favourite? What is your favourite thing to make? But no one ever asks me, what do you not eat?

And that list is surprisingly long. Capsicums, frogs, sea snails, barnacles and ark clams, mint, durian, chillies (though not curries), sesame sweets, chinese almond and bean desserts and pastes, some fried foods. There are also genres of food that I avoid entirely and amongst those are hokkien food (yes, sorry, no offense meant) and Mexican food. 


I blame my prejudice against Mexican food partly on my own dislikes for chillies, capsicum and bean pastes, all of which feature fairly prominently in Mexican dishes, and also on a poor introduction via Tex-Mex in California and New Mexico. I don't dislike it entirely and having gone to school in California, I have eaten my fair share but I rarely seek it out. Of course, since coming back to Singapore, the concentration of very commercial Mexican options has done nothing to improve my impression.
In this particular case, thankfully, I was not in charge of choosing an eatery and the majority picked a new place called Muchachos along Keong Siak Road. I've been coming to Keong Siak Road over the years and always point it out to tourists as a street where you can eat your way through modern asian cuisine at Ember, old-school charred roast meats and wanton mee at Foong Kee, excellent frog porridge, prawn mee and zi char, nouveau Australian barbeque at Burnt Ends, tapas and cocktails at Jason Atherton's Esquina and Keong Siak Snacks. And this all set in an evocative Chinatown hill of Indian temples and shophouses in the shadow of old red-lanturned brothels. 


Upon first sight, this place looks like a cake outlet, a dark clean counter with a glass display showing the variety of fillings. It is pretty spartan and very tidy. Yet, this place is the real deal. Their burritos are soft and supple and both the pork and beef fillings are succulent, flavourful and well-seasoned. The owner meant to replicate the dive-bar Mexican joints in the Mission and it really does remind me of those tastes. It is very tasty and very satisfying- most of the women that I was with opted for a bowl, which is basically all the fillings without a wrap (what's the point, loves?) or else basically a meat-enhanced salad and one had a quesadilla, which is a toasted, filled wrap. I might be used to fuller qusadillas but they looked a little skimpy, so I would stick with the burritos, which were so hefty that some of us shared it two to one. 


You pick your burrito size, choice of protein, fillings, salsa and sauce- I like the pulled pork (carnitas) and beef (carne asado) the best. The guacamole (made with fresh California Haas avocadoes) and rice were excellent and the pico de gallo and salsa verde salsas are fresh. The hot sauce surprisingly, wasn't that hot, which is fine by me but would probably bother most people. For $12, which I initially thought was expensive, I was at least pleasantly surprised by the size and I was full till dinner on less than one burrito. The production line issues that I had heard about online were not a problem the day we were there but we were early at 12 noon, in half an hour the entire (small) lot had filled up and the few counter and sidebar seats were all taken.


I wish it were closer to my office so that I could pop by once in awhile for lunch, or ask a friend. Definitely a place worth checking out, especially if you're near the area or in the mood for a little taste of .

Muchachos
22 Keong Siak Road
+65 62200458
Mon-Thurs, 12 noon - 10pm, Fri-Sat, 12 noon - 2am. Closed Sundays. 

* All photo credit to Muchachos Facebook page and Melissa H for Yelp.