Friday, August 15, 2014

Review: San Francisco and Portland: State Bird Provisions, Frances, Pok Pok and The Screen Door

 

We ate really well in San Francisco. On our first day, we went to James Beard restaurant, State Bird Provisions. This was designated by Bon Appetit magazine as the Best New Restaurant in America, and our friend managed to get seats for us to try it. The meal is dim sum style, composed of 20 tiny shareable, small dishes and rotating menus of really interesting, local and fresh ingredients.

The place is tiny and chock full of tables, the total capacity is only about 20 people. From each corner you would see trolleys of dishes being pushed around, with a running commentary "Here we have chili spiced yuba with a parsley almond pesto, for $6," you might hear as a tray of dishes is set down on your table. "Those are veal-sweetbread polpette with blackened fig, also $6, and the bowl—that's whipped Haas avocado. We top it with this seafood salsa, which tonight is mussels, clams, scallops, calamari, and shrimp... that's probably my favorite tonight. It goes for $9."

It is one of the more free-styling food places I have been to and the energy and enthusiasiam of the place is infectious. The dishes tend to gravitate back to the same styles, burrata on fried bread (delicious), a lot of savoury and deep-fried foods like octopus, squid, corn balls and a copious use of pork belly and greens. I felt the food was alright, not mind-blowing but carefully prepared and fresh, but the concept and the crowd made it new. The price point was also incredible, we paid just $40 a person.

After dinner, our group drove to Smitten Ice Cream- a place that gained fame as a travelling truck with nitrogen-frozen ice cream. (This was back in the day, when it was really revolutionary to pour dry ice straight into a KitchenAid). I’m not a ice cream fan, especially on a freezing cold SF night, but the vanilla was absolutely smooth and very tasty. One of the selling points of nitrogen is that the crystals formed in the ice-cream are really small and therefore the overall taste is unfailingly smooth, instead of icy and this is true, I could not taste a single crystal in the ice cream, it was as if the whole thing was just made of magically, monotonously cold cream.

The next day, on a friend’s recommendation, I hopped onto OpenTable (great site) and scored a 5pm reservation for Frances, in the Castro. 5pm is a ridiculously early time for dinner, but it was the only available table for the entire week. When we arrived, I realized this is because the restaurant isn’t large at all, probably 30 seats in an L-shape, with cosy seats, a quiet environment and a peaceful, simple, pared-down presentation. I was quite sure the food would be spectacular, as they had clearly focused away from the décor.

As it turned out, this was probably my favourite meal of the whole trip. The menu changes daily and the all-male, metro-sexually groomed and “lovely, darling” wait staff were attentive and brought us hot water with a slice of lemon and crusty warm bread, without even being prompted.

I looked at the menu and was floored for what to order, everything was sourced locally and sounded amazing, for example, the bouchees were Monterey Bay Calamari, Roasted Garbanzo, Tomato and Summer Squash, Smoke Bacon Beignets with Maple Chive Crème Fraiche, Baked Cherry Stone Clams cooked with Fennel, Bacon, Kale and White Corn, Panisse Frites and Chickpea Fritters with Preserved Lemon and Olive Aioli and Charred Spring Onion and Sour Cream Dip with Nigella Seed Lavash, for $7 each. I mean, really?

And those weren’t even the Appetizers ($10 each), Entrees ($18-28 each) and Sides of Ricotta Gnocchi with Iacopy English Peas and Meyer Lemon or Baked Eggplant with Burrata and Roasted Early Girl Tomatoes for $8 each.

I challenge you to find me a top-end, beautiful, clean restaurant in Singapore that serves entrees that are not pasta for $28 each. Let alone one that does it with such a deep knowledge and dedication to the differences between local produce. In the end, we had the calamari, the Chilled Corn Soup with Sungold Cherry Tomato Puree and Cornmeal Crisps, which was smooth, cold and absolutely spectacular, and the Lucinato Kale Salad, Pecorino, Summer Stone Fruit, Spring Onion and Toasted Almond. With every bite of the salad, I tasted fresh white peach, toasted nut, caramelized onion and that crisp, dark green bitterness of kale, it was a really beautiful salad and one that inspired me to recreate my version here.

We had the Sonoma Duck Breast and Cassoulet of Butter beans, Summer Squash, Ancho Chipotle and Point Reyes Mozzerella, all of them bursting with flavour and summery vegetables. For dessert, make sure you have their ‘Lumberjack’ cake, they say that this is made fresh to the season with fruit, but it is no fruit cake, more like a well-baked, yet moist date cake with thin slices of Fuji apple, peach and coconut with a scoop of Maple Ice Cream. Really sublime stuff, I finished the whole plate before poor Z. could even look up.

The drive from SF up to Portland, was one of the most beautiful drives I have ever taken- the long straight roads, yellow dried fields and blue cloudless horizons of California, turning into swaths of everglades, green broad lakes and sunset hills resting atop clouds.

The charm of Portland, is that it melds the goodwill of a little town, where cars stop for bikes and pedestrians, with fairly cosmopolitan food and enterprise. Unlike in SF, where the immigration officers and all the other Asians will give you disingenuous looks, in Portland, you will frequently be the only Asian in the restaurant. This is like the Real America. Where men have beards and where there aren’t really many airports and when you show up with a bundt cake, they cut the whole thing into 6 equal chunks to serve (after a big meal). The America where there are deer by the roads and most people haven’t really stayed skinny.

On our first cold, peach-coloured evening in Portland, we went to Noble Rot, a restaurant where the main highlight is their rooftop vegetable garden and high deck overlooking the skyline of Portland. The food concentrates on vegetables, we had a colourful rooftop salad, with rhubarb vinegrette, quinao dumplings with fresh spring vegetables (carrots and asparagus) and steak.

The food was fresh, competent but not terribly adventurous, the vegetables were very clean and tastey but they did not taste of sunshine, the way vegetables taste in Tuscany. On the way back, we walked past Le Pigeon, which is one of the most famous places in Portland, but whose long lines had turned us off an early reservation. The food there is very modern American, in that it stretches to ingredients like rabbit and dill.

Portland has a variety of food trucks and stalls, these are really hit and miss, I had some wonderful snacks like caramel popcorn, and also some that tasted a bit mothy. My overall impression of the food trucks, particularly the ethnic food (read: Asian/African) is that they were really greasy and I wasn’t really attracted to patronise any, except maybe the burger vans. T

he next day, we went to Pok Pok, which serves Northern Thai food.To be clear, if you live in Asia and within budget flying distance of Chiang Mai or even Bangkok, there is no real need to go to Pok Pok, either in Portland or it’s sister café in NYC. (It seems all Portland successes make it to NYC, like Stumptown). But if you are in the continential USA, then Pok Pok is excellent- from their sharp and sweet drinking vinegars, to the delicious stewed pork and crispy fish that we had, it took me straight back to the strong flavours of the Northern border of Thailand with Burma.

It really hit the spot, in a little luau shack no less, with atypical indifferent Asian service and I was amazed that Portland had a clientele that could appreciate this. The restaurant also had a white cook, which I know is a politically incorrect observation, but increased my curiousity as to how they were so dedicated to their craft (and again, acceptable, as Singapore has this awful penchant for authenticity in their restaurants, from Chinese to Italian to Indian.

After a while, I was down to one meal a day (a frequent condition when I’m in the US and my body has just ceased to digest any more food). This we used for The Screen Door, a Southern restaurant – unfortunately, with only two people, we could not order much more than their buttermilk-fried chicken, okra and deep fried cornbread. While it was really good (and packed), I felt that the saltiness of their food, left the flavour somewhat blunted. I couldn’t really taste the nuance of the spices, through the heavy crispiness and saltiness of the oil and pepper. 

Review and Recipe: Sunday Folks and Waffles of Insane Greatness


I've gone a tad crazy about waffles. Granted, these have always been a favourite of mine but in the last couple weeks I've had way too many for my own good.

It all started with the wholewheat bacon and cheese waffles at Nassim Hill. The crispy exterior and the soft, savoury insides. Oh yum. Then, I was alerted to the opening of Sunday Folks at Chip Bee Gardens in Holland Village. This is an offshoot of Creamier at Toa Payoh, an ice cream store. Sunday Folks concentrates primarily on desserts and the soft-serve ice cream is offered as a side and only in 6 main flavours.

The store is sited next to Phoon Huat in Chip Bee Gardens and during the two times that I visited, it was packed. Packed with young people, spending their parents' money and looking so very chic doing it. I was amazed at the long floppy hair, hiked up behind their pant-waistband boxers and stylish striped shoes that I saw the young men wearing! What a difference to when I was that age and all the boys thought rolling out the door in slippers and bermudas was absolutely alright for a date.



The store is doing a brisk trade and that is becuase their waffles are really good- thick, wheaty and crisp. The ice cream, particularly the gula melaka sea salt caramel and the vanilla madagascar bean, is very good. The pistachio though, rubbed me the wrong way, with its slightly tannic after-taste. There aren't that many cakes, usually just three or four to choose from, but the cake skew toward the Japanese mode of matcha swiss rolls and strawberry cakes.

If you are free after dinner, I would most definitely visit for a sweet pick-me-up, but good luck getting a table, or hearing your conversation!

Having contemplated Nassim Hill's waffles, I somehow found myself the proud owner of a waffle machine, which I am now intending to upgrade to an industrial waffle machine. The one I have is a Cuisinepro a waffle plate, as opposed to the Waring waffle machines that are invertible. However, in my testing recipes, I have been really satisfied with the speed and the crispness of the waffles I've made. I shortlisted 6 waffle recipes and compared them. It seems what gives waffles the rise and crisp, is one of three things, cornflour, beaten egg white or the use of yeast (and therefore a resting time).

I have tried two of the six recipes- of course the two that didn't require resting, both were spectacular but the second one trumped the first one, especially when made with a half proportion of rye flour, for a healthier and crispier exterior. It's also very quick and simple to make as it doesn't require a resting period.
 

Waffle recipe

3 tablespoons sugar
2 eggs, separate yolks and whites and set aside
500ml milk
180g flour (1 and a half cups)
60g corn starch (half cup)
1 tablespoon baking powder
Half teaspoon salt
113g butter (half cup), melted
Half teaspoon vanilla essence (optional)

1. Sift the flour, corn starch, baking powder and salt, then set aside.
2. Combine butter, egg yolks and milk and beat well.
3. Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until risen and frothy, about 2 minutes. Add the sugar and continue to beat till the egg white is stiff and foamy.
4. Add the butter mixture to the dry ingredients then stir to combine. Don’t stir them too vigorously. We want the mixture to still be lumpy. Gently fold in the egg whites and add the vanilla essence.
5. Once the batter is combined, lightly grease your waffle maker, preheat it, and cook according to manufacturer’s instructions.
6. Dress your waffles with honey and butter, some fruit or ice cream.

Sunday Folks
44 Jalan Mera Saga, Chip Bee Gardens
Singapore 278116
Opening hours: 12pm- 10pm daily, closed Monday

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Recipe: A vintage buttercream chidlren's birthday cake

 

In the last few years, I feel like I've been swamped by fondant cakes. Fondant cakes are beautiful and often, they are the only canvas on which you can craft something really fancy. They are also extremely time-consuming, difficult to store and honestly, unpleasant to eat.


I don't understand in particular, why more children's cakes aren't regular buttercream. To me, buttercream is a real throwback ingredient but good quality buttercream is so tasty and luxurious.


This is one of the cakes we did recently for a one-year old. Since she is too young to remember the birthday, we suggested to her mummy that they choose something simple, tasty and delicious. We were so happy that they chose this buttercream pink cake and we made a delicious, moist blueberry layered cake with lemon curd and raspberry buttercream.


The siding on the cake are thin, individual pieces of fondant that have been crafted separately and then adhered to the cake right before collection and serving. The matching cupcakes have the same blueberry lemon crumb and are dusted with feminine sprinkles.


We were told the cake was so much enjoyed that it was all eaten up and that to the host's horror, one little boy even ran up to the cake and took a big lick out of the side! 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review: Bangkok Eats: Issaya Siamese Club, NAHM, Sri Bua at the Kempenski Hotel and Soi Polo Fried Chicken



I always think the most fun cities in Asia have to be Bangkok and Hong Kong- the buzz just makes me feel more alive. That and the food. Food is everywhere! I had a quick pitstop in Bangkok but I made the most of it, I think. I wanted to explore some new places this time and I think I did because I didn't eat a single beef noodle or pad thai while I was there. I almost didn't eat any mango sticky rice or Tub Tim Krub (red ruby dessert). Amazing, no?


The first night, I caught up with an old work friend at Issaya Siamese Club. I had heard a lot about this place, that specialized in Northern Thai cuisine and because I really liked Pok Pok in Portland, I thought I might like this too. I was hoping, secretly, to find the Burmese Pork Belly curry that I liked so much, but sadly, they didn't have it.


What they did have though, was a lovely Massaman Lamb curry and their curries had that sort of deep, mellow flavour of the North. Absolutely delicious. We also had a lobster that had been halved, made into an otak (fish paste) and then stuffed back into its shell and steamed. We had a pomelo salad, served in an overturned flower pot.


The only slightly sour note of the meal was the dish that looked like cabbage and turds. They were dry and kind of hard, I'm not sure what they even were! The desserts were fairly simple and also, I thought, not the strong point, coconut mochi in the a fresh coconut, but the mochi skin was thick and unrefined and a series of slightly artificial tasting ice cream flavours. The best dessert, I felt, was one that was reminescent of a street vendor dessert. On a banana leaf, they spread dried coconut, passionfruit puree and popped rice, as well as a thin shell of chocolate and sponge cake rolls filled with cream- very simple but tasty.


The next day, I went to NAHM, which is the David Thompson restaurant in Metropolitan. I had never remembered it as being particularly hip but it is now impossible to get a reservation (for dinner). I have to admit that I went in particular for lunch, because it was so hard to get a reservation and I had very low expectations.


However, the food surprised me, it was absolutely fantastic! Even Z. who does not eat to live, thought it was refreshing and different, because of the freshness of the ingredients used. We had a blue swimmer crab curry, which was mellow, with hints of spice and wonderful fresh crab and some vegetable dishes, just brimming with flavour and juiciness. Even the simple egg omellete, which was the cheapest thing on the item, was steamed and then smoked in a banana leaf pan, it had a tamago-like texture and yet a lovely savoury depth to the taste.



I walked out the restaurant impressed and very satisfied. We did not opt for the set meal, which seemed like also a good option, for our ala carte meal, we paid about SGD$40 a person. Not cheap by Thai standards, but not expensive for a special occasion, for a white tablecloth restaurant and for a really fulfilling meal.


At dinner, we went to Sri Bua at the Kempenski Hotel, which is an offshoot of a similar restaurant in Europe Kin Kiin. This was a long set dinner, served over 7 courses and my overall feeling was that it was pricey and unfulfilling for the amount they charged, even though there was nothing poor, (but also nothing memorable) about the food, which was simply beautifully presented.


There was cornettes, meringues and crackers, with a lot of dessicated kaffir and coconut, however, some of the dishes struck a slightly sour note where the proportions were not right and overall, the small plates meant that most of it was served cold which was great as an experimental and intellectual talking point, but not necessarily for the quality of the cooking.



I checked out the website after getting home and the photography of the food is simply beautiful. The dark lighting in most of the Thai restaurants made food photography rather difficult and unflattering.


The following day, we too a quick cab ride to the It was a public holiday, so the roads were absolutely empty- a real revelation. We went to Soi Polo Fried Chicken, a place that I've written about before. The fried chicken here is so good, it's raised three generations of children for the lady proprietor. Get it with an extra helping of fried garlic slices and sticky rice, along with their amazing green papaya salad and the grilled pork neck.

Recipe: Chocolate Prune Cake

 


I keep coming back to this recipe for a beautiful chocolate cake that is moist, delicious and somewhat healthy. I first tasted it when it was baked for a cookbook project and I've been making it again and again since.

You can make it neat, which is actually the way I like it best, but you can also top it with a rich chocolate ganache (this is just half cream and half dark chocolate). I chose to frost only the top, to keep it simple and rustic.

The recipe is here in a previous post.