Friday, December 10, 2010

Review: The University Club

You know food is taken seriously in a country when even schools play host to excellent restaurants. When I was in university, a good dinner was when the dining hall hadn't burned the potatoes, but with The University Club, the students at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have no excuse for not impressing their dates on Valentine's Day.

Located in the gleaming Shaw Foundation Alumni House, on Kent Ridge Drive, the restaurant can be a little difficult to get to if you don't drive, although there is a fairly extensive bus network within NUS itself.

The University Club is run by the owners of the Prive Group, so it's not surprising that the restaurant looks fantastic: an expanse of wood panelling greets you as you step out of the elevators, and when you enter the restaurant proper you realise that it's really quite a large, spacious set up.

Cleverly, however, diners are ushered into a smaller, more intimate antechamber where a large window affords a great view of the kitchen, and floor to ceiling glass windows allow a generous amount of light to come through, brightening up the dining room and ensuring that the decor is shown off to its best advantage.

The complimentary amuse-bouche was a little cherry tomato that had been hollowed out and filled with some beef carpaccio. Not bad as an introduction, though the tomato understandably lacked sweetness and juiciness.

The soup course was unusual: I do not believe I've ever had a mushroom consomme before. This was made mainly with shiitake mushrooms, which I think was unfortunate, as it gave the dish a distinctly oriental flavour, almost as if it were a herbal chicken soup. Perhaps something more earthy and robust, like cremini or portabello mushrooms, would have been a better choice.

My main course was a seafood risotto, which is an unusual choice for me since I generally prefer meats, but I'm glad I ordered it - topped with a generous helping of mixed shellfish and molluscs, the dish succeeded because of the rich stock used to cook the risotto. It was like getting two dishes in one: a starchy, filling risotto, and a piquant, fragrant bisque.

The University Club also does a credible slice (more a slab, really) of roasted pork, with a generous amount of crackling. While it looked delicious, it might be too heavy for delicate feminine appetites.

Dessert was a flourless chocolate cake, which was decadent, but rather too rich (someone once told me that that's because eggs and butter replace whatever flour used to be in the cake, which, as Wikipedia explains, is not so different from molten chocolate cake). Replacing the coffee ice cream with something tart might have helped to balance it all out.

Overall, The University Club scores fairly well above average across almost all categories: food is interesting, though perhaps not yet truly exceptional; service is prompt, efficient and friendly; and prices are fairly reasonable. Perhaps it's not too late to be a student again.

The University Club
Shaw Foundation Alumni House, Level 4
11 Kent Ridge Drive
Tel: +65 6779 8919

Opening hours: Noon to 2.30pm, 6.30pm to 10.30pm (Mon to Sat)

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Review: Where to Eat in Singapore (2010 edition)

What's odd about this post is that I'm only writing it now, it really should have occured to me that with Singapore's tourism rate growing at 20% and the integrated resorts doing a brisk trade, it would only be a matter of time before I had friends planning end of year trips to Singapore and asking for food recommendations. One of the key attractions of Singapore, apart from the Universal Studios, the Zoo and Night Safari, the monolithic new gaming floors and the property market, must surely be the food. Food here is very varied, both in type and along the price range, so it really depends on what you are looking for.

The Hottest in Town: Andre, 53, Le Bistrot Sommelier

This category might be a bit irrelevant, as you can't exactly swan in without a reservation. In fact, if you're into hip and hot, then you'd better pick up the phone and book now because these places are solidly booked two weeks in advance. 53 is a clean-lined shophouse (think: wishbone chairs in oak) helmed by an unknown upstart Michael Han, a law-student-turned-Fat-Duck protege who markets a nice blend of molecular and substantive. Although I truly enjoyed my meals there, I have to say that lunch was better value than dinner, one does need to upsize the main portion (you pay $5 more) and he's barely changed the menu since the restaurant started.

Andre is the new 53, a schmancy hotelier-melded shophouse of rococo Paris and Danish naked glass lights to feature Andre Chiang (formally from Jaan)'s nouveau cuisine. His meals are marvellous but probably still best described by my mother as "a bit, a bob and lots of flair on the side", expect to pay up to $280 for dinner and $120 for lunch. Le Bistrot Sommelier is the rustic project of Patrick Heuberger, who left Au Petit Salut to start his own intepretation of a Parisian bistro. A little hot under the collar and a little too white in clientele but it's fully booked all-night on a Tuesday and every other night for that matter.

What these restaurants all have in common is that they are helmed by a cute chef, have gorgeous, or at least, authentic-to-some interiors and to be fair, have consistently good food. Why do people go there? Probably becuase they like eating with yuppies and they know they are in for a Really Good Meal. If you can't get in, you can pay more to try the brand names in the integrated resorts, or try Valentino's, a rustic residential area eatery opened by an Italian family of chefs, Osvaldo, a rustic banking area eatery opened by another Italian cooking family, Au Petit Salut, a beautiful house serving traditional European classics in a forested area of old barracks, The White Rabbit, a beautiful garrison church serving modern European classics in a forested area of old barracks, Bistro Soori, a beautiful shophouse serving modern European classics in old Chinatown, Bedrock, a beautiful steakhouse den boasting a mesquite grill and Imperial Treasure's Super Peking Duck, serves gorgeous thin-skinned Peking Duck, truffled egg white and sauteed Sharks Fin with clear consomme in the shopping district in town.

Good for the Soul: PS Cafe Dempsey, Candlenut Kitchen, Akashi

This category is for those who are here with family and don't want to blow a huge amount on food, just have a quality meal or an enjoyable ambience. I don't know a single local who hasn't gone to Candlenut Kitchen and loved it but given the Singaporean bias for imported chefs, this local eatery seems to be flying under the radar. Chef Malcolm won the Miele Guide scholarship for up and rising chefs and his rendition of Peranakan favourites is as clean and refined as they come. I think it's brilliant cooking and you get enormous returns on your dollar. A hearty meal here seldom stretches over $30 a person, save room too for their creative and delicious dessert.

Akashi is the cheap and cheerful Japanese eatery for all those who aren't having a serious sashimi craving and their quick turnaround and sake-d chefs assure you of a fresh and loud meal. Try the outlet at Orchard Parade Hotel for classic broad-brushed Japanese decor and excellent rolls and sets. If you are craving something more raw, go to Yoshida Sushi (but only sit at the bar) or Tetsuya's.

PS Cafe Dempsey, if I were being honest, would probably not be in here if we were just talking about food. There is little to choose from between House and PS Cafe in Dempsey, both are beautifully outfitted restaurants that are a hip treat for the eyes. When the food comes though, stick to staples like the good Caesar salad and gorgeous truffle fries. PS Cafe wins out for their backlit, tropical setting, nestled within the raintrees and their hunky, warm suite of desserts.

Rich, Full and On the Street: Tiong Bahru FC, Ghim Moh FC, Sammy's Curry, Ming Kee Live Seafood

Singapore food centers are our pride and joy, these are not air-conditioned food courts (which are sub-par because they are in the basement of shopping centers), rather, these are in the heartlands of Singapore, usually squared between a housing development board flat and a wet market. Stalls selling roast meats, laksa, chicken rice, ipoh hor fun noodles, satay, spicy otah fishcake, local desserts like the ice kachang and warm ginko nut soup, these institutions are always buzzing with local flavour and great, cheap meals. Where else can you feed a family for less than $15?

I've chosen the two, Tiong Bahru and Ghim Moh which are not quite so heartland and therefore a cheaper cab ride to get to, although personally, I do actually think they've got some of the best food. Be adventurous when you go and if you really aren't that adventurous, then the best food court is in the ION shopping center in Orchard Road, try the wonderful fishball noodles and fried hokkien mee but know that you're missing out on the Real Deal.

Sammy's Curry is also an institution and to be honest, I am not entirely sure it is the best. Most times that I've eaten there, my ears are ringing too loudly for me to tell that the taste is good but I'm told that it is, so who am I to argue? Personally I prefer the pay-what-you-will, volunteer-staffed Annalakshmi or the Chindian Copper Chimney but my family does love the fishhead curry at Sammy's.

There must be as many Live Seafood places in Singapore as there are...I don't know, government campaigns. Most, similarly, are well-publicised but may or may not be all they are cracked up to be (Jumbo or Long Beach Seafood at East Coast being an exception). If you have already done the East Coast trek or are looking for something less touristy, try Ming Kee Live Seafood at Macpherson Road. Apart from its very authentic atmosphere and toilets, it has excellent crab bee hoon with giant crab pinchers and other specialties like coffee-guiness roasted pork ribs and steamed neck clams and garoupa.

Best for a romantic meal:: Andre, Bistro Soori, Au Petit Salut, Le Bistrot Sommelier

Best for a meal with the family/mother-in-law: Candlenut Kitchen and Imperial Treasure Super Beijing Duck if your parents only eat Asian, PS Cafe Dempsey if you have kids but want to maintin your cool factor, Au Petit Salut if your mother-in-law is posh, Le Bistrot Sommelier if your mother-in-law is fun

Best for teatime or souvenir shopping: Black or Papa Pelheta's for coffee, Truffs for local chocolate, Chin Mee Chin for sugee cake, Killiney Kopitiam for local coffee and kaya toast, ETA Artisan Sweets for cupcakes and macarons, TWG and Prima Cafe for copycat historical tea and DIY Singapore food mixes.