A great bowl of teh

I haven’t posted for a few days because I had to take a quick work trip to Penang, Malaysia. Usually, I love going there. The street food in Penang is fantastic. Sadly, it is far better than what we get these days in Singapore. Unfortunately, because of the nature of this trip, I wasn’t able to take too much time off to visit my favourite eating stalls.

One, though, that I was able to pop into, mostly because it was just a few steps from the hotel I stayed in, was Zealand Seafood Restaurant, on Gurney Drive. This moderately sized, open air and old-fashioned eatery serves what I think is some pretty damn good bak kut teh. Bak kut teh, for the uninitiated, is a pork bone soup commonly found in both Malaysia and Singapore. It’s eaten all times of the day, but most seem to prefer it early in the morning or very late at night (after a big night out). It’s eaten with rice, fried dough sticks, or simply on its own.

I’ll be honest. I don’t like the bak kut teh that most stalls in Singapore sell. Here, it’s a clear, watery soup flavoured with too much pepper and garlic. It also usually comes with few edible ingredients — a few pieces of bone with a bit of meat on it, but that’s it. The bak kut teh served in Penang, and elsewhere throughout Malaysia, by contrast, is world’s apart. It’s made with less garlic and less pepper and with many more herbs and spices (among them dong quai, cinnamon, wolfberries, star anise and ginseng). The broth is usually dark and flavourful. The soup is also served with a heaping portion of pork bones, bork belly, mushrooms, bean curd skin, and other yummy treats.

The version served at Zealand is delicious. It’s well-balanced and very tasty. And you can also get as many refills of broth as you like. I know I try to stop here at least once whenever I visit Penang. So should you.

Zealand Seafood Restaurant
62 Gurney Drive
10250 Penang
Tel: 012 4738877

Majestic restaurant

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a little bit about the new Majestic restaurant and its chef, Mr Yong Bing Ngen. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to dine at the Majestic three times, twice pre-opening and once post-opening (last night to be more exact).

To be completely honest, the first time, the food was good but not great. It was simply well-cooked Cantonese food. In other words, it wasn’t distinctive at all. But because I’d eaten great food cooked by Chef Yong, at both Doc Cheng’s and Hai Tien Lo, I figured he was still getting used to his new kitchen and new team. The second time S and I ate the Majestic, the food was much better. But it still wasn’t amazing. Of course, the restaurant wasn’t open yet and our meals were being hosted by the restaurant’s owner in order to get feedback from a trusted group of greedy gourmets pre-opening. S and I, earnest critics that we are, wrote our host a 3 page confidential letter, sharing our thoughts on what worked and what needed to be improved.

Since opening though, it appears that Chef Yong has really hit his stride. The meal we just had was stunning. The dishes were elegantly but not pretentiously plated. The food was both traditional and contemporary at the same time. And almost every dish was delicious. We were thrilled with our meal. And ecstatic that within just a week of its official opening, the kitchen team has come together so well.

We started our meal with a combination of crispy prawn with wasabi dressing and Peking duck served with pan-seared foie gras. This was a great first course. The prawns, while commonly served at other Modern Chinese restaurants, were exellent. The foie gras and Peking duck pairing, though, was even better. The liver had a lovely caramelized crust and was deliciously runny inside. Paired with the crispy duck skin, it was a sinfully rich mouthful that left us panting for more.

Our second course was a double-boiled lobster broth with lobster meat, asparagus and mushrooms. I’m not a big fan of Chinese soups, but this was very well-executed. For my tastes, it could have had a touch more salt, but I noticed that the gals at the table were very pleased with the more subtle flavoring.

Our third course was gorgeous. It was a soft shell crab served with a creamy milk and lime sauce. Honestly, just thinking about this wonderful dish is making me hungry. The crabs were served hot and crispy. The sauce was rich but it was used sparingly, giving the dish a lightness you don’t expect in a milk-sauced dish. The crabs were also brilliantly juicy and meaty. This was a real winner!

Course number four was a grilled rack of lamb in a Chinese honey sauce accompanied by fried carrot cake. This was also perfect. The lamb was juicy and tender. The sauce, while powerful, gave the dish a nice strong accent. And the carrot cake… the carrot cake was heaven! It was, without exaggerating, the best carrot cake I have ever eaten in my whole life. In fact, Chef Yong’s carrot cake was so good that our table asked for an extra portion for each and every one of us.

Our fifth course (or sixth, if you count our extra carrot cake portion as a course) was a fried egg noodle with Teochew goose slices served with yellow chives and bean sprouts. This course really made me smile because it was, in some ways, pretty similar to my own roast duck noodles. Except of course, Chef Yong’s was better.

Dessert was a cold mango soup with pomelo, sago, ginkgo nuts and vanilla ice cream. This was the only course I could have done without. It was okay but not great. Actually, I wouldn’t have minded another helping of carrot cake instead.

The Majestic is a modern restaurant, with wood floors and tables, a green and tan palette, beautiful custom-designed chairs, and exquisite Flos lights. The room is casual but cool. The music is swinging and the service staff friendly and polite. Including several private rooms, the restaurant can seat 100. The thick but well-designed menu offers two degustation menus, a large variety of traditional Cantonese dishes and a smaller number of Modern Chinese courses.

Based on our most recent meal and discussions with both Chef Yong and the restaurant’s owner, I believe that within a few weeks, the Majestic will be consistently churning out course after course of beautiful food. And while Chef Yong is adept at cooking traditional Cantonese fare, I still believe it’s his more modern recipes that will make him famous and that will make the Majestic a real destination restaurant.

Of course, it’s not exactly fair of me (or anyone for that matter) to review a restaurant within a week of opening, but since I know Chef Yong’s food, having eaten meals made by him in three different restaurants; since I’ve visited the Majestic not just once but three times; and since I’m perfectly willing to accept that it takes a good 6 weeks for any restaurant to really come into its own; I’m happy to say that I’m impressed. And that I’ll be coming back. Because I’m really looking forward to seeing how the restaurant evolves over the next few months.

Majestic Restaurant
New Majestic Hotel
31-37 Bukit Pasoh Road
Tel: 6511 4718

IMBB 22: Roast duck noodles

Big thanks goes out to Amy of Cooking With Amy for hosting the 22nd edition of Is My Blog Burning. She’s chosen noodles as the theme for this month.

My wife S and I really enjoy making fresh pasta from scratch. We also like putting together delicious sauces to eat with our freshly-made pasta. We’ll go to our favorite butcher and vegetable stall, looking out for produce that inspires us to tie on our aprons and spend a few hours cooking away. There’s very little as rewarding as enjoying a plate of homemade pasta with a slow-cooked sauce that you’ve lovingly labored over.

Of course, there are other times when you need a plate of pasta right away. When S and I get those “I need to eat something awesome right now” cravings, we throw together a couple helpings of Roast Duck Pasta. This is one of our favorite almost-instant meals. So long as you can get your hands on an order of roast duck from a nearby Chinese takeaway or roast meats stall, you can whip up this delicious dish in a matter of minutes.

To make this, you’ll need, as mentioned, some roast duck. When you buy it, ask for some of the duck sauce. You’ll also need some pasta (I suggest angelhair or linguine), an onion, some garlic, a little olive oil and some hoisin sauce. Chicken stock and spring onions are good optional additions. Shred the duck, reserving a few nice slices to place on top of the pasta. Dice the onion and garlic. In a saucepan, heat a little olive oil. Then cook the onion and garlic until soft. In a bowl, mix some of the duck sauce with a splash of olive oil, some hoisin, and if you like the taste, some chicken stock. Pour this over the onion and garlic. Add the shredded duck into the saucepan, stir everything together and cook until the meat is warm. Cook the pasta and when al dente, drain it and stir it into the sauce. Plate the pasta, topping with a few slices of the duck and if you enjoy the taste, some chopped spring onions.

Of course, this dish is highly adaptable. In the pictured version, I’ve sprinkled some steamed salted duck egg’s yolk. It’s also great with some chili. The great thing is, from start to finish–given you have all the ingredients–you can make this in less than 10-15 minutes. I’m also purposely not giving any exact measurements here because I believe that everyone has his or her own tastes and should be able to decide for him or herself how much duck sauce or hoisin or stock to use.

Because this dish is easy to make, it’s also great to use as a course during a multiple-course dinner. After all, there’s no point killing yourself when entertaining friends or family. I find that it’s best to plan a couple intricate dishes, interspersed with equally delicious but easy-to-make ones. For Chinese New Year this year, S and I hosted and cooked my family’s reunion dinner, as we have for the past few years. We planned a 6 course dinner, of which the duck pasta dish was the 5th course. The entire menu, for the curious, consisted of egg cocotte with foie gras and truffle salsa; a trio of ngoh hiang and foie gras; prawns with a salted duck egg yolk crust, shimeji mushrooms and spinach tofu; shark’s fin soup with abalone and crabmeat; Teochew braised duck pasta; and a candied walnut ice cream sandwich, orange-Bavarian timbale and caramelized tangerines. We were also fortunate that a close friend had given us a Teochew-style braised duck, which we used for the pasta (braised duck works just as well as roasted). It was, as it always is, fantastically tasty and a snap to make.

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Watch this space

Talk to a lot of the f&b insiders in town and ask them what new restaurants they’re eagerly waiting to open in 2006 and chances are one of the most popular responses will be the Majestic Restaurant, opening in the next month or two at the New Majestic Hotel. The hotel, also opening soon, promises to be Singapore’s newest, coolest, swankiest boutique hotel. Both it and its ultra-suave owner, Loh Lik Peng, have been getting tons of press coverage recently, so everyone in town is pretty excited already.

I had the pleasure this weekend of having a sneak preview of the Majestic Restaurant. The kitchens at this cool, bright and modern space are presided over by Chef Yong Bing Ngen (pictured above). Chef Yong’s a familiar face to fans of Chinese food in town. Previous to joining the Majestic, he was the head chef at Hai Tien Lo, at the Pan Pacific Hotel. He’s also worked at Jiang-Nan Chun in the Four Seasons Hotel, Doc Cheng’s and Empress Room at the Raffles Hotel and at Jade in the Fullerton Hotel. Chef Yong is an expert at preparing both traditional Cantonese cuisine as well as surprising his guests with some exceptional and innovative Modern Chinese fare. In fact, it’s his Modern Chinese food that really blows me away.

I won’t say much about my sneak preview. Other than that I enjoyed it very much and I’m grateful for the invitation. I’ll post a full review of the Majestic only after the restaurant officially opens. In the meantime, I, like the rest of the city, will just have to wait excitedly for the hotel and the restaurant to open.

Shanghai Part 1: Whampoa Club

I’ll begin my report on Shanghai with the lunch my wife, S, and I had flown there to eat, a hairy crab meal cooked by chef Jereme Leung.

To introduce Jereme, a friend and fellow Singaporean, allow me to quote Patricia Wells, food critic for the International Herald Tribune. The following started a review that was published on 13 May 2005:

“It’s been a long time since I got up from the table after dining in a restaurant and whispered to myself, “genius.” But there’s surely a touch of that talent in the young, sure-footed Hong Kong-born Jereme Leung, executive chef at Whampoa Club, the bright, expansive Art Deco-style restaurant in the popular Three on the Bund complex in Shanghai.

“If there are revolutions in contemporary Chinese cooking today, then it is the gifted, ambitious chefs such as Jereme that will serve as the leaders. His food is not fusion, it is not confusion, it is not all about avocadoes and papayas with raw tuna. It’s good, honest, Chinese fare that’s been given a facelift, an update, a new look with no sacrifice in flavor. In fact, it’s more like a upgrade to first class. “

Now that’s praise!

Despite S having helped Jereme write his cookbook, New Shanghai Cuisine, we had yet to eat at Whampoa Club. Our last trip to Shanghai was in 2002. At the time, Jereme had just moved there and was busy immersing himself in Shanghai and its food in order to create his own modern and delicious take on Shanghainese cuisine. Ever since opening Whampoa Club a year or so ago, he’s been urging us to come and try it and the new cuisine he’s been making.

A huge crab fanatic, S decided to time our first trip with the hairy crab season. Two other friends, both passionate foodies with professional links to the f&b industry, decided to tag along.

Whampoa Club is, as mentioned by Ms Wells, in the sexy Three on the Bund complex (located, quite obviously, on the Bund). In addition to Jereme’s restaurant, there’s also a Jean-Georges (which we lunched at as well and about which I will post later), an Aussie restaurant called Laris, a stunning contemporary art gallery, the Giorgio Armani flagship store in Shanghai, an Evian spa, and a men’s and women’s multi-brand boutique called Three. While the Jean-Georges is dark, clubby and warm, and Laris is light, sleek and feminine, Whampoa Glam is bright, bold and glam, with a nod to the Art Deco styles of Shanghai in the 1920s.

We were seated at a wonderful table with an unparalleled view of the Pudong and presented with glasses of Champagne–always the best greeting in any restaurant. Jereme came out to say hello and to tell us a bit about his Crab Feast Tasting Menu, which we all eagerly and greedily agreed to have.

Our menu started with a small amuse-bouche, and also the only non-crab dish (besides dessert) of the day. It was described by the waiters presenting it as “ice cream” and was composed of 5-spice beef and pureed potatoes in a cone. It’s pictured at the top of the post.

Our next course was Shanghainese drunken hairy crab, crunchy pickled vegetable, and sweet vinegar shaved ice paired with stir-fried hairy crab powder, asparagus and mini taro. The hairy crab powder dish is served in an egg shell. S and our two friends loved the drunken crab (and in fact couldn’t stop talking about this dish throughout our entire trip). Unlike them though, I’m not the biggest fan of either raw crab or Chinese drunken seafood dishes. I did however love the hairy crab powder dish. The various ingredients were layered within the shell, which meant that as you dug deeper into the dish, you would get more complex and intense flavors.

The next dish was my favorite of the meal, a stuffed crab claw with shrimp mousse, hairy crab meat and roe jelly. This dish was truly amazing. It was both delicious and totally surprising. What looks like a typical item from a Cantonese dim sum menu is in fact an El Bulli-influenced (as admitted by Jereme) combination of Cantonese and Shanghainese cuisines. More specifically, it’s a combination of the Cantonese stuffed crab claw and a xiao long bao. Instead of the usual filling of minced prawns, these crab claws are filled with an amazing xiao long bao-like soup flavored with hairy crab meat and roe. To eat one properly, you have to remove the claw and suck/drink the soup out of the top and then eat the casing. Eating it any other way would result in hot soup spilling or, in some cases, spitting out all over the place. Here’s a good example of how to eat one properly:

Our next course was a duo of hairy crab and shark’s fin creations. Served in two bowls were braised hairy crab meat with shark’s fin and crispy hairy crab dumpling with Chinese consomme. These were fantastic. The hairy crab and shark’s fin in particular was exceptionally rich and satisfying, with a real, lovely umaminess about it.

Before our next course, these uber-chic instruments were placed in front of us. I had never before seen such attractive crab eating tools. I just couldn’t resist snapping a quick picture.

And here’s the dish that called for such sexy tools. It’s a steamed hairy crab with ‘Shao Xing’ wine and baby clams.

The crab and clams are steamed in a bed of egg custard that’s been laced with the wine and the natural juices of the clams and crabs. The dish, while messy, was delicious. That said, I have to admit that I’m not the best crab eater. Unlike my wife who can strip a crab of all its meat without sacrificing an ounce of elegance or getting her hands too dirty, I’m entirely inefficient and a real mess. So, while I enjoyed this dish, I also probably didn’t do it real justice.

Next up was sauteed hairy crab legs with an array of autumn vegetables. This was a light and tasty dish. Also, since the crab meat was shelled, it was a nice stress-free dish after struggling with the previous plate. For our last crab course, we were served homemade egg noodles with hairy crab and crispy shallots.

Traditionally, ginger tea is served at the end of a hairy crab meal. S tells me it is because the heatiness of the ginger tea balances out the cooling nature of the crab. So to finish our meal, Jereme created an interesting dessert, a wild honey ginger tea, dates paste glutinous pearls, sweet corn and ginger ice-cream.

All in all, it was an excellent meal. The crab claw was, for me, the stand-out in a meal of outstanding dishes. And, after eating this meal, I have to agree with Ms Wells. Jereme has taken Chinese cuisine to a new place, and it is a place I wish more and more chefs could find their way to. He’s managed to take traditional recipes, traditional dishes and ideas, and modernize them without sacrificing their integrity. He’s preserved the vital soul of these dishes and represented them in new and exciting ways. And in so doing, he really has created a new Shanghainese cuisine.

Whampoa Club
5th Floor
Three on the Bund
3 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu
Tel: 6321 3737

Damn good dim sum!

Unfortunately, I didn’t make the delicious looking cha siu pau pictured above. Fortunately, I did have the pleasure of eating it and a whole table filled with other delicious dim sum this past Sunday morning.

Waking up too lazy to make our own breakfast, S and I decided to take a short walk around our neighbourhood and grab some food somewhere nearby. Our original destination was a prata stall at the corner of Short Street and Middle Road that I like because their prata are always very crispy. They weren’t open however. So, we walked across the street to Sunshine Plaza, which is on Middle Road between Prinsep and Bencoolen Streets. There’s a wonton mee shop there that I like but hadn’t visited in many months. I also recalled reading in the Straits Times that there was a good duck noodle place now operating in the mall. We didn’t find any duck noodle shop, but we did run across a little dim sum restaurant called Victor’s Kitchen. This place is tiny; it can seat maybe a dozen people inside and another dozen more at foldable tables set up outside, in the mall’s corridors. Inside, aside from the tables and stools, there’s one long counter covered with dim sum steamers and a small open kitchen. When we first walked by, there was nobody inside, except for the chef, and one family happily eating away at one of the exterior tables.

Curious, we decided to try a couple dishes, thinking that if they weren’t great we could head over to the wonton mee shop just a few doors away. We ordered a cheong-fan wrapped around dough sticks, some siu mai, and a steamed carrot cake. All were excellent. In fact, the steamed carrot cake was one of the best I have ever eaten. We quickly ordered some more food. I insisted on trying the lo mai kai and what the chef calls his Tasty HK Chicken. S asked for an order of custard buns. Again, they were all fantastic. The lo mai kai was delicious and I could have easily eaten another. But it was the custard buns that really blew me away. While S loves these, I have never really been a big fan. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, a custard bun is made with a soft fluffy dough and filled with both egg custard and some salted duck egg’s yolk. All of the ones I have ever tried have kind of left me wondering why people like them. Until Victor’s. His custard buns were revelatory. The dough was soft and light while the custard was sweet and runny—something I have never experienced before. Usually, the custard is overcooked and dry. But these were beautiful. Not wanting to stuff ourselves too much, we ordered some “oyster sauce cha siu pau” to take home (and also because I wanted to shoot them) and decided to stop there, rationalizing that we lived only 5 minutes away and could easily come back again.

I regret, however, not trying Victor’s “king prawn har kau”, which he told us was one of his specialties. Not being a huge har kau fan, I had decided against ordering it. But as the restaurant filled up (which it did in the 30 minutes we were there), I began to notice that every other customer was ordering them. One man even asked for 4 orders.

Victor Leung and his wife moved here from Hong Kong only last year. And they moved for one of the best reasons I can imagine—so that their kids can take advantage of Singapore’s public education system, which is one of the best if not the best in the region. I really admire this incredibly friendly couple. They picked up, moved here and have started from scratch for the sake of their kids. Victor has 20 years experience as a dim sum chef, and has worked in several countries. His last job, before coming here, was in the dim sum kitchen at the New World Hotel in Kowloon. If you’re a dim sum fan, you must, must, must check out this tiny, inexpensive and simply fantastic find. Even if you’re not, I urge you to visit, for no other reason than to support Victor and his wife.

Victor’s Kitchen
91 Bencoolen St, Sunshine Plaza, #01-21 (open 10am-9pm, Tues-Sun)
HP: 9838 2851 (He also does catering)

IMBB #17: Tea x 3

It’s time once again for Is My Blog Burning?. IMBB #17 is being hosted by A La Cuisine, who has picked tea as this month’s theme. It’s a great theme. So many wonderful dishes can be made using tea. In fact, S and I had such a hard time choosing what delicious thing to make that we decided to make not just one, but three things. We invited a couple of friends over for a lazy Saturday lunch, and put together a three course tea-based menu. We also chose, for our first two courses, to use recipes from two Singaporean chefs that we admire.

Our first course was an Oolong Tea Steeped Quail Egg and Pork Belly. We adapted this from a recipe in Menu Degustation by Anderson Ho.

Yields 4 portions

Braising liquid
Oolong tea 20g
Dark soy sauce 15ml
Light soy sauce 100ml
Cinnamon sticks 3
Cloves 2
Star anise 2
Chicken stock 1.5 litres
Rock sugar 25g

Quail eggs 4 (you can make up to 15 eggs without increasing the braising liquid)
Pork belly 200g, seasoned with five-spice powder and salt (we used a slab of just under 1kg which made at least 8 portions, also without increasing the braising liquid)
Cornstarch, for thickening
Chives 4-8 sticks for garnish

Add all the braising liquid ingredients into an oven proof casserole or pot and simmer for 20 minutes. Plunge eggs into braising liquid and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove and gently crack shells but do not break. Return into the braising liquid and steep for 1 hour. Peel shells and set eggs aside. Preheat your oven to 130ºC. Sear the seasoned pork. Then put the pork into the pot with the braising liquid, cover it and put it in the oven for 3 hours. (Anderson’s recipe calls for the pork to be simmered on the stove for 1 hour.) To serve, remove the pork and slice it. Then thicken the strained liquid with cornstarch. Serve the pork with an egg; drizzle with the sauce and garnish with chives.

Our second course comes from New Shanghai Cuisine by Jereme Leung. This book is special to me because S helped write it. Jereme, who is chef at Whampoa Club at 3 on the Bund in Shanghai and a good friend, asked S to help him with this, his first book. Working together, S helped this amazing chef turn his ideas and thoughts into beautiful prose. The book just hit the bookstores, but Jereme passed us a couple of advance copies a few weeks ago and I’ve been dying to try something from it. For this month’s IMBB, I chose Jereme’s Sugar Cane and Tea-Smoked Pork Ribs.
Serves 4

Pork spare ribs 600g
Cooking oil 250ml
Ginger 5cm knob, peeled and shredded
Spring onions 3
Water 500ml
Shao xing wine 1 Tbsp
Salt to taste
Red glutinous rice wine yeast 50ml
Tomato sauce 5 Tbsp
Sugar 150g
Cornstarch to thicken

for smoking
Aluminium foil
Plain all-purpose flour 5 Tbsp
Tea leaves 1 Tbsp, soaked
Sugar cane 5 sticks, each 5cm, lightly smashed

Cut the ribs into 8cm lengths. Deep-fry in the oil until light golden brown. Drain and set aside. In the same oil, fry half the ginger until light golden brown. Pat dry with paper towels and set aside for garnish later. In the same oil, sauté the spring onions and remaining ginger until fragrant. Add the water, shao xing wine, salt, yeast, tomato sauce and 50g of the sugar. Bring to a boil and add the spare ribs. Lower heat and simmer for 1 hour or until the pork is tender. Remove ribs and strain sauce. (You should probably try to remove the oil from the sauce as well.) Arrange the ribs on a wire rack. Line a dry wok with the foil and add the flour, tea leaves, sugar cane and the rest of the sugar. Mix well and sprinkle some water over the mixture. Cover the work and cook over high heat until yellow smoke appears. Place wire rack of ribs in the wok, over the mixture. Cover and smoke for 2-3 minutes. Meanwhile, thicken the sauce if necessary. Plate the ribs, reheat the sauce and pour it over the ribs. Add the garnish and serve.

For dessert, S made a yummy creme brulée infused with a tea I had picked up in Paris from Betjeman & Barton called A Gentleman of Deauville. This blend has a wonderful delicate floral taste with hints of chocolate. It was a very yummy end to a great meal.

Pigging out in Taipei

For months, a chef friend of S’s and mine, who moved to Taipei last year, has been raving to us about the amazing produce–seafood, meat, veggies, fruits, etc–available in Taiwan. Not only is it better than what we get in Singapore, he would tell us, but it is also much cheaper. We simply had to come up and taste all the wonderful foods, he would say. Given that this friend is (arguably) the best French chef that The Little Red Dot (that being Singapore’s latest nickname) has ever produced, I should have simply accepted what he told us as fact and visited him a long time ago. But stubborn idiot that I am–and because I had never really had the urge to see Taipei–we kept procrastinating our trip.

This past weekend, we finally got around to visiting Taipei and spending the weekend with chef Justin Quek, known to most Singaporeans (and many foodies worldwide) from his ten years as head chef of Les Amis. Justin now owns and operates his own place, La Petite Cuisine, a tiny but intimate Modern French restaurant that has within a year become recognized as Taipei’s top and perhaps most expensive European restaurant.

We flew in Friday evening, arriving a little after 5pm, and after quickly freshening up at our hotel, made our way to La Petite Cuisine for what turned out to be an extraordinary feast. Our menu, if my poor memory and lack of notes (I was too busy eating) is correct, consisted of a prawn tartare in a deep-fried pastry shell (“pie tie”); uni jelly with cauliflower cream; a summer salad topped with summer truffles (pictured); tuna belly carpaccio topped with summer truffles; squid carpaccio topped with Russian caviar; roasted pork belly with caramelized white peach; roasted quail with foiegras and figs; tagliatelle with more summer truffles; a lychee foam; and a confit of lychees on a pineapple carpaccio. The summer salad–which is one of only 2 dishes I shot a quick snap of with my tiny Contax–was a real stand out! One of the main ingredients was young bamboo shoot, something which I never expected to enjoy in a salad and which Justin explained to us was a popular summer ingredient in Taipei.

The next morning, Justin took us to the local markets. And I have to say, the produce did amaze me. The seafood was super fresh. The pork and other meats were beautiful, especially the lovely fatty pork that was being sold for close to nothing. The fruits and vegetables were so much better than what we get here in Singapore. And, as Justin had rightly pointed out, much cheaper. It was really quite an eye-opening experience and the longer we hung out at the markets, the more jealous I became. Later, we went to a well known restaurant, Chef Show Time, for lunch. According to Justin, Chef Huang is one of Taipei’s most well-known culinary stars (he’s the one on the right above; Justin is on the left). Chef Huang’s cuisine is fusion, sort of a Taiwanese-European. And while the dishes looked simple on the menu–descriptions were as plain as “fried pork Taiwanese style” and “fried crab”–the resulting dishes were hardly simple. They were, in fact, both complex and utterly delicious.

Here’s the “fried pork Taiwanese style”, which is perhaps one of the best dishes I have ever eaten in my life. The pork, splendidly fatty, was melt-in-your-mouth great.

The “fried crab” was Hokkaido Crab, lightly crumbed, fried with salt and pepper, and basil and garlic. The crab’s meat was amazingly sweet and tender. In addition to these two wonderful dishes, we had baked escargot with cheese, braised beef tongue, fried somei, mushrooms grilled with olive oil and bamboo shoots, and some imported jamon iberico bellota.

That night, we checked out the famous Shilin night market, which I can now say, I’ve been to and would happily never visit again (I’m not the biggest fan of huge crowds). I had heard a lot about the street food from this famous market. We tried the oyster noodles and the deep fried chicken filet. Both were only okay.

For lunch Sunday, we went to the one place that I had insisted be part of our culinary itinerary, Taipei’s most famous xiao long bao restaurant, Din Tai Fung. Xiao long bao (Shanghainese soup dumplings) are one of my top ten favourite food items. Friends who had eaten at both the Taipei branch and the Singapore one had always told me that the Singapore branch’s dumplings were nothing compared to the ones in Taipei. So, naturally, I had to see for myself. We ordered both the normal and the crabmeat versions. I’m happy to say that they were right. The skin of the xiao long bao I tasted were extremely thin, much thinner than the ones made here. Because the pork in Taiwan is of a much higher quality as well, and fattier too, the dumplings were also tastier. The biggest difference, though, was with the crabmeat dumplings. These tasted better simply because the crabmeat was better, fresher and with a cleaner taste than those cooked here. I could have easily eaten basket after basket if it weren’t for the fact that we were planning a second lunch at a well-known restaurant around the corner.

Slack Season Tan Tsi Noodles is a cute little restaurant that’s been built around a simple street stall from Tainan. It specializes in noodles and rice tossed with minced pork that’s been braised in an incredible master stock that’s supposedly been kept cooking for 100 years. The photo above is of the cast iron pot in which the stock is continuously stewed.

We had the noodles and the rice. Both were delicious. Happily, we also picked up a couple cans of the minced pork sauce, which I can’t wait to open and use. For dinner that night, we went to a lovely seafood restaurant, amusingly named Really Good Seafood.

Our last meal in Taipei was lunch the next day (Monday). Justin took us, plus two new friends, to an amazing Taiwanese restaurant called Ming Fu. It’s the kind of place you would never normally never walk into, the kind of non-descript neighborhood restaurant you’d just walk by, never realizing it was one of the best restaurants in town. When we entered, S, much more observant than I, noticed that there was a photo on the wall depicting the restaurant’s owner and movie director Ang Lee. Ming Fu, we soon realized, was obviously one of those cult secrets that Taiwanese-in-the-know (and no one else) dined at. We had, as I am sure you have already guessed, a fantastic meal. We had bamboo clams, grilled “tofu shark”, some wonderfully fresh green leafy vegetable fried with black beans and anchovies, deep fried black fish gizzards, and crab fried rice. All of it was fantastic. I especially enjoyed the gizzards, something I had never eaten before, and the fried rice, which was so good, we ordered some to take with us on our flight that afternoon.

All in all, it was an amazing few days of pigging out. I’ll definitely go back to Taipei now that I’ve had a taste.

La Petite Cuisine; tel: +886 2 2597 3838
Chef Show Time; tel: 2702 5277
Slack Season Tan Tsi Noodles; tel: 2772 1244
Ming Fu; tel: 2562 9287

Venice and a reborn local restaurant

This is a really quick 2-part post.

1. I’m off to Venice (Italy) this weekend, there for 10 days for work. While I’ve been pretty successful in sussing out some good restaurants and cafes, I’m sure there are many, many more I don’t know about. So, if any of y’all out there have some suggestions and recommendations, please, please tell me about them. Post them in my comments or email me! I especially want to find some great, affordable places. Thanks!

2. Over this past weekend, while wandering around looking for a place to eat before catching a film, my wife and I wandered into the recently refurbished Oriental Hotel (in Singapore). The redesign is fantastic and shows what a good, well thought out renovation can do for an aging hotel (for an example of the opposite, visit the Pan Pacific). The new interior is sleek, dark, and sexy. It’s also very Asian. Finally, the hotel looks like it belongs in the Mandarin Oriental group (which it does)! While walking around the hotel, we checked out their new buffet station cafe/restaurant Melt (gee, is every hotel in Singapore doing this now?) and then went up a floor to look at the newly re-opened and renovated Cherry Garden. We loved the new look–styled to look like a chic but zen courtyard house–of this classic Cantonese and Sichuan restaurant and were tempted to try it. And I’m glad we did. The food was very good. We had, as an amuse-bouche, a duck roll with honey, followed by carrot cake with XO sauce, some of the best siu mai I have eaten in a long time, pan-fried Shanghainese dumplings with a gorgeous, finely spun crust, spinach beancurd with crabmeat, cai miao poached in a superior stock, and cheong fan with shredded abalone. The service was also excellent and the restaurant was quiet and calm (possibly because we were eating at noon). I hate noisy, crowded Chinese restaurants with kids running all over the place. Cherry Garden, by comparison, was entirely civilized. I can’t wait to try it again. (Oh, sorry, no photos. I wasn’t carrying my camera with me.)

Cherry Garden, tel: 68853538