Big on bigoli

pastamaking1.jpg

Regular readers will know that I am a little obsessed with Chef Roberto Galetti’s Bigola Di Spinaci Al Brasato D’Anatra (homemade spinach noodles with a braised duck sauce). I could (and have) had a second portion of it for dinner in place of dessert. There is something extremely comforting, yet indulgent about it. After having played with his braised duck sauce recipe, I have taken to making large vats of it and freezing it in portions just enough for two. However, it has never quite tasted the same when it isn’t served with bigoli, the traditional pasta of Veneto which Chef Roberto pairs with his duck sauce. Traditionally, the long pasta has a thin hole running through the length of it (like bucatini). To make this pasta, one requires access to a bigolo, a hand-operated gizmo which every Venetian home used to have. Perhaps one day, I will get my hands on one. But I was thrilled to chance upon a recipe for bigoli all’anitra (bigoli cooked in duck broth) in Giuliano Bugialli’s Bugialli on Pasta which had instructions for making plain bigoli without the aid of a bigolo.

makingpasta_stirring.jpg I loved the idea that it called for lots of eggs and some butter (I’d never made fresh pasta with butter before). Bugialli’s instructions for making fresh pasta alone make his book well worth purchasing. The initial steps are common enough: make a well in the centre of your mound of flour and place all the ingredients in it. For the bigoli, I placed the flour in a large bowl, made the well, and added the salt, butter (which I had diced ahead of time) and milk first. I cracked the three eggs into a separate bowl and lightly whisked them with a fork. Then I added some of the egg into the well and used the fork to incorporate the flour from the inner rim of the well. This helped to prevent the liquid from overflowing. As I incorporated more flour into the dough that was taking shape, making sure that flour was also getting under the mixture so that it would stick to the base of the bowl, I gradually added more of the egg until all of it was incorporated.

makingpasta_kneading.jpg Once you are able to gather the mixture into a moist, shaggy ball of dough with your hands, remove it and set it aside. The remaining bits of dough and flour should go into a sifter. Sift the unincorporated flour onto a clean work surface. The bits of dough that remain in your sifter should be discarded. Bugialli says that they will not integrate into your wet dough and will cause lumps.

Next, knead the dough using the palm of one hand, folding the dough over with your other hand while making sure that it absorbs some of the leftover flour on your work surface. (Do not sprinkle flour over the dough.) By gradually incorporating more flour this way, you are better able to gauge just how much flour is needed in the pasta (depending on the flour you use and the climate you’re working in, the liquid to flour ratio can vary). Continue kneading for 2 to 3 minutes, absorbing the flour until the dough is no longer wet and all but 4 to 5 tablespoons of flour have been incorporated. You should end up with a ball of smooth, elastic dough. (It felt like fresh Playdoh.)

makingpasta_machine.jpgI covered the ball of dough with a damp kitchen towel while I set up my pasta machine. It was easiest to work with a quarter of the dough at a time. Flatten the dough portion with the palm of your hand so that it can fit between the rollers positioned at their widest setting. Roll the dough once, gently sweep one side of it over the remaining flour and fold the dough into thirds like a business letter (this means that you end up with a squat rectangle NOT an extremely skinny rectangle). Press down with your fingers so that the 3 layers are melded together. Pass the dough through the widest setting again. Repeat rolling and folding 8 to 10 times until the dough is very smooth and elastic. Next, stretch the dough by moving the rollers to a narrower setting (do not fold anymore). Flour the pasta sheet on both sides by drawing it across the flour on your work surface. Pass the dough through the rollers once. Move the rollers down a notch then pass the dough through the rollers once and sprinkle with a little flour. For the bigoli, this was pretty quick since the pasta needs to be kept 1/8 inch thick. Cut it using the narrower, taglierini cutter. Traditionally, bigoli is kept 15 to 16 inches long. You end up with a noodle that has an almost square cross section. Let the bigoli rest on clean kitchen towels until they are needed. I must confess that I eagerly cooked a batch of pasta in salted boiling water once I was done with cutting the sheets. I loved the rich flavour and bite of the noodles. Paired with Chef Roberto’s duck sauce, they tasted heavenly.

Bugialli’s book gives more detailed instructions (with illustrations) and has recipes for a slew of different fresh pastas.

Eating Italian in Bangkok

It might seem a little odd for some of you that I’m writing about Italian restaurants in Bangkok as opposed to recommending places for delicious Thai food. But what I, and many other foodies, have discovered over the past few years is that Bangkok is home to some of the best Italian restaurants in Southeast Asia. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the quality of Italian food there is, on average, much better than in any other place in this region. Whenever I visit the city of angels, I make it a point to have at least one or two good Italian meals. Sometimes, more than half my meals end up being at Italian restaurants. Anyway, here’s a short list of places to try on your next visit.

Biscotti
I haven’t eaten at this lovely, airy, and chic restaurant in the Four Seasons hotel for a little while. But over the past half-decade or so, I’ve had some really great meals there. The pizzas, baked in a wood-fire oven, are always good. So too are the pastas. Very popular are the penne with lamb ragout, young leek and red wine reduction and the squid ink angel hair with scallops, shrimps sprout and garlic cream. This is a very popular place and is almost always packed at lunch with businessmen who like the set lunch that includes a generous appetiser buffet.
Four Seasons Bangkok, 155 Rajdamri Road
Tel: 0-2255-5443

Zanotti
Zanotti is the restaurant that most hip Thais mention when you ask them what their favourite Italian restaurant is. For over a half-decade, chef-owner Gianmaria Zanotti has turned his homey establishment off Sathorn Road into a little slice of Northern Italy. His ingredients are always fresh. The place is always busy (you MUST reserve a table if you plan on going for dinner). From what I’ve seen, many regulars never actually crack open the menu. They trust the chef will know what they want and serve them food that keeps them coming back for more.
Saladaeng Colonnade Condominium, 21/2 Soi Saladaeng, Silom Road
Tel: 0-2636-0002, 0-2636-0266

Giusto
This pricey but slick restaurant is on Sukhumvit Soi 23. It’s the kind of place you’d take someone to show off a little, while also having a good meal. Chef Fabio Colautti has prepared a really long menu of dishes that come from all over Italy. If you get a tad confused reading it, feel free to ask Giulio Saverino, who runs the front of house here, for advice. On my last trip, Mr Saverino put together a great antipasto plate which I and my companions devoured. Everything on it was delicious. The wine list is just as extensive as the menu and has some lovely choices available. Sadly, I recommend against asking for help here. On my last visit, when I asked about a specific wine, the sommelier then proceeded to suggest several alternatives. All were priced at least twice as much as the wine I had asked about – a sure sign that he was thinking more about his commission than my interests (and limitations). The restaurant also has a nice bar, perfect for pre or post dinner drinks.
16 Sukhumvit Soi 23
Tel: 0-2258-4321

Delicatezza
delicatezza.jpg This cheap and cheerful little restaurant is a favourite, secret haunt for hi-sos that prioritize substance over style. The decor is simple – some might say non-descript – but the food is excellent. It’s not fancy fare though. It’s good, rustic Italian food cooked simply and with love. The chef-owner, Zariya Charoenphol, tends to be a tad heavy-handed with her pepper, but that suits me fine. I usually end up adding extra pepper on a lot of the food I eat, so for me, her seasoning is spot-on. On my last visit, I had a side order of sauteed spinach and a big plate of pasta with mushrooms and bacon in a rich, cheesy (and peppery) cream sauce. It was yummy. Order some of the homemade ice creams for dessert. These are also fabulous.
351/3 Soi Thonglor, Sukhumvit Soi 55
Tel: 0-2382-2850

Antonio’s
This charming, intimate restaurant is perfect for a first date. It tells your potential partner that while you appreciate beauty, you aren’t into flashy things. It also tells him or her that you value quality. Antonio’s, run by Aussie-Italian Tony Armenio, serves excellent food of the highest quality. His starter of ravioli stuffed with porcini mushrooms and sauced in a truffle cream is excellent. From what I hear, it is also becoming something of a cult dish. On my last visit, I had a breaded veal chop. It was great, both crisp on the outside and amazingly pink and tender inside. Antonio’s, while not as popular as Zanotti nor as flashy as Biscotti or Giusto, is perfect for people serious about their food.
59/1 Soi Sawadee, Sukhumvit soi 31
Tel: 0-2258-4247, 0-2258-4108

Curried Shrimp

I’ve written previously that I’m a huge fan of Harry’s Bar in Venice. No trip to La Serenissima, to me, is complete without a stop into this famous restaurant and bar. Ideally, I’ll find time for a leisurely dinner with friends. At the very least, I’ll drop in for a quick Bellini and a Croque Monsieur. Of course, I’m not alone in loving Harry’s Bar. For decades, this little two-story eatery has been a must-visit for countless gourmands, celebrities, writers, and (of course) tourists.

But for every Harry’s Bar supporter, there are another two or three people that like to deride and criticize the historic institution. The biggest complaints are high prices; the number of tourists packing the place; bad food; and poor service. I agree the prices are high. But so long as people are willing to pay (and the restaurant is full every night), then the restaurant has every right to charge whatever it wants. Yes, there is an annoyingly high number of tourists, but fortunately, most of them stay downstairs, having popped in only for a quick drink; book a table upstairs and dine with the locals. I’ve eaten at Harry’s Bar in Venice several times and I have never, ever been disappointed by my food. But maybe my standards are lower than other people’s. As for the service, I don’t think it’s so much rude as it is brisk. Which given how crowded and busy the restaurant gets is fine with me.

My love for Harry’s Bar began 14 years ago. I was in University then. Three friends and I decided to head to Italy for Spring Break. Tickets round-trip from New York were only US$200. Our itinerary was Milan, Florence and Venice, with a few stops at scenic locations in between. We stayed in dirt-cheap places, hostels and pensions that charged us no more than US$4-US$10 per person a night. Fortunately, I had found 3 friends who were as in love with good food as I was (one of them would go on to help me start our school’s culinary society). We had agreed at the start of the trip that we would spend as little as possible on our accommodation and travel but splurge on our meals.

Two of my father’s closest friends, Mr & Mrs M, a wonderful couple who split their time between New York and Europe, were regulars at both Cirpriani’s in New York and at Harry’s in Venice. They were also my guardians during my time in university. Very fortunately for me, this meant that they regularly treated me to exceptional meals all over New York. They had brought me to Cirpriani’s several times. By the time I made my way to Venice for the very first time, I was already a huge fan of both the Bellini and the restaurant’s simple but delicious food.

The four of us walked up to Harry’s on a lovely Spring evening. I had totally forgotten by then that I had mentioned to Mr & Mrs M that my friends and I had made reservations there. From the second we gave my name to the manager just inside the door, we knew something strange was afoot. We were greeted like visiting rock stars and whisked immediately upstairs to what looked like the best table in the room. A round of Bellinis was presented as soon as we sat down. And then another as soon as we finished the first ones. The manager then stopped by and informed us that he had received a fax earlier that week from Mr & Mrs M. Not only was he asked to take extra special care of us, all of our drinks were both pre-ordered and paid for by the very generous Mr & Mrs M. After our Bellinis, we were presented with first one, then two bottles of La Scolca Gavi di Gavi (black label). Suffice it to say, we had an amazing and memorable dinner. And I’ve been a devoted fan ever since.

Each time I step into Harry’s Bar, I can’t help but remember that first meal I had there. More importantly, I think about a very kind and very generous older couple who spoiled me rotten and helped make me the foodie I am today. My favorite dishes are the tagliorini gratini al prosciutto (egg pasta with ham au gratin); scampi al curry (curried shrimp), carpaccio; seppie in tecia col nero (squid cooked in its own ink); salmone agli zucchini (poached salmon with zucchini sauce); fegato alla venezia (calf’s liver and onions); croque monsieur (ham and cheese sandwich); meringata al limone (lemon meringue pie); and torta di cioccolato (chocolate cake). All are classic, exceptional dishes. If you want to make these and other dishes, pick up a copy of the Harry’s Bar Cookbook. It’s an excellent, easy to follow book. And one that will make you want to visit Venice as soon as possible.

Harry’s Bar Curried Shrimp with Rice
2 pounds medium shrimps, peeled and veined (900g)
Salt and pepper
Flour for dredging
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon brandy
Curry sauce (see below)
¼ cup cream

Rinse the shrimps and dry them. Season with salt and pepper. Then dredge in flour. Shake them in a sieve to remove excess flour. Heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the shrimps and cook, tossing constantly, until they turn pink and a tad brown. Pour off the oil, add the brandy, and ignite it. Swirl skillet until the flames die out. Add curry sauce and the cream to the pan and cook, stirring, until the sauce and shrimps are hot. Serve with rice pilaf.

Curry sauce
1/4 cup olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 leeks, white part only, washed and thinly sliced
1 carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
1 green apple, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons brandy
salt
pepper
sugar (optional)
3-6 teaspoons curry powder, to taste
1/4 cup flour
3 cups fish stock, heated
1/2 cup heavy cream

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook the onion, leek and carrot in the oil for 6-8 minutes, or until the onions are soft. Add the apple, lower the heat a little, and cook for 20-30 minutes, or until the apple slices are very soft. Pour in the brandy and carefully flambé the ingredients in the pan. Then mix in the flour, curry powder (which should be adjusted to your own taste–because I like a slightly stronger flavor, I add 6 teaspoons), some salt and pepper (again, to taste) and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently. Whisk in the fish stock. I like to add a teaspoon or two of sugar, but this is optional. Cook uncovered over very low heat, again stirring frequently, for 30 minutes. Then strain the liquid into another saucepan. Stir in the cream and simmer for another 10 minutes.

Indulgent, quick and comforting

My trip to Macau last week was nothing short of crazy. My colleagues and I were there to organize and run a high-end corporate retreat for a company that was entertaining 20 of its top clients. As I wrote last week, we ate primarily in our hotel rooms, whenever we could, which was usually at rather odd hours. One of the few proper meals that we were able to enjoy — eaten while our clients were enjoying a sumptuous seven course dinner at Robuchon a Galera — was at Il Teatro, the Wynn Macau’s very chic Italian restaurant. Because we had booked quite late, we could not get a table inside the restaurant. Instead, we sat at one of three tables on the restaurant’s terrace.

Because we only had an hour and a half for dinner, we had a quick meal, sharing a starter, having a main course each and sharing the restaurant’s dessert platter. Because I spent a good portion of the week hanging out in the hotel’s lobby, where Il Teatro’s menu was on display, I knew exactly what I wanted for my main course. The home-made beef ravioli with truffle butter and freshly shaved parmesan was delicious. While simple, it was also rich and delightfully sensuous.

Earlier today, I had a craving for Il Teatro’s excellent ravioli. And while I would have loved to have tried to make my own version of the dish, I didn’t have the time to whip up a batch of pasta dough for the ravioli. Instead, I decided to make something much easier but with similar flavours.

My solution was a beef lasagne with a truffled bechamel sauce and parmesan. S and I always keep some dried lasagne sheets in our pantry. They come in handy on days like today. For the beef, I used a bit of Australian wagyu striploin that I had stored in the freezer. (Yah, I know this was ridiculously indulgent but it was damn good.) I hand-minced this and sauteed it lightly, seasoning it with just a bit of salt and pepper. Into my bechamel, I mixed some truffle salsa, one of my favourite condiments and something I always try to store in my fridge. My brother W had given us some fantastic aged parmesan. I shaved this into and over the lasagne. Prepping the whole thing took just 25 minutes. Another 20 in the oven and dinner was ready. The lasagne was rich and hearty. It was also a breeze to make, which is something I value highly.

Super-Sunday truffle pizzas

What do you do when a friend gives you a couple boxes of uni (sea urchin) and a jar filled with not one but two and a half summer truffles? Well, after whooping for joy for a good half an hour, you call some equally greedy friends and invite them over for a super-decadent Sunday lunch. It also turned out to be one of the longest lunches S and I have ever hosted. We started a little after 1pm and only served dessert (which was very kindly provided by the gorgeous, skillful and (annoyingly) skinny J of Kuidaore) a little after 5pm. Continue Reading →

Oldie but goody

The goon was still ranting. He was, thankfully, ranting rather diplomatically, speaking in rather hushed tones, not wanting to call obvious attention to himself. Unfortunately for me and my colleague, what he lacked in volume he was more than making up for in longevity. We had been sitting together for over an hour and for at least 45 minutes, he had been ranting.

In all honesty, I enjoyed knowing the goon. He was, in so many amusing ways, like a character from a bad book or movie come to life. He chain-smoked, wore long black leather coats, considered himself both charming and handsome, and liked reminding me and my colleagues as often as possible that he knew everyone and anyone worth knowing in his home town. More importantly, he wanted us to know that we wouldn’t be able to operate in his backyard without his help.

But he was also a gourmand. Over the two years we worked together, he introduced me to the very best restaurants in Venice. We got along, I think, mostly because we shared a passion for great food and wine.

The last time I saw him, however, he was pissed off. My colleague and I had agreed to have dinner with him in hopes of maintaining good personal relations and also answering some of his questions. Big mistake. The dinner turned into a 90 minute long complaint session which turned from painful to tedious to almost farcical. Farcical because by the end of the night the goon was practically threatening our organization. The only saving grace of the evening was that, as usual, the goon had brought us to an amazing place for dinner. The shoebox-sized restaurant was on a small, narrow street near Saint Mark’s Square. It specialized in steak, which in a city famous for seafood, made it a rare gem. The food was good, so good in fact that after awhile, I began to pay less and less attention to the ranting Italian sitting opposite me.

Still, it is kind of hard to ignore someone telling you that your company and your country is now his enemy, no matter how politely he was trying to say it. Dessert, however, did the trick. Once our main courses were cleared, the goon insisted I order Vini Da Arturo’s tiramisu. He said it was the best in Venice. And then he went back to complaining. He was right though. It was easily the best tiramisu I had eaten in the city that had given birth to this popular dessert. In fact, it was the best I’ve ever eaten in my life. I dare say that it’s the best tiramisu on the planet. It was also not your traditional tiramisu because it lacked the usual ladyfinger cookies. It was just cream… gloriously rich, sweet, delicious cream scooped on a plate and sprinkled with chocolate. But the cream was so good that despite everything else that was going on that night, I was in heaven.

Tiramisu has kind of a bad rep. It’s mostly because the dessert is way too commonly served at bad Italian restaurants around the world. It’s also one of the first desserts amateur cooks try their hands at making. I’m no different. I made my first tiramisu in college, using a recipe that came free with a bottle of Godiva liquor that I had just purchased. I can’t remember if that tiramisu was any good, but I do remember enjoying every last drop of that chocolate-based booze.

Since tasting the tiramisu at Vini Da Arturo, I’ve been reminded that this Italian “pick me up” doesn’t have to be boring. If done well, it can be as good, as amazing, and as satisfying as any magically complex confection concocted by Pierre Hermé. It can even distract you from threats made by chain-smoking half-drunk goons.

Vini Da Arturo
San Marco 3656, Calle degli Assassini
Tel: 041 528 69 74

Tiramisu
This recipe is from The Silver Spoon. I like it because it doesn’t call for alcohol. I’m not a big fan of boozy desserts. Plus, I’ve discovered that the traditional recipe for this dessert didn’t have the marsala wine that so many people think it requires.

2 egg whites
4 egg yolks
1.25 cups confectioner’s sugar
1.75 cups mascarpone cheese
7 ounces ladyfingers
3/4 cup freshly brewed strong coffee, cooled
7 ounces semisweet chocolate, grated
unsweetened cocoa powder, for dusting

Stiffly whisk the egg whites in a grease-free bowl. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar in another bowl until pale and fluffy. Gently fold in the mascarpone, then the egg whites. Make a layer of ladyfingers on the base of a deep, rectangular serving dish and then brush evenly with coffee. Cover with a layer of the mascarpone cream and sprinkle with a little of the grated chocolate. Continue making layers until all the ingredients are used, ending with a layer of the mascarpone cream. Dust with cocoa and chill in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours.

Best braised duck sauce for pasta

I mentioned in a previous post that I’m a pretty regular customer at Garibaldi, considered by many foodies in Singapore to be our best Italian restaurant. I’ve been going there consistently since it opened and, for a good year or so, I had lunch there with colleagues and clients at least once or twice a week. It was near my old office, was both quiet and chic at the same time and served an excellent, reasonably priced set lunch. I also went with friends and family at night, which while a costlier affair was also more decadent. We would often put ourselves into the hands of (then-owner and) manager Beppe De Vito and chef Roberto Galetti. And we would always be rewarded with an outstanding, multi-course feast paired with luscious Italian wines.

Of all of Chef Roberto’s very well-executed dishes, I have three clear favorites. His spinach gnocchi served with a gorgonzola sauce, walnuts and aged Balsamic vinegar is smooth, sensual and rich. It’s like Catherine Deneuve on a plate. My second favorite is his osso buco with saffron risotto. Chef Roberto’s osso buco (braised veal shank) is the best I’ve had in a restaurant in Singapore. It’s soft, succulent, hearty and very, very savory. His risotto is equally delicious.

But the dish that I like above all others is Chef Roberto’s Bigola Di Spinaci Al Brasato D’Anatra, i.e. homemade spinach noodles with a braised duck sauce. I really love this dish. So does my darling wife S. She likes it so much, in fact, that she once ordered it as a starter and then, after she finished her main course, promptly ordered an additional serving in place of dessert. I have to admit that I’m often tempted to do the same thing. The duck ragout is made from duck legs and aromatic vegetables that have been slowly braised in stock and red wine. The sauce is powerful and comforting, something like the the culinary equivalent of a full-grown Golden Retriever cuddled up on your lap.

After a lot of pestering, Chef Roberto has finally given me the recipe for this fantastic, signature dish. I tried it out for the first time this past weekend. Because I was a tad lazy and short of time, I didn’t bother making my own pasta. The sauce was excellent and surprisingly easy to make. My version turned out quite a bit lighter than what I usually get when ordering this at Garibaldi. I have the feeling that Chef Roberto adapted the recipe a bit, making it healthier, before giving it to me. The restaurant version tastes like there’s much more tomato and/or tomato paste in it. It’s much stickier and stronger in taste. The restaurant version also tastes like Chef Roberto uses a rich, meat stock instead of the vegetable stock that he recommends in the recipe. That said, a friend who has had this dish several times in the restaurant and whom I also fed this past weekend said she actually preferred the slightly lighter version. It meant, she suggested, that she could eat much more of it without feeling too guilty or getting too full. I highly recommend trying it both in the restaurant (for those of you in Singapore) and also at home.

BRASATO D`ANATRA
Chef Roberto Galetti’s Braised Duck Sauce

500 gr celery, julienne
500gr carrots, julienne
500 gr onion, julienne
3 kg duck legs
1kg whole peeled tomatoes
1 btl red wine
500 ml vegetable stock
5 bay leaves

In a big pot, sauté the vegetables with olive oil. Meanwhile flour the duck legs and then pan-fry them until golden. Put the duck legs into the pot together with the vegetables. Then add the wine, the bay leaves, and the peeled tomato. Crush the tomatoes into the pot with your hands. Pour in the vegetable stock and bring everything to a boil. As soon as it boils, lower the heat, cover and simmer for 2 hours.

After 2 hours, separate the meat from the sauce. Remove excess fat and skin. Then debone the duck legs, mixing the meat back into the vegetables and sauce. Leave to rest.

Cook your noodles. Then reheat a portion of the sauce in a pan with butter, black pepper, and salt. Add some of the boiled/cooked noodles and toss. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese and parsley over the pasta and serve immediately.

First (and second and third) impressions

One of the things that I’ve always debated with friends and colleagues is, “How soon after a restaurant opens should one wait before reviewing it?” A related question to this is ,”How many times should someone dine in a place before writing a review?” Another is, “Is there a different standard that amateur reviewers, i.e. reviewers like bloggers who aren’t getting paid, and professional critics, who get paid to eat in and write about restaurants, should adhere to?”

In many major cities, the most respected restaurant critics eat in a restaurant a number of times before reviewing it. And they do so over a couple weeks if not a couple of months. Many also dine anonymously, to ensure that they get treated like any other customer. Ask anyone who works in the food and beverage industry when a restaurant is ready to be reviewed and he or she will usually advise you to wait a good 8-10 weeks before going. It takes that long for any new restaurant to identify, iron out and fix any problem areas it may have. Unexpected issues can arise and plague places opened and managed by even the very best professionals. It’s only fair, if you’re visiting as a critic, to give restaurateurs a fair chance for a good review. And that means giving any new restaurant a couple chances over its first few months to prove itself.

Il Lido, the highly publicized Italian restaurant opened by the charming and affable Beppe De Vito, is the perfect example of such a restaurant. I first went to Il Lido during its opening week. Because I was a regular at Garibaldi, also opened by De Vito, I was very excited to see what he had created in the Sentosa Golf Club and, more importantly, to taste the food. The restaurant itself was stunning. De Vito had spent a bundle making the space beautiful. The food, however, was awful. The plating was ordinary. The food was overseasoned and poorly executed. We left the restaurant disappointed and dismayed. Having experienced countless perfect meals at Garibaldi, I knew DeVito could do better.

A couple weeks ago, my wife S and I went back to Il Lido. Almost 3 months had passed since our first and disastrous visit. We went with two friends, foodies but also well-known local restaurateurs. When we arrived, we were surprised but heartened to see two other noted local restaurateurs and a respected wine distributor also having lunch (at separate tables) that day. Our meal, I’m happy to say, was a revelation, especially compared to our first visit. The food was fantastic. It was so good in fact that I dragged my whole family back to Il Lido for lunch this past weekend. This time, we had a lovely, long and leisurely meal. The weather, almost as if De Vito had planned it, was also wonderful. It was a sunny, gorgeous day. The restaurant was bathed with natural light. The view across the water was picture-perfect.

We started our lunch with a shared plate of delicious antipasti (pictured at the top of this post). We had aged Parma ham, aged Parmesan, grilled vegetables, smoked salmon, smoked duck, butter-poached lobster, calamari fritti, and some very fresh rocket.

Our next course is something that I had eaten on my previous visit and made sure to order again, not just for myself but for the whole table. It was squid ink tortelli stuffed with Atlantic cod with crabmeat in a saffron and tarragon sauce. This was magnificent. Crabmeat and saffron are two things that always go wonderfully together and this dish was no exception.

Chef Michele Pavanello gave my family and me a real treat for our third course. He served us a simple but sinful and sensual portion of risotto with summer truffles. The aroma was lovely, as was the taste. The risotto was served quite al dente. While I liked it this way both my father and mother said that they would have preferred it served a tad softer.

Our last savory was grain-fed grilled lamb cutlets with an Amarone wine sauce and broiled green asparagus. S really liked this dish. The lamb was soft, tender and very, very juicy. I would have liked the sauce to have had a slightly stronger flavor but I had to agree with her that the lamb itself was cooked expertly. Given that the sauce for this course was based on Amarone, S’s favorite type of red wine, we thought that it was only fitting that we drink an Amarone with it. We enjoyed the lamb with a half bottle of Masi Amarone 1991.

The rest of my family was too full for dessert. Greedy guy that I am, I still had enough room for a scoop of strawberry ice cream paired with some summer berries and an espresso.

I’m very glad that I gave Il Lido both a second and a third chance. I’m also happy that I spaced my visits out over a few months. Beppe De Vito took the time in between my first and second visits to take what was a restaurant with promise but a lot of rough patches and turned it into a polished stunner, the kind of place where you’d take out-of-town friends and loved ones to show off or celebrate special occasions. I’m definitely going to return to Il Lido. And I’m definitely going to remember to be patient and understanding when trying a new restaurant during its first few weeks. Because making the wrong assumptions too early might mean ruling out what might become one of the city’s best dining places in the long run.

Il Lido
Sentosa Golf Club
27 Bt Manis Rd #02-00
Singapore 099892
Tel: 6866 1977

Comfort food for a greedy princess

I’ve just recently written about our younger golden retriever Alix. So, it’s only fair that I now dedicate a post to our first and older golden, Sascha. Regular readers will remember this big white fluffy kitchen shark from a previous post in which I wrote about her penchant for stealing food off our kitchen counter. S and I bought Sascha in March 2000 and while Alix is an adorable, perpetually happy and overly friendly little tyke, Sascha’s somewhat distant. Actually, she’s just plain aloof. Unless you happen to be eating. Then, this snooty, sophisticated pooch becomes the sweetest thing in the whole wide world. She’ll stare at you with big brown eyes. Her tongue will be hanging out of her mouth–which, oddly enough, will be upturned into what looks like a big, toothy smile. Her ears will be adorably perky and her tail will be wagging enthusiastically. She’ll have one paw extended, hoping that you’ll reward her with a savory treat. Quite simply, where Alix is lazy, Sascha is just plain greedy.

S claims that Sascha eats like a man. She likes meat, more meat and sweet desserts. Put a cherry tomato in front of her, and she might pick it up with her mouth, but she’ll just as quickly spit it out. This greedy gourmet doesn’t like fruits and vegetables–unless, that is, they’ve been cooked in some kind of meat sauce. However, when she gets her paws on exactly what she wants, she eats it voraciously and quickly. And once she’s finished, she’ll toss you a look and proudly saunter off in search of another tasty morsel or a little “alone time”.

A dish that S and I both agree quite accurately reflects the rather carnivorous, yet snooty, tastes of our beloved older pooch is Osso Buco with Risotto alla Milanese. And in her honor, we whipped together a small batch–which, of course, we shared with her fuzzy Highness. I love a good Osso Buco. I adore the heartiness of the fork-tender meat that’s been lovingly braised in tomatoes and white wine. And I love the risotto that it’s traditionally paired with. Flavored with saffron and punched up with parmesan and butter, a really well-made Risotto alla Milanese is hard to beat.

For this classic dish, S and I split the cooking tasks. She handled the more arduous task of preparing the veal shanks while I took command of the risotto–something I’m particularly fond of making. For the Osso Buco, S turned to a recipe from Molly Stevens’ All About Braising. Ms Stevens’ recipe is interesting for a number of reasons: It uses a relatively small amount of liquid; she adds orange zest and fennel to the braising liquid as well, which gives the meat and the sauce a fruity, subtly anise-inflected accent; and she recommends finishing the shanks off by topping them with gremolata and returning them to the oven uncovered for 15 minutes. Because the recipe is long–it covers 4 pages in Ms Steven’s fantastic cookbook–I’ve decided not to transcribe it here. I do, however, wholeheartedly recommend buying this cookbook. Every recipe in it that S and I have tried has been fantastic. It really is one of those must-have books.

I love making risotto. Making it is incredibly therapeutic. And when done well, the result is marvelously delicious. I love the satiny smooth texture of it on the tongue. I love the rich, buttery, cheesy taste. Of course, good risotto must also be made with homemade stock–using that powdered stuff just won’t cut it. These days, when I make risotto, I can pretty much work on auto-pilot. I’ve made it often enough that I don’t need to refer to any cookbook. For reference though, I’ve decided to share with you the recipe that appears in Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’ The River Cafe Cook Book. This recipe is entirely dependable, producing excellent, delectable results.

Making this last batch was especially rewarding because a good friend had recently given us some lovely Iranian saffron that she had bought on a recent trip. Saffron, as many of you know, is the most expensive spice in the world. And Iranian saffron, prized for its fragrance, color and flavor, is considered the very best. Of course, I couldn’t resist using it in this risotto.

The Osso Buco with Risotto alla Milanese turned out just as we had hoped. In honor of our principessa pooch, S and I plated it in small, elegant portions. Just a few spoonfuls of the risotto at the bottom of a shallow dish, with a small portion of the meat, off the bone, placed over the rice.

Risotto alla Milanese
from The River Cafe Cook Book
Serves 6-8

300g arborio rice
1 litre chicken stock
150g butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium red onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 teaspoon saffron threads, soaked in a bit of stock
75ml extra dry white vermouth
175g parmesan, freshly grated

Heat the chicken stock. Melt 75g of the butter and all the oil in a large saucepan. Gently fry the onion until soft. Add the rice, and off the heat, stir until the rice becomes totally coated; this takes only a minute. Return to the heat, add 2 or so ladlefuls of hot stock and simmer, stirring, until the rice has absorbed nearly all the liquid. Add the saffron. Continue to add more stock as the previous addition is absorbed. Nearly all the stock will have been absorbed by the rice; each grain should have a creamy coating and yet still be al dente. Add remaining butter in small pieces, the vermouth and the parmesan, being careful not to overstir. Serve.

Illusions of Grandeur

I just heard some really disturbing news from a close friend. Last night, he and his wife went to a restaurant that my wife and I had introduced to him, Trattoria La Fiandra, on Prinsep Street. It’s a tiny little Italian place run by a husband and wife team. It serves good food at reasonable prices. The interior seats maybe 20 (they also have a number of outdoor tables). And unless the interior has changed radically since my last visit, the décor is pretty simple: Italian tourism posters on the walls, plastic tablecloths, and an air conditioner that makes just a tad too much noise. We liked it though because it was the kind of simple neighborhood place where you could just walk in no matter how you looked or what you were wearing and expect a good meal.

Well, that’s all changed. Last night, our friends went to La Fiandra, only to be insulted and shocked beyond belief. According to them, after having been seated at one of the indoor tables, the owner’s wife surprised them by informing them that there was now a dress code at the restaurant, and if they wanted to be served, since the husband was wearing a t-shirt, shorts and tevas, she would prefer it if they could sit out in the courtyard. Since Singapore’s been faced with a rather shocking heatwave of late, our friends apologized for not knowing about the “new” dress code but asked if this time—and seeing as they were regular patrons—might eat inside. To their amazement, according to them, the owner’s wife rather rudely informed them that when dining in her restaurant, she would like them “to follow her rules”.

I’ve eaten in La Fiandra many times, as has my whole family. My brother and I have been there many times in shorts. The restaurant as I said, to me, is pretty humble. No polished silver or fine linen here! So, to impose a dress code in a place with plastic tablecloths seems, to me, a tad ridiculous (a quick phonecall has confirmed a no shorts and no slipper policy). But to insult return customers is simply inexcusable. I, for one, will never go back to La Fiandra. Nor will my friends, whom I’m happy to say walked out and ate somewhere else.

My Favourite Pasta Dish

In my last post, I mentioned Buon Ricordo in Sydney. For those who have been, you’ll know what I am getting to. For those that have not, boy, do you have a treat in store for you (if, that is, you take my advice, and go… as soon as possible!). In fact, I envy you. That first bite of the Fettucine al Tartufovo is something I’ll never forget, and, unfortunately, never be able to recreate.

Of course, the second, third and even 30th bites, on return visits, are still fantastic enough for me to easily–and by a landslide–declare that my favourite pasta dish is Chef Armando Percuoco’s “Fettucine with Cream and Parmesan, Topped with a Fried Truffle Egg, Tossed At The Table.”

I’m not alone in praising this dish. The Sydney Morning Herald called this, “undoubtedly, Sydney’s best pasta.” I don’t know any one who has tried this who hasn’t been amazed and astounded by this beautiful, simple, but decadent recipe.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture to share. But there is a tiny one on the menu page of the restaurant’s website. Go check it out. While there, make a reservation and then call your travel agent and book a flight to Sydney. This is one dish worth flying for.