Monday, October 30, 2006

Back in Bali, Eating Again

I recently went back to Bali and I hit the ground eating. After touching down, driving through the darkness and checking into my plush villa, I just about ready to crash but was too hungry to sleep. The only solution: room service; eating in my pyjamas.

The tragic part about my relationship with the lovely island of Bali and its gorgeous beaches is that I never get to enjoy them. This trip, like my last was pretty much déjà vu, in a good way and a bad way, where I only soaked up the Balinese sun during my car drives but had the privilege of feasting at new restaurants. Breakfast, one of my favourite meals, was enjoyed at the Four Seasons at Bali at Jimbaran Bay where I obsessively ordered their ethereal fluffy and delicious macadamia and poppy seed French toast with honey consecutively for two days to be firstly washed down with nutritious fresh fruit juice and then chased with a double shot espresso.

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Macadamia and poppy seed French toast

After the late morning breakfast ritual, we piled into the car and got eating. I would have liked to have squeezed in a Babi Guling or some good old comfort Padang food, but I was a guest and had little choice of our dining destinations. These are my food prints:

(or simply known as the restaurant in Amandari)
Ubud, Bali
Tel: +62 (361) 975333

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The menu in my opinion is large since it covers Western and Indonesian cuisine with no in-between fusion. Gourmet set menus from both Western and Indonesian cuisines are available, and if you call a day ahead, you can have a traditional Balinese family style feast. The restaurant excels in both cuisines, so if you pick and choose from different parts of the menu and put together a totally eclectic meal, which no one understands but you, it should work. My biggest memory of this place is the gado-gado, which had one of the best peanut sauces that has a nice touch of lemongrass.

Kafe Warisan
Jalan Raya Kerobokan
Kerobokan, Bali
Tel: +62 (362) 731175

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Baked tomato tart

I arrived here a little too early by mistake, but things work out for a reason. Arriving half an hour too early for my reservation meant that I managed to catch the sunset and against the gorgeous backdrop of the paddy fields because after the sunset, the paddy field just merges into a patch of black. Chef Nicolas is doing a good work here. Recommended are his hot foie gras and seven-hour lamb mecchoui, but I went with a baked tomato tart with honey and rosemary, pumpkin, goat’s cheese, spinach and yoghurt emulsion and a boneless baby chicken stuffed with foie gras and sage with mustard potatoes, and my dining partner only had a Australian lamb rack with dauphine gratin, fricassee of mushrooms and rosemary juice. In short, it was good and I will return when I return to Bali.

Jalan Karang Mas Sejahtera
Jimbaran, Bali
Tel: +62 (361) 702222

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Although exercise is prescribed before and after dinner as you scale the 141 steps the view of the sunset and the Indian Ocean makes it all worthwhile. The view and the ambience charms and seafood are the food of choice. The menu is simply scratched on a chalkboard, and fish and crustaceans are displayed on ice for your picking. Make your preferences known then sit back and sip on a cocktail with sand between your toes and soak in the sunset.

Jalan Karang Mas Sejahtera
Jimbaran, Bali
Tel: +62 (361) 702222

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This laid back open air trattoria, is a great place to gather for a meal, and rightly so as Sami-Sami means “local gathering”. Our meal with a gorgeous bread basket of assorted freshly baked bread, and our appetisers were … for lack of a better word appetising. If you find yourself here in Bali, the light and crisp battered Frito Misto Di Mare e Vedura Al Limone e Salsa Remoulade and asparagus salad flavours were delicate and the bloddy main course of medium rare grilled fillet of US Angus Beef Tenderloin with Rucola, Roast Potatoes, Parmesan Cheese and Balsamic Sauce was succulent and powerfully flavourful. Desserts of banana pizza and double chocolate cake were predictable, good but a little on the sweet side.

* More photos later


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Wild Rocket

Wild Rocket
Hangout Hotel
10a Upper Wilkie Road
Tel: 6339448

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laksa pesto linguine with tiger prawns and quail's egg

It has been about a year since Wild Rocket, its lawyer-turn-chef and its laksa pesto has made headlines, so I scaled mount Emily and made my first trip to Wild Rocket.

First impressions were good. The décor was modern chic, kinda hip kinda cool, instantly winning approvals. The service, however, was rather wild, they were friendly, but very curiously answered our question of “are there any daily specials” with a blabbering of their house specials. Then came the issue of how it almost felt that they did not encourage you to linger over your meal, but rather, please eat and vacate, we need your space! With every course, the food arrived quickly and as soon as you finished and placed your fork on the plate it was whizzed away. Not that I mind it so much, but I do when I deliberately left my fork and spoon apart so that I could taste the laksa pesto again, leaving me with no second tasting! The service seemed to have taken efficiency to an extreme that it did not seem to make any sense. One of my dining companions had ordered 2 appetisers and a main and the second appetiser arrived when he was not even done with the first!

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braised veal cheek au vin and green peppercorns

The pastas really shone that night. The three plates that we ordered: the signature laksa pesto linguine with tiger prawns and quail's egg was a bright burst of fresh flavour, the penne in braised veal cheek au vin and green peppercorns was rich and hearty and the crab linguine with chilli tomato cream was comforting. They were all equally delicious in their own right.

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pan seared tuna with wild rocket

Some of the appetisers struggled a little bit. The deep fried cod cakes had a lemongrass flavour that lifted it and the pan seared tuna with wild rocket was good, but felt a little like a run-of-the-mill way to start the meal. The black pepper soft shell crab with granny smith apples were interesting, but I think I would have preferred the crabs to have been coated with the sauce, much like how our black pepper crabs are fried rather than the black pepper as a sauce. The last of the appetisers, which was the most problematic, was the purée of mushrooms with white truffle oil. The only saving grace was the wonderful scent of truffle oil upon its arrival, but the soup really tasted like nothing except for a strange non-mushroom like after taste. I’m not sure if the problem was the type of mushrooms that were used or that it was in dire need of a good salting.

The mains were very sparse. It has no accompanying salad or starch, but sides are available for order. The grilled lamb rack in marsala marinade was disappointing. Flavour wise, it was powerful but the lamb rack did not seemed to be trimmed down properly and hence was too fatty.

After our plates were all rapidly cleared away, they quickly arrived with the menu for our dessert orders, but we were more or less ready the meal. We were in and out of there in about 30 minutes, and each of us had 2 courses. Some of us had reduced pasta portions for appetisers (good suggestion), and dinner cost about $30ish a person, which is not too expensive, but to scale the hill for another potential hit-and-miss situation, in all honestly, I don't think I would go back.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Japanese Eating Strip

Mohammad Sultan is a place I now associate this street with food, and in particular Japanese food rather than its previous years of being a bar-hopping strip. How this place slowly evolved into a little Japanese eatery haven is quite unclear, but these are three gems that I’ve dined at and liked.

207 River Valley Road
#01-57, UE²
Tel: 67352212

The menu here is rather large with all sorts of offerings that will tempt and satiate you. The best thing to do here, in my opinion, is to come with a group of adventurous eaters, order some sake of Asahi and a whole array of dishes from the menu. Reasonable set dinner menus are also available, which are about $30 with tax consisting of daily appetisers, two mini portions of mains and a mug beer. Other dishes that I have ordered on most occasions here is their pork salad and mentaiko pasta. This is one of the few places that I know that have mentaiko pasta on their menu, so if you have never had it, try it here! Reservations for Fridays and weekends are absolutely necessary, if not be prepared to wait for about 30 minutes.

205 River Valley Road
#01-75, UE²
Tel: 67323110

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From the name, I’m guessing this is an off-shoot from En. The menu here is different from En. The menu here is slightly more “mainstream”, and closer to the bento box set menus that we are used to seeing in most Japanese restaurants. My first introduction to this restaurant was through their yummy set dinner, which serves enough food to be shared by two consisted of: a wonderful refreshing and crunchy salad, sashimi, a hand roll, a stick of chicken yakitori, a croquette, tempura, wagyu beef, somen and green tea ice cream. The house signature unagi rice that looked so irresistible on our neighbouring diner’s table that we had to order one for ourselves was also scrumptious. Anyhow, I’ll definitely come back here.

33 Mohamed Sultan Road,
Tel: 68874669

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My last Japanese meal along this strip was at this cornershop, Yoyogi. Sushi and tempura set dinners are available, and for those who would like to live on the edge and to occasionally court death, the deadly fugu is served here. Again, this place has a rather large menu, and it took us a good 15 minutes before we decided on what to order. Most items that we ordered for dinner were good. The simple dish of garlic rice was gloriously perfumed with garlic and tasty and the featured slices of slice in my bowl of tokujyo chirashi were sweet and fresh. Another item that we tried that is worth splitting with you dining companions is the grilled bean curd with cheese and cod roe, yummy, but it tends to hit diminishing marginal returns after about 3 bites. Make sure you finish off with a scoop of their homemade yuzu ice cream, it flavour was so clean, bright and refreshing, an absolute must-try.


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Justin Quek - Inspired Tastes & Culinary Passion

Justin Quek, a heavyweight name in our local culinary scene and a growing influence in Taiwan and perhaps soon the rest of Asia. I quickly read through his book, Passion & Inspiration, last night and it put everything in context. Now established, this man lives life with passion for what he does. His culinary passion pushed him to London and then to Europe, where his passion landed him his job and the experiences that refined his skills and opened his palate. His techniques today are refined and precise and his taste is still evolving. His dinner on the 13th Oct showcased how he had incorporated local Taiwanese and traditional French Rolls-Royce ingredients to create his own form of cuisine.

I can’t speak much for Justin’s food because I never dined at Les Amis when he was behind the stove. His return and his dinner tonight was, I believe, a showcase of how he has evolved in Taiwan. Showcasing Taiwanese produce and bringing his whole kitchen and service staff with him, he tried to re-create a petite piece of La Petite Cuisine at Snappers. That night’s food was interesting; unlike his days at Les Amis, (according to foodies I dined with) the style was still Justin, but the produce that he was working with tonight were different. The plates were presented with grace and masterfully combined rich textures and light flavours.

The menu was as follows: Canapés of Tuna Tartare with Lemon Zest, Langoustine Cracker and Baby Potato Wrapped with Bacon, Smoked Cobia Parfait with “Avruga” Caviar, Seared Romaine Lettuce & King Oyster Mushroom with Autumn dressing, Duo Cooking of Maine Lobster with Ceps, Tagliatelle with Salted “Natural” Pork and Fresh Autumn Truffles, Demi-Tasse of Herbal Duck Consommé and Foie Gras Dumpling, Grilled Smoked Cote de Beouf, Autumn Vegetables, Bordeaux Sauce or Pan-roasted Ocean Sou Mei with Lobster Essence, Avant Dessert, Duo of Chef’s Dessert—Egg surprise and Jasmine Tea Jelly with Pomelo and Lemon Sorbet and Petit Fours.

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Seared Romaine Lettuce & King Oyster Mushroom with Autumn dressing

To start off, the lemon zest that garnished the raw fish was like a burst of sunshine in my mouth that what my appetite and the langoustine cracker was an intriguing paper thin crisp with a heady shrimp like taste and the caviar was luxurious paired with a rectangle of a soft smoky tasting cream. Following that was an exciting and light combination of crunchy and squishy textures that was lightly perfumed with a truffle dressing and topped with a truffle shaving, then more delicious mushrooms that accompanied lobster.

Next up was the pasta course that was light and heavy at the same time. The ribbons of pasta were coated with a gloss of oil, which I can only imagine it to be fat rendered from the crispy roasted pork that was sweet and crunchy. After the relatively subtle flavoured courses, we moved on to the more full-on flavoured foie gras dumpling that, as the service staff advised, should be chased by the herbal duck consommé. The foie gras dumpling was butter and fatty as expected, but the duck consommé was wow. The consommé was intense and simultaneously familiar to the Malaysian version of Bak Kut Teh.

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Duck Consommé and Foie Gras Dumpling

After the “appetisers”, main courses and the sweet offerings were a bit of a hit and miss. The smoked beef, a Justin Quek signature dish in la petite cuisine was gorgeous and excellent with the baby potatoes, but the fish had a really odd sauce that I could not quite appreciate. As for the duo of desserts, the first was an egg surprise, which a cutely perched egg on a bed of sesame seeds, which was contents tasted of a melted Ferraro Rocher, delicious and a product of 17 or 18 trials before they got their final product. The second of the desserts featured a jasmine tea jelly, with pomelo and a lime sorbet, was rather odd and dumbfounded our table. The jelly tasted mild on the first bite that closely follows with a bitter punch was a wonderful experience, but the aftertaste of the whole dessert was a weird sappy feeling in our mouths, unfortunately, was quite horrible.

Be thankful for petit fours, because it helped to partially erase some memory of the jelly experience. “As with tradition in Bordeaux”, as the maitre d' explained, “caneles are always served at the end of the meal”. And this recipe is one that Justin Quek had brought back from France, has tweaked it a little for the Asian taste buds, but adheres closely to the French traditional method of baking it in the copper moulds to create its signature caramelised coat.

To be honest, I was slightly disappointed. I expected to be in shock and awe for at least half the courses, but that feeling only surfaced on two occasions—duck consommé and seared romaine lettuce. At the end of dinner, I was well-fed, entertained by my company and educated on a few new food matters. Dinner was very good but lacked a magic stroke that I was hoping would take the meal to the level of sublime.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Suburbia Eating: Vine Pavilion Tea Restaurant

Vine Pavilion Tea Restaurant
126 Casuarina Road
Tel: 64598891

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Lion's Head

We stumbled upon this place when we were driving looking around for dinner. The original plan was to head to Botak Jones, but it was a Saturday night and the wait was “half an hour…at least” and so we decided to drive around instead to find some other chow.

I don’t really recall how we ended up here. I cannot remember if we came here with the intension of eating prata and then got sidelined or that we decided to see if there was any interesting food places next to the prata shop. Surprisingly, this strip is crowded! For me, Casuarina Road = Crispy Prata Shop and nothing else and so I was intrigued that there was active food scene along this street and was even more delighted to we managed to uncover another decent inexpensive eatery.

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Drunken Chicken

The Vine Pavilion Tea Restaurant is a no fuss, no table cloth eatery. On my first visit, because there were only the two of us, we only sampled 3 dishes: drunken chicken, si zi tou (literally lion’s head), which is large meatballs stuffed with a salted egg yolk and covered with a rich dark sauce, and sambal fried rice. The dishes, however, were rather outstanding and very economically priced. The drunken chicken was served at a good chilled temperature and was liquor-laced meat was delicious. The sambal fried rice also followed the same note, simple and delicious with a good wok-hei flavour.

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Crab and Duck Claypot

On our return visit, we came in a larger party and sampled more of the menu. Other specialities that they recommend was their crab and duck claypot, which soup tasted like a less salty version of a salted vegetable duck soup, but with a touch of sweetness from the crab, deep fried eggplant and fish wrapped in bean skin, deep fried as well. And as with out first visit, the food was still good and the bill was still easy on the pocket.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Night I was a Waitress

I skipped out of work early to my second job for the day. For one night only (and maybe more to come) I was going to be a waitress. How did I get involved? I dialled a chef friend of mine to ask him for a recipe. Midst our chit chat he asked if I could work for a night at their catering gig if I could get off work early since they were short on the floor. I thought it would be fun, so I said yes.

I felt like a different person. On a normal day I wear a white shirt to work, but on that day I had to put together a black outfit. Their instructions were, “black shirt, black pants, closed toe shoes… and if you don’t have a black shirt, we will provide you with one.” Black. Black. Black. I guess the reasoning is that it is elegant and smart looking and you sort of become nobody in the army of black. I took the liberty to inject some of my personality so I wore a pair of red shoes. When I arrived, they took a quick cursory glance. “Ok, you are alright, you don’t need a change. Oh, but red shoes… Hmm… ok, I think it will be ok.” I thought about reasoning that they were closed toe, but I figured I should just keep silent.

The chef arrived and I’m rather relief to see a familiar face in this catering army that has arrived. “Am I black enough?” I ask, fishing around for more affirmation, “yes of course” is the reply and I get a smile and a nod of approval. Now I don’t feel so bad about insisting on wearing those red shoes this morning.

While people potter about, I surveyed the various ways that I could make myself helpful. I relish the idea that for a night I’m a part of some sort of machine that is designed to please people. For a night, we have to ensure that these people are well looked after—enough food, enough water and to keep the alcohol flowing all night.

My first attempt at making myself useful for the night was simple, a voice beside me barked, “Move this” and I moved the crates and chilled the champagne. That task was quickly completed, then I look around for something else but there did not seem too much to do, so I sneaked a peek in the kitchen to watch the brigade.

Surprisingly the kitchen is nearly 2°C cooler than the outside and the kitchen brigade worked in relative silence, like a well oiled machine. They were all at their positions / stations, bent over in full concentration of their canapé at hand. There was plenty to be done: scallops needed to be forked, aioli and cream needed to be piped, garnishes needed to be finished, and hundreds of Chinese soup spoons still needed to be filled with delicious nibbles… for that moment, I’m just there because it is air there is cooler and rightly so to prevent all the delicate terrines from melting.

“You belong out here” and that was my cue to get out of the kitchen and back to work. More work to be done. Work is good. It beats standing around waiting for something to happen. My next task was napkin folding. Mindless, yes, but I guess you try to find some pride in what you are doing. With that task, I attempted to make sure that the square napkins fold and form a perfect triangle but I soon find out that not all napkins are equal. Not all can be folded into a perfect triangle. So I do the best I can, I aligned one end with another and ensured that the company’s logo was visible. I worked my way through two stacks of napkins and I was quite pleased with myself. The next thing I do was to make neat stacks and to place them at the bar.

One hour to the event and staff dinner arrives. One large cardboard box filled full with styrofoam boxes of fried rice. I could not bring myself to eat it so I chose to fill up with water. Half an hour to the event and everyone started moving with haste. The wine glasses finally turned up and the bar needed to be straightened up, but that is not my duty for the night. Instead I am called away for my food briefing and we are introduced to the menu and have 20 minutes to remember to canapés that are served before the guest arrived.

Memorising was easy. The guest started to arrive and the kitchen started banging out silver platters of neatly arranged canapés, but that was still manageable. The biggest challenge of that night was the silver platters. Real silver = heavyweight. 1 hour into the event and I was really started to feel the weight of the platters in my arms, or maybe I could not feel my arms.

Surprisingly, trying to get the guest to eat something was occasionally challenging. Sometimes people were not interested in food but some could be persuaded. I think my winning line that got most people to bite was “Have you tried this? It’s really really delicious… (Followed by small details about the texture and flavours of the respective canapé I was pointing at)”. My favourite people were those who greedily ate and as a token of gratitude towards them I always promised to come back with a fuller platter. I also tried to do my bit as a responsible waitress, so I only really pushed the canapés that I liked and thought were really delicious and not those that I didn’t like too much.

The event more or less came to a close at 10.30pm. By then the kitchen brigade had already broken down their stations and packed up and the bar, which just closed was being the clean up operation. We cleaned, cleared the garbage, moped and packed. By the time we are done my legs are tired and I could only feel the ache in my arms. Absolutely exhausted, but I felt gratified from a fun night of waiting and entertaining.

After that night, my first impression of catering is this. It is like running a circus. You arrive with all your props (usually in a large truck or van) for the evening. Then you set up stations and your equipment and everyone works together like a well rehearsed group, knowing their positions and the roles for the night. And to pull it all together, you have the chef or the catering manager or something like that who is like the ring master for the night. Then when it is all over, you break down everything, pack up everything back into the van and disappear, and it might almost seem like you were never even there.

I’d like to think that with that new experience as a night as a waitress, I’ve become a more educated diner. To understand, to empathise and to be more aware about what service is about. That’s not the only thing I took away from that night, I had a good upper body work out too. The next day at lunch, I could not even hold up my soup spoon without my hand shaking. Yes, it was caused by the sheer weight of those damn heavy silver platters.