|From the Boathouse's rooftop bar, Prelude|
|A fleet of BMW's took us to great food|
|Desi Wentink & Garibaldi Chef Roberto Galetti|
|Novus chef Stephan Zois|
Singapore Restaurant Week will run from 9 to 16 October 2011 with nearly 100 participating eateries. Bookings can be made online from 21 September 2011 at www.restaurantweek.sg. In the meantime, click over to DiningCity.com to get a head start on some of the great restaurants you've never been to.
|Cuy al horno and potatoes -- the way it's been cooked for a thousand years|
|Pre-cooked cuy in its cute little living form.|
|A wood oven dreams are made of.|
So when in the Andean village of Pisaq in the Valle Sagrado we heard there was a guy down a narrow alley who roasts cuy al horno all day long, I was off like a shot to find him. I almost walked past the old wooden gate that opened into a cobblestone courtyard until, at the far end, I spotted an adobe barn housing a large stone and mud oven. The orange glow of wood burning inside lured me closer. It was an oven Mario Batali would kill for. The mud and straw bricks were made by hand, the oven’s perfect dome was stacked and set individually a hundred years ago by Indians who learned the skill from their fathers and grandfathers and ancestors before them. The outside was charred black from decades of smoke and near constant cooking. A trail of soot curled out of the opening and upward into the barn. This was the real deal, where the food cooks to perfection almost by itself, as if tended by spirits of the Inca who figured it all out centuries before.
|Bread fresh from the oven.|
|Roasted Cuy stuffed with simple herbs and some potatoes alongside.|
|Working the wood oven.|
|Fresh roasted Guinea Pig -- it's what's for lunch!|
|Raising cuy requires little effort, space or special food.|
|Crispy skin like roasted pork, followed by succulent meat.|
|From skin to bone (except the head), cuy resembles fantastic pork.|
|La Zhi Ji|
|Mala Frog Legs|
The difference between the 2 variations was significant. Prawns sat majestically on top of a mound of noodles, hues of red and orange glistening on the large, split shells with fat tails and head. But despite its beauty, nowhere in the sauce did we taste the essence of prawn; no delicate sweetness of roe; no briny notes of the sea. This was because the shellfish had been steamed separately and merely set on top of the noodles. To the chef’s defense, it did make for a more appealing appearance, but we chanted in unison Wah, cook the prawn together to make the dish special! Proprietor Jasmine Gan graciously accepted our comments for future versions.
The plain hokkien mee faced no such risk of reprisal from our table. The same fat noodles graced the plate, the dark sauce coating each length like savory molasses. The slippery noodles snaked their way between my lips, resisted ever so slightly against my teeth, then relinquished into a perfect mee texture. Each bite delivered that priceless breath of almost-burnt-but-not-quite flavor from the searing wok. And the plunging depth of that je ne sais quoi flavor of, yes, lard infused within the sauce was both comforting and exciting at the same time. And with a generous sprinkle of the lardon on top, the dish transported me to previously undiscovered hokkien mee heights.
We also had 2 variations of sang har bee hoon and an order of sang har hor fun with prawns. Each was very nicely done but it was the sang har hokkien crispy mee that captured my attention most; light layers of noodles fried together to form delicious little tiles which oozed with rich sauce. We finished the meal with a serving of peanut paste and a chocolate paste, each with glutinous rice balls. Each was delicate and thin -- not overly sweet or cloying -- and the glutinous rice balls, filled with red bean paste, were like tender cotton balls of flavor and texture.
So whether the black KL style hokkien mee at Kong Kee is as good as that available in KL, I really can’t say. But the noodles are the same and with their richness of taste and the obvious good cooking technique displayed by our chef, I suspect it’s a pretty close contest. Combine them with the other offerings and Kong Kee is a great option among so many in Geylang.
Kong Kee Seafood Restaurant -- 611 Lorong 31, Geylang, Singapore
National symbols. Every country has at least one. In the US it’s the bald eagle; in Singapore the Merlion. But national icons aren’t just symbols, they can also be foods. In the United States—especially in the Summer—it’s hamburgers and hot dogs. The whole world attempts to replicate the good old American burger or frank, trying to capture that elusive, special something that backyard grills produce every weekend from sea to shining sea. But for reasons which most Americans abroad can’t describe, few places outside the States do it as well as at home. It’s just one of those things, where the flavor of the dish somehow exceeds the mere combination of its ingredients. And when it does, it’s magic.
It’s no different in Singapore. Talk to anyone about Singapore’s unofficial national food and the conversation will quickly turn to one iconic dish: Hainanese Chicken Rice. It’s perhaps the most controversial issue in Singapore’s food world and everyone has their own opinion of how to eat it and who makes it best. But within this sea of discourse arises one place that most agree is a benchmark against which all others are measured: Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice in Maxwell Food Centre. It’s world renowned, thanks to the praise by celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain, New York Times food critics and food experts the world over. Anyone who knows Singapore's favorite dish knows Tian Tian.
Just what is it that makes Tian Tian's chicken rice one of the best in Singapore? “It all starts with the chickens,” explains the master himself, Mr. Loi Chi Sam who, with his wife Madam Soo Kui Lian, turned the small stall started by her brother into the Singaporean eating institution it is today. The birds – specially raised in Malaysia – are boiled in an elixir of pandan leaves, ginger, garlic and stock made from birds which preceded them. They are then plunged into ice water for 45 minutes. Meanwhile fragrant Thai rice is cooked with the same stock that the birds bathed in, imparting a delicately-infused flavor that makes the dish truly unique.
Arriving at the eight by eight foot stalls – now two which are connected -- you inevitably encounter a sizable queue. Best not to fight it; just jump in and watch the action behind the counter. One guy cuts chicken; another preps the plates with a mound of rice and a few strips of cucumber; a third takes the orders and collects the money; while behind them is at least one other guy, cooking rice, boiling the chickens, or plunging them into the ice bath to seize the thin layer of fat into luscious, subcutaneous goodness. All under the watchful eye of the Mr. Loi.
Meanwhile, hungry diners scoop the three most critical accoutrements into bowls: Tian Tian’s chili sauce – a secret mixture of blazing orange chilies, ginger and garlic – thick black soy syrup and fresh grated ginger. Every bite should include these ingredients to bring out dish’s full splendor, but everyone does it differently. Some dip the meat into the sauces before eating, then chase it with a spoonful of rice. Others combine the rice and chicken, having first scooped sauces into the spoon. Still others pour them directly on the mound of chicken and rice, stir it all together and shovel it into their mouths as quickly as possible.
“The manner of eating it determines the taste,” several people advise me as I sit in the hawker center with my own precious plate. But for me, any way you eat the tender rice with silky meat and glistening skin is the right way. And as I take that first bite I realize that maybe the reason everyone has such strong opinions about chicken rice is because the delicate yet distinct flavor touches the soul personally. Exclusively. The magic of Tian Tian’s chicken rice lies somewhere beyond it’s mere recipe; there's something more going on to make this seemingly simple dish better than so many other chicken rice stalls across Singapore. No one in Maxwell, other than the soft-spoken Mr. Loi himself, knows quite what that is. But one look at this quiet hawker legend and you know he’s not giving it up anytime soon.
The depth of sushi knowledge shared was expansive; not just how to cut fish precisely and make perfectly sticky yet surprisingly light rice, but even the flavor and texture variations between specific parts of the anatomy. And not just of Chef Kok but also of Leslie, who was fully conversant on the topic.
And at the end of the session, as if to acknowledge the evolution of ancient fish dragging themselves from the wet, primordial ooze, Chef Kok strayed from the sea onto dry land with remarkable Japanese Wagyu beef. Licked for mere seconds by the flames of a blowtorch and dashed with crushed black pepper, the meat was so comprehensively marbled and rich that it radiated with shiny flavor. But keeping to his genesis, Chef Kok served it as sushi -- cut perfectly and laid atop his own magical rice.
Best of all—and here’s the real secret—is that in addition to the obvious physical benefits, foodwalking sneaks in some psychological perks. A strange thing happens when you wander down unfamiliar streets or into buildings that you have passed so many times but never ventured into: you discover riches all around you. You smirk with wonderment and scratch your head in surprise at the fascinating places and people who live all around you. You fall in love with Singapore all over again.
So if you are feeling a little too deep in that rut of everyday existence, do yourself a favor and take a foodwalk. Go somewhere different; eat something new. Get lost for a while. And rediscover the magic of this special place where you live.