Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Jaan par André

The drizzle had many runners fleeing the track last Saturday morning. I don’t get to run much these days, so I pushed on. Soon enough, the sky was clear again, providing the perfect running condition at 7 am, just as the sun began to shine. Circling around the same track just to hit the distance can be boring after some time. Approximately 6 kilometres on, I decided to explore a new route that day. It led me to another 6 km stretch that's linked to a park in the nearby district. Much quieter than around the lake and completely bordered by lush greenery, I have a feeling that I'll be frequenting this route in weekends to come.

A few hours later, we found ourselves on the 70th floor of Swissôtel The Stamford, overlooking the Singapore Flyer and the remarkable Marina Bay Sands, which was still under construction when we visited The Lighthouse at Fullerton Hotel last year. Jaan is one of those restaurants that I’ve been wanting to try but just couldn’t get my lazy self to work on a date. Not until I read a twit from Evan informing the departure of Chef André Chiang at the end of the month. Well, it’s not like I'm familiar with his works nor am I knowledgeable on the who’s who in the fine dining circuit. But if it was under his helming of the kitchen that had Jaan debuting at position 39 of the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants for 2010, I thought this might just be the right (and last) time to sample the chef's much talked about nouvelle creations. What's more when it's just minutes away from the City Hall MRT station.

menu du marché

Shitsuoka tomato “sweet & sour”, Madagascar vanilla

Grilled tuna belly "Otoro", smoked basil oil and aromatic charcoal powder

Truffle scented foie gras jelly, served chawanmushi-style

Slow roasted Bresse chicken, barley and almond compote, fresh morel emulsion

Vintage chocolate spice ganache, milk marmalade ice cream

From the iconic capellini-sized parmesan and squid ink breadsticks to the good selection of dainty breads and teamed with impeccable, professional service, the lunch at Jaan seemed to be shaping up pretty well. Starting off the summer menu was the refreshing Shitsuoka tomato, intentionally polarized in taste for that sweet and sour contrast with the serving of basil syrup and candied slice of tomato. Pleasurable was a bite of the grilled otoro, melting easily in the mouth to unravel a smoky scent from the charcoal and sweetened slightly by what I believe to be caramelized onions. Perhaps unfashionable but I just had to soak up the remaining basil oil with my German bread. I can't recall the exact name of the third dish but I certainly remember the taste. Topping the hot foie gras jelly was a crystallized caramel mesh, melting under the heat of the jelly. Live art, this. The combination of the sweetness of caramel, richness of foie gras, invigorating smell of truffles, chives and steamed egg custard was brilliant. Despite the bold ingredients used, they harmonized well to remain subtle. Again, brilliant. After the truffle came the morel foam in which from an artistic point of view, did resemble the honeycombed morel mushroom itself. Nouvelle being light and simple, it replaced a typical heavy cream and still matched the tender and lightly salted chicken nicely while the compote provided some bite and a nice smoky flavour. There was also the salted egg marmalade condiment, which I thought the taste could have been further amplified. Dessert came as a ganache that was perfectly portioned, pairing comfortably with the tasty milk marmalade and decorated with some chocolate crumble.

We tried some dishes from the set lunch menu as well - a panache (of seafood, freshly pickled baby vegetables served with an interesting spiced kafir lime consommé), a light smoked homemade ‘boudin blanc’ (of Mediterranean seafood, served with a fantastic lobster emulsion, ginger scented William pear compote) and this.....

.....Snickers version 2010. There was nothing pretentious about this deconstruction, just a refined, delicious take on one of the most beloved snacks come those carbohydrate-deprived days. It had all the elements of the original bar and more – crushed peanuts, caramelized hazelnut, cream, chocolate crumble and the chef's signature asymmetrical (chocolate) crisps. For me, the absence of the sticky nougat was much appreciated. I wish I could takeout this "Snickers" for a movie later that evening.

A new running route, Jaan par André, Shrek 4 and a cultural lesson at an unknown, exotic steamboat restaurant. It was like spending the whole Saturday in front of the television switching between the sports, food, movie and documentary channels. The only difference was, I became a part of the programmes. Really, most Saturdays should like this.

Jaan par André
Level 70, Equinox Complex
Swissôtel The Stamford
2 Stamford Road
Singapore 178882
Tel: (+65) 6837 3322

Friday, May 21, 2010

Pyramids and Mandarins

A bowl of piping hot and sour tomato soup really perked me up that morning, instantly washing down the exhaustion from the 10 hours flight. Refreshed, I was ready to enjoy my first day in Egypt. I left my buddy's apartment and got into Khaleed’s black and white, dusty taxi. It must have been an ancient Lada 1200 or Fiat 124 or something similar. Be nice to Khaleed ‘cos your life depends on him today, said my buddy, Toni.

Khaleed is a driver frequently hired by Toni’s humanitarian organization and apparently, the best English-speaking driver around. We didn’t talk much though, not because he was unpleasant but I was busily observing and mostly amazed by the new world that surrounded me. This burly middle-aged man was cheerful and would often sing along to the Arabic songs played on the radio. It was only at certain times that he would appear more serious while muttering silent prayers.

Where you want to go? asked Khaleed.

Let’s start with the Giza plateau…and if time permits, we’ll head to Saqqara as well.

He must have thought that I was mad.

The Giza Plateau

I have no doubt that Khaleed is a good man. Too good, sometimes. As I queued to get an entrance ticket, touts started talking to him, perhaps trying to book me. The innocent Khaleed must have believed or sympathized this dude proclaiming to be an authorized tour guide appointed by the government and was offering his service for FREE. I had faith in Khaleed, who appeared convinced, and went with the flow. After a while, he left me with the dude and went back to the parking lot. The dude’s insistence that I should ride a horse or camel was annoying to say the least. A walk around the Pyramid of Khufu later, I gave him a tip (for he did, afterall, introduce me to things not mentioned in my tour guide) and walked away. Although the dude was smart enough to demand for American dollars, he wasn't aware of the value of the Malaysian Ringgit and reluctantly accepted my RM5. Well, it's still green, isn't it?

The first sight of the Great Pyramid of Khufu was already overwhelming, as we drove nearer to the plateau via the sandy Sharia al-Haram. Measuring above 130 metres in height, it was much larger that I’d imagined. How the Egyptians constructed the massive tomb remains unanswered. I’m sure it’s not as dramatic as told in Transformers - Revenge Of The Fallen. Perhaps it involved a bit of magic but I believe it’s mostly science. Take the stacking of limestone blocks to form the outer walls of the pyramids, for example. It must have been intended for a refrigeration system to maintain a low temperature condition inside the pyramids. I discovered this when I placed my hands on a limestone block for support while taking a picture of the Sphinx. It was cold, despite the heat from the roaring sun. The Egyptians were brilliant.

3 hours on and I was still circling the plateau, staring at the capped Pyramid of Khafre, observing the camel/horse rental business that wasn't very brisk, contemplating on the gender of the Sphinx and be entertained by the thousands of tourists from all over the world that joined me in celebrating one of the ancient wonders of the world that late morning.

Saqqara, Memphis

Khaleed offered me some fresh mandarins (with stems still attached!) as we made our way to the desert of Saqqara (not to be be confused with the Sahara). The cold and juicy fruit was the perfect nourishment for the Egyptian climate. I must have had 3 or 4 along the journey.

Although the ancient burial site of Saqqara is only about 30 kilometres from Cairo, the journey took more than an hour as we had to pass through villages connected by muddy, bumpy and narrow roads. That and the fact that Khaleed got sort of lost and had to ask for directions. It's not his fault because not many people would want to come here after being captivated by the Great Pyramid. But this was where it all began - where the first ever Egyptian pyramid was built. It's called the Pyramid of Djoser or more commonly known as the Step Pyramid. It only reached about a fifth of the height of the Pyramid of Khufu/Khafre but these six mastabas were believed to have ignited the drive for a perfect pyramid. Perhaps.

It's warmer here at Saqqara. Passing through the countless cooling limestone pillars to get to the pyramid was comforting. It's like the relief one gets when entering an air-conditioned shopping mall. Saqqara was a more intimate affair. Less tourists meant less touts and more quiet moments to appreciate the science and beauty of these ancient structures set against the vast, humbling desert of Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt.

I had this crazy idea of venturing even further to the desert of Dahsur. That's where the Bent Pyramid is located. It's only another 10 kilometres from here but Khaleed wouldn't have agreed for sure as it was already 3 pm and Khaleed's only request for the day was to be back at Cairo before 4 pm.

It had already passed Khaleed's bedtime when we reached the city of Cairo, given the horrendous evening traffic. As Khaleed left for home, I got into a cafe at Mohandiseen and ordered myself some juice while waiting for an unforgettable dinner later that night. I was scanning through the photographs I took that day when the mandarins from my bag called out for me. And I knew I had to take in just one more!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Trattoria Silver Spoon

As a kid, I used to dread the arrival of Mother’s Day. My family and I would work all day and night to bundle up different colours of carnations and wrap them with decorative plastics before selling them at the wet market on the day itself. It was exhausting and most of the time, I just couldn’t wait for the last stalk to be sold. We would then replenish with some good hawker food in the market. If I’d saved enough, we’d have the then infamous pandan layer cake from Australia Cake House as well. I believe that’s how we celebrated Mother’s Day throughout my primary school years. Back in the 80s, business was rather good. As time went by, demand decreased and my folks decided to just let go of this side income. I guess people are just being more pragmatic these days by bringing their parents out for a good meal on such occasions.

It was at Silver Spoon on the eve of this year’s Mother’s Day celebration that I think my momma got her first carnation. I must say that it was very thoughtful of the restaurant to present a stalk to every mother who dined there over the weekend. Momma inspected the quality of the carnation and said it was of a good grade. Gosh. Worth celebrating as well was Silver Spoon itself, for braving (greater) Kepong’s generally conservative foodscape by offering a contemporary Italian menu that is usually found at the posher neighbourhoods in town. And it’s just right across the road from one of my favourite pork noodles stalls!

What I thought would be an unacceptable starter for my folks turned out to be a hit with their tastebuds - the homemade chicken liver pate that was flavoured with brandy and thyme. The portion was well-calculated to have all the toasts equally layered with a thick spread of the rich and smooth pate. Of course, it was not as decadent as pate de foie gras but I guess to have it served relatively fresher than the canned ones and at a more affordable price, it’s quite a satisfying starter. I’m better off talking about rice congee than risotto for obvious reasons but I suppose a good stock is invariably important in both. For the signature pescatore, the menu stated a tomato and white wine sauce, which I thought was flavourful and soaked the well-cooked rice nicely. What amazed me was the selection and amount of seafood in the risotto that adding a delicate touch of brininess to the sauce. Besides the crowning semi-shelled slipper lobster, there were also mostly fresh squid rings, scallops, prawns and mussels. All at a more affordable price than the simplified, literally cheesier version I had at another more upscale restaurant. I liked the homemade potato gnocchi for 2 reasons – the aptly soft dumplings and a dense Napoli sauce that was aromatized with a few Italian herbs. One thing about my folks (dad especially) is that they tend to compare all pizzas and lamb shanks to Porto Romano’s, which they claim suit their tastes best. Mont Kiara’s branch, that is. They liked the lamb shank braised in white wine, vegetables and brown lamb stock here but commented that the sauce lacked depth and some smokiness. I disagree with my folks as both sauces are different. But all of us really enjoyed the creamy, savoury mash potatoes bedding underneath the shank. There was a point when we almost requested for an extra portion of it. There’s also a list of pizzas on the menu and our BBQ chicken pizza, with its crispy thin crust, tasty BBQ sauce, some sun-dried tomatoes and a generous portion, was good.

Novelty may not be clearly defined in the menu but what really worked, for me, were the bold flavours. Mention Kepong and most will relate it to D’Foodland and Ji De Zhi. Maybe they should note this silver spoon too.

Trattoria Silver Spoon
2, 1st Floor
Wisma Menjalara
Jalan 7A/62A, Bandar Manjalara
52200 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: (+603) 6277 0445

Thanks to Sean for introducing this place in his informative blog.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Nowhere and Al-Omda

Alexandria is located about 200 km north of Cairo. Instead of taking the train, we decided to get there by car, as suggested by a recommended local travel agent. Along the way, we passed by highways of a few sizeable lanes and in between, some poorly maintained passages that slowed us down tremendously. Our day trip came to an end around 3.30 pm and we thought we’d be able to reach Cairo before the traffic turns crazy as Cairenes rush to return home from work. It could have been earlier had we not argued with the restaurant manager for overcharging us with soggy fried calamari and frozen sea bass. I still love Alexandria, of course.

We passed by deserts and countless villages of houses made of bricks that were not unlike the ones we see in the movies. Like The Hurt Locker. As we’ve been instilled with this perception of the violence that constantly takes place in such setting through the news reports and blockbusters, I’m sure just the thought of being there would have terrified many of us. Not only did we survive, we even made an acquaintance.

Into the first hour of the journey back to Cairo, despite the cooling December air, the blinding sun and an exhausting day of walking from catacombs to castles had cast upon us (the driver included), a sleeping spell. We could see the driver dozing off a few times and despite the language barrier, took turns to keep him awake with simple conversations. I bet I could have spoken Russian to him and it wouldn’t even matter.

The car started shaking and that awoke us all. My first instinct was that we’d landed on a rough terrain. The driver said nothing and continued on. With each mile, the car shook even more violently and I was very sure that one of the front tyres had punctured. We okay? He nodded. And he slowed down, but continued to drive. What were we to do except to count on his skills and experience? We can’t possibly snatch the steering wheel from him, can we? We limped long while the driver appeared to be keeping a lookout for an auto mechanic shop among the rows of shophouses of the nearby villages facing the highway. Before losing control of the car, he desperately turned into one of the villages and began asking the locals for direction. They were of no help. And we crawled to another village.

At the second village, welcoming us was a quiet lane with rundown shophouses on both sides. Traffic was scarce and so were human activities. But we were luckier here as the driver managed to find a mechanic. But instead of checking the condition of the car, he just gave our driver a toolbox and returned to his workbench to continue welding some iron rods. We got out of the car and inspected the front tyres. Neither was flat. I seriously wanted it to be flat because, at least, it would have been an easier problem to manage. Much easier than a broken axle shaft.

Our driver started to loosen the lug nuts a bit, jacked up the car and completely removed the nuts and rim to expose the wheel hub. I had no idea what he was doing or whether he knew what he was doing. With the tip of a screwdriver, he began to remove the dirt and oil accumulated (over the years) at the hollow end of the threaded shaft connected to the hub. Was THAT the root cause to our problem? I would have removed the rims too,  but would have never thought of cleaning the hollow shaft because it didn't seem necessary to me. Seeing him work with increasing momentum, we decided not to interfere.

Some kids playing soccer at the back alley took notice and stared curiously at us for a while before returning to their game. And there was one who approached us for a cigarette. A few puffs later and without any words exchanged, we got acquainted. He asked for my friend to show him the large tribal cross tattoo emblazoned across his arm and perhaps awed by the size of design, gave my friend double thumbs up. I obviously had nothing to show but he insisted that I perform some kung fu moves for him. My flying squirrel, hidden crocodile act must have been rather impressive because I’d gotten thumbs up as well.

The driver finished what he was doing and shooed the kid away. I honestly doubted the driver’s approach but miraculously, it worked, though still not as stable as before but was safe enough to bring us back to Cairo. Until today, I still can’t figure out how the scrapping of dirt and oil out of the shaft had in anyway, helped in reconciling the torque transmission.

One thing that I’d learned throughout this trip is when Egyptians suddenly disengage from a conversation,  it usually means that they had started praying. Observed silence is followed by the quiet chanting of prayers. Our driver did just that as we sped back to Cairo. He must be praying for a petrol station as we were running very low on fuel. The sun had set and the highway was now in complete darkness, making it even more difficult to locate the lowly lit petrol stations. In the end, the driver decided to detour as we remembered passing by one not too far from the village where we repaired the car. It must have been around 8 pm then.

About 8 hours after departing from Alexandria , we reached the end of the last highway and were back in Cairo. A replacement car, arranged by the travel agent, was already waiting for us. Traffic was still rather congested but nothing mattered anymore. We had returned safe and sound.

To celebrate our survival, we headed to Al-Omda. It’s the place where young Cairenes gather with their laptops, mobile phones, trendy clothes or just chilling with a sheesha pipe in hand and some Arabic music videos. We had a great time sampling the unusually moist shish tawook (skewered, grilled chicken) and had the mother of all carbohydrate, the koshary - a bowl-shaped dish comprising of macaroni, rice, lentils, juicy sharwarma (grilled chicken) and blended with some aromatics including a generous amount of fried shallots. Savoury, well-spiced and slightly sweet, it was an Egyptian staple that was very much filling and delicious, of course.

Had the car behaved, the villages would have been nothing but some passing fragments of  traveling on the highway. There wasn't much to learn from this bittersweet journey but to witness the tranquility of a village that is so perceived as being contradictorily dangerous on our screens was indeed an interesting experience. Our trip across Egypt would have been much less perfect if not for some of these unforgettable encounters.

6 Sharia al-Ghazza
Cairo, Egypt

Friday, May 7, 2010

En Dining Bar

Iso Soba

Conservatives may argue the simplicity of the execution of the dishes we had for supper that night but I guess that's just part of the appeal that Japanese food brings, together with the emphasis placed on the freshness and quality of the ingredients. Imports do not necessarily equate to good quality, if I may add. I'm all for a local bittergourd that can provide a firmer bite and a more pronounced taste against a more expensive, less distinctive import. There wasn't anything complicated about the goya chanpuru (stir-fried bittergourd with egg, pork and tofu) nor could we conclude the origin of the gourd yet each of the fresh components made every bite more addictive than before. More so when the egg sauce was not the disgustingly starchy type. The Chinaman in me can't help but imagine mixing in a bowl of white rice and call it stir-fried rice with bittergourd and egg sauce. I'm sure it'll work.

Goya chanpuru

Something was wrong with us that night. Unknowingly, we'd ordered 3 noodle dishes from the same page of the menu. There was the Iso Soba with assorted seaweed like wakame and Irish moss, the Okinawa soba and somen chanpuru with tuna flakes. During a hot season like now, the cold Iso Soba is a delight, especially with a light soy sauce dip and crunchy seaweed. The visually modest Okinawa soba provided an interesting combination of tastes of pickled ginger, a clear soy sauce broth, kamaboko and a slice of indulging stewed pork belly. It was definitely unexpected, especially when I had miso, tonkotsu and shoyu stocks in mind. Perhaps the only regret that night was the somen chanpuru, which despite the smooth strands of somen (it's one of my favourite noodles ever!), lacked in character. Should they be more generous with the tuna flakes and vegetables like chives, the dish could have had a more robust taste.

Okinawa soba

Somen chanpuru

It was actually my first ever go at Okinawan cuisine. My initial observation was the dependency on the ingredients' natural flavours. This means less intervention of artificial flavouring and a better appreciation of the, though mild, original tastes. Perhaps it is this particular reason that had kept Okinawans healthy and hence, prolonging longevity. FYI, Okinawans are some of the longest lived people in the world.


I believe the tsukune is not part of the Okinawan cuisine  (more like a yakitori staple) but En's version seemed to be quite good. Most tsukunes that I've tried lacked the moist in the minced meat, perhaps due to the excess loss of moisture during the grilling process. So, it was good to bite into a surprisingly juicy ball of chicken meat covered lightly with a syrupy soy sauce.

Macha Panna Cotta

The announcement that the goma pudding was sold out left not one, but two eager customers rather disappointed that night. How often do we get restaurants to offer such desserts, right? The macha panna cotta was probably the next new best thing on the menu and it was befittingly a good ending to the supper. The portions of milk and macha were just right for us. I appreciate the minimum sweetness too.

Apart from the Okinawan factor and the craving for some Japanese food after my class, there was another reason for our visit that night. We learnt that the ala carte buffet is a steal as it includes premium items like wagyu beef in shabu-shabu. Judging from our though-mostly-noodles preview, there's no doubt that we'll give the buffet a try in the future. With an online menu, I'm sure we'll be able to plan well in maximizing our dollars. And as a rule, a few hours of fasting and some physical exercise prior to the buffet are required. All these strategies - I wonder if the Okinawans will shake their heads in disbelief in the way we exploit their healthy cuisine.

En Dining Bar
557 Bukit Timah Road
Crown Centre #01-14/16
Tel: (+65) 6468 5710

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Restoran Anje Nasi Beriani Gam Johor

The thought of being confined in a room for days, frantically scribbling notes and memorizing facts in preparation for an examination marathon scares the s^_^ out of many, I'm sure. I decompress by lunching well, not luxuriously but well. During this period, I rediscovered the love for the portable, polystyrene packs of mixed rice (think stir-fried kangkung, sweet and sour pork, bittergourd with salted black beans and steamed eggs). What's there not to love about a palm-sized container of white rice, topped with all the dishes of your choice at a mere S$2.70 - S$4.00? The real happy value meal, if you ask me.

And inevitably, between clause and of the neverending man-made rules, the exhausted mind started wandering far beyond the books.

At one point, it went back to Bangi, on a Sunday in March. We were here to check out an infamous briyani restaurant, Anje. To me, Bangi is an unchartered territory and never had I envisioned this developing town to be filled with restaurants of attractive signboards and for some, renown as well. There must be a handful of them boasting the BEST briyani around but since we were new here, we decided on the tried and tested.

It's only a matter of choice of meat to go with the saffron-coloured rice. I went for the ayam kampung (free-range chicken) - fried and subsequently rendered in a sweet (from the heaps of minced shallot), heavily spiced (chilli, cumin, cinnamon, fennel, etc) gravy. Briyani is about that spoonful combination of dense, sticky sauce, velvety (or fatty) dalchar, crunchy achar and warm, fluffy briyani rice. In my opinion, Anje delivered but perhaps a gravy accentuated with a few more pinches of salt would have appeased my palate more. They offer interesting dishes like Mee Bandung and Mee Rebus as well.

As dangerous as it may sound, the mind wanders too, when we drive. Soon enough, we found ourselves at the nearby Uniten. I took notice of a note stuck next to the light and ceiling fan switches at the canteen. It literally means - Switch off the lights during daytime. Avoid wastage. It is a Satanic practice. Interesting choice of words from the university owned by an electricity utility company, I must say.

I'm definitely looking forward to wandering around Bangi again, in search of good Malay food. Soon after the last leg of my marathon, hopefully.

Restoran Anje Nasi Beriani Gam Johor
15, Jalan SS 15/1C
Bandar Baru Bangi
43560 Selangor