The UnProfessional Chef

A girl's commentary on food, cooking and all things delicious!

Name:
Location: Singapore

A closet food critic and wannabe chef who loves the art of cooking and enjoying great cuisine in the company of great friends!

Monday, November 28, 2005

A Languid Dinner

Red Wine Braised Beef Cheeks with Parsley Potatoes

The best part about cooking a stew or braised dish is that it can be prepared in advance at one’s leisure and heated up for quick dinners during the working week. The worst part about cooking a stew or braised dish is that it has to be prepared in advance and left to sit - one has to be tortured by the delicious aromas wafting from the stewing pot during the cooking process and not be able to eat it immediately.

Over the weekend, I christened my newly-purchased bright red “La Cocotte” Dutch oven by cooking a dish adapted from a recipe of Red Wine Braised Beef Cheeks learnt from Chef Patrick Heuberger of Au Petit Salut. The original recipe, which apparently is a real hit at his restaurant, calls for beef cheeks and veal stock, but both of these were not immediately available, even at the speciality butcher where I shopped – hence I had no choice but to replace the beef cheeks with other stewable parts of the beef and used chicken stock instead of veal.

My attempt resulted in having to spend much of my Sunday afternoon inhaling the winey, gorgeous smells emanating from my oven as the beef slowly cooked in a mixture of red wine, chicken stock, rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, clove, garlic, onion, carrots, celery, mushrooms, tomatoes, whole black peppercorns and salt, without being able to eat any of it immediately! The wine was first warmed up in “La Cocotte” to boil away the alcohol, the beef placed in on its own, followed by the rest of the ingredients which were simply roughly chopped up and thrown in, the whole mixture brought to boil and then placed in the oven at 150° Celsius. Chef Heuberger had advised that the meat needed to sit for at least one day after being cooked to enable all the gelatin in the beef (beef cheeks will give the best result) to break down into a moist, fork-tender scrumptious piece of heavenly meat. At the end of two and half hours of slow cooking in the oven, there was therefore nothing I could do but salivate, stick “La Cocotte” into the fridge and wait more than 24 hours before being able to sample the promisingly aromatic dish.

Fast forward to Monday evening – I came home from work, leisurely set some potatoes to boil, slowly warmed up the little red treasure pot of braised beef, tossed some baby spinach with a light dressing of olive oil, lemon juice and mustard, roughly mashed the cooked potatoes with a fork together with a handful of flat leaf parsley, and dinner was served. The meal was fabulous. The beef was indeed as tender and flavourful as promised after imbibing the essence of the wine, vegetables and herbs it had been cooked with. The gravy went beautifully with the fresh-tasting parsley potatoes and best of all, the only oil present in the meal was the olive oil in the salad! We felt very healthy (though we ate a huge portion each, so perhaps the good effects were negated) and our fine dinner brightened up an otherwise blues-filled Monday evening. Along with a glass of good red wine, it felt pretty close to a restaurant meal (albeit we were slumming it in our T-shirt and shorts) despite being so very simple to make. Best of all, I’d made a double portion of braised beef so there is more of this to look forward to later this week!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Ten Reasons Not To Bake Before Breakfast

Upside-Down Biscuit with Apple and Cinnamon

I woke up this Saturday morning feeling bright breezy and ready to tackle a whole list of things I’d planned for the weekend. My penchant for doing five things at the same time made me decide on the, on hindsight suicidal, task of using the two and half hours before I had to head off for a birthday lunch to bake a cake – specifically, a delectable-looking Upside-Down Cake with Apple and Cinnamon from Bills Sydney Food. I decided that to save time, I would skip breakfast (and most importantly, my coffee) and jump straight into action after my shower. What a bad move.

Here are ten reasons why one should not attempt to bake before breakfast:

1. Fresh out of the shower, wet hair (still dripping) and parchment paper do not a good combination make.
2. Eyes are insufficiently focused in the morning and are prone to misreading instructions in the recipe such as ‘four eggs (separated)’ as ‘four egg yolks’, resulting in the tossing out of four egg whites down the sink and discovering too late that said four egg whites are a necessary ingredient.
3. Scrambling for more eggs to supplement tossed egg whites and discovering that there are none, and realising that with Mr UnProfessional Chef (aka sous chef #1) out playing tennis, there is no one available to run to the store for more eggs.
4. Having to adapt recipe to cope with lack of egg whites resulting in having to pour back already measured plain flour and replacing it with self-raising flour.
5. Spilling said plain flour over entire kitchen due to pre-caffeine lack of dexterity in the hands.
6. Having to fly blind and stressing out about whether cake will rise by replacing plain flour with self-raising flour.
7. Realising that the rising of the cake is the least of one’s concern when resulting dough, sans egg whites, is unpromisingly dry.
8. Thanks to unfueled brain, forgetting to preheat the oven, hence resulting in further delay and wondering if one will make it in time for one’s lunch appointment.
9. In stressed-out frame of mind, not having the common sense to realise that caramel sauce in bottom of springform pan plus heat of oven equals drips through edges of said pan and therefore omitting to place parchment paper below pan to catch the drips.
10. Producing an Upside-Down Biscuit with Apple and Cinnamon instead of Cake as a result of said screw-ups in attempts to follow recipe.

Well, the end result, as you can see from the picture, wasn’t all that bad, but the thought of what it could have been made my heart break a little. Thankfully, I had dredged up sufficient mental alertness to cook the apples and caramel properly before the second half cake-making fiasco, so that tasted good at least. I will certainly reattempt the recipe when I’m more awake and less pressed for time!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

An Evening in Provence …


…well, not quite, but it was as close as we could get here right next to the Equator.

Blu at Shangri-La Hotel had invited a two-star Michelin chef, Laurent Taurridec from “Maison” Leï Mouscardins, a restaurant in the very chichi town of St Tropez, to bring some Cote d’Azur culinary magic to Singapore for about a week. True, it was terribly decadent of us to indulge in such fine dining on a working Tuesday night, but the experience, up in the lovely top floor restaurant, with fine views of the city and great company of friends, was worth it. I’ll be very happy to detox this weekend for this.

Mr UnProfessional Chef, myself and our fellow foodie friend all elected for the tasting menus which reflected the best of the earthy flavours of Provençal cuisine. Mr UnProfessional Chef opted for the lighter ‘La Provençal’ whilst the two greedy girls had ‘La Balade’. Due to the ultra dim lighting, my photographs were mostly of the blurry and dark variety, hence, only the better ones will be posted.

Grilled Atlantic Scallops with Raw Endive Salad

Mr UnProfessional Chef’s starter of Thin Potato Galette, Gnocchi Dough, Wild Brittany Sardines “Pizza” Style was a cute little round of delicious potatoes with fresh shiny whole sardines atop it. Simple and delicious, yet unusual for Singapore, since over here, we generally see our sardines in tins, he was pleased with the dish, though it could have been served a bit warmer (I must say that this was a problem throughout our dinner, except of course for dessert – our dishes were served at best lukewarm and not piping hot as I would have preferred). We greedy girls had Grilled Atlantic Scallops with Raw Endive Salad (topped with pure olive oil and vinegar) which were delectably sweet and quite unlike the bland tasting scallops I encounter far too often at many restaurants here.

French Green Beans Gazpacho with Tapenade Croutons

Our next courses of Artichokes served with Boned Ham and Shallots, with White Wine Reduction and French Green Beans Gazpacho with Tapenade Croutons were equally delightful. Artichokes are always a pleasure and this warm dish was balanced with the nicely tart white wine reduction. The Gazpacho was a smooth cool little number. The purèed mix of French beans and garlic (and possibly other herbs I couldn’t quite detect in the darkness) was set off well by the tomato based soup. Again, both dishes were lovely illustrations of Provençal cuisine, which is significantly different from classical French cooking, though infused with the same sensibilities of reliance on fabulous ingredients, technically superior cooking and imaginative combinations.

Mr UnProfessional Chef took a break while the greedy girls pushed on with our next plate. Our plate of House Made Pasta Like A “Risotto” with Wild Winter Morels and Shaved Truffles was a winner. The gorgeously warm orzo pasta was infused with the superb complex flavours of the wild fungi that had clearly taken life from French earth and was our favourite savoury dish of the night.

Grilled “Wagyu” Beef Tenderloin with Winter Vegetables and Red Wine Emulsion

Despite the fact that our bellies were already nicely filled by the time our main courses arrived, we were able to wolf down the Traditional Bouillabaisse of Monkfish ‘Lei Mouscardins’ Style and Grilled “Wagyu” Beef Tenderloin with Winter Vegetables and Red Wine Emulsion. The bouillabaisse was a lovely and robust rendition of this traditional dish (I tasted my very first bouillabaisse in a tiny port side restaurant in Marseille, right next to the Mediterranean, more than 10 years ago and have been hooked ever since) with substantial chunky pieces of monkfish to satisfy. It was so good but there was clearly far too little soup because Mr UnProfessional Chef slurped it to the last drop. It would have been the star of the show had it been piping hot (again, a major complaint, we are in Singapore after all, it shouldn’t require that much effort to serve a hot plate of soup). Our beef, however, was underwhelming. We expected a very nicely marbled melt-in-your-mouth piece of meat, but this was not one of the best versions I have had. Perhaps the inverted commas over the word “Wagyu” in the menu should have been a warning. However, the winter vegetables on the side were divine. Complex and tasting of the pure essence of the Mediterranean climate, these must have come straight from the farms of Provence since I have never tasted such lovely mushrooms, carrots and courgettes in Singapore before. There is much to be said about eating vegetables that have been grown naturally in the earth, not mass produced on a hydroponics farm which creates pretty lookalikes of vegetables that taste of nothing.

Chocolate Leaves served with Milk Jam and Lime Sorbet

Our meal ended with superb desserts. We were pleasantly surprised by the inspired creations of Chocolate Leaves served with Milk Jam and Lime Sorbet, and Thinly Shaved Slices of Melon with a Spicy Jus and Melon Sherbet. The milk jam was particularly good, being a creamy milky buttery spread with the consistency of light clotted cream. It complemented the paper thin chocolate slices which were used to sandwich the dollops of jam in just the right proportions. We could have had a double serving though – it was that good. The melon slices were also gorgeously matched with a startlingly spicy light jus topping that brought out the sweetness of the fruit.

Although the meal didn’t quite match up to all my very high expectations of the two Michelin starred Monsieur Taurridec (it’s unfortunately been the case with other Michelin starred chefs who have visited Singapore as well – perhaps the ingredients don’t travel well or the chefs are not in the relative familiarity of their own kitchens), our evening of Provençal cuisine was still an enjoyable virtual visit to the South of France, with the meal bringing back memories of warm heady days scented with lavender spent walking through sunflower-filled fields.

Blu Restaurant
Shangri-La Hotel Singapore
22 Orange Grove Road
Singapore 258350
Tel: 67373644

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Super Simple Sunday Supper

Chicken Breast Baked in a Bag with Mushrooms, Butter, White Wine and Thyme
served with Roast Rosemary Potatoes

Weekends are meant for rest. My weekends however, are usually chock-a-block with all the things I want to do but don’t have time for during the week. This weekend was a nicely packed one, with nary a minute to spare between attending lunchtime parties, giving my dog his weekly bath, changing a couple of light bulbs at home (they all uncannily blew out at the same time), catching a theatre production, doing the weekend grocery shopping and attending cooking class. My fingers however, were itching to do some real cooking again, since of late, my kitchen adventures have strictly been limited to baking.

Given the tight schedule, I turned to Jamie Oliver, he of the ‘just a lad in the kitchen’ persona, for his minimum fuss, simple recipes. From his book Happy Days with the Naked Chef, I elected to make Chicken Breast Baked in a Bag with Mushrooms, Butter, White Wine and Thyme. This could not have been easier. It basically involved mixing all of the above ingredients (the mushrooms were a mix of fresh button, shitake and dried porcini) plus garlic, then bunging it into a giant bag constructed with aluminum foil (double bagged for safety) and baking it in a very hot oven for 25 minutes. The result – delectably moist and tender chicken flavoured and complemented by the harmonious mixture of the mushrooms, wine, butter, garlic and thyme. I would have been a bit less liberal with the porcini mushrooms which were very strong (I was greedy and put in a really big handful since the recipe mentioned one handful but didn’t specify how large it should be!), used better white wine (I bought a really cheap bottle, and it showed), and perhaps thrown in a dash of sea salt to bring out the flavour, but Mr UnProfessional Chef loved it and I was reasonably pleased at the result of a mere hour of cooking (including chopping, baking and cleaning up).

Alongside this and prepared within that same hour, I served Roast Rosemary Potatoes, the first (of hopefully many!) recipe I decided to try from The Zuni Café Cookbook. Again, so straightforward, it is impossible to mess this up. Potatoes (peeled or not, depending on how lazy one feels – I was very lazy) cut into about 2-3 cm irregular chunks, parboiled in salted water for about 10 minutes, then tossed with copious amounts of extra virgin olive oil, a stalkful of bruised rosemary, spread over a baking tray and thrown into the oven alongside the chicken to roast for about 20 – 25 minutes till the outer edges are browned and crisp. I sprinkled a little fleur de sel (another treasure brought home from Borough Market) over the potatoes while they were roasting too, just for fun. They turned out gorgeous. Hot and crisp on the outside and meltingly fluffy on the inside and just infused enough with the salt and perfume of the rosemary leaves. Best of all, this is definitely the simplest and quickest method of roasting potatoes I have come across. The method is a keeper.

Easy Peasy Sticky Date Toffee Pudding

Spurred on by the effortlessness of preparing dinner, I decided to go one further and make dessert. Again, very appropriately titled Easy Peasy Sticky Date Toffee Pudding, a recipe I learnt recently from Shermay Lee at her cooking school. I didn’t bring out my mixer for this one, just a bowl and a good spatula were sufficient. Brown sugar, flour, one egg, milk, melted butter and vanilla essence were mixed together before adding in chopped dates (I just used a pair of kitchen scissors to snip the dates directly into the batter). This mixture was poured into a pudding dish, then topped with brown sugar, more butter and a significant amount of boiling water (yes, you read that right). This eventually cooked into a beautiful, simmering bowl of sweet, gooey pudding – perfect for a winter night. Well, it isn’t exactly winter here, but with the seasonal monsoon bringing a lovely cool breeze to our apartment this time of year, the warm pudding topped with a dab of crème fraiche was a perfect ending to our simple Sunday night supper.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Books for Cooks


My cookbook collection prior to today numbered less than 10. However, I managed, in one fell swoop this afternoon, to increase it by 40%. Instead of cramming with the shopping crowd in the start of the Christmas present-hunting frenzy, I parked myself in Kinokuniya’s cookbook section, which has an excellent variety, and managed to spend a horrendous amount of money reliving my delicious days in Northern California and seeking new pastures. I decided on four cookbooks today, though there are many many more I have my eye on.

Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan looks like a surefire classic. With it I hope to improve my very amateur baking skills. There is just simply something very satisfying about mixing a bunch of ordinary ingredients together to create a wonderfully homey cake or batch of biscuits. The second book, Paris Sweets is also written by Dorie Greenspan. Looking delightfully like a road map to sugary nirvana, I can only hope that it will enable me to come close to some of the heavenly pastries I’ve experienced in Paris.

The other two books I picked up for completely nostalgic reasons. I had patronized both The Cheese Board in Berkeley, California, from which comes The Cheese Board Collective Works, and Zuni Café in San Francisco (The Zuni Cafe Cookbook), where I was pursuing a postgraduate degree some years back (UC Berkeley that is, not either one of the establishments, though a postgraduate culinary degree would have been wonderful). The Cheese Board in particular was a real favourite. Uniquely run as a co-operative (well, I was in Berkeley after all), I queued there regularly for the best pizza in the world (I exaggerate not – I have yet to meet a better pizza four years on), which only came in one flavour daily. It was only open for limited hours but I very luckily lived a mere seven minute brisk walk away. I still think about it with much fondness and droolingly reminisce about it with fellow ex-Singaporean Berkeley-ites. I’d only been to Zuni Café once (mind you, there were just so many good places to eat in Northern California) but have yet to forget its one and only roast chicken with bread salad. I hope this will let me recreate some of its other superb dishes at home.

At this point, I also have to confess my non-cooking related weakness for trashy fashion mags at this point, which is why you can see the latest copy of InStyle in the background too.

I look forward to producing many delights from these books for cooks!

A Rant about Sugar (and other cake ingredients)

Madagascar Bournob Pure Vanilla Extract and Vanilla Bean Paste

In case you are confused by the juxtaposition of the title of this post against the photo, I should clarify that this post was intended to be one that extolled the joys of vanilla. I had brought home two vanilla pods from Borough Market in London (very well-travelled pods they were, coming originally from Papua New Guinea) from my recent trip and purchased a bottle each of (very expensive but worth it) Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract and Vanilla Bean Paste from Shermay's Cooking School and was looking forward with great excitement at baking with these for the first time (yes, up till now I have never split a vanilla pod and have been using the awful artificial vanilla extract available in all supermarkets near you). This momentous occasion called for a very special recipe that possessed a quintessential ‘vanilla-ness’ to its entire whole. I thought I had hit jackpot with Vanilla Bean Loaves from Amanda Hesser’s Cooking with Mr Latte.

Vanilla Bean Loaves

It promised so much with the liberal appearance of vanilla in the sugar to be used, in the number of vanilla beans to be used in the batter and the syrup, and the extra dose of vanilla extract (one whole tablespoon full!) in the batter. During the baking process, the aroma from the vanilla and the fabulous melding of butter, sugar and eggs filled my little kitchen, causing me to salivate greedily in anticipation of the two beautifully rising and browning loaves. Even the way they looked when they came out of the oven promised lovely rustic cakes impregnated with the gorgeously unique flavour of real vanilla.

But the sugar, why, the sugar! Actually, to that I should add, the eggs, why so many eggs? I should have been awfully suspicious while heaping copious amounts of sugar into the bowl during the process of creaming the butter and cracking egg after egg after egg into the mixture. I know this was a double recipe and indeed, I was rewarded with a substantial amount of cake, but eight eggs for two small loaf cakes? Five hundred grams of sugar? I am a stickler for following recipe amounts as closely as possible but this experience has taught me a lesson about adapting recipes to my own tastebuds. I love sweet rich things, but perhaps I should have been more careful with American dessert recipes which tend to be on the ultra sweet side. These cakes, despite the lovely scent of vanilla prevalent in every bite were simply too sweet for me, though they were certainly edible. On top of the cake base itself, which was where the aforesaid 500 g of sugar went into, the recipe called for an additional layer of sugar syrup topping flavoured with vanilla. It was so sweet my teeth ached. However, it is worth noting that Mr UnProfessional Chef did not find it too sweet and indeed, after one or two days, the sweetness of the sugar mellowed somewhat to render the cake much more palatable, allowing the vanilla-ness to come out much more beautifully.

So, word of warning if you would ever like to use this recipe – cut down on the sugar, a lot. I would even say it would benefit from a slight reduction in the amount of eggs and butter since the cake was super rich and moist. But if you have an extremely sweet tooth and love very rich cakes, then don’t make any changes. My only consolation is that the vanilla bean pods, genuine paste and essence, were wonderfully aromatic and proved the best reason to avoid artificial vanilla essence in future.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Baking Bounty a.k.a. Diva Dining #2

You know who your friends are for life when you make it a point to see them on a very regular basis, when not having met for a month feels like far too wide a gap in time, and when you really want to hear everything about the other persons’ lives, even though your paths and interests have diverged wildly over 17 years. Despite everyone’s very busy schedule (including that of one full-time working new mum and one actress whose show is just about to open), we decided to get together for a late Sunday afternoon tea. Very sadly, the last essential member of our little group of friends was called away on work at the last minute and had to be present in spirit.

Completely undecided about what to prepare, I decided to bake three tea-time treats – a bit on the excessive side, but I figured I could always keep the extras or my dear divas could bring home the ones they liked best. As it turned out, it was a great idea to do all three since we managed to wolf down almost all of it and completely ruin our dinner in the process!

Flourless Lemon Almond Cake

Of course, I didn’t have time to sit down and bake all three treats in one morning and certainly had a packed schedule this weekend. Choosing simple, quick recipes for cakes that could keep resulted in a three day leisurely baking exercise resulting in a nice bounty for the weekend. I started late on Friday night with a Flourless Lemon Almond Cake adapted from Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Clementine Cake in How to Eat. This was the most time-consuming but a very straightforward process involving boiling whole lemons in water for two hours, before pulping it and mixing well (without even needing the KitchenAid!) with eggs, sugar, finely-ground almonds and the baking powder, then baking for an hour in the oven. I then prepared a thin glaze of lemon juice and icing sugar to drench the cake and topped it off with an experimental caramalised/baked lemon slice. I say ‘experimental’ because I hadn’t the faintest idea how to do this. However, it turned out looking pretty dried out, which was what I was aiming for, so the experiment appeared to work reasonably well. This cake is apparently at its best about a day or two after it’s been baked and certainly, it was delicious! Very smooth, intensely lemony (perhaps a little bitter from the skin) and gorgeously aromatic from the almonds. One of my diva girls could not believe it had no flour in it and even my lovely dog Z, was hanging about as close as possible (as you can see in the background of the picture above) when the divine smells of the baking lemons and almonds filled the air.

Peanut Butter Pound Cake

The Saturday procedure had to be a super quick one since this had to be squeezed in in between errands, lunch, cooking class, a birthday party and a family dinner. I opted for a simple yet rich Peanut Butter Pound Cake from The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook. This was the book that really piqued my interest in cooking when I was a graduate student in Northern California some years ago. It was my first real cookbook, purchased from a secondhand bookstore, and it has proven to be one of my best buys - a trusted, reliable source of wonderful meals and a friend I often turn back to. Not one recipe has let me down over the years. This one certainly didn’t. All that was required was simple creaming and mixing of butter and sugar, creamy peanut butter (any old brand), eggs and flour. Simple as that. It didn’t look very spectacular but tasted absolutely fabulous and old-fashioned. Cakes like these are the best reason to eschew the processed preserved stuff masquerading as cakes and breads on the supermarket shelves and doing it by yourself homestyle. It’s not in the least bit difficult and very rewarding indeed.

Baklava Muffins

Finally, on Sunday afternoon, just before my gaggle of girlfriends arrived, I whipped up Baklava Muffins, courtesy of Nigella Lawson again, from How to be a Domestic Goddess. Described by her as ‘sticky buns for the slapdash cook’, these were certainly very quick and easy - the perfect dish to whip up in a hurry. The filling for these muffins comprised walnuts, demerara sugar, cinnamon and butter. These were encased within the muffin dough, which contained, buttermilk (unusually), sugar, flour, eggs and butter. Topped with honey, these very chewy and caramelly muffins were ready after being popped in the oven for a mere 15 minutes, just in time to be eaten hot and fresh in between pockets of juicy gossip and chatty catching up.

The baking bounty proved a lovely accompaniment to a great girly afternoon (albeit inclusive of two husbands, one baby and a dog!).

Friday, November 11, 2005

Japanese Hideaway

In a little corner of a sleepy old shopping centre in the East Coast of Singapore, far from the madding crowds of Orchard Road, a hideaway for fans of Japanese food who want top quality without having to pay top dollar, can be found. Wahiro, which means ‘Good Harmony’, led by chef Hozumi, is a tiny gem of a restaurant which serves a wide range of innovative dishes worthy of the finest Japanese restaurants (at least here in Singapore), while retaining the lovely casualness of a neighbourhood restaurant where one would feel rather out of place in high heels and designer bags. Mr UnProfessional Chef and I, being tired out by a long week, were not in the mood for a formal dining despite it being a Friday night and were aiming to eat quickly and casually before heading home for a quiet night watching comedy DVDs (the first season of ‘Arrested Development’ is hilarious and highly recommended by the way).

Wahiro certainly fit the bill and more! We got our fast dinner, while managing to savour fine Japanese cuisine at a reasonable price. Opting for their seasonal Kaiseiki menu (which changes every month), we were delighted by eight courses of excellently prepared small dishes. First up was Shiromi Sakana to Ankimo – this was a dish of raw angler fish liver encased in white fish sashimi served in a cold soy broth and topped with chili chutney and lots of fresh spring onions. The key to Japanese sashimi is the level of freshness. The angler liver was clearly pretty fresh off the boat and was delicate yet nicely creamy, and beautifully set off by the sparkling clean flavour of the white fish sashimi.

Raw angler fish liver encased in white fish sashimi served in a cold soy broth

This was followed up by Otsokuri, an even fresher selection of sashimi. Comprising tuna and two unidentified white fish (I think one of them was kingfish), these were simple and simply delectable. They went wonderfully with my cheap bottle of sake, which I have of late discovered, is truly truly best enjoyed with fine Japanese food.

Chef's selection of fresh sashimi

Our third course of Anchovy Mushroom tasted surprisingly Western. But we were not complaining because the whole fat Portobello mushroom was grilled to perfection and topped with home made anchovy butter. The softly firm (is there such a thing? It was though!) mushroom pieces had a nice salty bite thanks to the anchovies.

Grilled Portobello mushroom with anchovy butter

Next up was Sakana no Misozuke. Fish fillet preserved in miso was presented in a pretty arrangement on top of soft tofu and konbu seaweed steamed in dashi broth. It tasted supremely healthy while not stinting on the complexity of flavour.

Fish fillet preserved in miso on top of soft tofu and konbu seaweed steamed in dashi broth

Then came the most interesting course – Gyunyuu Tofu. Described as special tofu custard made from milk, this was cold silken tofu with a twist. Truly milky yet possessing all qualities of good smooth tofu and topped with freshly grated ginger, this was a dish that could easily have been at home in the famous kitchens of Tetsuya in Sydney and his ilk.

Special tofu custard made from milk

Not all of chef Hozumi’s innovations worked though. Our next dish of Kinoko Age, though sounding promising in the menu, was a slightly disappointing, though expertly prepared, deep fried patty of minced prawn, shimeji and enoki mushroom. There was nothing wrong with the dish technically, and it would certainly have passed muster in many a fine Japanese establishment. But having experienced the five previous dishes, this was surprisingly ordinary. It tasted exactly as described.

Deep fried patty of minced prawn, shimeji and enoki mushroom

We ended with Shirasu Gohan. Rice tossed with silver anchovies and sesame served with miso soup was a nice filling dish, though, again, not particularly special. But it was done well, with the anchovies lending a mouth-watering savoury kick to the rice.

Rice tossed with silver anchovies and sesame served with miso soup

Sadly, the promised dessert of lemon sherbet (presumably yuzu, which I love) was sold out and we had to settle for the usual green tea ice cream. That said, Wahiro is a fabulous, comfortable Japanese dining experience. While it serves up the usual preferred dishes offered by many a Japanese restaurant favoured by Singaporeans, it also produces creative and delicious inventions that keep its loyal fan club coming back for more. Shhh, don’t tell too many people about this place but hop into your preferred mode of transport and head straight for East Coast Road now!

Wahiro
112 East Coast Road 01-28/29 Katong Mall
Singapore 428802
Tel: 6342 2252
Open for lunch and dinner everyday except Monday

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Another Dazzling Bistro

We’d heard about Racine from the same Times review that praised Galvin and had also heard consistently good things about the place from other reviewers and bloggers. It certainly matched up to our lofty expectations and proved that good French food can be found in many places on the 'wrong' side of the English Channel.

Significantly more old-school in look and feel than Galvin (it was located in Knightsbridge after all) and with much dimmer romantic lighting (which was a cause of exasperated bemusement for a neighbouring diner who was completely unable to read his bill due to the lack of light), the service was just as impeccably polished and friendly. We came away extremely satisfied that evening having had our palates and minds tickled by the 'more than the usual' bistro dishes.

I had a very good value prix fixe menu for £17.50 which offered a sufficiently wide variety of options and looked nothing like the usual scrimped on versions of set menus at other establishments. To start, I had Poached Skate with Pink Fir Apple Potatoes and Caper Mayonnaise. The tiny potatoes were wonderfully sweet and went well with the heavy mayonnaise and tender fish.

Poached Skate with Pink Fir Apples and Caper Mayonnaise

Mr UnProfessional Chef had a Garlic and Saffron Mousse with Mussels. Amazingly luscious and rich, the robust dish, both in size and flavour, was just what a French bistro should serve. The paper-thin reservation I had about both our starters was just this – they were just so heavy and rich that we were stuffed by the end of our first course. Perhaps our Asian palate just could not stomach all of that creaminess. Just a very tiny complaint though and largely due to our own greediness in picking these ultra-rich dishes.

Garlic and Saffron Mousse with Mussels

Two birds followed. I had Pheasant served with Red Cabbage and Tarragon Chantilly – again super heavy (just look at the huge size of the scoop of chantilly!) but delicious. The meat was lovely and tender and the red cabbage lent a nice sharpness to complement the rich tarragon chantilly.

Pheasant served with Red Cabbage and Tarragon Chantilly

A whole tiny Roast Partridge served with Savoy Cabbage and Chocolate Sauce arrived for Mr UnProfessional Chef. This proved to be an interesting combination and was scrumptious. The partridge, which we’d only previously encountered in a pear tree around Christmas, was beautifully roasted – crisp on the outside and tenderly moist inside.

Roast Partridge served with Savoy Cabbage and Chocolate Sauce

My set meal ended with a perfect Apple Crumble with Custard. Although the least exciting dish of the night, it was fresh and had a nice bite and had obviously been prepared with much pride despite being a fairly common and pedestrian dessert.

Apple Crumble with Custard

Again seeking a light touch for the end of dinner, Mr UnProfessional Chef had a ‘Colonel’ or lemon sorbet with ice cold Russian vodka. Certainly not your kid’s ice cream! Very mouthwateringly fresh and a soothing balm for our overly creamed stomachs.

Racine is 'must-eat' for all lovers of French bistro food.

Racine
239 Brompton Road
London SW3 2EP
Open everyday

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Going Native

After several days of feasting on cuisine from all other cultures, we finally decided to have a robust proper English meal. English cuisine has long had a bad reputation for us. For both Mr UnProfessional Chef and myself, English food in our university days meant boiled-to-death vegetables, greasy fry-ups of black pudding and sausage, and tinned baked beans on toast. But English chefs have roared back over the past couple of years with the likes of Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck and Gordon Ramsay of his eponymous restaurants making the headlines for reviving the reputation of English cooking.

We decided to forego both the above since Gordon Ramsay does French cuisine and it was simply too impossible to get into The Fat Duck on short notice. Instead, we headed to St John – a restaurant set in an historic old smokehouse with a striking all-white interior, which prides itself on serving quintessentially English fare with a definite focus on meat, meat and more meat. Indeed, the mantra of its chef Fergus Henderson is ‘nose to tail eating’ and its location, a stone’s throw away from the historic Smithfield meat market, was a significant message that this was indeed what our meal would primarily consist of. Though I was feeling mildly ill by this time given the excessive eating we’d been doing, I looked forward to what promised to be a most interesting meal.

Onion, Squash and Bacon soup

The starting entrèes were superb. I had Onion, Squash and Bacon soup which was bright orange and delightfully robust with huge pieces of squash flavourfully mellowed by the melt-in-your-mouth onion bits and smoked bacon.

Grilled Venison Heart, Beetroot and Pickled Walnuts

Mr UnProfessional Chef had Grilled Venison Heart, Beetroot and Pickled Walnuts. This turned out to be a true eye-opener. Despite its macabre moniker coupled with visions of Bambi and his mother frolicking in the fields of my imagination, the juicy tasty hearts were delectably good and tasted like the best meat possible, not at all gamey or strange. The beetroot and pickled walnuts helped set off the meat with their sweet tanginess.

Roast Lamb and Aioli

Given my unsettled tummy, I opted for the safest choice possible for my main course – Roast Lamb and Aioli. I was a bit nonplussed by the arrival of rather simply done very pink medium-rare lamb but this baby was roasted to perfection. The crisp skin and soft, subtle meat allowed one to taste the purity of the exceptional lamb’s flavours without being too overbearing. The garlic aioli was fairly overpowering but proved a decent complement to the ‘rawness’ of the meat.

Rabbit Saddle and Lentils

Mr UnProfessional Chef had Rabbit Saddle and Lentils. Being a meat lover, he was on cloud nine after this dish. The rabbit tasted not the least bit gamey, yet possessing a unique flavour (I refuse to make comparisons to chicken or pork) and was top-quality. Tenderly roasted and paired thoughtfully with lentils of all things, this was enjoyed tremendously by both of us.

Pear and Sherry Trifle

With all that meat sitting like heavy weights in our tummies, one would expect sensible restraint in regards to dessert. But these were enormous! A Pear and Sherry Trifle so huge it burst out of the picture above. This was topped with the densest, richest cream ever – I’d say quadruple cream at least – and nicely sugared almond flakes. Simply delicious, but even I, the dessert queen, was defeated by the copious amount of never-ending cream.

Butterscotch Ripple Ice Cream

Mr UnProfessional Chef thought he was having the light option of Butterscotch Ripple Ice Cream but the kitchen must have been using bowls as ice cream scoops. Three enormous scoops of ultra-creamy and very sinful scoops of homey ice cream served with crunchy thin butterscotch biscuits were not a light option at all. But, as we had discovered, ‘nose to tail eating’ certainly did not equate to ‘moderate eating’, it was however synonymous with unique and delicious almost-forgotten traditional English dishes.

Stuffed to the brim, we rolled back out into the cold, down the road and into the Tube. Thank goodness for the long walk home from the Tube station which burnt off maybe 1% of the calories gained?

St John Bar and Restaurant
26 St John Street
London
EC1M 4AY
Mon – Fri: Lunch from 12 noon to 3 pm
Mon – Sat: Dinner from 6 pm to 11 pm

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Deluxe Dining Pleasures

I’d read about this new-ish French bistrot in The Times in which the ordinarily-critical (and very funnily so) food writer, Giles Coren, had waxed lyrical about and named Galvin Bistrot de Luxe one of the best restaurants he’d eaten in this year. He was right. By far one of the highlights of my trip, coming a close second to the entire Borough Market experience, Galvin was a sleek modern restaurant that managed yet to retain that distinctly French bistro-like feel.

It being a typically cold and rainy London day outside, both Mr UnProfessional Chef and I decided to begin our meals with hot soup. I started with a Jerusalem Artichoke soup served with a side of Hazelnut Brioche. The smoky distinctive flavour of the artichoke set off perfectly by the crisp, freshly-baked brioche was devastatingly perfect. Mr UnProfessional Chef opted for the bargain prix fixe menu which began with a White Onion and Cider soup. This turned out smashing and very unusual. It was a revelation of creaminess set off by the surprising tanginess of the cider.

Jerusalem Artichoke soup with Hazelnut Brioche

Having already stuffed ourselves at various other places, I opted for a light main course of ‘Pot au Feu’ of Landaise chicken. The chicken was cooked to a tender whiteness and served with the freshest flawlessly prepared carrot, celery, onion, potato and leek. It was finished with a clear, parsley-filled broth, resulting in a clean-tasting combination that proved both satisfying and healthy (so I tell myself). It certainly proved that French cooking is not just all about heavy creams and rich fats.

"Pot au Feu" of Landaise chicken

Mr UnProfessional Chef opted for Plaice Meuniere with Capers and Cornichons. Expertly pan-fried to exquisite perfection, the crisp yet soft fish disappeared down his throat pretty quickly indeed. I however, managed to snap this picture before it did.

Plaice Meuniere with Capers and Cornichons

To finish, I had a St Emilion au Chocolat, a sweet, dense chocolate mousse with sponge swirled into the mix and topped with a smattering of crunchy nuts and cocoa powder. This was immensely rich but I felt suitably justified in having this given my super-healthy chicken dish. Mr UnProfessional Chef’s Panna Cotta with Oranges (fresh and candied) and Prunes arrived looking exactly like a soft-boiled egg topped with black truffles! Tasting nothing at all like that but equally delicious, the panna cotta was smooth and sublime with little visible flecks of vanilla beans set off very nicely indeed by the fruit. And just when we didn’t think it could get any better, we received two of the best chocolate nut truffles ever.

Panna Cotta with Oranges and Prunes

A truly magnificent, deluxe meal for very undeluxe prices - the prix fixe was a mere £15.50. Book your air tickets now!

Galvin Bistrot de Luxe
66 Baker Street
London W1U 7DH

Lip-smacking Lebanese

The sheer amount of variety of cuisine in London is a testament to the degree of multiraciality prevelant in this great city. Amongst the many nationality of peoples London draws are the Lebanese, bringing with them their traditional Arab dishes and mezzes. Indeed, the kebab stand is not only ubiquitous in London, but in many towns and cities across Europe.

Noura Central, however, was no hole-in-the-wall greasy kebab joint. Originating from Paris, this was an ultra-chic, silk lamp-lit glamourous sanctuary, basking in sumptuous soft purple and pink hues and with plenty of soft cushions to lounge about on. It was also extremely dimly-lit, which explains why I only have two decent photos to post.

Innocently unaware of the huge portions soon to set before us, we ordered the Noura meal, which comprised a selection of 10(!) mezes – five cold and five hot – served with Lebanese flat bread (freshly baked in a massive oven in front of us). The five cold dishes of aubergine cream, hummus, okra mixed with tomatoes and parsley leaves, cucumber yoghurt and a chopped parsley and tomato salad sparkled with freshness and flavour. In particular, the aubergine cream managed to be both creamy and smoky at the same time, enveloping the taste buds in sheer delight. The parsley salad was also refreshingly tart and gave a sour crunchy balance to the dips.

Five hot mezes

The five hot mezes comprised three huge mini-puffs (well, they were meant to be mini, but certainly after we ate them all, they felt very huge indeed in our tummies) individually containing cheese, spinach, and lamb, and two croquettes of lamb and beef, which deserves special mention for being topped with a wonderfully crusty sesame seed exterior. These were completely satisfying and completely filling. We were completely stuffed, and our main courses were still to come! These turned out to be wonderfully aromatic kebabs of chicken, lamb and beef. Certainly not of mere street-side quality, these were juicy, tasty and melt-in-your-mouth tender.

Delectable scoops of lemon sorbet, rose ice-cream, pistachio ice-cream and milk ice-cream (hidden)

At this point, we were seriously exploding, but had to hold out for one last course (or should I say three) of dessert. Considering how much we’d eaten, we wolfed down every last bit of our desserts which were four amazing scoops of ice-cream and two varieties of traditional Arabic crisp nutty pastries. The ice-cream was the star of the entire show, which is saying a lot, considering the overall classiness of the food. Tart lemon sorbet so dense it stood up on its own when scooped, a light rose ice-cream, vanilla with fresh pistachios and non-cloying milk ice-cream. Our Arabian night of feasting was completed with thick, sweet Lebanese coffee.

Noura Central
22 Lower Regent Street
London SW1Y 4YJ

A Feast for All Senses

Within literally hours in London, we discovered this gem, this most exhilarating of all our food experiences on this trip – Borough Market, where were you all these years? I was stumped beyond belief as to how I could have missed this paradise of the freshest organic fruit and vegetable produce, cornucopia of cheeses and bread, and haven of fresh and smoked meats despite having lived in the UK for three years during my university days, and repeated visits for the past couple of years. I must thank, very very gratefully indeed, Cindy from Food Migration, for blogging about this place on her own recent visit and inspiring me to hunt down this little market tucked into a corner close to London Bridge tube station.

Borough Market

Borough Market was certainly a feast for all our senses. Our noses were invaded by the glorious cooking smells of the freshest organically-reared meats ranging from venison burgers to ostrich kebabs. Straight out of the oven breads, tarts and other delectable goodies competed with the mountain of cheeses, huge slabs of Echire butter, vegetables so fresh the brussel sprouts were still on their stems, and homey freshly-squeezed juices for our attention. I was like a kid in the proverbial candy store and simply did not know where to begin looking and more importantly, tasting.

Brussel Sprouts - still on stem!!

Since we’d arrived in London in the wee hours of the morning, we decided to have both breakfast and lunch there – we fully intended to eat our way through the market, either substantially or grazing and nibbling on the free samples offered. We started with a roast pork loin sandwich with stuffing and applesauce – pretty satisfying, but turned out to be the weakest performer in the show that was our meal. This was followed by the best cheese in Britain, whose name I didn’t record in my enthusiasm to eat it, which tasted like a subtle goat’s cheese and was delicious. We moved on to parma ham so thinly sliced and delicately flavoured which in no way resembled the tough pieces of rubber we usually get served back home. It was then time for a coffee break at Monmouth Coffee Company – the aroma alone was worth the 1.80 quid for the takeaway cup.

Huge leg of Parma Ham

Rested, we resumed our eating marathon. We discovered Bergblumenkäse, a mildy-hard Swiss cheese that had been wrapped in meadow grass to mature - it was absolutely sublime and tasted of Alpine flowers, making me wish I could be Heidi for a few months in order to live on mountains and on this cheese. Mr UnProfessional Chef, needing another ration of meat, moved on to a venison burger from the West Country. Despite being pretty stuffed by this time, the burger was so juicy and tasty that we scarfed it down in record time. Another beverage break was required at this point and was more than adequately filled by freshly-pressed apple juice so flavourful we could taste that particular apple’s complexity and aroma.

Cheese Alps

It was then time for dessert. I selected a wonderful, caramelly pecan tart, tasted black dried strawberries, bought a loaf of warm walnut bread, and sampled (and bought) handmade chocolate truffles flavoured uniquely by orange and cardammon, honey and ginger etc.

Dark Sugar handmade truffles

That’s not all folks – we loved it so much, we decided to come back on our last day in London to bring some of the lovely goodness of the market home. We visited all our favourite stores for the cheeses and parma ham, adding on a Gruyère cheese from the same Swiss cheese stall, and an excellently tart lemon crunch cake from Konditer and Cook. It being lunch time, we joined the queue for freshly-grilled chorizo sandwiches from Brindisa. These were simply out of this world – the best sandwiches I have ever eaten. Hot, crisp, juicy chorizo were embraced by BBQ grilled bread buns, peppery fresh rocket leaves and spicy piquillo peppers. This was finished with a generous dosing of olive oil. Best of all, despite the queue, we didn’t have to wait long – the staff were friendly and efficient, doling out the sandwiches to the hungry masses speedily. I’m still dreaming about those sandwiches long after touching down in Singapore.

Brindisa's smoking chorizo sandwiches

Borough Market is truly a moveable feast for the senses and was a fantastic way to start and end our vacation.

Borough Market
Between Borough High Street and Bedale Street, Winchester Walk and Stoney Street
London SE1
Fri: 12 noon – 6 pm
Sat: 9 am – 4 pm

Monmouth Coffee Company
2 Park Street
Borough Market
London SE1
Mon – Fri: 7.30 am – 6 pm
Sat: 7.30 am – 5 pm

Konditor and Cook
10 Stoney Street
Borough Market
London SE1
(No opening times stated)