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Fighting grandmas for breakfast - Fu Chun Xiao Long Bao, Shanghai
In Shanghai we looked up an authentic old-skool xiaolongbao joint for breakfast. Fu Chun, on the edge of the trendy French concession area, has been there forever, and unapologetically crusty. It took a while for us to figure out the system - you order and pay at the counter by the entrance. Menu is entirely in Chinese, I had to ask the cashier to recommend what else to order besides xiaolongbao. You hand your receipt to the waitress when you find a seat. Every free seat is fair game, most tables are shared. And when it got very crowded about 10.30am when we were there, grandmas were standing over our heads, glaring at us to finish our meals. However, securing a seat is only the first part. With the steady stream of customers coming in, everyone was on edge when the dishes headed towards to the tables, afraid to miss out. And they weren't shy about it. They called out to the waitresses bearing dishes saying, it's mine, it's mine, I came before them, I should have it first! Don't think I ever was so stressed at breakfast. Soon I was joining in the heckling, otherwise my dishes would be hijacked before it reached me.

And yes it was worth it. Skins on the xiaolongbaos are not the thinnest I've had, but the fillings and broth were deep and meaty and complex. Woohoo. The guotie (panfried pork dumplings) were huge and borderline greasy, but again, that filling. The fried pork cutlet was very crispy and not greasy at all, and the black vinegar dip was a welcome contrast. Verdict - they've been around this long for a reason. It's good. And the grandmas breathing down your neck is worth it. 

Top (L-R): Fu Chun calm before the storm; the famous xiaolongbaos
Bottom (L-R): Big guotie, pork cutlet

Fu Chun, 650 Yuyuan Lu, near Zhenning Lu 愚园路650号, 近镇宁路 +86 21 6252 5117, 6:30 a.m.-midnight

A Singaporean mama in an Italian kitchen

Sarah spent 6 weeks this summer volunteering on an organic farm in Italy and learning to cook from the home kitchens of Italian mamas and nonnas. When I found out Sarah is now running supperclubs serving the home recipes she learnt, I jumped at the chance. She is a very talented young cook, despite never having formally trained she has good skills turning out both sweet and savoury dishes. Her chocolate pecan pie with bourbon butter sauce and homemade turkey are equally orgasmic. Anyway, we digress.

Left: Menu written on her cheery chalk wall, Right: Sarah proudly showing off her scarmoza cheese hand carried back from Italy

Two weekends ago, her cute little flat was laid out to seat 12, and the menu written out on her chalk wall. It was a long menu. Very long. And that overfeeding sensibility, though very much of an Italian mama, also comes from her husband’s “side of the family”, as she sheepishly told me.  And given there’s no set price to this meal, guests leave donations of their accord, this is very generous. And I guess that’s why she named it Smothering Suppers. Haha.  

Left: Diners at 2 tables, Right: Antipasti and homemade bread

Smothered we were. With vegetable antipasti, olives & cheese hand carried back from the motherland. Tomato bruschetta on homemade bread. The silkiest wild mushroom handmade parpadelle, beef cigars rolled with parma ham and enoki mushrooms. Savoury rolled crepes, potato frittatas, and bouncy meatballs. And two types of desserts – a fruit tart and the most divine hazelnut semifreddo. We ate, and ate. And when we thought we could eat no more, Sarah brings out another delicious plate of food to add to our laden table.

Left: Tomato bruschetta on homemade bread, Right: Olives and scarmoza cheese

Left: Rolled savoury crepes with cream and prosciutto, Right: Beef cigars with parma ham and enoki mushrooms

Left: Potato frittata with tapenade, Right: Wild mushroom parpadelle

Left: Fruit tart with cream, Right: Awesome hazelnut semifreddo

It’s not perfect of course. The crepes could have more seasoning, the beef was a little chewy. But those are details that can be easily ironed out, and the night really delivers a cooked-from-the-heart family spread that was incredibly tasty. Thanks Sarah, looking forward to seeing greater things from you.

Stay tuned to Sarah’s blog for new supperclub dates


La Lucciola - Seminyak, Bali
Oh look what I found when I logged into my blog after, oh... 6 months. An old post from Easter that never got posted. Oops.

I'm back in Bali after 6 years away, and it's the first time for Si so we head here for a beach break over the Easter hols. I was a little torn when I chose Bali for our break. We like a quieter scene and I know Bali has grown quite glitzy over the years. Still, Si has never been and it's definitely worth a trip. Not loving the traffic and high prices but the sceney eating scene is pretty spectacular now. When researching for our trip I struggled to find many recos for good Indonesian food except for the Babi Guling (roast suckling pig), a Balinese specialty. There were many warungs (restaurants) around of course, but you couldn't tell them apart. Perhaps Indonesian food is really that simple, so make an effort for roasted pig but otherwise it's the same.

I always look for soul in the places I visit, and you will always find them in the local culinary traditions, and other customs. Here in Hindu Bali everywhere you find religious offerings of flowers and spices placed on a weaved leaf basket, placed on the floor in front of a door. I guess it's an offering to the gods, or a protection blessing for the four walls it protects? Tomorrow we'll journey to the famous babi guling in Ubud, hope it's all cracked up to be, and show me more of Indonesian soul, which is already very smiley and chilled out. We hit some favourites in Seminyak - when time is short, go with common wisdom. 

Lunch at La Lucciola - with a view like that, how can it go wrong? The nice thing is, they didn't rest on their laurels and still served up a hit Italian classic meal.

These complimentary mushroom arrancini amuse bouche must've been my favourite thing during the meal.

Tuna crudo - can't go wrong with pepper crusted fresh tuna, avocado for creaminess, fennel slivers and pepper cress for a slight bitter contrast. Some chilli, good oil and a sprinkling of good salt and it's brilliant!

Red emperor fillets on white bean puree - Si's favourite thing. Beautifully cooked fish.

Fritto Misto that had me licking the plate.

Go to La Lucciola, you won't be disappointed.

La Lucciola 

Jl. Kayu AyaSeminyak, Bali 80361Indonesia
+62 361 730 838
+62 361 730 838

Soul food
Hawker food in Malaysia is better than in Singapore. Ok I said it. The friendly competition between these two neighbouring food-obsessed countries is an ongoing bone of contention. At least in Penang that's definitely true. And this past weekend when I was there I realised why. Because it's like time stood still in Penang. Most hawkers still operate from a mobile stall, cook with charcoal, the obsessive attention to detail, preparing the dish in the same way it's always been, with love and soul. One of our most mind-blowing meals this weekend was Char Koay Teow from Kafe Heng Huat on Lorong Selamat. The lady chef has an electric fan constantly stoking her charcoal stove to keep her wok stonking hot, another fan behind her presumably to keep her cool, and a bouffant shower cap type contraption to keep her hair in place. It's quite a sight to see, smoke billowing out onto the street from her little stall, her in a constant dance of wok frying the noodle, and the air is absolutely smoky delicious. It's a crazy tiring thing for her to do day in day out, and I love her for it. Because her char koay teow is so good we could weep. Or eat another 10 plates. Which we didn't, in remarkable self-restraint.

That's not to say there aren't good crazy mad hawkers in Singapore. There are, and as long as the Ghim Moh chwee kueh lady continues to steam her rice cakes in pork fat, my other half will eternally be blissful. But they're certainly fading out in Singapore. These hawkers grow old and retire, their kids may not want the same laborious work, the old hawker centres get renovated into shiny new food courts and people trade in their charcoal stoves for cleaning burning gas or electric ones, and slowly it changes. It becomes a formula, it becomes generic. But you can taste love and care and pride in food. It feeds your soul. We may not be able to do anything as hawkers age, but we can create something new. Like Papa Palheta, where its all about the brew. Like my friend Goz, who runs a Singaporean supperclub plusixfive (albeit in London), and painstakingly handmakes every kueh pie tee shell even though easier options exist, and I believe people respond to his manic exuberance, because you can literally taste it. And it makes you smile. (Or stuns you into silence).

Wherever you are, keep doing what you're doing. Heart.

Open Door Policy - Heading in the right direction in Singapore
A new modern bistro had popped up in Singapore and have been getting positive reviews, so we had to try it for ourselves. A collaboration between the TIppling Club, 40 Hands, and Spa Esprit owners - it had the right mix of style and street cred. It promises affordable and relaxed modern dining, and set in the hipster old/new skool neighbourhood of Tiong Bahru, the proposition is good. Reservations are required a week in advance for busy weekend slots, and when we got to the compact shophouse restaurant on a Friday night, the place was packed. Buzzy vibe, concrete floor, brick wall, tin roof, shabby chic chairs all created a cool loft conversion feel. Menu is modern European, right up the current bistronomy trend. Flamed tuna carpaccio, roasted pork belly, braised beef cheek, straightforward and easy to understand. They were mostly well-executed too, simple but sophisticated. The pudding and coffee were no mere afterthought, either. A few misses made it not perfect - a meh steak tartare (mediocre meat quality with ketchup in the dressing), slightly slow and patchy service, but it's a good step in the right direction.

Now, a few meal highlights.

Flamed tuna carpaccio with smoked sesame & yuzu dressing & shredded daikon. Very nutty yet refreshing.

Roasted pork belly with quinoa & celery. Simple, but so well done. Could do with some crackling though.

Best dessert ever - Fluffy chocolate pistachio souffle. They crack it and pour cream into it in front of you. Swoon worthy.

Special effort on my coffee - kung fu panda :)

A tale of two Hestons
Heston Blumenthal's two restaurants - the legendary classic Fat Duck in Bray and the new Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental London - were on my bucket list for London, and I got to try them both this year. Heston is probably UK's most famous chef and his every culinary and personal move has been covered within an inch of his life. Poor man. Because it's Heston, the punters' expectations sometimes feel impossible to meet. Still, he's an extremely talented and creative man with an obsessive attention to detail, and I enjoyed both meals immensely. It's just food, you know?

Everything at the Fat Duck is elaborate, meticulously prepared, and dinner theatre in the fullest sense. It was immensely enjoyable and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Dinner serves a menu researched from England's medieval dining traditions, with less fanfare but no less tasty. Both menus have been covered within an inch of their lives, praised, criticised and debated. I thought they were exceptional meals and well worth the money. Here're some of my faves.

I guess Heston likes porridge and reinventing oat porridge to become savoury was pretty well done. Chinese savoury rice porridge is already one of my favourite things so these were no-brainer favourites for me. The Snail Porridge (Iberico Bellota Ham, Shaved Fennel) at the Fat Duck (picture below left) is is a famous classic, I suppose because they look like snails in their natural grassy surroundings but they go down a treat. The Savoury Porridge (Snails, Girolles, Garlic and Fennel) at Dinner (below right) is very similar but with slightly less posh ingredients perhaps. But girolles are always gorgeous.

Pretty as an edible picture. The most visually memorable item in the Fat Duck menu for me was the Mock Turtle Soup (calves' head and feet), complete with an Alice in Wonderland backstory, a gold-covered bouillon dissolved with 'tea' to create the soup, poured into a magical bowl with floating bits (below left). It wasn't the tastiest thing for me, but it was so beautiful and enchanting I'll always remember it fondly. The star item at Dinner is undoubtedly its Meat Fruit (Mandarin, Chicken Liver Parfait, and grilled bread) - (below right). It looks like a fruit but its a creamy meat mousse inside. Geddit. This was as tasty as it looked. But it was a lot smaller than it appeared in many food blogs ;-)

Simple perfection. There are a lot more elaborate and clever things on the Fat Duck menu, but one of the best dishes for me was the relatively simple Salmon Poached in a Liquorice Gel (Asparagus, Vanilla Mayonaise and Golden Trout Roe) - (below left). The salmon was sous vide to an unreal consistency that was sublime, and the liquorice gel encasing the fish gave it a slight edge that cut the rich fish taste. Superb. In a similar vein, the Spiced Pigeon (Ale, Artichokes) from Dinner (below right) was lovely, because the pigeon meat was cooked to tender perfection. The texture of both meats really lifted the dishes.

The best dessert at Fat Duck by far, was the BFG (Black Forest Gateau) - (below left). I can't describe it but it was the best chocolate dessert I've ever tasted. The most talked-about dessert at Dinner was the Tipsy Cake (Spit Roast Pineapple) - (below right), with a slow-caramelised pineapple section that went amazingly with the soft, sweet brioche. It was worth all the hype.

Last things to say is if you can hold your liquor, the wine pairing at the Fat Duck was spectacular. While expensive, every dish was imaginatively paired - sometimes it was the highlight compared to the dish. And while it seems impossible to get a booking at Dinner we found the Sunday night waiting list to be our lucky charm. Enjoy.

The Fat Duck
High Street, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AQ
T: 01628 580 333

Dinner by Heston
Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park
66 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7LA
T: 0207 201 3833

My tweets
  • Fri, 00:29: RT @JoshuaKushner: in today's FT..."for thousands of years, a Jewish mother wanted her son to become a doctor. Now she wants him to be a ...
  • Fri, 00:31: Day 4 in Barcelona - drunk & shooting the breeze. Which is an art form here. #awesomeness
  • Fri, 00:59: @mcalpena We tried bar calders today and it was great. But Silas wanted to tell you that they serve hummus :)

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My tweets
  • Mon, 22:57: Not sure what Barcelona's industry is, but the best thing it's got is its inventive new Catalan food. Very impressed so far.