Sushi Saito in Tokyo (Aug ’15)

2 Aug
  • Price: ~$250 USD (two carafes of sake)

“2-3 years ago it used to be so easy to get into Saito. Sometimes you could just go in for lunch without any reservations.”

I heard this lament more than once from my friend, an old Saito regular. The rules have, of course, changed permanently. Saito is now canonized as one of the top 2-3 sushi places in Tokyo, if not as the very best of them all. Reservations are made 4 months out even for erstwhile regulars, and it is almost impossible to get a reservation if you are not a regular. It started perhaps with the Michelin guide’s seal of approval, and was exacerbated in the last couple of years with a weak yen luring more gastro-tourists into the country.

In the midst of this media attention, Saito seems to remain fairly normal. He plans to focus on his Tokyo branch, but will open a branch in Malaysia early next year, at the new St Regis hotel in Kuala Lumpur Sentral.

Does the sushi live up to its reputation? I can say Saito’s sushi is the best I’ve tried in Tokyo so far:

  • He makes incredible rice. What will stick with me above all is Saito’s sense of balance – his rice has the perfect temperature (warm), texture (soft but distintegrates unobstrusively in the first two bites) and taste (perfect conveyance for a salty vinegar). I found it comforting to eat each piece – the rice just ever-so-warm and perfectly vinegary, providing a foil for the topping.
  • He elevates not just the luxury cuts but the common cuts too – Several specimens were brought to a level of perfection I had not experienced before. The luxury cuts (tuna, nodoguro, kinmedai) were all top-class, but these are ingredients which can be bought by any chef. The test of skill is to elevate the more difficult cuts. I thought I had many eye-opening morsels. The iwashi (sardine) was one of many highlights – a cheap and common fish raised to a sublime level of melting perfection. The octopus had a magical contrast of textures. And Saito’s hand-dexterity was evident when he made an uni nigiri, which I have never seen before.

I also enjoyed that the atmosphere was relaxed and easy, without any of the tiresome hushed reverence. Reverence is suited for a pilgrimage, but a pilgrimage is a one-off. Hopefully I’ll be back at Saito before long.

Evaluating sushi. I came skeptical of high-end sushi because the possibilities for composition seem limited. I was disappointed by experiences at Mizutani and Hashiguchi because I expected more creativity and intense flavors. But I think I had the wrong critical lenses. Sushi is a parade of perfect morsels, and when you eat it a thousand times you become familiar with a thousand references and appreciate sterling examples of the craft. For me, it seems enjoying a sushi meal is about paying attention the micro-factors of balance, seasoning, preparation, and ignoring the macro-factors of dish composition where a sushi chef’s hands are tied.

Standout cuts: Octopus, Nodoguro, Tuna (akami, chutoro, otoro), Iwashi (sardine) nigiri, Anago (sea eel) nigiri, Murasaki uni nigiri

Pictures of a meal at Sushi Saito

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Shiro ebi

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Chiba abalone, octopus

(5/5 for octopus)

  • What I found amazing was the texture of octopus – the outer “skin” was soft and jelly-like, where the inner core of the tentacle was meaty – like two different materials had come together. It takes so much ingenuity to make octopus delicious, this octopus was one of the best-examples I’ve had

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Bonito-zuke (cured in soy)

  • Nice balance between scallions and ginger, a good contrast of jelly and sear

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Kokuryu Daiginjo


  • Ultra-rare, and with a dry minerality. A perfect complement to Saito’s sushi, and possibly the best pairing sake on the menu

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Kare no engawa
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Kani (crab) miso
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Seared nodoburo


  • The meat had little resistance, the skin had a delicious seared taste.

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Kare (flatfish)

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Kinmedai (splendid alfonsino)

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Kohada (Gizzard shad)

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Akami (lean tuna)

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Chutoro (medium-fat tuna)


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Otoro (tuna belly)


  • There can be no faulting perfection. From a 200kg tuna caught from the cold waters of Oma

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Ika (squid)

  • A squeeze of sudachi lime and salt

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Hiroki sake

  • Fruity and assertive (4.5/5)

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Iwashi (sardine)


  • The strong taste of sardine was evident in the first bite, but how smooth the fish was! It was like silk, going down the mouth, paired with a little dab of ginger. The freshness was unparalleled. The rice, a vinegary ephemeral cloud, a kiss of love towards the star of the show, the unheralded sardine – usually so tough when canned, but here with the grace of the best cuts. The standout piece from today’s meal.

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Kuruma ebi (tiger prawn)

  • One thing special about Saito is that he folds the prawn-head innards just under the rice.

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Aji (horsemackerel)


  • Fatty and unctuous

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Hamaguri (clam)


  • Sweet sauce

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Murasaki uni (sea urchin)


  1. This marks a first – I had never seen uni used as nigiri. The tongues are soft and liable to fall apart, and testament to Saito’s dexterity. Cold, and a good contrast with the rice.

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Anago (5/5)

  • Typically paired with sweet sauce, here Saito applied dabs of salt (and sudachi lime?) which was equally delicious.

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  • Made by Saito’s assistant chef –

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  • Soft, custardy, sweet, a nice end to the meal

Quintessence in Tokyo (Aug ’15): infinite variety

2 Aug
  • Rating: 19/20
  • Price: ~$300 USD with 3 glasses of wine
  • Chef: Shuzo Kishida
  • Style: Modern French in the Japanese Style
  • Michelin stars: 3

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety. Other women cloy the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where most she satisfies…”  – Antony and Cleopatra

There are two kinds of fine-dining restaurants – one which serves a fixed repertoire and one that improvises and comes up with new dishes at a frantic pace. The restaurant Quintessence is of the second kind, a restaurant that rewards multiple visits because Chef Shuzo Kishida will not serve the same dish to a diner twice (outside of a handful of signature dishes or special requests for repeated dishes). The usual result of such a philosophy is half-baked chaos, but Quintessence pulls it together because of impeccable attention to the cooking process (and a handful of trademark obsessive cooking techniques, such as putting meat in and out of the oven 30 times). With no mistakes in execution, we could judge the ideas by what was on the plate. I am already looking forward to a second visit to Quintessence to see what dishes I will be served next time.

Previously sous-chef (and in charge of meat) under Pascal Barbot at L’Astrance, Chef Shuzo Kishida has held three Michelin stars for about a decade now. The restaurant focuses on what’s called three processes – good products, light and understated seasoning, and attention to the cooking process. Sounds obvious – until you understand what lengths these tenets are taken to. Ingredients like goat’s milk are procured fresh from Kyoto everyday. Sauces are custom-made for each main ingredient. Fish and meat cooked according to multi-stage processes, involving multiple ovens or multiple times in-and-out of an oven.

Nouvelle-cuisine was formulated in the 1960s and 1970s as a reaction against old-school French cuisine, and focused on cooking out the best of ingredients instead of smothering them in sauces. Today, people say that nouvelle cuisine has gone out of vogue because its tenets are mainstream. That is true – step into any modern kitchen and you will find focus on fresh ingredients and light sauces. Quintessence’s version of modern French is the essence of nouvelle cuisine – light, ingredient focused, obsessed with the minutest details of the cooking process.

I don’t have a full photo collection from this meal, since there is a no-photo policy (spottily-enforced). I managed to take a few photos from my iPhone but no high-quality pictures.

  • Sable Bottarga
    • Sable biscuit, with a thick slice of Sardinian bottarga glued together with seaweed butter, chipolette chives sprinkled
    • (4/5)
  • Soupe de Moules Mont St-Michel
    • A cold tomato soup with warm creamy mussels from Mt St Michel served in a small glass and sprinkled with saffron – the mussels were perfect in everyway, I think the skirt had been removed, and thus only the creamy innards remained for a hearty and satisfying contrast.
    • (4.75/5)

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  • Assaisonement
    • Quintessence’s signature dish – a goat’s milk bavarois, made with goat’s milk everyday transported fresh from Kyoto, fleur de sel from Brittany (high minerality), lily bulbs, shaved macadamia, a fruity olive oil from the south of france.
    • The intensity of flavor from the goat’s milk was amazing. Every spoonful had a perfect proportion of salt, milkiness and green fruity olive oil, with sweetness and textural contrast from lily bulbs and macadamia. A perfect combination of ingredients.
    • While Quintessence strives never to repeat a dish, this dish is the one constant in the menu. It is not to see why.
    • containing specks of salt, the fruitiness of olive oil, and the sweetness of lily bulbs and starchy contrast o
    • (5/5)

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  • Taboulet de St Jacques
    • A weird dish, tabbouleh (herbs with bulgur wheat [I think basil + shiso?]) were added with lemon cream and grilled St Jacques scallop. It was served just warm.
    • (3.5/5)

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  • Salade Aubergine et Oursin
    • Sauteed aubergine with nuts and herbs. Very tasty, the sauce a sour pesto
    • Ozayu herb
    • Topped with Murasaki sea urchin from Hokkaido (a more watery kind than Bafun)
    • Impeccably cooked
    • I didn’t think the combination of pesto and sea urchin was synergistic, but they didn’t detract from each other.
    • (4/5)
  • Ormeaux et Noix
    • Abalone with abalone liver sauce, vegetable bouillon, young edamame
    • The abalone liver sauce was strong, with a salty mineral taste. The abalone was impeccably cooked, and the young edamame added good texture contrast
    • What was interesting was an almost harsh char on the surface of the abalone – despite this the abalone was highly tender.
    • Coincidentally, my friend and I were reminded by this Quintessence dish of another dish half the world away: a roasted abalone with abalone liver sauce served at Saison in Spring 2014. The similarities were striking – a roasted abalone, an abalone liver sauce. Of the two abalone dishes I still prefer Saison’s, as it was highly aggressive with saucing (pairing the liver sauce with capers), whereas Quintessence’s version was more subtle.
    • However the subtlety has great merit – you do not leave Quintessence feeling bloated, but instead full of energy and willing to return for another round.
    • (4.25/5)

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  • Nodoguro
    • Blackthroat seaperch, a red fish with white meat, is incredibly fatty.
    • Accompaniments; Vegetacle sauce,  quinoa with seaweed
    • The flesh was falling apart smooth, with an amazing crisp on the skin. The pairing of the two was uncanny, since I expected the crispness of the skin to be accompanied with some toughness to the flesh. But the rosy-hued flesh were parted easily with fork tines.
    • It was a highly labor-intensive process to bring a perfect piece of nodoguro to the table. At the same time, I wondered if I was able to tell if the fish had been sous-vide and the skin flash-seared.
    • The fish was pan seared, then put in a 320 deg C oven, then a 90 deg C oven, and then researed afterwards with the skin
    • (5/5)

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  • Veau Roti
    • Languedoc milk veal, put in-and-out of a 300 deg C oven for 3 hours [1 minute inside, 5 minutes outside, repeat 30 times]
    • Sauce of chopped mushroom, orange zest, and grand marnier
    • Fried beetroot beignets (beetroot from Hokkaido), grilled dragonfruit bud
    • The veal was perfectly cooked, but needed a bit more salt. The beetroot beignets were perfect, crisp on the outside, no sogginess, a wonderful sweet pliable crunch.
    • (4.25/5)
  • Bleu de Laqueuille
    • Pineapple jam, walnut toast, blue cheese
  • Glace de Sougen Lie et Melon
    • Melon sherbet and Japanese sake ice cream.
    • Good combination – sake ice cream had a vanilla base
    • (4.5/5)

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  • Mascarpone Mousse
    • Knafeh (shredded phyllo dough) covering a puck of mascarpone, a syrup made of Glengoyne whisky. Interesting combination
    • (4/5)

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  • Tarte Rhubarbe
    • Chickpea powder in the feuilletine, rhubarb, blueberry and grapes
    • (3.5/5)

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  • Glace Meringue
    • Ending off the meal on a high was a Quintessence signature: Meringue ice cream. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, you’re right – what looked like ice cream was not ice cream at all, but crushed meringues, mixed with dry ice to make it cold and creamy, with ginger confit and lychee liqueur poured on top.
    • The taste was uncanny – the egg-white taste of meringue with the cold texture of ice cream. Fruity lychee, sweet ginger, meringue – these combined for a perfect bite.
    • The origin story: Chef Kishida noticed that Japanese people loved the taste of meringues, but found them too sweet otherwise. He also noticed that cold temperatures suppressed the perception of sweetness. Combining these two ideas, he came up with his signature meringue ice cream.
    • Tokyo spoils you.
    • (5/5)
  • Champagne: Chinchilla Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs
    • Delicious lightness, a savory note (4.75/5)
  • Vin Blanc: Cotes de Provence Inspiration 2012/ Gavaisson
    • Sweet (4.25/5)
  • Vin Rouge: Fixin Fondemans 2007/ Mongeard Mugneret

Yakiniquest in Singapore: beef appreciation

19 Jul
  • Rating: 16.5/20
  • Address: 48 Boat Quay, Singapore 049837
  • Phone:6223 4129
  • Price: ~SGD 140 = $100 USD
  • Value: 4/5
  • Chef: Masuki Akutsu


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There’s no getting around the fact that Japanese food in Singapore is going to be expensive. Within a couple of weeks, I had 3 friends who asked about good value Japanese food below $100. I remain without an answer to this question – if anyone knows, please tell me.

I think I know one answer to the broader question of “value Japanese food in Singapore”. I recently visited Yakiniquest, a Japanese yakiniku restaurant set up in Boat Quay, by a founding member of the Yakiniquest group, a Mr Suguru Ishida. The Yakiniquest group is an interesting beast, according to the restaurant’s website, it is a grouping of 5 yakiniku enthusiasts who got together in 1998, and went around Japan eating at >100 yakiniku restaurants yearly, posting their reviews on, as well as authoring books and publishing magazines. As far as I can tell, this Singapore outpost is their only affiliated restaurant.

The restaurant is helmed by Chef Masaki Akutsu, who used to helm Yakiniku Shibaura. He is watchful presence at the front counter, steadily working through his cuts. The clientele of the restaurant is mostly Japanese expats – Japanese is the first language spoken around the restaurant

My first dinner consisted of A4 beef from Iwate prefecture, with a single piece of Australian tongue. (due to Singapore import  restrictions on Japanese beef organs). Three commendable points about the restaurant: First the grilling is done expertly, and secondly different delicious sauces are aptly paired with the meats. Thirdly, with a yakiniku restaurant you have perhaps less to innovate upon, but there were some surprising touches: A Niku soumen dish was an interesting twist on noodles, and the roasted green tea ice cream had a sophisticated taste unlike your run-of-the-mill matcha green tea powder based ice creams.

Good value for money? For beef connoisseurs, yes.

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  • Japanese salad/pickles (braised daikon turnip with beef essence)

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  • Wagyu beef sashimi – more a curiosity than anything of great succulence. The issue is that it was dry, and this limited the fatty texture (3/5)

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  • Niku soumen – a novelty dish consisting of shredded wagyu in soy sauce. This was based on a clever visual joke

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  • Shio tan (tongue) – This was the only piece taken from an Australian cow, as Japanese wagyu offal is not allowed to be imported into Singapore at the moment. It was highly succulent, one of the best pieces of the night (4.25/5)

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  • Rump

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  • Hire (tenderloin)

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  • Shinshin (eye of knuckle)

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  • Yakisuki (wagyu “sukiyaki” style) – a delicious sweet and umami sauce, mix of soy sauce, sugar and sake. I believe this cut is chateaubriand (a part of the tenderloin)

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  • Gazpacho – a shot of chilled tomato soup – a palate cleanser, that was also heavy from use of olive oil.

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  • Misuji (top-blade)

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  • Sirloin (striploin) with ponzu sauce (5/5) An exquisitely marbled cut that served as the piece-de-resistance, a burst of fatty flavor like a sponge. The spongey-fatty texture is found in two of Japanese fine-dining’s great obsessions – otoro and sirloin. Our eyes were riveted as the meat dripped fat onto the coals. There is something engrossing about a delicate piece of meat getting cooked

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  • Wagyu curry rice

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  • Inaniwa noodle with ice

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  • Red Bean Monaka (4.25/5)

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  • Black sesame ice cream

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  • Roasted green tea ice cream

Notable links:

Thoughts on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list

15 Mar

Another year, another Asia’s 50 Best list.  Last week marked the release of the Asia’s 50 Best list, with Gaggan of Bangkok clinching top spot in Asia. Superficially, this would be an impressive achievement, but the 50 Best list in general (which comes in 3 flavors: World, Asia, and Latin America) is beset with major problems. The first is that voters don’t actually need to visit the restaurant to vote for it, and the second is that each geographical area (e.g. Southeast Asia North, Southeast Asia South) has an assigned bloc of voters. The first problem is obviously a breach of basic integrity, and the second problem has led to perennial conundrums, as V. Milor mentions, where Scandinavian judges will all cast their votes for Noma and French restaurant critics will split their vote amongst at least 15 different restaurants. In the first year of Latin America’s 50 Best, a surfeit of Argentina voters led to a puzzling amount of Argentinian restaurants on that list, the highest ranked of which, Tegui, served me the worst fine-dining meal I can remember, and a good but not special parrilla (La Cabrera) being promoted to the top 20.

Fundamentally, the flawed methodology of these 50 Best lists make them of limited value, and I would only use them if I had little prior information on a city’s dining scene. I’ve spent some time in Bangkok and Singapore, and have also eaten in a handful of HK and Tokyo restaurants. I think the first 10 or 15 of the Asia’s 50 Best are reasonable enough, but the rest of the Asia’s 50 Best are merely decent restaurants that lack a spark. For example, I would pick Candlenut or Wild Rocket over any of Burnt Ends, Tippling Club, or Osteria Mozza, just since they represent something unique to Singapore, whereas you could imagine any of latter 3 restaurants opening anywhere in the world. In Bangkok, how Bo Lan and Issaya Siamese Club rank ahead of the Water Library or Supanniga mystifies me.

Taking a detailed look at the restaurants I’ve been to:

  • #1 Gaggan: Proof you can apply cookie-cutter techniques from the Modernist cookbook and be praised as an innovator. Below Michelin star standard.
  • #4 Ryugin: Yes, absolutely deserves its position.
  • #5 Restaurant Andre: Deserves its position.
  • #6 Amber: Good French. Deserves a high position.
  • #7 Nahm: Deserves its position.
  • #11 JAAN: Refined French cooking. No fireworks, strong 1 star.
  • #25 Eat Me: Nice bistro, but nothing special.
  • #28 Bo Innovation: Something quite unique and could only exist in HK.
  • #30 Burnt Ends: Okay.
  • #36 Tippling Club: Lacklustre. Below Michelin star standard.
  • #37 Bo Lan: Terrible.
  • #39 Issaya Siamese Club: Nope. There are two very good things on the menu: the rum baba and the coconut crepes, the rest is blah.
  • #45 Osteria Mozza: Quite good pastas, and decent antipasti and has a terrible atmosphere (looking out into the MBS mall). It’s a fairly good but cookie-cutter Italian restaurant. One of Asia’s 50 best restaurants? Really?

To be honest, revelatory fine-dining experiences in Asia are rare. High-end restaurants are still a nascent market especially in Southeast Asia. In Singapore I’ve only had a 3-Michelin level experience once – my second Restaurant Andre meal in 2013. I’ve not had it in Bangkok or Hong Kong, and as much as I enjoy kaiseki, in Japan only Ryugin (twice) and Kojyu (and Noma, but that’s not a typical experience) have blown me away.  That means I’ve only had a truly impressive fine-dining meal from start to finish only five times in Asia.*

Because these revelatory dining experiences are rare, a useful 50 Best list should be geared towards exploration – perhaps like a 1970s Gault-Millau, which championed nouvelle-cuisine specifically as a counterpoint to Michelin’s championing of haute-cuisine. It needs editorial focus to provide something valuably different from a Michelin guide, perhaps to champion chefs in second-tier cities, or modern local food that isn’t a lazy molecular remix of indigenous ingredients. Right now, the Asia’s 50 Best list functions like an unprofessional and hype-driven Michelin guide in the absence of an actual Michelin guide covering Asia ex-HK and Japan. As a consequence of the flawed rating system, the first 10-15 restaurants approximate a pan-Asian Michelin ranking (due to a general agreement on merit), and the rest are wildly unreliable. (probably due to PR horse-trading and I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine-ism).

Other links

* = of-course, there are your amazing/very good non fine-dining places: Rakuichi Soba in Niseko, Butagumi in Tokyo etc.

Seizan | Tokyo | Jan ’15

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  • Rating: 17.5/20
  • Address: 2 Chome-17-29 Mita, Minato, Tokyo 108-0073, Japan
  • Phone: +81 3 3451 8320
  • Price: JPY15,000 (124 USD at 1 USD = 121.39 JPY)
  • Value: 3.5/5
  • Chef: Haruhiko Yamamoto
  • Michelin Stars: 2


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Seizan  (日本料理 晴山) is helmed by a young 34 year-old chef, Haruhiko Yamamoto. The food is elegant, and relies on the high quality of its ingredients, rather than on sauces. It is in the same vein of harmonious great-ingredient cooking as Ginza Kojyu, though I felt the harmonies at Kojyu were slightly better (the dishes at Kojyu have also been on the menu longer). I visited this place because Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa of DEN mentioned Seizan was one of his favorite restaurants. It was well-worth the visit, and I believe Seizan has an even chance of being the next Kojyu.

Other reviews:


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福井 黒龍 特選吟醸 (Fukui Kokuryu Tokusen Ginjo). Sweet and dry. Good. (4/5)

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Shirako (cod milt) based soup with scallops and mochi, placed in a hollowed-out mikan (satsuma mandarin). The hollowed-out Mikan was set on a very hot stone, and the heat liberated a wonderful burnt citrus smell, probably due to volatile oils escaping. The citrus taste did not penetrate the soup, which had a creaminess reminiscent of Chinese shark-bone soups. Seared pieces of scallop and browned mochi within the soup. (4.5/5)

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Ankimo (monkfish liver) with negi scallions. What appeared to be bok choy (xiao bai cai), and a well-balanced soy sauce which I think had yuzu inside. There were jellied white bits of fat, that are of unknown-animal origin. The ankimo was a bit cloying as a paste around those jellied bits, and the well-balanced soy sauce (not too salty) cut the cloying feeling somewhat, though not completely. Perhaps it could have been drizzled onto the ankimo instead of remaining at the bottom (4.25/5)

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Matsubagani dumpling – where we were invited to feast on the remarkable sweet natural taste of crab. (Sweetness is meant literally, not metaphorically). A twist in the dish – an ineffable smokiness – was it in the crab or dashi? (4.75/5)

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Meiji maguro (young tuna, by-catch), seared. Smoky, smooth, sourness in the maguro from a bit of vinegar. Delicious. Sweet wasabi. Iodine taste from seaweed (4.5/5)

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Kobe beef, no salt. Barley boiled in syrup (a caramel taste), on top of a ball of daikon. An onion. We were asked to roll it up and eat it. This reminded me of an inverse, inside-out Peking duck roll. (1) The Kobe beef tasted like duck on the outside. (2) The barley boiled in syrup reminded me of Peking duck sauce. (3) The onion provides a touch of astringency. (4.5/5)

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Sawara (Spanish mackerel) with very late-season gingko nuts and ebi-imo yam (so called because it is curved like a prawn, and has shrimp-like stripes). The sawara was tender inside. Visually arresting plate of a Japanese crane (4.5/5)

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Anago (whitespotted conger). Good broth. Green stems were from the kabu white turnip. (3.75/5)

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静岡 磯自慢 純米吟醸 (Shizuoka Isojiman Junmai Ginjo). Dry. (3.5/5)

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Kamu (Japanese duck) rice, soy sauce-style, with scallions. Scallions were sweet. Not bad, though the rice was a bit much in proportion to the duck (3.5/5). In terms of duck rice preparation, I thought the duck fried rice I had earlier that January at Asia Grand in Singapore (the by-product of Peking duck) was much better.

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Strawberry mousse, strawberries, wine jelly (3.75/5). A refreshing end to the meal, though probably mostly pre-prepared. Desserts at kaiseki restaurants may be either proportionate and elegant, or underwhelming, according to your taste. This one felt underwhelming.

Bo Innovation | Hong Kong | Jul ’14

14 Feb
  • Rating: 16/20
  • Address: 60 Johnston Road, Hong Kong
  • Phone: +852 2850 8371
  • Price: HKD2,400 (310 USD at 1 USD = 7.76HKD)
  • Value: 2/5
  • Chef: Alvin Leung

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My meal at Bo Innovation featured touches of Hong Kong, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Alvin Leung shuns the “molecular” tag, and his type of innovation involves bringing the East Asian flavors and remixing it with classic preparations like baked alaska, hollandaise. For your main, you are dine on beef, but it is paired with oxtongue cooked in bak-kut-teh spices and coated with chocolate.

The three highlights: I found myself impressed by Chef Leung’s re-imaginings: the Lap Mei Fan baked alaska, which featured a sensational Chinese-sausage ice cream, a jar of spam puree with black truffle, a bak kut teh oxtongue. (these three dishes, the best, were only available in the extended tasting menu – which means that diners ordering a shorter menu might find Bo Innovation disappointing).

The others dishes generally lacked a foundation: Outside of one or dishes, like the lap mei fan baked alaska, or the bak kut teh oxtongue, I didn’t find the cooking at Bo Innovation very compelling. Most of the other dishes had multiple ingredients that didn’t make sense on that plate, as if the kitchen had to show off how avant garde it was, without considering whether the ingredients were harmonious or not. Multiple dishes didn’t have a compelling backbone to build on: for example it was hard to see what were the supporting ingredients in the MULHOE, RED FISH and BLUE LOBSTER, as well as the COCONUT dessert. Every component shouted on the palate. The result was often not in harmony. At 3 very good dishes, the hit-miss ratio was a bit low for me as well.

The HK food blogger g4gary has an intelligent observation: “As for the endless debate of whether the 3-star bestowed upon the place is justified, while I agree this is perhaps the most atypical 3-starred restaurant I have set foot in, if you took the literal definition of Michelin 3-stars meaning restaurants serving exceptional cuisine that [is] worth a special journey, I could see why Bo Innovation would make the grade. Strange as it sounds, his food is uniquely Hong Kong – it wouldn’t have made much sense to serve the same food anywhere else in the world – so from that perspective, the meal itself does worth a special journey for some adventurous minds. Guess I would leave it at that.

Don’t take it literally: I think this is probably what went through the Michelin inspectors’ minds when they awarded Bo Innovation 3-stars. In terms of refinement and objective enjoyment, this is probably a restaurant that merits 1-star. But the literal interpretation of 3-stars as “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey” opens a can of worms. Lesser chefs who hop onto the “innovation” bandwagon to create an endless array of average but novel dishes are rewarded, and chefs who focus on perfecting their dishes are penalized. I think the Michelin brand has stood the test of time because of the accumulated wisdom about what a 1-star, 2-star, and 3-star restaurant means in terms of excellence, and not because of its literal rubric of “journey-worthiness”. The recent rush to star “innovative” restaurants strikes me as a half-baked attempt to compete with the San Pellegrino guide.

Other links

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  • Waffle/ onion/ ham  (3.75/5)
    • Street food. Flour, fried. Tastes of onion

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  • CAVIAR: smoked quail egg, taro nest (4.25/5)
    • Presented on a silver tree to emphasise the “nest”. Enjoyable.
    • The quail egg was hard,

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  • MULHOE: foie gras, spicy korean miso, pear, sea urchin, sea bladder, smoked squid, sea bream, jicama (4.25/5)
    • Squeezing foie and spicy miso out a tube, the ingredients in a sweet cold pear consomme
    • Korean-influenced dish. Perhaps the restaurant is vying to be a pan-Asian culinary champion?

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  • LAP MEI FAN: baked alaska, “lap cheong” (5/5)
    • Hot-cold contrast, a crowd pleaser with the strong tastes of alcohol. Highly visual dish, setting the alcohol on fire
    • The sweetness of Chinese sausage was a revelation, used in a a smooth icecream that contrasted well with texture of puffed rice underneath.

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  • UMAMI: black truffle, toro, har mi oil, vermicelli, rice noodle (3.75/5)
    • The spongey tuna belly toro was a bit sour.
    • The given explanation for the existence of this dish was that each of the ingredients had strong umami components. As a dish however, it failed to be more than the sum of its ingredients – though the ingredients were strong.
    • The most overwhelming part of the dish was the har mi (dried shrimp) on the vermicelli, which dominated the toro and truffle.

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  • MOLECULAR: “xiao long bao” (3.75/5)
    • A Bo Innovation signature, this xiaolongbao featured ginger with a spherified meat broth. Not bad.

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  • BABY FOOD: black truffle “chian dan chee” (4.5/5)
    • Audaciously remixing high and low gastronomy – variety meats in the form of spam foam, mixed with yolk and crispy bits of ham, and truffle foam.
    • It tasted good, but to me it felt like a cheap trick. Spam has already been engineered to appeal to our fat and salt craving brains, it would not take much for a chef to make spam delicious.

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  • RED FISH: yunnan ham, dry mandarin peel, wild mushroom, jerusalem artichoke, pickled pearl onion (3.75/5)
    • Yunnan ham sauce, yellow foot mushroom,
    • The sunchoke (or jerusalem artichoke) was just a block of sweet starch, which could have been reduced in portion, and the chips (mandarin peel?) had no taste

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  • BLUE LOBSTER: sichuan hollandaise, hot shaohsing broth, chinese leek dumpling, charred corn
    • lobster bisque, shaoxing wine, a slight bitter aftertaste. hollandaise with sichuan peppercorn
    • 3.75/5

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  • MAO TAI: calamansi
    • when you’re drunk, you can go with the flow and Epicurean feeling (3.5/5)

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  • SWEETBREAD: oyster sauces, mountain yam, spring onion, ginger
    • Not bad sweetbreads, braised in oyster sauce. (4/5)

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  • SAGA-GYU BEEF: striploin, bakkutteh chocolate ox tongue, truffled taro, spring onion (4.5/5)
    • the beef was A3 saga-gyu, North Kyushu. I found the most unique part of this dish the bak-kut-teh ox tongue coated in choclate sauce. A liverish texture for the tongue, soft and pliant, with an interesting thick chocolate paste coating it.
    • The bak kut teh flavor was mild, and imparting a herbal flavor to the oxtongue. Not a dish I crave, but when reflecting on my meal 6 months later it is one of the two things I remember

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  • ALMOND: genmai, okinawa black sugar, cinnamon (3.5/5)
    • spherified almond milk (outer texture like a Chinese “tangyuan” dessert dumpling, inside texture of tofu), genmai tea flavored with black sugar and cinnamon.
    • the tea was overwhelmed with sugar

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  • COCONUT: palm sugar, coconut water, chocolate, pina colada, cherry, pandan
    • A curious combination. It is not quite chendol, with pandan cream and young coconut meringues.
    • It was a splatter of ingredients that evoked Southeast Asia – palm sugar, water, pandan (and an interesting touch of dried wolfsberries in the soil), but did not come together very well
    • (4/5) – the individual ingredients were nice.

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  • Petit fours (based off 8 treasures tea)
    • generally around 4/5
    • longan (lit: dragon eye), coconut jelly
    • osmanthus steamed sponge cake
    • rose macaron, lychee, butter cream
    • lotus seed, custard, sticky rice dumpling
    • mandarin peel chocolate truffle
    • red date marshmallow
    • wolfberry, tianjin pear, crystal bun
    • chrysanthemum meringue

Candlenut in Singapore: preserving an indigenous strand of home-cooking

13 Feb 2015-01-15 21.27.20
  • Dates visited: 3 times in January 2015
  • Rating: 17/20
  • Address: 331 New Bridge Road, New Bridge Road, Singapore 088764
  • Phone: +65 8121 4107
  • Chef: Malcolm Lee
  • Style: Modern Peranakan

A distinction in Thailand between home-cooking and street food… 

While browsing David Thompson (head chef, Nahm) excellent book Thai Street Food, I was enlightened as to a distinction he makes between the older Thai traditional food and Thai street food (a relatively new development that started in the 30’s and 40’s). In the first half of the twentieth century, before most Thais began to work in urban areas, eating street food was actually viewed with stigma, as it indicated one’s family (usually one’s wife) was uncaring enough to not prepare full meals for the husband and breadwinner.

It is in Thai home cooking that we find the more labor-intensive dishes such as curries, soups, relishes and stir-fries, meant to be eaten with rice, and served all at once. In Thai street food we find single-portions, usually one-dish noodles or rice, along with some snacks. At Nahm, I was fortunate enough to have three great meals of traditional Thai food. From the description of David Thompson’s soon-to-be-open Long Chim in Singapore’s casino complex Marina Bay Sands, it appears he will cook Thai street food instead:

Recently awarded the No. 1 spot on San Pellegrino’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014 and 13th on World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014 for his restaurant in Bangkok, Long Chim is Chef David Thompson’s first venture into casual dining. The internationally acclaimed chef, restaurateur and cookbook author has crafted a tantalising menu that combines traditional street food and contemporary flavours, with a restaurant concept reminiscent of the vibrant streets of Bangkok. Rediscover Thai cuisine with beef with holy basil, chicken pilaf with turmeric and cardamom, and more.

It will be very interesting to see how Long Chim pans out, and is received by pan-Asian consumers (especially Singaporeans), because there is a lot of hand-wringing on the island of Singapore about the state of its own street food (or “hawker food”) and Long Chim may provide a solution – “sell it to a foreign audience unburdened with expectations” to reset. Ironically the success of Long Chim may solve the problem of local consumers not placing a high value on street food, but only by introducing it to a foreign and well-off audience.

… the distinction isn’t limited to Thailand, but exists wherever street food exists: If we think about it, historically street food required a few ingredients to arise: (A) a large working population,  either (B1)  no wives to prepare home-cooked meals or (B2) high costs for wives to prepare homecooked meals. In the most recent past, we had (A) and (B1) in Southeast Asia. Singapore for instance was a land of immigrants, and lacking wives they ate at street hawkers. To take the example of bak kut teh (pork rib tea), according to Dr Leslie Tay in The End of Char Kway Teow, “pork bone soup was being served by the Teochews around Clarke Quay, and the Hokkien around Hokkien Street [in the 1920s]” (p32, Tay). In Thailand, David Thompson mentions the development of Thai street food took place around that time period, and eating street food carried stigma about your lack of a caring family. Today, the (A) working population is doubled in size due to the entry of women into the workforce, and (B2) the opportunity cost of a working wife’s income forgone is much higher.

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Candlenut preserves the Peranakan tradition of home-cooking well, in my three meals there in January, I found the food to be robustly flavored with welcome touches of innovation. Take the buah keluak (pangium edule)  preparation, which has divided commentators like Wong Ah Yoke on authenticity – traditionally the meat (most commonly chicken) is cooked within the buah keluak nut and dunked in a sour broth. The chef, Malcolm Lee, here, prepares a sauce from the buah keluak independently of the meat, which tames the bitterness but is intensely meaty and flavorful (at least for the wagyu beef version). It is black gold to spread over rice. For me, to insist on authenticity is to miss the point, since Chef Malcolm Lee is the only one experimenting and innovating in this vein. If you want authentic preparations, there are multiple Peranakan restaurants on the island where you can get your fix. But I have found that this is the only place serving Peranakan food that has the capacity to surprise. In fact, the one ingredient I haven’t encountered at this restaurant is the eponymous candlenut!

Innovating away from haute street-food, which is not as fruitful as haute home-cooking. I am biased, but I don’t believe haute street food hits the mark as often as home-cooking or banquet-cooking dishes. I had quite a few over the past year – the HK waffles at Bo Innovation were okay, the cheese pimento at Sant Pau was a clever artifice but not much more, the street-food based canapes at Nahm were just overshadowed by the home-cooked mains, the everything bagel at Eleven Madison Park was another clever artifice… so on and so forth. The examples could be multiplied. I’ve also generally had a better time in Tokyo at kaiseki restaurants than at sushi/tempura restaurants (former street-food that has successfully entered the haute-cuisine pantheon). [I must note though the Fat Duck’s “lamb kebab” was my best dish of 2014, but it completely transformed from its street food origins] This observation that haute street-food doesn’t hit the mark quite as often is based on my eating experience. My theory about why this is so, is simply that they (A) generally involve less labor than home-cooked/banquet food, and (B) street food must often deliver a forthright punch to ensure customers come back, but this frontal impact comes at the expense of complexity of the dish. For instance, HK waffles pack oil and starch, tempura has an oiliness we crave. Many haute cuisine attempts to update street food just seem awkward, and I believe it is the impatience and lack of complexity with which street food unfolds its flavors.

Everything goes well with rice. Two sauces here can be classed as “world-class”, up there with any multi-Michelin-starred restaurant. They are the buah keluak sauce with wagyu beef rib, and the gula melaka sauce with king prawn. I could not dump them onto my rice fast enough. The swimmer crab curry was another highlight, but almost every dish whetted the appetite. It was sophisticated comfort food, and it felt like we were eating at a Peranakan relative’s house.

Candlenut deserves to be grouped with Nahm as an innovative restaurant that simultaneously respects tradition. I opened my post talking about Nahm’s David Thompson because the two restaurants Candlenut and Nahm remind me of each other in a deep way. The head chefs (Malcolm Lee, and David Thompson) are not showy celebrity chefs, but are deeply-aware and well-read on the history and preparation of Peranakan and Thai food, unlike so many other chefs who are chasing fame and notoriety in the wild-west of Southeast Asian fine-dining. Both restaurants, Candlenut and Nahm, produce food that reminds me of home-cooked food, comforting and yet sophisticated. Both have chosen family-style serving of dishes in pursuit of this ideal of traditional food. The dishes are made with high quality ingredients. And yet the chefs have been trained in the Western-style. They know of the latest developments in molecular gastronomy. Here Candlenut is slightly more innovative, but only deploys some modernist techniques (sous-vide, espumas) when it serves the dish. But every so often there is the potential to surprise you with a completely novel dish (Candlenut’s buah keluak ice cream, and their desserts in general are interesting) which reflects a keen culinary intelligence. Singaporean food is for the richer that a chef of Malcolm Lee’s talent has chosen to cook Peranakan food instead of molecular cuisine a la The Fat Duck.

Relevant reviews:

Excellent dishes are highlighted with a  *

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  • Canapes: Gula melaka/Brinjal chip, with prawn quenelle, cilantro. An appetizing palate opener. It had the right amount of sourness (I would guess it involved calamansi). It was very well done.
    • 4.25/5

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  • Kueh Pie Tee: braised turnips, pork belly, prawn filling
    • 4.25/5

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  • Ngoh Hiang: Crispy beancurd roll stuffed with minced pork and prawns, water chestnut, mushrooms
    • Not a bad rendition. I am a bit spoilt when it comes to ngor hiang since my aunt makes a terrific version (the best I’ve tried in Singapore by a mile), but I would prefer if it were shrunk down, to ensure more crispy beancurd skin to stuffing ratio. This ensures the savory skin gets maximum flavor. It would also be better (I am out of fashion here) if the ingredients were more coarsely chopped, such that you can taste the texture of the prawns (important) and meat. It would benefit from more prawns.
    • Too many people make the mistake of throwing the ingredients in a blender. That is absolutely the last thing you should do. The joy of ngor hiang is to sample the varying textures of ingredients in one savory package.
    • 4/5

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  • Wing Bean Salad: prawns, crispy fish, shallots, lemongrass, chilli, cashew nuts, mint, coriander with lime dressing
    • 3.75/5
  • Turmeric Wings: Deep fried mid-wings
    • 3.75/5

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  • * Omelette Chincalok: Fermented blend of salted baby shrimps, folded with spring onions
    • An simple yet addictive dish, with a real depth of taste. Had not had this simple dish done so well since Xu Jun Sheng in Joo Chiat closed down.
    • 4.5/5

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  • * Sambal Goreng Mushrooms: wok fried with crispy shrimp sambal
    • I love mushrooms. I recently learnt from Michael Pollan’s Cooked that there are three umami chemicals (L-glutamate from seaweed, inosine from fish, and guanosine from mushrooms). Much of the Straits Chinese cooking I love uses dried shrimp (umami, but is it from inosine?), and and this combined two of the three umami archetypes (fermented seafood and mushrooms). It was interesting to see mushrooms in place of the usual kang kong.
    • 4.5/5
  • Chap chye: braised cabbage with mushrooms, sweet & dried bean curd, pork belly and black fungus in rich prawn stock gravy
    • 3.75/5

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  • * Candlenut Satay: pineapple peanut sauce, cucumbers, red onions
    • Just the right amount of crispiness on the meat (slight at the edges), which was still juicy.
    • 4.5/5

2015-01-07 20.17.03

  • * Buah Keluak chicken

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  • * Buah Keluak F1 Rangers Valley Wagyu beef rib
    • I have tried both versions, but I would say the succulence of the beef fat has outperforms the chicken version, which is tender but marginally less flavorful. The sauce is like black gold you pour over your rice, a moorish flavor that recalls a Mexican chocolate mole, but with that bitter nuttiness that is unique to buah keluak. Fantastic, an innovation to be celebrated.
    • chicken (4.75/5)
    • beef (5/5)
  • Rendang: dry coconut curry with kaffir lime leaves and roasted coconut
    • 4/5

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  • Babi pongteh: pork belly braised in perserved soy bean gravy topped with chilli
    • 3.75/5

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  • * Yellow coconut curry of crab: blue swimmer crab meat, turmeric, galangal, kaffir lime
    • Ranges from 4.75/5 to 4.25/5. I have had this dish three times, and on the first two times this dish was almost perfect. (On the third time the crab had a slight bitter tinge to it which made the dish less enjoyable)
    • I mentioned to Chef Malcolm that I thought this dish was comparable to Nahm’s coconut and turmeric curry of blue swimmer crab with calamansi lime. He probably thought I was joking but I meant it. The swimmer crab was generous in portion, and the curry deliciously complex. the note of galangal was probably what recalled Nahm’s almost instantly
    • Nahm’s swimmer crab curry, picture for comparison:
    • The Candlenut version is slightly spicier than the Nahm version (if I recall correctly), but both are thick, savory curries you would love to splash upon your rice.

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  • * Gula Melaka King Prawns: coconut butter sauce infused w gula melaka, lemongrass & roasted coconut, fresh herbs and chilli
    • Another masterpiece. This dish is completely new to me, but the sauce concocted is absolutely addictive, with a butterscotch taste and a perfect counterpoint of gula melaka. It is now made with soft shell crab, but the two times we had it with king prawn were amazing
    • 5/5

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  • Passionfruit, watermelon-wasabi granite, basil
    • A good palate cleanser.

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  • Chendol cream: Signature coconut custard, gula melaka sauce w pandan jelly
    • I think that this dish had the right idea, but on the two occasions we had it it was barely cold. The joy of chendol is that it is a cold treat, and we look forward to the sweet icy coconut milk soup. For me the serving temperature was off. My friend Y also commented astutely that it was missing the red bean element. If it were colder, and had the red bean element, I believe this dish would be much improved.
    • The pandanus noodles (lod chong) also were a bit doughy, and lacked bite.
    • (Open question: While I was in Thailand, their pandanus noodles tended to have a roasted flavor. I still don’t know where roasting comes into the process though)
    • 3.25/5

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  • Textures of coconut: Coconut sorbet, coconut espuma, coconut jelly, grated coconut, coconut flesh
    • This dish is surprisingly light on the coconut taste. (The glaring omission is coconut milk). Presumably the kitchen wants to make this a light dessert. In this they succeed, the coconut jelly has the salty-sweet taste of the older coconut. My personal taste is towards a heavier coconut dessert though, but this is amiable.
    • However, it would be improved (within the parameters of a light coconut dish) if they were to use younger and sweeter coconuts.
    • 3.75/5

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  • * Durian Soup: Creamy durian ice cream with feuilletine, fresh durian puree
    • A winner. Decadent, creamy durian, no holding back. With a biscuit to provide textural contrast. The only minor change I would make is not to pre-add the corn flakes and the feuilletine so that they don’t get soggy so fast.
    • 4.75/5

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  • Banana Caramel Pudding: Steamed banana cake, caramelized banana, ginger crumble with gula melaka ice cream
    • A technically excellent banana cake, made with overripe banana. An admirably even brulee across two banana halves, and an equally  balanced gula melaka ice cream.
    • 4.25/5

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  • * Corn Hoon Kueh: Caramelised Baby Corn, Gula Melaka, popcorn, corn ice cream
    • There were two aspects of this dish that I really liked – the caramel-butterscotch note and the vegetal crunch. Vegetal. It was an inspired decision to put halved baby corn onto the dish, they have a unique texture. The corn in the hoon kueh also provided that note. Caramel. The caramel sauce, the caramelised corn, and the popcorn all had the caramel note that made it a sophisticated dish. The kueh was well made, and the ice cream provided the contrast in temperature. A texture-based dish (powder, ice cream, popcorn, baby corn, kueh) enlivened by those two factors.
    • 4.25/5

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  • * Buah keluak: buah keluak-chocolate ice cream, salted caramel, chocolate crumble and chilli specks, warm milk chocolate espuma
    • This needs no introduction – the most popular dessert here by far. An earthy concoction that has the hints of the bitterness of buah keluak (a natural and inspired pairing with chocolate) that is contrasted with salted caramel. An unique excellent dish that only a restaurant like this, balancing both a Singaporean tradition and and innovative ethos could come up with.
    • 5/5

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