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Quick Thoughts on Bangkok

19 Oct

I’ve recently spent quite a bit of time in Bangkok. Without a Michelin guide to guide me to the best places in Bangkok, I initially used the Asia’s 50 Best restaurants guide to eat around Bangkok, and then’s Best restaurants list. I’ve now eaten at all of Bangkok’s restaurants in the top 50, and here are my quick thoughts and ratings on them, as well as a few others places (rankings on the 2014 Asia’s 50 Best in brackets):

  1. (#1) Nahm – one of the best and most precise restaurants I’ve eaten in, though it is not perhaps designed to give you a best-meal-in-my-life experience due to its family-style service. Desserts here are the best thing, save space for them. I’ve been here 3 times now and the quality has been consistent. (Rating: 18/20)
    • a fuller write-up can be found here
  2. (#3) Gaggan – shock-and-awe molecular techniques applied to Indian food. Most of the dishes are just luxury proteins in an Indian sauce. This lack of imagination in pairing luxury proteins with Indian sauces is a turnoff, especially since Gaggan is a supposedly a cutting-edge molecular restaurant. I also feel cooking here is imprecise – part of it may be that the boldness of Indian saucing (which I enjoy more outside of the molecular realm) sits uncomfortably with molecular techniques, which I enjoy most when paired with precise taste-profiles. Flavors at Gaggan were relatively uncomplicated, like sledgehammers. (Rating: 14.5/20)
    • I see molecular food as a precise art. The eye sees an empirical fact about ingredients, and exploits that to create a great dish – for example, Daniel Boulud saw that “[American scallops] had a natural sort of collagen so the scallops sticked at each other.  [His team] could slice them, put things in between and reconstitute the scallops and they would hold up perfectly together” and thus the chef could come up with his signature dish black-tie sea-scallop. At its best, molecular technique is about clarifying and emphasising those precise effects. That is why I found my meal at modernist Mugaritz so congenial – serendipity is represented through the dish “linking”, the wooliness of tempeh Rhizopus fungi being mischievously contrasted with lamb. Modernist cuisine, it seems to me, only really shines when practiced by chefs with a very precise palate, and are willing to put in the time to perfect their dishes.
    • On one hand, we have the Fat Duck, which exemplifies precision. Every dish takes at least half a year to R&D, and there are multiple merits to each dish – for example, the “Sound of the Sea”, has exotic seaweeds, and fresh sashimi, but is only completed by the most banal-seeming element, the delicious tapioca-sardine sand. It really is a more of French restaurant (in the grand tradition of legendary dishes) in spirit than it lets on. Another case in precision: the meditative Mugaritz, which is a study in the unseen possibilities of the nearest ingredients – hake cheek AKA “kokotxas” being used to create a one-ingredient dish, both “bread” and “filling”.
    • On the other hand there are restaurants that are less precise, where the recipe for success is seen as an easy marriage of bold flavors and a molecular gimmick. The tell-tale sign of such a restaurant is superfluity. To questions such as “Why do you have a foam of X instead of a sauce of X? Why did you spherify this liquid?”, the kitchen will not have good answers.  This is molecular gastronomy as trope, influenced by the parable of the “el Bulli olive” – a one-effect-wonder, a pleasing small bite impossible to eat in large quantities, is greeted as the pinnacle of modern cuisine. At these restaurants molecular techniques are less to enhance precise and fleeting taste/textural effects; and more to serve as the vehicle of a bold flavor profile (which easily slides into imprecision) and as a textural spectacle. At Gaggan I had a spherified yoghurt chaat right at the start of the meal which seemed superfluous. I also had Norwegian diver scallops that were neither particularly Indian nor eye-opening. Most of the cooking was just luxury protein in an Indian sauce. It was not particularly innovative nor interesting.
    • Many of the “arriviste” molecular restaurants in developing restaurant markets are not precise enough in their tastes – Tippling Club in Singapore, Gaggan in Bangkok. Given that Gaggan ranks (#3), and Tippling Club ranks (#23) I think the food media in Asia is rewarding these restaurants because of the hype around their modernist approach, not because of the tastes on the plate.
  3. (#21) Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin – Molecular techniques applied to Thai food. Good, though the mains were not eye-opening – the memorable dishes for me were the desserts (jackfruit with coconut milk, and coconut cake), and the main dish of beef stew with rice. (Rating: 15.5/20)
  4. (#28) Bo.Lan – Serves food family-style (like Nahm). Unfortunately, as much as I liked the location, the food was not particularly interesting or memorable. (Rating: 12.5/20)
  5. (#31) Issaya Siamese Club – The desserts are good, but the mains are average and there’s a strange bitter aftertaste for many meat dishes. The best savory dish by far is the savory creme brulee, which is a brilliant cross between a traditional Thai coconut milk soup and a traditional Thai pressed-cupcake. The Mekong Baba (a rum baba) is a great dessert. (Rating: 13.5/20)
  6. (#37) Eat Me – Good bistro food. A delicious lamb rack. Interesting black chicken salad. The flourless chocolate cake is good, the pavlova average, but I haven’t tried their signature sticky date pudding yet. (Rating: 4.25/5)
  7. Yamazato (Lunch sushi rating: 4/5, Dinner kaiseki rating: 12/20): Located in the Okura hotel, Yamazato is a good standard bearer for lunch sushi, but the Hana kaiseki was disappointing to me, because I didn’t have a single eye-opening dish that bore the mark of a creative artisan. The kaiseki dinner was standard hotel fare, but I expected more from the flagship Japanese restaurant in the Okura hotel.
  8. Water Library Chamchuri – (Rating 17.5/20) Highly accomplished food, strong one to two-Michelin-starred standard anywhere. Write-up to come. You are guaranteed an eye-opening meal and very strong mains. Recommended.
  9. Supanniga Eating Room (Rating 4.75/5): Emphasis on Isaan food. Salak (snakefruit) in syrup, roast pork/beef with grilled sticky rice, and cabbage in fish sauce were my favorite dishes.
  10. Nara [Erawan branch] (Rating: 4.25/5): You should not miss the prawn carpaccio, which is delightful.
  11. Krua Apsorn [Samsen Road Branch] (Rating 4.75/5): Don’t miss the curry fried crab with egg, and the very well-calibrated lemongrass-mango salad that comes with fried kingfish.

Assorted Links (Food Digest for October ’14)

19 Oct

1. I found Jonathan Waxman’s (Barbuto) distinction between food-criticism and food-journalism to be enlightening:

I think there’s food criticism and then there’s food journalists. I think they’re very different. I think there are the critics that, number one, will always pay for their own meals, always want to remain anonymous, and create a sense of objectivity about their restaurants and reviews. And there was a very strict line about that.

And then there were the people who were real journalists or what we call food media, or food and wine media (because I think wine is an important part of the whole thing), that want to be chummy because they wouldn’t get the information that they needed unless they had street cred and there was a camaraderie that existed like you’re talking about with baseball or tennis. That’s just the way things worked, because the artists trust the journalists. Alice and Ruth are very good friends. I know Ruth is staying at Nancy Silverton’s house for a month. I remember when Colman invited us to go to Spain with Alice Waters and Ruth and Bradley Ogden and Mark Miller and Lydia Shire and all those people. It wasn’t as journalists and chefs; it was kind of like food pioneers, people going and discovering, for them, a new cuisine that we had no clue about because we were just moronic.

2. Daniel Boulud on the origin of black-tie sea scallops:

New Year’s Eve the following year, I wanted to do something special for New Year’s Eve and that’s where it took its name, Black Tie, because on the menu I put Sea Scallop Black Tie because it was a black-tie night anyway.  So, layered scallops, but because they were American scallops coming in the shell rather than the French scallop which was a little more flabby, a little more soft, a little more watery, they had a natural sort of collagen so the scallops sticked at each other.  We could slice them, put things in between and reconstitute the scallops and they would hold up perfectly together.  And so I did the scallop like that wrapped in the spinach leaf, so the spinach is not on the plate but it’s around the scallop, and wrapped that in a very thin dough of puff pastry where it was all about cooking the dough at, you know, 375 degrees or 425 even, and wrapping the scallop in the puff pastry with a band around and two disks on top and on the bottom.  This dish became an instant classic right there because suddenly, it was like, boom, nothing could change anymore.

3. Kenji Lopez-Alt replaces the duck in cassoulet with chicken (I’ve got to try this):

So why chicken? Well, duck happens to be very common and inexpensive in medieval Southern France. In modern urban America, not so much. You could go out and buy duck legs to use for this recipe, but chicken is cheap, widely available, and easy to work with. And you want to know something else? With so much flavor packed into the cooking liquid—sausages, salted pork, cloves—you actually don’t miss the duckiness of the traditional dish.

Here’s another thing: Most of the distinguishing flavor in a particular type of meat comes from the fat. Cook a beef steak in lamb fat and it’ll taste like a lamb chop. Seriously.

So instead of just using duck, what if I were to incorporate a bit of store-bought duck fat?

4. Oliver Roellinger has a grand vision for chefs.

5. Opionated about Dining in China

6. Guardian Profile on Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana, 3* in Modena)

7. Ruth Reichl waxes rhapsodic on almost every blogpost, but this is a good example of her style – a winebar in Paris.

8. A really good rating of Yamtcha by Gastromondiale.

Food Digest for March 2014

24 Mar


  1. Grandmothers posing with their signature dish. (2014)
  2. Old: David Kinch’s (Manresa) Tokyo journal (2009)
  3. How Chefs feel about food critics and food bloggers” (2012)
  4. MAD debates future of food criticism.


  1. Chez Pim talks about cooking for Alain Passard (2011). She’s now running Kin Khao in San Francisco.
  2. A documentary on Bernard Pacaud’s life and l’Ambroisie. (pre-2007) In French. Anyone have a subtitled (English or French) copy of this?
  3. Julot psycho-analyses Bernard Pacaud (2007). Also, a review of 3-stars in Paris circa 2007.
  4. A recent NYTimes article on French producers promoting the Burgundy truffle (2014) as an acceptable substitute for Perigord truffles (actually more likely to be found in SE France). It’s 1/4-1/2 the cost of the $1,200/pound Perigord (in bad years), and now France produces only about 40 tons of black truffle per year

    “Mr. Chabert has called in the chef Jean-Luc Barnabet to test recipes with the Bourgogne, or Burgundy, truffle, which is routinely snubbed in favor of its aristocratic cousin. He has created a scientific association to study it and has begun a national public relations campaign to promote it. Last month, he invited a dozen of the nation’s leading truffle experts to dine, serving them cream-cheese-filled choux pastries, puréed potatoes, dessert macarons and a sabayon parfait — all made with Burgundy truffles. They oohed and aahed.

    “The Périgord truffle will always be higher class and more valued all around the world,” Mr. Chabert said. “But we need diversity and flexibility. France needs the Bourgogne.”

    […]The Burgundy variety has a lighter, sweeter, less pungent smell, and it loses its taste in cooking. Even at Mr. Chabert’s dinner, the scallops had to be prepared with Périgord truffles. But when the Burgundy is freshly harvested and fully mature, it works just fine raw.”

  5. The spectre of Chinese truffles (1995)
    “Another, cheaper kind of black truffle, the tuber himalayensis from China, has been flooding the market. This influx has created a problem because unscrupulous dealers in France have been mixing the two and selling them all as French truffles, tuber melanosporum, to restaurants. Dealers in the United States have been doing the same.Although the two types look the same, the Chinese truffles, when cut, are likely to be blacker, with less veining. They tend to have a chemical odor and very little flavor.”
  6. A glimpse of Parisian haute-cuisine in 1982.
  7. In-depth conversation with Pierre Gagnaire.
  8. Biography of Paul Bocuse.


  1. Chef owner Davide Oldani of 1* Michelin D’O talks about how he makes his 1* food affordable (2013) in Harvard case study. No waiters, seasonality, cataloguing all edible parts, getting heftier glasses to reduce breakage costs, lowering rent by locating outside central Milan. His dilemma is his next step.

    Michelin-one-star-rated restaurants in Europe have an average of 36 employees on the payroll, according to the case. D’O keeps a lean crew of 14 by multitasking. Oldani does not employ any professional waiters. Rather, the chefs at D’O take turns waiting tables. (In fact, when Pisano first dined there, Oldani was his waiter.) This leads to a significant reduction in labor costs, even while allowing Oldani to pay his staff higher-than-average wages. Still, the chef insists that the strategy is less about finances than about customer relations. [Kenneth: Note, similar to how Schwa keeps costs down in Chicago]

    “You can’t fully explain a dish that you haven’t prepared yourself,” Oldani said. “When a cook explains a dish, he can explain it very well because he made it. He doesn’t explain what he heard about a dish, he explains what he made.”[…] Oldani espouses the philosophy of “POP cuisine,” which aims for accessibility to a broad audience, in terms of both taste and cost. He maintains that he keeps food costs down and flavors bright simply by buying ingredients only when they are in season. “Ingredients are less expensive and of higher quality when they are in season,” Oldani said. “Following the season is the most important thing to do in the applied economics of a restaurant.”

    The chef also is fervent about not wasting food. The case includes a lengthy list he keeps in his office at D’O, detailing the edible portions of some 70 ingredients. A sea bass has an “edible share” of 47 percent, compared to 60 percent of a hake, for example. A fig: 90 percent. A strawberry: 99 percent. A lemon: 26 percent (juice) + 2 percent (grated lemon peel—only the yellow part, of course).

    Table settings receive similar consideration, both sensory and economic. On the sensory side: He has designed several eating utensils, including an espresso spoon that sports a hole in the middle so as not to break up the continuity of the crema on top. On the economic side: “He chooses glasses based on breakage costs,” Pisano said.


  1. Reflection on High-End American dining (Gastromondiale, 2012)
  2. The Economics of Dessert/Pastry Chefs in NYC (2014)


  1. The rise of the Gastro-pub (Bruce Palling, 2014)
  2. An industrial food producing wonder, Thanet Earth


  1. Very excited to try the Tippling Club, reviewed by Aun Koh here. (2014)
  2. Joel Robuchon restaurant is reviewed very favorably by food blogger Bu Pun Su on CH. (2014)
  3. The Labyrinth (Modern Singaporean food!!) is reviewed by Evelyn Chen. Looks like a very interesting set of modernist takes. (2014)
  4. Singapore’s food security strategy.

Food-related Digest for February 2014

23 Feb

*** WORLD ***

1. Vedat Milor’s Review of Apicius. All of Vedat Milor’s reviews are worth reading (I am personally running through his archives to plan a May/June Paris jaunt as we speak), but this review resonated especially, because of his mini-essay decrying Michelin’s penchant for “beautifully designed, tiny, and precious multi-courses meals, at the expense of restaurants which do true justice to ingredients.” as well as research-lab restaurants:

I do not consider the Restaurant Magazine and top 50 list a credible source to take seriously.  But the “Guide Michelin” too, unfortunately, has been  promoting beautifully designed, tiny, and precious multi-courses meals, at the expense of restaurants which do true justice to ingredients.

It is hard to fathom the overall influence and cultural hegemony of Japanese Kaiseki cuisine over the Guide. Japanese Palace Cuisine has great merits, but may not easily be transported elsewhere.

I would blame Michelin for caving in and promoting the superstar-chef phenomena (and for some reason women are not part of the inner circle and they remain on the fringes).

A related issue is the fact that Michelin has rewarded chefs who became entrepreneurs by giving their name to restaurants in exchange for material incentives.  Dine in the two and three macaroon Robuchon Ateliers, Tables, etc. Once in a while you can eat well, but in general the food is disappointing, sometimes mediocre.  In the Keller establishments, the French Laundry, Per Se, etc., the food is uninspiring, may warrant one macaroon, not three.  Gagnaire can only turn out great dishes when he is in the kitchen and when one orders a la carte (try lievre a la royale).  Ducasse somehow manages to satisfy in Louis XV, but even there it is nowhere near to the early ‘90s,  when Louis XV was a great restaurant.

The Michelin Guide has become too politicized and too much part of big business circles, to keep its credibility. It is inconceivable that Arzak in San Sebastien keeps its three macaroons, whereas Zuberoa has been reduced to one and Elkano, arguably one of the top three fish restaurants in the world, is solely mentioned in the guide.  The Michelin guide is also unreliable for Italy.  Recently they have promoted  Duomo in Alba and Osteria Francescana in Modena to the top three macaroon status.  I had two meals in the former and one in the latter and found both of them wanting. My friend, ex-gastoville partner and now the chef of Hedone in London (you must try it if you are in London), will probably give 7/20 to both. I am more generous and rank the former 11/20 and the latter 12/20.  You can have some interesting and some badly conceived dishes in these restaurants, but I guarantee that you will not eat a satisfactory meal showcasing the purity of ingredients (except the reggiano parmesan and the veal ragu pasta at Osteria Francescana). It is ludicrous to rank restaurants that high which are more like research labs and concoct half baked, experimental and too precious, teeny-tiny and odd dishes, which look like Van Gogh but taste like carbon paper. These chefs are primarily interested in creating infinitesimal variations on the “texture” of ingredients by using molecular techniques, and I wish them good luck.  But it is unfortunate that a serious French guide sends the wrong signals to the young chefs by elevating these restaurants to the highest status.

In trying to please the judges, like Michelin and the jury of the “top 50”, who are the arbiters of taste, many great chefs are making unfortunate compromises.

I take my hat off to Vigato for paying no attention to such trends and expectations of the modern public which is obsessed with fat and heavy sauces.

It seems to me that Monsieur Vigato is still cooking primarily to please himself. I am sure that he is one of the very very few two to three macaroon chefs who likes to eat what comes out from his kitchen.

It is also good to see that he is financially very successful.  The French love his restaurant which is always full.  The beautiful “hotel particulier” where the restaurant is located used to be owned by the producer/filmmaker Luc Besson who recently sold the gorgeous property to an American closed fund.

From all I have been saying so far, it would be wrong to conclude that I am against the tiny portions in multi-course meals.

Sometimes the quality and nature of the ingredients warrant tiny portions. For instance, recently I had a memorable meal at IN DE WULF, and chef Kobe Desramault designs a menu around small portions, but they are well thought out. He also knows how to cook a lobster or a pigeon whole. Ironically the Michelin Guide rewards only one macaroon to this restaurant.

It is no secret that in a large number of Michelin restaurants, chefs buy previously sliced and vacuum packed pieces of fish and meat.  Sous viding is efficient, easy, cost effective, and many customers like it because dishes cooked sous vide become soft and uniform in texture.

But, with a few exceptions, sous viding is the modern day restaurant equivalent of industrial, TV food.  Making it look beautiful and painting the dish with multi-color brush strokes does not change its fundamental character.  (What happened to true sauces?)

I have eaten at Apicius eight to ten times, and I can also attest to the consistency of the kitchen.

I love the fact that chef Vigato tailors the scale of his offerings to bring out the best in the material at hand.

This is why he cooks many dishes for two people.

No. He will not buy every joint of a duck precooked or presliced and vacuum packed (to be later sauced and arranged on the plate with a few sprigs of herbs) as many macaroon and top 50 chefs do.

If he serves duck, he will roast it to order and serve it for two. He will also sauce it in the tradition of the grand French cuisine.

Don’t miss his roasted wild Breton turbot on the bone for two. It is the best turbot you can have in Paris.

Try his whole lobe of sweetbread. It is among the very best in Paris. (Other great fresh sweetbreads I had were at L’Ambroisie, Ledoyen, and La Repaire de Cartouche.)

All of these dishes are excellent because they are cooked to order from high quality and fresh ingredients.

How many so called “top 50” restaurants are doing the same?

Another reason I love Vigato’s cooking is because he makes great SAUCES.  The sauce was one of the hallmarks of French cuisine, and the great chef Robuchon is known to never have reheated a sauce.

Making a classic French sauce is very time and labor consuming. I doubt many apprentices and young chefs today know how to make a classical sauce, without using agar agar, xantam gum, etc.  Three macaroon kitchens are now invaded by Adria products/chemicals because of obvious reasons.

All this said, don’t think that you will eat heavy food at Apicius.

2. The Rise and Fall of eGullet. A great history on the first-wave of internet gourmands, who congregated on eGullet and formed lifetime friendships. Many of them still blog today, like Docsconz, Gastromondiale, and Ulterior Epicure. But eGullet also fine-tuned the early dishes at Alinea, and inspired the Modernist Cuisine project by Nathan Myhrvold! “The site was filled with fascinating, generally friendly discussion from people in all walks of life with one major thing in common – a love and passion for food. Quite a few of the people posting on the site were culinary professionals, many of whom were already very well known like Jose Andres, Paula Wolfert, Anthony Bourdain, Michael Ruhlman and Nathan Myrhvold, who at the time was best known as the Chief Technical Officer for Microsoft, but later via the initial inspiration from eGullet went on to lead the project that became Modernist Cuisine; some of whom were becoming well known like Sean Brock, David Kinch, Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa amongst many others and as it turned out, there were many posting who weren’t particularly well known or even culinary professionals at the time, but subsequently became so, like Mikael Jonsson of the restaurant Hedone, Don Lee and John Deragon amongst others. There were also those, who like myself discovered a passion for culinary documentation. This would include people like Bonjwing Lee – the Ulterior Epicure, amongst others.” – Docsconz

Social media now showcases up and coming food writers but Lynes sees two key differences between eGullet and social media. The early days of eGullet were “filled with a real sense of exploration and discovery because eGullet was participant and not PR led. What’s going on now, people getting excited about ramen, burgers, pizza, doughnuts etc – I look at the early days on eGullet  and it was all there, but with more depth and substance.” eGullet was famous for argument and debate about food. “There was no ‘me too’ mentality, the opinions were tested” said Lynes.

Majumdar sees a distinction in motives between the eGullet writers and the social media herd today “In 01-02 no one had any desires to launch careers from it. The notion that it was a fulltime career was a million miles from my mind. I just wanted a few people to read it [my blog].” But he is optimistic for aspiring writers, “People fascinated with anything will find an outlet to talk about it and in 01-02 there was no blog to book outlet. Now they [the writers] have outlets like social media, but they still have to be good.”

But according to this story, it all came apart when:

The camaraderie and revelry amongst the eGullet family were about to change. Lynes was given orders to ensure the board members stayed on topics, didn’t stray from talking about food and above all prevent it becoming a virtual chat room for arranging real life meetings. Lynes said that it was “an attempt to control the way people acted in real life through the boards. It really pissed people off.”

This was the beginning of eGullet’s demise. eGullet originally attracted people dissatisfied from other food sites, who didn’t want their contributions hampered by arbitrary censorship rules or membership agreements or controls. Majumdar was irritated remembering the rules “people moved to eGullet because the Chowhound rules became too prohibitive.” Majumdar conceded that growth needs a level of control but the eGullet rules and interference from the moderators was annoying.

Majumdar said that the “breaking point came when a policy about real time events was brought in an attempt to restrict people getting together in real life.” The motive behind the decision made some sense. Lynes contended that “Steve [Shaw] wantedto prevent the site creating cliques and alienating other users; it should have promoted inclusiveness.” That didn’t work out well as Lynes explained “A meet-up would have to be pre-approved by a moderator, then you could post about the event. Any report back would have to be about the food.


3. Aun Koh of ChubbyHubby has written a manifesto on how the government should support the Singapore restaurant scene.

If we really care about food, I believe our government should establish a National Food (or Culinary) Agency, akin to the National Arts Council that can take on the duties of holistically driving our food sectors. This agency should promote our top talents locally, regionally and globally. It should open doors (internationally) for our food heroes to further build their reputations and their businesses. It should fight for our food businesses and help develop or change policies to make doing business here easier and more efficient. It should assist in spearheading new innovations that can help the sector grow. And it should assist in developing capacities and capabilities within the sector. It should educate citizens and food producers alike on diet-related health issues and promote wellness and nutrition. It should promote best practices and learning within the sector. It should work to preserve our food culture and heritage and find ways to archive, showcase and pass on knowledge. It should position Singapore as a true food capital and be able to fund programs and platforms that help ensure or cement this position.

I agree in large part with the spirit of this proposal, and hope I get the time to talk more about this of type proposal later on, when time permits. As I’ve remarked before, Singapore is a place where one eats well for $300, and reasonably well for ~$3, but the mid-range is sorely lacking, with such dire fare as like the overpriced tapas-bar Lolla, culinary-twerking 2am:dessertbar, and countless other offenders. Aun, I think, is trying to solve the problem of this mid-range chasm. As I mentioned in a comment on his post:

I think this is absolutely right. There are Singaporeans who are working at top kitchens in New York like Daniel, Momofuku Ko, who have little desire to return to Singapore because there isn’t a local culture of innovative food besides maybe 3-5 restaurants. (not talking about overpriced tapas)

On a recent trip to South America, I realised that countries like Bolivia are starting to create their own food festivals, and the Spanish-speaking restaurant world has Madrid Fusion. Latin American chefs and chefs in the Northeast US (where I currently live) constantly exchange ideas over Twitter and Instagram. This interconnectivity is why there is a creative explosion happening in the Latin world and the Northeast now.

There definitely is space for at least two things:
1. for Singapore to become a Southeast Asian mecca for fine dining
2. to export restauranteers to bring Singaporean hawker food elsewhere (like what Bourdain plans to do in NYC, and is happening in Copenhagen)

And Aun replies:

Thanks Kenneth. Agree. It is no coincidence that Jungsik, a restaurant partially underwritten by the Korean government, was able to earn 2 Michelin stars and help spread awareness of new Korean food in the USA and most importantly in the media centre of America.

If I were a government official in charge of promoting Singapore food, I’d be daunted. American food is undergoing an amazing renaissance – The Willows Inn, birch, Aska, atera, elements – are all great restaurants opened in the past few years, that’ve turned to an ingredients-first philosophy. The established giants like per se and Blue Hill are doing that too. However I think it is due to the increasingly good quality of produce available throughout American farms. I think that Singapore can become a Southeast Asian mecca for fine dining if we get the right logistics to ship ingredients from Borneo/Sumatra/Java and farms in the peninsula that focus on premium produce – but I don’t think Southeast Asian agriculture has this mindset just yet. To illustrate, Chef Andre Chiang, when I dined at his restaurant last summer, said he had faced difficulties communicating to local farmers his preferred methods of raising good agriculture. Therefore the immediate challenges in the fine dining space would be three-fold:

  1. (Ingredients) Build up a network of farms in the Malayan peninsula that sets aside a percentage of their output for premium ingredients.
  2. (People) Start enticing recent graduates of premier cooking schools in the world like the Culinary Institute of America to come back to Singapore. This can be done by subsidising restaurant spaces, grants etc. But ultimately great cooks want to cook for an appreciative audience. The government should work on the assumption that this appreciative audience can be brought into being within 5 years.
  3. (Foreign Promotion) I think the prospect of grants to set up restaurants in foreign countries, contingent on success within a 5 year trial period, will be a huge incentive to potential talent.

Since the problem of fine-dining restaurants in Singapore is complex and inter-related, only a concerted big push will solve the problem.

For hawker food, I’ll have more to say in separate post. But it’s a complex problem too, and we are in danger of losing our hawker food culture. The last link lists some reasons why:

4. Making no bones about that young bak kut teh hawker’s business.

The Kitchen At The Centre Of It All.

Interestingly, Jun Yuan also mentioned that at some point, for his business to truly work, they would need to expand to four to five outlets, and with a central kitchen supplying them. He said this when he posted his stall’s impending closure:

“You may or may not know that our model has always been premised on having more outlets.”

What’s more interesting than what he said, was what he didn’t say. Consider this – Jun Yuan is a first-class honours graduate in Management from the University of Manchester. One can safely assume that he has some idea of how to put together a business plan, forecast for various case scenarios and run some numbers to arrive at the conclusion that for a food business in Singapore to succeed and thrive, one needs scale. A scale that requires at least four to five different branches – a number of profit centres that help support one cost centre (the central kitchen) – in order to generate a healthy cash flow.

This is, if one reads between the lines, quite revealing. It shows two things:

1. Most food businesses in Singapore, in order to survive and thrive, require sufficient capital to provide the runway so that they can build the kind of scale required, and that’s likely to be to the tune of millions; and

2. That commercial rentals have skyrocketed beyond a tipping point such that most food businesses, even those that run hawker stalls, require the facilities of a central kitchen somewhere else – usually located in industrial estates with far cheaper rents – in order to manage costs.

Central kitchens are fantastic facilities in that they can generate a large quantity of food in very short amount of time at possibly lower prices due to economies of scale, streamlining of duplicated functions and higher automation. But many food businesses – aside from catering services or large-scale food service businesses such as hotels – previously never needed to use central kitchens because it has always been that what was produced onsite is sufficient to cater for the required number of customers to help keep the business afloat. The fact that central kitchens are now a key factor in determining whether a food business can take off only means that existing kitchen facilities within each establishment may be insufficient to produce enough food quickly to supply the larger number of customers needed to sustain the business. This is worrying.

Make no bones about it – this means that there’s even less breathing room for small, independent food businesses in Singapore, moving forward. And that their chances of success have just shrunk to an even more diminutive number.

The 20 Best Dishes of 2013

1 Jan

It has been a spectacular year of eating. A year ago, I was in Marseille, midway through a European sightseeing/food tour. I end it in Santiago, Chile, midway through a Latin American sightseeing/food tour. Many dishes required a long flight to taste, but a few were just 10 minutes from my doorstep. All are testament to hard work by people who through dint of hard work and creativity in their craft, have created some of the best tasting things on this planet.

  • * I’ll stretch the bounds of 2013 just a little to make room for two very late 2012 entries.

Happy New Year, and I wish everyone good eating in 2014!


20. Coconut Buns – Katong Sin Chew Cake Shop, Singapore

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My favourite buns from Katong Cake Shop are the coconut buns (marked with a green candied cherry cube on top), which are have a moist and hot sweet coconut interior, and an airy (corn?)bread outside.

19. Baby Pork Hazelnut – Tapas Molecular Bar, Tokyo, Japan

2013-01-05 14.23.32

This was an inverted xiaolongbao (soup dumpling). Here the pork (topped with shaved hazelnut), would form the outer covering for a soup within. How did they do it? I asked Aaron, the assistant chef. It turns out that they bake the chop, after they stuff a gelatin cube into the pork, and then cover it up with meat glue. The pork tasted superb, and the mechanics of the dish were sublime.

18. 55′ Rosemary Smoked Organic Egg – Jaan, Singapore

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Chef Royer’s specialty among specialties. Cooked for 55 minutes at 62 degrees celsius, this egg was the texture of an onsen egg. Crisp potatoes and fantastic ham matchsticks. This one will live long in the memory.

17. Sunchoke – Aska, New York City

2013-01-05 14.23.32

The 2nd dish turned out brilliant. This is the best sunchoke dish I have yet tasted. It may be dubbed “sunchoke 5 ways”.
  1. Strips of roasted sunchoke skin
  2. Discs of fermented sunchoke
  3. Rehydrated sunchoke chunks
  4. Fermented sunchoke jus, calrified and cooked with elderflower and butter
  5. Sunchoke puree.

Coaxing a bewildering amount of different flavours and textures from one ingredient. Bravo, absolute mastery of the sunchoke. The only barbarians on the plate were the little hedgehog mushrooms.

16. Baby Calamari – Ristorantino Da Spano, Palermo, Italy

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The Platonic form of calamari. Tender without a hint of chewiness, the little eyes of baby squid were savory and crisp. The most perfect calamari I could imagine having.

15. Wood-fired Squid Amatriciana – Avec, Chicago

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My favorite dish this time round. A delicious baked-glaze, like a mac-and-cheese, on top of amatriciana that contained pork cheeks (guanciale?) and squid.

14. Warm Red Beets – birch, Providence, Rhode Island

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Vegetable cooking of the highest order. This dish could have slid straight into service at l’Arpege. Beets are first dehydrated, and then rehydrated in lavender vinegar. The subtle sweetness of sunflower petals accompany the sunflower seeds, covered with a hearty helping of warm shaved walnut. Somewhere in that pile, there is also caramelised onion puree and the best, sweetest gooseberries I have yet tasted. Spectacular. A riot of colour.

13. Bak Kut Teh – Outram Park Ya Hua Rou Gu Cha, Singapore

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Deliciously fiery and peppery, this was originally used to pep-up coolie labor in Singapore just before their work shifts. The ribs are best eaten slathered with sweet black sauce. I’ve tried all the famous bak kut teh stalls in Singapore, and this to me is the best one in the Teochew style.

12. Fried Chicken – má pêche, New York City

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Fried chicken done the right way and made to order. Juicy, with the crisp skin filled with the taste of Jabenero peppers. This was an unexpected comp from the kitchen, and really stretched the 3 of us to bursting point.

11. Minus-196 Mango – Nihonryori RyuGin, Tokyo, Japan

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A delicate bijou (of mild-tasting sugar?) coloured and shaped to look like a mango, containing freeze-dried mango powder, is broken by the diner and afterwards mixed with warm mango poured into the diner’s plate. This is the signature minus-196 degree dessert from RyuGin, which has been used for apples and peaches too, among others. (minus 196 is the boiling point of liquid nitrogen). Spectacular.

10. Rigatoni Bolognese, Alfredo’s Fresh Pasta to Go, Venice, Italy

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Rigatoni with Bolognese – the best bolognese I’ve ever had. Fresh tomatoes, succulent beef, went well with the large-penne that is rigatoni.

Sometimes the best food is to be found in unassuming places. The mild January winter of Venice brought me to a hole-in-the-wall take out place near St Mark’s Square, and I found two young owners who wanted to make all their sauces from scratch, and feed the local Venetians.

9. Crab & Obsiblue ‘Shell’ – Jaan, Singapore

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The sublime taste of Obsiblue prawn comes out beautifully in a tartare, with crab salad and caviar on top. An avocado foam tops it; a crustacean jelly undergirds it. Superb.

8. Noix de Saint Jacques, legumes d’hiver –  Une Table au Sud, Marseille, France

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A truly spectacular dish, a complex edible canvas. A bold decision was made to serve a raw root vegetable (the shaved rose-pink slices of tuber you see in the picture), along with a savory pumpkin-y sauce, and starchy sweet potato. A braised soft asparagus-like stalk looked liked the sweet potato, but had a different texture. Perfectly seared scallops finished off this dish. Each vegetable’s texture and flavor rang clear, and harmoniously together. It looks like a “winter vegetable riot”.

To me, this is a reference dish. When I think about winter vegetable compositions or a scallop dish, I still recall this dish very fondly.

7. Anago Sushi – Sushi Bun near Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan

No pictures, because the chef didn’t allow it. I was in a 7am stupor, when I met fellow Brownie But it was so good, I had it twice. A brilliant sweet sauce on top of almost falling apart anago (saltwater eel), it just melted in my mouth.

6. Raw “Cheesecake” – Maitrea or Lehka Hlava, Prague, Czech Republic

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So good I had it three times in six days in Prague. Who cares if it’s vegan? A tart raw strawberry sauce drizzled on top of a raw “cheesecake” – made with cashew nuts, walnuts, raisins, coconut butter, and honey.

5. Foie Gras Terrine with Umeboshi Puree – Eleven Madison Park, New York City

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A stunning dish. 3 sweet crisp layers of tuile sandwich savory blocks of foie gras, cut to perfect and uncloying thickness. Soursweet dark complexity from an umeboshi (pickled plum) puree and syruped plum bits with plum jelly. Tremendous. The umeboshi puree was a perfect complement to foie-tuile sandwich.  The best foie dish I have ever tasted, as far as I remember.

4. Egg Custard and Uni – Nihonryori RyuGin, Tokyo, Japan

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A simple pairing of egg custard and uni (sweet). 3 types of onions refer to green onion flowers (pictured), fried onion (brown bits pictured), diced onion (the white cubes). Showcased delicate raw sweet smell of spring onions without the bitterness.

3. Sweet Grain Cereal – birch, Providence, Rhode Island

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birch’s tribute to breakfast consists of whipped grain milk, on top of apple sauce and a cornmeal johnnycake, mixed with the kitchen sink: honeycomb, puffed rice, oat snaps, and a few other things that are delicious. Eating this is like eating the best bowl of breakfast cereal ever. The mix of textures is complex, with at least four different kinds of crunchiness: thin, oaty crunchiness from the oat snaps, hollow crunchiness from the rice, and sweet dense crunchiness from the honeycomb, and what I think are airy cylinders of dried apple. One of the best desserts I have ever tried anywhere.

2. Oyster Ice Cream – Restaurant Andre, Singapore

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This is one of Restaurant Andre’s great dishes. It was introduced by Stepan Marhoul, restaurant Andre’s manager. Oyster ice cream, which has to be made with the flesh of firmer oysters and not the creamier ones, was perfectly cold and tasted of the cold, salty sea. Underneath the oyster ice cream, which had a firm texture, was a small oyster. Green apple, which seems to be one of the kitchen’s favorite ingredients, is here a foam, set beside the ice cream. Served on an oyster shell in a bed of coral salt. A very tricky and technically perfect dish.

1. Cevennes-Onion Gratin – l’Arpege, Paris, France

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One of l’Arpege’s signature dishes, this dish blew me away. A Cevennes Saint-Andre White Onion has an delicate sweet flavor. Here they were caramelised to concentrate the sweetness and put in a parmesan gratin, and had a sweet-tangy finish that the mild shaved black truffle did perfectly to complement.

I still think very fondly of l’Arpege I visited right at the doorstep of 2013 – the simplicity of the dishes, and the depth of the flavours gave me pause. With hindsight, many of a sustained sequence of dishes there were almost served in Technicolor.

How I eat in Providence

10 Sep

Having lived on-and-off in Providence for three years now, I have eaten a few things in this little city (founded by that magnificent advocate of religious liberty, Roger Williams, in 1636). It may be of some modest interest to my friends and readers in or around Providence, how I negotiate eating in the area. Here are some tips, arranged loosely by geographical area.

General Providence (The high-points of Providence food)

  1. Flan y Ajo – good seafood tapas.
  2. birch – exciting new restaurant by Ben Sukle (previously head chef at the Dorrance), opened in summer 2013. review to come. Preliminary comments on the summer 2013 menu: get the raw scallop, dehydrated beets, pt judith catch, and summer berries.
  3. north – interesting Asian-fusion seafood cooking (the chef worked with David Chang at Momofuku Ko). Good noodles.
  4. Los Andes – interesting Peruvian food, a bit out of the way if one doesn’t have a car.
  5. New Rivers – good oysters (Tuesday is oyster night), but they also do a great fluke here.
  6. La Laiterie – I like their lunchtime incarnation, Farmstead, for its burgers and pasta. But their fancy food come night, leaves me a bit cold.
  7. Gracie’s – Gracie’s does duck well. But the rest is not very memorable, unfortunately.
  8. Ellie’s – Ellie’s is Gracie’s bakery division. It has nice breads.
  9. Pastiche – one must try the Pastiche fruit tart, as well as their chocolate torte. Their apple tart is also very good.
  10. Bacaro – generally heavy-handed main courses (esp. the pasta), but the duck brioche and truffle scallops on the tapas menu are very good
  11. Cook & Brown – good cocktails and desserts, pasta mains so-so.
  12. Not Just Snacks – nice briyani

Thayer Street area (Brown’s main throughfare).

  1. Kabob and Curry has a good Cauliflower Mushroom Curry, and a Tikka Masala, Pair that with naan & papadum, or if one is feeling indulgent, fruit and coconut naan.
  2. Soban has great Korean chicken wings (4.75/5), and a good stone-pot bibimbap. The stews, however, are unconvincing. The place has been recently sold, so the new management may or may not preserve the recipes. Wait and see.
  3. Chipotle is a great food option for the time-strapped student. I usually get rice bowls when I go there for lunch.
  4. Meeting St Cafe has a good “garbage” cookie (meaning white chocolate, oats, coconut, dark chocolate etc. etc.) Most Brown students know this already.
  5. Bagel Gourmet (Bagel Gourmet Ole if you’re up on Thayer) has a good breakfast burrito (4.5/5). Their everything bagels are also good, and if you’re looking for dessert, the cinnamon raisin walnut cream cheese is pretty good.
  6. East Side Pockets – decent chicken and falafel wraps, good baklava.

The Food Trucks

  1. Plouf Plouf – The duck burger, maybe the creme brulee. Avoid anything non-meat.
  2. Lotus Pepper – decent vermicelli (3.75/5) [I still miss Pho-natic on Angell St, which closed in 2011] and banh mi.
  3. The rest are unremarkable. Mama Kim’s standard has dropped precipitously since its 2011(?) opening, and it is the best of the bunch.

Wickenden area

  1. Abyssinia has a great steak tartare dish called kitfo that I like very much (4.5/5). The teff injera is nice to have but not noticeably different in taste from the default serving bread.
  2. The Duck & Bunny has very good crepe-pizzas (“crèpzza”s), as well as very nice Devonshire scones with cream and jam.
  3. Avoid Al Forno. The dirty steak (their signature dish where they cook the steak directly on hot coals) is very ordinary in taste, and overpriced at 42++. The desserts are unremarkable.

Wayland Square

  1. Red Stripe has a good Red Stripe grilled cheese and tomato soup, as well as decent steak frites.
  2. La Laiterie: as above.


  1. Cahill Irish Porter Cheese from Eastside Market – a great brown cheese made with beer.
  2. Humboldt Fog Cypress Grove Chevre. I just discovered this cheese recently at Eastside Market. Coated with edible vegetable ash, it has at least 3 distinct textures, a slightly bitter outside, a gooey middle layer, and a thick mashed-feta-like core.
  3. Seven Stars Olive Bread, East Side Market or Seven Stars Bakery. An inspired decision, to put juicy, briny olives in a crusty loaf.
  4. Fleur du Maquis, Sicilian goat’s cheese, found in Farmstead. I first tasted this in Paris, and I think this is the best of the herb-encrusted goat cheeses. I was thrilled to find it at Farmstead. Seasonal.
  5. Sea Salt and Olive Oil Tortas, from Eastside Market. Decadent snack.
  6. Dorset Cereals: Fruit Nut and Fibre Muesli. Great with Greek yoghurt.

Cookbooks: Among the college student cooking set, I often notice Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen cookbook, or her recipes from her blog. That, and America’s Test Kitchen/ Cook’s Illustrated, offer some of the most practical advice for home cooks.

Noteworthy Istanbul Eats | Istanbul | August ’12 | “The Istanbul round-up”

6 Sep

Places featured on this round-up:

  1. Karaköy Güllüoğlu [Istanbul Eats]
  2. Karaköy Lokantası
  3. Sabırtaşı
  4. Lades 2
  5. Vefa Bozacısı [Istanbul Eats]
  6. Doyuran Lokantası
  7. Balıkçı Sabahattin
  8. Şimşek Karadeniz Pide Salonu
  9. Mandabatmaz [Istanbul Eats]
  10. Canım Ciğerim
  11. A Day Trip around Istanbul

Istanbul is a terrific food city, second to none. While on my first day in Istanbul, I was browsing in the museum shop of the Topkapı Palace, when a book called Istanbul Eats caught my eye. It promised me local intelligence from similarly demanding individuals, and I spent the rest of my trip in Istanbul mining the guide for its suggestions, to my great pleasure. For any tourist, I would recommend at least getting a copy of the guide, but there are also walking tours organised by the writers of the guide, which I will definitely do the next time I’m in Istanbul.

The following is a round-up of major food in Istanbul I tried:

2012-08-24 11.01.19

Istanbul from the Galata Kulesi


Karaköy Güllüoğlu

In Istanbul, Karaköy Güllüoğlu is one of our favorite places for that kind of pure baklava experience. Located a stone’s throw from the Bosphorus, this baklava emporium has been catering to Istanbul sweet tooths since 1949. Done up in borderline tacky décor that looks like it is meant to evoke late Ottoman splendor, the place serves more than a dozen different kinds of phyllo-based sweets, none of them resembling the cardboard-like, past-its-prime version of baklava that is often dished out outside the Middle East. Along with its excellent classic baklava, made with either pistachios or walnuts, we are also fans of Güllüoğlu’s şöbiyet, a gooey, triangular-shaped phyllo pastry filled with pistachios and cream, and of a specialty called sutlu Nuriye, made of flaky layers of pastry drenched in a sweet, milky sauce. After you pick out what you want from the display cases holding large trays of baklava, you can either eat your sweets standing up at one of several high tables inside, surrounded by an unmistakably buttery aroma, or sit down at a table outside and catch the Bosphorus breeze. – Istanbul Eats

2012-08-24 11.29.17 2012-08-24 11.38.34 2012-08-24 11.46.38 The şöbiyet (4.75/5) and sutlu Nuriye were indeed very good, the sutlu Nuriye (4.5/5) being the bottom goo-ey baklava in the last picture. The sutlu Nuriye was incredibly sweet, a great sugar rush. This very popular baklava shop also apparently has an NYC branch!


Karaköy Lokantası

(Lokantası means restaurant.)

Karaköy Lokantası is best known as a power lunch spot, with the midday star of the menu being hünkar beğendi. A leftover from the Ottoman imperial kitchen, this dish is one of the specialties on the menu that is not to be missed. It starts with eggplants charred whole on a charcoal grill, then peeled, mashed and thickened with milk and cheese. On this bed of rich creamy eggplant beğendi, tender morsels of slow-cooked beef are drizzled with the thin red gravy they were stewed in. The smoky taste from the grill lingers long after the immediate flavors from the stewpot have passed. Make no mistake, beautifully roasted meat is always welcome, but it’s the beğendi experience that keeps us coming back come for more. Unfortunately, this dish is only served at lunch, but the dinner menu has a few star attractions of its own. – IE

2012-08-24 12.04.57hünkar beğendi (4.5/5)

Creamy eggplant with well-roasted vegetables. This was a satisfying milky mash. Slightly let down by the toughness of the meat though, which was otherwise well-spiced.



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İçli Köfte (3.5/5)

Very similar to Italian arancini I had in Palermo, Sicily. Comforting after a long day’s walk. Oily.


Lades 2

Of course, no visit to Lades 2 would be complete without a taste of their excellent “chicken” pudding, called tavuk göğsü (literally “chicken breast”). You won’t be biting into chunks of bird in your pudding. Rather, the meat is poached and then pounded until it is nothing but wispy fibers, adding texture and the subtlest flavoring to the white pudding, which is served with a dusting of cinnamon. Don’t be scared about ordering it. After all, you know what they do to chickens in Lades 2. – IE

2012-08-24 18.44.07

tavuk göğsü (2.5/5)

I am known to have an adventurous palette, but I think the tavuk göğsü defeated me. It was quite weird to taste strands of chicken in a milk pudding.


Vefa Bozacısı

Fermented cereal flour -generally millet- drinks have been produced by native Anatolians and Mesopotamians since the 9th or 8th millennia BC and Xenophon mentioned in the 4th century BC how the locals preserved and cooled the preparations in earthen pots that were buried.[3] There are references mentioning boza-like “fermented (ground) millet drink” in Akkadian and Sumerian texts : the beverage is said to be respectively arsikku and ar-zig.[4] It wasn’t until the 10th century that the drink was coined Boza and begun to be a common drink amongst Central Asian Turks . Later on, it spread to the Caucasus and the Balkans. It enjoyed its golden age under the Ottomans, and boza making became one of the principal trades in towns and cities from the early Ottoman period. Until the 16th century boza was drunk freely everywhere, but the custom of making the so-called Tartar boza laced with opium brought the wrath of the authorities down on the drink, and it was prohibited by Sultan Selim II (1566–1574).  – Wikipedia

It’s a taste all its own, bearing the sour mark of fermented millet grain and the sweetness of the sugar added during the fermentation process. The consistency is that of a milkshake that can’t decide if it wants to be thick or thin, while the texture is all Gerber’s. It is served in a glass with a spoon, a layer of sprinkled cinnamon and roasted chickpeas floating at the top. The first few spoons are beguiling, the palate fooled by the cinnamon dusting and utterly sidetracked by the crunchy chickpeas. The contrast of the cinnamon makes the boza seem sour at first, while soon after a subtle sweetness emerges in the chilled unadulterated boza below. – Istanbul Eats

I loved this drink. I would return to have this in Istanbul.  This was the culinary star of the trip.

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Boza (5/5)

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Doyuran Lokantası

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Turkish cooked food. Good eggplant dish. (4.5/5)


Balıkçı Sabahattin

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A delightful array of mezes. Of especial note was the melon (one of the sweetest I have tasted).  The olives, and the octopus were also good.


Şimşek Karadeniz Pide Salonu

Turkey’s take on the pizza comes in two distinct varieties. There’s the Arabesque lahmacun, a round, ultra thin-crusted snack topped with a shmear of finely ground meat and seasoning. Then there’s pide, a more substantial canoe-shaped creation that’s a specialty of Turkey’s Black Sea region. In Istanbul, pide joints are almost as common as blaring carhorns, but Şimşek Pide Salonu won our loyalty for its consistently outstanding made-to-order pide and convenient location. Passing the time at one of Şimşek’s outdoor tables on this quiet, sunny side street just off of Taksim Square is a pleasure in itself. Add to that a few pide and you’ve got a party. – IE

2012-08-26 18.39.50

pide (3.75/5)

Very pizza-esque, except without cheese and tomato and greased with A LOT of butter.



2012-08-26 19.10.13

Very thick Turkish coffee.

On a recent afternoon, Pilik was busy making cup after cup of his excellent brew, thick to the point of almost being chocolaty, each demitasse holding only a few sips worth of strong coffee before you hit a rich deposit of dark brown grounds. “Not everybody can do this,” Pilik says, as he holds a well-worn copper coffee pot to a blue gas flame that shoots out like a jet from a small, two-burner range. “It’s all in the hand,” he adds, making a twisting motion with his wrist. “The hand is very important.” – IE

2012-08-26 19.23.56

a kind stranger’s recommendations: next time in Istanbul?


Canım Ciğerim

At Canım Ciğerim, the lively restaurant’s namesake dish (“canım ciğerim” is actually a Turkish expression that translates into “my liver, my dear,” and is used as a term of affection) is made from tiny cubes of tender lamb’s liver that are grilled over hardwood coals on long, thin skewers. The kebab is still unmistakably liver, but its taste and texture are much more delicate and simply less “liverish” than what you’ve probably had before. (If you want, ask your waiter for a “yarım porsiyon” – a half portion – of liver, just to give it a try.) Fortunately, for those not interested in taking the liver plunge, Canım Ciğerim’s “meat” (or et, in Turkish) option is an extremely fine one. In this case, small morsels of tender beef are skewered and grilled.

Either way, the real fun here is in what comes along with your kebabs. Before the skewers even arrive, your low table is piled high with plates of parsley, mint, arugula and slightly charred grilled onions and peppers dusted with red pepper. Along with those comes a serving of the restaurant’s superb ezme salad – a mix of extremely finely diced tomatoes, onion and parsley flavored with tart pomegranate molasses – which is made by a knife-wielding usta, or master, who lords over a well-worn cutting board near the grill. – IE

I generally am quite partial to well-prepared offal. And I had some great barbecued ones at Canim Cigerim.

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This roasted tomato sauce was excellent.

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Lovely liver. (4.75/5)


A Day Trip around Istanbul

2012-08-27 13.31.28 2012-08-27 13.44.15

Kokorec (4.75/5)

A sublime lamb-intestine sandwich. All in the seasoning.

2012-08-27 13.44.47 2012-08-27 13.51.10

A savory crepe-like pastry (…)

2012-08-27 13.58.47

Mussels with rice, and a wedge of lemon (3.5/5)

2012-08-27 18.28.22

A sweet dessert, in the Nisantasi area.

2012-08-27 18.28.28

To die for – kaymak (4.75/5)


Istanbul is blessed with amazing food. In the course of nearly a week there, I felt I had barely scratched the surface of what Turkish food had to offer, not even mentioning regional differences in food that can be found outside Istanbul.

Memory: Boza, kaymak, kokorec sandwiches, grilled liver and tomato sauce from canim cigerim, hunkar begendi, baklava, Turkish delight, Turkish kahve from Mandabatmaz, melon from Balikci, and most of all – the company, Z & E.

Cheap Eats in Singapore

1 Aug

Earlier last month, I had a request from a friend to discuss some of the better cheap eats in Singapore. It is very possible to find good prepared food on a lower budget (good as measured on an absolute scale), but they tend to be rarer, as the ingredient quality declines and larger amounts of labour are needed to make the food taste as good, ceteris paribus. Luckily, Singapore’s hawker culture (where hawkers cook two-five dishes for many years) tends to encourages expertise among those who aim towards it. Unluckily, it is dying off.

However, I don’t really think all this doom-and-gloom about food-courts replacing hawker-centres is warranted. 50% of the food in a neighbourhood hawker centre is terrible. Scrub-your-mouth-out terrible. You know what I mean: the stringy overcooked chicken that sits limply above your MSG-sweetened chicken rice. The sad dry excuse for char siew that rests below cheerfully lye-drenched-and-dried wonton noodles soaking in a sauce that’s too sweet and too spicy at the same time. The laksa that has so much coconut milk, you’re almost drinking it straight from the can. Kaya toast that has too little kaya, a rubbery you-tiao (dough fritter). Don’t get me started on lor mee, or mee siam. The only thing I’ve eaten that hasn’t been screwed up majorly in some way is probably briyani. At least half of the hawkers exist to provide cheap and edible food first, and taste is an afterthought. That’s fine with me, it just isn’t what I’m looking for. Food courts may not be able to provide that great hawker dish in an old-school hawker centre, but it caters to a (relative to hawker-centre) higher income clientele, which means that the standard of cooking has lower variance around a higher mean, i.e. slightly higher standard overall, but you won’t find your grandfather’s carrot cake there. The opening of a new food court in, say Tampines, is a signal that someone, somewhere, thinks that that region of Tampines has a relatively higher income, a steady-flow of human traffic. A cause for cheer, I’d say.

As Tyler Cowen says in [the Japan chapter of] An Economist Gets Lunch, Economics is all about choice at the margin. So here’s a short list (non-exhaustive) of food I think is very good, and is on the cheaper side.

[None of the pictures below are mine. All credit to Leslie Tay; Camemberu for shooting pictures]

Great Food

1. Hot tau huay from Beancurd City (Little India). Holy! My spoon goes straight through the beancurd! This is the highest level of silky smoothness, I can imagine no smoother. Makes a mockery of Rochor Road tau huay, which is much harder. Apparently this is by the youngest brother of the Rochor Road Family

2. Yue Lai Xiang Cheng Tng (Bedok Corner Food Centre) – cheng tng.

3. Xu Jun Sheng (Joo Chiat Road) – great Teochew cze char. For me the combination of their turnip-omelette and Teochew porridge is sublime

4. Por Kee eating house (Tiong Bahru) – champagne pork ribs. My first post on this blog was about Por Kee. I love their champagne pork ribs; it is sweet-sour in genuinely appetising way.

2012-06-14 07.51.44

5. Mee pok from Tai Hwa Pork Noodle.

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6. Bak Kut Teh at Outram Park Ya Hua is delicious. Slather on the black sauce with chilli.

7. Katong Sin Chew cake shop in Bedok North serves the best, most pillowy and juicy coconut buns in the world. Get them at 3pm when they’ve just baked them. They’ll sell out within the hour. Their kaya cake and red-bean buns are good as well. Sorry, couldn’t find pictures.

Good Food.

  1. Mos Burger Ebi Burger, Mos Burgers anywhere. Great sweet sauce with two warm rice patties and a crunchy prawn patty. A common workday snack for me.
  2. Zhen Zhen Porridge (Maxwell Road Hawker Centre) is very thick. Expect to queue.
  3. Bedok Block 216 – Vegetarian beehoon, but with half beehoon and half mee (fried malay egg noodles). ask for half beehoon and half mee. This was a common childhood breakfast, and I still eat it often on the weekends.
  4. International Nasi Lemak (Changi Village) – nasi lemak.
  5. Tan Tu Tu’s coconut kueh. Try the peanut, and the coconut flavors.
  6. Bengawan Solo’s green pandan crepe wrapping a shredded coconut and gula melaka mixture. Another childhood favorite.
  7. Also, if you’re queueing up at Maxwell Road and Tian Tian is too crowded, you can try Ah Tai chicken rice, which tastes just as good to me. (he is after all, Tian Tian’s old chef). [Don’t get hei-bai (soya bean milk with grass jelly) from the stall opposite; it tastes disgusting.]
  8. Tian Tian chicken rice at Simpang Bedok has better roast chicken than white chicken, surprisingly.
  9. Alex Eating House, near Bugis (if you’re working nearby) has good char siew rice. Nice char.
  10. Ah Loy Thai has a nice Pad Thai. Don’t get the squid though, it’s just drenched in butter.
  11. Din Tai Fung is very consistent. It has the most technically excellent xiaolongbao I’ve tried in Singapore. [Unlike Paradise Dynasty, where the skin tends to sticks to the steamer. I had one xiaolongbao in Paradise Dynasty stick to the steamer and break when I tried to lift it up with my chopsticks. I asked the waiter to change it for an intact one; he kindly obliged. When the replacement came, I lifted it up with my chopsticks. It broke again.]
  12. Sea coconut with lime on ice. Very hard to go wrong with this one, even in a food court.
  13. Green bean soup. Another evergreen.


  1. If you’re a fruit fanatic, you can go to Pasir Panjang wholesale centre. There you can get a box of fresh Rainier cherries (when they’re in season), or golden kiwifruits, whatever floats your boat. They’re fresher than at your fruit resaler or your NTUCs.
  2. Donut peaches.
  3. Durian.
  4. Jackfruit.
  5. Red dragonfruit.
  6. If you’ve ever wondered why Japanese grape candy tastes so unlike our grapes, try Kyoho Grapes and your puzzlement shall be dispelled. Japanese grape candy tastes like Kyoho Grapes, and the cheapest Japanese ones I’ve found so far are in Fairprice’s Finest in Somerset ($20 for a bunch)

Best Things I have eaten in Singapore

17 Jun

All the 5/5 dishes I would return for, dishes I could not think of how to improve without changing some essential characteristic, listed under PERFECTION. HONORABLE MENTIONS indicate dishes I liked very much. Will be constantly updated.

Underlined entries are those recently updated.



  1. Andre (2011) – “Salt” Oyster seaweed & Sea Grapes + Granny Smith Foam (French black label(sic) oyster)
  2. Andre (2011) – amuse-bouche: Fish & Chips in Garlic Chocolate Soil
  3. Andre (2011) – dessert: White Chocolate Popcorn with Surprise
  4. Bacchanalia (2013) – Foie Gras satay – sous vide foie gras, with an incredible creamy texture. Excellent with the peanut sauce.
  5. Bacchanalia (2013) – Avocado & Lime – black Hokkaido sugar coated on a cored-out avocado, had a fantastic contrast with lime sorbet.
  6. Beancurd City (2013) – tau huay.
  7. Hai Tien Lo (2011) – yu sheng.
  8. Imperial Treasure Marina Bay Sands (2013) – mushroom dumpling (dim sum)
  9. Keystone (2012) – Black Charcoal Bread.
  10. Por Kee Eating House (2012) – Champagne Pork Ribs
  11. Xu Jun Sheng (Joo Chiat Rd) (2013) – ngor hiang
  12. Yue Lai Xiang Cheng Tng (Bedok Corner Food Centre) – cheng tng.
  13. ***home cooking (aunt) – popiah
  14. ***home cooking (dad) – char siew (moist honey-style)


  • Ampang Niang Tou Fu (East Coast) – yong tau foo (tofu assortment)
  • Andre (2011) – “Pure”. 8 Tomato salad. (puree/pineapple/licorice) – Excellent and complex combination of tastes.
  • Andre (2011) – “Texture” Black rice crackers with cauliflower cream and finely diced squid, with peas. Squid cunningly disguised as risotto. 
  • Bacchanalia (2013) – Mushroom fantasia. 
  • Bacchanalia (2013) – Duck Confit (spinach wrapped confit duck, served with cucumber & corn dashi.) I asked the server, why did you use cucumber and corn as a dashi broth served in a teacup to be drunk when eating the confit duck? Cucumber gives the refreshing taste; corn has glutamate, which reinforces the hoisin sauce.
  • Bacchanalia (2013) – Cod Brandade – Slow cooked cod, which gave it a translucent texture that was incredibly delicate. I had never tasted such a texture for cod before; accompanying asparagus was very tender; almond sauce delectable.
  • Bedok Block 216 – Vegetarian beehoon, but with half beehoon and half mee (fried malay egg noodles). ask for “beehoon-mee tsan”
  • Le Chasseur (2012) – Roasted Pork Knuckle
  • Le Chasseur (2012) – ngor hiang
  • Din Tai Fung (2012) – xiaolongbao (Chinese soup dumpling). Din Tai Fung makes the most technical excellent xiaolongbao skins. They never stick to the pan.
  • Imperial Treasure Marina Bay Sands (2013) – liu sha bao (dim sum)
  • Imperial Treasure Marina Bay Sands (2013) – XO fried carrot carrot cake (chye tow kway)
  • International Nasi Lemak (Changi Village) – nasi lemak
  • Joo Hing (Joo Chiat)  (2013) – Prawn Beancurd
  • Killiney Kopitiam – half-boiled eggs
  • Man Fu Yuan (2010) – Milky Shark Cartilage Soup
  • Peony Jade (2009?) – Yam and sweet potato strips, dunked in heated sugar, and then ice water, forming a candy exterior
  • Tai Hwa Pork Noodles (2012) – bak chor mee. (located at Lavender, behind ICA Building)
  • Xu Jun Sheng (Joo Chiat Rd) (2013) – Teochew porridge with turnip omelet
  • ***home cooking (aunt) – cheng tng
  • ***home cooking (aunt) – ngor hiang
  • ***home cooking (dad) – wine-tomato-cheese-beef-celery spaghetti
  • ***home cooking (dad) – salmon

Best Things I ate in Chicago, 2012-2013

17 Jun

All the 5/5 dishes I would return for, dishes I could not think of how to improve without changing some essential characteristic, listed under PERFECTION. HONORABLE MENTIONS indicate dishes I liked very much.

Randolph Street/West


  1. Avec (2013) – wood-fired squid amatriciana
  2. Avec (2013) – any roasted fish dish by Avec
  3. Avec (2013) – spring spumoni (ice-cream cake)
  4. Avec (2013) – chocolate-bergamot sorbet
  5. Blackbird (2013) – goat cheese cheesecake (cajeta ice cream, burnt grapefruit, avocado)
  6. Blackbird (2013) – roasted peanut ice cream (carrot-barley sponge, honey mousse, pickled carrot, opal basil)
  7. Blackbird (2012) – “Blueberry Buttermilk Affogato with Blackberries and Cinnamon Basil (5/5) – Fantastic buttermilk biscuits, with blueberry sorbet and cinnamon basil ice cream. Drowned in blueberry sauce.”
  8. Girl and the Goat (2012) – raw shigoku oyster
  9. Girl and the Goat (2012) – sweet corn and peaches
  10. Prasino (2012) – creme brulee french toast/ pretzel croissant french toast (white chocolate sauce with salt, over french-toasted croissants)
  11. Ruxbin (2012) – octopus.


  • 90 Miles Cuban Cafe – Cascos de Guayaba (cream cheese sandwiching guava slices)
  • 90 Miles Cuban Cafe – a hearty ropa vieja
  • Antique Taco – Steak taco
  • Avec – any seafood, it’s their specialty
  • Blackbird (2013) – roasted rhubarb (cardamom danish, whipped delice, green almond, anise hyssop)
  • Blackbird – any dessert, desserts are their specialty
  • Girl and the Goat (2012) – Goat Ribs
  • Girl and the Goat (2012) – Pig Face
  • Girl and the Goat (2012) – Chocolate Magic Shell
  • The Publican (2012) – Thick-cut Publican Bacon

The Loop


  1. Frontera Grill – Chilaquiles (Saturday brunch)
  2. Fronter Grill (2012) – Tropical Tuna Cocktail (ceviche)
  3. XOCO (2013) – Aztec Hot Chocolate
  4. XOCO (2012) – Ice Mint Chocolate
  5. XOCO (2012) – Chicharrones


  • Frontera Grill (2012) – Yucatan Ceviche
  • Frontera Grill (2012) – Smoky-Creamy-Spicy Mushrooms (4.75/5)
  • Frontera Grill (2012) – Lamb Shoulder in Black Mole (4.5/5)
  • Frontera Grill – Rick Bayless’s Granola Mix
  • XOCO (2013) – Churros
  • XOCO (2012) – Carnitas Caldo
  • XOCO (2012) – Authentic Hot Chocolate
  • Yolk – Croque Madame

Northern Parts


  1. Ada Street (2012) – Octopus
  2. >>>DEFUNCT<<< Charlie Trotter’s (2012) – “Baconator” – One of the breads was incredibly delicious. It was a crispy bread drizzled with maple syrup on the outside, and had tender bacon cuboid strips on the inside. I dub it the “Baconator”.
  3. >>>DEFUNCT<<< Charlie Trotter’s (2012) – Thyme-Glazed Brioche with Georgia Blueberry Compote & Lavender-Blueberry Sorbet
  4. Hanbat (2012) – Kimchi, which is free-flow. They do a wonderful kimchi.
  5. M Henry (2012) – Out of this world bread pudding (Sunday Brunch-only)


  •  Ada Street (2012) – Salty chocolate




  1. Lao Sze Chuan (2012) – Spicy pig ear
  2. Taco Palacio (hole in the wall)