Thursday 25 September 2014

A Beginner’s Guide To Singapore’s Chinatown... ‘sort of’

This is a ‘sort of’ guide to Singapore’s Chinatown as I never intended to write one – I had planned to write about some of the places featured in this post as separate articles but, as I have been busy recently, I’m going to have to group them together to clear my back log.

This is a real shame for me because ‘high end’ places like Burnt Ends, Esquina and The Tippling Club and the famous Maxwell Hawker Centre certainly deserve to be featured in greater detail… there’s always next time.

Since my stepson settled in Singapore, we have made several trips to ‘The Lion City” – of course, the primary purpose of our visits has always been for my wife to see her first born, but the fabulous food and drink on offer comes a close second.

On our first few visits we did all the usual touristy things and stayed at Raffles; recently however, we have chosen to stay in the increasingly hip and happening area of ‘Greater Chinatown’ – an area which covers the five districts of Kreta Ayer, Telok Ayer, Bukit Pasoh, Tanjong Pagar and Ann Siang Hill.

Kreta Ayer is Chinatown’s traditional heart – on the lantern-lined streets you can find the usual range of Chinese restaurants, medicine shops and cheap tat.

After years with a reputation as a red light district and the destruction of many traditional “shop houses” to make way for high rises, a few forward thinking entrepreneurs are acquiring these 'heritage buildings' and once again putting the great into Greater Chinatown with their cool cocktail bars, boutique hotels and top notch restaurants.

Thanks to local businessmen such as Loh Lik Peng and overseas restaurateurs like Jason Atherton, some of Asia’s and The World’s finest restaurants can be found amongst the remaining historical temples, Clan Association buildings and Hawker Centres.

With Chef André Chiang, Peng owns Restaurant André (currently rated at 37th on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list), which is the area’s most expensive and celebrated restaurant. Next door to André, on Bukit Pasoh Road, Peng’s New Majestic Hotel has been our preferred base for our previous three trips. We like the Garden Rooms.

Over the road from the hotel, a short cut through a walkway brings you onto Keong Siak Road. Here, multi-Michelin-starred British chef Jason Atherton has The Study and speakeasy style cocktail bar, accessed with password via the neighbouring ‘tailors’. Jason’s menu is ‘British inspired’ – ‘Fish, Chips & Mushy Peas’ is on the menu… so is Steak and Chips albeit with Wagyu beef!

Over the road, housed in the iconic corner building that once housed the Tong Ah Kopitiam, the guys behind the celebrated Potato Head Beach Club in Bali have brought “dirty food” to the area with Potato Head Folk. I tried one of their hot dogs and a chicken burger.

Opposite, is Australian grill guru David Pynt’s Burnt Ends (another pie which has Peng and André’s fingers firmly embedded in it). Having made a name for himself with his London pop up of the same name, Pynt’s Burnt Ends is at the top of its game and should be at the top of the splurge list for anyone visiting the area. We had an exceptional meal there – Burnt Ends will be on the top of our list of places to revisit next year. The meat is obviously exceptional but don’t forget to order the charred marshmallow for dessert.

On the next corner (with Jiak Chuan Road), Jason Atherton and Chef Andrew Walsh’s Esquina Tapas Bar is one of my favourite casual dining places to eat in the world. Since our last visit they have opened an upstairs area where they offer a set menu and run ‘supper clubs’ – I still prefer the downstairs counter seats where you can observe Chef Walsh and his team work their magic.

Also on Jiak Chuan Road, The Cufflink Club is highly regarded as one of the best cocktail bars in Singapore. Whichever restaurant people visit in the area, many start or end (or both) their evenings in The Cufflink Club. 

Nearby, in Tanjong Pagar, British Chef Ryan Clift heads up The Tippling ClubIf you're are a fan of molecular dining and innovative tasting menus, it's up there with the best in the world. This year, it was named no 23 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.  

Chef Ryan Clift also oversees the menu at Ding Dong - a menu of modern imaginations of local and South East Asian favourites. The ‘48 Hrs Beef Cheek Rendang’ I ate was top dish – fabulous meat and a full on flavoured rendang.

For authentic local flavours Maxwell Hawker Centre offers a wide mix of Singapore’s finest flavours. Vying for the unofficial title of ‘the island’s best’, Maxwell has a number of places specialising in Hainanese Chicken Rice - Tian Tian is widely regarded as the best but Ah Tai (run by the ex head chef of Tian Tian) and Tong Fong Fatt also have their fans. For me, agreeing with Anthony Bourdain, Tian Tian gets my vote.  

Maxwell Hawker Centre is not the only place to get authentic Singaporean cuisine. Small local favourites also include the Foong Kee Coffee Shop (famed for its Wonton Mee), Tong Ah Eating House and the quirky Yixing Xuan Teahouse (which once hosted Queen Elizabeth II).

Tong Ah Eating House is a great place to try Kaya Toast – a ridiculously sweet breakfast dish of kaya (coconut jam), pandan, sugar and a thick slice of butter; this is usually served with soft boiled eggs for sipping and kopi (coffee) sweetened with condensed milk.

The Study: Ibérico Pork and Foie Gras Scotch Egg

The Study: Wagyu Onglet, Bone Marrow Salad, Triple Cooked Duck Fat Chips

Potato Head Folk: Honky Tonk Chicken Burger / Beets By Dre / D.O. Double G Hotdog

Burnt Ends: Smoked Quail Egg & Caviar / Sea Urchin & Cauliflower

Burnt Ends: Artichokes & Taleggio / Toast, Tomatoes & Lardo

Burnt Ends: Leek, Hazelnut & Brown Butter with Black Summer Truffle

Burnt Ends: Burnt Ends’ Sanger 
(pulled pork shoulder, coleslaw, chipotle aioli, brioche bun)

Burnt Ends: Jamaican Chicken

Burnt Ends: Dry Aged Rump Cap, Burnt Onion & Bone Marrow

Esquina: Sea Urchin & Crab Bisque, Sea Grapes & Smoked Herring Roe

Esquina: Thyme & Onion Bread with Smoked Bone Marrow Butter

Esquina: Popcorn Milk, Chocolate Mousse, Hazelnut & Burnt Orange

Tippling Club: Snacks

Tippling Club: more Snacks

Tippling Club: Omelette – smoked eel, chives, crispy shallot

Tippling Club: Cauliflower – cheese & truffle

Tippling Club: Foie Gras – cold confit apple, spiced biscuit

Tippling Club: Celeriac – crispy duck tongues, vegetable jus

Tippling Club: Venison – liquid onion ring. Salsify

Tippling Club: desserts

Tippling Club: desserts

Tippling Club: Terry’s Chocolate Orange – chef’s take on the classic

Ding Dong: Kingfish Sashimi with Black Daikon, Wasabi & Yuzu

Ding Dong: Crispy Pig Ears with Sichuan Pepper & Lime

Ding Dong: 48 Hrs Beef Cheek Rendang with Rice Puree & Crispy Herbs

Maxwell Hawkers Centre: Tian Tian Hainanesse Chicken Rice

Maxwell Hawkers Centre: Ah Tai Hainanesse Chicken Rice

Maxwell Hawkers Centre: Tong Fong Fatt Hainanesse Chicken Rice

Maxwell Hawkers Centre: Marina South Fried Oyster Omelette / Prawn Crackers

Maxwell Hawkers Centre: Wonton Mee

Foong Kee Coffee Shop: Wonton Mee

Yixing Xuan Teahouse: Dim Sum

Tong Ah Eating House: Kaya Toast

Thursday 11 September 2014

A Beginner’s Guide To Saigon’s Street Food 'Pt.2' - #TheNextSteps

In ‘Part 1’ (see here) of this, my ‘A beginner's guide to Saigon’s Street Food’ I focused on the crowd pleasing favourites such as bánh mì, phở and gỏi cuốn (summer rolls); plus a few other dishes that should not be missed when visiting Vietnam.

In Part 2, I’ll cover ‘The Next Steps’ – dishes that may not appeal to the majority of Western palates. The final entry will be about Cẩy tơ (dog meat). I understand that breaking this “taboo” may be a step too far for many so I’ll warn you before you scroll down and accidentally see some pics of cooked pooch!

Starting reasonably “safely”, the first dish is just some humble Phở from the log established popular Pho joint Phở Hòa.

Phở Đặc Biệt tự thứ @ Phở Hòa (260C Pasteur, Quận 5)
For 70,000 VND (about £2), a little more expensive that the standard one, you can get the fully loaded Phở Đặc Biệt tự thứ (mixed beef). This comes with such goodies as bò gân (beef tendon), tái (raw beef), gầu (fatty brisket) bò viên (meatballs) nạm (flank) and sách (tripe). All this meat, broth and noodles make for a hearty feed.

Bánh Mì Xíu Mại @ Bánh mì (6 Nguyễn Siêu, Quận 1)
Another safe dish ingredients wise but worthy of “The Next Steps” as it’s slightly less common is the Bánh Mì Xíu Mại – basically a meatball version of the traditional Bánh Mì – think of the Meatball Marinara from Subway but better! (If you’re wondering how it’s better… for a start, the meatballs actually had the texture of meat!)

What I particularly like about this place is the fact that the owners have cut a hatch into the wall of a bedroom / living space and they’re serving their Bánh mì from there. If you look at the location on Google Maps from March 2014 there is no window… now there is a shutter from where mother and daughter delight passers by with their Bánh mì selection… a real window into Vietnamese life and culture.

Miến lươn (eel) @ Cát Tường (61 Thủ Khoa Huân, Quận 1)
Getting a little riskier, we have Miến lươn from the centrally located Cát Tường; their version is made with a rather skimpy serving of dried eel but I’ve read that some places make it with fresh ones. I reckon there has to be better versions available in the city but I didn’t get a chance to seek them out.

Ốc mỡ xào me @ Quán Ốc Quang Anh (189 Tô Hiến Thành,
 Quận 1)
Until I had walked the streets and markets of Ho Chi Minh, I didn’t realise how many wonderful varieties of snails existed. Having seen them in the markets, I took to the Eating Saigon website to find somewhere that specialised in said gastropods – it seemed the place to go was Quán Ốc Quang Anh. With screen shot saved onto my phone I headed off to District 10, found the restaurant and pointed at the snail dish that I desired (much easier than trying to decode the menus with my limited Vietnamese vocabulary and dodgy pronunciation). I was soon eating a fab plate of Common Periwinkle (ốc mỡ) covered in a sticky sweet garlic (tỏi) and tamarind (me) sauce.

Hột vịt lộn xào me @ Quán Ốc Quang Anh
Whilst waiting for my snails, I noticed that Quán Ốc Quang Anh also served Hột vịt lộn – more commonly known as ‘balut’ in some parts of the world, Hột vịt lộn are fertilised duck embryos. The fact that they are cooked “alive” puts some people off. If you can get over the mental image of a cute little duckling, I recommend you try them like this, swimming in a sweet tamarind sauce with roasted peanuts and served with Muối tiêu chanh – a dipping ‘sauce’ made by mixing lime with salt, pepper and chilli.

Cật Gan Vịt (duck kidney & liver) @ Mì Vịt Tiềm (3 Hoàng Diệu, Quận 4)
In Vietnam not all ducks (vịt) are eaten before they are born. Some are allowed to grow up, lead happy lives swimming and quacking before they are dispatched to be made into delicious broths. Sometimes their kidneys (cật) and (gan) livers are added to these broths – when that happens it's a very special thing!   

Lẩu cá kèo (hotpot with goby fish) @ Lẩu cá kèo (87 Bà Huyện Thanh Quan, Quận 3)
Lẩu refers to the hot pot that are communally kept bubbling at the centre of the table. These restaurants are highly sociable places, mainly serving large families or groups of friends. Cá kèo refers to the ‘live’ Vietnamese Goby fish that are popped into broth.

When the Cá kèo stop wriggling, they are ready to eat; along with the complex broth that has sweet and sour flavours coming in the main from me (tamarind) and lá giang (river leaf); the broth also and bitterness from rau đắng (water hyssop) and lots of lemongrass (sả). The fish are eaten whole; but be warned, they have some pretty crunchy bones, especially in the head.

Cá kèo nướng & Tôm sú hấp @ Lẩu cá kèo
As well as cá kèo in the hot pot, we also ordered some that had been grilled on sticks, along with prawns served in the same way.  These were served with a Muối tiêu chanh – a dipping ‘sauce’ made by mixing lime with salt, pepper and chilli.

Canh khổ qua @ Cơm Tâm 390 (390 Cách mạng tháng Tám,
 Quận 3)
As a lover of bitter and sour flavours, Canh khổ qua (bitter melon soup) is right up my alley. Stuffed with pork and wood ear mushrooms there are no ‘unusual’ ingredients here but the bitterness of the vegetable may be too much for many people… especially those with a sweeter tooth.

Hột vịt lộn xào me @ Cútchiêneo (In front of 368 Cách mạng tháng Tám, Quận 3)
Walking along the street after visiting Cơm Tâm 390 we stumbled across a smiling street food vendor who had set up a tiny table and two small plastic stools. I noticed that she sold Hột vịt lộn. Having enjoyed them before I ordered some cooked and served with tamarind as well a couple in their shells.

Hột vịt lộn @ Cútchiêneo
I’d not yet tried the Hột vịt lộn presented in their shells, so the woman on the stall kindly gave me some tips on how to eat. First a hole is made in the top and the liquid content then sucked out. After enlarging the hole, the ‘yolk’ and hard chewy white can be eaten with the accompanying herbs and muối tiêu chanh. This leaves the final delicacy of the duck foetus.

Cút chiên bơ (quail) @ Cútchiêneo
Getting up to pay, I was instructed by the stall owner to sit again. It seemed she wanted me to try her other speciality, Cút chiên bơ. Coated in five spices and butter. This came with more eating instructions: I was encouraged to twist the head off at the base of neck and eat it whole, eyes, bones, brains and beak. For 3 eggs, 2 summer rolls and a whole butter fried quail I paid 40,000 VND, about £1!

Phao câu gà nướng (BBQ chicken anus) @ Cơm Gà Nướng Than (Hẻm 292, Cách Mạng Tháng 8, Quận 3)
Further along Cách Mạng Tháng 8 (probably my favourite street to eat in Ho Chi Minh) we noticed a small group of women up an alley (Hẻm 292) grilling bits of chickens over hot coals.

Chân gà nướng (grilled chicken feet) and a skewer of Phao câu gà nướng (barbequed chicken anus) seemed popular with the locals, so I went with that. It’s surprising what a bit of chilli, salt, lime, herbs and a few slices of đậu bắp (okra) can do to make a chicken bum appetising.

Vú Dê Nướng (BBQ goat udder) @ Lẩu Dê (105 Trương Định, Quận 3)
I fear going from BBQ chicken anus to writing about goat udders could make me look a little strange and I promise that I haven’t got a fetish for animals’ “private parts” but I am always keen to try something that I haven’t had before. As you’d imagine they were somewhat rubbery – a little more so than squid but not as much as a finger from a Marigold glove.

The sauce had deep fermented flavours and a good but not overpowering chilli kick. The accompanying greenery included đậu bắp (okra) chuối chát (thin slices of small green unripe banana) and khế (star fruit) – take a few herbs, wrap in bánh tráng (rice paper wrappers), dip and enjoy!

Gà ác (black chicken) @ Quán 94 (94 Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Quận 1)
I’ve wanted to try black chicken ever since seeing Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang make a traditional medicinal broth from one on a TV show. The breed in question is called a Silkie – Google them and you’ll see that they are cute with their fluffy black (or white) feathers. As well as black feathers, they also have black skin, dark meat, black bones and even black internal organs.

The gà ác (which translates as: evil chicken / cruel chicken) is cooked overnight in a broth with thuốc bắc (the collective name for medicinal herbs, berries and roots). These include such things as: kỷ tử (gogi berries) củ sâm (ginseng) thục địa (Chinese foxglove) ngưu tất (ox knee) đảng sâm (poor man’s ginseng) đương qui (Chinese angelica) táo tầu (jujube / Chinese date) and bạch truật (atractylodes / bai zhu).

I didn’t really know what half these things were but apparently I am now guaranteed never to have a cold, backache, toothache or have problems with my spleen. To be honest, chicken aside, which was quite gamey, the whole dish lacked a little favour… maybe a seasoning issue? ;-)

(Don’t scroll down unless you want to read about a real dog’s dinner!)

A couple of points to make about the Vietnamese and the eating of dogs: firstly, although common enough to mean that it’s readily available, the eating of dogs is not something that all Vietnamese people do. It is more popular in the north and among the elder generations.

The other thing to consider is that dog meat is expensive compared to most meats. Some visitors worry that they may be served dog “by mistake” – this would be like asking for prawns and accidentally being served lobster. One of the reasons many places keep live dogs is so that customers can be assured that they are not being palmed off with a cheaper animal like goat. For this, they are commonly dispatched and prepared in font of the diner. At the place I visited I didn’t have to worry about this – the tail end was hanging on a butcher’s hook.

Cẩy tơ @ Quán Cẩy tơ (660A Cách Mạng Tháng 8, Quận 3)
The dish came with the meat served three ways: thịt chó nướng (grilled dog meat) thịt chó hấp (boiled / steamed dog meat) and as dồi dhó (dog sausage). To me there was no direct comparison of flavour with other meats I have had – texturally the grilled meat was similar to pieces of lamb and the steamed dog akin to duck. 

The sausage, made with the offal and nuts (when I say nuts, I mean cashew, not the dog’s bollocks) and a little spice. Like most Vietnamese dishes, this dish has it’s own special mix of accompaniments, these include: riềng (galangal), and the unglamorously named ‘Stink Vine’ leaves (lá mơ lông).

My next post on Vietnam will focus on Coffee Shops.

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