Friday, March 16, 2007

Museum Grub

Made In China @ Hua Song Muesum
Haw Par Villa
262 Pasir Panjang Road
Singapore 11862
Tel: 67777819
While a museum to most people is a boring place where you go to when u have nothing else better to do, I would go to this special one that not only reflects my ancestral roots, but culinary heritage too. No, I am not referring to our newly refurbished National Museum with its arty farty F&B outlets. Rather it's in a long forgotten place by many that used to be one of the exciting places for me during childhood. The museum I am referring to is Hua Song 华颂 and its in house restaurant Made in China. I had delay checking out this restaurant many times due to work, travel and other attractions but I kept hearing good comments about this place. It’s hard to find a good restaurant on the west side of Singapore but I my hopes were lifted after two visits within ten days coincidentally. The first occasion was the annual CNY dinner organized by the company’s recreation club and the second was for reunion dinner with my in-laws.

Hua Song is a museum dedicated to recognize the hardships, lives and achievements of overseas Chinese during the last two centuries. From the journey of passage to settling down in new settlements across the globe, it depicted the lives and jobs taken on by Chinese migrants in their newly adopted countries together with their sufferings and achievements. The museum is divided into 4 areas with 3 of them doubling up as private dinning rooms for Made in China. The smallest private dinning room is also dedicated to exhibits featuring the success of overseas Chinese in showbiz like the legendary Bruce Lee. Another private dining hall is in the focus of traditional Chinese recipes and foods enjoyed by the different dialect groups in Singapore. It even features a mock up of a typical Chinese kitchen in a pre World War II shop house unit.

The largest private dinning area is also known as the clan hall which houses the memorabilia of the different Chinese clans, associations and their activities. The main dinning hall is adjacent to the library that houses many books about the Chinese heritage, culture, cuisine and achievements.

My first tasting was done with a pre selected set menu. The opening was led by the usual Fa Cai Yu Sheng. While the sauces, condiments and radishes were pretty standard, what made the dish stand out from the previous Lo Hei’s that I had attended was the freshness of the fish. Quality pieces of thinly sliced chilled not frozen salmon captured my attention to the smooth texture contrasting against the crunch and crisp textures of the vegetables and condiments. So fresh it was, I could take it without pairing with any of the condiments. It was also a hit with my wife N and her folks in the second time I tasted it again.

From the two visits, I had also tasted two different types of soups, one thick and their other a steamed clear broth. The thick soup was a light puree of pumpkin with a chockfull of other ingredients like fishmaw, crabmeat, sharks fins, mushrooms and bamboo shoots. The generosity of the ingredients made me feeling less of eating a starch thicken broth though it created confusion of what was going into the mouth. Nevertheless it reflects well of the chef where most of the time others would always try to cut corners by giving more starchy broth.
Between the two soups, I preferred the clear broth which was Steamed Top Shell with Dried Scallop and Huai Shan. The broth had the foundations of a good stock with rich meaty flavours and it was further enhance during preparation with dried scallop, ham, lean pork and the top shell. A light scattering of a few wolfberries give a subtle sweetness to the soup which was very pleasant. Most of the dishes in the set menu from the first tasting were the usual grub on banquet menus in wedding dinners. As they were rather predictable, what stirred my interest was how good some of them were done. The Crispy Skin Chicken was commendable with a nice contrast of the crisp skin against the juicy breast meat, rarely achievable in banquets due to volume. This can only be done with précised timing coordination between kitchen and service staff. From chopping up the chicken to the time it is served on the table, many factors can cause the taste of the dish to fail as such meat juices softening the crisp skin or over cooking the bird. Another dish I like was the Braised Sea Cucumber with Mushrooms and Spinach. The sea cucumbers were well braised with no fish odours. Biting into soft supple textures, this reflects the quality of the sea cucumbers used and the natural “puffing process” through rehydration in water for a week. Some chefs use bicarbonate of soda to speed up the process and enlarge the volumes of the soak sea cucumbers resulting in a poor texture when cooked. Sometimes this can cause the sea cucumbers just totally “disappear” into the sauce as the gelatinous mass breaks down when overcooked.
Between the two fishes we had for both tastings, I preferred the Steamed Patin Fish for its lovely texture and well cooked topping of sautéed preserve radish (chye Por)with garlic. This gave a nice crunchy texture against the softness of the fish and a fragrant kick of flavours coming through from the chye por and garlic. However the Hong Kong Style Steamed Garoupa has its own merits too with a well balanced light superior soya sauce enhance by ginger and spring onions. What is really commendable is the finesse cutting of the spring onions is the testimony of a fine chef at work in the kitchen.

The Wasabi Prawns cast an indication of the Chef’s former experience in the Tung Lok Group of restaurants. Done in a very “Tung Lok” style with green coloured wasabi mayonnaise and sprinkling of diced fresh fruits, the taste of the taste was fine for me with the pungency of the wasabi at the right level and crisp potato starch dusted prawns without being over fried. What I don’t really agree with is the use green food colouring added to the mayonnaise which certainly does not enhance the appearance of the dish at all.

One of the best dishes that we tasted was the Jing Du Pork Ribs. Beautifully executed with just the right amount of sauce, the meaty pork ribs were not over tenderized with bicarbonate of soda and tasted very good with the fruity sweet and sour sauce that glazes it. What made this dish a success in my terms was the decent meat to bone ratio, a tangy sauce that cuts the fattiness of the meat and a nice thin crispy crust that not only provided texture, but helped to catch a decent coating of the lovely sauce.

A house specialty dish not to be missed here is the Home Made Emerald Tofu with Nameko Mushrooms Topping. It's one the Chef’s signature dish where deep fried home made egg tofu is pair with delicious sauce with Nameko mushrooms as a key ingredient. The home made tofu had a velvety smooth texture with a heart warming delicate softness. Deep fried to a golden brown, the tofu rested on a bed of quick sautéed spinach as the earthy mushroom flavoured topping crowned the glistening tofu cubes.

As it was the fifteenth day of the lunar year for the second tasting, naturally the ideal dessert should be tang yuan or glutinous rice dumplings as a mark of reunion. Ours came stuffed with black sesame paste and rolled in a fine mill of ground toasted peanuts.The finesse part of this dessert lie in the thin pastry skin made with glutinous rice flour which made the fragrant stuffing evening more outstanding.In summary, the dishes presented at Made in China are down to earth favourites reflecting the various traditional cuisine heritages of different Chinese dialect groups. What made them stand out is not the novelty of the dish but the finesse in the preparation of each one. The unique dinning environment is a novelty with the right ambience and music, an important criterion for my passionate musician wife N.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Tapas Bravas

33 Charlotte Steet
(Entrance on Rathbone Street)
LondonW1T 1RR
Tel: +44 (0) 78138010

One of the things I missed staying in Singapore is finding a good Spanish tapas restaurant. Honestly speaking, Spanish food in Singapore sucks because we lack of a proliferation of Spanish restaurants unlike Italian. The so called Spanish restaurants in Singapore are not really true to their cuisine and authentic in tastes as getting Spanish ingredients from Spain like their peppers, cheeses, ham and condiments are still very much restricted by the local AVA who determines what Singaporeans can and can’t eat. Just imagine we can’t even find smoked paprika here which is an essential spice in Spanish cooking. Importers are not keen to bring in Spanish ingredients other than olive oils as the demand is not strong enough. As a result, there is a lack of knowledge and understanding of Spanish Cuisine as it is not so widely appreciated here unlike Italian foods. Ironically, Spanish cuisine does have many close resemblances to Italian foods in terms of taste and ingredients used. Having spent three summers cooking in Mallorca and Ibza previously during the course of work have helped me able to open up to a window of Spanish cuisine knowledge to the different regions of this wonderful country. From Balearic Islands to the Iberian Culture and Basque country favourites, Spanish foods are very much down to earth, homely and simple yet they deliver robust flavours, vibrant colours and variety.

Though we did not visit Spain during our last trip to Europe, we did checkout some Spanish tapas restaurants in London during our time there. Some of the better tapas restaurants outside of Spain can be found here in London as they are able produce dishes similar to what I have tasted during my time in Mallorca. The two best Spanish tapas restaurants in London that N and I tasted are Fino and Salt Yard (In the next story). Both restaurants have their own merits in terms of menus and decor.

It wasn’t easy to find this place as it was an underground restaurant with its entrance on an adjacent street to its published address. Down through the stairs, you arrive on to a contemporary designed dinning room with soft Spanish Flamingo music on the background. Slightly more up market with a more sophisticated clientele, Fino’s menu is entirely dedicated to tapas style dishes, Spanish wines and special in house cocktails. Head Chef, Jean Philippe Patruno, who trained at the 3 Michelin Star Chez Nico helms the kitchen with contributions from the restaurant owners, a pair of brothers who are well known hispanophiles, due to their love of Spanish food and upbringing in the restaurant industry. The tapas menu is extensive from bar nibbles, starters, meat seafoods, cold cuts, cheese and snacks. There are also staples and salads that provide substance to make the meal more complete.
My wife N had the Fino Cocktail and we ordered the Toasted Almonds to nibble with. Lightly salted to compliment the natural sweetness and fragrance of the roasted Mallorca almonds, it went well with the cocktail that had vodka, crushed mint leaves and lemon. Mallorcan almonds differ from that of the Californian ones with a rounder shape and a more nutty fragrance. It is used extensively in Balearic cooking to thicken sauces and in pastries.

I have always loved Manchego Cheese since my first bite in Mallorca. This is a must have when you are at a tapas bar and we took on a platter. Though it was a first experience for my wife N, like me fell instantly in love with it too. Made with ewes milk, we love Manchego cheese for its slightly salty taste, nutty flavours and slight acidity. It does not have a unpleasant pungent aroma but has buttery creamy notes especially those that are still relative young. It can be appreciated in its own form or used like Parmesan in baking and toppings. Our order came in nicely sliced triangles with the black rind already trimmed off. Accompanying the cheese slices was sticks of apricot jam that had been cooked to a gummy like thickness whereby upon setting, it could be cut into sticks and served. Alternating between sweet and salty flavours, we enjoyed nibbling the cheese and apricot jam in small bites and letting its creamy nutty flavours run around our mouths with a lingering savoury aftertaste.

Between us, we also shared Half a Roast Chicken with Romesco sauce. The lovingly roasted capon resembling an slightly oversized spring chicken was flavoured with herbs like rosemary which has natural affinity for poultry. It was done very well with the meat still juicy and tender. Romesco sauce which can be considered as one of Spain’s national sauces provided a great enhancement to the roasted bird with its slightly tangy smoky character. It is made with charred red bell peppers blended with quality extra virgin olive oil, garlic, toasted walnuts, stale bread, red wine vinegar and most important of all Spanish smoked paprika. It brought out the best of the bird with its aioli like thickness and smoky aromas.
A classical dish in most tapas restaurant is Pulpo a la Gallega or literally translated as Boiled Octopus with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Smoked Paprika and Fleur De Sel (Sea Salt Flakes). Fresh octopus is boiled for a few hours to tenderise its tentacles. It is then sliced thinly onto a plate, drizzled with a good quality olive oil and sprinkled with smoked paprika and sea salt flakes. The tender sliced octopus had a slight Umami flavour which I like and the flavours are so simple and clean.
Gambas al Ajillo are another of my favourites though there can be more than one variation of preparation with different chefs. Basically it is about fresh shrimps cooked in olive oil with garlic parsley, chilli and piquillo peppers, which are the Spanish equivalent of cayenne peppers. Fino’s version was whole fresh shrimps sautéed in olive oil, garlic and chillies. Personally I would prefer a version cooked Mallorcan style with the shrimps cooked in excess garlic and chilli infused olive oil. Thereafter, you can dip pieces of bread into the fragrant oil and eat it with the shrimps. As Fino’s version did not come with the extra oil, I felt a little disappointed but the freshness of the shrimps made up for it. In end we still enjoyed peeling those shrimps and eating it with the remnants of the sautéed garlic and chillies.

Still on seafood. not to be missed are the Tuna Skewers with Guacamole. Simple clean flavours of pan seared skewered fresh tuna chunks are pair with a lovely smooth rich buttery guacamole. The result is a composition of palate sensations reflecting the harmony between fish and fruit, raw yet cooked.

From a country who loves the taste of pork, Spain produces one of the worlds finest bred of pigs, the Iberian Black Pig which is a distant relative of the Japanese Kurobuta. From this bred of pig comes two famous Spanish sausages, Chorizo and Morcilla. Chorizos are made from fresh pork spiced with smoked paprika while the blood of the pig goes into the making of morcilla sausages. By far, Morcilla sausages are harder to come by due to limited production but it is always appreciated in tapas bars sliced and lightly sautéed before going on as a topping with crusty bread. The saltish, smoky and fatty flavours of the sausage is a great accompaniment for drinks especially beer and sangrias.

No as meal is really complete without a taste of Tortilla Espanola. Basically a thick omelette filled with sautéed onions and potatoes, we opted for a version with Chorizo instead. The cute little round omelette came with a generous topping of diced chorizo sausages and a decent amount in between the omelette. Fried to a golden brown colour with delicious aromas, it was paired with a fragrant home made aioli on crusty bread, a combination of simplicity and sheer pleasure washed down with beer.

Desserts saw me opting for traditional Crema Catalana and N going for a flight of home made ice creams flavours like coffee, rum and raisins with amaretto and sweet Don Pedro Ximenez. The crema catalana is the Spanish version of caramel custard except the custard is denser and sweeter with the addition of condensed milk. Besides vanilla, it also has orange zest added in and it is served just like caramel custard. A generous portion, I love the taste of the rich creamy custard spiked with specks of orange zests giving it burst of citrus flavours on the palate. Meanwhile, the flight of ice creams was also driving N up to a new peak of sensational highs. The home made ice creams with their respective liquer flavours easily makes one succumb to such indulgence that can only be conceptualised by a pastry genius.

I have since picked up their new launched cookbook and have been looking into it for new inspirations for the menus of my next series of cooking workshops later in the year.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Bulldozing the Buffet

One of my favourite pastimes is to take my wife to a buffet dinner at a five star hotel. I love buffets but I don’t do it too often otherwise the novelty runs out rather quickly. Read in one breath: “Going to a buffet to us is more than just stuffing ourselves silly with the most expensive perceived food items in the shortest time possible to stretch the maximum value of our hard earned dollar.” Does it sound like how we would eat in a buffet? Sadly that is the mindset of many people who go to a buffet. I must say that many of the buffets offered by five star hotels have seen tremendous improvement in taste, presentation, quality and variety. Engaging professional designers and specialists for customized concepts, most buffet lines now are stunningly spectacular yet practical in operation. Example, Melt Café @ The Oriental, Straits Kitchen @ The Grand Hyatt, Cafebiz @ Traders Hotel, Vibes @ Negara Hotel, Greenhouse @ The Ritz Carlton, Aquamarine @ The Marina Mandarin, Square @ The Novotel Clarke Quay, The Line @ Shangri La Hotel, Elements @ Amara Hotel

Eating involves our five senses and the first thing is presentations which tells our mind whether we should check out this item offered or just skip to go to the next one. Cold food displays are now presented in smaller portions with more finesse. Rather than sending the food out in big sliver trays and huge porcelain bowls with the same tired looking display artifacts, foods are now plated or presented in smaller portions with natural edible garnishes on free spirited designed containers that delivers elegance and sophistication in perceptions. More on spot cooking stations are incorporated into the buffet lines to provide bigger varieties of food that is freshly prepared. This creates aromas which not only entices the diners, watching the Chefs prepare food in the different live cooking stations is somewhat also a kind of showmanship that provides a little entertainment to the whole experience of eating in a buffet line. The fun is further added on in some buffet lines where customers can also prepare their own salads, simple desserts like shaved ice with syrups, condiments and the now raging trendy chocolate fountains
With food presented in smaller portions and more live cooking stations; these factors have help to improve the overall taste of the food served in a buffet. Many customers will perceive this as an important factor in quality measure of a buffet. The varieties of dishes have also invariably expanded in buffet lines and their respective stations. The buffet line presents more different types of cuisines now but instead of having all items in a single line, the dishes are separated by their ethnic roots or cuisine regions in different stations that come with different kinds of culture decor and display according to the cuisine in focus. Customers demand to see less processed foods in the line, expecting more in variety, freshness and quality.

Inevitably, along with vast improvements in food standards, the dinning room and menu prices have also changed. Many hotels keep the market competitive by constantly innovating and renovating their menus. It is true that prices have also gone up but with greater customer expectations and demand due to affluence, it is no doubt justifiable. Most of the buffet dinning rooms have been given a makeover to accommodate new menus as well as a change of ambience that keeps regular customers interested.

So with all that can be done to improve the standards of buffet dinning in Singapore, is the picture really completed? Not really. The average Singaporean mindset about buffet has still not changed despite being more educated, traveled and exposed. We will always have a streak of “Kiasuism”(scared of losing out) in our blood that turns us into ugly monsters when we hit the lines showing no respect for food, other dinning guests in the line nor the people who have worked hard to put everything together in front of us. We dig, pick and flip to find choicest cuts and pieces, leaving a trail of mess and irreversible destruction to others behind us. We take more than what we can finish and stuff ourselves silly in fear of that there would be no more replenishment which in the case of good buffet restaurants should never be so as the customer is entitled to tasting everything on the line. When we turn up in groups, we operate like organized crime dispatching runners to every corner loading up plates of food assuming that everyone in the group has the same taste buds. When regrouped, we share the bounty on the table and while keeping one eye on the replenishments coming out of the kitchen in anticipation of a second raid. Ask most tour operators what they observe most when they take Singaporeans out to overseas trips and many of them will tell you that we turn into a pack of hyenas when we hit the daily breakfast buffet lines.

The buffet dinning concept was invented as a new way of dinning when restaurants faced severe shortage in labour. The concept allows the restaurant to continue to operate efficiently with labour shortage as customers serve themselves with food from the buffet line while the service staffs focus on clearing up and reorganizing tables. From the customer’s angle, the buffet allows the individual to sample a wider variety of food at a fixed price. Of course the servings are unlimited but one should also respect the concept and never eat like a pig. In fact, there are some “rules” about the buffet that one can consider to make the experience more pleasant.

Arrive early and on time when the buffet starts. Give yourself time to sit down and relax before hitting the starters. Check if there are complementary beverages with the buffet price package. Most buffets provide unlimited free flow of flavoured hot teas and regular coffees. Some will also throw in a glass of fruit punch or a welcome drink. So why not have something else for a change other than just plain water?

As there are multiple cuisines in every course of the meal, take your time to enjoy the food slowly. Avoid using the same plate for the different types of food. I can’t understand how people can pile Curry Chicken with Sushi and Spaghetti Bolognese plus fresh fruit together. I love to use those little condiment saucers and dessert bowls to keep foods with sauces separated so that flavours do not get confused. I avoid having different cuisines on the same plate and even when I am choosing for example a variety of Thai starters, I will keep the salads separated from each other and the dips using the little bowls and saucers provided. Anyway since paying for service charge is mandatory, I might as well use an extra bowl or two so that I can have a better idea of what I am putting in my mouth than a mess up of flavours.

Each time when I go back to the line, I will never pile my plate high with food. Sometimes people are just plain greedy and or lazy so everything from head to toe in the line gets onto the same plate. I rather walk a few more times which is also a good way to get some light exercise and browse the spread more thoroughly. More interesting to me is to play with food from the line. When I go for soups, I try to look for additional garnishes and condiments to go with it. For example, when I am given a plain creamy corn and crabmeat chowder or a tomato soup, why not get a prawn or two or even half a baby lobster from the raw bar, have it peeled and put into the soup? Get some chopped spring onions or coriander leaves from any of the live cooking stations for your garnish and pick up a nice slice of country style bread from the cheese display to compliment the whole experience.

When I hit the main courses, I will also try to put some of the items together as a pairing. If there is a grill station with steaks and another with a nice mushroom ragout sitting on the line, why not top the steak up with the wonderful mushrooms and some roasted or sautéed potatoes on the side instead of the usual boring mustard from the jar? If the sauce comes with the meat/seafood, look for a neutral vegetable dish to go with it. Better still, make a simple combination of salad leaves with semi dried tomatoes and get a piece of freshly grilled steak or seafood to go with it. I am sure u can find a selection of dressings to complete the whole ensemble if not just a squeeze of lemon and olive oil will do the job.

For desserts, take a good fifteen to 20 minutes break before going for it. This is a much needed rest to allow our stomachs to digest what we have eaten earlier. If you are a cheese lover, it is a must to check it out as it is not easy to get such a wide selection on a regular cheeseboard order. Be sure to pull some grapes from the fruit selection if they are not provided with the cheese board.

Forget about the over hyped chocolate fountain. If you want to stretch the value of your dollar further, take on desserts that need to be handcrafted. Cakes and Gateaux are such examples and plated petit portions are also worth sampling. Most Nonya Kuehs are supplied by caterers so it’s not worth for it. Look for ice cream flavours that tells us that it is most likely home made. Exotic flavours like Ginger, Cinnamon, Chendol, Chestnuts, Green Tea and Vanilla with black specks indicate that the ice creams are made in the in house pastry kitchen. These are the ones that we should try and look for freshly made waffles, soufflés, cookies and chocolates to go with it in the dessert stations.

As you sit down to enjoy your desserts, do not forget to order your complimentary tea and coffee to go with your selections. If you still have space after that, maybe u can still consider the chocolate fountain.