Sunday, July 29, 2007

Old Times Sake

Whitebait and Kale
1 Orchard Boulevard
Camden Medical Centre
The other day as we fished next to Marina South Pier, N and I were reminiscing some of the earlier restaurants that we have been to during courtship days and how things have change since. Some have closed down, some have lost their shine with poor management while there were a few that have held up well against the odds of running restaurants in Singapore where many in the dinning crowds are known more for being hippy than their loyalty. One such place that survived well was Whitebait and Kale. This was one the nice places that I took N to back in 2003 when it first opened with Chef Kan Bright San at helm. The menu was pretty much Aussie inspired fare and signatures includes their Crispy Whitebait with Home Made Tartare Sauce, Snapper Pie and Linguine Pasta with Crabmeat in a White Wine Sauce.
Fast forward to the present, Chef Bright has since left, so has many of the pioneer staff but that is common in the trade. People come and go; a new chef also means a new menu. Currently with Chef Nabil Tan at helm, the menu is still characteristically Aussie with a good measure of Eastern Mediterranean elements in flavour. Daily specials are scribbled on the boards which are subjected to availability.
As N wasn’t in the mood for meats, we decided to play with starters on the menu to a Tapas like dinner. Starting with a bowl of lightly battered whitebait as nibbles, the house made tartare sauce resembled more to a thousand island dressing instead in terms of colour profile. I didn’t quite understand the part on adding a red tinge to the traditional white coloured sauce. But on the taste, it did have a resembling character to the real Mc Coy. Problem with the white bait is to nibble on it fast while it is still hot. The moment it cools down, as the heat decreases, the fishiness aroma increases and so does the perceived greasy aftertaste.
The seared tuna was kind of a let down when it arrived, not in taste but doneness. The taste elements of the lemon honey and radish salad were good but the over cooked tuna made us felt like we were eating a huge chunk of canned tuna. We believe that this could be a great dish if done right the next round.
On my side, I had chosen calamari as my starter. A whole calamari was marinated with a spicy harrisa sauce before it was grilled and sliced up into large chunks. It was supposedly to be served with tabouleh but the tabouleh turned out to a couscous salad with dried cranberries, pine nuts and mint which is not what it should be. (Real Tabouleh is a mixture of chopped parsley, tomatoes, onions and cracked bulghur wheat in lemon juice and olive oil). The name was rather misleading but to be fair, the taste of the couscous salad was still good. Personally I would have preferred the real Tabouleh that comes with stronger herb notes and zesty tanginess. This would have certainly perked up the smoky char grilled calamari to a more robust appeal.
In between the two earlier appetizers, N and I decided to pull in one of the appetizer specials on the board. We choose the deep fried mozzarella that came with tomato onion salad and a pistachio crusted avocado puree. The crispy panko coated slices of deep fried mozzarella partnered very well with the slightly tangy tomato onion salad and can actually make the pistachio crusted avocado look redundant. However I must say that the avocado puree was absolutely delicious on its own, creamy, buttery and slightly sweet. So good it was I was tempted to ask if I could have a bowl of nacho chips….
Just before the main course, N needed her fix of oysters and this couldn't be a better time to check out one of Australia’s best oysters from Coffin Bay. The name sounds eerie (it was named after somebody noble not the wooden box) but most food aficionados will know that this region produces one of the best shellfishes, scallops and oysters because of its pristine waters. The season runs from June to August so the oysters are in their prime. The entire flight was gone in less than 10 minutes and seeing N’s satisfaction, they must be pretty darn good!
Somewhere the service screwed up with the main courses so I ended up eating my duck confit alone. N had ordered crab cakes and the service captain had either heard or keyed the wrong order in when something else turned up at the table. Rather than making her wait longer, we worked on the confit first. The crispy skin duck leg was not oily at all despite being cooked in all that duck fat. The meat was not too dry and sufficiently moist and tender enough to be flakes with a fork. The fig and vincotto glaze worked beautifully with the slightly salty meat on the palate, balancing out with sweetness and some tangy sensations. Vincotto is a sweet, velvety vinegar with the subtle overtones of spices, grapes, prunes and has a similar characteristics to authentic balsamic vinegar but with different profiles. It is made from two varieties of grapes, Negroamaro and Black Malvasia grapes. The grapes are dried on the vine or over wooden frames, and then the 'must' is boiled gently until it reduces to one fifth of its initial volume. The syrup is then poured into aged oak barrels along with the mother, or starter, of the vinegar. It is aged in these barrels for four years to allow the taste to develop. A simple stew of giant white beans in tomatoes, garlic and olive oil provided the comfort element to the dish
Finally N’s crab cakes arrived after a second prompting and one of the cakes had been presented broken. The consolation was that the wreckage revealed chunks of real crabmeat, intersperse with fresh capsicum and onion dices, fresh herbs and spices. They were binded by mayonnaise and not excessive breadcrumbs so that we could still taste the real ingredients instead of being masked by the starch on bite. A small dollop of chutney that was nicely made with bush tomatoes, enhanced the overall taste of the dish with its own natural sweetness. Though the service was late and the presentation a little off key, I still enjoyed the taste of the crab cake.
For the sweet endings, I was curious to find out about the panna cotto with a muscato wine jelly on a rosemary scented cantaloupe soup. The panna cotta showed up with real specks of vanilla, a testimony of a superior product. The soft clotted cream went very well with the herb infused cantaloupe puree what had a subtle hint of rosemary. I also found that N’s profiteroles with macadamia ice cream and chocolate dip came more like an ice cream sandwich. The ice cream had been spiked with a generous amount of macadamia nuts and was presented with a modernist touch. Dipping each part of it into the bittersweet chocolate sauce was pure indulgence with freshly brewed coffee.
Well overall I am glad that WBK is still around as most restaurants in Singapore only have a shelf life of 2-3 years. Though there are some hits and misses in the menu writing, just take the inconsistencies with a pinch of salt unless u are a fussy diner. The misses did not taste anyway bad on their own after all……
PS. It was a difficult environment to take good pics without flash due to the super dim lighting so this was the best that I could manage with my digi cam without flash so as not to distract other diners with their food.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Like Father Like Son

Peach Garden @Novena Gardens
273 Thomson Road
#01-06, Novena Garden
Singapore 3076444
Tel: 62543383
Peach Garden @ Thomson Plaza
301 Upper Thomson Road#01-88
Thomson PlazaSingapore, 574408
Tel: (65) 6451 3233
Peach Garden @ OCBC Centre
#33-01, 65 Chulia Street,
Tel: 6535 7833
The Chinese have two common sayings about fathers and sons. One simply translates to “Like Father like Son” and the other has a more noble meaning that means “A day as a Teacher/Mentor, A lifetime as a Father”. These two sayings are especially reflective in any craftsman’s trade where each individual will have their source mentoring whereby the master’s signature trademarks are always reflected as part of the repertoire of his prodigies.
In the chef’s profession, the same thing happens irregardless of the cuisine in focus. One of Singapore’s best known Cantonese Cuisine Masters, Chef Chan Kwok of Hua Ting Restaurant @ Orchard Hotel has mentored many unpolished gems, sculpturing them into fine talents who have gone on to experience success in their own path. One of the biggest success stories of “off spring” from Hua Ting is Peach Garden Restaurant. Widely known in the local dinning circles that the people behind it are trained in Hua Ting, Peach Garden is into their fifth year with a third outlet just opened recently on the 33rd floor of the OCBC center’s Executive Club. Veronica and Angela, whom both co owned the three Peach Garden restaurants, were successful outstanding managers and good friends at Hua Ting before the entrepreneur bug bit into them. When they both left to open up the first Peach Garden @ Novena in 2002 with one of Chef Chan’s prodigies, their initial success were met with tough times as the economy wasn’t that rosy and a SARs outbreak created a gloom in businesses across the whole region. But during those lean times, service and food quality were never compromised and customers remained supportive. Hence the expansion plans when things got better. I call that a decent expansion as many restaurant operators tend to be too greedy and ambitious when it comes to business expansion that quality is often compromised in both service and food. I am by the way a strong believer that quantity and quality does NOT go together.
I always have lower expectations when restaurants expand into chains and resources are stretched to the maximum. Mum was curious to see how different they are from Hua Ting based on some unfair comments from an ungrateful relative that we hosted recently. We decided to come to the Peach Garden outlet here @ OCBC Center on a Sunday evening as parking would be easy and getting a table is much easier than jostling with the crowds at the other two Thomson Branches. N and I liked their spacious decor and warm coziness of this new outlet and club members are discreetly separated from the dinning public for their private events. Menu reflected much of Hua Ting’s repertoire, only slightly smaller but signature dishes like Shark Bone Cartilage Soup, Roasts selections, Stew Mee Pok with XO sauce and homemade tofu dishes were there. A set menu of the signature items was also available and its promotional price has been extended to non OCBC credit card holders as well. Hence we decide to take the set menu and added on two more house specialties to supplement the night’s dinner.
The dinner kicked off with a starter that feature their signature twin roasts, complimented with a stuffed bean skin roll on green frisee. The slice of warm roasted duck breast was paired with a fruity plum sauce that helped to calm the gamey taste of duck meat which was already quite mild in my opinion in comparison with other roasted ducks that I have tasted before. Honestly to be fair, I could only comment on the duck as a part of the whole appetizer flight instead of the whole based on the portion that was served. However I take the cue that it must be good as even my mum who is a non duck lover was converted. On the other end of the flight was a pair of roast pork cubes lined with a dash of mustard in between. The siew yok or roast pork as it is commonly known was almost on par with Hua Ting’s version except the skin was a little thinner, hence less crackling and the underbelly slightly under seasoned. It was still a very good piece of work on its own compared with other versions that N and I have tasted. The centerpiece of stuffed bean skin roll was a replay of the version that we get at Hua Ting and this was an equal match. I like the underlying of the drizzle of the sweet dark sauce with the dainty dim sum than the accompanying Worcestershire sauce.
The highlight of the menu is the Shark Bone Cartilage Soup, highly popularized by Chef Chan @ Hua Ting. For this menu, it was served with a touch of superior sharks’ fins and fish maw which I was impressed on how they can justify and balance out the costs. The soup’s appearance was exactly like the Hua Ting’s version, rich, gelatinous and creamy from the hours of simmering of the bones and cartilages. On taste, it was deliciously full of warmth but I could sense a certain taste element was missing even though it was already very good. Despite trying hard to figure out what it was before I could finish my soup, I could not find the missing piece of the puzzle until the last drop when I finally realized what was missing. It was that small piece of Jin Hua Ham that gives the rich broth an extra oomph of umami characters as what we have always experienced in Hua Ting. But to be fair, given the price of the set meal, every penny is its own worth and without the ham, the soup could still stand on its own. Personally, I would be glad to trade in the sharks’ fin which is actually tasteless cartilages for that coveted piece of cured ham that would greatly enhance the deliciousness of the soup further with its strong umami character.
Before the next course of the meal, the first extra dish that came by which was Sauté Prawns with Salted Egg Yolk. This is also one dish that is synonymous with Pearl Garden that differentiates it out from Hua Ting. It had that kind of salty fermented aromas as what is termed “Kiam Pang” in Hokkien. Evolving around the same time as wasabi prawns, this dish has caught on very well with the local dinning crowd despite its perceived high cholesterol image. The plump juicy prawns had gone through the standard rinsing method with running water for a good hour to make them succulent and crunchy. Coated with a thin but very crispy batter, the prawns were tossed in chopped cooked salted egg yolks to give it a nutty buttery richness. It is sinful yet addictive, nutty rich yet with delicate flavours.
In place of a sorbet as a palate refresher, we tried the steam bai ling mushroom in Chaozhou style preparation. Thick luscious slices of bai ling mushrooms rested in tofu and were steamed with a topping of shredded salty vegetables, sour plum, chilies, mushrooms and Chinese celery and ladled with a light broth. The tangy broth was a nice palate cleanser and the supple abalone like textured mushrooms took to the flavourful stock like a fish to water.
Sea Perch is a relatively new generation of fish fillets favoured by chefs in Singapore as environmentally it is friendlier than the fast disappearing Chilean Seabass or codfish as it is commonly known. This fillet has finer flakes of meat and less fatty fish notes than codfish but with an equal sweetness. Since the first Peach Garden outlet @ Novena, this has been their signature dish, with the crispy deep fried fillet being served with plum sauce or Thai sweet chili sauce. I like their generous portion serving of the fish too!
A lovely tofu dish that I have always enjoyed from Chef Chan’s kitchen at Hua Ting is a home made tofu with a delicious crabmeat sauce and Honshimeiji mushrooms. Peach Garden’s version is just as good with the extra smooth home made tofu resting on a bed of local spinach and covered with a light yet flavourful sauce with delicate seafood sweetness and generously spiked with crabmeat. Obviously the master has taught the pupil well in being able to elevate a humble tofu dish to an elegant masterpiece of its own.
Perhaps the most satisfying dish for me is the newly discovered stewed noodle with sliced abalone in abalone sauce. “Original Jus, Original Taste” as a saying in Chinese goes, fresh Hong Kong style egg noodles were blanched and expertly rolled into a cocoon shape before being covered with a rich glistening sauce infused with abalone notes from the hours of braising dried abalones in it. The abalones are then sliced and each plate was garnish with a thicker than norm piece of the tender shellfish. Portions were decent but it was the taste that made it very memorable for me.
Desserts were supposed to be a chilled jelly Royale with julienne of coconut. But I have always been a fan of their chilled black glutinous rice with coconut ice cream so I requested to have two out of the four portions to be switched. Mum was impressed with the chilled version of the pulot hitam (black glutinous rice porridge) enriched with the not too sweet coconut ice cream while my wife N absolutely adored the cubes of jelly with fresh coconut julienne and coconut water that made it light and refreshing. For me, I am happy to have the best of both worlds.
A prodigy may outshine his master one day in the future but one must never forget the master’s merit of foundation laying for his prodigies during their formative years. For a chef, nothing can be more satisfying to see your creative works being passed on to the next generation of chefs who can make good with them, leaving your name behind as a legend.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Weekly Cooking Classes

Dear Frens and Visitors of this Blog,

I have moved pics and menus of our weekly cooking workshop sessions to my the other blog,

This will enable me to put more entertainment reading posts here instead. Please click on the above link to see the workshop schedules, menus and pics.

Friday, July 20, 2007

National Service (NS)

The Singapore National Culinary Team is one of the most feared competitors in major culinary competitions across the globe. Over the last fifteen years, we have snagged numerous gold medals and championships in international competition events like the Culinary World Cup, Culinary Olympics, IGEHO Basel, FHA Salon Culinaire and most recently the WA Perth Oceana Fest Championships. All these achievements have helped put our small country on the world culinary map with a big presence and not only raised the profile and status of the Chef’s profession locally in this country that is currently gunning for two Integrated Resorts by the year 2010. The success stories were made possible with constant practice and rehearsals through specially organized dinners. The writer of this blog is proud to have been an ex National Team member and in the process of being recalled for “national service”, had the exclusive privilege to cover this event which was one of the biggest rehearsals that the Team has ever had.
The occasion was to be a charity gala dinner for the Independent Women’s Forum 10th Anniversary and in support of the Women's Initiative for Ageing Successfully (WINGS). The Singapore Chefs Association was invited to cook for this symbolic event and was supported with generous sponsorships from its corporate members of the food industry. Guest of Honour was MM Lee Kuan Yew and Mrs Lee. For this important occasion, the SCA fielded the best team it had on hand, ie the current National Team that won the Oceana Fest Championships recently in Perth, Australia and presented their award winning menu for the evening. In addition to the current team members and Fullerton Hotel’s banquet team, more help was rendered with the activation of core members of the SCA’s managing committee, ex National Team Members, chefs from airline catering, hotels, culinary schools, hospitals, restaurants and student apprentices from Singapore Hotel Association Tourism and Educational Centre (SHATEC). In all there were about 45 chefs and cooks behind the scenes of the successful six course dinner. As guests at the VIP table with MM Lee was SCA President Chef Eric Teo and WACS Continental Director for Asia, Chef John Sloane.
Preparations for the menu started as early as a month before with logistics and man power planning. As the team members have been assigned different responsibilities for different meal courses and worked in different organizations, the misc-en place (prep work) was split into different locations. Appetizers and entrees were prepared at Grand Corpthorne Waterfront, dumplings for the soup were made at Marina Mandarin Hotel, main course was prepared at SATS Airline Catering kitchen, and intermezzo and desserts were done in Swissotel Stamford and Orchard Hotel kitchens respectively. Final assembly was at the kitchens in Fullerton Singapore. This was also one of the biggest dinners that the Singapore National Team has cooked for and with the Ex National Team veterans combined, it was considered to be the best of the best in culinary excellence. The menu for the evening is as follows:
• Assorted Canapes
• Confit of Salmon in Lime Oil, Salmon Belly Tartare, Modern Nicoise Salad with Lemon Scented Olive Oil, Green Gazpacho Espuma & Balsamic Reduction
• Chicken Consommé scented with Basil, Prawn Dumpling
• Pan-seared King Scallops in Citrus Nage
• Intermezzo of Raspberry Sorbet and Orange Coulis on Shiso Leaves
• Roast Lamb Rump with Herb Crust and Creamy Mushroom Ragout, Braised Lamb Neck with Butternut Puree, Caramelised Apple, served with Lightly Soured Lamb Jus
• Passion Fruit Chiboust Gratin with Warm Chocolate Pudding, Red Wine Plum Sauce, Vanilla Ice cream

A few days before the event, team members and assistants started to prepare their misc-en-place in the various kitchens across the island. Vegetables like asparagus and baby carrots were trimmed; herbs and salad leaves were plucked. Seafood and meats were trimmed and marinated. Demi glaces and other reduction sauces were produced through long hours of simmering. Flavoured oils were infused with herbs and citrus fruit zests. On the sweet side, the pastry chefs were engaged in full swing for the production of sorbet, ice creams, the chocolate pudding, decorative sauces and garnishes.

On the final day, the Team with their assistants finally met up with all their prep work at the Fullerton Hotel’s kitchens after days of mugging in at their own individual locations. As time keeping was strictly enforced by Team Captain Yen Koh, this enabled everyone to be more relaxed in preparation of the slam ahead. We all found time to catch up with one another amidst setting up the various workstations as Yen went around finalising all the necessary logistics arrangements with Fullerton’s Exceutive Chef Arnaud Thulliez. By 4pm, the veterans and chefs from other organisations have started to come in and excitement was building up as we caught up with one another on good old times and recent developments.
Briefing was done by just before dinner break by SCA President Eric Teo and committee members on the importance of this event and its significance to showcase our talents to top leaders of our country. It is also a morale booster for our culinary pride to the many of us and especially so for those who have worn the national colours at one point or another in the course of our profession. After a quick dinner at 6pm, everybody went back to their respective battle stations and bit by bit, the action began.
At the frontline, Chef David Tan led the appetizer plating with the confit of salmon being topped with avocadoes and a tatare made with sashimi grade salmon belly, onions, freshly chopped dill and capers. A classical Nicoise salad with a modern twist complimented the salmon tower which was crowned with a fine herb salad that had been given a shower of citrus dressing. Just before serving, each plate was pump with an airy foam of Green Gazpacho that had been made with all fruits green like grapes, kiwi,apples and cucumbers giving the appetizer a touch of molecular gastronomy.

The vibrant spectrum of colours and light citrus notes made the appetizer a wonderful starter getting everyone into a zesty mood.
Back in the hot kitchens, Chef KK Kong was shuttling between the final preparations of the consommé and getting the entrees ready. My battle station’s responsibility was to sear up the scallops with both Chefs Peter Round, Yeow Meng from SATS as my comrades.
The scallops were to be paired up later with a citrus buttery nage and a garnish of fresh chervil spiked with lemon zests. On the other side of the kitchen, Chef Frankie Yong as his team were roasting off the lamb rumps to a perfect doneness, getting it crusted with freshly chopped herbs and putting the finishing touches to the mushroom ragout that had been cooked for four kinds of mushroom like porcinis, morels, button and shitake. The lamb necks were glazed with demi glace and gently slow cooked to tenderness while the butternut mash was fluffed up, ready to cushion the lamb neck during plating. The winning attributes of this dish was the Chefs' ability to turn off cuts of meat into delicious culinary masterpieces through innovative methods of cooking and presentation. This is a skill that most chefs are taught to acquire in order to balance out food costs at the end of the day, keep the operations profitable.
At the pastry kitchen, Chef Chai Poh Lo and Nicole Tan were putting in line the sorbets for intermezzo and doing the final checks on the components for the dessert finale. As a palate cleanser, raspberry sorbet was served on orange coulis underlined with a shiso leaf. To end the evening of gastronomy, each diner was going to get a individual platter that featured a contrast of Passion Fruit Chiboust Gratin with Warm Chocolate Pudding and Red Wine Plum Sauce bridged together with Vanilla ice cream. It was a spectacular stunning display of creativity, skill and courage to push all possibilities to the limit in a challenging environment.

At sunset, the first platters of canapés were sent out signalling the start of the fund raising evening cumulated with a cornucopia of epicurean gastronomic delights. As evening drew in, the lights at the ballroom were dimmed, aromas of freshly baked rolls filled the ballroom and wines started to flow into the glasses. The appetizer was fired when the cue from the banquet service manager was given and it was all systems go from then onwards. Like a well coordinated orchestra, a second team stood by at another station getting ready the supreme consommé into hot bowls each filled with a lovingly hand crafted shrimp dumpling and perfumed with a subtle infusion from a piece of fresh basil leaf. As the last bowl of soup left for the ballroom, the same team turned over the station to prepare for the scallop entree. Systematically each member was assigned a specific role and things moved like clockwork under the watchful eyes of Chefs Arnaud Thulliez and Ivan Yeo. Meanwhile at the location where the first courses were fired earlier, the two pastry chefs had already moved in to set up the sorbets for intermezzos assisted by the same team who plated the first course. Back of the house, Chef Frankie’s team were keeping guard over the lamb rump that was resting from having been roasted to a luscious pink core earlier.
A speech break gave the guests some time to refresh their palates with the sorbets while the various teams took the opportunity to turnover their stations again or to put final touches to the next out going courses.

As the main courses were the most complicated segment of the entire meal, it was almost all hands on deck as we got into the full swing of action. As each plate moved along the line, there was a feeling of comradeship among the chefs and cooks irregardless of race, culture, hierarchy or background. The team spirit was infectious and morale was riding high. It was a learning experience for everyone who contributed time and effort to make things happen.

When the last plate of main course was fired, all the veteran chefs moved over to help the plating of the desserts while I coordinated the shutdown of the main course lines with the remaining volunteering apprentices. The Main Team and SCA core committee members had been invited on stage for a picture with MM Lee as the veteran chefs backed up backstage on getting the desserts ready. When the sweets finally went out, it was all oohs and ahhs for the spectacular display of taste, finesse and elegance. The weeks of hard work and preparation have finally come to a grandeur ending and as the guests polished off the last bits on their plates, the chefs in Singapore have once again achieved another milestone in the culinary history of Singapore.
Unfortunately in the next day’s papers, the press media did us a culinary injustice with a measly mention of the menu and generalising the key people under one term “top chefs” who have gone through so much to put this wonderful dinning experience together. Heaven please bless those ignorant souls!