Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Right Detour

Cafe Pralet by Creative Culinaire
Eng Hoon Mansion #01-03/04,
17 Eng Hoon Street,
Singapore 169767
Tel: 63241663
Two Saturdays ago, an extremely rare thing happened to N and I. Given that both of us are usually teaching at the most peak time of the week for us, coincidentally both of us had classes cancelled and we decided to do the normal weekend routine for most couples. Go dating!! N and I were going to stop by at another “cha chan teng” or Hong Kong style Cafe in the Tiong Bahru area for a drink and a bite before catching a movie. While searching for a lot to park, we ended up on Eng Hoon Street for a space. Getting out, I noticed that much of the heritage units have been refurbished and a new shop house apartment across the road has been completed with new tenants. One place that caught our eyes was Café Pralet. Telepathically, N and I decided to detour instead based on our gut feel. We ended up taking mum back there again on Sunday for lunch.
Café Pralet is the latest extension by Creative Culinare, a well known pastry and bakery school that provides leisure hands on baking classes and consultancy. Managed by Chef Judy Koh, a professionally trained and well traveled pastry chef, the nine year veteran on Eng Hoon Street has just recently moved across to the new Eng Hoon Mansions.
Café Pralet is the showcase for Judy’s inspirations and creative talents in pastry arts and bakery. The café has two dinning concepts, a formal area to handle the more challenging dishes on the menu and a cozy sofa decked patio for coffee, tea, pastries and nibbles. Wireless services are provided for those who live by the net and there are books to read from poetry to culinary or just simply laze and watch the world go by in old Tiong Bahru.
We like the coziness of the sofa patio that shows the feminine touch of Judy as N puts it in terms of colours and the rustic wooden shelf that carries all the reading materials.
Going through the menu, we made many happy discoveries. The menu is kept simple but offers both Western and Asian favourites which mean I could bring mum here too. There are made to order sandwiches and salads with a choice of freshly baked breads or something heartier like chops, pasta and fish and chips. The small Asian selection includes curry, Ayam Tempra, Laksa and Mee Siam. There are also snack breads with different fillings and cookies as well as festive specialties according to each incoming festival. The must try pastries includes Pralet, Judy’s signature and other wonderful items like Blackforest, Lychee Martini which was unfortunately sold out on our second visit and a tempting Summer Strawberry cake. The pastries are rotated based on whatever inspires Judy from next door. Best of all, the prices of all food and beverages are very reasonable compare to town prices for a place like this where u can hang out.
We started with fish and chips which immediately got our vote as the best for quality, portion and taste in café standards overtaking Secret Recipe and Swensens by the miles. Crusted with nice crispy buttery batter, the entire piece of white dory or Vietnamese catfish as it should be more correctly known, took up more than half of the space of the dinner plate and we had to manage it with an extra serving of tartare sauce and chili sauce. More importantly the food was serving piping hot, crucial for a dish that is deep fried and the chunky quality catfish free of any “mud taste”. Given the serving that we enjoyed, it costs less than $10 per order! An unbelievable excellent value for money item on the menu.
N loved the low calorie inspired Laksa which she had on the second visit. To meet its claim, very little or I suspect none at all was coconut milk used in the preparation of the laksa yet it still manage to achieve the right level of richness despite not having the element of coconut milk flavour. The freshly chopped laksa leaves reinforce the dish’s character despite the absence of the other key element.
All this while, mum was enjoying her Mee Siam too. The sour assam flavoured gravy was embodied with a decent pungency of fermented soya beans and enriched with the right tinge of coconut milk, giving it a nice aroma. As it is always said, with good gravy, the garnishes and condiments will never be able to steal the thunder from it.
When it comes to their pastries, the most celebrated piece would be Judy’s signature’s Pralet. Chocoholics will love this ganache layered piece of indulgence elegantly topped with a small piece of gold leaf. The base is supported by a crispy wafer crust and the ganache tastes of quality bitter chocolate with a nice gentle sweetness. It is an excellent piece to go with coffee or tea.
Still on the chocolate arena, the brownies are here are much lighter on the palate than being commonly oversweet, dense and fudgy. It is more like a combination of moist chocolate cake and fudge, specked with chunky pieces of walnuts in between. Best of all, the most ideal ice cream to top with this brownie is the home made rum and raisin flavour that will sent you on a “high” with its intense flavour impact of rum.
One of my favourite sponge cakes is the Bavarian Kirschtorte or more commonly known as Black Forest Cake. Unfortunately many local chefs distort this wonderful recipe by using non dairy pastry whip, maraschino cherries, chocolate rice and an absence of any flavoured liquor. Hence to be able to experience Judy’s creation was like rediscovering a lost heritage so badly trashed. The whipped cream, the sour cherries, the liquer soaked chocolate sponge and the chocolate shavings, everything was there in the right proportions helped to restore my confidence again that it is still possible to find a decent black forest cake in a heartlands neighbourhood.
A patisserie cannot do without a brulee hence Judy puts out a classic version for all crème brulee aficionados. The rich creamy custard is a steal for its price but it will be ridiculous to expect real vanilla for it. Nonetheless the custard is still a merit on its own for its rich silky smooth texture. It left a very pleasant and smooth aftertaste in the tongue that excites our taste bud for the next spoonful.I found the caramel crust a little too thick for my liking but that’s an issue that can be easily resolved.
Beside the cream based pastries, another house specialty is the Baked Guava Tart. Inspired by a cross between and apple pie and an Austrian Linzer, the filling was made with a nice mix of fresh guavas and spices giving it a unique identity not found in other patisseries. A lovely crust made with crushed crackers and nuts provides the perfect contrast between crust and filling. With coffee, it is a great hit!
N and I can’t wait to go back to Cafe Pralet again for another lazy weekend afternoon sometime soon after these two weeks of hectic traveling due to work and another busy week of cooking workshops ahead.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Mainland Hospitality

Sea Pearl Gate City
Hai De San Dao, Hou Hai Bin Road,
Nanshan District 518054, Shenzhen
P.R. China

Have u ever seen a restaurant in a hotel that spans three entire floors with a dinning hall larger than the size of a football field? Not until N and I were hosted to a dinner by one of my uncles at a restaurant on the property of the Kempinski Hotel in Shenzhen. We took the elevator right to the 4th floor and as we walk to the private dinning room, we heard the hustle and bustle of diners coming from the main dinning hall two floors below. Filled to capacity even right on to the performing stage were about one thousand over diners tucking in to dinner as we watch in awe. It was like a culinary orgy. The general manager told us that during the last World Cup, things got crazier when the gigantic screen was broadcasting the matches live as diners ate on while watching the games. I guess China is really one huge F&B market! The restaurants could afford to have two floors of private dinning rooms each the size of an average conference room in any given office in Singapore, complete with pantry, artisan tea brewing facilities, ensuite restrooms, fully AV equipped lounge and sofa area and adjacent kitchen where the attached private chef puts the finishing touches to the food before being served. For a change, the menu was planned from the ala carte selections so with 16 of us eating, there was quite plethora of dishes to try.
For the nibbles, there were small plates of marinated boiled beef shanks and boiled peanuts. This is the one thing that always impresses me with good Chinese restaurants, that instead of putting out the usual processed salted peanuts or pickled archar which is also ridiculously charged to the bill, we get more quality home made nibbles which translates to the chefs paying attention even to small details like these.
The boiled peanuts were simply just boiled peanuts, but the way it is cooked in a salted spiced broth made the nibbling a sheer pleasure with hints of star anise in the background. The marinated beef shanks were more exciting which, to the mainlanders, it is simply beer food, those that can be picked up with toothpicks as u down glasses of TsingDao Beer. The thinly sliced beef shanks were marinated in chili oil, pickled chilies, garlic and soy giving it a spectrum of spicy, salty and a tinge of tanginess.
Free range chicken was next in order, the entire yellow skin yellow fat bird poached and chopped up, served with plenty of spring onion and coriander leaves, drizzled with a superior soy sauce dressing. The meat though is slightly less tender, is more flavourful and the fatty corners are much more aromatic than their coop reared stressed out cousins. Zhou Di Ji or literally Walking Ground Chicken refers to free range poultry that have been free to scratch for feed and workout those muscles for a more flavourful bite when cooked. This is a must have and must try especially for Chefs as we are so accustomed to cooking with steroid injected chickens that a imported back home. A word of difference is free range chickens are reared without being in stressful environment for nine months and a steroid injected bird is instead slaughtered at less than 3 months, much bulkier and fattier but in no way more flavourful.
Matching up to the cold poached chicken was an entire pork fore shank, boiled and chopped up into bite size pieces, served with a similar soy drizzle and lots of coriander leaves. Not really my kind of food but it seems that the older folks were happily munching away as I waited for something else more interesting to come by.
Next in line was a braise dish of glass noodles with fresh calamari and Chinese cabbage. I have always liked chunkier pieces of cuttlefish or squid as there is more bite provided they overcooked it. Each pieces of calamari was nicely criss crossed with a sharp knife to tenderize it further and the chef had also managed to catch the right doneness for it to pair with the noodles.
I always hate it when chefs overcooked a good piece of meat hence I am often skeptical about taking beef in China where it is always eaten well cooked. Hence when the honey and pepper basted rib cutlets arrive, I just took one piece out of courtesy and one piece became three in the end as each cut was not only well marinated, but also slightly undercooked enough to retain those precious meat juices. Understandably I was told that if u like your meat done this way in China, u must give specific instructions to the chef otherwise it will always come out well cooked never mind even if its Wagyu. They lovely riblets reminded me of some of the nice Korean dinning experiences that I had featuring such cuts of short rib with a piece of meat attached.
When u are started to get bored with the usual steamed garoupa or seabass as a fish course, sometimes switching to less prolific table fishes can give more dinning pleasure. This is what I discovered with the lightly pan fried coastal smelts that was relatively big for a size that is seldom seen in Singapore. Commonly know as “Swa Chiam”, it's a favourite fish with Teochews for its “sweeteness” and high oil content that makes it very crispy when fried. I like the accompanying fried shallot sauce that gave the pan fried smelt an extra dimension of fragrance. I could have taken on another fish if not for the other dishes that were coming on by now.
Most sharksfins’ dishes are served in some starch thicken superior broth as always expected and this was the first time I am experience the fins cooked with a sauce enriched with peanut butter. What mystifies me was the chef ability to enrich the sauce to a creamy consistency yet the aroma of peanuts was rather gentle than overwhelming given the perceived amount peanut butter used. Honestly I did not understand the point of combining sharks fin with peanuts. Not that I am not adventurous, but the peanut sauce did not make any merit out of the sharksfin. I just couldn’t find a culinary link between the two. To me it was a forgettable experience as I still like my sharks fin in clear or thickened broth with a touch of elegance.
The second attempt on creativity was slightly better as a soy glazed roasted cod fish fillet was served on toast with mayo. Though the sauces were not exciting, what was tantalizing for me was the chunky flesh of the cod fish. It represented the right size of harvest and cooked to the right doneness, allowing the fish to present a fuller flavoured flesh than the sometimes smaller sizes undeveloped ones which in fact is not really that environmentally friendly to have them on the dinner table at such a young age.
With one side of the country facing the coastline, China enjoys a bounty of seafood from tropical seas to temperate waters off the Yellow Sea. Abalones thrive in the cooler waters and are considered a symbol of wealth in Chinese cuisine. Each serving came with a pair of fresh baby abalones that had been braised in a gelatinous broth of squash and beans. This was another attempt by the chef to be more fanciful in preparing the abalone in an east west style which I think is absolutely not necessary. Just give me the great tasting super umami broth with the delicate twin pieces of abalone and forget about the rest of the accompanying ingredients who are there just as extra props.
Due to the extra long menu, we actually jump straight into desserts giving the carbohydrates a miss. First up was a platter of delicately baked durian puffs which had a fragrant tongue burning piping hot filling. They were the best that we have tasted in Shenzhen and honestly one piece per serve wouldn’t be enough in regular times had we not eaten so much earlier.
Finally to bring the menu to a close, a chilled doubled boiled papaya with snow fungus gave us a sweet ending with a cooled wash down our throats. It was simplicity at one of its best and it totally took out the heavier pastry that we just had earlier.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Beyond Steak and Chops

The trend now in the kitchens of the dining industry across the globe is for chefs to use off cuts of meat that traditionally goes into mince. Challenged by the demand of more creativity, new taste sensations and rising costs of ingredients, Chefs are turning to these previously ignored cuts of meats for new inspiration and adopting new culinary techniques to make these cuts look presentable on the table, yet still taste good. For the customers, the question is are they paying more and getting less in terms of the cheaper cuts of meats used?Not really. Dealing with these "supercuts" are a new playground for chefs as we explore back to basics methods of slow cooking at lower temperatures to get the meats tenderized naturally and yet remain flavourful. That means more time and effort is spent on trimming the meats, gentle cooking that sometimes stretches more than 24hours at low temperatures similar or even lower to that like in the preparation of duck confit for example.The customer is still paying for professionalism and skill of the chef, something that is always forgotten in the percived value of a dish as it is not as visible as ingredients are on a plate. Some of these super cuts are available at local butcheries like Swiss Butcher in Greenwood Bukit Timah, Huber's @ Fairprice Finest and Esprito Santo @Great World City or Parkway Parade. Below is an interesting extract from the New York Times on this rising culinary trend:

The Way We Eat: Super Cuts
Published: May 7, 2006

New York Times
Pig's feet at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco? It's true. Beef cheeks at the French Laundry? Absolutely. Duck testicles at Del Posto? Really? Resoundingly, yes. The best chefs tend to cook in their restaurants what they themselves like to eat, and they have discovered, much to their delight, that customers are increasingly willing to pony up for the cheap, flavorful cuts of meat they love, like short ribs and pork belly. As Suzanne Goin of Lucques in Los Angeles put it, "Chefs never order fillets." Skip to next paragraphSo if we've been persuaded to move beyond primal muscles (i.e., steaks) at restaurants, then why aren't we cooking these inexpensive bits at home? Part of the answer is availability. Ground meat, made of pieces of the animal that are pulverized until unrecognizable, is the only nod you'll find in supermarkets to the fact that there is a world beyond steaks, ribs and shoulders. Your best bet for finding these cuts is a good butcher. In San Francisco, that place is the Golden Gate Meat Company (415-983-7800), a family-owned business that specializes in naturally raised meats. I was able to order (as a civilian, not a chef) everything called for in the accompanying recipes by the next day, with no minimum. The retail prices ranged from $2.25 a pound for the pig's feet to $4.50 a pound for the beef cheeks, and they'll ship anywhere. Ethnic markets also tend to carry the tough, fatty meats that mainstream America has yet to try at home.
Another reason we tend to stick with common cuts is our culinary xenophobia. Maybe steaks are our gastronomic clean, well-lighted place, staving off reminders that our meal came from a once-living animal. The fact is that every steak we eat originally came with a head, feet and other extremities, most of which, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, are shipped overseas.
And then there's the yuck factor. Pig's feet come from the butcher looking like what they are: feet. It is clear that a pig was using them recently. The same might be said for tongue, which bears more than a passing resemblance to our own. But there's a reason that top chefs include them in menus filled with caviar and truffles: they are utterly, beguilingly delicious, in a way that no primal muscle can approach.
Now, I realize that there's one more impediment to cooking these things at home: venturing into the land of unfamiliar foodstuffs can be a bit nerve-racking. So by way of introduction, here are three easy-to-follow preparations for cuts that offer big flavor payoff with little financial investment.
Pig's feet are not only easy to cook, but also forgiving of most transgressions — long, slow, moist heat will bring them to perfection every time. This converts the muscles' tough connective tissue to gelatin, which, along with its higher fat content, gives the meat a luscious mouth feel and depth of flavor. Imagine a crisp breaded crust giving way to a warm gush of soft fat and tender meat, the intense pork flavor balanced by herbs and gently cooked onions and garlic. The first part is straightforward, if a little time-consuming: simmer the feet with chicken stock and salt until the meat and fat pull easily from the bone. Next comes the trickier part, but don't worry — they don't have to be perfect. Let them cool slightly, remove the bones, fill them with the herb-and-onion mixture and then wrap them tightly in plastic and refrigerate. The natural gelatin in the feet will bind the meat, so when it is cold it will be a solid cylinder. Then cut thick slices, bread them and fry them. Served with a potato salad dressed with mustard vinaigrette, it's a delicious alternative to a typical meat-and-potato dish.
For the more faint of heart, beef cheeks are simpler to cook. The only trick is in the trimming, because the fat and silvery connective tissue cling tightly to the meat they encapsulate. Your butcher should do this for you; if not, you can trim the extra fat after they cook and cool. Beef cheeks have an explosively beefy flavor and succulent texture that belie their somewhat banal appearance. And unlike steak, which requires careful monitoring, they can handle a bit of benign neglect and still deliver an impressive result — just make sure to keep the oven temperature low.
The lamb's-neck rillettes is the easiest recipe of all. The meat is seasoned a day ahead and then cooked slowly in olive oil until very tender. The lamb is cooled to room temperature, pulled from the bone and shredded, then tossed with some of the cooking oil and refrigerated. Spread on toasted country bread with a little mustard, it makes a wonderful dinner-party canapé — or in my case, a fast breakfast.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Celebrate Life! Its No Rubbish Dump (Lap Sup Tui)

Last weekend, N and I manage to catch the sneaks on Ratatouille, the new Disney’s animated movie about a rat who loves to cook and aspires to be a chef despite the odds of mankind’s attitude of judgment that writes off the our little friend as nothing more but a rodent who steals food. Though the launch was targeted for the September holiday break for schools so that the kids can have something to look forward to, the movies delivers many valuable learning points of life for adults too and not just pure entertainment for children. The writer of this blog coincidentally was also born in the year of the Rat according to Chinese almanacs and had too aspired to be a chef from young just like the movie’s main character. This is what tickles N most I guess as she has never seen the formative years of my training in the professional kitchen and is always on a lookout to see how things are like, working and learning in one such an environment. What relates me to this movie so well is that Ratatouille, which in reality is a vegetable dish of summer squashes cooked in tomato sauce and Provencal herbs, is originated from Nice, the southern city of France. Its a place I called home during the five and half years of traveling around Europe and with the backdrop of the story focused on the happenings of a restaurant kitchen in Paris, the French capital, where I had spend two winters there, it brought back many familiar emotions in me. So inspired I was that I have planned for a cooking workshop menu in late September based on the theme of the movie showcasing the original dish and two other dishes synonymous with the Provencal cooking.
The first parable of the movie, “Anyone can cook” by Chef Gusteau is so true in our everyday life and if not so, the culinary world would not be where it is today if mankind of all races had not learnt to cook from primitive days. Let me just add on to it, “There is no right and wrong about cooking, only whether you like it or not.” This is my personal philosophy about cooking and is one of the first advices that are always dispensed to people who so much want to learn how to cook.
The movie also seeks to enlighten people that cooking is a form of the arts and not just a job or chore. It is culinary artistry that is not bounded by numbers and rigid scientific processes but a free spirited form of expression of oneself to transform nature’s bounties into fine master pieces using a human’s five senses of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. Sure experience does counts but that comes in only if you have learnt how to use your senses to create a balance of taste and astatically appealing presentations. Reflections of the chef’s love hate relationships with critics and health inspectors are also shared in the movie as these two groups of people are sometimes critical to the survival of a restaurant.
Besides giving a comical insight of the adventures of cooking, the movie also seeks to educate the audience on the finer points of food appreciation irregardless to your cuisine heritage. More often than not, we are so caught up with the rat race of our daily lives that we tend to forget the simple pleasures of life which eating plays a big part. Food brings everyone to the table irregardless of the occasion, happy or sad, serious or merry. Eating not only nourishes our body, it also comforts our soul and brings a sense of balance and well being to our minds, which is again why I do not understand how is it that perfectly normal healthy people need to diet for. How many times in life do we stop to smell the flower which is the same as chewing our food slower to allow a better appreciation of taste and flavours on the palate? Just think of how in the movie where our friend Remy encourages his brother to taste fruit and cheese each on their own before combining them together in the mouth that results in a symphony of sensations on the palate. We should never put badly cooked food into our mouths but for something that has been passionately and lovingly prepared whether by chefs or simply home cooked by our own mothers, it is such a shame whenever gluttony overtakes gastronomy and this happens most of the time. Have u ever seen how some people eat at buffet lines?
Beyond culinary, “Ratatouille” also digs at the many shortcomings in the human’s nature aspect of life. Jealousy, greed, arrogance, selfishness and hypocrisy were portrayed in the characters similar to what we see in the everyday life of office/kitchen politics. We take credit for work done by others, bully the lower rank staff and are stingy to give compliments, recognition and merit for success achieved by our peers and juniors. Still however, an important point to note is that success by chance is never sustainable than it is with hard work and experience. Another important corporate lesson learnt is to constantly stay focused of your objectives and do the right things instead of getting too greedy and loosing the key identity of your success. The movie digs at Corporate America where home grown successful chefs like Wolfgang Pucks and Emeril Lagasse have traded the value of their success in culinary excellence for financial gains by endorsing and lending their names into mass production of frozen TV diner meals that do not even come out of their respective kitchens. Worse still in a world where stereotyping of your race and heritage are a fact beyond one’s control yet is an important aspect in regards to the type of foods or cuisine that you cook, having a one certain Chef Michelangelo Linguini endorsing the mass production of frozen Superior Broth Xiao Long Bao is just one big no no to many retail consumers. It's a down to earth reminder that staying focused with your strengths and resources are the best keys to success that being overly ambitious and having too much on one’s plate.
Family importance is also stressed in the storyline as nothing else comes close to having the support of your immediate loved ones during times of crisis. Our family members are often the first people we think of and activated in the line of help that is needed during times of difficulty. No matter how successful one may be in society, it's the nest that we grow up in that we often return to for familiar flavours, warmth and comfort at the end of the day.
In conclusion, the movie’s script was very well written and the essence of the story on doing the things that u enjoy doing with passion irregardless if its work or play is one of the best things in life. To understand that and embrace that value, one should find life a lot easier and happier than to fret over the most stupid things sometimes like being kiasu which is the local slang for being constantly in the fear of losing out to others in everything.