Birthday Surprise!

The planning and preparation that one puts into organising a surprise special meal is quite often undone by the most unexpected of circumstances.  Very often the amount of effort, planning and research put into finding a nice restaurant coupled with the anticipation of how your loved one, friend or family member will react to it can lead to a situation where you not only stress yourself out in the lead up to the event, you also end up foisting unrealistic expectations onto the venue and food in question.

With my chosen restaurant researched and booked, my girlfriends suspicions and incessant questions subtly and expertly deflected; the day arrived and we made our way to what I hoped would be an enjoyable, relaxing and romantic evening together.  The chosen venue for the birthday dinner was Michelin Starred Summer Pavilion at the Ritz Carlton, Millennia Walk.

I can count in single digits the amount of Michelin starred restaurants I have been to in my life; for very obvious reasons the expense, often the location and the exclusivity has kept me away.  However, whenever the opportunity has arisen I always grasp it with both hands and look forward to it with something bordering on manic joy and anticipation.

I remember the very first Michelin starred restaurant I went to: Winteringham fields.  A gorgeous property set in the lush fertile flat lands of Lincolnshire in the North of England.  My father had just retired from the Fire Service and had very generously decided to treat his family; myself, my sister and my mum to our very first restaurant of this kind.  The experience was truly wonderful, although oddly I remember very little of it now. What I do remember now are small snippets of that time and place; photographic memories seared into my memory.   I remember how the late autumn English sunshine bathed us in gentle warming light as we sipped our Gin and Tonics in the garden before dinner; I remember the phenomenal service and the insane Cheese trolley which the waiter spent 15 minutes ‘introducing’ us to the myriad of cheeses.  I remember the look of contempt on the French Sommelier’s face when we ordered 1 bottle of wine for 4 people for 7 courses and, I remember the small stools brought out for my sister and my mum to place their handbags on, and how my mum thought this was for her to sit on.

Probably none of the Michelin starred restaurants I have been to since then have come close to replicating that experience and I doubt any others ever will.  There can only ever be one first time after all.  However, a few have wowed me with the sheer brilliance of their food, some have underwhelmed and some have downright disappointed and made me question how on earth they managed to get a star in the first place.  This feeling of disappointment was what happened on my recent visit to Summer Pavilion.

Expectations were high: a Michelin Starred restaurant in a 5 Star hotel, high quality Chinese food in a beautiful setting.  On this evening, I am sorry to say, expectation and reality were very far from being aligned.

We were met with a curt but not utterly joyless welcome from one of the waitresses who showed us to our table; a rather discreet area set away from the main dining area, slightly hidden from the main space.  Perfect for a romantic birthday dinner.  This was as good as it got.

Upon taking our seats and perusing the menu, we were met with a cacophony of noise from two large circular tables, each of which must have had 15 to 20 people sat around them.  This was actually the last day of Chinese New Year and it was very obvious that this was either 1 or 2 families celebrating the end of the festivities.

Whenever you have a large group sat around a table in a restaurant, unless they are nuns, there is going to be a large amount of noise.  This was no exception.  From the ageing aunties shouting above each other to be heard, the drunk uncles and their offspring behaving like they were at a raucous wedding to the fat Children running around the restaurant, one of which was dressed like a multi-coloured melted marshmallow.  The noise level was unacceptable for any restaurant and the waiting staff did not and possibly dared not do a single thing to deal with the situation.

Nevertheless, we pressed on, surely the food would make up for the shortcomings of our fellow guests?  It was not to be our night, nor the Chef’s for that matter.  What followed was probably the most sub-standard, unimaginative, soulless meal I have had in a very long time.

To start with we had a trio of cold braised beef, jelly fish and abalone.  Cold braised beef Chinese style is not my favourite by a long way but it certainly trumps Abalone which why anyone would want to eat something that eats like shoe leather is beyond me.  Still, this course was, by the standards of the meal, quite ok.  Next followed a soup of chicken, Sea Whelk and fish maw served in a coconut.  The presentation was nice and the taste was quite subtle and inoffensive but very short of spectacular.  I asked for mine without the Fish Maw as, why on earth would anyone actually order the dried swim bladder of a fish?  For the uninitiated, Fish Maw looks like a used sanitary towel that has been soaked in cold tea, the taste, I would venture, is probably of a similar nature.

Following this we had Sautéed clam, chives and bean sprouts.  This was actually my favourite course, the flavours worked well and it was cooked very delicately; the clams were soft and sweet and the vegetables crunchy and fresh.  However, the presentation was severely lacking, it looked as if it had been thrown on the plate by a chef who stopped caring right about the time 2 tables full of rowdy ah bengs walked in and ruined his restaurant.    After this came a course of steamed vermicelli with crab in a lobster stock.  Again, it was nice but not spectacular but also extremely surprising to have 2 soup based courses within the same menu.  Desert was Chilled Aloe Vera, Kiwi, Strawberry and lime Juice.  Utterly boring and uninspired.

Perhaps we caught the chef and the team on an off night?  It happens to the best of us, and one night does not a bad restaurant make.  However, I saw more than enough during this one service to make me seriously question the wisdom and thought process behind granting this establishment such a coveted culinary award.

Our meal for 2 cost around $270.

(This entry was originally written in February/March 2018.)

Service Please!

What is the definition of good service?  What makes one leave a restaurant with a sense of having been nutritionally fulfilled and emotionally engaged by the waiting staff?  Service for me was never a consideration growing up in the UK, it was a rare event that we would ever eat out and when we did it was such a treat to be eating something that wasn’t one of the 3 main meats (chicken, Pork, Beef) and assorted dead boiled vegetables, that I couldn’t give a damn if they were throwing the food at me, let alone serving it to me on a silver platter with a side order of over polite obsequiousness.

Was it something that came to obsess me later in life, when I could afford to eat out a little more often with friends and family?  Thinking back now, I cannot be 100% sure but I don’t think this is the case, I think the service was always there at a level that was acceptable; acceptable being the food arriving in a timely manner being served by a person who at the very least pretended to care about what he or she was doing.  It was not until I went to the States where I experienced a level of service that was on another level.  Waiters and waitresses who introduced themselves?  Who asked how I was doing today?  Who talked about the food and seemed to genuinely care about the service they were providing.  Of course, now I realise that they were mostly driven to work as hard as this because of the pitiful and disgraceful salaries they are paid, working that hard to earn a tip simply to make ends meet.  By asking me if my steak was cooked to my liking or explaining the specials board in intricate and precise details from memory, they were in fact performing a well-rehearsed, pitch perfect soliloquy designed to extricate every last damn dollar they could.

In other countries, in mainland Europe for example, service can vary widely.  Try speaking in English to a French Waiter and you’re in for a rough ride over dinner, but try and engage with them in their native tongue and your dining experience (by and large) will be lifted to another level.  I’ve experienced great service in Germany, Italy, Spain and many other countries but not so much in Singapore.

Before readers from this island start to get upset about this being a hatchet job on Singapore culture and customs, it’s really not.  What this is, is a mini exploration into why service does not seem to be so important here in Singapore when compared with the West, as well as a few amusing anecdotes and incidents that I have experienced or witnessed during my time here.  On arrival, here in Singapore, many expats would bemoan the lack of service to me, or share examples of what they had experienced.

The dining experience in Singapore is primarily about the food, perhaps an overly simplistic generalisation I acknowledge, but one I really believe in.  The food dictates whether an F&B establishment survives and I would argue that the service comes a distant second, maybe even a third as you could slot location into the silver medal position.  And what pray tell are these ghastly examples of service you may ask?  Well, here are a few of the more amusing ones I have witnessed or experienced.

Example number 1: A full on shouting match between 2 members of staff in Ban Leong, a packed zhi char restaurant (see blog post Pasta for the People for more details.)

Example number 2: My friend asking quite politely for some black pepper in Sprmrkt (one of those hipster joints that frowns on the use of vowels) was met with a sullen shrug of the shoulders from the waiter and told ‘inside lor’ before he wandered off to attend to more important matters.

Example number 3: Overheard at a Hawker centre:

Customer: ‘The noodles very good lor but the chilli not spicy one’

Hawker Uncle: ‘Then next time don’t eat here leh!’

 Example number 4: Me being served at every Hawker stall, Zhi char establishment and even some restaurants: ‘What you want ah?’ Followed by the ubiquitous ‘Ah?!’ when I have evidently not made it clear what it is I wish to eat.

All of the above examples would cause major conflict, possibly even the odd fight, where they to happen in the West, yet here it is perfectly normal and no one seems to mind.  At first I found this amusing, then baffling, then I moved to the anger stage (which lasted about 2 years) and now I am at acceptance, my delicate Western sensibilities and hyper sensitive nature is no longer troubled by a grizzled aunty angrily demanding what I would like to eat for my lunch.  I now enjoy the challenge of trying to maintain a ridiculously over polite manner with a big village idiot grin on my face in order to elicit even the tiniest hint of a smile from the waiting staff.

My other favourite past time, and one that is particularly challenging, is where I attempt to pay for my food without myself or the Aunty or Uncle uttering a single word.  It’s an immediate fail if even so much as a grunt emanates from either party, further bonus points can be awarded if you are able to complete the aforementioned task without smiling; if you do, you have also failed miserably.

Does any of this matter as long as you get your food, it tastes good and it doesn’t give you food poisoning?  I would argue now that it doesn’t.  Of course, the more you pay the more you expect and demand of the service, but what I think I and other Ang Mohs object to, or take issue with is the perception that we are being dealt with rudely.  By and large, I think this is our problem and it’s time for us to put our arrogance to one side and accept the fact that being asked brusquely what you want to eat, served quickly and efficiently and without fuss is actually something to marvel at.

On a recent trip to the UK, my girlfriend and I started to notice that everywhere we went we were being asked the same question: “Is everything ok?” BEFORE we had even put fork to mouth!  This kind of insincere, vapid service is a perfect illustration of establishments not understanding the meaning of the term and simply ticking a box; staff doing something that they were told they must, but executing it in completely the wrong way and at the wrong time so it loses all meaning.   N.B. readers take note, being English there is only one way to reply to this question: smile through gritted teeth and nod approvingly and say “Oh yes it’s lovely, thank you.”  With this said, you can enjoy your meal and the waiter will bugger off and leave you alone.

So, what does all this mean?  Well I believe Singaporeans are by nature a culturally reserved people, not prone to outwardly gregarious acts or sporadic outbursts of emotion.  Add to this, language barrier, and I can well understand why many Ang Mohs feel let down when it comes to service.  Having said that, when you do find a place where the food rocks you to your core, I urge you to go back there again and again, and I guarantee, in most cases, you will feel the atmosphere change, the warmth of the reception alter ever so subtly and experience an Aunty or an Uncle greet you with a wide beaming smile and ask you: “What you want ah?”

Pasta for the People

Pasta J Upper Thomson

Singapore is a foodie’s heaven.  Anything you can possibly conceive of can be found here and by and large the quality is usually very good.  In fact, even today, 5 years after I first stepped foot on these shores, I am constantly amazed by the variety, the abundance and the affordability of all of this food.

From humble yet delicious hawker fare, right up through the mid-range zhi char stalls to the very high end of fine dining Michelin starred restaurants, there is something to suit every palette and wallet.  The competition is so tough that if somewhere is not up to scratch, or the price point is just that little bit too high that it does not give value for money, then it’s finished; the average Singaporean will not tolerate it.

In choosing where to eat, the food comes before all else.  Forget ambiance, forget distance from where one might live, and to a certain extent forget level of service, if the food doesn’t pass muster the food loving public of Singapore will, en masse, boycott the place.  Take for example a recent Sunday evening visit to Ban Leong on Upper Thomson road; this Zhi char restaurant specialising in seafood (particularly crab) is situated on a main road, half of the restaurant is practically inside a concrete bunker, hidden underneath a filthy overhead bridge.  The service is spectacularly, amazingly awful!  From being ignored when trying to order for 10 solid minutes when stood in front of the Aunty at the cashier, to being pushed out of the way by angry members of the waiting staff the abysmal service never ceases to astonish me.  I recently witnessed a member of staff being given an almighty dressing down by a very rotund aunty from the kitchen, I was starting to feel bad for her until she let loose with a series of what I can only assume to be some rather unpleasant comments about rotund aunty’s lineage.

But, here’s the thing; this place was packed!  Absolutely rammed to the gills with families, couples and the odd Ang Mo, and the reason quite clearly is the food.  It is good, it is reasonably priced and the portions are of a decent size.  Even with the atrocious service, loved ones and friends made a conscious decision on that day to make a trip to this place; the level of service, the unfriendliness of the staff and the fact that it looks like a prison canteen did not enter anyone’s mind.  Food is king.

Service, or the lack of it, here in Singapore is something I will come back to at a later date.  It’s something that manages to constantly anger, humour and astonish me often all at the same time, but one place where I cannot complain about the service is this week’s review: Pasta J.

Pasta J is situated on Upper Thomson Road, and as the name would suggest specialises in Pasta.  It really is a very bizarre establishment, from the plastic flowers in plant pots hanging from the ceiling, the bizarre signs adorning the walls, the fact that it is a Dog friendly restaurant (you can have your Dog’s picture taken inside a life-size Facebook photo frame if that’s something you’d like to do when going out for a meal) to the slightly kitsch decorations, it really does feel as if someone just woke up one day and decided to turn their living room into a restaurant.

All of the above does give it a certain charm, and it is unlike any restaurant I have ever been to in Singapore, in fact I am genuinely surprised yet very happy that a place like this does exist here.  This is maybe one of the few places where my theory that the food is the only thing that matters doesn’t apply.  The food is not bad, please do not misunderstand me, but like the establishment itself, it is just a bit odd.

We arrived on a windy rain sodden Friday evening, trudging in somewhat dejected and tired after a week of long hours and little joy in our respective jobs, we craved somewhere quiet, comfortable and without fuss.  We found it in Pasta J.  After sitting down, a man who I presume to be the owner, welcomed us warmly and talked us through the menu and after recommending a beer for me, to which I readily agreed to, we decided on what to eat.  We ordered Pesto and crackers, followed by Seafood pasta (Clammy Addiction) for my girlfriend, and Clam Chowder followed by Rib Eye steak (also known as the break up steak as it’s supposedly so good that you will immediately break up with your girlfriend/boyfriend.  There is no evidence to suggest this has ever happened. Ever) for me.

The food, like the establishment, is rather odd.  There are big flavours here no doubt but everything, and I do mean everything, tastes like it has been cooked in bacon.  The clam chowder when it arrived looked so unlike any chowder I had ever seen before that I actually ignored it thinking my girlfriend had ordered some bacon soup.  The pesto was probably one of the best things we ate, punchy and Zingy but also quite light.  My steak I have to say was somewhat average, cooked exactly to what I had asked for (medium rare) but the flavour was underwhelming and a bit bland.  My girlfriend’s pasta came with a generous portion of seafood, but unfortunately an equally generous amount of essence of bacon, I am not sure how the chef prepares the food but I would hazard a guess that a meat based stock forms the base for a lot of his creations.

Desert was a tiny, and I mean miniscule Crème Brule and an equally tiny Pandan Ice cream.  The fact that that the sugar was caramelised a la table did not make up for the fact that these deserts were shockingly small for the price charged ($8 for the Brule and $6 for the Pandan Ice Cream.)

The place was not packed, but it was by no means empty.  A steady stream of punters arrived throughout the night along with a fair few Deliveroo drivers; all were met with kind and sincere service; everyone was made to feel welcome.  Does Pasta J destroy my theory that the food and only the food is the only deciding factor behind keeping an F&B place open in Singapore?  Maybe.  One thing is for sure, the team at Pasta J are doing something almost unique in Singapore: providing decent home cooked food with great warm service, even if it is inside the front room of a dog loving eccentric.

Our meal for 2 cost $133, the price was very high due to the ridiculous Singapore alcohol tax applied to my 3 delicious Belgian beers.  Pasta J can be found at 205 Upper Thomson Road.

Zi Char

Quan Ji – Amoy Street Hawker centre.

Despite being in Singapore for over 5 years, I had not truly experienced Singapore’s rich food culture proper, until I had tried Zi Char.  This food revelation happened only 2.5 years ago and coincided with me meeting my girlfriend; a bona fide true blue Singaporean foodie.

It is strange for me to reflect on this fact now, that if I had not met her, my food experiences in Singapore would have been and still would be vastly inferior to what they are now.  Up until that point my food journey probably followed every other average Ang Mo’s path: the odd Char Kway teow here, a bit of Beef hor fun there (or Hot been fun as I like to call it, the child in me never ceases to find this hilarious) or if I was feeling adventurous maybe some sambal stingray?  How adventurous I was!  But Zi Char or Tze char or however you spell it was something that remained completely unknown yet almost literally under my nose.

In many ways, it is hard to see the appeal of Zi char.  Why would one want to sit outside in often oppressive heat, in a place which doesn’t even have any pretensions of wanting to be clean and be served food on plastic plates, often by aged heavily made up angry aunties?  What could possibly be the draw for punters to come into these places?   On the face of it, it’s an easy question to answer: the food.

The food and the quality and variety thereof is massively important, and in such a competitive and food savvy nation as Singapore, if it isn’t any good it won’t survive.  People are serious about their food here and whether it’s good or not, word soon spreads.  However, more than that Zi char for me represents something more fundamental, something that is at the heart of the human condition; a sense of belonging.  Belonging to a family, being part of a gathering that can share a simple meal of 4 or 5 dishes, exchange stories, and for the older generation, bemoan the standard of Hawker food these days, how ‘it’s not like it was’ and complain about the lack of good quality fish balls these days (no longer handmade inside the lavatory bowl apparently, terrible shame.)

Being brought into the extended family of my girlfriend here in Singapore and taken to various different Zi char places in Yishun and beyond allowed me to experience food that I never would have thought of sampling, but more than that through the act of sharing a meal together, I was brought into the family; trusted and opened up to.  It was what was lacking in my time in Singapore.

My Zi char experience is only just getting started and I relish the opportunity to be able to get out there and try food from many different establishments.  I would profess to say that I am still quite a novice in the Zi char world but by a long distance my absolute favourite place to eat and this week’s review is Quan Ji in Amoy Hawker centre.

This place was under my nose for so long but I was so intimidated to try the food, mainly due to the bald headed massively muscled head chef who works there (he looks like a meat cleaver wielding extra from a Donny Yen Kung fu movie) that I never plucked up the courage to try the food.  This establishment takes up two stalls on the ground floor of Amoy Hawker centre, which I have to say is one of my favourite hawker centres in all of Singapore.

It is run by at least 3 generations of the same family and several of the men take it in turns to operate each kitchen depending on what night of the week it is.  ‘Front of house’ is run by 3 ladies and one uncle, 2 of the ladies I estimate to be in their late 40’s and then there is the Aunty; the matriarch of the family.  Heavily made up, slightly intimidating and spouting a mixture of Mandarin and Cantonese, she controls all before her.

During the first few visits, my girlfriend and I were met with a certain degree of suspicion and intrigue.  With my girlfriend ordering the food while switching between various different dialects and me smiling like the village idiot I am sure we made quite a sight.   Nevertheless, over time and as we became regulars their approach to us softened considerably; my girlfriend being referred to as ‘mei mei’ by the aunty and me, somewhat inconceivably and also very embarrassingly, referred to as ‘handsome boy.’

For a Zi char place the service is superb, I do think it helps that we are now regulars and well known but even without being Aunty’s favourite Ang Mo, the Front of house team take the orders from the clients in an efficient and pleasant manner and deliver them rhythmically to the chefs stood sweating over the Wok’s.

We arrived around 8pm on a Wednesday and as usual the entire row was full with only a few spare tables free.  Virtually all of the other stall holders have the sense to shut up shop early on an evening for there is very little chance of them being able to compete.

This time it was my turn to order, and through some stumbling Mandarin and heavily enunciated English I conveyed my order to the Aunty.  Not convinced that what I had said had been properly understood, I stood there for a few more moments until she gently ushered me away urging to me to take a seat, before asking me something unintelligible in Mandarin which I correctly guessed to be ‘Where is your girlfriend?” Pointing over to a few tables away, the Aunty immediately began to engage my ‘Mei Mei’ in conversation; it’s this kind of personal touch that is often so lacking in the food culture of Singapore that really makes me happy.

Our food arrived shortly after: 1 Seafood Hor Fun, 1 stir fry Kai lan and a braised tofu with other assorted bits and pieces thrown in.  My call of ordering Har Cheong Gai was vetoed on health grounds, much to my disappointment.  (Side note: if you ever go to this place, the Har Cheong Gai is a must order dish!)  A simple meal but just what we needed.  The Kai lang was full of flavour and crunch and the Braised Tofu (one of the star dishes at this establishment) was excellent.  Beautifully soft round discs of tofu thrown in with Chicken, vegetables, prawns and a wonderful thick gravy, this dish really is a standout for me.  But, the star of the meal has to be the seafood hor fun.

I’ve eaten many hor fun dishes in Singapore and I’m a fan.  A big fan.  From beef to seafood, dry or with gravy I had never tried anything like it until I came to Asia, and yet I thought that they were all pretty much the same, how wrong I was.  The seafood hor fun at Quan Ji is without a doubt the finest I have eaten in Singapore.  The noodles take on a kind of ever so slightly charred smoky characteristic which lifts this humble rice noodle to another level.  I am told this is the Wok Hei effect, that mythical art of imbuing food with the charred, caramelised flavours from the Wok.  Until that first bite at this stall my Zi char, in fact my food experience, had not properly begun in Singapore.  Everything that I thought had been good up until that point is now merely prologue.  I urge you to try it.

Our meal for 2 cost $26, excellent value for money, excellent food and heart-warming and sincere service.

Quan Ji is open Wednesdays to Sundays (closed Mondays and Tuesdays) and can be found on the ground floor at Amoy Hawker centre, stalls 01-56 and 01-57.

La bella Vita

Fratini’s, Bukit Timah

You can tell you are approaching Bukit Timah, that small expat enclave in central Singapore, by the amount of air kissing that takes place in public, particularly in restaurants. This strange evolution of the southern European art of kissing ones fellow man, or indeed woman, on both cheeks, has morphed into an art form of severe false sincerity; pursing ones lips and mustering up a suitably audible “muwahh” as the head darts from one ear to the other, usually twice (one for each side) or if the occasion warrants it or the person (s) carrying out this bizarre ritual deem themselves to be of a specific social standing (think uber hipster, Instagram social influencer or just French) four times.

So, it was that we found ourselves, after a somewhat traumatic taxi ride with one of Singapore’s infamous Taxi uncles stood very unsteadily outside Fratini’s restaurant in Bukit Timah. I first visited this establishment late last year as a birthday treat from my girlfriend, we enjoyed it greatly, so as a bit of a treat my girlfriend kindly decided to treat me to it again.

Fratini’s is an Italian restaurant that operates a policy, theme or gimmick of having (officially at least) no menu. And here is my first problem with this place; how can you have no menu? By implication having no menu essentially means you have no idea what on earth you are going to cook on any particular given evening, your chefs have no idea what they will be cooking when they turn up for their shift and the waiting staff will not have a single clue what they are serving to their paying clientele. No, what this concept essentially is, is a restaurant choosing not to tell me what they are going to serve me. They can dress it up however they chose: “please let us know if there is anything you don’t like to eat or are allergic to” and yes, I do believe there is a certain amount of flexibility within the chef’s ability and the ingredients they have on site to allow them to vary their output to a certain extent, but please do not tell me that there is no menu. I guess these days with the economy how it is and the F&B industry as competitive as it is, there has to be that edge, or that USP that will draw in the punters.

‘Did you hear about the Italian in Bukit Timah? Darling it has no menu (cue first round of air kissing)”

“What on earth did you eat Darling?” (cue second round of air kissing.)

“Well, it was fabulous, they just make it up on the spot, how marvellous!” (More air kissing.) Obviously, the characters enacting this in my mind are straight out of English central casting for some terrible sequel to one of those god-awful films like ‘Love Actually.”

Putting my somewhat pedantic gripe to one side, the place is an inviting and cosy restaurant served by a warm and genial team, who DO KNOW what they are going to serve you. The lovely front of house lady patiently explained that we would be sampling 14 different items throughout the evening, inspired by several different regions across Italy (Chef must be a bloody genius to have planned all that out straight after starting his shift.)
The first course was a sharing platter served on a long wooden board consisting of: Rock Melon with Parma ham and pomegranate seeds, Salmon mousse, Raw Swordfish with a delicious pumpkin puree and a Scallop in a cheese sauce served with wild rice. All rather pleasant and tasty if a tad under seasoned for me. To follow we were served Deep fried octopus, carrots and beans and a Yuzu mayonnaise.

I am not a fan of Octopus. In recent years, I have become better at dealing with food that looks like it has come from somewhere outside of our own universe, but I have not yet overcome my fear of this tentacled mollusc. Nevertheless, if it’s deep fried, how bad can it be?

Far from being put off by the look of it, I was actually disappointed in the taste; I found it slightly charred and the vegetables had no taste and as for the Yuzu mayonnaise, well all I could taste was Wasabi.

Following this was the guilt-ridden pleasure that is Foie Gras. The lovely front of house lady kindly asked us if we had a problem with Foie gras? I actually thought this was a nice touch, however I think she was somewhat taken aback by our enthusiastic response to her question: “No issue at all, send it over!” The foie gras was served with a blueberry sauce and fig chutney, not bad but not amazing.

We were then treated to 3 courses that really made the night: Veal Shank Ossobuco with Parmesan Risotto, Slipper Lobster with Pesto sauce and an exquisite Aglo olio. These three dishes lifted the meal to another level and showed just what a chef can do when he has no menu and therefore no idea what he is going to cook at the start of every service. Probably the standout course for me was the Beef cheeks: succulent melting beef with a rich flavourful jus served on top of the most perfectly cooked risotto.

The meal was rounded off with a selection of desserts, served on the now ubiquitous long wooden board: Tiramisu, a small chocolate brownie, crème Brule and a lavender panecotta. All acceptable and non-offensive, except for the lavender panecotta. Why on earth anyone would put lavender in a desert is beyond me.

All in all, a very enjoyable meal, served by attentive, warm and friendly staff who obviously take great pride in what they are doing, and, definitely know what they are going to be serving that evening.

Cost for 2 people was $331, the meal was a bit more expensive than planned due to the amount of alcohol consumed. Set meal is $95++ per person and even though they have absolutely no idea what they are going to serve you, it is well worth a visit.

The joy of Rice (fried)

Din Tai Fung

As far back as I can remember I have always loved eating Fried Rice.  Fried Rice, that staple of basic Chinese cuisine, so common to my friends, colleagues and girlfriend growing up that when I wax lyrically about the joy of eating such a simple dish, I am often met with blank stares and polite smiles; like they are talking to some village idiot.

My love affair began over 30 years ago, in a small town in the North of England.  Growing up at that time in that area, my food options or my exposure to different cuisines was somewhat limited.  There were 3 basic choices: home cooked food consisting of the standard Meat and 2 extravagantly over boiled vegetables served with grey, gloopy gravy (which in no way could one describe as ‘jus’), Indian food (but that came later for me when I started drinking: in the UK, the 2 are almost synonymous) and lastly Chinese food.  Well, when I say Chinese food I very much doubt that it would pass muster in such a food conscious culture as Singapore, but at that time, at that age, Chinese food, in the form of a takeaway was as exotic as it got.

My introduction to Chinese food was simple: Chicken Fried Rice served with an accompaniment of Curry Sauce.  Heaven!  On a Friday night when my dad came home from work, maybe once a month, he would announce: ‘your Mam’s not cooking tonight we’re having a takeaway!’   My younger sister and I would shout and whoop with joy for it could only mean one thing: Chicken Fried Rice and Curry sauce; ultimate food Heaven for an 8-year-old boy.

The rice would come with generous chunks of Chicken breast, maybe the odd small shrimp if we were lucky, plenty of egg and the odd slightly anaemic pea, which looked like it had been found on the floor and chucked in as well just for good measure.  With this already phenomenal dish came the piece de resistance: the curry sauce.  A luminous orangey, yellow thick gloopy concoction that when combined with the rice lifted the dish on this 8 year olds palette to a place he did not know could ever exist.

Maybe my love of food was born that day, my eagerness to try and experience food and food cultures other than my own was contained in that first mouthful of faux Chinese food?  Who knows, but since then I have significantly branched out to many other cuisines on my travels around the world, and after settling in Singapore around 5 years ago, I have had the opportunity to experience so many different types of food from all over South East Asia and beyond.  But, put a decent plate of fried rice in front of me and I’m back, sat in front of the Telly on a Friday night, my young sister sat by my side, my parents sat across to my right on the sofa, all of us tucking into this wonderful simple meal.  The memories are powerful and immediate.

The idea of this blog is to write about my experiences of food in Singapore and beyond.  I always love to eat and talk about the food I sample and enjoy and one day I had the idea to just write about it.  It could be an outlet to let the wannabe creative writer inside me get out, or it could just be an opportunity for me to have an excuse to eat more great food and share my experiences with the wider world.  That is, if anyone ever reads this.

The trigger to start work on this was last week over a simple dinner at Din Tai Fung.  Din Tai Fung was one of the first places I ate at when I came to Singapore and quite simply it blew my mind.  Everything about it was exceptional, from the food to the service and what amazes me most about this place is that in the 5 years I have been here and the 50+ times I have eaten there, I have not had one bad meal.  Not one.  I have never left one of their restaurants bemoaning the quality of their food or their service and to me that is simply astonishing, especially in Singapore where let’s face it, service is quite often an afterthought at best.  Name me another chain restaurant in Singapore or beyond that can manage that consistency of quality and delivery and I’ll gladly get myself there and try it, but I bet you cannot.

I have never attempted a restaurant review, or food review or any kind of review before in my life.  So, once I had decided that I was going to get off my arse and do this (which I had been talking about for ages) I jumped in head first to try.  Unfortunately, in my excitement to get this food blog started both my girlfriend and I forgot to take any pictures of the food.  Not one picture.  In our defence, it was a Friday night, we were both tired and we’d queued at the Paragon branch for an hour and we just wanted to eat.  So, there was no choice but to go again, which is where we found ourselves a few days later on a Tuesday night in the Bishan branch of DTF.

I have eaten at this branch many times, but it has recently undergone a refurbishment so I was keen to see what changes had been made.  To be honest, it looks exactly the same as it did before, except for a few more tables; why change a winning formula I guess?

We managed to get in straight away this time and decided upon a light dinner as it was already gone 9PM.  The problem with me and my girlfriend is, we don’t know when to stop ordering, particularly when it comes to DTF.  We started with the simple yet elegant oriental salad, a mix of bean sprouts, tofu and other assorted things (dear reader, I promise I will get better at this.)  What followed was actually quite appalling: Pork Wantons in delicious chilli oil, a noodle dish with strips of pork and the ubiquitous Xiao Long Bao and a Fried Rice which may or may not have had a succulent pork chop on top of it (it definitely did.)

For two people on a Tuesday night, it was quite extreme.  I noticed the next table (an aunty and uncle couple in their 60’s) looking aghast as dish after Dish kept arriving at our small table.  I was becoming increasingly embarrassed by the attentiveness of the waiting staff who were trying heroically to find more space to place the food.  Nevertheless, the meal was a triumph.  Wonderful subtle flavours across all of the dishes, from the lovely spicy chilli oil coating the soft wantons to the burst of flavour when biting into the steaming hot Xiao Long Baos, but the winner, if it were a competition, was hands down the Fried Rice.

Every time I go to DTF I say the same thing: “How on earth do they make Fried Rice taste like this?!”  It’s like they have taken every single individual grain and rolled it on the inside of a virgin’s thigh; it’s so soft and fluffy and unctuous.  I challenge you to find a better Fried Rice in Singapore.  I have eaten Fried Rice dishes and none, none of them come anywhere near this.  Every mouthful for me is an emotional connection with the 8-year-old boy who tasted for the first time in his life, the possibility of what food could be even if at the time it came in a hot aluminium foil container and had manky peas in it.  The feeling is that powerful and every time, without fail DTF delivers an emotional knockout blow.

The meal cost $60 for the two of us and included a pot of Purr tea.  DTF is island wide and well worth a visit and which branch would I recommend?  All of them, as they are all simply outstanding.