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.

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.