March 16, 2014

Food Review: Saveur

Singapore has not seen rain in about forever. 

It has been a bone-dry month for our little island, with little to no rain, a haze rolling in from our neighbours and a sun that just won't quit. I hardly ever leave my house with this heat, unless I have to - and one of the reasons why I would brave this ungodly weather is to meet up with my closest friends for our weekly catch up. 

Our dinner today was at Saveur - recommended to me by my friends, who claim it to be affordable, delicious and quite lovely French cuisine. So in my mind's eye, I visioned a chic, classy place hidden away in some area I have never been before in my life, with fancy waiters, bread baskets and strawberries in their sparkling water. 

I was not prepared to see this:

Essentially smack right in the middle of Far East Plaza, Saveur can almost be missed, with its heavy draped curtains and black, minimalist furniture and decor. Not very French at all, but I did not find myself unhappy - even excited perhaps, fervently hoping that their fresh concepts of French dining extended to their food. 

As we were early for dinner, it was not difficult to get a seat for three of us, and we quickly ordered up some grub. A total of two appetisers were ordered, and we each got individual mains, finishing off with a dessert to share. 

The first of our appetisers: 

Saveur's Pasta, as you should be able to tell by now, is one of their signature appetisers, beautifully presented angel hair pasta curled into a delicate pile, after being tossed in chilli oil, and topped with a generous amount of minced pork sauce, chives and crispy, blush pink ebi. 

It's extremely Japanese. 

I find myself conflicted as I write this, because it was presented French - it used a light sauce for the pasta, but it's toppings are essentially, well, Japanese. Could I make the leap and just say it's fusion food? It's a very popular term now in Singapore. 

Irregardless, this appetiser sufficed to whet the appetite, and I had a laugh when one of my friends remarked that it tasted like a particular instant noodle she had had before. It certainly was not overtly fancy, it was simply a well balanced pasta starter. It's quite strange for me to start with pasta - starch tends to be heavy as an appetiser for me, but I find myself unaffected by this. 

Two of us ordered up the beef for our mains, namely, the Beef Bourguignon:

Now, this was some good grub. This classic beef stew was absolutely, exquisitely tender (I didn't even need my knife at one point) without losing its fat or being dry - served with a red wine sauce (burgundy), flavoured well with hints of sweet onions, garlic, mushrooms, delicate herbs. The beef was also served on a bed of diced carrots and onions, which I could only assume were added towards the last steps of stewing. 

This classic also came with a side of potato gratin and a mixed salad which really made my eyes water. For some reason, the mesclun salad was dressed in a sauce that was heavy, so heavy, on mustard. It was so heavy on mustard that it took me more than willpower to finish the entire thing. The potato gratin was lovely, potatoes not overcooked to mush, enough cream and a hint of salty cheese to balance it out. 

One of our group ordered another of Saveur's signatures, and another classic, Duck Confit: 

I had some of this dish, and as far as I know, it's lovely. The duck meat was off the bone tender, with crispy edges, served on a sweet, creamy bed of mashed potatoes. Other than that, I cannot comment further on this dish since it was not my main. 

My friend tremendously enjoyed her main - it is one of the things she always gets when she visits the establishment. 

Our second, slightly-late appetiser, was this salmon confit. A generous slab of soft pink salmon, stabbed with its own crispy skin, served with an apple and fennel salad. 

When I tried this, the first thing I did was to warily taste the dark, powdery substance sprinkled atop the beautiful slice of fish. The powder had the texture of biscuit crumbs and tasted salty, briney, stocky and very delicious. I found myself perturbed by the familiarity of this crumbly powder, and after reading through the menu again, realized it's kombu dashi - a dried, powdered version of kelp. 

Again, a touch of Japanese on French cuisine. Also, the confit was done perfectly, the salmon cooked just so, with no residual wetness from cooking, and retaining its entire sweet, fatty tenderness. 

As we finished off, I decided to order a dessert to share: 

I have to admit I found myself drawn to this dessert due to its extreme use of citrus elements in an extensive display of preparation. 

I was not disappointed with this beautifully presented dessert, and its many textures and many flavours. The feuilletine provided crisp and crunch, with salty-buttery hints. The blood orange jelly was a tart, sweet softness. The orange granite, or granita, provided sweet subtlety with a not-so-subtle chill of crumbed ice. Around the platter lay bits of freeze-fried pineapples and citrus pieces, all sour and perfect with the other elements served. 

If you are like me, and like ending your meal with sorbets or tart, citrus flavours to cleanse the palate, this dessert will make you so very happy. 

With Saveur, you can expect a compact menu, a bustling environment to chat and have a meal, and most importantly French cuisine (infused with other influences) at an absolutely affordable price range. The existence, and popularity of Saveur is evidence, clear as day, that French, or even fine dining cuisine does not need to cost you much. 

Would I recommend you visit Saveur? With full confidence. Service is excellent, especially from their manager. All it takes is a glance around and she is at your table with a smile - we did have one server who was not having a good day and was clearly not in the mood to serve us. I forgo these servers in lieu of the management's efficiency. 

Everyone is busy, diners are happy, food is lovely and cheap. You don't need much more to visit Saveur. 

Saveur can be located at:

Purvis Street

Far East Plaza

January 17, 2014

Palsaik Samgyupsal (Seoul)

Just last week I made a short, impromptu trip to Korea. Seoul, to be precise - it was also my second trip to the frightfully cold city, who was in the midst of a winter spell. 

I have always loved the cold, the idea of traveling to Korea was exciting to me not only due to the snow fall and the sub-zero temperatures, but also because I was excited to return to Korea's cuisine. Korean cuisine always intimidates me due to its extensive use of chilli and preservation techniques. I am not a big chilli eater, I can handle my spiciness but it's not that great of a grasp. 

I will tell you one thing - Koreans know their meat. 

In fact they know their meat so well I only had one place in mind to return to with this second trip, and this place was Palsaik Samgyupsal. 

Palsaik (Eight colours) Samgyupsal (Bacon) is quite well known, having made it to not only American shores but also recently to Singapore. 

They are famous for one thing: Pork. 

Now, I haven't visited the American or Singaporean counterparts of Palsaik, but I know a good restaurant when I see it, and Palsaik is one of those. It's not difficult to find, and the moment you walk in, the staff greet you loudly and quickly show you a table, set up with an garden variety tray of vegetation - leaves, greens, chillis, mushrooms, garlic. 

The staff will also, have already set up a steamboat stew for you, where you adjust the spiciness yourself with the addition of chilli spice powder of gochuchang, a sweet chilli paste. 

Your hot-pan, for the iconic Palsaik grill, is tilted at an angle to drain any pork fat later and already sizzling with a heap of kimchi and a second heap of mung beansprouts tossed in kimchi sauce.

As the customer, you don't lift a finger in Palsaik. This establishment is not a barbeque joint, it's a tightly run, systematic grill where the servers have the best knowledge of grilling their iconic meats.

What iconic meats? The eight pieces of thick, beautiful pork belly slices, all marinated in eight different sauces.

These eight slices, rolled in individual plates and served to you on an easy-to-read wooden plank, will then be unrolled by the server and placed to grill on the hot pan, three by three, only flipped once, charring just so with the addition of mushrooms both enoki and oyster and garlic. 

Now, while all that is grilling, let's talk about the eight flavours offered to you - original, wine, herb, curry, ginseng, miso paste, garlic and gochuchang. All delicious and their flavours intensified through the grilling process. 

If you order the set dinner, which will cost you a little more than 50 bucks, it also includes a side of marinated Chinese bellflowers, in a sticky sweet spicy sauce. This is also meant to go on the grill, which will char and caramelize into a delicious root-like texture, half crunchy and half tender and wholly perfect wrapped up and eaten with the crispy tender pork. 

So order the set menu. You'll find yourself so very very happy. 

The soup stew, of course, is not forgotten, now bubbling quietly with its hoard of seafood, silky tofu and vegetables, sweet and spicy in a soybean seafood broth.

You will find yourself sipping eagerly at the stew as you watch the pork sizzle. It's natural, don't worry about looking hungry, there is a reason why Palsaik servers move so quickly, they are aware of the consequences of sizzling pork and hungry customers. They also have to ensure that the pork is fully cooked so nobody gets sick, and you will see this guarantee when they cut the individual slices to smaller, bite-sized cuts.

Once the meat is ready, the server gives you a quick nod and retreats, leaving you to your imagination. The basic rule is to wrap the pork in any leaf you like, add the kimchi or bellflower, mushrooms or garlic, dab on some chilli sauce, roll all that goodness up and then, for a lack of a better word, shove it all in and get ready to weep in joy.

Always remember, if your leaf can't hold it all, you may need to rethink the amount of ingredients you have on your leaf.

Also, if you find yourself still unfulfilled after the stew is finished, order up a fried rice. Palsaik Seoul has a choice of two, the original or cheese fried rice. 

Both of which will be done at your table for you, using the remainder of your stew. The remaining pieces of seafood will be fished out, the softened vegetables roughly minced before an addition of shrimp roe, cooked rice and sliced greens tossed in. 

The mixture is then quickly stirred evenly and quickly until the server is satisfied with the product, before they again retreat and leave you the fragrant rice. 

This is not like most fried rice you eat in Chinese restaurants, this tastes almost lighter, since there is no egg, fluffier and heavily scented with the addition of the mixed greens, with pops of salty flavour from the shrimp roe. 

Wash everything down with some tea, before you return to the chill of Seoul's winter. The meal should not be heavy, or make you feel too full, or even greasy. Everything oily or greasy will have been cut through with the spice of well-made kimchi, fresh, crisp vegetation and detoxifying garlic. 

Also take note that this meal is not meant to be quick - it is perfect for group meals with long conversation, and even better with the addition of alcohol. 

Our meal for the night cost us less than $70, and it left us feeling very very satisfied. I can only hope that the Singapore counterpart will withstand the same standard, whether with regards to food or service.

If you are ever in Korea for visit, especially in winter, never miss the chance to visit Palsaik. It was minus 10 when I left the restaurant, and even in such biting cold Palsaik ensured I left full, happy and so very very contented.

Palsaik Samgyupsal (Seoul) can be located at: 

18, Baekbeom-ro, 
Mapo-gu, Seoul. 

서울특별시 마포구 백범로 18 (노고산동)  

January 16, 2014

Good Year Hainanese Chicken Rice

You need that chicken gras, that chicken flavour to glaze the rice. That is all about the cooking. Because they boil it literally for 30 minutes, and then leave it to cool down within 30 minutes as well. So it’s just absolutely right. You may snap the bone and see a little bit of blood in there, but it’s about the flavour." - Gordon Ramsay 

When Gordon Ramsay arrived in Singapore last year, he was set three challenges, one of which was to learn how to cook and sell the iconic Hainanese chicken rice, then win the votes of the crowd deciding the winner. In a tiny kitchen of Maxwell food market, Ramsay caused a frenzy as he arrived and learnt from the tutelage of owner and chef of Tian Tian, an established chicken rice stall. 

He lost the challenge. 

Winning the crowd with his chilli crab, but losing in laksa and chicken rice - Ramsay was suitably awed as he worked with the three Singaporean chefs at their specialities; undoubtedly left Singapore with a new experience of cooking and a whole new outlook on the reinvention of cuisine.  

My review today is on Good Year Hainanese Chicken Rice, a stall in Toa Payoh. A humble store with small beginnings, it has a large fan base and a good reason for this, with television appearances and television personalities frequenting the stall. 

You don't mess with chicken rice in Singapore. Everyone has a different approach, some drench their rice and chicken combination in tangy spicy chilli sauce and gluggy dark soy sauce, some dip their spoons into the mixture, some pour it all into one saucer with pureed ginger and go at it with every bite.

However you choose to eat it, it only results in one delicious result.  

So let's talk about the side dishes before we go into the focal point of this stall - essentially, no decent meal ever goes without its sides and a serving of basic soup. 

Our sides for the night included a clear broth of chicken feet and peanuts, some par-boiled greens with oyster sauce and stewed cabbage. All delicious, all of which you should try if you ever visit this stall. (It's free refills for soup, just let the lady boss know and she'll happily pour more for you.)

By now one should be aware that I am from a family who eats a decent amount for their dinner, considering it's commonly the time we sit down and spend an hour or so chowing down while bickering about the day's events and proceedings. 

So when the stall owner asked my parents whether we wanted roast chicken, white chicken (white meaning the steeped version), or roast meats - my dad made the wise decision of having half of each chicken and a small serving of roast meats. The owner was, of course, suitably pleased with the decision and quickly dished up our orders. 

I especially love that the chicken is served with limes, and the addition of sharp citrus really brings out a sweetness in the chicken meat that makes me very, very happy. The chicken falls off the bone, and is tender, fatty just so and never, ever dry - absolutely amazing with slices of cucumber and light sauce.

Now we move to the second focal point of the meal - the rice. Chicken rice is an absolute force to be reckoned with when done right, fragrant and delicious with chicken stock, ginger and garlic. The rice serves to pair flawlessly with the chilli (which differs from store to store, make no mistake) and dark soy sauce with minced ginger, which then pairs flawlessly with the actual chicken meat itself. 

It is especially adorable, and indulgent even, when the rice is served to you rolled like this: 

Now, even though I mentioned that this is absolutely adorable, it serves a purpose. Chicken rice used to be served like this to preserve flavor and heat for customers, especially when it came to take out. Since stalls didn't use to have appliances (or even a stall), the chicken rice balls kept food hot and saved space as well, making food easier to transport and to eat. 

Of course in modern times, we don't have to worry much about such issues, but a select few still serve rice like this as more of a novelty. 

It's still a delight to see these now, and the fragrance is intensified when you break open one of these chicken rice balls and see that spiced, scented steam rise from the hot rice. 

I'm sure that chicken rice is not a surprise to anyone - as Singaporeans we see it everywhere, and it's one of the only local dishes that have ever made it to being served on our very established Singapore Airlines. We may have variations in Thailand, Malaysia and many other parts of South East Asia, but  nothing makes me smile like seeing a glossy photo of chicken rice in a food magazine. 

Always remember your sauce combinations, and eat your chicken rice with pride!

Good Year Hainanese Chicken Rice can be located at: 

#01-366, Cheng Cheng Mee Wah Restaurant, 
111 Lorong 1 Toa Payoh 

(closed Fridays)