Sunday, 28 June 2015

Battle of Crabs: Mellben Seafood vs No Signboard

My family aren’t massive crab eaters, Mama and Papa Chan prefer lobster and Bro has no love for seafood. That said they are still keen to try the unofficial national dish of Singapore. So my search for the best crab restaurant begins. For each recommendation made by a local, there was a counter-proposal made by another. My shortlist came to: Mellben, No Signboard, Jumbo and Longbeach. One thing at a time.

I originally wanted to take the Chan clan to Mellben, as their signature dishes aren’t spicy. However location, location, location - none of their branches worked with our agenda. Instead we headed to the original No Signboard at Geylang. Proper local style here, the vast outdoor seating with overhead fans, foldable wooden table and plastic chairs is how things were done in the past. We got there early at 6:30pm when the restaurant was half full, by 7 it was a full house with a small queue. We started with a couple of beers and a large coconut.

Salted Egg Crab
And I know it’s not fair battle because I didn’t order the signature White Pepper Crab at No Signboard. I wanted to, but Mama Chan and Bro have a rather low tolerance for spicy food, so it was safer to order milder flavours. I wouldn’t want them to miss out.

Female crabs have richer roe and male crabs are meatier and more muscular. For the sake of Dad’s cholesterol level, we opted for a 1.2kg male Sri Lankan crab. And boy it was a hunky beast. The flesh was bouncy and succulent; the shellfish sweetness was accentuated by the savoury salted egg sauce. There was much satisfaction tearing the claw meat from the cracked shell.

I love salted egg sauce, ‘golden prawns’ is one of my all-time favourite Canto dishes. The salted egg sauce was delicious, runny enough to coat the crab but the flavours were not diluted; the graininess was still detectable to add textures. We readily lapped up the sauce with the fluffy fried buns (‘man tou’). It was praises all round.

Butter King Prawns
The butter prawns (or crab) here aren’t the same as the usual rich buttery sauce, instead the prawns were deep fried with a butter paste, which tasted a bit like a savoury cookie dough - it smelt heavenly, as one would expect from slightly burnt butter. The shell was ultra crispy with some added crunch by the cookie batter, the prawn meat was springy and tender, not as sweet and juicy as the crab, but still very fresh. I prefer the saucy version though.

No SignBoard Beancurd
Our server recommended this and it was a pleasant surprise. The fried tofu skin soaked up the gravy, and it was oozing with flavours with each chew. The beancurd was silky soft, which nicely contrasted with the mince pork and diced shiitake mushroom topping. It was a familiar ensemble executed very well.

Spinach with eggs 3 way
The broth was well-seasoned with diced salted egg, preserved egg and poached egg. The spinach was young and took on the broth, but the preserved egg was quite rubbery and squidgy and the salted egg was quite stiff. We prefer stir-fry vegetables.

Claypot Chicken
This was one of the very limited non-spicy meat dish. It was packed with chunks of chicken in a thick fermented bean and soy sauce in ginger and spring onion. The meat retained its moisture and absorbed the richness from the sauce. It was hard to steal the limelight from the crab but this did quite well.

On another evening, with a significant someone for another occasion, we checked out Mellben. We were late to the Ang Mo Kio branch. By late I mean 10pm and we were their last order, so we weren't given many options for our crabs - seeing they both had  an insane amount of roe, I’m going to guess these were female crabs. 

Claypot Crab Bee Hoon
This is their signature dish. A whole crab is cooked with a milky broth and thick vermicelli. The broth was insanely sweet, packed with the oceanic goodness from the beastly crab; the roe dissolved into the creamy stock to add extra depth and umami, making it extra luscious and tasty. The slithery rice noodles encouraged more slurping of soup, each mouthful bursting with pure shellfish bliss.

The actual crab itself was slightly disappointing. Perhaps because we got the smaller ones left and it was a female crab, the claws were not as brawny as I had hoped for. It was still very fresh and cooked to perfection however. What the crab was lacking, the broth made up for.

Black Pepper Crab
Since we made the special trip, we indulged on a second crab dish. As I mentioned above, it was a comparatively small female crab. I really liked the pepper sauce; instead of a heady peppery punch, I was first met with palm sugar sweetness, then the fragrant heat from the abundant crushed black peppercorn began to seep through. But it wasn’t overpowering spiciness that got  my head spinning, just a stimulating amount of heat plus plenty of aroma that complimented the crab, not drowning it. It was hard to choose between this one and the bee hoon dish.

Like I said, it was hardly a fair battle as I didn’t get a chance to try the signature white pepper crab at No Signboard, and I would have liked to try the butter crab at Mellben too, preferably when there are more crabs to choose from. That said I may be swaying slightly towards No Signboard at Geylang, because the crab itself was better. Also he made a good point, while the meal at Mellben was generally good, it’s questionable whether it was worthy of the journey to the middle of nowhere, and the potential queue if we were to visit at normal hours.

Papa Chan has requested a second (peppery) visit to No Signboard in few weeks - updates to follow.

The battle continues...

232 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3
Singapore 560233
Tel: 6285 6762

414 Geylang Road
Singapore 389392
Tel: 6842 3415

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Wild Rocket - Loosely on Track

I was under immense pressure when he asked me to organize where to eat. I haven’t found a place in Singapore that I could swear by, and it’d be dull to go for regular European fare that he didn’t need to fly 12 hours for. Wild Rocket by Chef Willin Low aims to take apart traditional dishes, reassemble them and turn them on their head – we have a winner.

Sitting on Mount Emily, the restaurant is part of the Hangout Hotel on a quiet residential slope near Dhoby Ghaut. The dining room reminded me of a modern Japanese rock garden; the combination of its irregular wooden carapace and textured stone flooring gave it a good zen vibe. Perhaps too zen - that the staff ignored us for the first 30 minutes; no one greeted us at the reception until we waved, once seated and silently left with the menu, we weren’t offered water. The waitress actually looked our way a couple of times and decidedly blanked us. It’s true that we usually take ages reading the menu, but after an unshaded uphill walk on an empty stomach, some sort of acknowledgement of our existence would be nice. On the other hand, the couple next to us was offered cushions, water top-ups and showered with attention (yea ok the lady was pregnant, but I wasn’t wearing a DND sign).

After flagging down the waitress to take our order, I almost had to lasso her back for our wine order. In case you’re wondering, the restaurant was at 30% capacity, there really is no excuse for such appalling service. 10 minutes later we were informed our wine was no longer in stock – thanks. The server recommended an Italian – hell whatever, I’m exhausted. To be fair, the wine turned out to be quite good, light with a cherry tone that was not dissimilar to the Beaujolais we originally wanted, less acidic too. The man said it was served too warm – I would have loved to see him send it back to be honest.

We went for the Rocket Tasting Menu.
The warm small cheese bites were delicious; flakily soft and buttery on the outside, gooey and rich in the centre.

Salmon red rice & baby octopus donburi
It would be fair to say this silenced my complaints about the service.

The mouth feel was fantastic as red rice has a harder shell that gave a more chewy texture, mingled with cubes of bouncy octopus, squidgy fungi and crunchy vegetables. The rice was cooked in a sweet soy sauce. The sweetness worked really well with the thin slices of salmon sashimi, which slowly dissolved in mouth to leave behind the delicate fish oil aroma. It was a delightful start to the meal.

Tau yew bah soy sauce pork rigatoni
Tau Yew bah is an old-school Hokkien dish of braised pork belly in dark soy sauce. Chef westernized it into a pasta dish.

Personally I enjoyed the dish; the pasta was cooked al-dante, the soy sauce based pork belly ragu had a good consistency that flavoured the pasta without drowning, and the shavings of parmesan cheese helped to integrate the eastern influences with the western dish. He, on the other hand, was somewhat underwhelmed. He thought his pasta was overcooked and nothing particularly stood out with the meat sauce. I have always found him harder to please when it comes to pasta… At least one of us enjoyed it.

Gins & spring onion, soon hock marble goby
Marble goby is quite a common white fresh water fish in Asia. While it’s not as fleshy, the slithery texture reminds me of black halibut. Chinese cuisine prefer to steam fish to retain its natural flavors and succulence, with a healthy bunch of spring onions and gingers to rid any earthy, fishy tones. The kitchen put a twist on this with a spring onion puree, and the pan-fried fillet was soft and silky topped with a slightly charred skin. He approved.

That said it was probably too simplistic. There wasn’t enough going on to keep the dish exciting, it was fairly one-dimensional.

48hr beef rib with kalian, shiitake & mash
This was almost brilliant. The beef rib was cooked to utmost tenderness, so easily sliced through with gentle pressure from the knife. The traditional flavours came from the small pile of kalian and shiitake mushroom fusion, which reminded me of ‘mustard green’. We have it in Hong Kong as part of our typical breakfast, it’s preserved cabbage mixed with lean strips of pork loin, served on a small bowl of vermicelli alongside an omelette and toast. The savoury combination worked with the rib and brought out the beefiness. The only thing missing was  a jus or sauce to hold all the ingredients together, something light and clean would have done the job.

Wild rocket strawberry cheesecake
Not a bad deconstructed cheesecake, as with most things in Singapore, it was very sweet.

Pandan infused panna cotta with salted gula Melaka
Nothing spectacular. The salted palm sugar sauce was a tad too strong and killed the delicate pandan fragrance, though it wasn’t criminal.

I quite liked Wild Rocket, Chef did well with some of the dishes, my highlight being the salmon rice. There is room for improvement, nonetheless, perhaps around bringing more sophistication and finesse to the dishes. I think it’s all on the right track, but needs more work to bring it up to the standard we’re used to - notwithstanding the service, that needs serious re-work.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when a restaurant claims to serve Modern Singaporean food. I guess I’m still not entirely sure what Singaporean food really is. Perhaps it's a broad term that includes a range of South East Asian cuisine. It's still early days I suppose, I'm still hoping to get bowled over.

Hangout @ Mt Emily
10A Upper Wilkie Road
Singapore 228119
Tel: 63399448

You may also like: PS Cafe, FYR Cycene Ond Drinc