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

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Java, Indonesia: Borobudur, Prambanan & Mount Bromo

We had 4 days. He’s seen all the SE Asia that I had on my list and we were trying to limit flying time to <2 hours. Java in Indonesia fits the bill - the fact that it’s not yet overly exploited by tourists was a bonus. 

The starting point was Yogyakarta, a small city in Central Java. I sometimes forget how small an airport could be; the arrival area was the size of Goodge Street station ticket hall in London. It managed to pack in a visa-on-arrival booth (USD30 for British citizens), two immigration desks, a fifth of a luggage conveyor belt, and two x-ray scanners for ‘customs’, not to mention the plane-load of people. 

After pushing pass the hordes of eager taxi drivers, we found ATMs at the far left corner from the exit. Yea not all the cards work at all the machines, even with the ones that work, there seemed to be a cap at 1.5million INR per day. Might have been us.

You could do it the easy way - hop on a taxi that takes you from point A to point B, get a private tour guide that drives you everywhere etc. Or you could really test the girl at the tourist information kiosk by interrogating her on absolutely every little detail on public transport, from last bus to Borobudur to local food that she would recommend at the bus terminal - she suggested McDonalds in case you’re wondering. Anyway, key info was Bus 1A gets you to the city centre. We wanted to hit Borobudur straight away as we booked our accommodation there to catch the sunrise the following morning. Way to go was Bus 3A, guy will tell you when to change for 2A, which took us to Jombor bus terminal. The bus itself has been through history and back, probably fought the world wars and now serving its final years. Granted, it moves. I loved it.

I think it was 20,000INR pp for tourists.

About 90mins later we arrived at the village centre, where a very persistent tuk tuk driver took is to Omah Garengpoeng Guesthouse. I love the tuk tuk ride, partly because I didn't have to crane my neck to see where we were going. It’s a bit further out but it was one of the prettiest ones - we went for a bungalow. If it’s good enough for Everton FC, it will do for us. Our host, Erwin, was wonderful - he pretty much said yes to whatever we asked for. Our home cooked dinner by his wife was delicious; turns out she offers cooking class and writes Indonesian cookbooks.

At 4am the following morning, Erwin drove us to the Manohara Hotel where people purchase the Sunrise Borobudur ticket - at 380,000 INR it’s close to mugging. It doesn’t allow re-entry, nor does it allow packaging with Prambanan-entry like the normal ticket. All it does, is that it allows entry to the temple site 1.5 hours before official opening hours (6am), plus a torch to shine your way up. Don’t even get me started on people with their stupid torch.

Unfortunately it was a misty morning, I didn’t get the pink hue of sunrise I was hoping for… On the plus side, it wasn’t hot, number of people was manageable, and it was quiet, until you bump into a group of high-energy Singaporeans that have clearly graduated from the School of Professional Posing.

I think 4 hours is sufficient. We had a couple of hours to spare before Erwin pick us up so walked up Dagi Hill. While the view overlooking the temple wasn’t great, it was a quiet spot. And I like quiet - it lets my butterfly mind wander; happiness is when I’m filled with happy thoughts, however random and however far-fetched. While the man desperately tried to cool, I stole a snug nap.

After a couple of 'celebrity shots' with the white guy, breakfast back at the guesthouse and a 45-min wait for the bus later, we made it back to Yogyakarta. Recommended by the hotel receptionist, we had the entire garden restaurant, Legian, to ourselves. No locals would eat here. He had the local Gudeg with chicken. I still can’t work out what the other meat was… it was alright. My mutton Gulai, a yellow turmeric and coconut curry, wasn’t worth mentioning.

An hour on Bus 1A later, we arrived at Prambanan as the final stop - the entrance to the park is a 10-min walk. The ticket office closes at 5:15pm, we made it around 4:30 as I was hoping to catch some sunset shots.

The main temples were dedicated to the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer. We were told there is a Ramayana ballet dance performance every other evening in the Prambanan theatre at 7pm; our visit did’t fall on the right evening - I've missed out.

We then took the bus back to the main street, Jalan Malioboro, where the food stalls have overtaken the pavements. We picked a busy one. Basically just ordered anything - the people were super friendly. The sweet chilli crab was meaty and just spicy enough (though we met a girl later on that told us her guide said some crabs could be dodgy because of a recent oil spillage… we survived), the veg had good wok hei (gosh I’m writing Singaporean speak!) and the clams, more like cockles, were sweet. Mama Chan cooks better baka fish though:)
The next day was pure transit: 4.5 hours train from Yogyakarta to Surabaya - glad we booked in advance, both business and executive class have aircon. Then 45min taxi from the train station to Purabaya bus terminal, from there 2-hour bus to Probolinggo, followed by an hour mini-bus ride up Cemoro Lawang, which is the village closest to Mount Bromo. That minibus is basically a shared taxi, on quiet days where no one is heading up, one could end up paying for the bus.

Yea they say it gets chilly up there. Well, depends where you’re from. Given we have been through enough disappointing British summers. It was breezy, though I have had cooler London evenings in June and I was in short shorts. Mind you the locals are selling woolly hats. We stayed at Cerama Indah hotel. How do I put it… I wouldn’t go as far as calling it a shit-hole, but the bathroom smelt like one. There was general dampness in the room but also the lingering air of they-don’t-give-a-shit-about-you-coz-you-get-up-at-3am-anyway. On the plus side, one couldn’t fault the location and the staff provided information about the walks, albeit completely fed up. Their expression says not only do they answer the same shit over and over again, they could pre-empt your next question and make you feel stupid for asking it. It’s an art.

So there are 2 viewpoints. Viewpoint 1 took an hour on foot with a torch and apparently viewpoint 2 was another 45mins from there. We stopped at Viewpoint 1. And this is when it gets cold, like proper teeth-chattering, arse-biting cold. I have a feeling viewpoint 2 would have positioned Bromo against the sunrise backdrop better, but I got the colours I wanted.

After breakfast we walked across the Sea of Sand and up Tenggar caldera. Most people joined a tour that would carry them across by jeep or motorbike, we walked from the hotel - there was a trail that didn’t really exist. Maybe we should have taken a photo of where we climbed down from the cliff… anyway, as long as you know the general direction is up on your way back.

Our way back to Surabaya was… frustrating for one, entertaining for another. We got the minibus back down to Probolinggo, where we got scammed into paying double for a local bus; it stopped every 5mins, had no aircon, got swamped by local vendors and downright awful performers that tried to cause permanent damage to our eardrums - to say they were tuneless would be an insult to the word. He looked so angry; it was hilarious. Thankfully we found the right official Damri bus that took us to the airport from Purabaya, I don’t think he could tolerate getting scammed twice in a day. Hilarious.

Thank you. For being amazing in every way imaginable. I enjoyed every second.