Mood, Food’s Best Seasoning: Gattopardo

Ricciola con sardella. Barely cooked amberjack marinated in spicy fish sauce. Photo taken w/ Nikon S7c.

I’m intrigued with the psychology of a meal. What makes dining out enjoyable? What factors color our perception of the dining experience? I’m beginning to realize that it’s not just the food that plays a part in its success.

My first meal at Gattopardo, Sicilian chef Lino Sauro’s much delayed, much anticipated Sicilian seafood and pizza restaurant, two days after it opened was a mix of hits and misses. Seared amberjack, barely cooked to preserve its natural flavor and texture was excellent with its voluptuous, slightly sweet red wine béarnaise and grilled onions.

Sardine alla beccaficu. Fresh sardines stuffed with pine nuts, baked black olives, bread crumbs & raisins. Nikon S7c.

But another starter of sardines was a disappointment. The sardines were fresh but the dish was let down by the pine nut, black olive, raisin and bread crumb stuffing. It was too smooth and hard to discern the individual elements in the homogeneous paste.

Capellini alla moresca. Angel hair pasta w/ grey mullet roe and sea urchin. Nikon S7c.

Another disappointment, capellini with grey mullet bottarga and sea urchin should have been a home run. You can’t go wrong with those two ingredients, unless you don’t put enough in. They didn’t; the pasta was bland.

Cannolo Siciliano. Crispy espresso-infused wafer filled with sweet ricotta cheese. Nikon S7c.

That night ended luckily on a strong, sweet note. Cannolo Siciliano, a crispy espresso infused wafer filled with sweet ricotta cheese, was fantastic. It was flaky and thin, so crisp it shattered effortlessly. It was better that the one I tried at Maria’s Pastry Shop, considered “Boston’s best cannoli.” It was so good that it didn’t need the orange infused chocolate sauce, an unnecessary hedge, especially since it was astutely paired with an incredibly smooth pistachio gelato. The gelato, which had a slight sticky chewiness, is among the top in Singapore.

I had high expectations for the restaurant and would have been disappointed if not for the great mood I was in throughout the meal. Maybe it was from the excitement of trying a new restaurant, the buzz of opening night rubbing off on the actors and audience alike, feeding off each other. It could have been the great company, or possibly because I watched How to Train your Dragon, a cute, funny movie beforehand. Perhaps it was because the meal started out and finished strong. I recall something about serial position effect and the theory of primacy and recency during my psych classes in college; my perception and memory of the meal were shaped by the excellent amberjack and cannolo.

I’m glad I didn’t write Gattopardo off, because it has become my latest “go to” restaurant. My nine meals since it opened in April can attest to that. I love that the restaurant has its own identity, personality; too many times the menus at other Italian restaurants just read the same. I love that chef Sauro isn’t afraid to use anchovies and sardines as well as real “fishy” fish like amberjack and swordfish. This is a real seafood lover’s restaurant.

Scampi e finocchi brasati. Langoustine & braised fennel salad. Nikon S7c.

Starters: antipasti and crudi at Gattopardo have a split personality. Whereas the rest of the menu is flavorful and rustic, the dishes here are more elegant. Raw langoustine comes in a neat square with braised fennel that takes the edge off the aniseed flavor that would overwhelm the subtle shellfish preparation.

Carpaccio di polpo. Octopus carpaccio with apple vinegar, grey mullet roe & garlic oil. Nikon S7c.

Octopus carpaccio was sliced thin, each morsel tender. The acidity of the apple vinegar dressing balanced out the heady, salty bursts of flavor from the bottarga. Both this dish and the langoustine were decent, but pricy, at a dollar less than the most expensive pizza and pasta on the menu.

Cipolle di tropea e ragusano. Sweet red onion pudding w/ light saffron ragusano cheese fondue. Nikon S7c.

I have to confess that I’m not an expert on Italian cuisine. I’m more familiar with French food and I lack the proper context to compare if a dish is good or not. So I can’t really tell if the sweet red onion pudding is a yay or nay. I liked the cheese fondue, but the pudding lacked flavor. Its texture was smooth. It looked beautiful and felt refined.

Totani all’aglio e olio La Uliva. Garlic stuffed squid in shellfish soup and “La Uliva” extra virgin olive oil. Photo taken with Nikon D100.

Perhaps the emphasis on refinement was what led to the smooth texture of the failed sardine stuffing. Rustic dishes at Gattopardo are better. Stuffed squid was served with a theatrical flourish by having the shellfish and “la Uliva” extra virgin olive oil soup poured tableside. The soup had an incredible velvety mouthfeel and a range of flavor; from strong shellfish to the fruity, herbaceous, almost grassy olive oil, that was just short of breathtaking.

“La Uliva” organic extra virgin olive oil. Fruity, herbaceous and almost grassy. it’s why I eat so much bread at Gattopardo. Nikon S7c.

That organic olive oil from the town of Riesi in Sicily comes with the breadbasket as well and it’s the reason why I go though a lot of bread at Gattopardo. Notable because I usually only take a bite of a restaurant’s bread to taste, my attempt to “diet.” I asked for more bread to mop up every last drop of the shellfish soup. I almost didn’t notice the tender squid and its potato and garlic stuffing.

Porchetta cotta al forno a legna. Herb roasted pork belly. Nikon D100.

I tried two mains in all my visits. The herb-roasted pork belly was aromatic and meltingly succulent. But it lacked the crisp skin that makes roast pork so enjoyable. It was a huge portion too, and the layers of fat can quickly subdue the most hardcore eater into food-induced torpor. My suggestion is skip it; seafood is the star here. And the signature seafood stew is a shining showcase. 

Zuppa di pesce “Gattopardo.” Signature seafood stew. Nikon S7c.

Served in a large terracotta pot, it was a mélange of mussels, squid and different fish, from lean to oily all cooked à point. There was even a whole langoustine, although its texture was disappointingly powdery. The stew was excellent and satisfying, with flavors that aren’t muddled even with the variety of ingredients. At $38, it’s one of the pricier mains but offers great value; it’s a large portion and chock full of good stuff.

Bucatini con le sarde. Semolina “holey spaghetti” with fresh sardines, wild fennel, saffron and pine nuts. Nikon D100.

I haven’t tried more mains because the pastas and pizzas here are for the most part, very good.  My favorite is the semolina bucatini “holey spaghetti” with fresh sardines. The thick pasta with a hole in the center had delicious bite, augmented with the crunch of pine nuts, a nutty compliment to the flavorsome fishiness of the sardines. It was further punctuated with sweet raisins; so many textures and flavors that sat amidst a backdrop of wild fennel.

Stracci con scampi e n’duja di spilinga. Homemade pasta ‘rags” with scampi and spicy Calabrian pork sauce. Nikon S7c.

In close second, homemade stracci “rags” pasta was bold with a perfectly cooked langoustine and spicy Calabrian pork sauce. There wasn’t much pork, but it had a ton of meaty flavor propped up by a foundation of leeks and carrots. The pasta was eggy with a pleasant slight bite. This was surf and turf at its best.

Ravioli al granchio e burrata. Burrata cheese ravioli w/ crab meat sauce, watercress & asparagus. Nikon S7c.

Zite di semola con pesce spada e melanzane. Semolina long hollow pasta with sword fish & eggplant. Photo taken w/ Canon S90.

Also good were the burrata ravioli with crabmeat sauce, watercress and asparagus as well as the zite with meaty swordfish, eggplant and a few small chilies to spice things up.

Double portion of chitarre ai frutti di mare. Homemade noodles w/ fresh seafood & cherry tomatoes in white wine sauce. Nikon S7c.

Gattopardo offers its pastas in double portions for $4 to $7 less than twice the price of the single helpings. The double portion of Chitarre, a squared off version of spaghetti made by pressing flat sheets though a guitar looking contraption, hence its name, was huge. It seemed bigger than two single portions (which are usually quite conservative) put together. There was a hearty amount of shellfish; shrimp, mussels and two types of clams. The seafood wasn’t overcooked but the broth was slightly salty for me, and I love salt.

Spaghetti alla norma. Homemade spaghetti w/ tomato sauce, fried eggplant and salted ricotta cheese. Nikon S7c.

Unfortunately the spaghetti with tomato sauce, fried eggplant and salted ricotta suffered from a lack of ricotta. If you want eggplant get the zite instead. (The fried eggplant in the spaghetti though was tasty, slightly crusty and decadently oily; it would make a good choice for vegetarians.) Ditto too for the paccheri pasta which needed more guanciale. Sorry, I’m predominately a meat eater and I love my pork jowl.

Paccheri di gragnano con carciofi e guanciale. Large tube pasta with artichokes, smoked pork jowl and egg yolk. Nikon S7c.

A detail that I appreciated with most of the pastas and seafood, is chef Sauro’s deft touch with garlic. It’s always subtly in the background, perfuming the food, but not making its presence overt. Antonio, an Italian, fellow blogger and friend, has never liked any Italian restaurant when we’ve dined together. However he gave his stamp of approval to Gattopardo.

Tartufo nero. Egg yolk, crispy potatoes, artichoke cream, black truffles. Nikon S7c.

I’ve fallen in love with pizzas at Gattopardo. Ironically the first pizza I tried, the tartufo nero, was the worst. It was during my second visit and it came highly recommended by a respected foodie friend. So I was perplexed that it was relatively bland. It read on the menu of egg yolk, crispy potatoes, artichoke cream and black truffles. I wasn’t expecting a pizza covered in truffle shavings but I couldn’t taste the truffles. The toppings, whatever it was, were chalky and dry. The pizza’s saving grace was the crispy potatoes and pizza crust.

Margherita. Mozzarella, tomato sauce & fresh basil. Nikon S7c.

Nice char on the Eolie. Canon S90.

I’ve always considered pizza crust as a necessary evil. If I could have my way, I would just eat the toppings. But on subsequent pizzas here, the crust was always something I looked forward to. It’s thin, yet chewy, moist, airy and pliable with a smoky char. Too often thin crust pizzas in Singapore are gloried crackers and thick crust pizzas have too much dough. Gattopardo gets it just right, the best of both worlds. A simple margherita with mozzarella, tomato sauce and fresh basil was devoid of distractions to savor that crust.

Eolie. Mozzarella, tomato sauce, freshly pickled anchovies & Sicilian capers. Canon S90.

Perfect crust thickness. Eolie. Canon S90.

The Eolie, like the margherita but minus the basil and with the addition of fresh pickled anchovies and Sicilian capers was a real showstopper. There was the familiar taste of tomato and mozzarella, but more goolicious with extra cheese and dynamic bursts of flavor from the anchovies and capers. This was my favorite.

Salento. Burrata cheese, cherry tomatoes, mussels & roasted red onions. Canon S90.

Crudo e rucola. Buffalo mozzarella, tomato sauce, parma ham and arugula salad. Canon S90.

Vegetariana. Mozzarella, tomato sauce, grilled zucchini, eggplant & capsicum. Canon S90.

Red onions roasted to caramelized sweetness were the perfect foil for creamy burrata and tiny but flavorful mussels in the Salento. The Parma ham and rocket pizza was good but needed more buffalo mozzarella. The Vegetariana came with a slightly thicker crust and sweet, flavorful grilled zucchini, eggplant and capsicum. It was a good balance to the slightly salty cheese.

Arrotolata. Smoked mozzarella, suckling pig, porcini mushrooms, grape sauce and arugula salad. Nikon S7c.

Symphony of flavors and textures, perfect haute stoner cuisine. Nikon S7c.

The Arrotolata had an airy, spongy crust folded over smoked mozzarella, suckling pig, porcini mushrooms and grape sauce. It was a classed up, pimped out hot pocket. The pork was aromatic and tender, similar to the herb roasted pork belly main. It played an equal role in the symphony of flavors and textures from the smoky, melty cheese, umami mushrooms, sweet grapes to the crisp charred exterior of the crust. This is perfect haute stoner cuisine.

Gattopardo. White garlic focaccia w/ smoked mozzarella, Italian sausage, onion and potatoes. Nikon S7c.

Melty smoked mozzarella, hearty. Great after a hard night of drunken partying. Nikon S7c.

If the Arrotolata is for the munchies then the Gattopardo, made from white garlic focaccia, huge globs of smoked mozzarella, Italian sausage, anchovies and onions is perfect drunk food. The generous amounts of cheese make this a very hearty pizza, the type called for at 4 a.m. after a hard night of partying. But because of all that cheese, it also needs more sausage and anchovies to provide needed salty seasoning. The pizza was bland on bites that didn’t contain those ingredients. Onions smartly added some brightness to lift the pizza from its heaviness, but would be better with the addition of something tart as a counterpoint to the cheese and sausage combination.

Look at all that seafood! Nikon D100.

Loving langoustine. Nikon D100.

Pristine fish, from left: White bream, mackerel, sea bass, sea bream. Nikon D100.

Gamberi rossi in Ferrari red. Nikon D100.

Gamberi rossi. Grilled Sicilian red prawns. Intense flavor and luscious texture. Nikon S7c.

The other highlight of Gattopardo is its seafood counter, a treasure chest of seafood flown in almost daily from the waters of Sicily and Japan. I gawked at the pristine seafood on every visit. Curiosity finally got the better of me and I ordered the Gamberi Rossi or Sicilian red prawns. Nothing excites me more than tasting something new and nothing gives me more pleasure (ok maybe one or two things) than discovering how exquisite it is. The prawns, simply grilled (grilling is better in bringing out the flavor of crustaceans than serving it raw) had a nice crisp char on its flesh. It led to a barely cooked interior, which had a creamy almost melt-in-your mouth texture. The prawn was sweet and tasted strongly of the sea. I’ve never tasted a prawn with such intense flavor and luscious texture. It was beautiful. At $28 a prawn, it’s expensive but cheaper than an air ticket to Sicily.

Different seafood on each visit. Nikon D100.

Scorpion fish. Unfortunately wasn’t available the night I wanted fish. Nikon D100.

Gurnard. Nikon D100.

Sea bream. Nikon D100.

Grilled sea bream. Canon S90.

Pretty good filleting skills huh! Canon S90.

I had my eye on the striking looking scorpion fish, but had to settle for a sea bream on another night (was pretty set on trying a fish.) It was expertly grilled with salt, olive oil and delicately kissed with garlic slivers. No fear of overcooked fish here. The fish had an $88 price tag. I knew it was going to be expensive; it was after all air flown. But I would rather spend my money on something rarely available at restaurants like the scorpion fish.

Almost creamed in my pants when I saw the massive turbot. Nikon D100.

Look at the fish’s eyes. It should be clear. Nikon D100.

A fresh fish’s skin should glisten, like this sole. Nikon D100.

Some tips on choosing a fish: Get what is fresh. Ask them what came in today. Yesterday is as much latitude as I’m willing to give. If I could have my way, I’d poke, prod and pry my fingers into every fish, feeling for freshness. But we probably can’t do that here. So look at the fishes’ eyes. They should be clear. Check its skin, it should glisten.

Zabaione di zibibbo e gelsi. Egg yolk sabayon with Sicilian sweet wine & mulberry salad. Nikon S7c.

Cassata. Sicilian traditional ricotta cheesecake w/ candied orange and chocolate. Nikon D100.

Baba. Rum “baba” sponge cake with fresh cinnamon cream. Canon S90.

Tiramisu. Signature mascarpone & espresso tiramisu cake with Sicilian bitter chocolate. Nikon S7c.

Desserts are sweet affair… no really, as in they are very, very sweet. But I hear that’s how Sicilians like it.  There was zabaione, an egg yolk sabayon, sweet and light. There was cassata, a traditional Sicilian ricotta cheesecake, which was sweet and heavy. Both were decent. The baba was ok. I preferred the huge dollop of cream to the moist sponge cake. Tiramisu was good, also one of the better versions around. However all options pale in comparison to the already mentioned cannolo Siciliano. There is no point getting anything else. It is superb. If you didn’t save enough room for dessert, which is entirely possible at this restaurant where there is so much to try, just order a scoop of their excellent pistachio gelato.

All options pale in comparison to the cannolo Siciliano. Get it. Canon S90.

You can get a scoop of their superb pistachio gelato for $6. It’s not on the menu. Canon S90.

My friends always ask me which restaurants I’ve been to recently and since April the answer has always been Gattopardo. There are some flaws, the biggest being a lack of generosity with their ingredients, especially the premium ones.  I understand a restaurant has to control its food cost, but they can afford to provide more. There are other minor ones, but the restaurant can always bank on a reserve of goodwill because there is conviviality to Gattopardo. Its relaxed atmosphere makes it conducive for a good time. Sure, sometimes there were kids running amok and sometimes there were moneyed tai-tais (rich housewives) running amok, the alcohol working in an inverse relationship to their level of expected dignity. But a good time, like sauce can mask a hundred mistakes and make good food taste very good indeed.

Il Gattopardo. The Leopard himself, chef Lino Sauro. After my fifth or sixth visit, he asked if I was a food blogger. With my cover blown I asked if he would pose for a photograph. He gladly obliged. He was smiling in the previous two photos. Had to change lenses and mess around with the settings. #Noobphotographer. Nikon D100.

A night of dining out, like a dish, is more than the sum of its ingredients.  And what makes the magic of a night out is that confluence of food and friendship because eating out is not just about tasting what’s on the plate, but partaking in the fullness of life. And the realization that mood is food’s best seasoning.

 

Gattopardo Italian Grill & Pizza Bar

Fort Canning Hotel
11 Canning Walk
Singapore 178881
Tel: 6338 5498
http://www.gattopardo.com.sg/

HOURS Open daily; lunch, noon to 3 p.m.; dinner, 6:30 p.m. to 10.30 p.m.

PRICE RANGE Starters, $18-$30; pastas, $20-$30; mains, $30-$38; pizzas $16-$30; desserts $14, $6 for scoop of gelato. Three course set lunch, $34. Prices at the seafood counter vary, but here is a sample of prices listed. Japanese kinki, $138; John Dory, $118; Sicilian red prawn, $28; scorpion fish, $180; sea bass, $98; sea bream, $88; turbot $298, $480 (for the massive one.)

RECOMMENDED DISHES Antipasti, garlic-stuffed squid in shellfish soup, barely cooked amberjack; pasta, bucatini with fresh sardines, stracci with scampi and spicy Calabrian pork sauce; pizza, eolie, arrotolata; mains, seafood stew; seafood counter, grilled Sicilian red prawns; dessert, cannolo Siciliano, pistachio gelato. 

 

Macarons, with only one O please.

Macarons by Macarune.

The 8-year-old-version of me loved caviar. Loved it until I ate a bad bunch and threw up… for the next two days. But to be honest, the younger me didn’t really like caviar at all, or least not the taste of it. But I liked what it represented, its cachet, its snob appeal. There is an often-used quote “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French lawyer-statesmen who wrote The Physiology of Taste. The quote showed up again on last week’s article in the New York Times about obsessive food photography at restaurants. My “liking” for caviar was more of a “tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you want to be.” (I found my love for caviar again, this time a truer form after tasting its briny, fishy, intense pops of flavor in Thomas Keller’s Oysters and Pearls dish at Per Se.)

What a sight when you open the box. Macarune

Macarons are the grownup version of my childhood caviar. There is a rarefied sophistication to a macaron. Well that was before the whole macaron craze hit Singapore. Now you can find them almost anywhere. The factor that kept me from loving macarons was that most of the time it was too sweet. But I liked everything else about the macaron. I love the buttercream and I love how they are a vehicle for so many flavors; rose-lychee-raspberry, salted caramel, hazelnut brown butter, I could go on and on. I loved the textures too, the smooth crisp thin domes giving way to the frilly-skirted “foot” and chewy, moist interior. But texture was what kept most macaron cookies too sweet. Sugar stabilizes and along with egg whites, gives structure to the delicate cookies.

It’s a fragile balance. I’ve been looking for that elusive combination. And I’ve found it.

Macarune

Just look at how poofy they are! Macarune.

I’d been hearing from K-Dubs about his cousin’s girlfriend, Danielle Chong, making some magnificent macarons while she was in San Francisco. We were talking about it over brunch a few weeks ago and later that night Yixiao informed me that Danielle was whipping up a batch for some of her friends and if I wanted any. It was $30 for 15, not bad at all, I signed up immediately. It was the best 30 buckeroos I spent that weekend.

Was debating how to shoot the macarons. Macarune.

I had to wait till the next day to eat them as I wanted to photograph ’em in the early morning light. It was such a tease because they looked so good. Her macarons were plump and poofy, filled with a very generous layer of buttercream. By the time I was done taking pictures, I was without exaggerating, ravenous with desire to devour them. Like an alcoholic co-ed double fisting at spring break, I was the nom-noming version, descending into a food frenzy. I finished them all in less than 5 minutes. Danielle, if you are reading this, I apologize; your macarons deserve to be savored. I couldn’t help myself they were so good.

Such a tease, wanted to eat instead of take pictures. Macarune

Some of Danielle’s macarons were a feat of structural engineering, its unusually high domes supported only by the thin vertical walls on its circumference. It leads to an airy macaron, an exquisite eating sensation as it offers just the barest resistance before crumbling from the pressure of my mouth into its substantial interior. Others have less headroom but are equally pleasurable. They are airy, moist and chewy. She uses a variety of methods for her macaron cookies, considering which is best for a certain flavor. Only the pistachio macaron cookie was slightly dry and dense.

Black sesame, Macarune.

Look at that cavernous interior. Macarune.

However the pistachio macaron cookie and rose buttercream made an inspired flavor combination. When I asked Danielle what made her think of putting those two flavors together, she answered, “Turkish Delight.” I couldn’t help but smile.

Honey lavender. Macarune.

I’m a fan of the flavors of her macarons. Although some, like the black sesame, passion fruit and raspberry are more punchy than the others, they never taste artificial. That artificial taste is an increasing occurrence with other lesser bakers attempting to up the flavor factor. Danielle has a sensibility with flavor; it is a talent. Her honey lavender macaron is subtle, just kissed with its floral notes. I love lavender, but most food flavored with it tastes like soap, too pronounced and artificial. She proves that lavender used judiciously with skill and high quality ingredients can have devastatingly delectable results.

Raspberry. Macarune.

Hazelnut brown butter, praline and sprinkled with feuilletine. Macarune.

Chocolate with Valrhona ganache. Macarune.

Clockwise from left: hazelnut brown butter, raspberry and fruity tea. Macarune.

Info.

The reason I love Danielle’s macarons though is because of the buttercream, specifically her generous use of it. It’s my favorite component of a macaron and they just don’t make it like that in most stores. Danielle’s macarons are the real artisanal deal, exquisite, small batch confections made with a generosity of heart. It would be easier to use the same base for all her macaron flavors, but she doesn’t do that, her hazelnut brown butter macaron doesn’t even use almonds but hazelnuts. Logical but just more work. It’s why her macarons are so good, and something that you just can’t buy at shops.

Jean-Philippe Darcis

Darcis

I gobbled down the food. I didn’t know when my next meal would come, and it was going to be a long day. I filled up some mineral water bottles from a jerry can. The water was warm, and as I stuffed them into ammo pouches on my load bearing vest, I regretted not bringing my water bladder. I spent the last week observing another infantry unit as it took its evaluation. Today was supposed to be short, an easy day, just watch the final morning attack. We didn’t plan to be there for more than two or three hours. But now I was roped in to replace an umpire for the evaluation. I lifted my vest and put it on, feeling around to check that I had everything. I needed more water. I buckled the vest’s belt around my hips and the straps across my chest. I put on my jungle hat, its wide brim shaded my eyes and provided some reprieve from the scorching sun. I said goodbye to my CO and Brigade Sergeant Major, both men whom I respect immensely, before I briskly trotted out to the sound of gunfire. 

The firing was sporadic now, with only pockets of resistance in two or three buildings. As I got closer, the constant high-pitched buzz from the harnesses’ of the “dead” increased. It was a costly engagement. As I approached a building, five soldiers, remnants of a platoon or I feared, perhaps a company were pinned down from the front. Someone was firing at them from their half-left as well. They were paralyzed, their commander just got “killed.” The medic in the group had had enough. He threw down his stretcher and said,

“Fuck this!”

He started to rally the rest of the men. He told someone to throw a smoke grenade to obscure the OpFors’ line of sight and together with his motley band, moved forward to continue the assault.

I linked up with the rest of the empires, reservists as well. I went up to a sergeant and asked him what we were supposed to do, and how to do it. At least they’ve had extensive briefings on their assignment. That was how I met Gery Dachlan. He helped me throughout the day as we followed the OpFor for their counter attack. It was almost 10 p.m. when we headed home, he offered to give me a ride and we started talking about food. He was a foodie as well. We kept in touch though Facebook and almost a year later, I got an email from him asking if I would be interested to buy some macarons from Jean-Philippe Darcis, a pâtissier and the “ambassador of Belgian chocolate.” They were $30 for 11. Pricy, but I’ve seen more expensive ones in Singapore.

Darcis

Unfortunately I was out for most of the night after he had passed them to me, so they weren’t in ideal conditions for a few hours. I can only imagine how they would have tasted if I had gotten them into a fridge immediately, because they were excellent even for having been mistreated (one or two shattered.)

Like Macarune’s they were generously filled with buttercream. The macaron cookies were also soft, chewy and moist with a smooth, thin crisp dome. But of all the macarons I’ve tasted, these were the least sweet, a very good thing.

Thin crisp domes with a moist, chewy interior. Darcis

I can’t remember all the flavors, it was February when I tasted them. But I liked all the flavors in the pack, rare especially when I didn’t pick the flavors. I’m finicky when it comes to macarons and when it’s a random selection, there are one or two that I won’t like. The thing I remember most about them was that they tasted and felt refined, more so than most macarons in Singapore. I’m no macaron expert so I can’t tell you why. It just is.

Cross section. Darcis

Two years ago I was on a course with the army. It was grueling and during our finale exercise the training cadre kept on changing the plan on us, they injected scenarios, imposed problems and generally my cohort thought they were harassing us. Some started to switch off, started to take it personally, started to get an attitude. But that’s the way life is, there’s always something unexpected. I was surprised by some of their reactions. We were seasoned soldiers, earmarked for higher command. Maybe it was because most of us were in the infantry, and were used to things moving at a set pace and plan. If there was one thing I learnt during that exercise it’s that almost nothing goes as planned. You just have to prepare for the contingencies, adapt and make the best of it.

Lots of buttercream, even though they were squished.

I could have bitched and moaned about my mission changing from an observer to an umpire. I thought I would be home for lunch. Instead I got a serious farmer’s tan from the furious sun. I just rolled with it, as an umpire I had an opportunity to learn more, and I was glad. But the best part about being thrown into that role was that I met Gery and he introduced Darcis’ macarons to me. I didn’t know it at that time but it made a sweet ending to a hard day.

Darcis website.

UPDATED Singapore website: http://www.darcis.sg/

A store is planned at Marina Bay Sands in early August.

Meanwhile to order email Gery: gd@darcis.com

Delivery is free.

ET Artisan Sweets

For the curious, these are one of my favorite store-bought macarons.

ET Artisan Sweets website.

The Measure of My Powers (2010)

Feels like I put on ten pounds

84 Oysters. The final count for the night stood at seven dozen. It wasn’t the 120 that I aimed for. But it was a number that I could comfortably and enjoyably do. My first 60 were easy. I thought I could coast right though it. But after another dozen I abruptly hit a wall. It was sudden and somewhat surprising.

Indemnity form

Something I didn’t anticipate was how monotonous it could have been if the oysters weren’t “dressed up.” Not that the oysters which were from Canada and Australia needed it, they were plump and pristine. I couldn’t tell their species though. I love oysters but after my first two-dozen I was glad that chef Kevin Ng topped his oysters with a variety of condiments.

First six

There were simple bubbles of Tabasco and of Lychee. Some were topped with miso, lime granita or avruga caviar. Others were marinated in rice vinegar or sake.

(One of my pet peeves is that restaurants in Singapore don’t shuck the bottom adductor muscle from the oyster. I brought my oyster knife because I knew this was going to happen. Please, chefs and restaurants take note, an oyster isn’t considered shucked until it’s been detached from its bottom shell as well. It’s frustrating trying to pry an oyster loose with a fork.)

My favorites of the night were the carrot and orange puree, shoyu jelly and papaya powder.

Easy peasy, especially since I brought my oyster knife.

My favorite moment was right at the beginning, when the people at Private Affairs, who had gotten wind of what I wanted to do, asked me to sign an indemnity form. I thought it was hilarious. And for the curious, nothing happened to me after.

The next six, my first dozen.

Another six, just finished 60.

A lot of people asked why I would want to eat so many oysters. I’ll take excerpts (wholesale cut and paste really, but excerpts sounds more elegant) from a comment I wrote on the previous post:

I’m at a lost myself to explain it. At first it was just a fun thing to do. I enjoyed eating them and I wanted to see if I could push myself to eat that many. My marathon partner commented on Facebook that it was just like running a marathon. I thought it was a good analogy.

I got a comment today (19-03-2010) on a post I put up right at the end of last year. It was also about another gorge-fest I had. (My oyster eating night was meant to be a continuation of that post.) The point I was trying to make was that sometimes food is not just for nutrition and the satiety of hunger.  But I didn’t explain myself well enough, because the comment was a question on what I meant. Again words fail me. So I borrowed from one of the greatest food writers, M.F.K. Fisher, to answer the question. I’ll reproduce it again:

“So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.” – The Gastronomical Me

She expressed what I felt and tried to write, but failed to communicate.

As I re-read though that post and was thinking of tomorrow’s (19-03-2010) event, I recalled another incident at the Lobster Festival in Maine, where I stuffed myself beyond what my hunger called out for. Read till the end of that post. I make my point there.

So that’s why I did it. Now that it’s over, was there anything I felt differently? Was there a profound change that happened? Like the sense of worth and accomplishment you get when you complete your first marathon? No. It was just an enjoyable night.

What I did gain was a perspective that we take our food for granted. That eating, because it is routine, sometimes becomes mundane. It might seem strange but I think I love gorging myself because it is a celebration of food.

And I’m done.

 

Private Affairs
45 Joo Chiat Place
Singapore 427769
Tel: 6440-0601
http://www.privateaffairs.com.sg/
Oyster nights are only on Fridays from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
$38++ for all the oysters you can eat including two glasses of Cava.
Reservations only. 

Oyster Power Hour x2

Attempting to eat 120 of these in two hours.

Recently read from Kaelyn’s blog about an all-you-can-eat Friday oyster night at Private Affairs in Joo Chiat. Usually I avoid restaurants that invite bloggers for food tastings. I fear that people would think I accepted an invitation. But I do love oysters and at $38++ which include two glasses of Cava was too good an opportunity to pass up.

I wanted to see how many oysters I could eat. I set a goal of 50. But that seemed too easy. So I upped it to 10 dozen. 120 seemed challenging yet do-able. Although I don’t think I’ve eaten more than a dozen in one sitting.

I asked a few close foodie friends to join me, they declined on going into an oyster eat off. They wanted to savour this magnificent little creature and not kill the luxury factor by bingeing. But they all expressed excitement about watching me try to eat 120 of them. One said I would puke, another wagered I would get sick after 30.

So anyone interested in a friendly oyster eat off match this friday? Or maybe you just want to watch this culinary extreme sport? It would be nice to have some support as I try to eat as many oysters as I can. I’ll be at Private Affairs from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Leave a comment below or email me if you are coming so I can change my reservation.

(Let me reiterate that this is by no means organized by the restaurant or their PR people. It’s a sad state of affairs that I had to make that disclaimer. Also sorry about the lack of posts. Been busy. New one should be up soon!)

Private Affairs
Friday, 19th of March, 7 p. m. to 9 p.m.
45 Joo Chiat Place
Singapore 427769
Tel: 6440-0601
http://www.privateaffairs.com.sg/

 

Come Get Some: Loewen Gardens Farmers’ Market

Paella

It was the search for paella that brought me to this overlooked corner of Dempsey. But what I found instead were memories of my past; a trigger that brought back residual images of brothers-in-arms and an uneventful yet much remembered night.

But first the food.

Now that is a tablescape. 

My love affair with paella started out strangely enough in Syracuse, at Dante’s where I tasted fideuà, a sister dish made with thin noodles instead of rice. It was hauntingly good and an introduction to Spanish food. A trip to Madrid my junior year during a semester abroad in London cemented my love for paella.

Get rich selling cupcakes!

Unfortunately I’ve always had sub-par paella in Singapore. I was hopeful from reading the article in The Straits Times about the farmers’ market that this paella would be different.

The rice was very good, not the usual soggy mess that passes off as paella here. It was imbued with the very simple but distinct flavors of the abundant seafood, chorizo and saffron. My disappointment in this paella was that it lacked socarrat, the slightly burnt crusty crunchy bits of rice at the bottom of the paella pan, one of the defining characteristics of good paella.

Layers of food.

The market itself was a festive but quaint affair. There were gluten-free cupcakes, a butcher selling cut and marinated meats, two friendly Australian women who tricked out their table in pink and turned it to a decadent tablescape of baked sugar and flour treats. Sandra Lee would be proud. Solymer, the Spanish purveyor responsible for cooking the paella, was also selling Jamón Iberico and wines. There were surprisingly more products that produce. Most of the stalls were selling the sort of gourmet products, like pasta and olive oil, that were more for stocking the pantry than the fresh fruit and vegetables I associate with a farmer’s market. I only saw one vendor selling vegetables.

Jamón Iberico

I would have thought that this would be the perfect occasion for our farmers (we actually have around 220 farms in Singapore) to showcase their produce and for us to shop and eat like a locavore. It is after all called a “farmers’ market,” but it was more like a small food fair.

Close up.

Bubbling up.

Gluten-free cupcakes.

More shots of paella, took along my new DSLR.

On the grill.

Finally the finished product, waited a long time for them to cook it.

The only vegetable vendor.

Wines.

The bottarga caught my eye.

Kids with guns and camo.

As I left the market, there was a group of Caucasian children sporting camo paint on their faces and armed with toy “laser tag” guns. Almost ten years ago, I was in that exact location dressed in my camouflaged army fatigues and armed with very real assault rifles. My unit, specifically Bravo Company was tasked as a quick reaction force for some World Bank or International Monetary Fund event.

We had just spent the night in the derelict buildings of the decommissioned Tanglin Camp on Loewen road and were waiting to load up on to our three-tonners for our ride back to camp.

I remember the men bitching and moaning about having drawn what was essentially glorified guard duty when we arrived the day before. We sat tight. We were just muscle if anything happened, boring but a necessary precaution.

It seemed that Bravo Company was always getting the short end of the stick. The other companies in the battalion were back at their bunks in camp, or at the canteen having it easy. But it was rare to be on an actually operation. (This was before / around the time of 9-11, before it became commonplace for units to conduct security operations.) And I think the men were inwardly proud to be entrusted with such a mission, although no one would have admitted it. Bravo Company had proven itself time and again that it was the best company in the regiment.  No doubt we were locked, cocked and ready to rock and roll if higher HQ ever pressed the button. 

The night was uneventful. The soldiers tried to sleep on the bare, dusty floors, at least there was a roof over our heads and the abandoned building was five-star accommodation compared to being out in the field. There were pockets of friends who talked into the night and there was always someone at the smoking area. The only excitement came from a car that got stuck in the ditch of the building we were housed in. 

An elderly couple had gotten lost and had asked us for directions. What they were doing here was beyond me. This was before the Dempsey area was developed. They attempted a U-turn on the narrow road and drove their car into the ditch. An officer, our company Second-In-Charge arrived at the scene and started shouting for a squad, I think it was the 84 mm recoilless rifle anti-tank section, to help push the vehicle out. I’m amazed how vividly I remember the incident now that I’m looking at that same road.

We assembled the next morning where those kids were, and started to load up onto our tonners for the ride back and a much-anticipated shower and duty rest. While waiting for the lead vehicle of our convey to move out, a car driven by an expatriate woman from one of the big colonial houses got in between my vehicle and another platoon’s. Someone joked (it might have been me) that we should lase the driver. A laser red-dot on the chest emanating from a M-16 would dissuade anyone from following. Anthony, a fellow sergeant, sitting across from me at the tailboard waved to get the lady’s attention. Then he pointed to the explosive sign hanging from the tailboard (which had to be displayed because of the ammunition with us.) Once she saw the explosion graphic on the sign, her eyes went big as dinner plates and she peeled out of there in double quick time. Even through the fog of fatigue from the lack of sleep (or because of it) we both started cracking up uncontrollably. And as I look at that exact place where it happened, I think back to those good old days and bad old ways.

I’m reminded of my time spent in the army and the company of some very fine men.

To the men of Bravo Company:

It’s been a privilege and honor to serve with you all. 

Go Go Go!

Loewen Gardens Farmers’ Market
75E Loewen Road, Tanglin Village
First Saturday of every month; from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Free
For information call: 64740441

Capping the Night: Tippling Club

PORT POACHED PINEAPPLE, textured yoghurt, spices, sweet herb puree.

I’ve been looking for a dessert place to replace my favorite post dinner hang-out; Will Goldfarb’s now defunct Room 4 Dessert and the sweet memories of the creations from Alex Stupak at wd-50 and Michael Laiskonis of Le Bernardin. It is as much a search for inventive, elegant and flawlessly executed desserts here in Singapore, as well as an easing of my yearning and associations of New York City, a place that I’ve left, but has never completely left me.

Unfortunately desserts at restaurants in Singapore are mostly a mere afterthought. The problem is that they often aren’t executed properly. I can’t even begin to count the times I’ve gotten misshapen quenelles. It says a lot about a pastry chef, and especially a pastry chef, who should excel in precision, to not perfect their technique. But the larger problem lies in our Singaporean mindset. Desserts are often uninspired. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen a fucking molten chocolate cake on menus. I don’t know if it’s a lack of imagination on our part, or that we take ourselves too seriously. Desserts should be fun and not boring.

MANDARIN ORANGE SEA SPONGE, pistachio crumble, matcha distillate & cilantro.

Which is why I love what chef Ryan Clift of Tippling Club (formerly of Melbourne’s Vue du Monde) does. He takes something ordinary, like yogurt and gives it personality, actually four personalities in his port poached pear dish with four textures of yogurt. Desserts made interesting. Thank you.

He has mischievous flair. I couldn’t help but chuckle when he introduced the next dish as a mandarin orange sea sponge because it did look like a sea sponge! Definitely something I would see on my dives. The sponge was delicate and airy, but packed the assertive aromatic flavor of a mandarin orange, perfect for Chinese New Year. What is truly amazing about the dish is how the sponge, which was the star of the show, and shine it did, perfectly shared the stage with the other cast of characters; the pistachio crumble, matcha distillate and cilantro. It takes considerable skill and sense to make those components sing in harmony and chef Clift pulls it off with verve.

SNOWBALL, sudachi, white chocolate, yuzu curd.

What I love about the desserts are that they are an exploration of texture. The sudachi snowball had an exciting effervescence, taking on the role of champagne, delightful and celebratory, it was fun to eat. I only wish that there were more sudachi flavor in the snowball. The yuzu curd though provided balance and body with its intoxicating hints of yuzu and assertive eggy taste.

PEAR TARTIN 2009, cinnamon puff pastry, caramel.

There are a couple items on the menu that are deconstructions of your typical dessert staples. There is a perfectly executed tiramisu but it’s too close to the original to stand out. The lemon tart is slightly better. The real show stealer and my favorite dessert is the pear tartin 2009. I couldn’t help but be charmed when I saw it. A “pear” sat on puff pastry crumble studded with hidden crispy caramel. The “pear” was actually a flavorful but clean brown butter sorbet encapsulated with a gel. It’s a simple yet effective trompe l’oeil. Perhaps the smartest move by chef Clift, was breaking down the pear tartin into its elemental parts, the pastry, pear and the brown butter it’s cooked in and showcasing the best (at least my favorite) part, the brown butter. What you get is an emphasis on the most delicious aspect of a pear tartin. 

LEMON TART, meringue, sable, lemon chips, clotted cream.

TIRAMISU 2009. The side of the mascarpone bowl melted while I took photos.

As I’m writing this I’m a little sad because they are going to change their menu soon. So no more pear tartin, but I’m excited too, to see what chef Clift and his new head chef Scott Huggins (formerly from Iggy’s) have up their sleeves. I was given a little preview of what’s to come. This one was a luscious soft chocolate ganache with various textures of chocolate. The plate was garnished with orange juice that had been concentrated to a syrupy consistency with some fancy shmancy lab equipment. The flavor was intense.

New Chocolate/Orange dessert. (Yeah I didn’t get the name…)

Drinks from mixologist/artist Matthew Bax are an equally magnetic draw. As a (former) bartender myself, I think there isn’t any other place in Singapore that serves such well-crafted, inventive and downright delicious libations. There is an attention to detail, like cracking their own ice, as well as a reverence for the barman’s tradition but it’s tempered with progressive technique borrowed from the culinary avant-garde movement. Like the food at Tippling Club, what makes their drinks stand out is the sense of whimsy and theatrics.

“Your book sir.” Us: Huh?

A few weeks ago I ordered a drink and a waiter delivered a book to the table. To much bemused WTF-ery, I finally opened the book and in it sat a bottle within a cut out compartment. What a great way to serve a Teacher’s Tipple, my only complaint was that there wasn’t enough of that delicious drink. There is a drink called Fuck the Subprime, funny name, unfortunately at $35, I haven’t tried it. One of my favorite drinks, the Kopi-O comes in clear takeaway plastic bags like those found at local coffee shops. The difference is that there is a rectangular glass beneath the bag so you can put your drink down, and your coffee shop version probably doesn’t come with aged rum and roasted banana maple.

TEACHERS TIPPLE, Spicy carrot whisky, honey ginger.

I don’t think I fully appreciated before how glassware affects the perception of the whole drinking experience. I took for granted that drinks are supposed to be served in your standard glasses, the martini, collins, flutes and rocks. But most drinks at Tippling Club are served in unique vessels that really change the experience. Just look at what Alinea is doing with its dining ware.

I won’t describe them all  and spoil the surprise. Experience it for yourself, they really are the best drinks in town, and I daresay it’s hard to find better anywhere else in the world. 

CHERRY CHERRY, effen black cherry vodka, vsop cognac, cherry heering, fresh cherries, citrus, champagne, absinth bitters, cherry bark.

Tippling Club

8D Dempsey Rd

Singapore 249672

Tel: 6475-2217

www.tipplingclub.com

Hours: cocktails, bites and desserts, Tuesday to Saturday, 6 p.m. till late. Best to call before you go. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Price range: Cocktails, $18 to $35; desserts, $18 to $20. Or if in a group, get chef Clift to organize a tasting menu for desserts.

 

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I’m including some pictures from two master classes I attended at Tippling Club under the banner of the Melbourne Temperance Society, which was founded by Matthew Bax in his Melbourne based Der Raum bar.

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On the Cutting Edge with Sosa 
Modern Food and Cocktails
14 May 2009, $85++

Reagents.

I’d been getting my ingredients for avant garde cuisine from Le Sanctuaire in the States, so I was excited that I could get them now in Singapore from Sosa though Euraco. Sosa brought in their executive chef Jordi Colomer to teach the techniques that would showcase their products. 

Looks like a cloud… a cloud of liquor.

The food was perfectly executed. Confirming what I thought was a top-notch kitchen team. (The first time I visited Tippling Club was during chef Wylie Dufresne’s World Gourmet Summit dinner. And the crew at Tippling Club executed Wylie Dufresne and Alex Stupak’s wd-50 menu to an exacting T. I was seriously impressed, especially since I was reading some not so good things about Tippling Club on the blog circuit.) But I have to admit, coming back to the Sosa master class that I preferred more “real” food. Desserts were amazing though and totally enjoyable. But perhaps the best thing that night was trying Matthew Bax’s cocktails. It was the start of my love affair with them.

Playing with liquid nitrogen.

Amuse bouche: Mango and bronze sphere.

Sosa executive chef Jordi Puigvert Colomer.

FOIE GRAS & PISTACHIO SANDWICH, light pear mayonnaise, goat cheese powder, porto caviar.

Paired with APPLES & PEARS, calvados, poire william, Italian vermouth, falernum, clove apple bubbles. 

CHICKEN HAMBURGER, fake potato truffle gnocchi, mushroom cous cous, raw almond prawn emulsion.

Paired with GIN PINE FIZZ, gin, pine, champagne & lemon

If the chinois was a definitive piece of equipment for modern cuisine, then the immersion blender is the post-modern equivalent.

MEDITERRANEAN FLAVORS, olive oil rosemary sponge cake, green apple foam, yoghurt, pine nut, mandarin lavender sorbet.

Paired with GREEN TEA AFFOGATO, nikka Japanese whisky, genmaicha green tea, matcha sorbet.

A layer of  “fog” forms as liquid nitrogen boils off.

COFFEE AND GOLDEN SPHERE, caramel, mascarpone, mango, passionfruit.

Paired with MOROCCAN AFTERNOON, espresso rum, passionfruit, crispy mint shard.

PETIT FOURS, pistachio raspberry crispies, chocolate, peta zetas

 

Cocktail Master Class with Sam Ross
Milk & Honey NYC
28 October 2009, $150++

Fizzy grapes. A Tippling Club signature.

Milk & Honey was a bar that I’ve always wanted to go to in New York. Unfortunately you need to make a reservation using a “secret” phone number. I finally got that number courtesy of Meredith, she deserves a shout out here. But it was my last week in New York and the bar was closed for renovation. So I was extremely psyched when Sam Ross, their head bartender was doing a master class with the Melbourne Temperance Society. The drinks where phenomenal, there was a particularly gorgeous one, the Rebel Champagne, it was a velvety, sensual dessert-in-a-glass without being cloying or heavy. My only complaint was that the class was pretty dumb-ed down for the non-bartenders (everyone but me.) Still Sam tailored bits of the class to talk about refinement of the bartender’s art. In those short minutes I learnt more than in the last few years. Very informative and inspirational.

Char-grilled peppers (black from squid ink) miso soy dip. Another signature.

It was also at that event that I tried chef Clift’s food (as opposed to a guest chef’s) for the first time. I was particularly impressed with his bourbon coulant dessert. It was like a molten chocolate cake that I hate to see on menus turned upside down. The honey and white chocolate made a very interesting flavor combination. It could almost be mistaken for butterscotch, especially since it was off white in color and not dark like chocolate. Cold, white, chocolate but not, it was a refreshing and delicious take the molten chocolate cake cliché. I felt it was a jab at all the uninspired chefs who allow such garbage on their menu. It made the dessert even more enjoyable. 

The man: Sam Ross

PENICILLIN, j&b scotch, lemon juice, ginger honey syrup, caol ila float.

Paired with SCALLOP TARTARE, honey film, peaty caviar.

DON”T MIND IF I DO JULEP, bourbon, calvados, demerara syrup, mint.

Paired with MINT CONFIT SKATE, bourbon bacon, peas, lettuce.

GORDON’S CUP, tanqueray gin, simple syrup, lime chunks, cucumber.

Paired with GIN SPICED PORK, pancakes, green apple gel, sour apple chips.

Sam Ross preparing his Rebel Champagne. Just a gorgeous drink.

REBEL CHAMPAGNE, bourbon, liqour 43, henriot champagne, honey syrup, egg yolk.

Paired with BOURBON COULANT, nitro honey, white chocolate fluid.

It too has a liquid (cold) chocolate interior. 

No J. Tastes exactly like orange juice, but without any juice. Made by chef Clift in collaboration with a lab.

Did that box just say ass?

Ahahahaha

I was coming out of the gym on Monday and Cold Storage was having a sale on the ground floor of Novena. This box, out of the hundreds of items, caught my eye, and I wasn’t really even looking! Yes it reads ASSES. I initially wanted to just take a picture of it with my camera phone. But it was too funny to not try. So I bought it. They’re actually pretty decent. It’s buttery and crisp. I wish there was more chocolate, but nothing a smearing of nutella can’t solve. $5.50 from Cold Storage. Also available in vanilla white chocolate. It has to be chocolate with a name like that right?

I subsequently noticed the couque, how do you pronounce that?

Cock da asses?

It’s a crass post, but it’s good to change things up once in a while.

Like a bumhole they have chocolate in the middle.