Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The New Yorker Food Issue - Calvin Trillin takes on Singapore

The New Yorker talks about all things food in this fortnight's issue, and in it is a heartfelt and hilarious laugh-a-minute piece by my favorite writer Calvin Trillin and his adventures in my favorite country, Singapore! So when he told me he was going to my hometown to eat the food I grew up noshing, on the day I was star-struck at Singapore Day, he wasn't lying!

To critics of Singapore's hawker system, who believe that street food only tastes sanitary, but not authentic in hawker centers, Mr Trillin offers this insight:

"For years as I've walked past food stands in foreign lands, I've struggled to keep in mind that for an American visitor the operational translation for signs that ostensibly say something like "bhel puri" or " tacos de nopales" is "Delivery System for Unfamiliar Bugs That You Will Bitterly Regret Having Ingested."... Gathering food venders into hawker centers, ..., meant that a Western visitor not only can have a safe shot at a variety of Singaporean delicacies but can do so in a setting so convenient that his energy is reserved for eating."
Take that, you hawker center detractors! Even locals do not have iron clad stomachs, so indeed the hawker center is a boon to all eaters of Singapore food.

I've loved Calvin Trillin's writing ever since I picked up an old copy of Alice, let's eat! , and to read his take on Singapore, the system, the people, and last but not least the food that we are all hungry for is an extraordinary treat. His description of the culinarily homesick Singaporean, whose first stop after a 15 hour transcontinental plane ride is not home but to Geylang/Newton/East Coast Park for their favorite local food fix is so evocative and so personal I couldn't help but laugh out loud, to the shock of the other patrons in the Korean restaurant where I was reading/supping. Mine happens to be Qiu Lian Ban Mian, and I do not even need to leave the airport for it. What's yours?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

XO Kitchen

Poor Mark. First, I overpromised and failed to deliver on bbqed sambal stingray. Luckily for my reputation, our dinner wasn't completely ruined and Sanur sans stingray was still a hit with Auntie Hui, Uncle Sam and Mark who are in the city for a college tour. Then, weaving through the side streets of Chinatown, we then visited XO Kitchen for dessert and I managed to cajole Mark into ordering the Japanese deep fried ice-cream, thinking he'll enjoy the hot and cold contrast. WORST DECISION EVER.
Now ladies and gentlemen, please please whatever you do avoid #215 on XO's expansive menu. First of all, the plate of ice-cream was inexplicably adorned with a slice of tomato and cucumber and coleslaw. Perfectly respectable sides for a plate of say, fried calamari. But with ice cream? WRONG.
And the ice cream could have well been calamari, if not for the icy chunks of insipidly sweet ice cream in the middle of the severely battered balls that tasted of old oil. We all took a stab at ID-ing the flavor of the rapidly melting puddle of pink milk soup and halfheartedly agreed that it was supposed to be red bean. Thank goodness everyone else had much better luck.
That being said, I'm not trying to dissuade anyone from going to XO. In fact, I've enjoyed multiple meals there, including good desserts, such as a cool creamy coconut pudding and sweet steamed egg custards. I've recommended this place to friends too, who've enjoyed their congees and steamed rice crepes (perfect for a post wisdom tooth extraction dinner) But on a menu that stretches over 200 dishes, all I can say is that food can be terribly inconsistent, from good to pure HUH? But at such rock bottom prices, it doesn't hurt to try. But, avoid #215!

XO Kitchen
148 Hester St

p.s.: I only like this branch. Avoid the other branch off Centre St like plague...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Boston in 30

Boston in 30 hours. That doesn't seem like a lot of time at all, but yet I managed to fit in 3 square meals with a couple of dessert breaks thrown in for good measure. Of course, I can't claim credit for doing it alone. I had help from 3 ladies, who happily allowed me to dictate our dining schedule for a good day and a half. My partners in crime:

Ruoying, Wanling & Gerrie, aka the Superstar, her Assistant & the Manager

We refueled at Taiwan Cafe, a convenient 2 blocks away from the bus station. This is the place to go for a filling, honest chinese breakfast when in Boston. We dunked fresh fried dough fritters into bowls of sweet soy milk, mixed up a big bowl of slithery noodles topped with thick brown meat sauce and scalded our tongues gobbling up plump soup dumplings.

After checking into the coolly decorated Nine Zero Hotel located a stone's throw away from Boston Common, we engaged in some non-food activities, like wetting our feet in the Frog's pond, smelling roses in the beautifully manicured Public Garden, walking the length of Newbury Street, trying out clothes in Filenes Basement and crossing the Charles River to Cambridge, home to MIT and Harvard universities. Very soon, it was dinner time at the Cambridge branch of Legal Seafoods in the Charles Hotel.
Legal Seafoods is a Boston chain, and as much as I try to avoid chains, the seafood here is pretty stellat. Nothing says summertime like a lobster roll does, and so I had one that shared the plate with nondescript fries and coleslaw.

At $20, its definitely a fancy kind of sandwich, but the roll was toasted, buttered and then stuffed with fresh and succulent lobster meat loosely bound with mayo and a minimal amount of celery as filler. It was an extremely satisfying but messy meal. Cioppino is a great choice for someone looking for more variety, coming with a lobster claw, shrimp, clams and big, sweet mussels in a hearty tomato broth.

You know how sometimes you eat too much that you have no room for dessert? That was us. Well, almost. We declined dessert at Legals and had reached the hotel before decided it was far too early to call it a night. So we traipsed down to Finales in the theater district for a fitting end to our first day in Boston.
The Fantasia Plate is a smorgasbord of minature fruit accented desserts. Unfortunately, the names sounded prettier than the food tasted and the success of the multiple dishes was mixed. I liked the creamy orange creme caramel, was indifferent about the strawberry tart and peach mousse slices, thought the chocolate basket with crispy things inside and white chocolate petals with butter cream and blueberries were pretty and pretty superfluous and downright avoided the gunky rice cement.
Luckily the signature molten chocolate cake saved the day, with a rich gooey chocolate cake paired with coffee gelato and addictive caramelized walnuts that brought some smokiness and salt to balance the dish.

Day 2 in Boston and we had plenty of ground to cover. The Freedom Trail beckoned, as did the entertaining street performers at Quincy Market doing dare-devil stunts in return for applause and some singles. Lunch was a quick and simple affair at Wagamama. Yes, in New York we have Momofuku, but in Boston there's Wagamama, which the additional clout of being part of an international chain first becoming popular in the UK before spreading ramen fever to continental Europe and Australia.
I must say the noodles were a little too tender for my taste, and I found the broth of my spicy miso beef ramen too one-note. I however enjoyed the tenderness of the quality beef, and Ruoying's complex spicy beef ramen broth that was salty, spicy and sourish at once. The fruit juices too were very yummy and sippable.

A few hundred feet away from Fanueil Hall and Quincy Market is the North End, also known as Boston's little Italy. Pastry shops are dime in a dozen, but Mike's Pastry is where the action's at judging from the crowds that spill over onto the sidewalk.

The shop operates on a mode of organized chaos. There are no lines at the counter. You just shuffle your way to the front of the counter and catch the countermen's eye. Then you select your cannoli, baba rums, eclairs, tiramisus, cheesecake, mousses, cookies, marzipan fruit to go. Or you can keep and eye out for one of the 10 tables in the shop to clear, park yourself there ASAP and wait for a stressed out looking but highly efficient waitress to serve you. Or do as we did, the hybrid way, getting the pastries in a to go box, then somehow managing to grab a seat, and then ordering coffee from the server. Whatever method works best in this crazy place.

We were really impressed with the dense, moist chocolate fudge cake and the peanut brittle like flavor of the cannoli shell. The Florentine cannoli was indeed redolent of burnt sugar, nuts and filled with cool, slightly grainy ricotta cheese and the best cannoli I've ever had. The cappuccino had a rich creamy foam and great with the decadent pastries. Sitting there in the midst of the cannoli buying maelstrom, we were an unexpected oasis of calm.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Chicago recap

Besides Orange, these were a few other places I ate while in Chicago last weekend:

Phoenix Restaurant
One of the few banquet restaurants in Chinatown, Phoenix is justly popular for the largest and freshest selection of dim sum in the Chicago metropolitan area. A table for five at 11am on Sunday morning requires a 45 minute wait, so be early or be prepared to spend some time lingering in the lobby. My girlfriends and I fed each other with months, years worth of gossip as we noshed on classic dishes: bouncy shrimp in the har gow, chewy lotus paste filled jian dui, yam cake squares with crispy fried edges. While I reconnected with friends, I also introduced Kathy and Maggie to TPS and Kayla. We've always thought that Phoenix was pricey for dim sum, but after the bill only came up to $10 per person, we realized it was the inclusion of boys with big appetites that pushed up the tabs during previous meals. So from now on, dim sum is an all girls affair.

Joy Yee's
I don't really care for its brusque service and the MSG laden food, but Joy Yee's does serve the best fruit shakes. UofC alum who've had many late night suppers at Joy Yee's will be glad to know that despite moving to a larger space close to the center of the same complex (yes, the coming soon signs finally came off), the shakes are still as good as ever. They definitely do not stint on the fresh fruit and my lychee-mango shake was fragrant with the perfume of lychee and yielded stringy mango pulp as I sucked up the juice via an extra large straw. Tapioca pearls here remain large and chewy, none of those mini undercooked crap found at Joy Yee's.

Tango Sur
Midwesterners are reputed to be meat and potatoes type of people, so it should be no surprise a BYOB Argentine steakhouse like Tango Sur thrives in the Lakeview district. This is Peishan's go-to place whenever visitors come into town, and do the flavorful steak and mild prices wow guests. We sat outdoors on the balmy night, on a wide sidewalk that would make any New York restauranter green with envy and shared a bottle of red wine Jon, one of TPS's friends brought. Spicy and minerally were terms the wine afficionados thrown out as they swirled and sipped. We split a saganaki-like melted cheese appetizer that paired well with the warm, crusty rolls and a stuffed portobello that unfortunately suffered from an overdose of tomato sauce. 2 large chunks of filet mignon came in our El Filet entree shared between TPS and I, presented with a nice char and on top of wine sauce, as well as garlicky spinach mashed potatoes. The meat, while rather nondescript in flavor was tender, bursting in juices and the red wine sauce added oomph to the taste. Her friends shared an assortment of sausages, sweetbreads and meat served on a table top grill, enough meat for a family of five but shared amongst only 2 men. Needless to say, we rolled out of the restaurant many hours later very sated and satisfied. Once again, Peishan outdid herself.

Friends, food and fun. This almost makes the painful airport shenanigans bearable and has me looking forward to the next visit to Chicago!

Phoenix Restaurant (2131 S Archer Ave, Chicago)
Joy Yee's (2159 S China Place, Chicago)
Tango Sur (3763 N Southport Ave, Chicago)

Friday, August 17, 2007


Just like in New York, brunch is a big deal in Chicago, and people are not afraid to wait for it. Orange in the lakeview area is one such place where brunch devotees congregate, where clumps of people form along the sidewalk and happily wait for their names to be called. Peishan, Kayla and I were there at 11am last Saturday, unearthly by New York standards but mightly late in Chicago. We put our names down, headed back to Peishan's loft just around the corner to check out Peiyun's wedding photos, went back to wait some more, and were finally seated a little before 1230pm. Peishan even gave a little hop and skip when the hostess mercifully called for us.
Like its young, tanned and generally thin clientele, Orange exudes a fun, hip vibe. The orange (at this point it gets a little trite) walls creates a cheerful setting for a nice big meal while the very high ceilings and well spaced tables help keep the noise level comfortable. The juice bar is the focus in the main dining room, and an enormous juicer works double time making fresh squeezed fruit juice. Coffee is poured as we pore over the menu of innovative eats, smelling and tasting like orange, as these beans have been roasted with orange essence. Funky more than tasty. Frushi, or fresh cut fruit on sushi rice was another gimmick we did not fall for.
The brunch dishes were eclectic, huge and in general pretty good. My eggs benedict were smothered in a basil flecked hollandaise sauce and the perfectly runny poached eggs sandwiched between to thick slices of tomato. Instead of ham, the eggs sit on barely melted pieces of milky mozzarella. What was my eggs benedict channeling? A caprese salad!got it?
Kayla's plate of coconut french toast kebab looked like a CSI crime scene, with the fruits bleeding passion fruit and raspberry blood. But the fresh mango, pineapple and strawberry slices were just tart enough to balance the sweetness of the coconut crusted brioche, which in turn did an admirable job of soaking up fruit purees. All she needed was a margarita to feel like she was on a beach in the Carribean. My favorite dish however was Peishan's green eggs and ham. Scrambled eggs and pesto is for me a new flavor combination I will forever keep and employ at home, and the generous chunks of ham didn't hurt, adding savoriness to the heap of fluffy eggs. With all these and other intriguing dishes, like a daily flight of silver dollar pancakes dolled up in various styles and chai-tea flavored french toast, no wonder people line up here.

3231 N Clark St (bet Aldine & Belmont Aves

Monday, August 13, 2007


Soba-ya is one of my East Village standbys, and for very good reason. Comfortable seating, good prices, polite service and most importantly pitch perfect buckwheat noodles, made-in-house and begging to be dipped in sauce and slurped aloud. However, while the place is not exactly a hole-in-the-wall, its not big either and waits, especially on weekend nights can border on egregious. One way to game the system is to come in for lunch, where I found myself some weekends back with a group of friends.

Most of my companions were taken with the price-buster of a bento set. For a ridiculously low price of $15, you get, not only an expertly made serving of nutty, chewy soba, you are also served a lacquer-box filled with 4 food types: salad, nimono (stewed root vegetables) , agemono (tempura) and yakimono (for that day, a slice of teriyaki salmon), on top of pickles and dessert. I found myself lusting over the tempura, the shrimp and vegetables showing through a crisp and light coat of batter.
Besides the bento set and bowls of soba and udon (also made in house), diners can choose from a multitude of noodles + rice combos as well as a daily special (Chirashi soba, with the ingredients artistically fanned out on of a mound of noodles in a large ceramic bowl). A fan of fish roe, I had to get the salmon + roe ricebowl + soba combo. For a non-sushi place, Soba-ya serves really fresh fish, and I absolutely adore the burst of brininess with each bite of the glistening salmon roe pearls. The salty rice, and the austere zaru soba make for a contrasting but good meal.
We washed down our lunches with leftover sauce and the soba water, left over from the cooking process and dug into the complimentary desserts, precious little pots of eggy custard. With noodles this good, who needs eggs for brunch?


229 E 9th St (Bet 2nd & 3rd Aves)

Thursday, August 09, 2007


For the residents of Hells Kitchen, Bis.Co.Latte offers a welcome alternative from Starbucks, with free wifi in a cheerily neon room, as well as a friendly proprietress and her employees serving up Illy coffee in real hefty cups and freshly baked pastries that are small but packed with flavor. The house specialty are solid sticks of crunchy biscotti, all 15 or so types on each given day. Besides biscotti, gelato seems to be a popular menu item on a hot summer day, and customers sitting next to me were raving about the fragrant vanilla bean and refreshing mint chocolate gelato. Visitors can sample the whole array of biscotti generously laid out near the counter, ranging from the regular almond studded variety to a savory red wine and pepper biscotti that was hot and spicy, and even a carob one that your puppy could eat and would love. My favorites are a chocolate chunk espresso one that's great dipped in a cup of strong coffee, and a fruity but balanced apricot and almond biscotti, with chewy chunks of dried fruit providing textural contrast to the crispy, twice baked treat. Yummy. Prices are also fair at only $0.85 per cookie and a whole pound for $15. I brought a bag to work and thought a good 20 sticks was a lot. But a pound was not too much at all when your co-workers like it as much as I did. In less than 2 hours, we had nothing left but the plastic bag.

667 10th Ave (Bet 46th & 47th St)

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Arte Around the Corner

Of the neighborhoods I frequent in the city, the upper west side ranks highest in terms of baked goods. While the rest of the city sleeps in on weekends, the upper westsiders and eastsiders, typically a more mature bunch with children in tow are up and about by 9-10 am, hitting Fairway and the other supermarkets for cooking ingredients and on the lookout for breakfast and strong coffee. There are fewer generic bagel chains and more independent bakeries, and Arte around the Corner is one such shop, simultaneously a specialty store for Italian foodstuffs and purveyor of very gooey and addictive pastries and cakes. This morning, a honey and blueberry loaf looked extremely attractive on the cake stand, with pristine blueberries lined uniformly in the crack of the loaf cake like a row of edible buttons. I picked another honey-flavored item, a honey and fig muffin. Unlike regular muffins, it was a lot moister, the crumbs were less compact and suffused with the heady scent of honey. The muffin is not perfectly dome shaped, as the more liquid batter ran over the baking tin, rendering crispier bits that linked one muffin from the other. I picked up chunks of fresh figs in each bite, the caramelized fruit contributing to the overall stickiness of the muffin, sticky enough to have to lick my fingers afterwards. The muffin is paired with a potent cup of coffee. Not a bad start to Sunday at all.

Arte Around the Corner
274 Columbus Ave (73rd St)

Saturday, August 04, 2007


There is a reason why people do not make late dinner plans on a Monday night, regardless of how hot the restaurant is and how perfect the food is. The thing is, after a long day easing into the workweek, especially when you have to wake up at 5am the next day to make it into the office come Tuesday, you really do not have the mood to eat multiple courses and enjoy yourself like you would on Friday night. So under that premise, I must say that my meal at Babbo was less than I expected.
Of all the restaurants I've ever visited, Babbo, by virtue of its innovative Italian menu, modest prices and the fame of its owner Mario Batali, is by far the most difficult to get into. To get a table, be prepared to call one month in advance, at the strike of 10am, and be prepared to press redial multiple times. Rosie was probably put on hold for about 30 mins before she scored a table for 4 on a Monday night for Yanru's belated birthday dinner. That evening, we met in the restaurant, and huddled in one corner of the extremely crowded bar area, cramped full with diners without reservations (another way to score a seat without having to go through the trouble of making the calls). We were dismayed to find ourselves having to wait an extra 15-20 mins for the table before us to clear out, given it was 915 pm, we've been up since 5am for some of us, and were starving. The hostess though, did try to offer some help by bringing glasses of water to us while we waited.
Once we were seated, things did improve. For one, the upper floor where we were seated was much mellower than the circus downstairs, and the townhouse setting was urbane and warm. Water glasses were filled and chewy Italian peasant bread brought to us while we contemplated the menu, finally settling for 2 appetizers to share and a pasta each. Appetizers came fairly swiftly, an artfully presented plate of fresh salted sardines served with a cool caramelized fennel salad that I could not get enough of, and an exotic sounding Lamb's Tongue Vinaigrette with morel mushrooms and a 3 minute egg that was more cooked than poached. Yanru swooned over the unique flavors of the dish, although the rest of us were slightly more ambivalent and lamb's tongue, well tastes like beef tongue but gamier, but nothing ventured, nothing gain!
The pastas took some time to arrive but when they did, they were very good. I really enjoyed my black tangle of squid ink spaghetti, cooked al dente and tossed with fresh rock shrimp and spicy pancetta. I loved that the pancetta did not overwhelm the more subtle sweetness of the shrimp and the slivers of green chile provided extra heat. Rosie's spaghetti with tomato sauce, lobster and chives took me by surprise. While my dining companions were not too impressed by the ordinariness of the tomato sauce, I loved the introduction of subtly garlicky chives- which I only associate with chinese pork dumplings- enhancing the natural sweetness of the lobster flesh. It would have been even better if the tomato sauce was less sweet and more acidic. I went home thinking about the dish and ways to recreate it, given its simplicity. Yanru's beef cheek ravioli is probably the most complicated, with the winy braised beef cheeks shredded and stuffed into large packets and served with trace amounts of truffle oil. Very tasty but more a fall dish than summer one. Fennie's orecchiette was perhaps the most disappointing as it was more chewy than the rest of the pastas and bordered on undercooked. The sausage and broccoli rabe combination also played with sweet, bitter and spicy flavors but seemed more traditional and thus less impressive.
We skipped dessert as it was 11pm by the time we finished our entrees, and no one (except me) was in the mood to linger over coffee and dessert. What a waste though, because the dessert menu and our neighbors' plates looked fantastic. Oh well, I'll just have to come back another time.
When friends asked me about my dinner at Babbo, I told them that the food was good, but maybe not worth the effort of making endless calls and taking ridiculous timeslots for a meal (915 was great compared to the 1030 or 11 pm times they've offered for weekends). However, despite all that, I may find myself calling one of these days, 30 days in advance of a weekend night and eat again, this time not having to fear missing my bedtime, for the desserts that I've missed and the great pasta that is to be eaten.

110 Waverly Place