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An Asian Eating Adventure


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#31 BryanZ

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Posted 24 July 2009 - 09:36 AM

I'm curious about how you managed to order, since it sounds like you don't speak either Thai or Vietnamese.  Do street vendors know any English?  Does everybody recognize you right away as American, or where to they think you're from?

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Indeed, we speak neither Thai nor Vietnamese. Japan wasn't a problem because, well, my mother is Japanese, and my sister and I understand enough to just barely get by. In Singapore most people speak English, as it is one of the four official languages.

As for being recognized as a tourist, my mother, kind of, blends in. Whereas people would immediately assume my sister and I spoke English, she would often be addressed in the native language. And as an extension of this Asian vs. Westerner discussion, more than a few people found our mixed race look quite interesting and weren't shy about telling us as much. Generally flattering, but kind of weird, too.

Ordering had its ups and downs, in selecting dishes and inquiring about prices. Much pointing was employed and many fingers were used to numerically sign out prices. The iPhone also made several appearances as a means to display numbers electronically. This would be especially useful in bargaining for the generally useless souvenirs my mother insisted on purchasing.

At least with street vendors it's not as if there's a huge range of items to choose from, and most restaurants had a dusty, old copy of a picture menu, some with translations that they scrounged up for us.

#32 BryanZ

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Posted 24 July 2009 - 11:43 AM

Saigon, Vietnam, cont'd.

As has apparently become a trend, it was street food by day and restaurant by night. We shied away from Saigon's pricier, fine-dining spots as we'd have options for this kind of eating in Singapore and, obviously, Japan. Instead we chose a well regarded, if somewhat off-the-beaten-track restaurant specializing in central Vietnamese food, a regional cuisine I'd not yet experienced.

A cab ride from District 1 into District 3 brought us to Ngu Vien on Ky Dong. Rather than sit in the open-air dining rooms presumably for locals, we were led to the luxurious air conditioned dining room on the upper floor complete with fine stemware and wine rack.

Clearly trying for that elusive Michelin star.
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It seems impossible to start a Vietnamese meal without an assortment of rolled items. We chose some classics, but also a couple completely new dishes.

Deep fried hue
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A useless transliteration here, well, besides the deep fried part. Hue is the largest city in central Vietnam, so perhaps this like its version of the spring roll. It was good. Something like a crispy shell filled with a pork-shrimp mousse.

Grilled pork rolled in rice noodles
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Can't get enough.

Steamed "power" rice with shrimp
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Again, something was lost in translation here. We were imagining something like cheung fun that you might get at dim sum. This was more rice paper-y, and filled with semi-dried shrimp. So, not what we were expecting but not that bad. My mother, however, was not a fan; you've just got to adjust your expectations and it was an interesting dish.

Chao tom
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Sugarcane shrimp is a dish that should be more popular in the US, I think. I'd seen it on the occasional menu before, but it's got a lot of appeal. A light shrimp loaf is shaped around sugarcane sections, then grilled. With some nuoc cham, the flavor profile is almost teriyaki like, sweet and salty. Take some shrimp, some greenery, wrap in rice paper. I quite enjoyed. One can gnaw on the sugar cane afterward for a bit of a sweet palate cleanser.

Jackfruit salad
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Served warm and surprisingly not really sweet at all. Served with these addictive sesame crackers--nearly identical to Japanese senbe--it was quite the scoop and eat experience.

Grilled lemongrass chicken with fried sticky rice cake
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Finally a lemongrass dish that had enough lemongrass flavor. There were boneless pieces of thigh and breast, as well as a couple wings. The rice cakes were almost like deep fried mochi, just not quite so glutinous and filling. I quite liked them. The careful observer will also note how they're shaped like hearts.

Steamed rice
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But so much more. This dish is called com sen and is a specialty at Ngu Vien. It's rice, steamed in a fresh lotus leaf, with seeds and bits of pork. So subtle, but so nice. Probably the best rice dish of the trip.

Fish braised in clay pot
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Cha ko to is another famous Vietnamese dish. Apparently this clay pot cooking style is quite common, though the fish version is where the action is. The braising liquid is effectively water, soy sauce, sugar, Asian aromatics, and fish sauce. As the proportion of fatty fish to braising liquid is quite high the whole things gets very rich and sticky. This is the kind of comforting dish that's all about spooning over rice, though it would be wise to share, as it was this portion was more than the three of us could finish after the preceding dishes.

After this comforting dish we retired to the arguably even more comforting confines of our beds at the Park Hyatt. Seriously soft sheets, fyi. As in Hanoi, day two would bring another street food extravaganza.

Edited by BryanZ, 24 July 2009 - 11:53 AM.


#33 BryanZ

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Posted 26 July 2009 - 04:48 PM

Saigon, Vietnam, cont'd.

Saigon is home to one of the world's largest Chinatowns. Located in District 5, it's a bit of a hike from the tourist center of District 1 and feels like a completely different city. It lacks the dingy charm of Hanoi's Old Quarter but instead repackages Saigon's big city energy in an even more frenetic package.

Interspersed between the chaos of buzzing motorbikes and waves of delivery boys piloting precariously laden hand carts are little pockets of solitude in the form of Buddhist temples. Located just fifty yards back from the street, these temples give this area of Saigon an air of somber mystery.

Temple courtyard
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Burning incense
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Immediately after I noted, "Wow, these things are dangerous. They must drop hot ash on everyone," said ash promptly fell on my head and singed my hair. Awesome.

Offering room
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Just a cool shot, I think.

As peaceful as these temples were, Chinatown's Binh Tay Market was chaotic. This is a true local's market; in place of cheap tourist goods were sections devoted everyday staples like toiletries and socks. More my speed. The food stalls that ran down one length of the market were also far less touristy. No hawkers, no menus, just a real working class place to grab some good food for cheap.

Banh mi stall
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I freaking love banh mi. They're like an obsession for me. High- and low-brow, I enjoy them all. I sampled a wide variety of banh mi on this trip, from super simple offerings with nothing but suspicious looking pate smeared on baguette to fast-food renditions to a few stall offerings like this one. With that said, I guess my American sensibilities prefer the overstuffed, overdressed renditions we have here. Momofuku's recently retired banh mi and the (presumably Cambodian) offerings are Numpang in NYC remain my standard bearers. I also make a fine American-style banh mi if I say so myself.

Banh mi interior shot
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Which isn't to say that the banh mi Vietnam weren't enjoyable. And considering my NYC favorites are at least seven times more expensive, these made the perfect snack.

Noodle soup
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We scattered in the food stall area so as to try as many things as possible. As a result, I didn't order this. It was quite good though once I got around to trying it. Thicker noodles than one sees in most Vietnamese noodle dishes. The fish cake was also much more subtle than the Japanese versions I grew up eating.

Noodles with spring roll
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Can I call this a pasta salad? Two types of room temperature noodles in a light sauce were topped with pieces of chopped spring roll. This cutting before serving when dealing with larger spring rolls (i.e., anything but little cha gio) was quite common.

Steamed rice noodle with pork and crispy shallot
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In Vietnam it's quite common to see thin sheets of rice noodle being steamed over squares of cloth tightly drawn over bubbling stockpots. This was different, however. It was as if the rice noodle batter was poured into a hotel pan to a depth of an inch or two. This custardy, gelatinous, super thick noodle-cake was then topped with ground pork and crispy shallots. Scooped, dressed with soy sauce, and served.

Having ambled through Binh Tay and sampled the local cuisine, more local cuisine was in order. Breakfast straight into lunch. What else is new? It's worth nothing we ate at Binh Tay was more than a dollar or two.

Another long taxi ride that spanned a good section of the city's north-to-south axis brought us to the Lunch Lady at 23 Hoang Sa. I first heard about this place on the No Reservations Vietnam episode. A little bit of Googling led me to the aforementioned Gastronomy blog and, as we all know by now, a wealth of information on eating in Hanoi and Saigon. Anyway, the Lunch Lady's story can be read here.

Lunch Lady and her kingdom
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I mentioned 23 Hoang Sa as a street address, but really the Lunch Lady--real name: Nguyen Thi Thanh--oversees this little courtyard in a relatively quiet section in Saigon. This seems to be a family affair and is surely run like one. One of the Thanh's apparent associates runs a small sweets area maybe 10 yards away. On this particular day her toddler son was using one of the serving utensils to poke at one of the square's resident dogs. Testing his mother's patience a bit too much, said utensil was then used to effectively discipline the young lad. I can only imagine the utensil then went back to original purpose, handling foodstuffs, without anything so pesky and time consuming as a wash under (the non-existent) running water. Another only-in-Vietnam moment.

The day's offering
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A deep, funky broth of pork and seafood. This was seriously complex stuff. Crispy shallots and slices of pork liver only upped the bold flavor quotient. A nice shrimp, some pork, and a quail egg rounded out the meal. This labor of love is doled out at the ridiculous price of about $0.75. So, so, so, so cheap.

After another brief temple stop, this time to watch the rather disturbing practice of feeding live goldfish to turtles as some kind of offering, we decided to eat some crab. Here, there was a bit of confusion, as the restaurant Quan 94 occupies two storefronts, just yards apart, at 94 and 85 Dinh Tien Hoang. Two outposts, consumer deception, who knows? In the end, I figure their wares can't have been that different.

Quan 94, one of the two
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Frying station
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An old lady fries the crabs to order. The presumably less delicate stir-frying operations were left to her much younger employee.

Crab and vermicelli noodles
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Mien xao cua is a simple but quite delicious dish. As one might expect the noodles suck up the crab juices and give the dish a subtle crabby perfume.

Deep-fried soft shell crabs
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Served with sweet-sour tamarind dipping sauce, seen in the back. Rather expensive by Vietnamese standards but the quality of crab was good. Crisp outer shell, custardy crab body, not leathery. Nice, but quite rich.

Our next stop was another open-air restaurant first brought to my attention by No Reservations, Banh Xeo 46a at 46a Dinh Cong Trang. Banh xeo are a favorite of mine, the perfect melding of East with just a bit of West. One gets a distant relative of the crepe, but with more egg and more crispiness and Asian fillings.

Banh xeo exterior
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If I'm being honest, I'd take banh xeo or dosa over a French crepe on most days. Yeah, I went there.

Banh xeo interior
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Deliciousness.

Cha gio
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Really excellent specimen here. Freshly fried, amazingly crisp. Large enough to be just a bit luscious on the inside, giving rise to an even greater contrast between exterior and interior. Wrapping the cha gio in the assorted green also provided made them even better.

Strange gelatin dessert with almond milk
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I'm not a big fan of Asian desserts like this in general. Served chilled with dubious shaved ice. The one annoying thing about dining in Vietnam is that diners are seemingly nickled and dimed (literally, we're talking not more than 20 cents per item here and there, but it's the principle that I'm opposed to). Things that are assumed to be free in the US might be 4000-6000 dong here. In this case, this dessert was just passed out to all diners regardless of whether it was ordered or not and with no explanation. The widespread charge for napkins and beer nuts was also a source of endless amusement.

Edited by BryanZ, 26 July 2009 - 05:18 PM.


#34 Anna N

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Posted 26 July 2009 - 05:23 PM

Bryan,

Although almost all the dishes have enormous appeal, it's the Cha Gio that has me salivating on my keyboard! Thank you once again for so generously sharing your experiences with us.
Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

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#35 BryanZ

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Posted 26 July 2009 - 06:00 PM

Saigon, Vietnam, cont'd.

After a full day of eating and an early flight the next morning we supposedly were looking for a light, stress-free dinner convenient to our hotel. We got the stress-free and convenient parts down fine, but the meal wasn't quite so light as we were perhaps imagining. Oh well, here's to excess.

If I'm a sucker for local fast food, then a heavily branded, fast food banh mi shop was but a sure thing. A little appetizer, if you will.

Assembly line
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Unfortunately I forget the name of this place. Notice how clean and Subway-like the production area is.

Meatball banh mi
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Less meatball, more pate, this was pretty solid.

Mixed cold cut banh mi
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A banh mi with a variety of cold cuts. In this case, not as much deli meat as processed, pseudo-charcuterie. This was the yummier, meatier of the two. Each was less than a dollar.

After this little snack we headed to Wrap and Roll for aforementioned convenient meal. Part of me wants to say our meal at this mini-chain was disappointing, a poor facsimile of real Vietnamese street cuisine. The problem is that it wasn't. It was actually quite good. The execution of some of the dishes we had surpassed similar offerings at, say, Quon An Ngon. What Wrap and Roll lacked were the more atypical regional specialties we found at other restaurants or less corporate restaurants. There was hardly anything here we hadn't seen before, but what we had was really tasty. Not sure if that sinks my credibility, but as I've found in other countries with a proud, long-standing food culture even the chains put out some interesting, solid grub. Unfortunately the same can't quite be said in the US.

Wrapped pho
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This very good version of pho cuon had some really delicious braised beef going on. The anise flavor of the braising liquid really came through.

Minced beef wrapped in leaves
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I want to say these were grape leaves or else the flavor was very similar. They weren't pandan leaves, as that flavor is more distinct, less, well, grape leafy.

Shrimp cake, wrapped in crispy rice cake (I think)
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I'm honestly at a loss as the specifics of this dish. I was kind of apathetic about the meal going in so didn't pay as much attention as usual in the ordering process. It was good, though.

Grilled chicken wrapped in pandan leaf
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The leaves and grilling process gave the chicken a faint herby, bitter note that was quite pleasant. I tried eating the leaves as an experiment, and, while edible, they weren't exactly tasty on their own. A bit too dried out.

Again, I really liked this place. If they opened up a branch in the US I'd frequent it all the time. Not the most authentic, but I can't fault the place on outright tastiness. Super clean, too.

This progressive supper would naturally need one more stop, so we crossed the street to check out Xu for dessert. We had briefly entertained the notion of having one "nice" dinner in Saigon. We decided not to, but I was intrigued by the chic decor and some good press the restaurant had gotten on some blogs and in guidebooks. Upon examining the menu, a durian tiramisu sealed the deal. Clearly such a gross sounding treat needed to be sampled.

Pandan panna cotta
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Eh, not bad. The flavor seemed rather matcha-like, which makes me think more green tea than pandan was used in the coloring. The fruit salad was nice.

Durian tiramisu
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All of your worst nightmares are coming true. This dish went way overboard on the durian extract, such that it was at once chemically, smelly, and lacking that custardy sweetness of fresh durian. It was strangely bitter in bites. The texture was also very strange. A couple other menu items suggested that the kitchen dabbles in the modern pantry, so I would imagine so kind of weird texturizing gum is at play here to not-very-good result. Glad I ordered it; definitely don't want to order it again.

I think these dishes were about $6 each. After tax and service, each was more expensive than what our banh mi and dinner had each cost us.

#36 kathryn

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Posted 26 July 2009 - 08:02 PM

Bryan, it's my understanding that a Vietnamese baguette using rice flour yields the unique crumb characteristics you noted.
"I'll put anything in my mouth twice." -- Ulterior Epicure

#37 BryanZ

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Posted 26 July 2009 - 10:17 PM

So interesting. Entirely rice flour? Is this practice widespread in Vietnam? How about beyond?

#38 BryanZ

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Posted 27 July 2009 - 12:28 PM

Singapore

Another early morning flight necessitated another airport meal. Saigon's airport offered up some solid sustenance, though at prices a good deal higher than those in the city itself.

Pork chop over rice and crispy noodles with stir-fried vegetables
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Nice entrants into the Airport Food Showdown.

Going from Vietnam to Singapore was like stepping into an entirely new world. One hears of how efficient and clean Singapore is. Really, it's true. I also loved how cosmopolitan the city felt. Of course, there's money and development everywhere, but just seeing so many different types of people and hearing so many different languages was refreshing. Singapore lacks some of the urban character and long-standing culture that I like in a big city, but it has a lot else going for it.

Singapore has perhaps the largest, and certainly most densely packed, collection of Asian Shopping Malls that each include all sorts of retail, food, convention, and hotel spaces. We stayed in the Raffles City complex at the Fairmont. A nice, if rather corporate, property located between the marina and the famous Orchard Rd.

Singapore skyline
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From our room.

With Singaporean Asian Shopping Malls also come the quintessential Singaporean Shopping Mall Food Court. This have become so entrenched in consumer society that some of these food courts are actually branded. The most famous of these is Food Republic, which now oversees three food courts in the city.

Food Republic stalls and dining area
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We chose the original location in the Wisma Atria Shopping Centre. The whole operation was really quite impressive. In playing to Singapore's hawker center traditions each stall maintains its own identity. This was in contrast to Thailand's mall food courts in which each vendor was somewhat anonymous.

Assorted dim sum
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I was skeptical of my mother's choice here, but these were really quite good. Well-crafted and tasty.

Char kway teow
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Along with hokkien mee, this is a famous Singaporean stir-fried noodle dish from a supposedly famous vendor. The leaf is supposed to impart some kind of woodsy flavor. Can't say I picked up too much of that but the wok hay was nice and noticeable.

Minced pork noodle soup
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Another noodle soup but this time with a distinctive Singaporean slant. The addition of a healthy hit of vinegar to the broth was new to me but quite pleasing. We would have a truly excellent version of this dish the next day, however.

Grilled chicken wings
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Extremely simple but so good. Grilled over charcoal right in front of the customer. There's this sticky soy sauce that gave the crispy wings a healthy sheen. Citrus gave the whole thing an acidic kick.

Dark carrot cake
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I'm not sure if carrot is the accurate translation for this quintessential Singaporean dish. It's more like the turnip cake one gets at dim sum, just stir-fried in dark, sweet soy sauce. Soft, savory, a bit bitter, kind of sweet. I liked this, but it was a lot going on.

After departing the rather upscale Wisma Atria we trekked along Orchard to the Far East Plaza. My motivation in visiting this mall was twofold. First, I'm fascinated by aging landmarks of consumerism. In the 80s this mall was supposedly something of a hotspot. Today it's a strange relic, at once dim yet garish with neon signage. What I found quite refreshing was how its small storefronts are now populated by young, local designers selling clothes that I actually found somewhat cool. It was refreshing to see a mall with neither the cadre of Burberry and Balenciaga nor a sea of cheap knockoffs.

Our main purpose in visiting the Far East Plaza, however, was to sample Hainanese chicken rice from the quite famous Hainan Delicacy located on the fifth floor. The shop isn't particularly impressive in decor but puts out a fine rendition of this deceptively simple dish. I'd had Hainanese chicken rice before, but Singapore is clearly the holy land.

Chicken rice
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The chicken is first poached in a court bouillon of sorts, then this (double?) stock is used for cooking the rice. The broth is also served on the side, but I'm not sure if one is supposed to drink it or use it to sauce the chicken and rice. We did both. Cucumber, soy sauce, cilantro, scallion, ginger, and chile are all typical accompaniments in various combinations and permutations. The dish is subtle and delicate and really freaking good. More than the sum of its parts, for sure.

Singapore is more expensive than the rest of SE Asia but not on Japan-like levels. Our lunch--a lot of food for three people--came in at mabye $10 per person. The chicken rice was a good deal cheaper, given the less charming surroundings, at perhaps $3 or $4 for the chicken and $1 for a tasty calamansi soda.

Edited by BryanZ, 27 July 2009 - 12:32 PM.


#39 BryanZ

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Posted 27 July 2009 - 02:28 PM

Singapore, cont'd.

Singapore is a place where one doesn't feel completely out of place putting on some decent clothes and going out for a drink and a nice meal. Located just across the street from the Fairmont is the Raffles Hotel, a famous, sprawling property that just oozes colonial charm. It's all a bit Disneyland, I suppose, but we came here for a cocktail at the current iteration of the Long Bar, the birthplace of the Singapore Sling. I was well aware that the Long Bar in its current guise is a replica of the original. Still, the cocktail geek in me wanted to dry this historic cocktail as close as possible to its original home, touristy environs be damned.

Singapore Sling and other signature cocktails
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Despite being pre-mixed this was actually pretty good, as far as drinks of this style go. The Raffles Revelry, however, was much, much too sweet, despite my mother's enjoyment of it. I opted for the somewhat more balanced Millionaire Cocktail, though this was somewhat marred by overdilution. Drinks here were very expensive, on par with NYC hotel bar prices at an average of $17 per drink, but the stop was a nice, civilized way to begin the evening.

In our quest to try as many distinctively Singaporean dishes as possible, a stop for chile crab was surely in order. Palm Beach Seafood receives generally positive reviews and offered a convenient location right on the marina. Dining al fresco was a bit warm, but sitting just off the water looking out to the boats and Singapore's skyline was something of a step up from dining on plastic stools in Vietnam.

Pork buns
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Slices of boneless pork are cooked in a sticky, sweet soy-based sauce, almost like hoisin but without the fruitier notes. These are then placed in steamed, folded buns. How very Momofuku.

Rojak
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Ehhh, for some reason I just couldn't get into this dish. It was just a little weird for me. There's jellyfish, preserved egg, various types of fruit, sprouts, and crushed nuts, all bound together in this thick peanut-coconut dressing. I don't think this was a poor version, just not my kind of dish. One of the very few on the trip I actively didn't like.

Asparagus and mushrooms
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A more traditional vegetable dish was also needed, so we opted for this Chinese-like preparation. Really, impeccably prepared in execution and seasoning. A surprise hit.

The main event
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This picture really doesn't do this crab justice. The bowl was huge, the crab was huge, the amount of chile sauce was huge. Literally, there must've been a half gallon of chile sauce to eat, dip, drink, and bathe in. A faint heat worked very well with the sweetness of the crab. I really, really liked this. The claws alone must've weighed over a half-pound each.

Unfortunately we didn't have time to sample black pepper crab in Singapore. I wanted to make it out the lesser developed eastern section of the city, but, alas, our time was short. I can't weigh in on the chile vs. black pepper debate, but will say that the original dish has much to recommend it.

#40 Kent Wang

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Posted 27 July 2009 - 04:10 PM

Does the Long Bar Singapore Sling even use the actual ingredients like Benedictine? I think I had read somewhere that it isn't.

Have you been to Fatty Crab in New York? How different is their chili crab sauce from the Singaporean version?

#41 BryanZ

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Posted 27 July 2009 - 05:42 PM

Does the Long Bar Singapore Sling even use the actual ingredients like Benedictine? I think I had read somewhere that it isn't.


The recipe card I got at the bar itself says that they do. With that said, I believe the drink is batched, so I really have no idea what's actually in it.

Singapore Sling
30 ml Gin
15 ml Heering cherry liqueur
120 ml Pineapple juice
15 ml Lime juice
7.5 ml Cointreau
7.5 ml Dom Benedictine
10 ml Grenadine
Dash Angostura
Pineapple and cherry garnish

And just for fun, an even more absurd recipe.

Raffles Revelry
20 ml Cognac
15 ml Cointreau
15 ml Banana liqueur
5 ml Galliano
30 ml Orange juice
10 mL Lime concentrate
1 Lime wedge, squeezed
1 Lemon slice
1 Strawberry, muddled
Top up with ginger ale
Orange, strawberry, mint garnish

Jesus.

Have you been to Fatty Crab in New York? How different is their chili crab sauce from the Singaporean version?

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I have been to Fatty Crab but haven't had their signature dish. I have seen it, however. The Palm Beach version looked much saucier. It was also not quite so chopped up.

I forgot to mention that this meal approached US prices. I think we spent between $30-$40 per person with minimal drinking.

Edited by BryanZ, 27 July 2009 - 05:43 PM.


#42 Hest88

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Posted 28 July 2009 - 10:50 AM

Thanks for the great reviews and pictures. (Ah, I miss Lek Seafood!)

#43 prasantrin

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Posted 28 July 2009 - 11:18 AM

Long Bar actually uses a mixer for their Singapore Sling. You can buy it in any number of stores, and you just add pineapple juice. Singapore Airlines offers it for sale on many of their international flights (and they also offer the drink as part of their beverage service). I've been told you can get the bartender to mix you one up fresh if he's not busy and if he feels like it, but I've not tried it.

#44 Peter Green

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Posted 28 July 2009 - 11:33 AM

Bryan,

Excellent eating! I'm bummed that I've been away and missed out on this, but I'm catching up now. The Thai eating hit a lot of the highlights, and your shots of the sai eua in Chiang Mai has me nostalgic for the North again.

But it's Vietnam that's taken my interest, Hanoi in particular. This might almost be enough to get me back there again. I'm glad you got to cha ca. Were you eating upstairs, and does the floor still creak underfoot? You may have mapped out a trip for me here. :)

If nothing else, I have to visit the graveyard of sparrows!

Cheers,

Peter

#45 BryanZ

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Posted 30 July 2009 - 09:52 PM

But it's Vietnam that's taken my interest, Hanoi in particular.  This might almost be enough to get me back there again.  I'm glad you got to cha ca.  Were you eating upstairs, and does the floor still creak underfoot?   You may have mapped out a trip for me here.  :)

If nothing else, I have to visit the graveyard of sparrows!

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So I actually made a conscious decision not to visit Cha Ca La Vong--the place known for the creak boards, I believe--for a couple of reasons. First, Gastronomy steered me to Thang Long. Second, I had read a great deal about La Vong and thought the cook-in-front-of-the-guest thing sounded a bit touristy, like Americanized teppanyaki. Little did I know that this practice was both commonplace and totally sensible. Finally, this other location was more convenient to where I happened to be.

Apologies for the lack of updates over the past couple of days. I've been in Chicago to eat and presumably find a place to live. Things will resume shortly.

Edited by BryanZ, 30 July 2009 - 09:53 PM.


#46 fmed

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Posted 30 July 2009 - 10:52 PM

I can comment on a few of these dishes since I am familiar with them from my trips to Vietnam (now a fading memory...).

The "grape leaf beef rolls" is called Bo La Lot - Bo for beef and La Lot which are often called "pepper leaves." I can actually get these ingredients fresh here in Vancouver. (I can also buy frozen prepped Bo La Lot that you can just toss on the BBQ).

The "Steamed "power" rice with shrimp" is a classic Hue-style preparation that uses tapioca starch called Banh Bot Loc La. It is usually wrapped in Banana Leaf then steamed till the tapioca paste turns gelatinous. The orange hue (pun intended) is from a type of preserved shrimp paste.

The "Deep fried hue" is some sort of chef's variant of some these Hue "tapas" or "dim sum" (for the lack of a better word). Same with that "Shrimp cake, wrapped in crispy rice cake." You will see many such improvisations from the basic forms.

The "thin sheets of rice noodle being steamed over squares of cloth tightly drawn over bubbling stockpots" is called Bahn Cuon - typically a breakfast dish common in the North. Most Vietnamese restaurants in my city use Chinese rice rolls (cheong fun) - but I have found a number now that make it fresh to order.

That beautiful specimen of Cha Gio that is crispy yet devoid of any blistering or bubbles on the skin is something I have not yet found here. I believe they achieve that surface texture by drying the skin for a bit before frying it....just a guess. Most of the decent Cha Gio here is crispy but blistered (and many places cheat by using Egg Roll wrappers).

Anyways, I love the report and pictures...especially of Vietnam and Thailand. It brings back memories. I love both Thai and Vietnamese food...we have a dearth of Thai food here, but we have good Vietnamese food a-plenty.

Thanks again.
fmed
de gustibus non est disputandum

#47 MomOfLittleFoodies

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Posted 30 July 2009 - 10:52 PM

Noodle soup
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We scattered in the food stall area so as to try as many things as possible.  As a result, I didn't order this.  It was quite good though once I got around to trying it.  Thicker noodles than one sees in most Vietnamese noodle dishes.  The fish cake was also much more subtle than the Japanese versions I grew up eating.

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Thank you for mentioning that. I noticed the very same thing about the Vietnamese fish cake that shows up in the Hu Tieu that I order at the local Pho shop. While it looks a lot like the tenpura kamaboko that I grew up with (I also have a Japanese mother), the flavor is definitely milder, not as sweet, and has a less rubbery texture.
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#48 BryanZ

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Posted 31 July 2009 - 12:39 AM

fmed, thanks so much for all that wisdom. I have absolutely no reason to doubt anything you've added and only wish I had taken notes so that I could provide as much detailed information. Figuring out what to order and making my sister take all the pictures was more than enough for me. I know your posts have helped me out with food in Vancouver in the past, but this added Vietnam information only sweetens the deal.

MomOfLittleFoodies, indeed that rubbery texture of Japanese fish cake is something of an acquired taste. Then again, it took me a while to enjoy the somewhat squeaky texture of Vietnamese meatballs one finds in pho and Chinese fish balls filled with ground meat.

#49 Kent Wang

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Posted 31 July 2009 - 05:46 AM

I'm not seeing a lot of offal. Are they not common or did you just not order them?

I've always found it odd that all the Vietnamese and Thai restaurants I've been to in the US have hardly any offal other than the occasional tripe at a pho place. Compare with Chinese restaurants which typically have a dozen dishes.

#50 BryanZ

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Posted 31 July 2009 - 10:49 AM

So, like you said, there was a good deal of offal in the various pho I tried in Vietnam. Banh mi, too. Also, pork liver make frequent appearances in noodle soups. I'm not sure there's the same romanticization of offal that we have amongst the foodie set in the States. Here, I'll be honest, I seek out dishes with offal in them. Abroad, when I only have a vague idea of what I'm eating in the first place, it's not like I'm rushing to try that dish that completely unidentfiable. If a dish was given to me or was known for having so-and-so offal dish I'd gladly eat it. It just wasn't something that I was necessarily looking for nor was it foisted upon me.

Edited by BryanZ, 31 July 2009 - 10:52 AM.


#51 Anna N

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Posted 31 July 2009 - 01:13 PM

. . . .

That beautiful specimen of Cha Gio that is crispy yet devoid of any blistering or bubbles on the skin is something I have not yet found here. I believe they achieve that surface texture by drying the skin for a bit before frying it....just a guess. Most of the decent Cha Gio here is crispy but blistered (and many places cheat by using Egg Roll wrappers).

. . . .

Thanks again.

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Thank you for this. I have tried in the past to deep-fry the rice paper wraps and the result was not particularly appealing. So the next time I will try drying them for a while before frying.
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#52 fmed

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Posted 31 July 2009 - 02:58 PM

. . . .

That beautiful specimen of Cha Gio that is crispy yet devoid of any blistering or bubbles on the skin is something I have not yet found here. I believe they achieve that surface texture by drying the skin for a bit before frying it....just a guess. Most of the decent Cha Gio here is crispy but blistered (and many places cheat by using Egg Roll wrappers).

. . . .

Thanks again.

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Thank you for this. I have tried in the past to deep-fry the rice paper wraps and the result was not particularly appealing. So the next time I will try drying them for a while before frying.

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I'd love a report on the results. If drying (perhaps in an oven??) isn't it - then I honestly don't know how they achieve this - it's almost like thin glass.
fmed
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#53 BryanZ

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Posted 31 July 2009 - 03:29 PM

Singapore, cont'd.

Covered in chili crab we retired back to our hotel room. The next day we set off for more somewhat more rustic eats. This day would take us through a good portion of Singapore's urban center. Like I mentioned, I found the multi-ethnicism of the place fascinating and refreshing, and I certainly appreciated how this variety of cultures influenced the city's cuisine.

Within walking distance one call stroll through a variety of proud, ethnic neighborhoods. While other cities may have a similar level of diversity, in Singapore there's less feeling of disenfranchisement that often unfortunately seems natural in minority neighborhoods.

Inside a Hindu temple
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At Sultan Mosque
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Certainly the world's cleanest Chinatown
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Inside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
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Our first food stop of the day was at Hill Street Tai Hwa at Block 466 Crawford Lane, unit 01-12. This is a famous shop that's actually engaged in something of a family feud at present. Apparently the noodle master's nephew opened up an unofficial branch in a new, high-end mall food court, suggesting that the staff at the original had defected to this new location. Drama. Ooooh. Makes tasting the original that much better.

Hill Street Tai Hwa, ordering area and kitchen
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"We are THE ONE and ONLY ORIGINAL..." Indeed.

Two versions of noodles are available, with soup or dry.

Minced pork noodles, with soup
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A really, really good bowl of noodles. All the raw ingredients go into the bowl, well, raw and are poached as the hot broth is poured into the bowl. Each bowl is quickly assembled by the curmudgeonly old noodle sage. There's minced pork, sliced pork liver, two types of noodles, seaweed, fried dried fish, and probably many other things.

Minced pork noodles dry
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While the soup version was a nicely integrated dish, this dry version made more of an impression. A small cup of broth was served on the side, but with this noodle dish it's all about the diverse textures and a strong hit of vinegar. I really enjoyed the assertive, fermented funk that the dark vinegar brought. Different, eggy noodles here as opposed to the presumably rice noodles in the soup version.

After walking through the Arab and Indian sections of the city we sat down for lunch to sample another very Singaporean dish, fish head curry. I was a little bit skeptical of Banana Leaf Apollo on Race Course Road, as its hugely popular in guidebooks. In fact, the entire Race Course area is generally dismissed by online personalities who fancy themselves fish head curry connoisseurs. I can see where the derision comes from. The restaurants on this road are perhaps a bit touristy. For every party of locals there were two parties of Japanese or Chinese businessmen.

Auspicious beginnings aside, this was still some of the better Indian food I've had. I hardly count high-end NY Indian at the likes of Tabla or Devi as authentic, so it's difficult to compare here. Nor is the typical neighborhood Indian joint putting out order after order of butter chicken worth comparing. I've done some eating in Edison, NJ, a veritable Little India out in the 'burbs, but stylistically Banana Leaf still offered something new. The spicing, though not heat level, was a level or two higher than what I'd previously been accustomed to. From rice to curries, everything was turned up.

And eating off of banana leaves without silverware was just fun.

Biryani, chicken and mutton masala
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The mutton was a bit tough, as I suppose is typical. Both meats were cooked on the bone, but the chicken was the dish that seemed to benefit more from this.

Fish head curry
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This was a small and still amply fed the three of us. Working with such a large fish head actually made things easier: larger pieces of meat to eat and larger bones were easier to avoid. This was very tasty. Not as rich or thick as similar fish curries I've had in the US, but more spiced and with quite a bracing amount of acid. Unique and very good.

Papri chaat
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Refreshing.

Remnants
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We nibbled on the tongue. It was extremely soft, almost like braised pork fat. Not bad, but stronger in flavor than I would've imagined.

Up to this point in the day we'd eaten relatively traditional dishes. Upon coming back into the city center we chanced upon a sleek doughnut shop in the Raffles City mall food court. With a certain standard of living comes time to devote to rather absurd food products. Walk through any aisle in any grocery store in the US with a foreigner's perspective and this becomes staggeringly clear. Here, we sampled high-end doughnuts with a Singaporean twist. Total impulse purchase, not authentic, borderline nauseating, high-quality product.

4 Cs (left) and white chocolate-green tea (right) doughnuts
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The white chocolate-green tea wasn't so much my speed. Too sweet and with that weird Asian beany sweetness that I've never gotten around to relishing in. The 4 Cs, can you guess what they are? Chocolate. Duh. Coconut. Obvious. Custard. OK. Corn. Ah, yes, corn, that most prolific grass that comes up in a great many South Asian desserts. Given the amalgam of ingredients this was actually quite good in a very strange way.

Edited by BryanZ, 31 July 2009 - 03:30 PM.


#54 faine

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Posted 31 July 2009 - 03:40 PM

What a dead-sexy trip report. I'm already drooling in anticipation of when I can make it over there. Especially for the Singapore chili crab, which is my favorite food in the universe. Thanks for sharing with us.

The fish head curry looks marvelous as well. Just by looking at the dish (and the banana leaves the restaurant uses), it reminds me a lot of some of the Southern Indian (Kerala) fish curries I've had. Was the flavor reminiscent of such?

Edited by faine, 31 July 2009 - 03:42 PM.


#55 BryanZ

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Posted 31 July 2009 - 05:51 PM

The dish is a Southern Indian one, I believe. It just seems to have gained a lot of traction in Singapore and is now one of the city's signature dishes.

#56 BryanZ

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Posted 31 July 2009 - 07:54 PM

Singapore, cont'd.

One can't leave Singapore without visiting a hawker centre. Or so the guidebooks told me. The most frequently recommended hawker centre is Newton Circus. As a result it's the most touristy and has also come under scrutiny for overcharging. In one particularly egregious incident a party of Americans was charged for $400 for a meal in what's effectively a crowded cafeteria. Read all about it, here.

Instead we chose Maxwell Centre, near Chinatown. One of Singapore's most famous chicken rice vendors operates out this centre, and there were surely many other items to try. One arrives in this covered but open air food pavilion and meets with several long rows of vendors. Keeping with Singapore's penchant for bureaucratic regulation most stalls had health department ratings clearly on display. Mostly Bs but the occasional A here and there. Somewhat comforting, I suppose. My mother appreciated the nods toward cleanliness.

Inside the hawker centre
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Even with the dozens of fans it was hot inside. Getting a seat near sides that open to the street is imperative.

We made a beeline for the chicken rice at Tian Tian, and filled in the rest of our meal with whatever looked good.

Tian Tian chicken rice
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Awesome. A good version of this dish floors me every time and this was by far the best I've had. The chicken is so, so soft, subtle yet flavorful. The ginger chili sauce perks everything up. For having eaten rice my entire life, I'd still say that I still find it blander than most people. This was fragrant, light, delicious.

Right near Tian Tian is another famous vendor, Maxwell Fuzhou Oyster Cake. Both Bourdain and Makansutra give this spot high marks.

Oyster cake
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It's actually not a particularly cheap couple of bites of food, but it is quite interesting. I thought it'd be crispier, like a Korean oyster pancake. Instead it was more pillowy, like a doughnut almost, filled with oyster. I'm not the biggest fan of cakey things, so I didn't love this. It was still quite tasty though.

Black pepper cha siu with noodles and dumplings
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We just chanced upon this stall and were drawn to the promise of glossy, black pepper roasted pork. Th black pepper flavor came through, another layer of flavor on the typical salty-sweet of normal cha siu. This was a solid plate, but probably was the most forgettable of the lot.

Stir-fried bok choy, crispy shallot
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My mother has this obsession with vegetables. I like them just fine and this dish was just that. Nothing notable, but it filled a niche.


Bar kut teh
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Another dish I was told not to miss in Singapore. The development of this noodle soup is, if I have my facts straight, quite analogous to the development of many dishes in trendy restaurants across this country. What began as a traditional herbal tea/broth slowly had other components added to it, namely pork, so that over time it became a dish beacon for meaty excess. A couple of cuts of pork were feature here, but the ribs were the most succulent. The same stall also had a pretty intense looking organ/trotter noodle soup that I saw a couple people order. Next time, I guess. The bar kut teh felt immensely fortifying.

Laksa
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Another coconut curry-based noodle soup, similar to khao soy. Some shrimp and these fried tofu nuggets added texture. Rich and satisfying.

I was impressed with Maxwell Centre. There's clearly a range in the quality of the offerings. Some things, like the chicken, are simply awesome. I would hazard that the average stall ranges somewhere from solid to good. Obviously we're not talking Vietnam cheap here but a large meal can be had for perhaps $8, less if sharing with a few people.

Having consumed more than our share of noodles and other Singaporean delights we retired to the hotel. Getting around Singapore is quite easy with the efficient metro system. We would be departing in just a few hours for a 5 am flight to Tokyo.

#57 Kent Wang

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Posted 31 July 2009 - 10:35 PM

With the fish head curry, did you eat the eyes and brains?

#58 BryanZ

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Posted 01 August 2009 - 07:25 AM

Alas, we stopped at the tongue. Never been a huge fan of fish eyes.

#59 Peter Green

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Posted 01 August 2009 - 08:50 AM

My buddy, Lee, took me to the Apollo for lunch when I was there a few years back, and made a show of scooping the eyeball out.

I can't say it did much for me.

But, I agree with you, Byran. For a place that's written up in all the guide books as a tourist site, the food is quite nice. I particularly liked their side dishes, one of which was baby octopus, pickled black and juicy.

And it is fun to eat off of leaves. :smile:

Edit - I just checked my notes, they were squids in a curry of their own ink. Not octopii.

Edited by Peter Green, 01 August 2009 - 08:58 AM.


#60 BryanZ

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Posted 01 August 2009 - 03:28 PM

Tokyo, Japan

At 4 am usually airport food offerings are slim to say the least. I was pleased enough to see signs for a 24-hour food area in Singapore's airport, expecting perhaps an edible pastry or, praise the heavens, a simple rice or soup dish.

While only one of the kiosks in said food court was open, we had some very good food. Too tired to take pictures, we tucked into a roasted pork noodle soup and a solid congee. Much better than they had to be with quality that might be expected a hawker center. I'm still of the opinion that Tokyo's handmade noodles were better, but in this last chapter of The Airport Food Showdown, Singapore put forth a very strong dark horse contender. Certainly, 4 am grub in a desserted food court in the Singapore airport garners the people's choice award.

Despite the incredibly early departure, Tokyo and Singapore are actually quite far apart. About 6+ hours in the air, I believe.

For those unfamiliar, Narita airport is a good ways from Tokyo proper. A 1-1.5 hour train ride is the most common means to get to the city, and a taxi costs well over $200. Welcome to Japan. But going straight from Narita to Tokyo would be much too easy. I've been to Japan many, many times so despite the language barrier there's hardly any intimidation factor. So naturally we had to stop at a random kaitenzushi restaurant located in a suburb of the city. Airport, train, taxi, eat, taxi, train, train, shuttle bus. Finally to our hotel. But it was worth it, you'll see.

Kappazushi isn't so much ignored by most sushi fans as it is outwardly scoffed at. Imagine NYC foodies at an automated McDonalds or, perhaps more favorably, Shake Shack. (OK, perhaps this latter scenario would be hailed by some to be among the great inventions of the past century, but you get my drift.) Kaitenzushi are among my most favorite restaurant concepts in the world. Have loved them since I was a kid, still love them now. My favorite as a child was Tsukiji Honten, just a few minutes away from Shibuya station's Hachiko gate. I think in my mid-teens I put away something like 26 plates. Oh, how I yearn for more innocent times. Today, tabelog, a very popular retaurant rating site, has suggested that the restaurant is now a shadow of its former self. At Y105, just over a dollar, for each plate of two pieces, Kappazushi was a frugal choice for our first meal in Japan.

But to be perfectly honest, the primary reason I selected Kappazushi was for its oh-so-Japanese technological gimmickry. Namely, the option to order a la carte via touch screen and to receive said orders by an express shinkansen conveyor belt. Hard to understand? Don't worry, pictures should help that.

The conveyor belt of delights
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Par for the course, if a bit sparse, since we showed up shortly after 3 pm.

Chawanmushi
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Something like a signature dish, our taxi driver recommended it. It was quite good all things considered.

The touch screen ordering system
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Very cool, very efficient. One orders up to four items at a time, and they come directly to the table via express train.

Next stop, my mouth
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I was borderline obsessed with how cool and efficient this whole system was. And to make it even better the staff members on the floor couldn't have been nicer.

After this most technological meal we went to our hotel, the Prince Park Tower, located between the Akabanebashi and Shibakoen metro stops. Japan's metro and rail network can be intimidating to the uninitiated. Here's a map if you're curious.

For dinner we headed we again turned to tabelog and decided to eat at a popular izakaya, Tanto. It took two calls to get them to accommodate us and even then they didn't have an opening until nearly 10 pm. The restaurant is located in the Hachimaki Building at 4-10-11 in the Roppongi neighborhood. Tokyo addresses follow an effectively indecipherable code, so good luck with that.

Tanto is a very small restaurant, a couple four-tops in screened off areas, a short wall of deuces, and perhaps one six-top. I'd say the restaurant sits no more than 25 at one time. Like many thousands of other restaurants in Japan it's also quite peculiarly located. The third floor of an unassuming sliver of a building. Tokyo is really one of those cities where hidden gems are the norm rather than the exception.

Izakaya cuisine refers to small plates, meant to be eaten while drinking with beer. This was a neo-izakaya of sorts, serving the kind of eclectic, creative food that young Japanese seemingly like to eat. For every Westernized riff on a Japanese classic was a Japanized riff on a Western classic. For those familiar with the kind of new izakaya popular on St. Marks and Midtown East, Tanto is similar, just with much more attention paid to ingredient quality and execution.

Negi-toro bruschetta
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An unimpeachable negi-toro spooned atop grilled bread, drizzled with a light sour cream and tobiko. A quintessential example of this style of cooking.

Shrimp, broccoli, bagna cauda
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I was less convinced by this dish because it was such a far departure from the rustic bagna cauda I associate with Northern Italian cuisine. It was very tasty--both shrimp and broccoli were well-cooked--just a bit strange. This warm salad of sorts is one of their most popular dishes.

Jowl kakuni
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Rather than use the belly as is traditional, the jowl was sliced in 1/2" thick slices and braised. I missed the meltingly soft fat that comes with the belly version, but this offered a meatier, porkier experience. Rather than custardy, the meat, when portioned between us, was almost like a pulled pork.

Chicken karaage
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Another Japanese comfort food classic, these chicken nuggets are usually no larger than an inch by an inch and delicately seasoned before frying. Here, the thigh meat, in much larger pieces, was presuambly marinated in a heavy brine of soy, sake, and sugar. The end result was a much more intense, and not quite as delicate, fried chicken dish.

Pizza
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Yes, seriously. Our waiter not very subtly steered us toward trying one. We chose the version with Japanese mushrooms, bacon, and cheese. I would less call this pizza than a topped flatbread. With that said, it had a certain white trash appeal and the execution was very good. It looks over-topped, I realize this, but the crisp, crackery crust was more than able to stand up to it all.

Scallop, uni, tobiko, nori
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We selected this off the specials menu, and it was quite intense but quite good. A whole scallop, roe and all, was broiled, popped on a sheet of nori, then topped with a generous scoop of uni and a sprinkling of tobiko and chives. Wrap and eat. The texture of the scallop was more baked/broiled than seared, and I think I would've preferred the latter, but overall this was a very cool, luxurious dish.

Foie gras fried rice
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Another unlikely marriage that worked quite well. It was, however, exactly as described and tasted exactly as I imagined. This makes me think the pairing of foie gras and Japanese fried rice isn't necessarily one that is greater than the sum of its parts. Still, you have your typical dashi-tasting fried rice with large hunks of foie gras strewn throughout. Each bite of foie added a noticeable explosion of fatty, livery flavor. Not a dish for those who aren't fans of foie.

With a couple beers and this food I think we spent about $45 per person. In Tokyo, if one expects to sit down in any comfort, that's pretty cheap.

Our late dinner behind us we returned to the hotel for a few hours of sleep. The next day would bring two meals with excruciating wait times and a third with some two Michelin starred tempura.

Edited by BryanZ, 01 August 2009 - 03:37 PM.