Monday, August 04, 2014

Review: Ujong

Ujong is set up by Chef Shen of Wok and Barrel. Part of the Teng Bakery in Raffles Hotel has been converted to Ujong restaurant and the antique-style tables and chairs give a very coffeeshop/old-style kopitiam feel to the place. A few tables have disconcerting glass tops that peer into tacky displays of retro paraphenalia, e.g. miniature wooden clogs, nonya slippers, etc. I dislike the commodification of nostalgia but I understand the anxiety about heritage that Singaporeans face as landmarks disappear and all that is left are the memories of food.

The Concept
Chef Shen seeks to elevate local or home-style food by using premium ingredients and perhaps by using traditional techniques in the kitchen. The menu consists of familiar sounding items like Nasi Lemak, Bak Chor Mee, Hae Bee Hiam Noodles and various curries, but if you dig a little deeper in the description you'll find that the Bak Kut Teh is made with kurobota pork and pasta substitutes for many of the local noodles. We were a party of three and I'd been warned that the dishes are heavy and substantial so we were restrained in our ordering.

The Food
The Bak Kwa Pork Ribs were sweet, unctuous and slightly sticky; not as sticky as actual bakwa but pleasantly so. They had a good pork taste but were very rich and I kept eating all the cilantro garnishes to refresh my palate.

I asked for sambal and we got two types: one a slightly dark red paste rich in aromatic dried shrimp and another light and fresh paste with an onion base. These were welcome accompaniments to all the dishes.

The Hae Bee Hiam capellini had a sharp tang of roasted dried shrimp and went well with the bouncy texture of capellini. This dish could have been brightened by fresh-cut deseeded red chilli. This was my favourite dish as it looked appealing and I love the pungency of roasted dried shrimp.

The Bak Chor Mee had five-spice pork on a bed of fettucine. The pork was rich and aromatic, but the noodles were heavy; I felt linguine would have been a better. Fresh-cut spring onions would have lightened the dish considerably.

We also ordered a side dish of "healthy alternative baked turmeric eggplant". Whilst it is traditional for eggplant to be deep-fried, anyone who has cooked eggplant will know that this soaks up oil like a sponge. I looked forward to this healthier version because I love a baked nightshade, however this was flavourless and lacklustre. The crispy fried shallots and soft eggplant made for a nice contrasting texture but as someone used to sambal eggplant, salted fish eggplant, or grilled eggplant with miso, I was disappointed. The application of the tasty haebee-based sambal did go a long way to remedy the eggplant. It's strange that eggplant can be so misunderstood when taken outside the context of traditional dishes. I recall a similar disappointment with the Green Pepper Eggplant at Casa Bom Vento (do not order it).

The portions at Ujong are very large and Chef Shen makes no allowances for refreshing your palate. It would seem that the taste of tradition comes as an domineering mother or father expressing their love for you with food. You'd do well to eat or you'd be refusing their love. Each dish is very heavy and substantial and would be very challenging if eaten by a single person. Having a variety of dishes to share alleviates the heaviness of each dish.

The dishes needed brightening with fresh herbs, e.g. cilantro, spring onions, or floral accents like capsicum or deseeded chillies. A tray of condiments like pickled green chillies, fresh chillies and calamansi lime wedges would have gone a long way in lightening the meal.

The Experience
We concluded the evening with a dessert of pulut hitam pudding with coconut ice-cream and gula melaka sauce. This was recommended to us by the friendly staff, whom I suspect may be quite senior in the team that run the restaurant. She preferred this dessert to the "Shendol" as that is known to be an enriched version of traditional chendol.

I am quite blown away by the pulut hitam pudding. The black glutinous rice is ground into flour and this made into a steamed cake not unlike huat kueh. The delicate honeyed notes of the black rice flour come out and match perfectly with the coconut ice-cream. The gula melaka sauce just takes the cake (pun intended) and is our very own salted caramel.

Service was very friendly, unobtrusive but then again we were the only ones dining on a a public holiday Monday. Prices were reasonable for the large portions of high quality meat.

This would be a place I would bring people who have left this region on the second diaspora, e.g. my family. Many of the dishes feel like they've been developed for incredible fussy and astute home tastebuds, e.g. my mother who can taste MSG in the parts per billion, and seek to extend and question what local taste is and should be.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Review: Three Buns

Three Buns by Potato Head Folk is located on Keong Saik Rd. It's set up as a corner diner with a hip-casual vibe. The original old-school floor tiles and white (new) retro-style grills contribute to the atmosphere and the latter allow us to peer into the kitchen. Wafts of grilling meat tantalise us as we are sitting outside on this thankfully cool night. There is an hour-long wait for seating in the air-conditioned upstairs on a Thursday evening at 9pm.

The Concept
I like the menu already. It speaks of a deep understanding of what a burger diner is about, namely, no frills but good, hearty and satisfying meal. The Middle-East and Levant do the best lamb dishes in the world, so it was a delight to see their influence on the lamb burger. And you can't get more iconic than "buttermilk-fried chicken" from the American South. The cheese-fritter burger is a little unusual, something falafel-based would have worked here, but perhaps they wanted to go more "hearty" and less "vegan". Nevertheless, a gutsy fried cheese has its roots in halloumi and I would be curious to see the type of cheese used in the cheese fritter burger.

The three beef burgers give a choice between a classic (always the toughest to get right), spicy and crazy meat-lovers. It seems one can't have fast-food without a meat-lovers choice nowadays. The two mayonnaises are very intriguing: den miso and dashi flavours.

When sitting outside it is counter-ordering but table delivery. It's a very casual, sit-around, after-work kinda vibe.

The Food
We had the Baby Huey (the classic burger) and the Burning Man (spicy with jalapenos). The 150g beef patties were hearty, "burgery", beefy but could have done with a little more char. I didn't get much of the golden beef dripping taste. They were juicy with just a hint of pink in the middle; a dangerous zone food safety-wise for minced meat products, but well, it's by Potato Head Folk so you'd assume top-notch food hygiene in the kitchen.

The Baby Huey lived up to its classic reputation. It captured the essence of what a burger is meant to be. The spiced mayo had pleasing smoky bacon-like bits in it and the tomato was refreshing. The onion relish had just the right amount of tartness to keep the burger from being too heavy.

The Burning Man was overpowered by the dashi mayonnaise, which albeit delicious, saturates all taste receptors in one's tongue. No hint of the roasted jalapeno relish and smoked cheese could be detected. These disappeared into a delicious and creamy ur-paste that could have been flavoured with stock powder.

We also ordered housecut fries, which were double-cooked, crisp on the outside but soft on the inside. They had an earthy potato taste, and were pleasantly salted and not greasy. These are rustic potato chips, not shoestring but almost English-style. They were unpeeled, which contributed to the great potato flavour. We also requested samples of the mayonnaises but although the counter staff made a pretence of registering our order on what looked like an incredibly complicated cash register, these samples never arrived. I guess it's too casual a vibe to care about customization of orders, even though each burger costs a minimum of $20.

The homemade tomato sauce is rich in clover honey overtones which masked the tomato taste. Perhaps I am biased but for me, none can come close to the gold standard in tomato sauce that is Heinz Tomato Ketchup. The homemade chilli sauce is heavy on the cumin and tastes like a pureed salsa.

The homemade cola was nice but the cocktail was a little stingy on the rum. These arrived in oh-so-hip-and-casual paper cups and were not mixed before pouring into the cellulose receptacle, hence a molecule thick layer of rum lay on the surface. At $14 for a cocktail you would think a quick shake or stir would be in order.

The Experience
It is very hip indeed. The service staff treat you with respect, that is, they're pretty cool and they don't pretend to smile if they don't feel like it. That's not to say they're unfriendly, but there's none of that saccharine "Have a Nice Day" obsequiousness that permeates American service culture. No, here they listlessly take your order and look you in the eye, daring you to ask for a customization, which they pretend to acknowledge, but then, since it's, y'know, a casual diner and all (did I mention $20 or more per burger), they promptly ignore. I felt rude to remind them because they did look so tired (and unfriendly) at the end of a day. Perhaps the ubercool (and very loud) music wore down their nerves as we had to shout our orders to the staff.

Perhaps it was telling that the only people eating burgers were Caucausian folk. All the Asian faces I say were clustered together sharing a large plate of poutine-type fries. They were well aware of how expensive this joint is.

The cost for two burgers, one side of fries, one cocktail and one non-alcoholic drink: $80.


A perfectly equivalent burger, but unfortunately not by Potato Head Folk, would be Fatboy's Burger at half the price. Fatboy's also serve their drinks in old-fashioned glasses, allow you to build-your-own-burger and, quelle horreur, have table service.

You would not go to Three Buns for the burgers, but hey, if you were already here at Potato Head Folk, did I mention Potato Head Folk, drinking fashionably casual cocktails in paper cups, perhaps you'd be inclined to purchase an overpriced burger. The taste doesn't disappoint, but the expense would be well-counted as a premium for a Potato Head Folk night out.

Restaurant Reviews Rekindled

After a long hiatus, ca. 15 years, I am going to do restaurant reviews again. I'd thought that food blogging was passe after becoming so ubiquitous, but I just can't stand it when people are wrong on the internet. There's a lot of misinformation out there about food, the dining experience and the art of good eating. So much pretension is entangled with eating that I want to bring the focus back to the food and conviviality.

I am an enthusiastic cook so I will be comparing the cost of ingredients to what would be readily available to anyone with access to Culina, Cold Storage and the local NTUC or Giant. This will allow a "value for money" estimation but culinary skill will, of course, be a premium and not a given for every home kitchen. I just can't stand it when I'm dining out and I'm forced to pay a premium for something I could have made at home with ingredients from the NTUC.