Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A lack of choice in Singapore - and for that I am grateful

Venue: Esquina
Style: European, tapas
Address: 16 Jiak Chuan Road, Singapore [Google Maps]
Phone: +65 6222 1616
Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri from 12pm / Dinner Mon-Sat from 6pm
Bookings: Yes, recommended [the menu says, "no reservations!" but apparently there's been a change in policy]

Some contemporary psychologists contend that too much choice leads to unhappiness; this is based on the idea that when faced with a range of options, we experience "analysis paralysis," uncertain of how to make the best decision and, thereafter, regret over that which we did not choose.

Anecdotally, I can appreciate this, as I am a food fetishist now living in Hong Kong, a relatively small area offering 12,000 hawker stalls, dessert bars, sky bars, normal bars, cantinas, steakhouses, private kitchens and some guy with a sweet potato and quail egg cart which smells surprisingly good each time I walk past. It is the foodie equivalent of Whack-A-Mole; for every remarkable eatery you visit, there are a dozen more you should try and five more probably opened as I was finishing this sentence.

It was with relief that last week's trip to Singapore was only for two nights, denying me much choice in where we dined. There were only two destinations: 1) local Singaporean fare at the Maxwell Food Centre and, 2) Esquina.

Like it's sister restaurant in Hong Kong, 22 Ships, Esquina is named for where it is situated; the former on Ship Street, the latter literally on a corner (the Spanish word being, 'esquina'). I can see why they opted not to name themselves after the street itself - "Jiak Chuan Road" was entirely meaningless to our cab driver, who thought we'd prefer to spend the evening in a car park instead.

Once inside, we engaged in conversation with executive chef Andrew Walsh, who sold us on the multi-course tasting menu without so much as having to twist an arm (no brutish behaviour whatsoever; you do wonder if you'll at least get some colourful language when dealing with a team whose culinary director is a protégé of Gordon Ramsay).

We drank Palacio Remondo's 2011 "La Vendimia" rioja blend of garnacha and tempranillo, not because I know that much about wine but the blood orange and soft tannins tasting notes struck me as being well suited to a meal that would run the gamut of seafood, cured meat, paprika and Manchego.

First came breakfast, a miniature stew of pure egg, smoky Iberico and a bravas sauce at the bottom that was so tangy as to be sweet. In a good way. 

Spanish Breakfast: Slow-cooked egg, bravas sauce, potato & crispy Iberico

For our second courses, I opted for the scallop ceviche, which was so clean-tasting as to almost be a palate cleanser. Really, they should make a gum flavour out of this dish. Nate and I swapped plates halfway and I tried his Iberico Bellota course, which is as melt-in-your-mouth as pork products get, with a nutty taste.

Scallop ceviche, iced cucumber, avocado and wasabi puree, radish and yuzu ponzu

Iberico Bellota

Up next is sea urchin, a delicacy that doesn't overwhelm people with happiness if you tell them that's what you're bringing to a dinner party. The outer spines effectively conceal that inside, there is nothing but tender deliciousness. This course was the umami equivalent of a nuclear weapon; Nate and I ceased to have any awareness of one another's presence while this was in front of us. It's remarkable how meaty seafood can taste and this was like a crayfish had had its genes spliced with a bag of Porcini mushrooms.

Sea urchin & crab bisque, sea grapes & herring roe

Things briefly get out of hand when whipped potato explodes from chef Andrew's cream cannister, decorating the guests sitting next to us as well as the good chef himself. They may be perturbed, I can't tell, but Andrew has a sense of humour about it, leans in for a photo and orders complimentary drinks for the "victims."

The remnant of confit egg yolk dripping down the side of the shell in the picture below gives some sense of the decadence of Esquina's beef tartare: you are encouraged to tear apart your bread, pile it up with the ruby red beef pieces and mop up the creamy egg and frozen foie gras gratings as you eat. It's a triumph of excess.

Beef tartare, spicy ketchup, confit egg yolk, frozen foie gras & toast

The tartare is a tough act to follow, but having tried 22 Ships' smoked beetroot, goats cheese and pear dish, I figured this variant with burrata and honeycomb would not let us down. It's a masterful combination of taste and texture, I just can't go past a dish that is smooth, crunchy, sweet, nutty and herbaceous all at once. Another word that needs inventing: something that describes a person who is greedy for sensory variation.

Marinated beetroot salad, honeycomb burrata, pinenut crumble

I realize that saying "everything is amazing" is boring but I can only work with the facts. The honey roasted chicken wings do bear a resemblance to a bowl of rolled oats, but the crumbly granola and truffle milk is delicate and balanced, with no element overwhelming the other and we wanted more, on the spot.

Honey roasted chicken wings, pinenut, bacon & oatmeal granola, truffle artichoke milk

Next in the procession, another scallop dish, essentially a "surf 'n turf" but with a regional variation: airy green curry with gamey duck meat alongside the large, firm scallop and the best coconut rice I've tried (could the secret be to use coconut cream rather than milk?).

Seared scallops, duck green curry, pickled papaya, coconut rice

Nate and I had been eyeing the roasted padron peppers leaving the kitchen and our hungry eyes were rewarded with a complimentary plate of them, in all their spicy, chargrilled, garlicky glory.

Roasted padron pepper, chilli, garlic, salt

Closing out the savoury courses was the most aggressively meaty dish on the menu: a combination of ox cheek and tongue, with great development of flavours, which had been cooked long enough as to dissolve in the mouth, set against a half-crunchy half-smooth hazelnut pesto sauce.

Ox cheek & tongue, tarragon & hazelnut pesto

Pre-dessert tasters of sangria ice-cream cones are cute but could taste more of sangria for my liking.

Sangria ice-cream cones

I decide to be predictable and give in to my chocolate craving, ordering up the chocolate mousse with chocolate soil, blackberries and churros. The mousse comes in a nice, thick quenelle but isn't noteworthy, though the churros are right on the mark: crisp and fresh without a trace of grease. Nate's choice of peanut butter with caramelized banana and rum is more memorable, with its distinctive sweet, burnt flavours.

Chocolate mousse, chocolate soil, blackberries, served with churros [background]

Peanut butter & jam sandwich, peanut butter ice cream, caramelized bananas, rum & raisin jam

It is at this point that I am reminded of something Steve Martin said: "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture." The same is true of food, assuming that, like music, it makes you feel something. Something that you must tell others about, so that they might be moved as well. It's then that you realize how inadequate language is and that there is no word that captures exactly how a paper-thin slice of dry-aged pork feels against your tongue. Someone once said to me, as I struggled to describe something, "It's the memory of it that's always better anyway." Spoken like a veteran of the only thing worse than bad food - bad sex. The memory of it is never as good which makes the moment in which you eat it that much more tantalising, because soon it will be over and no barrage of language can capture the visceral pleasure of well-made food, particularly when eaten in good company.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Pope parties, steak and a lack of planning

Rock you like an Ecclesiastical hurricane

Argentina is indeed a blessed land, and not because one of their countrymen was just elected pope. Rather, this is a place where dulce de leche is a BREAKFAST spread. Think caramel-flavoured Nutella, or, diabetes with your morning coffee.

Yes, I was the weirdo photographing the Catedral de Buenos Aires floor

Catedral de Buenos Aires

...and the wall, too

Speaking of 'Papa,' I'm just returned from his inauguration party in Plaza de Mayo. Never mind your thoughts on the Catholic establishment, this was a hell (hah) of a good time. Enormous screens have been erected either side of the cathedral and at various other places in the park, set to broadcast the ceremony live from Rome in a few hours. If there is already one thing I'm like to miss about this place, it's the street music. The drummers tonight didn't appear to be part of any official congregation, just locals who are passionate about playing music. The beats were thunderous and prompted the crowd into dancing and flag waving. The scent of charred meat filled the air and smoke rose up across the plaza, from the myriad stalls offering freshly candied almonds, fat chorizo sausages and hunks of pork.

Maté, the South American infused yerba tea associated with socializing, was readily being poured and handed out by locals. The entire affair had the feel of a carnival, assuming your carnivals feature pope badges, pope mugs, pope flags and a mobile missionary station offering insta-baptisms ("Bautsmos aqui!"). At the edge of the plaza, away from the din, stands Casa Rosada, lit up in pink and blue, where Eva Peron rallied the people from the balcony.

The city looks and feels like a grittier version of Paris. Belle Époque and Italianate architecture line the avenues and make for a beautiful skyline, while on the ground, the sidewalks are cracked and buckling. Barrio (neighbourhood) Microcentro is as glossy as any modern CBD, with the financial institutions taking up the best real estate, shining glass buildings and besuited porteños favouring pinstripes and statement high heels.

San Telmo street art

San Telmo

San Telmo

Argentine National Congress

San Telmo

Their bookstores are better than our bookstores

Posh chocolate caliente @ Cafe Tortoni

Cafe Tortoni

Tomorrow I leave Buenos Aires for the border of Argentina and Brazil, to see the Iguazu Falls, twice the size of Niagara. The other component to this adventure will be establishing if I can obtain a Brazilian visa at the border consulate. If I can, I may be off to Rio de Janeiro. If I can't, it'll be back to Buenos Aires for a mix of closed-door dinners (chefs who organize private dinners at their homes instead of at restaurant venues), tango, cooking classes, trekking...

I have no plans. I'm going where my mood takes me.

Monday, March 18, 2013

La Cabrera, Buenos Aires

Venue: La Cabrera
Style: Steakhouse
Address: 5099 José Antonio Cabrera, Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina [Google Maps]
Phone: +54 11 4555 3242
Hours: Lunch Fri-Mon from 12.30pm / Dinner 7 days (Early Bird from 7pm)
Bookings: Yes, recommended

One might say of La Cabrera, come hungry. Or better yet, come from being told by your GP you have an iron deficiency.

Perhaps iron deficiencies are not widespread in Argentina; their countrymen have an affinity for steak much like the Bavarians have for beer - ordering a small causes something of a commotion and the table-side intervention of the manager.

Eating Latin means eating late - restaurants in Buenos Aires typically open for dinner at 8.30pm, with diners lingering after midnight and beyond. Buenos Aires native Gaston tells me that unlike the Spanish, porteños do not take siesta, making for some considerable sleep deprivation if not a lack of iron.

Advantage: gringo. Venues such as La Cabrera are a known entity to tourists, but where this might ordinarily be a reason to avoid the place, dining early affords a 40% discount on all food and wine.

The waiter and I discuss, in his broken English and my broken Spanish, what I look for in a wine. With verbiage failing us, I get my point across by miming being punched in the nose. Success - the Terrazas de los Andes Reserva Malbec is like being struck with a hand wearing a velvety, purple glove. Aggressive, with style. Tastes of dark fruit, oak and some violet.

Morcilla, Basque-style w/ sweet relish and chimichurri

At my waiter's behest, I accept that my black pudding order should come in a half serve - portions at La Cabrera tend to be gargantuan. The pudding arrives in a somewhat sterile fashion on a steel tray, ready for dissection and already bursting goodness. Inside is the equivalent of meat-flavoured peanut butter - hot, spicy and gooey. It's best savoured with lashings of fresh chimichurri.

La Cabrera's steaks come with a chorus line of supporting players, including pickled onions, creamy mash, applesauce, corn mash, creamed peas, corn cous cous and champignons. The corn mash is the highlight and reminds me of a conversation with some fellow diners once about how restaurants manage to "just make food taste better!" The answer, as demonstrated here, is butter.

Average portions are 400g with 800g options available in the traditional Argentian style as well as Kobe. So at 200g, my steak is considered miniature. It comes still sizzling on its hot plate, just medium rare and very juicy, with luscious charred flavour.

Service is punctuated by good humoured staff who are happy to try to negotiate the language barrier. They bring a dulce de leche lollipop tree with the cheque. And the damage? Not that you can call it that; ARS$138 (AUD$26). 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Gonzo pornography's little known sub genre: Bacon

Venue: La Luna Bistro
Style: Modern Australian, Steakhouse
Address: 320 Rathdowne St, Carlton North [Google Maps]
Phone: (03) 9349 4888
Hours: Tue-Fri 12pm-3pm & 6pm-10pm / Sat-Sun 12pm-4pm & 6pm-10pm
Prices: Starters $4-19 / Mains $23-57 / Sweets $16 / Feast Menu $85
Bookings: Yes, recommended

Another Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, another visit to La Luna. Last year´s Meat, Malbac and Manly Men feast left a lasting impression on me, attributed to the thick, salty-sweet blood brûlée served for dessert (and partly the Argentinian ambassador´s striking white suit).

This year´s lunch revolved around suckling pigs and concluded with a less gory, more Willy-Wonka-esque take on brûlée, finished with chocolate-covered candied bacon strips.



The only trouble with starters of house-made lardo, salami and prosciutto is that they´re rife with delicate flavours, smoke and herbs and cannot be ignored into small portions, despite an abstract awareness of how much food is to follow. The pickled onion served alongside the prosciutto especially good, cutting through the ribbons of translucent fat.

Prosciutto and pickled onions

Bacon and onion croquettes w/ bacon mayonnaise

As with the preceding courses in what looks to be a habit forming, the bacon and onion croquettes are a tough prospect for anyone trying to save their appetite. The silkiness of the mayonnaise is accompanied by intense bacon flavour; why isn´t this sort of thing available in a jar? Oh, right, my arteries.

Brawn, pickles

Pigs ear schnitzel, sweet apple cabbage

Pigs ear schnitzel has a satisfying crunch and chewiness, not unlike the texture of veal. As is the norm at La Luna, the bolder flavours are offset by the bed on which they rest: sweet and sour apple cabbage and heat from the hint of mustard.

Pork and fennel sausage, parsley salad

Cottechino, roasted garlic aioli

As far as mascots for offal are concerned, cottechino should be given a sash and a cheer squad. Cooked over many hours, cottechino goes from charcuterie to almost resembling beef cheek in depth of flavour and softness. La Luna´s spicy cottechino melts away in the mouth and leads to a minor dispute at the table over who will take the last portion, never mind that there is 40kg of suckling pig en route.

Texan pulled pork w/ corn and avocado salsa

Our last "starter" of pulled pork is more-ish without being mind-blowing. The meat is moist and there´s plenty of sauce, however, it wants for more smoke and heat.

Don´t anthropomorphize me

At last, it´s time for suckling pig, which the kitchen staff parade through the dining room. Formal introductions are made yet I cannot recall any of the pigs´names. I´d feel bad about that were there not worse things to feel bad about where the pigs are concerned...

They were not wasted, though and large helpings of trotter, tail, crackling and face soon were soon piled high on each table.

Chocolate brownies and vanilla crème brûlée w/ candied, choc-drizled bacon

Dessert arrives after a comfortable wait and consists of dense, bite-sized brownies and eye-popping vanilla crème brûlée asking to be eaten with a candied bacon spoon.

On the matter of fat, the MF&WF programme is thickening each year and is bloated with overpriced events of little inspiration. La Luna remains one of the best value options on offer; the produce and cooking are outstanding and Adrian and his staff are obviously bacon fetishists, such is the fun they have prepping and hosting.

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