Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Chocolat N' Spice, Shunfu Rd, Singapore

Nestled amongst your typical hawker fare at the Shan Fy Food Centre (Blk 320 Shunfu Rd) is this stall selling baked stuff. You'll probably smell their products or see the queue before you actually come closer and see what the fuss is about. This "fuss" is some of the best tasting freshly baked muffins I've tried. The brainchild behind this establishment was apparently a hotel trained pastry chef who decided to set out to bring these tasty treats, at affordable prices, to the heartlands. Well, this doesn't mean anything because I've had pretty poor pastries at five star hotels, so it's best to let your taste decide.

The chocolate chip muffin is pretty much their trademark favorite. Going for only 1SGD, these are slightly crisp on the outside and marvelously moist and rich on the inside. You can taste the richness of the butter and eggs in this. The number of egg trays stacked beside their ovens are just a testimonial to how many of these babies are churned out everyday.

If you love rich chocolate brownies, you have to try these. Filled with enough walnuts to impart a slight crunch, the rest of the indulgent super-structure consists of rich, thick but not-too-sweet brownie dough. Great with some some vanilla ice-cream on the side.

The peach slice was only average though. Somehow it just paled in comparison to everything else.

A new flavor has been introduced and I was extremely pleased that this is one which I've conjured up in my head many a time - the double chocolate chip muffin.

Moist, buttery and decadent chocolate muffin dough infused with chunks of bitter-sweet chocolate, this is simply king.

I've had alot of varying responses from my friends who tried the muffins here and some do feel they're over-rated. For 1-1.20SGD a pop, I don't think price is an issue. The best way to do these muffins justice however, is to dine-in and have them fresh. I notice that the take-away muffins only taste half as good. They do have a very limited set of cutlery and plates if you want to dine in (why do I always seem to be the only person doing it though?).


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sin Kee Chicken Rice, Margaret Drive, Singapore

So I'm back now in Singapore and what better way to jump straight back into local food than a dish that can't be more localized as chicken rice? I don't usually get cravings for chicken rice but somehow, just the thought of hot, fluffy and oily savory rice with tender and succulent slices of chicken seemed like what I needed after a short trip away. Sin Kee on the first floor (i.e. the floor above ground) at Commonwealth Ave Cooked Food Centre can be considered somewhat of an institution in Singapore and although I heard that there were some "issues" which led to the other stall opening at Mei Chin Rd Food Centre (pretty damn good in their own right), this place still continues to draw the crowds.

I reckon the test of a good boiled chicken is the tenderness and succulency of the breast meat. The last thing you want is a tough dry slice of breast where the sinews of flesh get caught between your teeth. Thankfully, the chicken here is done pretty well. My only gripe was that it wasn't served warm because they're normally hung up after being cooked and served at room temperature.

The little plates of sauces included the typical thick black soy sauce, a pretty tasty albeit mild chilli sauce (looks fiery here but it was sadly quite tame) and the pounded young ginger. I love the pounded young ginger but not all chicken rice stalls serve it.

Well, even if the bird was slightly cold at least the rice was steaming hot. I think they've toned down on the grease in this since I last had it but it still was really fragrant and tasty. I personally like to stir in abit of black sauce and chilli into the rice whilst it's still steaming hot but maybe that's just me.

Since I was already here, I decided to order a plate of that char kua teow for good measure haha.


Sunday, January 28, 2007

Pho 24, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

I guess it certainly was befitting that my last meal in Vietnam before going off to the airport was a bowl of steaming hot pho. Having been recommended Pho 24 over Pho 2000 by some locals, we decided to give them a shot.

Pho 24 overall exudes a slightly higher level of finesse over Pho 2000. Taste wise they weren't too bad either. These cha gio (deep-fried springrolls) were crisp and filled with juicy minced pork.

The condiments for the pho are all laid out nicely on square porcelain plate.

The pho bac biet I ordered had a broth that was pretty tasty and the assortment of meats in it were quite good. In summary Pho 24 gives you a dining experience which is a tad bit more refined but with visibly smaller portions. Overall, I still think that Pho 2000 gives you better bang for your buck. It seems that when most restaurants start going "upmarket" it goes hand-in-hand with a sacrifice on the serving portions.


Giant Glutinous Rice Ball, Vietnam

The making of this dish is extremely fun to watch. The glutinous rice ball slowly expands when cooked but it's mainly filled with air.

With a crisp outer shell and a chewy and slightly sweet inner shell, this has got to be the largest rice ball I've ever eaten.


Friday, January 26, 2007

Shrimp Burger, KFC, Vietnam

I like to check out the fast food chains when I'm in another country because there's usually some localized dish that is unique to a local chain, such as those tasty spicy tom yam wings that they have in Thailand's KFC. In this Vietnamese KFC, the only thing that caught my eye was the shrimp burger plus it was the most costly as well which only acted to pique my curiosity further.

Thinking that I was suckered into buying a burger filled with processed ingredients, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the shrimp patty consisted of whole junks of crunchy, juicy shrimp, which still tasted rather fresh. I guess my expectations weren't that high to began with so this burger easily surpassed them.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Banh Bao, Vietnam

This banh bao stall by the road brought drive-through takeaway to a whole new level for me. Whilst we were driving back to Ho Chi Minh from Vungtau (on a highway mind you), the driver said he'll pull over for some banh baos. So he stops the car by the road and signals this lady across the other side for his order. I looked around for a pedestrian crossing, but there was none in sight, so... unless this girl could fly, she was going to cross a busy highway with a bag of baos; and that was what she did!

Look left, look right and look left again (actually she did none of the three)...

Climbing over the road divider...

Now she's on our side, steady girl, just a few more steps...

And there we've got it. Bao in hand. Banh baos are basically very similar to the Chinese paus that we get in dim sum joints. Nothing spectacular really, but the fact that a life was risked so that I could have this indulgence definitely warranted me finishing every crumb.


Mixed Rice and Gelato, Baria-Vungtau, Vietnam

Most breakfast places in Vungtau sell rice or noodle sets, but as I was hungering for something with more bite (read as more meat), I decided to walk around the town abit and see what else they had to offer. That was when I stumbled on this little queue. A mixed rice stall doing brisk business by packing a lot of lunch takeaways for people on their way to work. There were also numerous pre-packed bags of warm desserts to go.

Not knowing what was their specialty, we basically just requested for some of their "best dishes". An assortment was presented to us. The beef salad, soup and pork ribs were not bad but the winner in this assortment was the fried chicken with the tangy chilli sauce.

As such, we decided to order another serve of the fried chicken plus some grilled pork chops and deep-fried beancurd. All of them were pretty delicious but the chicken still took the cake. After this substantially savory and proteinaceous meal, I needed something sweet to finish it off but as the weather was rather warm, I had little interest in the pre-packed soup desserts and decided to scout around the town for something else, something cold.

That's when we chanced upon this gelato joint. After a brief chat with the owner we were informed that she had learnt her ice-cream making skills from a "Vietnamese master gelato maker" who migrated to Italy years ago where he honed his art. Interestingly enough, the flavors which made use of artificial syrups were more costly than the ones using natural fruits; she explained that the syrups were imported from Italy and therefore cost more. Needless to say, we chose the ones with natural fruits!

In order to taste a large variety of all their flavors (all seemed pretty good), we opted for their kem (ice-cream) special. Upon first taste, a refreshing burst of flavors surrounded my palate. These were really very good, from the top of my head, the flavors were jackfruit, durian, chocolate, strawberry, pandan, corn and taro. All of which were done very nicely indeed.

In addition to the gelatos we also ordered an ice-chocolate and a banh flan. The ice-chocolate, which I thought would be a drink turned out to be exactly what it was translated to be, some chocolate ice-cream and chocolate syrup on crushed ice! The banh flan however, was fantastic. Banh flan is basically creme caramel but there are quite a few variants in Vietnam. This cafe tops of the sweet and rich caramel with rich espresso coffee (instead of the caramel sauce) creating a bitter-sweet contrast which was just super.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Hot Spring Eggs, Baria-Vungtau, Vietnam

In a more secluded area of Baria lies a hot spring resort which still allows you to cook your eggs in the hot spring water. I remembered how they allowed you to do that in the hot springs of Taiwan until the practice was banned due to health and hygiene reasons.

Pop some uncooked eggs into the rented baskets and slowly immerse them fully in the hot water. There are actually some cooking instructions on how long to leave them in there if you wanted them hard, semi-hard or still runny. But I guess all these instructions were pretty arbitary since the temperatures seemed to differ from various hot spring wells.

Apparently, these eggs are cooked inside-out, it's pretty hard to tell when they were all well-done.

Perhaps I was just really hungry or these were supposedly free-range eggs, but after a dash of salt and pepper, these did taste pretty damn good.


Monday, January 22, 2007

Seafood in Loc An, Baria-Vungtau, Vietnam

On the way to Baria from Vungtau, we stopped by this pretty cool seafood restaurant in Loc An that serves the freshest seafood. The catch is either caught the day itself or from the man-made lagoons surrounding the restaurant, created for rearing various tasty morsels from the sea. These round fishing boats are unique to Vietnam and require a lot of skill to steer (like heaps!).

Raw fish salad, we ate this with rice paper like a roll. It was not too bad, but I was never really a fan of raw fish. Still, the tangy dressing made it rather refreshing.

These, I loved. Sundried shrimp that's subsequently charcoal grilled with some seasalt. Chewy and tasty, great stuff to go with beer!

The oysters are freshly shucked and grilled on the spot before being served. With just a drizzle of lime and salt and pepper, a few platters of these were easily wiped out.

There's always a place for steamed clams. The bits of ginger are put in to balance the overpowering scent of fresh clams but I never really was put off by overly "clammy" smelling clams anyway.

We were told they had some special crabs for us. So boy was I excited when this arrived.

Look at her, spread before us in full glory. A pity I'm not a fan of crab roe haha. I really appreciated their efforts but was actually hoping for something meatier. Nevertheless, this close-up is for all you crab roe lovers out there.


Sunday, January 21, 2007

Banh Mi, Baria-Vungtau, Vietnam

A review of the foods in Vietnam will never be complete without featuring banh mi. Banh mi basically means "bread". These bread loaves resemble sub-style mini baguettes and are ubiquitous in Vietnam; probably another reflection of their French colonial past. Banh mi comes with a variety of fillings, the most common one being "banh mi thit" which is basically a mixed meat sandwich with a very tasty pate spread. Other varieties include banh mi nem nuong (with the grilled sausage), banh mi ga (with chicken) or banh mi rao cai (just vegetables).

For simplicity's sake I'm lumping Baria and Vungtau together as a single province but they aren't really. Baria is about 20km from Vungtau. Baria has about 20 bakeries that make banh mi, of these 20, only three are still using traditional wood-fired ovens.

So here I was at the oldest wood-fired bakery to get my fresh and warm banh mi.

There's a lot of wood stocked outside to fire these ovens, not surprising since they hand-make (all the dough is kneaded by hand) about 2500 banh mi a day and always sell out!

So here I was with a warm banh mi in hand. What's in it? Was it a banh mi thit, banh mi nem nuong? It was just empty banh mi. The warm and crisp crust gave way to reveal the soft, chewy and delicious bread.

Plain banh mi and a cup of ultra thick Vietnamese coffee. Sometimes, the most enjoyable things in life are best kept simple.


Friday, January 19, 2007

Quan An Ngon, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Quan An Ngon (loosely translated as "delicious") is a pretty trendy eatary which has a dining concept that is quite unique in Vietnam. It aims to deliver street-food in a clean and comfortable dining setting. The perimeter of this predominantly open-air restaurant is lined with various stalls cooking popular Vietnamese dishes. You order from the menu and the waiter will place your orders with the various stalls and serve the food to you when it's done. It's a good place to introduce friends and guests to a wide range of Vietnamese foods under one roof and the fare here is very decent as well.

Ordered a serve of banh cuon just for comparison's sake. The one at Ben Thanh Market is still slightly better because the rice skin is softer and thinner but this one comes pretty close.

Banh Xeo is a Vietnamese savory pancake. It actually reminds me abit of thosai.

The thin crisp shell encases shrimp, minced pork and bean sprouts. This is eaten with basil leaves and a sweet fish sauce. Very tasty.

I can't remember the name of this but it uses a similar batter to the banh xeo so I'm going to call them mini banh xeos for now haha. This tastes pretty ok, it doesn't have the shrimp or minced pork like the larger banh xeo and the batter is slightly thicker making it more like a savory cake.

Bun chao tom is minced prawn meat wrapped around a sugar cane stick and grilled over a charcoal fire. It's commonly serve with these vermicelli sheets. The sweetness of the sugar cane slightly permeates the savory prawn meat making this rather delectable indeed.

Deep fried squid, this isn't really Vietnamese and comes with a very generic bottled chilli sauce but it was fried, crispy and tasty, so I still loved it anway.

Fresh springrolls eaten with a thickened sweet fish sauce with crushed nuts. A refreshing snack on a hot humid day.

Goi du du tom thit again. The raw papaya salad here tasted fresher than the one I had. A pity the serve was rather small.

The sea snails here are alot larger than the ones at the street stall but the sauce although fragrant was a tad bit too sweet for my liking.

I don't even know if this is a Vietnamese dish but I'm a sucker for grilled meats on sticks, so when I saw these pork kebabs, inevitably it appeared on my table.

Crab cooked in tamarind sauce. The crab was very fresh and the sweetness of the flesh prevailed but the sauce was ridiculously tart making this quite a waste of good crab.

The warm desserts in Vietnam seem to share some things in common, namely coconut cream and ginger. This is similar to the glutinous rice ball dessert available in Singapore but it was served with a ginger syrup and a dash of coconut cream. Ginger haters will loathe this but I actually found this rather nice.

Even the sweet soybean curd is served with ginger.

Glutinous rice and green beans served with more coconut cream and ginger syrup.

This is the taro version of this popular dessert.

I'll definitely pop by Quan An Ngon again when I'm next in Ho Chi Minh. Sure it isn't hardcore street-style dining and the prices are comparatively more dear but its convenient eating concept and the decent quality of the fare served is good enough to warrant a second trip.