Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Majestic Hotel, Saigon (Amazing lodging, solid breakfast)

After a 4 day stay in my old hometown of Singapore, I started the next leg of my Southeast Asian Tour i.e. traveling to countries I've never visited. Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon, was my first stop. We started the trip off on a great note at the Majestic Hotel. The elegant hotel is located across from Saigon River in District 1 (the district with the most action). It's been around for almost a century and you still get a feel of the French colonial influence in the architecture and decor, but the hotel is anything but old or shabby.

Most importantly, our room prices came with free buffet breakfast.

We started off with a sweet but strong Vietnamese coffee, and a mimosa (price not included).

Thanks to the French history, the Vietnamese pastries were really good. I am a croissant snob and I thought their mini croissant was amazing - buttery and fresh, with a tinge of sweetness.

So excited for the pork congee which came with an assortment of toppings. I loaded up on the century egg and salted yolk. Lots of fried shallots and dried shrimp added the right amount of salt.

Pate for breakfast, how French.

The dim sum selection was standard but thankfully didn't taste frozen.

One of my favorite dishes was the pho which the chef assembled to order. It included a fragrant broth and topped with beef slices and beef balls. Unfortunately no tripe or tendons here. The addition of fresh squeezed lime, herbs and chili made for a lovely breakfast. One bad thing was that I was sweating bullets while eating this in the 90 degree humid weather.

I love the fresh tropical fruits in Southeast Asia - things you would be hard pressed to find here in the States. This plate included dragonfruit, pomolo, pink guava, passionfruit and papaya.

Hotel Majestic
1 Đồng Khởi
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
(08) 3829 5517

Monday, September 19, 2011

Penang Place, Singapore (Getting a spread of Malay food, all in one meal)

Since my time in Singapore was very limited (4 days), my mom took me to Penang Place so that I could sample all my favorite Singaporean food in one sitting. Penang Place is located at the new business center Fusionopolis. It's a buffet spread, but the food is actually really good and authentic. It's also very affordable at SGD22 per person

These are the fixings for nasi lemak. Nasi Lemak means "fatty rice" in Malay. This is because the rice is cooked in coconut milk and pandan/screwpine leaves. The rice is then topped with an array of toppings that include ikan bilis (deep fried anchovies), peanuts, cucumbers and spicy sambal chili.

There are many types of laksas and they are all noodle soups. My favorite laksa is the Nyonya laksa made with spicy coconut curry broth. The version I had at Penang Place was the Assam laksa which tastes completely different from the Nyonya version. The broth is sour and spicy, and made with a tamarind and fish base. The Assam laksa was prepared to order. The noodles were topped with shredded fish, cucumbers, pineapple and herbs. I really liked the tang of the broth.

Rojak is a do-it-yourself dish which mixes fresh fruits and vegetables (mango, pineapple, jicama, cucumber) with spicy Rojak peanut sauce. The Rojak sauce is made with belacan, peanuts, lime and spice.

Chicken curry with potatoes were delicious (I went for seconds). I love Malaysian curry, which is richer and thicker than Japanese curry. The spices used here usually include cumin, coconut, lemongrass and ginger.

The beef rendang flavors were well developed. I loved the tender meat and the very spicy sauce. Otak, steamed fish marinated in spices, was wrapped in banana leaf. I also sampled some char kway teow/fried noodles with cockles and chili. Everything on the plate was rich in flavors. Even the seemingly common spring roll was delicious.

Fresh Cuttlefish with kang kong/water spinach was dropped in boiling water to cook quickly. It was then topped with hoisin sauce and sesame seeds

Other items included a few dim sum selections and Assam fried chicken wings (really good, with crispy fried skin).

My favorite was the dessert section with an amazing spread.

Black glutinous rice topped with coconut cream was super rich. I loved the fibrous texture of the glutinous rice. The dessert was sweet and topped with creamy coconut milk.

There was a large selection of Kueh/kuih which are tiny steamed desserts that usually include sticky rice or agar agar/gelatin. I also tried a deep fried jackfruit which had a very interesting texture. The fruit was soft and fleshly (almost similar to room temperature durian) and was fragrant. They also served puddings, chendol (jello in coconut milk) and ice kachang (shaved ice) but I was too stuffed to try.

I have to say that there was a great representation of Malay dishes at Penang Place. I think this is a great place to dine at if you do not have much time in Singapore but want to sample some of Singapore's famous dishes. I was dining with locals who are really good home cooks, and they too were impressed with the quality of the food.

Penang Place
1 Fusionopolis Way,
Connexis #B1-20/24,
Singapore 138632

Friday, September 16, 2011

Nirai Kanai: Okinawan cuisine in Singapore

I met up with a few old friends from middle school in Singapore. We decided to try an Okinawan restaurant in Tanglin Shopping Center. It's located in a pretty ghetto building that smells of moth balls, not to be mistaken for Tanglin Mall, a much newer shopping mall.

There were four of us so we were seated in the private tatami room.

The food are served small-plates style, with both popular Japanese dishes as well as Okinawan specialties. The menu is huge, sort of in the vein of Cheesecake Factory. There were lots of stir fried and stewed dishes. They also had a special menu focusing on kurobuta (black pig) dishes.

I don't usually like to order salads but the lotus salad was surprisingly so good that we ordered two of these. It was almost like a Caesar salad, with fresh creamy homemade dressing (you could see specks of raw egg yolk) and mayo. The lotus roots were sliced thin and deep fried. They were crunchy and very delicious.

Tuna Carpaccio was thicker than what I expected from a carpaccio. They were much like sashimi slices. The fish was fresh and nicely seared. The tuna was topped with Japanese mayo.

The beef takaki was fresh and soft. I really liked the texture of the beef. The dish was served with a salty dipping sauce.

The Okinawan Pancake was just ok. It was thin and tasted like a crepe, but it was lacking in flavor. It definitely needed the dipping sauce. I also thought that the bonito flakes had a strong fishy smell that was rather repulsive.

Lady finger with tofu and pancetta. The okra was rather slimy so it's not for everyone, but I couldn't stop myself from eating it. I really enjoyed the texture.

Chicken Cartilage was crunchy and not greasy. They were served in pretty large pieces. I liked that it was seasoned appropriately.

Chicken teriyaki was pretty standard but I was glad that the thigh meat was juicy and not dry.

This pork belly is their signature dish. It was pan fried and had layers of fatty and tender meat. The meat had a very distinct porky flavor and topped with crispy skin.

It was Ladies Night on Mondays so it was 30% off drinks of parties of all women. I really liked being able to share and sample various dishes. The pork belly and cartilage were my favorites, but everything (apart from the pancake) were also very good.

Nira Kanai Okinawan Restaurant
19 Tanglin Road, #04-05
Tanglin Shopping Centre, Singapore

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ah Yat Seafood, Singapore (Getting fresh Chili Crab & Bamboo Clams)

Before I left Singapore, I had to have the famous chili crab so my parents took me out for a seafood lunch at their favorite joint, Ah Yat Seafood Restaurant. This is the place that my parents always take out-of- towners because the seafood is super fresh and the choices are vast. Prices are also very affordable. Ah Yat is located in Turf City, an old racetrack which was converted into a food and shopping mall. The place is pretty old and run down, and unfortunately, it looks like the lease is up and tenants will be asked to vacate by the end of the year.

Besides seafood, they also serve dim sum. The best part is, dim sum is at a 50% discount on Mondays through Saturdays.

Our dim sum selection included chive dumplings, har gow and Shanghai dumplings. The steamed shrimp dumpling was pretty standard but I was pleased with the plump shrimp filling and good wrapper that wasn't thick or gummy. The crystal dumpling w/ chive with shrimp was also pretty good. The Shanghai dumpling had a soft wrapper and nice flavorful broth.

My favorite is always the turnip cake and this was freshly pan fried

Chicken feet is a dim sum staple. Nice spice to it. Much better than the one I got at the hawker center.

Bamboo clam was cooked with loads of garlic. The clams were fairly meaty and very fresh. I love that they didn't overcook the clams. The meat was tender with a sweet flavor.

Oyster with cheese was kind of like an oyster Rockefeller, except that I have never come across such a large oyster. The oyster was still fairly raw and had an amazing oceanic flavor. It was super rich as it was topped with cheese and cream. It looked a bit scary (with the cheese and all) but it was very tasty.

Chili crab is a famous Singaporean dish with lots of garlic and a thick sauce. This crab was an Indonesia crab. The very spicy sauce was so delicious that you'd want to sop it up with fresh baguette. It gets very dirty, and there's a lot of shell-licking. The best part about Ah Yat is their prices. This 1.5lb crab normally costs SGD39.99, but was SGD17 with the discount (or US$13). What a great deal but more importantly, what an amazing dish.

This place hits the marks on all point. There is no corkage. Not only are the prices very affordable, but the seafood is spectacular. They get a huge supply of fresh seafood every day and the selections are massive.

After lunch, we checked out the live seafood tanks in the back area and found really unique seafood such as jumbo clams, conchs, geoduck, many different crabs including Sri lanka crabs, snow crabs, Alaskan crabs.

It's sad that Ah Yat and the other tenants have to relocate at year end. I'm hoping they will find a home elsewhere, because this place really is a hidden gem.

Ah Yat Seafood Restaurant
200 Turf Club Road #03-01
+65 6883 2112

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hitting up the Hawker Centers, Singapore

When you travel to Singapore, you really shouldn't waste your time feasting on western meals at fancy restaurants. You should definitely take in the local food. In a country where many cultures, races and religions co mingle, the local food in Singapore is a lovely combination of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and Peranakan flavors. The best way to get a taste of the local food is to head straight for the hawker centers. Hawker centers are food courts (typically open-aired, although many indoor air-conditioned ones are popping up around town) with many stands that specialize on specific dishes. I love how everything is fresh and cooked to order. Many food stands offer various dish sizes so you can sample a bunch of small plates from different stores.

Ghim Moh Hawker Center

I wasn't intending to eat when I accompanied my mom to Ghim Moh market. We had planned on just picking up fruits and seafood. But when I saw the carrot cake stand, I just couldn't resist.

Carrot cake, also known as Chai Tow Kway, is not what you think. It's not sweet and it's not a dessert. It's turnip cake, fried with eggs and pickled radishes. You can order it black (with soy sauce) or white (as is).

We ordered the black version which was delicious. The scrambled eggs and diced radish cakes were perfectly coated with sweet dark soy sauce. I also loved the crunch and sourness of the pickled radishes.

We also ordered Char Kway Teow, which is a signature Singaporean dish. Noodles are fried up with eggs, sprouts, chunks of lard (very key!) and plump cockles. The noodles are cooked with dark soy sauce and chili. Some stalls exclude the lard and the cockles (for health reasons), but in my opinon, those ingredients are crucial for the perfect kway teow. I love how the cockles are also a tad bit undercooked and taste extremely oceanic. The lard chunks are fried to a crispiness which you know is an artery-clogger but totally worth it.

To end the meal, I stopped for a Chinese donut, also known as youtiao or you char kway. You can't go wrong with freshly fried up pieces of golden-brown dough. It was crunchy on the outside and airy in the center.

Commonwealth Hawker Center

The next day, I went to Commonwealth Hawker Center in search of oyster omelet (oh chien). Unfortunately, it was a Monday and many stalls were closed, including the one I was looking for.

The chicken feet was a bit disappointing. It was lacking in salt and spice. In addition, the skin was soggy and tasteless. I never leave any feets on the plate but I did this time.

Congee with lots of fun innards. Loved the pork intestines, stomach and liver. There was also the more common ground pork. I loved the organ flavors in the porridge.

I ordered the char kway teow again, but thought this wasn't as good as the plate from Ghim Moh. The kway teow here wasn't as spicy and it was a bit watery.

Also, there were fewer cockles in this plate, and they weren't as large as the ones at Ghim Moh's.

Apart from the congee, I wasn't impressed with the hawker food here. They do serve a killer fish head noodle soup which I'll have to try some other time.

Newton Circus
This is the motherload of hawker centers. It's been around for many years, has been remodeled, and houses numerous stalls. It is a bit overpriced for hawker center standards, but is still way cheaper than anything you can get in LA. I really wasn't planning to check it out on the last day I was in Singapore, but I had to get my oyster omelet.

This store had everything I wanted! Satay, oyster omelet and carrot cake (again).
The satay in Singapore is just outstanding. I love how it's grilled up in front of you. The meat (in this case, chicken and pork) is always well seasoned and juicy. The spicy peanut dipping sauce is the perfect pairing to the meat sticks. It's so good that it even makes the plain cucumbers and sliced onions taste delicious.

This is the 'white' version of the carrot cake that I had at Ghim Moh. Tasty but I prefer the sweetness of the dark soy sauce in the dark version. Love the sambal chili that they serve alongside.

Finally, what I was searching for - oyster omelet, or oh chien. It's a mixture of starch, eggs and huge oysters. Similar to the cockles in the char kway teow, I love how the seafood is only slightly cooked. This definitely tasted more like raw oysters than fried. The oyster juices were all mixed in with the egg and starch. Think there was also some pickled radishes in the dish which added a noticeable tang. I enjoyed this dish, but I thought it was kind of pricey - SGD$9 and there weren't that many oysters (probably around 6-7).

Finally, an ice kachang to cool off in the hot, humid climate.

It's a shaved ice dessert filled with lots of goodies such as red beans, agar agar/jelly, sweet corn and palm seed (which is like a hard but chewy jelly). The shaved ice is topped with coloring and most importantly, sweet condensed milk.

I only had 4 days in Singapore but think I was able to get a good flavor of the cuisine in such a short time.