Marketing gimmicks make this Hotpot chain a winner!

I’m back in Hong Kong for two weeks because of the Summer school break in Auckland which means that I have come back to cooler Winter weather because of the reverse in seasons. For my tummy, cool weather simply translates into hotpot time – an excuse to get together and catch up with good friends for one of my favourite shared meals.

A close friend recommended this amazing hot pot find. A place called Hai Di Lao hotpot restaurant which started in China’s Sichuan province in 2004 and evolved from a humble spicy (ma-la) hotpot chain to a 300 outlet chain all over China, Hong Kong, recently opening in Singapore and the US. We visited the outlet in Kowloon’s bustling Yaumatei district. For those who want to try it – head out of Yaumatei’s MTR station, exit A1 and its just around the corner, up the stairs in the next door mall.

There is literally something for everyone from food to entertainment here based on the sheer marketing genius that is behind it’s brilliant customer service. In fact, keeping the customer waiting has become an art form at this restaurant.

Make a reservation and arrive in time for it but don’t expect to be promptly seated. In fact, you should expect a queue … and a VERY LONG one at that. However there are no angry complaints, hungry crying children or irritable guests (all common sights at crowded Hong Kong eateries). Instead, this restaurant has turned waiting time into a fun pre-dining experience for all who come.

Seats and free snacks

There are seats for everyone in the queue, albeit rather unsophisticated stools and small tables but no one is left standing.

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Whilst you wait, you can help yourself to a free-flow complimentary range of snacks or fruits, water,  pop corn, crisps and even ice cream (if you want it before your meal). Before long, you will find yourself happily chatting, itchy mouth occupied and hunger soothed whilst you whet that appetite. If you are still bored, pick up one of their readily available board games or leave the kids to watch TV or get them busily occupied in the Kid’s playroom.

Free Gel Nails

Ladies, forget future investments in your expensive gel nail package. The outlet here has a team of manicurist that offer a free gel nail service.

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They  remove your old set, reapply the new and you have an ample choice of trendy colours and embellishments. Definitely gets you coming back for your next fix every month when your nails grow out. An act of sheer marketing genius in my books!

Birthday Parties and Performances

Birthday celebrations are also a performance art here. The service crew come out to sing a song, stereo music accompaniment blaring in the background. By the time that they are done, everyone in the restaurant knows its your special day. Bring your own cake or order one from the outlet. Whatever makes your visit and the occasion work!

The restaurant has occasional impromptu performances here like the Chinese face mask changing artist. They go from table to table to entertain guests during dinner.

VIP Members

Customer retention and loyalty is a big thing here. VIPs (we are not sure how one qualifies for this) have a little sign that says you are ‘Diamond member’ delivered to the table.

My host who was a diamond member got the full works – a service staff who knew his name, a visit from the outlet manager to our table to chat and find out how we were doing – at the same time delivering a free box of beautifully packaged red packets from the restaurant for Chinese New Year. My host shares that they even give away mooncakes when the annual mid-autumn season season arrives.

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Whilst we happily chatted away. we had our hot pot items cooked for us at the table by the hostess, drinks refreshed almost every five minutes, all despite a crazy turnover of customers coming in and out of the restaurant. Someone also came by to take a commemorative photo of our table when the food arrived and at the end of the meal, each guest at our table got a print out of the photo in a sealed zip lock for safe keeping. This was nothing short of the whole works in terms of customer service.

The Menu

The hotpot menu had good and wide variety and was high tech. No paper menus with everything available only on a tablet which is left on your table. In terms of the food – hot pot is hot pot – there is not a lot that you don’t love about the experience since you literally pick your own favourites and the pleasure lies in the camaraderie of cooking it.

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What I truly thought was innovative and unexpected was the soup tray. Usually you get a ying yang tray with a maximum of two compartments. This restaurant offered a tray with 4 cooking slots which meant that you could have 3 or 4 soup bases with different flavours to cook your food in. We chose the sichuan hot soup base (known as ma-la), a pork bone soup broth and a tomato soup base (my favourite) leaving the last compartment for hot water to cook the veggies, noodles or just to rinse out our cooking utensils.

And just when we thought that the experience was ended, our order of noodles arrived with dancing waiter in tow. Dinner theatre was his noodle dance hand-pulling the noodles according to the preferred consistency – thick or thin.

If you don’t like noodles, don’t fret, there is also a wagyu beef fried rice at the buffet bar which comes complimentary with the meal, alongside a variety of starters. Everything is free except the sauces (HK$22 per person) and the drinks ($15 per person and refillable) which honestly was a nominal fee considering how everything else was already thrown in.

Dessert arrived – a finale of fresh fruits and a clear Osmanthus Pear drink. Go back to the buffet bar if you want seconds and help yourself with more. All complimentary, of course.

Open 24 Hours!

No one politely chases you out after an hour – which is the case at most of Hong Kong’s popular hot pot buffet restaurants, just to accomodate a turn over of customers. Instead, here you roll yourself out voluntarily – just to walk off all you have eaten pre and post main course. Whoever said hot pot was healthy as it was all soup – clearly has not been to Haidilao!

And did I mention it is open 24 hours a day here with queues at midnight being the norm! It definitely needs to go to Australia and New Zealand where there are Chinese communities with appetites for novelty and exactly this type of concept.

Find their Hong Kong outlets here

 

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The Art Of Grazing

I had four great parties to attend (and host) over the recent festive season, in Auckland. And with the Kiwi practice of ‘bringing a shared plate’ something that Singaporeans would call a ‘pot-luck’ dish, I decided to be adventurous and announced that I would bring a grazing platter as a starter.

Fascinated with the concept of grazing, I have discovered that you can create a visually stunning ‘gourmet’ platter, quite simply and effectively at home. All you have to do is to put the right ingredients together in the right combination, employ the right serving tools and follow some really simple and useful guidelines which I have shared below .. and voila!

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Experience from the four parties this season has taught me that the concept of a grazing platter is a great way to break the ice, especially if you have a room of people that don’t know each other well. Because of the nature of the platter and the fact that you have to come close to pick off it, it actually brings everyone together, around the table or a central area instead of having people wander off to different parts of the room and engage in separate conversations. As it is the first course to any meal, it also visually whets people’s appetites and tastebuds and quite often because it is first on the table, it almost always gets emptied with gusto. And that’s the impression you want to leave everyone with – that it was so-o-o-o gooo-ood!

Some quick tips to create a stunning grazing platter:

Decide on a theme

Depending on the size of the party and what the other starters are, decide if yours is going to be an all-cheese or a mixed meat and cheese platter. Then select the ingredients you buy, to suit your general theme.

A Cheese-only platter has as its staple at least 3 basic cheeses (preferably 2 hard and 1 soft). With this, you will serve up a menu of dried and fresh fruits (raisins, cranberries and apricots) combined with seedless grapes preferably red and green and a variety of whatever berries are in season. Add on a variety of sweet (candied walnuts) and salty nuts (cashews and almonds), plain and fancy crackers, Dips are optional but it is nice to have a flavourful savoury dip (a salmon and caviar cream) and a tangy sweet dip (ginger-marmalade chutney) or a nutty dip (vegan pistachio and cashew with sun-dried tomatoes) to make things interesting.

The Mixed Platter has a meat or fish component added on to the above.  If its meat  that you are going for, I recommend 3 different meats – prosciutto, a mild salami and a cured or smoked spicy chorizo – all thinly sliced are all winners to me. With a special occasion like Christmas, the Mixed Platter can look visually appealing, deliver that generous, wow factor and feed a fairly big party.

From Italian anti-pesto to Greek Mezze, Mediterranean, Spanish Tapas or North Indian – the themes are all up to you and what you think will best wow your guests. The important thing about a theme is to find a theme-specific dish  to anchor the platter and build the items that you choose around it, to support and create an edible story.

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The Right Tools

It’s true, presentation is everything and first impressions do count especially since the art of feasting, begins wth the eyes!

Invest in three types of basic boards to present your platter. A long wooden plank serves a large group of up to 25, a round 12 inch pizza style paddle  with a handle can feed about 15, a regular sized lazy susan also makes a good and larger option to a 12 inch paddle plus it has the advantage of being able to rotate. And if you can get a square or rectangular bread board, this also creates good options to feed smaller parties.

Build a small collection of empty glass food jars. Don’t collect standard sizes, instead make sure that they are in different shapes, sizes and heights. Consider also that the mouths of each of these jars will be wide enough so you can hold anything from breadsticks to carrot wedges. I like jam, honey or sauce bottles (labels soaked and stripped off).  I also save the amazing terracotta jars from French dessert shop Paul Lafayet, each time I buy one of their ready-packed desserts from the super-market. I often also buy interesting patterned or odd-shaped clay bowls when I travel or look for unusual sauce dishes that will add interest and highlight to whatever theme I have chosen for my platter.

A couple of quality fancy cheese knives (as those will be scrutinised and well-used on your platter) are also good investments along with a number of small-ish spoons that can be used to scoop out the dips onto crackers.

The pleasure of grazing is having a small pick either stuck into the food you serve, or available in a jar so guests can grab one and pick at what they want. Invest in a few rustic looking mini skewers, metal picks or mini dessert forks along with small dainty cocktail size serving dishes or trays for your guests to enjoy the graze.

Tuck or fold a small napkin along with your palm sized serving plates and mini dessert forks or fancy picks. Hand these out once everyone has a drink in hand, and you are ready to start the party.

Quality rather than quantity

It is so tempting to think quantity when you are buying to fill a grazing platter – 3 packets of this and 4 packets of that … I have learnt that you should go quality rather than quantity.

Whilst it is important to have enough, interesting items and a good variety does matter and lends an artisan feel to your creation.

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Here’s a shopping list of what went into this platter which I organised for 20 guests.

  • Grapes and Carrot sticks and Blueberries (1 plunket of red and black seedless grapes, loose anti-oxidant rich blueberries and carrot sticks)
  • Cheeses (5 types altogether: 3 soft creamy cheeses – I picked a Double-Cream Camberbert, Regular Brie and a Creamy Blue. There were also 2 hard cheese – I picked a Dutch Maasdam Cheese which looks just like the ones you see in the Tom and Jerry cartoons with the holes in them – they are lovely and firm and you can shred or cube them easily, just like I did with the Gouda)
  • Meats (3 types – shredded Proscuitto, slices of Mild Salami and thinly-sliced Spicy Smoked Chorizo)
  • Crackers (3 types – Textured Oat and Walnut with Cranberry crackers and Cracked Pepper Wafers. To make it appetising, I also bought a variety of cheese and herb sticks which I stood up in a bottle jar)
  • Nuts (2 types – Salted chilli mixed nuts, Sweet mix of raw almonds, walnuts, cashews and cranberries)
  • Dips – A lovely Salmon and Caviar cream fresh from the Auckland Fish Market.

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Handmake your signs

The key to the success of your platter is to make sure that it has a few indisputably interesting quality items that you highlight with signs so that they also become positive conversation points and ice breaker topics.

Show some pride and effort for your creation. Bring attention to these items by creating some signs to highlight them.  The concept is the same as what you see in a fancy restaurant menu. It’s all in the copy. You automatically want to try it out of curiosity when you read that it’s not just fish but ‘line-caught Atlantic Wild Salmon’ and instead of mushrooms, these are ‘hand-picked first-crop Truffles’. Remember it does pay to put the extra into the ordinary and don’t leave your guests guessing at what they are picking at.

Variety and texture

A platter should not be static, one dimensional and blah. There are a few rules when arranging your platter.

img_1343For example place your cheeses at the ends of a round cheese board or near an edge of a square platter so that people can access them easily to cut off a wedge or pick a cube of what they want.  Cube the hard cheese or crumble it into chunky pieces. Look to give everything a sense of depth and texture whilst at the same time controlling the portion sizes on your platter.

Have things laid out in according to what makes sense – put the bland flatbread or breadsticks next to a tangy or savoury dip, the cucumber or carrot sticks next to a something spicy or flavourful. Have the blue cheese next to the pear and walnuts so that people don’t have to search for what are natural food pairings. Look to wow with colour and contrast.

My next graze challenge …

With the Lunar New Year around the corner, my next personal challenge is a themed grazing platter that incorporates an Asian theme with nibbles like kwa-chi, nuts, new year goodies like peanut and walnut cookies, my favourite pineapple tarts, bak-kwa (roasted pork), pork floss, various sweets and savouries, mandarins, pomelos and flowers especially pink peonies (my personal favs).

If you have been inspired and want to join in the challenge – send me pictures of what you have created and I will be happy to share them on our facebook page or instagram.

In the meantime, a happy new year to all and watch this space – for shots of my next little home-made effort – from the heart and hearth of my kitchen to yours!

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Elaine

 

 

 

 

Wei Private Kitchen

Happy new year to all! It’s been a year since I last wrote a food review anywhere—the first hiatus I have taken on all my 28 years of food writing! But it’s nice to get back to it at the start of 2019, all refreshed and in a slightly different, more relaxed style. And how auspicious for us to discover a brand new private dining gem so early in the new year!

Wei Private Kitchen is a brand new private dining venue barely opened a month ago. I was invited there by a dear friend P, who runs the highly successful and intelligent Plural Art Magazine. It was our first time and so we all didn’t know what to expect. Happily, it turned out very well indeed, but perhaps with bit of minor teething issues (or it could be that I am just being ‘aunty’ about it).

Wei Private Dining is run by professional chef Ang Wei Ming at his cosy maisonette in Coronation Plaza. You sit at his ample dining table in air conditioned comfort, with a view overlooking rooftops of Bukit Timah. Come early enough and you’ll be treated to lovely sunset as he whips up your dinner. He is casual and friendly and puts you at ease from the start, but does not impose on your party unless you chat him up, like we did.

Dinner was a contemporary Asian eight-course feast at the hands of an expert who has worked in Penang and the kitchens of several hotels in Singapore, including Pan Pacific Suites at Beach Road (if I remember correctly).

It started with an amuse buche of century egg tofu with tobiko and spring onions. Then on to a delightful Thai-inspired salad of grilled chicken, pomelo, mango, cucumbers in a tangy, deceptively spicy dressing.

The Penang prawn soup that followed was downright excellent, comprising a rich, savoury-sweet prawn stock nicely in authentic Penang style—he learnt it from a hawker in Penang at 3am after much begging—and slices of pork belly, one of which was lightly torched for added flavour. We would have had seconds if not for having to save stomach space for the rest of the meal.

The chilled mala angelhair with caviar, woodear fungus and cucumber was excellent too, though the spiciness of the Sichuan peppercorn chilli was clearly and thankfully toned down for local palates.

The other highlights for me were the Spanish suckling pig served in two phases: first the crisp delicate skin with a sprinkling of sugar, no doubt with a nod to northern Peking duck, which helped counter the delicate layer of fat. Then the meat, drippingly juicy and tender, was served with a light homemade Taiwanese kimchi which was more subtle than its Korean counterpart.

Though simple, the fat stir-fried prawn and French beans served on perfectly cooked glutinous rice, was also very very good indeed. Other dishes on the menu, which were enjoyable but not my personal highlights, were the wagyu beef with brioche bread and cod with XO sauce.

 

The palate cleanser was a soursop sorbet with blueberries, followed by a grand fruit platter of particularly sweet water apples and pineapples with Wei Ming’s homemade spiced sugar. Again it sounds simple, but we would have wiped out the entire plate had we not been so happily replete. Sadly, we had no more space for a second round of the soup either – which we had not forgotten.

Wei Private Dining allows for BYO, but if you had wanted some champers or wine to go with his menu, I’m sure he would be able to procure as well. From our dinner, our Mumm Champagne went nicely with the salad, and this buttery semi-dry Chardonnay (picked up from the NTUC downstairs) went excellently well with the rest.


But those who love their tipple will not miss his wall of impressive whiskeys near the spiral staircase. He calls it ‘Tipple for Tips’—help yourself to a shot or two and lay down a tip as you wish—but of course, it is an honesty bar. And so I ended a lovely dinner there with a generous pour of an aged Manhattan.

There were what I believe should be a few teething problems. There were no champagne flutes so we drank our bubbly from wine glasses. The kitchen-being an open concept – could have been tidier; so too the empty plates and bowls which piled up around us with each passing course and not cleared away. Then again, we understood the chef was working alone, and we didn’t mind helping him clear the table.

All in all, would I return? Definitely. The food was very good indeed, the setting comfortable, and price very decent. Chef Wei Ming changes his menu every month and has a Chinese New Year menu coming up as well. He does mainly dinners, and takes one booking a day only. However, if you are nice, he might do lunch too. Prices start from $100 for a minimum of 8 pax, maximum 12. One extra thing to note – access to the rest room is via a narrow spiral staircase, so keep that in mind if you have guests with any disabilities or special requirements.

To book the cook: chefweiming@gmail.com

I take the liberty to share his January menu ($100 per pax):
1. Thai Style Grilled Pork Neck with Mango Salad
2. Chilled Century Egg Tofu
3. Poached Garoupa in Spicy Lemongrass Lime Broth
4. Suckling Pig – served two ways
5. Wagyu and XO Rice, Homemade Pickles
6. Iberico Pork Belly Sukiyaki with Cured Egg Yolk, Spring Onions
7. Pineapple Carpaccio with Sogurt© Original Frozen Yogurt
8. Seasonal Fruits with Spiced Sugar

And his CNY Family Favourites menu ($128 per pax)
1. Homemade Yusheng with Abalone 鲍鱼发财捞生
2. Fish Maw Soup with Yunnan Ham and Cabbage 鱼鳔云腿白菜汤
3. Otak Chawamushi 香辣蒸蛋
4. Roasted Suckling Pig, served Two Ways 黄金烧乳猪,双味
5. Superior Braise of Duck, Pork, Assorted Seafood and Vegetables in Claypot 家乡一品锅
6. XO Fried Rice XO酱炒饭
7. Pineapple Tart 2.0 黄梨挞 2.0
8. Ice Cream with Bacon Crumble and Walnuts 香肉核桃雪糕

Comida Mexicana – Mexican Fare & Margaritas We Can’t Get Enough Of

Newly opened in Katong, Comida Mexicana is technically not new — it was formerly Margarita’s East Coast. In its refreshed branding and new menu, proprietress Vivian Wee continues to serve up top notch Mexican fare with a focus on healthy cooking, quality ingredients and fabulous flavours. I’ll admit, this post is particularly enthusiastic because hers has been our favourite neighbourhood restaurant for well over 15 years (ie. we’ve put our money where our mouth is), and we are very familiar with her as well as the food she whips up.

Oh, but Mexican is so heavy, and it’s all just refried beans and tacos, you say. Well, rest assured, not here.

For those who like their tipples, let me just state that they serve the best margaritas on this earth. There are several grades on the menu. The higher grades are smooth and well rounded, but the house pour margarita’s ($18) are good enough for me — I like them with a bit of an edge. And you’ll definitely feel the buzz from these. I like them classic, but if you fancy a twist, the tamarind margarita — as odd as it sounds — is actually very nice. There’s also sangria, mojito and daiquiris if you prefer.

Food portions are very generous here and meant for serious sharing. Not like the trendy ‘sharing plates’ that are actually two-thirds the size of full main courses, these are genuine, generous, hefty dishes. As a guideline, if there’s three of you, you’ll just need two appetisers and two mains to share, and get a jug of margarita. If you still have space for desserts, order two again to share. We promise you’ll be rolling out the restaurant after that.

So, on to the food. To start, share the mashed avocado sopes ($20), little tarts (made from scratch) piled with refried beans, guacamole, and a lime wedge, and my must-have, tortilla chips with home-made red salsa ($6), tangy, rich, with a substantial chillied kick. The mushroom fritters are great too.

From her main courses, the Mexican Yucatan chicken ($28) is a must have, comprising five large pieces of grilled leg meat on skewers. Marinated in achiote, garlic, orange and lemon juice, they are tasty, juicy with a zippy tang, served in a tortilla ‘bowl’ filled with salad and four steamed tortilla. Get hands-on and assemble your own tortilla wrap, filled with meat, salad and pieces of fried tortilla bowl. Since it made its debut, this dish has been making ‘instagrammed’ countless times and has won many over. And it’s large enough for two to share.

The carne asada ($52) is a drippingly juicy, boldly flavoured grain-fed beef marinated in brandy, tequila and orange juice, served with tortilla, pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, salsa rojas, and black beans. It comes to the table sizzling, and is absolutely delectable. We love the carnitas, too, comprising delectable pulled pork slow-cooked for two and a half hours and served with tortilla, salsa rojas, salsa verde, and guacamole. Like the chicken, these are meant for hands-on assembling fun. If you fancy seafood, the cornflakes crusted baby snapper fillets ($32) with roasted tomatillo sauce is good – crisp, zingy and generous. The chicken burrito, and the braised lamb shank ($38) are also favourites.

If you’ve still got space for dessert, have the salted caramel pina colada bread pudding ($15). Unapologetic and not for the faint at heart, this is made of brioche soaked in dark rum and cream, with chopped pineapples, coconut ice cream and lashings of salted caramel sauce. Divine. And there’s the kahbrita ($14), a moreish composition of homemade coconut ice cream coated in chocolate powder, kahlua and a shot of espresso. A Mexican version of the affogato.

A passionate cook who is also totally health conscious, Vivian makes everything from scratch in her restaurant kitchen, from the sauces and salsas to ice cream. She imports most of her ingredients from Mexico and the USA, including avocadoes, chillies, beans and tomatillos — and most of them organic as far as possible. Canned ingredients are avoided as far as possible. Another thing worth noting, with three days advanced notice, she offers made-to-order reduced-sugar cakes such as Kahlua Tiramisu, Carrot Cake, Banana Cake, and Bread & Butter Pudding ($80-$150 for 3kg, takeaway only). And did we say they serve the best margarita’s on earth?

404 East Coast Road, Singapore 428998
Tel: (65) 6440 8030
(Closed on Mondays unless they are public holidays or PH eve)

Fratelli’s Colossal To-Die-For Veal Rack

Located in Hotel Michael in Resorts World Sentosa, Fratelli has made it to my personal list of ‘must go’ restaurants in Singapore, and definitely worth the drive to Sentosa.

This celebrity chef restaurant — backed by brothers Roberto and Enrico Cerea of three-Michelin starred Da Vittoria in Lombardy — is a contemporary Italian restaurant that serves up creative, contemporary yet authentic fare with fundaments firmly based on the traditional cuisine. The cooking here is delightfully precise, and the dishes impressively done (and I’m not easily impressed these days). Helming it is Chef de cuisine Davide Bizzari, and together they have just rolled out their new menu, with most items from the ‘mother restaurant’ in Lombardy.

If there is one thing you must order, it is their colossal 1kg bone-in Milanese veal rack. Juicily tender and sweet, the meat is coated in breadcrumbs and crushed breadsticks, then deep fried in clarified butter. You could smell the butter wafting in like a herald as the cutlet was hauled in; then it was assembled at the tableside – with roasted tomatoes, crushed potato wedges and lemons arranged on top. Bite into it, hear the splintering crunch of the breaded coating, inhale the buttery aroma and the experience brings tears to your eyes. It’s true. I thought I heard a choir of angels sing. On the menu, they call it “elephant ear” and it is almost that large. The bone runs on just one side of the cut and the rest is beautiful meat. As the only main course, it could easily feed six conservatively. This is a seasonal item — read ‘short term’ — and the meat is from native Italian Piedmontese breed called Fassone, known for being lean and tender.

Another must-have is the Pizza Oro Nero, a squid ink pasta topped with mussels, salted cod fish, clams, baby squid, plump orbs of trout roe, tomatoes and topped with gold dust. Set against the black ink, it is the most glamorous looking pizza I have ever encountered – and it was good too.

The chittara pasta ($34) is worth having for its uniqueness. It is handmade, and shaped by pressing sheets of fresh pasta through metal strings strung across a wooden frame — quite a tedious process. This results in a spaghetti that has a square rather than round cross section, with a firm, short bite. Served with braised short ribs ragu and shards of truffles, it is a very rich, thick, hearty dish which, while delectable, is best eaten in small doses, in my view. Lovely as it is, it can easily become ‘jelak’ as we say here in Singers.

For appetisers — sorry, we seem to be working backwards here — go for the steamed Boston lobster ($48) with avaocado wasabi cream and red capsicum mousse. Everything on the plate is as it should be in its best rendition — juicy sweet, lightly chewy lobster; and intense, smooth, luxurious mousse and creams which must not be wasted.

A highlight for dessert is Rosella’s Strawberry Planet, a meringue sphere which you break open to get to the strawberry inside. All in all, a fabulous meal, even if the interiors had a somewhat bland 1990s look.

Good to know: If you’re driving, just park like how you would go to Universal Studios, take the escalator up and walk along Festive Walk towards the hotel. Fratelli has an entrance facing Festive Walk, obliquely opposite Osia. That’s probably the most straightforward path to the veal rack.

Tel: (65) 6577 6555 or email Fratelli@RWSentosa.com
Closed Tues

Ginett – Stylish Bistro, Good Food, Fabulous Prices

I have been driving past Ginett every day since it first opened. The route home from my daughter’s school brings me past this restaurant along Middle Road with its eye-catching black-framed windows and glittering bar with a heap of wine glasses suspended overhead. Very NYC in style and most inviting indeed. I always told myself I would pop in one of these days. And I finally did over the weekend.

In a word, Ginett is a fabulous restaurant to linger over a lazy meal. Its interiors is Paris-inspired but with the laid back vibe of a Melbourne establishment; service is friendly and warm. Tables are arranged cosily, but with enough distance to be comfortable, and most importantly, the food is good and the prices even better.

If you want to have a light nibble with friends, order the 1 metre cheese board ($56), with four cheeses and four charcuterie, many of which are made inhouse. The chorizo in particular is very good. Pair it with a bottle of wine, or a parade of their very well-priced wines by the glass (from $6). As the restaurant sources and imports its wines directly, they have been able to keep prices at the sweet spot. Ginett’s more than 70 labels come from France and includes some unusual labels. Bottles start from $30.

The one-metre long cheese board. Easily the most generously filled cheese board in town.

For brunch, the deceptively named Duck Gravy is soul simple food elevated to divine levels of comfort. The description in the menu falls short of reality: expect two sunny-side eggs on more than duck gravy, but a most generous heap of pulled duck cooked confit style (I think). It was a juicy, tasty, savoury slop but perfectly comforting. A must-have that tastes a whole lot better than it looks, it is also big enough for sharing. The eggs benedict was not that great though — the sauce was rather dry and the yolks not as runny as it should be.

Duck gravy – the name is deceptively vague and it is way more delicious than it looks.

Ginett’s signature dishes are the grilled meats cooked over apple wood charcoal. Have the ribeye or striploin (300g for sharing) at $42. We also tried the rotisserie chicken — it was all right but the breast meat was dry and overall, a little under seasoned.

For dessert, we had the profiteroles which, rather than filled in the classic way with cream, was sliced in half, with scoop of ice cream in between. I plan to try the baba au rhum the next time we head there.

At the end of the day, the stars were the cheese board and the wines. It is worth noting Ginett has about 30 types of cheeses in total, and next door, its sister outlet 25 Degrees offers good burgers.

The wines and cheeses are listed on the board on the wall.

Look out for Executive Chef Emmanuel Xu, a unique figure in the industry. From China, he had worked in Paris for 11 years, then back to Beijing for a few more years and now he helms the kitchen at Ginett. He is also the man behind the burgers at 25 Degrees.

Good to know: Ginett is open daily from 7am till late; last orders are particularly late — 10.30pm from Sundays to Thursdays, and 11.30pm on Fridays and Saturdays. On 23-27 May, award-winning French cheese master Gérard Poulard will be at Ginett to demonstrate the art of cheese pairings. He’ll be bringing along over 30 cheeses from boutique cheesemakers France.

200 Middle Road
Singapore 188980
Tel: (65) 6809 7989

5 Reasons Why Taste is A Grocer Like No Other

Taste Singapore is not the sort of supermarket you’d go to look for your usual tau-gay, hae bee and pork bone (“One kg please”). Cradled in the Holland Village enclave within the Raffles Medical building, this newly opened gourmet grocer is the place to go for gourmet foodstuffs, but be prepared for correspondingly premium prices. We were really excited to find unusual goods here, with a different supermarket experience to match. Here are five reasons this supermarket stands out above the rest in our books.

1. You can grab a Spinelli’s coffee and sip while you shop. The Spinelli’s counter sits right by the down-escalator as you enter the shop.

Talented florist and former fashion journalist Yi Lian Ng explains flowers at her counter within Taste

2. There’s a super talented florist in the house as well. Yi Lian Ng’s floral arrangements are stunning, and definitely on a stylish tangent off from the conventional bouquets. Come here to pick a gift or the get a table arrangement for your dinner party while you shop for your groceries.

3. There’s a Japanese restaurant SENS in the middle of the supermarket. You can pick  your meal from the menu, or get your favourite cut of meat from the butchery section of the supermarket and have the chef cook it for you at an additional cost of $8 per 100g. How cool is that?

Essential must-know’s at Taste

4. Go to Taste Singapore for a gastronomic evening out. Book the table by the wine section, then wander around and pick out a favourite cut of meat at the butcher section, and ask them to cook it for you with some simple sides. Head over to the deli and pick out your cheeses and ask them to lay it out on a cheese board; and pick your bottle of wine from the wine section. You get the idea. All this will be brought to your table at the wine area and you can you tuck into your meal in the middle of the supermarket. Not enough? Have a wander around again, and pick up more food.

Some cheeses from the cheese room. Our favourites were the pesto cheese (the green one) and the truffle cheese (bottom left). Lovely stuff.

He who brings Croatian cheese into Singapore for the very first time. The PAG cheese is well worth having on your cheese board this weekend.

5. There are lots of fabulous finds on the shelves of Taste. The Cheese Room offers a fantastic range of cheeses including Croatian PAG goat cheeses (probably the first time Croatian cheese is available on retail here), a moreish pesto cheese, and a truffle cheese; while next to it, the wine section includes a particular lovely, floral French gin from Cognac. The  meat section has a good selection of wagyu, and the bakery offers breads made on site fresh from the oven. If you need bread customised (eg. gluten free, etc), call in a couple days in advance.

What your weekend dinner could look like at the communal table at the wine section. You can book this table for your own dinner at the supermarket.

This floral gin is one of the most elegant I’ve tasted in a while.

118 Holland Avenue, Basement 1, Singapore 278997
Tel: 6264 8389

The Market Grill at Telok Ayer

Had lunch with some friends at The Market Grill just this week. It’s always a treat to head down to Telok Ayer, which has become Singapore’s ‘gourmet central’ with the opening of many hip eateries there over recent months. Market Grill itself is not new, but this is the first time in ages that it has rolled out new offerings on its menu.

We had a corner table in the narrow pre-war shophouse restaurant. The setting is predictable — noisy, close-quarter seating and open kitchen seem to be the pre-requisites of a hip restaurant these days. Pity we couldn’t hear the music until the restaurant emptied out after 2pm. It was lots of rock and 1980-1990 hits that are, admittedly, quite my time. All around us was an edgy industrial-meets-retro decor including vintage bar stools. It made us feel ‘cool’.

On to the food. The Market Grill, as its name suggests, is mainly known to be a carnivorous place. But also for its lobsters. Our meal took a lighter direction.

First up, was chargrilled artichokes with an anchovy sauce, which was nice but a little dry.

Then came the best lamb koftas ($19) I’ve had in ages. Crisp fine batter on the outside, and juicy, smooth minced lamb inside with light touch of spices, and served with an enticingly piquant dish of pickled beetroot and the same anchovy dip. (It’s not easy to find good koftas, which tend to be dry, gristly and grainy oftentimes.) Godzilla-sized mussels came after that, served in a pot with seafood bisque and baguette. The mussels were pillow-tender despite their colossal size, but a tad briny in flavour.

I really liked the main course of grilled seafood platter (market price). The whole Atlantic  lobster was incredibly fresh, with delightfully firm, sweet flesh; the chargrilled seabass was good too. There was considerable charring outisde, but the white flesh inside remained moist and flaky. For dessert, we had the fromage blanc ($12), a light cheesecake-like slice delicately sweet, served with fruits, granola and candied nuts for a lovely counterpoint.

Good to note: Wines by the glass here are limited — one choice only for bubbles, white and red. The rest are by bottles but prices are decent. Also noteworthy, they serve lobster rolls ($48) if you’re in the mood.

208 Telok Ayer St, Singapore 068642
Tel: 6221 3323

Acqua e Farina – A laid back restaurant that checks every box

There are those days when you just want a night out with the family, with good food, decent prices and where you don’t have to dress up. Plus a little something extra to perk up the experience, rather than the usual ‘same-old, same-old’. For me, the latest restaurant that checks all these boxes is Acqua e Farina (meaning ‘water and flour’), a cosy restaurant in Rail Mall, Upper Bukit Timah. For a meal there, I am happy to drive all the way from home in Siglap in the East.

When I first heard that this new Italian restaurant specialised in pizza and pasta, I was struck bored as nails. But since my first visit there, I have been back with family in tow. First, the food there is really good. The pizzas in particular are worth the drive. In the rain. With a sore throat.

Chef Antonio Manetto, one of the owners, does the pizzas. Hailing from Naples where the best pizzas in Italy are from, he holds up the reputation well. (The other owner is chef Roberto Galbiati who comes from Milan, and specialises in desserts and the heartier cuisines of northern Italy. Which means you get the best of both ‘ends’ of Italian food here.) Apart from using a particular kind of flour flown in from Italy, he lets the dough rest for an extended period of time, which results in a wonderfully light yet robust pizza base, chewy without being heavy. From this, he serves up a good range of red and white pizzas including signatures such as pizza Acqua E Farina ($25) topped with spicy salami, tomatoes, mozzarella, ricotta and sautéed spinach, and Pizza Bufala ($25) featuring  two kinds of mozzarella.

What I liked particularly was the restaurant’s unique boat pizzas which seem like a cross between a calzone and a Turkish pide. The Barca Bufala ($26), or Sicilian boat, was great, bursting with juicy tomatoes, melted buffalo mozzarella and draped with generous servings of Parma ham. The prawn spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and chilli was enjoyable too, rich and aromatic, with pasta made from scratch, and cooked till nicely al dente, with a bouncy, lively consistency.

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Two other dishes really impressed: a starter of buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes and basil wrapped in Parma ham ($23), served with mixed greens and flat bread and the other, sautéed octopus with potatoes, olives and capers ($28). These are must-have’s and all you need for a light indulgent lunch, washed down with a glass of white wine.

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To end, the dessert platter ($14) offers tasting portions of creme brulee, molten chocolate cake, panna cotta and tiramisu (non-alcoholic).

There are a few more things worth mentioning about Acqua e Farina. Its very wallet-friendly wine list, for one. Bottles are generally priced at the sweet spot: the house red, Montepuciano d’Abruzzo, Farina, for instance, is only $50 per bottle — an easy-drinking red that’s delectably rounded, smooth and low on tannins.

There’s free parking at Rail Mall, and if you’re lucky, you can even park by the lane in front of the restaurant entrance. With hardly any stairs to take, it’s relatively easy to bring wheelchair-bound guests or elderly family members who may have mobility issues.

Finally if you are planning a party but don’t want to cook, Acqua e Farina offers a ‘Party Helper’ service where you can order dishes in party portions and have them delivered to your home. Choose from a full menu featuring dishes like Salmon Fillet baked with Butter and Dill ($92, for 8 people), Roast Beef Rib Eye served with Vegetables and Rosemary Sauce ($160, 2kg) and Spaghetti tossed with Prawns, Garlic, Herbs, Fresh Tomatoes and Olive Oil ($48, serves 4 people). We notice the prices are very decent too.

The Rail Mall – 400 Upper Bukit Timah Road
Tel: +65 6462 0926

10 Ways to Ace Chinese New Year Snacking

Eat only the good stuff.

Chinese New Year is coming.

There is only about three-and-a-half weeks between the recent New Year parties and Chinese New Year to diet and hit the gym to lose the extra kilos before the onslaught of celebratory eating starts again. After that, we have the rest of the year to live healthily and shed the flab.

The ideal thing of course is not to put on the extra weight in the first place, and in recent years, I have to put in place a strategy to deal with CNY excess. Some tactics came from an article on the Health Promotion Board website which I read a few years ago — yes, I can be that nerdy and I do at times read the Health Promotion Board website — while others are my own. I’ve used them to varying degrees of success. While it all ultimately hinges on self-control, these tricks do help one get past the temptations mindfully. Sharing the wisdom, so here goes…

1. Have breakfast before you go visiting. Nothing’s worse than temptation in the presence of an empty stomach.

2. Don’t look at the food. It’s that simple. Don’t look, and it’s not there. Really.

3. An extension of point #2, sit far away with your back to the food, and get talking to people. Isn’t it great to bond with that super-distant, semi-deaf aunt you see only once a year? She loves your company, and it’s impolite to leave the poor dear mid-conversation to stuff your face with love letters.

4. Plan what you will eat. If there are two places offering lunch on the same afternoon, for instance, decide in advance which you will take and which you will forsake. On the first day, I’ve always a choice between mind-blowing Teochew steamboat at a grand uncle’s place, or fabulous Nonya popiah at an aunt’s house. My choice is always the steamboat – simply because we visit only once a year.

5. Give it a number. If you are going to nibble, limit yourself to a specific number. Tell yourself you’ll eat only two pineapple tarts in this house, for instance, and that you’ll eat another two love-letters only at the next stop. Stick to the plan. Don’t veer off course.

6. Eat the oranges. They are everywhere, so reach for them instead. Once you’ve loaded up, you won’t be that tempted with the ‘bad snacks’. And they’ve got Vitamin C, too. Good stuff.

7. Drink water, or join the old ladies sipping Chinese tea. Lots of antioxidants, low on calories, good for the cheongsam.

8. Between a soda or wine, choose wine — or better yet, Champagne. Then make an exception if it’s the latter: forget about limiting yourself. Know when to load up on the good stuff. Some calories are worth it. Forsake all others.

9. If you’re going to indulge, enjoy the seasonal/festive treats, and skip the more ‘ordinary’ foods that you can get hold of any day of the year, like chicken wings, and spring rolls. If you’re going to treat yourself, make it worth the calories.

10. Remember the numbers. One pineapple tart is about 82 calories, or 10 minutes of jogging; 56 calories per love letter, and 157 calories per slice of kueh lapis. Yup, it’s a scary thought.

(Pineapple tart photo courtesy of Crystal Jade restaurant. Yums!)