3 Hidden Foodie Gems of Hanoi

Since I have already written about the street food in Hanoi and its coffee joints, I might as well add a third — of three miscellaneous eateries all worth a visit.

The first and my favourite is Kem Trang Tien (35 Trang Tien), the oldest ice cream shop in Hanoi, and still going strong. After a hair-raising cyclo ride, weaving a hair’s breath away from oncoming cars, Trang, our trusty guide, stopped us at this local institution for a treat.

Located near the Opera House and a short trot from the Sofitel Metropole Hotel, it has little aesthetics to speak of and plenty of empty, sometimes greasy, open space. Two counters inexplicably far apart stood in the corners of this odd looking shop, one selling ice cream lollies on a stick, and another soft serve ice cream on a cone.

Trang explained that the shop was designed so that customers could drive all the way into the shop and up to the counter on the scooters and motor bikes, and buy the ice cream without once having to get off their vehicles. Hence the weird empty spaces within. What’s surprising too is that the shop becomes especially busy in winter when people enjoy the ice cream the most.

Kem Trang Tien makes their own ice creams in local Vietnamese flavours and sells nothing but. The ice lollies were recommended over the soft serve. Forget the chocolate flavour and go for the taro or coconut, or better yet, the glutinous rice ice cream or the mung bean. The rice ice cream made use of newly harvest grains, which exuded a subtle, fresh, green flavour with a slight, pleasing stickiness to it; the mung bean was lovely too – softly nutty, subtle and aromatic. Really good.

Another local favourite is Xoi Yen (35 Nguyen Huu Huan), a perpetually busy coffee shop on a street corner that is festooned with a great tangle of overhead electric cables. There is no enticing facade to speak of; it is entirely dominated by a messy open kitchen from where xoi xeo, its famous dish of glutinous turmeric rice, mung beans and fried shallots is prepared.

You’ll find the locals eating at the low tables along the walkway, but there is seating upstairs too if you want a more leisurely meal. Little English is spoken here, so it’s best to have a local friend help you along. As for the food, simple as it sounds, it is very tasty; add on an order of chicken or pork if you are particularly hungry. Locals flock here for breakfast as well as a quick lunch, and is quite an institution.

The final recommendation on my list of three is Koto Restaurant (59 Van Mieu Street). This can be accused of being touristy, but it deserves mention for the cause it supports — it is a not-for-profit restaurant that acts as a hospitality school for disadvantaged young Vietnamese.

Located near the Temple of Literature, the four-storey restaurant was crowded with mainly expats and tourists, but enjoyed ourselves here, with good food and very decent, inexpensive cocktails. We ordered the Vietnamese set menu and had a veritable feast — the banana flower and chicken salad, spring rolls, banana leaf grilled fish, and sweet and sour clam soup with pineapples and tomatoes were memorable. We added an order of banh xeo as well (truly delightful), and a stream of decently done classic cocktails, including two glasses of most enjoyable margarita.

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

A Great Reason to Return to Mount Faber

I haven’t been up to Mount Faber for over a decade. Most of us think of it as a tourist spot with nothing much to see. But I was invited up there recently and out of sheer curiosity and little expectations, I went. As a journalist, I always keep an open mind. And as it turned out, I’m glad I did.

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Driving up the narrow, winding lane to Mount Faber, I realise I had forgotten how pleasant it actually was. The higher up I wound, the more I felt I was on holiday. The rainy weather even added to the sense of chill, no pun intended.

It had changed a lot from the last time I saw it. The building was the same, the cable cars were ….well, the same but the restaurant up on the second floor was different. Spuds & Aprons had a welcoming, casual feel that made you feel totally relaxed. Built sympathetically around two massive rain trees, and open on the sides, the restaurant offered a really spectacular view of the harbourfront and Sentosa, while it let all the cool breeze in.

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Now, I’ll be honest….you have to forgive the name of the restaurant. The name Spuds & Aprons sounds corny and doesn’t fit with the holiday feel of the setting. But once you get beyond that — a rose by any other name, etc…. — you’ll find a charming, laid back restaurant. One one side is the view, on the other, a pretty little garden for the kids to run around or to have a drink fully alfresco. If you want to get away from the crowds, this must be on your list.

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The food makes for easy eating. We started with sweet potato fries with curry mayo, and potato skins filled with a rather mild chilli crab. The two potato dishes were both crispy on the outside, fluffy and hot in the middle, and the potato skins still bore a generous margin of flesh. Nice.

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Mains was all right. The signature roast pork belly ($27) sounded extremely promising, but the meat turned out dry, and the crackling a bit hard, even if it was actually pretty crisp. The flavour was good though. The chef was away that afternoon, so perhaps it was one of those days….The mixed rice served on the side was very good though — absolutely flavourful and moist. I could eat that as a main course. The duck confit ($26) looked dry outside but the meat was moist and nicely done, but a little under-seasoned.

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Best of the lot was the oven roasted cod topped with tobiko with green tea soba ($32). The presentation was a little messy, and there was a bit too much sauce, but the large portion of fish was nicely done, flaked moistly and the tobiko topping gave a lovely counterpoint to it.

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Our lunch ended with two positively divine desserts. The cempadak bread and butter pudding a la mode ($12) was aromatic, just sweet enough, soft and warm, made with croissants rather than bread, topped with shaved almonds and dusted with icing sugar. The fruit was particularly fragrant in this dessert and whiffs of its aroma just whaffed out as you sank your spoon into it.

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The other was the Jar of Happiness ($11). The name may be just too corny, but the contents of the jar was a fantastic, gooey combination of vanilla ice cream, berries, shortbread cookies at the bottom and salted caramel. Simple but wicked. Yes, it did make me rather happy.

What caught my eye on the menu was the very extensive variety of drinks, including a truck load of non-alcoholic concoctions, from smoothies and shakes to mocktails and even a pop-corn centred range of lattes. All were very attractively priced. Here’s a list to give you an idea: Chunky munchies soda with nata d’coco bomb ($8) which I tried — a refreshing combi of soda, passionfruit syrup, nata de coco, jellied pearls, and other nice stuff. Chocolate popcorn latte ($6) comprising chocolate ganache, popcorn syrup, milk, expresso and popcorn (I have yet to try this); match azuki latte. Cocktails by the glass (mostly between $14-$16) or jug ($50-$56) are abundant, alcoholic shakes ($14) included, martini bomb-jellos ($15), and even Singapore Sling in three flavours of original, lychee and yuzu for the sweet-toothed alky-head. The menu is also high on spirits, and good range of beers and ciders, and lots of wines (mostly $12-$13 per glass).

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Prices here are very good value. Apart from the a la carte menu, I noticed on close inspection of the menu that they offer ‘combos’. For two people, you pay $70 and get one starter, two mains and 1 dessert, all chosen from a smaller menu which offers a decent choice for each course. For four people, you can opt for one starter, four mains and two desserts at $120. If you were a small family dining, this is very good value.

All in all, Spuds & Aprons (please forgive the name) is a destination restaurant well worth making the trip for. It is not arduous at all if you have a car. If not, take the cable car from harbourfront as a pre-meal treat. This place is perfect for the family on weekends, for a drink with friends in the evening after work and the tourists have faded away, and a great place to bring grandparents for an airing and a touch of nostalgia. (The restaurant is wheelchair-friendly as the floor is all on one plane. Take the lift from the main entrance at road level if stairs are a problem). Also with the extensive park around, this is nice for a jog followed by much deserved food and drink afterwards.

For me, I took a cable car joyride after that. It’s been ages since I last got on one of these and forgot how enjoyable and peaceful it was up there – especially when I had the whole cable car to myself.

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Good to know: Valet service is available at the entrance of Faber Peak, the building where this restaurant is located. It’s free if you spend over $50, and that’s pretty easy to do. Also, their toilet, aptly called Peek-a-Loo, probably has the best view for any toilet in Singapore. Don’t miss seeing it.

Restaurant Review: Orchid Live Seafood for a 1970s Experience

The daughter had spent the morning measuring and studying horseshoe crabs with the Singapore Nature Society on Sunday a couple weeks ago. After picking her up at the Kranji mud flats, we were in the mood to do some ‘rural lunching’ ourselves, especially dressed as we were not for high end restaurants. Made a phone call to Orchid Live Seafood Restaurant and luckily they had space for three.

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We’ve been there a few times before and it has never disappointed. Located at Green Valley Farms, the first nursery along Bah Som Pah Road, it is a complete kampong, back-to-the-70s experience. There’s no aesthetics whatsoever, and I’m not sure if I saw a signage at its front entrance. But it’s one of those places you are assured of good food, and the prices are equally palatable.

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The star of the menu is the lobster porridge, made Teochew style — the rice is still whole and swimming in a sea of soup. In this style the stock is extremely important as it carries the flavour of the dish. Here it comes in a massive claypot with four lobsters, halved, cooked in it. They put it aside on a plate when they portioned out the porridge. The Boston lobsters were very fresh and the flesh nicely cooked and sweet. They were caught from the tank outside the restaurant minutes before. The porridge itself was good, rice quite tender, and the soup was really flavourful. Eaten together with the lobster and other dishes that came, we surprised ourselves by finishing the entire vat.

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We had ordered the ‘Buddy Set’ menu at $118 for three. This included another of the restaurant’s star dish Steven Chicken, created by their chef, and deep fried, coated in a sweet tangy caramelised sauce. Combined with the crispness of the chicken and the moist flesh, it was excellent. Perfect with chilled beer on a hot afternoon.

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The chilli mussels (or what we Teochews would call ‘dua tao’) came in way too much sauce but it was cooked just right, nicely tender and bouncy, and  the sauce nicely balanced, slightly hot. It’s yet another signature dish here. Happily there was no grit in the mussels nor bits of broken shell, which sometimes plague such a dish. The sambal potato leaves we ordered was the only disappointment, as the leaves were old and fibrous. If not for that, it would have been a good one too. Dessert is old fashioned red bean potong ice cream hauled out from the freezer at the front door.  I hear the cold crab, a Teochew delicacy, is worth trying here. That’s going down on my list for the next visit.

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The charm with Orchid Live Seafood restaurant is its retro flavour. The carpark is a pitted concrete space up front which reminds me of the old restaurants of the early 70s when I was a kid. Cars just park wherever they find a space on the uneven ground. On the side, you’ll see old tyres and the odd swing amid weeds and greenery left to grow wild. At the restaurant, the bulk of the tables are al fresco under a wood-framed canvas canopy – again a totally ’70s set up. On cool evenings, that would make a fun place for dinner. (Positively broiling there in the afternoons.)

While they seem quite laid back, these guys are very proactive and even have several Father’s Day set menus going on. Service is polite and prompt too. Call ahead for reservations first, and it’s best to go with a larger group. (Orchid Live Seafood has another branch at Jln Kelutut, but this is where you go for the rural experience.) Highly recommended!!

1 Bah Soon Pah Rd, Singapore 769959
Tel: 67560311

Restaurant Review: Humpback, For Oysters, Cocktails & Clever Combinations

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Singapore’s ever growing stable of hip restaurants all seem to follow a predictable formula: a pre-war shophouse in a hip neighbourhood, an on-trend menu that reads like a grocery list, a small range of informed and potent cocktails, a young but competent chef putting his spin on food, and wait staff dressed in black, some with a handy wisecrack of two.

Most of these places will not disappoint — you’ll have a pretty good meal there, have some gastronomic surprises tossed your way, and for that time, feel you’re really with it. You’ll likely feel the pinch of the bill later, but this is Singapore so you’ve anticipated that and you’re becoming numb to it anyway.

In two weeks’ time, you may have forgotten what you ate there while you hunt for the next happening place to haunt, but not before you’ve posted pictures of your dinner on Instagram. It’s not because the food or experience was bad. Just that Singapore’s food scene is overflowing with really good restaurants, and it’s increasingly tough for restaurant to stand out head and shoulders above the considerable competition.

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Humpback is one such restaurant. It is a good restaurant, like many of the others in Singapore, but by and large it is formulaic. However I do remember two things distinctly. It’s big on oysters which sell for low as $2 a piece on Monday evenings – which means reservations are essential on Mondays — and the grilled cabbage with herby cheese and quinoa ($10) is a touch of genius, and infinitely more tasty than it sounds.

The latest restaurant by the people behind Jigger & Pony and Sugarhall, Humpback’s big attraction is its steady stream of fresh briny oysters harvested from the world’s oceans. Indeed, the day to enjoy is Mondays when it goes at an affordable $2 per piece, which packs in oyster lovers. But if, like me, you aren’t a fan, there’s enough on the menu to tantalise. The dishes by Executive Chef Polo Seah are clever, modern concoctions that intrigue and surprise with its very original combination of flavours. Most were hits to me, except for the clam dip with ritz crackers. Sorry that just didn’t fly with me.

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Get the intriguing kale ($14) – a mix of fresh and dehydrated kale, with creamy buttermilk dressing and a sprinkling of pecan nuts and a juicy contrast of pear slivers. The humble cabbage ($10) turned out the star of the dinner — elevated to a hip and intriguing dish. First brined, baked, then grilled, it was savoury, a little nutty, with crispy quinoa, herbed cheese and chilli oil. A touch of genius indeed with its unpredictable combination of ingredients that worked excellently together.

Loved the bigeye tuna with avocado and a refreshing, intense, uplifting cucumber granita, and the snow crab with orzo, squash and parmigiano ($23) for all its sweet, comforting flavours and textures. The mangalica pork was the most classic in taste, with chestnuts, cauliflower and a tangy touch of cranberry.

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The menu changes pretty frequently but these dishes give an idea of what to expect from Chef Seah. My bet though is that the cabbage is still available.

Drinks aren’t cheap here, starting from $16 a glass. But since the pedigree of Humpback is Jigger & Pony, one of the best bars in Singapore, I’d put my money on the cocktails instead. You can expect them to mirror the high quality of J&P. I started with the light and fruity jasmine and pear G&T, then ended with the heady, spirit forward drunken monkey (scotch, chartreuse and curacao). Nice.

Good to know: Happy hour 5-7pm daily, where oysters range from $2-$3 each. Those happy hour prices stretch through all Monday night though.

18/20 Bukit Pasoh Road,
Singapore 089834
Tel: 6750 4461
#HumpbackSG

Restaurant Review: Sopra Cucina, A Hidden Gem off Orchard Road

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More people should know about Sopra Cucina. A beautiful Italian restaurant in a backstreet behind Palais Renaissance, it is easy to miss this hidden gem. No, it doesn’t help that Sopra Cucina is next to seedy Orchard Towers but think about it rather as being on the first floor of the Pan Pacific Orchard — which indeed it is.

Take the effort to go there, and we are sure you would be glad you did. No ordinary Italian restaurant, Sopra Cucina serves up a menu of Sardinian cuisine – perhaps the only restaurant in Singapore to do specialise in this. Prices are very reasonable and the decor really quite beautiful inside: leather blanquettes, dark wood and glass accents, black and white photos evoke the sense of postwar Italian glamour. Think  Sophia Loren and Federico Fellini.

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Have the unusual Biscotto di Pecorino ($22) to start. Bread-like and stuffed with warm, melted percorino, then drizzled with honey, it is a little sweet and savoury, with a puffy-firm bite. A typical Sardinian dish, this is not often seen on Italian menus elsewhere. We haven’t until now.

At $28++, the nine-inch Pizza Sopra was most enjoyable, with a good dough which strikes the middle ground between thin crust and thick. It was nice, and would make a hit with the kids. But indeed, nothing to get the connoisseurs falling off their chairs.

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A unique pasta dish to try at Sopra Cucina is the Malloreddus alla Campidanese ($25++), a traditional Sardinian  pasta made of semolina. At first glance, it looked like broad beans. Delectable, al dente and with served with a thick, tomato-based rosemary pork sauce, it is a dish that is pretty unique, and a good comfort food.

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But for the bigger appetites, have the Porcheddu Sardo ($48++), or traditional Sardinian suckling pig. It is a generous 400g worth of juicy, tender meat with a significant layer of fat, and topped with crackling, and served with roasted potatoes. The dessert of tiramisu ($10++) may be predictable, but it was well done — nice and rich and thick.

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Come Wednesday nights, Sopra Cucina offers free flow prosecco at S$25++ for the ladies from 7-9pm. Worth noting, the restaurant’s Sunday brunch is great for those who want to imbibe but not go overboard. At $88++ it features a substantial (though not huge) buffet offering some of its signatures, as well as free flow prosecco and wines.

10 Claymore Road, Singapore 229540
Tel: 67373253

Gordon Ramsay’s Bread Street Kitchen Opens in SG

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Bread Street Kitchen is the latest celeb restaurant to open, and we had the privilege to be there last week. Unlike Elaine who got a chance to take a snap with Gordon Ramsay when he launched BSK in Hong Kong, Madam here didn’t — partly also because he was mobbed. He didn’t say much either to the invited media, but he had come round table to table to say hello. But I am not much of an autograph hunter or a selfie taker; and was here to check out the restaurant. Does it live up to the great Gordon Ramsay’s reputation.

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Very smart and hip, his two -floor restaurant at Marina Bay Sands  has a slick industrial edge with the main dining room and bar on the first floor overlooking the bay. Downstairs is a smaller, cosier dining area with open kitchen and private dining. The full glass front of the restaurant facing the afternoon sun could be rather hot during lunch time but in the evening, it’s a nice stop for casual cocktails and dinner.

For food, don’t expect bells and whistles from multi-Michelin starred Gordon Ramsay. Helmed by Executive Chef Sabrina Stillhart, BSK’s food is casual and easy-eating, uncomplicated food, with prices that aren’t too hard on the pocket either (starting at $26++ for mains).

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However, it was a little hit and miss with the food. For starters, the roast veal carpaccio ($26) with dill and tuna dressing was elegant and tasty. The flatbread ($20) presented a thin tartin-like crust heavily laden with melted cheese, juicy mushrooms and lifted with pesto — very enjoyable — and I liked the tamarind spiced chicken wings ($18). In the absence of a bar food menu, the latter two dishes would make a nice accompaniment to BSK’s cocktails.

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On to mains. The pork belly ($28) was a flop with crackling so stubbornly rubbery it wouldn’t give even with extended mastication, but I really liked the traditional fish & chips ($26) which had a deliciously light, crisp batter which splintered away so delicately to reveal the sweet, juicy fish inside; all accompanied by one of the best mushy peas with mint Madam ever tasted. The black cod ($44) was moist and flaky with a lovely crisp skin, nicely complemented by artichokes and salted capers, and turned out one of the favourites among many diners. We heard that the duck breast with potatoes and mulled berries sauce ($38) is also good. The  side dish of macaroni and cheese (was a little bland, but the spiced honey carrots and chips were decidedly addictive. By the way, the breads are good too.

For dessert, the banana sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream was to die for! Worth every excess calorie, it was head and shoulders above the monkey shoulder cranachan cheesecake, which was also lovely, served with a sophisticated pairing of roasted balsamic strawberries. Makes you feel very grown up indeed. BSK has a good range of nice original cocktails. Get Aviation for something a bit ladylike and boozy, or Tio Abuelo, for a light refreshing pre-dinner drink. For wine-lovers, it’s also got a whopping 25 wines by the glass.

The restaurant is open from 11.30am through to 10pm, and to 12pm (Thur- Sat).

The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands #L1-81
Tel:  6688 5665