Thursday, August 15, 2013

Tan's Story Bak Kut Teh "小陈故事"

One of the reasons for my starting was to bring attention to places in Singapore that serve great food but somehow still manage to fly under the radar.  Good food, but no customers -- it doesn't make sense but I've noticed that it seems to be happening often these days.

Tan's Story Bak Kut Teh "小陈故事" at Clarke Quay is a case in point.

I'm sure the owners thought they had hit the nail on the head by opening a late night bak kut teh shop amidst some of the hottest clubs in town. How could you lose? What could be better than a steaming bowl of bak kut teh (pork bone soup) at three in the morning after a hard night's drinking and partying to take a bit of the edge off before heading home?

But every time I passed Tan's Story, usually on a Monday or Thursday after one of my gigs at one of the club's in Clarke Quay, I see the usual empty tables and lollygagging staff, standing around, dying for something to do.  Once, when I saw three tables occupied, I immediately looked up at the night sky to see if the moon had turned a shade of blue.

Now I'm a fairly new bak kut teh convert -- I had my first bowl about 5 years ago -- and I'm especially finicky when it comes to this dish. For me, what is most important is that the combination of spices and pepper must totally mask any gamey, porky smell and flavour. Remember we are dealing with meaty pork ribs boiled in its own stock -- the meat is pale, naked, and the broth is clear. There's not much to hide behind, and the success of this dish depends entirely on the perfect balance of the spices and the freshness of the meat.

Needless to say that I am not particularly adventurous when it comes to bak kut teh, having encountered a few reputedly 'good' stalls that failed my 'porkiness' test. Which is why I limit my pork rib soup adventures to the few tried and true purveyors of this dish, who will forever have my undying loyalty.

Given the poor patronage at Tan's Story, I've never been inclined to sit down and order myself a bowl.

It was only when the Divine Miss N came to one of my gigs at Clarke Quay and later suggested supper at Tan's Story Bak Kut Teh did I reluctantly agree to see what the lack of fuss was all about. We ordered the bak kut teh and a te kar, a pork leg dish braised in dark soya sauce and spices.

The steaming bowl of bak kut teh was first to arrive.  I can usually tell within the first five seconds of the steam hitting my face, if a bak kut teh is going to meet my expectations.

No porky smell, I'm happy to report.

I'm not much of a clear soup fan, but Tan's Story bak kut teh soup is nicely peppery, with a measured hint of Chinese herbs. The herbs are not overpowering like some other bak kut tehs I've tried, and, along with a liberal dash of pepper, serve only to mask that dreaded porky flavour.

And they were generous with their cuts of pork rib on the bone; they even threw in some spare ribs for added texture. The meat had obviously been boiled for hours -- a good thing -- and was literally fall-off-the-bone tender. No picking up your ribs with your hands to gnaw the meat off the bone, enjoyable as that may be.

Speaking of fall-off-the-bone, the te kar was especially good. The generous hunk of pork leg would have been enough for two people and was stewed in dark soya sauce -- I've never been fond of the light brown soya sauce version -- and beautifully seasoned with cinnamon, cloves, garlic, pepper and star anise. Under the layer of fat, the meat was tender and surprisingly lean while the collagen-rich skin was simply melt-in-the-mouth.

They were kind enugh to serve us our generous hunk of te kar with a good piece of hollow bone filled with rich marrow. It's always fun to come up with new ways to get at that marrow -- tapping the bone against a spoon, sucking at the bone (usually futile if there is no opening at the other side), or my personal favourite, inserting a straw into the hollow and sucking out the marrow. Never mind if it makes the Coke taste slightly oily afterward.

For some reason, I also enjoyed the thick, black soya sauce to which I added small slices of chilli padi (extremely hot bird chillies) as a condiment and to provide that little extra fiery kick. I even called the waiter over to ask what type of black soya sauce they used. He shrugged his shoulders and said it was just an ordinary brand but stopped short of bringing the bottle, or industrial-sized container over for me to have a look.

Did I mention that there were no unpleasant porky flavours here? Tan's Story, you have earned yourself a new fan.

Madness rating: 4/5

Tan's Story Bak Kut Teh "小陈故事"
Block E, 01-08, Clarke Quay
Tel: (65) 6336 0939

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Pork Belly Confit | La Petit Paradis

Braised pork belly is a great traditional comfort food.

If you take your time to lovingly cook it, preferably until melt-in-the-mouth tender, the aroma fills the house, a bouquet of dark soya sauce and spices. A couple of slices of this simple delicacy over steaming hot rice and you have a dish fit for both a momentous occasion or a simple sit-down dinner with the family.

Now take that traditional Chinese braised pork belly recipe and give it a decidedly French twist and what have you got?

Pork belly confit! 

Conjured up by those evil gastronomic minds at La Petit Paradis, their pork belly confit dish is seasoned the traditional Asian way with star anise, cinnamon and cloves, then cooked slowly in duck fat for hours until meltingly tender.

La Petit Paradis' Pork Belly Confit

The cooking process also renders much of the fat away from the pork belly, so don't expect the familiar thick fatty layers of the Chinese braised version. But I can tell you that the almost liquified layers of fat that do remain are so smooth and delicate that you could slurp it up with a straw.

To finish off, the pork belly is placed in a high heat oven to allow the skin to crisp up for that all important crowning glory -- the crackling.

La Petit Paradis pork belly confit has everything you could ask of a good traditional braised pork belly -- fall away, tender meat you could pinch and pull apart with chopsticks and almost-melting layers of fat.

But that crackling. Now that's a masterful touch!

What really sets this version of pork belly confit apart from the French version is the combination of Chinese spices. If you grew up munching on Chinese-style braised pork belly, then this version will bring the familiar to whole new territiory.

La Petit Paradis serves their pork belly confit on a balsamic vinegar reduction spiced with cloves and star anise, with a side of mashed potatoes, salad and Béarnaise sauce. Given the richness of this dish, I felt that the Béarnaise was a tad overkill. 

But I've learned not to question genius when it presents itself. 

If you read my rave review about La Petit Paradis foie gras, their pork belly confit comes in a very close second on the scale of unctuousness.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your cardiac disposition, La Petit Paradis has taken their pork belly confit off the menu for the time being so you might have to wait a few weeks before you can sample this tasty morsel, if you haven't already.

Madness rating: 4.5/5 (0.5 points deducted for the fact that it's not a regular item on the menu!)

Le Petit Paradis
125 East Coast Road
Ali Baba Eating House
Tel: 64406147

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Murtabak | Non-Stop Prata

If you grew up in the Siglap or East Coast area in the late 60's and early 70's the name Dawood would bring to mind greasy plates of prata, briyani and murtabak. Murtabak, especially, seemed to be the hallmark of this Indian Muslim coffeeshop and was a very popular takeaway item for families, especially on those days when mum was too tired to cook.

Who could forget Dawood's murtabak with its generous filling of ground mutton and onions, all wrapped up in a blanket of dough that was crispy on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside. I attribute much of the flavour of their murtabak to the generous use of QBB brand pure ghee.

Those of us old enough to remember will recall the ubiquitous, dark green cans of ghee, lining the wall behind the prata and murtabak station, ready to be popped open when needed.

Non-Stop Prata's Murtabak
These days, the better prata establishments use a 50/50 mix of ghee and vegetable oil. Since ghee is expensive, often more vegetable oil is used in the mix. The higher the ratio of vegetable oil, the farther removed from that wonderful prata and murtabak flavour of the good old days.

When Dawood Restaurant changed hands in the early 80's, the new owners kept the name, but somehow the food just wasn't the same. The prata, murtabak and fried noodle dishes become pretty much standard fare, perfectly edible but not outstanding. In its heyday in the 70's, Dawood's used to once draw patrons from the opposite end of the island who were willing to make that hour long drive (this was well before the days of the Pan Island Expressway) to the East Coast for their prata fix.

The Dawood's of the 80's and 90's seemed to just serve residents who lived nearby and when it went 24 hours, the place became the perfect hangout for insomniacs, musicians and other night owls who lived in the vicinity. Chatting over prata, Indian teh tarik (pulled tea) and cigarettes til the wee hours of the morning became a rite of passage for many a teenager breaking curfew for the first time. Myself included.

But enough about murtabak history, and back to our story..

Since the demise of Dawood's, many Indian Muslim restaurants have sprung up all over Singapore. Prata and murtabak are cheap and easy to make and provide a very decent turnover of profit, provided you can sell enough of them. The proliferation of 24 hour prata establishments these days gives the Singapore foodie almost too many options for that late night food escapade.

Along the famous food stretch of East Coast Road -- or Katong as it is more fondly known -- one prata eatery has cropped up that dishes out a murtabak that is, in my humble opinion, at least equal to that famous Dawood murtabak of the 1970s.

I wandered into Non-Stop Prata late one evening after a movie with the Divine Miss N, hoping for a decent cup of teh tarik and a small snack. The place was virtually empty -- not a good sign for a 24-hour prata joint.

We ordered a thosai and a murtabak to go with our teh tariks but from the look of the place and its total lack of customers, you could say that we weren't expecting much.

When the thosai arrived, hot, crisp and golden brown, with its tasty vegetable and lentil sides, I sat up in my chair.  One bite confirmed that this was the real thing, no shortcuts or skimping on ingredients or that all important ghee. My expectations for the murtabak immediately went up a couple of notches.

Needless to say, I wasn't disappointed. Just like the food critic Anton Ego in the movie Ratatouille, I was instantly transported back to my childhood with just one bite of that murtabak. Ok, maybe I exaggerate just a little.

But seriously, all the hallmarks of a great murtabak were there. Flavourful crust, crisp on the outside, soft on the inside and absolutely bursting with a generous filling of minced mutton. They weren't heavy handed with the onions which were finely diced, accenting the mutton beautifully. And the best part is that the mutton was full flavored, nicely spiced with coriander and cumin and, most importantly, not overly dry.

I'll finish off by saying this -- if you weren't born in the 60's and never got to try the famous Dawood murtabak in its heyday, you owe yourself a favour by checking out Non-Stop Prata's murtabak.

Madness rating: 5/5. But go easy if you have high cholesterol!

Non-Stop Prata
57 East Coast Road, Singapore 428773

Non-Stop Prata Flipping!

Friday, May 10, 2013

La Petit Paradis Foie Gras

It may seem a bit odd that I kick off this Singapore food blog about with a review about a local stall specializing in French food. But what the heck, madly good food is madly good food, be it char kuay teow, chilli crab or duck confit!

I had been coming to Le Petit Paradis, a single stall in a spiffied up 'eating house' on East Coast Road for a couple of months now. But it was my most recent visit two days ago that prompted me to kick off and finally delve into the dark side that is food blogging . Their food really is that madly good!

There are several dishes at Le Petit Paradis that are outstanding, but there is one in particular that is calling out to be written about first.

Le Petit Paradis foie gras

I'm not a fan of liver by any means. In fact, I particularly loathe liver -- you couldn't pay me enough to eat it. Well, maybe you could, it's just that no one has offered to pay me to eat liver yet.

But I had a good feeling about the foie gras at Le Petit Paradis -- there was something enticinglyly delectable about the way it looked in the picture on the menu. Very strange for a liver loather like me.  It's like Clark Kent suddenly developing an appreciation for the green glow of Kryptonite. 

But I digress..

The serving size seemed small. A neat little oval of foie gras, about three inches long and a quarter of an inch thick. Expensive stuff I know, but I figured I got less than what I paid for at $8.50.
La Petit Paradis Foie Gras
La Petit Paradis Foie Gras

I looked over at my companion, the divine Miss N, and told her she could have most of it. I wanted the tiniest sliver of foie gras, just for a little taste. I reckoned I would probably have to choke it down in a hurry anyway, before the livery assault on my tastebuds.

Remember what I said about Clark Kent earlier? Well, now imagine Clark Kent in full Superman regalia, stuffing his mouth full of Kryptonite and loving it! The cross over to my personal Alternate Universe was complete. 

Unctuous. That's a word I've wanted to use for a long time.

Le Petit Paradis foie gras is unctuous beyond belief. In fact, it is the Holy Grail of unctuousness. It is like eating bone marrow that has been steeped in butter and flavorful duck fat, and served directly from the frying pan of the gods.

I might have to go back on my statins after several servings of this.

Layered over the slice of lightly seared foie gras were tiny cubes of apple stewed in balsamic vinegar which cut through the richness of the fat.  A nice touch also were the little crunchy croutons that added a beautiful contrasting texture. And there was only the slightest hint of a livery aftertaste in the foie gras itself.

This is really a dish that is meant to be shared, simply so that you can look over at your partner's face and see the same joy and amazement that you yourself are feeling as the foie gras simply melts in your mouth.

Madness rating: 5/5. Stark raving, howl at the moon madness!

Le Petit Paradis
125 East Coast Road
Ali Baba Eating House
Tel: 64406147