Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Tim Ho Wan, Orchard Rd, Singapore (Alissa and Don Eat Asia Day 31, Part 1)

You know the disappointment you feel when a sequel to a movie just does not live up to the original? Dining at Tim Ho Wan in Singapore was a very similar experience. 

Having thoroughly enjoyed the very cheap meal at the Michelin starred outlet in Sham Shui Po we just had to have those delicious pork buns again. As we missed out going to the IFC outlet in Hong Kong, Singapore was our last chance of having that heavenly dish one last time before returning to Perth. With this in mind, Godma, Uncle Vince, Alissa and I headed out to the Orchard Road store for just before opening on Christmas Day to try and beat the long queues that had become such a fixture at these Singapore branches that they even had to stop taking takeaway orders to meet demand. 

Such is the Singaporean love of queueing that there was already a snaking queue of patient diners by the time we arrived.

Being organised, the staff gave us the order form to fill out as we waited. We didn't have to wait long however -thankfully many of those ahead of us were waiting for latecomers, and we were ushered ahead to be part of the first service. 

Godma and Uncle Vince had the congee, however as I did not try it I cannot comment.

The first dish I did try was the siu mei. These looked larger than what I remembered from Tim Ho Wan, and unfortunately served as the first sign that things here were not 100% faithful to the Hong Kong store. Where the siu mei in Hong Kong had been mixed together so well that it almost felt like it had become one meat, these more closely resembled Crystal Jade's, right down to the mushroom inside and the fact it didn't hold perfectly together. It was okay, but I've had far better. Definitely not Michelin level. 

Next up came the dish we came for - their famous Char Siu Bao. This thankfully was much more faithful to the Hong Kong original, though I felt it was perhaps a bit too saucy when compared to what we had at Sham Shui Po. Still, close enough that I was happy to get to eat these again. 

The chicken feet again did not compare. Where the chilli kick permeated the meat in Hong Kong, the Singapore version was much more ordinary. I've had better in Singapore and Perth. 

Thankfully, the har gao held up to the standard set in Hong Kong. These were as juicy and tasty as I remembered them.

The Teochew-style dumplings were again faithful replicas of the excellent originals in Hong Kong. Godma had been a bit disappointed that by some of the first few dishes and is not a fan of these normally, but had to admit that these were very nice. 

Even though it was a signature dish, we had not had the fried carrot cake in Hong Kong. Here marketed as one of their 'Four Heavenly Kings (along with the Char Siu Bao and pig's liver chee cheong fun), the fried carrot cake was of an excellent standard with a nice crispy outer layer and a lovely soft texture in the middle. 

The absolute worst dish by a long shot was the Lo Mai Gai. It wasn't just a lesser version of the Sham Shui Po dish - it was so bad it bore little resemblance. 

Where I praised the Hong Kong version for not being too sticky, the Lo Mai Gai here was overly wet and did not taste very nice at all. We didn't even finish it.

The pig's liver chee cheong fun redeemed the store somewhat, being a very faithful representation of the delicious dish we had in Hong Kong. 

Likewise, if they'd stuffed up the jelly it would have been almost laughable. Thankfully the Osmanthus Jelly here was just as refreshing as we remembered it.

The Verdict: Very Good
It wasn't a Phantom Menace or Matrix sequel level disaster, but it wasn't a worthy sequel either. Much of the hype in Singapore seems to be based on Tim Ho Wan's Michelin star rating, and Singaporeans seem to be gobbling up the marketing without realising that none of the branches in Singapore have Michelin stars, and even then only two of the branches Hong Kong have that distinction. Plus, Tim Ho Wan's claim to fame is that its the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world, and as the bill was at least 50% more than what we paid at the Michelin starred Sham Shui Po I couldn't help but feel a bit ripped off. Still, there are some items that reflect Tim Ho Wan's reputation for excellence, and I was happy to have had those buns one more time. I would probably come back for those again, however Tim Ho Wan in Singapore is not worth queuing up more than 15 minutes for... these people were doing...

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Ippudo SG, River Valley, Singapore (Alissa and Don Eat Asia Day 30, Part 2)

Alissa was not well, so my ramen eating trip to Ippudo ended up being a solo venture. My initial plan was to go to the store on Orchard Rd, however as I wanted to visit La Maison du Whisky at Robertson Quay, I decided to visit the River Valley branch of this famous ramen chain. Found in 1985 and specialising in Hakata-style ramen, Ippudo (sometimes called Hakata Ippudo) branches can be found in Japan, Singapore, New York, Sydney, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan and China.

Being Christmas Eve, I wasn't sure if Ippudo was going to be insanely full, or have a quieter than usual trade. Thankfully, it was clear upon my arrival that getting a table was not going to be difficult. 

Being by myself, the bar seating section suited me just fine and gave me a good view of the room and the kitchen.

As I perused the menu, the waitress brought out a salt and pepper mill, plus an extra mill just for sesame seeds!

Though ramen was my main reason for being here, there was another dish that had caught my eye - the pork buns, made in a similar manner to those of David Chang's Momofuku Noodle Bar. If you've read some of my other posts you'll know I love a good pork bun, so I just had to try Ippudo's version as an entree. 

The Ippudo version differs from the David Chang version as instead of the pickled cucumber, spring onions, hoisin and chilli sauce the pork belly is accompanied by lettuce and Japanese mayonnaise. The bread was softer than I was expecting, and the pork belly was flavoursome and unctuous.The photo may make it look like its a bit light on the lettuce, but in actual fact its quite a balanced affair - you'll get none of that lettuce falling everywhere problem that plagues burgers. They were a lot bigger than I was expecting, and though one would probably have sufficed my greed was happy that I had ordered two. I've never had the Momofuku pork buns, but these definitely satisfied my pork bun cravings for the time being. 

Ippudo do a few different tonkotsu-based ramens, and I decided to go with their Akamaru Shin-Aji. Described as a 'refined, modern-style ramen', the broth was based on their original tonkotsu broth with the addition of 'special blended miso paste and fragrant garlic oil', and came presented in a striking half white/half black presentation. 

Stirring it up to get the garlic oil mixed in, I quickly regretted going with the Akamaru Shin-Aji. It was overpoweringly garlicky which distracted from how good the noodles and the pork were. I usually love a good over-the-top quantity of garlic in my food, but this was just too much; it lead to a less than balanced dish. It might not be fair to compare this to Ichiran as the Ichiran broth is probably closer to Ippudo's original broth, but the fact its advertised as 'refined' made me think about how truly refined Ichiran's is. By that measure this definitely pales in comparison - a more accurate descriptor would be 'strong', 'powerful' or 'knockout'.  

The Verdict: Very Good
I really want to give Ippudo another try, as I have a feeling that the original tonkotsu broth will be a lot more balanced, and the pork buns were very delicious. The ramen I ate wasn't bad per se, but at current I have to say that the Akamaru Shin-Aji was simply not to my taste as it was a very unbalanced dish. I can see such great potential here - excellent Hakata-style noodles and very nice chashu -but for me its just not as good as the incredible, refined style served at Ichiran. 

Monday, 23 December 2013

Chim Quay Bit Tet, Hanoi, Vietnam (Alissa and Don Eat Asia Day 29, Part 3)

'Chim quay!' I kept saying, amused by the words even though I did not (and still do not) know how its meant be pronounced. Along with pho, bun cha and Cha Ca La Vong, chim quay was high on my list of things to try while in Hanoi. A dish of roast pigeon, I was excited because its a meat that is not common on Australian menus, and since this was Vietnam it was going to be really cheap too.

On our first night in Hanoi, Alissa and I went out searching for a chim quay place that was conveniently located hear the hotel. We unfortunately walked into the wrong building, tried a less than stellar version of the dish and then upon walking out found the actual place I was looking for; absolutely bustling with locals and tourists alike. We tried to go back to the correct restaurant a second time but found that they do not open for lunch, so given it was our last night in Hanoi this was really our last chance to try chim quay.

Thankfully, it was a case of third time lucky, and we were able to get seats (read: small stools) almost immediately at Chim Quay Bit Tet. Unlike the specialist one dish restaurants, the menu here was fairly extensive, and we ended up ordering three dishes to share.

It was great to finally get to eat this famous chim quay, and it did not disappoint. The pigeon had been expertly seasoned and cooked perfectly - especially important given that badly cooked pigeon can be very dry. It tasted quite a lot like a less fatty, drier version of the roast duck you can get at Chinese barbecue restaurants. As fans of Chinese roast duck, the chim quay was a hit.

Another unusual and 'exotic' meat, the deep fried frogs' legs marked Alissa's first time eating amphibian meat. She liked how it was like a more tender, sweeter version of chicken. This was almost more impressive than the chim quay; the sweet, juicy meat and the spicy, crunchy batter coating combined with the sweet and sour chilli dipping sauce were finger licking good.

Far less exotic but no less delicious was the beef stir fried noodles, which was basically hor fun. Again, this was fantastic cooking with the noodles having that 'breath of the wok' char flavour and a good, balanced ratio of sauce, noodles, vegies and meat.

As with Bun Cha Dac Kim and Pho Gia Truyen, eating at Chim Quay Bit Tet comes with a hygiene warning - and this time one of us actually did get sick. On every table is a chilli sauce container with a large plastic soup spoon in it. One look at the way the chilli sauce had dried and caked onto the spoon was enough to convince me that it would not be a good idea to use this sauce. Alissa on the other hand is a bit less cautious than I am, and spooned some of the sauce onto her plate to eat with the chim quay. The next day in Singapore, Alissa was definitely not well and the chilli sauce was the only different (and obviously suss) thing she'd eaten the day before that I had not partaken in. So if you do choose to eat at Chim Quay Bit Tet, avoid taking the chilli sauce. You've been warned!

The Verdict: Excellent
Food poisoning aside, Chim Quay Bit Tet's food really impressed me and left me a bit regretful that we had only eaten there once. It made me a bit sad that it would likely be years before I got to eat chim quay and deep fried frogs' legs again as a return trip is not on the immediate horizon. For those who have a considerable amount of time in Hanoi, this is definitely a restaurant worthy of multiple visits - though please go easy on that chilli sauce.

Metropole Le Club Chocolate Buffet, Hanoi, Vietnam (Alissa and Don Eat Asia Day 29, Part 2)

Given a choice between a kilo of raspberries and a kilo of chocolate, I'll always choose raspberries. Not that I don't like chocolate, but I just don't have the chocoholics desire to eat copious amounts of the stuff. Sure, chocolate can be truly great, but I'm much more of a fan of fruity desserts as they don't tend to overwhelm with richness the way that chocolate can.

That being said, when I heard that the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi did a daily chocolate buffet afternoon tea I knew Alissa and I had to go. A favourite of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (to the extent they named one of their restaurants after her), the 100+ year old Metropole's French colonial architecture is immediately charming.

Having arrived a little before the 3pm opening of the buffet in the hotel's luxurious Le Club Bar, we could basically choose to sit anywhere we wanted. The decision was an easy one however, as the sun room located at the rear was easily the nicest area of the bar - easily as pretty as the Tiffin Room in the Raffles.

The spread on offer was simply incredible - you could not criticise the chocolate buffet for having a limited amount of options.

There were 8 'chocolate bonbons' alone... chocolate truffles, various chocolate cakes, mousse and macarons...

... chocolate ice creams, chocolate fondue and even a chocolate crepe station!

Plus, just in case you had too much chocolate, they had fresh fruits, fruit juice and a lovely selection of afternoon tea sandwiches.

Being a savoury fan, I went with the sandwiches first. Where the sandwiches at the Raffles really disappointed me in their plainness, the same could not be said about these. In particular the ham and cheese sandwich was incredibly addictive, featuring a Jarlsberg-like swiss cheese and very good quality ham. Once again, the sandwiches here proved to me that Vietnamese are truly the masters of the sandwich, with the eggplant and zucchini vegetarian banh mi also being very nice.

Unsurprisingly, Alissa went straight into the chocolate. Having eaten some amazing chocolate in high end restaurants and gourmet chocolateries, we had high expectations and these chocolates did not disappoint - this was very well made chocolate that was neither overly rich or wanting for flavour. The various chocolate bonbons were all delicious,with my favourites being white chocolate and passionfruit, white chocolate and ginger, and milk chocolate and green tea.

Needless to say, we went back for more to try as many of the different options as we could.

Accompanied by some lovely tea.

Alissa and I finished up on our favourite desserts. In my case, it was a bowl of their chocolate ice cream (with some more of those amazing ham and cheese sandwiches).

As someone who has been an ice cream enthusiast all my life and an ice cream maker since I was 10, I was very impressed with both their milk and white chocolate ice creams - the perfect way for me to finish the meal.

Being the pancake fiend that she is Alissa had to finish on the crepe, and she was very happy with the white chocolate crepe she ordered - nice and thin with a good texture and creamy white chocolate filling.

The Verdict: Exceptional
It takes a lot for me to be impressed by chocolate desserts, but the Metropole's chocolate buffet was a phenomenal success that thoroughly blew the very limited and unexciting offerings at the Raffles Tiffin Room out of the water. And at roughly $35 AUD a head, this was a fraction of the Raffle's steep asking price. This is a Hanoi must do.

Pho Gia Truyen, Hanoi, Vietnam (Alissa and Don Eat Asia Day 29, Part 1)

Having had to ‘unfortunately’ take a free upgrade of our room from Elegance Ruby to their more upmarket Elegance Diamond, we now had a bit further to walk to get to Pho Gia Truyen – the Old Quarter pho shop that is so good that they sell out of their noodle soup by not long after midday.  Alissa had wanted to do the touristy trishaw ride at least once. We decided that now was as good a time as any, so we took the trishaw to the restaurant's location on Bat Dan St. When we got there, the trishaw driver commented that ‘this is a very good shop’ before asking we wanted a ride back later. I thanked him but declined, pointing at my stomach and saying that we needed the exercise. He laughed, and we went on our way into the restaurant.

At first Alissa and I were a bit confused as to how to order the pho, as the shop seemed to have an entirely local clientele with no English signage at all to cater for tourists. Thankfully, a nice local was able to explain to us that you can order either raw or cooked beef, and then passed on our order to the staff.  After a short wait, two steaming hot bowls of pho were given to us.

This was phenomenal pho – there was a very marine umami richness to the broth that was altogether gutsier and more delicious than the pho at Pho 10, and the noodles themselves were of a better texture. I’m guessing it was a generous quantity of fish sauce and a lengthy boiling of beef bones that made this great, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some other secret ingredients were involved to get the broth to be so flavoursome. This was easily the best pho either of us have ever eaten, truly excellent.

There is one caveat though – this place was absolutely filthy, with discarded tissues and napkins of previous customers unashamedly littering the floor. While I took the cut chilli, I dared not add the chilli sauce that was on the table given that there was no way of knowing how long it was sitting there. As with the questionable hygiene of Bun Cha Dac Kim, I’d contend that if you want to eat the most delicious versions of a dish in Vietnam you’ve just bite the bullet when it comes to the local eateries, take precautions by not adding things like communal shared sauces and pickles and just pray that traveller’s diarrhoea does not set in.

The Verdict: Excellent
As someone who loves a good bowl of noodles, I was very satisfied with the meal – definitely a step up from the more sanitized fare available at Pho 10. Of course, the messiness of the restaurant might be a bit off-putting, but if you really want to try an excellent bowl of pho, Pho Gia Truyen cannot come more recommended.