Archive Page 2

The Little Red Dot

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February 18, 2008
Cuisine: Singaporean

21 Tu Xuong Street
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: 9325123
Website: none

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Mi Phuc Kien – Singaporean stir fried noodles with egg, pork, squid and chives (38,000 VND)

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Heo quay, xa xieu – plain BBQ pork and sweet BBQ pork (40,000 VND)

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Hainanese chicken (40,00 VND)

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Hainanese rice

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Soy sauce, chili paste, ground ginger sauce, chili sauce

I was watching No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain a few weeks back when I learned about a Singaporean sensation by the name of Hainese chicken rice. Chicken has never really appealed to me because I find that regardless of the preparation, the chicken usually just ends up tasting like chicken. Yawn… Pork, on the other hand, takes on flavors well and can be prepared a zillion unique ways—sausage, ham, bacon, loaf, etc. Hence, it is my favorite.

Even with my general lack of enthusiasm for chicken, Bourdain’s segment was so damn convincing that I sought out chicken rice for lunch that very day. Talk about the power of the tube!

The Astronomer had previously read about The Little Red Dot in an expat magazine, which boasted that the Singaporean-Vietnamese owners dished out great chicken rice. With Lush in tow, we headed to the eatery to taste the subtle goodness that is chicken rice.

According to Bourdain, chicken rice is made by boiling a chicken in ginger and other aromatics. Once the bird is thoroughly cooked, it is dunked into a large pot of ice cold water to congeal the fat and keep the meat moist. The rice is made from the resulting chicken broth, along with garlic and sesame oil.

The Little Red Dot’s version of chicken rice was everything Bourdain said it would be, minus the plethora of delectable sauces he had on hand in Singapore. I found all of the condiments available (chili sauce, soy sauce, chili paste and ground ginger sauce) flat and unspectacular; most likely because I didn’t know how to use them properly. The room temperature chicken was better off eaten without adornments on this visit. The Astronomer, Lush and I adored the fluffy rice with its faint notes of ginger and garlic.

The BBQ pork platter came with some rice as well. The heo quay’s crispy skin and centimeter of fat was quite good, while the sweet xa xieu was my favorite of the afternoon—candied pork. The Singaporean noodle dish, which was a touch heavy on the gravy, tasted thick and comforting.

This was a decent initial introduction to Singaporean cuisine and I am excited to delve further. Aside from chicken rice, what are Singapore’s signature dishes?

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Tea for Three

February 16, 2008
Cuisine: English, Vietnamese, Dessert

Caravelle Hotel
19 Lam Son Square, District 1, HCMC

Website: www.caravellehotel.com
Phone: 84.8.8234 999

IMG_7365Sure, I love street food. But I also love luxurious indulgences. After all, variety is the spice of life.

I’ve been aching to attend tea at one of the posh hotels in town for quite some time. Lush’s visit provided a fine occasion to sip and nibble the afternoon away. We checked out the menus at the Park Hyatt and the Sheraton, but settled on the Caravelle because they offered both a traditional English bill of fare and a Vietnamese one.

IMG_7387I started the afternoon off with a hefty glass of Vietnamese coffee, while The Astronomer ordered peppermint tea and Lush had a lotus brew (above). Even though the coffee was insanely good and strong, I later regretted my decision to veer from tea due to the onslaught of sweets to come. The peppermint tea was a crowd pleaser, while the lotus was too bitter for all of us.

Our savories and sweets were served on three-tiered, stainless steel presentation pieces that were imposing upon our modest coffee table, yet awe inspiring (R). In fact, onlookers from inside and outside the hotel gawked at the structures.

The Astronomer couldn’t stand a day without Vietnamese food and went for the “Lotus” offerings. The top tier (L) included an open-faced sandwich with cheddar cheese, apricots, walnuts and smoked ham, and spring rolls with hoisin sauce. The spring rolls did not stray far from traditional goi coun, while the sandwich was simple and dainty. After months without whole grain breads and cheeses other than Laughing Cow, the open-faced sandwich made The Astronomer and I a little giddy.

The second tier included two crab meat and pork eggrolls with a chili dipping sauce, chicken satay with peanut sauce and a pomelo salad served with shrimp chips (R). I was definitely in the mood for English fare and found the Vietnamese offerings fairly run of the mill. The eggrolls were the usual, as was the pomelo salad. The chicken satay with peanut sauce was a nice departure from the traditional Vietnamese food on hand. The Astronomer enjoyed each of the items because his heart bleeds fish sauce.

The desserts on the Lotus menu were not nearly as extensive as the traditional one, but offered good variety (R). A shortbread cookie, raisin scone, fresh fruit skewer, chocolate filled with lemon curd and “Vietnamese traditional pudding in banana leaf” rounded out the selections. The curious “pudding” turned out to be a gelatinous coconut cake infused with jasmine. The Astronomer and I did not care too much for it, but Lush was a fan. With the exception of the pudding, everything on the Lotus dessert plate was offered on the English menu and will be assessed below.

The top tier of my English offerings included a smoked salmon bagel sandwich accented with dill and salmon roe, a cucumber and tomato sandwich, and the same open-faced sandwich as above (L). The cucumber and tomato sandwich was dusted in parsley and perfect for the occasion. Tea just isn’t quite tea without a crust-less triangular sandwich made from white bread. The salmon number was my favorite. I took my sweet time eating it, savoring each smoky bite. Oh, how I love the salty pop of salmon roe!

The second tier contained a raisin scone, shortbread cookie, fruit muffin, and a dish of raspberry jam and clotted cream (R). The scone and muffin were tasty and fluffy. Their moist surfaces provided excellent vehicles for consuming jam and clotted cream. The clotted cream tasted like a cross between butter and unsweetened whipped cream and was almost too decadent. The shortbread was given to The Astronomer because he likes mild cookies.

The richest dessert was the bittersweet chocolate tart (L). The velvety interior was contained by a crumbly and buttery crust. I maxed out at three bites, and had to share the rest with The Astronomer. Lush, a chocoholic if you will, couldn’t finish hers either. I guess some desserts are just too intense.

My favorite dessert of the afternoon was the fruit tartlet (R). Bite-sized orbs of mango, dragon fruit kiwi and raspberry rested atop a thin, golden crust painted with chocolate and filled with vanilla cream. The entire tartlet was glazed in a simple syrup until the fruits gleaned. Sweet, tart, creamy, chocolaty goodness! I could have eaten a couple more of these.

The British vanilla and cherry trifle (L) was another highlight of the dessert offerings. The creamy custard and whipped cream coupled with the tart cherries and liquor-laced cake left Lush and I yearning for more. The bottom layer of rum-soaked pound cake was my favorite because I am a pirate.

The chocolate box filled with lemon curd (R) was one of The Astronomer’s favorite desserts. As the chocolate box entered our mouths, it effortlessly collapsed, combining smoothly with the lemon curd. While we’ve all had chocolate and fruit paired together numerous times, we had never experienced it with lemons. Lemons and chocolate are indeed a good team.

The selection of fruits balanced out the overwhelming sweetness of some of the desserts. In addition to the fresh fruit skewer (L), the English menu also included white and milk chocolate-dipped strawberries!

My first experience with afternoon tea was truly stupendous! Speaking with a faux-British accent and pretending to be lady-like, all while munching on obscenely cute food was a dream. Must do it again soon!

Cơm Tấm Bì Chả Sườn Trứng Ốp La

A special dish for a special day. Happy February 29th everyone!

I’m not sure what your plans are, but I celebrated over a hefty plate of cơm tấm bì chả sườn trứng for lunch today. A bed of warm broken rice (cơm tấm) accented with a slab of grilled pork chop marinated in sugar and fish sauce (sườn), a slice of pork loaf topped with egg yolks (chả), and a mixture of pork skin and thinly shredded pork (). Pork prepared three different ways in one dish truly is magical! The mountain of meat and rice is topped with a runny, deep-fried egg (trứng Ốp La), a scallion and oil mixture, and a lovely fish sauce vinaigrette (nuoc mam).

Hungry yet?

Seafood a la Sidewalk

February 15, 2008
Cuisine: Vietnamese, Seafood

Ton That Thuyet Street
District 4, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: none
Website: none

Fruits of the Sea – clockwise from top left – condiments for dipping, blood cockles sauteed in tamarind, grilled mussels, clams sauteed in garlic (25,000 VND per dish)

My friend Luscious loves food with a passion, so I’m working overtime to introduce her to the very best of Vietnamese cuisine during her month-long stay.

We’ve had lots of great food thus far, but the one eatery that made her squeal with utter delight was the seafood shack we stumbled into in District 4.

The blood cockles smothered in sweet and tangy tamarind sauce knocked our socks off. There were definitely numerous oohs and ahs as we hungrily dug into the plate. The Astronomer bought some baguettes from the vendor down the street to sop up the divine sauce because it’s criminal to discard something so perfect.

The clams with garlic were also finger lickin’ good! What’s there not to love about tender clams dressed in hunks of sweet garlic? These morsels were not as intense as the cockles, but truly just as tasty.

Our last course of the evening were the grilled mussels. I find it rather funny that chem chép nướng means exactly the same thing from seafood shack to seafood shack—grilled mussels topped with scallion oil and crushed peanuts. Where’s the creativity? The grilled mussels tasted just like they did at previous sidewalk seafood eateries; smoky, crunchy and yummy.

We walked back to the apartment with greasy lips and happy bellies.

Lunching with Bà Sáu

Bà Sáu, my grandma’s younger sister, rocks my world. I hope to be just as cool as her when I get old.

Like the majority of people in Vietnam, Bà Sáu rises early. A couple Friday’s ago, she woke me up at the ungodly hour of 8:30 to invite me to lunch at her house. Even though I was groggy as heck, I was fortunately conscious enough to accept because Bà Sáu is a culinary genius. Seriously.

On this afternoon, The Astronomer, Luscious and I feasted on fresh cha gio (egg rolls), bo bia (spring rolls with jicama, carrots and Chinese sausage), leftover banh chung from the New Year, watermelon, and preserved pineapple candies.

This is the second time The Astronomer and I have been treated to Bà Sáu’s famous cha gio, which contain pork, shallots, taro root and are about the size of one’s pinky finger. The Astronomer pops these cha gio into his mouth like bonbons. Learning how to make these babies is on top of my to-do list, so look out for a recipe in the future.

Her bo bia was killer as well. I was certain that bo bia was the one Vietnamese dish that was superiorly prepared in America. However, I changed my mind with one bite of Bà Sáu’s rendition. Whereas the carrot and jicama slaw is usually sauteed until softened, Bà Sáu leaves a bit of crunch in the vegetables which elevates the dish to new heights.

While we were eating up a storm, Bà Sáu was downing a Tiger Beer. She says that beer aids in the digestion of meat. I told you she was cool.

The best thing about Bà Sáu is that she’s sort of a bully when it comes to feeding her guests. She insists that we gorge until our bellies can handle no more. At one point during lunch, we ran out of bun (rice vermicelli noodles), so she sent her daughter out to buy more even though we were full and begged her not to.

Another awesome thing about Bà Sáu is that after she’s stuffed us to the max, she packs up extra food and fruits for us to bring home and enjoy later.

She’s the best.

Meric

February 9, 2008
Cuisine: Cambodian, Asian Fusion

Sivutha Boulevard
Siem Reap, Cambodia

Phone: 855 63 966 000
Website: www.hoteldelapaixangkor.com/meric.php

Course I: Pomelo and grilled pork salad

Course II: Grilled chicken and yam bean salad

Course III: Grilled beef skewer with green papaya salad

Khmer organic white rice

Course IV: Bar fish and eggplant with coconut milk soup

Course V: Stir-fried calamari with Khmer curry and peanut

Course VI: Braised beef shank with palm sugar and star anise

Course VII: Assorted Khmer sweets

Birthday “cake”

I celebrated the big 2-6 climbing on ancient temples around Angkor Wat and enjoying a luxe dinner afterwards at Meric. I would normally skip swanky joints for homelier ones, but since it was my birthday, I had to live it up. Plus, Conde Nast Traveler named Meric one of their Hot Tables in 2006:

Named after a type of pepper grown in the Kampot region of Cambodia, this slick dining room at the trendiest new property in Siem Reap, the Hôtel de la Paix, has immediately become the boom town’s best table. New Zealand native Paul Hutt, one of the most inventive chefs in Southeast Asia, moved here from the Shinta Mani Hotel, and if his menu there was brilliant, here he’s really hit his stride. Think Khmer cooking for the twenty-first century, which is to say regional dishes made with local produce and given a high-shine Pacific Rim gloss. “What I love about Cambodia is the incredible freshness of the ingredients and the subtlety of Khmer cooking, a very misunderstood Asian cuisine,” says Hutt. His menu evolves constantly; among the latest dishes were steamed maan (fermented fish) with Khmer crudités, lake krill from nearby Tonle Sap, a salad of ambarella (between a quince and a crab apple), and stir-fried frog with basil (entrées, $18–$22).

Our entire party of six ordered the Khmer tasting menu—a seven course Cambodian feast priced at $28. The presentation at Meric is really something special, every course was served on slabs of stone and garnished with banana leaves.

The first course was a large spoonful of pomelo and grilled pork salad. We weren’t sure whether to eat it in one bite or to make it last by using additional silverware. The salad was very similar to the pomelo salad I had in Da Nang at Buddha Bay, minus the squid. From the fried shallots to the pork slivers to the fish sauce-based dressing, the salad was more or less a Vietnamese goi.

The grilled chicken and yam bean salad came next. The yam beans, also known as jicama, created a crunchy and refreshing base. The chicken was shredded and simple, while the herbs shined through.

The grilled beef skewer with green papaya salad served with Khmer organic white rice was a crowd pleaser. The beef was marinated in lemongrass and tasted smoky from the grill. The pickled green papaya salad contrasted well with the fatty beef. The white rice was the finest jasmine I’ve eaten in all of South East Asia.

The bar fish and eggplant with coconut milk soup was lovely as well. The fish’s texture was sturdy like chicken, while the eggplants were nice and tender. The coconut milk brought about a milder and creamier curry soup.

The stir-fried calamari with Khmer curry and peanuts was probably the least memorable of the dishes due to its lack of oomph. Diced green peppers and peanuts can only take a dish so far. According to the chef, this dish isn’t purely Cambodian. While the Khmer do eat squid, it’s usually grilled and not stir-fried.

My favorite course of the evening was the braised beef shank with palm sugar and star anise. Reminiscent of Vietnamese bo kho, this rich and savory stew was brimming with moist pieces of beef and richly flavored with star anise. The yolk from the hard-boiled egg soaked up the salty broth, creating an orb of deliciousness.

For our final course, we were presented with an assortment of Khmer sweets including a banana cake, a sticky rice cake topped with custard, and a shot glass filled with sticky rice with black eyed peas and coconut milk. The cakes were served with a caramel-y palm sugar sauce that seduced me completely. My favorite combo was the banana cake dipped in the palm sugar sauce—caramel and bananas go hand in hand.

Scenes: Central and Old Markets

Since we only had one and a half days to explore Phnom Penh, our traveling crew stuck to the highlights. Central Market is painted a vibrant golden yellow, spacious, and has incredibly high ceilings. There are vendors housed both inside and outside market—clothing and accessories were sold inside, while produce and prepared foods were sold outside. We arrived at the market during naptime, so many of the vendors were zonked out.

Whereas Saigon’s Ben Thanh Market is noisy, bustling, and somewhat maddening (especially with all the vendors trying to hawk their goods), Central Market is organized and calmer. However, the selection at Central Market is less diverse.

Disinterested in knock-off clothing and accessories, we mostly explored the food-related vendors outside. Here is a basket of fresh green peppercorns! A little too strong to be eaten alone, but paired with the right items, say banh trang phoi suong, they really pack a lot of punch.

The Astronomer has a weakness for baked goods, so we picked up one of these sweet buns to share. I tried my best to extract the Khmer name from the vendor, but couldn’t quite pick it up. Language barriers stink. I guess the name sweet buns will have to suffice. Wrapped in red tissue paper, the sweet bun tasted like a cross between Jiffy cornbread and steamed pork buns minus the pork (banh bao). The sweet bun was fluffy, but one-dimensional in flavor. Definitely good for carbo-loading.

A posting about markets just wouldn’t be a posting about markets without some proper carcasses! Here are some dead chickens with really dirty feet.

Some Khmer men perusing the fresh seafood selection.

I was thrilled to see fresh baby corn because I have only encountered the canned stuff previously. I wanted to pop one in my mouth, but Central Market isn’t an East Bay farmer’s market where everything is game.

The gate leading to Old Market. Old Market has a few produce vendors, but the majority of the stalls offered hair care services, like shampooing and hair straightening. We did not stay here for long because our coifs were already in tip-top shape.

Rotisserie chicken! Beautiful chickens roasting over hot coals.