Cape Town: The Test Kitchen

They say food is memory. And I would be doing South Africa such an injustice if I didn’t document the absolutely fantastic meals we had, at great value too. We were fortunate enough to secure a lunch booking at The Test Kitchen in Cape Town, recently awarded the 26th position in San Pellegrino’s World’s Best Restaurants list! It does help that the entire reservation system is now done online.

Quite apart from the flavour pairings, the ingredients themselves were foreign to us – linefish (kingklip for the day), veal sweetmeats, springbok all featured on the generous lunch menu. We also opted to add the day’s specials, making our meal 6 courses with matching wine pairings.

We began with a fragrant onion brioche as part of the bread selection – I love chewy, tasty surprises in my breads. Then came a fish mousse with cheese dust and fish crackers, very much a refined ‘Super Ring’ snack. Asian influence on South African cuisine was most evident in the next few courses – tuna tataki with kimchi and beans and a quail cracker done peking duck style. All very tasty, if a little heavy on the salt.

Then came scallops with cauliflower puree, and cauliflower foam, a classic combination made exciting with the addition of black garlic (I love!). The accompanying caper and pine nut salsa added a surprising zing and contrast to what might have otherwise been a rather heavy dish. Next, the veal sweetbreads smoked in a pot, wrapped in bacon – most decadent and with a moorish, creamy texture.

For mains – a perfectly seared kingklip glazed with curry, carrot and cashew puree and some deep fried carrots to add crunch. I think carrots are a most versatile vegetable, and the addition of the cashew nuts made it really nutty and buttery – clever to have all that flavour without the divergent crunch of the raw ingredients themselves that would have otherwise clashed with the fish. All set off nicely with a dry Lammershoek Chenin Blanc 2013. This was followed by a springbok loin, rich in gamey flavour and intensified with red cabbage puree and emulsion. Almost like eating the hunt, with the addition of pine oil and almond cream. Delicious.

Dessert, though, was the absolute highlight – “sunflower seeds” was a dream pairing of silky smooth chamomile ice cream and pops of honeycomb atop a bed of sunflower seeds toasted in brown butter. All at once intense yet light, with such clarity of flavour – I could have bowls of this. But restraint makes for fonder memories.

Overall, the food was suitably rich, as I have found that South African cuisine is wont to be. Yet interesting flavour pairings highlighting beautiful local produce, executed more than satisfactorily, is what you will get from a meal at TTK. The vibe is rather casual as well, though the waitstaffs’ leather aprons definitely made me do a double take. Despite eating a good amount at the nearby Neighbourgoods Market, we were more than happy to find additional space in our tummies for a thoroughly lovely meal.

The Test Kitchen
http://www.thetestkitchen.co.za
The Old Biscuit Mill
375 Albert Road
Woodstock, Cape Town
South Africa
Tel: +27 21 447 2337

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Singapore: Gattopardo Ristorante di Mare

Italians do such classic things with seafood out of their immense respect for it – right up there with the Japanese. I have thoroughly fond memories of my meals at southern Italy’s many seaside towns, and am glad for a very decent substitute here in Singapore, at Chef Lino Sauro’s Gattopardo Ristorante di Mare, until my next trip back.

A brought me out for a lovely celebration to mark my passing of the bar! We started with 6 creamy, briny, and clean tasting French oysters, accented with lemon juice and a little tabasco, followed by a sardine appetizer which we chose out of adventure – and were most pleasantly surprised. Japanese sardines filleted and marinated, stuffed with a parsley creme and rolled into cute little bundles perched atop crisp croutons made for a very umami combination, the firm flesh of the salty sardines well balanced by sharp parsley. And as always, that delightfully unique taste of silver-skinned fish.

We shared our mains – a grilled pork loin with balsamic vinegar reduction and pine nuts, and sea urchin (aka uni aka ricci di mare) tagliolini topped with parmesan (I think). The pork was delicious, if on the fatty side, well-marinated with a lovely smokey aftertaste, set off by the creamy, earthy nuts. The uni tagliolini transported me right back to Polignano A Mare, although Gattopardo’s version was significantly brinier and less sweet, with a heavier mouth feel overall.

I loved every dish, the attentive service and generous helpings of bread – as well as their piquant Sicilian olive oil. It’s a huge bonus that this place is part of The Entertainer’s options, and one of those that make 2016’s set worthwhile, actually. Would definitely go again with or without.

Gattopardo Ristorante di Mare
http://www.gattopardo.com.sg/menu
34/36 Tras Street
Singapore 079026
Tel: +65 6338 5498 / +65 9325 8843
Mon-Fri: 1200h-1430h, 1830h-2230h, Sat: 1830h-2230h, Closed Sun

Singapore: Mouth Restaurant

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Massive dim sum lunch one Friday at China Square’s Mouth Restaurant a while back with my fantastic colleagues – a veritable feast (a.k.a what happens when all your bosses are out of town for a firm conference). Obviously there are way too many dishes to do an individual review of each so I shall note the particularly memorable ones (in both good and bad ways):

  • coloured har gaus more gimmicky than anything, but the prawns were plump and well seasoned
  • crispy whitebait was delicious and nicely salted, a great appetizer
  • fried carrot cake was filling, not too sweet and pretty spicy
  • xiao long baos were average and under-seasoned
  • black skinned meat dumplings were not my cup of tea at all – starchy minced beef that tasted more flour than cow
  • congee was very silky and tasty, delicious
  • baked salted egg yolk buns were downright sinful and greasy, could stop at half for the sake of my arteries
  • fried dumplings were very tasty, but could do with a wee bit more chives (excellent with the chunky chili)
  • siew mais were good, if nothing to shout about
  • beancurd skin prawn rolls (fu pi juan) were nicely crisp and well stuffed, but extremely greasy
  • siew yoke / roast pork wasn’t crisp enough – as if it had been left out for a while, and slightly tasteless
  • fried rice had a good hint of wok hei, though that dissipated unfortunately quickly
  • char siew sou was lovely and buttery and flaky, with a very tasty bbq pork filling
  • lotus leaf glutinous rice was decent, well-seasoned meat, but not outstanding
  • egg tarts weren’t too sweet, which I appreciated, encased in a flaky tart shell. Unfortunately we were way too stuffed and could only weakly down these two hours later for tea.

I think I missed out a dish or two; we shamefully went a little overboard. But it was lovely getting to know my colleagues, and Mouth Restaurant (or any classic Chinese place really) is a great, if not the best, place for communal dining – whatever those new-fangled bistros would like you to believe. A valuable, affordable CBD option to satisfy any dim sum cravings, of which I have many!

Mouth Restaurant
http://mouth.com.sg/en/
22 Cross Street #01-61 China Square Central
South Bridge Court Shop House, Singapore 048421
Tel: +65 6438 5798
Hours: Mon-Fri 1130h-1500h, 1800h-2200h Sat/Sun 1000h-1630h, 1800-2200h

Singapore: Bao Makers

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Having had the chance to eat at Bao London (arguably the hip leaf bun pioneer), I was pretty amused to see Bao Makers open shop where the old Windowsill Pies once stood, somewhere along Horne Road. It was pretty empty for a Saturday evening, which hardly bodes well.

A valiant attempt was made at introducing innovative fillings for the baos, but none quite hit the spot, save for the salted egg shrimp mantou, which was nicely sandy, creamy and crunchy all at once, especially when stuffed between a deep fried bun. However, the bulgolgi and pulled pork fillings didn’t quite have the depth of flavour to make these as swoon-worthy as London’s; when eaten with the steamed buns, which lacked the typical hint of sweetness in the dough, the entire flavour profile was really quite flat. Neither did the fish and chips or slightly overcooked crabmeat pasta standout either, apart from the fries tasting really, really like McDonald’s.

I was rather disappointed, given the huge potential in a bao concept shop. But more effort has to be put into crafting a sufficiently soft, pillowy yet yeasty and sweet bun, and finding the right balance so as not to overwhelm the flavours of each component. I thought that some combinations were simply too haphazard, and ultimately a thinly-disguised effort to ride on the global success that are leaf buns, but falling quite short. I’m glad I tried it, though I doubt I’d return again.

Bao Makers
https://www.baomakers.com/
78 Horne Road
Singapore 209078
Mon-Fri: 1200h-2200h; Sat/PH: 1100h-2200h; Sun: 1100h-1800h

Singapore: Kilo at Pact

In my humble opinion, Kilo is one of the more creative, inventive and yet affordable modern food places in Singapore, thus cementing it as a firm favourite. Amos and I had a lovely languid lunch one Sunday afternoon in Kilo at Pact, the baby sister of Kilo at Kampong Bugis, tucked away in a corner of Orchard Central.

The baby eggplant with mascarpone cheese and tempura crisps has always been a must-order for me; the eggplant’s oily, gooey creaminess is balanced by the rounded flavours of the mascarpone, while deep fried tempura batter adds a wonderful textural crunch. Earthy, woody beetroot complemented a bed of spicy arugula, with sweet, sour and savoury notes provided by candied pecans, deep fried shallots and a generous dollop of ricotta cheese. Finally, a yuzu ponzu truffled tai roll, stuffed with crab, was yet another example of how outstanding a pairing of citrus and seafood can really be. My only (tiny) gripe was that rice grains loosed from each roll – a sushi sacrilege – having been soaked by the ponzu.But no biggie.

My boss and I agree that the Kampong Bugis outfit offers a better menu, but Kilo at Pact will do in a pinch if you a) don’t happen to have a car, b) need some aircon and c) want to get a great haircut at the neighbouring Pact + Lim, i.e. is a great alternative any time. While these dishes are only offered on Sunday (all day brunch), great value rice bowls are available during weekday lunches. If you’re in the CBD, they also run Grain Traders. Expect great nosh.

Kilo at Pact
181 Orchard Road #02—14-23 Orchard Central
Singapore 238896
Mon-Sat 1100h-1500h, 1730h-2200h; Sun 1100h-1800h

Singapore: Nuvo Kitchen + Bar

I never noticed how beautiful the night lights could be at the fringes of the CBD, until I had dinner one night at Nuvo Kitchen + Bar, sitting pretty at the end of Custom House’s restaurant row, with a much more luxurious setting compared to their previous digs at Marina Square.

We shared: meatballs with home made tagliolini, duck liver carbonara, pan seared cod with bonito flakes and pistachio crusted lamb chops. The Japanese-influenced concept they’re going for comes up in bits and pieces, but its otherwise a very decent Italian meal. I didn’t care much for the meatball pasta, finding the tomato-based sauce way too tangy for my tastes, but was impressed by the complex flavours achieved in the carbonara and cod sauces. Both were replete with umami notes, the former supported by a rich, rounded but not overly creamy base, and the latter a medley of fish stock and capers. The lamb chops were nicely medium rare, not too gamey, and accompanied by some whipped polenta to lighten up one’s overall palate.

Prices were a little on the high side, so using the Entertainer app really eased the pinch. An otherwise delicious meal; ask for a table by the floor-to-ceiling glass walls for a view of Marina Bay to act as the stunning backdrop to your night.

Nuvo Kitchen + Bar
https://www.facebook.com/nuvosingapore/
70 Collyer Quay, Customs House #01-04
Mon-Sat: 1200h-1500h, 1800h-0000h

Singapore: Punch Cafe

If you haven’t already heard, the latest bistro-cafe to sprout along North Canal Road is the stylishly secluded Punch, with a minimalist exterior that belies a very hip courtyard reminiscent of the now-closed Omotesando Koffee’s outdoor seating area in Tokyo.

Opened by the same good folks behind The Bravery, The Plain and Ronin (my go-to morning espresso stop), very decent coffee is a given. They offer only pour overs in the early morning, so as not to compete with Ronin, but switch up the beans every now and then – I’ve had Ethiopian, Columbian and Sumatran varietals each with their own distinct flavour profiles. Order some freshly made doughnuts if you’d like a sweet start to your day.

It’s not all about coffee though, as a compact menu offers modern takes on old classics. Some friends and I enjoyed a mountain of steamed mussels in a slightly spicy broth, accompanied by excellent sourdough soldiers. The chicken tsukune burger came with a raw egg yolk to be ceremoniously squished between a medley of brioche buns, cucumber slivers and a slightly bitter grilled chicken patty, half from the marinade and half from the char. Fried chicken, first brined to retain moisture, is accompanied by an addictive blue cheese dip, tomato marmalade, pickles and gherkins.

I do find the food offerings a tad overpriced, but appreciate that they do serve coffee late into the night, and the space and its people are charmingly hospitable. Now if only they would let me order – and devour – an army of sourdough toast…

Punch Cafe
32 North Canal Road
Singapore 059288
Hours: 0800h-2300h (Tues – Fri), 0800h-1800h (Sat-Sun)