You know, now that I think of it, there’s something the very friendly front-of-house said as I paid the bill which sounds a bit ominous. When I asked her if Let’s Meat Up was a new place, she beamed. ‘It opened one month ago. Our only outlet!’
No one says that last bit if there aren’t plans afoot to change it.
So that raises a question: seeing as Singapore’s food scene has got more chains than your average BDSM dungeon, how much should a new arrival be welcomed? On the plus side, Let’s Meat Up is aimed at a new niche for fast-ish food, namely robatayaki. That said, I have seen robatayaki restaurants, and the place looks nothing like one. The name robatayaki means ‘grilling around the stove edge’, but the standard elements – the open grill, ingredients all laid out – are missing. Which means there’s only the food to go on.
This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts, restaurant and fellow tasters.
Vuelvo al Sur,
como se vuelve siempre al amor…
I am returning to the South,
Like how love always returns…
— ‘Vuelvo al Sur’, Astor Piazzolla (1921 – 1992)
Argentina has always been seen as a land of riches. The first Europeans to arrive at the vast estuary of the Rio de la Plata dreamed of mountains of silver; the name ‘Argentina’ derives from the Latin for silver, argentum. And while the silver turned out to be elsewhere (Bolivia, mostly), the vast country has riches all of its own, many of them edible.
And Bochinche isn’t shy about its intention, which is to bring these pleasures to Singapore. The presence of this piece of the south in Singapore is the result, apparently, of a chance encounter in London involving Diego Jacquet, the chef who helms Zoilo there. Besides his attitude to sourcing the raw materials, he has also sent a longtime colleague, Fabrice Mergalet, to oversee the Singaporean operation. This Fabrice does in a manner that’s calm, almost languid, but still precise and prompt; voices are low, movements are measured, yet the dishes come out as and when they should.
This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the host and fellow tasters.
Humans are visual animals, and for restaurants to give people something to look at is nothing new. The Japanese absolutely love that, to the point they have a term (moritsuke) for it, even if that is a term normally used for more refined dishes than ramen. Ramen is fast food. Ramen rarely cries out for artful decoration.
But what ramen could use, visually, is a bit of spectacle, and that’s what Shin-Sapporo Ramen is happy to provide with their new special. They’ve done their bit to hype the new special with a bit of mystery, just calling it Fire Ramen, which could really mean anything. They probably mean ‘fire’ figuratively. I’ve written before about how capsaicin works by tricking your mouth into thinking it’s on fire. That must be what they’re driving at.
Because I have the navigational skills of a blind squirrel, I like to arrive early at dinner appointments just so I can find the place and maybe take a look into it. And to take a look into Koh Grill and Sushi Bar is to glimpse quite the operation, even before the crowds have actually hit – big fillets of salmon lined up on the blocks, the unexpectedly small grill heaving smoke past the slabs of meat placed on it.
In other words, despite its position up at the peak of Wisma Atria, in the heart of Orchard Road, the operation is still of a piece with its location in a food court. I don’t mean this as a disparaging comment, not when food courts are where the majority of our eating still gets done. To supply this sort of demand requires machine-like work, and that’s what Koh provides – a finely tuned machine that satisfies.
This is an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts.
During my second year in London, we – a couple and I, sharing a ground-floor flat in Brockley – decided to throw a Chinese New Year reunion dinner the time-honoured way, with steamboat. Too lazy to find a shop that sells one of those portable cookers, we ended up using two rice cookers – one with spicy soup, chicken in the other, set permanently on ‘cook’. It was enough, with several refills, to feed 12 or 15 people. More importantly, it’s the kind of meal you remember fondly 6 years later.
My point is that steamboat’s bare essentials really are bare, which makes it both profoundly easy to run a steamboat joint, and very difficult to run a good one. Which part of the meal are you supposed to improve? This is probably why some go for gimmicks; manicures while you are queueing comes to mind.
Hua Ting Steamboat in Claymore Connect, however, takes another route, and they make it clear from the start; the invitation to the tasting asked if I would prefer winter melon and conpoy, tomato and century egg, or maybe shark cartilage as the soup base. Even before I’ve seen the place I’m already favourably disposed.
What I’ve got in simmering away front of me, sitting in Masizzim, is one culture’s answer to an age old culinary problem – the issue of pairing something with chilli. It is a beef stew, kept bubbling by a flame below, spreading a meaty, rounded scent every which way. See, capsaicin is a beautiful, wonderful thing, but by itself it is often far too vicious for a dish. It’s not something that can be used alone. The native Mexicans used the equally formidable chocolate as its foil, but in Europe, while chocolate found its own mates (sugar and milk), they seem to have simply given up on chilli – more’s the pity.
But not in Asia. Just about every culinary culture in Asia, introduced to chilli in the 17th or 18th century, has found its preferred match to the spicy kick. It’s Sichuan peppercorns, citrusy and buzzing; it’s the fermented, marine odours of belachan and fish sauce. Korea’s solution is simple too – the savour of fermented soybeans, sweetness from honey or fruit juices. It is an approach that focuses on the nature of chilli as a fruit, rather than just a hot poker for the mouth. Masizzim gets it, the chilli assertive but not aggressive.
Ah, Somerset. Who came up with this idea anyway? Let’s take a large plot of land, and make not one or two malls, but a sprawling, Siamese triplet, one jutting into another, corridors and escalators twisting every which way. There was an article somewhere recently, recounting the mournful travails of shop owners in Orchard Gateway, whose locations – all tucked away in one niche or another – simply did not draw footfall.
Well, I do sympathise. It’s not their fault in any case. What’s happened here, maybe, is architects and developers being a little too inspired by all those operant conditioning mazes, dreaming of a building of mice with disposable income scurrying down corridors towards mealtime, getting distracted and buying a sundress and a pair of shoes or something. But the aspiring mice wranglers seem to have forgotten that the mice here can choose not to go into the maze. Sod it, I tell myself. I’ll just take a right turn here and go right to Oriole Cafe + Bar.
Doing this whole blog thing has really taught me many things, including some things I probably should have known a long time ago. When a friend and former colleague of mine, who now works for Orchard Hotel, brought up Mon Bijou, I nodded along and smiled and said I’d be there, then went off to check Google Maps. And only then did I realise that Orchard Road did not end at the junction with Scotts Road, but went on down to merge with Tanglin.
(Full disclosure: because she’s staff, I had a staff discount on my visits. Thanks, friend!)
Well, looking at it positively, that just means a new neighbourhood to explore, starting with Claymore Connect. Newly refurbished and gradually rolling out its shops, the mall – connected to Orchard Hotel through a subtly positioned walkway – has made a virtue of its location off the main drag. It has the look of a hiding place, a serene refuge for sir and ma’am after a long day of mall foraging. Which would explain why I would never have known about this place, or about this more old-school stretch of Orchard in general.
First things first – besides their food, Tanuki Raw has also given me a deep appreciation for soundproof glass panels. When we first arrive, the four of us, we are taken through the cool, air-conditioned space and then out into the alfresco area. It’s all very nice, were it not a sunny Singapore afternoon. The air being humid to the point of viscosity is one thing; but the parade of supercars just underfoot on Orchard Road, alternately gurgling and keening, is an altogether novel form of suffering. We plead for, and thankfully obtain, an inside table.
Of course, neither weather nor traffic noise is the restaurant’s fault; I’d say it’s even a glimpse into Tanuki Raw’s multiple natures. The Tanuki in Japanese folklore is a benign but mischievous beast, shape-shifting and fun-loving, and clearly the folks behind this joint – who are also behind Standing Sushi Bar – intend the name to be a mission statement. And people have responded, if Instagram is to be believed; I was first alerted to it by an Instagram-trawling friend showing me photos of its Truffle Yakiniku Don – a flower of rare beef slices surrounding an onsen egg just on the edge of bursting.