August 2007

The New Yorker talks about all things food in this fortnight’s issue, and in it is a heartfelt and hilarious laugh-a-minute piece by my favorite writer Calvin Trillin and his adventures in my favorite country, Singapore! So when he told me he was going to my hometown to eat the food I grew up noshing, on the day I was star-struck at Singapore Day, he wasn’t lying!

To critics of Singapore’s hawker system, who believe that street food only tastes sanitary, but not authentic in hawker centers, Mr Trillin offers this insight:

“For years as I’ve walked past food stands in foreign lands, I’ve struggled to keep in mind that for an American visitor the operational translation for signs that ostensibly say something like “bhel puri” or ” tacos de nopales” is “Delivery System for Unfamiliar Bugs That You Will Bitterly Regret Having Ingested.”… Gathering food venders into hawker centers, …, meant that a Western visitor not only can have a safe shot at a variety of Singaporean delicacies but can do so in a setting so convenient that his energy is reserved for eating.”
Take that, you hawker center detractors! Even locals do not have iron clad stomachs, so indeed the hawker center is a boon to all eaters of Singapore food.

I’ve loved Calvin Trillin’s writing ever since I picked up an old copy of Alice, let’s eat! , and to read his take on Singapore, the system, the people, and last but not least the food that we are all hungry for is an extraordinary treat. His description of the culinarily homesick Singaporean, whose first stop after a 15 hour transcontinental plane ride is not home but to Geylang/Newton/East Coast Park for their favorite local food fix is so evocative and so personal I couldn’t help but laugh out loud, to the shock of the other patrons in the Korean restaurant where I was reading/supping. Mine happens to be Qiu Lian Ban Mian, and I do not even need to leave the airport for it. What’s yours?


Poor Mark. First, I overpromised and failed to deliver on bbqed sambal stingray. Luckily for my reputation, our dinner wasn’t completely ruined and Sanur sans stingray was still a hit with Auntie Hui, Uncle Sam and Mark who are in the city for a college tour. Then, weaving through the side streets of Chinatown, we then visited XO Kitchen for dessert and I managed to cajole Mark into ordering the Japanese deep fried ice-cream, thinking he’ll enjoy the hot and cold contrast. WORST DECISION EVER.
Now ladies and gentlemen, please please whatever you do avoid #215 on XO’s expansive menu. First of all, the plate of ice-cream was inexplicably adorned with a slice of tomato and cucumber and coleslaw. Perfectly respectable sides for a plate of say, fried calamari. But with ice cream? WRONG.
And the ice cream could have well been calamari, if not for the icy chunks of insipidly sweet ice cream in the middle of the severely battered balls that tasted of old oil. We all took a stab at ID-ing the flavor of the rapidly melting puddle of pink milk soup and halfheartedly agreed that it was supposed to be red bean. Thank goodness everyone else had much better luck.
That being said, I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from going to XO. In fact, I’ve enjoyed multiple meals there, including good desserts, such as a cool creamy coconut pudding and sweet steamed egg custards. I’ve recommended this place to friends too, who’ve enjoyed their congees and steamed rice crepes (perfect for a post wisdom tooth extraction dinner) But on a menu that stretches over 200 dishes, all I can say is that food can be terribly inconsistent, from good to pure HUH? But at such rock bottom prices, it doesn’t hurt to try. But, avoid #215!

XO Kitchen
148 Hester St

p.s.: I only like this branch. Avoid the other branch off Centre St like plague…

Boston in 30 hours. That doesn’t seem like a lot of time at all, but yet I managed to fit in 3 square meals with a couple of dessert breaks thrown in for good measure. Of course, I can’t claim credit for doing it alone. I had help from 3 ladies, who happily allowed me to dictate our dining schedule for a good day and a half. My partners in crime:

Ruoying, Wanling & Gerrie, aka the Superstar, her Assistant & the Manager

We refueled at Taiwan Cafe, a convenient 2 blocks away from the bus station. This is the place to go for a filling, honest chinese breakfast when in Boston. We dunked fresh fried dough fritters into bowls of sweet soy milk, mixed up a big bowl of slithery noodles topped with thick brown meat sauce and scalded our tongues gobbling up plump soup dumplings.

After checking into the coolly decorated Nine Zero Hotel located a stone’s throw away from Boston Common, we engaged in some non-food activities, like wetting our feet in the Frog’s pond, smelling roses in the beautifully manicured Public Garden, walking the length of Newbury Street, trying out clothes in Filenes Basement and crossing the Charles River to Cambridge, home to MIT and Harvard universities. Very soon, it was dinner time at the Cambridge branch of Legal Seafoods in the Charles Hotel.
Legal Seafoods is a Boston chain, and as much as I try to avoid chains, the seafood here is pretty stellat. Nothing says summertime like a lobster roll does, and so I had one that shared the plate with nondescript fries and coleslaw.

At $20, its definitely a fancy kind of sandwich, but the roll was toasted, buttered and then stuffed with fresh and succulent lobster meat loosely bound with mayo and a minimal amount of celery as filler. It was an extremely satisfying but messy meal. Cioppino is a great choice for someone looking for more variety, coming with a lobster claw, shrimp, clams and big, sweet mussels in a hearty tomato broth.

You know how sometimes you eat too much that you have no room for dessert? That was us. Well, almost. We declined dessert at Legals and had reached the hotel before decided it was far too early to call it a night. So we traipsed down to Finales in the theater district for a fitting end to our first day in Boston.
The Fantasia Plate is a smorgasbord of minature fruit accented desserts. Unfortunately, the names sounded prettier than the food tasted and the success of the multiple dishes was mixed. I liked the creamy orange creme caramel, was indifferent about the strawberry tart and peach mousse slices, thought the chocolate basket with crispy things inside and white chocolate petals with butter cream and blueberries were pretty and pretty superfluous and downright avoided the gunky rice cement.
Luckily the signature molten chocolate cake saved the day, with a rich gooey chocolate cake paired with coffee gelato and addictive caramelized walnuts that brought some smokiness and salt to balance the dish.

Day 2 in Boston and we had plenty of ground to cover. The Freedom Trail beckoned, as did the entertaining street performers at Quincy Market doing dare-devil stunts in return for applause and some singles. Lunch was a quick and simple affair at Wagamama. Yes, in New York we have Momofuku, but in Boston there’s Wagamama, which the additional clout of being part of an international chain first becoming popular in the UK before spreading ramen fever to continental Europe and Australia.
I must say the noodles were a little too tender for my taste, and I found the broth of my spicy miso beef ramen too one-note. I however enjoyed the tenderness of the quality beef, and Ruoying’s complex spicy beef ramen broth that was salty, spicy and sourish at once. The fruit juices too were very yummy and sippable.

A few hundred feet away from Fanueil Hall and Quincy Market is the North End, also known as Boston’s little Italy. Pastry shops are dime in a dozen, but Mike’s Pastry is where the action’s at judging from the crowds that spill over onto the sidewalk.

The shop operates on a mode of organized chaos. There are no lines at the counter. You just shuffle your way to the front of the counter and catch the countermen’s eye. Then you select your cannoli, baba rums, eclairs, tiramisus, cheesecake, mousses, cookies, marzipan fruit to go. Or you can keep and eye out for one of the 10 tables in the shop to clear, park yourself there ASAP and wait for a stressed out looking but highly efficient waitress to serve you. Or do as we did, the hybrid way, getting the pastries in a to go box, then somehow managing to grab a seat, and then ordering coffee from the server. Whatever method works best in this crazy place.

We were really impressed with the dense, moist chocolate fudge cake and the peanut brittle like flavor of the cannoli shell. The Florentine cannoli was indeed redolent of burnt sugar, nuts and filled with cool, slightly grainy ricotta cheese and the best cannoli I’ve ever had. The cappuccino had a rich creamy foam and great with the decadent pastries. Sitting there in the midst of the cannoli buying maelstrom, we were an unexpected oasis of calm.

Besides Orange, these were a few other places I ate while in Chicago last weekend:

Phoenix Restaurant
One of the few banquet restaurants in Chinatown, Phoenix is justly popular for the largest and freshest selection of dim sum in the Chicago metropolitan area. A table for five at 11am on Sunday morning requires a 45 minute wait, so be early or be prepared to spend some time lingering in the lobby. My girlfriends and I fed each other with months, years worth of gossip as we noshed on classic dishes: bouncy shrimp in the har gow, chewy lotus paste filled jian dui, yam cake squares with crispy fried edges. While I reconnected with friends, I also introduced Kathy and Maggie to TPS and Kayla. We’ve always thought that Phoenix was pricey for dim sum, but after the bill only came up to $10 per person, we realized it was the inclusion of boys with big appetites that pushed up the tabs during previous meals. So from now on, dim sum is an all girls affair.

Joy Yee’s
I don’t really care for its brusque service and the MSG laden food, but Joy Yee’s does serve the best fruit shakes. UofC alum who’ve had many late night suppers at Joy Yee’s will be glad to know that despite moving to a larger space close to the center of the same complex (yes, the coming soon signs finally came off), the shakes are still as good as ever. They definitely do not stint on the fresh fruit and my lychee-mango shake was fragrant with the perfume of lychee and yielded stringy mango pulp as I sucked up the juice via an extra large straw. Tapioca pearls here remain large and chewy, none of those mini undercooked crap found at Joy Yee’s.

Tango Sur
Midwesterners are reputed to be meat and potatoes type of people, so it should be no surprise a BYOB Argentine steakhouse like Tango Sur thrives in the Lakeview district. This is Peishan’s go-to place whenever visitors come into town, and do the flavorful steak and mild prices wow guests. We sat outdoors on the balmy night, on a wide sidewalk that would make any New York restauranter green with envy and shared a bottle of red wine Jon, one of TPS’s friends brought. Spicy and minerally were terms the wine afficionados thrown out as they swirled and sipped. We split a saganaki-like melted cheese appetizer that paired well with the warm, crusty rolls and a stuffed portobello that unfortunately suffered from an overdose of tomato sauce. 2 large chunks of filet mignon came in our El Filet entree shared between TPS and I, presented with a nice char and on top of wine sauce, as well as garlicky spinach mashed potatoes. The meat, while rather nondescript in flavor was tender, bursting in juices and the red wine sauce added oomph to the taste. Her friends shared an assortment of sausages, sweetbreads and meat served on a table top grill, enough meat for a family of five but shared amongst only 2 men. Needless to say, we rolled out of the restaurant many hours later very sated and satisfied. Once again, Peishan outdid herself.

Friends, food and fun. This almost makes the painful airport shenanigans bearable and has me looking forward to the next visit to Chicago!

Phoenix Restaurant (2131 S Archer Ave, Chicago)
Joy Yee’s (2159 S China Place, Chicago)
Tango Sur (3763 N Southport Ave, Chicago)

Just like in New York, brunch is a big deal in Chicago, and people are not afraid to wait for it. Orange in the lakeview area is one such place where brunch devotees congregate, where clumps of people form along the sidewalk and happily wait for their names to be called. Peishan, Kayla and I were there at 11am last Saturday, unearthly by New York standards but mightly late in Chicago. We put our names down, headed back to Peishan’s loft just around the corner to check out Peiyun’s wedding photos, went back to wait some more, and were finally seated a little before 1230pm. Peishan even gave a little hop and skip when the hostess mercifully called for us.
Like its young, tanned and generally thin clientele, Orange exudes a fun, hip vibe. The orange (at this point it gets a little trite) walls creates a cheerful setting for a nice big meal while the very high ceilings and well spaced tables help keep the noise level comfortable. The juice bar is the focus in the main dining room, and an enormous juicer works double time making fresh squeezed fruit juice. Coffee is poured as we pore over the menu of innovative eats, smelling and tasting like orange, as these beans have been roasted with orange essence. Funky more than tasty. Frushi, or fresh cut fruit on sushi rice was another gimmick we did not fall for.
The brunch dishes were eclectic, huge and in general pretty good. My eggs benedict were smothered in a basil flecked hollandaise sauce and the perfectly runny poached eggs sandwiched between to thick slices of tomato. Instead of ham, the eggs sit on barely melted pieces of milky mozzarella. What was my eggs benedict channeling? A caprese salad!got it?
Kayla’s plate of coconut french toast kebab looked like a CSI crime scene, with the fruits bleeding passion fruit and raspberry blood. But the fresh mango, pineapple and strawberry slices were just tart enough to balance the sweetness of the coconut crusted brioche, which in turn did an admirable job of soaking up fruit purees. All she needed was a margarita to feel like she was on a beach in the Carribean. My favorite dish however was Peishan’s green eggs and ham. Scrambled eggs and pesto is for me a new flavor combination I will forever keep and employ at home, and the generous chunks of ham didn’t hurt, adding savoriness to the heap of fluffy eggs. With all these and other intriguing dishes, like a daily flight of silver dollar pancakes dolled up in various styles and chai-tea flavored french toast, no wonder people line up here.

3231 N Clark St (bet Aldine & Belmont Aves

Soba-ya is one of my East Village standbys, and for very good reason. Comfortable seating, good prices, polite service and most importantly pitch perfect buckwheat noodles, made-in-house and begging to be dipped in sauce and slurped aloud. However, while the place is not exactly a hole-in-the-wall, its not big either and waits, especially on weekend nights can border on egregious. One way to game the system is to come in for lunch, where I found myself some weekends back with a group of friends.

Most of my companions were taken with the price-buster of a bento set. For a ridiculously low price of $15, you get, not only an expertly made serving of nutty, chewy soba, you are also served a lacquer-box filled with 4 food types: salad, nimono (stewed root vegetables) , agemono (tempura) and yakimono (for that day, a slice of teriyaki salmon), on top of pickles and dessert. I found myself lusting over the tempura, the shrimp and vegetables showing through a crisp and light coat of batter.
Besides the bento set and bowls of soba and udon (also made in house), diners can choose from a multitude of noodles + rice combos as well as a daily special (Chirashi soba, with the ingredients artistically fanned out on of a mound of noodles in a large ceramic bowl). A fan of fish roe, I had to get the salmon + roe ricebowl + soba combo. For a non-sushi place, Soba-ya serves really fresh fish, and I absolutely adore the burst of brininess with each bite of the glistening salmon roe pearls. The salty rice, and the austere zaru soba make for a contrasting but good meal.
We washed down our lunches with leftover sauce and the soba water, left over from the cooking process and dug into the complimentary desserts, precious little pots of eggy custard. With noodles this good, who needs eggs for brunch?


229 E 9th St (Bet 2nd & 3rd Aves)

For the residents of Hells Kitchen, Bis.Co.Latte offers a welcome alternative from Starbucks, with free wifi in a cheerily neon room, as well as a friendly proprietress and her employees serving up Illy coffee in real hefty cups and freshly baked pastries that are small but packed with flavor. The house specialty are solid sticks of crunchy biscotti, all 15 or so types on each given day. Besides biscotti, gelato seems to be a popular menu item on a hot summer day, and customers sitting next to me were raving about the fragrant vanilla bean and refreshing mint chocolate gelato. Visitors can sample the whole array of biscotti generously laid out near the counter, ranging from the regular almond studded variety to a savory red wine and pepper biscotti that was hot and spicy, and even a carob one that your puppy could eat and would love. My favorites are a chocolate chunk espresso one that’s great dipped in a cup of strong coffee, and a fruity but balanced apricot and almond biscotti, with chewy chunks of dried fruit providing textural contrast to the crispy, twice baked treat. Yummy. Prices are also fair at only $0.85 per cookie and a whole pound for $15. I brought a bag to work and thought a good 20 sticks was a lot. But a pound was not too much at all when your co-workers like it as much as I did. In less than 2 hours, we had nothing left but the plastic bag.

667 10th Ave (Bet 46th & 47th St)

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