Monday, September 30, 2013

Kilo@Pact: Brunch or Lunch?

I always have doubts about the food from any shop that is based on the concept of food and fashion retail. However, Kilo@Pact is an exception case because the food, especially those from the brunch menu are truly delicious.
 Located at a hidden corner of Orchard Central, Kilo@Pact is a food + fashion+hair salon. It was the place where I had mistaken as Tanuki, a restaurant which I was heading to for their oysters promotion in January this year.
Though it was meant to be a brunch gathering, we ended having more ala carte items then brunch items. 1st reason was because brunch service is only available after 12.30pm although the restaurant opens at 11.30am. 2nd, the brunch menu had only 5 items.
So to fill up time (and stomach), we ordered some items from the regular menu section called "Small Plates". The Baby Eggplant ($12) did not wow at the first bite because the egg plants were bland. But the dish miraculously hit the jackpot when the mascarpone cheese, bonito flakes and donburi sauce were mixed into a mess.

The Zucchini Pancake ($17) resembled a less crispy Korean Pancake sheltered under a green canopy of rocket leaves. There was no dip as the goat cheese crumbles and Iberico Ham were responsible for imparting the flavours.
Since the menu is a Japanese-Viet inspired one, there are dishes such as Prawn Spring Roll $8. The sauce tasted authentically thick and tangy-a perky dip that instantly whets your appetite.
However, the Crispy Quail Egg ($8) was forgettable except for its supposedly spicy Thai hot sauce called Siracha, which tasted more like a sweet mayonnaise.
Ahi Mango Poke with Deep fried Wanton skin $16
The next two dishes were quite normal and did not excite me. The Ahi Mango Poke with Deep fried Wanton skin $16 is raw tuna mixed with cucumber, shallots and mangoes to be self-filled into the wanton shells. The Salmon Avocado Sushiro ($15) is rolled up sushi served with Niigata rice served with plain-tasting soy flaxseed chips. I would skip this dish because it fell short of flavours.
Instead of sushiro, the salmon sushi ($15) was the crowd-pleaser. The salmon was so fresh that it was the first time I realized that sashimi could have a sweet taste.  And who doesn’t like super-crunchy chicken skin?
The kids had the Ebiko Pasta ($18)-Capellini in light cream, smelt roe and sautéed prawns and Beef Short Ribs Rice bowl ($17) below.

After having so much food, the kitchen was still, ironically, not ready to serve brunch items. But it did whip up a very decent plate of beef short rib steak($38), paired with mildly sweet red wine reduction. But what I liked more was its side dishes-- tenderly grilled yellow peppers and quinoa rice with a herb-buttery fragrance.

Having desserts for first meal of the day was no problem for me so I ordered Raw Chocolate Lava Cake with Basil Ice Cream ($9). Cake was predicatably normal but ice cream stood out for its sweet, earthy flavours.
Finally, the much-awaited brunch made entrance with Shakshuka ($22), a traditional Middle East breakfast of cooked tomatoes, capsicum, onions and carrots. I had a taste of it with the baguette and the gravy was richfully sour, especially with the chunky cuts of vegetables. However, some found the gravy should be thicker since it was a stew, implying that the vegetables should be cooked longer.
But the highlight of the day to me was the dish that I had picked with another dessert fan-The Banana Bites ($12). This was not your average French toast as it is so moist with cotton-like softness. Bananas have been mixed into the batter, which was already sweet enough so the maple syrup was rather unnecessary.
At the same time, I really liked the Portobello Benedict ($21) because the black giant fungi worked amazingly well with the piquant buttermilk-mozzarella sauce that was smeared on toasted English muffin. I did not know what “secret ingredient” the chef put inside but the taste was interesting, especially when you have everything in a one mouthful.
So overall, the food here was better than expected, with occasional surprises. My top 3 favourites were the Salmon Sushi with Crispy Chicken Skin, Banana Bites and Portobello Benedict.  Not a bad location for (late) brunch if you can wait till 1pm (including cooking time)

#02-16, Orchard Central
181 Orchard RoadSingapore 238896
Tues-Sun 11am-10pm
(Closed between 3pm-5.30pm)
Brunch: Weekends only from 12.30pm

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Takemura 竹むら : Temple of Traditional Japanese Sweets

Right in the alleys behind Kanda Matsuya is Takemura竹むら, a traditional Japanese sweet house or what the Japanese usually call as Kanmi-dokoro 甘味処, sweets place.

Having been spared from the wartime damage, this place, established since 1930, continues to operate in the exact same rhythm of the past--with the same menu. Instead of going for the zabuton cushions in the open tatami room, we opted for the usual tables.

Whatever you order, you should try the shop's specialty--Age Manju (Y450/$5.75), which is rarely found at other kanmi-dokoro. It is a deep fried fritter just like our Chinese red bean ball/sesame ball but the coating is thinner and does not have any glutinous texture.

Very oily but the red bean paste is smooth and sweet.One bite and you will understand why so many people takeaway more home or buy them as omiyage (souvenirs).

Another interesting find is the Abe Kawa(Y630/$8.05), a mochi sweet that is from Shizuoka. As the mochi cubes have been toasted with some black burnt bits, they tend to become harder to chew, unlike the usual dango balls that stretches easily when warmed. Not too fond of the mochi, but I swept the Kinako powder clean.

Oddly, the Toroten (Y500/$6.40) served here is a savory one, instead of the black sugar syrup (kuromitsu). Transparent and slippery, this is one cool dish that is difficult to decipher. Spicy-tart flavor from the yellow mustard and vinegar, with some saltiness from the grated nori (seaweed). While we honestly did not welcome this dish at first, I find it quite useful to kill some excessive sugariness.
One interesting observation is that it is mostly male customers who were having toroten.

The tempo here is really slow, but it's peaceful. People still engage in their own chat but there seems like an invisible soundproof wall surrounding each table so one is less likely to be absorbed into third-party conversations.

At some point, I did feel like a modern man who had slipped accidentally into the ancient Warring period.

Takemura 竹むら
1-19 Kanda-Sudacho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
Tel: 03-3251-2328.
Nearest stations Ogawamachi (Shinjuku Line) or Awajicho Marunouchi Line).
Open 11am-8pm
Closed Sundays and holidays.
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Friday, September 27, 2013

Café Le Caire: Middle East Cuisine

I brought about 12 hungry people to Café Le Caire, not strictly a café but a restaurant serving Middle East cuisine for a family gathering on Labour Day this year. Many have not tried this cuisine before and since I love hummus and pita bread, why not introduce the food to them? 
Pita Bread
The menu here is really huge, ranging from Arabic Street food to rice coming from Bukhara of Uzbekistan. But honestly, the first impression of this place was unsettling; dim white lights and narrow space that did not look like it can sit big groups.
The space opposite our dining tables on the second floor
Turkish Coffee $5
I did not try this but since it comes with medjool dates, I presumed it must be quite bitter. 
“prepared by boiling finely powdered roast coffee beans with cardamons in a pot with sugar and served into a cup, where the dregs settle. The name describes the method of preparation, not the raw materials” ---Café de Claire menu

After walking through what seems like a kopi-tiam on the first floor, we climbed the stairs to the second floor. It was air-conditioned with proper tables, though there was some eerie cold pressure as the place is totally empty except for my big family. 
Cutting straight to the food, the Falefel ($9) served with tahini dip were highly enjoyed by the kids because they are after all fried food made with chickpeas. These were tasty but less crispy than Pita Pan’s.

The Eggplant Yoghurt $6.8 was a cold dish of bland eggplants swimming in unsweetened yoghurt with paprika.  An unusual yet interesting Turkish food indeed but a liking for this taste is difficult to acquire
Next was my all-time favourite. The Mezze Platter ($16) is good if you want to try a bit of everything. Hummus (chickpeas), Tahini (sesame), Gibna Mahrus (tangy feta cheese and tomatoes dip) with some salad of olives, light greens and pickles. The platter came with more dips than those shown in the photo above.
Some are saltier while some are more sourish.  They are all perfect for dipping with the Arabic bread (can opt for Pita bread too). Arabic bread is much softer and pliable than pita bread. But eventually, we ordered additional Pita bread to mop up leftover dips.
Arabic bread is a simple unleavened bread made of flour, water and salt and then thoroughly rolled into a flatten dough while pita, a double-layered flat or pocket bread made with yeast. “ Café de claire menu
Foul? Why will the Egyptians name their breakfast “Foul”?  So I ordered a Foul with Harissa & Hummus ($9), which turns out to be another rich and tasty mash of slow-cooked fava beans mixed with olive oil. Taste saltier than the hummus.  
Meantime, the Harissa (on the extreme left) has a coarser texture because it is actually made from LAMB boiled down with wheat! Surprisingly, this Yemeni delicacy does not emit any gamey smell and I would not have guessed its lamb since everything is blended beyond recognition. Sounds odd but I love foul food.

This is call Ba'mia ($9) a lamb stew with Okra (ladyfingers) slow-cooked and simmered for hours, served with rice or bread. Guess menu pictures always look better because the ladyfingers were nowhere visible in the pool of dark brownish red. 
But hummus seem to be everywhere, even in meat dishes like Meshawi ($19), a mixture of meatballs, Turkish beef/chicken kebabs, veggie kebabs and lamp chop. The meat is well marinated and succulent, especially the beef.
The kids had something healthier- Fish Kebab Bukhari Rice. Though Bukhari is the capital of the Bukhara Province of Uzbekistan, the rice used is actually basmatic grains and Bukhari rice is a widely consumed staple in Saudi Arabia. The fish was lovely marinated and grilled. Overall, this plate is quite similar to our Chinese mixed vegetable rice, albeit in lesser gravy.
Feta Cheese Omelette with fries ($8) for those who prefer to stick to usual western fare.
While the savoury food was hearty, the mandatory sweet fix was less than satisfactory. From the Yemeni Pudding ($5.50), a Middle Eastern créme brulée made of cardamom to the Om Ali ($6.0), an Egyptian hot dessert made of sweetened milk with layers of puff pastries, raisins and pistachio toppings, they were lacklustre—too soggy and stale.
Being crunchy and nutty, the Baklava ($5.50) was the most delicious. But the meal for the kids was nearly ruined by the Le Caire Banana Split $7.5 because they used an over-ripe bananas with some rotten parts.
So ignoring the desserts, my family enjoyed the exotic meal here even though it was their first-time experience. Service speed is like the movement of a slow tortoise although we were the first to arrive. But on the very least, the price is reasonable.   
For other Middle Eastern food hunts, check out Pita Pan, Artichoke, Onaka.

Café Le Caire 
#01-01, 39 Arab Street
Fri - Sat: 10am-5:30pm
Sun -Thu: 10am-3:30pm

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sumo Wrestling: It's Not About Size.

5.55pm. The final and last round of the day's sumo match.

Two rikishi (powerful men/ sumo wretlers) stood face to face on the shikiri-sen (starting line) in the dohyo (ring for sumo wrestling), crouching and staring at each other. The Kokugikan sumo stadium had been packed with audience ranging from primary school kids to near-century old elderly folks, who were all waiting for that final moment with abated breath. Wait a minute. It looked like a false alarm. 
Both men walked back to the edge of the dohyo, rinsing their mouth with chikara-mizu, some sacred power water believed to give them power, and wiped his lips dry with chikara-gami. Then, each of them threw some salt into the ring--another Shinto ritual to purify the wrestling ground and took their respective positions again. The same process repeated at least twice. All the pauses and false starts preceding each bout built a palpable tension  as no one can be certain when the real action will take place.
The gyo-ji or the referee does not announce when each bout will commence. It all boils down to the two fighters in the ground. Now there they go! Within less than thirty seconds, one of them tumbled out of the ring and was automatically defeated. I stared in awe at the winner who was a few sizes smaller than the defeated. The match ended and the crowd cheered.  
I had the opportunity to witness this September tournament, which was part of an exclusive tour led by famous retired sumo wrestler, Konishiki (full name Konishiki Yasokichi). Oh boy, you never realise who a great star he is until you begin to see groups of Japanese surrounding us, desperately taking out their cameras to take his photo. Konishiki is one great legendary figure in the history of sumo.
Who is he? He's the first non-Japanese born sumo wrestler who clinched the prestigious title of Ozeki, the highest ranking before Yokuzuna was introduced. Born and educated in Honolulu, Hawaii, he is fluent in both American-accented English and Japanese. While he may seem like a giant, he is very friendly and shares about the information behind the ancestral portraits of sumo wrestlers at the Museum Exhibition Room. There is a new exhibition every two months and the room can be viewed free of charge.Stepped into the hall and you can find the portraits of champions festooned onto the rafters of second level seating. They are not photographs but all hand drawn by professional artistes! In the world of sumo, it is all about hierarchy.

The matches begin from jonokuchi (the lowest rank) all the way up to makushita (junior grade). Such short, strenuous matches begin from the morning but those worthy ones takes place in the afternoon from around 2.30pm, when the rikishi from the intermediate division (juryo) commences the battle. Only the wrestlers at this rank and above are considered full-fledged salaried sumo professionals.
At around 3.45pm, the Rikishi from the senior division step into the ring in their colourful ceremonial aprons (kesho-mawashi) and form a circle around the referee.
And do you know that there is no WEIGHT DIVISION for this 1500 year-old sports unlike judo or weight-lifting? So it is possible for a rikishi to find himself pitted against an opponent twice his own weight.

To win, the rikishi does not necessarily have to push his enemy out of the circle. The one who touches the ground with any part of his body (including knees or even the finger tips) is OUT.
Every audience has this black and white sheet of paper cramped with hard-to-decipher scribblings. This is Banzuke, sort of a hierachy chart with the names of low-ranking rikishi at the bottom to the highest-ranked rikishi at the top.  

So perhaps before catching the matches, you can explore the Ryogoku town with a map like this. The Edo-Tokyo Museum is just in the vicinity
With such long hours of competition, audience are free to leave their seats to get some drinks or food that are sold around the stadium. Rest assure that no one will glare at you as it is common for people to wander off and come back again. This box of Yakitori (600 yen) contains 3 sticks of chicken balls and 2 sticks of grilled chicken, is highly recommended by Konishiki-san.
Alternatively, go for the tori-bento (chicken rice box) or buy some unique postcards or souvenirs.

Here are some of the snapshots:
A postcard with Konishiki-san 小錦さん battling another opponent.
After the final match, don't leave so soon yet. Catch the "bow dance", in which a rikishi specially selected from the third-highest division will perform the yumitori-shiki, an amazing feat of twirling the bow. This ceremony was introduced during the Edo Period when the winning wrestler received a bow as his prize and the dance is an expression of his satisfaction.
A grand dinner with Konishiki and his wife was arranged at a traditional house called Kapou Yoshiba. This is not the oldest chanko-nabe restaurant in Ryogoku but is one of the popular ones frequented by the locals after watching the tournament.
There is even a dohyō in the restaurant’s main room where you often find men singing traditional songs for tips but everyone was too preoccupied by the food to leave their seats for the entertainment.
And yes, we had the Chanko Nabe- a hot stew consumed by sumo wrestlers as part of a weight-gain diet. Each nabe was shared among four adults and cost about 3000 yen as an ala carte item. 
It was not just a clear chicken soup but a very rich miso-based soup that is infused with the essence of 17 ingredients. I did not count the exact number but there were fresh scallops, marinated salmon, prawns and large-sized chicken balls. 
There are four basic types of soups: shoyu, miso, shio (salt) and spicy miso. Our miso-based soup is the shop's secret recipe blend of Kanto and Kansai miso.
As part of the dinner course, each guest was served a nice champagne glass of raw, seasonal vegetables. topped with bonito flakes. I could not quite figure the name but it tasted like 豆苗 or sprouts. 
A coaster showing the diameter of the dohyo.
In between the appetiser and the hotpot, a bowl of beautifully sliced sashimi in ceramic bowl was served.
After the chanko-nabe was almost done, the guests had the honour of enjoying extra food prepared by Konishiki-san himself, who poured rice grains into the left over broth to make a really excellent bowl of zou-sui (like porridge)
Before saying our last goodbyes, each guest received a special hand-print of Konishiki as a token of remembrance.
Sumo is more than just a quintessential Japanese sport that resorts to sheer force. It is a pride to one's family name, a tradition that needs to be passed down to the future generations. Sadly, the number of young wrestlers has dwindled over the years, so is the number of viewers to each sumo tournament (possibly affected by a series of past scandals). But now, signs of recovering are showing as retired wrestlers such as Konishiki, are trying to do their part in spreading the knowledge of sumo to a wider audience.    
Will sumo continue to shine as it did in the past? I believe so.
Acknowledgement: This is a special one-off event hosted by Konishiki-san and Sunrise Tours.
Standard Sumo Tour Plan with Chanko Dinner
Price from 13,000 per person.
To watch a Sumo Tournament only, tickets can be bought online in English at:
Schedule: Tokyo (Jan/ May/ Sept), Osaka (March), Nagoya (July), Fukuoka (November) ---> Each tournament lasts 15 days.
Prices: 3,600 yen to 11,300 yen (Not inclusive of meal or guide)
Kapou Yoshiba
2-14-5, Yokoami, Sumida-ku, Tokyo
Access: 10-min walk from West Exit JR Ryokoku Station/ 6-min walk from Subway Toei Oedo Line Ryokoku Station
Close on Sunday/Public Holidays
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