5 Jun

Dear readers, please now visit


Thank you! :)

On the new blog, I’ll be focusing on concise city guides & best of lists.

Shanghai: Sushi Oyama

19 Jul

Every once in a while, you eat a meal so sublime that you will remember (almost) every bite and detail. And even though it may cost a pretty penny, you still think it’s worth it, and look forward to a return trip. Omakase (chef’s choice) at Sushi Oyama, one of Shanghai’s finest Japanese restaurants left me with that feeling, which to be honest I haven’t had in a while – a lot of popular higher end restys tend to be overrated and disappoint me.

We were a bit late for our booking because of the rain, and when we arrived the Kimono-clad staff did not waste a second ushering us to our bar counter seats, showing us the fixed multi-course menu printed on a scroll, checking for any dietary restrictions, and bringing us hot tea and our first course. All that accomplished in probably 30 seconds. *Phew*

Our amuse bouche of bonito cauliflower soup with kelp was so amazing, I was sure everything that followed would not be able to match up to it. It was a shot of soup that packed a great punch, and had such a delicious and distinct flavour. I never knew that bonito, cauliflower and kelp complemented each other so well.

Next up, a beautiful plate of assorted sashimi with freshly grated wasabi that included horse mackerel (ma aji), botan shrimp (botan ebi), yellowtail (hamachi), salmon (sake). Though the sashimi were just one bite slices, it was seriously fresh and of good quality. No need to make a trip to Tokyo and wake up early for Tsukiji.

My absolute favourite out of the five was the to die for horse mackerel (ma aji). I’ve always been a fan of mackerel, even though they always tend to be slightly fishy. But this didn’t have that fishiness AT ALL and was great with a smidgen of ginger and spring onions. If I could have this quality of mackerel all the time, ma aji > ootoro for me, and that’s saying a lot!

With sashimi this fresh, all you need is just a little dab of soya sauce to enjoy its unadulterated flavours.

The smoked ivory shell with plum sauce was a pleasant surprise. I’ve never had this shellfish before and it was cooked well – very tender with a nice smoked flavour and went very well with the zingy plum sauce.

Other cold appetisers we had included the fried cutlassfish salad with sesame sauce, and a light salad of daikon, kelp and greens.

For our grilled dish, we were given two options so we each chose one. The Japanese boarfish (tsubodai) was hands down, one of the best grilled fishes I’ve had. It tasted buttery like a codfish, but without the overbearing oiliness.

Also good was the grilled New Zealand king salmon with pickled turnip, but it was a little common compared to the more exciting tsubodai.

Our nigiri sushi featuring the freshest catch of the day came. Everything was really fresh and the sushi rice was perfect. Even the delicately pickled ginger was amazing. Chef Oyama knows exactly how to enhance the flavours of the fish he gets with a light touch of soya sauce, spring onions, ginger, wasabi, sesame seeds etc. To me, making the best out of the ingredients you get is truly a mark of a good chef.

The highlight of the meal for me, was definitely the signature sushi bowl made with sea urchin roe (uni), salmon roe (ikura) and quail egg. If you think this dish looks good, trust me, it tastes even better! The combination of uni and ikura was genius, and I thought the sweetish raw quail egg tied the dish together when mixed in. The uni was so amazing that my friend who normally doesn’t like uni was won over too. SO. FREAKING. GOOD.

Even the staple chawan mushi is elevated to a hairy crab meat, scallop, asparagus and chawan mushi here. This was also very good. It was more like a soupy chawan mushi with an umami broth and generous ingredients.

The very handsome, animated, humble and talented Mr Oyama fanning our sushi rice. *Swoons* Suffice to say, my friend and both developed a crush on him during dinner. LOL.

Though I was quite full at this point of time (shouldn’t have had so many pre-dinner cocktails!), the second half of our nigiri sushi commenced. We were given super fatty tuna (ootoro), sea bream (ishi dai) and a choice of what we like. Of course I asked for sea urchin (uni), especially after the epic sushi bowl. The ootoro was top notch and so melt in my mouth, and I cannot ever get enough of uni.

Our last sushi course, the makimono sushi, was red tuna and shiso leaf. The addition of the minty, spicy shiso made it very interesting compared to the usual negitoro.

I’m not a fan of tamagoyaki, but even their tamagoyaki was a class above everyone else’s. Not too sweet with a discernable dashi taste.

For soup, we were served a clam and miso soup, which I thought was okay but not awesome as there wasn’t enough clams/clam flavour. I also didn’t quite see the point of the curious looking and round fishcake bits.

I usually abstain from panna cotta and at the beginning of the meal, I asked the waitress if I could be served another dessert/fruit instead. At the end they said they don’t have anything else, but asked if I would like to just give a try as theirs is homemade and very good. I’m so glad I did, because their panna cotta with caramel sauce was honestly so damn delicious. It’s probably not the usual Italian recipe from the looks of it, but like an improved Japanese version. Yums! Moral of the story: Don’t be too narrow-minded in terms of trying food!

Other than one or two a-okay dishes, everything that we had was just stellar. There was actually a lot of food even though the portion of each dish wasn’t big – just the way it should be! All the ingredients were top quality and some were seasonal ingredients that I was lucky enough to try for the first time. Our whole experience from the crockery, classy decor, intimate size of the place (~12 pax) and service felt very authentic and exclusive. I thought it was highly worth the 800RMB, since for a similar experience I would probably need to pay at least 50% more in Singapore, and maybe double in Japan. And to be honest I thought the food was much better than what I had in Tsukiji Market. I can’t wait to go back for a different menu (it’s seasonal, but flexible if you’re a regular) or try Chef Oyama’s other restaurant, Kappo Yu which has a more Kaiseki, fusion slant. What a (near) perfect meal. :)

Price: $$$$ (800RMB for omakase)
Location: 2/F, 20 Donghu Lu, near Huaihai Lu
Opening Hours: Mon to Sat 530 to 1030 pm. Two sittings.
Tel: +86 21 5404 7705 (Reservations are a MUST)

Shanghai: Bikini

7 Jul

It seems that whatever Chef Willy Trullas Moreno of El Willy fame touches will turn to gold. Bikini, a vintage adult cinema meet space age themed hotdog and sandwich shop (I know right, how cool is that) below El Coctel is yet another winning concept. It’s a casual venue that also opens till late, perfect for that pre/post drinking/clubbing snack especially given its location. We dropped by for a post dinner snack and and it was almost running on a full house on a Friday night. Spot the glow in the dark stickers of the solar system on the ceiling!

As you can imagine, this must be quite a hit with the expat crowd, there was a large gathering that took up almost all the tables as it’s a really small space (not more than 25 me thinks). If you’re flying solo or want something quick you can also sit at the bar stools. I’m loving their mirror cum menu board btw.

Keeping on brand, there were lots of posters of bikini clad bombshells, and the menu items are named after adult film actors/actresses ;) Bikini is actually named after a famous disco in 70s’ Barcelona known for its sandwiches. IMO, dancing + sarnies = FTW.

Under the “Very Hot Dogs”, which are all served on baguettes, we tried the Mr. Holmes (65RMB) which had toppings of crispy bacon, avocado, mayo, spicy salsa and crispy shallots. Seriously, it’s like all the popular (and my favourite) toppings on a dog, so you can’t really go wrong with this. But I felt that the baguette could be crispier.

The Mr. Vidal (45RMB), with lime-mayo ketchup, basil, diced tomato, jalapenos and raw and crispy shallots, on the other hand was not up my alley as the jalapenos were too spicy for me. If you like a spicy dog, order this. I also felt that both were quite similar in flavour profiles, we probably should have ordered Mr Jeremy that had mushroom and truffle toppings for contrast.

We washed the hotdogs down with an iced cold Estrella Damm – what a good way to round up the night.

From the “Hot and Pressed” menu, I’ve previously tried two at El Coctel (Bikini sandwiches are available there) and they were Ms Anderson (55RMB) with warm smoked salmon, walnut, spinach, apple and goat cheese (pictured) and Ms Fox (58 RMB) with mustard, ham and Emmental cheese. Both were just incredibly delicious, toasty and easily some of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had.

Other than hot dogs and sandwiches they also have “Snackies” which were Spanish tapas, and “Choripan” which were hot dogs made with Argentinian beef chorizo sausages but we didn’t have anymore stomach space. While I love the sandwiches, I felt a little underwhelmed by the hot dogs. Perhaps I’m spoilt by the ones I had off the street carts in Toronto that were really good (and only half the price, ironically). So if you’re looking for a hearty/traditional hot dog or a proper meal, Bikini isn’t the place as it does more fancy/fusion hot dogs and the portions are snack-like. But if you’re up for just a fun gourmet snack before hitting the bars and clubs in French Concession, and don’t mind paying 65RMB for a hot dog, then this is your place.

Price: $$$
Location:  47 Yongfu Lu, near Fuxing Xi Lu
Opening Hours: Daily 6pm to 2am
Tel: +86 21 64336511

Shanghai: El Coctel

6 Jul

El Coctel, a Japanese-inspired Spanish cocktail bar owned by Chef Willy Trullas Moreno of popular tapas restaurant El Willy, is one of my favourite cocktail bars in Shanghai. It’s just about the prettiest bar that I’ve been to, but lest you think it’s all style and no substance, I’ll have you know that they serve great cocktails and gourmet sandwiches (from Chef Willy’s hot dog and sandwich shop Bikini one floor below the bar).

It’s hard to not feel relaxed here and let all your troubles slip away here. I love its eclectic apartment style decor; complete with mismatched chairs, plush leather sofas, quirky art pieces and watercolour wallpaper. In the day, floor to ceiling windows fill the room with gorgeous light and at night, a dim orange glow makes it really conducive for a date. Lovely is an understatement.

It would be nice to one day sit at the bar one day and watch their (hipster) bartenders make my drinks/converse with them since that’s a huge part of the cocktail bar experience, but that day we were contented to have our own little quiet spot in the corner for girl talk.

How cute is the flamingo coaster? Its watercolour animal and floral themed brand identity is just adorable.

We were served a complimentary bar snack of popcorn and excellent nuts that were both sweet and savoury. Really good!

To start, we both had something light and fruity. I thought the Harvard Cooler (Calvados Fizz) (8oRMB) was a witty take on cider. It actually tastes like a cider, though it was made using Calvados (apple liquor from Normandy), lemon juice and powdered sugar and then aerated and shaken. Great concept and I liked the slight fizz.

The Sakura Caprioska (80RMB) is a must order IMO, as sakura (cherry blossoms) liquor doesn’t often feature on cocktails menus. With the addition of gin, orange and lemon, this was a uniquely floral yet well-balanced cocktail. The choice of citrus fruits complemented the sakura flavour well.

If you’re feeling peckish, you should order from the sandwich menu here, as they are not your average bar food standard. This was the warm salmon, walnuts, apple, spinach and goat cheese panini (55RMB). What an interesting combination that really works! The salmon went really well with the sweet apple slices and goat cheese. And the bread was nicely toasted. Sure it’s not that cheap for a sandwich in China, but I think it’s good enough for a light meal. On a previous trip, I had the ham, emmental and mustard panini (55RMB) which was also amazing and totally elevated my ham and cheese sarnie experience to a new high. The melted cheese was a dream, and good quality ham was actually used (a treat in China).

The Snow Ball (80RMB) was a Japanese interpretation that had Advocat, lime juice, and ginger ale. I tend to shy away from eggs in my cocktails, but the Advocat liquor (egg based brandy) was actually quite comforting, and was nicely balanced with the citrus and the fizzy ginger ale.

For the last cocktail for the road, I went for the Islay Old Fashioned (80RMB), which was a usual old fashioned (spirit, sugar, orange, bitters) with an additional 5ml shot of Islay single malt. This was extremely smooth and had a nice tint of smokiness. Felt very manly gulping this down as we were running late for dinner, angsty Don Draper would approve.

This is definitely one of my go to bars in Shanghai even though it’s a tad pricier. I like the classy ambiance and their house cocktails are all quite unique. They also seem to refresh their menu seasonally as I spotted a few new/missing drinks since my previous trip. Finding the bar is a bit of a challenge though, as there isn’t a signboard bearing its name anywhere. So do the folks at The Apartment (a neighbouring bar that always get asked where El Coctel is) a favour and look out for a discreet entrance with a cocktail shaker and walk up the stairs.

Price: $-$$ (~80 RMB per cocktail, ~55RMB for sandwich)
Location: 2/F, 47 Yongfu Lu, near Fuxing Xi Lu
Opening Hours: Daily 5pm till late
Tel: +86 21 6433 6511
Website: http://el-coctel.com/

Hangzhou: The Grandma’s 外婆家

6 Jul

The Grandma’s 外婆家 (formerly known as Grandma’s Kitchen) is an affordable local Hangzhou chain selling Hangbang Cai 杭帮菜 that is immensely popular with both locals and tourists alike. When I say that it’s popular, I mean that even with over 20 locations around Hangzhou, it’s still perpetually crowded and during peak hours you have to wait for more than an hour! Over my two trips and 4 days in Hangzhou, I’ve eaten it thrice so I think that attest to how yums it is :) Am updating this entry of recommended dishes to include new dishes that I’ve tried!

The picture menu (note the rather silly iPad-ish design) at Grandma’s is as thick as a phonebook but I mostly followed the recommendations on More Hangzhou.

To start you should order a few xiao cai 小菜 to whet your appetite. This cold dish of longevity vegetable 长寿菜 really stood out because of its spicy, garlicky and vinegary dressing. The type of vegetable used has a velvety mouthfeel and is something new to me. It must be local to Hangzhou as I also don’t see it in my part of China.

The century egg 皮蛋, was also something different from the usual pairings of century egg with ginger or tofu as it was served with chilli and a soya sauce dressing. Who knew that century egg and chilli could actually go together?

Another popular appetiser which I spotted on many diners’ tables was the roasted chicken wing 烤鸡翅旁 marinated in Xinjiang spices (cumin) that was extremely tasty and moist.

The Long Jing tea scented chicken 龙井茶香鸡 wowed me as I was not aware that the humble chicken could ever taste this good and sophisticated. Served in a claypot, the meat was perfectly perfumed with the spices, extremely moist and fall-of-your-fork tender. According to CNNGo, the tea-soaked chicken was first wrapped in parchment paper and then roasted to give it its texture. There was a layer of flavourful oil at the bottom of the claypot and I had to stop myself from using the meat to soak it up. I could definitely eat one of this on my own and this is a must eat in Grandma’s Kitchen.

If you have heard of the Chinese poet Su Dongpo 苏东坡, you might find the local dish of braised Dongpo pork 东坡肉 familiar. The dish is purportedly named after him. It is made by pan-frying and then red cooking pork belly, which is about 50% fat and 50% lean meat. It’s a saltier version of the popular Hongshao pork in Shanghai and it’s braised with salted fish and bamboo shoots.

As expected, the fatty layer was so unctuous and melt in your mouth. But yet it wasn’t greasy and had an intoxicating sweet, salty and wine taste. So delicious but you should probably eat this in moderation :)

We wanted to order the prawns roasted in coral stones 珊瑚虾 the first time but as it was winter, it wasn’t in season. Thankfully on my second trip back it was available! This was absolutely delicious because of the seasoning used, and it had a slightly smokey flavour. You could just eat the whole crispy prawn without de-shelling which makes prawn eating even better :)

I don’t know how they cook this dish using the coral stones, but if you’re wondering it actually looks like this! They were at the bottom of the heap of prawns.

I’ve also tried the Long Jing river prawns 龙井虾仁, which were just lightly fried with a very faint tea taste. Unlike the prawns we are used to in Singapore, these are very small but crunchy with a tint of sweetness, and we couldn’t stop popping them into our mouths.

Almost every other table had ordered the steamed fish head with chilli 外婆鱼头, so we knew it was a must order. Don’t be alarmed when it’s served to table as it’s a really really huge dish, these must be the biggest fish heads I’ve ever seen! The fish was super fresh and perfectly cooked, and the moreish sauce is just excellent. For a fish lover/fish head lover like myself, this dish is a must order. My friend found the sauce (salty and spicy) a little strong tasting after a while but when you eat it with the noodles I think it’s just nice. It’s also much less spicy than the Hubei/Hunan version we have here.

Onto the soups, the boiled fish with pickled cabbage and chili 酸菜鱼 was a big hit. It was a huge pot of tender fish slices in a very moreish salty and sour soup, and went very well with rice. Though the fish had a slightly muddy taste as like all river fish, the bold flavours of the soup managed to mask it well.

One of its signature soups, the Song Dynasty fish soup 宋嫂鱼羹 was a very fishy affair that my husband did not appreciate at all, and we gave up after a few mouthfuls. In essence, it tasted like starchy seawater with seafood bits. However, a lot of people do order this probably because it’s a traditional dish alongside with West Lake vinegar fish 西湖醋鱼. Definitely an acquired taste but I’m glad we gave it a try.

Another highly rated soup, the dough fritters with soya bean soup 豆浆油条汤 was a salty cousin of what we’re used to in Singapore. The soya bean was much lighter than the usual soya bean milk so it wasn’t too rich. Highly interesting having this in a soup format for once.

The Grandma’s is definitely a must visit when you’re in Hangzhou, for its sheer quality and value. Even if you’re a small group and order like a King (seriously, like 10 dishes for 3 pax), your bill shouldn’t be more than 80Y per person. The menu is also so humongous that you can try something different everyday though some dishes like the Long Jing tea scented chicken are obvious must orders.

Price: $ (50RMB to 70RMB per person)
Locations: 3 Hubin Rd 湖滨路3号2楼. Many other locations including original branch at 6-1 Macheng Lu 马腾路6-1号(浙江省高级法院对面).
Opening Hours: From 10am. Differs from store to store, call to check.
Tel: +86 571 85101939 (No reservations, go there and take a queue number, they will message you when your table is ready)
Website: http://www.waipojia.com

Hangzhou: Kui Yuan Guan 奎元馆

6 Jul

I read about the historically famous Hangzhou noodles shop Kui Yuan Guan 奎元馆 on CNNGo, and it sounded like such a must eat so we headed there for a pit stop on the way to the train station to do a quick taste test. Although originally founded by an Anhui business in neighbouring Ningbo, Kui Yuan Guan has been around Hangzhou for more than 150 years since the Qing Dynasty. It has been featured in a famous martial arts novel by Taiwanese author Gu Long, which probably further contributed to its popularity. The restaurant is also known as 江南面王 (as you can see on the old school chopsticks holder) which means “King of Noodles in Southern China.” Enough said!

This was their supposedly signature bowl of shrimp and fried eel noodles 虾爆鳝面, with chewy hand made noodles and a light broth that is made using shrimp and eel. I’m personally not a fan of eel and I felt that this was a little too bland for my liking, especially since river shrimp is very mild in taste.

Now the seasonal crab roe noodles 蟹粉面 on the other hand, was a different story. It was bursting with pure unadulterated crab roe and flavour and made my tastebuds sing – if there was liquid gold, this broth would be it! :) The same noodles complemented the salty and rich broth well and even though I was so full (this was just a snack) I couldn’t stop myself from eating as it was so good and addictive! A must order for crab/crab roe lovers! Btw, the noodles come in pretty big portions so small eaters could share.

I realised that both noodles we tried were seafood based, although they do have other ones with pork and vegetables in them (but then again you’re in Hangzhou, surrounded by lakes). Depending on what you order, it could be a hit or miss, but if you’re happy with a pretty decent bowl of noodles in a sanitised yet historically significant place in Hangzhou, then do give it a try.

Price: $ (~40Y per bowl)
Location: 124 JieFang Road 解放路124号
Opening Hours: Daily 930am to 10pm
Tel: +86 571 87028626

Singapore: Toby’s Estate

3 Jul

I had the pleasure of spending a quiet arvo at Toby’s Estate, one of the newer darlings of the cafe-hopping crowd. I heard about this Aussie import when it first opened from one of my coffee connoisseur friends, but its inaccessibility by public transport (by the river at Robertson Quay, near Kith Cafe and Merry Men) meant that it eluded me till now. Established by Toby Smith in Sydney in 1998, it now has outlets in Sydney, Brisbane, Brooklyn New York and of course, Singapore.

More than just a cafe per se, Toby’s Estate also roasts their own beans and sell gourmet coffee and equipment sourced from all over the world. Only the best arabica coffees are selected, blended and served. They also have an Espresso School to impart skills and knowledge to consumers so as to “complement the efforts of harvesters when finishing the journey into the cup”. I.e. they take their coffee very seriously.

Aside from drinks they have some pastries and cakes available if you’re feeling peckish, and also breakfast/brunch (the basics) daily from an early bird friendly 730am till 3pm.

When I was there, I was in for a treat for one of my favourite Mediacorp actors, the hilarious Alaric Tay of the The Noose fame was there with his friends. I wasn’t stalking him but you can partially see him (blocked by the coffee plant sprouting up in the middle of the main communal table). Anyway, celebrity sighting aside, I’m quite a fan of the cafe’s high ceilings, riverside view, super chillax vibe (also perhaps because it was a weekday) and communal dining concept. And they have free WiFi too.

Ordered my usual, a piccolo latte ($4.50) which was very full bodied, but perhaps a little too acidic for my liking. I’m a social coffee drinker though, so this brightness might appeal to the more seasoned coffee drinkers. I read on another blog that their piccolo lattes are made using ristretto and not espresso, so I’m wondering if maybe that’s the reason why?

There was quite a bit of merchandise for sale if you want to replicate your experience at home.

The massive on site smokeless roaster – pity I didn’t have a chance to see it in action!

Would love to come back and hopefully try something else that is more towards my palette’s liking :)

Price: $
Location: 8 Rodyk Street, #01-03/04, S(238216)
Opening Hours: Daily 7.30am-6pm
Tel: +65 66367629
Website: http://www.tobysestate.com.sg/