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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

Singapore: Salt Tapas & Bar by Luke Mangan

7 Jun

Recently, things are looking exciting at Raffles City. Menya Musashi and Salt Tapas & Bar by Luke Mangan, two new foodie destinations just opened a stone’s throw away from each other. I wanted to try Menya Musashi first since I had a mega ramen craving and it seems so raved about. But even on a weekday at 7pm, there were like 20+ people ahead of us so we went with tapas instead. It turned it to be a blessing in disguise.

Salt Tapas & Bar took over the space occupied by the former Double Bay, and if you’re thinking the names ‘Salt’ and ‘Luke Mangan’ sound familiar, it’s a sister restaurant of the more upmarket Salt Grill & Sky Bar at ION Sky, and of course Luke Mangan’s flagship Salt restaurant in Sydney. The concept here is Spanish tapas, but with an Australian (according to their website), Mediterranean and North African (IMO) twist. I never got down to trying Salt Grill, since even the lunch set is quite pricey so I was glad to learn that this was the more casual, affordable outlet.

I love the decor of this place! Something different from the usual minimalist look with some Eames replica chairs thrown in. Some features: antique fishbowl lamps, red brick walls, plant wall fixture, Moorish tiles and a communal bar table for drinks and grazing. It’s quite the hidden oasis literally in the heart of the city, I almost forgot that I was in a restaurant in a mall. There’s also outdoor seating by the roadl but that’s not for me in this humidity, thankyouverymuch.

Dim lighting and a warm orange glow – good for casual dates, bad for food pictures.

To accompany our tapas, we had Luke’s sangria ($17/glass) which was very citrus-y and pretty good. If you can make it, they do a happy hour at 4.30pm to 7pm. I can never have enough of sangria and here they actually do a huge punchbowl serving of it at $70, which is really worth it if you’re a bigger party. Anyway beyond sangrias, the wine and bar list here is also quite extensive (though nothing too fancy).

We went with the 8days review and ordered their recommended dishes. The roasted garlic flat bread with Romesco sauce ($6) was absolutely delicious and a must order if you ask me. The freshly roasted bread was so redolent of garlic and olive oil flavours, and honestly good enough on its own – but the accompanying red pepper based sauce was also very addictive. I don’t mind paying for my bread when it’s this good.

The baked bone marrow with shiitake duxelles, Parmesan & air dried olive ($13) was easily one of the best baked bone marrows I ever had! Even the one at Dinner by Heston has nothing on this one. The combination of the bone marrow and shiitake duxelles is just genius as the duxelles loan the marrow flavour without being too rich, and provide a good texture for spreading onto the cheesy toast. Delicious!

I was late in snapping a picture of the coned cover, but this was the Tagine of snapper with octopus, chickpeas, silverbeet, date & lemon ($32). The fish and the octopus were perfectly cooked here, and the tangy sauce that had a strong lemon flavour gave the dish an extra special kick. Memorable.

Though we were full by then, we had to try a dessert. We wanted something adventurous so we went for the roasted figs with candied ginger, baklava and yoghurt sorbet ($13). It’s my first time trying a baklava (made of filo pastry, nuts and sweetening) so I have nothing for comparison, but I thought it was okay though it would be better served warmed up. The accompanying figs weren’t juicy or sweet either. I probably would have preferred the churros and chocolate :) Nice sorbert though!

Overall, I thought it was a good meal and prices are quite reasonable for the quality (~$50 per pax with one sangria). There were so many other items on the menu that I wanted to order, so a return trip is a must! The service staff at Salt Tapas were also friendly and efficient, and took the initiative to offer us ice water, so absolutely no complaints there. What I also like is that the menu offers more exotic ingredients and spices (to Singapore at least) including dukkah, sumac, tabbouleh, etc. which makes it stand out from the other tapas places or cookie cutter European restaurants in Singapore.

Price: $$-$$$
Location: #01-22A, Raffles City Shopping Centre, 252 North Bridge Road, Singapore 179103
Opening Hours: Mon-Sat 11.30am-midnight, Sun 11.30am-11pm
Tel: +65 6837 0995
Website: http://salttapas.com/

Hangzhou: La Pedrera

10 Mar

For our final meal in Hangzhou we ate at La Pedrera, a highly rated Spanish restaurant in Hangzhou. I know it sounds a little silly, but we decided we had enough of Hangbang Cai and needed a break. It’s housed in a three story bungalow in Baishaquan and it seems inspired by the one and only Antonio Gaudi since it’s named after one of his buildings (otherwise known as Casa Mila). Also note the mini replica of the mosaic lizard from Parc Guell!

We were seated on the second floor and though it was a Monday evening, there restaurant was about half full though we were the only ones in our corner so that was nice. Brightly painted walls, Tiffany lamps and more mosaic themed plates and menus…it did feel a little faux Spain like, so props to the restaurant for that!

The menu had the usual suspects of tapas, paellas and even fideuas. Check out the logo of the place which is the outline of the actual La Pedrera building. Cute!

We ordered half a jug of sangria which was probably the best 80RMB I have ever spent. It was good not just by China standards, but by any standards! The fruit and spice flavour was just nice. And 80RMB for almost five glasses is just a ridiculous deal!

This was the mystery amuse bouche that I think could be foie gras with parmesan (if my memory didn’t fail me). Not bad really though it looks a little unappetising!

Then we were given some pan con tomato, one of my all time favourite tapas! While I wished the bread was served hot and toasted, the tomato filling was nice and sweet. Hard to get such freshness in Singapore.

Our first tapas of prawns with garlic, white wine and olive oil did not disappoint. Prawns were sweet and fresh.

The ham and cheese croquettes were okay but I thought the breadcrumbs were too big (like panko crumbs). It was a generous portion though at 5 pieces.

Of course, the highlight of the night would have been the sizzling hot seafood paella for two which had prawns, clams, bits of chicken and bell peppers. Expectations were very high because of the many rave reviews. It was quite a wet paella (so no soccarat there) and could do with a bit more salt, but the seafood was fresh and overall flavour wise it was almost there. I felt that it was better than most of the Spanish places I’ve tried in Singapore and we’re in China so that’s quite admirable.

Overall, I thought it was not bad and probably as good as Spanish food can get in China out of cosmopolitan cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Would come back again just for the killer Sangria!

Price: $$ (~400 RMB for 2 pax)
Location: 4 Baishaquan, Shuguang Road, Hangzhou 310007, China (5 mins walk from Tea Boutique Hotel)
Tel: +86 571 8886 6089

Singapore: Esquina

9 Mar

When I got back in December, a friend tipped me off that Jason Atherton had just opened a modern Spanish tapas bar, Eqsuina, housed in a beautiful shophouse in Chinatown. I a at Pollen Street Social, his flagship restaurant in London and had quite an enjoyable experience, hence I was curious to see if my experience could be replicated here in Singapore.

Since they don’t take reservations, it’s first come first served. Come by around 7pm if possible to guarantee a shorter wait.

Since my dinner date was caught up at work, I grabbed a ticket and chilled at the outside bar area, sipping on some Spanish sherry – very honeyed and floral Moscatel Emilin ($15). Yums. I am liking this pre-dinner drinks system that is quite prevalent overseas but has not quite caught on here.

It’s a small intimate place, about 20 seats, bar counter only – which I love. Throw in a nice buzz, romantic lighting, edgy decor, and a beautiful crowd of expats and local sophisticates (sans moi, of course) and I truly didn’t feel like I was in Singapore (more like London or New York). Helming the kitchen here is Executive Chef Andrew Walsh (I believe he’s the one second from right in the photo).

Cool recycled bicycle seats for bar stools

We enjoyed both our wines very much. His was a Portuguese medium bodied red off the menu whose name has slipped my mind.

Mine was a Spanish Albarino ($15). They also serve Estrella Damm Inedit ($42/770ml), the beer created by Ferran Adrian and the El Bulli team to pair with food but I didn’t try. Maybe next time.

Onto the food, the ham croquetas ($9.5) served piping hot, were pretty good.

Cheesy, ham-filled goodness

The scallop ceviche and radish salsa ($17) was a little bland for me, considering that both scallops and radish have very light flavours. They used both white and red radishes which I thought was quite clever. It reminded me of the scallop ceviche at El Willy in Shanghai, but that had stronger flavours and was a much bigger portion. Next time I will try the tuna tartare that was also quite popular.

Our aged rib-eye and chimichurri dressing ($24.5) was very tender and had a smokey, charred flavour that some may like, but some parts were a bit too bitter for me. I’m a fan of the Argentinian chimichurri (parsley, garlic, olive oil) sauce used here, but I wish there was more! Anyway, this actually came before the cold ceviche, which bugged me a little in terms of order. The same happened for our neighbours and since they ordered a lot of food, everything came all at one go (they had like 4 dishes sitting in front of them) – what a waste as the food would have gone cold!

The ox cheek oloroso, mash, caper, bacon, bonemarrow crumbs ($21) was an unctuous, satisfying dish. Not a big portion, but you don’t need much. Cheeks were fork tender and I loved the crispy marrow bits, silky mash, and the use of capers to cut through the richness.

We were all given complimentary red wine sangria ice cream cornets as a pre dessert. It was a lovely touch, since how often do adults get offered free alcoholic ice cream?

A couple of desserts looked interesting, but we had only space for one. So we picked the sangria poached fruits, salted almond crumble, PX custard ($12), a more gourmet Spanish version of the fruit crumble. I liked the saltiness in the crumble and the sweet Pedro Ximenez custard (a sherry) was a good substitute for ice cream. Quite lovely.

While overall I thought the dishes were pretty delish, they came a little lower than the “wow” standard I was expecting given the celebrity chef brand name. I’ve had some really good tapas overseas and had high expectations so I’m being critical here. Nevertheless, I do think Esquina’s worth a dine for its creative take on Spanish tapas and lovely vibe. It’s also fairly new (open in Dec 2011) so perhaps it’ll need some months to iron out the kinks, especially in terms of serving order/staggering food. So far, I haven’t found any other Spanish place in Singapore that I liked anyway, so I suppose this will still be my go to place. There’s no service charge here, which is surprising.

Price: $$$-$$$$ ($150 for 2 pax including some drinks)
Location: 16 Jiak Chuan Road, Singapore 089267
Website: http://esquina.com.sg/

Shanghai: El Willy [Moved]

15 Nov

The wildy popular and highly awarded El Willy serves contemporary tapas and paella, and was one of my must-eats in Shanghai. I love Spanish food but I haven’t found anything great in Asia, so I thought I would see what El Willy would have to offer.

El Willy is located in the first flow of a colonial bungalow in the French Concession. I chose to sit in the courtyard as it was a GLORIOUS DAY with sun and a light breeze :) I couldn’t believe I was in Shanghai as it looked and felt like Europe! Lots of expats and beautiful people.

My scratched plate (looking less scratched after photo editing). My initial thoughts were disapproving but I guess that could also mean that the restaurant’s really popular eh?

How cute are the menus? They revise their a la carte menu every season, which is a nice touch. Their set lunches were really affordable (you could get a 3 course at 78RMB) but cleverly, they didn’t have anything very Spanish or signature El Willy (it was like burgers/burritos/pasta) so I didn’t want go all the way to Shanghai for that. The a la carte menu was so extensive and enticing I had a hard time deciding what to order, especially when it was just me so I probably had to go with only three dishes.

Loved the illustrations on the menus, felt like I was reading a kid’s picturebook :)

Complimentary appetisers of pan con tomato and assorted olives. I loved the pan con tomato here as the tomatoes were sweet enough and the bread crispy, just like the ones I had in Barcelona and London. Hate it when restaurants use sourish tomatoes. Olives were too salty though, not the best of olives.

Scallop ceviche, avocado and crispy shallots (78RMB)This was under the Willy’s Tapas section, and I can never resist a ceviche dish when I see one (I have a weird fetish for Peruvian ceviche). It was excellent! The scallops were very fresh, plump and a generous portion; the avocado puree was tangy and light and went very well with the scallops. Plus the Asian-influenced crispy shallots are genius! Pretty plating too with the edible flowers too :)

Crispy suckling pig cooked 12 hours with raspberry and green tea (88RMB) – Also under Willy’s Tapas, I was deciding amongst this, beef cheeks, foie gras or the beer truffle bomb for a meat dish…choices choices!! I chose suckling pig in the end since it was after all a Spanish meal in China – if these two cultures can’t do a good suckling pig who else can? :) As expected, it was great – the skin was EXTREMELY CRISPY and the meat lean and flavourful. Plus the raspberry compote provided a nice tart contrast to a rich dish. But what I thought was clever was the layer of filo pastry at the base that completed the dish very well. It was like eating a mini suckling pig tart. Only gripe was that I couldn’t taste the green tea flakes as it was probably overpowered by the raspberry, but all is forgiven with crackling this good…

A close up…never knew that suckling pig could actually look this pretty.

Spanish omelette with potatoes and onions (48RMB) – This was from the traditional tapas section and I loved how perfectly round it was. How would you have to cook it? The inside was very juicy and it tasted okay. But to be honest I was beyond stuffed by the time this came (I expected much smaller portions) I probably didn’t need to order this.

The inside of the restaurant with matching drapes as the corridor leading to it (first picture). Oh and on my way to the washroom, I met the friendly owner and chef “Willy”. I was impressed as I didn’t expect him to actually be in the kitchen.

The envelop for the bill was so pretty too! Photographed with my lovely 40RMB OPI manicure (one reason why I love China).

I really enjoyed El Willy even though I didn’t get a chance to try many things on the menu, but most of what I had really impressed. Setting was really lovely and the place has a very fun vibe. I actually thought it was good value too, at least compared to what you could get in Singapore for the same price. Service was pretty good and eager other than the very terrifying-looking head waiter who was “patrolling” the courtyard. The only real dud was the complimentary lemon tea which tasted quite vile – they use a very weird syrup. The next time I’m back I would probably bring a a group as large as possible, stick to items under Willy’s Tapas, try the paella and skip the more traditional stuff since you can get them elsewhere but not El Willy’s wonderful brand of contemporary and fusion tapas.

Price: $$-$$$ (250RMB in total for 1 pax, with a choice of free drink)
Location: 20 Donghu Lu, near Huahuai Lu
Telephone: +86-21-5404-5747
Website: http://www.el-willy.com

London: Barrafina (~)

18 Jul

I wanted to hit at least one Spanish tapas place in London, and decided on Barrafina. They have an egalitarian, no reservations policy so we went early for dinner on a Sunday. Since there was still a queue, we waited at the standing area with our our drinks – Spanish Cava (£4.20/glass) for me, of course. All of Barrafina’s 23 seats are at the counter, which is fine with me as I love bar counter-style dining. Our friendly and charming waiter offered us menu recommendations but my friend and I were probably busy staring into his dreamy deep blue eyes *ahem*.

We started with Pan Con Tomate (£3.80), it’s a must order for me at any tapas place as I use this really basic dish to judge the quality of their produce used. The one here is good – crispy toast and really sweet tomatoes.

Another must order, the Gambas al ajillo (£7.90) here didn’t disappoint either. Shrimps were fresh and I loved the garlicky seasoning.

This was the Octopus with Capers (£8.90) which was really cooked to perfection in terms of texture. The octopus was so tender and nothing like the really tough and rubbery ones that I’ve had elsewhere. The salty and sour capers went really well with it too.

This warm Chickpeas, Spinach and Bacon (£6.70) salad was very comforting and tasty, and I had to try not to drink up the sauce. It’s listed under its meat section of the menu, by the way.

This is probably not a tradition thing to order at a tapas place, but my friend and I were craving for some wings, so we ordered the Chicken Wings with Garlic, Lemon and Chilli (£??). It turned out to be one of the highlights, as the wings were deep-fried and crispy before being tossed and infused in the tangy and addictive flavours.

We ended off with some Clams with White Wine and Olive Oil (Market Price), a really simple but satisfying dish. Though the clams were small, they were really fresh and sweet.

Barrafina served the best tapas that I’ve had in a while, and even better than most of what I had in Barcelona (granted, I may have not eaten at Barcelona extensively). I liked how they used fresh and quality ingredients, treated them with minimum amount of fuss and theatrics and still yielded excellent results. Will definitely be back.

Price: $$-$$$
Location: 54 Frith Street, London, W1D 4SL
Website: http://www.barrafina.co.uk

Barcelona: La Cupula

25 Jul

In Barcelona, we stayed at the Ayre Rosellon Hotel near the Sagrada Familia, a boutique hotel with a good location that offers great value. Our concierge recommended La Cupula – a 1920s styled restaurant complete with vintage cars and chandeliers – situated just a few blocks away from our hotel for a nice sit-down Mediterranean-Spanish dinner. At that time of dining we thought it was just some random place, but it turns out that it’s actually pretty well known with quite a few reviews written on it.

Spanish olive oil with bread – Oil was to die for. Changes your whole paradigm about using only Italian olive oil

Spanish olivesBest olives ever with a hint of sweetness

Salted cod fritters – YUMS

Tortilla

Arroz negro – Tasted of the sea, so flavourful

Duck with caramelized apples

Suckling pig with star anise sauce  – Crispy thin skin

On the whole, every dish ranged from quite good to good and at really reasonable prices too, given that it’s posh-ish setting. Though we were under-dressed compared to the rest of the other mature local diners, service staff also didn’t make us feel unwelcomed, so that was sweet. I’m pretty sure great, affordable food places in Barcelona are everywhere; but for its proximity to the Sagrada Familia and quality:price ratio, this is a good option to consider.

Price: $$-$$$
Location: La Cúpula, Carrer Sicilia 255, 08025 Barcelona
Tel: +34 932 082 061
Website: http://www.lacupularestaurant.com/