From Siberia to Tibet: Hong Kong and Macau

Our road to Hong Kong was paved with disappointment.  We originally wanted to arrive by train, but the much-delayed Guangzhou-Hong Kong high-speed link was delayed again and the logistics of traveling from Lhasa to Guangzhou to HK without it didn’t look great, so in the end we opted to fly in directly via Chongqing.

Hong Kong 香港

It’s been 21 years since the handover, but after China, Hong Kong still felt remarkably British, with ubiquitous English, driving on the left, and (after China) remarkably polite people.  It rained pretty much non-stop for the first two days, which put a bit of a damper on tourism but did provide great soaked-neon Blade Runner streetscapes at night.

We went to Maxim’s Town Hall for the obligatory dim sum pilgrimage.  Since my last visit the place has clearly found its way into a few too many guidebooks, since it was heaving with people even on a weekday and we had to wait an hour to get in — next time I’ll need to find an alternative or at least book online.  At least egg waffles off the street were fast, cheap and cheerful.

Hong Kong is still very much a Chinese city at heart and much more that heritage seemed to remain than on the mainland.  The dull-sounding Hong Kong Museum of History was epic in size and ambition, covering the city from prehistory to today with floors of massive life-size recreations, and the temple of Wong Tai Sin showed that Taoism is alive as well.

Anorak bonus album: Transport in Hong Kong & Macau

Macau 澳門

Macau will soon be linked to Hong Kong by a shiny record-breaking bridge, which was scheduled to open two weeks before our arrival, but surprise surprise, that was delayed too.  So we ended up taking the Turbojet ferry, which plowed through the waters pretty much right next to this white elephant of a bridge for most of the way: the bridge has no provisions for trains, so the only way to use it will be buses.  Sigh.

To a first approximation, nothing had changed in Macau since I visited 10 years ago.  Senado Square was still there, looking like a chunk of Portugal airlifted into the South China Sea, as were the ruins of St. Paul’s, dense alleys much like Hong Kong’s, and tacky casinos on the outskirts.

To escape the muggy heat and sputtering rain, we followed a local tip and went for a surprisingly respectable Portuguese meal at Solmar, a restaurant too old-school to have a website.  Sopa de mariscos (seafood stew), galinha à africana (“African chicken”), bolinhos de bacalhau (cod balls), all washed down with vinho verde: not the stuff of culinary epiphany, but certainly a welcome change after a week in Tibet.  And for a snack we stopped off at Margaret’s, which as always was baking the best pasteis de nata (egg tarts) in the business by the trayload.

Lamma Island 南丫島

My personal Hong Kong highlight, though, was to an island quite unlike the rest of the ex-colony: Lamma.  Perched off the southwest coast of Hong Kong Island and only reachable by ferry, buildings taller than three stories and motorized transport (except for a few utility vehicles) are banned on the island , so the only ways to get around are bike or foot.  After a mercifully brief flirtation with the plastics industry fizzled out, plenty of hippies and other countercultural types escaping the rat race have found their way here, and the grubby village Yung Shue Wan now hides more than its fair share of organic vegetarian cafes and artisan gelato places.

Many daytrippers comes here for the beaches, which aren’t too shabby even by South-East Asian standards, but the island’s second major draw is seafood.   On local advice we parked ourselves at Andy’s Seafood, and hawt diggity dawg, everything we ate here was nothing short of incredible.   Razor clams steamed with noodles, scallops with veg, sizzling eggplant, a bottle of Yanjing Beer dripping with condensation and the sun setting over the South China Sea.  The perfect end to the trip…

And to this blog series.  Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more!

<<< China as a Tourist

 

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Reviews of a Gourmet Snob: Jaan, Singapore

A friend of mine recently came into possession of a stack of CapitaLand vouchers, and while looking for a place to dispose of them, we realized that the entire Equinox complex perched atop the Swissotel Stamford — not long ago the world’s tallest hotel — accepts them.  What better excuse for a birthday splurge at my near-namesake, the newly renovated Jaan?

Making reservations at Jaan is hard, not because it’s so popular, but because you have to go through the Swissotel’s centralized system and they usually just refuse to answer the phone.  But reserve we did, and I asked if I could bring along a nice bottle of Lebanese wine…  to which I was told that yes, certainly, but a token corkage fee of S$100 (about 5x the cost of the bottle) would be charged.   Yowza!  Scratch that then.

We showed up at 7 PM, along with two other groups of customers, only to find the entrance to the restaurant closed.   After five minutes of drumming our fingers and collectively wondering if we were in the right place, somebody finally showed up and let us in; not, perhaps, the best way to treat your customers.  The view from the floor-to-ceiling windows on the 70th floor is impressive, although I was mildly disappointed to find us facing towards the endless housing block jumble of eastern Singapore, instead of the rather more dramatic Singapore River, banking district and Chinatown area.

Jaan offers 5/8 course tasting/degustation menus for $180/250 (plus around $100 extra for wine pairings), but we decided to go for a la carte.  The a la carte menu was fairly stripped down: half a dozen appetizers, three Poissons et crustaces, three Viandes, and half a dozen desserts, all listed in French and English.

Amuse-bouche

Prawn and mango ceviche with kaffir lime froth, served in a shot glass.  This was just terrible, a pretentious attempt at fusion that didn’t work on any level at all.

Super-skinny breadsticks (crostini?) with squid ink-parmesan puree and butter.  A work of art in appearance — if not for the waitress’s explanation, I would’ve thought what appeared like a bunch of twigs in a glass was a table decoration — and very tasty too, especially the subtle sea flavors of the squid ink dip.

Appetizer

His: Tartar of Hokkaido sea scallop with dabs of oscietra caviar and a spray of random vegetables ($68).  The one whole grilled scallop was mindblowingly tasty; the tartar paste was just generically fishy (and I usually love raw scallop).  The grudgingly dribbled caviar came atop halves of baby potatoes, and the veggie side dishes included artichoke, asparagus and peas, carefully boiled and laid out into a strip not unlike a Japanese garden.  A little uneven, but pretty good.

Hers: Foie gras ice cream (!) and a layeed foie gras pastry of sorts ($5x?).  This was really, really good, especially the pastry-thing: the pureed foie gras with a little crunch from the pastry with a little sweetness and spice from the sauce just hit all the right spots, and while the idea of mixing goose liver and ice cream sounds pretty disgusting, it worked quite nicely.  Best dish of the evening.

Main course

His: “Duo of Pigeon”, two halves grilled in red-wine-type sauce, plus a miniature salad with two pigeon legs served cold in a mild Chinese-style sauce and pats of apple-ginger(?) compote ($68).  The grilled pigeon was quite OK, if no match for the duck at Kafe Warisan; the teeny tiny little legs were very tasty, but, well, teeny tiny.  In all, competent but unextraordinary.

Hers: Pumpkin soup ravioli with popcorn and black cod a la plancha with bacon bits ($5x?).  Yes, bacon bits, and intensely salty ones at that, which pretty much obliterated any taste the cod (already plenty salty in itself) might have had.  I snagged one of the raviolis and kind of liked the intense sweet soup within, but she didn’t, at all.  Quite disappointing.

Dessert

I was somewhat intrigued by the offering of le bar “Snickers” with ice cream ($20), but in the end, we just shared some chocolate mousse with white chocolate vodka sorbet ($22).  The sorbet was quite good, although the vodka was hardly noticeable, but only a single spoonful was served and it melted pretty much immediately.  The mousse came wrapped in a unidentifiable and quite tasteless red jelly wrapper and was quite dense, so much so that it was hardly a mousse anymore, but hey, it was chocolatey.

And finally, the house plied us with little violet-colored lavender pastries (very sweet: I liked ’em, she didn’t), orange peel dipped in chocolate (usually a favorite of mine, but these were kind of blah), and a miniature Madeleine-type pastry flavored with almond (?), all served on a metal plate engraved with “Jaan by Andre”. Ooh.

Drinks

Jaan has an extensive wine menu, spanning the globe (albeit with an emphasis on French) and the gamut from $90 to $17,000 bottles (a Chateau Margaux), but they do not offer wine by the glass.  We (fine, she) opted for a Beni di Batasiolo Barbaresco 2003 ($160), which was a very good choice: a very light and drinkable red, which paired quite nicely with the fish dishes as well.

My eyeballs were set rolling, though, by their other drink menu: this is the first time I’ve seen a water menu in a restaurant, offering everything from artisanal Welsh well waters to bottles from Japanese mountain springs, all (needless to say) at ridiculous prices, some north of $20 for a 0.5L bottle.  Our pick of a very lightly carbonated Saint-Géron ($12.50/750mL) was OK — at least it’s better than Evian.

Overall

The damage done came to just over $500, easily my most expensive dinner in Singapore (or, on second thought, anywhere), and we didn’t even order from the expensive end of the menu, which had things like Kobe beef steak for $125.  The service was very good, the views were nice, the setting was OK, but I couldn’t help but feel that, at these prices, the food was a bit of a letdown.  I doubt I’ll be back.

Reviews of a Gourmet Snob: Kafe Warisan, Seminyak, Bali

When I booked Kafe Warisan for a friend’s birthday dinner, I couldn’t help but snigger at their slogan of “World Famous French Mediterranean Cuisine in a Classic Rice Terrace Setting” — surely a little pretentious for a small restaurant in a podunk town in rural Bali, no? And thus I was expecting mediocre, somewhat overpriced food in a cheesy Balinese setting… only to get way more than I expected. This was easily among the best Western meals I’ve had in Asia, or anywhere else for that matter.

First a word about the restaurant: it’s been around for a good 15 years now and looks quite unremarkable from the dusty main street outside, but everything changes once you’re inside: it turns out to be a sprawling colonial-style house, with the sun setting over the rice paddies in front — bought and maintained by the restaurant to make sure they stay there! — as you settle down for dinner.

We had dinner on the patio outside, which certainly has the best views in the place but, being open-air, can be kind of hot. (Once we’d settled down, though, it was fine.) Service is excellent, with staff always there when you need them, but not in your face like they are in most of Singapore’s fancy Western places. The restaurant offers both set meals (which should be booked in advance) and a huge a la carte menu, along with a lengthy wine list, but alas, due to Indonesia’s silly tax policies, a bottle that would set you back $10 in the US was selling for $40 here. We picked an interesting-sounding bottle of Costieres De Nimes Domaine de Perrieres 2001 from the cheaper end of the list, which turned out to be a decent choice: a fairly dry, strong red that was a good fit for the mains.

On to the food!

Artichoke Ravioli, Grilled Scallop and Prawn, Lemon Butter Sauce

We shared this appetizer. The artichoke ravioli (all three or four of them) were a little limp in texture and muddled in taste, but the scallop and prawn on top were both outstanding: huge, fresh and juicy, and the mild lemon butter sauce just accentuated the taste.

Hers: Duck Leg Confit, Cêpes Mushrooms, Garlic and Parsley Sauté Potatoes

This was just spectacular. Duck is a Balinese favorite, and I thought I’d had some pretty decent entrees elsewhere (esp. bebek betutu, the local “blackened duck” rubbed with spices and cooked in a banana leaf). However, these guys managed to cook it perfectly: the skin had crystallised into a crispy layer that just burst with fatty goodness as soon as it hit your teeth, while meat inside was so rich and moist that it literally just fell off the bone. On the side, I found the cepes a little astringent, but she liked them as well.

His: Pan Roasted Black Angus Tenderloin, Braised Oxtail with Shimeji Mushrooms, Black Truffle Sauce and Potato Galette

I’d asked for my steak medium rare, and while it came back rare by any measure, I was glad the chef overruled me: I’m usually not a huge steak fan, but this was just out of this world. Cooked to perfection, grilled on the outside, marbled smooth as silk on the inside, not even the tiniest hint of stringiness. The side dishes kind of faded in comparison, but the mushrooms were inoffensive and sauce was a good fit.

Passion Fruit Sherbet

To top it off, a shared scoop of their homemade sherbet, which really did taste like the Indonesian markisa passionfruit: crisp, acidic and refreshing. The perfect ending to a meal.

And the bill for two with a bottle of wine after one of the best meals of my life? About $100 — a month’s wages in Bali, to be sure, but for a meal of this caliber it was excellent value by Singapore standards.

Reviews of a Gourmet Snob: Le Tonkin, Mohamed Sultan, Singapore

One year had passed since my incorporation, and with the annual report out and a fairly healthy-looking balance sheet, it was time to dig a hole in it. Plan A was Italian-Indonesian fusion joint Buko Nero, but getting a reservation there remains impossible and my virtual secretary had pasta coming out her ears anyway, so we opted for Le Tonkin, a recently opened French-Vietnamese place on Mohamed Sultan.

Mohamed Sultan was until recently Singapore‘s cheapest bar district, but it’s now looking somewhat out of sorts, with the crowds packing Clarke Quay instead. Most of the restaurants in the area serve the local Japanese community, and Le Tonkin doesn’t seem to have caught much wind under its sails — the main reason I decided to give it a shot was a glowing review from a French friend.

I’d made reservations for 7 PM, but on this Friday night we found ourselves the only customers inside, although a few other couples filtered in during the next hour, most of whom headed for the outdoor tables in the miniature back garden. Inside, the decor is straight from Moulin Rouge, all scarlet plush, lacquered black wood, crystal chandeliers and gold paint, slightly crossing the line from funky into tastelessness. The kitchen set the tune for the evening with a complimentary amuse-bouche of a crab and cream cheese wonton in raspberry sauce: tasty enough, but not more than the sum of its parts.

Appetizers

We planned to share a Le Tonkin Selection plate of appetizers, but on being warned it was too small, the lady opted for pan-seared foie gras on apple and fig compote. In the event both turned out to be generously sized: the Selection had some fish grilled on sugarcane, nicely flavored with dill (!), another wonton and a fresh sliced-up Vietnamese spring roll, with wholly unnecessary tiny dabs of foie gras and caviar atop each slice to justify the price tag. Her foie gras was generously sized — I’ve seen smaller steaks in Japan — but not well cut (slightly stringy) and seared a bit too fast to my taste, with the inside still raw.

Mains

I picked the house speciality of Cha Ca La Vong, the classic Hanoi dish of fish drizzled in sauce and cooked on a hot plate, served on a bed of bee hoon (rice vermicelli) and topped with oodles of fresh dill. Tasty, but the portion was perhaps a little on the small side. The lady opted for a creamy seafood stew, which I thought would be a recipe of disaster (it’s how chefs like to dispose of leftovers), but nope, it was big and generous, with scallops, shrimp, salmon, the same white fish as my CCLV and even a lobster tail for good measure. The only oddity was that there was no starch (rice, potatoes etc) served along with it, just the stew!

Dessert

And to top it off, we decided to share a vanilla souffle, which came with orange sauce to drizzle over it. It cost a fair bit and took a while to arrive, but it was impressively sufflated and won full marks from the female half of the jury. (Too bland for me.)

Drinks

The restaurant has a reasonably impressive wine selection, with half a dozen reds by the glass but only a few whites, a bit odd considering that they specialize in seafood. The lady had a New Zealand Chardonnay, I had a Chilean Pinot Grigio, which were both on the fruity side but entirely drinkable.

Overall

Overall, it was one of those restaurant experiences where you can’t really find much fault in anything, but end up slightly disappointed just the same. None of the dishes were particularly memorable, the fusion attempts just didn’t work and, at S$180 for two, it wasn’t particularly good value either. I doubt we’ll be back, and given the restaurant’s awkward location, I give it half a year tops before it disappears.

Soi Lang Suan — Bangkok’s Little Italy

In the heart of Bangkok, just off the Chid Lom Skytrain station, lies a district of Bangkok well known by locals and expats, but that few tourists ever venture to. Between the leafy streets of Lang Suan Rd and Soi Tonson, strategically located between the busy business and shopping areas of Sukhumvit and Silom, is a cluster of serviced apartments, diplomatic residences, local boutiques ? and Thailand’s greatest concentration of Italian restaurants, with at least a dozen competing in the space of a few blocks. And here, “Italian” doesn’t mean “Pizza Hut”: the people living around Lang Suan know their rigatoni from their ravioli, and so do the restaurants. Here’s a tour of a select few.

Air Plane, 63 Lang Suan Rd, tel. +66-2-2524630

When it first opened 15 years ago, Air Plane instantly became the place to be and to be seen for Bangkok’s high-flying society elite, and after a recent renovation is again at the top of its game. Unlike some of the more purist Italian restaurants here, Air Plane is not afraid to mix other influences into its quirky decor, which manages to incorporate reindeer statues and framed Time covers without looking tacky, or its food, which has absorbed some Thai touches but remains Italian at heart. An appetizer of classic beef carpaccio comes in a generously sized portion with shavings of parmesan drizzled with a unique, slightly sweet sauce. Both the spinach ravioli and its tomato-basil sauce are lovingly made by hand, but for a spicy kick, try the Spaghetti “La Mana” with Thai dried fish and lashings of dried red chillies. While not as low as they used to be, prices remain affordable, with most mains clocking in under 300 baht. The restaurant hosts live music performances on weekends, but fear not, the volume is kept low.

Calderazzo, 59 Lang Suan Rd, tel. +66-2-2528108

One of the newer entrants on the Italian dining scene, this popular restaurant is run by Italian-Australian chef Marco Calderazzo. “Our food is southern Italian, from the Campania region”, says Marco, “with very little cream and butter. We use the freshest imported primary produce, cooked to exact time constraints.” The menu changes frequently, but favorite dishes include the hand-rolled Fettucine Calderazzo with oven-baked bell peppers, capers and anchovies, and osso bucco served on saffron risotto. A split-level restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating, downstairs packs in the Thai hi-so crowd, while upstairs features an intimate cocktail lounge famous for its wide spread of Italian grappa spirits. Expect to pay at least 1000 baht per head for a full meal here, and that’s assuming you skip the extensive wine list. Alternatively, the recently opened Calderazzo Bistro (map #3), just down the street in the Marriott Mayfair, offers a more casual version of the Calderazzo experience.

Gianni, 34/1 Soi Tonson, tel. +66-2-6522584

Gianni has been at the forefront of fine Italian dining in Bangkok for eleven years, and is often credited with bringing the idea to the city. “Our food is absolutely Italian”, says chef and patron Gianni Favro. “We cook classic food using modern techniques and a bit of southern Italian style: more olive oil and less heavy cream, to fit the tropical climate.” Gianni is very particular about quality — “for us, the food is the most important thing!” — and ingredients are flown in twice weekly directly from Italy. The menu changes every ten days, with specials changing daily, but long-running favorites include their goose liver salad and real buffalo mozzarella. “Most customers just ask me for recommendations,” suggests Gianni, and goes on to wax eloquent about today’s special of tender veal, gently stewed for no less than eighteen hours until it just melts in the mouth. Dinner at Gianni doesn’t come cheap, but “the value for money is far better than in Hong Kong or Singapore”, says Gianni, hinting at one of Bangkok’s best-kept secrets: at lunchtime on weekdays, you can get a three-course meal for only a little over 300 baht.

Pan Pan, 45 Langsuan Rd, tel. +66-2-2527104

A squat building with darkened windows hidden behind a thicket of unruly greenery, Pan Pan doesn’t look like much from the outside, but most evenings it’s packed with locals, mostly Thai, enjoying a cheap Italian treat. The decor inside is unpretentious, with a brick tiled floor, scuffed wooden furniture and creamy yellow walls, but that’s perhaps why it’s the only Italian restaurant in the area that actually looks like a working-class trattoria. The menu is a solid collection of Italian staples, no fusion or Thai touches in sight, with the biggest crowd-puller being their thin-crust pizza baked in a wood-fired oven, with generous toppings and lashings of oozing mozzarella cheese. Prices are very reasonable, with a basic pizza margherita starting at 140 baht and few entrees going over 200. Leave some room for their homemade gelato ice cream.

Originally written for and separately licensed to JetAway, the inflight magazine of JetStar Asia.

Soi Ari — A Visit to Millionaire’s Lane

Most Bangkok visitors heading north on the Skytrain make a beeline for the Weekend Market at the end of the line, but next time, stop two stations before at Ari. Also known by the Thais as “Millionaire’s Lane”, the sois of this quiet residential district hide some of the most opulent mansions in the capital — and some of the quirkiest hotels, restaurants and boutiques in town.

At the Skytrain station, take exit 3 and turn at the first left into Phahonyothin Soi 7, better known as Soi Ari. The first block is taken up by the frenetic Ari Market, a veritable gallery of street eats worth an article in itself, but today we’ll just plow straight through the often crowded sidewalks. Soon, shortly after you cross past Soi Ari 1 (just keep going straight), the bustle disappears and, after a few upmarket boutiques selling Thai handicrafts and antiques, you’ll arrive at the unmistakable neon pink monolith of Reflections. Without a doubt the most famous Ari landmark, this wacky hotel-restaurant-bar-shop complex only opened in 2004, but it has already been written up in the New York Times and Newsweek, and regularly stages fashion shoots where Thailand’s top models strut their stuff. Every room in the hotel has been designed by a different artist, with over-the-top themes ranging from disco balls (room 201) and a maharajah’s harem (407) to a day at the beach, complete with sand, hammock and a palm tree (404), and they can be yours for a night starting from 2850 baht. PR Manager Kanchana Pimthon says, “We hope to inspire some ideas for guests to add more colors for their lives, such as hanging more paintings in their house for a better, more creative look and more artistic surroundings.” Next to the hotel is the equally zany Reflections restaurant, which serves up a wide menu of Thai, Chinese and Japanese favorites and, at night, often hosts live bands and other performances to draw in Ari’s fashionista set. In fact, the restaurant predates the hotel by a year, and its runaway success was what inspired the Reflections team to expand. If you fall in love with a particular piece of pop art — say, a fuzzy purple Buddha statue or their trademark mutant teddy bears — you can probably bring it home from the gift shop.

In the lobby of the Reflections hotel Isaan food at Som Tam Bangkok

Across the street from Reflections are a few more interesting shops. Ari Bar, or maybe that should be “Aaari babar” like the sign says, is a quiet neighborhood bar with an eclectic selection of music and drinks. Deli House, a few doors down, serves freshly baked European-style pastries as well as a daily selection of German meals like sausages with mashed potatoes and beer sauce. But perhaps the best eating option lurks just behind Reflections in Soi Ari 2, where behind a thicket of greenery you’ll find a small white house hosting Som Tum Bangkok. True to the name, the first page of this little restaurant’s menu is dedicated to the papaya salad som tum in its many versions, but there is a wide range of northeastern Thai (Isaan) favorites like minced pork salad (larb) and grilled chicken to go alone with it. Complete your order with a little handwoven basket of sticky rice and a cooling glass of sweet, milky, orange Thai iced tea, and dig in — but remember to ask for less spicy if you can’t handle the heat! You don’t need to be a millionaire to order either: they have an English menu, and a full meal here won’t cost you more than 300 baht for two.

From here on, the shops peter out and Ari shows its residential colors. The tall, elaborate wrought-iron fences painted with gold lining the road on both sides often hide gigantic houses with Romanesque columns and Mercedeses parked in the driveway, but some gates are so high that you can only wonder at the splendour that lurks within. If you’re not in a hurry, walk along the soi past hip nightspot dbaa until you reach the next main road, then turn left twice to double back into Ari Soi 1. Halfway down the road you’ll find the oddly named Banana Family Park, which is not a fruit-themed playground, but a hip spa and restaurant complex. The leafy Coffee Garden here provides some welcome air-conditioned relief from the heat, not to mention a variety of caffeinated beverages (from 35 baht) that puts Starbucks to shame.

Thai VIP Mercedes Mansion in Ari

A few more steps brings you back into the Ari Market and to your right, you’ll see the Skytrain station beckoning on the other side of a narrow passageway. Stop by the row of stalls lining the way to pick up a few bags of munchies to bring home. “The rich, they’re not like you and me”, said F. Scott Fitzgerald, but at least in Bangkok they seem to like the same things the rest of us do.

Originally written/photographed for and separately licensed to JetAway, the inflight magazine of JetStar Asia.

 

Reviews of a Gourmet Snob: Chikuyotei, Meritus Mandarin

Ever since I came to Singapore, I’ve kept hearing about Chikuyotei for two reasons. First, it’s Singapore’s only Japanese restaurant that specializes in eel (unagi), a dish that is quite difficult to prepare properly. Every now and then, hope has overcome bitter experience and I’ve tried my luck elsewhere, always ending up with a slab of fishy rubber coated with excessive amounts of sauce. And second, it has the reputation of being one of Singapore’s most expensive restaurants of any kind: a reporter friend of mine, who often went there on the company dime, used to tell stories of how many zeroes the bill could have at the end of a sake-soaked night. This, too, is a part of the restaurant’s 150-year heritage: the original Chikuyotei is located in the Ginza, Tokyo.

So when a friend of mine offered to return a previous favor and take me there, I jumped at the chance. The rather non-distinct restaurant is tucked away on the 5th floor of the Meritus Mandarin, one of Singapore’s older hotels, and on this New Year’s Eve was only half full, with couples enjoying a quiet splurge and one rowdy group of salarymen whooping it up in the corner.

Chikuyotei’s popularity with Japanese resident in Singapore stems from the fact that they make absolutely zero concessions to Western (or Singaporean) tastes. But unlike its Tokyo forbear, the Singapore outlet has been forced to expand its offerings beyond eel and also offers up a full range of Japanese izakaya (pub) fare: you could probably order noodles and a beer and sneak away for less than S$50 a head, but you could also order five pieces of tuna belly (S$100), some Kobe beef sukiyaki(S$123) or even ask for some wild eel (S$36/100g). Full courses start from S$110/head, but we opted to just get two dishes of Shizuokan farmed eel and a few appetizers, with a small bottle of Suigei (“Drunken Whale”), a slightly sweetish sake, to wash it down.

First up was kankoku-fu negi sarada (Korean-style spring onion salad, S$8), which consisted of chopped spring onion topped with sesame seeds, chili powder and soy-based dressing. It tasted exactly what it sounds like.

Second was ika no uni-ae (squid with sea urchin, S$15), in which a thimbleful of chopped raw squid was soaked in sea urchin roe. I’m not a great fan of either ingredient by itself, and mixing them together doesn’t much improve the result.

And third was konowata (S$10), a new acquaintance for me, served looking like a wad of phlegm dotted with a raw quail egg nestled in a spoon. I poked in a chopstick, licked, and felt ill when I remembered the last time I had tasted this nasty zing followed by a cloyingly putrid aftertaste. I’ve eaten silkworms, beef testicles, raw horse meat and dog stew, but firmly enshrined in my mind as the worst thing I’ve ever tasted is ika no shiokara, a pickle made from sliced squid soaked in fermented squid guts that has even made it onto Fear Factor. It turns out that konowata is almost exactly the same thing, except that it’s made from sea cucumber entrails, not squid. Mmm. Being the chivalrous gentleman that I am, I assisted my dining companion in tearing up the guts into eatable small chunks, then wiped my chopsticks clean and tried not to gag as I watched her slurp it down.

At this point, the restaurant’s sommelier — an acquaintance of my friend’s — showed up and kindly treated us to glasses of white wine, a fruity but dry French Chardonnay from the Loire valley. It was nice gesture, but well versed in the ways of Japanese etiquette, my friend knew we had to order two more glasses to compensate: it was a different (and very tasty) wine whose name this time escapes me, but the glasses were slightly larger and we paid $21 a pop for them. Even in Japan there ain’t no such thing as a free glass of wine…

At last the eel came. First up was the Kansai-style shiroyaki (S$38), plain old grilled eel, served with soy and wasabi on the side as a dipping sauce. It was alright, but didn’t really taste like very much, just vaguely fishy. But then came the Tokyo-style kabayaki (S$52), gently coated with sauce, and it was worth the wait. The meat was so soft it fell apart at the touch, and the skin too was so soft it could easily be pulled apart. I still prefer charcoal-grilled eel, which makes the skin and edges nice and crispy while sealing the moisture inside, but this was still far an away the best I’ve had in Singapore and made it at #3 on the all-time top eel chart.

The final bill came to S$220, which I thought was a pretty darn steep price for a rather modest quantity, but my friend thought was quite alright. “Sommelier-san is opening a new restaurant in Sentosa that will cost at least that much per head, so next time it’s your treat!”