Tuesday, October 21, 2014

cơm gà Hội An

Remember Bui Cong Khanh's 'Chicken Rice in the Border' at 'Sensorium 360°'? Went to Food for Thought at 8Q SAM to try the inspired dish. Was a bit worried, I find the food at three outlets of this eatery rather terrible. It was disappointing to realize that the eatery didn't serve the chicken rice as earlier indicated, but instead offered a version as 'Hoi An Borderlands Chicken Salad', and coffee of 'Ca Phe Latte in the Border'. Ordered both.

Food for Thought's 'Hoi An Borderlands Chicken Salad', at S$14, was surprisingly decent. It was chockful of ingredients. Wonderful! It wasn't a sad limp mess. Poked a tiny piece of shredded chicken breast meat and left the rest for the friends. Heee. Me and chicken aren't compatible. But I loved the spices in the salad dressing and the mixture of greens.

With the closing of Sensorium 360° on 22 October 2014,
Food for Thought 8Q SAM's Vietnamese dishes are now off the menu .

Obviously I'm not a fan of Singapore Hainanese chicken rice. The man is. But we agree that the local version is fairly two-dimensional and we focus more on the rice than the meat. It's easier to get the meat right than find a balance for the rice. A less oily version of the rice is always better.

In Hội An, we can't miss out on the authentic versions of cơm gà. Restaurants offer it, and plenty of street stalls do a fantastic version. Never mind the chicken. I'm curious about the rice and wouldn't mind understanding the flavors. Oddly, I've never eaten this dish in all my visits to Vietnam. Here, get out of Ancient Town, avoid the fancy eateries, find the street stalls, pick one and order it. Ate this four times at different stalls. Gave all the chicken to the man.

For me, I love this version of chicken rice over Singapore's local versions. Simply because cơm gà Hội An uses so many spices, and has a variety of dipping sauces at the side. Importantly, once there's fish sauce, slivers of young papaya and carrot, onions, mint and lime juice, the entire flavor of the dish is altered. The combination of flavors is something I really like. The shredded meat (kampong chicken usually, of course) is thin and sometimes chewy. The meat isn't the star, so there're few pieces of it, and that's why I like it. Less stinky. The turmeric-stained short-grain rice is the winner for me, along with nước mắm. It has to be nước mắm; Thai naam plaa won't taste the same.

Cao lầu Hội An

Oddly, I'm not fond of the other specialty noodle dish specific to Hội An- Cao lầu. The noodles are made from stone-ground local rice. Kinda thick. Bit like a cross between thick laksa beehoon and udon. I don't mind the noodles at all. Love its texture which is slightly chewy and how the flavors go from sour to sweet.

The locals say that best comes from the street stalls and use water from the city's ancient square wells, and ash from the firewood of Cham Islands. Lye water, really. Caustic alkaline water. Okaayy. I appreciate the difficult steps to produce a bowl of broth and to make the noodles, but not the final flavors that are heavy on the meat which is either pork loin or trotters.

Unfortunately, eating cao lầu at its place of origin didn't make me like it one iota better. Good noodles, but one needs to actually like pork to think this dish edible in its entirety. Luckily, most eateries serve more than cao lầu. Unless one is squatting by the roadside stall that specializes only in this one item. Gamely tried three bowls from different stalls, taking only the noodles and picking out the meat to leave it in a clean bowl. Tried the supposedly famous one at the corner on the street. I can't get over the char siu, pork crackling and lard used. So this dish isn't for me.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Hội An Ancient Town

I really don't like you very much, Hội An Ancient Town. Made up of a few narrow streets, the only vaguely interesting aspect is its architecture, which isn't that fascinating if you live in Asia and are familiar with Chinese buildings, and have visited small provinces and villages in China.

Majority of these buildings in Ancient Town have been turned into gaudy and insipid shops selling useless souvenirs, silver, pearls, trinkets, shoes, clothes and nonsense. The eateries aren't good either. A complete tourist trap. Get out of the area and go to the other parts of the city. It'd definitely be a much better experience.

Its newly established ticketing system imposes a VND120,000 entrance ticket just to enter the Ancient Town. (Details here and here.) Setting up an entrance fee is expected, but enforcing it is dicey. A ticket allows for multiple entry over a few days- exactly for how many days, that's arbitrary. It changes according to the mood of city authorities. Even setting up ticket booths and security officers to check, and allowing domestic tourists to pay a lower VND80,000 are normal procedures. What isn't pleasant, is to discover that the checkpoints aren't manned during rainy days and even stumble upong two entry points to the demarcated area that aren't policed. Importantly, one can only hope the fees collected truly contribute towards the preservation of the Town.

Hội An was known as Faifoo or Faifo. It's a Southeast Asian trading port that flourished from the 15th to 19th century. Sounds familiar eh? Before that, during the Cham Kingdom, it was the region's largest harbor. Chinese influences are huge because of Vietnam's tributary state back then, and its acceptance of refugees from the Ming Dynasty in the 1640s. Hội An's Chinese influence is mainly Hokkien, which explains why it especially reminds me of Xiamen (known as Amoy) in Fujian Province. Its Trieu Chau Assembly Hall translates into the Chaozhou Hall. There're also two other Assembly Halls from two other dialect groups- Quang Trieu (Cantonese) and Phuc Kien (Fukien/Fujian). Definitely felt like I was visiting provinces in southern China.

The 150-year old Quan Thang Ancient House seems to be still lived in by the present-day generation of the family. The matriarch sat by the house selling cigarettes and drinks, and the patriarch hung out indoors offering visitors to buy little souvenirs within and showed us his Singapore two-dollar note. These families/houses collected the coupons from the entrance ticket, which hopefully translates into reimbursements for them since they've opened their family homes to visitors. Same goes for Duc An Old House, which is more spacious and holds even better preserved furniture. It's an example of Hội An-style merchant architecture, which eerily holds the exact layout of a shophouse anywhere in Southeast Asia, especially a Peranakan-style house. Wood carvings and tile decorations include the usual peacocks and flowers.

Needless to say, after watching videos and flipping through photos of Huế, I decided it isn't worth the drive all the way. Really not interested in the Nguyễn Dynasty that lasted from 1802 - 1945. Not even keen on it as the supposed origins of the áo dài. Don't feel like seeing more pagodas, temples, war sites or tunnels. Saw the photos and videos of the Huế Citadel, couldn't stop grinning. Tell me this Citadel and its surrounding buildings don't look familiar? Importantly, while I enjoy the region's spicy foods, I don't like bún bò Huế. Heeeeee. I'd do better re-visiting the highlands of Lâm Đồng Province, flying in via Đà Lạt. That city has little pork, more vegetarian food options and fantastic bánh căn with quail eggs.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


Hello beer with ice cubes, we meet again.

Super tickled at how the Vietnamese still drink beer with ice cubes. Luckily the eateries don't immediately pour the beer into glasses filled with ice cubes. Those are added later. There's time to stop them before they dilute the beer. Vietnamese beers are mainly pilsner and lager, so ice cubes tend to make them taste better, like a spritzer. Those honestly aren't my choice of beer, but Da Nang's own Biere Larue is fine. Saigon Export is okay too. Just avoid Sabeco Brewery's 333 and Bia Saigon. Try them at your own peril. Kept seeing the locals' tables piled heavy with bottles of Heineken and Tiger. Ours are usually stacked with Biere Larue and Saigon Export or Special.

Giggled when I read that Vietnam wanted to have beer parlors control their temperature below 30ºC. Most of Vietnam is not air-conditioned. Most cans or bottles are stored in the fridge anyway, so they would taste cold down the throat for at least five minutes. As long as my beer is served cold, I don't particularly care that I'm squatting by the roadside chugging a pint. Best thing on a blazing hot day. It's almost thirst-quenching.

Oddly, more than two servers at different eateries on separate days, have remarked to me, "You drink wine like water" and "You drink beer like water". WELL, I don't see that as a problem. Vietnam's beers holds only about 4.2% ABV.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

La Maison 1888

Pan-fried lobster medallions 
with white port sauce and ginger flavored vegetable julienne.

Eating local food is best when visiting other cities on vacation. My palate is spoilt and loves all sorts of cuisines. It doesn't need anything too familiar or comforting. Sambal with food is always nice, but when that can't be obtained, chillis or peppers will do. Along the same reasoning, there's no need to have western food in Vietnam. However, I conceded to one western meal at a fancy restaurant in Đà Nẵng because the man was curious. Michel Roux's La Maison 1888, his first restaurant in Asia, beautifully situated at the ridiculously scenic and chic Intercontinental Hotel Danang Sun Peninsula Resort.

I hesitated partly because of its three-starred Michelin chef-owner who is regularly in-residence for now- don't quite buy into the Michelin-stars-hype; also mainly because it's French cuisine of which I'm not a fan. Ah yes, I'm one of those who isn't hot about The Fat Duck or its neighbor and kinda sister restaurant to La Maison 1888The Waterside Inn. Be warned, dress code is formal. Ladies could wear dressy sandals, and men could get away without a tie or a jacket. Just look very good. You know how to push the envelope. This is a resort where ladies seem to be fond of carrying huge Birkins as beach bags.

Service at La Maison 1888 was excellent. Pleased that there was a decent selection of whisky offered. Loved its bread and butter. Happy to see rice noodles included in this Asia flagship in the form of pan-fried red mullet on a bed of rice noodles with vegetable tian and basil emulsion. I chose the safest dish which is also on the UK menu- tronçonnettes de homard poêlées minute au porto blanc. Quite delicious. The man totally enjoyed his grilled rabbit fillets served on a bed of celeriac fondant with glazed chestnuts and Armagnac sauce. Tasty and well-balanced flavors in our dishes, but I found everything a wee thick on the butter, oil and cream. The side of seasonal vegetables appeared in the form of really decent mushrooms, laden in a pool of butter. Offered to share something sugary with the man, but he declined. All right then, a savory dessert it was. Took its cheese platter and quaffed all five tiny slices of happiness.

This restaurant, is unfortunately one of those that prescribes printing two versions of their menus, and handing separate versions to male and female diners. Guess which gender's menu isn't printed with prices. (Oh, the drinks menu held prices though. At least. I could drink my date's pockets dry.) It wasn't like this was a specially-created menu with prices set beforehand. You should have seen my look of perplexity when I couldn't find the stated prices, and in five seconds, how far my eyes rolled out of the door when I realized why. It isn't surprising that this restaurant practices it. It's soooo 2004. Since I was clueless about prices and after flipping the menu, deemed it unnecessary to know, my handsome and gentlemanly dinner date paid for the evening.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Xin Chào Đà Nẵng

Hàn River Bridge or Cầu Sông Hàn.

It's been four years since I stepped into Vietnam. Yup, one of those last minute decisions again. A quick getaway to Đà Nẵng (loosely translated to refer to the opening of a large river) and Hội An (referring to a 'peaceful meeting place) because the man has finally got a breather in the hectic work calendar. There's also time to pop up to Lâm Đồng Province to look at tea and coffee plantations and all that.

My command of Vietnamese, has sadly, plateau-ed at ordering food, asking for chilli, drinking games, understanding prices, checking the time and dates, bargaining and the sorts. Hahahaha. It's nowhere near fluent. When I quit the Office and stopped being a full-time corporate minion, there isn't much of a point continuing with the study of the language. Vietnamese is one language I could easily acquire, but not quite feeling it. I haven't spoken more than a few sentences beyond cursory convos about the food and weather.

I normally don't care about bridges. But since there're two bridges that we keep crossing on jaunts to the city and towns beyond, one has to notice them. They're big bridges which are the architectural pride of Đà Nẵng, so they ought to be mentioned. One is the new Dragon Bridge or Cầu Rồng over Hàn River. Opened on 29 March 2013, the bridge commemorates the 38th anniversary of the North Vietnamese victory of Đà Nẵng and the end of the Vietnam War. The city is to its west, and the beaches are to its east. The other parallel bridge is the Song Hàn or cầu Sông Hàn, one of the first swing bridges built in Vietnam. There's one more Thuận Phước Bridge which is the longest suspension bridge in Vietnam, crossing the lower Hàn River.

Nice to play tourist, even if this is the rainy season. It kinda rains daily, but there're spurts of bright sunshine too. In the day, it averages 27°C with sun, and in the rain, 24°C. Rain away, we're prepared.

Dragon Bridge or Cầu Rồng, modeled after a symbol of the ancient Ly Dynasty.
On weekends at 9pm, it breathes fire, smoke and water from the mouth.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Outbound, Vietnam

Realized that the arrival card given out at the SilkAir boarding gate was for Cambodia. This flight would stop in Đà Nẵng first, then Siem Reap. My destination is Đà Nẵng. I didn't recall Vietnam requiring an arrival/departure card. Or rather that requirement existed but it was scrapped. Visas for certain lengths of stay or passports from a number of countries are still necessary to sort out though. I hadn't visited in years, so I went to ask the ground staff if Vietnam required an arrival card.

The staff said he didn't know and declined the Cambodian arrival card and health declaration forms and all when I tried to return them. He said, "Maybe the Vietnam immigrations would need them." LOL. No way lor. Tried very hard to stifle my giggles. I wasn't mean okay! Beyond "Oh thanks", I didn't say another word. Once onboard, I asked the cabin crew about it. They knew, of course. Nope. An arrival/departure card is not needed for Vietnam. Hurrah.

Short bumpy flight. Rain clouds aplenty. Tiny plane. Only a third filled. So I sprawled out across three seats and went to sleep. Didn't bother about food or drinks. Was well fed and hydrated before going to the airport. When I woke, it was 20 minutes to landing. Nice. Hello Đà Nẵng, you're my gateway to Đà Lạt, Hội An, and maybe Huế.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Pollen Singapore

Now that the crazy crowds have gone away from Pollen, and the kitchen has ironed out all its earlier misses, we took the parentals to dinner. They aren't the outdoorsy type, especially not in humid Singapore. That's why they disappear to a temperate climate six months out of a year. They've not visited Gardens by the Bay. They wouldn't see much during this short dinner stroll around the Flower Dome, but at least they could say they've been there. The parentals were thrilled with the buggy service from the carpark to the restaurant.

We're familiar enough with Jason Atherton's restaurants in Hong Kong, London and Shanghai, and well, Esquina (which is like 22 Ships). Done our rounds. While their menus don't exactly blow our minds, we like how the teams at the different restaurants are dependable and send out delectable offerings which make for a decent meal. The parentals wouldn't enjoy the atmosphere and the tiny seats at Esquina, but they prefer the space at Pollen. I like the Haviland & Co. plates, which are made from Limoges porcelain, I assume. Their vegetarian options are one of the best in town. As usual, the restaurant had a list of beers, and one choice in Gage Roads' Atomic Pale Ale. The rest on the current beer list were a useless pilsner, lager and witbier. They had a Basil Hayden which made for a great digestif.

Canapés, appetizers, starters, mains and dessert. Loved how all the flavors meshed together. The expected style and presentation of contemporary cuisine, yet not a weird fusion of foods. We took fish for the mains. Their cured swordfish with fennel, grapefruit nitro and toasted seaweed, and jasmine-tea-cured Norwegian salmon with artichoke barigole, ikura, mandarin orange and soft shell crab were very good. The man was crazy enough to order a gigantic tomahawk steak. Of course we couldn't finish it and had to pack quite a fair bit home. You know the man- he's gonna be making beef stock from the huge bone and remnant meat.

Sneakily instructed the restaurant on the matter of the bill. The parentals wanted to get us dinner, but we were determined not to let them do it. The restaurant sorted that out beautifully and told them "The bill has been taken care of." Perfect. I had casually mentioned that the parentals share a birthday month in October. To my surprise, besides the petit fours, the restaurant also gave them a cute onion-shaped mango-pineapple-cheesecake topped with a candle. How very nice! The man was very pleased because he got to share little bites of sweets. Heh.

No mains pictured. Too busy eating.