[Brussels, Belgium] Le Zinneke – Mind-blowing Mussels

20 12 2014

I used to be satisfied with the mussels from Brussel Sprouts back in Singapore but how my eyes have been opened in Belgium at Le Zinneke, one of the most highly rated mussels specialists in Brussels.

The restaurant is a bit further out from the city centre with no nearby subway stops but a tram line does run just outside the restaurant. The restaurant is really cosy, with most of the clientele made up of locals, already a good sign.

I opted for the 3-course set menu that goes for 36.50, where diners can choose a starter, 1kg of mussels in any sauce and a dessert from the ala carte menu. Personally I thought this was a great deal given that the cost of the sum of parts was significantly in excess of the set menu price.

I have been spamming myself with everything authentically Belgian and that includes the shrimp croquettes. Of the numerous ones I have tried this trip, the Homemade Grey Shrimp Croquettes (14.95/ala carte price) here made the most lasting impression, cheesy without being overly heavy.

The Madagascar Shrimps Red Devil Spicy (18.75/ala carte price) had a surprising Asian feel to it, especially since there was sufficient spice for our liking. My American Indian friend whom I was dining with wiped the plate clean, subsequently apologizing that he didn’t leave more sauce for me. Do you remember the last time someone apologized for taking all the sauce? Well I don’t. It was that good…

For the mains, we had 1kg of mussels each, done in two different styles to diversify the risk. Honestly, I can’t remember which styles we got exactly, it’s difficult to given that there are 69 different styles available on the menu. I only remembered that we had one with onions, herbs in a cream base and one that had curry and ginger in a cream base and boy were they good, especially the curry and ginger variant.

The mussels were unexpectedly plump and tender, with a firmness somewhere closer to oyster. Limited chewing required and you can expect a burst of flavor juices on your first bite. I never understood why my friends would say mussels in Belgium is on a whole new level till this meal. Accompany the mussels was a side of fries, twice-cooked as how it is usually done in Belgium.

I was already ready to call it a night and end it off on a high note. I wasn’t expecting dessert to fare nearly as good as the appetizers and mains anyway but was proved wrong. The Tiramisu was awesome, slightly more dense than average, veering somewhere between a cheesecake and a regular tiramisu. I also liked the crumble that topped the dessert, tasted much like digestive biscuits that went really well with the cream cheese. I couldn’t help but finish it in its entirety.

I was less enchanted by the Chocolate Mousse, since I’m not a big fan of dark chocolate. That said, it was smooth and definitely above average in quality.

Ending off my trip to Belgium and Paris, I undoubtedly had my most memorable meal at Le Zinneke among the meals I had there. Definitely a worthwhile trip for both locals and tourists alike.

Le Zinneke

Place de la Patrie 26, 1030 Schaerbeek, Belgium

Tel: +32 2 245 03 22

Website: www.lezinneke.be/

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[New York, United States] Soba-ya – Duck & Uni Soba!

13 07 2014

Listed in Michelin’s 2013 Bib Gourmand list that honors good cuisine at reasonable prices, dinner at Soba-ya was my most enjoyable meal for the week in NYC and my best soba experience thus far. It was no wonder the restaurant was sporting a full house on a Thursday night at 930pm.

Hot Tempura Udon (US$18++)

While some of my friends had great things to say about the Hot Tempura Udon (US$18++), which came with Shrimp, Shiso (from the Mint Family) and Shishito (Japanese Green Pepper) Tempura, I would highly suggest going for the Kamo Seiro (Sautéed Sliced Duck & Japanese Green Onions in Hot Dipping Sauce) with Cold Soba ($16++) instead. The duck broth was more flavorful and rich than the hot soba/udon stock and I amused myself as my friends took their first sips of my duck broth after having tried their “basic” stock, watching as their eyes widened in amazement.

I also ordered an unbelievably affordable saucer of Uni (US$6++) on the side, which went surprisingly well with the soba.

Left the restaurant totally satisfied with an involuntary grin. I’m sure I will be back before my month in NYC is up.

Soba-ya

229 East 9th St. New York, NY 10003

Tel: 212 533 6966

Website: http://www.sobaya-nyc.com/wp/





[Taipei, Taiwan] 馬辣 – A Hotpot Buffet with Hagen Daz, Movenpick, Wine & Beer

28 05 2014

A hotpot buffet with 8 flavours each of Hagen Daz Ice Cream & Movenpick Ice Cream, Red Wine and Beer, do I have your attention yet?

While Taiwan might be known for its scenic tourist spots like Tarako Gorge, Sun Moon Lake and the various hot springs, the highlight of my Taiwan trip turned out to be buffet hotpot restaurant 馬辣, much to my Taiwan friend E’s dismay who adamantly insisted that Taiwan has much more to offer than a mere hotpot restaurant.

Anyhow, I first heard of 马辣 from my mum, and subsequently as a recommendation from an adjacent Taiwanese passenger on the flight to Taipei. It’s a pretty popular place usually packed to the brim during mealtimes, with 5 outlets currently in operation in Taipei that are all very much accessible by public transport. Our first visit left us so impressed (and lazy to search for other alternatives), that we decided to come back to celebrate T’s birthday here as well.

The buffet is priced at 498NT++ for weekday lunches and 598NT++ for weekends/dinners (or roughly S$25++), for a time limit of two hours. However, the staff seemed pretty lax on this policy and allowed us to stay on for more dessert, drinks and idle chatter since there was no one else in the queue then. Buffet items include a host of meats (Angus beef, Boston Pork Should, Chicken Thigh…), Seafood (Oysters, Scallops, Prawn, Crab…), Vegetables, Dipping Sauces, Drinks(Fruit Juices, Soft Drinks, Beers, Floral Teas…), Desserts (Cakes, Fruits, Ice Cream…). Diners are also allowed to bring their own booze with no additional corkage charge, overall a pretty good deal if you ask me. Heck, I would pay that price for just the free flow ice cream and beer.

With the exception of the dipping sauces, drinks and desserts which are self-service, other items require diners to physically tick a checkbox and pass it on to the wait staff, who will then have the indicated items brought to your table, ensuring that whatever arrives is relatively fresh and not left in the open for prolonged periods of time.

So to cut long story short, 馬辣 is an incredibly value for money hotpot buffet if you are in Taipei that I would definitely recommend visiting.

Fuxing Location
Address: No. 152, 4F, Fuxing South Road
Hours: Monday to Sunday, 11:30AM-5AM
Phone: (02)27727678
MRT: Zongxiao Fuxing

Xining Location
Address: No. 62, 2F, Xining South Road (台北市西寧南路62號2樓)
Hours: Monday to Sunday, 11:30AM-5AM
Phone: (02)23146528
MRT: Ximen

Tingzhou Location
Address: No.86, Tingzhou Road Section 3 (台北市中正區汀州路三段86號)
Hours: Monday to Sunday, 11:30AM-5AM
Phone: (02)23657625
MRT: Gongguan

Zhongxiao Location
Address: No.4, Alley 10, Lane 233, Zhongxiao East Road Section 4 (台北市忠孝東路四段233巷10弄4號)
Hours: Monday to Sunday, 11:30AM-5AM
Phone: (02)27212533
MRT: Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall

Songshou Location
Address: No. 22, 3F, Songshou Road (台北市信義區松壽路22號3F)
Hours: Monday to Sunday, 11:30AM-5AM
Phone: (02)27205726
MRT: Taipei City Hall





[Prague, Czech Republic] Alcron – Degustation Delight

22 02 2014

Its been about a month since I departed Europe for my sunny little island home (to finish up my last semester of SMU life) and I guess it’s about time I posted about Alcron, a 1-Star Michelin restaurant in Prague where I indulged for a final time as closure to my unforgettable exchange program.

The first week of term in SMU had already commenced then but as my schoolmates were hard at work, here I was dinnering at this chichi 24-seater restaurant, still living in my bubble I call “post-exchange”.

Just 6 tables (24 seats) for the entire restaurant

Located in the posh Radisson Blu Hotel, Alcron specializes in seafood, though there is a selection of meat dishes on the menu as well. Here, diners are invited to create their own degustation meals, ranging from 3-courses (CZK 1100 / c.40 Euros) to 7-courses (CZK 1900 / c.70 Euros) by selecting items from a short menu. This leaves lots of room for flexibility so if you are a dessert person, you may simply choose to spam dessert courses if that’s the way you like it.

As one of the most highly rated restaurants in Prague, you can expect service to be top-notch without being over-intrusive. During my meal, the staff left me to my own devices while I dined but kept an observant lookout from the entrance of the restaurant in case any diners required further assistance.

I was utterly smitten with the restaurant straight from the start, when I was presented with a complimentary Bread Basket that had about 6 types of breads to choose from. What’s best is that the breads are all freshly toasted before they are brought to each table, made possible because of the small capacity of 6 tables. I thoroughly enjoyed the round bread ball encrusted with Parmigiano Cheese and even opted for a second serving. That says a lot because I usually avoid overloading on bread, so as to better appreciate the higher-value courses served later. An interesting assortment of butter flavored with Seaweed, Chili and Lemon was also served alongside the bread.

The complimentary amuse bouche was Escargot with Garlic Chips. Was quite fond of the garlic chips which reminded me of the prawn crackers that my family fries at home for Chinese New Year.

I opted for a 5-Course dinner initially but was so taken by the initial 4 courses that I later decided to top-up with an additional course.

The dishes on the menu are categorized as either cold or hot dishes and are listed in the order of their suggested consumption. I much prefer warm dishes for dinner so I only chose a sole cold dish, which was the Ceviche of Scottish divers Scallops with cucumber, cucumber jelly, fried lotus root, chili and hazelnut dust. A dish with very light flavors to whet the appetite.

I liked the interplay of sweet vs savoury, crunchy vs crispy from the different elements in the Crayfish Bisque. It didn’t bore because every now and then, I would bite into pieces of sweet crunchy sweet corn, while at other times, I would scoop up pieces of crispy savory popcorn. Bursting the poached yolk also made the bisque considerable smoother and more palatable.

While I’m a die hard foie gras fan, I felt that the Pan-fried Duck Foie Gras Escalope with pumpkin chutney, marinated pumpkin and Tonka bean foam was underwhelming. The marinated pumpkin tasted somewhat like pickles and didn’t complement the foie gras well in my view, given that it was too sharp and acidic.

The Venison Loin Sous-vide with gingerbread ball, chestnuts truffle-puree, apple and celery ragout, chocolate and cranberry infusion brought the meal back on track. Special credit has to go to the chestnut truffle puree for its harmonious matrimony with the venison.

With just a dessert left to go, I thought that it would be a waste not to try the Anjou Pigeon breast, Confit and Liver with braised shallot and blackberries. Pigeon isn’t exactly easy to find in Singapore after all. Texture-wise, it was pretty similar to duck, albeit slightly leaner.

I ended the meal with the Buttermilk Panna Cotta with pear and walnuts. It was a pretty light dessert and not very sweet, much like a mild-tasting yoghurt. Perfect given that I was bursting from the insides.

As I called for the bill, a last complimentary dessert course showed up in the form of a Chocolate Praline that I popped into my mouth straight away, a Coconut Macaron and a home-made Chocolate-coated Vanilla Ice Cream (like a Magnum Mini). I actually liked these better than the Panna Cotta.

Personally, I would consider this the 2nd most enjoyable meal I had during the 5-month duration whilst on exchange. Prices weren’t terribly expensive compared to other Michelin Starred Restaurants since it was in Eastern Europe. Perfect ending to a perfect exchange.

Alcron

Štěpánská 624/40, 110 00 Praha 1-Nové Město, Czech Republic

Tel: +420 222 820 410

Website: www.alcron.cz





[Berlin, Germany] Roaring Burger Culture, Burgermeister vs Bird Restaurant

8 01 2014

I was in Berlin for the New Year and I gotta say that that’s a terrible time to be there as a foodie, mainly because:

  1. many restaurants close for the year end holidays.
  2. tourists flock to such capital cities for New Year celebrations and parties and increase demand for the already reduced supply of dining options
  3. restaurants take the opportunity to up their prices for New Year Menus

Luckily for me, I was there for a good 7 nights, so I could wait it out till New Year was over before indulging in the more extravagant restaurants but in the meantime, I found cheaper (but not necessarily less enjoyable) alternatives to tide me over. Thus, I embarked on an adventure to discover the best burgers in town. Unfortunately, it was short-lived as I soon developed a sore throat.

It’s clear that Berlin’s burger culture is alive and thriving. Within Tripadvisor’s top 20 most highly rated restaurants, two are actually burger joints, Burgermeister and Bird Restaurant, both of which will be the topic of discussion for today.

You know how the saying goes that the dirtier a food stall, the nicer the food from there tastes. The same can be said of Burgermeister. The eatery is located under train tracks with a grungy dark interior. Yet, you still see queues forming everyday of the week. I was here on a Monday evening and I still had to wait an hour just to get a simple burger and fries.

Queue from outside Burgermeister

Queue inside Burgermeister

The key draw about Burgermeister is the value aspect. An average burger here costs about 4 Euros and a bottle of beer a mere 1.50 Euros. Many claim that it serves the best burger in town but I choose to disagree. No doubt, the burgers here are very decent but something still seemed to be lacking, perhaps it was the over-greasiness that got to me, or the fact that the beef patty could have been more succulent.

Meisterburger (4.30 Euros)

Sides can also be ordered separately. The cheese fries here was of average quality, nothing to rave about.

Cheese Fries (2.20 Euros)

Burgermeister

Oberbaumstrasse 8, 10997 Berlin

Tel: +49 30 2388 3840

While not a direct competitor due to the price differential, I found the burgers at the Bird Restaurant far superior in quality and taste.

Bar seats at Bird Restaurant

I had the house burger called Da Birdhouse (11.50 Euros). It’s a double burger with bacon, grilled onions, ketchup, mustard, sour cucumber and if Google has translated it’s German description from the menu correctly, it’s also “bold enough to kill a donkey”. I’m 50% confident that that’s really what is written on the menu because the restaurant (and it’s menu) evidently attempts to portray a stance of anti-establishment, eg loose use of words and signs on the wall that writes stuff like “if it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot them?”.

What I liked best about the burger is that it delivered exactly what was promised on the menu, a heaping 250g slab of beef patties which, to put in perspective, is more beef than the sum of 2 McDonald’s Quarter-pounders. As an added bonus, the restaurant also gives the choice of how cooked you want your meat to be. Personally, I’m a huge fan of caramelized onions and the generous use of it in this burger was also a treat. The chips on the side were also unbelievably tasty, one of the best I have had in fact.

Da Birdhouse (11.50 Euros)

There are only two ways to secure a seat here. First is of course, make a reservation! Second would be to arrive here before 5.30pm and hope that there are seats at the bar available for walk in customers. This joint is insanely popular so expect long waiting times of between 30mins to an hour for your burgers. There are days (which I experienced first-hand) where the restaurant even refused to take down takeaway orders due to the long list of orders from within the restaurant!

Bird Restaurant

Am Falkplatz 5, 10437 Berlin

Tel: +49 30 5105 3283





[Berlin, Germany] Tim Raue – Asian Fusion Confusion

5 01 2014

Food aside, Tim Raue has the unlikely makings of a Michelin 2-Star restaurant. First off, the entrance of the restaurant does not face the main street but is hidden in a nondescript courtyard (or parking lot, euphemisms aside). I initially wondered if I had accidentally stumbled into a residential premise as I navigated my way in. Secondly, the staff while friendly and professional, are all given standard issue sneakers (think White Converses) to match their formal blazers. Well, hot pink blazers for the gals doesn’t scream formal. Lastly, the ambiance of the restaurant doesn’t scream fine-dining with its rather minimalistic oak decor. That said, I gladly embraced the obvious attempts to downplay the fine-dining aspect of the restaurant and immediately felt more at home.

I was first given a set of complimentary appetizers (Curried Cashews, Pickles in Wasabi Sauce, Japanese Cucumbers, Seaweed wrapped in Daikon) to nibble on while deciding on my courses.

I opted for a 3-Course Lunch, priced at 38 Euros, which was very much a steal and prompted my visit in the first place. Diners are allowed to choose from a list of appetizers, mains and desserts to make up the 3 courses regardless of the category, meaning that you can effectively order 3 mains. Do note that certain items on the menu do require additional supplements of between 8 to 12 Euros.

If 3-Courses isn’t enough or if you want to take the rare opportunity to try more things on the menu, additional courses can be added for 10 Euros each.

For starters, I had the Dim Sum “Partridge, Mache and Black Truffle” which I found pretty disappointing. The dumpling skin was much too thick and doughy in my view, while the black truffle sauce was excruciating savoury and overwhelmed the subtle partridge.

For main, I had the Peking Duck Interpretation (additional supplement of 12 Euros), a signature dish of the restaurant. It came as an ensemble of 3 items to be eaten in succession, starting with the Crispy Duck Breast over Bread Stuffed with Apples and Leek, followed by the Duck Liver Terrine with Leek & Ginger Mousse and ending off with the Duck Consomme with Duck Heart, Stomach and Tongue. In larger portions, this could have been a meal in itself which I would have gladly accepted.

Of the trio, I found the soup to be the most interesting, tasting like a blend of very rich turtle soup and braised duck sauce from Singapore hawker stalls. It was my first time having duck tongue and I thought it was pretty awesome, possessing a texture of smooth duck skin without the ensuing fattiness.

For dessert, I had the Mango, Vanilla & Kardamon. Kardamon is a type of plant similar to Ginger and I believe it was used to make the little meringue balls. Didn’t quite see how it fitted into the overall picture though. Overall, the dessert was pleasant but nothing to shout about. The aesthetics was probably the highlight of the dish.

I was also given a complimentary dessert of Iced Apple with Coriander Cream, which came together with the bill. Oddly, there also seemed to be Shredded Purple Cabbage inside, which I found to be superfluous and should be left at the doner kebap stands.

In one word, the whole experience here was interesting. Interesting is an interesting adjective because it hardly describes whether something had turned out great or bloody horrendous. For me, the food and staff outfits were interesting, with some courses bordering on unusual rather than tasty. Frankly for the price paid, I held greater expectations.

Tim Raue

Rudi-dutschke-str 26

Tel: +49 30 2593 7930





[Budapest, Hungary] – Foie Gras Paradise and Restaurant Recommendations

15 12 2013

My recent trip to Budapest was by far the most relaxing week of my exchange. For one, I discovered the joys of solo traveling, doing whatever I wanted at my own pace. Waking up at noon with no one to nag about opportunity costs, spending hours at the various thermal baths, dining without feeling guilty about any budget limitations of travel companions, soaking in the festive cheer at the Christmas markets, empowering the Hungarian economy at low-stake casinos and ending the night at the ruin bars with fellow hostel mates. I started feeling like a bum towards the end of the trip but suitably rejuvenated to start studying for the imminent exams.

What’s great about Budapest is that it’s in Eastern Europe, meaning that food is relatively cheap and dining at the best restaurants in town is actually economically possible.

Fun Fact #1: Hungary’s currency is the Forint and current conversion is about 300Ft per Euro.

View of the Chain Bridge from the Buda-side

Given that I had a fair bit of time to spend here, I visited a couple of reputed restaurants and would recommend the ones below:

Borkonyha WineKitchen

Sas utca 3, Budapest 1051, Hungary

Tel: +36 1 266 0835

I patronized Borkonyha WineKitchen on my first night. Expectations ran high given that it held the top spot on TripAdvisor. It’s a fairly classy place and the staff was very professional without being overly smothering. The cuisine is French-Hungarian Fusion, though I would say the French aspect stands out more, given that my perception of Hungarian cuisine is perhaps more rugged and hearty than the fine-dining portions you will find here. Cellar was well stocked with local wines.

Borkonyha WineKitchen

I was really enchanted by the Foie Gras served here, evenly cooked with a very crispy seared surface (way more crispy than any other pan-seared foie gras that I have tried). The classic apple sauce complemented the liver well too.

Borkonyha WineKitchen – Crispy Duck Liver with Apple in Vanilla & Beetroot Sauce (3,350 Ft)

For main, I had the Mangalica Variations, or deep fried Pork Tongue, Pork Loin and Black Pudding (aka Blood Pudding). Didn’t really take to the fried balls of Blood Pudding since it’s a little too salty but I did like the Loin for its moist tenderness and Pork Tongue, which had a texture that reminded me a little of Tripe.

Borkonyha WineKitchen – Mangalica Variations (3,750 Ft)

Kispiac Bisztro

Hold utca 13, Budapest, Hungary

Tel: +36 1 269 4231

Kispiac Bisztro, as its name suggest, operates as a bistro, meaning that the setting is somewhat more casual than Borkonyha and can get slightly rowdy during meal times, especially since the restaurant is a small-scaled establishment. Hungarian cuisine does seem quite similar to French somehow, with items such as Braised Pork Cheeks, Crispy Roasted Pork, Roasted Duck and Foie Gras gracing the menu. Never before have I seen Foie Gras as a main so I just had to have it. It was great when I had it (since it was only my 2nd dinner then) but the novelty of affordable Foie Gras wore off several meals (with much Foie Gras dishes) later, given the unctuousness.

Kispiac Bisztro – First time having Foie Gras as a main

Hungarikum Bisztro

Steindl Imre utca 13, Budapest 1051, Hungary

Tel: +36 1 797 7177

Another bistro worth visiting is Hungarikum Bisztro. To make our lives easier, they have a 3-course menu (3,600Ft) that includes Hungarian specialties such as Goulash Soup with Noodles, Crispy Duck Leg with Braised Cabbage and Onion Potatoes, and Cinnamon Flavored Apple Pie with Vanilla Sauce. I opted for the ala carte since I wanted some warm chicken broth for my recovering cold.

For main, the Crispy Duck Leg was fantastic, with plus points for the skin and modest use of salt on the meat. I personally find most duck confits a little on the salty side so this one worked well.

Hungarikum Bisztro – Crispy Duck Leg with Onion Potatoes and Braised Cabbage (2,100 Ft)

Onyx Restaurant

Vörösmarty tér 7-8, Budapest 1051, Hungary

Tel: +36 30 508 0622

There are 2 Michelin-starred restaurants in Budapest, Onyx being one of  them. Their 3-Course set lunch is pretty affordable at approx 5,990Ft (20 Euros) but a number of options on the menu require additional top-ups. In all, I spent about 40 Euros for lunch, including a glass of wine, still water, a 2,500Ft top-up for a Foie Gras starter and taxes.

Onyx – One of the two Michelin restaurants in Budapest

Onyx – Chichi Interior

Lunch kicked off to a perfect start with the Bread Basket, which held about 11 or 12 assorted flavours of pastries and bread that was served freshly toasted. An unlikely buttery cabbage pastry totally blew my mind.

Onyx – Amazing Bread Basket

Another great aspect about Onyx is that it doesn’t scrimp on its set lunch menu. For example, the lunch menu starter which I had, the Goose Liver, Grape, Loaf is also found on the restaurant’s dinner ala carte menu (at 6,000Ft) and tasting menu. It’s something I would definitely recommend as a starter, where you get two variations of Foie Gras with contrasting flavours.

Onyx – Goose Liver, Grape, Loaf

Onyx – Chicken Oyster, Squid, Prawn, Bouillabaisse Sauce. (prawns were orgasmic, the rest so-so)

While resting in between meals, you might also want to consider checking out the Central Market Hall, especially if you want to stock up on canned foie gras or caviar produced locally. The market is pretty much like a really clean European version of Singapore’s wet markets and locals do come here for their weekly grocery shopping. Some local delicacies can also be found from the food stalls at the market’s 2nd storey.

Budapest Central Market Hall

Fun fact #2: Hungary is the second largest producer of Foie Gras after France, which is really impressive given the size of the country. That probably explains why Foie Gras was so readily found in markets, restaurants and bistros around town, even the less high-end ones. Never thought I would say this, but I am officially stuffed with foie gras. Laying off it for at least a month or two.








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