the hinata diaries

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Wild Rocket

We moved into our new home in February and have been infatuated with it since.

Didn't matter if some odds and ends (or an entire floor) hadn't been completed, didn't matter if boxes remained to be unpacked, didn't matter if a layer of potentially carcinogenic sawdust blanketed the rooms - we'd waited a year to move in and we were entertaining at home, dammit!

Thus began an endless stream of Sunday brunches, weekday dinners, Saturday afternoon teas, a frenzied race to discover new friends - new friends! - or recover long forgotten ones, just to have continual excuses to host at home. Honestly, if a homeless person walked passed and asked to be fed, we would probably have whipped out the foie gras and champagne - although not before bringing said homeless person on a forced tour of every nook and cranny in the house, accompanied by our now well-rehearsed monologue on the origins of our furniture and design concept, followed by a 5 minute diatribe on how it's impossible to find a good contractor nowadays. It would be enough to make him bolt for the door.

I shudder to think how annoying we'll be when we have a kid.

At any rate, happy to report that the honeymoon period is now officially over! As evidenced by the recent slew of restaurant reviews in previous posts, we finally released our deathgrip on the walls and have rejoined polite society.

All this as a rather long prologue to tell you about Wild Rocket - a restaurant that I'd been meaning to try for months but never quite got around to.

Finally went there for dinner last Friday night with 4 other girlfriends for an overdue catch-up session. Wild Rocket is located at Hangout@ Mt. Emily, a funky and relatively new hostel off Mount Sophia. At the end of Upper Wilkie road, you arrive at a quiet, deserted hilltop park, above the lights of the city, an almost retro scene that just needs lovers whispering sweet nothings in open top Cadillacs. Next to that, an old iron gate covered in wild grass frames an enormous colonial mansion that has seen better days. Continue on this little panaromic sweep and your eyes finally settle on Hangout @ Mt. Emily, recessed behind a short but steep driveway. You descend to backpackers seated outside having a quiet philosophical smoke. You give the main door a little push, and the romantic, pensive mood you've painstakingly fostered in the last couple minutes quickly dissolves.

Tables are filled with large groups of friends, all sharply dressed, all gesticulating wildly, all chattering excitedly.

Uniformed waiters glide through the room in practised efficiency, carrying menus, pouring wine, serving baskets of bread.

The host, dressed and coiffured for a big Friday night out, cheerily greets you with a large and genuinely warm smile.

I like this place already.

Onto the food.

For starters, we had cod fish cakes and a serving of the laksa pesto spaghetti. The cod fish cakes were soft and flaky, more akin to crab cakes than to the rubbery white fishcakes that immediately come to mind. The spicy thai sauce that accompanied them was typical of any Thai restaurant - a little unimaginative but fortunately not bad.

The laksa pesto spaghetti, on the other hand, is one of the restaurant's signature dishes, and for good reason. The spaghetti was perfectly al dente and the pesto clung to it almost fanatically. The minimal use of oil helped to bring out the playful contrast between the sweet basil and the edgy, fragrant laksa. The result was a light but intensely flavoured mouthful which, like any good seductress, feigned resistance for the briefest of moments before yielding. So drama right??? Seriously though, I would hike up Mount Sophia in the pouring rain and my highest heels for a plate of this. Nicky even considered cancelling her main for a second plate, and when Angelina realized that the remaining sauce could be mopped up with our little squares of bread, the plate was left so clean the restaurant needn't even wash it.

My main was the crusted Chilean seabass with baby kale leaves and drizzled with a sticky black sauce that seemed a combination of a balsamic reduction and dark soy sauce - thick, sweet with a bit of tartness. I loved the idea of a crusted seabass as compared to other fashionable fish - the texture of miso cod makes me feel like a granny without her teeth in, gumming her way through, while seared tuna fillet is usually way too dry on the outside and occasionally fibrous on the inside. The crusted seabass, on the other hand, offered a combination of crisp and crunchy on top and light and healthy in the middle. The crunchy bits are apparently a combination of sundried tomatoes and breadcrumbs, and are incredibly addictive - the grown-up equivalent of the Long John Silver fish bits that we used to fight over as kids. Local seafood restaurants used to serve something similar - steamed fish topped with sweet and crunchy bits apparently made with beans, I've been told it's a Teochew preparation. It's impossible to find nowadays - anyone know of a place to recommend?

The other girls tried a variety of mains - salmon fillet, lamb rack, seared rib-eye, all of which were deemed good to very good.

Desserts for the table were warm chocolate gateau (i.e. molten chocolate cake, lava cake, you know the one), strawberry cheesecake with maple walnut ice-cream, served like a parfait, and a slice of kueh buloh tiramisu. All were exceedingly enjoyable - the warm chocolate gateau had a surprisingly thin cake 'skin' and oozed endless chocolate lava, the strawberry cheesecake was dense, roll-around-in-your-mouth gooey, and the tiramisu was reliable despite tasting less exotic than it intimated.

Total bill, including a bottle of wine, came up to a reasonable $60 per person.

Service had personality, in a good way. When we asked our server how big the garden salad was, he replied that it comes in a bowl. Nicky then pointed out that bowls come in different sizes, so could he show us how big their bowls are. Our server then burst into a fit of giggles that he wouldn't explain - we eventually figured that with Nicky's Australian accent, he probably heard her asking for the size of his balls. Supplemented with her hand gestures, "Bowls can be this big... or THIS big!"


Second incident was at the end of the night when we were ordering desserts. Angelina had had her heart set on the profiteroles from the moment we arrived, only to be advised by the same server that she try the warm chocolate gateau instead. He seemed quite adamant at refusing to let her order the profiteroles, and insisting that she would be much happier with the gateau. This bunch of girls not being the ones to take such bullying lightly, we eventually relented only on the agreement that if we didn't like the chocolate gateau, he would then serve us the profiteroles for free. When the gateau arrived, we were immediately humbled, realizing nothing would top this. All the same, we decided the server deserved a bit of a ribbing and were determined to tell him it tasted awful. When he eventually came round to gloat, he smiled at Angelina and asked how it was. The dear girl swiftly blurted out "It was fantastic!", leaving us stewing over the thought of lost profiteroles and once again sending the server into fits of giggles.

And all around us, you could see the same - waiters exchanging pleasantries and a smile with their tables of satisfied guests. A rare and beautiful sight in Singapore!

Our dinner concluded with a quick tour of the rooftop garden with its pots of herbs, dramatic mini-fountain and warm Balinese deck. It would've been perfect for an after dinner or post Sunday brunch drink, but we had already reached our perfect dinner sweet spot and decided to leave that for another day.

All in, compared to my recent adventures at Le Papillon and Graze, I have to say I like Wild Rocket the best. The personable service staff really make all the difference, and on top of that the food is faultless and prices are reasonable. It's one of the few places which, after the pomp and fanfare of opening to designer crowds and celebrity reviews, is still worth visiting a second, third and fourth time. I'm looking forward to my next one.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Sunday lunch at Graze

Finally got round to checking out Graze with some girlfriends on Sunday. Just in time too, as that same day's paper had a review of the various Rochester Park establishments and rated Graze as pretty solidly disappointing. A quick search of local food blogs also unearthed no small amount of criticism - unexciting food and dubious service, despite the gorgeous setting seemed to be a recurring theme. Ah well, reservations had been made, and the company would be enjoyable, and so I cheerily trotted off to brunch in morbid anticipation of the meal to come. Just how bad could it be... ooh... images of incompetent waitstaff and bland, overpriced food starting filling my mind. Deep down inside, I began secretly hoping, silently imploring Graze to set new standards of awful.

Feed me with rotten food!
Ask me silly questions!
Refuse me ice water!
Be as pretentious as humanly possible!

Sado-masochistic perhaps, but after all the positive expectations surrounding the opening of Graze, surely epic disastrous would at least make for a more memorable dining experience than just plain mediocre?

Alas, it is with mixed feelings that I report:

It's not that bad lah. It's nothing fabulous, but it could've been worse.

From what I gather, the Sunday brunch menu differs quite significantly from the dinner one. The crispy pork hock and soy lacquered ox cheek that I'd heard much about were nowhere to be found. Instead there was a page of breakfast items such as pancakes, eggs benedict, muesli and scones (served till 2.30pm), followed by a couple of pages of barbecue items - a range of red meat, poultry and seafood - a page of salads and that's more or less it. Really nothing to get you excited when compared to other brunch options in the city.

I ended up with grilled lamb chops in an Asian inspired house marinade, served with a shiraz reduction and a house salad ($30). The portion of lamb was thick cut and generous. The shiraz sauce could've used a lot more flavour but was passable. The house salad, on the other hand, was liberally doused with vinaigrette and tasted fine but looked terribly tacky at 90% chopped green lettuce, 10% onion and cucumber and 10% others. You've probably seen the same salad at the Pizza Hut buffet bar or on economy in SQ.

We shared a dessert (well, technically a breakfast item, as Graze doesn't serve desserts at brunch) of banana pancakes with ice cream. No picture unfortunately but you know the drill... 3 pancakes in a stack, covered in caramel and dried mystery berries, vanilla ice cream on the side ($13). The pancakes were generally alright, although chances were every bite in four you'd end up with a lump of flour that must've been bobbing around in the batter, and the mystery berries were surprisingly inedible with seeds that could easily take a tooth or two out. I know that sounds dreadful, but really aside from that it was fine. Think IHOP. Didn't kill us in college, wouldn't kill us now.

Adding to the list of things that were fine but not outstanding, looks like the (former?) manager of P.S. Cafe is at the helm of the service team, which is now fairly capable. No special charms, no outstanding training, but recommendations were made, orders were taken and served, and the bill came all with minimal fuss.

The setting was, as to be expected, gorgeous. The Rochester Park estate was glistening from the morning's rain, the crisp black and white bungalow shone invitingly out from dense foliage, and by the time you've descended down the driveway and seated yourself in a large cushioned armchair, you do feel like you've plonked yourself in some posh friend's home. I can imagine the al fresco area looking quite charming in the evening, but it does seem made for lazy Sunday brunches. And if neighbouring diners were having any issues with the food, they definitely didn't show it. Our group of giggling gossiping girlfriends was surrounded by a couple more tables of the same, while the far side of the room was dominated by expat families with kids hyperactive from jam, syrup and ice cream.

Summary is thus, as far as Sunday brunches go, Graze is definitely a notch below established brunch locales such as Marmalade Pantry, Whitebait & Kale, Blood Bros Cafe and Sebastien's, in terms of both quality and variety. Try Graze if you've got good company - no-one picky about food, everyone at leisure - and you'll probably have a good time soaking up the ambience and (at the very least) filling your stomach without breaking the bank or bursting a blood vessel. Can't begin to predict what dinner might be like though, am still open to trying it another day. Armed with a healthy dose of morbid curiousity of course...


4 Rochester Park

Singapore 139215

Tel: 6775 9000

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Le Papillon

Celebrated a belated Mothers' Day with the family at Le Papillon, a newly-opened (as of last week) French-inspired restaurant helmed by Anderson Ho, chef behind the gorgeous book Asia Degustation.

Le Papillon is located in the Red Dot Traffic Building, itself brimming with style and potential. Formerly Singapore's traffic police headquarters, the renovated colonial building is now home to advertising and design companies, as well as the red dot design museum. When we arrived on a quiet Monday evening, workmen were still busily whitewashing walls and grinding floors at unoccupied units, but venture a couple of steps further down and you'll encounter well-heeled yuppies sipping martinis at Skin, followed by a small curtained door that leads the way to Le Papillon.

Unlike recent new openings such as P.S. Cafe and the Rochester Park area, Le Papillon hasn't opened to much fanfare (although it surely deserves to - more on the food later). Coupled with the fact that it was Monday night, and the restaurant was understandably quiet - our table of 4 was the only one that evening aside from another group helmed by Edmond Ho, photographer for Asia Degustation.

My first impression of the restaurant was, unfortunately, not a good one. The lady manager who greeted me upon my arrival (I had, in a rare moment of punctuality, arrived 15 mins before everyone else) had a decidedly snooty air, perhaps excusable at an established 5-star restaurant but unfortunate in a newly opened restaurant that should be making customers feel welcome.

Given the availability of tables, she asked if I had a seating preference. Seeing a booth tucked away with a window into the kitchen, I thought it'd be a great opportunity to catch Chef Anderson and his team in action, and so requested that, upon which I was told that in order to sit at that table the entire group had to order set menus (as opposed to a la carte). Wondering what was the big deal, given that the next table was only a foot away and thus also possessed of a kitchen view, she pointed to an earthy brown curtain surrounding the first booth, and explained that the curtain would otherwise be drawn to prevent other diners from looking in to the kitchen if they didn't wish to take set menus. The concept is mind boggling at best, pretentious at worst.

Since we had decided, prior to coming, that we would try the degustation menu anyway, I settled on the curtained table. Then the dreaded question came, my biggest pet peeve of Singapore dining:

"Would you like a glass of champagne to start your meal?"

Maybe it's no big deal and perfectly acceptable practice, but I personally find this question very rude, together with its sister question: "Would you prefer still or sparkling water?" In order to avoid a $100 water bill - this has happened before - you're left to reply that no, iced tap water is fine, following which you inevitably sound cheap. A no-win situation. And yes, that question did come up subsequently. Philippe's preferred response to the champagne question is usually "Ah, a complimentary glass of champagne? How nice!" accompanied by much batting of blur-foreigner eyes, leaving the flabbergasted hostess to explain that no, actually sir, you have to pay for the champagne. (If he's in a good mood, he'll add with a grin "oh, in that case, why did you offer it to me then?")

The service glitches continued fast and furious. After all the fuss about having to order the set menu, I inquired as to what the set menu consisted of. Our server rattled off a bunch of dishes, then concluded with "well, at least that's what's been served the last few evenings. I don't know if the same will be served today". Sigh, so what's being served today? "Hang on, I'll check with the manager".

Manager comes back. "Oh, it's whatever the chef has chosen for today. I can't really tell you."

When our group had all arrived, we repeated this exercise once again. Eventually we explained that we couldn't choose the set menu if we didn't know, for example, even what choice of meat would be served, and on our fifth request, we finally got descriptions of the individual dishes. We are now qualified to be interrogators at Abu Ghraib.

The final hiccup of the night came when we asked to move from our precious table. Despite it being hard-earned, it was directly under an air-con vent and Sa was freezing, so off to the opposite end of the room we went. Five minutes into the meal and the spotlights began flickering sharply and incessantly, like an 80s disco. A quick wave to the staff and an elaborate experiment with the lights began. Eventually the problem appeared to be solved and we continued eating, only for the flickering to begin again 5 minutes later. When we waved again, the solution of choice was to turn the lights off and leave us eating in near darkness. Sigh. At risk of being the most unwanted customers ever, we requested a final table change.

Surprisingly though, the rest of the night was smooth sailing. Chef Anderson's perfectly executed, classically inspired dishes were flawless. Even the staff stepped up their performances a notch when the food was served, displaying no small amount of pride in the quality, flavours and colours being brought to the table.

Here's the six course degustation that we had:

Amuse bouche ("this is fish roe" said the first server)

Foie gras ("and that's all you need to know" the second server thought to herself)

Apple slices below. Perfectly cooked, firm on the outside, creamy in the middle, and a fairly generous portion. Fyi, this is when they turned the lights off on us, hence the dark photo.

Goat cheese and pesto on watermelon (the manager is more helpful in her descriptions)

Great balance of flavours. I'm not a big fan of goat cheese but this really worked.

Crab salad with honeydew puree

Again, a very fresh tasting, albeit classical combination. The fruits in each dish are like mini-palate cleansers, ensuring you never feel jelat during the onslaught of courses.

The dish with no introduction

Prawns in a seafood broth (the broth is actually studded with loads of little clams). Another classical dish whose familiar flavours you can easily take for granted - it's only on hindsight when you realize, oh hang on, that was pretty good.

Beef tenderloin and oxtail parcel with asparagus and mashed potato

The manager came back for this dish and informed us that the beef tenderloin is currently the restaurant's most popular dish. While it was flawlessly medium rare and exquisitely soft, the highlight was really the oxtail parcel (the thing that looks like a giant guotie). My first reaction was to echo Xiaxue's to her duck with pasta at San Marco - machiam spring roll! But the oxtail meat was velvety tender, richly flavoured and the filo pastry so crisp that you really do fall in love with it. The mashed potato is also heaven sent for any mashed potato fan, having clearly been lovingly strained to leave only lump-free, unadulterated creaminess.

(An aside though - while Tam and I enjoyed the tenderloin perfectly, my mom apparently suffered from a bad cut of meat that was simply inedible. To their credit, the staff offered to replace her dish twice, albeit at the end of the meal when everyone else had cleared their plates. Later, after having paid the bill, I was mildly disappointed that we were charged full price for my mom's meal, I'm still not sure whether to accept this as part of Singapore's general lack of initiative when it comes to customer satisfaction or whether to be genuinely annoyed. Any thoughts on this? I was also a bit surprised that, given it was opening week and we were, by this time, the only occupied table at the restaurant, that the chef never came out for a quick hi. We're so unloved!)

In addition to the 6-course degustation, Le Papillon also offers a 4-course set. For the curious, the 4-course consisted of the below Caesar salad, the earlier crab salad, a main course of lamb shank (below), and the same dessert. I didn't eat them, so no comments on my part. Pics courtesy of Sa.

Warm chocolate cake with strawberries and whipped mascarpone, and white chocolate mousse with raspberry puree

Nothing you haven't tried before, but solidly executed.

Vanilla macaroons topped with Earl grey tea leaves

My love-hate affair with the manager continued with her declaration that "only two of you are having tea, so really we should only give you two but we've given you four."


We left Le Papillon rather confused. There had definitely been opening teething problems with the erratic service, which hopefully will be rectified soon, but had nonetheless been a distraction through the evening. The food itself had been perfectly executed, with charming combinations of flavour and colour. Aside from my mom's dubious tenderloin, quality was definitely not an issue. In a word, the meal was... enjoyable. The one thing that seemed missing was inventiveness, a flash of inspiration, a spot of daring, that would really have cemented Le Papillon at the forefront of Singapore's dining scene. We caught a glimpse of this in the oxtail parcel, which was simply brilliant and hinted of greater things that were achievable.

All in, as long as there's the oxtail parcel, I'll be back, bearing hopes that better service and new dishes will escalate this restaurant from merely very good to great.


Le Papillon

28 Maxwell Road

#01-02 Red Dot Traffic Building

Singapore 069120

Tel: 63274177

Langkawi eating report

Just got back from 5 days in Langkawi, an archipelago of 99 islands in northwest Malaysia, about a 90 mins flight from Singapore. My mind and body are still radiating heat, and I've settled into comfortable denial of ever having returned.

Langkawi's largest island, Pulau Langkawi, is a charming expanse of rainforest, mangrove and paddy fields. Most tourist life is centered around the island's numerous resorts, which range from stunning (e.g. The Datai) to very basic. We encamped at Pelangi Beach Resort, by no means the most glamourous on the island, but comfortable, well-equipped, smack on the beach and reasonably affordable.

On the way over, I entertained visions of dining at rustic nasi padang stalls by the beach, lazily choosing between colourful dishes laden with spice and gravy. My plans were thwarted by (i) a sudden inability to move more than 10 metres from my cozy deck chair at any time and (ii) the blanket of heat and humidity that swathed us during the day, making it impossible to even think of eating anything remotely heavy.

So here's my little eating report, bolstered with the odd random pic. Not too productive considering the numerous choices available, but honestly, I could've been content eating hotel satay by the beach each and every meal :)

The quaint local beachside stall

The rather disturbingly named Laksa Tsunami was a little food truck by the beach smack next to our hotel. While the ambience was close to what I'd been seeking for - beachside, little white truck, local flies buzzing around, dense with the pungent smell of overripe fruit - the laksa unfortunately wasn't. The gravy was like a tablespoon of proper laksa gravy topped up with 2 cups of drainwater, the noodles were pale and dry (gluten-free perhaps?) and the ingredients decidedly mysterious. A likely food poisoning source if ever I tried one. End of the day, I'm just glad I survived without any detriment to my digestive system.

The sexy boutique restaurant

Bon Ton, former owners of the KL restaurant that bears the same name, is a boutique resort consisting of 7 traditional Malay villas, an outdoor cocktails-and-tapas deck overlooking paddy fields and a Moroccan-style restaurant/lounge complete with chill-out music. It's also home to the Langkawi Animal Sanctuary, and consequently plays palace to 140 cats and 70 dogs (our host assures us he knows each and every one of them).

The sunset here is nothing short of spectacular:

The menu, while at city prices, is a tantalizing mix of Malay, western and Moroccan flavours. My starter of BBQ Rock Lobster Tails with Satay Sauce, Served on a Guava Salad blended sweet grilled lobster flesh with creamy peanut, spiced with tart guava, red onion and pepper. (Apologies for the photos, I blame the romantic lighting!)

As a main, I opted for (after much deliberation - everything sounded good) Prawn & Pineapple Curry with Basil & Mint Sauce served with Yellow Rice and Ladies' Finger, while Philippe had the Seafood Platter of Grilled Rock Lobster with Chermoula Butter, Snapper Fillet, Pepper Prawns and Calamari with Lemon Harissa Aioli. Dessert (not pictured as we ate it too fast) was Steamed Apple, Macadamia and Butterscotch Pudding with Gula Melaka Ice Cream and Apple & Ginger Compote. Add to this mix a delightfully spicy Muscadet and a heap of martinis prior, and you have two very happy (and very stuffed) campers.

The ubiquitous "we serve everything" quasi-local cafe

Further inland, across the street from our resort was Padi Cafe, the entrance of which is postered with copies of an extensive menu listing everything from burgers to sweet 'n' sour prawns to chicken tikka masala. Which usually sets off warning bells in my head, but hey we're on holidays, what the heck. It did offer a serene view of rice fields dotted with pretty realistic scarecrows.

I had vegetable pakora and a chicken curry (I think it was called Chicken Merah Masak, but given my Malay I could be horribly wrong and just insulted your mother). It all looks fairly pretty, but is really just passable and not much more. It's a good option if you're travelling in a group and everyone wants something different, but don't expect the culinary adventure of a lifetime.

The real deal... finally!

We decided to spend our last day in Langkawi onboard StarDust, a lovely timber-decked yacht with full sails and wooden steering wheel, exploring the mangroves and smaller islands off Pulau Langkawi. As you can see, despite a small drizzle in the morning, the day couldn't have been more beautiful by the time we set sail.

The most pleasant surprise of the cruise, though, had to be the lunch prepared by the captain. We expected nothing more than a paper box with rice and a titchy fried kampung chicken thigh, but instead were treated to a spread of the best local food we'd had all trip, including a luscious beef rendang, sticky sweet prawn curry and a fiery but addictive pepper chicken. Needless to say, we all ended up sunning our bellies for the rest of the afternoon.

And, with that, the trip report is over! After Chiang Mai and Langkawi in the span of three weeks, I'm really itching to go on more short breaks... hopefully soon... In the meantime, I still feel the sun on my head and the sand in my toes...

Getting better with age...

... happy belated birthdays to Chong and Chris!

Monday, May 15, 2006

Restaurants update

Just got back from Langkawi for the Vesak Day long weekend, will post pics soon.

In the meantime, a quick update on two restaurants I'm very fond of:
  • Azhang (here and here) is back and friendly as ever at their new premises on 6 Mohamed Sultan Road. It was officially opened on May 8 and chef Patrick hosted their first social night at their new home last Friday.
  • Beijing Gong has finally whipped off the red banner covering their signboard and officially opened. To find out how good Northern Chinese food really can be, head on down to 41 Kreta Ayer Road, tel: 6323 3206.

Happy eating!

Friday, May 05, 2006

Chiang Mai - we came, we saw, we ate

Went up to Chiang Mai with Philippe last week for the May 1 long weekend. Given that it was a first break in a while, the original plan was to take it easy - no planning, no stress, take each day as it comes. However, the recent Luxe Guide on Chiang Mai alluded to tons of great eats, ranging from casual street food to posh 5-star hotels, and our spare moments were soon filled with endless deliberation over where and what to eat.

Chiang Mai is Thailand's second largest city and the largest in Northern Thailand. In days of yore, it was the capital of the Lannathai kingdom and an offshoot of the southern leg of the Silk Road. Given its cultural and historical richness, we hoped to discover a unique cuisine not represented in your typical Thai menus of pad thai, green curry and tom yam.

Our success was mixed. Although the Northern Thai staple of kaow soi (yellow noodles in a curry soup, served with beef and pickled vegetables) was fairly easy to find, the only other dish that showed up with any regularity was the suspicious sounding (and equally dodgy looking) Northern Thai Spicy Sausage. More exotic dishes alluded to in the odd magazine, such as Khantoke - sticky rice with a variety of accompaniments - and Kaow Chae - sticky rice in scented cold water with accompaniments - proved elusive.

That said, Chiang Mai offered a plentitude of good food, ranging from traditional Thai to modern Asian to international, in equally diverse settings. In line with our attempt to take the weekend easy, we chose to spend most of our dining time in air conditioned comfort, checking out the gorgeous new hotels and elegant courtyards that dot the city. No doubt there were tons of delicious and exotic foods waiting to be discovered at market stalls and roadside eateries, but that shall be another trip for another day.

Of the restaurants that we tried, I'd recommend most in a heartbeat.

  • The elegant Rachamanka is a beautiful setting for lunch in the old city, with its lush courtyard, beautiful lamps and boutique gallery. The food is primarily modern Asian, paired with an extensive range of seductive martinis. We had our first kaow soi (main picture) here, deceptively termed 'Egg Noodles Osso Bucco in Spicy Coconut Broth', as well as lovely Coconut Flake-crusted Prawns in a Lime Tamarind Dipping Sauce.

  • Moxie at the D2 Hotel where we stayed, is swatched in electric orange and lush fabrics and testimony to Chiang Mai's cutting edge Asian style sensibilities. While most of the menu is international, we had a gorgeous Kaow Soi and a delightfully smoky Braised Beef with Rice (apparently the signature dish of the Dusit Group). Starters were a Royal Project Salad with D2 dressing - Royal Project indicating organic greens grown in the local mountainside - and Chilled Tomato and Saffron Gazpacho.

  • Compared to Rachamanka and Moxie, The Gallery is certainly down a few notches on the style meter. What this casual, almost rustic riverside establishment offers though is simple, unpretentious Thai food. The Burmese style Kao Tung Nai Tung ("crispy rice crackers with dipping minced pork and thick coconut cream") was a highly addictive, fun-with-fingers appetizer, while the Kang Hung Lay (Northern pork curry with ginger) and Hor Noung Gai (spicy steamed chicken in banana leaves) were a delicate balance of spices and herbs - the Kang Hung Lay had an intoxiating aroma reminiscent of Chinese medical shops, while the Hor Noung Gai combined sharp lemongrass with musky steamed lotus leaves.

  • Dalaabaa, opposite the British Council on the east side of town, likewise offered unpretentious Thai food, but in the sexy and intimate setting of a restored bungalow. While most of the menu items are fairly common, our appetizer of Sliced Beef with Lemongrass was very enjoyable, as was the Fried Tilapia Fillet with Sweet Chili Sauce.

  • Finally, Saen Khan Terrace in the Hang Dong District about 15 mins out of the city, is located in the country club of a gated residence. It offers romantic views of distant fields, and evenings resonate with the chirp of crickets and croaking of bullfrogs. This was our first (and last) encounter with the dubious Northern Style Spicy Sausages, served with deep fried pork rinds to constitute the aumsingly mispelled Northern Au-Derf selection. The Sweet Crispy Noodles, on the other hand, was absolutely gorgeous, each strand coated with (as I can best guess) a sort of caramelized fish sauce and topped with sliced peppers, diced tofu cubes and nuts.