the hinata diaries

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Celebrated Philippe's birthday on Tuesday at Nogawa at Sentosa Golf Club.

I guess when most people think of dining at Sentosa Golf Club nowadays, Il Lido is the first and probably only place that comes to mind. Philippe Starck decor... Garibaldi pedigree... much treasured haunt of apparently every minister and tai tai in town. Sadly though, a trip to Il Lido seems more about having your hair up and your nails done than actually enjoying the food. Which, from personal experience and even more from trusted secondhand reports, appears to be a fairly difficult thing to do (enjoy the food I mean, not your nails. Ahem.)

Nogawa evidently lies in Il Lido's publicity shadow, but ill-deservedly. The food is simply amazing. Ridiculously fresh, sometimes weird, always wonderful. If I hadn't chanced upon pictures of Nogawa-san from his website (he's the one next to MM Lee btw), I would have imagined him as the Willy Wonka of Japanese cuisine, replete with headband-wearing, sashimi-carving Oompa Loompas.

Ok, so maybe I exaggerate. A little. The dishes we tried did deconstruct into fairly basic components, and many recipes may very well be tried and true, but the quality of ingredients and dedication in preparation must be unrivaled by any restaurant in Singapore.

Which is possibly to be expected. Nogawa-san is widely considered the father of Japanese cuisine in Singapore. One evening at Hachi, our favourite Japanese restaurant and one of Singapore's best kept open secrets, we happened to find ourself chatting over the counter with both chef Watanabe-san and KF Seetoh as to the top Japanese restaurants in Singapore (aye, Seetoh of Makansutra fame. Not to name drop, but credit where credit is due. I haven’t yet reached the upper echelons of food bloggerdom whereby I can claim to have discovered and be singlehandedly responsible for the success of one Singapore’s now most beloved and famous eateries *coughcrabbeehooncough* hey, indulge a girl in a bit of bitching, maybe I'm just jealous ;) ).

Anyway, I believe it was Seetoh who brought up Nogawa first. Either he or Watanabe-san then informed us that Nogawa-san trained many of Singapore’s top Japanese chefs, including (if I remember correctly, don’t quote me on this) Yoshida of Sushi Yoshida and Tatsu of Tatsuya/Tatsu Sushi). How can you say no to that?

After a bit of googling, I learnt that the Nogawa brand extends to three restaurants – Akane at the Japanese Association on Adam Road, Nogawa at Le Meridien and Nogawa at Sentosa Golf Club. While I was really keenest to try Akane, apparently you need to be a member of the Japanese Association to dine there. Like any obsessed foodie, I then investigated how to join the Japanese Association, hoping that my recently acquired JLPT3 certificate would be useful currency. Unfortunately it takes more than a piece of paper and a bunch of anime DVDs to qualify one for membership – you actually need referral letters from two existing members! Anyone??? Please???

Anyway, long story short, we ended up at Sentosa Golf Club. The restaurant was very much what I’d hoped for – elegant, modern, great counter seat from which we could catch all the slicing and dicing action (although no view into the kitchen), and, best for Philippe (who since arriving in Singapore has turned into an uncle-wannabe), a gradual stream of post-golfing uncle regulars entering, ordering off-the-menu items which we could then piggyback off (“we want whatever that is!!!”) and raucously discussing politics, golfing expeditions and the now-infamous-but-then-still-current Zidane headbutt.

Sorry, that was a long sentence. Please pause for breath now.


Sooooo. The meal turned out to be much more than that – the kindly young chefs at the counter took great pleasure in presenting us with little ‘on the house’ specials after every 2-3 courses, and even greater pleasure in explaining to us how the dishes were prepared, which ingredients were special for the season and should be particularly cherished, and so on. Will therefore end my long prologue (I’m starting to rival Chaucer in these) and share those gems of knowledge together with the pics. Happy virtual eating!

Oh, and for the curious, dinner came up to $400, of which $100 was wine. Definitely pricey but we went all out since it was a special occasion (according to Philippe, the first time I’ve bought him dinner since we were dating in 2000 :P). Also the menu is very flexibly priced if you don’t want to spend so much – individual dishes start from $15-20 each, while kaiseki menus are priced at $100, $120 and $180 – which is honestly not too bad if you consider the quality of the food, especially the sashimi. I’m guessing eating at a similar establishment even in Tokyo would cost heaps more, not to mention anywhere outside Asia.

First up: Sashimi

Salmon, tuna belly, amaebi and hamachi. Ever since playing around with a Tetsuya recipe for Hamachi with Blood Orange Vinaigrette dressing, I order it almost every time I have sashimi. But it's never been like this - creamy, rich, sweet and seductive... I was literally stunned by how different it could be from the fish I thought I knew. And let's not even get started on the tuna belly and the amaebi. Amazingly, the sashimi we had at the Tsukiji fish maret at 7am didn't even come close to this. The plate pictured was $45 but so mind-blowing it was worth any cent.

(Quick aside - I'm always a bit wary of using so many superlatives when writing in case all it does is expose my limited experiences. If by any chance you've tried e.g. sashimi that is much better than this, then do feel free to disagree, but please at least share with me where the better experience is! I am always grateful to be proven wrong and to learn that food much better than anything I've tried does exist :) But that said, I swear this sashimi is the best on the planet and worth selling your firstborn child for :) )

Shameless food geek photo #1: freshly grated wasabi

The chef at the opposite end of the counter from us was very amused by how we'd run across the counter, snap a pic of whatever he had and then run back like nothing happened, avoiding eye contact all the while. The grown-up equivalent of the bean bag shuttle runs we used to do in school! Evidently I still suck at them :P

Next: Free food #1 - shiro baigai (???)

House special courtesy of the chef. The name sounded like shiro baigai but not sure if I caught that right. We'd tried something similar looking at Kazu before but that turned out really nasty. But this one was really amazing. The creature had been marinated in a soy-based almost braising sauce/gravy and served cold, and tasted like abalone but more complex, with each chew releasing alternating layers of salty and sweet.

Sake-steamed clams

Traditional and good. 'Nuff said.

Grilled Kurobuta pork slices

Thin thin thin (somewhere between prosciutto and ham) slices. What was amazing was that the pork was grilled over a charcoal flame, and you could really taste the delicate smokiness. A first for me. Hopefully not the last!

Shameless food geek photo #2: Little big crabs

See how those two baby crabs appear to be in the midst of a heartwarming embrace? Well, first they're not baby crabs, they're full grown miniature crabs (ok big deal). Secondly, they are not clinging fondly together - they are clutching each other in frozen terror. Actually not frozen. They were thrown into boiling oil. Yup. That's either the grip of mortal fear, a final bitter attack ("you bastard! I told you we shouldn't have swum towards that guy with the net!") or quite possibly a vain attempt to escape imminent death by trying to climb on top of your fellow condemned. The crab version of Vesuvius. Fyi, we didn't order them, the uncles did. So judge the uncles!

On a cheerier note, we had the same corn as in the picture as a complimentary amuse bouche. It's from Hokkaido and the sweetest corn I've ever had. Dunno if they sell them in Japanese supermarkets or at Japanese food fairs, but definitely try it!

Something we finally actually paid for: Mini beef cutlet

Sinful but good. Was a little bit different in that the beef cutlets (wagyu by the way!) were first wrapped in bacon before getting breaded and fried, which enabled me to be health-conscious by sliding off the bacon-breadcrumb layer and eating just the beef. Except of course I then gave into temptation and ate said bacon-breadcrumb layer on its own :) Sauce was the traditional katsu sauce.

Yes, I died for you, you bastard: Tiger prawn roll

This was something we filched off the uncles. Tiger prawn, breaded and fried, in an inside out roll with mango and avocado slices and tobiko. Philippe burst a gut laughing when I innocently commented "I can't believe they found such long prawns!" but fell strangely silent when, upon eating the roll, he couldn't find any connecting bits (i.e. where they would've combined two normal length prawns to make a fake super long prawn). The jury is still out - mutant prawns or no???

Grilled cod with salt

Good, good, good.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Nogawa part 2

More free stuff, yeah: Marinated eggplant

This was definitely an eye-opener. Japanese eggplant marinated in brine, soy sauce, vinegar and chilli powder for three days, then served chilled and eaten skin and all. Our chef later showed us the bottle, it looked like a House of Horrors apothecary jar, really terrifying. But the end result was a firm, crunchy, incredibly tasty eggplant that tasted more like fruit than vegetable. Very refreshing. Will keep it in mind for Weird Science home kitchen experiments days.

Even more free stuff: Crab liver

Yeah looks like fish cake or lotus root but is actually a quarter of a lobe of a gigantic crab liver. Who knew? This was really yummy - creamy and rich without being fatty. No idea what the little bits in the holes are but they were sweet and chewy like bak kua, affording you a good 30 seconds of additional chewing pleasure after you've finished the liver. I swear I am not making this up.

Almost the end! Stuff in miso

Two pics of these just because it was so pretty. The stuff that looks like cheese at the bottom of the foil is actually miso, while the ingredients consisted of wagyu beef, kurobuta pork, foie gras, some fish (who the hell cares what type of fish when you have all that other stuff??? ok it was probably some rare fish, but I was too elated to care), yam, green peppers, leeks and enoki mushrooms. Happy boy and girl.

The chefs were evidently very proud of this as they interrupted my photo taking to arrange the dish at several different angles :)

Dessert freebie: Marinated plums

In case you had wondered where all my raving about dedication and effort in preparation came from, this is case in point. These plums were simmered for three days in a special syrup. But in order to prevent the plums from expanding and bursting their skin, the chefs first had to poke hundreds of tiny pinholes into each and every plum by hand! The plums look a bit grainy in the photo, but those are really the little holes. Quite unbelievable. The end result is plum flesh that is soft, gooey and melt in your mouth - really the texture (but fortunately not the taste) of durian.

Last one (phew): Konnyaku noodles in brown sugar syrup

The Japanese equivalent of gula melaka. Too exhausted to write more :)

So there you go, Nogawa in a not-so-nutshell! In conclusion: if you haven't gone before, please try it, and if you have tried it: why the hell didn't you tell me sooner?!?!?!?!?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


Blogger is finally (momentarily?) able to post pictures, so I've done a mass upload of all my backdated pics. Please scroll down for pictures from Three Guizhou Men and Le Quai in Beijing, Zuko!, Peach Garden and FINALLY Wild Rocket (more than a month after I first posted, sans pics, about it).

Unfortunately while trying to merge old posts with new pics, I lost all comments on the old posts :( Thanks to everyone who commented though, it's always fun to hear from you!

P.S. For anyone who might've had trouble uploading pics on Blogger like me, this trick I found on the Blogger forums does seem to work - create a new post, enter a few blank rows, then upload. Uploading to previous posts, or to a new post but without the blank rows, still doesn't seem to work. Hope they'll fix that soon cos it really is a pain! What's food writing/reading without photos??? :)

Beijing notes aka The Day I Fell in Love with the Little Bastards

Sichuan peppercorns.

They're small and they hate you.

Try to do a Sichuan peppercorn the honour of a gentle chew, a most delicate and respectful exploration of its flavours and texture. Try to celebrate its vibrant colours and heady aroma in hotpots, stir-fries and sauces. Sing its praises through the generations in prose and poetry.

And what does it do in return?

It camouflages itself amongst the food. Peering out from behind a sliver of bamboo shoot, or cackling sinisterly from under a shred of chicken, it bides its time, waiting slowly, furtively and eagerly until the moment arrives. The Big Peppercorn Mobilization Exercise. (If peppercorns watched TV, no doubt the announcement would be broadcast in flashing text across the screen, with team names such as Haha Gotcha!, Look At You Now, and of course the ever popular Little Bastards.)

With phantom stealth, the peppercorn commandos sneak into your mouth. They seek out the deepest, most awkward recesses, count to 3, and then...

You start to feel a bit strange. It's something sour... smoky... tingly.

The feeling spreads. Your mouth gets numb and number. (The prelude to Number and Numberer.) Beads of sweat start to form.

This is not good.

Water doesn't help, nor does tea. You try dislodging the peppercorn, subtly and politely, with a roll of the tongue or a subdued suck. The only result is that you lose all feeling in your tongue and on one side of your mouth. You start to tear. Your brain clouds up and your vision gets blurry.

I repeat: this is not good.

I'm convinced that Sichuan peppercorns are born into a conspiracy against human beings. They want to make us cry. Grown adults, trapped in silent screams and reduced to tears.

Halle Berry's Oscar acceptance speech?

Britney Spears on NBC Dateline?

And, most recently, David Beckham's red eyes on the bench of the England-Portugal match?

All the work of Sichuan peppercorns. (Ok lah, LKY's speech at Singapore's separation from Malaysia, that was real. Don't want no lawsuit there. *eyes shifting from side to side*)

During my two years living in Beijing, there was little I dreaded more than a direct encounter with a Sichuan peppercorn. Hole-in-the-ground toilets I could deal with. Pavement spitting? Wouldn't blink an eye. Lung-clogging sandstorms? Bring it on. But a Sichuan peppercorn? Gimme a one-way ticket back home, please! (Actually that wouldn't work. Those were the pre-credit card days, so the only way to buy a plane ticket would be to hunt down a Bank of China ATM, pray that it worked, then returned every day to withdraw the maximum RMB2000 until you had enough for a ticket, then lug your bag of cash like a Russian mafia goon to a travel agent. By which time the pain would finally have died down and you feel a right wimp. But I digress.)

The funny thing is, ever since I left Beijing, Chinese food never tasted quite as good. There was a complexity missing, a lack of aromatic headiness. Food didn't seem to engage, or tease or seduce in quite the same way. And, you guessed it, I discovered during last week's trip to Beijing that it was quite possibly due to the lack of the dreaded Szechuan peppercorn.

Sichuan peppercorns are, in fact, not peppercorns per se, but dried peppercorn husks. A deep reddish brown, they are employed in liberal quantities due to their ability to impart numbness or "ma", an effect that has been enshrined as one of Sichuan cuisine's five official flavours. The heat and perspiration it generates are also highly sought after for health reasons in both hot and cold weather.

This last trip, I got re-acquainted with the peppercorns first over a dish of gan bian si ji dou or dry stir fried french beans, a staple Beijing dish with Szechuan origins. I then had a chance to experience them in all their splendour when friend and host Amy brought me to Three Guizhou Men's Gongti outlet. Three Guizhou Men opened in Beijing a year or so ago, and its popularity with the young, local crowd soon led to the launch of several additional outlets. The restaurants are casual, but still incredibly chic and stylish - the Gongti outlet I visited is housed in a complex of upmarket clubs and bars (including Coco Banana, the latest offering from Beijing club stalward Club Banana) and boasts sexy contemporary Chinese paintings on each wall. A closer look at the clear ice-like sculpture at the restaurant's entrance yields not just your usual carved phoenixes and plum blossoms, but also cheeky scenes highly unsuitable for young eyes. Tables are filled with young clubbers filling up either before or after a big night out, playing cards and dragging on cigarettes with one hand and loading up on fiery cuisine with the other.

The extensive menu contains a list of Sichuan favourites (Guizhou province is adjacent to Sichuan and received an influx of Sichuan migrants during the Ming dynasty - praise to Wikipedia) as well as many more local dishes that were exotic to me. Most every table was laden with a hotpot dish serving up the restaurant's specialty - suan tang yu or literally sour soup fish - whereby the fish of your choice is served, together with any additionally requested ingredients (such as vegetables, tofu, mushrooms and bamboo shoots), in a scarlet broth of sour tomatoes. The Sichuan peppercorns of course made their appearance, but were sparingly employed to create an appetite whetting ma-ness, as opposed to sheer pain. I'm not usually a big fan of hotpots (Philippe and I actually first met and bonded through our mutual dislike of it), but this was absolutely delicious and practically a meal in itself.

We also ordered a starter of wild vegetables with chili sauce (pictured, also with liberal use of peppercorns), a plate of Guizhou sausages (xiang chang pai gu) which as its Chinese name suggests were more like smoked, spicy ribs de-boned and served as sausages, as well as a cooling plate of sliced pumpkin dressed in syrup. Every dish was wonderful and completely different from anything available in Singapore (at least to my knowledge, I would love to be corrected!) Do give it a try if work or pleasure brings you to Beijing.

Post dinner drinks were at Le Quai, the super stylish haunt of Beijing's glamour crowd. While the food (Chinese with a French influence) is apparently only so-so, the decor is stunning - the bar/restaurant's Qing dynasty interior is the reconstructed home of a nobleman from Jingdezhen city in Jiangxi province. It also hosts one of Beijing's hottest new galleries, the Beijing Art Now Gallery or BANG, on its second floor, and overlooks the lake by Gongti beimen (the north gate of the Workers' Stadium). Le Quai is certainly stunning and probably well-deserved of the title of Beijing's latest hot spot (ooh from hot pot to hot spot, what a witty transition o_O) for leisurely al fresco lunches, sophisticated dining, seductive drinks and even dream weddings.


Three Guizhou Men

8 Gongti Xilu (24 hours)

Tel: +86 10 6551 8517

Other outlets:

6 Guanghua Xilu, +86 10 6502 1733

1-2/F Building 7, Jianwai SOHO, +86 10 5869 0598

Le Quai

Workers' Stadium, across from Gate 12

Tel: +86 10 6551 1636

Monday, July 03, 2006

June news and notes

It's been a month or so since I last blogged. Some notes (eventually with photos, damn Blogspot):

  • Zambuca is a great place for a business lunch if you need to impress without going too over the top, or if you just need a stylish recharge during the middle of the work week. Their 3-course set lunches are a reasonable $28 and you get a sleek yet sunlit setting and great service. I wasn't soooo impressed with the food as to plan a dinner trip back, but the set lunch was certainly solid enough.
  • For Easterners, Zuko! in Siglap at the corner of Upper East Coast Road and Jalan Tua Kong offers pedigree food in a residential setting. The chef was formerly from Dubai's Burj-Al-Arab and at one stage even trained under Gordon Ramsey. Service was personable and attentive. Some dishes were simply ok - bruschetta (typical), escargots (the cheese and olive oil crust was a bit too mild to be exciting) and pasta with crabmeat and pinenuts (according to Aaron, something you can easily fix up at home). The highlight of the meal was undoubtedly the Hokubee ribeye, marbled, earthy with an almost tuna-like velvety softness, which would be worthy of any fine dining establishment.
  • Forget Bintan. If you and your 9 closest friends are looking to get away from it all, you can probably do no better than Pulau Pangkil, a private island 40 minutes from Bintan. The island is lush and its driftwood accommodations the stuff of dreams. An array of optional activities such as kayaking, fishing trips, and massages give you the choice of lazing around on tented daybeds, jelly-like under the sun or getting sporty and adventurous. Plus the food is absolutely amazing and never stops flowing.
  • Peach Garden at Thomson Plaza was excellent, with signature dishes such as the roast pork and goose, as well as the shark cartilage soup and wasabi prawns, bordering on divine. The only disappointment was in our entire table experiencing MSG symptoms halfway through the meal, likely from the shark cartilage soup which honestly didn't seem to need it to be good. Parking was a bitch on Saturday night.
  • However, my prize for favourite Chinese restaurant of the moment goes to Min Jiang at One-North. The food was amazing and the simple but tasteful resort-like outdoor setting finally succeeded in making Chinese food in Singapore stylish. Don't forget to pre-order the Peking duck - the skin-and-pancake first serving is offered with three different combinations of condiments which were tons of fun to explore and compare. You also get to sign the "I ate one of your ducks" guestbook which tracks the number of ducks sold at the restaurant. That would have been fun if the pages hadn't been decorated with line drawings of fluffy little ducks, all marching (presumably) to meet their cruel and tragic fate. 647 big-eyed, innocent ducks and counting... you start to wonder if you should be signing your name with condolences instead.
  • Lastly....

Vive la France!!!!!!!!! My Euro 2004 jersey which never got to see the light of day thanks to early elimination, now has a new lease on life :) Allez Les Bleus!

Zuko! pics

Chalkboard menu


Pasta with crabmeat and pinenuts

Hokubee ribeye with Chinese chap chye and potato wedges

Peach Garden pics


Roast pork, roast goose and fried whitebait

Shark cartilage soup

Wasabi prawns

Poached bai cai miao with mushrooms and roasted garlic

Oat crusted fillet of sea perch

Lobster noodles