Buka Puasa - Cafe Samar and Z'en
Then Ramadan began, and my haven was no more. Bogged down by tight deadlines and fuzzy from lack of both sleep and nutrition, I quickly started to rue the day I signed up for the project.
Until the buka puasa meals began.
It kicked off with a dinner hosted by the company for its employees, all 2,000 of them, to which we were invited, a sumptuous banquet provided by the same in-house team that caters for staff weddings and the like.
This was quickly followed by dinners organized in turn by the various advisors on the project - in our case, at Top Hat, a beautifully restored colonial bungalow that served Peranakan-European fusion cuisine (top hat is apparently what angmors call pie tees).
Even when lavish, formal dinners weren't in order, it was nice to see everyone set aside time from work to sit down to an evening meal together, Muslims and non-Muslims alike grateful for the day's nourishment.
Since then, while I don't observe the fasting month, I've always had a special nostalgia for buka puasa meals, remembering them as a time to come together with friends, family and loved ones.
And so off Philippe and I set last week to explore the buka puasa festivities on Arab Street. Most restaurants offered buka puasa buffets for $10 a person or even less, and the neighbourhood was buzzing with large families dining together.
We eventually settled on Samar's a la carte menu, where extensive listings of mezze, salads, grills and desserts appear between Free Palestine posters and quotes from the Koran. Our first comment on the menu was that it actually sounded more impressive than any place we ate at in Egypt - could it be we travelled all that way to sample food that was already in our backyard? With high expectations, we ordered a stuffed eggplant, grilled chicken and a cucumber and yoghurt salad to share.
Before the food arrived, we kept our tastebuds amused with drinks - mine an apricot based smoothie and Philippe's a rose milk. Both were delightfully fresh and natural tasting, great for a hot afternoon or, in our case, a stuffy, hazy Monday night.
Our food was less impressive. The kitchen seemed to be very lighthanded when it came to spicing the veggie dishes - our cucumber and yoghurt salad had disproportionately more yoghurt than cucumber, which overwhelmed the scant pieces of mint we would only occasionally come across. Likewise the stuffed eggplant, with its filling of rice, tomatoes and onions, seemed to be more a last minute tossing together of the various ingredients, without a unifying flavour to marry them together. Not awful, but it does leave you with the nagging feeling that anyone could've made this at home.
The grilled chicken, on the other hand, was flavourful and deliciously blackened at first bite. The flip side of that, though, was that the meat was overcooked and dry, making it hard to finish even a mouthful without washing your mouth with water.
The average food didn't seem to deter many diners though - the verandah was packed with students, expats and couples alike even when we left at close to 10pm (this on a Monday night, mind you), and the cafe was easily the busiest on the street. Late night shisha here seems to be a popular option, and the community feel (their loyalty cardholders are called citizens!) is also a draw.
Later on in the week, an evening drinks session led to us stumbling upon Z'en, a Japanese restaurant by UE Square that is probably related to the more established En Bar and Dining around the corner. The tables of red-faced Japanese businessmen was a strong selling point, and the food did not disappoint.
The menu is a good mix of hearty Japanese classics and more delicate appetizers and salads. The three of us shared as starters:
- Dried swordfish fin
- Kurobuta pork yakitori
- Ankimo fish liver
- Shabu shabu salad (shabu shabu beef in a sesame dressing)
- Pumpkin grilled with butter
- Simmered lotus root
- Grilled eihire
- Crab cream croquettes
And topped this with a huge seafood hotpot, laden with snow crab legs, salmon, prawns and oysters, to which we added extra udon. The leftover soup was turned into a porridge with the addition of a couple of bowls of rice, which comes with the hotpot.
The food was definitely satisfying - all the ingredients were clearly fresh, delicately prepared and thoughtfully presented, everything one would expect from a proper Japanese dinner.
The total bill came up to $170, or just a shade over$60 a person, which seemed reasonable for the quality of the food and for the setting - perhaps appropriately for its name, Z'en is designed in a polished, magazine-worthy combination of black tile, glass and metal, complete with dramatic overhead lighting, so you do feel like you're in a more upmarket setting. A glass cellar on the second floor displays hundreds of sake bottles of all shape and form, pity we'd already drunk our fill for the night before coming. Service was also excellent, with exceptionally friendly staff - maybe even too friendly, as their gentle cajoling to add more rice to the leftover hotpot soup resulted in us overeating and feeling painfully stuffed after :)
Now that the pain has subsided though, I'm looking forward to the December monsoons coming around, to gather back here for more of that giant hotpot, and to slowly start making my way through the sake collection.
60 Kandahar Street
205 River Valley Road
#01-75, UE Square