the hinata diaries

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


More belated birthday blogging...

My determination to mark my birthday with uncharacteristic financial prudence was swiftly eliminated by a simple counter-argument - that special occasions are meant for splurging, and if we don't go to Akane now, it'd be another year before we could justify going again.

The only problem is that, now that we've been, I want to go every day.

Akane, by way of quick introduction/refresher, is located at the Japanese Association of Singapore, and is the flagship restaurant of Nogawa-san, Singapore's godfather of Japanese cuisine. The Nogawa group includes two other restaurants under the Nogawa name - at Sentosa Golf Club (read about our dinner for Philippe's birthday here) and Le Meridien - but it's at the Japanese Association Akane that Nogawa-san actively presides.

And indeed it's hard to miss him. A collage of photos featuring Nogawa-san alongside various local and foreign luminaries (including our own MM and President Nathan) marks the end of the entry corridor. Behind the sushi counter, his deep tan, even deeper wrinkles and bustling energy is unmistakable. The boss is here!

Our initial intimidation, however, proved unfounded. Nogawa-san was unreservedly friendly, even grandfatherly, as he educated us on a variety of topics ranging from the mating habits of sea bream to the genealogy of burdock roots. The charisma seemed infectious, with sushi chef Anson taking equally good care of us throughout the night.

As for the food, the sashimi and sushi were definitely the stars. Philippe's initial reaction upon sampling the sashimi platter was that we had never tried these fish before; the sad truth was that we had many times - this was just so superior a version that you could not mentally link what Akane was serving with the limp and rubbery pieces that pass for sashimi elsewhere.

Sashimi, including otoro, sea bream, mackerel, octopus, akagai

The sashimi was really sparklingly fresh, incredibly sweet and varied in flavour, and, in the case of the otoro, so chockful of fatty goodness that honestly. the marbling had marbling. Since the word "sublime" has now been outlawed from food blogging, I shall simply say that this is the stuff that happiness is made of :)

Likewise, the sushi that rounded off our meal was meaty yet delicate, often accompanied by a light searing, a crisp pat of grated ginger or a splash of tart sauce. I loved the way the fish carelessly blankets the rice so that the flavours and texture of the fish can really shine through. I took pictures only of the two below, but in addition we had eggplant sushi, botan ebi sushi, mackerel sushi, baigai shell and a couple more.

Seared otoro sushi

Unagi sushi

The rest of the dishes we were served, omakase style, were well-executed and enjoyable, but, unlike the sashimi and sushi, none really stood out as dishes I would obsess about and come back specifically for. In particular, although the otoro soup was luxurious with its large otoro chunks that literally dissolved in your mouth, at $65 for two bowls I would've preferred a simple seafood soup and otoro sashimi instead. Likewise the grilled saba and braised red snapper with burdock root were delicious, but the repetition of fish in every dish began to wear somewhat thin.

Starter of anglefish liver

Otoro soup

Grilled saba

Braised red snapper with burdock root

Can't remember too much about our last pre-sushi savoury dish, except it (finally!) did not contain fish, and seemed to be the chef's take on takoyaki - a tempura-ed mashed yam ball with some secret filling (ok I've forgotten) inside. Fun but forgettable.

Dessert was a simple plate of fresh persimmon and pear slices with a cup of strong oolong tea. Nice but we enviously noted that the group of young Japanese next to us had marinated mixed fruit in persimmon cups instead, which was featured in Yoshihiro Murata's Kaiseki as a classic autumn dessert. Missed my chance :(

Conclusion: If I won a million-dollar lottery tomorrow, I would superglue my butt to Akane's counter seats and omakase myself to a bloated yet joyful death. Till then, I'm saving my money for the sashimi and sushi (definitely worth their premium price) and filling any leftover space in my stomach with the restaurant's reasonably priced udon.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Charlie's Corner

Every girl has their princess moments. Some imagine their dream wedding down to the minutiae from the day they were born, others fill their closets with swishy dresses and sparkly jewelry. My weakness is birthdays.

Starting about a month from the big day, my inner birthday demon start obsessively reviewing restaurant choices, picking party dates and entertaining visions of presents swathed in silk ribbons, annoying everyone within a 10-mile radius of me. By the time my birthday actually arrives, my expectations are sky high, but birthday goodwill near zero, which pretty much makes for misery all around.

Maybe that's why I never get the pony I want.

This year, I decided to mark growing a year older by actually trying to act more grown-up (an odd concept that I'm still trying to come to terms with). No fussing, no inconvenience, no wasteful extravagance, just quiet time with friends and family. Still with decent food though of course. I'm not Mother Teresa... yet.

Feeling quite chuffed with my newfound maturity, I suggested birthday lunch at Charlie's Corner in Changi Village. The far flung location was to accommodate my sis who works in that neighbourhood, but deliberately picking the no frills Charlie's Corner instead of the nearby Ryan's Washoku or La Cantina (no comments on their food, but at least they have aircon!)... I'm a big girl now! (As Philippe would say: shall we call the Straits Times?)

Charlie's Corner was surprisingly busy for a Thursday afternoon. Potbellied guailos with their lady companions, young executives eagerly stripping off their ties, sleepy Changi Village regulars, all seemed to congregate under the Corner's placard and poster covered awning. Set aside from the main hawker centre, however, a sense of space and peace prevails despites the tables being full.

Everyone seemed to be having the fish and chips, which also headlined the menu with the proud moniker "Charlie's Special", so we obediently settled down to 4 orders of this, plus a side of chicken wings and root beer all around.

There's something strangely guilt-inducing about having an ice-cold root beer on a hot weekday afternoon. Maybe it's the cheap thrill of quaffing something that sounds like alcohol but really isn't (wink wink), maybe it's the simple pleasure of beating the heat, or maybe it's root beer's ability to transform even the lowliest office grunt into an authentic cowboy-and-western gun-toting sheriff with attitude. Maybe not. What it probably is is that root beer, being one of the most artificial tasting concoctions on the planet, is just so bad that it's good.

I enjoyed the fish and chips. The fish was decidedly old school, looking very much like it had been pounded flat with one of those meat marinating mallets, but fresh and flavourful. The batter ("crust" might be a better term) was a deep brown and crumbly, much thinner and closer to the fish that the thick, sheet like, pockets-full-of-air version found in fancier establishments. The trick is in playing vinegar virtuoso - a splash too much vinegar and you're left with soggy batter (no fun for anyone), but balance it just right and the rich, golden, heart-clogging taste of lightly burnt oil shines right through.

Not that you have much time to ponder this - the fish makes for quick eating, and even the slowest eater (read: me) would be hard pressed to spend much longer than 5 mins devouring it. Which leaves you with plenty of time to mull over the thick, stumpy fries and sticky wings over (hopefully) good conversation. A side note: the wings, while on sight able to pass off for buffalo wings, seem to be coated with a form of char siew sauce rather than BBQ sauce. Not bad, but takes a bit of getting used to. Separately, I later heard from a regular customer that, in her opinion, the real stars at Charlie's are the steaks, I'll have to head back to try them (although this may take a while as I've just discovered my neighbourhood Aston's.)

Bottom line: Charlie's Corner is a great place if, like me, you're hankering for the old days of the school canteen's western food stall (fish on fridays! everything gets flambed!), but you will be disappointed if you go expecting Harry Ramsden's style monsters on a plate. Prices are extremely reasonable at $12.90 for fish and chips and steaks in the sub-$20 range. As for ambience, it's a good place if you're looking for good food, but want it to take a back seat to laidback conversation and the joys of dining in flip flops.

More birthday blogging to come shortly: How my attempt at birthday frugality got cut (tragically?) short at Akane. No coffee at Coffee Bar K. How Min Jiang's guo tie's could qualify as weapons of mass destruction. And a final whine about how I still don't have a pony.

Saigon blues

Sometimes you think it's not so bad being on a business trip. A quiet evening alone with a good book (Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Fooled by Randomness), a good dessert (green tea creme brulee with gingko nuts at the Park Hyatt Saigon's Square One) and a good glass of wine (a New Zealand sauvignon blanc).

Then the familiar melancholy refrain of a Lizz Wright song comes playing over the sound system.

"... as soon as I get home..."

"I wish I was home..."

Sigh. Friday's a long way away.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Quynh Giao Quan An Viet Nam

Truth be told, my knowledge of Vietnamese food is extremely limited, having seldom strayed from the safe path of the Indochine group of restaurants. A recent trip to Vietnam, my first, was an eye opener. Not only did I finally get to eat authentic pho (and bunh and cha gio and other staples), but I had my first glimpse into Vietnam's different regional cuisines and experienced a bit of local restaurant culture.

So when Philippe and I were in desperate search of a cheap, quick and tasty dinner on a late Monday night, we decided to try one of Joo Chiat's Vietnamese cafes, just slightly up from Koon Seng Road and smack in the middle of the neighbourhood's notorious red light district. We opted for Quynh Giao Quan An Viet Nam at 149 Joo Chiat Road, which seemed slightly busier than its similar looking neighbour establishment - which dubiously called itself a "family restaurant". Given that we were after good food, not family values, we settled down at 149 with only a flicker of acknowledgement from what I'm assuming are the restaurant's regulars - mainly young Vietnamese ladies dining together or with a male companion.

Decor was sparse, limited to the odd Tiger Beer lucky draw ad, while seating was plastic chairs, foldable tables, melamine bowls and toilet roll in a plastic dispenser for serviettes. No frills kopi tiam chic.

A simple photo album displays the restaurant's menu. Pictures of dishes are accompanied only by Vietnamese dish names, but the young Singaporean proprietor was friendly and patient in helping us figure out what was what. We both opted for something familiar - bunh with cha gio, aka rice noodles with deep fried spring rolls.

When it arrived, we found hidden under the noodles generous piles of roughly chopped fresh mint, Thai basil and beansprouts, crisp and refreshing. The spring rolls were beautifully browned and crisp on the outside, creamy and hearty on the inside, their yam filling in turn encasing what I'm guessing to be a combination of finely chopped fish or pork, mushrooms and onions. The nuoc cham dipping sauce also turned out to be a pleasant deviation from the Indochine variety, with heapings of fresh chilli padi, liberal proportions of fish sauce and minimal sugar. The savoury bent of the sauce meant that individual ingredients were really allowed to shine through and not drowned in cloying syrup.

The noodles hit the spot perfectly while leaving our wallets blissfully intact at $4.50 a bowl. The casual environment and bustling neighbourhood (perfect for colourful people watching) makes this a great spot for a quick late night supper.

Quynh Giao Quan An Viet Nam Vietnamese Delights

149 Joo Chiat Road