Hai Di Lao, 313 Somerset

The Hubs had been hankering to try Hai Di Lao ever since I raved about it when my colleagues brought me to the Clarke Quay outlet. But his half-Korean heritage means that he's not one to wait in line for anything. Even if there are freebie snacks and mani-pedi services to reward the patient. So we've taken to popping by the insanely crowded steamboat specialist for midnight suppers.

That's one way to beat the crazy-long waiting times at Hai Di Lao: dining at the most inopportune times, i.e. weekday afternoons, or any day after 12 midnight. Incidentally, afternoons from 12 noon up to 5pm is also the time allowed for reservations.

Price-wise, Hai Di Lao is a little on the upmarket end of steamboat restaurants, but as the saying, "you pay peanuts, you get monkeys" goes, uncompromising quality must be paid for. A sound logic to me...besides, I'd much rather pay top dollar for freshness than to find a rat in my food at a cheap(er) place.

The 313 Somerset branch is notably more sleek, albeit a tad utilitarian in design, than its Clarke Quay counterpart. Also, it feels much airier, by virtue of its significantly higher ceilings.

The Sichuan Spicy & Tomato Split Pot Soup Bases ($18) comprises 2 must-try flavours here. The Tomato, which Liz was raving about, lived up to the hype. The chicken stock base was kicked up a notch with the sweet tang of tomatoes, but was light and watery enough to refrain from being too heavy or minestrone-like. The Sichuan Spicy, spiked with lashings of peppercorns, dried chillis, cloves and garlic, was tampered with thick fat leeks for a well-balanced broth that the spice-loving Hubs took to like fish to water.

The Seafood and Mushroom Split Pot Soup Bases ($18) were both sweetened by red dates and wolfberries. The mushroom soup was earthy and wholesome, but I didn't think it made the must-try list. You can replicate its earthy flavours by ordering the mushroom platter and dunking the whole shebang into any other soup base. The seafood stock, enlivened by mussels, prawns and clams for an umami sweetness, rounded off my top-3 of soup bases at Hai Di Lao. 

An absolute must-order, the Assorted Mashed Meatballs ($11 for half portion) is a mix of the handmade mashed shrimp paste, cuttlefish cake with spinach paste, handmade beef cake and handmade cuttlefish cake. Your assigned waitress/er will help you free-form the balls into the soup.

A variation of that is the Assortment of Meat Balls and Mashed Meat ($11 for half portion), with handmade mashed shrimp paste, cuttlefish cake with spinach paste, beef ball and fishball. I don't know how they made these so incredibly bouncy and juicy.

The Fishballs ($4 for half portion), a completely plebian ingredient, I know, but I liked it anyway!

The Black Pork ($8 for half portion) is the only pork worth ordering. Its exquisite marbling is sufficiently decadent to skip the (more sinful) pork belly.

The Sliced Chicken ($6 for half portion) was fresh, delicate and succulent.

The Mushroom Platter ($9 for half portion) is perfect for the indecisive mushroom-lovers. You get a little bit of the beech, oyster, shitake, king oyster, shitake and enoki varietals.

We particularly like Shitake Mushrooms ($3 for half portion) so we got extras of that.

The must-try seafood, Cod Fillet ($7 for half portion) is flaky, swimmingly fresh and be careful to fish it out quickly. It cooks in under 10 seconds in boiling hot stock. You can see it curling up as soon as it touches the soup.

Another must-order is the Crispy Fish Skin ($4 for half portion). My favourite way to eat this is to dunk the crispy critter into the soup to steep in its flavours. It'll soften a little, but it'll retain a bit of a lovely crunch still if you ladle it out quickly.

The Deep-Fried Tofu ($3 for half portion) makes for a wonderful sponge for mopping up all the delicious broth.

Another regular of my steamboat orders, the Quail's Eggs ($3 for half portion) was perfectly soft-boiled, so make sure you get it out as soon as it heats through. It'll be hard-boiled otherwise.

I like Lettuce ($3 for half portion) because it stays crunchy and provides a refreshing counter-balance to the soup bases.

Complimentary Before-Meal Watermelon was instrumental in dousing the fire in our bellies.

Complimentary After-Meal Fruits

Hai Di Lao
313 Orchard Road
313 Somerset #04-23
Tel: 6835 7337
Open daily from 10am to 4am
Website: www.haidilao.com/sg/


Pan-Fried Potato Meat Patties

This is a childhood snack that I used to love munching on while watching the telly, so I set out to recreate it. If I may be so bold to say so, it tastes just like Saturday morning cartoons!

Ingredients (makes 80 4cm-wide x 1cm-thick patties):
5 large potatoes, peeled
2 shallots, minced finely
300 gm minced pork belly
1 cup plain flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup breadcrumbs
1/2 cup flavoured oil (I used a bacon rendering-infused chicken fat for maximum oomph)
2 tbsp salt

4 tbsp light soy
1 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp flour
Dash of pepper

1) Boil potatoes in salted water until soft throughout, about 10 minutes.

2) In the meantime, saute shallots in 2 tbsp flavoured oil until fragrant, about 1 minute.

3) Add minced pork and fry till cooked through, breaking it up in the process, about 3 minutes.

4) Drain and mash potatoes.

5) Add minced pork and stir through.

6) Add seasoning and whip evenly.

7) Place in an assembly line, the plain flour on a wide plate, followed by the eggs in a bowl, and lastly, the breadcrumbs in a wide plate. Roll 1 tbsp-heapful of potato mixture into a ball, coat it in a thin layer of flour, then a quick dip in the egg, and flatten slightly in the breadcrumbs. Saute in pre-heated pan with 3 tbsp flavoured oil until golden brown, about 2 minutes each side.

8) Drain on paper towels before serving.


Chijmes Lei Garden Restaurant

This was our first Lei Garden visit of 2015 (but not the last!), and we've noticed that the once-sleepy dining enclave cum drinking hole is slowly coming back to life. Refurbishments are still ongoing, but by and large, the place looks pretty sleeked up. A bonus of the massive overhaul resulting in extensive closures of the dining outlets at Chijmes: Lei Garden has taken to giving out complimentary parking to lure back prodigal diners. Yay to free parking!

At the risk of jinxing myself, I think that there's no real need to do so though, as the consistency of their food and service is more than sufficient to keep regulars sated and happy.

The Braised Beef with Homemade Sauce ($8) was an absolute must-try, with beef chunks melting into oblivion in a pool of mellow, cloved-infused brown gravy.

The Panfried Beef in Japanese Sauce ($12) was no wallflower either, and these teriyaki glazed beef cubes were served alongside a mildly curried dip.

The ubiquitous Steamed Pork Dumpling with Black Mushroom ($4.80), always a safe bet, was toothsome, and impossibly fresh and juicy.

The Steamed Dumpling with Minced Vegetables and Mushroom Cubes ($4.80) was a wonderful juxtaposition of chewy and crunchy.

The Steamed Glutinous Rice in Lotus Leaf ($4.80), moist and soft, was scrumptious in its simplicity.

As a change-up, I asked for the Steamed Carrot Cake with Waxed Meat ($4.80) instead of the usual pan-fried version. This was very delicate, and very light, but a tad uninspired. I think I'll revert to the pan-fried, oiled rendition.

The Steamed Cheong-Fun with Minced Fish and Dough Fritter ($5.20) was atypical, but it was a lovely contrast between the crunch of you tiao and softness of the fish mince.

The Baked Bun with Honey Pork ($4.80) was as reliable as an old pillow, with a perfect ratio of sticky honeyed barbecue pork and steamed bun.

A dessert favourite of ours, the Steamed Custard Bun with Salted Egg Yolk ($4.30) was swirled with chocolate for a nuanced sweetness.

The Deepfried Cuttlefish ($8) was perfectly battered, with an addictive umami flavour.

The Crispy Silver Fish ($7), another regular feature on our order slips. Fine baby silver fish coated in a thin batter and fried to a beautiful golden crisp made for non-stop pecking.

The Deepfried Vegetarian Beancurd Skin ($8) stuffed with black fungus, glass vermicelli, carrots, radish, and mushrooms recently became one of our favourites. Very light, very balanced.

The Deepfried Beancurd Sheet Roll with Fresh Shrimps ($4.80) was a little flat, but I may be a little biased...they'd laced this with coriander bits!

We really liked the Deepfried Roll with Shredded Chicken and Mushroom ($4.80), delightfully crunchy and delicately filled with a blend of chicken and diced mushrooms.

The Deepfried Dumpling with Chicken Cubes and Mushroom ($4.80) was also very commendable. Chewy glutinous casing, and succulent tasty stuffing.

The Rainbow Egg and Shredded Pork Porridge ($4.80), my go-to carb option at Lei Garden, was generously dotted with tender pork and diced century eggs. I love the congee at Lei Garden, the texture is always perfectly smooth and velvety, with the slightest hint of grain.

The sunny-hued Crabmeat Porridge ($10.80), spiked with crab roe, was speckled with freshly shredded crabmeat for maximum sweetness. 

Chijmes Lei Garden Restaurant
Chijmes #01-24
30 Victoria Street
Tel: 6339 3822
Open daily from 11.30am to 2.30pm for lunch and from 6pm to 10.30pm for dinner
Website: www.leigarden.hk/eng/


Plain Vanilla Bakery, Tiong Bahru

Plain Vanilla Bakery has the distinction of churning out miniature cakes shaped like cupcakes, so the little gorgeous confectionery are more akin to cake than cupcakes. A girlfriend brought over a box of these ($19 for 6) for one of our quarterly luncheons.

From their stable of mainstays, the Cinnamon Brown Sugar, a cake frosted with cinnamon and dusted with cinnamon sugar, is both fragrant and delicious.

Purely as a matter of preference, I wasn't a big fan of the Milk Chocolate Banana, banana cake dotted with chocolate chip topped with milk chocolate and a candied banana chip. Not a fan of banana.

To round off the mainstays, the Strawberry White Chocolate, a vanilla-based cake piped with a strawberry compote center and frosted with white chocolate, was a smidge saccharine.

The specials fared much better, like the Earl Grey, a bergamot-laced earl grey tea cake with lavender vanilla frosting and speckled with earl grey tea dust. Incredibly fragrant and balanced.

The Salted Caramel, a caramel cake topped with salted caramel buttercream, a dollop of caramel and dusted with maldon sea salt flakes, was my favourite, a beautiful contrast of the sweet and salty.

The Lemon Vanilla, was the lightest, enlivened by the bright tang of lemons.

Plain Vanilla Bakery
1D Yong Siak Road
Open Tuesdays to Fridays from 11am to 8pm
Saturdays from 9am to 8pm
Sundays from 9am to 6pm
Closed on Mondays
Tel: 8363 7614
Website: www.plainvanillabakery.com

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