[Invited Tasting & Revisit] Flavours at Zhongshan Park

Flavours at Zhongshan Park is the in-house restaurant of Ramada Singapore, a newly opened 4* hotel located along Balestier Road. The hotel, linked to a small-ish mall, is a little off the beaten tourist track. So it was truly surprising to hear that this hotel is purportedly doing quite the roaring business. That said, the hotel is a lot nicer than one would expect of a low-frills accommodation. 

Flavors at Zhongshan Park serves primarily Peranakan cuisine, with a smattering of western cuisine like fish & chips, to cater to the international tastebuds of hotel guests. I vocalized my wonderment at the restaurant's very "cheena-pok" name, and got a brief history lesson from one of my fellow reviewers and the hotel staff. Apparently, the area where the hotel is standing at is called Zhongshan Park, named after the grandfather of the Chinese revolution, Sun Zhong Shan (or more widely known as Sun Yat Sen, his dialect name), who'd stayed in Singapore briefly while raising funds for his revolutionary efforts. The house that Mr Sun stayed in is still standing, and has been preserved into a museum of sorts, and the hotel is right smack beside it. Hah, bet you didn't know this little titbit of local history either, did you?

As per S.O.P., the Hubs and I dropped by the restaurant for a revisit when we went down to Balestier to shop for lighting. While walking the entire stretch of Balestier Road (we got a really good cardio workout hunting for a very specific lamp: the modern interpretation of the Banker's Lamp), we realized that this historically seedy place is slowly but surely being revitalized. The Ramada Hotel, Days Hotel, Ibis Hotel and adjoining mall and Chinese garden-ish park, with their family-friendly retail and F&B options, has made Balestier Road more than just charge-by-the-hour-for-romps budget hotels and lighting and bathroom hardware shops.

Having tried the food at the tasting and at the revisit, I have to say that I'm really liking the Peranakan fare here. The Hubs, who's half-Baba as well, gave this restaurant his stamp of approval. The price points here are, admittedly, a little steep, BUT, considering the premium ingredients that go into the dishes (the more luxurious cut of beef cheek is used here in the rendang), a meal here is reasonably value-for-money. My take is that this place would make for a fairly elegant dining with large groups of friends or business associates that won't break the entertainment expense account.

We also enjoyed the service here. It may be due to the fact that the restaurant was barely occupied during the revisit, but the waiters were so sincere and attentive and genuine that one can't help but appreciate them.

At the invited tasting, we kicked things off with the Kueh Pie Tie, sweet turnip braised with pork belly and topped with par-boiled prawns in a pastry cup, and a chicken rice-styled sambal served alongside. This was really quite addictive and awesome.

At the revisit, this starter ($14.90) was very well received. The cups of juicy radish, made incredibly flavoursome with sinfully fatty pork belly, were devoured in seconds. This is probably the most memorable rendition of this Nonya appetizer ever.

The Pork & Cucumber Salad, was a slow-cooked pork confit tossed with fried and raw shallots and cucumber strips. At the tasting, the dipping sauce of chinchalok (fermented baby shrimps) and half a lime were served on the side, so we could moderate how much of each we added to the salad. I actually thought the salad was good enough on its own without the need for the salty pungency of chinchalok. That said, a fork-dipped bit of sambal was brilliant in grounding the refreshingly clear salad with a fragrant spiciness.

At the revisit, the chinchalok was tossed in together with the salad ($14.90). Even though I'm not a fan of chinchalok (its pungency will linger in your breath for a long looooooong time after), the flavours melded pretty well. The raw shallots lent a sharp bite to the salty chinchalok-dressed pork while the cucumbers provided a crisp balance.

At the tasting, the Nonya Itik Tim dumped chunks of roasted duck into a soup with sour plum, pickled mustard green and tomatoes, resulting in a weak but overtly salty soup base lacking in depth of flavour. 

At the revisit, I was glad that the chef had taken on board our feedback at the tasting, and properly simmered duck meat and bones into the soup ($20.90). I could taste the duck essence this time, but there was still room for improvement. The duck bones could be simmered for another hour or so for a richer, more well-rounded base.

The Ayam Buah Keluak, braised chicken with keluak nuts, was pretty good as well. The gravy was thick and rich, with a roasted nutty accent and a slight hint of tanginess, while the chicken was moist and tender.

At the revisit, although the hue of the gravy was noticeably lighter and the consistency thinner, the gravy was, nonetheless, rich and full-bodied. We thought the chicken was very well marinated and pleasantly fork-tender. ($26.90)

The Beef Rendang, beef cheek braised in a rich spice paste and then simmered in coconut milk with lemongrass and tamarind waters, is a must-try here. Because beef cheek is used here, the meat was plastic-fork-tender.

At the revisit, the beef rendang ($24.90) was less oily, which was great, but had a less toasty, nutty flavour. The beef was still awesome though, and I maintain, an absolute must-try. The beef was braised so thoroughly that it totally melted in my mouth. Lipsmackingly good, I say.

The Chilli King Prawns 'Singapore Style', 2 gargantuan prawns, heads on but shells off, bathed in a sweetish tomato, chilli and egg-drop gravy should not be missed out on. This is the prawn version of our locally beloved chilli crab.

At the revisit, the King Prawns ($22.90) were as delicious as ever. These were perfectly cooked, meaty and fresh. The gravy, a little sweet-ish and tangy from a liberal hand with the tomato ketchup, was deceptively spicy. We found ourselves sniffling a fair bit thereafter. Needless to say, the Hubs wiped the luscious gravy clean off.

The Stir-fried Slipper Lobster, in a lightly spiced black bean paste with bell peppers and sweet onions, was quite a hit as well.

At the revisit, the crayfish ($26.90) was perfectly cooked through, retaining its moisture and softness with nary a hint of rubbery texture. We loved how the spiced black bean paste complemented the delicate seafresh taste of the crayfish.

For dessert, we had the Durian Pengat with Pandan Jelly with gula melaka ($16.90) at the tasting, but were way too stuffed to try this at the revisit. In any case, I'm not a fan of durian so I'm like the worst person to judge this. That said, the pengat was very smooth, and the pandan jelly was a nice contrast to the rich durian. Note that the gula melaka needed to be manually folded into the durian though, it'd settled all the way to the bottom so some parts were lacking in sweetness but when we got to the bottom of the martini glass, it was a sugar overload.

We also sampled a deconstructed version of their Chendol ($12.90), and this was quite disappointing. There wasn't enough gula melaka, and the green jelly bits were frozen solid when they should have been slippery soft.

The cocktails here are quite something, and the resident mixologist fuses the east with the west admirably. The cocktail with cucumber and mint, virgin of course because I don't drink and drive, was a refreshing, crisp balance to the rich gravies of the Nonya fare.

Another cocktail which caught our eye was the one with curry leaves, 7-Up, vodka, lemon and ginger ale. This Indian-influenced drink is like a watered version of the muruku. Awesome.

As usual, to avoid falling into the food coma, I finished off dinner with a Latte, rich and creamy and frothy. Just the way I like it.

Many thanks to InSing and HungryGoWhere for the invite and Norman, Rae and Stephanie of Ramada Hotel for hosting the tasting.

Flavours at Zhongshan Park
Ramada Singapore Hotel
16 Ah Hood Road
Tel: 6808 6846
Opening hours: weekdays from 6am to 10.30am for breakfast; 12noon to 2.30pm for lunch; 6pm to 10.30pm for dinner
weekends from 6am to 10.30am for breakfast; 12noon to 3pm for lunch; 6pm to 11pm for dinner


Da Paolo Il Ristorante, Club Street

Da Paolo Ristorante is one of the longest-standing, and more notable, tenants of Club Street. In today's landscape of yet another Italian joint sprouting up every 2 seconds, this fine-dining restaurant of the prolific family-run mini Italian empire has managed to stay relevant. They do this by re-inventing the classics every so often to keep things fresh and regulars coming back for more. Service here is unintrusive, attentive and professional. We like that, for a fine-dining restaurant where most diners speak in hushed tones, this place manages a relaxed and unstuffy vibe. Its calm tranquil ambience is great for unwinding after an intensely crazy day at work.

The Croccantino di Capesante ($24), 3 succulent seared scallops enveloped in a crisp filo tepee, served atop a bed of olive oil-dressed mesclun, with a side of a dollop of creme fraiche and drizzled with aromatic truffle oil, started us off on a high note. The scallops were plump, juicy, and addictive as hell. And so, we promptly ordered another portion of this.

The Paccheri della Brianza ($28), big fat flat tube pasta tossed in a creamy parmesan cheese sauce infused with black truffle oil and chunked with porcini, was so very rich and quickly got cloying. Luckily, Lips and I got to share this because there was no way we could finish it on our own. That said, Xuch practically inhaled his plate in a flash. If you're a cream lover, you'll probably be in heaven. For moderate likers of cream, this may be too much. Here's where copious amounts of pepper may help.

The Guanciale Brasato con Purea di Patate e Crescione ($36) was a meltingly tender braised beef cheek in a pool of red wine reduction, served with mashed potatoes, sauteed watercress, broiled baby carrots, and eggplant chips. Hearty and comforting. The Hubs loved this.

We lingered over the Assortimento di Formaggi Italiani ($28), an assortment of Italian cheeses, crisp toasts, sweet grapes and fruit mustard. The blue cheese here was awfully pungent, and it had a weirdly lavender scent, it was too overwhelmingly strong for me. I felt like I was eating lavender aromatherapy oil. I think only die-hard blue cheese fans will like this. The remaining cheeses ranged between the semi-hard and hard varieties. Lips liked the combination of freshly milled black pepper with the hard cheeses, the salty overtures of the hard cheeses complemented the pepper very nicely. I still prefer hard cheeses on their own and leave the black pepper pairing to the soft cheeses.

Upon being ushered to our seats, we were quickly served the obligatory complimentary Bread Basket. These were fresh out of the oven, warm and soft, with a toasty crusty exterior.

The Caffe Latte ($6) was rich and robust. A little pricey for the quality but it did the job in keeping me awake after the food coma-causing meal.

Da Paolo Il Ristorante
80 Club Street
Tel: 6224 7081
Open from Mondays to Saturdays for lunch from 11.30am to 2.30pm, and dinner from 6.30pm to 10.30pm
Website: www.dapaolo.com.sg


The Asian Kitchen, Republic Plaza

The Asian Kitchen used to be one of my regular haunts back when I was working in the Raffles Place area. Centrally located right in the basement of one of the tallest office blocks in the CBD and linked to many other office buildings through the Raffles Place MRT underground, the resultant heavy foot traffic ensures this casual Chinese eatery is packed come every lunchtime. Don't worry, the queue moves quite quickly, as service is remarkably efficient and speedy. And although I haven't been back since the office moved to Shenton Way, the food's as good as I remembered.

The Chinese Salad ($3.30), with its julienned black fungus, carrots, glass vermicelli and beansprouts tossed in a piquant marinade and served chilled makes for a refreshingly crisp and appetite-whetting starter.

What is it about luncheon meat that makes everything awesome? The Luncheon Meat Fried Rice ($7.50) at The Asian Kitchen evokes childhood memories of after-school lunchtime sustenance. Save for the spring onions, it tastes about the same. This isn't particularly refined or executed with finesse, but it's got this familiar homecooked taste to it that I find very comforting.

The Chicken Chop Fried Rice ($9.50) is another bestseller here. A whole chicken thigh is battered in seasoned flour, fried and served conveniently sliced atop a mound of eggy fried rice. The tasty juicy fried chicken is a wonderfully crispy complement to the fluffy fried rice.

The Asian Kitchen
9 Raffles Place
Republic Plaza B1-01
Tel: 6438 3884
Website: www.theasiankitchen.com.sg


No. 1 Western Food, Tanglin Halt Food Centre

A friend commented, and I have to (sort of) agree, that I seem to be on some kind of roll to rediscover all the food places that I ate at as a child. So while I'm on this roll, I'm going to introduce to you another hidden gem of a hawker stall that my family used to patronize when I was growing up.

Great western fare at hawker centres are few and far between, and apart from Happy Chef, this is the only other place I'd return to repeatedly whenever a craving for delicious, slightly bastardised, western fare at wallet-friendly prices starts up. What sets this stall apart is the awesome gravy that they slather over every plate they dish up. It's da bomb, I swear. It's like a cheena-pok version of Mackers' curry sauce, with a tomatoey slant. A little spiced, a little sweet, a little savoury, and, I swear, a little fairy dust. And like that universally flattering blood red lipstick, it goes with everything. From grilled fare to fried foods, and all kinds of meats from the reds to the whites, the gravy just marries them all like a match made in heaven.

The Chicken Cutlet ($5) is a must-try and they churn out dozens of this bestseller every night. The chicken is thoroughly marinated, so even without the gravy, it's really tasty. Juicy succulent meat that's steeped in flavour enveloped in a crisp breadcrumbed crust matched with the luscious gravy is all it takes for this winning formula of an amazing chicken cutlet. A dollop of baked beans straight out of the can and the standard sliced tomatoes and cucumbers help to break the monotony of fried foods.

The Hubs disagrees with me on this point but I think that the Pork Chops ($5) are another awesome dish. The thing is, it's a tad tougher than he'd like. It's not to say that this is dry though, because it's really quite moist. The slab of meat just ain't suitable for dentures. I love this because it's just so tasty, and it always achieves a beautiful charring that imbues the meat with a smoky accent.

The Fish & Chips ($5) is another must-try here. The dory is fleshy, moist and clean and clear. It's such a light dish you don't even realize you're eating deep fried foods.

The stall facade for reference. Although it says "self-service" and despite the long queues, you can actually place your order with the lady proprietor first and return later to pick it up. This husband and wife duo have been grilling up a storm since forever, and I don't know what skincare she uses, but she looks the same as she did 30 years ago.

No. 1 Western Food
Blk 1A Commonwealth Drive 
Tanglin Halt Food Centre #01-13
Open Sundays from 1pm to 9pm
Mondays, Wednesdays to Saturdays from 4pm to 9pm
Closed on Tuesdays


Geylang Serai Hari Raya Bazaar 2013

Every year when the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan rolls around, we make an annual pilgrimage to the Geylang Serai Hari Raya Bazaar to get our fill of Hari Raya festive goodies. Oddly enough, I don't feel such an impetus to go to Chinatown over CNY. I think it's because I get easy access to CNY holiday grub, and not so much for seasonal Hari Raya chow.

A tip, to avoid the hordes of celebratory folks loading up on festive goodies and products, is to hit up the bazaar on a Monday evening, during the early weeks of Ramadan. If you're driving, there's an open-air carpark opposite the Haig Road Hawker Centre with a really high turnover. Another thing, dress coolly, because, trust me, you will sweat.

There are about a million food stalls set up at the month-long, seemingly never-ending bazaar, but the foodstuff are quite repetitive, and to be honest, they kind of blend into one another. I tend to stick to the stalls nearest the Haig Road Market, and zoom in on the following must-haves.

I know one can get kebabs anytime of the year at any Turkish restaurant, and not just at the Ramadan bazaars, but somehow, this is about the only time I crave kebabs. It's the same with bak kwa and rice dumplings. I only crave them during CNY and the mid-Autumn festival respectively. So anyways, I usually opt for the Chicken Kebab instead of the lamb version, and request that the mayo be held off. I like to be able to taste the delicate spice seasoning of the juicy chicken meat without the overwhelmingly heavy element of mayo. The pita is lightly grilled for a toasty finish, and shredded lettuce cuts through the grease and spice seasoning. I get this at the start of my trek through the bazaar. It's easy to hold and eat without getting your fingers all greasy.

Another seasonal delicacy is the Ayam Percik, a whole chicken wing marinated with tumeric and other Malay aromatics, skewered on a bamboo stick and grilled to a smoky deliciousness. Liberal lashings of a mild sweetish sambal kicks up the spice accents.

For those too lazy to pick through the bones of the chicken wing or to get your fingers dirty, the Chicken Cutlet version is perfect. This was succulent and lipsmackingly awesome. We went back for thirds of these.

Not to be missed is the Dendeng, the Malay's answer to the Chinese's bak kwa, made with beef instead of pork for a Halal-certification. Meatier, thicker, and less sweet than the bak kwa, this will attract long queues with its robust, full-bodied flavour. Look out for the billowing plumes of smoke fumes off the grill. Be sure, though, to get these straight off the grill, and not the ones that have been left standing out. They are best eaten with a shiny sheen of oil and piping hot.

The bazaar is also where I get my Ramly Burger fix. Granted, it's nothing compared to the Malaysian rendition, because the ramly patty is not allowed into Singapore (for reasons unfathomable to me but known to the AVA), but it'll do for now to curb the craving. I usually opt for the chicken, not beef version, and again, request to hold off the mayo. Be prepared to get your hands dirty though, this is a huge greasebomb. And you will have bits and pieces dropping off here and there.

For dessert, be sure to hit up the famous Haig Road Putu Piring stall at the Mr Teh Terik coffeeshop (next to the Haig Road Hawker Centre) for the Malay sweet of Putu Piring. This is the Malay version of tu tu kueh, but with a gula melaka filling and shavings of salted grated coconut. It's light, fluffy and sweetly balanced.

Geylang Serai Hari Raya Bazaar 2013
now on until the wee early morning hours of 8 August 2013
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