Twelve Cupcakes

The year-end festivities have begun!!!!!! I was reminded of the commencement of my favourite time of the year when a friend brought over a bunch of Twelve Cupcakes' Halloween edition cupcakes; left to right from top row: a bandaged rainbow-vanilla-ed Yellow Mummy; a red velvety Ghosty emoji; a minty chocolate Green Monster aka Oscar the Grouch's cousin; and bottom row right: a pumpkinned chocolate Mr Scary Face. Almost too cute to eat!

Twelve Cupcakes
B1-01 Orchard Gateway
277 Orchard Road
Tel: 6509 1255
Open daily from 10am to 10pm
Website: www.twelvecupcakes.com


Basque Beef Stew

Basque is a coastal region in Spain that flanks the south of France. A subset of Spanish cuisine, but heavily influenced by French inclination, its cooking is characterised by, amongst other things, smoked paprika and roasted peppers. These, together with a typically full-bodied Spanish red like a tempranillo, form the core flavour profiles of a classic Basque Beef Stew. I didn't have a tempranillo on hand, so I substituted a cabernet sauvignon recently scored on my travels to wine country Down Under.

Ingredients (feeds 4):
1 kg stewing beef chuck, cut into 1" cubes
250 gm carrots, diced
400 gm white button mushrooms, sliced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
3 large potatoes, cut into 1" dice
1 large yellow onion, chopped finely
5 cloves garlic, minced
300 gm roasted bell peppers, sliced roughly
1 cup full-bodied rich red wine (tempranillo, pinor noir, or cabernet sauvignon will do just fine)
4 cups beef stock
1 sprig fresh rosemary, leaves only
1 tbsp smoked paprika
Dash ground cinnamon
Dash chilli flakes

1)  Brown beef, salting liberally, in bacon-fat infused oil, working in batches and taking care not to overcrowd the browning pan. Set aside in stewing pot. With 3 tbsp beef drippings, fry onions, then garlic, for 3 minutes on medium-high heat.

2) Add carrots, frying for 1 minute

3) Add mushrooms, frying until water released is evaporated.

4) Add red wine, reduce half, and then add beef stock.

5) Add cherry tomatoes.

6) Transfer to the stewing pot with the browned beef, and add peppers.

7) Add fresh rosemary.

8) Add paprika, cinnamon, and chilli flakes. Bring to a boil, and then simmer for 3 hours or until as tender as you'd like.

9) Dump in the potatoes 10 minutes before serving. Salt to taste.


Putien, Kitchener Road

A decade ago, when Putien was an unassuming low-frills restaurant at the fringes of Little India, I would never have thought it would expand to the mega empire it is now. Its brand of humble, peasant fare wasn't exactly a winning formula for success, I thought. Luckily for them, the locals love the simplicity of Heng Hwa cuisine, and their kickass chilli which goes with just about everything. Now with 10 branches scattered all over the island, (and a good number more all over Asia), Putien is a lot more accessible than ever. But, with reports that the mothership is still the best of the lot, we made a trip down for dinner one night, all the while braving the nightmare traffic.

Because Putien is located along a 1-lane, 2-way carriageway, a tip is to make reservations to dine early, or park at City Square Mall, and walk over.

The food was indeed better than at some of the other outlets, but marginally so, and service was frenzied at best. After taking into consideration the horrendous traffic and parking woes, I'd much rather head to the town-based branches.

The Steamed Live Seabass ($39.20 for 800 gm at $4.90 per 100gm) was done perfectly, with soft flaky flesh complemented by the delicate soy sauce.

That wasn't enough fish for us, and we also had the Deep-Fried Tenggiri Fish ($4.90 per pc),  beautifully golden and crisp, and served with a piquant dipping sauce.

The Homemade Beancurd ($9.90), with wobbly strips of silky beancurd, black mushrooms, sugar snap peas, and carrots, swimming in a sumptuous oyster sauce gravy, was simple and comforting. A must-try here.

The Putien Sweet & Sour Pork ($13.90), dotted with lychees for a fruity sweetness, was scrumptious.

The Stewed Spinach in Superior Stock ($12.90) flecked with century and salted egg, was mild and creamy.

The Seaweed with Beancurd and Crabmeat Thick Soup ($13.90) was wonderfully nuanced and balanced.

Another must-try, the Fried Heng Hwa Bee Hoon ($8.90), was infused with a collagen-rich stock of pork bone and old hens' bones, and dappled with clams, prawns, pork belly, beancurd, mushrooms, cabbage, kailan, and seaweed. Scrumptious with oodles of that awesome chilli sauce.

The Mazu Mee Sua ($8.90), done in the style of their lor mee, was simmered in a milky pork bone broth, with pork belly, clams and prawns, eggs, mushrooms, snow peas, seaweed, and peanuts. Having grown up eating mee sua exclusively as 'sick-food', I much rather have the lor mee instead.

127 Kitchener Road
Tel: 6295 6358
Open daily from 11.30am to 2.30pm for lunch; 5.30pm to 10.30pm for dinner
Website: www.putien.com


Jiang Nan Chun, Four Seasons Hotel

It's funny how irony pops up at the most inopportune of times. I'd veto-ed Ernie's suggestion of Cherry Garden's ala carte buffet brunch earlier, citing dietary constrains as a reason, and steered him towards Jiang Nan Chun, another pre-eminent Chinese restaurant that's just as distinguished as Cherry Garden.

So.....we were taking our seats the restaurant, all the while Ernie was lamenting to the waitress how I always curtail his food intake, the waitress inquired if we would be taking the buffet or the ordering from the ala carte menu. Fortuitously, Jiang Nan Chun also offered an ala carte buffet brunch on Sundays ($78 per pax). After Ernie peeled himself off the floor laughing, he insisted on making the call for the buffet brunch.

It also dawned on me that...no wonder, when I made reservations, the hostess had asked which of the 2 seatings, the first at 11 am, or the second at 1.30 pm, I wanted for lunch. I was a little bewildered then, that, for a restaurant that wasn't exactly swarming with hungry crowds, it was a little odd to have 2 seatings.

Oh well, turned out Sunday brunch was phenomenal. From the succulent roasted meats, to the exquisite soups and the well-executed mains, just about every dish on the fairly extensive menu was incredible. So even if we had to waddle out of the restaurant, Jiang Nan Chun is definitely on my to-return list! Finally, a worthy competitor to Cherry Garden!

Service was as of you'd expect of a Four Seasons, attentive but unintrusive, efficient and slick but warm and gracious.

We started off with the roasted meats for appetizers, clockwise from top right: Crispy Roasted Pork Belly; Marinated Soy Sauce Chicken; Barbecued Honey-Glazed Pork; and Roasted Duck; which were all amazing. These may not be the best I've ever had, but they were very good. Usually, the roasted meats at most restaurants are a hit-and-miss, but at Jiang Nan Chun, the meats were fresh, tender, and moist. I couldn't find any fault.

Another starter dish, the Crispy Fish Skin, simply seasoned with salt and pepper, was delightfully crunchy.

From the dim sum section, the ubiquitous Steamed Pork Dumpling dotted with shrimp and mushroom was juicy and sparkling fresh.

The Steamed Wagyu Beef Dumpling, laced with onions and mushrooms, flavoured with a black bean and pepper sauce for a robust taste, was swaddled in a glutinous rice flour skin that was nicely thin and chewy.

The fluffy Steamed Bun with Salted Egg Yolk, with a perfectly molten core with just a hint of sweetness, was delicious as a dessert.

The beautifully caramelised Pan-Fried Radish Cake, speckled with chinese sausage, mushrooms, and carrots, was mouthwateringly moist and soft.

The Deep-Fried Prawn Roll with Mango, wrapped around crunchy vermicelli strands, was a fantastic complement of the sweet and savoury.

The Deep-Fried Cod Fish, Scallop, Shrimp, & Mayo Filo Wrap, was like a creamy seafood platter compressed into a tiny little cute parcel, varied and complex but delicious nonetheless.

Onto the seafood mains, which were excellent, we had the Deep-Fried Grouper Fillet with Oats. It may look like an unappetizing mountain of sawdust, but the fish was fried beautifully, and piled on with oats fried with curry leaves and chilli for a mild heat.

The Stir-Fried Scallops, with carrots, peppers, and sugar snap peas, was a wonderful medley of crunchy and succulent textures.

The Wok-Fried Prawns with Dried Chilli, aromatic basil and red onions, was robust and punchy. 

The meats fared very well too, like the tender Wok-Fried Sliced Beef with spring onions and satay sauce for a local touch.

The Sweet & Sour Pork was taken up a notch with the use of pork ribs, and the glaze was spiked with chilli for a bright heat.

The Wok-Fried Pork Shoulder with Black Olive Sauce, with asparagus, black fungus, and king oyster mushrooms, was perhaps my favourite meat of all. This was slightly unusual, and the pork was just sumptuous.

We only ordered one dish from the vegetable section, the Braised Beancurd Casserole with black mushrooms, carrots, kailan, and bamboo pith, bubbling with a comforting wholesomeness.

The Double-Boiled Tianjin Cabbage with Bamboo Pith Soup and Chinese black mushroom was polished and delicate.

The Pork & Century Egg Congee was lovely as well, smooth but with the tiniest of grains still discernible.

Limited to 1 serving per person, the Steamed Live Prawn (3 per pax) were swimmingly fresh and impossibly sweet. Even Ernie, who hates having to peel prawns, lapped up his share. 

For dessert, the Chilled Cream of Mango with pomelo and sago, was sweet and refreshing.

The Chilled Aloe Vera with Lemongrass Jelly was superb as well, balanced.

This was the Hubs' favourite, a chewy Peanut-Coated Glutinous Rice Dumpling filled with oozy black sesame paste.

Jiang Nan Chun
Four Seasons Hotel Level
190 Orchard Road
Tel: 6734 1110 (note: it's currently "undergoing revitalization" until 1 February 2016)
Open Mondays to Saturdays from 11.30am to 2.30pm for lunch; 6pm to 10.30pm for dinner;
Sundays from 11am to 3pm for weekend brunch; 6pm to 10.30pm for dinner


Paik's Bibim, Vivocity

I recently went on a salad bender. All day, everyday, for almost two weeks, my diet comprised an arugula base dotted with cherry tomatoes, pinenuts, and dried cranberries, dressed simply in EVOO, and finished off with roasted chicken breast. The odd thing was, I wasn't on some kind of fitness regime, weight-reduction plan or anything of the sort. As incredulous as it sounds, I just really really really loved my salads. (if you know me personally, you'll understand why it'd be quite the shock that I, the biggest junk food-lover, was suddenly "eating healthy") My girlfriends, well-aware of my salad binge, brought me to Paik's Bibim, in an effort to change up my routine, but still stay within the category of salad-esque grub.

Paik's Bibim, a self-serviced bistro serving up modern renditions of Korean bibimbap, is the Asian answer to western salads. Choc-a-bloc with fresh vegetables galore, Asian-styled proteins, atop a steamed rice layer, and tossed with lashings of a thinned-out sweet red pepper sauce, each bowl is refreshing, wholesome, and totally gratifying. Interesting tidbit #635: Paik's Bibim was opened by the same people behind Bornga a few doors away.

The Japanese-influenced Teriyaki Chicken Bibimbap ($8.50), laden with julienned lettuce and cabbage, fried crumbs, shredded seaweed, may look minuscule in comparison with the humongous bowl, but it was actually very substantial. Add the gochujang in small increments, as a little goes a long way, and it can get quite saccharine in large doses. 

The Warm Noodles with Soy ($7.90), with julienned carrots and cucumbers, shredded lettuce and seaweed, and fried minced pork, was a lovely balance of the crunchy-and-chewy, sweet-and-savoury, and comforting-and-fresh.

Paik's Bibim
1 Harbourfront Walk
Vivocity #02-125
Tel: 6377 0696 / 8307 4253
Open daily from 11.30am to 9.30pm


The Bark Cafe

The Bark Cafe is probably the most obscure restaurant I've ever reviewed. It's like, at the east end of our little island, and since I rarely venture out of a 20-minute-drive-long radius from the city center, I would never have known of this place if not for a celebratory birthday lunch organised here.

The entirely alfresco restaurant serves coffeehouse-type fare, so you get a hodgepodge of local classics like nasi goreng and seafood hor fan, as well as western mainstays like beef stew and cheeseburgers. The food was generally up to snuff, but if I had to take into account the 40-minute drive in heavy traffic, I wouldn't think The Bark Cafe was yelp-worthy. That said, this would make a worthwhile visit IF you're already in the area and looking for sustenance in a chilled-out spot with lots of quiet and charm.

The Tangy Calamari Rings ($9.90) was thinly battered and deep-fried to a delectable crisp, but what impressed me was that the squid encased within was perfectly cooked.

The delicate sweetness of the rice flour-coated Sweet Potato Sticks ($13.90) was balanced out by the salty creaminess of the Parmesan mayo dip.

They really shouldn't have slapped a superlative such as this on the Bark Cafe Famous Chicken Wing ($15.90 for 6 pcs) because it set expectations too lofty to meet. The prawn paste-accented wings were nice, but vapid, and so, failed to leave an impression. I've had better for less.

The highlight of lunch was the Smoky Black Pepper Duck Breast ($18.90), which was a surprising revelation. I wouldn't have expected a casual place like this to serve this typically highbrow dish, or to do it this well. Sparkling fresh meat, with nary a hint of game, was slow-roasted to luscious perfection. This was sided by wafu-dressed mesclun greens, and mashed potatoes.

The Fish & Chips ($18.90) was decent, but the deep-fried Pacific dory fillet was a dime a dozen.

The Grilled Guinness Balsamic Chicken ($19.90), marinated in Cajun herbs, sided by steamed root vegetables, mashed potatoes, and slathered in a Guinness beer gravy, was nice enough, but it reminded me of those hawker centre western food stall productions.

Although cheap, the Chicago Roasted Tenderloin ($29.90) was lackluster. The beef was gamey, so no amount of roasting finesse could save it.

The Bark Cafe
1000 Upper Changi Road North
Tel: 6545 4118
Open Sundays to Thursdays from 11am to 1am;
Fridays & Saturdays from 11am to 2am;
Website: www.thebarkcafe.com


Candlenut Kitchen

I can't decide if I like Candlenut Kitchen. On the one hand, I loved the exceptional food. Familiar favourites and modern interpretations, given equal billing, are executed with both polish and flair. And, the very wallet-friendly price-points further bolster the Peranakan restaurant's appeal.

On the other hand, I find Candlenut's restaurant policies lacking in sense and sensibility. For starters, there is just ONE multi-course set for dinner, with no exceptions for ala carte orders whatsoever. To compound matters, tap water is not served at all, only bottled water is available, so even though we had ourselves a glass of wine and lemongrass ginger juice, we still had to purchase a 500ml bottle of mineral water at the exorbitant price of $4. Honestly, it's a major turn-off that a restaurant is as rigid as this.

Dinner was a Set Tasting Menu ($50) of 12-courses, refreshed seasonally. Even if each course was considerably petite, 12 courses added up substantively to a most value-for-money dinner if I ever saw one.

The first of four appetizers was a deconstructed Kueh Pie Tee, whereby each of the components harmonized into a magnificent symphony.

The Warm Minced Pork Relish followed, weaved with punchy banana chillis, black peppercorns, aromatic laksa leaf strips, and presented atop a lettuce bed.

The Grain-Fed Australian Beef Flank Satay, burnished in a stickily sweet peanut sauce, was so  meltingly tender and juicy, I wouldn't have known it was beef if I hadn't been informed otherwise.

The Tumbuk Prawns, the last of the quartet of appetizers, was served chilled,. Speckled with laksa leaf, chives, and raw shallots, this was wonderfully clean and clear; its refreshing overtones enhanced by the starfruit slice.

The first of five mains, was a fork-tender braised beef cheek swimming in a stew-like buah keluak-flavoured Rawon Soup, topped with fried shallots and spiked with chilli. The heady and potent concoction was fantastic ladled over white rice.

The Chap Chye, a melange of cabbage, shitake, dried beancurd skin, and glass vermicelli softly braised in a delicate prawn stock, was excellent. One of the best renditions of this classic.

By far the most phenomenal of the already stellar dinner was the Blue Swimmer Crab Curry, of impossibly sweet chunks of freshly shredded meat flash-cooked in a mild tumeric coconut milk curry, while kaffir lime leaves lent a piquant touch. So freaking good.

The sambal-ed King Tiger Prawn, wok-fried with pungent petai beans, was a massive hunk of succulence and fiery sweetness.

Rounding off the mains was the Ayam Bakar, chicken fillet grilled to a smoky perfection with kicap manis, shallots, and green chillis.

Before embarking on desserts, we were served a green apple-accented jelly to cleanse the palate. 

The contemporary desserts here were exemplary, like the Candlenut Signature Chendol Cream, a panna cotta-like pudding layered with pandan jelly and sweetened with gula melaka.

A lighter option was the zesty Mango Cream with Lime Sorbet, dotted with jackfruit, and sago pearls.

The finisher was a petit fours of sorts, the kueh lapis and pound cake, crafted in-house.The pound cake was amazing, overshadowing the less-than-impressive kueh lapis.

The complimentary starter of belinjau crackers with a chilli-spiked kecap manis dip was a Godsend, especially since my galfriend got held up by work by an hour.

Candlenut Kitchen
331 New Bridge Road #01-03
Dorsett Residences
Tel: 81214107
Open Mondays to Fridays from 12noon to 2.30pm for lunch; 6pm to 10pm for dinner;
Saturdays from 6pm to 10pm for dinner;
Closed on Sundays
Website: www.candlenut.com.sg

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