Cuban Beef Stew (Carne con Papas)

Carne con Papas, i.e. Spanish for beef and potatoes, is a Cuban-styled beef stew rooted in its Spanish colonisation days. It's characterised by the use of cumin and oregano being predominant flavours, and grounded in a base of white wine and tomatoes. Yes, you heard right, white wine, and not the usual red. Some recipes call for sherry, but I like to keep it traditional with a dry white, like a crisp New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Ingredients (feeds 6):
1 kg stewing beef, 1" cubes
1 large onion, minced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 large green pepper, diced to 1cm-cubes
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp paprika
1 tsp ground coriander
dash of tumeric (optional as it's really to give the stew the distinctive orange colour)
2 tsp dried oregano
2 bay leaves
1 can diced tomatoes with juice
1 cup white wine
1 cup pimento-stuffed spanish olives (didn't have this in my pantry so I switched it out with rainbow olives)
4 potatoes, cut into large chunks
2 large carrots, diced
2 cups water
1 cup beef stock (optional but I like the depth this gives)

1) Brown beef, in chicken-fat or bacon-infused flavoured oil, salting liberally, and taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Set aside in a stewing pot.

2) Fry onions, and garlic till fragrant.

3) Add carrots, fry for 2 minutes.

4) Add tomatoes, with juice, and fry for about 3 minutes.

5) Transfer to stewing pot with beef, add wine, reduce to half, then add stock, and water to cover beef. Add olives, oregano, coriander, paprika, cumin, tumeric, bay leaves, bring to a boil before lowering to a simmer for 2 hours, or until tender.

6) Add green pepper in the last 25 minutes before serving.

7) Add potatoes in the last 20 minutes before serving.

8) Salt to taste.


The Soup Spoon Union, Vivocity

The Soup Spoon has come a long way from its humble origins as a purveyor of wholesome hearty soups. It's now a chain restaurant with 5 distinct concepts, a smart diversification to capture a larger market share of local diners. 

The Soup Spoon Union Square is a canteen-like, self-serviced eatery that houses a combination of their concepts under one roof. Together with mothership The Soup Spoon, there's The Handburger, for well-rounded handcrafted burgers; The Grill Knife, for sizzling meats and seafood straight off the barbie; and The Salad Fork, for fibre-rich clean eating.

The baby of The Soup Spoon empire, and a recent addition to the food basement of Vivocity, The Soup Spoon Union co-ops The Soup Spoon, The Handburger, and The Grill Knife. Its production-line efficiency, substantive sets, decent fare, and wallet-friendly prices, make for brisk business. 

From The Handburger, The Original Set ($13.80 for set), a juicy stack of New Zealand grass-fed prime beef, melty cheese, grilled onions, honey mustard, was classic done right. This was sided by a house caesar salad, and a choice of 4 drinks.

From The Soup Spoon, the Chicken & Mushroom Flatbread Set ($11.50), was a petite toasted pita stuffed with grilled white button mushrooms, roasted chicken breast, tomatoes, arugula, and a yoghurt dressing...

with a medium-sized Roasted Pumpkin Soup and a choice of 4 drinks. I thought this was well-balanced, delicate and nuanced in its sweetness, but a friend thought it was too bland. 

From The Grill Knife, the Chicken Combo Set ($13.80) was chicken breast with portobello mushroom, both grilled to a moist perfection. This was served with a side of cauliflower rice with quinoa and edamame, and blanketed in a creamy mushroom sauce

The Soup Spoon Union Square
1 Harbourfront Walk
B2-37 Vivocity
Tel: 6274 1979
Open Mondays to Thursdays from 11am to 10pm;
Fridays from 11am to 10.30pm;
Saturdays from 10am to 10.30pm;
Sundays from 10am to 10pm
Website: www.thesoupspoon.com


Chin Huat Live Seafood

So, a bunch of us were talking about our favourite crab dishes, when a foodie friend commented that we haven't had crabs till we've had the Alaskan King ones. He'd waxed lyrical about the superiority of Alaskan King crabs over their Sri Lankan cousins, and proclaimed that once you go Alaskan, you never go back. So, one lazy afternoon, we rounded up a crew and trooped on down to Chin Huat Live Seafood, his favourite seafood joint and Alaskan king crab specialist. I swear they probably stock up on more Alaskan King crabs than they do regular ol' Sri Lankan crabs.

The Sunset Way-long timer has weathered significant change; where the previously sleepy estate full of industrial / paint shops has since gentrified into a thriving restaurant and cafe enclave. It looks vastly different from years ago when I first dined at Chin Huat with then-fellow singleton Lips.

Reservations are highly encouraged if you're dining, especially at peak periods. Reports of bad/slow service are rampant, so best tamper expectations, and develop a Buddha-like patience. Or just dine during weekday lunches.

Seafood is the order of the day, and you'll do well to get the Boston lobster and Alaskan king crabs. Skip everything else if tummy space is limited, as the cze char here is fair but not particularly memorable.

The Sauteed Scallops with Asparagus in XO Sauce ($20 for small) was decent albeit forgettable, a lovely contrast in soft and crunchy textures, and lively in spice.

The Spicy & Sour Szechuan Soup ($10 for small) was surprisingly refined for a neighbourhood seafood joint such as this.

The Hongkong Steamed Giant Garoupa ($38) was unexpectedly done fillet-style, and it was a smidge overcooked. In any case, the fillets were still slightly bony. I suspect this would have been much better left whole.

An absolute must-try, the Alaskan King Crab in Pumpkin Cream Sauce ($138 per kg) was fantastic. The salted-egg yolk accent was a savoury, and decadent, counter to the sweetness of the pumpkin, and curry leaves and chilli specks lent a subtle heat to the velvety sauce. Seriously the best salted egg yolk sauce ever. We wiped this clean off.

The Alaskan King Chilli Crab, slathered in a nutty garlicky gravy, was heady with spice, and complementary to the incredible sweetness of the crab. That friend was indeed right about how good Alaskan king crabs are, I haven't been able to look at Sri Lankan crabs the same way since. A telling factor to how amazing these are: a girlfriend who's mildly allergic to crabs and has to take anti-histamines before indulging, didn't break out in hives even though she ate several crab legs.

We had to order several rounds of this Deep-Fried Bread Rolls to mop up all the wonderful gravies.

The Boston Lobster Noodles was sweet with the essence of the shellfish. Excellent stuff.

Chin Huat Live Seafood
105 Clementi Street 12
#01-30 Sunset Way
Tel: 6775 7348
Open daily from 11.30am to 2.30pm for lunch; 5.30pm to 11pm for dinner


Sweet Potato Casserole

A winter holiday classic, Sweet Potato Casserole is just about the easiest you can make. So easy even the 'I-burnt-water' Hubs can make. With minimal direction, of course. And because this is done entirely in the oven, space is freed up on the stove for the other bubbling pots and pans.

Most sweet potato casseroles veer towards the saccharine and into the dessert category, so I've tried to limit the sugars added to the already-sweet potatoes.

Ingredients (feeds 4-5 pax):
3 large sweet potatoes, scrubbed clean
1/3 cup milk
1 egg, beaten
2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 tbsp honey
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch ground nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup walnuts, chopped roughly
1/4 cup pecans, chopped roughly

1) Preheat oven to 200C; prick the skins of the potatoes a few times with a fork, and bake it whole for 45-50 minutes or until soft. Set aside to cool.

2) Turn down oven to 175C. Scoop potatoes out of their skins, and mash with milk, butter, honey, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt.

3) Transfer the whole mixture into a buttered 8x8" casserole, and sprinkle with pecans and walnuts. Bake about 15-20 minutes or until puffy.


Spizza Mercato, Capitol Piazza

Capitol Piazza is part of a slew of shiny new malls sprouting up in the downtown City Hall area. Formerly Capitol Theatre, the heritage building has been conserved in all its neo-classical beauty, and is now part of an integrated development comprising a hotel, private residence, commercial offices, and retail mall.

Directly linked to the City Hall MRT station, the mall draws a significant number of foot traffic from commuting passersby. The basement restaurants benefit most, and is where you'll find popular Italian pizzeria chain, Spizza.

I wouldn't venture as far to proclaim Spizza as the best Italian restaurant there is, but like an old pair of sneakers, it's familiar, comforting and reliable. And, for food that more than passes muster, prices are very reasonably affordable.

The delicious Calamari ($13.80), lightly battered squid rings fried to a crisp finish, and served with a piquant pizzaiolo dip, is always a safe bet. This starter is consistently good across all their outlets. 

A vegetarian and Muslim-friendly option, the Margherita ($19), with the trinity of tomato, buffalo mozzarella, and basil, was a classic example of basics done right. Slightly chewy crust imbued with a wonderful smoky char and crisp, this was balanced. 

The Mediterranean-influenced Helena ($18) with grilled chicken in pesto sauce, and red bell peppers, had a more modern appeal.

A must-try and signature here, the Quinta ($19) was an intoxicating blend of a sunny-side up egg, and black truffle paste. To up the ante, I added a favourite topping, ribbons of Parma Ham ($4)

Spizza Mercato
Capitol Piazza B2-52
13 Stamford Road
Tel: 6884 6884
Open daily from 10.30am to 10.30pm
Website: spizza.sg/pages/mercato


The Naked Finn

It's been a while since I was last at The Naked Finn, a cheeky moniker that's a brassy word play on the way the restaurant treats its seafood. Featuring seafood sourced from all over the world, rigorously tested and researched to oblivion, The Naked Finn aims to serve only the sweetest and freshest. In that aspect, their almost scientific approach to their food reminds me of Heston Blumenthal's perfectionist style.

Since dining almost 2 years ago, The Naked Finn has moved to new premises, barely 100 meters away from their old haunt, which is, incidentally, now its sister bar. Its greenhouse aesthetic is maintained, so you get an expansive view of the lush surrounds of Gillman Barracks. It's a terrific escape from the hustle and bustle of city living. Be sure to make reservations though, it was a busy full house on a Friday afternoon when we popped by for lunch.

To give credence to the seafood, cooking styles are deliberately kept delicate, and the quality of the seafood is highlighted in all its natural glory unfettered by heavy seasonings. If you thought that read bland food, you'd be mightily mistaken. The food here is hearty and soulful, and robust with flavour. It's just that when the ingredient's that fresh and sweet, very little needs to be done to it.

A must try, the Grilled Indian Baby Squid ($8) was seasoned simply with a flick of sea salt and slick of olive oil. Soft with a hint of chewy bite and specks of crunchy caramelisation, this was just sweet succulent perfection.

A recent addition to their lunch menu, the Beef Burger ($23) appeared,at first blush, disappointingly minuscule. But (some, not all) good things come in small packages, and this turned out an indulgent, finger-licking-good powerhouse. The decadent grass-fed dry-aged Japanese wagyu patty, dripping with juices, came together with the Boston lettuce, American cheese, and special sauce brilliantly. Just be sure to get double (or triple) orders of this if you're hungry. Straight-cut fries and a balsamic-vinegared mesclun salad sided this.

There are a couple of meat dishes to pacify the meat-lovers, like the aforementioned burger, and the Secreto Iberico Pork ($20) grilled on a cast-iron griddle for maximum lusciousness, and served with crisp mesclun, piquant vermicelli, and a mellow red wine thyme jus.

Another popular mainstay, the pan-fried Barramundi Fillet ($20) was a superb interplay on textures, with paper-crisp skin and moist flaky meat. This was seasoned with olive oil and finished with sea salt, accompanied by a mound of blanched kangkong tossed in kalamansi juice, dried shrimp, and shallot oil, and vermicelli oiled in sesame and fried garlic bits, both served refreshingly chilled

A lunchtime-only special, the Hae Mee Tng ($25) was a well-researched and heavily-tested concoction of farmed giant tiger prawns, Salmon Creek Farms pork belly, in a blended soup of 9 prawn species and simmered pork bones. This was rich and sweet but not cloying, as The Naked Finn resists the addition of MSG or sugar. Get the vermicelli for a traditional option, or the Japanese somen for a twist on the classic. 

The Fish Soup ($30) a delicate broth thick with fat slices of Indian threadfin, deep-fried yam, Chinese cabbage, silky beancurd, cherry tomatoes, was delicate but lacking in depth. Notwithstanding the exorbitant pricetag, the local hawker rendition at Angel Horse is much more worthwhile.

A daily special that I'm hoping will make it to the permanent menu, was the Mozambique Lobster Risotto ($35), which was glorious!! It was rich but nuanced, and brimming with the incredible goodness of sweet seafood. So. Freaking. Good.

Don't miss out on their desserts, all refreshingly light, and homemade. The Homemade Naked Chendol ($13), with coconut sorbet, was sublime.

That said, my favourite of the lot was the Homemade Gula Melaka Sorbet with Sea Salt ($10), a twist on the flavour du jour, salted caramel. An absolute must-try.

For a tangy lift, the Homemade Sour Plum Sorbet ($10) with osmanthus jelly is recommended.

The Naked Finn
Blk 39 Malan Road
Gillman Barracks
Tel: 6694 0807
Open Mondays to Thursdays from 12noon to 3pm for lunch; 6pm to 10pm for dinner;
Fridays & Saturdays from 12noon to 3pm for lunch; 6pm to 10.30pm for dinner
Closed on Sundays
Website: www.nakedfinn.com



Cocotte, a charming little French bistro, has been on my to-eat list for the longest time. Installed in the Wanderlust Hotel on the fringes of Little India, it's kitschy, fun, convivial, and rustic. We popped in last weekend for brunch, and were informed that the ala carte menu wasn't available; they were serving up their Weekend Brunch Trolley ($59++ without alcohol).

If you were wondering what a brunch trolley was, think dim sum pushcarts in those old-school Cantonese restaurants in Hongkong, just French.

The affordability of the brunch was the primary factor in the decision to stay for brunch; I'm not particularly keen on buffets of any sort, even the pseudo-ones. I'm glad I stayed though. The decidedly limited array kept the quality of the brunch high, and because everything was in petite portions, we really could partake of everything. Also, the long gaps between the trolleys helped encourage the slow food movement thing that the French are so famous for; we actually took the time to graze over a languid brunch.

My favourite was the Croque Monsieur, a fantastic crusty baguette slathered with an excellent fruit jam, gruyere, mustard, and meaty ham. I got seconds of this.

The Salmon Quiche was exceptional, with a meltingly buttery crust, beautiful caramelization, and a lusciously cheesy filling.

The Seafood Croquette and Salmon Mousse wasn't my thing, but Addie, who loves her salmon mousse, found this appetizingly refreshing.

The Squid was a moreish contrast, chewy rings topped off a crusty buttered bread.

Another favourite of ours was the Homemade Baked Beans choc-a-bloc with smokey French bacon, topped with a sous vide egg, and a drizzle of citrus oil. Exquisite stuff.

I also loved the Poulet Roti, a whole organic chicken seasoned with herbed butter and roasted to juicy perfection, then sprinkled with golden almond flakes, and herbed cous cous.

The Blue Mussels & Clams, was simply steamed with white wine, Swiss chard, and fennel cream, to highlight its fresh and sweet flavours. We drank this like a soup.

The succulent Roast Pork Collar, blanketed in a glorious mustard cream, was sided by buttered local vegetables.

The Flatiron Steak, torched with a gorgeous char, was sliced to reveal a perfect, consistent shade of pink. Too bad they laced this with Chimichurri.

Just when we thought we were going to pop, the dessert trolley arrived.

Must trys are the Creme Brulee and Crepe Suzette, flambeed at the table, and drizzled with a caramelized orange sauce.

Wanderlust Hotel
2 Dickson Road
Tel: 6298 1188
Open Mondays to Thursdays from 12noon to 2.30pm for lunch; 6.30pm to 10.30pm for dinner;
Fridays to Sundays from 12noon to 3pm for lunch; 6.30pm to 11pm for dinner;
Closed on Tuesdays
Website: restaurantcocotte.com


Garlic Rosemary Chicken Stew with Rainbow Olives

I love stews. It's comforting and nourishing, and can be switched up a million ways. No stew I've ever made is the same, simply because I throw in whatever I feel like that very day.

I had a bunch of garlic getting close to its use-by date, and fresh rosemary that had been sitting in the freezer since forever, so I thought I'd marry them in a stew. Because there's such a myriad of flavours derived naturally, there's hardly a use for salt.

Ingredients (feeds 6 pax):
6-8 chicken thighs (apportion 1 thigh per person, +2 to accommodate big eaters)
10 cloves garlic, left whole
10 cloves garlic, minced
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 leek, white portion only, minced
2 large carrots, diced to 1-cm cubes
500 grms white button mushrooms, sliced
1 cup dry white wine
5 cups chicken stock
1 cup unseeded olives, a rainbow mix of red, purple, and green
10 sprigs fresh rosemary, tied together with butcher's twine
1 cup orzo
2 tbsp olive oil

1) Brown chicken, salting liberally, in olive oil, working in batches and taking care not to overcrowd the browning pan. Set aside in a big stewing pot.

2) With 3 tbsp of the chicken fat, brown whole garlic cloves, about 10 minutes on low-medium heat, remove and set aside.

3) Add another 1 tbsp chicken fat, fry onions till softened, 2 minutes on medium-high heat.

4) Add garlic, leek, about 1 minute.

5) Add carrots, fry 1 minute.

6) Add mushrooms, fry till water rendered.

7) Add wine, and reduce to minimum, before adding stock.

9) Transfer the mixture to the chicken in the big pot, and add rosemary, olives, and stew for 40 minutes or until tender.

10) In the last 10 minutes before serving, add orzo. Add 1 cup water if necessary. Salt to taste before serving.

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