Crustaceans on the Wharf, Darwin

The Darwin waterfront is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. The precinct is expansive, and spans the convention centre at one end, to the Stokes Hill Wharf at the opposite end. The stretch is lined with a multitude of dining options, and we were recommended the seafood at Crustaceans on the Wharf as a must-try.

Sitting right on the historic wharf, the casual restaurant, which is more glorified canteen than full-serviced restaurant, is breezy and bustling. During the dry season, the alfresco tables which offer a spectacular view into the sea, are snapped up fast, so make reservations early early.

While the food wasn't exactly mind-blowingly impressive, the seafood was one of the cheapest we've ever had. Our bill for three hearty dishes, including a whole lobster, came up to less than 100 buckaroos, which was unbelievably value-for-money. We liked that the grub here was rustic and uncomplicated, where a light touch was employed with the seafood to highlight its sparkling freshness.

Service though, was appallingly bad. We had front row seats to a senior staffer unprofessionally berating a trainee, which, really, was more embarrassing for the senior staffer than the poor trainee. Also, the cashier's claims of not being able to check with the kitchen if any of the dishes had parsley was ludicrous.

The Western Australia Lobster Mornay (A$29.90), of half a WA lobster slathered in a sumptuous mornay sauce and grated cheese, was grilled to a melty gooey perfection, and served with fat chips and simple salad.

The Char-Grilled Australian Prawn Platter (A$29.90), brimming with sweetness and lusciously burnished with garlic butter, was given a kick with a Thai spicy dip and lemon wedge. Salad greens lent a refreshing contrast.

The Grilled Local Wild Barramundi (A$25.90), seared a beautiful golden, was drizzled with garlic butter for flavour, while thick cut chips and a mesclun salad rode alongside.

Of course, we had a NZ white to wash all that gorgeous seafood down, and the Matua Hawkes Bay Sauvignon Blanc (A$8), bursting with passionfruit flavours, was perfectly crisp and juicy.

Try and secure a table reservation alfresco, just before sunset, so you can watch the sun go down. It's spectacular.

The indoors, breezy with the wind tunnels, is better for rainy weather.

So, it's semi self-serviced, where you go to the cashiers, order and pay for your food, and someone will serve you the dishes when they're ready.

Crustaceans on the Wharf
Stokes Hill Road
Darwin Wharf Precinct
Darwin CBD NT 0800
Tel: (08) 8981 8658
Open daily from 5.30pm to 12midnight
Website: www.crustaceans.net.au


Caveau Bar

So, we wanted to have shabu at Shabu Shabu Gen, but failed to make reservations at the tiny little restaurant on a Saturday evening. Obviously, we were turned away. So us lazybums simply walked into the restaurant next-door, sister restaurant Bistro du Vin, but they were also a full-house. So, we thought, surely La Strada, another door down, would have availability.

I'm pretty sure you know where this is going, but yup, no free tables either at La Strada.

But then the awesome service at La Strada cushioned their rejection by informing that Caveau Bar next door, also under the Les Amis Group as with the aforementioned 3 restaurants, shared the same kitchen and we could take a seat in the bar, yet order food from its relations next door.

Turned out a blessing that the other 3 restaurants were all busy occupied. We ended up ordering exclusively from Caveau's menu, and discovered the food at the unassuming little bar was outstanding! Like, everything we ordered was flawless. We've eaten at all its affiliates, multiple times, and never known that Caveau Bar served actual food. All this time, we just thought it was only a bar, with standard boring bar bites like wings and peanuts and crackers to soak up the booze.

Service was gracious, but bumbling. They'd accidentally tacked on an extra glass of wine and a main in our bill, and we'd have been 60 bucks poorer had I not checked it.

The Duck Rilette ($18) may have been a little less fat-laden than what I was used to, but I liked it. Less guilt, but same exquisite flavour. We also supplemented that with a platter of Jamon Iberico Reserva ($25), beautiful red shavings lush with the salty intensity of a 24 months' curing process.

The Broccollini ($22) were unexpectedly huuuugeeeee, as I always thought broccollini were the skinny stemmed siblings to full-grown broccoli. These were more like the great grand patriarch of the broccoli family. That said, I really liked the pairing with prosciutto, the salty pungency a delightful contrast to the subtle bitter accents of the greens.

A dish with much more mellow flavours, the Pan-Seared Hokkaido Scallops ($16) was paired with king oyster mushrooms and a velvety smooth mash.

The fried garlic chips picked up the smoky accents of the Grilled Octopus ($30), while cherry tomatoes, green olives, balsamic emulsion, and a punchy salsa verde gave lift.

An Italian nonna would approve the Meatballs in Tomato Sauce ($24), juicy, coarsely textured, and flavoursome.

Ditto for the Pan-Seared Gambas in Tomato ($16), the sparkling fresh prawns as sweet as the sauce was bright and lively.

This was the highlight of an already fabulous dinner, Clams & Spicy Pork Sausage ($28) cooked in a sauce of white wine, garlic and stewed tomatoes. A bold and hearty dish that was an all-round winner.

Also available at La Strada, the Ceps Mushrooms ($26), or porcini as its known in these parts, was flush with roasted garlicky overtones, fresh thyme accents, and sweet herbaceous notes of cured lardo. An oozy soft-boiled egg rode alongside.

A staple, the Burrata & San Daniele Ham ($32) was simplicity at its finest. Just good fresh produce that shone on their own, served with grissini sticks and tomatoes on the vine.

Caveau Bar
1 Scotts Road
#01-12 Shaw Centre
Tel: 6737 2622
Open Sundays to Thursdays from 10.30am to 11pm;
Fridays and Saturdays from 10.30am to 1am
Website: www.caveaubar.com.sg


Moorish Cafe, Darwin

A tapas bar/restaurant in the heart of the city centre, Moorish is constantly lauded as a must-try in Darwin. Boisterous and fabulous, the restaurant is a perpetual full-house. It's little wonder why locals throng to the vibrant bar-restaurant: the food, which draws its inspiration from the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East, puts a refreshingly unique spin on local and seasonal produce. Flavours were riotous, compelling, and moreish, pun intended.

Service may get a little choppy, especially during peak dining hours, but staff were generally engaging, if a little frazzled. Just booze up and you won't even notice the inordinate lapses between the starters and mains.

The Tapenade Crusted NT Barramundi (A$35), juicy and robust with the salty tang of olives, was enlivened by lashings of olive oil, cherry tomatoes, roasted pumpkin, kalamata olives, roasted green beans, and anchovies.

The Dukkah Crusted Eye Fillet of Beef (A$39.50), set on a bed of sweet potato mash, was complemented by a rich bone marrow and red wine reduction.

A must-try, the Fried Cauliflower (A$8) was made punchy with a liberal powdering of moroccan spices. Absolutely smashing, and so good we took away another 2 portions of this.

We ordered this because it just sounded so unconventional on the menu. The Grilled Pork Belly (A$8.50) was slathered with chilli chocolate sauce. Surprisingly balanced, the mild bitter notes of the dark chocolate notes highlighted the sweet accents of the pork, while the chilli cut through the decadent fattiness of the belly.

Because the pork belly chocolate was so good, we then ordered the Chilli Chocolate Pudding (A$17), which chilli notes were as subtle as the chocolate was flush. A scoop of Belgian chocolate chip ice-cream and melty hot fudge were a lovely contrast of the hot and cold.

Even if the restaurant seems open-aired, it gets more cooled by the air-conditioning the closer you sit to the back.

Moorish Cafe
37 Knuckey Street
Darwin City, NT 0800
Open Tuesdays to Fridays from 9.30am to 2.30pm for lunch; 6pm to 10pm for dinner;
Saturdays from 9am to 10pm;
Closed on Sundays and Mondays
Tel: +61 8 8981 0010
Website: www.moorishcafe.com.au

Tung Lok Xihe Restaurant, The Grandstand

Now that all of our favourite tv shows are on hiatus, we find ourselves going out A LOT. Instead of bagging dinner home to veg out in front of the telly, we actually get out, dine out, date each other, date our friends.

So I haven't seen Lips in a while (our monthly girls' night out having lapsed due to life's constrains), and we thought we'd do a double date with our husbands in tow. And we thought we'd go to their neck of the woods, away from town where it's nauseatingly congested, for dinner. So she'd suggested Tung Lok Xihe at The Grandstand, a frequent haunt of hers.

Tung Lok Xihe Restaurant is the peking duck specialist under the Tung Lok empire, and I think their Xihe concept is on par with the Imperial Treasure Group's Super Peking Duck entity. The Tung Lok empire restaurants may be less illustrious than the regularly celebrated Imperial Treasure Group, but I like their consistent reliability in churning out good solid food. Aside from the fantastic peking duck, the rest of the dishes we ordered that night were delightful as well.

A special note must be made of the flawless service, which was attentive and efficient and smiley throughout. But what most impressed us was that the staff didn't try to shoo us away even though it was 11pm before we realised the restaurant was closed. We'd stayed 30 minutes past its closing time of 10.30pm, and the staff were still around to refill our water. In fact, they'd actually told us not to rush, and to "eat slowly". I mean, that's seriously obliging service.

Using the famed Silver Hill ducks from Ireland, the Peking Duck ($66) at Tung Lok was faultless. Meats were carved and sectioned to the premium skin-only, breast meat, and thigh portions for easy picking. I particularly liked the Beijing-style accompaniments: candied pop rocks, leek, mustard, julienned cucumbers, sweet hoisin-based sauce and blueberry sauce.

So apparently, the skin (left) pairs best with the pop rocks and blueberry sauce. The lean breast (middle) goes better with the mustard, while the fat-lined thigh meat (right) goes well with the standard leek, cucumber, sweet sauce swaddled in a flour crepe.

The table-side carving, which we completely ignored as we were busy yakking away.

The rest of the duck, we opted to have the kitchen do a fry-up with Salt & Pepper ($12) and lashings of golden garlic, which was scrumptious.

The Deep Fried Salmon Skin ($10) burnished with salted egg yolk and spiked with the subtle heat of crispy curry leaves, was like crack. If crack was legal. So.Freaking.Addictive.

The Wok-Fried French Beans ($16) tossed with bacon bits, itsy bitsy clams and chilli, was heady and unctuous and imbued with the lovely char of a smoky wok.

The Curry King Prawns ($48) was a potent blend of rich creaminess, oily spiciness and shrimpy umaminess. The gravy was like a beautiful child of laksa and chilli crab, so we ordered extra fried buns to mop up all of that gloriousness. And then were shameless enough to lick the claypot clean.

Tung Lok Xihe Restaurant
200 Turf Club Road
The Grandstand #01-23
Tel: 6466 3363
Open daily from 11.30am to 3pm; 6pm to 10.30pm for dinner
Website: www.tunglok-xihe.com


PS Cafe, Ann Siang Hill

Remember how I initially said that P.S. Cafe is overrated? Which I reaffirmed a year later. But then I discovered their stellar pizzas at its Tiong Bahru outlet, which prompted me to give the insanely popular restaurant group another shot.

I've now done an about-turn, and I'll totally admit this: We love PS Cafe. We frequent their Ann Siang Hill bistro, which is our favourite of the lot. It has the most extensive menu, which includes their amazing Asian selection a la Chopsuey Cafe (but without the over-enthused inclusion of parsley in every.fricking.thing), and their service is actually attentive (our water glasses get refilled), unlike the harried staff at its Dempsey outlet (we got no water at all throughout the 2 hours we were there having dessert).

Also, I love its buzzy corporate vibe on the weekdays, which eases into a more relaxed casual ambience on the weekends. A bonus for crowd-averse peeps like us: this is probably the least crowded PS Cafe on the weekends.

We love that their grub, in particular the sandwiches and beef pie, are consistently delicious, hearty, and unpretentious. We've also taken away their stuff on multiple occasions, and are happy to report that their food travels well.

A must-try, the Croque Madame ($26) was a rustic sandwich of smoked ham, and montreux gruyere melted between thick slices of crusty bread, finished with a crisp fried egg.

A regular order of ours, the Chicken Parmigiano ($29) of moist chicken breast grilled to a smoky perfecton, was blanketed with wilted spinach, oozy mozzarella, and a chunky tomato sauce speckled with garlic ciabatta croutons. A slow-roasted roma tomato, oodles of kale mesclun, and a grilled lemon lent themselves well for a piquant contrast.

The Hubs favourite dish at PS Cafe, the Beef Burgundy Pie ($29) was sumptuous. Melty hunks of beef were slow-braised with red wine and portobellos, topped with a puff pastry, and sided by buttery mashed potatoes, and roasted spring vegetables glazed with balsamic.

Even if you've no tummy space, the Giant Salted Caramel Profiterole ($15) was the type of worthwhile dessert that makes your inevitable bursting-of-pants totally worthwhile. This was potent, a nuanced sweet-salty balance, and so.damn.delicious.

P.S. Cafe
45 Ann Siang Road
Tel: 9797 0648
Open Mondays to Thursdays from 11.30am to 11pm;
Fridays 11.30am to 1am;
Saturdays from 9.30am to 1am;
Sundays from 9.30am to 11pm
Website: www.pscafe.com


Paradise Teochew Restaurant, Scotts Square

I'm always on the lookout for good Teochew restaurants. Of course, nothing can beat my gran's Teochew food, but since she's no longer around, I'll just have to settle for whichever restaurant serves the best Teochew cuisine. We rotate between two favourites, Chui Huay Lim for when we're feeling a little fancier, and Swa Garden for when we're unwashed and shabby. But since the latter closed down, we've only had the former to satisfy any Teochew food cravings.

So then a foodie friend says nice things about the Paradise Group's Teochew restaurant concept, and even though I'm not a fan of any of Paradise's restaurants, I thought I'd give its Scotts Square branch a shot.

As expected, Paradise Teochew Restaurant wasn't great. To be fair, they had decent renderings, and the dishes weren't altogether horrid. It's just somewhat unimpressive, and in every aspect, Chui Hui Lim just fared better. Except for the service. Like Chui Huay Lim and any of the Imperial Treasure or Crystal Jade outlets, service at Paradise Teochew Restaurant was Speedy Gonzales-fast, efficient, and gracious.

The saving grace of the Braised Sliced Irish Fat Duck ($20) was the fat-lined skin. Incredibly sinful but oh.so.good. And the chilli; its bright piquancy neutralised the slight gaminess of the duck.

The pan-fried Teochew-Style Oyster Omelette ($18) was wonderfully crisp, but the bottom layer was drenched in oil. The oysters, while small and not as sparkling fresh as I'd like, were plentiful.

What the Sauteed French Beans ($16) lacked in a smoky aroma, it made up for with oodles of flavourful minced pork laced with preserved olive vegetables.

The Teochew-Style Stir-Fried Seafood Mee Sua ($18) specked with beansprouts, scrambled eggs, shrimp, cabbage, julienned carrots, and pork belly, was commendable, but unmemorable.

Paradise Teochew Restaurant
6 Scotts Road
#03-05 Scotts Square
Tel: 6538 0644
Open weekdays from 11.30am to 3pm for lunch; 6pm to 10.30pm for dinner;
weekends from 10.30am to 3.30pm for lunch; 6pm to 10.30pm for dinner

The Pearl, Darwin

The Pearl serves one of the best brunches in Darwin. The Parisienne bistro may be distinguished for its dinner prix fixe offerings, but its brunch was most outstanding. I was actually surprised, as I didn't expect to eat Melbourne-quality brunches in Darwin, arguably Australia's most disparate city. The food was exquisite yet hearty, and pretty everything was a must-try.

Service, while lean in number, was cheery and efficient. Do note though, that in spite of its relaxed ambience, the restaurant enforces a smart casual dress code.

A vegetarian option that was so delicious I near-forgot it didn't have any meat, the melange of Roasted Mushrooms & Grilled Haloumi (A$18), poached egg, roquette, grilled tomato, white bean puree, and salsa verde was nuanced and rustic. I'd never been a fan of haloumi until this, the grilling treatment searing a beautiful golden off its chewy meatiness.

The Croque Madame (A$19.50), a confection of sourdough toasted with a thick slice of barossa leg ham, melty gruyere, chive bechamel, roast roma tomato, and topped with a poached egg, was wonderfully cheesy and gooey.

The Bubble & Squeak (A$18.50), Aussi-speak for rosti or potato hash, was spiked with truffle for added fragrance, and accompanied by a full English breakfast of streaky bacon, poached egg, slow roasted tomato, rocket leaves, and crusty sourdough.

The Sweet Corn Fritters (A$16.50) was laced with dill, and topped with sublime fennel & orange cured ocean trout, creme fraiche, and a poached egg.

Because we love our eggs, we supplemented with the Scrambled Free-Range Egg (A$4), perfectly fluffy and creamy and scrumptious.

The Latte (A$4.50), brewed in-house with beans that were ground in-house, was potent and rich. An excellent wake-up call.

The cafe is located inside the courtyard of a shopping mall, The Vic, along the main shopping thoroughfare of Smith Street. The "alfresco" is sun-drenched and warmed by the greenhouse effect, but the "indoors", a chic monochromatic space, is low-lit, intimate and cool. No prizes for guessing where we sat.

The Pearl
27 Smith Street, Unit 9, The Vic Complex
Darwin 0800
Tel: +0435 821 648
Open Tuesdays to Thursdays from 12noon to 12midnight;
Fridays to Saturdays from 11am to 12midnight
Website: www.thepearl.com.au



The last time I stepped into the former Supreme Court was when it housed the Singapore mediation and arbitration centres. It's now the National Gallery, and whereas the building was swarmed with lawyers a-plenty, it's now a thriving arts facility teeming with family-units and tourists galore.

And where there previously was just the one legal guild for food, there's today a slew of dining options. As per new opening S.O.P., we waited a year before visiting any of the restaurants. First off the to-eat list was Aura, yet another Italian concept under the ilLido group.

What I particularly like about the Beppe de Vito-founded group of restaurants is their consistency. The Italian cuisine may not be the most exciting or mind-blowing, but their offerings tend to be a safe-reliable. Service was, as expected, well above average, attentive without being intrusive, and sufficiently knowledgeable to recommend winning options. And for a fine-dining restaurant, the vibe was relaxed and casual.

Apparently a popular order, the Grilled Octopus ($28), perfectly soft and chewy, sided by a breadcrumbed soft-boiled egg, roasted tomato, corn, and frisee, was stellar. The masses were correct, this is a must-try.

The Foie Gras ($28) was commendable, its livery taste set off against the sweetness of the caramelised apples and savoury notes of the duck jus.

While delicate, the Chicken Consomme ($28), spiked with marsala and a smattering of truffle raviolini, needed a few grains of salt to really hit the comfort button.

The Artisanal Burrata ($28), milky and chewy, was enlivened with truffle and lent crunch with asparagus and frisee.

The complimentary in-house baked bread was delicious, fluffy and redolent of olive oil.

Aura's pastas were fantastic, and you'll do well to stick to them. The Scampi Tagliolini ($38) robust with shrimp jus, was sprinkled with smoked paprika for a subtle heat.

The Wild Mushroom Tortelli ($33), blended with pumpkin mash and candied ginger, was earthy, juicy and well-rounded.

I love fish, and the pan-fried Italian Seabass ($39), strewn with roasted asparagus, parsnip and carrots, fresh frisee, daikon rings, and dotted with saffron sauce. This was brimming with light, clean, clear flavours.

The Smoked Duck ($42), a lovely shade of medium pink, was paired with a pan-seared foie gras for a sumptuous melty lusciousness. Fresh frisee and wilted baby spinach provided a bitter contrast, while a rich jus lent heft.

The desserts were a hit-and-miss. The Chocolate & Hazelnut Tart ($18) topped with whisky cream tended to the saccharine, but the boozy amarena cherries gave balance.

The Toffee & Coffee Parfait ($18) was sweet and heady yet nuanced; but we thought that white chocolate ring was a tad redundant. A must-try.

The Baked Cheesecake ($18) was middling, it was a smidge dry, and the lemon espuma and strawberries were way too sour.

1 St Andrews Road
#05-02 National Gallery
Tel: 6866 1977
Open daily from 12noon to 2pm for lunch; 6.30pm to 10pm for dinner
Website: www.aura.sg
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