National Kitchen by Violet Oon

I'm slowly eating my way through the collection of restaurants at the National Gallery.

National Kitchen by Violet Oon has been on my to-eat list ever since Violet Oon, the doyenne of Peranakan cuisine, announced she was opening yet another eponymous dining concept in the heritage building. I've always liked Violet Oon's Nyonya cuisine, even if I've found her restaurants tend to get a little inconsistent after the 5-year mark.

The first time I was here, we got seated outdoors, which fortuitously turned out to be the best seats in the house with its expansive view of the Padang and the Marina Bay Sands beyond. Save for the masses packing the balcony terrace during the F1 and National Day festivities (or any other time when there's fireworks to be seen from this vantage), the alfresco outdoors is a serene contrast to the bustling crowd of the indoors. And it feels a lot more private because tables are spaced much further apart on the balcony.

Food-wise, we were, tbh, apprehensive when we first walked into the restaurant and saw a sea of Caucasians. Tourists, mainly, from the look of it. We were half-expecting the food to be a watered-down version of our beloved spicy foods, so it was surprising to find that National Kitchen by Violet Oon held back no punches. I'm pleased to report that the rempah caused a steady stream of sniffles and the relentless need for top-ups of ice water. But stick to the Peranakan stuff, and give a hard pass on the hawker dishes; they were middling at best and entirely unsatisfactory.

Like with the dismally pedestrian Rojak ($7), which was soggy and wayyy too sweet. Suffice it to say, we didn't finish this.

The Pong Tauhu Soup ($11) was fantastic. The red-tinged bisque was redolent with taucheo and shrimp stock, toasty and umami and sweet, laced with julienned bamboo shoots, a ginormous ball of minced chicken, prawns and beancurd and lashings of bawang goreng (fried shallots).

A must-try, the Daging Chabek ($36) was a hunk of beef cheek slow-braised till fork-tender, and slathered in a toasty nutty spicy rempah with hints of piquant tamarind, fragrant coconut and smoky-sweet gula melaka. It's not a dish frequently found anywhere except in home kitchens during the most special of occasions, so this was quite the treat.

Also a must-try but one that's available across Violet Oon's restaurant group unlike the daging chabek, the Beef Rendang ($23) of melt-in-your-mouth beef shin rich in a coconut milk-based rempah and enlivened with kaffir lime leaves was superb.

The Udang Goreng Chilli ($32) of succulent angka prawns was grilled and tossed in a chilli padi and garlic rempah. This was fiery, bold and gutsy, and lit my tongue on fire. Also a must-try.

The Cod ($39), baked till crispy, was served on a bed of laksa cream sauce, coriander pesto and lime to brighten it up. I loved the East-West fusion of this, it was a resounding hit.

Yet another memorable dish, the deep-fried Sambal Bajak Barramundi ($30) was burnished with a flurry of chili padi sambal sweet with caramelised onions.

The Indian Red Snapper Fish Head Curry ($42), dotted with omatoes, baby eggplant, and okra was competent, but forgettable.

The Hainanese Chicken Rice ($18) was a woeful dud. The chicken was dry, the rice was lacking in flavour, the sauce was bland and the chilli was oddly sweet instead of spicy. We didn't finish this either. The saving grace of this was to use the rice as a somewhat flavoured set-up for the gravied dishes.

Ditto for the Nasi Lemak Rice ($2), which was less-than-fragrant, but made for a great base for the sambals and rempahs and gravies.

Another must-try, the Buah Keluak Noodles ($24) was a modern interpretation of the use of buah keluak. This was smoky, piquant, nutty and kicky. So so good!!

Our dessert order de rigueur, Pulot Hitam ($12) was the perfect juxtaposition of cold coconut ice-cream and warm black glutinous rice pudding sweetened with gula melaka. Best pulot hitam, bar none.

National Kitchen by Violet Oon
National Gallery #02-01
1 Saint Andrews Road
Tel: 9834 9935
Open daily for lunch from 12noon to 2.30pm;
tea from 3pm to 5pm;
dinner from 6pm to 10.30pm


Three Buns by Potato Head

It's not often that we eat sinfully indulgent foods like burgers or steak, (u know, coz we now prefer a diet of light soups and salads more conventional of older folks) but every once a veryyy blue moon, we actually crave a good juicy burger.

And where else to satisfy that craving but newly opened Three Buns, an offshoot of hipster burger joint Potato Head Folk. I usually stay away from new launches but Potato Head is a well-established purveyor of the best burgers in Singapore. So we figured, can't go wrong!!

The menu at Three Buns is a little more adventurous than its Keong Siak parent Potato Head. And a lot more Asian: so expect ingredients such as pork floss, fried shallots and miso-this or dashi-that. We liked it, the unabashed East-West fusion worked.

One thing I've noticed about the Potato Head stable of restaurants: service is invariably great. Our servers were, without exception, smiley and cheery. And the clubby hip-hop music just added to that groovy, upbeat ambience.

Excellent food and service aside, this is hardly a first-date place. Well, not unless you're totally fine scaring off your tinder-swipe-right guy with all that meat-jus dribbling down your chin. But...of course, if your date still digs you after seeing all that slobbery mess, then, he/she is a keeper for sure.

The beautifully charred Crackalacka Corn ($8), seasoned with paprika mayo, oro del maso parmesan, toasted brioche crumbs, calamansi, and chilli, was a complex punchy riot of deliciousness.

The Miso Dirty Fries ($9), loaded with miso bernaise, smoked chicken sausage, floss, and pickled chilli was scrumptious.

I love fried shallots and would highly recommend any of their burgers with bawang goreng, like the Smokin' B Boy ($23). A sumptuous 150gm hunk of black Angus beef patty, slathered with bbq ketchup, dingley dell black beer, smoky mayo, then topped with treacle streaky bacon, lashings of bawang goreng, smoked cheese and sandwiched between fluffy brioche toasts. Absolutely glorious!!

The Burning Man Burger ($23) had a smidge more kick, with gochujang ketchup lending a subtle spice, and dashi mayo rounding it off with a umami accent. Melty cheese, bawang goreng, perfectly medium black Angus beef patty and toasty brioche completed the yummy ensemble.

I like that the drinks at Three Buns use metal straws. It makes me feel good and saintly when imbibing. We took our waitress' suggestion: the refreshing and not too sweet Strawberry Fields ($18) with bombay sapphire gin infused strawberries, peach liquor, and a base of tonic water.

Three Buns by Potato Head Folk
60 Robertson Quay
#01-01 The Quayside
Tel: 6909 7838
Open Tuesdays to Fridays from 5pm to 12midnight;
Saturdays & Sundays from 10am to 12midnight;
Closed on Mondays
Website: www.threebuns.com/singapore/


Balestier Hui Kee Wanton Mee, Zhongshan Park

We hardly, if ever, eat at a food court. More often than not, the food is sub-par to whatever you can get at an actual hawker centre. Yes, there's the air-conditioning, which in sooo much more comfortable than the sweltering heat of our tropical "alfrescos"...but I'd rather sweat it out with properly good food at a hawker centre than eat mediocre food , sweat-free, at a food court.

That being said... I recently heard that there was excellent wanton mee to be found at a food court in Zhongshan Park (which is surprising coz the mall isn't really renown for its dining options), and so, we just had to check it out. Besides, it's where we like to do our grocery shopping (PSA: the NTUC here is da best!! And while the supermarket is under its 'Finest' brand, prices here are akin to the regular ol' standard NTUC brand...also, parking for the first 2 hours is free on weekends!! #cheaptrillsinlife), so it wasn't too much trouble popping by whilst picking up toilet paper.

Anyways...apparently, this Hui Kee Wanton Mee was a 2nd-generation spinoff from the now-defunct original at Balestier Market opposite the mall. I like it, and the Hubs loves it (and he's no fan of wantan mee, so that's saying something), and we've returned several times to pick up takeaways.

What stood out in the Wanton Mee ($5) was the char siew (barbecued pork). These were thick slices, luscious and flavoursome, with just a hint of smoky char. Ooh, the chilli too, which punchy robust notes slicked the springy noodles and pulled the whole dish together. The wantons were a little forgettable, but the chilli really helped enliven it.

The Combo Plate ($6) is what I call the dieter's option. Sans noodles, this was simply the "meat" of the dish slathered in that fantastic chilli sauce.

The stall facade for reference, but really, you can't miss it. It's the only wanton noodle stall in the tiny food court.

The Original Hui Kee Wanton Mee
Food Fair @ Zhongshan Park
20 Ah Hood Road
Tel: 9628 4668 / 9720 3691
Open daily from 9.30am to 2.30pm;
and 3.30pm to 7pm
Facebook Website


Zucchini-Tapenade Pasta Salad with Sausage & Maple Glazed Carrots

As u can well tell by now, I love pasta salads, it comes together quickly, and makes the perfect one-dish (healthy!) meal for those busy bee weeknights. And while we get just the one season here in the tropics, this warm pasta salad is perfect for a nippy Fall day.

Ingredients (feeds 2-4 pax):
1 cup fusilli pasta
3 cups sausage, diced to 1 inch cubes
2 large zucchini, sliced to 1cm-thick semi-circlets or 3/4cm thick rings
1 large carrot, sliced to matchsticks lengths
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsp olive tapenade
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp maple syrup

1) Fry sausage in non-stick pan (you don't need oil in this case), until just cooked through, about 5 minutes on medium-high heat. Set aside, leaving the drippings in the pan.

2) With the drippings from the sausage, fry carrots until just wilted, about 1 minute on medium-high heat.

3) Turn heat down to medium, add minced garlic, and maple syrup, stirring through. Salt to taste.

4) Push carrots to the edges, add zucchini, fry till about cooked through, about 1.5 minutes. Salt to taste.

5) In the meantime, cook pasta in salted boiling water, until 2 minutes before instructed cooking time.

6) Drain into bowl, and add tapenade and olive oil, tossing through.

7) Return all ingredients into the pan, toss through.

8) Add cooked pasta to the pan, and serve warm.


Magic Square

Much has been raved of Magic Square, the incubator at Portsdown Road for promising young chefs. But I would beg to defer: in the same way I would prefer not to have my hair cut by a trainee hairdresser, I have to confess I wasn't crazy about Magic Square. It's not to say that the food was bad, but it very much feels like I'm an experiment for said chefs to hone their skills.

Also, perhaps the chef was having a bad day, but his sullen demeanor and lifeless intonation didn't exactly inspire enthusiasm for his food. He seemed, at best, reluctant, and at worst, irritably testy, to present his menu. That irritation was most obvious when he stopped, mid-sentence, to glare with pursed lips, at a few diners who failed to pay rapt attention to his dead, monotonous description of some dish. I don't blame that group of talkative diners, the chef appeared so uninterested about his own food, how could he reasonably expect that anyone would be excited by that? And really, this may be some kind of a school for budding chefs, but I wasn't aware it was for us paying diners too. It felt like we were thrown back to our student life and being made to eat, supervised by a strict disciplinarian of a teacher. If I wanna talk to my dinner dates instead of learning about the conception of your dish, it's really my prerogative. And I may be wrong here, but the chef didn't look like he was even happy to be cooking.

The saving grace was how cheap the meal was, because we were definitely still hungry after those 9 amuse bouche-sized "courses". And it made commercial sense coz dinner was really more a sampling of the chef's talents, and in the same way you'd pay a discounted rate for a trainee hairstylist, the price reflected the chef's training wheels.

Less than a memorably great meal aside, I could definitely see potential. The point of Magic Square was really to help chefs perfect their craft in a formal set-up, which goal, I reckon, has been realized. And I would count this as my digestive system doing its part in supporting such a "charity project" for the year, so now, I'll like to return to restaurants more worth the work I put in at the gym, please.

Dinner started off with a palate cleanser of some sort, sliced rose apple seasoned with tamarind, rempah curd, lemon balm, torch ginger and jambu air juice. Clean and fresh, with a subtle heat from the ginger.

The next was grilled prawn heads and baked amaebi prawns under a 60C heat lamp, served with chrysanthemum petals, honey, fresh pomelo, white fungus and bitter lemon.

The chef explained that his philosophy of reducing wastage, and so used ingredients typically discarded. Like with the XO-sauced Beef Tartare, it was studded with fermented scallop abductor muscle, which would typically be discarded, and served it with bits of garum or the skirt of the scallop which is also typically discarded, and topped with a fried betel leaf.

Typically a bait fish and atypically used in cooking, the local black-barred halfbeak gar fish (Hemiramphus far) was treated 3-ways: first, the bones were removed, Japanese-style (whatever that means), then cured and dried, and finally layered with fish paste and char-grilled. This was served with lime to counter the muddy flavour of the fish.

This was the only dish I really liked: a cross between a mantou and prata burnished in fish sauce caramel, and served with a cauliflower curry and homemade ricotta. It was inventive, and the East-West fusion was executed seamlessly.

A riff on “chao tar mee sua”, wheat flour noodles were cooked in fish stock and then crisped into some kind of rosti-like pancake. This was topped with Scottish razor clams, and wisps of deep-fried kailan. I don't usually eat mee sua, but this was pretty commendable.

The last savoury course was a charcoal-grilled Aomori grain-fed beef ribeye that'd been marinated in fermented rice, and served with a mole rempah of chocolate, fermented black beans, satay sauce and sambal.

The first of two desserts was a charcoal-grilled Taiwanese mango marinated in kaffir lime oil. yogurt and Taiwanese macau pepper in a whey broth with lime juice. This was quite delightful in that the flavours were robust and lively.

The last dish of the night was a hybrid of an Indian cardamon kulfi and a Teochew pumpkin “orh ni”. topped with cardamon flavoured sable crumbs. Not a fan, the texture was alright but it was almost tasteless. I didn't get the kulfi now the orh ni in this.

Magic Square
5B Portsdown Road #01-02
Tel: 8181 0102
Dinners start at 6pm sharp (don't be late, because it's communal dining, dinner can only begin when every diner has arrived)
Facebook website


Chui Xiang Kitchen

Have I already mentioned that I love my foodie friends?? Because oftentimes we get stuck in a rut of only eating at the same few restaurants, it's such a refreshing change-up to have our food-obsessed friends steer us to their family's favourite haunts. In fact, many of our current go-tos started off as recommendations from our friends.

Chui Xiang Kitchen is a cze char discovery courtesy of a colleague-turned-friend, who's quickly turning out to be some kind of savant with regards to unknown, underrated gems (he'd previously suggested the fantastic Gu Ma Jia). It's apparently been around for years, but as with Gu Ma Jia, I'd have never known it was there if he didn't tell me about it.

It's located along the same row of shophouse eateries as Casuarina Curry and Ban Leong Wah Hoe Seafood, and in fact, Chui Xiang Kitchen is right next to the latter. Frankly, I'm stumped as to why Ban Leong Wah Hoe appears so much more popular than Chui Xiang Kitchen when the food at Chui Xiang is generally much better finessed.

Big big plus-point: it's near the club, so we usually hit this up after whacking a few balls at the range.

It's been a while since we had marmite pork ribs (this was one of our must-orders at Siang Hee which current location at Serangoon Garden is so frikkin' far to get to!!!), and it was great to find that Chui Xiang's Marmite Pork Ribs ($14 for small) were excellent. The ribs were tender and flavourful, the sweet-sticky marinade having seeped right into the bones. For sure a must-try.

Another must-try, the Teochew-style Cabbage Chicken ($18) was comfort food at finest. Stuffed with chestnuts, wolfberries, red dates, and white fungus, this was fall-off-the-bone tender and wonderfully nuanced. Better than Huat Kee's version, I feel.

Remember Ocean Curry Fish Head at Toa Payoh, before they sold it to the Chinese?? It was the gold standard of Chinese-style fish head curry. And now finally, I've found a worthwhile substitute at Chui Xiang. The swimmingly fresh Curry Fish Head ($28), creamy and choc-a-bloc with lady's fingers, brinjal, tomatoes, cabbage, and beancurd puffs, was rich, punchy and sumptuous.

The Hotplate Tofu ($12 for small) was simple, homespun fare. The seafood was sparkling fresh, sweet and cooked perfectly.

The 'Fu Rong' Omelette ($8 for small) generously laced with barbecued pork dice, shrimp and mushrooms was commendable.

The only dish that fell flat was the String Bean Minced Meat ($10 for small), it was lacking in 'wok hei' and a little too salty. They'd added too much preserved vegetables (mei cai) to the minced pork.

Also a must-try, the Seafood Hor Fan ($5 for small) was scrumptious and smoky with 'wok hei'. Ingredients were plentiful and the egg-drop gravy was absolutely glorious.

Chui Xiang Kitchen
126 Casuarina Road
Tel: 6458 4567
Opens daily from 11am to 2.30pm for lunch; 5pm to 10.30pm for dinner


Braised Vermicelli with Kurobuta Pork

This is one of my favourite comfort-food dishes. And because it's got vegetables, carbs and protein, it makes for a great one-dish meal. While slicing and dicing may take a bit of work, you can easily prep all that beforehand, and get this whipped up in a jiffy on a busy weeknight.

Ingredients (feeds 2-4pax):
3 rolls dried vermicelli (rehydrate this by soaking in water for at least 15 minutes)
5 cups lightly packed shredded carrots
1 large head cabbage, sliced into long thin strips (I used Japanese cabbage, it's sweeter)
4 cups lightly packed shitake mushrooms, sliced
500gm kurobuta pork, sliced and marinated in tare
4 cloves large garlic, minced
1/2 cup dashi stock
1 tsp chicken powder
1 tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp light soy
salt to taste
dash of ground white pepper
1 tbsp canola oil
1 tbsp sesame oil
fried shallots for garnishing
sesame seeds for garnishing

1) Fry garlic on medium heat with canola-sesame oil blend until fragrant, about 1 minute. Careful not to let the garlic burn.

2) Turn heat up to medium-high, add carrots, toss through until softened, about 2 minutes.

3) Add shitake, stir through, about 2 minutes.

4) Add cabbage, toss through until wilted, about 2 minutes.

5) In the meantime, fry pork in separate pan until cooked through.

6) Add vermicelli to the main pan with the vegetables. Stir through.

7) Add sauce mixture of dashi, chicken powder, oyster sauce and light soy, with half a cup of water. Let the glass noodles simmer and soak up the sauce.

8) Once the sauce is almost all soaked up, add cooked pork and stir through.

9) Salt to taste, add pepper, and garnish with sesame seeds and fried shallots before serving.

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