Monday, August 31, 2009

In Thai We Trust, Sirarom, Gottlieb Road Penang

Going back to Penang over a long weekend can be a highly stressful affair. The mob of out-of-towners is inevitable, as are the traffic chaos and wreckage to one's overall sanity. I was intent on staying within the compounds of home throughout my trip, where my lovely folks and the cat reigned serenely.

However, inundated by guilt and remorse from unceremoniously passing out on a gathering the night before, I found myself out and about, cursing at foreign car plates on the road, heading to lunch with Hui and Nessie for a overdue catch up sesh. We were in the mood for Thai and Hui had sharply spotted the new joint, Sirarom on Gottlieb Road, opposite Phor Tay High School.

The interior was calm and unruffled, as tranquil as Dad's koi pond, when I entered and I was immediately placated.

We start with the requisite Som Tam (Papaya Salad). The version here featured raw preserved crab (also known as pu kai dong) which took a bit of getting used to. I felt they could've upped the spice easily by another notch but the freshness and crunch got us started on a good note.

The Tom Yam Talay (Seafood) induced much joy but again, I think they played it safe in terms of both the sour & spice notes. The fresh seafood was generous enough and we lapped it up with gusto.

The Kung Op Woon Sen (Claypot Vermicelli with Shrimps) was a radiant centrepiece - well-flavoured and moist vermicelli coating four huge-ass prawns... not sure why they underplayed the crustacean size but shrimps these are not!

Our next salad Yam Sam Krob (Crispy 3 salad) arrived next featuring a bevvy of crunchy beauties. The cashew nuts, dried fish maw (which replaced the dried cuttlefish that the menu had listed) and dried shrimps were mixed in a citrusy dressing. Refreshing, but not exactly remarkable.

We went a bit overboard with our orders, thinking Small meant we could sample more. The Small portions come enough to feed four, and between the three of us, we had to marshal the last vestiges of gluttony to sweep the table clean. The final dish of Tomyam petai with shrimps satisfied with plenty of those stinkin' beans and fresh shrimps.

We stumbled out into the pleasant Penang sunshine, happy and fulfilled. A great Thai meal, all in all, with the bill coming to about RM85 in total. Located next to Bagan, Sirarom offers plenty of parking. I foresee that if they keep their game of unstinting ingredients up, it's only a matter of time before this place draws in the crowds who will leave with their thumbs up.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Spice & Everything Nice, My Spicy Kitchen, Sungei Way

Banana leaf love is hard to beat. After inflicting too much abuse on one's constitution, BLR is usually, undoubtedly the only route to revival.

I've been impressed with how the enterprising siblings currently running My Spicy Kitchen have been engaging spicy food lovers via very current and relevant channels specifically Twitter and Facebook. So when Saturday morning called for BLR therapy, I was keen to give it a whirl, despite having to grapple with maps, directions and whatnots to get to Sungei Way, an area in PJ that was completely foreign to me.

We find the unassuming corner lot in the depth of Sungei Way with little trouble, thanks to the map here.

Here, banana leaf rice serving comes with a tray of the requisites - 3 x vegetables, 1 x dhal, 1 x fish curry and 1 x rassam. Bring on the healthy heap of rice, top up with poppadums and go crazzzeeee!! I appreciate that it's a tidier way of serving the reqs but I still much prefer the ceremonious, haphazard serving right on the banana leaf itself.

The chicken actually offered poultry freshness, not stale, hardened fibrous mass that I've learned to expect from the BLR side dish line-up.

While the BLR did what it was supposed to do, what stole my heart was the Samosa preceeding it. The triangular pastry was beautifully crafted, with the right balance of spice and everything nice. This snapped me right out of Hangoverville!

If I had to absolutely gripe, my one and only would be the absence of fried bitter gourd. We ordered it, gotten it misinterpreted by the helpful service staff, and learned much later that fried bitter gourd was in fact, not on the menu. BLR without fried bitter gourd is a concept difficult to stomach so here's hoping they'll add it on soon!

Also found out about My Spicy Kitchen's upcoming World Vision initiative, where customers will contribute towards helping the poor help themselves to build sustainable futures for their children, families and communities. Right on!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Vietnam Kitchen, 1-U

We arrived at 1-U famished, having decided to skip brekkie and head straight to apartment-viewing in yet another half-hearted attempt to step up Operation Stop Paying Rent NOW!

Most of the F&B outlets we were eyeing were not yet open at a little past 11AM so we made do with Vietnam Kitchen in the new wing. Admittedly, we could've waited and saved ourselves the disappointment.

The Prawn & Mango roll arrived scorching, but proved to be the win order of the day. The combination of generous slices of ripe mango and fresh plump crunchy prawns wrapped in thin pastry studded with roasted sesame seeds is pretty hard to get wrong.

Both of us decided to go for individual dry vermicelli options, thinking it will stave off hunger pangs while we shopped and make way for more late-afternoon delights later.

Spring rolls & sliced chicken on vermicelli came with a light fish sauce dressing. Apart from the abundance of fresh greens within, which is always welcome, this was bloody boring.

Same deal with his Curry Chicken on vermicelli. Very ordinary chicken curry on top of the same, felt a bit like fast food that one would whip up with leftovers. Forgettable.

To be fair, I think we did ourselves and the restaurant a disfavour for not going for the more interesting offerings like the Pork trotters, seafood specials or even the French inspired Vietnamnese dishes they had on offer. The vermicelli dishes here drew a blank, and I wouldn't be in a hurry to go back for those anytime soon.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Madam Momo

Hui had attended a Tibetan cooking class while in Dharamsala and one fine evening, she was to present to us a Momo dinner at her place. Momo, I duly learned, is Tibetan for dumplings, and is extremely popular in India and Nepal.

I had barely recovered from an evening of unrestrained hijinks with people from work so I was hellbent on taking it easy. This was somehow interpreted as a need for a tall tumbler of G&T upon arrival, courtesy of resident cocktailmeister Riz. Despite the remnants of too much wine & cider, this was terribly refreshing and put me right at ease.

Momo country... Madam Momo Hui cautioned that she had been a little heavy-handed with the dough's liquid to flour ratio, resulting in a somewhat stickier skin, causing some of the momos to tear in the process. They looked good all the same, just out from the steamer and I was eager to pounce.

First up, Momo with Spinach filling. Hui had thoughtfully left out the cheese in the standard filling, on account of my selective dairy resistance. It was moist despite the gooey absence, and when dipped into a DIY dipping of soy & ginger, very lovely.

Second Momo held the crunchy filling of cabbage, carrot & mushrooms. Redeemed an entire week of bad junk eating, it felt.

The surprise hit was the accompanying humble-looking brown rice with chopped vegetables and a sprinkling of chopped anchovies for taste. I loved this! The anchovies were a superb touch. I was amazed at the versatility of her Tefal steamer and immediately added it to my ever-growing list of must-have kitchen appliances.

Steamed fresh greens to keep the G&T in perspective... eating healthy is reward supreme!

And to finish, Chocolate Momos! I'd been sceptical about this, to be honest, but the filling of cocoa powder, sugar and sesame seeds floored me. Like mochi, but sturdier and more rugged, a reflection perhaps of the resilience needed to face the heart-wrenching plight of the Tibetans.

I also got this nifty book holder, perfect for keeping paperback dog ears in check.

More gifts - Himalayan rock salt, Yema (Japanese pepper) and a pretty stone from the Ganges.

The icing of souvenirs however, would have to be THIS - PartySmart pills! Herbal pills to pop in advance should you decide you're going to go overboard and not want to suffer the ill-effects of excessive drinking the morning after. I have yet to research or trial this "Safe and Effective" claim, but in any case, I am tickled that the inclination of human nature to overindulge despite knowing better has produced a niche market for such a product. Raises the question of how and when we stop at quick-fixes and study the need to instead, effect real and let's face it, more difficult, behaviourial changes.

In any case, the Momo meal was a beaut, and Hui's photo slideshow of India were charming and disarming all at the same time. Thank you Hui!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Better with Age, La Risata, Medan Damansara

I remember my last meal at La Risata like it was yesterday, even though it must have been a good 6 or 7 years ago, when I could still touch my toes with my fingers standing straight. Aging can be such a pain in the ass.

But it is also aging 's derivate and friendlier concept of birthdays that provides us reason for us to pay La Risata a visit on the occasion of Hui's birthday, a day after her ceremonious touch-down from her soul-searching sojourn in India.

La Risata remains as humble and as laid back as ever, though I don't remember the neighbourhood being this lively. Birthday girl far right and Yolande rocks the straight hair.

While the early participants wait for Hui and the rest of the party, we gorge on warm crusty bread served with a zesty olive tapenade...

...and opened the first bottle of the gorgeous Borgo Tesis Pinot Grigio, highly recommended by the affable waitress Edna, who remained very accommodating throughout the evening.

The salads are a treat here. Niz & Fiz get their green fix with the Insalata Risata, starring ham, egg and black olives.

Birthday girl & Riz shares Insalata Di Rucola E Zucca, featuring roasted pumpkin & ricotta. Both give it the thumbs up.

La Parmigiana E Melanzane, cheesy baked aubergine concoction also gets the nod.

Fiza has the Brodetto Di Cozze E Vongole, clam and mussel tomato soup. She proclaims it Good. I press her for more adjectives and she says Very Good. I press some more and Niz cuts in with F***ing Good. Age has obviously not done wonders for HIS language. Nuff said.

Their Pizza Romano arrives early. Minimal toppings done good. Mozza, parmesan & anchovies never struck harmony like this.

Benji has the Fettucine Mare E Monti, scallop & mushrooms in cream sauce. He downs it quick, so it must have been agreeable. But he might also have been just really hungry from the run prior to dinner.

I have the Arragosta and ask to substitute Spaghetti with Penne. The lobster, garlic & chilli medley is delightful, at just the right notch of spice. The serving is huge and I am happy.

Mei Shean's Capellini Al Nero Con Frutti Di Mare, angel hair with plump prawns & squid and pasta al dente dressed with squid ink, steals the show.

Yolande's Pollo Farcito, however doesn't fare so well. The chicken breast is tough, the accompanying brown sauce is too salty, and the ricotta and spinach stuffing doesn't live up to its promise.

Late arrival Kat goes for the Flourless Dark Chocolate Cake with ice-cream. Not quite what it could've been.

After an extended farewell, a few of us proceed to Solace a few doors away for a nightcap. It's a perfectly serviceable pub and features a porky menu, which we will return to sample.

South Australian Oxford Landing's Sauvignon Blanc. Not quite as pleasant as the Pinot Grigio at La Risata, but the mood is set sensibly to merry so no one complains.

We kick back and smoke some Beedhis, Hui's little indigenous souvenir from India, along with some hilarious accounts of Delhi cab drivers and late-night narcotic mayhem. The pub starts closing a little before midnight, on account of the neighbourhood, and we make it home to bed at a decent hour, reinforcing the learning that moderation really is the key to happiness!

Welcome back Hui! May this be the start of another year of discoveries only possible with Age!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fix-Them-All Screwpine Chicken at Seed Cafe

A table at Seed Cafe Mid Valley has just never quite lived up to the promise of a table at say, Delicious or Chillis on the same row. Not even when the mall is packed beyond belief during the sale season.

It's by no means the best place around - far from it, in fact. To begin with, there is no alcohol served. Secondly the dessert selection is poor, and the cakes at the counter always look quite dire. But it has a couple of tricks, which we frankly love.

The Good:
Top of the list - Screwpine Chicken! These are chicken wing halves fried to a golden crisp with strips of fragrant screwpine leaves. I can't think of a much better way to eat chicken wings! They should open franchises just selling this. Or have a Screwpine Chicken kiosk next to all the Seed stores nationwide.

Calamari Fritters - when they get them right, and only when they get them right, in pale golden yellow like in this pic. There have been occasions when they've been served overdone to a burnt brown, tough to eat and not much fun at all. Not very consistent, the folks in the kitchen at Seed.

We also like the Mushroom Soup - huge chunks of mushroom swimming in thick hearty soup. A bowl of this + the screwpine chicken and all of life's problems, which had seemed so immense just a minute before, are forgotten quite magically.

Apparently, the Hainanese Chicken rice (which is a HUGE serving), the Cajun Chicken Chop and the tomyam seafood pasta also get the ticks here.

The Not-so-Good:

Tom yum noodles - they serve these with rice vermicelli (meehoon) but I asked to substitute with lai fun (or laksa noodles). While the soup grudgingly satisfies the instant tomyam craving, it's several notes too heavy on the MSG. While there were plenty of prawns & squid in this, the fish slices had obviously been doing time in the corner of the freezer.

When I dined here once with Mel, she'd ordered this fettucine with what was supposed to be a carbonara-like sauce, with mushrooms. She was sore that the sauce tasted like it had come straight out from a can, prettied up with some cooked mushroom. Fail!

I know what and what not to go back for!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Dearth of Great Tomyam be the Death of Me!

There is no disputing this fact - KL has slim pickings when it comes to GREAT Tomyam, the perplexing yet phenomenal Thai contribution to palate busters of the world.

While there are concrete suggestions of potential in and around the blogs, as well as conversations with fellow hounds, great tomyam is in fact, an extremely personal assessment. The multitude of notes in traditional tomyam invokes the most liberal practice of cross-cultural appropriation and reception. What one person considers great tomyam may very well fall flat with another.

The search for my personal version of great tomyam led me to battle Bukit Bintang Saturday night traffic, on the trail of a recommendation from Jen. Jen has been frequenting Somtam on Changkat Bukit Bintang since the early 00's, before the area was colonized by higher-end lifestyle establishments. This too, explained why Somtam's prices of yesteryears were a fraction of what they are today, although it remains pretty much the no-frills eating establishment run by the same Thai family.

OK let's get to it. The red Tom Yam Talay (Mixed Seafood Tomyam) arrives, filled with an assortment of fresh, radiant-looking seafood. But... fishballs? Really, fishballs?

Jen informs that she's always gone for the clear tomyam instead, as it's unmasked by the coconut milk they use in the red version, so it's more sour and offers twice the punch. I won't say this is the ultimate but it is pretty decent tomyam, save for the fishballs, and also the fact that it could've been several notches hotter.

Khao Pad Talay (Seafood Fried Rice) is Jen's #1 recommendation. It came looking rather run-of-the-mill but after a quick fiddle with the sourish chilli sauce and nam pla (fish sauce) that Jen requested for, we had a taste and it was really delighful, nothing at all like its appearance. The secret, Jen proclaims, is in the way how the seafood is added to the rice only at the very end so the squid and prawns are almost still a little raw, and extremely soft and tender.

I'd only really wanted the tomyam and tomyam alone this evening but I couldn't resist reminiscing on those lazy fall-back meals in Bangkok, the very exquisite Pad Thai. Som Tum's version did not disappoint, bringing me straight back to hot muggy days of roaming the streets in wrinkled fishermen pants and a big bottle of Singha a permanent hand prop.

So it wasn't Great Tomyam this time around but it deserves a second visit - at least a go at the Clear tomyam and also some of the other very splendid looking items on its menu we didn't get around to this time.

Som Tum is located near the KFC end of Changkat Bkt Bintang, a stone's throw away from the start of Alor.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Kanpei to the rescue, Mid Valley working class!

Work lunches in the culinary wasteland of Mid Valley are typically undertakings filled with dread, stamped with a dozen blaring caveats. Thankfully, there are shelters we return again and again to seek temporary refuge before we brave the terrain overpopulated with mall junkies, bad service and overpriced bad food.

Kanpei, located at Northpoint across the road via the pedestrian overhead bridge from the retail congestion of the main mall, is one such shelter. It's extremely reliable for a quick decent bite, for days when we simply cannot fathom working our way across to the mall for midday sustenance.

Kanpei serves dependable Chinese favourites in comfortable woody setting. The Claypot Lou Shu Fun here is a firm pick, goes straight to cure any mid-week client blues. On this visit, my workmates orders a large claypot to share - the sight of the noodles being dished out into smaller bowls, emitting porky fumes, is akin to therapy.

I go for the more subdued Wan Tan Mee with Dumplings because I trust Kanpei to serve it with a decent side of greens. The egg noodles are skinny, springy and chewy, just the way I like them!

Dumplings burst with whole prawns & pork upon first bite, perfect with the house dried chilli paste they are very generous with.

Another office-wide favourite - Whitebait fritters with chilli & garlic. Whitebait is a curious entity in this part of the world. Having been first introduced to them in NZ as those tiny worm-like beings in Whitebait fritters, I was a little thrown off when they turned out to be about the size of sardines. The flavour too is somewhat different - it's still subdued and sweet, but with a component missing, I can't quite put my finger on it. Nevertheless, this dish is a crunchy solid 8/10!

Another option to stave off institutional revulsion and the system - Wat Tan Hor or Cantonese Hor Fun. Gloriously eggy, moist and serving size that guarantees the snoozes after, I can't say this is the best I've had, but in times of great need, and in the context of Mid Valley's blandness, this will have to do until dinnertime!