Monday, November 8, 2010

Breakfast Technicolour while we wait

Been a little over a drab, dismal week since Ollie left Penang. And with his departure goes the immediate catalyst for me to head back to the island as often as the opportunity presents itself. It isn't entirely a warranted bias, considering the multiple other wonders each Penang trip packs in.

Tends to start off a little like this - we hit the highway by 5AM, he, eager as a beaver on acid and I, bleary-eyed and most certainly hungover. Engage in sardonic pre-dawn banter until we reach Penang, the sight of the ocean from the bridge crossing to the island drawing a sigh of brief contentment and a moment of silence.

And then, it's time for breakfast.

Ugly commercial monoliths juxtaposed with the agreeable facade of old Penang

This particular morning, he convinces me that I simply must try the famous Pitt Street Koay Teow Th'ng, relocated to Carnavon Street. I argue that I've never seen koay teow th'ng as food fit for the hale and hearty. But he wins this round.

There is something to be said about food this pale and uninviting in colour, but delivers the warmth and nourishment deemed necessary for rehabilitation WITHOUT tasting like it came from the hospital's cooking quarters. The fish balls are high-spirited characters, springing upon every dip and bite.

Requisite condiment of bird's eye chillies and chopped garlic swimming in soy sauce

OK, I couldn't get past the paleness of koay teow th'ng and sent him running for neighbourly atonement in the form of Penang Hokkien Mee from Kafe Ping Hooi down the road. Fire-engine red crustacean-laced broth screams "Welcome back!!!" like no other. The accompanying tender pork ribs are a legitimate rival to Hong Kong Street's version across the road.

The resident pastry vendor within Pitt St. koay teow th'ng's coffee shop also showcases a few tricks up their sleeves, one of which being the Coconut Tart. Crumbly, candied golden Penang charm.

The potent taste of old Penang deliver the dark, solemn crucial wake-up call to begin another colourful weekend from the island treasure chest.

So while Ollie packs on the year-end warm duds to counter the bitterly cold winter in the Kansai region of Japan, we await his return, drumming our grey fingers on the tabletop serving the sunny, vibrant spirit of Penang.

Famous Pitt St Koay Teow Th'ng
93 Carnavon Street
10300 Penang

Kafe Ping Hooi
Corner Carnavon Street & Lebuh Melayu
10300 Penang

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Checkers, Damansara Heights

The magic pill to permanent happiness remains to be found. Yes, true, we don't hold our breath to bask in the good stuff until we hit upon some state of everlasting nirvana. But damn, if only the fleeting elements that contribute to moments of joy - a thought making sense, a breathtaking scene, the juncture where love is reciprocated, the peak of passion, an agreeable disposition and god forbid, a newly acquired gadget - lasted a wee bit longer than all of two seconds and showed a bit more consistency.

The curtness of happiness applies to food too, unfortunately. But I dare concur that it is one variance that we are easiest to forgive and revisit again and again.

My first visit to Checkers some years ago, tucked in the depths of Damansara Heights, did not exactly rock the proverbial boat of mediocrity. Yet it haunted me for some weeks recently and I found myself back one evening, having just descended from the mid-week hump.

The Mexican Pork & Sausage, a special on the blackboard, carefully unravelled my historical apprehension. While smaller in portion than expected, the pork tenderloin was soft and almost sentimental while the spiced sausage, heavily accented by fennel seeds, drew many sighs of satisfaction.

The highly heralded Porky's Best did not quite steal the show. Pardon the mystery meat picture - I simply need to get a new, functional camera and return Fat Tulip his Canon which has served me so well. Ribs were tough, and at one stage, unleashed pungent, unwelcome taste of game.

The star of the evening belonged to the latecomer Galette. So thin, so light, yet it enveloped the evening with such pizzazz and gratifying potency. Who would've thought, the combination of mushrooms, bacon and stringy cheese trump promises of an antagonistic lover? Even when the mainstays of potential happiness fail, the afterthought reigns you in.

We were somewhat exasperated to share the tiny restaurant with one other couple, discussing escape routes from the country which has failed to meet its potential, leader after leader, and commitment after commitment. Happiness is sometimes a destination, but this evening, we were quite happy to hold on to our transient state of romantic bliss.

Checkers Restaurant
19, Lorong Setia Bistari 2
Damansara Heights
Tel: 03-2095 3304

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Grease is Goose, Wei Kee, Pudu

Fresh from a surprisingly agreeable visit to Aquaria KLCC in spite of the weekend family mob, we wrapped up VIP Ollie's inaugural visit to Kuala Lumpur with a visit to Pudu for its distinct brand of roasted meat.

Come back anytime, ya hear?

Dad had been singing praises of Wei Kee for the longest time, having been inducted to the fatty roasted goose a few years ago by KL rellies who admittedly have a better nose for the type of cuisine that excited him.

An Ode to Adipose - the roasted goose commanded respect with its off-kilter fat content. Not the kinda stuff that would make me jizz my pants but Dad was delighted, albeit only momentarily, before his conscience settled in.

The roasted duck was leaner, and went down better with the lot of us.

Duck parts I didn't, couldn't touch but Dad and Fat Tulip lapped these up, and then some.

This Kiam Chai Boey I absolutely adored. Possibly the best use of leftover duck. Could've had a meal of rice and this alone.

We attempted to neutralise all that fat with a simple steamed tofu dish. Made Ollie very happy.

Wei Kee makes no apologies for its lacklustre roasted pork offerings. Goose is the business!

Come for the goose, beware the grease guilt trap!

Restoran Wei Kee
50, Lorong Yap Hin
Off Jalan Pasar

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Wings Beneath My Wind

The latest wind from Japan brought not only dear Ollie to the shores of northern Malaysia, but also some very tasty chicken wings, a.k.a. Tebasaki deep fried chicken wings, specialty of Nagoya.

We're no fans of frozen, pre-cooked food but hang on, no one does frozen food like the Japs.

Our little family reunion, starring Ollie and his happy dance gets a boost from frozen wings that Mag had thoughtfully carted back in her luggage. Off into a boiling vat of oil they go!

The already-seasoned juicy wings get Mama Chow's loving treatment with the soy, sake, sugar and mirin mix that comes in the package.

There is nothing quite like chomping these juicy babies down while playing hide-and-seek with Ollie and wondering if being childless is what life's programme is about.

Pick some up at the frozen food section of your local supermarket the next time you're in Japan!

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Great Deal (of Spice), Anna Thai Kitchen, Pulau Tikus

Apart from the ability to speak rapid-fire Hokkien and guerilla traffic dexterity, anyone Penang-born worthy of this unique birthmark must also possess the aptitude to sniff out a good deal in any condition.

A pretty good deal is what's been driving throngs of hungry, carb-starved locals to Anna Thai Kitchen in Pulau Tikus. We arrived slightly before noon and the place was packed to the brim, with a steady queue forming. I learned of this place first from CK Lam and I'd been counting down the days until my visit back to Penang to give it a go.

Anna Thai offers a decent selection of ready-cooked economy rice-style Thai dishes, as well as some staples ala carte. All very affordable, almost kopitiam prices! Warning: we found the spice factor in the dishes here tongue-numbing. Definitely not for chilli wimps!

I dove straight for the Thai Pork Leg Stew Rice (Khao Kha Moo) on the ala carte menu and it arrived a true picture of grace. The chilli sauce missing from the picture was startlingly, deliciously fiery. Much closer to the real thing sampled on the side streets of Bangkok than this inferior version on the other side of the island.

Dad and Mag both sampled the Chicken Rice (Khao Man Kai) with great enjoyment. The intrepid gourmand Ollie couldn't keep his chubby hands away and proclaimed it "Oishiiiii!!"

The Kerabu Rice was a deceptively delightful and kaleidoscopic mix of texture and taste. Shortly after the first swallow, the finely chopped bird's eye chilli and ground chilli powder sneak up on you with alarming speed. Make sure you have a tall icy glass or four handy!

The dishes from the fast disappearing trays outside, while unassuming, would appease even the stickiest tastebuds. The Thai Red Chicken Curry with Bamboo (Kaeng Phet) was creamy and robust, driving us mad for even more rice.

More spice in the Curry Chicken. We were sweating buckets at this point.

The Otak-Otak, a touch more moist than I like but flavour-wise, full marks.

The requisite plate of greens (featuring yet more chillies) rounded off a meal VERY heavy on the girth and our gastrointestinal system but VERY light on the pocket.

A Penang deal-maker? You bet you bottom ringgit it is!

Anna Thai Kitchen
26, Jalan Moulmein
Pulau Tikus
10350 Penang

Friday, September 10, 2010

In Rage (and Sage) We Trust

While I subscribe to the universal tenet that anger and aggression yields only more anger and aggression, I don't support that Anger in itself is necessarily an unconditionally negative force.

Being repeatedly incensed by the same triggers has proven to be the catalyst to change the situation, or in disagreeable circumstances beyond my control, how I manage my reaction towards them. More often than not, humour helps. Company in cynicism helps. Company with humour works the best.

Simply put, there are worse things than being subjected to the abject diatribes of this group of people. I resign and rejoice in the mere fact that the things to bask in content far outweigh the things that inspire rage.

Like this chilled jelly-like Konbu Bavarois with scallops and caviar, one clandestine Friday (working) afternoon at the graduate school of set lunches, Sage. Pure poetry. Be still, my quivering heart on fire.

The company is stellar, as always, and breathing without convulsing in rage becomes a gentle rhythm. Even the fiery red of the sumptuous tagliolini with grilled river prawns soft-pedals the famished, frenzied hour.

I engineered lunch here in order to not miss this, the Pâté en Croûte, read and ravaged first at Paranoid Android's visual arrest of a blog. When it became apparent that this particular week was going to end on yet another sour, sordid note, I had to introduce an extraordinary neutraliser.

Thin crust enveloping minced duck meat, which in turn, sprang a cut of duck foie in its midst. Food has been a lot of things to me, but it has not often confounded or provoked a reaction rich enough to counter fury. But this, this was a work of staggering beauty, reminder of a thousand things to be thankful for. Foie. The word itself takes the edge off.

We ended with a touch of sweet and a dash of the cure-all elixir, melon with honeydew sorbet, floating on white wine jelly. I walked out of lunch, considerably lighter from having offloaded all that wrath, yet heavier in thought and gratitude.

Evidently, there is great, calming wisdom to be found in food. And in the beautiful group of people with whom I had the pleasure of dining. Or maybe it's just Sage.

Bookmark the weekly set lunch (at RM100 nett each) menu here.

Sage Restaurant & Wine Bar
Level 6, The Gardens Residences
Mid Valley City
Lingkaran Syed Putra
59200 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 603 2268 1328

Monday, August 30, 2010

Sublime spa, So-so food at The Westin Langkawi

The recent company jaunt to Langkawi, while painfully condensed, somehow managed to uplift some heavily sodden spirits.

It helped that we parked ourselves for most of the two days at the very agreeable Westin resort. Before I go on to... uh, showcase a sampling of the fine hotel food within, can I just say that the massages at the Heavenly Spa in the resort are phenomenal? Well worth the $$.

Having rolled out of bed at 4AM to catch first flight out of LCCT, by the time lunch rolled around, I was practically tranquilized by lethargy and in severe need of a pick-me-up. Lunch at Tide, the poolside open-air restaurant had better bloody deliver!

The bread comes in pretty undersized glass bowls but they were stone cold. Is this not Westin? What's it take to heat up a roll, or fifteen?

The prawn cocktail starter was a lot more promising. Freshly crumbed and fried tempura prawns sat daintily on a bed of greens served with pickled ginger, guacamole and a slice of tortilla. Easy enough to applaud.

Main of the day was pan seared sea bass with potatoes, asparagus, lemon butter sauce and mango & pineapple salsa. I felt both sauce and salsa were a tad too commonplace to pair with the distinct taste and texture of the sea bass. Portion could have been bigger too. We were using an awful lot of fuel, what with the early start and all that brainstorming.

Dessert was catastrophic, and did not send us happily back to an afternoon of more neural function. The passionfruit crème brûlée tasted like very pungent cheese gone bad, the cardinal camaralized effect all but missing. The brandy snap wafer could've potentially saved this ending, but having never been a big fan of that sticky sweet dental complication, I left most of mine untouched.

Still, hotel food will be hotel food, so I won't hold it against the resort. The breakfast the next morning was perfectly lovely and the massage that followed, again I stress, sublime! If I do not make it to any of the coveted travel locations before the end of the year, I am booking myself a week here!

The Westin Langkawi Resort & Spa
Jalan Pantai Dato Syed Omar

Sunday, August 15, 2010

An Unfinished Ritual, Mai Ramen at Jaya One

To me, rituals often present themselves as a bunch of obligatory chores which have been put to reinforce some expired logic from the past.

Recently, however, I joined a choir singing a different tune. Having concluded that we were constipated by a whole host of soul-sapping habits, a few friends and I decided to create a new ritual of purging. The idea was we would make handwritten personal lists of the nasty forces we'd foolishly allowed to infiltrate our little lives, recite them to one another as some sort of a poetic and serious pledge and then conclude by burning lists in a bonfire (or well, in the interest of containing the threat of open burning, a scaled down version in a Milo tin).

So this one afternoon, huddled over bottles of prosecco, we scrutinised and dissected our lists in great detail. Before long, our wills to rid ourselves of these ill compulsions and elements were fortified by ridiculously optimistic cheer and approval. The bubbles helped too, of course.

Alas, before the fiery finale, we decided to make a quick dinner pit stop, which led to unfortunate truncated proceedings.

Mai Ramen, brand new at Jaya One replacing Simply Fusion, called out to us as we stumbled a little, trying to find our footing at dusk after all that unfeigned motivation. I had been hankering for a robust bowl of ramen for weeks now and with all that alcohol swirling around in us, we were hardly in the state of mind to trouble ourselves with options. Makes sense that a recurring item on our lists of things to eradicate is the abuse of alcohol to solve all of life's most trivial problems.

I immediately called loudly the Buta Kakuni (Braised pork belly) Ramen. Ever since my sister Mag inducted me to the lavish flavour of this dish which takes days to prepare, I have not been able to look at another pork dish the same again.

All ramen dishes share the same tonkotsu broth, thick, milky white, not as common as the clear shoyu ones available in other local ramen joints. I had expected the soup to be heady and overly salty, similar to the leanings of Tokyo ramen bars but was pleasantly surprised to find it a milder version.

The Jikasei Chasyu (Homemade barbequed pork) Ramen got the same enthusiastic reception. Check out that accompanying half of a bona fide Shoyu Tamago done right - moist, slightly underdone, creamy yolk, yes!

The Tamanegi no Takana Ramen with spicy vegetables - not entirely vegetarian given the broth but my selective vegetarian friend enjoyed it to the last slurp.

The ramen used here isn't the standard, slightly curly yellow noodles but a thinner, straighter version in pale off-white. I still prefer the thicker bite of the former but this still makes a pretty luscious bowl of noodles.

Mai Ramen's main courses come with the set option which includes 3 pieces of Gyoza, a side salad and tea. We enjoyed the Gyoza thoroughly - medium thickness of the skin, right dollop of meat & chive stuffing dipped in vinegar dressing.

The let-down of the meal would be the Soft Shell Crab Okonomiyaki, which was a soft, doughy, nondescript mess. I've long established that I am no fan of okonomiyaki so an inferior execution would do it even less justice, even when it comes topped with a whole soft shell crab.

Perhaps the highly gratifying meal interjected my ritual logic for when it came for time for us to resume the final step, I declined. I reasoned that I needed to keep my handwritten list to remind myself what I was letting go, although in hindsight, I was simply too drunk and too tired to bother with the Milo tin inferno.

But no matter, the unfinished ritual was truly liberating and the source of interruption, deliciously comforting. Meal was very reasonably priced too, about RM90.

Mai Ramen

Block C, Ground Floor
Jaya One

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Romancing Taiping

To most, Taiping is this quaint little sleepy town in middle Malaysia with lovely green lungs but to me, it is a romantic birthmark of sorts.

My parents met, courted and fell in love here under trying circumstances and if their current seasoned-couple disposition is anything to go by, Taiping mined enduring love and passion, apart from tin in its heydays.

We chanced upon Taiping Ho Chiak when in the vicinity for the SS2 branch of Super Kitchen Pan Mee last year.

I had surrendered to the fact that you can't force an appetite when dogged by a nasty sick bug clogging up the respiratory system, until this ill-timed meal to which a kind and generous cavalier had whisked me away from a pounding work-addled weekend. We arrived around 2PM so the place was fairly empty. All the better. Wouldn't have been able to stomach crowds or queues, which were evident when we checked it out last year.

Got down to the business of ordering. First things first, Sambal Petai Prawn. The serving was larger than life and upon arrival, we looked at each other "uh-oh we're in trouble!" The stinking beans were abundant, laced in pungent sambal perfume that couldn't escape even nasal blockage. Forget durians, I could sleep in this stuff!

The Kerabu Paku was graciously green and crunchy - the love-or-hate cincalok flavour was mild, and I would've suspected the nasty bug at work again had he vetoed the presence of it altogether.

The Assam Fish arrived a staggering portion, increasing the panic in us of the collision ahead with unconsciousness. The gravy was caked with spices and flavour and even though the carb police in us called for back up, we couldn't resist ordering an extra serving of rice.

The Hainanese Pork Chop arrived last and thankfully, was not too daunting in size. The battered pork cutlet added metal to the meal but we cringed at the crippling use of MSG in the gravy. Not ordering this again.

The bill came up to a square RM100 for two. And a sullen, sluggish afternoon to boot. The menu also features more sensible single portions of noodles and such, a better option if you're not planning to sleep off the rest of your weekend.

If romance is on the cards, I'd say Taiping the town would serve to invoke the tenderness of simplicity but failing that, the gallantry of the food here might work too.

Taiping Ho Chiak
28, Jalan SS2/10
Petaling Jaya
(Chow Yang, same row as Super Kitchen and Nasi Kandar Kayu)