Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Battle of the Popiah: Glory VS Kway Guan Huat

On a recent eating excursion I had the opportunity to sample two famous popiah eateries in the East, both of which made it to The Straits Times’ list of the Top 8 popiahs in Singapore. The two eateries were Glory Catering and Kway Guan Huat, the latter of which is ST’s reigning popiah champion.

For any readers who might not know what a popiah is, here is a government sanctioned definition: http://infopedia.nlb.gov.sg/articles/SIP_891_2005-01-10.html

Glory Catering’s popiah is nonya styled with an egg flour skin, which is relatively rare in popiah eateries here. As the name implies egg is added into the flour skin, providing a soft and chewy texture. This is something that I really enjoy. It also holds nostalgic value for me because it brings me back the days when I was a primary school lad in Serene Center (a popular hangout then), where I sampled my first egg-skin popiah from an eatery specializing in it. It was extremely memorable. Unfortunately I have never been able to find another stall selling the egg-skin rolls since the closure of that eatery, let alone an equal. That is until the helpful foodies of the Makansutra forum clued me into Glory Catering which has an eatery branch in the Katong. So how’s the popiah at Glory?

Glory Catering’s Popiah oozing sweetsauce onto the plate

On first inspection I was mildly disappointed as the skin did not look as wholesomely yellow and spongy as my first impression of the dish at Serene Center. Fortunately the visual discrepancy didn’t matter too much as the skin yielded a decent degree of chewy softness. This is one juicy popiah as you can see from the picture above and yet the skin was resilient enough to not go soggy despite the sauces in the roll.

The insides of a Glory Popiah

The main part of the filling consisted of the usual suspects like braised shredded turnip, shrimp, sliced omelette, and fresh ingredients such as bean sprouts and lettuce. Also wrapped were the condiments of chilli paste which provided a sharp spiciness, balanced off by the mellow tasting sweet flour sauce. Garlic paste rounded the whole thing off with a strong but pleasant piquancy. This is no weak-flavoured popiah as the combination of the condiments gave quite a punch. Everything is wrapped tightly together with the egg-flour skin and blends to form a very satisfying and wholesome chomp.

Following that pretty satisfying experience at Glory, my foodie friend and I walked down all the way down Joo Chiat Road to the next popiah location: Kway Guan Huat. This eatery started off as a popiah skin retailer as early as 1938 and has to be one of the oldest popiah stalls in Singapore. They are famous for making their popiah skins fresh on the premises, something that only a small handful of local popiah eateries can boast of nowadays. It is also as mentioned previously, The Straits Times’ food writer Teo Pau Lin’s no.1 choice.

After walking past about 400 units of old shop-houses and Joo Chiat’s red light stretch, we arrived at our destination. It was an hour before closing time and the place was nearly empty. We sat and ordered.

Kway Guan Huat’s popiah came in a flour skin, which is the more conventional style of popiahs you get in Singapore. Unfortunately the skin was a disappointment and did not stand out from the rest of the popiah selling crowd, despite having all that reputation. Whether this is a closing-time related lapse in quality or otherwise I’m not sure, but this cannot have been the same popiah skin that food writer Teo Pau Lin raved about.

Kway Guan Huat’s popiah as served in styrofoam box. Note breaking popiah skin, tsk tsk…

The filling was comparatively unremarkable too, being relatively bland and tasting much the same as any other popiah one might get on the island. There is, however, one factor that differentiated this popiah from the others and that is the usage of ti poh in the filling. Ti poh, or dried fish crisps were a traditional popiah ingredient but somehow its usage died off in most places. The crunchy bits of fish added another textural dimension to the popiah which was interesting.

Seeing that I was taking photos of the food, the lady who served me guessed that the photos were for my blog. She took that opportunity to recommend the kueh pie tee, which I agreed to try. Like the popiah, the filling for the kueh pie tee was nothing to be raved about since it is comprised mainly of the same batch of braised turnip. Apart from that, there was only a bit of lettuce, sweet flour sauce and chili paste. Lacking were the other kueh pie tee toppings such as egg, peanuts or shrimp. On the upside the pie tee shells came warm and very crispy which was good. These were obviously made on the premises, judging from the slightly irregular lips of these pie tee shells – nothing like the neat looking clones that come mass produced. It crumbled and mixed with the moist ingredients when bitten into, salvaging the morsel to an extent. However, it also left a slight aftertaste of oil which is unfortunate.

Now, it would be pretty obvious who the winner of this popiah battle is. Glory’s popiah is probably the best popiah I’ve had in a long while. They do charge a premium for their egg-skin popiah ($2.20) but for that chewy egg-flour skin and flavourful, juicy filling, it is well worth it.

139 East Coast Road
Singapore 428829
Tel: 63441749

95 Joo Chiat Road
Singapore 427389
Tel: 63442875

Friday, December 7, 2007

First Encounter with Saba-zushi

The basement supermarket of Isetan Scotts seems to be perennially organizing one Japanese food festival after another. This time round their stalls featured Kyoto style saba-zushi. Saba-zushi is a dish consisting of a side of mackerel that was marinated with salt and vinegar, pressed and wrapped onto a roll of sushi rice. The result is an ovoid sushi “loaf” that is served cut into thick slices.

The style of sushi was said to bring out the unique taste of mackerel. Moreover curing the mackerel was the traditional Kyotoite way of preparing the fish, as the city being situated inland did not have ready access to fresh seafood in the past.

Having never eaten this sort of saba-zushi before, the stall at the food festival certainly perked my interest. The sushi looked similar to pictures I have seen in sushi books, and there was a native Japanese chef making them behind the counter of the stall which added to the authenticity factor. I was initially apprehensive however as they only sold the sushi in full-meal servings of 8 thick slices and should I not enjoy it I would have a hard time finishing it. Not to mention it would be a waste of 15 bucks.

With some cajoling from my friend though, I finally agreed to take the plunge. The item was paid for, and then brought outside where there were some seats at which I could savour this culinary novelty. As with any food that I’m not familiar with it took a while for the flavours to register and for me to determine whether I liked it or not.

After I had finished the first piece I decided that I did.

The taste of the cured fish – tangy and savoury – was cushioned by the comforting carbohydrates of sushi rice, creating a hearty mouthfeel. The vinegar which marinated the fish was also nicely echoed by the subtly vinegared sushi rice, blending into a refreshing savour that keeps one’s appetite going despite several helpings of rich mackerel and rice.

This is a dish that makes its impact using simple ingredients, letting the natural flavours take the forefront. I’m not too sure how this compares to good saba-zushi in Kyoto, but in general I had a positive impression of the dish and might return to the stall for another go at it before the food festival ends.

The Isetan Japan Food Festival will last till the 17th of December so you have until then to enjoy Kyoto style saba-zushi in Singapore.

350 Orchard Road
Basement 1
Shaw House
Singapore 238868
Tel: 6733 1111

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Lunch @ Sushi Yoshida

When making references to Sushi Yoshida, I have had to make the disclaimer that I have not been there for the past year and a half or so. It was marked in my books as the most value for money sushi lunch one could get in town. At $28 – tax and service charge inclusive – one could enjoy a variety of sushi delicacies such as scallop, raw sweet shrimp, tuna and white fish which varied from season to season. The style of sushi was hearty and satisfying, while being of decent quality and I have recommended it to anyone looking for “real” sushi of good value.

Now a year and a half has passed and I have been looking for an opportunity to reevaluate Sushi Yoshida. This opportunity came at last – an overcast Saturday afternoon, free from any commitments. I was having a bit of a sushi craving and heard that Yoshida brings in fresh seafood on Saturdays so it was a good time to go. Will the restaurant live up to its past standard? I entered the dimly lit restaurant to the usual chorus of “Irashai!”s and got seated at the counter. A quick glance through the menu and the usual order was placed – assorted nigirizushi a.k.a. sushi moriawase.

Sushi Yoshida serves a nice onsen tamago (lit. “hot-spring egg”) as a starter but since I’ve never been a fan of soft boiled egg, I had opted for whatever else they would offer me. As such, my meal began with the ubiquitous potato salad appetizer that seems to be a standard in sushi bars nowadays. Like anywhere else it was okay but nothing to rave about. Then came the main course – assorted nigirizushi set from their lunch menu:

From left to right, back row: kampyo maki (sushi rolls with preserved gourd), gari (pickled ginger) and some daikon and cucumber pickles. Middle row: toro (fatty tuna), kampachi (amber jack, hiding behind perilla leaf), maguro (lean tuna), sake (salmon), hotate (scallop). Lower row: ebi (boiled shrimp), ika (squid), ikura (salmon roe) and torigai (cockle).

Like I mentioned before, sushi at Yoshida’s is hearty sushi, as you may be able to make out from the unfocused photo above. Every piece is voluptuously shaped and most slices are generous and thick. The gunkan maki is brimming over with ingredients, in this case with salmon roe. Needless to say it is also makes for a very filling meal.

However, I was a little disappointed to find that one of my favourites – raw sweet shrimp sushi has been replaced with ebi (boiled shrimp). The ebi in Sushi Yoshida was not only boiled but also marinated in vinegar, which I thought was overdone as the sharpness of the vinegar overwhelmed the natural taste of the shrimp. Another downer was the torigai (cockle); they were a slightly rubbery and a bit trying to chew. To be fair though, I’m not a fan of most shellfish in sushi.

On the upside, a fairly marbled toro was served as part of the ensemble. The fatty tuna belly disintegrated readily in the mouth, coating every grain of rice with aromatic tuna fat. It is oily and yet delicate at the same time, as toro should be. This would be an upgrade from the chu-toro that was served in the past, although I’m not sure if this is a regular fixture of the set meal or a one-off/periodic thing. The hotate sushi was of the same standard as I remembered it to be and as usual it felt satisfying tucking into a soft, whole scallop spread across a bed of rice.

I ordered a few a-la-carte pieces to sample despite being quite full after the set meal, as a few things I’d like to sample were not on the set lunch. One of these was Yoshida’s anago (conger eel) sushi. Anago comes into season in summer, peaking in fat content with the hotter climate. I thought it should be interesting to see how Yoshida’s rendition of this dish is like.

Instead of putting the pre-poached conger eel into a toaster oven as is commonly done, the chef seared the conger eel with a flame-torch. While the treatment did not significantly augment the tastiness or aroma of the eel, the whole flame torching process did give the dish extra zazz in the presentation department. Nothing like having food caramelized slowly over an open fire before your very eyes I think, it definitely adds to the anticipation of the morsel.

The itamae-san on duty at Yoshida’s sears a generous portion of anago. In the foreground is Yoshida’s display case of seafood goodies like uni, tai, aji, etc…

The serving of the anago was huge, far overlapping the rice-mound at both ends. It was a little tricky fitting the whole thing in a single mouthful but I managed – altogether not an unpleasant predicament though. The sauce for the conger eel was nicely balanced with a sprinkle of yuzu zest, and on the whole I thought it fairly decent. However the standard of this is still trails behind my favourite anago place.

Other a-la-carte pieces I had were tai (sea bream) and kohada (gizzard shad). Kohada is one of those important pieces for any Edo style sushi restaurant. The gizzard shad is filleted and marinated in salt and vinegar, and the marinating time has to be well controlled, varying according to size of fish. Too long and the flavour of the fish will be totally masked by the vinegar, the texture of the fish will also be ruined. Due to the many factors involved in the creation of kohada sushi, it is usually a piece by which the skill of a sushi chef is tested. Unfortunately the kohada sushi I had a Yoshida’s did not make the cut for me, the fish was overly vinegary. The texture was also lacking. It is worth noting that it is not kohada season now, though that may not be the crux of the issue.

Another thing that bugged me during my sushi lunch was the sushi rice. I had noticed that the sushi rice, or shari, had a greater proportion of long grained rice than I remembered. This was unusual. It may be my memory getting foggy with age but I think the rice I had that day was quite different from what I had two years ago.

Now, the question remains to be answered: Is Yoshida’s sushi lunch set still the most value for money sushi in town? I cannot answer with a definitive “yes” this time round. The prices of the set meal have risen to $38 and there have been some changes to the sushi selection and standard compared to two years ago. It is understandable though, with recent nationwide tax increases as well as this year’s price hike for Japanese seafood. Generally speaking it is still a decent place to have sushi at, and the staff were great for having been very patient with me even though I stayed past their lunch operating hours. It is also worth noting that while I only sampled from their sushi selection this time round, it had been my experience that Sushi Yoshida was also good for their cooked/non-sushi dishes – a sentiment that is undoubtedly echoed in many other reviews.

10 Devonshire Road
Singapore 239846
Tel: 6735-5014

P.S. Any readers would have to excuse the poor quality of the pictures as I’ve just started exploring the finer points of focusing on near objects with my camera phone. The kinks have been fixed and the next installment whenever that is, will come with focused pictures.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Lunch @ Shiraishi

I just went to Shiraishi for lunch yesterday. This has been a long awaited meal for me because Shiraishi is the last untested place on my list of potentially good sushi restaurants in Singapore. (Or so I thought until I typed this, and realised I've not tried Akane yet) It wasn't my original intention to post my impressions in a blog but after writing them out I thought what the heck, I might as well. Any readers out there would hence have to excuse my lack of food photos to entice you with in this entry.

Shiraishi's lunch menu consisted of sets ranging from $30-80. Nigirizushi (hand moulded sushi) and chirashizushi (assorted seafood on rice) were at $30 while the rest were various larger set meals that included more courses like sashimi etc. As my interest was mainly in nigirizushi I went with that.

The meal started off with a small appetizer mash potato salad, not much worth mentioning about it but it was decent. It was then closely followed by my nigirizushi a few minutes later, consisting of ikura (salmon roe), maguro (lean tuna), chutoro (medium fatty tuna), hotate (scallop), ebi (boiled shrimp), tamago (omelette), sake (salmon) and a silvery fish likely to be aji but I'm not sure. The hand rolls were tekka maki (tuna roll) and kappa maki (cucumber roll). Not everything was worth mentioning but some interesting pieces were:

Ebi: I'm not usually a great fan of boiled shrimp and personally I consider it inferior to having amaebi (raw sweet shrimp). However the ebi here was good that it retained a fresh prawn flavour as well as a lovely texture with a bit of bite to it. Quite enjoyable, and I noticed that they trimmed the end of the shrimp tail to a neat little "V" which was aesthetically pleasing.

Sake: It is not too common to find salmon in sushi restaurants that pride themselves in being good and authentic. That said this was surprisingly delectable. The portion of salmon served was lean, with an distinctly undulating surface due to fine striped graining which provided a pleasing texture on the tongue. The salmon not being overly fatty was a plus.

Tamago: Tamago is one of the standard dishes by which a sushi restaurant is traditionally tested. I think there is a trend towards aiming for a more and more cake-like style of omelette in the fine dining sushi restaurants nowadays, and Shiraishi's tamago was in that style. Served on a mound of rice, the tamago slice was a pale yellow colour with both sides bordered by an evenly toasted light brown. The taste is sweet, and not unlike a very smooth spongecake that readily disintegrates in your mouth, which I'm sure takes a pretty good recipe and technique to make. I am ambivalent about this however as I am of the opinion that if I want spongecake I will go eat cake instead of sushi, and I do prefer an eggy flavour to dominate rather than sweetness. However if you enjoy cake-like tamago this is a good place to have it at.

Other pieces like hotate (raw scallops) were good too, being very fresh and bean-curdly smooth. Unfortunately were some misses in the lunch set as well. These were mainly in the makis, like the tekka maki (tuna roll), kappa maki (cucumber roll) and ikura (salmon roe) which came in a common gunkan-maki form. In all three cases the nori seaweed was moist when served and did not yield a satisfying crispness one would expect from maki. This is not very acceptable coming from a restaurant with Shiraishi's reputation. As is the common practice the nigirizushi lunch set was also moulded by what I think is a more junior chef on duty, so whilst the ingredients were good and fresh the technique in making the sushi has room for improvement. Some might argue that you get what you pay for.

Realising that I might not have had tasted what is fully representative of the restaurant's standard (and not being 100% sushi-satisfied from just the lunch set), I went for a few a-la-carte pieces. These were made by a different chef, whom seemed like a more senior chef. The pieces I ordered were a bit less straight forward, and as I expected they were in a different league from what was served in the set meal. My a-la-carte orders were:

Iwashi (sardine): These are a fish that are a bit on the troublesome side to prepare as it requires the chef to pick out the fine bones out of the fish after fileting it, usually with a tweezer. It is not too pleasant to get a piece of the raw sardine bone in your sushi and they can be quite a few of them in the undeboned filet. But otherwise the fish is very smooth, and is nice with a topping of spring onions and ponzu sauce as served here. It is not the peak of the Iwashi season as yet, so they were not as fatty as they could be but these pieces were of standard.

Sole Fish (never had this before and can't remember the Japanese name for it): This is the first time I've tried sole sushi and the chef served it up with sea salt and a squeeze of lime. The white slice of sole fish was of a good thickness, looking like a piece of exquisite white jade on the sushi rice. The lime juice and sea salt enhanced the subtle flavours of the fish that were slightly floral even. That combined with a pleasantly mild chewy texture made quite an impression and on the whole I was quite satisfied with this. The season for sole peaks in late June so there's still time to enjoy this seasonal fish.

Anago (conger eel): Anago sushi is one of my favourites and if done well can put me right into sushi heaven! It consists of a conger eel boiled in a shoyu based poaching liquid, heated in a toaster oven to lightly broil it, then brushed on with a gooey, sweet anago sauce. Its finally sprinkled with a small bit of aromatic yuzu rind that gives a subtle citrusy aroma that cuts through the richness of the eel. The serving in Shiraishi was a big piece of eel that covered over the rice mound. The chef mentioned that their supply comes from Kyushu where the conger eels are fattier relative to eels from Tokyo. It was generally good but not the best I've had. But still good.

I was served all the a-la-carte pieces as singles apart from the Iwashi which was a standard pair you normally get in most sushi places. But this may be due to size of sardines and that it's not too good to serve the remaining end of the fish to another customer.

The meal was rounded off with a bowl of tuna soup and dessert. The clear tuna soup comprised of tuna broth, Japanese leek, tofu and boiled tuna bits, with a side condiment of chilli pepper powder which I thought was an interesting combination. It makes a simple and good replacement for miso based soups, with enough savouriness to cut through after a meal of shoyu dipped raw fish. That was followed by dessert, which was small piece of refreshing sour jelly which I forgot to ask the name of, and hojicha (brown roasted tea). I really appreciate these small refreshing Japanese desserts at the end of a meal, more so as I know they are not a speciality of sushi shops and many don't serve it.

The service in Shiraishi is attentive without being intrusive, but there was something quirky going on that I must mention. I've never experienced this in any restaurant before; whenever my teacup has been drained to about half full, the servers actually replaced the teacup with a new cup of very hot tea. I don't mean a refill, but rather they actually took the cup away and gave me a new one. This was repeated several times and as a result my tea was always blisteringly hot throughout the meal, making it hard to drink. I'm still not sure why they did this. Another thing that didn't make the experience as ideal as it might have been was that I felt my meal was a little hurried, nothing overt but just the little things liked being served my courses in quick succession. To be fair though, I did arrive late in the lunch service.

The damage for lunch was about $70, with the a-la-carte orders being $28 in total. Overall, the experience of eating at Shiraishi is positive. The nigirizushi lunch set is a bit of a stomach filler which can be good or bad depending, but the a-la-carte dishes holds up to the restaurant's reputation for being one of the better sushi places in Singapore.

#03-01/02, The Ritz-Carlton Millenia
7 Raffles Avenue
Singapore 039799
Tel: 6338-3788