April 07, 2013

Nao Ramen, Perth

I love Perth, but it has been hard finding good Japanese food here. Gumshara Ramen in Sydney has set the ramen bar very high, so imagine my surprise when I read about a great authentic ramen place here in Perth - that makes ramen from scratch, both their noodles and their chashu! After reading about Nao Ramen I immediately decided to seek them out - but then I was pulled up short. Wait, wasn't there a place called "Nao" just a few doors down from where we were staying?

Why yes, yes there was. We had been staying just a few steps from the best most authentic ramen in Perth, and I hadn't even bothered to poke my nose in. In my defence they're mostly open for lunch. Monday through Thursday from 11:30 am till 6pm, Sundays from noon till 5pm, but they are open late on Friday night and I had noticed the queues outside but had foolishly assumed they were people queueing for the backpacker's hostel next door. Enough breast beating, we immediately decided to have our next Sunday brunch there. Sarah, Debbie, and I got a booking for noon and resolved to give them a try.  When we arrived at 11:45 there was already a queue stretching down the street!

The menu is fairly basic, ramen, some other noodle dishes, some one plate meals, a bit of sushi, and some side dishes, but everyone comes for the ramen. There are the standard three types: "shio" a salt and stock based broth, "miso" a stock and fermented soy bean paste based broth, and "shoyu" a soy sauce and stock based broth. You can also get spicy miso broth. You can choose from three noodles: standard egg noodles, spinach flavored, and chili flavored. You can add garlic, seaweed, green onion, or more chashu for an additional cost.

We had miso ramen with chashu, butter and corn; shoyu ramen with chashu and garlic; and spicy miso ramen with chashu; all with standard noodles. We also ordered a side of gyoza (fried japanese dumplings.) All of them were excellent! The noodles had a nice spring to them, not overcooked, the chashu was traditional Japanese style roast pork belly. Each of the broths had a nice clarity of flavor and the presentation of the ramen was excellent.

I had chatted with Naoki-san earlier in the week about his ramen making machine, and the possibility of getting tonkotsu ramen from him (When I asked he said "Are you from Kyushu?" "No, I'm American."  "Well , we sometimes make it on special request.") I may ask him at some point but really there's no need, the ramen is wonderful just the way it is.

It was a lovely afternoon and we all left quite satisfied.

March 10, 2013

The Tippling Club

Debbie and I stopped in Singapore on our way back from Johannesburg to Perth, and while there ended up with an unplanned, unscheduled, free evening. As it turns out, our friend, world traveller, food and drink aficionado Asya had recommended we try The Tippling Club if we got a chance. This looked like the chance. The Tippling Club is a molecular gastronomy place, headed by chef Ryan Clift, that also features innovative cocktails and cocktail pairings.
It's a little further out of town than I had expected, in a small development of shops set back amongst the greenery. We were seated at a long polished cement bar cum counter, in front of the open kitchen. The show started with a small white lozenge poised on a piece of black lava with a well in it. This turned out to be a compressed towel, that expanded on contact with the water in the well. I've seen this done other places, but the presentation here was very nice.
We pondered the menu while I had a glass of champagne (Taittinger I think) and eventually settled on the ten course "gourmand" degustation with one drink pairing for me. We were served a small parade of clever amuse bouches including a leek and potato soup sucked out of a plastic prism, what looked like peppers that had been burned to a crisp but tasted like a savory tempura over roasted red pepper, and what looked like styrofoam served on styrofoam but was actually a rice crisp scented with truffles - a cute riff on risotto. After that came a smoked cheese, done by piping smoke under a bowl - a gimmick that was cute the first few times but by now had better be in service of something more than just a cute trick. In this case the smoke complemented the cheese but maybe not enough to offset the gimmick. Then there was a clear tomato essence served in a test tube to be sucked up through a straw with a basil puree plug. That worked better, being both clever, delicious, and a nice rework of a cliched taste pair.
The kingfish was nicely done as a pavé, a crisp smoky rice chip complementing the thin supple fish. After the kingfish came razor clams, one of my favorite shellfish. They were paired with parsley root that had a similar shape, color, and texture but a wildly different but complementary flavor. We were offered a grating of black truffle for a SG$ 35 supplement, which I turned down - but the kitchen comped it. Ok!
Next was the "foie gras." A very delicate pastry ring was crisped in a dehydrator then placed on our plates,  chilled foie gras mousse was piped into the base and a layer of yoghurt was added. It was garnished with a pressed candied apple flower, and it was sprinkled with bircher muesli. A cute little "breakfast" reference.
This was followed by an octopus dish. We're trying not to eat octopus (because I'm trying to cut down on eating "smart" animals) but we didn't say anything at the beginning of the meal when asked if we had any dietary restrictions. This was a piece of smoked tentacle garnished with peas and spherized olive oil the same shape and texture. It was served with a small sea bean and the plate garnished with green algae.
Oxtail with "restructured beetroot," beetroot glass, horseradish and sorrel foam. Fun and tasty. This was  followed by a moroccan reference - pigeon with goat curd and preserved lemon and a crumble that reminded me a bit of couscous. It was garnished with a roasted fennel frond that complemented the flavors nicely.
During the next course, wagyu short ribs with western australian langoustine and roasted purple spring onion, we had a nice conversation with chef Clift (he had been popping over periodically through the meal but this was the first time we actually got to talk to him.) When we said we were on our way back to Perth he mentioned he'd been Head Chef at Vue de Monde in Melbourne. We reminisced a bit about Vue de Monde, and he said that in the entire time he'd been cooking in Australia (over 9 years) he had never been able to get langoustine from WA - 100% of it is exported! It seems a shame because we certainly enjoyed it, but I suspect it's because Singaporeans, Chinese, and Japanese are willing to pay what Australians consider outrageous prices for it. A similar thing happens with Australian abalone.
That was the last savory course, then followed by "cheese" - a tiny morsel of (very tasty!) goat cheese paired with roasted potato and fresh micro greens. Then followed an intermission of sorts. "Cheesecake" pills that I suspect were citric acid, sugar, and sour cream solids compressed into tablet form, quite tasty. A "mangosteen" that was (I think) pacojet frozen mangosteen in a dark crunchy shell to resemble a tiny mangosteen and a "fizz bomb" that was a tiny edible paper packet containing fizzy powder.
The next course showcased their use of liquid nitrogen. A cream charger was used to pipe whipped custard into liquid nitrogen where it was then broken up into small pieces. It was then loosely mixed with similarly sized bits of rhubarb granita and topped with dehydrated custard sheets. It was paired with a "Dropje Daiquiri" - basically a salty liquorice garnished daiquiri to go with the next course. (I haven't been describing the cocktail and wine pairings, I'm not as much of a cocktail fan as Ben and Asya are, and while I thought the pairings were good fun, I enjoyed the food more.)
The final course was "textured milk" - pacojet milk, milk sorbet, crunchy milk wafers, and spherized milk beads. Good use of textures, flavors were distinct enough to be interesting, but it didn't rock my world. After this came three chocolates, salted caramel, hazelnut, and yuzu. We finished off with some digestivos and made our way home.
Bottom line? It was a great meal, a lot of fun, and a bravura performance. The number and complexity of the components of some of the dishes was daunting - and the price to match. I can see why The Tippling Club needs to charge those sorts of prices, and perhaps Singapore can support it, but as much fun as it was, as delicious as it was, I don't think I'll be hurrying back. Which is a shame because Chef Clift deserves to succeed. I hope he does.

March 03, 2013


Maxwell Hawker Centre
Singapore has some of the best street food on the planet, except it isn't actually on the street because Singapore, being Singapore, has taken all the street food hawkers and put them into organized "Hawker Centres" with tile floors and running water and sanitation ratings.

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice
But the food is still amazing. Whenever Debbie and I visit Singapore (whenever we can) we spend almost the entire time visiting hawker centers and eating street food. The very first time we visited Singapore, the very first place we visited was Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice in the Maxwell Hawker Centre. This trip we made the pilgrimage back to Tian Tian, and if anything it was even better than I remembered.

Chicken Rice with condiments
Hainanese Chicken Rice is a deceptively simple looking dish. It's just some poached chicken breast sitting on top of a mound of rice cooked in chicken stock, garnished with some cucumber, and served with chili/ginger sauce, and in Singapore some with ketjap manis (a thick, sweet, black, soy sauce.) It looks like bland boiled chicken over rice. In practice it's an example of how a simple food, perfected, is transcendant.

Just chicken, just rice...
The chicken is silky and tender, cooked in a chicken "master stock" that is constantly re-used, becoming thicker and richer over time, with water added as necessary to top it up. After cooking, the chicken is sometimes shocked in cold water to firm the skin and add gloss to the appearance. The chicken in chicken rice is never served hot.

The rice is cooked in a chicken stock specially made for the purpose, and is sometimes called "oily rice" because of the chicken fat that coats the rice. It has a bit more "tooth" than regular rice, and the stock may have additional flavoring herbs and spices.

Queueing out into the carpark
I could go on and on about the right condiments and how they should be prepared, but the bottom line is that Tian Tian is the standard against which I measure all chicken rice, including my own, and there's a reason that people queue around the corner and out into the carpark to get their chicken rice. Locals may sneer that it's a tourist joint and that there are other, better, places to get chicken rice but locals are always arguing about the best chicken rice place.  This tourist says Tian Tian is still the one to beat.

Inside the Maxwell Hawker Centre