Wednesday, September 17, 2008

So you think you want to be a photojournalist?

Last month while having lunch, a friend casually asked me whether I signed up for the photography workshop at the American Club. She said that it would be conducted by a famous National Geographic photographer and that it consisted of five days of photo-taking and critique sessions. Even though she couldn’t remember the name of the photographer, I knew I wanted to sign up instantly.

I have been shooting for a few years now, both as a hobby and as a free-lance food photographer, but I have never had any formal training in photography and it would be a great opportunity to have a professional critique and evaluate my photos. It would also give me some incentives to go out and shoot more. Ever since moving to Singapore, my photographic subjects had dwindled down to food and my dogs only. Don’t get me wrong, I love shooting food, and the income that comes with it, but I miss the days when I would just grab my camera and go out and shoot anything that captures my attention. I blame it on the hot and humid weather in Singapore, but I also know that’s not the only reason. In short, I needed to be inspired, and what better way than to spend five days with an award winning photographer from National Geographic?

That photographer turned out to be Michael Yamashita. He is every amateur photographer’s dream come true, for he, just like you and me, is entirely self-taught, and managed to turn his passion for photography and travel into a successful career. Singapore is actually where it all started, where he did a photo campaign for Singapore Airline in the 1970’s. That portfolio led to his first assignment with National Geographic, and the rest, like they say, is history.

Day 1
During the workshop, we were asked to choose a subject and shoot it over the course of several days, until we’re satisfied with what we have. I first chose the Botanic Garden because I know the place well and it’s easy for me to go back everyday to shoot. After one afternoon of shooting, however, I decided that the subject is too similar to what I’ve always been doing, namely, landscape and detailed shots of flowers and leaves. I wanted to take this opportunity to push myself, to do something entirely different, but the question is what?

Day 2
We met in Chinatown Complex at 7am to shoot the market scene. I tagged along Michael and got some pointers. He said in a busy market place, a corner stall is always a good place to position yourself, because it’s open on two sides, and you get a better view of what’s going on. So I chose a fish stall on a corner where the fishmonger is a friendly woman with a pleasant face. I waited, and watched her chopping up fish after fish after fish. Finally, she’s done and was ready to hand over the fish to the customer. I clicked away until I got the shot I wanted: transaction at a fish stall. This process is what Michael calls setting up a scene and waiting for the right moment to happen.

Michael says you should always place the person in his/her own environment, so it’s important here to show lots of fish in the foreground and also some background of the fish stall.

Later I also took this photo of a man showing me his live fish.

A very important lesson I learned on that day is that you need to have patience and be ready with your camera when the right “moment” occurs. People will be nervous and shy away when they see you with a big camera pointed to their face, but if you just stayed and watched, they’ll eventually get used to your presence and go back to doing their own stuff. After a while, they’ll forget that you’re even there. That’s when you can catch them at their most natural and relaxed state.

I changed my subject from the Botanic Gardens to Orchard Rd, so that I can have more opportunities to shoot people. I went to Emerald Hill off Orchard Rd in the afternoon to shoot some shop houses and caught two old men reading newspapers in front of a store and two students walking by. Nothing too spectacular, but I didn’t run away when one of the old men started eyeing me suspiciously and instead stayed and kept on clicking.

Day 3

Went to the critique session in the morning but didn’t shoot in the afternoon because I had out of town guests.

Day 4

7am We met up again on a group shoot in Little India. There was a religious ceremony taking place in the temple so everyone got down on the floor and clicked away. I was so surprised that hardly anybody paid us any attention at all and carried on with their daily routine. The day before we talked about using fill flash to bring out the details so I tried it out here. Because in food photography you never use flash, it is one of my weakest points, and I don’t even own an external strobe, both because I don’t need it and because it’s added weight, but I’m beginning to see that a little bit of flash can make a huge difference in a photo. Not only can it highlight details it can also freeze certain parts of the photo while allowing other parts to be blurry in a low light situation. I don’t have an example of this later use of strobe but another member took some excellent shots using this technique.

Here in Little India, I am again overwhelmed by how friendly people are. Most people smiled and waved at us when they saw our cameras.

Some indulged us in our request and others gave a shy smile when they realized I had stolen a shot of a private moment:

One cheeky old man tried to rip us off though when we gave him some money to take photos of his parrot:
We spent quite some time with the old man and his parrot. I first shot the man sitting with the parrot in the cage. Then when we found out the parrot is the one picking out the fortune I decided to focus on the old man’s hand and the parrot when it chooses the fortune. The two best shots are posted above. This is what Michael calls “anticipate to a point, shoot lots, and hope you get it.”

In the afternoon I went back to Orchard Rd again, in the pouring rain. When it rains there’s a lot of reflection and people running, so potentially it can be very rewarding. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t find anywhere to stand without getting wet and wasn’t very good at balancing my umbrella so I didn’t get any good shots in the rain.

When the rain stopped, I again found myself in Emerald Hill. This time, I was in the midst of the Hungry Ghost festival. In the back of a row of shop houses, people were burning paper to pay respect to the ghosts. I lurked around for more than half an hour, getting myself and my poor camera covered in soot, and finally got one good shot.

The first time I went to shoot on Orchard Rd, I wanted to get a photo of people walking in front of the Visitor’s Center but the light was too bright at that time, resulting in a huge white space behind the UOB building. I had wanted to go back again at a later time and shoot a night scene. As Michael says, when shooting night images, it’s better to have some ambient light. That way you don’t end up with a huge dead space of blackness. So today the light was right, but I still couldn’t get a satisfactory shot. I guess some photos are better in your mind’s eye.

On the way back home I passed by Louis Vuitton and visualized a shot of one or two shoppers walking in front of the window display. I wanted a clear silhouette instead of a motion blur because I thought it would go better with the clean LV graphic display. As Michael says, “ Choose the light, choose the background, and wait for the moment.” This proved to be easier said than done because on a Friday evening, there were way too many people walking past the window so it was almost impossible to isolate just two pedestrians. Also, Michael said that silhouettes should be clean, which means no missing limbs and everything had to be clearly defined. After about 15 minutes of crouching with camera held up, I decided to give myself a break and put it on a tripod. Another 20 minutes later, I gave up and made a mental note to come back another time when the foot traffic is lighter. This is another lesson I learned: it sometimes take a scouting shoot to get the photo you want. Anyway, this is the best out of the more than 30 minutes of shooting. I wanted the people to be in front of the graphic part of the space, instead of in front of the window display, but it just didn’t happen on that day.

Day 5 - Final day of the workshop.

Today we’re putting together a slide show consisting of photos we took during the five-day workshop. Despite my strong desire to sleep in, I dragged myself out of bed to go back to Orchard Rd one last time to see if I can find any good photo ops. Have you ever been to Orchard Rd at 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning? I’ve never seen the place so empty. The night before I was complaining about crowds, but now I couldn’t find a single person to shoot except for street sweepers and buses, so I settled for that and practiced panning. Here’s a bus speeding down Orchard Rd, with Ngee Ann City in the background.

After an hour of non-action, I went to have some coffee and kaya toast in Paragon and when I walked out, I noticed a lit up sign that would make a good background. So I sat myself down on a bench on the sidewalk and waited for someone to walk down the steps in front of the sign. I waited and waited and waited, but nobody walked by. I finally found hope when I saw a cleaner sweeping the steps and got my camera ready, but he kept on missing the steps in front of the sign. After what seemed like ages, he finally came into my frame and started sweeping the steps, but he was done in less than five seconds and I only got two frames. His limbs are visible but it’s hard to see what he’s doing. There will be another re-shoot at this location, I know.

By now, I was thoroughly exhausted after four days of workshop and shooting, involving getting up at 6am on three of the days and juggling out of town visitors in between. My legs are numb from crouching for so long, my feet are hurting from walking, and my fingers are starting to cramp up from holding the camera. I’m slowly starting to realize that maybe I’m not cut out to be a photojournalist. On top of that there was the issue of food. I had never eaten so much in my life! Somehow, getting up at 6am tricks my body into thinking that I need two breakfasts. So I eat one after the photo shoot and another one when we get back to the American Club. It doesn’t help that the club has been plying us with a changing menu of warm baked goods and fresh fruits everyday. In addition to the double breakfasts, I also find myself eating more snacks throughout the day: when I needed a break from the shooting, when I’m waiting for the light to change, etc. All this walking around and holding a heavy DSLR had better be burning up lots of calories or I’ll become overweight before I ever have even a glimpse of hope of becoming a photojournalist.

Despite the danger of turning into a whale with severe arthritis and sleep deprivation, I thoroughly enjoyed the workshop. For almost three straight days after the workshop, I found myself looking at my surroundings and seeing potential photos everywhere. Out of all the photos I shot for the workshop, my all time favorite is one that I took on my second day of shooting. The background is something I see everyday: a colorful poster plastered all over Orchard Road to cover up unsightly construction that’s taking place. Armed with my newly heightened sense for detecting photo ops, a spark went off when I saw it again that day. I decided to take a photo of someone walking in front of the poster. Preferably that someone would be slightly out of place among the glamorous women of Amazonian proportion depicted in the poster. I was waiting for an auntie or uncle in flip flops, but got something even better:

When I saw him I knew he was my guy: a little bit clueless, in a little bit of a daze, and just a little bit out of place. The only question is, will his stride and position be lined up with the women in the poster, and they did!

So here it is: choose your background, choose your light, wait for a moment that’s special, keep on clicking, and hope you have it.

And one last thing: only check your LCD once to make sure you have the right exposure, otherwise, don’t look at the photos you’ve taken until you’re home. Because whatever you’ve taken, you already have it. While you’re checking the images that you already have, you could be missing precious images that you could be shooting. If there’s one thing I learned and will never forget in this workshop, this is it.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Inspiration's in the Air

I have been watching the Olympics and getting so darn inspired by the amazing athletes. Without a question, they are all extremely talented but what I admire most is the sheer determination and dedication they have shown. The most obvious example is Michael Phelps, who’s won every one of the eight gold medals that he set his mind on winning. But it is those athletes who were dismissed as non-competition, or were deemed past their prime that inspired me even more.

Did you watch the tennis quarterfinals match between James Blake and Roger Federer? Who would’ve thought Blake could beat the invincible Federer? Or the women’s singles match between Venus Williams (world #7) and China’s Li Na (world #42)? When the game started everyone thought it would be a quickie with Williams crushing her opponent mercilessly, but Li held on, fought back, and won! In the gymnastics stadium, China’s Yang Wei finally won the men’s all-around after missing out on gold in two previous Olympic games. The next day, USA’s Nastia Liukin beat her teammate, the favored Shawn Johnson, and took the women’s all-around gold. To watch her on the balance beam was like watching a ballerina, except her whole dace floor is a piece of wood 10cm wide and 5m long! The Singapore women’s table tennis team also made history by brining home an Olympic medal after a 40-year draught. When they played the Korean team the entire island held its collective breath through the ordeal. In the end, the youngest team member Feng Tianwei played a critical part by winning two singles matches. And let’s not forget the 41-year-old American swimmer Dara Torres who missed the gold in the 50m freestyle by just 0.01 second. She became the oldest athlete to ever win a silver medal in the Olympics swimming events and a winner in my book.

The Olympics has almost another week to go and I am sure I will find inspiration over and over again. I guess you could say I am easily inspired. Since I am the type with no self-discipline and no self-motivation, I am always in awe of people who can drive themselves beyond their capabilities, and whose sheer mental force can push them to achieve the unthinkable. When Jason finished his first marathon in just over four hours with a badly twisted ankle, I briefly contemplated running a half marathon myself, before I remembered how much I hated running. That’s how easily I am inspired by people’s athletic abilities. I have never really been the athletic type and although over the years I’ve grown to tolerate hiking if there are nice sceneries to be seen, learned how to rollerblade because it was once cool, and even picked up tennis and golf so that Jason and I can have something to do together, I was never naturally athletic. I walk my dogs everyday for more than an hour and I play tennis at the American club every week anywhere from one to four hours, and I go to the occasional body pump or pilates class when I am feeling extremely motivated, but that is the extent of my exercise routine. Oh, I also hit a few balls at the driving range before my golf lessons so I don’t suck too much. But all that is going to change now, because if those Olympics athletes can win matches when all odds are against them, surely I can win over my own inertia and laziness.

Last week, after my one and half hour tennis clinic I sprinted to a Body Balance class five minutes later, sweat still dripping down my neck from tennis. After an hour of stretching and pilate/yoga-esque movements, I felt really good. Body Balance is the perfect cool-down to tennis, isn’t it? Riding the wave of inspiration, I also signed up for an 8-week spinning program at the club. It is actually a weight-loss program but heck, everyone can stand to lose a few pounds, right? The only problem is, the program starts after the Olympic ends. Will I still be motivated by then? It remains to be seen.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Search of the Perfect Almond Croissant

I’m a breakfast person. I like long leisurely breakfasts, either at home or at a roadside café, with a good cup of cappuccino. On weekdays I eat alone, because Jason leaves work at the ungodly hour of 7:30am and no amount of love can get this sleepyhead out of bed at that hour to have breakfast with dear hubby. Plus, unlike me, Jason is NOT a breakfast person. So weekday breakfasts are simple: a bowl of cereal with fresh summer berries, or a couple of slices of toasted artisan bread generously slathered with salted butter and a good jam. I’m still working my way through the jams I bought at the markets in Provence last summer and savoring every bit of it. Although I enjoy having my simple weekday breakfasts in front of the computer, I make it a point to sit down to have at least one proper breakfast every weekend. With three dogs by my feet, hubby sitting across the table from me, I don’t know a better way to spend a Sunday morning, which brings me to, my all time favorite breakfast food: almond croissant.

I first discovered almond croissant years ago in Paris, under the Eiffel tower. As far as the ways to discover a ubiquitous Parisian pastry item, is there any better location than a neighborhood café a few blocks away from the symbol of Paris? Before my encounter with the almond croissant, a nice flaky on the outside chewy on the inside regular croissant had always been my favorite. That day, however, among all the tempting pastries lined up behind the glass counter, my eyes were drawn to an “ugly mutant” croissant. You can sort of still make out the shape of a croissant but it had a bug-like shell, and almond slices sprinkled on top. I pointed to that, stuck out my index finger and said “S'il vous plait.” Minutes later, I was biting into the most luxurious breakfast pastry you could ever dream of. Granted, it was my first trip to Paris and I hadn’t embarked on my Le Cordon Bleu journey yet so you could say I was a lot more easily impressed then, but still, I think honest good food is honest good food no matter how discerning ones’ palate is. I had an almond croissant every chance I got for the rest of our stay in Paris and loved every one of them.

Back in Tokyo, I scoured every bakery in my neighborhood and found only one place that sold an interpretation of almond croissant. It was Yoku Moku, an iconic bakery on Omotesando that is famous for their petit cigare (a rolled up crepe-like cookie) of myriad flavors. The petit cigares can be found in the basement of most major department stores but the freshly baked cakes are only available at the Yoku Moku café on Omotesando. What a lot of people didn’t know was that in the morning, they put out baskets full of freshly baked pastries and among them I found a giant glazed croissant which they named almond croissant. It was vastly different from the ones I had in Paris, a more glamorous version if you would, and it was HUGE. It took Jason and I a lot of effort to chow down just that and two cups of coffee. It was also hard to come by. Over the years I was only able to buy it twice. It was always sold out, even when you go right at store opening. I suspect on some days they don’t make them.

Flash forward a couple of years and we’ve left Tokyo, escaped the humidity and air pollution of Hong Kong and ended up in Singapore again. Singapore, being humid, presents a lot of challenges to bakeries. Crusts on bread turn soggy almost the instant they hit the shelf and it’s virtually impossible to get a decent flaky croissant unless you bake it yourself. You would think that after so many years the almond croissant is but a distant memory, but not so, because we again had some amazing ones in a Parisian bakery called Boulangerie de Papa that supposedly had the best croissants in all of Paris. My passion was re-kindled and I was again on a quest to find the best almond croissant outside of Paris. And found it I did, in the most unlikely place.

We went on a holiday to Angkor Wat early this year and stayed in Hotel de la Paix for a few nights. Despite initial reservations about the hotel’s location right in the center of Siem Reap town, it turned out to be a tranquil sanctuary with tastefully decorated rooms and friendly staff.The best surprise, however, was the almond croissants at the breakfast buffet. I had one everyday of our stay there and bought everyone they had in the bakery the day we came back to Singapore. Sadly though, the curse of the Singapore humidity lived on. The nice crispy almond slices, along with the crunchy crust of almond paste turned soft when we brought them back home. Nonetheless, I was still happy, for Cambodia is a helluva lot closer than Paris. I was already making plans to revisit Hotel de la Paix, just so I could eat their almond croissants.

Why don’t I just make them myself, you ask? Believe me you, that thought crosses my mind every time I obsess about almond croissants, and my pastry course at Le Cordon Bleu did cover it in one of the demo sessions. Problem is, even in Tokyo, the land of DIY pastry, I was unable to find almond syrup, an indispensable ingredient in making the almond croissant, and substituting it with anything else, thereby compromising the authenticity was, to me, unthinkable.
So I sustain myself on memories of almond croissants I’ve had, the most recent ones being from Bouchon in Napa Valley and Tartine from San Francisco.

Then one day, the pastry goddess smiled upon me and told me to go into Hediard, which is just down the street from where I live but is so easy to miss that I’ve only been inside a handful of times. She told me to go all the way to the narrow hallway in the back of the store and there on the shelf, I saw, a bottle of almond syrup!

Did I run home with my precious bottle of almond syrup and make almond croissants right away? Of course not! I dug out the recipe and studied it and decided that I should start with the best croissant, which in Singapore, means frozen ones from Classic Fine Foods and baked to perfection in my own kitchen right before eating. Since almond croissants are traditionally made with day-old croissants (yes, it’s actually an ingenious way to recycle leftovers), I’d bake a few extras, eat some on day 1 and make the leftovers into almond croissants on day 2. Simple, right? Not so. It was months before I could find a weekend where we’d be eating breakfast home on Saturday (freshly baked flaky croissants) and have time on Sunday to transform the leftovers into almond croissants. You see when you’ve waited for so long to do something, you just want everything to be perfect.

The day finally came last weekend. It was Singapore’s National Day on Saturday and we were watching the Olympics at home on Sunday. So we had piping hot flaky croissants on Saturday and I made my first mini batch of almond croissants on Sunday. They had a glorious crunchy crust of sweet almond cream studded with crispy almond slices. Inside the croissant is a sweet filling of the same almond cream but it’s soft, which, combined with the subtle hint of orange blossom from the almond syrup, made it taste like something entirely different. It was perfect! Ok, maybe not perfect because I think I put too much almond cream on top so the almond slices slid off when the cream melted in the oven. But the point is, they tasted exactly the way I remembered, and now I can have them whenever I want. Is this the way to end an obsession or what!

Recipe (for six):

Six day-old croissants (the best you can find)

100g unsalted butter, softened
100g icing sugar
100g almond powder
10g flour
2 medium eggs
10g rum
almond syrup
almond slices
icing sugar

1. Sift together flour, icing sugar and almond powder
2. Whisk together butter and eggs, then whisk in flour mixture
3. Whisk in rum – this is almond cream
4. Slice croissants down in the middle without slicing through
5. Soak cut surface in almond syrup
6. Pipe some almond cream into center of croissant, close up croissant and pipe more on top
7. Sprinkle almond slices on top
8. Bake at 180C/350F for 15 minutes or until golden brown
9. Sprinkle with more icing sugar if you want.
10. Cool on rack and eat when it’s cooled but before the sugary almond crust gets soggy

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Pierre Hermé in Singapore

One thing I won’t complain about living in Singapore is the size of the place. True, it is just one tiny island that you can drive from one end to the other in less than 45 minutes, but it is conveniently located for easy traveling. Most places in Asia are just a short hop away and even Europe and Australia are well within 12 hours. North and South Americas and Africa are a little far to get to, but I don’t need to go there too often, now that my parents have retired and moved to Shanghai, and how many times do you need to go on a safari, right?

Anyway, my point is, Singaporeans are a well-traveled bunch and coming from a food-loving culture, they eat where they go at the best places they can find. As a result, mention any internationally renowned chef to any globe trotting Singaporean and chances are he/she has not only heard of the chef but has also eaten at the famed establishment. It is therefore no surprise that each year at the World Gourmet Summit held in town the list of guest chef looks like the who’s who of the culinary world. I missed the one last year because I was back in the States helping my parents move, i.e. tossing out high school report cards, college notebooks and even my wedding dress from their basement.

This year, I made sure I was in town during the WGS and I am so glad I did, because Pierre Hermé, the man who single handedly changed the way desserts are made and presented was one of the guest chefs.

I have long been a fan of Mr. PH ever since my Tokyo days and have visited his store in Paris as well. He may not be my all-time favorite pastry chef ever (that honor goes to Mr. Hidemi Sugino), but his innovative flavor combinations never cease to amaze and inspire me. Naturally, when my friend called to tell me that he’s going to be serving his signature desserts at Mezza9 I wanted to make a reservation right away. I also wanted to attend his master class, however I was not as decisive in that front. So in the time it took me to come to the conclusion that yes, I really do want to watch him from the back of an auditorium that seats 200, all the tickets were sold out. At least we booked our seats at the Mezza9 early enough.

After more than a month the day finally came. The six of us agreed (or rather, the wives decided on behalf of the husbands) to order a light dinner so we could try all seven desserts on the menu. In true Singapore “kiasu” style we pre-ordered our desserts before our meals, just in case any particular item runs out. While we were deciding what main dishes to order, Mr. Pierre Hermé stepped out into the dining room and all of a sudden I could feel my heart palpitating. He came over to our table and I asked Jason to take a photo for me with the master himself, then another one with all three ladies at the table. Normally I am not the type to swoon over a movie or rock star but I found myself gushing in the presence of Mr. PH. So it was in the presence of an iconic chef that I finally got a little taste of what screaming fans must feel when they’re faced with their idol.

At the waiter’s urge we ordered some side dishes to go with the main, but the main dish portions turned out to be very generous. I had almost half a duck on my plate and in order to conserve precious stomach space I had to give most of it to Jason. When finally the dishes were cleared away we ordered a bottle of dessert wine and waited for the arrival of Mr. PH’s masterpieces.

Now, in the order of flavors going from lightest to heaviest, they are:

Dessert Ispahan – rose flavored macaron filled with rose petal cream with raspberries and lychees, served with sorbet ispahan: lychee, rose petal aromas and raspberry sorbet.

I have had both the ispahan (macaron) and the sorbet (in the form of and ice cream bar, named Miss Gla-gla), which are both excellent on their own. But I have to say that having them side by side like this, when you chase the ispahan macaron with a light, refreshing bite of the sorbet, you’ll understand why this is his best known dessert.

Emotion Satine – compote of passion fruit, seasoned orange segments, cream cheese cream, topped with shortbread cubes soaked in flavored syrup.

I have also had this while in Tokyo, when the range was first introduced. I’ve always liked the tartness of passion fruit, especially when it’s paired with something sweet and creamy. One of my favorite elements of this dessert is the shortbread on top. People are weary because they look like brown sugar cubes but of course when you pop one into your mouth you’ll immediately realize your mistake.

Revelation – puff pastry with tomato, mascarpone cream, olive oil, pieces of black olives, tomato and strawberry compote.

There is a split of opinion on this dessert, with only two guys in our group liking it. Usually I am the first to order something weird like this because I am always for trying new flavors, but even for me this is a little strange. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against tomatoes in desserts, it is a fruit after all. In fact, one of my favorite tarts was a cherry tomato tart from a bakery in Tokyo. However, the revelation lacks the magic element that pulls all the components together, so the tomato tasted like salad and the olives seemed really out of place.

Tarte Mogador – shortcrust pastry filled with milk chocolate and passion fruit ganache, with a piece of flourless chocolate cake inside, topped with roasted pineapple

Here is another one I did not like. For one, the short crust pastry shell was really hard and very difficult to cut, and then there’s the problem of the pineapple. Maybe the Hyatt couldn’t get a good batch, but it was kind of tasteless. Then there’s the cacao nibs. I confess I’ve never been a fan of cacao nibs, and especially not in ganache. I am all for contrast of textures, but biting into cacao nibs in an otherwise silky and smooth ganache is like finding coffee grinds in a nice cup of latte. It’s just not my thing. Sorry, Mr. Hermé!

The next dessert has no name but only a description: variation of chestnut, passion fruit and matcha green tea.

The bottom half of the martini glass was filled with a silky custard so rich and creamy and full of egg flavors I couldn’t stop eating. Then there was a layer of sweet chestnut cream and a layer of matcha mouse. Passion fruit pulp was drizzled on top to give this sweet and rich dessert some zing. The scoop of ice cream lent a nice contrast in temperature and it was all rounded off nicely with a paper-thin tuille. This is more like the Pierre Hermé I know.

Crème brulee with foie gras, cranberries and pear compote

Ladies and gentlemen, this is by no means your regular crème brulee! Although I eat foie gras at every chance I get, I’ve never had it in a dessert and to be perfectly honest, I had my doubts: will it be too rich, will it be too weird? All my doubts were dispelled the moment I took a tentative little bite. Oh how do I describe it? You know when you eat foie gras, you like the intense rich flavor but the burst of oil in your mouth is not really pleasant? Well, somehow Mr. Hermé managed to solve that problem. You taste the intense fragrance of the foie gras without the greasiness because, me thinks, it is first neutralized by the custard cream and further played down by the refreshing combination of cranberry/pear compote and fresh pear chunks. In the words of Randy Jackson, (watch American Idol much?) “Yo, listen dude, this is molten HOT!”

And last but not the least, an assortment of macarons:

The vanilla was too sweet for my taste and the chocolate had the same problem with the tarte: cacao nibs in ganache. I didn’t try the passion fruit milk chocolate ganache macaron but I really enjoyed the rose flavored ispahan, again. My favorite, however, was the white truffle. I know it sounds so cliché, but I really did enjoy it the most. I know it’s hard to make a good truffle dessert because I’ve had some pretty bad truffle ice creams before. Nevertheless, when it’s done right, it is the most incredible experience of flavor and aroma, which PH managed to do in perfection. The fragrance of the truffle is neither too pungent nor too subtle and the flavor is neither too intrusive nor too delicate. And with that perfect macaron we finished off our wonderful dessert course.

I was feeling content and happy about the whole experience, until the next day, when I found out that there was actually another different dessert menu just next door in the Martini bar. Had I known that I would’ve convinced my dinner companions to skip dinner altogether and order that entire menu too! Oh well, there is always Paris and Tokyo. Until then, Mr. Hermé.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Eat Your Type

Our waiter greeted us with “Hello, my name is Mike, and my blood type is O. What’s your blood type?” Yip, our waiter. I was at a restaurant, not a blood bank.

Lynette and I and a couple of other ladies started this lunch thing last year. We don’t meet regularly and it’s not always the same group because people are out of town all the time, but whoever can make it will go and we usually try to eat at new places or where we know the chef.

This time the venue is the newly opened My Blood Type restaurant at the Golden Shoe Building in the financial district. Bertrand, the executive chef is a fellow teacher at Palate Sensations and has worked in various hotels and restaurants. In fact we have been waiting for the restaurant to open ever since he told us that he was working on the menu at the end of last year. The menu comes divided according to blood types, and then there is one called “friendly” suited to all blood types. They do not use artificial flavors, refined sugar, saturated fat or processed food in their cooking so you can eat to your heart’s content without feeling guilty.

The menu for type B (my blood type) was long on starters and desserts but short on main for some reason, so I opted for two starters. My first starter was lightly seared yellow fin tuna on a bed of salad greens served with citrus dressing. The taste was light and refreshing and healthy food doesn’t get any better than this. My next starter was a little unusual. Normally people want their food to be savory, no? Well, the ricotta cake was slightly sweet, and lemony. It was still very nice but I was just not expecting anything sweet before dessert.

The food my lunch companions ordered are a very nice shrimp and mango salad wrapped in grilled paper-thin zucchini slices; a slightly garlicky pasta; and a very juicy and flavorful grilled rack of lamb. I was told Bertrand used to man the grill station when he worked at Flutes at the Fort so grilling is obviously his forte.
To finish off lunch we picked three desserts to share: peach tart (which was recommended to us by the owner), jasmine tea jelly with lime sorbet, and chocolate covered pandan chiffon cake. The peach tart took us by surprise because we didn’t want to order it initially, thinking how good could a peach tart be? Well, it was pretty amazing. Instead of almond or crème patisserie, which is usually what comes in a tart, it was filled with a peach compote made on site. To top it off, little balls of peach flesh was poached and lightly caramelized with a torch. From taste to presentation it was perfect. The tea jelly had a very mellow jasmine taste but all our taste buds were woken up by the tangy lime sorbet. It’s the perfect ending if you had eaten something heavy, such as lamb or a creamy pasta. We were a little disappointed by the pandan chiffon cake, however. Since the restaurant only uses spelt flour, the “chiffon” cake didn’t rise the way chiffon cakes are supposed to rise and the delicate pandan flavor was overpowered by the thick chocolate covering. On the other hand, the dessert that another group of friends that I happened to run into at the restaurant was excellent, according to them. I think it was the raspberry short cake parfait?
Minor hiccups aside, I was pleasantly surprised by how good the food was at a so-called health restaurant. When it comes to food I usually believe that if it’s healthy it can’t taste too good, but I have to say I am changing my mind on that. Just a little though, because you won’t see me baking without butter or eggs any time soon.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Have you Lo-hei’d this year?

Last Saturday, we went with Lynettte and a group of friends to the lovely Sichuan Do Hua restaurant for a Chinese New Year celebration dinner. But, wasn’t CNY last week? Yes, and no, because traditionally CNY is celebrated for fifteen whole days, ending with the lantern festival on the fifteenth day. So we were well within the celebratory period.

Lynette had outdone herself by booking the most beautiful private room in the restaurant and before we even finished wooing and aaahing, two waiters served us tea kung-fu style. Now that’s service with panache!

One must-have Chinese New Year dish in Singapore is Yu Sheng, which means raw fish literally. It is actually a salad with sashimi and various other ingredients, all carrying auspicious meanings. The way to eat it is called Lo Hei, which is Cantonese for “lifting up.” The restaurants usually prepare long chopsticks (about a foot long) so everybody can stand up around the table and use the chopsticks to toss, or throw the salad in the air, depending on how you look at it. Some say that the higher you toss, the more luck and prosperity the new year will bring. Even though we have lived in Singapore before I had never taken part in Lo Hei or eating Yu Sheng until then. In fact, only a handful of people in our group have had it before so the novelty factor caused us all to giggle like little kids while enthusiastically scattering salad greens and precious abalones all over the table. We only stopped when someone pointed out that if we carried on like that there’d be nothing to eat.
According to our Yu Sheng expert (a Singaporean and two Italians who have eaten it before), Si Chuan Do Hua’s version is a little different. They included abalone and a crispy fish skin, and also used a very nice plume sauce for the dressing. I loved it so much I had two heaping servings and would’ve had more if there was any left.
Besides the Yu Sheng we also had the following dishes: eight treasure seafood soup sans sharks fin, steamed red grouper, braised prawn in spinach sauce, DongPo pork, scallops in potato basket, fried noodles, and a dessert of longan and red date soup.

Everything was delicious, although I was puzzled as to why there weren’t any spicy dishes since the chef is from Si Chuan, home of Ma Po tofu, until Lynette reminded us that she was the one who picked the menu, hee!

At the end of the dinner we were served fortune cookies! I was tickled to see those because I didn’t think anyone else used them except Chinese restaurants in the US. When I opened my cookie, I found a fortune that said I had won a $50 dining voucher. But the best part was, I had two fortunes in the cookie, which means I won two vouchers. Now if that’s not an auspicious sign for the new year, I don’t know what is.

Friday, February 15, 2008

So how did you spend your Valentine’s Day?

Here’s how I spent Feb 14th, 2008

12amv – 1:45am
Emergency Room of Mount Pleasant Animal Hospital
Libby and Cherry Garcia got into a fight and Libby’s two upper canines were ripped from her gum. The one on the right is pointing horizontally out instead of down. Her upper lip couldn’t even close properly. After a shot of antibiotics, pain relief meds and some blood sample we were sent home.

Dead tired, but had to make sure the dogs are ok sleeping in the same room after a big fight. Libby ended up sleeping on my side of the bed with her E-collar on and Cherry slept at the foot of the bed between Jason and I.

9am – 10am
Mount Pleasant Animal Hospital
Dropped Libby off to get her teeth fixed. Since she had to go under general anesthesia anyway I asked the vet to scale her teeth. She looked so timid and helpless and her upper lip was still pushed up by the uprooted canine I almost bursted into tears in the exam room.

CK Tang, 4th floor
Bought a set of jungle animal figurines as cupcake toppers for a friend’s daughter’s jungle themed cake order.

11am – 4:30pm
Baking cupcakes, chocolate with chocolate butter cream and lemon with lemon butter cream, plus a small cutting cake for above mentioned jungle themed birthday party. I hate rushing things when I make desserts, but I had no choice. I actually wanted to make the cake toppers with fondant, but it was too last minute. Good thing I scouted out the plastic figurines as a backup. I am very glad I had this cake order to take my mind off Libby, otherwise I probably would’ve resort to retail therapy and bought things that I’d regret later.

Mount Pleasant Animal Hospital
Back to pick up Libby. I was hoping her left canine could be saved but she came out with both canines gone. The bill from both visits added up to be about $500, a lot lower than I expected, but I would’ve paid anything if they could’ve fixed her canines instead of pulling them out.

Camp Rd grassy area
Walking/training Cherry Garcia to heel off leash. Jeffrey the dog trainer thinks that if I train Cherry more vigorously with higher expectations, the dogs will stop fighting. At this stage I’m willing to try anything.

After a quiet dinner, I Finished up my royal icing/pretzel stick coconut trees for the cake. The royal icing didn’t have enough time to dry thoroughly so a lot of them cracked. I tried my best to patch them up, hopefully they won’t crack after I put them on the cake.

When we were waiting at Mt. Pleasant Animal Hospital’s ER, I called The Animal Recovery Centre at Greendale Ave and Balestier Rd, to see if the vet there could see us sooner (the wait at Mt. Pleasant was more than an hour). After describing the situation to the technician I was informed that the vet did not think it was important enough for him/her to come in and see Libby, even though I was willing to pay the $260 night call rate. I told the technician again that Libby’s teeth were completely ripped out and that she was in pain, but the vet still didn’t think it was a big deal. In fact, they didn’t even think it was serious enough to book me the first appointment the next day. They wanted me to go in at 2pm! They also mentioned getting an ultrasound before determining what to do. This is the point where I hung up and decided to never go to the Animal Recovery Center again.

I had one bad experience with them when I took Cherry Garcia in for a very severe case of diarrhea. Libby had something similar in Tokyo. The vet there took a stool sample, determined the bacteria that was causing it and prescribed the right medicine. She was better the next day. At the Animal Recovery Center, they didn’t want to do any test but instead gave her a broad-spectrum antibiotics, which didn’t cover anaerobic bacteria because from experience, even I know the diarrhea was probably caused by something in some garbage that Cherry ate, which is perfect breeding ground for anaerobes (see, I haven’t completely forgotten my training in clinical pharmacy). They also gave her some vitamin shots, which were expensive and completely unnecessary. The bill came up to almost $300 and Cherry continued to have diarrhea for the next week. Needless to say, I was not impressed, and the only reason I called them that night was because I was willing to do anything to relieve Libby’s pain faster. I was prepared to pay through the nose but I never expected the vet to be so cold-hearted and uncaring. If his child had some teeth knocked out I would like to see his reaction if his dentist told him to wait for more than 14 hours for treatment. I know we couldn’t perform the surgery that night, but at least we could give her some pain relief and antibiotics. Hasn’t he ever heard of endocarditis? I just think that someone who has so little compassion has no business being a vet.

On a more positive note, the friend whose daughter is having the jungle themed birthday party runs a medical foster home called Blue Sky Healing Homes in Beijing. She temporarily houses and provides medical care to orphans who go to Beijing for medical treatments. Often times she ends up being the one to raise money or finds doctors to treat the kids. It’s a great cause and she does it with her own money plus generous donations from people like you and me. So instead of giving each other presents this Valentine’s day, we are donating to her organization. Take a look at her website and I hope the stories will inspire you too.