Monday, 30 September 2013

Omakase at Shinzo - Carpenter Street, Clarke Quay

Things that bring joy -

A meal, lovingly prepared then greatly appreciated.

Good wine, shared with friends and strangers.

Familiarity, somewhere new. 

We've been eating Uncle Lawrence's cooking for eight years now, following him as he's moved from Santaro at the Amara Hotel, to Keppel Club, then his previous venture Hinoki in Chinatown, and now Shinzo, his labour of love located at Carpenter Street in Clarke Quay. We were introduced by Uncle A & Auntie A (Though if you don't have family friends to bring you, you can call or email the restaurant for reservations), and the first dinner we all had was memorable not just for the excellent food, but also for the fact that I got bopped on the head that evening by a stray champagne cork that ricocheted off the ceiling. Thankfully there have been no further mishaps that I can recall, perhaps because we always leave very cheerfully drunk.

Meals with Uncle Lawrence are an indulgence, and while we don't actually need excuses to eat good food, we decided that a sending-off party as I made my way to London for my Master's degree was as good a reason as any to call Uncle A, Auntie A & G down for a get together at his new place. Tucked away off the madness of the rest of Clarke Quay, you may miss the doorway if you aren't looking, but we found it easily enough thanks to the big sign out front, after following our usual modus operandi of cabbing down. D is always left in no state to drive after these dinners, so it's become a sensible necessary precaution. 

Shinzo Carpenter Street Singapore

I got Uncle Lawrence to mug for my camera after the usual greetings, intent on documenting everything for my blog. 

"Find a nice angle ah."

My own picture doesn't really do him justice, so here's a better shot that I requested. Here he is, with a very good looking plate of sashimi in hand. 

Shinzo Carpenter Street Singapore

In Omakase, you're basically leaving the design of your meal over to the chef, in a gesture of trust and appreciation for their abilities. The new place has a bunch of specially designed menus, including the special Early Bird Omakase Course, that allows you to indicate what sort of dishes and price range you're comfortable with. In all my years of dining with Uncle Lawrence I've never once even touched a menu though, because D and Uncle A have full confidence in his abilities to put together spectacular special menus for us. This essentially means he feeds us amazing course after amazing course until we have to be rolled out the door.  

Shinzo Carpenter Street Singapore

The new restaurant is an intimate place, specially designed such that every diner has views of the open kitchen, and the ability to interact with the chefs. Anyone who's ever dined with him will tell you that the food is top-notch, but what makes the experience truly special is hanging out with Uncle Lawrence himself. This can mean anything from being on the receiving end of a healthy dose of fatherly advice doled out with good humour to downing vodka shots depending on the evening (Sometimes, both can happen within a span of fifteen minutes - those are the best nights). We began this dinner snacking on grilled dry leatherjacket, a versatile fish related to fugu (Puffer fish), but without the risk of poisoning. Served with Japanese mayonnaise and a spoonful of tobiko (Flying fish roe), it's a great accompaniment to beer or sake. 

Shinzo Carpenter Street Singapore
Our next course was slices of hirame (Flounder) sashimi, artfully arranged and served with a piquant shiso sauce. Flounder makes for excellent sashimi, especially thanks to its ever so slightly crunchy texture. That evening, there were eleven of us having dinner in the restaurant, and it was fun looking at what other people were being served as well. There were two ladies who'd started earlier than the rest of us, and as our meal began theirs was winding up, so we had a glimpse of what we potentially had in store for us. It was all very exciting. 

Shinzo Carpenter Street Singapore

G was taking pictures on his phone as well, and we had a mini race over who could take the better picture in less time when we were served our uni (Sea urchin) sashimi. BB's intense displeasure at having to wait while I take pictures has trained me in the art of the quick-draw, and before G had angled his bowl to his liking, my phone was back on the table and I was slurping up my serving of sweet, fresh uni. 

Post-uni, we were given sharing plates of fried baby trout with Caesar sauce. Beautifully crisp on the outside, on the inside the pieces of fish were juicy-moist with big white flakes of flesh. Thanks to the layout of the counter, we could easily watch as the next course was prepared, and be kaypoh (nosy inquisitive) about what we were going to be served. 

It turned out to be thick cuts of aji (Horse mackerel) served with ginger, light soy sauce, chilli oil, thinly sliced chives and a sprinkling of bonito flakes, that danced about as the dish was served. Aji tends to be one of the stronger-tasting varieties of fish, so serving it this way very effectively showcases the crisp texture without the fish feeling overwhelming. We'd been drinking a very good sake picked out by Uncle Lawrence up to this point, and when the bottle ran out D decided it was time to break out the vodka he'd been gifted from Russia, and share it with everyone in the restaurant, including the rather bewildered other diners. It broke the ice though, and we spent the rest of the evening getting to know the other people along the bar. 

The flamethrowers kitchen torches soon made an appearance, and delicate, oily pieces of aburi (Flambéed) ootoro (Fatty tuna) were set on our plates. Uncle Lawrence explained that a thicker cut of tuna was used for this course because the piece of fish shrinks down under the flame, releasing lovely, fragrant oils from the extensive marbling. The fish was decadently melt-in-you-mouth soft, and a rare hush fell over our portion of the table as we savoured it. 

More tuna belly followed, this time in normal sashimi form. Just look at that marbling, isn't it gorgeous? 

M isn't too good with rich foods, so I got to nick her portion as well. Lucky me. 

We moved on to more fried fish, this time a basket of sole served with ponzu dipping sauce. The basket was made up of the carefully shaped then deep fried bones of the sole. 

Uncle Lawrence came round to break up the fish bone basket, telling us "The bones are the best part. Come, eat!" True enough, while the fish was tender, the bones were wondrously crunchy with a delectably milky flavour to them. 

We moved back to pieces of sashimi, including these slices of kampachi (Almaco jack), and a piece of sweet, fleshy hotate (Scallop)  each. By this point we were beginning to flag, so Uncle Lawrence orchestrated a short interlude of drinks and appetite whetting pieces of pickled radish and onion bulbs as we prepared ourselves for the next course. Uncle Lawrence cooks from the heart, and makes damn sure you're enjoying yourself, which is something we appreciate. 

Uncle Lawrence trained under Chef Nogawa, who was Singapore's most renowned Japanese chef, and retains the traditional principles of serving fresh, seasonal produce flown directly from Japan, combining that with great skill. At the same time, he'll dare to push boundaries for a truly creative dining experience, which makes every meal exciting and educational. The rest of the staff here are excellent as well, and you can banter with just about anyone. 

Our main course was pan-fried Shiga Ohmi Wagyu steak, served with shimeji mushroom tempura. Ohmi beef is considered one of the top breeds in Japan, with a history of being considered good enough to cure all manner of ills. Happy cows make for good meat, and you can just taste how pampered they were. Uncle Daniel is in charge of the hot dishes, and apart from the expertly seared beef, the shimeji tempura was perfectly cooked and bursting with mushroomy goodness. 

King crab leg tempura came after, and good as it was, we were sort of flopped over the counter after we scarfed it, clutching our bellies and crying "I don't think I can eat any more!". This provoked a round of laughs, and the group of three left in the restaurant with us shared their bottle of 1989 Bordeaux while everyone waxed lyrical about their dining history with Uncle Lawrence in an outpouring of love. It was very touching. There may have been a tear or two. 

On more protests that we couldn't possibly have any more for fear of exploding, Uncle Lawrence did requests, which of course D & Uncle A couldn't resist. So, we ended up with an extra piece each of Aburi Ebi (Shrimp) and Ebi with Foie Gras sushi. Insanely rich, but utterly to die for. 

Our last dish was Wagyu beef soumen, where the thin noodles are made of fish paste, cooked quickly to ensure it retains its chewy texture. As the bowls were doled out to everyone, someone rushed in wearing their pyjamas, and it turned out to be the wife of one of the other diners, who'd driven down once she heard they were going to have the soumen, which happens to be her favourite dish in the world. 

For all the generally older crowd, the atmosphere is never, ever stuffy, and there's always such an air of happiness in the room as everyone engages in the highly enjoyable act of appreciating good food under the watchful eye of a master host. A vast majority of the other diners are regulars, so if you visit you're bound to run into us one of these days. We're a very dedicated bunch. 

Don't be afraid to have a chat, you'll be part of the club soon enough. 

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Haruna Pear Road

The very last thing on our itinerary for the trip was fruit picking, and according to the information counter, the best place to go for the season's fruit (Pears!) was in Haruna, the biggest fruit production district in the whole of Gunma Prefecture. This entailed yet another long bus ride, but this time there weren't any instructions on where to alight. This caused much panicking on our part when the bus pulled into the Haruna Pear Road, because we passed by a great number of stalls selling pears, but there were no pear orchards in sight. 

In the end, we hopped off the bus on a whim in the middle of absolutely nowhere because the suspense was just killing me. Walking through the sleepy suburb, the sun bearing down on us and only a wholesale egg centre to be seen, our entire fruit-picking quest didn't really seem worth it. We stumbled on a sign that seemed to indicate an orchard, but 50 metres into our uphill walk we decided to turn back lest we get lost. 

After 15 minutes of aimless wandering up the road, we came across a small orchard and nearly wept for joy. When we went up to the lady sitting in the stall next door though, she told us that they only sold pears, and didn't allow people to pick the fruits. When she spied the brochure we had in our hands, she found her stall listed there and exactly as she said, right next to it were the words 'Selling Only'. She told us that the main fruit picking destination was the orchard we'd almost walked to, but it turned out that was an hour's walk up the hill.

We explained that we had no car and she looked on us pityingly. At this point, her husband returned in a lorry. She asked if we could pick some fruits and initially he hesitated, but when we explained that we really only wanted to pick one pear each for the experience, and that we weren't expecting to harvest a whole basket, he said "Go right ahead!". He walked us over to the small orchard and ushered us under the green netting that protected it, and left us there to pick our fruits. 

After inspecting the pears, I chose this one to pick. 

M & D had already tried their hand at picking pears in Korea last year, and told me the trick: If you twist the stem and pull, this disturbs the other fruits on the branch and you may end up shaking too many off. The most efficient way to pick pears is to grasp the fruit from the bottom and lift it upwards, and the stem pops neatly off. Like so:

As it turned out, M only wanted to pick peaches, which were no longer in season, so we went back to the stall with just two pears. We paid ¥400 for the two of them, and after handing the coins over the lady boss gave us two extra pears, of a different type than the one we'd picked, for us to try. Both were in season and being sold at the stall, and it was terribly kind of her to let us have them. We placed them all in D's backpack, to bring home with us. 

The two lovely stall owners, with their really very delicious pears:

Mission accomplished, we had to get back to the city, but the next bus back wasn't to arrive for another 45 minutes, so we had a lot of time to spare. M remembered seeing a sign for a cafe down the road, so we headed there. 

After a bit of a hike, it turned out the sign said the cafe was further up from the place we'd walked from, but it was no matter because we found another place to rest instead: Fleur Angelina. 

It was amazing to duck into an air-conditioned space, although we felt awfully grubby and somewhat out of place in the very lady-like and dainty surrounds of the cafe. 

We'd walked in while a group of ladies were having an ikebana (Flower arrangement) class in the back of the room, but the very cheerful waitress spotted us hovering near the entrance and brought us to a table.  

We opted for the tea sets consisting of a drink and a dessert because the pastries on display looked too tempting to pass up. After placing our orders, M & I roamed around and had a peek at all the handicrafts while D sat rather awkwardly in a corner, looking rather out of place amid all the chintz and lace. 

When our desserts arrived, they were served with vanilla ice cream, sweet figs, and rather artfully peeled grapes. M had the pumpkin cheesecake, which had a rich flavour while remaining quite light. 

I had the fig and cream sponge, which was just magical. We had a chat with the waitress and when she found out that we were from Singapore, she told us that she'd just visited and stayed at the Raffles Hotel, enjoying herself immensely. (I always feel very gratified when tourists tell me they like my country.)

Not being much of a dessert person, D decided to forgo the sweets and just had a pot of tea. The teacup was too exquisite not to photograph. 

When we were done with our very satisfying tea, we walked back to the bus stop. While waiting the necessary six minutes before the bus pulled up exactly on schedule, we admired the rice fields and the mountains in the distance. From here, it was back to Tokyo for us to catch the plane home. 

13th Cosmos Festival (コスモス祭り) at Hanataka Tenboh Hana no Oka (鼻高展望花の丘)

There were only two buses going to the Hanataka Flower Viewing Hill from Takasaki Station, so we made absolutely sure we got there in good time so as not to miss our ride. In the end, we arrived so early that we had half an hour to walk around the stores at the train station. 

After taking in the local souvenirs like the Daruma/Dharma dolls (A good luck talisman that's shaped after Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism), I hit upon the idea of us getting a bento box each to bring along to the Cosmos Festival. What better than a picnic among flowers?

We were introduced to the Takasaki Cosmos Festival on the same travel show that brought star-gazing on Mt Tanigawa to our attention. It all looked very romantic. The massive field shown on TV was a riot of colour, with row upon row of flowers in all their glory. The way it was presented, we thought that this was a major event on the Takasaki tourist calendar, so it surprised us when we were the only ones to hop on the morning bus headed there. 

The bus we took was on the Shorinzan (少林山route, which brought us on a brief tour of Takasaki, past the City Hall, the Joshi and Takasaki Parks, the main lobby of a hospital, a sleepy housing estate then up the side of the mountain. On our half hour ride, the only other passengers we encountered were retirees, mostly going to or from the hospital. We realized it was the end of the long weekend so most of the local tourists were back at work, but the thought of us as being the only ones at the Flower Festival became an increasingly real fear the closer we got there. 

In the end, the situation wasn't that grim. True, most of the events like the sweet potato digging experience and the farmer's market weren't on since it wasn't a weekend, but at least we were joined by a group of tourists who had driven up, so we weren't entirely alone. 

So. The flowers weren't as impressive as we'd been led to believe by the television programme. After looking out at the sea of green, we figured they probably angled their camera over the densest patch of flowers, or went when most of the 400,000 cosmos plants were in full bloom.

It was somewhat underwhelming on the whole, so we wound up admiring individual flowers instead. Apart from the cosmos, there were also sage lavender, hibiscus, buckwheat and other flowers. The one shown here is zinnia, which are supposed to be particularly attractive to butterflies. A couple were seen, but I spent most of my time trailing a particularly fat bumblebee. It always amuses me that it took 70 years before scientists managed to prove that it is in fact aerodynamically possible for bees to fly.  

D went a little mad after a while, and began to imagine that the return bus to Takasaki wasn't going to come for us. Obviously, this was utter nonsense because the listing clearly stated the time the return bus was due, and you just don't question the well-planned bus routes in Japan. We ended up having to drag him away from the bus stand, where he was panicking. 

"If we see a car coming past, maybe we should hitchhike."
"No D, that's utterly ridiculous. Step away from the bus stand."

With little else to do at the Flower Festival, we walked further up the road to see what else was on. Beyond a couple of somewhat interesting looking trees, there was nothing. We despaired until we came across this picture of blueberry parfait, and signs pointing to the store selling them. There were clouds overhead casting ominous shadows over the store, but we went in anyway. 

The store was devoid of other people, and its shelves were quite bare save for a few bits and bobs of local produce. We did manage to ascertain that the parfait was being sold though, and bought a couple of cups for the three of us to share. It was some pretty damn good parfait. The milky soft-serve was dispensed over crunchy cornflakes and topped with homemade blueberry jam and fresh blueberries, all for ¥250 a pop. 

After asking nicely, we got permission from the lady running the shop for us to have our lunch out on the tables round the back. There was a slight breeze going and the view got better as time passed (When the fog lifted, we could see the mountain range in the distance.), which was pleasant enough that our outing didn't feel entirely like a lost cause. We broke out our lunch boxes and bottles of sake and fruit juice after settling in. It felt like a properly fancy picnic. 

Apart from standard bento meals, train stations often have seasonal or local specialties that make for pretty nifty boxes. I picked mine for the packaging alone, which had to do with the D 51 steam locomotives. I hadn't realized at that point that this class of trains had almost exclusively been built during the war era. I was mostly just impressed that even the chopsticks provided fit the theme. 

The food itself was amazing. The rice had been cooked with squid ink to evoke images of charcoal used to power the train, which was a nice touch. 

M got the Daruma Kitty bento set, just because. 

D had sake and individually wrapped pieces of sushi, which he greatly enjoyed. 

We bought three cups of their home-made blueberry vinegar drinks to wash it all down after. It was good stuff, more refreshing and less sweet than the blueberry vinegar we used to get from the supermarket. 

We were stuck at the Flower Festival for a little under an hour and a half, which seemed like a really short amount of time when we were doing our planning, but more than enough when we were actually there. D looked like he was going to weep for joy when he saw the bus coming over the horizon. It was back to the city, then out again towards the Haruna Pear Road for fruit picking.