Tan Hsueh Yun Food Editor recommends

Fat Saigon Boy's yummy starters, PocoLoco's budget Italian and more

Soft Shell Crab Sliders at Fat Saigon Boy
Soft Shell Crab Sliders at Fat Saigon BoyPHOTOS: TAN HSUEH YUN, EMPRESS, LIM SIN THAI

YUMMY STARTERS AT FAT SAIGON BOY

Every time I am in a Vietnamese restaurant, I order Pho Bo because I am obsessed with finding the perfect bowl of Vietnamese beef noodles. But at Fat Saigon Boy, a contemporary Australian-Vietnamese restaurant, the other offerings are so tempting, I skip my beloved noodles.

Among the Viet Tapas (all $10++), Pig On A Stick boasts juicy, moreish pork balls, but I wish the green chilli chutney nuts assert themselves more. With Soft Shell Crab Sliders, crisp pieces of the crab are tucked into perfectly greaseless, deep-fried mantou.

Bun Rieu ($15++) is swimming with umami and not as spicy as the menu description suggests. Floating in the thick tomato broth are soft crab and chicken meatballs and strips of beancurd puffs (taupok). Thickish rice noodles complete the dish.

Also very good is The Signature Pork ($15++), with strips of expertly charred pork that boast crisp edges and juicy meat. The yuzu nuoc cham tastes faintly of the Japanese citrus, but the regular fish sauce dip would do just as well.

For drinks, Coco Pineapple & Mint ($3++), a mix of coconut water and pineapple juice with crushed mint, is endlessly cooling. I just wish they'd give less ice and more drink.

Since my meal there, I have been thinking about the robust food. I am also wondering: Is the beef pho any good? Time for a revisit.

WHERE: Fat Saigon Boy, 14 Ann Siang Road MRT: Telok Ayer TEL: 6221-6784 OPEN: 11am to 3pm (Monday); 11am to 3pm, 6 to 10pm (Tuesday to Thursday); 11am to 3pm, 6pm to midnight (Friday and Saturday); closed on Sunday INFO: fatsaigonboy.com.sg



Barbabietola Rossa ($11). Grated beetroot tinges the risotto fuschia and the rice is cooked beautifully, says Food Critic Wong Ah Yoke.

ITALIAN FOOD IN THE HEARTLAND

While walking around in circles trying to find PocoLoco, I get to thinking how apt the name of this Italian restaurant is. It means Little Crazy in Spanish (not Italian) and the owners must have a sense of humour.

Why would anyone open an Italian restaurant in the deep heartland of Ang Mo Kio, surrounded by HDB flats?

And yet, I hope this restaurant thrives because the food is well-priced and more than decent.

Bruschetta ($4) comes with housemade bread and, while the tomatoes on top are not fancy, they do the job.

I find Zuppe di Melone ($5) terrific - cool, sweet and perfect on a hot day. The ragged pieces of Parma ham provide a salty counterpoint to the sweetness of the soup.

The pastas are al dente, quite a feat when some Italian restaurants serve overcooked pasta. The carbonara ($11) has cream, which is not traditional, but the pieces of bacon are wonderfully smoky.

Zafferano ($12) has that metallic flavour I associate with saffron and I marvel at how it can offer a dish with the expensive spice for just $12. Gamberi ($11), which is pasta with prawns and arrabbiata sauce, is good, with just enough spice in the sauce to make it interesting.

If Barbabietola Rossa ($11, photo) is on the menu, order it because it is my favourite dish in the meal. Grated beetroot tinges the risotto fuschia and the rice is cooked beautifully, which is to say all the way through but not mushy. I would just ask for a little more salt in the dish.

Desserts are a mixed bag. The Panna Cotta ($5) with raspberry puree is delightfully wobbly.

But the Tiramisu ($6) is a let-down. Those sponge fingers would benefit from a longer soaking in more coffee. There should not be a crunching sound when spoon hits sponge.

WHERE: PocoLoco, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10, Block 408, 01-779 MRT: Bishan TEL: 8436-3363 OPEN: Noon to 3pm, 6 to 10pm, daily INFO: www.pocoloco.com.sg



Sticky Date & Longan Pudding ($13) from Empress at the Asian Civilisations Museum.

DESSERTS WITH ASIAN TWISTS

For so long, desserts in Chinese restaurants were an afterthought. A platter of fruit, perhaps, or a sweet soup.

These days, chefs are putting much more effort into giving diners a sweet ending.

Take, for instance, the offerings at Empress, a chic restaurant at the Asian Civilisations Museum.

Its Jasmine Tea-Poached Pear ($13) comes with cheng tng ice, a granita studded with longan, red dates and black sago pearls that tastes just like the cooling soup. It is perfect for the current hot weather.

However, I am drawn to Sticky Date & Longan Pudding ($13, photo), a warm cake made special with dried longans, which give it an earthy flavour. It sits in a pool of gula melaka butterscotch and is served alongside a scoop of wolfberry ice cream. I would eat this on a very hot day and relish every spoonful.

More traditional but with some modern twists is Triple Treat Stack ($13), usually enjoyed after Chinese New Year, when people need to use up nian gao.

Slices of glutinous rice cake are sandwiched between yam and sweet potato and covered in a light, crisp batter. Salted peanut toffee and coconut ice cream round it off.

These imaginative desserts will draw me back to the restaurant.

I love how the chefs have used Asian ingredients thoughtfully and the results are just delicious.

WHERE: Empress, 1 Empress Place, Asian Civilisations Museum, 01-03 MRT: Raffles Place TEL: 6238-8733 OPEN: 11.30am to 3pm, 6 to 11pm daily INFO: empress.com.sg



Country Manna Spring Chicken ($12.90 for half) from Country Manna at Far East Plaza. 

NOSH ON NOSTALGIA

When I was a rookie reporter back in the day, Country Manna at Far East Plaza was one place my colleagues and I could get a satisfying meal without spending too much.

Its fortunes have waxed and waned, but I am glad it is back again. Seeing the familiar soup cauldron logo at its premises in West Coast Plaza brings back memories.

Unfortunately, the decision about whether to eat the puff pastry covering the Country Style Chicken Soup ($5.90, or $6.90 with pastry) separately or mush it into the soup is taken out of my hands, because the restaurant runs out of pastry when I visit. What a pity.

But the Country Style Waldorf Salad ($5.90), one of my favourites, is still crunchy and cool and, like in days of yore, has too much of the creamy dressing.

My default main course used to be Country Manna Spring Chicken ($12.90 for half, photo) and it does not disappoint even now. The beautifully burnished skin gives way to juicy meat. In fact, puffs of steam rise from the chicken when I cut into it. The everything and nothing flavour of mixed dried herbs is unmistakeable and takes me right back to the 1990s.

So does the canned peach garnish.

What the restaurant has to do is shape up and push the food out more quickly. There are long pauses between courses and irate diners at one table complain they have waited an hour for their food.

Sometimes, revisting an old haunt can be disappointing. The food is never as good as before. I am glad Country Manna's is still satisfying.

WHERE: Country Manna, 154 West Coast Road, West Coast Plaza, 02-44 MRT: Clementi TEL: 6464-0331 OPEN: 11am to 9.30pm daily

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2016, with the headline 'Food picks: Yummy starters at Fat Saigon Boy '. Print Edition | Subscribe