Dumplings with wings
My friends and I are at the tail end of a long lunch and talking about food. In Kyoto. I think immediately of oden at Takocho. Someone brings up gyoza and beer at Chao Chao. I perk up.
"Everything is good," he says. "There's a branch here, but it's not on anyone's radar."
When cabin fever becomes too much, I make my way to Chao Chao Gyoza at Royal Square in the Novena area. It is off-peak, before dinner, and while walking to my table, I notice all the "Reserved" signs on the tables. It is not as under-the-radar as my friend thinks.
The menu offers a dizzying range of gyoza. The chain was started by one Kenzo Nishi in 1971 in Osaka. There are now Chao Chao restaurants all over Japan, and also in Hong Kong, the Philippines and here.
I have not been to the restaurants in Japan, so I'll have to take my friend's word that everything is good. The same cannot be said of the restaurant here.
The Kani Ebi Stick Gyoza ($7.90 for one 18cm-long dumpling) tastes like noodles with too much alkaline in it. It is an unpleasant assault on my palate. Curry Gyoza ($3.90 for three) have a fierce, overwhelming mustard vibe. I will not bother with the Cabbage Gyoza with Sriracha & Mayonnaise ($4.90 for three) either, because the chilli sauce just drowns out all flavour.
But when I return, I will order a full portion of the Chao Chao Gyoza ($4.90 for eight, $7.90 for 16). They come in a slab, connected by wings. In Japanese, they are called Hanetsuki Gyoza - the crisp, paper thin wings are made with a combination of water and flour or potato starch, poured onto the pan while the dumplings cook.
The gyoza are juicy, with a zingy ginger vibe. The pork filling offers bite, because the meat is not ground too fine.
I cannot resist Tebasaki Gyoza ($4.90 for two). Deboned chicken wings are stuffed with gyoza filling then deep fried. Hold the wing tip when demolishing the "dumpling". I kick myself for not ordering a beer. Next time, two portions - all for me.
A good contrast to the crispness is Ponzu Buta Gyoza ($4.90 for three), pork gyoza topped with grated daikon and bonito flakes. The tart tang of the soft dumplings makes me reach for another one.
To go with the gyoza, I'll also order Kyuri Su ($1.90), lightly pickled cucumber chunks that are perfectly cold and crunchy.
There is a lot to explore on the menu - sashimi, donburi and even yakitori. But the many variations of gyoza call out to me. I like that prospectors can order small portions of three dumplings, so we can find the ones we like.
But I wonder about Aburi Cha Shu ($7.90). And what, pray tell, is Salmon Overload Roll ($12.90)? Guess I'll have to go back and find out.
WHERE: Chao Chao Gyoza, 01-05 Royal Square @ Novena, 103 Irrawaddy Road
OPEN: 11am to midnight daily
INFO: Chao Chao Gyoza Facebook
Good baked goods
When I hear that Necessary Provisions, a cafe I used to haunt in the Bukit Timah area, is back in business, I jump for joy and head to Tanglin Place, its new digs.
The cafe space is tiny. I almost have to get my coffee to go, but some diners graciously agree to have their four-top split in two.
The cafe shares premises with a pilates studio and many of the patrons are lithe of frame and flat of belly, with gravity-defying bottoms snug in Lululemon.
But the vibe is friendly so I press on. My cappuccino ($6) is beyond reproach. The beans are from Smitten Specialty Coffee & Tea, a homegrown business.
The food is vegetarian but I gamely order Quinoa Ulam ($12). The grain is tossed with laksa leaves, sliced red and green chillies, watercress, shallots and lime juice.
Miso Tofu Salad ($14) features lotus root chips that have been incinerated. The slices of miso glazed taukwa are good so I finish them, but I feel like a cow, ploughing through that thicket of pea sprouts. I give up.
On a subsequent visit, I find a dish I like - Croque Kinoko ($15), a sandwich of grilled shiitake mushrooms lavishly gilded with grated gruyere cheese. It is a rainy day and that hot sandwich really hits the spot.
What I will go back for - aside from the coffee - is the baked goods. A slice of grapefruit chiffon cake ($4) is so bright with the citrus it sings.
Order whatever savoury scones ($5 each) are on offer. I have tried three - cheese and chives, rosemary and potato, and sundried tomatoes and cheese - and all are worth the calories. The texture is crisp and short, evidence that butter won the ratio game. They are even good plain, which is how they are served at the cafe.
Why, when these lovely things are available, would anyone want a salad? Then I remember the lithe frames, the flat bellies, the buoyant behinds.
WHERE: Necessary Provisions, 01-01 Tanglin Place, 91 Tanglin Road
OPEN: 9am to 6pm daily
It is the first day of the new year - the day of non-stop rain. After a breakfast of steamed fish at Zai Shun in Jurong East, some of my friends go home to nap. But I need coffee, so another friend and I head to Faber Drive.
Glass Roasters at that time of the morning is completely chill. It does not feel like Singapore too. The vibe extends to the menu - coffee is black ($4.50) or white ($5.50).
It opened in October last year and is the perfect place to sit with a cappuccino and talk, in desultory fashion, about this and that. The indoors area seats eight, and there are benches and chairs outside for lounging about.
"This place reminds me of a fish and chip shop," my friend ventures. "I think it's the white tiles, that shade of blue."
We talk about cafes we like. Mine are Little Nap and Bear Pond Espresso in Tokyo. Then it is time for another round of coffee. Piccolos.
The barista is friendly and perky, so I ask if it is always like this. "It gets crowded about 3pm, after school."
I make a mental note to avoid them, then bid my friend farewell and head home for a very big nap.
WHERE: Glass Roasters, 108 Faber Drive
OPEN: 9am to 10pm (Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays), 9am to 10.30pm (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays), closed Wednesdays
INFO: Glass Roasters Facebook