A darling new restaurant
To transport yourself away from Singapore, walk down Haji Lane at sunset. The bohemian vibe, the outdoor dining, the tempting window displays in the shops, all make for a very welcome mental vacation. Look for a restaurant called Habibi-san!.
It opened on Dec 1 and I can see myself returning again and again, for chef Jonathan Lee's gutsy, flavourful food.
He has named his restaurant perfectly. Habibi is a term of endearment in Arabic - it means "darling", and speaks to his years at Middle Eastern-inflected restaurant Artichoke. The "san", a Japanese honorific, comes from the Japanese accents in his food. He cooks a lot of it over a Konro charcoal yakitori grill from Japan.
One stand-out dish is Roasted Brussel Sprouts ($16), the vegetables charred and sweet from the grill, then tossed with roasted Japanese sesame paste, pickled red cabbage, jalapeños, and topped with billowing bonito flakes. That smoky sweetness is so compelling. Similarly, Burrata Di Puglia ($15) boasts hay-smoked cherry tomatoes, which are what make the dish worth ordering. Of course, there is nothing wrong with creamy burrata, basil oil, daikon salsa and the refreshing lilt from yuzu.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The mezzes are terrific: smoky Babaganoush ($10) topped with crisp chicken skin; Mentaiko Taramasalata ($13) with Mentaiko XO sauce folded into housemade labneh, a thick yogurt cheese, tobiko, crispy shallots and chives; and Pickled Beetroot ($10), which gets kick from wasabi cream and get this - wasabi pea furikake - you can tell the 33-year-old chef is having fun. Mop these up with pillowy pita bread ($3 a piece).
More adventurous diners might want to order the Honeycomb Beef Tripe ($13), topped with gremolata made with preserved olive leaf. The smoky skewers are perfect with cocktails from Bar Stories, which shares the premises. Owner Dave Koh, 40, bonded with chef Lee through fishing, and there are no boundaries between bar and restaurant.
Customised cocktails make so much sense, and I had several alcohol-free ones with my meal.
I am happy to nibble all night long, but there is a main course I love - Snapper Sarma ($28). The line-caught fish from New Zealand is wrapped in iceberg lettuce and is tender after cooking. Miso butter, yuzu beurre blanc and chives supply creaminess, with shaved fennel and a green apple salad providing crunch.
The best way to sample the menu is to leave it to the chef, and opt for the Feeeeed Me meal, which costs $58 a person for seven courses. For a more substantial meal, there is a $78 option with two to three more dishes. Make a request when you book.
WHERE: Habibi-san!, 55 Haji Lane
OPEN: 5.30 to 10.30pm (Tuesday to Saturday), closed Sunday and Monday
Christmas and New Year's Eve are all about feasting. On Jan 1, okay maybe Jan 2, the resolutions kick in. If you resolve to eat better and more healthily, but don't want boring food, head to Mad About Sucre in the Bukit Pasoh area.
I know. The name gave me pause too. I resisted going to the six-year-old restaurant because I am not crazy for sugar. But you don't have to be.
In fact, the desserts are sweetened naturally, mostly with fruit; and the food is free of artificial ingredients, additives and preservatives. I sense some collective eye-rolling so I'll just say this: it's all delicious.
Start with 4-hour Stew Of Tomatoes, Handpicked Crabmeat ($19), which is tomato soup made with fresh and dried tomatoes. It is just creamy enough and full of umami from the tomatoes. The crabmeat adds a touch of luxe, but it would taste good even without it.
Many diners order the foie gras salad ($42, serves two). The goose liver is ethically farmed, no need to have convulsions. The grilled prawns and caviar are great too. But what thrills me most is the salad dressing, made with whipped egg white, olive oil and mustard. It looks like 1970s "salad cream" but tastes vibrant and tangy, and is so good with the tender greens. The salad is a warm one but never feels heavy, even with the foie.
Another must-order is Grilled Cauliflower ($35). The cauliflower is charred at the ends but is also very tender in the middle. And, as my friend says after one bite: "Flavours exploding everywhere." Yes, from the zippy gherkin salsa underneath, from the miso glaze that coats the outside of the cauliflower, from the almonds and from the crunchy sourdough breadcrumbs. I want everyone who was disappointed by the cauliflower at that new Israeli restaurant to taste this one.
I am happy to have this as my main course, but that would mean missing out on the oxtail stew ($42), simmered over eight hours. Low and slow cooking pays off in spades. The meat is fork-tender, the sauce deeply flavourful from the Burgundy red it is cooked with.
The founders, James Tan and siblings Eric and Lena Chan, have created a place where people with allergies can eat safely, and where children magically gobble up vegetables, even if they refuse to eat them at home. They cook and bake for customers the way they would for their own families.
Cordon Bleu-trained Ms Chan's desserts are gorgeous and delicious. I try the Christmas offerings, both shaped identically like white Christmas baubles. The insides are different though, and while the one filled with fig is good, I much prefer the zing of Jaune ($25), with explosions of lemon, lime, mint and white rum.
I expect to roll out of the restaurant, but am not weighed down by the food.
Just what I need at the start of a new year.
WHERE: Mad About Sucre, 27 Teo Hong Road
OPEN: 12.30 to 5pm, 6.30 to 10pm (Tuesday to Saturday), 12.30 to 5pm (Sunday), closed Monday
The Cat's Meow
If your friends are like rather many of mine, they prefer savoury food to sweet. And Christmas is usually awash with sweet treats. So I am very happy to discover The Cat's Whiskers, a home-based food business that sells Onion Jam ($24.30 for a 195ml jar).
This tangy condiment is made with purple onions. Into the pot go red wine, port, red wine vinegar and brown sugar. It is perfect with Christmas food - ham, roast beef, turkey; especially if you are making sandwiches with leftovers. Or, make a cheese toastie with the jam. Hot, sweet, tart and gooey - heaven in a bite.
It is also great with cheese, and Ms Mavis Teo, whose business this is, also sells a Gratification Box ($47.70) with a jar of jam, a wedge of Stilton cheese, and crackers. I find the blue cheese too mild, however. But the jam is terrific with Roquefort, a rather more assertive blue.
She also has The Fat Cat ($104.90), with the jam plus Comte, Brillat Saverin and Stilton cheeses, crispbreads, crackers and oat cakes. Set this out for guests who won't eat Christmas pudding or log cake, or send it to a cheese-loving friend.
Hint: I love cheese. And onion jam.
WHAT: The Cat's Whiskers Onion Jam
ORDER: Go to Instagram @catswhiskersjams
DELIVERY: $8 per trip