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Food Picks: Value meal

Bird's nest is cooked in a thick soup served in a claypot with bamboo pith and dried scallops at Hua Ting Restaurant.
Bird's nest is cooked in a thick soup served in a claypot with bamboo pith and dried scallops at Hua Ting Restaurant.PHOTO: HUA TING RESTAURANT
Plaster prata at Chindamani Indian Food Stall.
Plaster prata at Chindamani Indian Food Stall.ST PHOTO: TAN HSUEH YUN
Windowsill Pies: Carres de Gateau is its fancy name for fruitcakes. There are two versions, Yellow (above) and Red.
Windowsill Pies: Carres de Gateau is its fancy name for fruitcakes. There are two versions, Yellow (above) and Red.PHOTO: WINDOWSILL PIES
Kong Cafe: Bulgogi Sandwich
Kong Cafe: Bulgogi SandwichST PHOTO: TAN HSUEH YUN

VALUE MEAL

These belt-tightening times have forced me to think carefully about where I eat. While I'm content to eat prata and fishball noodles, a person cannot eat hawker food every day. At least, I can't.

What, I used to wonder, do my friends mean when they talk about "value-for-money" meals?

I stopped wondering when I saw the menu - and price - for Hua Ting's latest set menu. For $98++ a person and a minimum of two diners, you get bird's nest, Boston lobster and a whole abalone, apart from other goodies. It isn't cheap, but if you are entertaining someone important for lunch or dinner, you can do much, much worse for much more money.

The meal starts with a trio of appetisers - fungus with truffle oil, duck smoked with aged pu-erh tea leaves and a deep-fried scallop and pear dumpling.

Then come the stars.

The bird's nest is cooked in a thick soup served in a claypot with bamboo pith and dried scallops. It is so comforting in the cool weather we've been enjoying.

The half lobster is just steamed with minced garlic - which is as it should be. Every bite is juicy. Don't you hate overcooked crustaceans?

There is also a meaty pork rib braised in sweet and sour sauce. Then comes a tender 10-head South African abalone with silky Japanese udon, in oyster sauce.

For dessert, there is housemade beancurd with creamy avocado and cubes of fruit.

I staggered out of the restaurant feeling happy, and happy to know my wallet had not imploded.

WHERE: Hua Ting Restaurant, Level 2 Orchard Hotel, 442 Orchard Road MRT: Orchard OPEN: 11.30am to 2.30pm, 6 to 10.30pm daily TEL: 6739-6666 INFO: bit.ly/2r3DHRw

BE HAPPY, EAT PRATA

Have you ever gone someplace hellbent on eating one thing, but ended up being completely enchanted by something else? I live for these moments of serendipity.

My colleague Anjali Raguraman likes to roll her eyes when I tell her about my favourite thosai places. She thinks MTR and Saravana Bhavan, both in Little India, are too posh. When I wrote about that $22 thosai at Como Cuisine for this column recently, I was afraid her eyes had rolled so far back, they'd never come back down.

"Go to Chindamani," she told me. "Under $3 and great."

So I did. Only I went to a different branch, this one in Serangoon North and it doesn't serve thosai.

What I found instead was Singapore's happiest prata maker.

The smiley young man does a little dance when he stretches the dough for the prata. When he saw me taking a video, he gave the camera a megawatt smile.

But all the dancing in the world would not move me, if the prata were not good.

As I stood in line, I marvelled at how everyone ahead of me was ordering multiple prata to eat there or take home. Stacks of them. And so many customers asked for "plaster", which is prata with an egg smooshed on it.

When it was my turn, I ordered a plain ($1) and a plaster ($1.50), and, as Anjali had instructed, asked for fish curry. I figured if they weren't good, I'd have a bite each to be polite then hightail it to the Hougang branch for thosai.

But the perfectly square prata are possibly the best I've ever had.

My go-to is Mr And Mrs Mohgan's Super Crispy Prata in Joo Chiat, but the weak link there is the watery and flavourless curry.

Chindamani's fish curry is bright, tart and aromatic. It is worthy of the golden squares of finely blistered, supremely crisp prata. There is no tugging at them with fork and spoon. Every bit comes away cleanly and every bite is greaseless and so, so light.

Against my better judgment, I almost finished the two prata.

And there was another excellent surprise. When I cut into the egg yolk in the plaster, yellow yolk oozed out of it.

Not only is he Singapore's happiest prata maker, but he might also well be the most skilled.

See him in action on my Instagram Stories, by looking for @msposhnosh.

WHERE: Chindamani Indian Food Stall, Blk 151A Serangoon North Avenue 2 MRT: Yio Chu Kang OPEN: 6am to 9pm INFO: str.sg/JSFH

FANCY FRUITCAKES

I was going to resist writing about Christmas offerings because I figure you are inundated with them. Then I tasted the fruitcake from Windowsill Pies and had to cram it in.

Please stop groaning and hear me out.

Carres de Gateau is its fancy name for fruitcakes. There are two versions, Yellow and Red. I love both, so don't make me choose. Yellow is studded with apricots, candied orange, golden raisins and Italian green pistachios and flavoured with Madagascan vanilla beans and Japanese whisky. Most store-bought fruitcakes are never boozy enough; this one is. The Red has wild blueberries, strawberries, cranberries and black raisins, with morello cherry and blackcurrant puree added to the batter. The boozy kick comes from raspberry eau de vie. See why I can't choose between the two?

Thankfully, the cake comes in individually wrapped slices or about 350g a box and you can get one with both versions. That costs $48. A box of all Red is $29 and all Yellow is $26.

They are available until Dec 31. Order at least three days in advance online or by phone, or go to the store.

WHERE: Windowsill Pies, 17A Haji Lane MRT: Bugis OPEN: 11am to 8pm (Sundays to Thursdays), 11am to 10pm (Fridays to Sundays) TEL: 9003-5327 INFO: www.windowsillpies.sg

DELICIOUS APPROPRIATION

To those tedious people who carp endlessly about "culture appropriation", please just chill and get a life.

Without chefs and home cooks fearlessly crossing cuisine borders, we might never have wonderful things like Hainanese pork chop, Vietnamese banh mi, Japanese mentaiko pasta and Korean army stew.

Korean food, for some reason, lends itself to endless adaptation. I love a kimchi grilled cheese sandwich, a bubbling pan of cheese dakgalbi and tofu tacos.

At Kong Cafe in Singapore, culture appropriation results in some delicious eats.

One prime example is Bulgogi Sandwich ($17). Most versions of beef bulgogi are too sweet for me, but this one is decidedly savoury, with soya sauce, rather than sugar, taking centre stage. It is stuffed into two slices of rustic bread spread with pesto, lined with cheese and with a bushel of spinach tucked in for good measure.

The tedious people are having fits. The rest of us will just keep calm and carry on eating this delicious and very substantial sandwich.

Kong serves more predictable fare too. Savoury Waffle ($18) comes with a juicy fried chicken thigh, silky scrambled eggs and a whole waffle. It is good for brunch.

Cheese Cake ($7.50), with a mahogany brown top, is not quite the Basque cheesecake that is so hot right now, but it is made in-house. Dense and rich, everything you want in a cheesecake.

WHERE: Kong Cafe, 01-11 896 Dunearn Road MRT: King Albert Park OPEN: 8am to 9.30pm (Mondays and Tuesdays), 8am to 10pm (Wednesdays to Sundays) TEL: 9339-6878 INFO: www.kong.cafe

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2019, with the headline '(No headline) - HYPICKS20'. Print Edition | Subscribe