11 | Till death do us part.

N.A.O and Café Dumo
N.A.O and Café Dumo

If I had some sort of talent in putting paint on canvas or gyrating my lanky figure to music, I would have gone to the School Of The Arts, SOTA in short. Because it has such a beautiful campus. Fortunately, I had no such gifts, nor was SOTA opened when I left Primary school. Back in the days, choosing which school to go to was a much simpler feat. I had gotten very interested in some kind of chess called Go (or Weiqi), from reading this Japanese manga – Hikaru no Go. So I’d set my mind on this particular school which was famous for their Go club. My exam score barely gave me a place in this school, just as I made it into the club by pure chance. Funny how things have worked out.

Nevertheless, the establishment of SOTA was a commendable feat to encourage our people to be more accepting of ‘alternative pathways’. It is not the most ideal; students have to take the International Baccalaureate at the end, so they have to split themselves between passion and obligation. Yet it is a compromise, given the state of our culture – in which qualifications mean a great deal. I would love to witness the day when we can tell our children to be who they want to be and be honestly proud of it, although that is quite unlikely by current projections.

I had a discussion some weeks ago with a botanist mentor/friend over dinner, about how in cities we cannot expect the obsession with money and mentality of hoarding to simply go away. Not even with any form of government intervention (in a free/sort-of-free society that is). Imagine how different the conditions are in a smaller town. It isn’t difficult to find one’s purpose in being a painter, a farmer, a postman, or a baker. For instance, through his humble hands, the baker kneads bread out of flour, water and yeast for his neighbours who lie in their soft beds while he works the dough. In a city, all notions of such romance are dispelled as bakers scramble over meagre profit margins, which probably wouldn’t suffice to raise their families. Material wealth takes centre-stage; aspirations limit themselves to enterprises and financial institutions. It’s all about capital, resources, and efficiency. In the most efficient economy, the only conceivable bakeries are the factories.

Ironically, our consolation lies in our inefficiency. We can’t work like robots (at least, not yet). We fall in love, and we fall out of love; we are seduced by utterly inefficient notions such as spending an afternoon with ume-scented green tea and lovely cakes in the company of friends. (You saw that coming, didn’t you?) We need only to head over to nowhere but SOTA to be seduced by my favourite patisserie in this condemning city – Kki Sweets.

Kki Sweets started out on Ann Siang Hill, and after an 8-month-long hiatus, it re-opened in SOTA. So much has changed, so much hasn’t. At its new home, full-length glass windows and simple, wooden furnishing exudes a comfortable openness. The owner only made the welcome warmer, as before, treating everyone like neighbours. And the influence of Japanese patisseries extends beyond its hospitality; the cakes are concise and light, focussing on getting the simple things right. Some of my favourite cakes are still there, notably the onigiri, although it wasn’t available on this visit. But luck has it that I could have my fork on the N.A.O, a dainty strawberry and pistachio mousse cake, and Café Dumo, a balanced coffee entremet, for I have missed out on these two back then.

There are new offerings, but I couldn’t really be sure.  The incumbents are great, but like all food places, innovation and improvement are necessary. Prices are steep, relatively, but not unjustified, for both the chefs’ dedication to their craft and the impossible rent prices. Its tea selection is limited, but sufficient and apt for its sweets. Better coffee would retain more customers, because their palates are getting pickier with the saturation of cafés. Understandably, a standard espresso machine is a heavy investment, for cost is always an issue in a bustling city like Singapore.

On our part as consumers, we can be more discerning. If we want places like this to stay, because it is not just a business, then we have to acknowledge that our support makes a difference. Everyone will have their own favourites, and it’s always sad to see them go. Yet I hope that Kki Sweets is here to stay, for its simplicity, its charm, and its warmth is the kind of love we would want to fall into.

Kki Sweets
1 Zubir Said Drive
SOTA #02-01

https://www.facebook.com/kki.sweets

A cake is a cake is a cake.

Sous-Bois: mousse au cassis, bavarois au Kirsch, biscuit jaconde, confiture de cassis
Sous-Bois: mousse au cassis, bavarois au Kirsch, biscuit jaconde, confiture de cassis

In one of Will Smith’s celebrated films, The Pursuit of Happyness, there was this line that I could recall:

“I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can never have it. No matter what. How did he know that?”

Amidst an ongoing debate on the pervasive ‘paper chase’ in my country, I thought it was apt to revisit this quote. The socio-cultural sentiment, that qualifications are sieves which separate the successful from the rest, has affected me personally. I am stuck in business school, when I’d rather be in the kitchen. While I am encouraged that there is such debate, it is equally difficult to conceive any imminent change in perspectives. One step at a time, but we must also consider how we relate success to happiness. This is an age-old concern, yet we are still so blind.

Rat race or paper chase, is happiness its attainable goal? Or are we doomed to Sisyphus’ fate in an absurd pursuit, in which we must imagine ourselves happy? Who is Sisyphus anyway? Why does he have such a difficult name to pronounce?

In seeking these answers, let’s not neglect the obvious fact that Sisyphus didn’t have any cake while we do. Because if we can’t have happiness, we can have cake. Let us eat cake.

Last summer, my pursuit has brought me to Tokyo. I didn’t know much about Japanese pâtissiers; I only had chez Hidemi Sugino on my ‘must-visit’ list, thanks to his fame in the blogosphere. By little coincidence, I stayed two blocks away from his unassuming shop. On my third day in Tokyo, I decided to join the queue only 15 minutes before opening. This indifference was duly punished as the signature cake – ‘ambroisie’, was snapped up by those who came even earlier. Disheartened, but unbeaten, I chose four other petits gâteaux to share between my Dad and I. Three days later, I made another visit, only to miss the signature again, but two other cakes made up for that.

All in all, I tasted six cakes out of the 20 over that were charmingly displayed on the cake counter. (You see, I always had a thing for cake counters.) Each of the six has its own merits, but I was particularly inspired by the Framboisier. No photos were allowed, so words will have to suffice. Simply put, this layered cake accentuates our love for raspberries. Alternating layers of buttercream and jaconde offer soft and creamy textures on the palate, while the centre slice of jelly and garnishing raspberries present the refreshing and tangy aspect of this red midsummer gem. A layer of craquelin which sits atop the cake provides a crunchy distinction. With its shades and hues of red, and perfect layering, this cake grabs glances and robs hearts. As a whole, there is contrast, balance, and elegance, notwithstanding the fact that all elements comprise raspberries. Such is a dessert in which the ingredient humbles the chef, and the chef does justice to the ingredient.

The rest of the cakes were delights too. Amber Noix was a classic combination of chocolate, caramel and walnuts. Sous-Bois­ made another berry heaven. Tartelette au caramel passion, a bountiful tart of nuts and dried fruits wallowing in a smooth and rich passionfruit caramel, complemented by a quenelle of vaporous crème Chantilly. Charme was griottes, enough said, and Geometrin had an interesting, enlightening pairing of grapefruit and mint. Perhaps they weren’t all mind-blowing, but in chez Sugino I realized how simplicity doesn’t preclude ingenuity. After all, it takes most skill to execute the basics well beyond perfection.

On my first visit, Chef Sugino walked into the salon de thé from the kitchen. The gray hues of his hair suggested a certain frailty, at the same time an evidence of his dedication in decades. In his chef jacket, apron and clogs too, he glanced across the room in all modesty. He approached two boys accompanied by their mother for an afternoon treat, and they traded some words. I was too far away to hear anything, nor could I understand. Yet from the humble grin Chef Sugino revealed as he returned to the kitchen, I could imagine that to be his happiness, if not, close enough.

You can fly! You can fly! You can fly!

Beware of pixie dust.
Beware of pixie dust.

For the uninitiated, tsukemen is a different way of serving ramen. The noodles are separated from the broth, which, as a dip, is usually thicker than the typical ramen soup. This entails a more concentrated flavor, designed to captivate palates and minds of the young and the old. At the end of the meal, one can request for hot soup to be added to the remaining dip, which transforms it into a comfortable and refreshing finish.

At the heart of Tokyo, a particular tsukemen restaurant took the liberty of substituting the broth with pixie dust. This simple, yet ingenious, gesture makes its humble bowl of ramen magical. In Rokurinsha, there are no chefs; magicians take the stage to conjure bowls of tsukemen for their audience.

Are these the best noodles ever brought into existence? I’ve been told to avoid superlatives, but I can’t help it that Rokurinsha is magical. Highly recommended by a deluge of TV hosts and celebrity chefs, the initial anticipation weighed me down (never trust the media). Yet with each slurp, the skepticism dissipated and my feet lightened. In the last sips from the bowl, I could hardly hang on to my seat. In the following hour, I felt like Peter Pan – floating in the air.

In Japan, ramen makes a casual meal, but serving it is a serious affair. It isn’t difficult to stumble upon a random place and have your ‘life-changing’ bowl of noodles. I remember how, on my first trip to Tokyo, I had the ‘best ramen ever’ in a nameless restaurant. I swore then that I would not have any more ramen back home, but those were the days when dreams were as distant as the stars. A decade later, I realized with great (but readily available) miso, shoyu, or tonkotsu, you can’t really get a ‘bad’ ramen. But some of these can turn out to be really heavy – the fat, the salt, and perhaps a reckless belief in umami. There’s a reason why a spoonful of glutamate paralyzes your taste buds.

Rokurinsha’s broth came across as a bowl of depth. Long hours of simmering with pork and chicken bones, and fish flakes made it incredibly rich. It was a rare experience to have a delicate balance of meat and fish flavors, and not forgetting the restrained application of umami. Apparently, there is some sort of ‘dried fish powder’ in the broth for that. I’m skeptical about ‘using’ umami, but neglecting this aspect of taste can be dangerous. Besides that, the noodles were succulent and chewy, perfect for the intense broth. The accompaniments were indispensable too – chashu, shredded pork, bamboo shoots, and a beautiful egg. The magic is in the ‘unreal’ sense of bliss at the end of the meal, unobstructed by any food lethargy. Pixie dust, I swear.

It is possible that I am still under the psychoactive effects of the meal, so I apologize for any hint of derangement. I visited the flagship branch in Tokyo Ramen Street, and queued for 40 minutes. There’s a new branch at Tokyo Solamachi, a shopping mall adjunct the Tokyo Sky Tree. No regrets for this simple bowl of tsukemen; it’s something to remember for a long time. Bon appétit !

It’s not just about the fish.

Akami-zuke
Akami-zuke

I have never liked sushi. It’s not that I hate it, but I haven’t actually go to great lengths to appreciate it. Fancy sushi restaurants cost a bomb, and affordable places serve sushi that warrants little merit. Cold, over-sized rice balls ruins the tastiest fish, while tasty fish don’t come by cheap.

On my fifth trip to Japan, I thought I should try some serious sushi. Everybody knows about Sushi Jiro, because it has three-michelin stars, because Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and because President Obama dined there. Unfortunately, I’m just a poor nobody who can’t speak Japanese, and so I had to opt for a more casual, but still serious, affair. A brief search on the Internet led me to Sushi Iwa.

Sushi Iwa is a small restaurant located in Ginza. It isn’t far from Tsukiji market where over 300 sushi restaurants around the area get their fresh produce from. With only six seats, every customer gets the chef’s undivided care and attention. There were two chefs on the counter, and Chef Tsunoda prepared our meal for lunch. I didn’t ask, but Chef Tsunoda seemed to have taken over as head chef/owner, whereas the blog posts, which I referred to, named him as the sous-chef. Such are petty matters… besides, it made an impressionable sushi experience.

For this virgin venture, my Dad and I chose the 13-piece set lunch, over the 10-piece set and the dinner omakase. There was tai, saba, karei, akamizuke, toro, bonito, ika, hotate, some crab, anago, and I can’t name the rest. I can’t remember the exact order either, which is important in a sushi meal. The chef pressed the rice à la minute, taking care of the temperature of both the rice and the fish, and asked us if the amount of wasabi was alright. Everything was fresh and the natural flavors of the sea shone through. It is difficult to name any favorite, because I never had better of each kind. The saba, the toro, the bonito, the ika… the hotate, the anago… breathe, restraint, breathe… you get the point.

What makes sushi serious anyway? Fresh seafood, restrained use of rice, or serving them at the right temperatures and in the right order? As a novice in all things, I can’t give an informed answer. What I know to be true, is that food becomes serious when chefs are committed to their business. The respect for ingredients, the dedication towards technique, the drive for precision… these may all sound frivolous to the common populace, but in the pursuit for better food, if the men and women in white jackets and tall hats do not uphold these ideals, who would?

From the sushi to the hospitality, Chef Tsunoda’s belief in his craft is noticeable in his actions. What I could admire more is his humility, which I think all chefs, or in fact everyone, should have. At the end of the meal, we chatted for a while, about sushi, pastry, and the weather. He walked us out, and stood outside the place to see us off. I walked away that summer afternoon, knowing that I would be back some day for a great meal, which is so much more than good food alone.

Chef Tsunoda
Chef Tsunoda

10 | Like a diamond in the sky.

Koffee and Kashi

Unearthed diamonds lie in their slumber, unfazed by the relentless passage of time. They wait patiently in the darkest depths, and in their first light, they blinds us to the blood and sweat that taint them so. Yet we are not drawn most to their shine; we are not magpies. It is their elusiveness that lay their unyielding grip on our hearts and minds.

Being elusive is what makes this coffee shop charming, like a diamond on a ring. Tucked in a residential street, Omotesando Koffee stays hidden from plain view. You will walk past it twice, only to uncover its camouflage on the third try. Step into its entrance, and the surreal greenery isolates you from the outside world, while the furnishing transports you into a timeless dimension. Designed like a traditional Japanese tea-house, its modern coffee bar stands out-of-place within its wooden interior, like a passing dream.

OMO

Style without substance also makes a passing dream, but the place has survived the test of time with great coffee and even greater dedication. The sweltering sun was the only thing that didn’t go well with the hot drink. If I did away with my persistence for hot coffee, and opted for an iced latte instead, it would have been perfect. Fortunately, the shade and the kashi – a kind of coffee custard pastry, saved the day. A few sips of my Dad’s iced coffee helped too.

It’s difficult to conclude that the coffee is ‘to-die-for’, because it is frivolous to die for any kind of coffee. Nevertheless, Omotesando Koffee is a diamond, and it will always warrant a visit, whenever I get the chance to return to Tokyo. Perhaps, in cooler seasons, this place would make a perfect sanctuary, from the blood and sweat of reality.

Sanctuary