11 | Till death do us part.

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.

10 | Like a diamond in the sky.

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

Baby steps.

Nutmeg Bonbons

On lazy days, breakfast takes an hour. I was feeling especially lazy today and it took two. It starts with pre-heating the oven for bread, and boiling water for coffee. Meanwhile, I would be cleaning the grinder and the press-pot. Then it comes to taking a sniff out of the bag of beans, before weighing out 22g of coffee.  No prizes for guessing where the beans came from. The bread goes in the oven for five minutes, while I work on the hand grinder. The water is 95C and part of it is used to pre-warm the glass. While the water cools to 90C, the grounds are emptied into the press-pot and brewing begins with a steady stream of water. The bread is sliced and three minutes into immersion, the filter is plunged down and out comes the brew. The ritual ends with taking out a dollop of jam for the bread.

That, my lad, is breakfast.

I made myself a second cup of coffee today, because I can. As I nibbled on the crust of bread, I thought to myself how simple things intrigue me most. It might not be the best way of brewing nor the best bread, just ordinary jam and humble coffee, but it works for me. It may seem frivolous, but grant me that bit of luxury with bread, coffee and jam on my days off.

Simplicity is my most recent idée fixe. It means slowing down to appreciate the things that surround us. It is about finding coherence in the haves, instead of losing faith because of the have-nots. Our definitions of ‘simple’ differs, but it is easy to mistake simplicity for difficulty, or effort. The simplest things could be most difficult to come by. What had impressed me most during my stay in Paris was a modest tarte au citron, one that I have never succeeded in replicating it faithfully.

Due in part to the first kitchen I had worked in, plated desserts had intrigued me most. Like drawing on a blank canvas, one’s imagination is the only limit to put different flavours, textures, colours and temperatures together. Increasingly, my attention slants towards doing the simple things right – churning ice-creams, making bonbons, and in general, being positive. I can’t recall the slightest reason that has sparked this preoccupation, but it becomes self-reinforcing. Simplicity implies contentment; contentment perpetuates simplicity.

I’d always thought that the state of being content is dangerous. It breeds laziness and stifles progress. Yet, the impetus for improvement can come from elsewhere – such as the spirit of excellence or the drive of passion. Being content can be a source of strength. It’s like patting oneself on the back for making the small little steps, while not forgetting the distance ahead to strive further for. On the other hand, putting oneself down, for the sake of progress, can become toxic, and is uncalled for. As with words, simplicity is also a choice.

I like making bonbons because they are simple, but challenging. In light of the aforementioned, I am happy with these. They aren’t perfect, perhaps nowhere close, but I have found some familiarity in its execution. It was exciting too, to try out flavour combinations, and I had nutmeg, fennel, and vanilla for the ganache. There aren’t many chances to make bonbons in a proper setting for long, and I am glad that I could finish (for now) with a proper batch of chocolates.

 

06 | Pills and Bills.

This week went by in a flutter. Literally. Incessant fluttering of my stomach after catching a gastrointestinal virus. I’ll skip the sordid details, but in five days I ate just over five meals, and visits to the toilet number many more counts than that. I was tracing back to what I have eaten, but that’s a lot of food to trace (what’s new…), so in a case where there’s an overwhelming number of suspects, taking the blue pill seemed the wiser choice.

I was watching The Matrix the other day, and I couldn’t help but noticed that I took the movie more seriously. It wasn’t just about bullet-dodging scenes and cool shades; I understood as a direct representation of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Taking philosophy in school is akin to taking the red pill, or getting out of the cave. I’m not assuming that philosophy itself is closer to truth, but it forces you to consider what exactly is closer to truth. Huh? I know I’ve lost many of you by now, and I’m not going to explain myself because that would amount to forcing people to their red pills. Morpheus gave Neo a choice (although I would admit that Neo’s choice was non-existent). I would maintain that in some cases, ignorance is bliss.

Pear Tarte Tatin by The Tippling Club
Pear Tarte Tatin by The Tippling Club

But it comes with a hefty price, just like what I had to pay for a ticket to Savour 2014. Nonetheless, it turned out to be a positive and inspiring experience. We tasted a wide array of food prepared in temporary kitchens by a variety of chefs from everywhere, although the variety was not as wide as we wanted it to be because some restaurants weren’t available on the day we went to the event. Some delicious oysters made up for that. . The food from Mikuni was great too – miso braised beef and truffle kampachi. Yet for me, the highlight was the demonstration by Chef Ryan Clift from the Tippling Club, during which he made an ingenious faux pear with beurre noisette sorbet. The sorbet had the rich flavour of brown butter, yet it was refreshing to the palate. More restaurants to add to the hit list, at the same time less money for our wallets…

That was last weekend. This weekend, after a week of battling the virus and catching up with work, I decided to “let the wind take me” and enjoy a day without having to think about time, schoolwork, or utopia.  The wind brought me to Nylon Coffee Roasters, opened by a couple with tenacity and passion towards which my admiration grows. The place and their coffee deserves a post of their own, so I’ll write more about it another day. In short, Sunday morning entailed great coffee with a lovely ambience. It seemed to me like some, if not all, worries were momentarily washed away by the much-awaited rain (finally huh). Here’s to a good week ahead!

http://www.savour.sg/