Etna Italian Restaurant (East Coast)

27 01 2013

Etna Italian Restaurant’s East Coast outlet has been around for the longest time. I still remember my first time there back in junior college, more than six years ago. It wasn’t an overly memorable experience and I never went back (I actually did try going to the Duxton outlet once but it was full house). As time went by, more and more people started raving about Etna and I wondered if I had been too quick to judge, only having had their crabmeat pasta and pizza back then. This time around, I was back under the guise of a tasting session hosted by Mr Gianluca Impemba, one of the partners of Etna, who shared with us a bit more about Italian cuisine and the concept behind Etna.

I guess one of Etna’s main selling points is that about 70% of the ingredients used here are imported from Italy, so as to preserve the authenticity and quality of its dishes. Despite this, Etna positions itself more as a neighbourhood family joint rather than a fine dining establishment. I guess to be a little more specific, there are 3 main categories of Italian eateries. The Osteria; traditionally taverns or inns that also served simple food and wines, the Trattoria; typically family-run establishments that are slightly more pricey than the osteria, and lastly the Ristorante; full-service restaurants that serve up sophisticated dishes. Etna lies somewhere between the Trattoria and the Ristorante in this respect.

These traditional definitions might not be that closely followed nowadays however, as we have seen with Osteria Mozza at Marina Bay Sands, which is a fine-dining establishment.

Unlike the outlet at Duxton whose clientele is made up of mostly corporates, the East Coast outlet is relatively more family friendly. The restaurant boosts a dining hall and an al fresco area that sits a total of about 50-60 pax but reservations are recommended as it can get packed, especially during weekends.

We started off the tasting with the Grilled Calamari topped with crispy garlic & chili, served with homemade aioli sauce ($18++). The highlight of this dish would be the aioli sauce, which has a very robust hint of garlic amidst the richness of the mayo. Without it, the grilled calamari would have come across as slightly bland.

The Baked Eggplant with Buffalo Mozzarella Cheese & light Basil Pesto in a Tomato Sauce ($18++) was excellent. The eggplant flesh was delicate and while some people might find the taste of eggplant repulsive, much of it had taken a back seat to the tangy tomato sauce.

As usual, my favourite appetizer was the fresh Burrata with Rocket Salad, Pachino Cherry Tomatoes & Parma Ham ($32++). It’s a wad of creamy sinfulness that is worth taking on as a starter for every Italian meal and Parma ham just goes so well with it. Just think about the last time you washed down briny slices of ham with a cup of full fat milk. Burrata with Parma Ham is even better! The only downside is that Burrata can be quite fattening, as about 1/4 to 1/3 of its weight is comprised of fats. Tell your girl friends only after they have eaten this and sit back to watch the drama unfold.

In addition to the main menu, Etna does from time to time update their chalkboard on daily specials. The Mussels topped with Pistachio that we had was just one such example. It’s a pity that it hasn’t found its way into the main menu yet because it was one of the finest mussels I have ever eaten. Not only were the mussels fresh, springy and sweet, but the choice of pistachio and possibly mayo to complement the mussels was a bold and creative option that worked (the usual tomato or wine white sauces do get a little boring over time). From the looks of things, the pistachio must have been seared lightly before serving, resulting in an encrusting layer of savoury nuts that was reminiscent of the texture of brittle breadcrumbs.

The Linguine with Scallops in a Prawn Cream Sauce ($25++) was possibly my favourite main. I liked it because the cream sauce had a nice bittersweet tinge to it, which I’m guessing was derived from the prawn or scallop juices. If you are lucky, you might also find the orange roe sac of the scallops tossed in this pasta.

The Linguine with Crab Meat in Lobstear Cream Sauce ($25++) was quite similar to the scallop pasta (sans the bittersweetness), but it felt somewhat heavier because the sauce tends to cling to the generous chunks of crab meat. Very enjoyable nonetheless.

The Slow-cooked Braised Veal Shank with chopped herbs and Indian Saffron Rice ($34++) was cooked in a Mediterranean style, where light flavours were employed. Not my favourite dish that night given that I prefer heavier sauces for my veal shanks.

The Roasted Pork Knuckle with Potatoes ($48++) was slightly different from the German ones I’m so used to having. Instead of being deep-fried, the knuckles here are marinated in beer first, braised and then roasted to get that nice golden exterior. The benefits of cooking the knuckle in this way is that the meat still remains really moist and tender, at the expense of having a slightly less crispy skin. Personally, I’m still on the fence as to which style I prefer, but I would guess that the execution risk of a deep fried knuckle is definitely a lot higher, where you might just end up getting a disappointingly dry meat and soggy skin.

The Home-made Semolina paste in a Cream Sauce of Porcini Mushrooms, Pork Sausage & Italian Truffle Cream ($28++) seemed to be the crowd favourite that night, with me being the only contrarian. To our delight, there was a discernible scent of truffle in the sauce but I found the cream sauce was just a little too rich and dense for my liking. The texture of the semolina paste was something like the hand-cut noodles in 刀削面, slightly more chewy and having a bit more elasticity as what one might find in other pastas like linguine.

Good lasagna in Singapore is hard to find and Etna’s Oven-baked Lasagna with Bolognese Ragout, bechamel sauce, Mozzarella & Parmesan Cheese ($19++) is perhaps one of the better ones I have had to date. Just to sidetrack a bit, in French cuisine, there are 5 mother sauces which are Sauce Tomate, Sauce Hollandaise, Sauce Veloute, Sauce Espagnole and Sauce Bechamel. The Bechamel sauce (which is also widely used in Italian cuisine) is a white sauce that is used to layer between the sheets of lasagna pasta to give the buttery creamy taste.

The Fresh Sabayon with Pantelleria Moscato Wine – right of picture  ($14++) wasn’t something I took to. It is most often made by whipping eggs yolks (sometimes with the whites too), sugar and a sweet wine over gently boiling water, so that the egg thickens to form a light custard.

While the Bi-colored Panna Cotta with Mango & Mixed Berries ($14++) tasted very refreshing, the taste of the vanilla scented Panna Cotta tends to get lost in the array of fruity flavours.

My favourite dessert was the Tiramisu with Pistachio Cream ($14++), which wasn’t too strong on the liqueur, in fact I could hardly taste it.

Before we hit the road, we helped ourselves to some Italian liqueur to help digest our food (definitely going to kiv this reason for future drinking sessions). Anyway, I just found out something new today. The difference between liquor and liqueur! I had always thought that it was just an American vs UK spelling deviation but apparently not. “A liquor is an alcoholic drink that is distilled from grains or plants, such as rum, vodka, gin or whiskey. A liqueur is a sweet or herbal alcoholic drink that is made from fruit, herbs, flowers, nuts or spices plus (usually) sugar and a spirit such as grain alcohol, vodka or rum.”

I tried 3 types of Italian LIQUEURs that were recommended by our host. The yellowish Limoncello is a rather popular Italian Lemon Liqueur that is around 25-30% alcohol by volume (ABV). It was rather sweet but still retained much of the bitterness of the lemons, great for cleansing the palate after a heavy meal. The reddish liqueur was a almond flavoured one that was about 25-30% ABV. I swore I heard our host say it was Amaro but based on the almond flavour, it might have been Amaretto and I possibly misheard. Didn’t really take to this though. The colourless Grappa was the strongest of the lot at 45% ABV, made from the fermentation of grape pomace (the leftovers skin, pulp, stem and seeds after the grapes have been pressed during wine-making). Despite being the strongest, it was also my favourite amongst the 3 liqueurs as it had a very clean taste and remarkable smoothness to it, going down very much like a high quality vodka.

Overall, I would rate Etna as an Italian restaurant worth checking out, especially for their appetizers and pastas. Prices are really reasonable and portions are hearty. I believe they are planning to participate in the next Restaurant Week so this might just be a perfect excuse to pay them a visit.

Special thanks to Gianluca from Etna for hosting the great meal and Hungrygowhere for coordinating the tasting.

Etna Italian Restaurant (East Coast)

110 Upper East Coast Road

Tel: +65 6444 9530

Ito Kacho – A Japanese-Korean styled BBQ that promises to salivate

21 01 2013

Having spent a white Christmas and New Year’s in Korea, I must have gone through quite a few BBQ meals but being on a budget, sad to say I didn’t get to have much premium fare this time round and I was craving some good quality wagyu and kurobuta badly (the black pigs in Jeju Island just isn’t the same as the ones from Japan). So the invitation to dine at Ito Kacho, a Japanese-Korean styled restaurant that specializes in BBQ meats, arrived at the perfect moment.

Barely a month old, it seemed that there were already a few who were in the know of this joint when I dined there on a Thursday night, unperturbed by the relatively extravagant fare (they specialize in wagyu after all). I guess Ito Kacho clearly illustrates the distinction between affordability and value, where an average meal costing $100 while unaffordable by normal standards, might still be considered to be of great value given the premium ingredients used. Of course, it’s possible to dine at Ito Kacho whilst on a budget to, if you stick to items such as their Kurobuta Ramen ($15.80++) but if you are planning to go for their signature BBQ, do be prepared to spend more as they offer mainly premium cuts of meat.

They take their meats really seriously at Ito Kacho. Nothing is left to chance and their Wagyu is air-flown in chilled rather than frozen, ensuring that the nice marbling doesn’t get damaged during the thawing process.

I’m not a fan of kimchi so I would personally avoid ordering the Kimchi Moriawase ($9.90++) aka Assorted Kimchi – Chinese cabbage, cucumber, white radish or the Namuru Moriawase ($8.90++) – Cinnamon fern, white radish, spinach, beansprout. The notion of paying for something that is usually given out free at Korean restaurants just doesn’t seem all that appealing.

The Dashimaki Tamago ($6.90++) wasn’t as sweet as how most Japanese joints do it so it’s great for those who love a mild eggy flavour. Personally however, I would rather save the stomach space for the noteworthy BBQ.

From bottom right clockwise: Kimchi Moriawase, Namuru Moriawase, Dashimaki Tamago

Likewise, the Jikasei Potato Salad ($11.80++) or Homemade Potato Salad was nothing to shout about, very much similar to all the other more affordable potato salads available elsewhere.

Here’s where the fun begins. For beef, we sampled the Wagyu Tomobara ($36/$49++ for 80g or 120g) which is the short ribs also known as kalbi (in korean) or karubi (in japanese), the Wagyu Kainomi ($22/$29++ for 80g or 120g) which is the flap or bottom sirloin, and the US Jo-Karubi ($22/$29++ for 80g or 120g), listed in order of decreasing preference. Wasn’t as charmed by the US Jo-Karubi as it was a little too chewy compared to the wagyu.

What’s so different about wagyu from other types of beef you might ask? I guess there’s many answers to this because they are really worlds apart. Some might metaphorically coin wagyu as beef foie gras, supple and delicate because of the substantial amount of fats that interlace between the lighter than usual colour of beef. For “normal” types of beef, you have a choice to cook it rare all the way to well done but the same cannot be said for wagyu. Given the high fat content, the fats start melting really quickly upon cooking and medium rare should be the furthest you should grill it for so as not to lose the luster of the fats. Personally, I guess when I do go for wagyu, I’m looking for the melt-in-your-mouth feel while for “normal” beef, I go for the immense meaty flavour that materializes when you begin to chew on a piece of steak.

From bottom left clockwise: Wagyu Tomobara, US Jo-Karubi, Wagyu Kainomi

It’s always a joy to eat wagyu but thread carefully, as many restaurants are guilty of sullying the name of the almighty wagyu by using a cheaper cut of cross-bred wagyu, which I believe does not offer the same flavour and texture as the pure breed ones from Japan. The commandment in George Orwell’s  Animal Farm stating that “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal” than others holds true for wagyu as well. Apart from the issue of being fullblood (aka cross-bred) or purebred, another issue one contends with when ordering wagyu is the Grade and Beef Marbling Score (BMS), which both relates to the quality of the wagyu. The Grade (scored from 1-5 with 5 being best) is scored based on marbling, shine & colour, texure & grain and sheen & quality of fat, while the BMS is scored from 1-12 (with 12 being best) and this quality gauge is a key determining factor on how wagyu is priced.

A separate matrix is used to score USDA (US Department of Agriculture) beef, which is usually categorized as “prime”, “choice” or “select”, in order of decreasing quality. The “prime” grade would be the Japan equivalent of a minimum of a Grade 3 or Marbling Score of at least 5.

The Kaisen Moriawase ($36++) is catered for seafood lovers, where you get a good mix of King Crab, Giant Tiger Prawn, Hokkaido Scallop and Squid. Not a fan of King Crab but definitely took to the grilled prawns and hokkaido scallops which were fresh, evident from its sweet flavours and firm textures.

The Boneless Chicken Leg ($9/$12++ for 80g or 120g) is worth ordering as well, which was naturally tender and made even more flavourful with the marinade.

We also tried the Tsubo-Zuke Kurobuta ($19++ for 180g), which is a cut from the collar or neck of a pig. Unlike the beef we had earlier, the pork collar had been marinated for a more pronounced flavour. I wouldn’t have thought that anything would come close to the wagyu earlier but I think that this grilled kurobuta was definitely on par in terms of palatable-ness and tenderness.

We had the Ishiyaki Bibimbap ($15++) as a staple. Nothing extraordinary, just the usual rice mixed with minced Meat, vegetables  dried Seaweed and sesame. I would actually recommend skipping this and just opt for white rice to go with the grilled meats since you can find better Bibimbaps elsewhere.

We ended off the tasting with a simple scoop of Ice Cream ($5.80++). There’s 4 flavours to choose from such as Black Sesame, Matcha, Vanilla and Chestnut (in descending order of preference) and I would suggest sticking to either the Sesame or the Matcha.

What Ito Kacho specializes in, it does really well. Other peripherals might not shine but that’s easily overlooked as you distract yourself with the ooohs and ahhhs of the sizzling BBQ meats.

Special thanks to Ito Kacho for hosting the tasting and Hungrygowhere for coordinating the event.

Ito Kacho

333A Orchard Road, Mandarin Gallery #04-08

Tel: +65 6836 0111

Park Palace @ Grand Park City Hall – A CNY Menu to Consider

19 01 2013

With Chinese New Year quick approaching, a key question on everyone’s mind would be where to hold our reunion lunches and dinners? Initially, I admit that of the many restaurants considered, Park Palace @ Grand Park City Hall was definitely not one of them, but that was before I had a chance to sample their CNY menu last week, where I left the restaurant extremely satisfied. It was the largest scaled tasting I had been to so far, where around 30 curious individuals were gathered and eager to find out what Park Palace had to offer.

Available from 21 Jan 2013 to 24 Feb 2013, their CNY menus are priced at:

·         $78++ per person (a maximum of two persons)

·         $288++ per table (for four persons)

·         $438++ per table (for six persons)

·         $588++ per table (for eight persons)

·         $788++ to $2388++ per table (for ten persons)

Keeping true to the tradition of CNY, we started our meal with the Golden Shunde Yellowtail Yu Sheng ($88++). Literally translated, Yu Sheng (魚生)  means raw fish in Chinese but its pronunciation also functions as a pun to signify abundance (余升). Unlike the usual Yu Sheng which is sweet due to the use of sweet plum sauce, this version was more on the savoury side, as a soy based sauce was used instead. Young kids would definitely adore this as well because crispy fried vermicelli has replaced most of the icky shredded vegetables.

I had 2 favourite items for this meal and the Imperial Suckling Pig ($238++) was one of them. The skin (wrapped in steamed flat man tous) was super crispy yet not overcooked and didn’t feel oily at all. I could have easily polished off the entire pig’s skin if not for social decorum dictating I leave some for others at my table. Do order it in advance (24 hours notice recommended) as prior preparation is required for this dish.

Lazy Less hardworking people might take to the Golden Happiness Crispy Grouper, whose meat was filleted and deep fried, saving us the trouble of having to separate the meat from the fish bones. The batter was light and the accompanying plum vinaigrette sauce added some much needed flavours to the otherwise relatively bland fillets.

The Chinese New Year Flambe Pen Cai ($248/$428++ for 6 or 10 pax) was my other favourite dish. Our dining experience was made a little more exciting as the chef flambeed the Pen Cai in front of us, pouring the ignited brandy into the claypot as a finishing touch, which is supposed to enhance the aroma of the Pen Cai. It’s so ironic that it’s called Pen Cai, which literally means “bucket of vegetables”, when there’s so much seafood treasures to be found inside such as abalone, dried & fresh scallops, slices of sea perch, deshelled prawns, sea cucumber, roast pork & duck, soy sauce chicken, mushrooms, gingko nuts, lotus roots, cabbage and broccoli. A very hearty dish which goes down well with rice.

The Imperial Suckling Pig – Oven Baked with Lemongrass was made using what remained of the suckling pig we had earlier. The meat was pretty tender but given that it had already cooled down by the time this was served, it wasn’t as mind-blowing as the skin we had earlier.

When I saw that we were going to be served the Auspicious Glutinous Rice with Foie Gras and Preserved Meat, I initially thought of a bak cang (glutinous rice dumpling). Guess I was more pleased to see it being presented the way it was, where I could savour the foie gras by itself if I wanted to. Personally, I found this dish to be a little too heavy with a much too high rice-to-foie gras ratio, but it’s definitely a creative play on glutinous rice.

We were served the Steamed Mini Pumpkin Dumpling with Green Bean Paste for dessert. Very cutesy and intricate, so full marks for presentation but taste-wise, it was purely an over-glorified ang ku kueh.

Park Palace had far surpassed all expectations, with each dish I tried displaying a unique quality, be it in terms of taste, execution or simply aesthetics. So if you have not made CNY reunion meal plans yet, Park Palace is definitely somewhere to consider.

Special thanks to Park Palace for hosting this tasting session.

Park Palace

10 Coleman Street, Mezzanine Floor Grand Park City Hall

Tel: +65 6432 5888

Pizzeria Mozza – Affordable for MBS Standards

9 01 2013

A visit to Marina Bay Sands always puts me in a dilemma. On one hand, a meal at the handful of celebrity and fine dining restaurants would surely bust my budget. On the other, paying over $10 for a food court meal isn’t an enticing option either. However, an optimal compromise would be Pizzeria Mozza, a reasonably priced Italian joint that has the backing of Mario Batali, who has appeared on Iron Chef America on multiple occasions.

Despite being a Wednesday, the restaurant filled up quickly and without reservations, one can only be resigned to counter seats, that’s if you are even fortunate enough to get one.

For a pre-theatre meal for 2 pax, a single portion of appetizer, main and dessert is just nice in my opinion, especially if you are thinking of getting a pizza as a main.

The Prawns Al Forno with Potato & Salsa Romesco ($19++) was a good choice for a starter, featuring 2 grilled prawns atop slices of roasted potatoes smeared with Salsa Romesco, which tasted very much like a meat based pasta sauce.

For our pizza main, we ordered the Burrata, Slow-roasted Tomato & Sicilian Oregano Pizza ($30++). The flavour of the tomatoes was pretty concentrated and the tang was a little overwhelming at first bite. After a while however, we quickly got accustomed to the strong flavours and also discovered the function of the burrata in neutralizing the tartness of the tomatoes. On the whole, I think it was a decent attempt, though I would have preferred a thinner outer crust.

For desserts, we got a serving of Gelato – Chocolate Malt, Vanilla & Olive Oil ($17++). Nothing out of the norm for the chocolate malt and the vanilla but this was definitely a first for the olive oil and I know of no other places that serves it. The taste was rather interesting, a little on the savoury side especially with the light sprinkling of salt flakes which was easily detectable.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this is the best pizzeria in Singapore but based on the 2 meals I have had here, I would say that the quality of both the food and service is pretty consistent.

Pizzeria Mozza

2 Bayfront Avenue

Tel: +65 6688 8522

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