French New Wave

It soars through the streets of Strasbourg like Captain America blazing highways in Easy Rider. It pirouettes around the Cathédrale Notre Dame turrets before teasing the rooftop pigeons. When you run along the European capital’s canals in the morning or stroll quayside in the late afternoon, you think you’re enjoying an uplifting breeze, but you’re not.

An air of awesome in Strasbourg’s La Petite France.

What you’re savoring is the smell of onions – specifically, the aroma of sautéing onions – that permanently lingers in the Strasbourg stratosphere, permeating your pores, gratifying your gullet, electrifying your endorphins. The only way onions will make you weep in this town is if you’re not having any. Quiche à l’oignonTarte flambée. Choucroute. A restaurant called l’Oignon. It’s like bulbs of ingenuity flashing above every cook’s head in one of France’s gastronomic capitals, emanating the glow of homely comfort laced with urgent pungency, guaranteed to brighten every meal.

Let’s summon our first witness to the stand, the choucroute from Au Brasseur (22 rue des Veaux), one of the finest examples of a Strasbourg bierstub, better defined as a large beer hall where the only things heartier than the cuisine and ales are its patrons’ laughter. This is the kind of place where students crush into dark booths and smash as many slices of tarte flambée as they can within the 90-minute free-flow deal while old ladies on a girls’ night out happily shrug when it’s time to order another four pitchers of house microbrews. But no matter who you’re with or which table you’re at, all chattering, chuckling and conviviality stop – just long enough for the heart to reset its senses – when the first pile of  choucroute is dispensed.

Ma chou chou, the Alsatian choucroute.

The Alsatian version of the German sauerkraut – a given, since this French region is just three miles from the river Rhine that borders both countries – is more delicate, less tangy, and in the Au Brasseur rendition, steeped in onion oil that doesn’t necessarily broadcast its presence as much as sweet talk your palate. (The next morning, the top I’d been wearing at dinner continued to smell of this onion oil, and I prayed this tryst would last longer than a one night stand.)

Pie baked in flames, the Forestière afired.

Next, we’ll call upon the tarte flambée, Alsace’s most famous dish and quite frankly, the reason I’m in Strasbourg. This thinnest of ‘zas has its dough rolled out to its finest (in every aspect of the word), before bacon, cheese, cream, and onions are splayed across in a Pollockian hand, and everything is blazed between one to two minutes in a wood-fired oven. That gives the crust a crisp that’s sharper than a newly minted hundred euro bill, little bubbles that confirm the yeast has properly risen, and a slight char for that smoky zest. More importantly, the caramelization of the onions sweetens the deal, whether smoothly cutting through the gruyère, adding color to the crème fraîche, or doing a diabolical tango with the lardon pieces.

Aunts were put on earth to be kindly ladies always more likely to give you too much of a good thing than your moms will. At Tante Liesel (44 rue des Dentelles), where local gentlemen dig into the house platter of terrine and foie gras with checked napkins tucked into their collars, onions are nuanced into the anatomy of the quiche, lusciously imbibed into a silky flow of egg, milk and cheese. In Alsace, a quiche is not just a quiche – it’s an onion quiche, although if that’s something you hadn’t noticed, you might need a facial for your tongue.

If this quiche is Michael Phelps, the onions in its DNA are its 10-pack.

And instead of backhanding you some change for candy, Tante Liesel does even better by surreptitiously slipping lots of onion bits into her pan-fried potatoes. Little is more pleasant that discovering the crunch of a sweet onion as your mouth works its way through powdery fluff – the devil’s in the details.

You say po-tah-toe, I say onion.

With onion, that aphrodisiac of appetite, constantly on your mind, hair and clothes in Strasbourg, you might find yourself appreciating the fowl floating about the city’s canals as confit canned for six months, ready for the skillet. Except, others can have the leg of duck or goose – you’ll settle for more onions, sautéd in fat.

The duck side of Strasbourg.

Distinctive, Distinguished and Disgruntled

Eating at The Disgruntled Chef generally leaves me bewitched, bothered and bewildered.

See, I have a problem with small plates. It works for tapas (bar food – free pass) and dim sum (tradition – no fight), and I get the concept of variety and conviviality and intimacy, but seriously, it’s lame. If you want to chow, you go all the way. I hate having to mask my sincerity when I say, “You have the last bite” of a really tasty something wonderful. I hate having to carve something out of a nothing foamy swirl. I hate getting the plate when almost all of a much-needed dab of 24-hour reduction has been sopped up. Most times, I want a huge slab of apple pie with all my buttered crumbs intact and vanilla bean ice cream not yet deconstructed by not Grant Achatz.

But the first time we sidled past not having reservations at Saturday prime brunch time and slid up to the marble-slabbed bar at Daniel Sia’s place, I was reminded that there is a reason for everything. First, a sprawling counter to fit all the small plates you want (there will be many); also front row seats to one of the best shows in the house, the showy flows of cocktails (gentleman’s pours – just right for mischievous madams.). Like Sia’s cuisine, the drinks don’t mess with tradition – they keep the provenance intact, then make things even better. It’s like the serif flourish of John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence.

On the crabcakes, I really liked the tomato chili jam – remou-who? – for cutting through the fine crumb crust.

Which makes sense, when you think about how Sia left The White Rabbit as executive chef two years ago to open his own shop, having worked his way up the line from a junior chef at Les Amis. And that’s a cause for celebration, so two weekends ago, we were gathered in the restaurant’s corner of Dempsey Hill by the very kind invitation of The Disgruntled Chef, to do what we do best there – eat, drink, convive.

The baked bone marrow was not on the birthday menu, but buttery and slippery, it begins at the tip of your tongue and slides nonchalantly down as seamlessly as an ice cube, except with nothing but warmth and love.

If the dinner was a greatest hits of regular favorites and a preview of a new record, then it’s not too different from Bruce Springsteen’s current “Wrecking Ball” tour. I came to a truce with the restaurant’s small plates concept when I saw how they took pride in serving your order in courses, thoughtfully shepherding the flow of a meal with your tasting pleasure in consideration – as carefully crafted as the Boss’s set lists and yes, that Sunday evening was also a marathonal mastication.

Immacandcheeseculate.

However, I’m going to eat my words and jump straight to what has always been the marquee dish for me at The Disgruntled Chef – the crayfish mac & cheese. Do you know what it’s like to miss New Orleans? I do, because it’s one of my favorite cities in the world, and Sia has dragged crawdaddies, one of its best things, from the muck and made it even more illicit. It’s like macaroni eloped with creamy white cheese during Mardi Gras in Treme. It makes lobsters roll in their graves and wish they could ditch Nantucket for Nawlins. You want to toss your silverware aside and claw into this. Let the cheese streak through the air, you slurping up gravity-defying strands, like tugging at heartstrings.

The best of the rest:

And so, the small plates once again proved me wrong, happily, and while nothing else could fit into my gastro-intestinal tract, there was plenty of room on my happy cloud for the splendid service by manager Shireen Sheikh and the delightful service team, on top of marketer Bethany Chuah’s enthusiastic hospitality. Clue: they all know their food and drink extremely well.

Walking out and thanking Chef Sia, I don’t think he looked disgruntled at all.

Mamak Knows Best

Good evening, night owls – this is Desiree Koh keeping you company on the late shift, where we take the gears down a notch and cruise across the causeway to Johor Bahru, just across the Malaysian border north of Singapore. Don’t touch that dial, let’s park it right here…

…where an open asphalt lot holds both cars and tin-topped tables on tottering legs for supping under the moon. The midnight mamak stall is the Malaysian greasy spoon – an open-air diner that’ll serve as late as you can eat, powered by griddles, goreng (fried dishes) and ghee. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, the mamak stall is the country’s most culturally significant gastronomic icon, where gossip trades lips, soccer bets are laid, debts are collected, illicit affairs are commenced, marriages are ended, politics are analyzed, and Ramadan fasts are broken. Everyone comes to the mamak stall. If there was a mamak stall in Boston, Cheers would not be about a bar where everybody knows your name.

Flipping for roti canai – not a pancake because it is not made from batter, but a fried flatbread dipped in curry.

The Tamil Muslim-owned mamak stalls are completely versatile enterprises, and can cook anything to order that pleases your dark night fancies and fantasies, as long as you know how to say it right. What’s the mamak equivalent of “double bacon cheeseburger with onions and pickles, no tomato, no lettuce, extra fries?” It’s “Maggi goreng tambal ayam dan telor mata dan banyak sambal belacan masin tambahan.” That would be Maggi instant noodles (the most popular brand in Southeast Asia) cooked, then fried with a cornucopia of your choice of meat, token vegetables, topped with a sunny-side-up egg, seasoning from the packet (extra, in this request), topped with a sliced lime, and more sambal belacan, please! This is the quintessential post-drinking mamak stall staple.

Water is boiled in the open air kitchen – the cockpit of the mamak stall – to cook the Maggi noodles for goreng.

And instead of coffee as murky and soulful as the night, you’re ordering teh tarik alia, a milk tea infused with ginger, because you’re going to need all the digestive aid you can get after putting away a gut bomb supper this close to bedtime.

Currying flavors.

It is a requirement that you deliver your order concisely and know exactly what you want, because impatience is a virtue at the mamak stall. Woks are clanged and deep fryers fired up, dishes are tossed in front of you, you vacuum everything on the plates up like the last bus home might turn into a pumpkin anytime, the scrap piece of white paper with your order is slapped down by the greasy entrails of your utensils, you pay, and you go. You’re likely happy, and who cares how you might feel tomorrow? The night is still young.

Meat, meet stick.

Until you get up the next morning moaning in agony, because that roti canai has wrapped itself around your intestines like a blanket in knots. That won’t stop you from doing it all over again, though. Because a gourmet’s best friend is his mamak.

Ramly burgers, the infamous Malaysian rendition where thin patties are wrapped in fried eggs before insertion into heavily buttered buns, but not before mayo is squirted in to seal the deal.

We’ve got a few more minutes before the morning crew comes in, just enough time for one final dedication. It’s from “Grub Girl,” going out to all her friends – “you know who you are,” she says. She also says, “See you at the mamak stall.” Thanks for staying with me through your waking hours – this is your night line host, signing off.

More mamak:

Holey Communion

To find the only authentic New Yawk bagels in Singapore, I had to wander through Sarnies, a cafe modeled after Melbourne’s finest, where a flat white is a coffee order and not a Studio 54 bathroom purchase.

I was there to witness the birthing of Mama Bagel’s babies, hole-somely dense, chewy yeasted dough that cuts no corners in rounding up the tedious process of their gestation, a term more eventful than Elliott Spitzer’s governorship.

Striptease.

First, ringleader Mama Bagel (Jennifer Harrison, if you’re yeasty) mixes and kneads her dough, a finger-crunching technique that’s like the Swedish sports massage of baking. By hand, this used to take her 15 minutes to craft six bagels – the industrial mixer in the Sarnies kitchen now does the job in eight to 10 minutes for a batch of 30. Then, she lets the dough rest.

Pulling bagel resources.

Next, the dough is portioned out. Rest. Then, it’s shaped by hand into that bagel ring ding-a-ling. Rest. After which they’re whisked into boiling water and fished out. Rest.

Bagel bagel, toil and trouble, 100 percent worth it.

(At this point, you might be asking, “With so many rest stops… are we there yet??” Ya know what? Nobody gets to the promised land in 60 seconds.) Fresh out of the boiling water, they are steamy, wistful, very willow-o’-the-wisp – like they have just woken up from a beautiful dream.

Hot and hydrated.

Into the oven they go, pasty white, wan and wrinkly like Prince Charles’ scalp; and out they pop, bronzed, sculpted studs of Olympian lord of the rings. If you want to celebrate with a cigar, you should. Yeah, yo Mama Bagels so ugly, they be the real thing.

It’s a bagel!

I first found Mama Bagel at the Loewen Gardens farmer’s market, where I was attracted to her seedy nature. Because poppy seeds are illegal in Singapore – high, heady times, for sure – Mama Bagel’s alternative is to sprinkle organic chia seeds from Mexico for that springy, gelatinous crunch with a nutty taste that complements the bagel chaw so well. When I think “bagel” and “chia seeds,” I think running and Tarahumara, that Mexican ultra-running tribe, and the next thing I know, I’m wondering if I’ve found the perfect pre-long run fuel. Energy boosting, full of omega-3 acids, anti-oxidants, protein, fiber, calcium, and unprocessed, these whole grains are like a runner’s hole in one. Some girls like diamonds on top of their rings – I like chia seeds on mine. What pleases me most is that Mama Bagels are completely without chemicals, preservatives, fat nor eggs – they make me feel like a natural woman.

Bagelfast of champions.

The first time I took Mama Bagel on a test drive, I topped the chia seed bagel with almond butter and organic, all-natural sugarless cherry jam, and cruised through an hour and 45 minutes on the MacRitchie trails. The same bagel belly bump gassed the Energizer 18K Night Trail Race, and I revved to the finish in 2:07 without needing to pop an energy gel at my usual 1:45 re-fueling point. This weekend, the pedal was pushed to the 2:30 trail mettle, and although this time it was a sesame bagel with the same shmears, I still didn’t need to pit stop. Wow. That’s a really, really great situation to be in, especially in a race.

Mama Bagels also come in cinnamon-raisin, plain and onion – the gold standard of New Yawk delis – and I’m slowly making my way across the flavors. You don’t want to keep something like this under lox and key – everyone needs to know that great bagels in Singapore are not a lost cause, as the Mets have been for many seasons. For Big Applers in town, Mama Bagels are your lifesavers, although you won’t be getting any deli sass with that. For everyone else, they are ring king of the hill, top of the list, head of the heap. Start spreading the news.

The hole shebang.

Mama Bagel bakes them fresh with sass on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at Sarnies (136 Telok Ayer Street) and sells them with aplomb at the Loewen Gardens Farmers Market (second and fourth Saturday of the month).