Pork Perfection at Esquina (Singapore)

Looking back at our two weeks in Singapore, which by the way feels like ages ago (reality: less than two weeks), we did some exceptional Spanish inspired dining. You would think we would go for local restaurants, but our yearning for good Cava brought us (back) to Esquina, Jason Atherton’s little restaurant in Chinatown, Singapore. We have also visited several of Jason’s other restaurants, Pollen Street Social, Little Social and Berner’s Tavern in London and our experiences have been great.

To start with, we had no booking. As with many popular restaurants, a table at Esquina needs to be reserved weeks before. However, we arrived nice and early (18:00) and were able to grab a seat on the terrace. It is not the nicest scenery one can have (back street in Chinatown) but it’s not a problem for us Northern Europeans. We are crazy about all terraces and balconies alike. Just the thought about eating outside is somehow exciting for people from countries where summer is way too short. For those who like sitting inside, there are wonderful seats along the bar, where one can see the chefs up close and personal making the food. I like restaurants that have an open kitchen, it keeps them honest.

Looking at the wine-list there are around 10 wines by the glass, two of them bubblies, a Torello Cava and a La Chapitre Champagne. The Cava was nice and fresh with a taste of brioche, minerals and peach; and the Champagne crisp with some acidity and roasted notes. Both of them were well selected as one would expect from the owner of Pollen St Social. I also tried the Pollen St. Social White which was very nice.

For starters we had the mini Spanish breakfast (an eggshell filled with a stew of slow cooked egg, Iberico ham and potato with Bravas sauce); baked chicken skin with foie grass puree, spiced mango, tarragon and curry; and Jamón Croquetas. Especially the Spanish breakfast was heavenly (thank God we ordered two) and everything came well presented. For mains we had the Iberico BBQ & Foie grass burgers and smoked pork loin. Pork perfection! We didn’t really have space for dessert, but we were treated to mini-ice cream cones as a thank you from the kitchen. On top of the great food, we received perhaps the friendliest service we had during our whole time in Singapore.

Esquina is really one of my favorite spots in Singapore. Price-wise, it is mid-range, not really expensive, but compared to local food, light years away. A dinner for two with two glasses of wine (each) cost us around 140 SGD (90 EUR). The price is comparable to what you would pay in Europe, but I at least was happy to swipe my credit card for something this good. Looking forward to testing the quality again whenever we are in Singapore.

Discovering Portugal

The past month or so, our blog has been going a steady path. We have been writing a lot about shops, restaurant and reviewing some wines. We have shared experiences from along our travels and extended our focus to coffee and cocktails. We have shared all that we have enjoyed along the way and will continue to do so.

However, we are now back in Sweden and focus will inevitably shift back to Europe and more into our business. This is why today I would like to share with you something about our next adventure, which will be discovering Portugal as a wine region and a potential for extending our business. On Monday, M will be heading to Porto to meet up with some exciting new producers and I will join him for next weekend to meet our friends at Vieira de Sousa and drive around the beautiful Douro valley. But before we set out to travel, we thought we would do some studying to not sound like completely amateurs when talking to our new acquaintance.

Five things I read today about Portuguese wine:

  1. Wine laws today are based on the French Appelation d’Origine. There are three basic categories of Portuguese wine: Vinho de Mesa, Niho Regional, and Denominação de Origem Controlada. The lowest level is Vinho de Mesa, Table wine where grapes can come from anywhere in Portugal and the winery does not need to include a vintage. Above Vinho de Mesa is Vinho Regional, Regional wine. In a regional wine, 85 percent of grapes must come from the region on the label. Regional wines, however, are not subject to the strict requirements of a Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) wine. Each DOC must follow specific guidelines and the grapes in these wines must come entirely from the region on the label.
  2. Portugal has eleven major wine regions. The Douro is by far the most significant to fine wine production. Other regions of international recognition include Dão, Vinho Verde and Alentejo.
  3. Portugal has the very large number of (up to 500) indigenous grape varieties. Some of the most commonly used both by traditional and modern winemakers are Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz. Older vineyards are planted with multiple grape varieties and as a result, sometimes these field blends are so varied that identifying all of the grapes isn’t possible. When new vineyards are created, single planting is now the norm.
  4. The country has clear climatic divisions. In the northern part of the Portugal, the climate is maritime with warm summers and cool, wet winters. In some areas rainfall can reach 100 inches a year. Towards the south its a different story, as rainfall is lower and summer temperatures are much higher.
  5. Equally dramatic as France and Spain, Portugal suffered from the phylloxeira epidemic (wine plaque) of the early 19th century and lost a significant number of its old vines. After the plaque, many abandoned the wine-business and the ones who didn’t planted new, larger yield varieties resulting to overall lower quality. Today, we are seeing a rise of small boutique wineries, quintas, focusing on better wine making techniques and using grapes from a single region to create cleaner and softer wines that are better received by the international wine market.

I think I need to do some more studying before next week, but this is a good start for discovering wine in Portugal. I can’t wait to share pictures and stories about the actual trip. If you are up for Portuguese wine-talk, you can check out the post we did on Port a few months back (link here). Have a great weekend!

Flavors and Party Tricks at Bar Stories (Singapore)

Bar stories ranks perhaps as my number one cocktail bar in Singapore (maybe even the world). If you would ask M, he would prefer Longplay (review here), but I am sure this place would not be long behind.

Bar stories is located on Haji lane, a street where the Western and Middle-Eastern cultures collide. There are many bars around with tourists and expats having drinks, but also bars that serve no alcohol to respect the Arab-heritage. Bar stories is located in the upstairs of an old shop-house. Its not a speakeasy per-se, but it is not something you wonder into without knowing what it is.

Upon entering we were greeted and seated at the end of the bar. I love a seat with a view! The concept was as in Bitters & Love (review here), there is no menu, you explain to the bartender what you like and they will make you a drink. We went with our usual spirits of choice, me wit gin and M with a dark rum. We are perhaps a bit boring, but it helps compare one place to another. Also I am really not fond of whiskey, cognac or vodka as a base, so the options are limited. The bartender also asked some questions like do I like lemongrass and could I handle some egg white in my drink (YES!).It was nice to get some suggestions as I would perhaps not have thought about them myself.

I could already see from the equipment they had at hand that we were going to see some party tricks. I don’t mind as long as my drink is good. M’s cocktail arrived with a flaming branch or rosemary, and mine with a long lemongrass sticking out of the Martini glass. Looking around others had pretty cool looking drinks as well, and none of them looked the same. The staff seemed to like experimenting and you could see they were having fun with it. The taste was wonderful, like a mix of a fresh breeze and dessert (due to the creaminess of the egg white) with spices on top.

We only had one round of drinks this time, but I can imagine I could have sat there sipping on cocktails for a full evening. The ambiance was charming and relaxed and the cocktails excellent. As with many nice bars these days, it is possible to reserve a table (I remember the days in Finland when it cost something and you only got a crappy bottle of Vodka and some mixers as “compensation”). There doesn’t seem to be any food or snacks, so my recommendation would be to have dinner before going.

Bar Stories, I love you and I hope we meet again soon!

A Taste of South Africa at Handford Wines (London)

Following yesterdays review on the Kloof Street Swartland Rouge, I thought it would be nice to write something about the shop where I bought it from, Handford Wines in London. It’s a nice little wine shop in South Kensington, with an interesting selection of wines from around the world.

I mainly ended up here on my way to the Sampler (review here). It’s a cute space with high shelves bulging with wine. I get this old library feel, but instead of books, there are bottles. If I am not mistaken the shop was once occupied by wine merchant La Vigneronne. It is a short walk from South Kensington tube on the slightly charmless Old Brompton Road.

The staff are friendly and knowledgeable and happy to chat about wine. I had the pleasure of trying some interesting Canadian (!) wine from the Niagara Falls region that they were sampling. You don’t run into Canadian wine that often here in Europe, and at least I was very unaware of this wine-region before driving through (from Toronto the Niagara Falls) on a holiday trip in 2010. The Niagara Escarpment (a ridge carved by ancient glaciers) has a good microclimate with fertile soil and adequate rainfall to support vine growing. Looking back to 2010, I remember the excitement when I realized how close I was to all these boutique wineries. However, my travel companion at that time could only be convinced to visit Wayne Gretzky Estates (Finnish men!). Well, that was better than nothing. The Canadian white wine I tasted at Handford Wines was perhaps too sweet for my taste but I am always very happy when invited to try something new. It also highlights the depth of the selection they carry.

What Handford is really great for is wines from South Africa. They are numerous and there is a nice selection from different regions. In addition to the Kloof Street we picked up a Pinot Noir from Cape South Coast (the name really appealed to M: Mr P Knows). There is also a very good selection of French wines and interesting stuff from Portugal and Spain. The prices are decent but the ‘cheaper’ bottles in general seem to be worse value than bottles of £15 and above.

If you are in the area (or searching for some South African or Canadian wine) I recommend popping by. This is perhaps not on my list of top-visits for London wine-shops, but that might change if I get hyped up about South Africa. Right now my focus is on Spain and Portugal (and Champagne), but you never know what’s next. I am insatiable when it comes to learning more about wine.

Wine Review: Kloof Street Swartland Rouge Vintage 2012

An interesting little number from Mullineux Family Wines, a small wine producer in the Swartland region of South Africa. They are based in the village of Riebeek Kasteel and their range of products include both red and white wines. The wines are generally hand-crafted and try to display the specifics of the terroirs of the Swartland Region. Kloof Street is one of their two ranges, the other one being Mullineux.

I was drawn to this specific wine mainly based on the interesting looking label. It stood out when I saw it in the shelf at Handford Wines and when I started looking at wine it peaked my interest enough to pick up a bottle to take home.

It is a typical Southern Rhone blend with 83% Syrah, 13% Cinsault and 4% Carignan. Interestingly enough subsequent vintages have much more varieties in the blend (the 2013 has Mourvedre and Grenache in addition the ones from 2012). The wine has been aged on French oak for 11 months with 13,5% alcohol content and 2,8 g/l of residual sugar. The grapes for the 2012 vintage comes from five vineyards, all in the Swartland region.

The color is dark ruby red so when seeing it I expected a much heavier wine. The nose is however fairly light but clear notes of raspberry, blackberry, violet, spice and also hints of chocolate and vanilla tones. The palate is full of red and black berries but with creaminess. There is a nice spiciness and herbal character to it as well and it lingers nicely in the mouth.

Looking at the quality it is a good wine but for me it does not reach the top class. It was however pleasant to sip with the nice piece of steak we had, but I could imagine it’s also fine on its own. Quality wise I would rate it a 3.5. We paid around £12 at Handford wines in London and that appears to be the going rate (Berry Bros charge something similar) and in that price range there are a lot of good wines. So while this is not at all bad I would rather spend that money on something else so the value for money rating would be 3.

Coffee Bar Review: Assembly Coffee, Singapore

Assembly coffee is on Evans road (26 Evans Lodge), just outside the Botanic Garden in Singapore, next door to a wine store (the Wine Company), burger restaurant (Wildfire Kitchen) and Mr Prata. The cafe is fairly small and the space feels very cramped, at least when it is full (which it was when I visited). It was also fairly noisy, so it was difficult to have a normal conversation due to sound from everyone around you. The cafe is however neatly designed and has the vibe of a cool cafe.

They claim to be part of the third wave coffee movement but the focus on the coffee was not really there when I visited. They had only one option for filter coffee and while it was prepared in a decent way, it did in no way impress me. The espresso based beverages were pretty good and compared to the average place they do serve a good cup but it is not a place worth going to just for the coffee.

I was however more impressed with the food. A good selection of different sandwiches, simple dishes and some nice sweet stuff. The salted caramel waffle was really good and the same can be said for the egg and mayo sandwich as well as the scrambled egg croissant. Prices were pretty decent to be a Singapore cafe but it still bothers me that they only accept Nets or cash, so for us non-locals better bring along cash.

Service was friendly, but as it often seems packed to the brim, also a bit stressed and it was difficult to really chat about the coffee with them. Still a decent place and by far the best around the Botanical garden.

So how does it rate:
Coffee quality: 3
Ambiance and Service: 3
Food: 4
Vs Local Average Competition: 3.5

Wineweek 14: Back to Business

This week the scenery ha changed. Colorful and tropical Singapore has changed to good old grey Sweden. I tried to take some pics from outside, but they where all too depressing. Not that I don’t like Stockholm, I love it, but this time of the year is always a bit colorless (like Helsinki, where I am from). Soon February will change to March and the anticipation of spring (with all it’s disappointing cold fronts) will lighten up the town. I expect we will be facing some cold setbacks up until the end of June, it is almost a national sport to put away your winter clothes too early, but at least there will be more light. But one thing I can say makes me extremely happy to be back, is our wonderful wine collection. After five and a half weeks of mostly disappointing (bad or too expensive) wine, I am ecstatic about all the lovely bottles at hands reach. Unfortunately M caught a cold on the flight back, so we did not really have any sparkling this weekend.

Looking back at the week, we started off well with a nice and anticipated dinner at Burnt Ends, a much talked about restaurant in Chinatown (Singapore). The service was very disappointing, and that was really a shame as the food was wonderful and that good food does not at all deserve to be paired with such sub-standard service.  A review will follow. We also continued our cocktail-tour at the Black Swan and 28 Hong Kong Street. Even though it was a Monday both places were full of life.

On our way back to Sweden we checked out the duty free selection at Frankfurt airport. The Champagne selection was a bit boring, but we picked up a few German sparkling wines to try out. Germany as a wine-country is developing in an interesting direction with a new generation of winemakers taking over the reins. We visited a wonderful shop, the Winery (review here), in London around New Year focusing mainly on German wines, and found ourselves drooling after Pinot Noirs and Sparklings alike.

After resting off the mild jet lag, we sat down on the couch, opened a bottle of red (Kloof Street Vintage 2012 from South Africa), and started looking into the future. It is time to get our business up and running. It’s not like we have been procrastinating, but our Cavas have now been sitting in the warehouse for enough time. It is time to get the sales going. So next week will be all about finalizing the paperwork. Also, it is only a week until M leaves for Portugal to meet some new producers (I will follow later for the weekend), so there is a lot to plan. After several months of communicating by email, we will finally be meeting our friends at Vieira de Sousa. They have a lovely range of Port wines we would love to add to our selection. Also, I am getting a bit hyped up after reading about some Portuguese sparkling wine producers. The grapes are new to me (Baga, Bical and Bairrada), but the production good old method Champenoise.

Happy Hour at Verre

Singapore has many wine bars, but not an abundance of wine bars with good selection of wines. Or perhaps more accurately at least not that offer wines at a decent price. You can’t believe how many times we just saw “red and white wine” written on the menu, nothing about the name or grapes, just “red and white” as if it was just one drink (like Coca Cola). We are curious, but not that curious that we would have ordered a pig in a bag. On the other side, there were restaurants with some excellent wines for horrendous prices that really took away the joy of ordering a glass. Verre is a great contribution to fill in the gap. It is a wine bar/restaurant located in the semi-touristy expat area of Robertson Quay with a good selection of wine at decent prices.

Verre has both nice outdoor seating area as well as a fairly large dining room. It was never very busy when I was there and we were able to get a nice table without reservations. Service was always friendly and fast which earns Verre a big extra plus from me.

The wine selection still makes me smile. I counted 8 reds and 8 whites by the glass and 1 sparkling. That’s pretty good in comparison to some wine bars here in Stockholm or London. The prices are very reasonable to start with and their happy hour it is really great value for money (from 4-7 pm on weekdays and 4-6 pm on weekends) with buy 1 get 1 free offer on the wines by the glass and some beers. Their champagne by the glass is for example the excellent Guy Charlemagne Brut (a review of their vintage 2008 click here ) and at 18 SGD for 2 glasses it is excellent value for money. We also tasted an interesting red, 2010 Miette (mix of Shiraz, Grenache, Mataro) from Barossa Valley, Australia (review here).
The selection of wines by the bottle is also good, a lot from France but also from other parts of the world.

Verre also has a European inspired food menu with dishes like Boeuf Bourguignon, some pastas and and even pates. M tried a  Chicken pasta, but did not think it was anything outstanding. Not an issue as we came mainly for the wine anyway.

All in all one of my favorite spots in Singapore. I hope to be able to visit again soon.

Aussie Inspiration at Philglas & Swiggot

After five and a half weeks of travelling in Asia, we returned to a grey and cold Sweden yesterday. Regardless of the weather, it is great to be home – there is nothing like your own wine fridge. Before going back to business and some Singapore memories, I have a few reviews on London wine shops to share with you.

A few blocks off Oxford Street it feels very tranquil stepping into this small wine shop. Philglas & Swiggot used to have a clear focus on Australian wine (and to some extent also New Zealand) but the past years strengthening of the AUD has made it more tricky to sell Aussie wine (and other stuff from down-under) in the UK. So the selection has extended to other parts of the world as well, for example Italy, France and South Africa. The shop in Marble Arch is one of three outlets and I am yet to check out the others.

Service was really friendly and extremely knowledgeable and helpful (great recommendations for other wine shops to visit, this is how we found out about the German wine shop The Winery). The current selection of wine did however to some extent fail to excite me, probably because I am not very knowledgeable on Aussie wines. I only found a few things that really got me in to the buying mood: a German Riesling names Einz, zwei, dry (what a great name) and a Louis Barthelemy Champagne.  I also saw some Taltarni sparkling wine from Tasmania. It’s one of my old favorites, and although I did not see a good reason to drag a bottle all the way to Stockholm (as I have tasted plenty of samples), I am happy to recommend it to anyone who wants a good Aussie bubbly.

After visiting Philglas & Swiggot and spending some time in Asia (due to the proximity, a lions portion of the wine selection in shops was from Australia), I realized how poor my knowledge on Down-under wines really is. There are many interesting areas, like Yarra Valley making some good Pinot Noir and Barossa Valley with its Shiraz and not to mention Tasmania with some great Method champenoise bubblies.  I am still on my way learning about old world wines, but something about Australia tickles my fancy (maybe it’s the weather). A few days before we were due to fly back to Sweden we started discussing next years holiday plans (as one needs holiday plans), and Australia is climbing quite high on the list.

Cocktail-Hopping at Bitters & Love

As I mentioned in the last Wineweek, we did some cocktail-hopping over Valentines day weekend. Because we were concerned there would be a lot of people out, and we wanted to visit as many places as possible, we set out on our journey already at 6pm. Great choice as we had no trouble getting a seat at Bitters & Love, a much talked about “speakeasy” here in Singapore. The bar is not really what you could call a real speakeasy. It’s located in the back room of a restaurant called Shoebox Canteen. There are no signs outside, but you can already see from the door that there is something going on in the back. The look of the place is lightly hipster, but I suspect that the real pioneers have already moved on to something new and cooler. I don’t mind at all, I am here for the cocktails, not to get on the good side of the in-crowd (I’m too old for that).

The concept is simple: you have a menu with a set of flavours (sweet, sour, spicy etc) and a list of spirits. You tell the bar tender the spirit and flavour of your choice (you do not need to limit yourself to the list provided either) and perhaps describe what kind of ingredients you like (I love stuff like ginger, cucumber and mint in my drinks), and the bartender will make you a drink based on that. Awesome if you are a person who likes surprises (not so awesome if you are not). I chose a nice Gin and asked for something spicy (not Asian spicy, but in the medium range) and M selected a dark Rum and asked for something fresh and full. After a short wait we were served a pair of beautiful drinks that did not disappoint neither in looks or taste. Both wishes had been taken into account and we got to taste something new.

We also ordered some bar snacks as a substitue for a ‘proper’ dinner: some truffle fries, chicken fritters and sliders. All were pretty decent. Not the best gourmet experience of my life, but took away the hunger. The only real disappointment for us was that we could not order from the Shoebox Canteen menu and eat at the bar. Perhaps they have this policy to make sure the cocktail bar stays as a cocktail bar, I would just really have liked to have a larger menu. All in all, Bitters & Love was an excellent experience. Not the cheapest cocktail bar in town with drinks ranging from 19-26 SGD, but at par with other places (it’s the weakening Swedish krona that is killing me). I definitely recommend popping by if you are in Singapore. If you can’t make it before 8pm, I recommend reserving a table up front.