Saturday, July 19, 2014

Two Birds' Nest

They say to discover new lands, you must lose sight of the shore.  My friend J has recently become my devoted culinary co-explorer.  Rather than bloated merchant seaman buffeted by the Urbanspoon tradewinds, we're like rangy pirates, plundering every backwater and secluded cove for obscure comestible treasures.

Recently, though, we've had a run of bad luck.  There was the hipster Korean that ravaged our wallets but failed to put any wind in our sails, and elsewhere, the tofu, chicken and salted fish dish that didn't just look like what the cat dragged in, but something it dragged in, mauled, gnawed on and threw up.  We ended up huddled in the lee of Nhu Lan, gnawing on our emergency banh mis, quite lost for words.

So I knew that when I sent that next text - "fancy trying X next Thursday night?" - that X had better not just mark the spot, but bloody well hit it.  Enter Two Birds' Nest.

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Just a stone's throw from Spotswood station, brewers Jayne Lewis and Danielle Allen have set up their new digs, where they brew their signature Golden and Sunset ales.  Drop in and you can not only have a gander at all the shiny beer-making kit, but prop at the bar and order a freshly brewed pot.  (I'm being quite literal - the IPA we tried had just finished brewing that very day!)

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But these birds have chosen to feather their nest even further by letting Casey Wall curate the menu.  Casey is one half of Rockwell and Sons, which is one of my top reasons to cross the river.  He's a North Carolina native who's done time at joints as fancy as Le Cirque in New York and Cutler & Co in Fitzroy.  In the case of Rockwell, this translates to rib-sticking American goodies like fried chicken or devilled eggs, done with care and panache.

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We pulled up a stool at one of the communal tables and got nibbling on Parmesan shortbread and goats curd Oreos ($9), which were brilliant.  Regular Oreos go great with milk, and these Oreos go great with beer.  Here at the Nest, you can sample Two Birds' own brews plus guest taps, and there's wine and boutique spirits, too.

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We swooned over this Kentucky beer cheese on crisp, well-oiled rye bread slices ($12).  This stuff was incredible - a blend of Vermont cheddar, cream cheese, Sunset ale and spices to make a gooey, bitey spread that was totally amazing.

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There are four sandwiches for mains.  We're talking what Casey calls the world's greatest grilled cheese, with bacon jam and smoked scamorza cheese, or a very interesting proposal with pressed broccoli and vintage cheddar.  But today it had to be the smoked pulled pork with red slaw ($16).  I know every man and his dog is doing pulled pork these days, but this is the real deal.  You have to try it - it's out of this world!

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It was the brisket-and-bacon "5-Chile Chilli" for me, topped with a little house-made creme fraiche ($18).  Rich, dark, spicy and fabulous.  This 'un is perfect with the "Taco Beer", which has been brewed with a little corn, plus a sprinkling of lime and coriander!  I could definitely taste the corn, which gave it a fresh, popcorny spark.  Yum.

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Two Birds Nest is just a few hundred metres from Spotswood station, or if you accidentally get on an express like we did, you can also easily walk from Newport - it's a ten-minute stroll.  There are more seats in the actual brewing room.  Another specialty on the menu that we didn't try is the cheese platter, with matched beers - there's even a proper cheese cabinet so every wedge is at the perfect temperature.

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So if like us, you navigate the world by the tum, Two Birds Nest isn't just safe harbour.  In terms of your tastebuds, it's like docking at Rio when Carnaval is on.  Set sail on the good ship Metro and come and visit!

Read more here at The Crafty Pint, or cop a sneaky peek at the current menu here!

Two Birds' Nest (@TheTwoBirdsNest)
136 Hall St, Spotswood
Open:  Thurs 4-10pm, Fri 4-11pm, Sat noon-11pm, Sun noon-10pm.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ras Dashen

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So Ethiopia has thirteen months of sunshine, or so the poster on the wall tells me.  Yet when the winter chill sets in here in Footscray, it's the food from this land of eternal summer that I start craving.

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The poster in question is on the wall here at Ras Dashen, just one of Footscray's Ethiopian eateries.  It doesn't look much from the outside - indeed, you might wonder if it's even open, it looks so dark - but I highly encourage you to step in.

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We ordered the vegetarian combination which is everything you see (bar the pot in the centre) for a rather staggering $10.  Red and brown lentils, beans, cabbage and carrot...all delicious, albeit rather unusually served room temperature.  In the middle was our order of doro wot ($10), chicken pieces cooked in an intense, deep maroon sauce made with very slow-cooked onion and berbere spice.  It wasn't crazily loaded with chicken pieces, but it's the sauce that gets me going more than anything.

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The prices are pretty fabulous.  If you want a good intro, I'd get the veg combo plus number 5 (the Misto - two different mincemeat curries).  Maybe add in a doro wot if you've got three people dining, and a tibs if you've got four.  I like to think of tibs like stir-fries - they're a bit drier than things with "wot" in the name, which tend to be wet and saucy.

You might look at an Ethiopian menu and think it all sounds the same.  I can remember going to a Mexican restaurant in the US for the first time 10+ years ago and reading "tortilla, sauce, cheese...  tortilla, sauce, cheese..."  It all sounded like exactly the same dish reworded 20 times.  Obviously I couldn't have been more wrong.  Keep experimenting, ordering, trying and you'll soon have your favourite dishes locked down.

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I do rather love the ginger tea served in many of Footscray's African eateries.  It's super spicy, sweet and delicious.

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Like nearby Konjo, Ras Dashen will do traditional Ethiopian coffee without the whole ceremony (other places usually reserve it for large bookings and charge quite a bit of money).  Love that they still serve the jebena (pot) along with the traditional incense.  I've got a post brewing (get it?) about Konjo and Ethiopian coffee, so stay tuned to learn a bit more about this tradition.

And while we're on the subject of bad puns - Ras Dashen.  Dash in!

Ras Dashen on Urbanspoon

Ras Dashen
121 Nicholson St, Footscray
Phone: 9687 3293

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Hawker fare at MiHUB Cafe

As I tugged on my uggs, I was waiting for that call.  As the wind howled outside, I was waiting for that ding.  I had invited six fearless foodies to join me at an outdoor "hawker centre" on the windiest, most bone-chilling Friday night of the year.  It is a testament to everyone's total devotion to the tum that not a single person piked!


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MiHUB in Werribee has been on my radar for some time but it was a tip from reader Sukie that pushed it to the front of the queue.  She wrote telling me of "an outdoor Malaysian hawker centre...  We went for the 1st time last night and thought I was back in Asia from that first whiff of the air. Satay skewers, nasi lemak, mee rebus, char kwe tiaw, little Malay cakes".

Now, if that does not make you excited - you need to check for a pulse!

So that's how I found myself tearing down the highway, dressed in so many clothes that Bryan called me a ketupat (wrapped rice cake thingy), which I think is Singaporean for "you look like the Michelin Man". :-P


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According to the Star, Werribee's Migrant Hub was started by Walter Villagonzolo, a migrant from the Philippines.  Its front yard houses the MiHUB Cafe, a social enterprise for new migrants.  Since January the Malaysian community has been at the helm, offering hawker-style food at low, low prices.

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The way it works is you nab a plastic table and then go and see what takes your fancy.  I had rallied Daniel and M, Bryan and Fatbee, and Jo and The Angmoh to stage a full-scale assault on the menu.  When we got there, we all ran around like schoolkids, squealing and pointing at everything.

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I really liked the satay ($10) - chicken or lamb, with really good satay sauce.  The idea is that in between bites of juicy meat, you stab bits of cucumber and compressed rice cake with your skewer and swizzle them in the sauce.  Now, if only they could invent spoon-shaped cucumbers...

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Lontong was awesome - a light, coconutty broth with hardboiled eggs, spongy tofu and more compressed rice cake.  It was lukewarm, which we felt might have been authentic given the usually tropical clime in Malaysia.  The temperature didn't translate as well to a windy night in Werribee, but the flavour was all there.

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I LOVED the char kway teow, with proper smoky breath of the wok, really springy prawns and fantastic wide rice noodles.  It's cooked on a gas-powered wok right under the marquee.  And...only eight bucks!  This is the thing I'd go all the way back for.

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Mee rebus was a new one for me, with a thick, sweet sauce and Hokkien-style noodles.  I found the sauce too sweet but Daniel reported that's how it's meant to be.

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Quite liked this curry with roti jala.  I've also had these lacy pancakes at Chilli Padi in Flemington 100 years ago, where I liked them better - I found MiHUB's a bit plain, with no crispy bits.

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Otak otak or spiced fish mousse in banana leaf were pretty good (three for $5).  You unroll them and eat the little sausage-like delight inside.

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As this bowl of laksa was passed around, anyone looking above shoulder height only would have thought it was a competition about who can do the best grimace.  It was very peculiar, tasting strongly of curry powder rather than the classic laksa paste-y flavours of fresh lemongrass and chilli.  Give this one a miss and try something more exotic!

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The murtabak got a big tick from me.  This is essentially a stuffed roti, panfried on both sides to get nice and crispy.  Most times I've had it, it was just a bit nothing, but this was spicy, warm and delicious.  (I can't recall the filling but I think it was lamb and spicy potato.)  Oh and re the prices, I didn't write any down (too hard when trying to stuff food in mouth at top speed), but most things are eight dollars.  YES.  EIGHT DOLLARS.

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Teh tarik was the perfect thing to warm up our claw-like fingers...

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...and although it didn't have that super-authentic teh tarik tannic taste, it was hot, frothy and good.  (The bubbles come from the milky tea being poured from jug to jug from a great height, aerating it.)

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Finally, we raided the dessert selection.  A lot of these sweets suffered from being served in the frigid conditions - they would have been a lot softer and more delicate in 30-degree heat, rather than 10.  The best was the yellow fellow in the middle, which had a layer of durian-flavoured custard over some kind of sticky rice.

Super-sleuth reader Sukie reported that the best times to go are Friday night and Sunday brunch.  (Maybe do proceed with caution though in terms of Sundays for the rest of Ramadan, as many observant Muslims will be fasting during daylight hours, so the cafe's hours or offerings could be limited.  Just me speculating but it might save you a fruitless trip!  Give them a call on the number below perhaps to check.)  Do get in quick as there's no telling when the space will rotate to another community group.

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In the end, the wind got so fierce we had to leave, so worried we were that our marquee was about to take off Wizard of Oz-style and whisk us away to Penang.

Actually, now that I think about it - and the problem with that was...?

Mihub Cafe on Urbanspoon

PS:  You can also check out Bryan's wrap of the night right here!

MiHUB Cafe
12 Synnot Street, Werribee
Phone: 9731 7877

Friday, June 27, 2014

Sunshine Devonshire House Tea Rooms

Now, I love a good burger.  But back when I first started eating burgers, "brioche" was a mythical food that only existed in French class - like Orangina.  Jal-a-peenos?  What the bloody hell is that?  Pass me the tinned beetroot and pineapple.  Pickles?  Those things only existed at Macca's, and for the sole purpose of throwing them against the wall.

And don't get me started on the prices.  We found one in Carlton the other day that had hit fifteen bucks, made all the more insulting to this dinky-diehard by being on a damper roll.  (I haven't had this burger.  I'm sure it's lovely.  But $15?!)

What if I told you I could time-travel you back to 1989?  What's the first thing you would do?

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Meet Sunshine's Devonshire House tea rooms, your friendly local teleportal back in time.  It's a charitable venture of the Uniting Church in which it is housed.  According to the pseudo-gothic wording on the wall:  "Devonshire House is a venture of social concern instituted by the Sunshine Methodist Church.  It is in the main staffed and maintained by volunteers.  If any profit is gained it will be directed to youth and welfare services in the area".

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All good, although how ANY profit could be gained from these prices beggars belief.  CHECK.  THEM.  OUT.  Sausages, egg n' chips for $5.50?  Soup, five bucks?  A "tomato and bacon special", which is certainly worth taking a punt on for a mere seven dineros?

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Here's your lovely hamburger & salad ($7!) with a small side of chips ($1.20!)  The salad!  The cheese triangles, tinned beetroot, hardboiled egg and iceberg!  The tinned pineapple chunks!  Bless their cotton socks.

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And here's mine - a "baconburger" and chips ($8.50!  Yes, every price hereafter mentioned includes an exclamation mark).  Behold its wobbly-yolked glory!  It was bloody delicious.  I had to have a little sniffle halfway through, it brought back so many childhood memories.

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There's a big outdoor area that you can sit in on a nice day.  Another friend had told me about this place ages ago, having reported that she brought a group of mates and their kids here for her birthday.  She shouted them all lunch, player that she is, which ended up coming to about $35 - FOR EVERYONE.  (!)

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I am dying to try the "Devon Latte".  I may be a born-and-bred Aussie, but even I don't know what that is.  I bet it involves whipped cream, a saucer with a doily and a glass with a handle.  (Google doesn't help - top result is a Mr Devon Latte from Quebec.)

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Or maybe next time the "Spin Q" will be on offer.  It took me a good while to work out what the heck this is.  I think I've got it - spinach quiche!  For $2.20!!!  (Yes, that deserves three excy marks.)

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I would like to quickly say that if I catch anyone bashing this joint on Urbanspoon for things like using caterer's margarine, Home Brand teabags or not having posh salt, I will give you a Chinese burn.  It is obviously not that sort of place.  Ditto any service quibbles.  The Queen doesn't like mean people, OK?

Devonshire House Tea Rooms on Urbanspoon

Sunshine Devonshire Tea Rooms
34 Devonshire Road, Sunshine (between the kindy and the church)
Open 10.30am-2pm Monday-Friday (last orders at 1.30pm)


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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Singapore...with kids

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Last January I had a most delightful week by myself in Singapore.  It's a hot and steamy place where eating is the national sport, and hence it suited me to a T.  I spent a glorious week stuffing myself with roti prata, fried noodles and kueh, with occasional interludes wandering around atmospheric neighbourhoods and guzzling lots of Tiger beer.

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As things would have it, my husband had been working there this year for a few months, so my three kids and I decided to meet him on the tail end of the job and spend a couple of weeks there.  They say if you have no expectations, you'll never be disappointed, but I couldn't help but fantasise about my children's sparkly-eyed delight at the moustachioed roti man twirling each tissue-thin pastry sheet.  I imagined them exploring the wet markets and temples with wide-eyed wonder.  I daydreamed about them gobbling down bowls of spicy laksa and clamouring for extra blood cockles in their char kway teow.

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Things did not work out that way.

The first few days, I dragged my sluggish troupe of tiny travellers from temple to teahouse.  Instead of "wow", I got "wah".  It was too hot.  Their feet hurt.  They wanted to go back to the hotel and watch Cartoon Network.  Glorious golden-domed mosques got barely a glance, but when they found the knock-off Pokemon cards for sale?  Call in the riot squad!

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And they would not eat ANYTHING.  Confronted with a nice plate of beef hor fun, either they made like cranky clams and clamped their mouths shut, or they went into defensive centipede mode, curling up and promptly going to sleep.

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And again.

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And again.

Yes, I know.  I remember my husband gently trying to explain to a crying me years ago that it was unreasonable to expect a 2-year-old to eat home-made pad Thai, even if I had made the tamarind paste myself.  But when food, travel, culture and language are your biggest passions, and it turns out that your children's pinnacle of enjoyment in a foreign country is pressing the lift buttons - seriously depressing stuff.

Some major recalibration was required.  My kids are voracious consumers of Vietnamese food in Footscray and I assumed their love for pho and com tam dac biet would translate nicely into wonton mee and chicken rice.  For whatever reason, it didn't.

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Golden Mile Food Centre was right near where we were staying.  There we found a Japanese stall, and the kids really enjoyed their teriyaki salmon, tangy coleslaw, white rice and miso...

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...while I got a much-needed serve of greens with very good kway teow mee.

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It was also here that I failed to purchase this deep-fried cheese sandwich, which I shall regret for the rest of my days.

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Smoky satays from East Coast Lagoon Food Village got a tick...

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...while the adults swooned over gooey, wobbly oyster omelette from Song Kee Fried Oyster.

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Loved this white carrot cake from a stall a few doors down from Song Kee Fried Oyster.  Child #1 was inconsolable when she heard she had missed out on carrot cake due to protest sleeping.  I did not choose to enlighten her Singaporean carrot cake is neither cake as she would know it nor made of carrots, but rather a steamed cake of rice flour and radish that is then bound and fried with eggs.

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Perhaps enticed by thoughts of mythical Singaporean carrot cakes, the spawn deigned to try ice kacang, and promptly fell in love.

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Instead of historical walks, we went on waterslides, the cable car, and saw 4D movies...

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...had our feet exfoliated by "doctor fish" in Chinatown...

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...went to the Night Safari, and to the supertrees at Gardens by the Bay.  And you know what?  It may have been all been cheesy family fun, but it was genuinely really awesome.

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And much as I wanted the kids to fall in love with Nyonya pineapple tarts, I just let them like what they liked (namely, giant boxes of donuts).  "It is what it is," say the Irish.  Why not just enjoy it?

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And you know what?  Once I let go, magical things started to happen.  My eldest decided she wanted to try crab, so we ventured into Geylang, Singapore's red-light district, where JB Ah Meng's Crab House lies.  I'd been taken to this rough-and-ready, back-alley eatery by Bryan's gorgeous, generous parents when I'd first visited Singapore.  Eating in the grungy, "locals-only" laneway, gorging myself on incredible seafood and huge mugs of Tiger beer over ice - it was one of the best food experiences of my life.

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I ventured back with trepidation.  Why return to an experience that was so perfect the first time around and risk ruining the memory?  But it was crazy, amazingly good.  Yes, two of the kids refused to eat anything, but the eldest devoured so much white-pepper crab.  What an amazing first crab experience.

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Here's a crab shot...

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...incredible, garlicky "la la" or clams...

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...and scrambled eggs with tomato and black fungus.  I could eat this kind of food every day.

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On the way home, we stopped at a durian stall...

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...and while only one out of three kids tried the "king of fruit", we ended up three for three when it came to mangosteens!  I predict lots of these in lunchboxes for the rest of the year.

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(The durian verdict?  It's bizarre.  If you don't know, this giant spiky fruit has a distinct aroma that is somewhere between cooking gas and overripe fruit.  Other people report it smelling like rotten cheese or smelly feet.  It's so intense that in many Asian countries, it's banned from subways or planes.  Some of the eating around it seems almost mythical - one fellow durian-eater that night mused misty-eyed that "no two durians taste alike" - almost like they have souls!

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The taste is very floral, like overripe papaya or mango, but it's the texture that's the oddest thing - like pate or cream cheese.  We got a tip which was to keep a segment of the spiky shell, fill that with water and then use that to rinse your mouth out so you don't have durian breath.  Such a fantastic experience, although we did stink out the whole hotel room with our leftovers and had to leave the do-not-disturb sign on all day while we blasted the AC to try to clear the scene of the crime!)

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Part of letting go was also hiring a babysitter for quite a few evenings so we could go do what we wanted (namely, eat copious amounts of things, with optional ending up at the Thai disco).  A highlight was the White Rabbit, inside an old church in the lush Dempsey Hill area, and which has got to be one of the most romantic eateries anywhere on the planet.  I conveniently submerged my ethics under a few raspberry martinis and we had a pre-firing squad-style dinner of oysters, Maine lobster, foie gras, and a how is this thing not a cornflake yet-amount of days-grain fed steak.  Such an incredible evening - we even got to see a marriage proposal!

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But perhaps in the same style of subverted expectations, one of the most delicious things we ate wasn't even Singaporean.  Right near where we were staying was the Golden Mile Complex, also known as "Thai Town".  This is a somewhat down-at-heel shopping centre crammed with Thai discos, karaoke joints, restaurants and travel agents, complete with cockfighting on the teev.

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It was here that we found a mookata spot, which is a Thai hybrid between steamboat and Korean-style BBQ.

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You're given a heaping platter of vegies and meats - marinated pork, liver, chicken, calamari, fish balls, crab sticks and mini hot dogs - and the surrounding "moat" is topped up first of all with a very weak chicken stock.  A burner is turned on underneath and as you sizzle marinated pork, chicken and more, all the juices run down off the domed, ridged cooktop into the stock.

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In the bubbling brew you might poach an egg, cook some of the noodles, or swizzle some mushrooms and greens.  It condenses down more and more until finally, stuffed fit to bursting, you scoop out the now viscous, rich brown liquid, which tastes like distilled daydreams.

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And how did this meal go down?  The kids ate all the mini hot dogs.  I ate all the prawns, and my husband ate all the liver.

Everyone was happy.
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