Sunday, 17 March 2013

Makansutra March 2013 Makan Session at Tonny's Restaurant, Geylang

I was foolishly tempted to once again attend a Makansutra dinner.  After the unmitigated disaster that was my visit to Dragon Phoenix, I was dragged along to Tonny’s Restaurant (that’s TonNy, not Tony) in Geylang Lorong 3.  But this time, with the benefit of experience, I knew it was going to be a piss-up and I came prepared...

My name's Tonny, and don't forget the second "N"
From conversations with Makansutra veterans, I discovered that the quality of food at these “Makan Gatherings” (makan being the Malay word for "eat") had been on the decline because the group, essentially a bunch of local foodies who interact over the Makansutra forums, was getting too big.  There is a limit to the number of restaurants in Singapore able AND willing to host well over a hundred people for a mid-week BYO grog dinner.  Café de Hong Kong on Balestier Road, for example, was a favourite venue until it was outgrown.  Well, Tonny’s is heaving at the seams tonight, but I take some assurance that it was clearly not chosen for its floor space or seating capacity.

Mixed Entrées –HK Wontons in Spicy Sauce, Panfried Dace Fishcakes, Crispy Yam with Truffle Oil


The dace fishcakes are excellent, with a very Chinese New Year-esque stuffing of cured duck liver sausage.  The yam is crisp as advertised, but the truffle oil reeks of what it is, an artificial flavour additive.  That said, by this stage, we have already consumed a crémant de Bourgogne, a Beaune Prémier Cru blanc and a St-Aubin from a vineyard outlandishly named “Sur La Sentier du Clou”, so the grease is very welcome.   The wontons are decent but not really spicy by Singaporean standards.

Deep-Fried Prawns


Well-cooked, with a light batter and what tastes like garlic and chilli batter bits.  Pleasant enough.

I realise that at this very early stage, we have passed the total number of “decent” dishes that we had during our entire evening at Dragon Phoenix.  The night is definitely looking up.

Fried Green Wrasse Fillet with Crab Roe


Sadly, we failed to add to the tally with this one.  It wasn’t offensive, but the fish was just bland and the crab roe didn’t add much apart from colour and a much needed sauce (crab roe never has the strongest flavour in any event so why use it to complement barely seasoned fish fillets)?  The semi-translucent flat noodles (tapioca or sweet potato, perhaps?) are chewy and addictive, provided a much needed carb hit to soak up the alcohol.  I think the tally by this time was around six bottles, and we were working through Fixin, Givry and Marsannay Prémier Crus at this stage.

Eggplant Stuffed with Kurobuta Meat


The draw here was obviously supposed to be the kurobuta pork, but the ratio of pork to eggplant is minimal so the quality or otherwise of the pork has little bearing on the quality of the dish.  Thankfully, the eggplant itself is fried perfectly to melting without being too oily, and flavours are fresh and pure.  A 2004 Markowitsch Pinot Noir Reserve was pulled out at this stage, to general applause as guesses of Nuits-St-Georges and Aloxe-Corton flew wide of the mark.  Interestingly, no one guessed that it was a grand cru, let alone Romanée-Conti, which it supposedly vanquished in a blind tasting in Singapore a few years ago, but I should keep my bitchy comments to myself.

French Beans with Homemade Waxed Meat


Good, but a little too greasy for my taste.  The homemade waxed meat, thin slices of various cuts of pork was very interesting, being less sweet and having more genuine meaty texture than the store-bought versions.  I’d stopped remembering what wines we were working through now, but I was glad to have some alcohol to cut the grease, which was starting to make me feel a little queasy.

Claypot Roast Chicken with Chinese Wine


Wow, simply wow.  The chicken itself is nice and juicy, but the stock itself is absurdly good.  A quick trawl through the light brown jus dredges up a load of aromatics: garlic, bay leaves, star anise, all tinted with the gentle sweetness of grain alcohol.  I can’t help helping myself to spoonful after spoonful of this nectar.  My Dish of the Month for March 2013, without a doubt.

Braised Duck with Winter Bamboo Shoots


I hope you will forgive me if I do not comment on this dish.  I don’t even recall eating this, and there’s  a very good chance that I didn’t actually try it.  But doesn’t it look pretty, blushing like a demure maiden hiding her virtue behind the canopy of a lotus leaf?

Braised Fish Noodles with Mushrooms and Goose Liver Paste


These aren’t noodles with fish slices, as you would expect from the name, but rather noodles extruded from a batter made with fish paste.  elBulli parmesan noodles eat your heart out!  The noodles have a great texture and that comforting sweetness one only gets from store-bought fish paste (OK, maybe it was just MSG), but the paste is so subtle and again, so lacking in quantity that I can’t even tell whether the foie was gras.

Deep-Fried Sesame Balls


Pleasant enough, with a sweet and savoury black sesame paste filling.  It was a little bit cold by the time it arrived at the table, but again, that’s a function of the floor staff being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of food that needed to be carried out to the crowd.

Conclusion

All in all, I was very impressed by the quality of the cooking.  Looking at how crushed in we were in the dining room, I can only guess that the kitchen was very stretched trying to cater to us all, but they did a sterling job considering.  The claypot roast chicken was an absolute highlight worth returning for, and it is a wonderful example of what a talented chef can do with timeless flavour combinations.

But of course, a chef with Tonny’s talent likes to stretch himself, and this includes using pricey “name” ingredients such as kurobuta pork and “goose liver paste”.  However, Tonny’s is not a fine diner and the kitchen is working to a budget trying to keep its prices low, so it can’t use a decent quantity of these ingredients.  The impact of these ingredients on the dish is therefore necessarily limited.  But in the uber-competitive Singapore restaurant scene, it is never enough to make classic food with skill and restraint, and the temptation to grab the attention of affluent potential diners with big-name ingredients must be almost overwhelming.

There is a lot to like about Tonny’s – fresh, honest food that is rich in flavour and originality, generous portions, even a roguishly handsome chef who looks like a supporting cast member in a Hong Kong drama serial. 

So the lesson is, if you are lucky (?) enough to be invited to a Makansutra dinner, don't assume it's going to be good.  It's all about venue selection: thus far, Tonny's good, Dragon Phoenix bad.

I’m still not sure about the spelling, though.

TONNY’S RESTAURANT
No. 8-10, Geylang Lorong 3
Singapore 388862
Tel: +65 6748 6618

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