Singapore: Where to Stay and Eat

Singapore is the perfect Asia layover.  It’s what I would call “Asia for the non-ambitious traveler.” What I mean by that is Singapore is incredibly comfortable, making it also incredibly standard.  It’s a very, very easy city to negotiate; it’s super clean, modern, and everyone speaks English.  The tap water is potable, and you really don’t need to worry about the food at all.  The money is in Singapore dollars (SGD) and the exchange is an easy 1 SGD for every 75 U.S. cents (essentially making everything there a tad cheaper).  Also, the subway is the most user friendly public system I’ve ever been on; it puts the subways in the U.S. to shame.

So would I go to Asia to visit Singapore specifically?  No.  But I would definitely use it as a jumping off point for the rest of the continent as it’ll help ease you into the area while you recover from jet lag.  Which is what we did for a weekend before heading off to Vietnam for 2 weeks.

Where to stay

The Quincy Hotel
22 Mount Elizabeth, Singapore 228517

I would highly recommend the Quincy Hotel, but only if you don’t mind walking about 20-30 minutes to get to the historical sights.  Keep in mind, it can get really hot in Singapore, so that 30 minutes walk gets pretty long. If you’re okay with that walk every day, then stay here.  Also, it’s located just off of Orchard Road, the main boulevard with dozens of shopping malls (literally dozens of 9 level shopping malls), so if shopping is your thing you’re right where you need to be.

This surprisingly chic hotel has super modern rooms with some perks I’ve never really seen at any other hotel I’ve stayed at. The first big perk is this: free minibar access in your room.  Yes, free. Every day they restock it with a few sodas, juices, and a couple beers that you can dive into without costing you extra.

Free minibar, restocked daily.
(If you don’t watch “Fresh Off the Boat”, you should. It’s funny as hell.)

The second perk is they’ll wash 2 pieces of laundry a day for you. Again, because you’re in a country that’s right on the equator, you’ll want to take advantage of cleaning up some of your sweaty garb. The breakfast buffet is excellent and the gym and pool are extremely nice.  The pool in particular is outdoor, but covered, and the water runs to the edge giving it an infinity pool feel right into the Singapore skyline. And the hotel is relatively affordable; it only cost us a reasonable $150 U.S. a night (through Expedia).

Where to eat

Singapore is world-renowned for having amazing food.  I don’t see why.  I don’t mean to sound snobby, but the reality, in my opinion, doesn’t live up to the hype. I’m not saying the food was horrible; quite the opposite, the food was actually very good. It all tasted very fresh, and was super cheap (most entrées are under $5 SGD).  And the Kopi coffee is delicious. But is it deserving of this whole, “Oh my god, Singapore has the best food in the world” reputation?  Nope, not in this travelers opinion.  But I’m fully willing to admit that maybe I didn’t go to the right places or maybe I am just a snobby dick. Who knows? But anywhoo…

Hawker Centers & Food Courts

These bad boys are where the local folks, tourists, pretty much everyone goes to get their grub. Many locals told me they rarely cook because it’s just cheaper to eat out. The Food Courts are usually located in the giant malls that I mentioned before on Orchard Road and other areas.  They are a step above Hawker Centers which are their own standalone collection of food stalls.  Both offer the same types of food, it’s just that the Food Courts are a little cleaner and a bit more expensive.  We went to both, and both had very good fare at a very cheap price. But again, a lot of the food that you find in the Hawker Centers and Food Courts you can easily find in an American Super 88 Asian market. People would rather travel 10,000 miles to get the “real thing” than go probably 30 minutes down the highway for the same thing in the U.S.…

Keep in mind, not all Hawker Centers are 24 hours (a mistake we realized after going to one and finding it closed for lunch), so check the times. Also, for some reason Singaporean food centers seem to hate napkins.  I don’t know why, but there were no napkins anywhere.  So either bring your own or I hope you like having food grease on your pants (thank god for the free laundry service at the Quincy…).

The Hawker Center we ended up going to is the popular Lau Pa Sat, which is open 24 hours, and got a slew of entrees including Char Sew Noodles, Hainanese Chicken Rice, Basil Chicken (from a Thai stall), and Fried Kway Theo (essentially chow fun noodles).

We also stopped into a Food Court chain called Food Republic and had their version of Hainanese Chicken Rice, and a roasted duck dish.

Din Tai Fung

Din Tai Fungs are located throughout Singapore, and I later realized when we got there that it’s actually an international chain that we’ve been to! We went to the location in Sydney in 2015 (I clearly need to read my own blog more often…). So it’s not exactly a local spot, but the locals themselves seem to love it as the location we were at inside the Wisma Atria on Orchard Road was packed. As with most of the locations, the Din Tai Fung kitchen is open for all the customers to see the dumpling chefs hard at work.

Just like in Sydney, I wasn’t blown away by the good, yet unspectacular food. However, their claim to fame in Singapore is the Truffle & Pork Xiao Long Bao, a steamed truffle/pork soup dumpling (I legitimately don’t remember this offering being in the Sydney location, and looking through the Aussie menu now I don’t see it). It ain’t cheap, even in American dollars. One dumpling is $5 SGD (to give you a reference, 6 of the regular pork dumplings is $8 SGD).  But that one dumpling…ooh boy…it was damn good.  It’s a delicious mix of truffle mushroomy, earthy, salty pork meaty, brothy, explosive flavor–all packed into one little bite.  I chewed very, very slowly and let the flavors just marinate on my tongue.

Truffle & Pork Xiao Long Bao

Quick Hits: Do NOT take Air China

My love of travel didn’t come out of no where.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have parents who have taken me around the world and see the benefit of exposing their children to the vast diversity of cultures on our planet.  So with that, our guest post today comes from none other than Mom!  It’s a little lengthy, she’s big on narrative, but worth a read to avoid having to go through the horrible experience she just went through.  Here she is:

“I have always enjoyed travel.  The last few decades had seen me in many countries around the world and since my retirement, the frequency of my travel has increased.  I just recently returned from a trip to Bangkok, flying from JFK, with a lengthy layover in Beijing on Air China.  The flights to and from Thailand were so terrible that I need to share the experience with you.”

“As any seasoned traveler would know, one usually chooses an airline based on price and service.  The Thailand trip was actually a vacation package deal including all airfares, international as well as domestic.  The price was very reasonable because they booked us on Air China, which offered the lowest airfares.”  

“Both the outbound trip and return trip each took approximately 15 hours in the air.  Two meals were served between JFK and Beijing.  The flight attendants could not speak English well (I think they probably understood English much better than they spoke it) so with the first meal served, I could only grasp the concept of either duck or beef for choice of entrée–I chose duck.  The duck tasted like the back end of the fowl; it was absolutely offensive.  The accompanying rice was cold and dry.  I ended up eating just a dinner roll with a pad of butter.  The second meal came maybe 8 hours later.  Again, I could barely understand the choice of beef or chicken.  Still reeling by the duck experience, I chose the beef and onion stir-fry.  I had one bite and stopped.  The beef and onion had a slimy texture, the type of slimy food would get just before turning rancid, usually after a day or so without refrigeration.  I was nauseous for the rest of the flight.”

surely 

“Also, for the entire 15-hour flight, beverages were served only twice when the two meals were served.  There were no beverage carts going up and down the aisles for the passengers at any other times during the other 14 hours.  Fortunately, I had an aisle seat, so I was able to make frequent trips to the galley to beg for water.  And when I did ask, the cabin crew had the audacity to give me attitude for asking!  For water!  Food and service on the return flight was no better; I chose not to eat and I was so hungry and dehydrated when I got off the plane.”

“Now, let’s get to the bathrooms on the plane.  With over 200 passengers sharing 6 bathrooms in the economy section for 15 hours, it goes without saying that maintenance of these bathrooms is pretty critical.  I’m not sure of the airline’s policy, but I was not impressed by the condition of the bathrooms on either flight.  There was a clogged toilet in one bathroom and I stepped into a giant puddle of some liquid which I’m assuming was urine in another.  Needless to say those shoes didn’t come home with me.” 

“And that’s not all.  At the Beijing Airport, I chatted with a family waiting for the same flight back to JFK (Two parents, an elderly grandmother, and a 10-year old son). Air China had scattered them all over the plane, not keeping this party of four together.  The father asked the ticket agent at counter for, perhaps, just two seats together so that one parent could be with the young son.  The counter agent couldn’t accommodate such a humble request of finding any two seats together on a Boeing 777.  She told them to ask the agent at the gate for the seat changes.  When they spoke to the agent at the gate, they were told that they should have had the counter agent to change seats, not at the gate. Ultimately, the family was able to switch seats with other passengers so that the child would not have to travel alone without parental supervision.  It was the passengers who resolved the problem.  The airline was no help at all.”

smh

“This brings up the most important issue to anyone traveling and my final note–the airline’s willingness and ability to help during an emergency situation.  Air China could not deal with a simple problem like seat changes for a family booked as one party.  I doubt the company will assume responsibility for major issues like damaged luggage, lost children, or injury.  On an international flight between Beijing and New York with passengers from different countries, the inability to speak fluent English by the flight attendants worries me greatly.  If an emergency arises at 35,000 feet, I doubt the ability of the Air China crew to help me.  I would not be able to understand their emergency instructions.  Knowing the words duck or beef will not help at all.  Personally, I will avoid flying Air China in the future.”

cabin

Places to eat in Florence

First of all, I’m going to put this out there and say there probably isn’t a bad place to eat in Florence.  My best guess is even the worst place to dine in Florence is probably still better than going to Olive Garden, Macaroni Grill or Carrabba’s.  So that being said, here’s a quick list of some good spots to check out:

All’Antico Vinaio da Tommaso/Osteria all’ Antico Vinaio
Via De’Neri 65/74 Firenze 50122

This suggestion came from several different friends, and it’s hard to argue with them that this place has the best cheap eats in the city (or actually in the world in general).   Split into two locations, there’s a sit down restaurant and a take-out storefront across the street from one another.  My buddy and I opted for the take-out, which around lunch time had a line that was about a 10-15 minute wait.  It was worth it despite having to avoid all the pigeons hanging out above shitting on everyone.  For 5 euros, you can get an incredibly good sandwich.  The great ciabatta bread, delicious meats, and really fresh tasting vegetables and cheese practically had my eyes popping out of my head on the first bite.  You can order the sandwich however you want, but for the sake of not being that annoying customer, I opted for one of the Top 5 sandwiches they have on the chalkboard.  Stop in here for lunch.

Gusta Pizza
Via Maggio, 46R, 50125 Firenze

Obviously you have to stop into a place for pizza when in Italy, and again, you probably can’t go wrong with most places.  We came here at the suggestion of a friend (this will be a common theme), and it was perfectly good.  Would I say walk out of your way to find it?  I wouldn’t go across the city to do it, but if you’re in the vicinity you should stop in.  The pizza was as solid a pie as I’ve gotten anywhere, but didn’t go beyond.  The menu is simple, there’s not a whole lot of fancy pizzas to order, but the price is nice and it will definitely hit that pizza craving spot.

Ristorante Mastro Ciliegia
Piazza di San Pier Maggiore, 4R, 50122 Firenze

Another good pizza stop, one that was not suggested by anyone but rather we just stumbled upon because we were hungry (and hungover).  Its rather pleasant setting in Piazza di San Pier Maggiore actually made it one of the more relaxing parts of the trip; we got to people watch in a piazza that wasn’t huge so the low noise level was enjoyably peaceful.  Try the truffle and prosciutto pizza — it’s excellent there.

Osteria Vini e Vecchi
Via dei Magazzini, 3, Firenze

From the outside you might mistake this place for a tourist trap, especially since it’s super close to the Uffizi.  Don’t be fooled.  This great mom and pop restaurant had one of THE best Osso Buco’s I’ve ever had.  Add a Pappardelle with duck and you’ve got yourself one helluva meal.  It’s a perfect spot for a low-key meal after the museums.  And if you’re so inclined, we got a tip from a friend to ask the waiter for some of their homemade limoncello that wasn’t on the menu.  When we did that, the waiter gave us a little grin, a wink, and brought out a bottle with two shot glasses and a pat on the back that felt like he was saying, “If you know this exists, then you’re in the club”.

Ristorante Osteria Zio Gigi
Via Folco Portinari, 7-r, 50122 Firenze

Here’s another place we just stumbled into, and again it was a big score on our parts.  This restaurant had a great local vibe, and boisterous atmosphere.  The staff really makes you feel like you’re part of an Italian family, like you’re their kids.  The chef, who by my best guess was maybe the father, came out of the kitchen frequently to loudly serenade us with Italian opera, much to the embarrassment of his female wait staff who had the faces of “Dad, stop it!” written all over them.  As for the food, it was excellent (like everything on this list), but we did a number on ourselves in this place.  Since this was our last dinner of the trip, we decided to go all out, and all out we did.  We each ordered a 500 gram florentine steak, which was already more than enough.  But on top of that we each had a plate of tortellini.  The food was amazing, but you know what they say, “Too much of a good thing…”  Even our waitress acknowledged the fat shits we were and gave us complimentary digestifs at the end of the meal with a hearty laugh telling us “This will help with your” while rubbing her belly.

Gelato

Just eat it.  Everywhere.  It doesn’t matter what place you go to.  We went to everyone’s suggestions and they were all amazing.  But if you HAVE to be directed somewhere, Gelateria Dei Neri is as famous and popular as gelato places get.

All the gelati
All the gelati

Blue Ginger

583 Washington Street
Wellesley, MA 02482
781.283.5790

Monday-Thursday
Lunch 11:30am – 2:00pm
Dinner 5:30pm-9:30pm

Friday
Lunch 11:30am – 2:00pm
Dinner 5:30pm-10:00pm

Saturday
Blue Ginger Lounge: 12:00pm-10:00pm
Dinner 5:00pm-10:00pm

Sunday

Dinner 5:00pm-9:00pm

For those of you foodies out there who are familiar with the Asian-European fusion chef Ming Tsai, you probably know of his first restaurant called Blue Ginger.  Located in the quiet suburb of Boston called Wellesley, when the restaurant first opened in 1998, it drew rave reviews for its exceptional and (at the time) new fusion type of food.  People would come in from all around the country to try this place and its blend of French and Asian flavored cuisine.

In 2013, Blue Ginger doesn’t have as much of the fanfare as it used to have, but the food is still held at its highest standard.   It’s very pricey, so for those of you who make a decent living, Blue Ginger is a special occasion type spot.  For those of you that make more than a decent living, you probably aren’t reading this review because you’ve been there a dozen times already.  I’d say that if you’re visiting Boston, Blue Ginger is only worth coming out to try if you’re in Boston for more than a week, otherwise there’s far more that you should see first in the city.  If you’re local however, give it a go for an anniversary celebration, graduation or milestone birthday.  Here’s a rundown of what we tried:

Hawaiian Bigeye Tuna Poke with Crispy Sushi Rice Cake and Microgreen-Tosaka Salad – This was probably the favorite dish of the night (including the entrees).  It was a strange, but very tasty combination of a huge hunk of sushi style tuna on top of what could be best described as a hot, sticky-rice tater tot.  The crunchiness of the rice cake with the soft, light tuna made for a really delightful appetizer – one which I would have been happy having a couple of as the main course.

Blue Ginger Charcuterie Plate – Duck Prosciutto, Foie Gras Torchon and Country Pâté – This is where the French influence comes out.  The arrangement of the platter was well done and I thought the extremely rich foie gras was the best of the group.  The platter also came with a really good spicy mustard that went well with the prosciutto and pate.  I wouldn’t bother too much with the random Texas toast that came with the plate; instead I’d opt for spreading the pâté and foie gras on the sesame seed crackers that are on the table when you first sit.  The Texas toast was just too buttery and took away from the flavors of the expensive stuff.

Sake-Miso Marinated Sablefish (a.k.a. Butterfish) with Wasabi Oil, Soy-Lime Syrup and Vegetarian Soba Noodle Sushi – This butterfish is considered Ming Tsai’s signature dish, and I could see why.  Of the three entrees we had, it was easily the best.  There wasn’t anything too fancy done with the fish and you’d probably be able to find a similar dish at a number of restaurants, but they do get points for perfect execution.  It was cooked exactly the way it should have been – a nice, light char on the outside and light buttery meat on the inside.  They did try and get cute with the Soba Noodle Sushi side, but I didn’t actually care for that all that much.

Garlic-Black Pepper Lobster with Lemongrass Fried Rice and Pea Tendril Salad with Tamari-Ginger Vinaigrette – The waitress said this is also a favorite of customers coming to Blue Ginger.  Lobster is never bad, so I’ll say that while it wasn’t disappointing, there was just a little too much garlic for my taste getting in the way of the lobster.  I’m sort of a lobster traditionalist where I want just the meat and a little butter, or a plain ol’ lobster roll.  Again, that being said, just because it wasn’t my cup of tea doesn’t mean it wasn’t very delicious.

Seared Duck Breast with Sweet Wasabi Sauce and Applewood Smoked Duck Leg Wild Fried Rice with Shiso-Bartlett Pear Purée – This third entree was probably the most “eh” of the three.  The flavor of the duck was very pronounced which saved the dish, but the meat was a little too tough/chewy and the skin wasn’t crispy enough for our taste.  If they had slow cooked the duck a little more like Peking duck style, it could have easily been the best of the three.

Overall though the food was excellent.  That being said, these days there are so many new restaurants, television shows, and food celebrities that Blue Ginger almost feels like an aging veteran.  This is both a good and bad thing.  It’s bad because despite its success, the menu and atmosphere feel “standard” with nothing nuanced and that nothing has really evolved since it first broke down the barrier between French and Asian cuisine.  The good thing though is that it’s still a sure thing.  What they do well, they’ve done well for years, and it’s the kind of place that I’m sure very rarely disappoints.  Grade: B+

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