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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Merit Vegetarian - Jurong West

Being a vegetarian in the West of Singapore is often at times like walking through an endless desert gagging for water - It is safe to say the vegetarian options are limited.  There are a handful of outstanding vegetarian eateries, such as Tanaka, Little Prince and Vegetarian Villas.  But apart from a few gems, it is pretty barren.  Merit Vegetarian could well be another bright spark in the West, having recently only opened on the 3rd January 2015.  Interestingly, the owners of Merit Vegetarian are the former shareholders of the recently demised Greenzilla.

Merit Vegetarian 
Location: #01-149, Blk 491 Jurong West Avenue 1
Contact: 90233672
Opening Hours: Daily 7.00am-8.45pm

Update 19th October 2016 - Merit have now moved to a coffee shop stall at Block 491 Jurong West Avenue 1 (same block as before, but downsized to a stall).  Their menu is subsequently much smaller now, and some of their famous dishes, such as prata are no longer available.

One certainly cannot accuse Merit Vegetarian of not having many dishes - Their tze char dishes are plentiful, but are only available after 12pm.  In a country where most vegetarian hawkers are turning off the lights and mopping the floor at 1pm, it is great to see an eatery opening in the evening.  The owners also previous had a coffee shop stall nearby at block 494.
In addition to Chinese food, Merit also has quite nice Indian menu (although Malay-Indian fusion is a more apt term).  A number of the Merit vegetarian workers are Indian, so you can be assured this is not going to be done by a novice to the cuisine.
Desserts are also available.
Coming across Roti Prata in a Chinese vegetarian eatery is not unheard of, in fact places like Zi Zai and Tian Yi have built quite a reputation from their roti prata.  But I would have to say that Merit have produced one of the best roti prata I have eaten in a long time.  The prata itself is not too oily and has several light fluffy beautiful layers - It really is a thing of beauty.  Moreover, the curry sauce has a very close resemblance to the traditional Malay style prata sauce - With one key exception - Much less oil.  Malay food is notoriously oil (and pretty much everything else that is bad for you) heavy - So I am glad there is now a healthier alternative.  When I visited, their roti prata was selling like hotcakes, so I guess I am not the only one who was impressed.  For strict vegans, I did manage to confirm there is an amount of planta used, hence you may want to avoid this.

Price: $1.00/pc.     9/10

 Another dish that is quite tough to find in vegetarian form is Murtabak, but if you want to try a pretty amazing vegetarian rendition, then you must visit Gokul (Little India outlet, not Fortune Centre).  Merit's version of murtabak was excellent in terms of the texture of the dough - It was soft and light.  But it was a failure in terms of the filling - Leafy vegetables and cabbage were just weird inside a murtabak.  But the curry sauce was great.

Price: $5.00.     6/10

I have eaten some of the very best Masala Dosai in Singapore, from places like Komala's, MTR and Sri Lukshmi-bala-bumpi-rahja-ding-dong-ping-pong-blah-blah.  So somewhat inevitably this dosai was not going to match those standards.  The dosai batter was actually done quite well (although a little lumpy and thick in areas) and the chutneys too were passable.  But the masala inside needs insurmountable improvement - It has too much cabbage and too little potato and is void of all the cruicial Indian spices (no turmeric - Chef, are you mad?).  I am no skilled chef, but even I could make a better potato masala blindfolded, handcuffed and with banana peels on my feet.

Price: $2.80.     5/10

Next was Roti John.  To find this dish in vegetarian form is not an easy task.  I only know of Divine Realm in Hougang who produce (and having been producing for many years) an excellent (although hardly authentic) roti john.  For this version, it is more authentic in appearance, compared with Divine Realm.  But taste wise it comes up a clear second best.  Once again, there is this confused Chinese-Indian cabbage-obsessed concoction inside, which feels highly out of place.  Less said about this dish the better.

Price: $4.00.     4/10

Prior to lunch time, there are still many local specialty dishes available, the first one we sampled was the Char Siew Rice.  No serious complaints about this dish really.  The char siew was good quality, the soup was surprisingly flavourful (not the typical Chinese soup that just tastes like water) and the presentation was great.  I thought the chilli was a little too heavy on ginger, but other than that this is a decent dish.

Price: $3.00.     7/10
I have been quite a pampered little boy when it comes to Wanton Mee - I routinely find myself barely able to contains my giggles while slurping up Chef Wai's heavenly Ipoh influenced wanton mee, which I rank as (by far) the best wanton mee in Singapore.  Unfortunately, as a result of this, all other versions of this dish seem quite standard.  Having said that, I did like how two varieties of wanton were used in this dish, and the noodles were fresh and bouncy.  The major flaw was in the noodle sauce, which was too flat and needed a kick.

Price: $3.00.     6/10
I was sufficiently captivated with the Merit dishes to return again later that day to try their tze char dishes.  I started out with the Xiang Chun Tofu.  Xiang chun is one of my all time favourite Chinese ingredients, which can be used literally countless ways in many different dishes.  Unfortunately for this dish, the taste of the xiang chun was too mild, almost non-existent.  The tofu was fried well and I loved the garnishing on top - But bland tofu with a tasteless sauce ultimately left the dish feeling very flat.

Price: $6.00.     6/10
Next tze char dish to the table was the Sweet & Sour Fish, once again this dish was presented very well, I love how purple cabbage is used for garnishing.  The mock fish had good taste and texture, but I have certainly had better sweet & sour sauce.

Price: $6.00.     6/10
Let me preface my next thoughts by saying this - I hate Cereal Prawn.  Not as much as I hate congee, but the hatred is still substantial enough.  So, having said that, this cereal prawn rendition was actually really good.  The mock prawns were huge and not bad as far as mock seafood is concerned.  The cereal was cooked well and had just the right amount of sweetness.  This may well be the best vegetarian cereal prawn in Singapore...But still I wouldn't order it again!

Price: $6.00.     8/10

Conclusion - I spent the time sampling a lot of the dishes at Merit, and honestly they were a mix of hit and misses.  But I do see a good future for this shop house vegetarian stall.  They have a great mix of Chinese and Indian food and if they can make roti prata their signature and work a decent menu around it, then I see great things.  Considering Merit has only been operating for a few weeks, the food produced exceeded my expectations.

Overall Rating
Food - 6/10
Ambiance- 7/10
Service - 7/10
Value - 8/10

Monday, January 12, 2015

Sri Rajya Lakshmi Narasimhan Vegetarian - Farrer Park

Back in October 2010 I reviewed a South Indian eatery called Sri Lukshmi Naarasimhan.  Frankly, I was not impressed at all by this establishment, instead I usually prefer to visit Komala Vilas or MTR for my South Indian fix.  Well, a lot has changed since my original review of this eatery.  Firstly, the owners decided that the name Sri Lukshmi Naarasimhan was just too short, so now it goes by the name Sri Rajya Lakshmi Narasimhan House of Vegetarian Dining - Quite a mouthful.  Secondly, the entire eatery was renovated sometime back.  I have heard a lot of good things about this establishment since my original review, so I decided to visit again to see if they have improved.

Sri Rajya Lakshmi Narasimhan Vegetarian
Location: 436 Serangoon Road
Contact: 90516326
Opening Hours: Daily 8.00am-3.00pm & 6.00pm-10.00pm.  Closed Wednesday

There is no question that the place has changed a lot.  Now it looks very neat, and much cleaner.  Not only that, but the service level has improved.  Now it has a much more homely feel.  Lakshmi Narasimhan is actually a local brand, unlike most of the Indian eateries in Singapore.  At one point, they had four separate outlets in Singapore - But now just this one remains.
One thing that hasn't changed is the menu, which offers the typical South Indian specialities.  One unique aspect of their cooking is the use of Andhra Pradesh style of cooking, and particularly the Andhra 'gunpowder' (more commonly known as kandi podi or karve pakku podi), which is a spice mix (masala) used specifically in this region of India.  They are also famed for their filtered coffee, which acts as a brilliant crescendo to the meal.  Amazingly, most the food here has no onion and garlic.  Only the Andhra meal and dosai contain onion and garlic.
We kicked off the meal with Medhu Vadai, which is one of three different varieties of vadai on the menu.  Medhu vadai, which is also known in other regions as ulundu vadai is apparently (I am assuming) different to normal vadai in some way, but frankly I can't tell any difference.  I did fully enjoy these sinful crispy savoury doughnuts though.  I find that the Komala Vilas vadai is still slightly better (especially when freshly fried), but these come as a close second.

Price: $1.80 (1 piece).     7/10

The most filling meal on the menu is certainly the Andhra Meal.  This elaborate feast is a myriad of flavours on one plate.  For vegans like myself, you will have to alienate yourself from the curd (white coloured) and sweet dessert, everything else is vegan friendly.  I loved all the dishes served here, which highlight sour and spicy flavours predominantly.  An Indian thali (at its best) should be a fireworks display of flavours - Totally the opposite to cuisines like Chinese and Japanese - Which is why I love Indian food so dearly.  This thali certainly ticks all those boxes.  Price is a little steep, but consider the fact that, like with all thalis, you can top up everything (including the rice) until you are bursting full.

Price: $10.40.     8/10

As an accompaniment to the thali, red pickle and ghee is served on the side.  Needless to say, if you're vegan you will want to avoid the ghee.  The Indian pickle, however, is an essential component (in my opinion) to any thali.  It is ridiculously sour and brings to life all the other flavours.

Last and certainly not least is the Hot & Spicy Andhra Masala Dosai.  Objectively,  I would have to say this is one of (if not the) best dosai I have eaten in Singapore.  The texture of the dosai skin was absolutely perfect - Crispy, yet not too brittle.  One will notice that this dosai is actually slightly red in colour - This is because the dosai is smeared with Andhra chilli paste underneath when being cooked.  This chilli may be too spicy for some, but I loved it.  The chutney was ideal, the only thing stopping this dish from being a ten was the potato masala.  The masala was a little bland and forgettable.  No question that this is an astonishing dish though.  Price is high, but it is worth it.

Price: $6.80.     9/10

Conclusion - Being a food reviewer, I am always open to visiting places a second time, and for this restaurant I am glad that I did.  It has improved considerably since my first visit, and now I can see myself being a regular customer here.  The prices are on the high end, but still not to the level of criminal extortion of Ananda Bhavan on Syed Alwi Rd.  The hot and spicy dosai is the dish you should be ordering - I still can't stop thinking about it.

Overall Rating
Food - 8/10
Ambiance- 7/10
Service - 8/10
Value - 5/10

Friday, January 9, 2015

Happy Life Vegetarian - Aljunied

Many people will remember Loving Heart Cafe, which rebranded itself several times and eventually closed down for good late last year.  Well, the spot which Loving Heart previously occupied has now been taken over by another vegetarian eatery called Happy Life.  Many may already be familiar with Happy Life, who prior to opening this shop house were selling their food in the Kwan Inn coffee shop located in the same block further down.  This shop house opened on the 1st January 2015, and currently have a limited menu while they are getting started and finding their feet.

Happy Life Vegetarian
Location: Blk 134 Geylang East Ave 1, #01-219

Contact: 92985283/67475711
Opening Hours: Daily 8.00am-8.00pm.  Closed alternative Wednesday. 

CLOSED DOWN - As of 14/11/2015

As I just mentioned, the menu at Happy Life is currently limited to six items.  The great thing about this eatery is that everything has been assured to be 100% vegan - No dairy or egg in any of their food.  This stall has built up a reputation for their nasi biryani.  Rather frustratingly, unless you come at exactly 12pm, most of their dishes are not available.  Better managing of food preparation time and stocks would be better, so that their food can be available during other hours.

The owner of Happy Life is a gentleman named Daren Lai.  During his youth, Daren was a meat eater, but his diet (and life) changed drastically after walking past a cafe that was distributing free Buddhist material outside their shop.  Daren picked up the Amitabha Sutra and shortly after (in his twenties) became a full time vegetarian.  Before getting into the vegetarian industry, Daren worked in security.  He opened his stall at Kwan Im around five years ago.  Daren is originally from Malacca, Malaysia.

If you would like a warm drink, then I suggest taking the Matcha Soya Drink.  Great value and nice smooth texture and sweet taste.

Price: $1.50.     7/10
Porridge, oh how I loathe you.  Rice porridge is one of the few Chinese dishes which I really can't appreciate, no matter how hard I try.  So needless to say this Pumpkin Porridge was really facing an uphill task in trying to convert me.  Did it change my perception of porridge?  No.  But, I will concede that this dish was passable.  I liked the pieces of fried pumpkin on top (all the garnishing was excellent) and the porridge itself was well seasoned.

Price: $3.00.     6/10
Although most of the dishes at Happy Life are $4, they still represent excellent value overall.  The portion size is huge.  I'll start with the negatives for this Nasi Lemak.  Firstly, the rice quality needs to improve, the grains used were broken and not particularly well cooked.  Secondly, the mock fish used was really dreadful, some of the worst quality mock fish I have ever tried.  The positives are that (although the rice quality was poor) the rice was flavoured very well.  The long beans were tasty and I loved their atcha and peanuts.  Although this dish is not perfect, it is definitely worth ordering considering the price.

Price: $4.00.     7/10

Based on the reputation of their Nasi Biryani, I was eagerly waiting for it to arrive to the table.  I've eaten a lot of nasi biryani in my time, including the famous (and, in my opinion, best) Tanaka Mr Goh rendition, which is available only once every few months.  Compared to the super high standards of Tanaka, this version falls short - However, it is better than most.  The weakness of this dish is in the rice.  In fact, the way this rice is prepared is more like nasi kunyit (turmeric rice), not nasi biryani.  The true biryani rice should be exactly how Mr Goh does it at Tanaka.  Despite this weakness, the peanuts and curry sauce were perfect.  The sauce was rich and not too spicy.  I love how a poppadom is added, but it was literally dripping in oil, which frightened even a hardened hawker eater like myself.

Price: $4.00.     7/10

Conclusion - Happy Life have just opened up, but from what I've seen (and after talking with Daren) I am expecting good things to come from this eatery.  Daren is very polite and courteous, but his mafia auntie staff seem a little on the hostile side, so customer service is an area open for improvement.  Food wise, there are improvements to be made also, but overall I already see this eatery is heading in the right direction.  Definitely a place worth visiting.

Overall Rating
Food - 7/10
Ambiance- 7/10
Service - 6/10
Value - 8/10

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Lovecipes Vintage Cafe - Penang

Last year, I embarked on an epic journey of Penang, Malaysia to unearth all the superb vegetarian delights that the island holds.  For today's review, I feature the very first eatery that I visited on this long three month exploration - Lovecipes.  This is a calming and trendy new eatery, which only recently opened.  They claim to use the freshest ingredients in their cooking.  More information can be found on their website here.

Lovecipes Cafe
Location: 42 Jalan Rangoon

Contact: +60 14-306 9942
Opening Hours: Tue-Sun 11.00am-3.00pm & 6.00pm-10.00pm.  Closed Monday

The setting of Lovecipes is very nice, with a rustic homely feel about it.
Ok, I have to admit that visually this thing looks a little grotesque. These Lor Rolls look like a pair of decaying intestines.  Inside these beancurds rolls one can find chestnuts and mushroom.  The price is a little on the high side for such a small item.

Price: RM8.00.     6/10
Next dish was the Kong Bao Lion's Mane Mushoom.  For this dish they are using monkeyhead mushroom (also known as hedgehog mushroom) - Personally nothing beats monkeyhead in terms of juiciness and texture, it is really one of the best ingredients vegetarian cooks can use.  The sauce in this dish was strong and flavourful, and matched the mushroom and other ingredients well.

Price: RM14.90.     7/10

If you want a vegetable dish, then you may want to consider ordering the Steam Lady Finger with Homemade Asam Sauce.  As the ladyfingers are steamed (unlike most places, who fry them) it does make this dish considerably more healthy.  Although this dish is more healthy, I didn't find the taste to be particularly impressive.  The ladyfingers were a little too firm, and there was not enough asam sauce to make this dish tasty enough for my liking.

Price: RM8.90.     5/10
Another dish I was a little underwhelmed by was the Oatmeal Abalone Mushroom with Curry Leaf.  I didn't like the brittle texture of the mushrooms, and would have preferred them to be more juicy.

Price: RM12.90.     5/10
Last dish of the evening was the Asam Curry.  These sort of curries will always put a smile on my face, I love the strong flavourful spices used, the lemongrass and galangal particularly stood out in this curry.  The ingredients were cooked well, and overall it was a very satisfying dish.

Price: RM12.90.     7/10

Conclusion - Food wise, Lovecipes can improve more.  The quality of vegetarian food in Penang is increasing sharply, so during my three month stay in Penang, Lovecipes was one of those eateries that became easily forgotten.  Having said that, I did love the ambiance of the place, and the staff seemed very polite and friendly.

Overall Rating
Food - 6/10
Ambiance- 8/10
Service - 8/10
Value - 6/10
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