Hanging Out by Marina Bay

As recently as just three years ago, the widely-held opinion was that Singapore was – despite being a modern, efficient, and overall decent place – quite boring. Evidence to counter that belief is becoming ever more prevalent, especially in the area around Marina Bay where we spent a bit of time a few weeks ago.


Anchoring the change is the Marina Bay Sands, a casino, hotel resort, and shopping complex on the southern edge of the bay. The trio of towers, connected by a roof deck, is visually arresting and provides the city with a signature element to what was an otherwise bland skyline.


Looking back at the Singapore financial district on the other side of Marina Bay from the Marina Bay Sands. In the next few years, the existing financial district area will double in size, spreading south around the bay and meeting up with the Marina Bay Sands complex.


As a sign of future growth, you can see the Bayfront MRT station just west of the Marina Bay Sands. Within the next few years, these blocks will be developed as the financial center spreads south. All of this is reclaimed land.


Despite the heat, humidity, and rainfall, the attractions around Marina Bay seem designed to lure people outside at least some of the time. In the shadow of the lotus-shaped ArtScience museum is a reflecting pond and waterfront promenade.


Part of the Marina Bay Sands complex is a massive shopping mall (because Singapore has a shortage of malls!) with more than 800,000 square feet (74,000 square meters) of shops and restaurants. In addition to an ice skating rink, the mall features a canal on which you can take sampan rides.  


The complex also features a 1.3 million square foot (120,000 square meter) convention center. We stopped by to visit our friend Otto Fong, the author of the Sir Fong’s Adventures in Science comic book series, as he launched his fourth book at the Singapore Toys, Games, and Comics Convention. A former science teacher at Singapore’s prestigious Raffles Academy, Otto left to follow his passion drawing comics.


I’ve known Otto since the mid-90s and am happy of his success. I was also tickled because he invited Tawn to be a character in this book, playing a fashion designer in the not-too-distant future, designing clothes for a K-pop superstar’s tour. You can see Tawn’s cartoon self just above his head, to the left of the bunny.


A close up of how Tawn looks when cartoonized. Otto captured him quite well. Here, he explains to the K-pop star how the scientific process applies to costume design.

Gardens by the Bay

One of the most exciting changes to Marina Bay is Gardens by the Bay, a trio of parks bringing 250 acres of parkland to central Singapore. The highlight of the gardens are the two climate controlled conservatories: the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. 


The Flower Garden, the larger of the two, covers three acres and replicates the semi-arid region. The inside temperature is a pleasant 74 F (22 C) and flora from around the world populate the garden.


The gardens have been open only a few months and the plants are still taking root. We were there on a weekend that coincided with Malaysia’s national holiday so the gardens were too crowded. I look forward to my next visit, though, when I will be sure to visit the gardens on a weekday afternoon and take the self-guided audio tour.


The second conservatory, the two-acre Cloud Forest, recreates the cool, misty conditions of a tropical mountain. In the center of the conservatory is a lift that takes you seven stories up, then you can stroll down a meandering skywalk that weaves in and out of the “mountain”. 


At the base of the 115 foot (35 meter) waterfall, a rainbow appears in the mist. Despite the crowds, the Cloud Forest was quite a treat, lush but comfortable. If you make it to Singapore, be sure to go to the Gardens by the Bay. 


Singapore is a young country, one that continues to reinvent itself. Despite a British colonial heritage dating back almost two centuries, Singapore is developing a unique, distinct identity, one that is increasingly sophisticated and ever more interesting. Because it is the first country outside of North America I visited, way back in 1995, Singapore holds a special place in my heart. It is especially nice, then, to see it maturing into something more than the neat, clean, but boring relative into that cool cousin that is always up to something new.


Food in the US – Shake Shack and Ōttō

Wednesday evening in New York, Tawn decided to attend a yoga class led by a particular instructor about whom he had read.  This resulted in a late dinner, so our friend Biing suggested we try Ōttō, Mario Batali’s family-style wine bar (is that an oxymoron?) and pizzeria on Fifth Avenue a block away from Washington Square Park.

The challenge was Biing and I had several hours to kill before meeting Tawn for dinner and we were hungry.  Working our way over to the Madison Square Park area near the yoga studio, we decided to split a burger and fries at Shake Shack by way of an appetizer.


On this pleasantly not-frigid evening, there as quite a crowd gathered around Shake Shack, which is nicely nestled in the midst of the park.  The Empire State Building looms to the north (visible on the left of the picture).  Lights strung across to the still leafless trees reminded me of a line from the Les Miserables song “On My Own” and the tables closest to the heaters were still popular, a reminder that Spring had not quite yet sprung.


Opened by New York restauranteur Danny Meyer, whose restaurants include Grammercy Tavern and the Union Square Cafe, the Shake Shack is Meyer’s attempt to tackle the classic American treat, the hamburger.  Considered by many to be the best burgers in the Big Apple, I found the burger to be good but not great.  There are a lot of relatively expensive, good quality burgers out there these days.  To that end, I might as well just eat one of those relatively inexpensive, good quality burgers that are also available.

Not that there was anything wrong with the burger – there wasn’t – but I just don’t see the fuss.  As for the fries, they reminded me of Ore-Ida fries taken from the freezer, devoid of fresh potato flavor.  We didn’t try the nameshake – excuse me, namesake – shakes as the weather was still a bit chilly.


Arriving at the building where we were to meet Tawn, Biing and I had to ride in what is the narrowest lift I’ve ever seen.  The camera is being held in the upper corner of the car.  Thank goodness for wide angle lenses.  After picking up Tawn we walked down to Ōttō, building up his appetite and burning off our burger.


Ōttō’s design conceit is that of the Italian train station.  Names of guests waiting for a table are displayed on a signboard that looks like an arrivals and departures board.  It is a pretty space, a little loud, and definitely made for socializing.  This is Mario Batali’s “low end” restaurant, the one that is most accessible to the masses, and it is known for its antipasti, pizzas, and pasta.


Service was friendly and pretty attentive, given how busy the restaurant was this late in the evening.  A small package of brown butcher paper was set on our table, which we unwrapped to discover some fantastic bread along with imported breadsticks.  I’m not sure I understand why breadsticks need to be imported, but they were light and crispy and enjoyable, so why ask questions?


We ordered a trio of verdure – greens – for $4 each.  Our selection was the Funghi Misti (mixed mushrooms), Asparagus and Pecorino cheese, and Roasted Peppers and Capers, front left.  This was a tasty combination to snack on with the peppers being my favorite.  The saltiness of the Pecorino cheese didn’t seem to rub off on the asparagus, which was barely cooked and not seasoned.  The mushrooms were nice although they also seemed a little under-seasoned.


We also ordered a plate of Salumi for $9, a really tasty sausage with hunks of lard mixed in with the meat.  I was reminded of a meat appetizer dish I had on my first night in Italy back in 2001, after which I spent the next day drinking copious amounts of water trying to rehydrate myself from all the sodium.


According to Biing, pastas are the weak point on the menu at Ōttō.  We ordered a Linguine Puttanesca, a classic sauce made of anchovies, capers, olives, chilies, and roasted tomato.  It was tasty but wasn’t very distinctive.  For $9, though, it was a reasonably priced bowl of pasta.


The pizzas are supposedly the big deal.  Some say the best in New York but of course everyone has an opinion when it comes to that matter.  We ordered a Margherita DOP, with nothing more than tomato, Bufala Mozzarella cheese, and basil – perhaps the best combination with which to compare the qualities of a pizza.  Interestingly, Ōttō’s pies are cooked on a griddle.  This results in the crispest crust I’ve ever had on a pizza, one that remained crispy throughout the whole eating, down to the final piece.

The sauce, however, was a let-down.  It tasted like a tin of tomato paste with no added seasoning.  That was the flavor: flat tomato and nothing more.  And it was spread rather thickly on the pizza so it soon became the overwhelming flavor on the tongue.  They say it is the sauce that can make or break a pizza and in this case, I’d agree.


For dessert, we enjoyed the homemade gelato, which offers some very unconventional flavors.  Last August I stopped by here while Biing and Tawn were shopping for an afternoon pick-me-up of olive oil gelato.

This evening, I had the trio of dark chocolate, Guinness, and salty peanut gelati topped with coffee bourbon sauce and chocolate crumble.  It was very tasty.  The Guinness gelato tastes just like Guinness beer.


Tawn had the Olive Oil Coppetta, a mixture of olive oil gelato, candied clementines and kumquats, lime curd, tangerine sorbet, and fennel brittle.  It was also very nice although the mouth feel of olive oil gelato remains a bit heavy for me.

My only concern about the gelati is that they are very soft when they arrive and they, of course, quickly become softer as you try and take pictures, even if you hurry!

So the overall review?  Ōttō is an enjoyable place for a group meal with good service and decent prices for what you get.  The food is good, not great, and the pizza is on my to-avoid list.  For a drink and some appetizers, though, this is definitely a good choice.