A Room with a View

Cleaning up my company laptop before returning it, I came across some orphan photos that I never shared. Interesting odds and ends like this one:

A toilet at Singapore Changi airport that offers urinal users an expansive view of the tarmac. One imagines that travels could end up standing there much longer than needed, fascinated watching the airplanes coming and going, resulting in long queues for the toilet. Much nicer than the usual airport toilet, no?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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”. 

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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. 

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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.

 

Dining in Singapore – Pollen

Will write in the next day or two about the spectacular new Gardens by the Bay, which opened a few months ago near Marina Bay in Singapore. In the Flower Dome, one of two terraria in the gardens, British chef Jason Atherton has opened the Singapore branch of his Michelin-starred London restaurant, Pollen Street Social. Simply named Pollen, this posh restaurant is meant to bring a touch of Provence to the Lion City.

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The main dining room is located on the ground floor, below the actual Flower Dome exhibit area. A tea room is on the exhibit floor. If you arrive with reservations, an electric tram will meet you at the entrance to the Gardens by the Bay and drive you to the restaurant’s entrance, which is on the back side of the dome. After your meal, you are invited to walk up a ramp directly from the restaurant into the dome – no need to pay the entrance fee.

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The view from our table, looking out at the Singapore Flyer.

Chef Atherton has worked under Gordon Ramsay in several restaurants and now has his London restaurant as well as a restaurant in Shanghai and Singapore. Pollen makes his second Singapore location. The restaurant’s menu reflects the Mediterranean climate inside the Flower Dome and there is a lot of innovation and finesse without it being fussy.

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Even before receiving a menu, the wait staff brings a large basket of fresh bread, all of which is wonderfully tempting. It is nice to be made to feel welcome but the wait for the menus did seem overly long.

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Two servings of olives and a white bean hummus were provided to our table of four, an amuse bouche of sorts. The menu features a fixed price three-course lunch set with three choices for each course, for S$ 55 – about US$ 45.  Two of us went for the set while the other two ordered a la carte.

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One of the starters from the lunch set, an asparagus and grilled heirloom tomato salad. It was topped with edible flowers and microgreens and the basil oil was very intense. The ingredients were of excellent quality and the presentation was beautiful.

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This dish, the picture of which doesn’t reveal everything, is a slow cooked egg served with chorizo and patatas bravas. Patatas bravas is a classic Spanish tapas dish of diced fried potatoes served with a spicy tomato sauce. There is a white sauce on top of the dish that hides the egg which was perfectly poached – firm but tender white with a silky liquid yolk. This was a good example of a simple dish with robust, complex flavors.

The third option for the starters was home smoked salmon with beer pickled onions and spiced eggplant.

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My fellow diner, Chor Phan, ordered a starter from the a la carte menu, scallop carpaccio, cucumber, apple, and horseradish “snow.” The scallops were nicely prepared although I had something different in mind when seeing the word “carpaccio” on the menu. The use of sea grapes (a type of sea weed) was interesting and the horseradish snow was playful and added a lot to the flavor of the dish. It was also a very sculptural plating.

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For the main course, Tawn had the roasted Brittany cod, creamed olive oil potatoes, and grenobloise sauce, which is a brown butter sauce made with capers, lemon, and parsley. The fish was really well done and the mashed potatoes were decadent.

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David ordered the roasted artichokes with sauteed wild mushrooms and potato foam. Despite my weariness of foams, this dish was really nicely executed and very flavorful. The third selection from the mains (which we did not order) was a specialty of the Singapore branch of Pollen: marinated lamp cutlet with asparagus and prickly ash.

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For our main course, both CP and I ordered the Rangers Valley 300-day rib-eye steak served with duck fat chips and green salad. The duck fat chips are just what you might expect: thick cut “French fries” fried in duck fat. The salad was beautiful – the large bowl of greens artfully arranged and misted – literally, it looked like dew – with a very flavorful dressing.   

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Inside look at the chip, which was creamy and soft inside but not quite as crispy as I would like on the outside. The duck fat adds a lot of flavor but also left the chips with a heavy feeling. As for the steak, the “300 days” on the menu refers to the amount of dry aging the steak went through. Most steaks, if dry aged at all, are done for only a few days. The dry aging process concentrates the natural flavors of the beef. This was a good steak, cooked correctly and with a nice peppercorn sauce. That said, I ended up sprinkling some salt on it because it seemed underseasoned.

Service was good overall, but with some inconsistencies. The wait staff is a combination of locals and foreigners and the foreigners seemed to be more sophisticated in the service. As an example, I found a hair in my salad – something that is an especially big faux pas at this caliber (and expense) of restaurant. A Singaporean server apologized and took my salad to the kitchen. A few minutes later, another server (a European woman) brought out the replacement salad and another order of fries and set them on the table. The Singaporean server, standing nearby, realized a mistake had been and she started to tell the European server that the fries belonged to the table next to us. The European woman quickly stopped her and said, “No, this is a complimentary order; the other order will be out in a moment,” although the look on her face suggested that she had in fact made a mistake by giving me the fries.

My point is that the European server in this case realized that taking the fries off my table would look very uncouth, especially given what had happened with the salad. Bringing another order of fries to the adjacent table was better than picking up a dish that had just been placed on my table. The Singaporean server seemed more concerned about the error in the order.

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Our lunch reservation was at 2:00, so by the time we were ready for dessert, the restaurant was almost cleared out. The manager invited us to take our dessert at the bar, since the sun had reached our table and was making the dining a bit uncomfortable. The benefit of being at the bar is that we were able to watch Pollen’s pastry chef, Andrew Lara, and his assistant create their magic. Lara is an alumnus of elBulli, chef Ferran Adrià’s three Michelin star winning Spanish restaurant that closed last year. 

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Lara’s work is exquisite both in flavor and composition. Here is frozen blackberry, goat cheese sorbet, rhubarb consommé with mint oil. The pink sticks are meringue. The process of watching him create these desserts was the same as watching a painter or a sculptor. The combination of textures and flavors was perfect, satisfying in a way that a simple, cloyingly sweet and rich dessert could never be. The mint oil was vibrant, the rhubarb consommé piquant, the goat cheese sorbet tart and creamy, and the berries cool and meaty. 

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Crispy and burnt lemon with cucumber sorbet. The “lemon” is a crispy lemon meringue (the white thing with the shavings of lemon zest) and the dollops of soft meringue bruléed with a butane torch as the plate is constructed. The cucumber sorbet is peeking out from underneath but was cool and full-flavored, just like eating a perfectly ripe cucumber but creamy and smooth. Another example of a dish that was both simple and complex.

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We also had the chocolate, roast cocoa nib, ice cream, jasmine parfait, and cherry. Sorry for the focus being on the back half of the plate and not the dessert itself. This was also a complex dish, all the more so because the cocao nibs were bitter and crunchy, which contrasted with the jasmine parfait and the sweet chocolate. Unlike so many molten chocolate cakes I have had or other one-note desserts, this satisfied my sweet tooth without setting me into a diabetic coma and paralyzing my taste buds with chocolate monotony.

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After dessert was done, Chef Lara gave us some truffles and these homemade “Magnun bars” – small chocolate-covered ice cream bars that were a perfect end to the meal.

All in all, Pollen was an enjoyable dining experience, but one that didn’t quite live up to my expectations (Michelin starred chef) or the price, which was steep. That said, the experience was very pleasant and we enjoyed it with a pair of good friends who were just the right people to share such a meal with.

 

Dining in Singapore – Number 3 Crab

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Two weekends ago, Tawn and I took a break in Singapore. It was a busy four days filled with seeing friends and eating. Singapore is well-known as a foodie’s paradise. Dinner the first night was with a group of Singaporean friends who took us to Number 3 Crab, an excellent seafood restaurant in the Tiong Bahru neighborhood.

Tiong Bahru is one of the the oldest housing estates in Singapore and has been undergoing something of a gentrification in the past few years. It is becoming quite a hip and happening place thanks to its charming mix of vaguely art deco government flats and traditional Chinese chop houses, with residents ranging from local Singaporeans to expatriates from all corners of the globe.

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Having a drink (a Singapore Sling, of course) in the lobby of our hotel, the Millenium Orchard Hotel, located conveniently on the far end of Orchard Road, a short walk from the MRT station.

Number 3 Crab has been acclaimed as one of Singapore’s finest restaurants and its owners, Thomas and Wendy Lim, have an edge on the competition: they are purveyors of seafood, not just restaurateurs, and own a fresh seafood stall at a local market.

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The menu, illustrated with large color photos, includes just about every type of seafood you could imagine, including crocodile paw, something we didn’t get around to sampling. In addition, they offer several meat dishes and a good selection of vegetables, so you can round out your dinner nicely.

Here is our dinner, in the order that the dishes arrived:

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Stir fried greens – spinach, I think – in a light broth with fried silverfish on top. 

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Pork spareribs in a sweet, sticky, and rich coffee glaze. These were so wonderful, I almost forgot that we were going to eat crab and gorged on the ribs!

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Crispy fried beancurd (tofu) which I think had chopped shrimp mixed into it. I may be wrong about that, though. In either case, it was tasty and the texture was a perfect contrast of crispy exterior and silken interior.

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This is the clams with special sauce, which I think was enhanced with soy milk. I might be wrong about that, but it sure was tasty.

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Hong Kong style steamed fish with a soy and oil sauce. This fish was really lovely, light, delicate, and perfectly cooked.

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The first of our two crabs (serving seven of us) was prepared with a chili sauce. They give everyone a large plastic bib because there is no way to eat the crabs without making a mess of it. The sauce was nice, more sweet than spicy.

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The second crab came with a special pepper sauce, which I found even more enjoyable than the chili sauce. The pepper sauce has a more complex flavor, using different types of pepper to add depth.

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To get a sense of how large these crabs are, here’s me hoarding the first one. A lot of the time, I don’t see the point of messing around with crabs because they are too small to make the effort worthwhile. In this case, the crabs were huge and there was plenty of meat inside. The crabs were also very fresh, pulled from a tank kicking and screaming (well, kicking) and killed to order.

This dinner was a good example of Singaporean food at its best: simple dishes prepared with tremendously fresh ingredients and cooked with great skill. As a sign on their wall puts it, their name may be “Number 3 Crab” but they are definitely number one.

 

Back from Singapore

Tawn and I took a long weekend in Singapore, one of the first times I’ve actually celebrated the US Labor Day holiday since moving to Thailand. We have lots of friends in Singapore so there was plenty to keep us busy, plus there are many new attractions that fly in the face of the city-state’s reputation as a boring place.

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Stay tuned for pictures!

 

Singapore Light Rail and New Urbanism

During a March visit to Singapore, I decided to ride the subway out to the nether reaches of the island to visit the light rail lines.  Singapore has three light rail lines that form four loops connecting to stations in the rail-based public transit network.  They were built with the express purpose of serving master-planned housing estates, giving residents a door-to-door rail service that allowed them to get around without increasing road-based traffic.

The light rail itself is clean and efficient, with the automated cars running regularly on elevated tracks that weave between housing towers.  Below is a video that overviews my experience on the system, including a startling discovery I made about how technology is used to solve a perhaps unforseen privacy problem.

Matters of urban planning and design have always interested me and for a short while in university I was an urban planning major.  Examples of transit-oriented land use, like the developments that surround the light rail lines in Singapore, make me think about ways that similar lessons could be applied in the United States.

Suburban Sprawl

A country with a plentitude of land, since World War II development in the US has been oriented towards the automobile, resulting in more and more sprawl and fewer and fewer neighborhoods where one can walk from home to anywhere useful.  With rising fuel prices and ever-increasing congestion on the roads, it amazes me that there has been continued resistance not only to public transit, but transit-oriented development.

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There are a few examples in the United States of what is sometimes called “New Urbanism”, a design philosophy that promotes more walkable and transit-friendly neighborhoods that include mixed use buildings – shops, businesses, and residences in the same general area.  Not unlike traditional older neighborhoods in an urban environment, there are small shops on the main streets, some apartments overhead or in the surrounding blocks, and then single-family dwellings set further back.  Orenco Station, a neighborhood in the Portland, OR area is a good example of this type of planning.

(Comparing the “suburban sprawl” photo earlier in this entry with the master plan for Orenco Station, you’ll notice that suburbia has a lot of dead-end streets, which means there’s always a long way to go to get out of the neighborhood.)

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Some defining elements of this new style of development include:

  • The neighborhood has a discernible center. This is often a square or a green and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner. A transit stop would be located at this center.
  • Most of the dwellings are within a five-minute walk of the center, an average of roughly ¼ mile or 1,320 feet (0.4 km).
  • There are a variety of dwelling types — usually houses, rowhouses, and apartments — so that younger and older people, singles and families, the poor and the wealthy may find places to live.
  • At the edge of the neighborhood, there are shops and offices of sufficiently varied types to supply the weekly needs of a household.
  • An elementary school is close enough so that most children can walk from their home. There are small playgrounds accessible to every dwelling — not more than a tenth of a mile away.
  • Streets within the neighborhood form a connected network, which disperses traffic by providing a variety of pedestrian and vehicular routes to any destination. The streets are relatively narrow and shaded by rows of trees. This slows traffic, creating an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles.
  • Parking lots and garage doors rarely front the street. Parking is relegated to the rear of buildings, usually accessed by alleys.

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As I look at these design elements, I see of list of things that have a whole lot of “pros” and very few, if any, “cons”.  While the US will never go the route of Singaporean style land use – there’s no comparable acquiesence to the wisdom of the government, for starters – it does seem that a more comprehensive approach to land use would benefit the United States and our quality of life in the decades to come.

Further reading: Interesting blog entry titled “Five Causes of Suckiness in American Architecture“.

 

Around Singapore

In the overnight border run I made to Singapore, I had errands to run and friends to see.  There were some interesting sights along the way.  One stop was at an IT mall, to check out some computer and camera component.  There, I saw what appeared to be the largest gathering of Singapore’s next generation of geeks!

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Hundreds of students on their laptops, with power strips running every which way.  They were gathered for a competition of radio-controlled race cars.  The next generation will definitely be very wired.

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Also made a stop at About Books, an independent bookstore near Tiong Bahru.  Great store with an interesting range of titles as well as many other odds and ends for purchase.

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Among the interesting items for purchase were these old cameras.  Beautiful, eh?

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After dinner crowd: Nick, Chor Pharn, David, Otto, Edwin, Kelvin, and me.

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One thing I’ve noticed over the past few years is that the transit system is actively trying to train Singaporeans to queue up before boarding the trains, letting passengers exit before trying to board.  From what I’ve seen, there’s some success in these efforts.

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In one friend’s flat, located in a government housing tract, there were public service announcements on the elevator doors warning elderly residents from those claiming to be fortune tellers. 

“Beware strangers telling fortunes or chasing away bad luck.  Measures: Be careful if someone approaches you to tell your fortune.  Or to get rid of bad luck or evil spirits.  He’s just out to cheat you.  Ignore him and he’ll go away.  Tell your elderly family members not to fall for such tricks.”