Saint Marc Café, Japan

Back then when I first tried this in Tokyo many years ago, probably during my maiden visit in 2006, I knew this as “choco-cro”, which is what is printed on the sleeve that holds the croissant, as pictured below. I guess the original version of this yummy crispy snack is the chocolate croissant, which explains its name. But it actually is a product of St. Marc cafe, which I only knew of when it opened in Singapore a few years ago. Talk about being ignorant! That’s me!  To be very honest, I seldom ever pop into this cafe in Singapore, because somehow I never had any serious craving for it. There are many other nice croissants around, and I am not super big on them anyway. Besides, I have this nagging suspicion that they are overpriced here, like most things that are imported, even if I am paying for overpriced coffee in many other cafes around… but well, you get the drift. I remembered meeting a friend there once for coffee and was feeling hungry so I had wanted to order a sandwich. But then, what they offered as sandwiches were sad-looking square slices of bread, kind of like those commercially-manufactured loaves sold in supermarkets, with equally miserable-looking slices of ham and lettuce of sorts wedged in between. That wasn’t the reason why I decided against ordering those sandwiches, but instead the price tag that read … if I remember correctly, S$7.80, or something in that vicinity. Imagine my shock. So I ordered the croissant eventually.

But these photos are from my trip to Sapporo a couple of months back. We actually went to St. Marc cafe for breakfast twice, since there was a fairly large outlet near our hotel and it wasn’t really crowded on both occasions when we went.

On the first visit, I ordered the chocolate croissant and it still tastes good. I think the ones in Singapore aren’t too bad either, just that somehow it feels nicer having it in Japan. For some reason. Haha. Double standards, I know.
On our second visit, I decided to try something else, which was a ham and egg mayonnaise sandwich, which I really love because the bun used is somewhat like a cross between a brioche and croissant. Or basically croissants are generally buttery anyway so that explains why I feel as though it’s like a brioche.Yummy bliss.
My friend tried the french toast, which looks a little limp, but I think it still tasted ok overall. Most of their pastries are already prepared and displayed on an open shelf that you could just pick up and pay, and they won’t be re-heated again so I guess that explains the general “limp-ness” of how they look, as compared to freshly-baked/prepared items that tend to look more fluffed up. I cannot recall what the other item contained within, but it’s a different version of the croissant, i.e. different filling contained within. So far, I have tried the matcha-flavoured croissant and a strawberry daifuku version before, in addition to the original chocolate. They are all pretty nice, because the filling is typically not so sweet and complements the savoury buttery croissant well, which of course also goes perfectly with a cup of piping hot coffee, especially on cool chilly days.Ah.. how I miss Japan!

Doutor Cafe, Japan

Just before my birthday last month, I jetted off to Sapporo, Hokkaido, for a week to take a short break. It hasn’t been that long since I visited in Tokyo in April, but I just felt like I needed a break. Even if time is passing by so fast, particularly this year it seems, holidays are like an oasis in the desert. Although I have been to Japan so many times over the last few years since my first trip there in winter of 2007, I have never set foot on the northern territories of Hokkaido. It was an opportune time to visit even if summers in Japan can be mercilessly hot, because summer is the period when flowers bloom in Hokkaido, and temperatures there are generally more forgiving and bearable than in Honshu itself.

So because we needed to transit in Tokyo to get to Sapporo, we decided to take a red-eye flight to Narita with a short hour-plus transit stop, where we had to collect our luggage and re-check it in, due to security concerns, before hopping over to the domestic terminal at Narita to catch the flight out to Sapporo. The queues at the custom was not too long, though there was still a fair bit of arriving tourists and foreigners waiting in line. We managed to have sufficient time to clear the arrival immigration, and still queue to deposit our luggage for the domestic sector.

By the time we arrive in Sapporo, it was probably around noon. We went to the tourist information counter, or the JR office, I can’t remember the exact name, where we bought ourselves a 5-day JR Rail Pass, as well as a ticket that would take us to the city, which is just about half an hour away on the limited express train.

Our hotel, Century Royal Hotel, is located not far from the JR station. There is an underground walkway that could lead us to the hotel, but with the luggage it’s easier to walk above ground, wheeling our luggage from the station, out onto the street and across a road, where the hotel stands. Hotel Gracery is also nearby, in the adjacent street, and its exterior facade somehow looks nicer. However, I think it either cost more when we were booking or it wasn’t available anymore because this is travel peak season and ours was a fairly last minute trip.

Finally, we settled for a late lunch, more like a tea break, after checking in. We were exploring the area for food options, feeling slightly zombie-fied from the lack of sleep in the flight. This was what we picked eventually, me wanting to have a coffee badly. As it wasn’t that far off from dinner time, we ordered these to share – a sandwich and a pumpkin tart.
Here’s a closer look at the tart. There are lots of such tarts being sold in the cafes all over Sapporo, mostly cheese tarts. Probably because it is Hokkaido after all, where milk, cheese and dairy are the thing to have! The texture of this cake was a little mousse-like and not really too sweet or heavy. Or maybe my taste buds had fallen asleep. But overall, it was a pretty good tea break!

Over the next few posts, expect to see more of these cafe shots and also food! What’s a holiday without savouring the gastronomical offerings of the destination?!?

Japanese Curry rice

Perhaps like a lifetime ago, I had the idea that Japanese food consisted of sushi and sashimi. In fact, I wasn’t exposed much to all things Japanese as a kid, until when I started working maybe, when somehow Japan became popular. Before that, Japanese anime, manga and even their dramas were popular here but that never really caught on for me. I don’t even know when I started latching on to the “Japan wave”, if I even did anyway.

I think it was when I started working when I started having sushi pretty regularly, visiting the then-hugely popular Sakae Sushi with their innovative conveyor-belt sushi chain stores. It was fun to sit and watch colourful plates of sushi moving past, with the excitement coming in grabbing something we liked and wanted to have when the restaurant is busy and we have been waiting for it for a while. It wasn’t a few years after that when I first stepped foot into Japan (yes call me a mountain tortoise or whatever but I went to Japan the very first time in 2006 I believe). By then I think I had already been acquainted with Japanese curry, through this restaurant called Curry Favour that used to be Stamford Building in City Hall. I like their curry, which could be customised according to your preference of spicyness, and you could order half or full portions, the former of which was already rather substantial, especially with the rice and pork cutlet that was served up as part of the curry offering.

So in the last Tokyo trip, we also had Japanese curry one evening as my friend was craving for it, especially on a cold, rainy and extremely windy night. We popped in to this restaurant on the upper floor of Takashimaya in Shinjuku and I ordered a Seafood curry rice and this was what came.    The curry was served in the same contraption as what I recalled from Curry Favour, but I can’t say the same about size. I wonder if my appetite has increased from then, which I highly doubt so, but this one seemed quite small and the curry contained within was also quite little in terms of amount. The pieces of seafood inside was a little sad, maybe one prawn, one scallop, and I don’t know what else now, plus there was a stalk of cauliflower. Hmm. The taste was alright, but for the price that we paid I don’t think it was value for money. I suppose it being Takashimaya with a proper place to dine in, with ample space and ambience, that had all been factored into the price, as compared to say, if we were to have our curry rice at the hole-in-a-wall shops located along the streets or at the train stations, such as Coco Ichibanya (which in Singapore is a proper restaurant but in Japan it’s more of like a fuss-and-frills-free eatery). Besides, the funny thing was also that the rice, served on a plate, was flattened to cover the surface of the plate so for people who need the rice to fill up their tummies would probably be left needing a second helping somewhere else, supper perhaps.  We couldn’t complain much since we were rather tired that day from the whole day of rain and wind, and it was comforting to be sitting in a sheltered place away from the strong gusty winds that were howling outside. It was so windy that lots of people had their umbrellas blown upside down and as I walked across the long wide bridge over the numerous train tracks of JR Shinjuku station, I had to consciously walk along the side near one wall to prevent myself from being blown away! 

Pâtiserrie Francaise Colombin, Tokyo

On one fairly chilly and drizzly day in Tokyo, my friends and I popped into this cafe/bistro that instantaneously seem to transport us in a time capsule back to a couple of decades ago. Even as Patiserrie Francaise Colombin, with its French name and located along the glitzy, upmarket street of bustling Omotesando, the interior felt like a world of difference. Perhaps it being a weekday afternoon played a part, as there was this huge group of patrons who were well into their golden years, chatting boisteriously and merrily over coffee and cakes. There were other scattered pairs of patrons but this group who were seated in the midst of the cafe had about 10 or more in their party.

We were given a corner table and although what drew us in originally was the delectable-looking and creamy Swiss roll, it didn’t seem to be offered on the menu. Poring through what was available that afternoon, we decided to order a Matcha Mont Blanc and a serving of Pancakes. I would admit that I have never really had a Mont Blanc, or that I could remember because of the way it looks that somehow it didn’t seem like something I would like. I am not that into creamy mousse and that is how a Mont Blanc appears to me, but we decided on this anyway and it was a pleasant surprise. Now I know that Mont Blanc is actually made of pureed, sweetened chestnuts, the latter of which is something I like (not so sure about ‘sweetened’ though). But the part of it being ‘topped with whipped cream’ is probably the off-putting part. As much as I love cream cheese or clotted cream that comes with scones sometimes, I don’t fancy cream cheese frosting because it is too sweet and whipped cream… just because. It just does not compare up with clotted cream which is more dense and richer in texture and therefore more enjoyable, though with a definitive higher fat content I suspect.

Our surprise in this Mont Blanc derives from its taste, which isn’t too sweet despite my initial misgivings. Perhaps the matcha that was used in making it helped to counter and balance the original sweetness of this cake. And it was what was contained within that also drew slight exclamations of surprise from us.   Besides what you see inside here, the creamy white blob of something which I can’t now recall but which isn’t something very sweet, deeper in the core was another green-tea flavoured blob of cream that was quite yummy. Pardon my lack of recollection of the details, and also my limited vocabulary in describing the taste. That’s why photos are important in capturing moments to remember, and in this case, I have not taken an adequate number of them, especially in the face of bad memory. On the whole, we gave this Mont Blanc a thumbs-up!

Next up was the pancakes, which were really small discs of caramelised flour cakes whose taste reminded me of creme brulee. The huge dollop on top is whipped cream but in this case, it goes well with the fluffy pancakes, that aren’t too heavy and dense, and their size helps to make us feel that we aren’t overindulging. It may be a case of self-delusion but who cares right, since we were on holiday!    This place is like a hidden gem amidst the bustling Omotesando shopping belt but I believe there are many of such places all over, whether in Tokyo or even right here in our own backyard, evidenced by the multitude of cafes that are sprouting up island-wide, many of which I have never had the chance to visit before they close for whatever reasons. Well, as with all F&B establishments, there are always hits & misses and not all cafes in Singapore are good, whether food or coffee or just the cafe experience in itself. 

eating my way through Tokyo

Despite having been to Tokyo countless number of times and obviously loving the place, I can’t say that I know the place well because Tokyo, whether we are talking about the city in itself or the various precincts, is so huge as compared to Singapore (which I also can’t say I know well). The other reason also would be that these days I don’t have a planned itinerary when I visit, but rather go with my mood which more often than not takes me back to places that I am familiar with, unless the adventurous and energetic streaks spring forth that takes me on an exploratory trail around. There is a lot of walking involved even if we are talking about the usual places and therefore it is easy to grow weary.

Where food is concerned, it is seldom a miss, even if it is a very non-descript tiny hole-in-the-wall shop or those convenient booths that you find crammed in a corner of the busy train stations. One afternoon, before meeting my friends for coffee, I popped into this shop somewhere near JR Shinjuku. It is in the basement of Odakyu department store but not part of the mall’s food hall, more of a small collection of eateries interpersed between the floors of the mall and the train station. I used to ‘frequent’ the tempura joint in that stretch but I wasn’t feeling the mood for tempura that day so I thought that I would go for chirashi, a serving of sashimi atop a bowl of rice. I really love this bowl! Even if I am not a big fan of rice these days and only ate the bed of white, chewy Japanese rice beneath as a sign of respect for the chef since I was sitting at the counter, the generous serving of fresh and delicious sashimi made this 850yen pre-tax (iirc) totally worth it, especially now that the exchange rate is relatively favourable for us!

On another day, while I was at the Roppongi Hills area, I was again checking out food options near the metro station. Near the exit to Roppongi Hills, I had tried a couple of shops before which sold ramen, both the soup and dry versions but again ramen wasn’t ranking so high on my list of cravings then, so after a long process of walking back and forth I finally settled into this shop that sells very yummy-looking set lunches (based on the displays outside the shop). I chose this grilled fish set, which my goldfish memory has caused the type of fish to elude me, and it comes with healthy brown rice, some pickled vegetables and sald and a bowl of miso soup. The fish was a little oily, not so much from the grilling but I think more from the natural fish oil that was found on the underside of the skin. Well, perhaps I am in  self-denial in saying this but at least it wasn’t deep-fried and I really enjoyed it to the last morsel of fish!  Here is a closer take on the fish, which is a litte charred on some parts but overall, it’s all good!  I had an earlier post on the food halls that I was checking out on a daily basis (hoping I don’t get recognised by the obasans manning them) and they are really amazing even if prices are not what I would consider as economical, at least not from a Singaporean point of view. Perhaps it is also not that cheap from a local perspective because comparatively, we are able to get cheaper options elsewhere, such as those shops that operate with the vending machines where you buy your meal ticket and present it at the counter in exchange for food. One of those nights after a Bikram class, I decided to give myself a treat, not that I wasn’t already indulging and treating myself in Tokyo every single day….

But this bento box that I got from Takashimaya really made me happy just by looking at it. After I finished it, I discovered to my horror that this was meant as a 2-person portion! Again, I tried to make myself feel better by getting friends to agree with me via a post on Instagram that this can’t be for 2 persons, right? Either that, or the Japanese people have really small appetites. Haha, as you can tell I am still in self-denial mode. All nine items in this tic-tac-toe box tasted great for post-workout me in that cold weather which called for a sumptuous meal! It included breaded and deep-fried chicken and fish, salads, sauteed squid and prawns, etc. It was probably the best bento box I ever had so far. 😀    And the last item here is something I didn’t eat, but my friends ordered from a Food Court at Diver City, when we visited to check out the life-size Gundam figurine. The food court is so atypical of Japan but I guess this area catered more for tourists and visitors and a collection of food stalls in an enclosed free-seating area makes sense. It felt very un-Japan though, but the food quality I would reckon is far above the general food court fare that we get (in most Singapore food courts anyway), as commented by my friends who loved the dollop of eggy mash on top too. 

Gontran Cherrier, Tokyo Shinjuku

Once when I was in Tokyo with the same two friends I spent a few days together with in Tokyo this April, we popped into the Gontran Cherrier bakery and cafe that was located in the Shibuya area. I haven’t always been able to find it, knowing how confusing the streets of Tokyo can be. I don’t exactly have a bad sense of direction but then again I won’t claim to be the best navigator anytime.

Before heading to Tokyo, I realised that there is a new Gontran Cherrier that opened in Shinjuku, very near to the hotel that I am putting up at. Being a huge fan of carbs, baked stuff, pastries, flour, or however you want to put that, I was always looking longingly when I walked past at the rows upon rows of croissants, muffins, buns and what-have-yous.
So one morning I decided to have my breakfast there. For a one person breakfast, this is my typical order, i.e. a coffee and one pastry item, be it a muffin or bun.I couldn’t remember what were the things that I read off the tag for this muffin, utilising whatever lousy Japanese I could muster or recall, but somehow “chestnut” seemed to be on my mind and while I was savouring this, I wondered where the chestnut was. It turned out that this is a kind of roasted pumpkin muffin! In a way, it is sort of both sweet and savoury at the same time, but perhaps skewing more to the sweet side since pumpkins have a natural sweetness to them.  Really miss the flavour of it, especially when it is topped with some crunchy walnuts – combination of a few of my favourite things, i.e. muffin, walnuts and pumpkin all rolled into one! How can anyone be happier or ask for more?

When my two friends arrived in Tokyo, we met up and headed for breakfast at Dean & Deluca, but it was full so I brought them over to Gontran Cherrier instead, and check out what we ordered, for the 3 of us, and compare this with my one-person-breakfast above. Haha.

We picked 2 scones, a Matcha, white chocolate scone as well as a Butter Raisin scone. These are nice, fragrant and buttery but I find them to be a little dry and too crumbly, if you look at the second photo where the scone just falls apart when you push a fork into it. Maybe it’s meant to be eaten in one mouthful? I wouldn’t know and I wouldn’t try either!   We also ordered a mini quiche, which I didn’t have much of it but it does look pretty good from my friends’ enjoyment of its smooth eggy interior.  And on the other tray we had, clockwise from top left, a Chocolate Banana muffin, a croissant (which I can’t remember the flavour), some melon bun of sorts and a curry baguette! A total of about 7 items, for 3 persons! O_O As compared to the pumpkin muffin I had, the chocolate banana muffin was a little disappointing because the banana was probably represented by the mousse atop the muffin. I would have preferred it if the banana in the muffin was more like real banana pieces, and the chocolate, perhaps again it was my misunderstanding or mis-reading but it tasted more like brown sugar and on the whole, this muffin felt softer without the crunch that I usually enjoy from the muffin top.  However, there is no denying that this is still a good place to visit if you are a fan of baked items! Besides these, of course they have regular sandwiches and breads without fillings on the inside, e.g. rolls, loaves, etc. I recalled lamenting about not having this here in Singapore and was aptly reminded that we do have it, in the form of Tiong Bahru Bakery by Gontran Cherrier. So there you have it!

it’s all about the convenience of coffee 

It is no secret that I am a big fan of cafes. I wanted to say that I am a coffee fan but then again I think I can’t really lay claim to that because as a friend rightly pointed out one day, to my dismay, that despite me being a self-professed / so-called aficionado of coffee, I did not know the difference between an Americano and a Long Black. I now know the difference, thanks to that episode, so I shall just say that I love hanging out at cafes because they are convenient for the lone ranger who is out to seek some caffeine boost and nosh to keep the energy going.

Despite that there are tons of great cafes out there with a uniqueness that chains like Starbucks can’t ever emulate, I seldom check them out, whether locally or abroad. Locally, their locations frequently are prohibiting for me because I do not want to caught in a situation of taking a taxi all the way to some Ulu Sembawang place to look for a cafe only to find out that it’s full, with patrons not seemingly likely to leave anytime soon, or worse, that it is no longer in operation. The latter could be a very real predicament, considering that businesses in Singapore do come and go quite easily due to the competitiveness of the scene. Even overseas, there are times when I stick to the tried-and-tested places because I know I can hang around for a fair bit of time without being ‘chased’ out of a small cafe, and they are easy to locate for someone who might have been walking for hours and just need to get some sustenance.

So anyway, these were some of the ‘convenient’ places that I grabbed my daily coffee and bites at when I was in Tokyo recently.

Some of my friends are coffee snobs, and they turn their noses up at Starbucks’ coffee. Since I used to can’t tell an Americano or Long Black apart, it is also safe to assume that I can’t really distinguish between good or bad coffee. Wrong. If it’s very bad, I certainly can taste it, but my body is not accustomed to very good coffee, which I often associate with strong, acidic coffee that leaves a bit of a bitter/sour after taste at the back of my tongue. They also leave me feeling a little light-headed or high thereafter. So a tall or even grande sized brew coffee or Americano from Starbucks does the trick for me on days when I want to have more fluid in the cup rather than the usual smaller cup of coffee that I would otherwise get from these standalone small joints.
A short-sized Americano with some Cranberry Granola Toast. I don’t think the toast is that healthy, but then I love breads in several, scratch that, many forms, so this makes for a nice morning snack.  A short latte with a cup of Granola and Cranberry Yogurt, something I had just before I took the Airport Limousine Bus to the airport on my way home. These days, we are also starting to see Starbucks Singapore offer more of such options, but they already pre-mixed the granola or whatever else fruits or compote they have into the yogurt. I would have preferred if they were separate because otherwise the crunchy/crispy bits would have lost all the crunch and become too soggy.   On one drizzly evening, before I went for Bikram yoga class, I killed time at Excelsior Cafe with a cup of Americano and a slice of Sakura Tea Cake. Somehow, butter/tea cakes that come in plastic packaging like that creates a preconceived notion in me that the cake won’t be that great, as compared against buying tea cakes that are displayed in a sliced loaf, encased in a glass container. I know it’s weird, but I always get that kind of feeling, and have yet to ascertain the veracity, if those cakes are really not as nice. Who knows?  The weather in Tokyo during the week that I was there was on the overall, great. But there were still moments when the city was shrouded with drizzle. There was just one day when the weather was bad because it rained almost the whole day and made us feel lethargic and tired, but otherwise it was generally ok. I am always spoilt for choice whenever I pop into Dean & Deluca in Tokyo, where the array of pastries and breads available all scream at me to buy them. Their muffins are really good but they are huge, and I am quite wary of these sugar bombs even if I still do give in to the craving sometimes. But then again, this slice of Caramelized bread probably isn’t much better, except that the interior didn’t feel/taste as sweet as a muffin would, and I kind of tore off the sticky parts. :p And lastly, on my last morning in Tokyo, I finally found Mister Donut! I didn’t have this when I was in Bangkok last year because the donuts on display then looked kind of sad, so I made sure I went there to have my favourite Pon De Ring. But I was a little disappointed, and started to wonder if this was my usual because the glazed ring didn’t taste as good as I recalled. Perhaps the one I used to have wasn’t this variant.. Hmm. Oh well, at least I tried it and maybe the next time, I can give it a miss already.