Country Diaries

Month: November 2016

Holy Tokyo!

There’s something strange going down in Tokyo. Against a neon-lit skyline, french maids, robots and cosplayers rub shoulders with crisp-suited salarymen in this fast-paced metropolis where anything goes.

Our first stop, Shibuya – the beating heart of Tokyo, crammed with amazing shops, cat cafes, fish-shaped pancakes, insane theme bars and blaring gaming arcades.

It’s sensory overload. It makes no sense. And I love it.

Neon-lit Tokyo at its finest at #shibuyacrossing – rumoured to be the busiest intersection in the world.

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Colour and chaos in Shibuya

We have been in Tokyo all of five minutes when a seven-foot Japanese cyber goth with rainbow hair, massive platform shoes, dressed in tight, red, latex strolls through our hotel lobby.

I’m so surprised, I literally do not know where to look. I know I should whip out my camera for a pic, but suddenly come over all shy and study my feet.

The smart salary men sipping Oolong tea don’t even raise an eyebrow as Japanese-Lady-Gaga-on-acid heads for the lifts, casual as you like.

We check into our hotel and head into the streets to check out Shibuya. A stream of go karts whizz down the street, the drivers clad in an assortment of colourful onesies and Pokemon costumes.

Welcome to Tokyo, huh?

Super hero go-karting. Just another day in #Tokyo!

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Fashion, and shops – oh my!

Tokyo makes me want to be a better version of myself. Everyone here is immaculate, with a fashionable twist. Elegant women dangle Louis Vuitton bags alongside perfectly made-up goths, squealing bunny-eared girls and preppy guys with funky haircuts and those little hipster tortoiseshell glasses.You know the ones.

Clearly you need ‘props’ with your look here. Shallowly, I am happy to have a good handbag with me.

The girls here have the loveliest hair I’ve ever seen. I immediately want to straighten the hell out of my own, slather it in serum and twist it into jaunty pigtails. Jim tells me I would look ridiculous and the pigtails are forgotten.

I do, however, shop. The shopping here is insanely good. Harajuku is the fashion capital with shops specialising in gothic Lolita, punk, hipster and high-end fashions – plus everything in-between.

Cosplayers often hang around Harajuku train station on weekends.
Kawaii fashion and cosplayers can often be spotted at Harajuku train station on weekends.

I need stuff in Tokyo. I buy a scarf, a lipstick, shoes. I want a panda backpack and furry rabbit phone cover. I don’t buy them. I shop more until my feet hurt and my bank balance dwindles.

Eat your heart out in Tokyo

And the food, oh god the food. Everywhere we go is bursting at the seams with traditional Japanese eateries, upmarket restaurants and eclectic dining options from around the world.

The great man, Anthony Bourdain, wisely said – of all the world’s cities, if he had to choose one to eat in for the rest of his life, it would be Tokyo.

So, we eat.

Sashimi served without a smile. Who cares when it tastes this good?
Sashimi served without a smile. Who cares when it tastes this good?


Unique ramen experience at Ichiran

A great, and unique, ramen spot is Ichiran in Shibuya. As we join the queue at the entrance, we have no clue what is going on. This is par for the course in Tokyo.

Entrance to Ichiran. All we know at this point, is we need to be inside.
Entrance to Ichiran. All we know at this point, is we need to be inside.


Once inside, a wall of digital menus faces us and we bang in what we hope is a couple of ramen orders. We fill in a form to customise our order, specifying our preferred firmness for the noodles and how spicy the broth. (Firm, and medium-hot incase anyone’s interested.)

The introvert’s ramen restaurant of choice

Finally, we’re ushered into a tiny cubicle. A pair of hands slides through a partition in the wall from the kitchen and pops our condiments on the table. Two minutes later, the ramen follows – and the hands pull the partition down for privacy.

Lip-smackingly good ramen, without the chat, at Ichiran, Shibuya
Lip-smackingly good ramen, without the chat, at Ichiran, Shibuya


In this high-density city of around 14 million, people appreciate a spot of privacy where they can grab it. This place is perfect for introverts, or those wanting to avoid needless chatter – you don’t need to utter a word.

Oh, and the ramen? Deliciously salty and brimming with noodles, topped with melt-in-your mouth pork and a kick of chilli.

Fast food, Japanese style

Another Shibuya spot, Genki, is worth a visit  for sushi. You place your order on an ipad and the food whizzes along on an electric conveyor belt to you. Efficient, quick and very, very tasty.

Be warned – it’s easy to get quite greedy using this method with no waiting staff to judge the copious amounts of food you tap onto your screen.


Yakitori Alley, Shinjuku – intimate dining for hoardes of hungry-people

Yakitori Alley in Shinjuku is an epic dining experience not to be missed. Blink and you’ll miss the concealed entrance to the alleyway – but once you’re in, you won’t want to leave.

Yakitori Alley, Shinjuku

Yakitori Alley, Shinjuku – intimate dining for hundreds of hungry-people

The alley is packed with small cubicle-sized restaurants. Make a selection, and squeeze up at the counter. It’s an intimate dining experience, with a bunch of strangers!

Most of the eateries serve delicious skewers of roasted meat (yakitori) cooked to perfection in front of you. Best washed down with a cold Asahi, or delicious local plum wine.

Charred delicious skewers at Yakitori Alley, Shinjuku.
Charred delicious skewers and rice wine at Yakitori Alley, Shinjuku.


Sensory overload in Electric Town

Next day, we head to Akihabara the ‘electric town’ famed for its maid cafes, gadget shops, anime and comic boutiques, not to mention hundreds of gaming arcades.

Akihabara, Tokyo's 'Electric Town'.
Akihabara, Tokyo’s ‘Electric Town’.


I’m not a gamer, but Jim persuades me to him in a two-man pod to shoot some monsters in a 4D game, Dark Escape.

Now, to be honest, I don’t even really know what 4D is. I’m wearing the glasses and not expecting much of anything to happen.

A bloody great zombie leaps out of the screen towards me as the whole pod starts shaking. Holy hell! I let out a blood-curdling scream.

The monsters keep coming. Cold air is suddenly blasting into my face as they grab right at me with gnarly fingers. I’m meant to be shooting, but I scream some more.

Really loudly.

Jim is disgusted and calls me a newbie. As I exit the pod, rattled, at the end of the game, surly-looking Japanese teenagers look my way and snigger.

Watch out - those games will getcha!
Watch out – those games will getcha!


Delicious dining and perfect pooches in Nakameguro

After a few days in Shibuya, we rent an airbnb in Nakameguro to sample a different side of Tokyo. The Meguro river runs through this area and is lined with contemporary and traditional restaurants, funky boutiques and seriously cool little bars.

There are also some majorly stylish little dogs round these parts – all of them sporting jumpers to ward off the cool November nip in the air. The fancier ones prance around in rhinestone-studded jeans and doggles.

These pooches are perfectly coiffed, no doubt thanks to the large amount of doggy beauty spas in the area – complete with mini-doggy hairdryers.

Yup, that’s a thing here.

Great hair, little fella.
Great hair, little fella.


Micro bars for major drinking sessions

There’s something new to discover at every twist and turn. On our way back from the train station one night, we stumble across Soul 26, in Nakameguro.

Here, the bar fits a squeezy six and the owner is an absolute character. He did tell us his name, but somewhere along the line, we forgot.

Soon we are singing along to blaring music and grooving with his elderly golden retriever.


As it happens, we *ahem* seem to discover quite a lot of bars. These amazing microbars are dotted all around Tokyo.

You just have to keep alert to spot a clue – peak through curtains and doorways opened just a crack – perhaps you’ll get lucky and glimpse revellers around a tiny bar.

Bar-hopping heaven in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai 

However, if you like all your microbars bundled together for ease – head to the Golden Gai district. This amazing precinct in Shijunku is bar-hopping heaven.

Over 200 tiny drinking havens packed together across a couple of blocks. The vibe is ram-shackled and buzzing, teeny tiny watering holes all piled on top of each other.

Bar hopping at its finest. Golden Gai, Shinjuku.
Bar hopping at its finest. Golden Gai, Shinjuku.

“We’ll just stay for a couple,” are famous last words here.

You won’t want to stop exploring and each new drinking den you wander into – most only seating a max of half a dozen – offers a distinctly unique vibe

The universal language of a good, old-fashioned magic trick.
The universal language of a good, old-fashioned magic trick.

We found ourselves squashed shoulder to shoulder with locals, salary men, expats and tourists. Everyone singing songs, performing magic tricks and swapping stories under the dim blue lights. This ridiculous, yet brilliant, song cropped up often.

Breathing in Tokyo’s natural beauty at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

Our poor livers need a break, and we take a recovery day at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. The leaves on the beautiful ginkgo trees and maples are changing into a riot of fiery autumn colours and the air is alive with birdsong.

Autumn leaves at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Autumn leaves at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

We’re in the heart of Tokyo but the park is so cleverly designed there’s not a skyscraper to be seen. Autumn foliage is beginning to take hold amidst a sea of green tranquility.

Traditional Japanese gardens in Shinjuku's heart.
Traditional Japanese gardens in Shinjuku’s heart.

Fortified with fresh air and the soothing beauty of nature, we stroll to Yoyogi Park, home of the Meiji Shrine where visitors can cleanse themselves spiritually pouring water over their hands using wooden ladles. Exactly what we need!

Yoyogi Park, home of the sacred Meiji Shrine

Yoyogi is amazing with massive 40-foot Tori gates marking the entrance to sacred land.

They are awe-inspiring and my mouth hangs open. Jim comments they look just like something from the Minecraft games he loves so much.

Majestic Tori gate marks the entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine, Yoyogi Park.
Majestic Tori gate marks the entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine, Yoyogi Park.

Here old-world Japan, meets new, and on Sunday locals wear traditional dress to visit the shrine and pay their respects.

Resplendent in traditional Sunday best, locals visit the shrine.
Resplendent in traditional Sunday best, locals visit the shrine.

We were lucky enough to witness a traditional Japanese wedding taking place – the red paper umbrella to ward off evil spirits.

Traditional Japanese wedding parade.
Traditional Japanese wedding parade.


Lose your mind at Robot Restaurant

We have just one night left and decide to check out the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku. Placed firmly on the map by its cameo in Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, I’m not sure it can live up to the hype.

It does and I’m delighted. The show is camp, colourful and extremely silly.

Nothing to see here, just a couple of wrestling dinosaurs.
Nothing to see here, just a couple of wrestling dinosaurs.

Girls in bejewelled bikinis writhe around atop gigantic robotic sharks and dinosaurs. Monsters duel and lasers dance in this crazy, camp, kaleidoscope of colour and sound.

Just nipping out for a casual Thursday night dinner in #Tokyo

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The magic ends and we are spat out onto the street. Shaking our heads in disbelief and wondering what the hell just happened, we hail a Tiffany-blue cab and head home.

Tokyo, I love you. Don’t ever change.

What are your favourite Tokyo haunts? Did we miss anything? I’d love to hear your Tokyo stories in the comments.


Saigon after dark

Our first stop in Vietnam was Villa Song – an elegant white colonial building hidden among frangipani trees and tropical palms overlooking the sleepy Saigon River.

This riverside villa is an oasis of tranquillity away from the centre of Ho Chi Minh in district two. It was the perfect spot to take a few days out to relax before hurling ourselves into the colour and chaos in the heart of the city.


Sun rising over the Saigon River. Good morning, Vietnam 🌅(Sorry, couldn't resist!)

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We gently whiled away a couple of pleasant days sipping iced peach tea in the tropical gardens and lounging in a ridiculously gorgeous bed, fit for a princess.


We also ate. A lot. Vietnamese food is amazing – an explosion of fresh herbs, chilli, fragrant lemongrass, ginger and delicious barbecued meat.

From beef Pho in fragrant broth to fresh summer rolls packed with salad and prawns and delicate local catfish caramelized to perfection in a claypot – we tried it all, and it was good.


Fortified after a couple of relaxing days at Villa Song, we braved the madness in the city’s bustling centre – district one.

The first thing you notice when you visit Ho Chi Minh – as the city is now officially known after its late leader – is, of course, the traffic.

Motorcycle madness in Ho Chi Minh 

Throngs of motorbikes spill across the road in every direction. We saw families of four squashed onto bikes and motorbikes piled high with random goods.

I kid you not, we saw a guy riding pillion holding a door. An entire door.

The locals are so relaxed, they’re practically horizontal while whizzing around on these things. Talking on mobile phones, eating sandwiches, smoking a casual fag while driving – we saw it all.

Of course, the zillions of bikes make crossing the road something of a challenge. Before our visit, I read the best way to cross the road is just to step out confidently, head held high and keep walking.

Now, having experienced the sheer drama of the traffic firsthand, I say – no way do this!

We watched a backpacker – clearly showing off infront of the attractive girl he was with – attempt this method. A bike just ploughed right on into him.

The art of crossing the road in Ho Chi Minh

You gotta wait for a bit of a gap in the traffic, which can be time consuming in itself.

And then, slowly weave your way in and out of the approaching bikes maintaining eye contact.

It’s a bit of give and take – if the drivers can see you’re trying to avoid stepping right infront of them, they’ll slow down a bit for you.

Just a bit, mind you. And slowly, but surely, you can manage to snake your way across.

Trekking around district one on foot can be pretty tiresome. The heat, the bikes, the noise and madness eventually wore us down.

Even if you find a rare bit of road with some pavement to walk on – you’re still not safe.

The bikes take shortcuts onto the pavement and will honk angrily at you to get out of their way. This is not the best city to explore on foot.


Heading into the motorcycle madness

We decided if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. It was time to hit the streets, riding pillion on vespas for a delicious foodie tour of Saigon by night.

Now to be honest, I was pretty nervous. Since I totalled a car in my teens (still sorry, mum!), I’ve developed a weird phobia about driving and traffic. And that’s in Sydney where the traffic ebs and flows in a fairly regulated, sedate, fashion.

So imagine my horror at plunging headfirst into the carnage of Vietnam’s traffic.

It was time. The vespas arrived to pick us up and the drivers were so lovely, my fears were quickly allayed. The medicinal glass of wine beforehand also helped.

And we were off – whizzing through the neon-lit backstreets of this crazy city.

Our tour was through Vespa Adventures and if you’re in town, you must do this. It was a real highlight of our trip.

The evening began at a backstreet seafood joint for barbecued mussels and clams served in a fragrant lemongrass and ginger broth.

Our guide, Tien, was a superstar, knowledgably answering all our foodie questions and telling us about life as a local in Ho Chi Minh.

Holy crepe!

Next up, a different venue and it was crepe time. As part of our ‘foodie’ education – and no doubt, a bit of fun with the tourists – Tien held up several local ingredients for us to guess. We were doing pretty badly.

“You’ll never get this one,” he said gleefully thrusting a strong-smelling green leaf towards us.

Thoughtfully stroking his beard with a furrow on his brow, Jim tentatively nibbled the leaf and suggested it might be wasabi.

“I can’t believe it,” Tien slapped his hands right down on the table in disbelief. “No tourist ever guesses that one right.”

Turns out it wasn’t Jim’s connoisseur palate, but rather the fact he overheard the same conversation between a guide and tourists at the next table. Gotcha Tien!

The crepes were delicious – thin, lacy batter piled high with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts.

After feasting on a dizzying array of local dishes, and as much Tiger beer that we could drink – which turned out to be quite a lot – it was back on the bikes for a blurry ride to the next venue.

Vietnamese love songs in a hidden bar

This one, a hidden bar at the end of a dingy back alley – a cosy little nook lit by candlelight, the air filled with acoustic Vietnamese love songs.

I’ve enjoyed our last two hidden bars so much, I’m going to make it my travel ‘thing’ to find an awesome one in every country we visit. This one was magical – a tiny, intimate venue that flickered in a romantic golden glow from all the candles.

Rock’n’roll with a side of magic

Then it was the final stop – a local rock club for some exuberant live music. Fuelled by about a million Tiger beers at this point, we enthusiastically bounced around with gusto.

Jim pulled out the old ‘rub a coin and make it disappear’ magic trick (as you’ll remember from my last blog, also deployed in Singapore to gain access to the hidden bar). And Tien, bless him, was flabbergasted.

“You two are crazy,” he proclaimed. “Craziest, most fun, tourists I ever met.”

I wasn’t going to tell him the coin just goes down the back of Jim’s shirt during a particularly flamboyant sleight of hand movement.

All up, it was a pretty damn perfect last night in Saigon. Next stop, Tokyo.

Tell me – have you been to Saigon? What food did you love the most? If anyone does the motorbike tour and Tien is your guide – tell him we love him!


Foodie heaven in Singapore

Drink, eat, shop, sweat – welcome to Singapore, a tiny, hot island where futuristic skyscrapers meet the clouds and pastel-coloured shophouses exude gentle old world charm in the city’s heart.

Singapore is foodie heaven – a melting pot of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese and local delights.

China Town is a great starting point with rows of vendors serving South East Asian dishes on its famous ‘Eat Street’.

Expat haunts in areas such as Club Street offer tasty, but eye-waveringly expensive, dining options in funky bars and eateries below rainbow-coloured shophouses.


If you want to hang onto your pennies – and I do – a variety of Hawker Centres dotted around the island mean you can well, and cheaply, often for less than $5 a meal. This is fast food, Singaporean style.

Troubles and tiger balm

It’s our first day in Singapore and the air in our apartment is heavy with the eye-watering scent of tiger balm.

Jim put his back out helping an old lady with her suitcase at the airport and now can barely walk. It’s a public holiday for Diwali and every pharmacy in town is resolutely closed – we  pour tiger balm liberally over his back and hope for the best.

The local taxi drivers are fascinated by Jim’s ailment. Every cabbie we encounter during our stay enthusiastically offers up a miracle cure. These vary from herbs, to acupuncture and perhaps most randomly – Chinese seven fishing powder, mixed with egg yolk and oil.

By day two the pain is worse and our dabbles into eastern medicine are not working. We head for Singapore general hospital A&E. It’s bright lights in the adjoining – and blissfully, open – pharmacy gleaming like a mirage in the desert. We get the drugs, and we’re back in business.

East to west – a culinary melting pot

Finally, it was time to sample some of the great food on offer. With a masochistic gleam in his eye, Jim insisted we try buffalo wings at Jerry’s BBQ and Grill, an American style rib place near Club Street.

Do not be fooled by the innocent-looking exterior. This place looks real nice – an all-american diner complete with checked tablecloths, but the bad news is you’re probably going to die here, so brace yourself.

The wings are served according to six ‘levels’ of heat. If you try to show off, as I did, you will sorely regret it.

Deadliest hot wings in town at Jerry’s

Jerry’s wings are regarded as the deadliest in town – a rather dubious honour I feel, on reflection. Wing masters are known to be occasionally rewarded with a baseball cap for their ‘bravery’. And the thing is, I really wanted one.

I felt sure I could survive three, stage five ‘insanity’ wings.I gobbled down the first one and it tasted ok.

A few minutes passed, and slowly, but surely, the pain began. I shoved down another wing and guzzled some beer. I was now feeling a little more unsure about a good outcome, but keeping face.


Here the pain really began to kick off. Initially a dull, but constant, throb of heat. Then it got worse – a searing fire as though the devil himself was dancing on my tongue. I’m not quite sure what possessed me to continue (ok, I do – it was the hat).

All of a sudden the devil was no longer dancing. He was manically prodding my tongue with a giant pitchfork. Eyes streaming, and crying out from pain as chilli ripped through my entire face, I grabbed the third wing.

By now I was a mad woman, flapping helplessly at my tongue and making desperate “ah ah ah” sounds. Like that was gonna help. I also, very quickly, downed two massive tankards of beer.

So now not only did I still feel like I was dying, I was also kinda drunk.

I’m not going to post the second video here as not pretty. However, if you send me an email, I might be persuaded to share.

The nice executive at the adjacent table politely kept ploughing through his half rack of ribs, ignoring the flapping and screaming. As did our waitress, who had clearly seen it all before.

Normally, I would be embarrassed by such public carry-ons, but such was the torture that I no longer cared. However, spoils to the victor – I got the damn cap!

Please note the  manic glint in my eye – that’s pain – and how I’m holding the plate very gingerly, like those wings are going to leap right off and burn me all over again.

I wouldn’t recommend this particular style of dining for say, a romantic dinner a deux. But if you’re part of a group looking for a laugh, or a bit of an idiot (like me) – knock yourself out.

And that will be literal.

Singapore’s best secret bar

Now, if you fancy something cool after all that heat, what could be better than checking out an edgy, hidden bar? Just round the corner from Jerry’s, you’ll find Keong Saik Road.

The Library lies behind an unmarked door just along from the 7-Eleven on Keong Saik road.

The password changes weekly but if you don’t know it, a bit of creative, quick thinking might just get you in.

Jim knows a few magic tricks and was able to gain access to the magic chamber by impressing the gatekeeper with the old ‘make a coin disappear’ trick.

Now, remember I’d downed two huge mugs of beer so I’m a little hazy on exactly what happened next. However, it seemed to involve a flashing red light, some mirrors and a hidden door – and bingo, we were in.

This clandestine bar is seriously cool with some crazy, and extremely hipster, cocktail concoctions including the faintly ridiculous, Duck Bath Fever.

Yep, this is how it’s served. A duck. Having a bath. Mind you, in some particularly delicious bathwater – a gin-based concoction that looks soapy, but tastes heavenly.

Maxwell Road Hawker Centre

We stayed in China Town and you should definitely put Maxwell Road Hawker Centre on your foodie tour. I’ve heard Singaporeans regard the centre as a ‘newbie’ option for tourists, but it’s a good entry-level Hawker Centre with over a hundred stalls to choose from.

You’ve got to have your wits about you in the Hawker Centres – they can be pretty fast and furious. Mark out your spot at a table by leaving your napkin or a newspaper, then make your food choice – load up your tray with goodies, and enjoy.

I’d recommend a local favourite – Hainanese chicken rice served in a fragrant broth with rice and Chinese greens, plus an exotic fresh juice or smoothie from one of the many fruit stalls.

Best of the west at Decker’s BBQ

If you fancy a change from Asian fare – sample some low and slow cooked meat at Decker BBQ, just behind Robertson Quay.

A fairly new addition to Singapore’s foodie scene, this place is a carnivore’s delight and the total bomb for burnt ends, tender pulled pork and slow cooked, melt-in-your-mouth beef brisket.

This barbecue restaurant has a laid back feel with picnic tables and rolls of paper towel at the  ready for messy fingers. And seriously, who need fancy pants white table cloths when the food is this delicious?

The meat is slow-cooked to perfection in huge ovens at the end of every night shift in preparation for the next day. American sides include corn bread and mac’n’cheese stuffed with crispy briskety bits of yumminess served with smoky house-made barbecue sauce.

Singaporean chilli crab – messy, but worth it

Finally, we just had time to squeeze in one more delicious meal. And, of course, it had to be Singaporean Chilli Crab. This is a luxurious, rich and spicy dish but hella messy to eat!

Jumbo Seafood and Mellben both offer good crab experiences and are popular with locals and tourists alike. We opted for Red House seafood restaurant – a posh-looking Chinese affair overlooking the water at Robertson Quay.

I’ve heard it on good authority that, if you can, try get your mitts on a double-shelled crab. Apparently crabs molt their shells (who knew?). The very moment they are about shed their old shell for the new one is, according to locals, when the flesh is at its most succulent.

We couldn’t get one this time at Red House, but give it a whirl and try ordering a double-shell when you ask for your crab. If you get lucky, let me know if it’s as divine as ‘they’ say.


You can’t be shy when you eat chilli crab. You gotta squeeze, slurp and suck every last tasty morsel of flesh outta that critter. Fried buns on the side will aid you mop up the delicious eggy, red sauce. Save the claw for last – or gobble it down first – it’s the best bit.

The lowdown:

  • Jerry’s BBQ & Grill, 92 Club Street – all American fare and crazy-hot wings
  • The Libray, 47 Keong Saik Rd – hidden dive bar specialising in quirky cocktails
  • Maxwell Road Hawker Centre, 1 Kadayanallur St, Singapore – dozens of stalls of cheap, local eats
  • Decker BBQ, 60 Robertson Quay – all-American barbecue low and slow barbecue joint 
  • Red House, 01-14 The Quayside, 60 Robertson Quay, Singapore – Singaporean, seafood and dim sum.

Tell me – what are your favourite dining haunts in Singapore? Do you go with local, or western options? I’d love to hear your comments.