Verdun House. I see it every time I visit Mustafa Centre walking in from the very same road that bears its name.
The name Verdun reminds me of that town in northeast France (near the German border) where the second worst battle of WWI was fought. The battle was long (some ten months) and a large number of soldiers gave their lives. The French lost some 542,000 men and the Germans, who were trying to kill the French to get at the British army encamped behind, lost 435,000. They learned to their tragic consequence that the French soldiers defending the place were no pushovers.
Warfare during WWI was characterized by two things: Trench fighting and battles of attrition. What's a battle of attrition, you ask. Simply, when troops fail, you send in more. It goes on until the very last man is left. It is a terrible way to win a war and WWI is infamous because the armies at the time were led by kings and princes who had scant regard for the lives of their common folk. Plus there's the romanticized notion of serving "king and country"..i.e. till the reality of war sets in. And that's what happened. The 1979 movie, On the Western Front, based on a true-life account, says as much. Idealistic youth setting off to war but finding only death and misery at the trenches. As the death toll rose, more and more people began to see the whole thing as a misadventure. It didn't help that the war was due to some insult and saber-rattling, not that there was actual threat to land and nation!.
Is it any wonder that at war's end, many royal households in Europe (especially the Austro-Hungarian one) got overthrown by their own enraged citizenry. Many a parent's son got massacred and it is not something that can be whitewashed through propaganda alone.
In WWI, the French lament Verdun; the British the Somme.
In the Battle of the Somme (another infamous WWI battle) it was the turn of the British to attack the Germans. It became the fiercest conflict of the War, resulting in 1,219,201 deaths. There was a day when 17,000 British troops alone got wiped out. It is both a staggering and heartbreaking number. What's worse was the manner of their deaths: some units were ordered to literally walk into gunfire just so the enemy's ammunition could be exhausted. How criminal is that?!
Disappointingly, the commander of that conflict was never court-marshaled nor censored. Why? Apparently WWI was treated like a "learning war" where commanders were ill-equipped and faced never-seen-before threats. It was a conflict where men on horses faced mechanized war machines for the very first time. Machines such as tanks, planes and even submarines. There were also chemical weapons. How terrifying the situation must be to both commander and young soldier!
But none of these machines were as lethal as the machine gun in mowing down ranks upon ranks of foot soldiers. Or the artillery shells that fell and blasted troops to kingdom come. If the explosive shells didn't get them, the mustard gas in the ditches would. In the Battle of Verdun alone, 40 million artillery shells were used. Forty million? My goodness, that's a huge number! No wonder one can still see craters around the town of Verdun today.
Interestingly, there's a link between the Battle of Verdun and the Lord of the Rings. At the Battle of Verdun, a common cry among the French soldiers was, "They shall not pass!". In LOTR Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf commanded the Balrog with a stout "You shall not pass!"
So as I exited City Square Mall and paused at the traffic junction, I could see Verdun House across the road. France and WWI immediately came to mind. I waited a while as long forgotten facts came flooding back. I had done much reading a few years ago when the anniversary of "the Great War" popped up. As the traffic junction here was always busy with cars, I decided to be a bit more careful. A famous Mediacorp actor did knock someone down here before. Fortunately, it wasn't a hit and run; if not, that chap's career would be over! I also didn't want to be late, so I ignored the DO NOT CROSS red man and picked my way across.
At Verdun House, a few comrades had already arrived, safe and imbibing their beer and chatting. The zhichar kopitiam looked as if it had seen better days.
To be frank, KSL@Verdun House is not a place I would eat at. It looks like some worn-out zhichar place that has seen many a year serving "so-so" food. Quite a few such places exist around the Kitchener Rd and Jalan Besar area, and also in the warren of narrow streets leading up to Rochor. Being near to Mustafa Center, Verdun House is also considered part of Little India. And when I am in that place I usually look for Indian food, not Chinese zhichar!
So it came as a surprise that the dishes from the kitchen of Kim San Leng@Verdun House were all very traditional and above par.
Kim San Leng is a familiar sight all over Singapore. They own neighborhood restaurants as well as kopitiams in HDB estates. I think my first encounter with them was at their outlet along Changi Road near Lor Sarina in the early 90s. They had a large zhichar stall but also a wonderful hokkien mee stall at the side. It mesmerized folks with their "wok hei" and gooey, garlicky seafood flavor.
Kim San Leng@Verdun House is run by a somewhat youthful-looking son of the owner. He says the restaurant has been there for some 28 years - way before the area was redeveloped and sprouting both the iconic Mustafa Centre and Park Royal Hotel. The architecture of Verdun House says as much. It looks like many of the low-rise apartment buildings along Middle Road that rose up in the 80s - buildings with names of Chinese businessmen like Foo Ann, Boon Sing and Chiat Hong. Probably GSM is the most well-known of the lot.
The son also informed me that KSL came out of the Neo Tiong Boon seafood place in Ulu Sembawang - a famous kampong road/track that ran through a large area of farmland stretching from Sembawang to Mandai to Bukit Panjang. We knew about that seafood restaurant as we NS boys used to trek from Ten Mile Junction ("chap gor") to emerge at Ulu Sembawang at the Seletaris bottling plant now replaced by a condominium of the same name. The road Ulu Sembawang was also shortened much after the BKE expressway was built cutting like a black ribbon through now verdant wild forests.
As with tradition, the first dish to arrive was the "lo-hei" dish. The server did her part mixing the ingredients and uttering well wishes as she did so. Though her voice was soft and somewhat drowned by nearby roadside traffic, I definitely heard her say "sheng yi xin rong" - May your business flourish. I also secretly wished she'd said, "And may the Car Park Aunty give you chance this evening!" - seeing how some of our SBM members might have parked their cars along the roadside lots. If you park in the right ones, it's free after 5 pm!
The lo-hei dish also came with two mandarin oranges that were given to SBMer Yuki for keepsake. Yuki is Japanese and hails from Yokohama; but more recently from JB and KL! It's her first makan session with SBM. (My last trip to Yokohama was for business that ended with a hosted dim sum dinner at a very posh restaurant in its Chinatown. Yokohama Chinatown is known to serve up some very authentic Chinese food. Yuki agrees.)
|Table 1 Lo Hei.|
|Table 1 Lo Hei (other side)|
|Table 2 Lo Hei|
|Mr Francis "Don't Waste Yummy Food" Pang. Good job!|
The second dish was the Cold Platter. It had Cloud Wrapped Siew Mai, yam fritters, topshell in onion vinaigrette, mui-yee roast pork and ngoh hiang. All were of good standard and it was nice to taste stuff that is for once handmade. I feel that cold dishes at hotel banquets have become somewhat predictable and bland - which is quite sad. At the table I was thinking about all the previous cold dishes I've had and realized that someone could write a thick coffee-table book about them. I especially like cold dishes with organ meats, blood solids, strange weeds, etc.
|Calling Five Prospers cold platter|
The next dish was the Shark's Fin Soup. No one raised any PETA objection to this, and everything was scooped out evenly with one bowl left. The smell of the shark's fin was just nice, not overwhelmingly raw. The fin shreds and crab meat were sufficient and not swimming in too much starch. Strangely, it was one shark's fin soup that I felt needed no vinegar or pepper to lift its taste.
Next came the Steamed Fish. It was done just right with the sauce light. The flesh of the fish was very fresh and firm. No wonder we cleaned it to the bone! Good. I always say if a fish died fresh for you, eat it all up. Don't waste a single bit!
|Steamed Fish (Soon Hock)|
From fish we arrived at Scallop Lounging on Luscious Green Bed of Broccoli Wearing Pork Floss Wig. The scallops were little white coins of firm but seared flesh in X.O. And guess what? There were also condiments of roasted shallots mixed in with roasted dry, shredded scallops under the Wig. All in all that gave the green veg and scallop more flavor when consumed together. Nice, very nice!
|Scallop Lounging on Luscious Green Bed of Broccoli Wearing Pork Floss Wig|
Next came an interesting dish. We had no white rice but it was all curried. And the main ingredient was Wild Boar Pig Skin. The skin was thick and "QQ", very nice to the crunch and almost like cuttlefish! It was indeed well paired with the vegetables of long beans, tomatoes, lady fingers and maybe cabbage. Somehow the dish reminded me of stuff tossed in dry bak kut teh, but just. Dang, who would think pig skin cloyed in such gravy could be this endearing!
|Curried Wild Boar Skin|
Next up is a fave of mine: Sea Cucumber Duck. The sea cucumber was thick and firm and kind of danced around like a live worm in the mouth. The duck was not overcooked. The sauce was more mushroomy than starchy and provided just enough slick to let the duck meat slide down the throat with ease. But I rather preferred to chew than swallow. Kind of the same when presented with a GF's ears! Ok, you nibble that and not chew!
|Sea Cucumber Duck|
The next dish showed why less is more. It was just Drunken Prawn flashed very quickly in white wine and then let out - surely very lightly done. You know, just enough to "wet" the prawn and not overpower its freshness or natural taste. I think it was done in this manner so those driving won't fail a breathalyzer test when "sway sway" stopped by our local Traffic Police!
After the prawn came a roadside kill. What animal and from which street I had no idea. It was flattened and must have been a creature with a shag like fried beehoon. Apparently, this was the famous Grandpa's Wig, an omelette covered in black sauce beehoon and pan-fried. There was pork and other ingredients stuffed inside. In the end it was so good we ordered another one. I just wished we had fresh-cut green or red chilli to add some "zing" to it.
|Roadkill (aka Jia Xiang (Hometown) Beehoon)|
|Dinning under the stars!|
|Mr Don't-Waste-Yummy-Food at it again!|
|Yuki's Gold (heheh)|
The last dish was dessert that turned out to be just a plate of fruit. No matter. By then, I think we all were rather well fed. My taste buds were not overwhelmed nor did I feel MSG-fied. I think the general consensus was that the food was old-school but good, better than a 10-course meal served up at some top-notch hotel. My own experience at some recent weddings have been rather disappointing. Either the hosts were "kiam canna" in their menu choice or that the chefs were not up to par. I suspect the latter. Dishes can be simple or traditional and yet make an oomph of a statement. It was the same case here. The only pity is that no one can hold a wedding at this restaurant. The busy Verdun Road will have to be closed to traffic as well as the adjoining Sam Leong Road. Now, won't that be like some outdoor party one often see in a Bollywood movie?
After the meal, some of us headed to the nearby Mustafa Centre to "jalan-jalan". Its food section looked better stocked than Cold Storage with long shelves of all kinds of brands that were also lower priced. We had talked much during dinner and learned quite a bit about each other. We also bonded. The whole affair left most of us eager for the next SBM Meet&Eat makan session.
Here is the menu and receipt (for reference, and note a dish or two changed!). ;-)