I have always been passionate about passionate people. Passion people propel products to the pinnacle of perfection.
BUT, there is one quality that surpasses even passion!
Whereas passion people sit comfortably in the couch of the credulous, obsession drives people into the realm of eccentricity, just shy of contributing to a psychiatrist’s children education fund.
My wife tells me that I am obsessed. Of late, I have been going to the wet market almost everyday looking for different prawns in order to build a catalog of all the prawns available in Singapore. My fridge is now full of crusty crustaceans who will soon have their images recorded online for posterity. But wait, it gets worse. Not only am I taking mug shots of the prawns, I am taking full monty pictures of their private parts in order to accurately identify each creature. I have even gone to both fishery ports and am planning to visit some of the markets in Malaysia in order to complete my quest.
But I am not obsessed. I am just passionate.
Let me tell you who is really obsessed.
My friend Ken Loon, the owner of The Naked Finn is obsessed. This guy is so crazy about prawns that when he was still working in IT, he used to keep tanks of live prawns at home in order to feed his penaeophilia (love of penaeids ie prawns). He brought his obsession to the next stage when he quit the IT industry and pawned off his possessions to sell prawns. With his restaurant, he is now able to import prawns and lobsters from all over the world so that he can taste them and place a tick on his list of crustacean conquests.
To date, he has tasted 18 species of lobster, 17 species of prawns, 21 species of groundfish and counting. The only reason he is selling fish is that soon after opening the restaurant, he realized that the number of people crazy enough to just eat prawns and lobsters are not enough to sustain the restaurant, so he started selling fish, but only fish that lives at the bottom of the sea, close to the prawns.
Not only is he obsessed about getting his hand on a particular prawn, he is also obsessed about how to get it at its prime, how to keep it fresh and how to cook it optimally. For each prawn and lobster, he has experimented on the optimal temperatures and cooking times and plotted them all on an excel sheet! This is the kind of attention that we admire the top Sushi chefs for and I am so excited to find a local restaurant like that.
The preparation of the food here is kept simple in order not to mask the natural flavours of the seafood. Expect most of the prawns and lobsters here to be grilled on a cast iron hotplate then served with a sprinkling of sea salt at the side.
Having tasted 18 species of lobsters, Ken tells me that one of the best is the African Lobster. Now, I have to admit that I haven’t been paying that much attention to lobsters in the past. A lobster is a lobster whether its an Australian Rock Lobster, Boston Maine Lobster or a Phuket Lobster. The last few lobsters I have eaten have been local lobsters which are found around the region and I have always gone away thinking that we are really paying for the shell rather than the meat. The African Lobster shattered that paradigm. The meat was wonderfully sweet, delicate and amazingly tender! The big difference was that African lobsters are often fished off a depth of 500m and the combination of deep sea and the cold temperatures radically changes the flavour of the meat!
Some of our readers have pointed out that the African lobster looks like a langoustine and indeed it does. An African lobster is not a langoustine. However, a langoustine is a lobster. The term langoustine is the name given to the Norway lobster (Nephrops norvegicus),which is found in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean sea.
Naked Finn simply cooks the lobster over the hotplate till it is just cooked and finished with a quick brush of butter to give it some aroma. It’s about a foot long and costs $30 which is actually not too bad compared to some of the other lobsters in the market. 4.5/5
If you are after that intense, briny crustacean flavour, then it is the Gamba Carabinero (Aristaeopsis edwardsiana) that you should go for. This Scarlett Prawn has been a favourite of mine since I first tasted it at Bomba. This is the kind of prawn that really creates an impression. The first reaction that you will get when you encounter this creature will depend on whether you eat it first or you find out about the price first.
If you find out about the price first, your reaction would probably be: “Wah Lao Eh! 30 bucks for a prawn!!”.
On the other hand, if you eat it first, then find out about the price, your reaction would probably be:
“Wah Lao Eh! Darn shiok! Why does it have to be so expensive!”
You cannot treat a Carabinero as just a prawn, as much as you can treat Wagyu beef as just another beef. The intensity of crustacean flavour you get in the head is at a completely different level than what you would get from a Tiger prawn. It really should be positioned along side other atomic flavour bombs like caviar, foie gras, truffles and uni. It is a special treat, not an everyday staple. 4.75/5
If I had known about Ken’s prawn mee before this year’s Ultimate Hawker Fest, I would have invited him to showcase his version of prawn mee at our festival. With some of the hawkers, it is often an uphill task to get them to use the best ingredients for their dishes because they have been conditioned to make their dish in a certain way after all these years. Ken on the other hand is obsessed about creating the ultimate prawn mee and has a no holds barred attitude to the dish.
Having made a trip to Penang to learn the recipe from one of the famous hawkers there, he came back and experimented making prawn me from a variety of prawns. He ended up using Amaebi and Sakura Ebi to make the soup stock! Now, as you well know, pork lard is one of the important ingredients in prawn mee, so he uses Iberico pork lard and tops his prawn mee with a few slices of pan fried Secreto Iberico pork. Rockett Girl, whose most favourite dish is prawn mee, gave it her full approval. I on the other hand am still instigating Ken to push it even further as I felt that he could have used a more exquisite noodle instead of normal bee hoon. But there is no argument that his prawn stock is really shiok and has the intensity of a lobster bisque.
The basic prawn mee set costs $28 and includes the Secreto Iberico and 4 Giant Tiger Prawns (Giant is just the name, they are medium sized prawns) Their Giant Tigers are specially sourced from a farm in Sri Lanka and tastes very close to the wild caught Tigers. For $48, you get 2 Gamba Rosadas instead of the Tigers and for $50, you get one Carabinero instead. The Gamba Rosada is another deep sea prawn with exquisite flavour and the head is wonderfully sweet. But my personal preference is to go for the Carabinero and squeeze all the contents of the head into the prawn mee soup! You’ll be transported to prawn paradise! 4.5/5
Aside from prawns, The Naked Finn also brings in a few of the other sea creatures that that live alongside them. Their Great Atlantic Scallop is a breath of fresh air from the ubiquitous Hokkaido scallops. They are diver caught in Scotland and air flown live to Singapore within 3 days. They are “cooked” with lemon juice for 30 secs and then drizzled with olive oil and chopped herbs. The scallop was undoubtedly very fresh and sweet and I would have loved to eat it raw with a bit of wasabi on sushi rice! 4.25/5
It’s amazing what a cast iron hot plate can do for these baby sotongs which are usually deep fried and served with a sweet sauce at the Cze Char. Somehow, this way of cooking manages to bring out the flavours of the sotong much better than deep frying. Sotongs are sustainable seafood and there is an abundance of them, partly because there are less fish in the ocean to eat them. So eat more sotong! 4.25/5
The inspiration for the Youthful Venus came from Ken’s trips to Vietnam where he saw them being BBQed along the roadside. He modified the recipe a little by steaming the Venus clams and dressing them with olive oil and fried shallots. The clams are excellent but I felt the flavour of the shallots were a little too strong for the dish and I would have preferred it if it were not swimming in olive oil. A bit of garlic and light soy as per traditional Cantonese cuisine would have kept the clean, fresh flavour of the clam. 3.5/5
The other endearing quality of the Naked Finn is its location and setup. It really is a little seafood shack reminiscent of my trip to Belle Island Seafood in Boston (But much nicer). Ken had spent all his money on the kitchen and so the rest of the restaurant is covered with the kind of clear plastic that you used to wrapped your text books in. The other quirky thing that might confuse diners is the fact that there is no service charge (in order to keep prices down) and so you are expected to place your orders at the counter and then sit and wait for your food to be delivered.
The place is really tiny and there is a bar where you can order a drink and a grilled prawn or two. One of the drinks which I really enjoyed was the Coconut cocktail which is a coconut sorbet with rum. Ask for a little salt around the rim and it’ll taste even better!
There are very few places where the owner is so intimately acquainted with the produce. There is no doubt that you will get your hands on some serious seafood here. The cooking is kept simple and precise. I do feel that some of the recipes here still need a bit more tweaking. But if you are a prawn geek then this is where you can pursue penaeid epiphany.