Sunday, June 27, 2010

Hong Kong - Cuisine Cuisine at The Mira

It's easy to become jaded by dim sum living in Hong Kong.  Every corner you turn, dim sum is there for the taking so much so that either my palate is jaded or quality has generally suffered over the years.  I no longer get excited (mind you, I used to be a dim sum freak) at the prospect of dim sum lunches or yum cha.  To the point where dim sum lunches can be quite a chore these days.

But H is a dim sum fiend.  And because it's her birthday, it's all whatever she wants.  And so we decide to do upmarket dim sum at the revamped Mira Hotel and at the signature Chinese restaurant Cuisine Cuisine (their branch at IFC is a fave of mine!).  We were certainly not disappointed.

Unusual dumplings filled with quick-fry egg whites interspersed with crab meat and conpoy were yummy.  And the use of a cleverly designed syringe where you can neatly inject vinegar into the dumpling was ingenious.  No fuss, no mess.  And the vinegar lifted an already good dumpling to greater heights.  Delish.  If only other Xiao Long Pau shops will follow suit.

Osmanthus-laced honey eels were very well done.  Oil-bathed but not soaked, capturing enough of the honey to not be cloying but tasty with hints of Osmanthus fragrance makes me give this an A.  Many places offer this but as they say, execution is everything.

Yet another traditional dish of squid colloid with lots of sweet water chestnuts for crunch.  But the secret to this dish, as an old birdie once said, is the use of bare hands rather than a machine to get real squid into colloid form.  The right bite and texture is lost in a machine.  And so it is with the belief that there are  assembly lines of squid beaters in the kitchen whipping this up and so each order only has 3 pieces.  I guess there is a certain maximum speed one can achieve only with bare hands.

Probably by far the most sinful but perfectly executed piece of dim sum of the afternoon.  A traditional "wu-kok" (yam paste pastry) given a 21st century twist with a piece of foie gras adds to the smoothness and richness of the inside, while contrasting with a perfectly deep fried but light batter on the exterior.  A wondrous combination of textures and tastes.

The crispy roast pork was crispy but your eyes light up as you sink into a piece of extremely tender pork topped with a suitable (small) layer of fat but topped with a fragrant crispy roof that is pure unadulterated skin.  Gives the best a run for their money.

Not that it was disappointing - tasty enough - but because it was meant to be the signature, the abalone-sauced octupus fried rice was decent but failed to deliver a wow! after all the dim sum that had been served.  But nice enough to round off the meal.

Desserts were ordinary - although we did enjoy the suitably sweet (ie. not cloyingly so) custard-filled Por Lor Paus.  Soft paus stuffed with a slightly eggy custard and topped off with a cake-like crust like good old fashioned por lor paus.

Our other dessert of the chestnut soup with egg white was decent, with a good use of the seasonal chestnuts, such that enough of the fragrance came through.  Quite a feat since the chestnut is such a subtle fruit.  The egg white added some substance to the soup although the droplets were more like a meteor which fell in.  A surprising faux pas.

Overall, a great place to take special guests or just to enjoy a quiet afternoon, away from the madding crowds.  Especially since the food is every bit as inviting as they are innovative.

3/F, The Mira
118 Nathan Road
Tsim Sha Tsui
Tel: +852- 2315 5222

Hong Kong - Kitchen @ W Hotel

Eclectic decor ala Alice in Wonderland, with displays of gravity defying crockery, cats, rabbits, and other wondrous creatures from the secret place. 

The spread is not huge but has something enough to offer.  A nice open kitchen which surprisingly does not leave you smelling like the food as you depart.  The best table, despite the great views in the dining area, is the high table in the Kitchen.  Close to the food and where all the action is, it is surprisingly private, and if you have enough to make up a table of about 10 (it can seat up to about 16 to 18 comfortably), ask for it by choice. 

The $138 free flow of drinks (wine, beer or soft drinks is a good deal) although I stick to the main menu since I like the extensive variety of healthy mixes and mocktails.

Food won't be the best you've ever had but I did like the cold starters - the herbed salmon was surprisingly good.  The lamb chops, specially requested from the grill, were yummy.  Charred just right, and very tender.  For desserts, no lady can reject the chocolate fountain or the hotcakes on offer. 

Overall, a great place to hang with a group of buddies, enjoying a decent enough dinner that is akin to someone's designer kitchen space, and just being glad to be in the other's company.  No more, no less.

6/F, W Hotel
1 Austin Road West
Tsim Sha Tsui
Tel: +852-3717 2299

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Hong Kong - The French Window

It seemed befitting that a pre-Sex & the City 2 dinner should be the kind the Carrie and Mr. Big are used to.  So reservations at The French Window were made.

It was my first time, and the transformation from Lumiere, a noisier place blending Sichuan and Brazilian drinks and food, to The French Window, a much quieter ambience but still with great views of the harbor, was pretty impressive.  And traversing the long, dark corridor to get in lent some sense of arrival, since the restaurant is in a mall, albeit a fancy upmarket one.

Service was trained, friendly but not impeccable.  The switch from Cantonese to English and back was a little odd.  Perhaps it was us, since our table spoke both interchangeably.  And sometimes, the interruption of table conversation wasn't all too smooth.

The bread basket or glass in this case was an impressive start.  We tried virtually every single variety and liked to loved all of them.  The cheese/onion twist and wheat baguettes were both particularly impressive.

Of our amuse bouche trio, we liked the mushroom cappuccino best.  Not overly creamy, with a aromatic fragrance of the mushrooms coming through clearly but not pungently so.  We sipped every last bit from the tiny glass.  The other 2  - salmon terrine and liver mouse crostini were passable but ordinary.

The pan-seared foie gras with rhubarb and carrot confit, xeres sauce was delicious.  Well seared to a crisp on the outside to seal the creaminess within.  While the sauce was good, I didn't think the rhubarb and carrot combo worked.  One was way too tart, and the other was a little too blah to lend itself to anything.  The innovation didn't work for me and they would have done well to stick to something safer like apricots to do the piece of liver justice.

The seasonal fish, Bouillabaise style was a nice variety of snapper, sea bream, seared scallop and shrimp with potatoes and carrots.  The fish stew (not poured in picture yet) was full of sea-goodness although not amazing - I've had better.  Snapper was very well done although the same could not be said for the sea bream, which was a little overcooked and fishy.  Overall, not bad if eaten with the stew but the seafood on its own could have been fresher.  Especially with my recent experience at Gattopardo (, the Bouillabaise here definitely paled in comparison.

The other main course which I tried was the M9 Wagyu tenderloin, stuffed tomatoes, ratatouille, vinegar sauce was again, good but not great.  The cut of beef was not well marbled and the separation of beef and fat was too obvious, making some parts tough and others too greasy.  A little disappointing especially for the price.  A similarly priced dish at Steik World Meats ( got me a much better cut and taste.  The accompanying stuffed tomatoes with ratatouille in vinegar sauce was also too blah.

Overall, a decent enough ambience to take business partners or dates, but it won't be a place I'd be rushing back to soon.  For the price, there are better food options.  Even the same Miramar Group's Whisk ( at the Mira Hotel, I thought, was way better value and taste.  We weren't inspired enough to have dessert but if the petit fours were anything to go by, we may not have missed much.

Shop 3101, 3/F, 
Tower 2, IFC Mall, 
No.1 Harbour View Street
Tel: +852-2393 3812

Hong Kong - Da Ping Huo

Possibly one of the earliest private dining places in Hong Kong, around since at least the earlier part of this decade, and still at the same "hidden" locale, simply for the deceptive address.  The entrance is actually a "hole in the wall" on Graham Street.

The concept is actually better than the food.  Run by a couple from Sichuan, the husband is the "host" and artist behind the art on the stark white walls.  The wife is the chef and does her rounds at the tables, with a diminutive hello, then ends off with a powerful Chinese ditty that shows off her vocals and range.

Service is very spotty, with the help looking stressed and watching where they need not be watching.  If you're not too good with spicy, my advice is to try and get them to part with an entire pitcher of lemon-infused water at your table so you don't have to cry for help ever so often.

Appetisers were slightly underwhelming until the appearance of the dry-roasted beans in a quintessential Sichuanese pepper based sauce.  The heat is not the apparent type but increases as you dig in.  The numbness is addictive, and as you down each spoon, your lips pucker up naturally.  Who needs collagen lip balms or for that matter, red lipstick.

The other appetiser which acted as a good counter to this was the cucumber strips in a chilled mollasses and vinegar combo sauce.

The first mains was a steamed chicken in a sauce made with few chillies but lifted by a variety of spices native to Sichuan and with added fragrance from the roasted peanuts.

The use of clear soups to cleanse the palate was a good idea, but the only snag is that they were pretty tasteless by Cantonese standards.  Maybe that's the intent but I thought they bordered on bland.

So after our Chinese cabbage soup topped with minced chicken, we were very pleasantly surprised and excited by the braised beef brisket with whole Sichuan peppers.  This was rightly served with a bowl of steamed rice, and the 2 went together like a house on fire (pun intended).  The brisket was very well braised, and required little to no chewing, and did well enough to soak up the flavors from the chillies and other spices.  Possibly my favorite from the entire evening.

Consistent with the host's theme of serving one spicy dish with one non-spicy, the next dish of minced pork with sweet potato topped with glutinous rice was homy but perhaps a little rustic to deliver much flavor, especially with the presence of such other spicy friends at the meal.

My dining friends definitely enjoyed the next dish of shrimps with a spicy sauce that much more, and this was also perfect with rice.  Even on its own, the chopped up vegetables of celery, chillies, spring onions, etc. was a crunchily fresh yet spicy and importantly tasty accompaniment on rice.

The other winner of the night was the Ma Po Tofu.  Possibly the most famous dish and most associated with Sichuan, this was done with minced beef, instead of the bastardized more usual minced pork.  The tofu was silken smooth, like good Sichuanese tofu.  Maybe a little known fact for the uninitiated, Sichuan is actually famous for its tofu, and especially the silken texture they are able to achieve, and best eaten with a spicy sauce, aka Ma Po tofu.  The story has it that Mrs. Ma was a poor woman from the province tasked with making a dish that would impress a rich guest and the result has gone on to become the province's most famous dish.

After being served with yet another bland lettuce soup this time, the last dish of the evening of minced chicken dumplings in a spicy sauce arrived.  The use of minced chicken was disappointingly tasteless and perhaps pork would have been a better choice.  So while the sauce was pretty decent, I was too full to want to make the most of the dumplings and left mine after a singular bite.

Dessert was a welcome chilled Sichuan tofu with water chestnuts and attap seeds.  An interesting variation of almond tofu, and a decent enough finish to the evening.

Overall, nice for a visit after a long while, but given the limited variety, is not something to go back to too often.

LG/F, 49 Hollywood Road
Tel: +852-2559 1317

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Los Angeles - Chaba

J and I decided to chill.  And so, she introduces me to her local hangout, with a Thai twist.  We got a seat at the bar and had a wonderful time, with Ken helming the bar.  She loosens up with a Cosmo and I stick to tried and tested Coke, coca cola that is.

The chicken satay with Thai peanut sauce started us off for the night.  My only complaint, they use chicken breast.  But heck, the whole country generally does.  I don't care much for breasts and prefer the more succulent dark meat cuts.  Oh well.

J's spicy noodle was addictive for the chili-basil combi which I love usually with a heap of rice.  But done with rice noodles, it was more than tasty and I was glad for J to share a little with me.

Especially since my Pad-Thai took a little long to get to me - Ken was apologetic and I was chilled enough not to kick up a fuss.  The Pad-Thai was just what I needed to get a little taste of home, although comparatively speaking, this was a little heavy on the ketchup.  Overall, a nice comfort dish, albeit a little greasy.  But it put me in the right frame of mind, as I prepared to head home the following day.

Do check this out if you're in the South Bay area.  You'll at least have a great time, even if the food can be a little "raw".

525 S. Pacific Coast Hwy
Redondo Beach
CA 90277
Tel: +1.310.540.8441

Los Angeles - Matsuhisa

My new friend SB and wife B were all too kind to have hosted me at Matsuhisa - a place to see and be seen in LA.  Matsuhisa is Nobu san's first owned restaurant (circa 1987) and so the nostalgia alone was exciting for me.  More than 30 years later, it still does a roaring business, judging from the packed crowds on a Tuesday night.

We did get to chat with Nobu san, who despite taking rushing about and taking many calls, had time to stop by our table and reminisce with SB about the late Bruce Parker, rest his soul.  As for people spotting, we spotted Jason Stratham from the Transporter.

With distractions out of the way, I was excited at the opportunity to compare the food with that of his Hong Kong restaurant, where I had been a couple of times.

The seafood spring roll with caviar was an impressive start.  Chunks of crab meat rolled in a well-fried spring roll pastry served in a martini glass with a grapefruit-based sauce, topped with caviar, was decadently tasty.  Such a variety of tastes and textures coming together very well.  Even the contrasting temperatures from the heat of the spring roll with the chilled grapefruit sauce were such that you didn't have to burn your tongue while savouring it immediately when served.

The Yellowtail Jalapeno is signature Nobu and I can never get enough of this one.  A good cut of Yellowtail, firm but creamy and well-chilled, served in a ponzu soy sauce, and laced with thin Jalapeno slices.  Again, a nice play of combining a moderately fatty fish with a refreshing citrus sauce, and then add a little heat from the chilies.  Brilliant.

Another signature from Nobu - the Rock Shrimp tempura with Ponzu sauce.  I thought the Hong Kong version was better executed since this one got soggy too quickly but otherwise, good enough to pop in your mouth until the last one.

The Eggplant with Miso sauce is a favourite of mine, and SB and B loved it too.  SB liked it so much he even ate the skin.  And why not, most nutrients are there anyway.  The use of sweet miso and toasted sesame gave it an addictive fragrance, and because the miso is sweet, you don't get clenched jaws which you might if it were the salty kind.  And steamed eggplant contributes the fibre intake for the day!  Yay!

The Washugyu (or short rib) was a first for me, and boy, did it NOT disappoint.  Lovely marbled short ribs grilled to perfection, served atop Japanese abalone mushrooms, still stirring in the juices of the ribs, were a delight.  So simple, yet so well executed, and capitalising purely on the quality of the meat.

Dessert was a lovely chocolate fondant with vanilla ice cream and raspberries.  Well, you may think this is done to death.  So did I.  But I loved the fondant for its pudding-like consistency, unlike the usual cake-like ones.  Because of this, it absorbed enough of the yummy custard-like sauce and went well with the vanilla bean ice cream.  I was guilty of eating the most of this, even though it was meant to be shared.  SB and B were too kind to fight me on this one I think..

There were some misses though..  the Spicy Tuna handroll was shockingly flacid and tiny.  The seaweed was so chewy that it was almost rude to eat.  Very disappointing considering the number of sushi chefs at the counter waiting to serve.  The other dish which was so-so was the Spicy Tuna salad which was drowning in dressing and didn't taste of much else.  A waste considering the fish was so fresh.

Overall, still a great place to hang out - and given its appeal as an "old" restaurant, almost a place where only the seasoned ones go.  I am told De Niro/Nicholson types have their own private corners..

129 N La Cienega Blvd
Beverly HillsCA 90211
Tel: +1 (310) 659-9639

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Washington DC - Kushi Izakaya & Sushi

Lunch time is probably not the coolest time to visit but the food was enough to win me over.  And for the quality, I didn't think the prices were unreasonable by international standards, especially if it's an Izakaya first, then a sushi joint second?  The cool factor is high - high ceilings, dark interiors, and while I did not check, from what I've heard, a comprehensive selection of sakes, shochus, and other knock-me-over drinks.  

The menu isn't big, focusing on sushi and kushiyakis (grilled skewers of meat or vegetables).  And if you do the sets, the skewers come with miso soup, pickles and rice.  A pretty good deal.

The skewers we ordered are largely winners but special mention goes to the Buta Bara.  Melt in your mouth pieces of black pork belly that had a pork fragrance only found in this species and so tender to the bite.  So good that I could not bear to discard the fat strip (which I ordinarily reluctantly do for health reasons alone).   So good we had to order seconds.  

The duck sausage which is an awesome combination of meat and liver, delivering a slightly gamey taste but not overpoweringly so akin to a foie gras sausage with bite, was also excellent.  Especially so with a strong drink.  

Other skewers were certainly competent so add these to your list - chicken breast with plum sauce and shiso,  chicken breast with marinated cod roe, chicken meatballs, Wagyu loin and mushrooms, and even the golden potato.

The Chef's sushi choice of 10 pieces were surprisingly good.  A nice selection of white fish, chutoro, mackeral, sweet shrimp, scallop, clam, sea eel and salmon roe.  All catch-of-the-day fresh, and laid atop a good bed of rice that had the right amount of sushi vinegar in it.  A worthwhile order. 

To supplement, we also had the fatty tuna and scallion maki.  Generously creamy from the melt-in-your-mouth tuna, and a subtle hint of heat from the scallion.  Always a winner.

As well as the sea eel and cucumber maki.  Sweet eel, with added crunch from the cool cucumber.  A refreshing combination.  

Certainly a big plus for the Japanese food scene in DC.  A more than worthy add.  

465 K Street NW
(between N 4th St & N 5th St)
WashingtonDC 20001
Tel: +1 (202) 682-3123

Washington DC - Good Stuff Eatery

The concept is wonderful - kinda like Jamie Oliver meets Modern Italian but here it's Spike meets old-fashioned American favourites of burgers, fries and shakes.  My reaction on visiting is that if I had a restaurant with such steady crowds, I am set.  The people relate.  So I am just hoping the nits with service and quality control get sorted out over time.

It's not a fast food joint - not at these prices.  So IMHO, it needs to offer up something a little more than nostalgia.

My hand-spun Soursop Hop and Strawberry Shake was refreshing.  Good quality fruit and ice cream hand-spun to deliver a home style consistency that's thick enough and importantly, to still be able to discern the strawberries.  The soursop was MIA so a little disappointment there.

My Uncle D's chili 'n cheddar burger did not look like much when I opened the wrapper.  Everything sort of mashed together.  While I still like to eat with cutlery, I didn't have much of choice here.  Very hard to pick up for those who still like eating their burgers the traditional way - with their hands.  The taste was admittedly pretty good.  It was a good juicy patty, and well spiced chili.  The combination of the green onions and sour cream sealed it for me.  Taste - 8; preso - ZERO.

Sides sounded wonderful from the menu.  Spike's village fries with thyme, rosemary and cracked pepper.  Stupendous combination but poorly executed.  Fries were soggy, and whoever had the bag of spices did not have control.  Way too much spice, which became soggy also.  Such a letdown.

Cliff's homegrown Vidalia onion petals were slightly better.  Tasty and sweet onion petals but oh my, coated in mile high batter.  Way too much of it.  The soggy factor was smaller but dig right to the bottom, and there was a small pile of soggy handcut fries there.  What's up with that?

Chef Spike has got a great concept and great place to hang.  But he definitely needs to hire better people and train them better to deliver the good stuff in an eatery everyone can rave about.  I like it enough to give it a second try and hope it is GOOD STUFF next time.

303 Pennsylvania Ave SE

(between S 3rd St & S 4th St) 
WashingtonDC 20003
Tel: +1 (202) 543-8222

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Los Angeles - Second City Bistro

Chill place to hang.   It is after all, a bistro.  And its cozy interiors, with open kitchen and brick walls, with booth seating is exactly as it should be although on a Tuesday night, it is quiet and not quite so cool..  Perhaps it was a little too early.

The food is as the website introduces, American fare with flair.  And the menu promises that, and then some.  

Execution was a little flat though.  The French onion soup certainly did not have a soup stock base which boasted the workings of a brew but rather a short cut of sorts.  2 tads saltier than it should be did not help either.  But if you like your salt, it is tasty for that reason alone.

My half burger as I shared with KS was better though.  Chargrilled beef patty, albeit a little overdone, with caramelised onions, crispy bacon with lettuce and tomato was tasty enough although as burgers go, this won't make it to any top 10 category.

Perhaps BK's choice of the salads with char-grilled beef was the better way to go.  If I'm in El Segundo, I might give it another go, but it won't be a place I purposely drive out to though.  

223 Richmond St
El SegundoCA 90245
Tel: + 1 (310) 322-6085

Los Angeles - Patina Catering

One of the best experiences in LA is being invited to a swanky address and having a caterer come in-house to cook specially for you.  I was fortunate to have been invited to a place in West Hollywood, beautiful house with unmatched views of the city, being set in a hill.

Hor D'oeuvres of salmon tartar on a crisp wafer, and brie with honey and roasted almonds served on an endive leave greeted us as we walked in, picked up our drinks and did the grand tour.

No wonder, and Patina Catering did live up to its name.  So double fortune!  That's why they call it Hollywood...

For starters, the arugula salad with Medjool dates, aged Parmesan, combined with a very light vinaigrette and given a fresh boost from the apple slices was a wondrous combination of flavours, textures and very appetising.  The spicy leaves, neutralised by the sweet and plum dates, given a slightly sharp overtone from the cheese, and then teased by the vinaigrette and crunchy apples were brilliant.  So good it makes any one want to eat all their vegetables and for a table of 10 to have all finished it, is testament in itself.

The main course of the chicken was my least favourite although the sauce is what I like to do at home.  A simple wholegrain mustard sauce made all yummy by the drippings and reduced with butter and a splash of wine.  I like my dark meat and would have been happier with it but the chicken breast was well executed and not as dry as I thought it looked.  But because it was the breast, there wasn't enough gravy to go round, since I had it with the creamy mash, garlic spinach, and sweet baby carrots.

Dessert was a slight hit and miss although I did like it.  If you don't like bananas, then you would skip this.  But I do like a mean banana dessert, and this did not disappoint, although it was a little big for me.  Slightly unripened bananas mashed up and filled a hard crust cup (a little too hard so that towards the end I just dug out the bananas), and topped with fresh cream.  The sauce I have to guess had a little brandy in it, caramelised to make it a delicious golden brown, and lent a nice twist to the otherwise one-dimensioned cream.  A brilliant finish.

And of course, clever conversation in LA's fading light on a cool crisp evenings made for a lovely way to enjoy food and company all at once.  For those who are less fortunate to get a Hollywood invite, the Patina group has quite a group of restaurants to choose from.