Sunday, September 26, 2010

Singapore - Hua Ting Restaurant

Mom's birthday dinner.  One request.  Roast suckling pig.  Ok, so I pinged my tweeps and settled on Hua Ting, which many say do the best on the island.

This little piggy wasn't so little and fed the 11 of us amply, with even enough to doggy bag.  The skin was done to a perfect crisp.  De-skinned off the carcass, the skin was served with a smear of Hoisin sauce under a flat Chinese bun, accompanied by a stalk of spring onion and cucumber for a touch a heat and a touch of cool.  The meaty chunks underneath were very tender and had a crunchy layer of fat, as opposed to an older pig's greasy fat.  Even when refried a day later at home with garlic, chillies and dark soy, it retained its tenderness.  No "porky" smell but rather, a fragrant meat worthy of its price.

Our set dinner started with a trio of appetisers - a deep fried beancurd sheet stuffed with crunchy shrimps (腐皮卷), a sea cucumber and minced pork stir-fry which was very spicy and tasty done in the style of the ever popular Szechuan dish of spicy eggplant with minced pork (渔香茄子煲).  And of course, the house special roast duck smeared generously with a plum sauce was my favourite. Succulent pieces of the bird with very crispy skin made for a poultry version of the suckling pig.

The next dish looked almost boring but the surprise is when you tuck in.  Lightly fried scallops with snow peas, the accompanying sauce which used fresh shrimp roe as a base was the highlight.  The shrimpy goodness would make anyone forget the cholesterol content and just enjoy.

The sharks' fin broth was a disappointment though.  There was little fin and the chicken and Japanese fake crab meat did nothing for me.  So while the broth was decent enough, there was little else to savour about this very ordinary dish.

Vegetable dishes at set Chinese meals usually are a "blah" which you want to get over quickly but this one was one of the better ones I've had and which I genuinely enjoyed.  Baby Chinese cabbage (奶白) accompanied by a well braised Deer tendon (a softer chew than beef tendon) as well as a slice of abalone.  Both added chewy textures of 2 different kinds and allowed you to enjoy the sauce in which it sat braising for hours, and of course the vegetables soaked up whatever you couldn't lift onto the palate with mere chopsticks.

The dish was a hot favourite among the diners.  Excellent cubes of USDA beef stir fried with a variety of mushrooms in an extremely tasty sauce.  There was enough beefy goodness to be enjoyed but not at the expense of fatigue from excessive chewing.  Even as some started to fade from a lot of food, everyone finished their individual servings with gusto.

The steamed Patin or Silver Catfish from neighbouring Malaysia is an excellent fish if you like your fish to be full of fatty goodness.  So "marbled" it is that this fish withstands even poor cooks who overcook this.  Here, the chef did a decent job by Singapore standards although I like mine a tad less cooked.  But this was still enjoyable and it was a pity that I was too full to attack the head and fins which they placed on the Lazy Susan.

While not a fan of the broad egg noodles, it seemed the lesser of 2 evils as compared with the dreaded E-Fu noodles.  Since it was Mom's birthday, noodles were mandatory since Chinese equate it to a symbol for longevity on account of the length of the noodles.  Unfortunately, this was easily the worst dish of the night.  The noodles had far too much alkali on them and even my request for vinegar could not neutralise the pH value on them.  The strong alkali was even apparent on the wanton.  So I left most of this uneaten.

Of course, no birthday is complete at a Chinese restaurant without Longevity Buns.  In Chinese folklore, the peach is a symbol of longevity and so these peach-shaped buns fulfilled their role nicely and offered a sweet finish with its smooth lotus paste on the insides.

Our finale of fruit and complementary mooncakes made for lingering finish as we chatted over tea and mooncakes till it was almost midnight.

I would have preferred to make up my own menu but the set option seemed the easy thing to do.  So I can't really complain about the couple of misses we had.  Overall still enjoyable and especially memorable for the suckling pig.  Service could be a little more efficient though since there were pockets where we couldn't get anyone's attention and of course, it took a lot longer than we expected to get the bill.

442 Orchard Road
Orchard Hotel
Tel: +65-67396666

Singapore - Ooi Japanese Dining

Every now and then, it's pleasant to be surprised.  How does one do that if one has never dined at the restaurant before?  Great reviews?  Well, there were only 2 to go on.  But when one of them is an article of how the chef was invited to even hypothesise a $750 menu, you know that he is probably someone respected in his field.  Aside from the chef Koichi san, who we never got to meet because he was so busy making his guests happy from his kitchen kingdom, his wife, the affable Hiromi san who runs the front line, is an absolute darling.  Complete with a Singlish/Japanese accent, she will make anyone feel at home.  We succumbed to Hiromi san's charms immediately and kindly asked her to hit us with whatever she thought fit.

To start, a special tofu from Kyoto, a place well known for its soy products, especially tofu and the prized yuba - the top layer which forms as tofu is being processed, and which stars in many Kyoto meals.  This tofu was smooth yet almost has a bite and grain which allows the very subtle taste of the tofu to come through as you let it linger on your palate, using only your tongue and gums to break it down slowly.  Hiromi requested that we eat part of it neat, and part of it using an Okinawa salt that gave it another dimension but without being too salty.

Then, the vinegared jellyfish from Genkainada.  A variation of the usual Shanghainese starter of jellyfish or jellyfish heads with Zhejiang vinegar, this version was similarly a great appetiser.  This Genkainada version was a lot crunchier and soaked up the vinegar well, making it more stark than the Shanghainese variety, and immediately perks you up.

The gingko nuts from Kumamoto pan roasted with rock salt then soothed our palates with a subtly sweeter and chewier nut than is usually eaten.  These were addictive and the contrast of the sweet and salty were perfected harmony and prepared us for the choice sashimi to be served.

This rare clam from Hiroshima we were told only has 1cm of edible part out of 20cm.  So much so that the perfectly crunchy and sweet piece of flesh hidden beyond a long abyss of "liver" takes skill to extract from its shell and this very pretty piece of flesh with bright orange patches can then be enjoyed by the lucky few.  

The mantis shrimp or Nama Shako is rarely served as sashimi in its raw form because of the skill involved in deshelling it in that state.  While most chefs will therefore quickly poach it before deshelling, Koichi san is one of 4 or 5 chefs in Japan who are capable of letting his guests savour this very sweet piece of crustacean in this form.  And the result is more amazing than a piece of sweet shrimp.  The mantis is sweeter, moister, softer and less chewy so it is almost melt in your mouth.  

Other selections on the sashimi platter included the flathead from Chiba, amberjack from Genkainada and of course, a piece of fatty Toro to finish off.

After the excitement of the ocean, back to the earth with seasonal chestnuts steamed in a slightly sweet sauce.    Chestnuts are almost always eaten without the brown layer of skin encasing the fruit, however in this case, Koichi chooses to steam them with the bitter skin on and as alchemy would have it, any trace of bitterness is gone after the steaming process and the fruit retains its juicy sweetness on the inside and it is one of the sweetest chestnuts you will eat.

Also from the earth, the famous corn from Hokkaido which is eaten raw because that is how sweet it is.  So sweet that Japanese term this a fruit corn rather than a sweet corn.  In this version, Koichi san just lightly heats the surface of the cob to allow the sweetness to come through even more, and Hiromi san kindly brings us some raw kernels for us to compare.  The raw is fresher in taste, but the heated version is sweeter.  Chemistry is a wonderful thing.

For our main dish, Hiromi san fed us the grilled head of the Amberjack from which we had some sashimi earlier.  The meat is fall off the bone fresh, of course, and while cottony, is likely grilled with rock salt to retain moisture.  Perfect with a squeeze of lemon and grated radish.

While we were eager to try the grilled Saga beef recommended by Hiromi san, she knew we weren't physically able to by this stage of the game.  So we requested for some rice dish to round off.  Hiromi looked at our faces, rubbed her belly and goes "I think we only give you a half portion".  Gee, thanks.  But she was right as usual.  The Futomaki she brought out was a yummy roll of sashimi bits with Japanese omelette and cucumber enveloped in good grains of rice.  My only complaint (and this is of the entire night) was that the seaweed was a little flacid by the time the roll was delivered making it extremely difficult to chew through with one bite.  

Warm miso soup with clams to bring us to a comforting finish of what was an extremely educational food tour of Japan courtesy of Hiromi san and made delicious by Koichi san.  

And of course, no Kaiseki is complete without a finale of more Japanese produce, this time sweet and crunchy persimmon from Niigata (the only persimmons I eat since I hate the mashy kind), and of course the alcoholic Kyoho grape, just like drinking wine straight from the fruit itself.  All prettily presented on Hiromi san's proud new fan-shaped plates from Japan, the "handle" which is a detachable pick you can use to pick up the food with.  Brilliant.

Wondrous experience.  We can't wait to go back.  

5 Koek Road
Cuppage Plaza
Tel: +65 6737 4929

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Hong Kong - Tuscany by H

The end is imminent.  Harlan G has an upcoming venture in the nearby LKF Tower and so from what I've heard, Tuscany by H will say farewell within the next 45 days.  From the first time I visited back in 2008, I have never been disappointed and always leave happy and contented after a meal here.  So while I look forward to a new offering from the big man, I have mixed feelings about having to say goodbye to this place.

Although I like trying new stuff every time I revisit a restaurant, I almost never do it at this place.  I stick to what I like.

Salad of Romaine, Napoli Tomatoes, Shaved Reggiano, Crispy Parma Ham and Anchovy Garlic Dressing.  This salad is simple and simply good.  The trick is that every component is sourced well and is nothing but the best.  As an example, the tomatoes are so sweet that you can probably make dessert with them and not have to add much sugar.  This is testament to what other restaurants must try to do.  If you charge 5-star prices, you should use 5-star ingredients. 

This dish is almost impossible to get wrong, especially if you follow from the 5-star ethos.  Wagyu Beef Cheek Ravioli with Goose Liver and Black Truffle.  Perfect team work by the 3 ingredients, each a superstar in its own right, to deliver a result which was most exciting to the palate.  Only complaint this time was that the ravioli broke down and was not as al dente as I like.  

Easily Harlan's piece de resistance, his Veal Chop “The Way I Like It” Crushed in Tuscany Bread served with Rocket, Cherry Tomatoes and Mashed Potatoes never fails to disappoint.  Thicker than the traditional, this is a very good piece of meat and treated with utmost respect in the way it's served.  Perfect crispy breaded outside to a very moist and juicy inside, topped with the sweetest tomatoes (same ones he used in the salad above).  My only complaint was that the rocket had a little too much heat as compared with its Italian cousin.  

To end on a sweet note, we had the Signature Tiramisu which is apparently Mr. G's gramma's recipe.  Generous with Mascarpone and not diluted down with cream, the chestnuts also added taste and texture and went superbly well with the lady's fingers and rich cocoa dust.  And we were happy ever after.  

We will certainly miss you...

G/F, Grand Progress Building
58-62 D'Aguilar Street
Lan Kwai Fong
Tel: +852-2522 9798

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hong Kong - Gusto

If you have some time, and I mean soooome time, a visit to Gusto can be a happy thing.  The food is very decent for a neighborhood kinda place but you have to be prepared to wait for it.  We couldn't tell from where we were seated but I think there is only one person doing prep and cooking for the whole joint.  Granted, it's not a big place but it's a lot to do if the whole house wants to eat.  Thankfully we were there on a slow week night.

I ordered a drink of the day - a grape-juice based slushee which was a great appetite opener.  The grape juice was fresh and sweet, and naturally so.  With the crushed ice which splurged up the juice, the 2 were joined at the hip and at one with each other.  

Even the bread took a long time coming but it was very good bread, with enough sourdough to make it chewier than it looked.  And a quality cube of butter was all we needed to ease our rumbling tum tummy.

Our appetizer of the Macaroni 'N 3 Cheese Gratin finally came after about 20 minutes.  The baked macaroni with smoked mozzarella, fontina and cheddar cheese, infused with white truffle oil was simple but well executed.  Macaroni was al dente and the 3 cheeses combined well so that they blended rather than have each fighting for attention.  And of course, the white truffle oil brought highlights to each mouthful rather than overwhelm the little cup size dish.  

Next up, our Cobb Salad with with chicken, romaine, bacon, hard boiled eggs, avocado and tomatoes served with ranch dressing was despite the abundance of protein, light and extremely tasty.  Well dressed with enough dressing to taste but not drenched, this can be a very well balanced meal on its own too.

The finale of the Gusto burger - hand ground angus sirloin with bacon, mushrooms, caramelized onions, topped with fontina and cheddar cheese on a toasted sesame bun was my least favorite.  While tasty, it wasn't my idea of a burger since the patty was just a tad soft ie. overly ground.  I usually like a little more bite in the patty so I thought it was a bit of waste of a good piece of ground meat.  But I have to say that the condiments lifted the burger and still managed to make it yummy.  Good but not great.

Since service was slow, I didn't want to risk being late for a conference call and so left without having dessert.  Maybe next time.  When I actually do have a lot more time to get into the whole lazy atmosphere.  It would then be nice to savor and try the other dishes on a very small but promising menu of home-style hearty favorites.

41 Yik Yam Street
Happy Valley
Tel: +852-28382689

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Hong Kong - Cafe Deco

For the tourist, The Peak is still a fascinating place to visit.  It is the territory's perfect vantage point for views of the magnificent skyline, possibly unrivaled in the world, on a clear day that is.  For B who hadn't visited HK in a while, it was in his mind, a pretty good way to spend a lazy afternoon.  It wasn't picture perfect since it was pretty muggy when we got there but still good enough to make things out to a reasonable distance.   I still prefer it in the evenings when the lights come on.

We ended up at Cafe Deco for a very late lunch and after ordering 2 summer coolers to quench our walk up, from the car park that is, we got to ordering an Indian-themed meal.  We started with the Spinach Chana Masala - chick peas, mushrooms and spinach leaves cooked in a mild masala sauce.  We couldn't make out the mushrooms and spinach and the sauce had way too much fresh ginger over the top to take away from the masala.  So this was a Hong Kong version of the real thing but still acceptably tasty.

The accompanying Naan Bread, which came with yogurt, was a huge disappointment.  Overly chewy to a point of discomfort, not light and fluffy as it should be, and not at all fragrant from the tandoor, this was only eaten since there wasn't much of a choice to eat the masala with, apart from rice.

The show stealer was the Tandoori Selection - a mixed hotplate of chicken, ostrich fillet, lamb shoulder and Himalayan chicken, well marinated in spices and cooked to perfection in a Tandoor oven, to retain the juices of the various cuts of meat.  We thought it might be a bit much for 2 over a light meal but we had no problems finishing it at all.  The bed of onions, lettuce and other veggies protected the meats from the hot plate also, and while keeping the meats warm, did not burn or cook them further at the table.  Although not authentic as you would get at an Indian restaurant, this is a dish that can command the fans on its own, and precisely why the Cafe Deco group has won fans over.

While I did not leave a fan of the restaurant, it would still make the list of places to dine at on The Peak.  It's full length glass windows with views of the city are distracting enough to take your attention away from the glitches in the food.

If you don't get lucky with your camera because of the weather, you can pick up an artist's rendition along the foot paths downstairs from a street peddler.

Levels 1 & 2, Peak Galleria
118 Peak Road
The Peak
Tel: +852-2849 5111

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Hong Kong - Tung Po 東寶小館

Dai Pai Dongs (大排檔)- a large part of Hong Kong's heritage, now sanitized into mostly municipal services buildings by the government.  Ok, not so sanitized, considering greasy floors and who knows what happens in the deep throes of the kitchen.  There's been hype about Tung Po and it was sheer luck that we got 6 people available together to try it on a Sunday night.  Like the experienced ones tell us, reserve the chicken and the lotus leaf rice.  Ok, all set.

We sat down amidst the hustle and bustle and with the boom box blasting.  Ok, adds to the atmosphere.  Just don't expect to do any thinking around here.  Can't even hear yourself speak.  Soup of the day kicked us off although it was rather blah.  Tasted a little like they ran out of soup and added water to make up the volumes at end of day.  Next..

The advantage of reserving food ahead is that you get it really quickly.  The roast chicken (南乳風沙雞) was well executed - very crispy skin barely hanging on to the juicy flesh and topped with crispy garlic bits.  Great start especially since there was beer and coke on the table.

Similarly, the deep fried pig trotters were excellent.  Thank goodness some of us are pretty health conscious otherwise there would not be enough to go round.

There's been much talk about this dish.  Very similar to Italian style squid ink spaghetti, this was Tung Po's interpretation of squid ink spaghetti but with squid colloid balls.  A+ for innovation although it wasn't as good as I thought.  Overall, it was pretty bland so save for getting black teeth and lips after eating this, there wasn't much else to speak of.  The balls were better and had traces of squid bits in them but I probably won't order this again unless someone demanded it.  

The flower crab steamed in egg white and chinese wine was light but tasty.  Not as good as 三姐, but still very decent and worth the order.  Flower crabs tend to be sweeter but light on the meat available to eat.  If you like something more hearty, substitute for the meat crab (肉蟹).  

This was easily my favorite of the evening.  A simple oyster omelette but oh so yummy.  The eggs were very fragrant and fried to a perfect golden brown.  Complemented by the very meaty oysters as opposed to a more muscular textured version, these oysters offered up more of the oyster taste akin to dried oysters ( 壕豉)as you bite into them and start savoring them on your palate.  

As we neared the end, we expected our duck-sauced lotus leaf rice (鴨汁荷葉飯)to show up but amidst the lengthy commotion, we learnt that it had been given to someone else!  In ordinary cases, one would get most upset to lose the opportunity of trying the house special, but here comes Robby - probably the owner/manager or in Chinese triad terms, the one who speaks (話事人).  His flamboyance distracted us and hoodwinked us into giving him 2 beers from our table, and agreeing to the substitute of the fried noodles (豉油皇炒麵).  The noodles turned out to be my 2nd favorite of the night, fried so well to leave little trace of grease on the plate.  The crunch from the bean sprouts and the fragrance from the toasted sesame seeds completed the delectability of this very quintessential Hong Kong staple.  

To end, everyone enjoys the house dessert of Chinese herbal jelly in a ginger-based syrup(薑汁涼粉).  Refreshing especially in the summer, this is a great way to cool down the system before braving the summer humidity.

Overall, an enjoyable experience.  Some dishes obviously better than others but worth at least one try.  Might be one of the better Dai Pai Dongs left on the HK island side, I'm told.

2/F Municipal Services Building
99 Java Road
North Point
Tel: +852-2880 5224

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Hong Kong - La Maison

Every once in a while, private dining is nice.  Something different from the mainstream, more likely to be a residential address and therefore akin to visiting a friend for dinner.  Private dining is really a hit and miss.  There are some really good ones and then there have been awful reviews on some.  So you have to want to do it in a forgiving mood and accept it for what it is - passionate people who want to share the fruits of their labour with anyone from the public who's willing to give them a chance.

La Maison was a little bigger than I expected.  However, you still need a pretty good GPS to get there on account that Swatow Street is not signed at the Queen's Road East end, which is where the restaurant is nearer to, and that it does not have a street-level presence.  The dim lighting added to the French country feel but would be a bitch for photos.

The food was between a good to an ok.  The 3 starters we ordered to pick at definitely gave us high expectations.

The pan-fried foie gras with peach was crispy on the outside but a little too runny on the inside.  While I like the insides creamy, runny was a tad much.  But taste wise, the canned peach and balsamic did a competent job to cut through the richness of the liver.

Escargot de baroque (Snail with Garlic Butter & Potato Puree) was yummy with the garlic fragrant but not overpowering, a nice balance with the herbs.  The molluscs were suitably firm but easy to work through and absorbed the flavors well.  What was most impressive, surprisingly, was the bed of mash the snails sat on.  Smooth but not losing potato flavor, one would do well to have a mouthful of the slug and puree together.  

The fresh mussels steamed in white wine sauce used the tinier mussels from France and therefore more akin to oysters.  We made sure to ask before we order since we all didn't like the fatter NZ variety which are too meaty and lose the slightly springier texture of these lil ones.  The stock was not creamy nor garlicky as with most places but of the herbier chicken stock variety.  Makes it lighter and easy to lap up although just a tad salty.

Where soups are concerned, the french onion soup beat the crab bisque hands down.  Even then, unless you must have soup, you may be better off with more appetizers to share since they seem to better excel in that department.  Soups were overall thin and weak.  The french onion soup won only because it had the gratinated Gruyere on a slice of french bread.  (Note: breads were were pretty low quality - the airy kind.  So a waste of the yummy herb butter and pate they serve them with).

For main courses, the grilled Angus Rib Eye with truffle and black olive sauce was an "ok".  The taste was decent but the meat was a little tough for me.  But overall, the ladies enjoyed it enough to finish a pretty sizable portion.

My main of the Confit de Canard (duck leg with green apple salad) was enjoyable.  It wasn't the best I've had since the skin wasn't crispy as I usually like it and the green apple salad wasn't enough to neutralize the salt content of the cured duck.  Might have been better with a Pinot Noir.  

Desserts were certainly competent although the dark cherry clafoutis was the most outstanding.  Akin to a dark cherry souffle, this traditional French dessert is a little heavier than a souffle and in my opinion, yummier in texture and eggier in fragrance.  And because you cannot get it at most places, the better it was.  

The french fudge chocolate cake was pretty good too but because it's been done to death, the chocolate alone wasn't enough to divert our attention from the clafoutis.  The apple crumble was "blah" at best and I have to say, crumble is best done by the English - let's just fuel the Anglo French rivalry once more!

Overall, an enjoyable dinner and at very reasonable prices.  No service charge too, mind you.  Our friendly and patient host was great and so you know, there will be new items on the menu soon.

1/F, Mountain View Mansion
2 Swatow Street, Wan Chai
Tel: +852-26283888

Hong Kong - Arun Thai

E's birthday, Friday, all bosses away...  alright!  So we take a longer walk and try something totally new to celebrate over lunch.  We get there to an almost empty restaurant and start getting worried.  Surely it can't be that bad?  How bad can Thai food be?  But having committed by the 3 of us crossing the threshold of the entrance, it was too late to make an about turn.  Shoot!  So we ordered and hoped for the best.

The food took a long time coming.  The restaurant still did not fill up much more...  But once the food came and we started tucking in, all our worries went away.  

First up, the beef brisket yellow curry.  None of that "Hong Kong style" curry that we get in the city.  This was the real thing.  You can make out the numerous spices that went into this and all coming together nicely through the coconut cream.  Just like old friends.  The beef brisket was also well cooked to be firm but soft and juicy on the inside.  Superb with rice.  This was easily E's favorite.  

The chicken with lemongrass sauce had a lot more heat but it was addictive heat.  The more spicy, the more rice I took and then the more gravy I wanted.  The chicken was tender (we liked that they used dark meat chunks) and the long beans were crunchy.  Every mouthful was textures at play and caused the heat to linger a little more..  at which point, we were begging the waiter to refill our water glasses.

The crab and vermicelli pot was probably the piece de resistance.  Very fresh crab stir fried with a predominantly white peppercorn spice mix and crunchy vegetables, mushrooms and fresh chillies, soaked up by the al dente vermicelli.  It was also a male crab so apart from the fall off the shell flesh, we also enjoyed the chewy creamy consistency of the sperm sacs, instead of the usual orange roe found in female crabs.  I like both but find the males more difficult to get.  Superb execution.

Not to be outdone, even our stir fried water convolvulus with preserved yellow bean, garlic and chillies were excellent.  This was easily the best I've had in Hong Kong.  Un-greasy and still retaining crunch and green, this one packed a little heat as well and was also great with the rice.  

Moral of the story: one of these is barely enough for one person.  Don't share.  If you don't like rice, you don't know what you're missing.  This is perfect Jasmine at its best, capable of withstanding any amount of curry you douse it with - soaking up the flavors but never disintegrating.  

As I tweeted, this is definitely Thai cuisine fit for royals.  And after a leisurely lunch, I certainly felt like a queen.

Shop G22, K11
18 Hanoi Road
Tsim Sha Tsui
Tel: +852-31881239