Friday, December 30, 2011

Best of 2011

Wow! Last work day of the year, and what a year it's been.

Perhaps the most critical natural disaster of the year was the 8.9 earthquake which hit Japan. The earthquake caused a tsunami of epic proportions which overwhelmed Japan’s eastern coast and consequently also caused a nuclear reactor crisis in Fukushima. In the wake of the devastation, every concerned individual wanted to do what he/she can to contribute towards the cause. Ironically, the most befitting support was not to boycott produce from Japan but to continue to source from them, under tightened safety and supervision. So, while many ignoramuses were snapping up salt to reduce radiation levels (don’t ask me how), I was just busy eating. In honor of the bravery of the many Japanese involved in rescue efforts, and the many who continue to thrive in difficult circumstances, here’s my best-of Japan list for 2011. My only regret was not having the opportunity to travel there this year, but it will hopefully make it as one of my destinations in 2012.

Unless otherwise stated, all restaurants in this post are in Hong Kong.

Best Sashimi – Hana Sakazuki
Best Sushi – Kenjo
Best Ramen – Ippudo HK
Best Chicken Ramen – Torihana
Best Toro Taku Don – Sushi Hiro
Best Goya Champeru – Yakichi
Best Japanese restaurant opening – Sushi Ta-ke
Best value in Singapore – Wahiro
Best salaryman’s secret in Singapore – Inaho's Kitchen Bar

In other food news, here’s my pick for 2011.

Best down and dirty Chiu Chow – 成發潮州菜館
Best down and dirty Hakka – Kong Hing Restaurant
Best Saikung Seafood – Sing Kee Seafood Restaurant
Best truffles – 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana
Best value Italian – Gold by Harlan Goldstein
Best suckling pig – 新斗记
Best foodies’ dinner – Sijie Sichuan Dishes
Best tea-pairing dinner – Lingnan Club / Mingcha
Best Caribbean private dining – Mandy's Private Kitchen
Best desserts – Sevva
Best fine dim sum – tie between Fook Lam Moon and T'ang Court
Best old school dim sum – Very Good Restaurant
Best brunch – Gusto
Best afternoon tea – Café Causette
Best bar - 001
Best TST openings to distract me from work – Holly Brown, Yo Mama , 18 Grams

In travel news, we did manage to hit a few places this year and try new foods.

Best Macau meal – Restaurante Espaco Lisboa
Best Barcelona Tapas – Cap Pep
Best Barcelona meal – Comerc, 24
Best Carcassone meal – Restaurant Le Parc

In tennis news, Roger Federer had yet another “bad” year, unable to win any Grand Slam in a calendar year for the first time since 2002. Such has been his phenomenal dominance of the sport. Notwithstanding, he still manages a hat trick of titles, capping off the year with the ATP World Finals trophy, Bercy which he had never won in his illustrious career, and of course his hometown Basel. Unsettling as it was, for the first time it was neither Federer nor Nadal who ended the year at No. 1 but Novak Djokovic, who had an awesome season with 41 straight match wins and 3 grand slam titles. History was also made when Li Na became the first Chinese woman to win a grand slam at Roland Garros, and appropriately so on June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. Finally, my other hero Justine Henin was unable to sustain her comeback due to injuries, and had to retire a second time - Shame.

In obituaries, we lost the following people and we felt sad one way or another. Elizabeth Taylor, Steve Jobs, Seve Ballesteros, Alan Tang, Teresa Hsu and Amy Winehouse. Each individual had contributed entertainment, technology, philanthropy and/or talent in their own special way, and they will each be missed. I’m not sure many will miss Osama bin Laden, Col. Muammar Gaddafi or Kim Jong Il, and certainly some are still debating if it is even appropriate to send condolences.

Closer to home, Singapore saw 2 elections this year and the advent of social media allowed the opposition to put up much more of a credible fight. Of course, the quality of the candidates fielded was significantly more impressive. While the nation decided in polls that they should only make history in baby steps, perhaps this signals a change and the next general election ought to be nothing short of interesting. The momentum carried through a little with the Presidential Elections but again, although margins were close, it was the mainstream candidate who came through.

In entertainment, and there was not time for much, I enjoyed my first Bob Dylan concert in Beijing. It was nothing short of awesome considering Mr. D’s age. His ability to sustain a 2 hour performance with no breaks was just amazing. And it was all great music even if I couldn’t make out the lyrics! No “wow!” movies in my opinion, but the following were certainly enjoyable. "Bruce Lee: My Brother" for the nostalgia 1940s to 1960s Hong Kong brings, "非誠勿擾 II or If You Are The One II"; for a little romantic reality, and "Wuxia" for Donnie Yen and Takashi Kaneshiro.

Once again, another year to be thankful and grateful for. Thanks for reading and here’s wishing you a fantastic 2012. Eat well.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hong Kong - a tale of 2 suckling pigs

The Cantonese are famous for their roasts.  No, not the kind you eat with Yorkshire pudding, but the kind where the carcass is hung or pierced through with a steel rod, then licked by open flames till crisp and done.  And where roast meats are concerned, some would take the view that the suckling pig is the holy grail.  And for good reason.  To cut short poor piggy's life because the skin is crispier and the meat more succulent and tender when cooked is reason for the premium it warrants over traditional roast pork.

And for that reason also, it is not meant for the everyday.  In the old days, if you were average Joe, perhaps wedding dinners were the only time you might see the roast piglet.  Nowadays, many Cantonese restaurants do the dish, and for those who want a treat every now and then, it is readily available, at least in Hong Kong.  But there are only a few which really tout it as the house specialty.

For traditional roast piglet, I do like the one by 新鬥記 (pronounced Sun Tow Kei in Cantonese or Xin Dou Ji in Putonghua).  I couldn't find an official English name for the place though.

Traditional Roast Piglet at 新鬥記
The crackling is done to a perfect crisp, with the fat underneath roasted away so that the taste is not greasy and on the contrary, quite addictive, especially if you've got cold beer at the table.  The meat underneath absorbs the spices rubbed on and is fragrant (none of that "piggy" taste) and tender.  Just quite perfect, really.

Kimberley's Roast Piglet
In contrast, the roast piglet at Kimberley is served 4-D, so you can still see the head and general shape of the pig.  Not for the faint-hearted who are used to eating everything filleted and balk at the sight of source of the meat they consume.  The wonder of this is the effort which goes into making this dish, where the insides of the pig are cleaned out to make way for a stuffing of richly flavored glutinous rice.

Cross-section view of Kimberley's roast piglet
The result is every diner at the table gets a "swiss roll" of rice on the inside enveloped by tender meat, then an "icing" around the cake of crisp crackling.  The combination of textures and flavors overwhelms and it is really quite rich as you struggle to fit it all in, especially since they served this as a final course.  Note to self: go even lighter with pre-dishes or just get at least 10 people at the table to enjoy this one comfortably.  For obvious reasons you cannot get a half order which you can at Sun Tow Kei.

For an overall experience, I actually like the menu at Sun Tow Kei better.

Sun Tow Kei's steamed crab on rice
The steamed crab on rice is what lures me back time and again, alongside the roast piglet.  Order these 2 dishes and you're all set.  The crab is really nothing to speak of but the rice soaks up the juices from the crab and is then accentuated liberally with roast garlic and spring onions.  Egg white is purely for texture to give the semblance that there is more crab than there is.  The result is pure carbo heaven.  I can down 2 bowls of this easily.

Whatever you fancy, both restaurants offer up their own specialties and make for an authentic Cantonese restaurant experience in Hong Kong.  If you prefer to avoid the decibel levels associated with most restaurants in Hong Kong, go to Kimberley.  Otherwise, brave the crowds at Sun Tow Kei and be prepared to wait (even if you make a reservation).

2/F, Express By Holiday Inn, 33 Sharp East Street, Causeway Bay
Tel: +852-3162 8899

君怡閣中菜廳 Kimberley Chinese Restaurant
M/F, The Kimberley Hotel, 28 Kimberley Road, Tsim Sha Tsui
Tel: +852-2369 8212 / 2723 3888

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Hong Kong - 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana

About a week before the Michelin guide announced its 2012 list, little did we realise that Mr. Umberto Bombana would go on to score 3 stars for his restaurant.  Thanks to D, we scored reservations for this date about 10 weeks ago.  Now that it's gotten 3 stars, that 10-week wait is only likely to increase.

Alba White truffles
Was it worth the hype?  Well, I'll say as much.  It is the best place to enjoy Alba truffles in Hong Kong.  

And thanks to D, our very friendly server kept going and going..  to cheers and applause of course.  Thankfully we were hidden from public view.

Buttered Parmesan linguini with white truffles
The result:  a fabulous fragrance and taste which totally stole the show, making this one of the best pastas I've ever enjoyed.  Only complaint: since our group was large, and there was only one guy shaving, the pasta was just a tad clumpy when we finally got down to it.  But still thoroughly enjoyable.

And the rest of dinner?

Marinated Scampi - hybrid caviar, sea urchin and citrus Chantilly
A combination of the freshest ingredients.  No one can argue with that.  Naturally sweet, but those used to eating Japanese sweet shrimp might find this a tad bland by comparison.  Caviar and sea urchin make up for it.

Duo of braised pork cheek and roast medallion of pork
While the cheek was awesome - soft, tender and juicy, the rest of the dish wasn't as mind blowing.  Well executed.

Cheese platter
Hard cheeses here beat the soft cheeses in my opinion.  Unfortunately, we didn't get the names of the cheeses.  Choice of quince and apricot preserves were good matches.

Sabayon with Muscat grapes
Very pretty and refreshing.  Good for those who like just a palate freshener after dinner, with a just of hint of ostentatiousness in the form of a gold leaf over the top.

Pear tart
A tad burnt one side, but otherwise quite good.  More subtle than apple and not as sweet.

Petit fours
On the sweet side, I actually found the petit fours most enjoyable.  The use of pistachios in the nougat pieces, and the use of hazelnuts in the meringue were very, very good.  Wish they had doggie bags filled with these on our way out.

Overall, a great place to dine and enjoy the freshest which Mr. Bombana sources from around the world.  Was it 3 stars' worth?  I'm no Michelin judge so I won't even go there.  But I will go back to Otto, at least for tartufos!

Shop 202, Alexandra House
18 Chater Road, Central
Tel: +852 2537 8859

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Autumn Achievements - Hairy Crab

This year's hairy crab season was enjoyed entirely outside of the home.  A touch of lazy, a touch of convenience.  No messy steaming, no messy washing up.  Smiles..

Go traditional at Hong Kong Lao Shang Hai, one of Hong Kong's oldest Shanghai restaurants, where waiters are still in the traditional white shirt and black trousers, but both garments are washed thin and have seen better days.  But the knowledge of the waiters on the food is unsurpassed and if you find one that's friendly enough to share, he is going to tell you what the real deal is and you shall follow his bid and enjoy a traditional Shanghainese meal in the heart of Wanchai.

Goose liver pate smeared with Zhejiang vinegar and honey
Yes, even the Chinese know a thing or two about their foie.  And this is one fine way of enjoying it.  Smooth liver paste served chilled and given a breath of acidity from the vinegar and honey "jam" over the top.  Not greasy and very enjoyable.  Only complaint - it's a mighty small serving.

Steamed hairy crab
Then the real McCoy arrives.  And yes, please Mr. Waiter, I would like you to help open it up.  And this one does not disappoint.  The golden yellow hue of the roe is a sight for sore eyes and the accompanying crushed ginger in Zhejiang vinegar is an excellent way to cut through the richness of the roe.

Shanghainese pulled noodles with stir fried hairy crab
A wonderful way to retain the taste of the hairy crab is to have more of it - finishing with stir fried hairy crab, generously slathered over an al dente hand pulled noodles.

Glutinous rice dumplings in Osmanthus and Fermented rice syrup
This is probably one of the best of its kind.  Extremely fragrant and without the usual cloying and tongue clinging sugariness in lesser bowls.

Xin Ji Shi's hairy crab bowl
For those really lazy and happen to be in Shanghai, just go to any Xin Ji Shi restaurant in the city and order a bowl of hairy crab.  No peeling, snipping and digging necessary.  It's all right there, stir fried with a hint of ginger and served in a generous deep terracotta bowl celebrating the crab.  Just open up and say aaaaaaaah........

For those who want a touch of swank, with awesome views from within the No. 1 Peking Road building, another Shanghainese brand has set up its "premier" outlet there.  Unfortunately, the Xiao Nan Guo in Hong Kong is not anywhere close in food standards to its Shanghainese mother.

Stir fried river shrimps with hairy crab

Spicy rice topped with hairy crab in a stone pot
The quality of the hairy crab used was unlike its name.  It certainly wasn't premier since it didn't taste or smell like the crustacean we are used to.  So despite clever creations, the punchline wasn't delivered and the joke was on the diner.  Quite unfortunate.

A decent enough season but lesson learnt - enjoying hairy crab season is an aged old Shanghainese tradition which can only be enjoyed at timeless places.  Forget the swank and just get down and dirty.  You'll be a lot happier.

老上海飯店 Hong Kong Lao Shang Hai Restaurant

UG1, Novotel Hong Kong Century, 238 Jaffe Road, Wan Chai
Tel: +852-2827 9339

新吉士酒楼(久光店) Xin Ji Shi Restaurant (Jiu Guang Department Store branch)
8th Floor, Jiu Guang Department Store, No. 1618 Nanjing Xi Lu, Jing An District (near Jing An temple)

Tel: +86-21-62883658

小南國壹號 Xiao Nan Guo Premier
10F, 1 Peking Road, Tsim Sha Tsui
Tel: +852-2527 8899

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Girona - Massana

So, this is my last post in the Spain/France series.  Well, for the time being, until I make it to that culinary haven again, sooner rather than later.  And since Girona is the cradle of this era's creative chefs, we had to at least chalk up one star in this lovely city.  Being such poor planners, we took whatever was offered to us.  So the solitary Michelin star we managed to bag was at Massana, conveniently located in the Eixample Nord district, not far from the city centre and our hotel.

Named after the guy who has run it since 1986, the restaurant has a bright pine setting in comfy but by no means plush surrounds, nor does it attempt to be trendy.  Just simple and understated, and could pass off as a dining room in someone's home.  Service by our female server was very professional and knowledgeable, friendly with a touch of humor, but without being intrusive.  In some cases, we thought she stole the show over the food.  Shame I've forgotten her name now..

Glass of Cava and we were ready to commence The Gastronomic Menu, which starts with 6 tapas to whet the appetite.

Foccacia with prime quality cured ham (foreground)
Cream of tomato, melon and crunchy duck ham
Cod, virgin olive oil and frozen tomato
Tinned beetroot with watermelon
Blini with leek, king prawn and bacon
Creamy mushroom fritter
All starters were innovative while respecting the original excellent quality of the local produce used.  Suffice to say, we were wowed!

Marinated sardines, served on flat bread with tomato and basil tartare and balsamic ice cream
This was easily the best dish of the night for me, and I still dream of how fresh the sardines were and that oh so complementary balsamic ice cream on the top.  A wondrous combination of the freshest ingredients which matches some of the best sashimi places I've been lucky to eat at.

Razor clam from the Galician Rias, citrus fruits and cauliflower
This was a novel way to eat razor clams, which are similar to the bamboo clams we get an abundance of in Hong Kong.  Very fresh and the citricity was a nice balance to the mayo like sauce.

Rabbit shoulders in warm pickle and mushrooms
A tasty product from what was likely a stew done for hours with tender meat.  Pickles were a nice touch against the salinity but from this dish on, the rest of the dishes unfortunately failed to sustain the wow factor, and while very competent, one major complaint was the unusually high salt factor which seemed to increase with every dish.  

Creamy rice with "escorpora" and sea cucumber
I didn't know what an "esccorpora" is but I found out later that the fish is reddish with many spikes and which some translate to be a scorpion fish.  Not something we catch off the South China Sea I suppose.  Bouncy flesh akin to fugu.  But alas everything was overpowered by salt, as was the next dish.

Loin of cod with wild mushroom sauce
Aside from the salt, a little overcooked by Asian standards.

Pork neck, tender and crunchy textures, black sausage and citric fruit salad
A lot more well balanced than the preceding courses but by then we were reaching our limits.  Pity.  Crackling was awesome though.

Choco-passion fruit and "marialluisa"
Any European restaurant worth its salt (pun intended!) will redeem itself with dessert.  And this one did not disappoint.  The use of "marialluisa", Spanish for lemon verbena, provided the tangy freshness which paired well with the usually cloying passion fruit and chocolate combo.  

Rum savarin, apricot ice cream and purple fruit tea crumble
But if the sardines were my favorite savory dish of the evening, this was my favorite sweet one.  A well soaked cake but not overpowered by alcohol, it was lovely and moist and matched by the apricot ice cream, even if I didn't care too much for the crumble.  A nice end to a meal of hits and misses.

I wished we hadn't encountered the salt problem.  Part of the rationale could have been that we didn't drink as much, opting not to go with the wine pairing.  But still, I could feel a heart attack waiting to happen by the end of the night.  If sodium levels weren't so high, it would have been one of the best meals.  

Bonastruc de Porta, 10
17001 Girona
Tel: +34 972 21 38 20

Saturday, November 19, 2011


Girona - where buzz does not mean crowds.

I found it more manageable as a city than say, Barcelona.  Of course, you can't beat the architecture and coolness of Barca but Girona is a lovely city to walk through and just soak in the colors and historical buildings all around.

Boira's Cod Brandada
It's also the culinary hotbed in Spain, and is home to the now-closed el Bulli and the 3-star El Celler de can Roca.  Food was of very high quality and even an unassuming cafe offered a yummy chopped salmon and apple salad, as well as the local specialty of a cod brandada, which is an emulsion of salt cod and olive oil.

Occi's prawn carpaccio and foie gras shavings
Japanese sashimi chefs would find their match at Occi with the prawn carpaccio perfectly thinly sliced, as with the accompanying salad which boasts the same thinness with the foie gras shavings liberally layered over the top.

The city's proximity to the Costa Brava strip in the same province means a day trip to L'Escala is very doable.  A small sleepy town which wakes up to many times its population of 6,000 in the peak seasons, of visitors who come to enjoy the unspoiled beaches....

the quaint little town centre with buildings from the past.....

Anchovies on tomato paste toast
and where you can also enjoy the town's most famous produce - anchovies.

If you just want a province which offers a myriad of things to do, but with a laid-back kind of feel, and get fed very well, Girona is just what you might be looking for.

Occi Restaurant
Mercaders, 3GironaCatalonia 17004
Boira Restaurant
Plaça Independència, 17GironaCatalonia 17001

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Carcassone - Restaurant Le Parc

We chalked up our second star in Carcassone at Franck Putelat's Restaurant Le Parc.  In contrast with La Barbacane, and despite its proximity to the castle city, Le Parc is set in modernity and the dining area is reminiscent of a contemporary dining room in a 21st century home.  Masculine whites, grays and blacks, given a splash of color by a burnt orange carpet, and accentuated by a glassless chandelier.  Service was efficient and un-intrusive, yet friendly.

Amuse Bouche
And these would be the best lollipops I've ever had in my entire life.  And it wasn't even sweet.  A clever foam like extract of what I guessed to be lobster.  So light, so clever, so good.

The sweetest tomato with a crisp shell, the yummiest celeriac macaron.  So good that even the decadent salmon and foie gras stack paled in novelty.  A supreme promise of things to come.

Breads are made in-house and good, even if served cold, with house-made au naturel and seaweed butters and a tiny bowl of sea salt for taste.

Bouillabaisse Of Foie Gras, Shells, Pink Fir Apple, Rust

Toothpaste squirt of a garlic-based paste
This is certainly one form of foie gras I've never had and I'll tell you, in a soup, it's awesome.  Even richer than the liver and brandy soups mom used to make when we were little to boost our iron count.  This was smooth, rich yet light.  And the seafood was just lightly cooked to showcase its freshness.  The garlic paste in a toothpaste tube added the right amount of heat to the crostini for a crispy bite of voila, garlic bread.

Scallops, Studded In The Iberian Chorizo, Cep In The Verbena, Vinaigrette In Condiments
This was refreshingly light yet tasty, primarily from the yummy Chorizo.  My only request would be that the scallops be seared a little since it got to a state that was between cooked and uncooked - losing the crunch from a sashimi grade but not yet achieving the seared goodness of a pan sealed one, as a result getting a little monotonous after a while.

Fresh and matured cheeses from Aude area, and from elsewhere
This was one of the reasons we selected the Emotion menu.  The 2 storey trolley of cheeses presented were so inviting.  I wished the main courses were smaller, ok I didn't really.  But I really wished my stomach had more room beyond the 3 cheeses I selected.  Since we were in the area, my selections were all from the Aude area.  I selected a semi-hard cow and a matured goat, and a blue.  With the exception of the musty blue which I couldn't finish, the cherry compote condiment was a fine friend to the cheeses and I was a happy camper.

Fig Candied In The Red Wine, Pepper Ice Cream
Yes, we're French so we have 2 desserts.  Yay!  I love the balance of spicy pepper, cooled in its ice cream form, with the natural sweetness from the figs and alcoholicism from the wine.  Balance just allows you to put away that much more.

Chocolate Biscuit  and Hazelnut, White Coffee Ice Cream and Flower Of Salt
Same thing with this one using salt although overall, the sugar content and richness was a little more telling with this one on account of the chocolate.  But again, balanced so that finishing every morsel is not difficult at all.

Sweet Delights
And we still had a little room to sample the petit fours, which were all good too.  

The wine pairing with the dinner with wines from the region were also fantastic and highly recommended if you're not driving since it was awesome value.  

I realized after the fact, that Le Parc is expected to receive a second Michelin star, and based on our meal there, it would certainly be well deserved.  

Chemin des Anglais
11000 Carcassonne
Tél: 04 68 71 80 80