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

Carcassone - La Barbacane

It has one Michelin star but I think it was more for the awesome setting than the food.  The food wasn't bad at all but it wasn't the best star on our trip.  But we still got a kick out of dining at an institution set on the grounds of the beautiful Cite de Carcassone, a UNESCO heritage site since 1997.

The restaurant is situated within the Hotel de la Cite with a beautifully manicured garden overlooking the city of Carcassone as well as the Castle towers.

The dining area keeps within theme and is similarly medieval in decor and feel, and we felt we should have made an effort to come in costume, as a knight or m'lady.  But a group of 20 elderly Japanese tourists at the neighboring long table brought us quickly back to the 21st century, or is it the 20th since the 21st is about mainlander tourists??

Trout with Creme Fraiche and Caviar
A combination which cannot really go wrong.  Nice accompaniment to the apertifs we did not order..

Amuse Bouche
I don't remember much of the amuse bouche.  It was quite good but just wasn't that memorable.

Duck Foie Gras with caramel-coated peanuts, orange marmalade and warm brioche bun
The region is famous for foie and La Barbacane prides itself on its house made terrine.  And it was very good, very livery fragrant.  The use of the crushed sweet nuts was clever in adding texture and taking away any cloying richness so you can enjoy the whole thing without feeling sick.  Of course the marmalade with a hint of citrusity gave it an added dimension.  I didn't think we needed the brioche at all and was happy just eating this as presented.

Extra fresh egg served soft-boiled, Brittany lobster and ceps in a fine passion fruit ragout, cream of mushrooms
This was just a decadent breakfast in a bowl.  Egg was perfectly cooked and the freshness did come through, coming away with the feeling this was rushed from coop to kitchen.  Nothing overpowered and the combination of all the ingredients worked surprisingly well since I wasn't initially sure about the passion fruit ragout.  

Charolais beef fillet stuffed with foie gras, braised beef cheek, truffled potato and onion churros, Périgourdine sauce
The beef stuffed with foie was simply quite divine and it was a good cut balancing meatiness and marbling so only moderate effort in chewing to savor the taste of the cattle was required.  The beef cheek stacked with vegetables I wasn't so sure about.  It wasn't bad but just not my thing.  Cheek was purposefully dried out to allow for the streaks to be flavourful but I didn't fancy it getting between the teeth.  

Fresh Fig on an almond pie, a flan, vanilla Chibouste sauce, pine-nut ice cream, house-made rhum arrangé flavoured with sugar, lemon and vanilla
I love fresh figs and almond pie so this was perfect.  The condiments were just complementary but I could do with them or without.  It was just about the 2 main actors.  

Petit fours
Traditionally pretty but we were a little too stuffed to enjoy them although we snuck the jelly and sword swooshed macaron in.  Nice touch.

Overall, I thought the wow factor came from the beautiful medieval setting of the restaurant.  The food was certainly good but just paled in comparison.  Recommended for those who are first time visitors to Carcassone.  after all, it is a beautiful place to chalk up another star, for those who collect them.

Hôtel de La Cité
Place Auguste-Pierre Pont
11000 Carcassonne, France
Tel: +33 4 68 71 98 71