Wednesday, July 28, 2010

[TAIWAN] Snow King: Tastes Like Chicken

When I heard about Snow King, I knew it would be a place I had to visit. This legendary ice cream shop sells over 73 flavors of homemade ice cream, ranging from the ordinary to the way-out obscure.

(73 flavors!)

I made the pilgrimage to this tiny store and perused the menu. Flavor headings included nuts and pulses, “healing” herbal flavors, fruit, alcohol, vegetables and teas, among others. The family went with more orthodox offerings, such as the creamy coconut ice cream (NT60), a perfumed almond flavor (NT65) and a sweet, fresh strawberry (NT55).

(Sesame oil chicken: no joke)

Wanting to take advantage of the quirky flavors, I pendulum-ed between the pig’s trotter flavor (NT110) and the sesame oil chicken (NT110), eventually deciding on the latter. Snow King doesn’t like—my ice cream sphere smelt exactly like sesame oil chicken and tasted that way too. The first bite was hilarious. But somewhere between bites four and five, the sesame oil became way too pungent… it should be no surprise the sesame oil and dairy doesn’t exactly mix well… not to mention the little bits of hardened ginger salt flecked in the ice cream. To be honest, it was pretty damn gross. But hey—it touts itself as being sesame oil chicken flavored and, without a doubt, that’s what it delivered. So kudos to that.

The uber friendly store owner assured me that the sesame oil chicken flavor is fortifying for the body (because of the ginger, she says). I’ll take her word for it. But the novelty aside, Snow King does do some quality ice cream. And if you're not ready to plunge into the chicken/curry/pork floss flavors yet, there's still a myriad of interesting options for you to sample.

FOOD: 4/5 (an extra point for originality)

SNOW KING /雪王 ($)
No. 65, Wuchang Street, Sec 1
Taipei City, Taiwan

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

[TAIWAN] Jiu Dao Kou: Chiu Fen For a Day

(Soy braised and pickled)

After what I thought was a disappointing bowl of braised beef noodles from Liang Pin, I gave my usually favorite form of carb another shot. This time, it was during our day trip to Chiu Fen where we made a lunch stop at the area’s famed Jiu Dao Kou Niu Rou Mian / 舊道口牛肉麵.

(Yang chun mian: less is more)

We started with two snacks for appetizers—soy braised tofu and eggs and pickled vegetables (both NT30). Not really in the mood for another bowl of beef noodles, I opted instead, this time, for the plain yang chun mian / 陽春麵 (a ridiculously cheap NT35). Don’t underestimate the simple bowl of plain soup noodles; it’s when you strip the dish bare of its toppings and over-cumbersome flavors that you can really tell how good the actual noodles are. And the ones are Jiu Dao Kou aren’t bad. The noodles are more delicate than the thick knife-cut ones at Liang Pin. They’re less al dente but nowhere near mushy. They’re still thick and flat enough to pick up the delicately savory broth, flecked with bits of chopped scallions. Just goes to show that sometimes, less really is more.

(Shaved ice)

And after polishing off the noodles, we picked up a bowl of chilled beancurd pudding in ginger syrup, topped off with glutinous taro and sweet potato dumplings and finely shaved ice. It’s an interesting mishmash of textures (the fine crunch of the ice works particularly well with the chewy, squidgy dumplings) and a refreshing (if still a little filling) way to end a meal.

FOOD: 3/5
SERVICE: 1.5/5

Jiu Dao Kou Niu Rou Mian / 舊道口牛肉麵 ($)
4 JīShān Street
Rueifang Township
Taipei City, Taiwan

[TAIWAN] Liang Pin Beef Noodles: First Time

(Red braised beef noodles: meh)

I wanted my first official meal in Taiwan to be something special. Something memorable. Something effin’ good to eat. Not too much to ask for, right? I definitely thought we were in safe hands when we strolled into Liang Pin Beef Noodles / 良品牛肉麵. After all, their noodles are apparently of the award-winning variety. We plunked ourselves down on one of the grotty stools around one of the grotty tables and—of course, went with the signature—red braised beef noodles/紅燒牛肉麵 (NT100) and a plate of dumplings (NT45).

Unless you request otherwise, the folks at Liang Pin will serve you Shanxi knife-cut noodles. These fat, irregular strands are thick, chewy and unbelievably filling. These carb ribbons slipped and slid between my chopsticks, splattering oil-laden broth (it’s so greasy, it’s undrinkable) all over my shirt. As for the beef… it wasn’t particularly tender or particularly well-seasoned. Long story short—I was pretty unimpressed. I’d take a bowl of HK-style beef brisket noodles over this any day.

The dumplings fared better. Plumped full of tender pork and meat juices. But also, nothing special. Then again, the meal came to about HK$40. I guess I can’t complain too much.

FOOD: 2.5/5

No. 10, Kai Feng Street
Zhong Zheng District
Taipei City, Taiwan

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo: Comfortable

You know those restaurants that are all hype, $$$, and nothing at the end of it but disappointment and a couple thousand less in the wallet? Let’s not name names… but you all know which ones I’m talking about.

And really, when 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo opened, I had the same fate paved-out for the glitzy, Alexander Building’d restaurant. It had all the makings: celebrity chef (check), beautiful environs (def. check), Central location (duhr), and apparently sky-high prices. I was skeptical… but skeptical in the way that I’d be willing to foot the bill just to prove that my skepticism was unfounded upon. Ugh, writer’s ego. Unfortunaately though, I was proven WRONG… which, come to think of it, is actually really fortunate...

(Lobster salad: with mango)

I booked well in advance to ensure a seat with my equally cynical friend. Good thing we did since the place was p-a-c-kayed on a Monday evening. Awesome business. Before perusing the menu though, I did notice the roughly 3:1 waiter to table ratio. Now, I knew that Otto spared no expense with their restaurant, I just didn’t expect them to surpass hotel-grade service. This A-grade service shown through when W and I came to order. We were tugged between choices from the tasting degustation menu and the à la carte. Seeing how distraught we were, the waiter very kindly suggested we mix and match from the two menus. After knowing that was allowed, we started with the fresh lobster salad with mango. A slightly disappointed start—the flavors were imbalanced, with the tangy mangoes outweighing the fresh briny flavors of the creamy lobster. A shame, really.


(Burrata cheese ravioli: mmmmm...)

Just when I was about to write 8 1/2 Otto as another banker’s dining hall, the golden haired waiter placed a shallow bowl of burrata cheese ravioli ($210) in front of me. Unassuming to say the least in terms of appearance—a few triangles of sealed ravioli, plumped with soft cheese. So what? So EVERYTHING when I took a bite. So simple… so comforting. We both paused, looked at each other, and dove in for the second forkful. Things like this are hard to explain—it’s comforting satisfaction in a bite. It’s silky smooth handmade pasta (one of chef Bombana’s specialties) brimmed full of mild cheese, blanketed in a paunch sauce of salty olives, eggplant and tomatoes. If my mother were Italian (she is not), she would’ve fed me this through my Italian (it was not) childhood.

(Beef cheek n' tongue)

And gawd did it pick up from burrata cheese ravioli! For the mains, I opted for the beef tongue and beef cheek braised in red wine with orange and spice compote ($330). Very reminiscent of a dish I had at The Drawing Room. I will duck the “Roland vs. Umberto” question and just go ahead and say it was yummmm. The tongue was definitely more interesting than the beef cheek. But I didn’t really have enough time to appreciate the cow—when W let me take a bite from her lobster cassoulet ($320), I knew that I was a fool to go with meat. Seafood is where chef Bombana shone—the lobster was bedded on eggplant parmigiana, parsley, green peppers, and yummily creamy uni. So fresh, briny… luuuuuuuuuurvely. Food envy? Hells YES.

(Strawberry melba)

(Coffee Trio)

But I didn’t want food envy to affect the rest of my meal. So I was DETERMINED to beat W in terms of dessert choice. She went with a frilly Wild Strawberry Melba of fine strawberry jelly, milk vanilla foam, strawberry pannacotta ($110)—a lifting springtime sweet, to say the least. But nothing compared with my Coffee Trio—tiramisu, warm coffee tart and crunchy coffee ice cream—($110). Read ‘em and weep… I totally won the dessert round.

When the bill came, it was about $900 per person. Seriously, given the extravagant feast we’d just had (plus a cuppa wine each!), it was a steal. Sure, Otto has all that glitz and glam going for it. But more importantly, it also stays true to awesome, comforting food. If a simple bowl of ravioli can slap a smile on your face, or if a lobster cassoulet can make you go “oh wow,”… in the immortal words of Teenage Fanclub, “Ain’t That Enough?”

FOOD: 4.75/5
SERVICE: 4.4/5

8 1/2 OTTO E MEZZO ($$$$$)
Shop 202, Alexandra House
18 Chater Road

Xenri No Tsuki: Second Chance at Love

I don’t really remember any specifics from the first time I went to Xenri no Tsuki. I remember the food being up-to-par (we ordered a whole mess of à la carte items), I remember loving the low-key quiet atmosphere, I remember dropping a whole lodda’ money on the meal. I remember not really being blown away…

(Amuse bouche trio: setting the tone)

… but for some reason, I also remember telling myself that this place had more to offer. And that I should give it a second chance.

Thank God I did. Because if visit #1 was promising, visit #2 made me realize that Xenri no Tsuki was one of my favorite restaurants in the whole of Hong Kong. No joke. I’ve been back three times since my 2nd visit. Why? Because it’s crazy good.

(Rice bowl with minced tuna and uni: The Nelson's starting choice)

After polishing off our beautiful amuse bouche trio, The Nelson and I decided it would be wise to order a small bottle of chilled sake. I was in super girly mood, so meekly suggested we try the seasonal Arabashiri Junmai Ginjo “Spring” sake from Masumi Brewery. Beautifully sweet, with rich floral aromas—really tasted like springtime in a bottle :)

The Nelson went à la carte, starting with a rice bowl topped with minced tuna and fresh uni. Not really wanting to think about what to order, I went with the seasonal Chef’s Recommended Kaiseki set ($500 – $800. I went with $600). I had no idea what I was in for… and I had no idea I would be so blown away by what they had in store for me. First course rolled up—a thick round of daikon on miso paste. Clean, simple presentation to match the clean, simple flavors. A very classy start. Next up was the artistically-presented “five point” appetizer—five tidbits arranged on a giant white plate sprinkled with purple shiso flowers. Fish fin tempura on sliced cherry tomatoes, duo-colored egg, sliced tuber with miso on shiso leaf, chicken roll with burdock and sprouts, mozuku kombu… each item was carefully thought-out and delicately presented. I was definitely impressed by this point.

(Daikon + miso paste)

("Five Points" - prettiness on a platter)

The highlight of the meal though came in the form of course no. 3—seafood dashi teapot soup. The clear broth was fortified with all the goodness of the waters. The first cup was subtle but delicious already. I let it steep for a while. Second cup. Better. Third cup. Amazing. Fourth, fifth… it just got bolder and bolder, better and better. I’m being completely honest when I say that this is the first time I’ve ever been blown away by soup. It was magical almost…

(Seafood dashi teapot soup: the soup that blew me away)

But apparently, the Xenri chefs were just getting warmed up. The next plate to grace my table was a generous sashimi platter. This generosity included fresh uni that tasted like all the sweetness of the sea, a delectably rich jumbo sea scallop, and my personal favorite—creamy-fleshed sweet ebi shrimp. And as an extra testament that Xenri no Tsuki is the real deal—they serve their sashimi with freshly-grated wasabi. Don’t let them tell you otherwise—it does make an effin’ big difference.

(Sashimi: for the love of ebi)

After all the delicate flavors, it was finally time for something big and substantial. Enter the restaurant’s award-winning “Kobe Wagyu Housyou Yaki”—a thick slab of premium Wagyu beef blanketed in a thin, crispy parcel made from beancurd sheets. It was a huge serving… I was trying to calculate how these people are profiting from this $600 dinner, because there was even MORE after this prime Wagyu steak. Yes, a whole lot more. There was a whole salt-broiled carp fish more (milky fleshed and broiled to perfection). There was a seared nigiri platter, which included eel, tuna, uni, salmon and my love-in-fish-form of engawa (flounder dorsal fin). I will forever be grateful to Xenri no Tsuki for introducing me to the wonders of this cut of fish—it has such a wonderful taut bite that melts and melds into an addictive film of fish oil that coats the tongue. Oishii.

(Kobe Wagyu housyou yaki)

(Salt-broiled carp)

(Seared nigiri: bottom left = LURVE of an engawa)

To round off the near-perfect meal, I was expecting just some boring scoop of green tea or sesame ice cream (as much as I love traditional Japanese cuisine, I can’t say I’m particularly inspired by trad. Jap desserts). But thank God the Xenri team kept the surprises coming all the way to the end. My trio of tofu ice cream (silken and refreshing, with a subtle hint of nuttiness), matcha pudding and glutinous warabi mochi left me with a giant idiotic grin on my face.

(Dessert trio: inspiring until the end)

I was well fed and well sake’d. I was happy. It also helped that Xenri no Tsuki’s floor manager is one of the most attentive, friendly and professional people I know in the HK F&B industry. She was on the A-game all the way with her recommendations and explanations (and believe me, I asked many many many questions throughout the meal) and she kept checking in regularly to make sure we were enjoying our meal. And of the many times that I’ve been back, she’s always been just as awesome.

So there sums up why I love Xenri no Tsuki. As much as I love Hong Kong, it’s hard to come by a restaurant that combines kickass food, five-star service, comfortable environs and won’t-burn-a-whole-in-wallet prices (seriously, all that above food for $600…) in one neat package. So when you DO find a place that combines all those things—i.e. Xenri no Tsuki—you’re golden.

It may not have been love at first bite, but I know now, it’s definitely love.

FOOD: 4.75/5
SERVICE: 4.75/5

XENRI NO TSUKI ($$$$/$$$$$)
6/F, Jardine Centre
50 Jardine's Bazaar
Causeway Bay

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Le Salon de Thé de Joël Robuchon: Go-To-Feel-Good

Somewhere in the year or so that I’ve been back, Le Salon de Thé de Joël Robuchon became my HK Island side go-to-feel-good place. The pastries, sandwiches, and the to-die-for coffee bring to mind all those happy times I’ve spent wide-eyed in front of Bouchon Bakery in New York. The fact that it’s housed in the same building as Harvey Nichols, and is right next to The Landmark MO is also automatic brownie points. But more importantly, it’s become my go-to spot because, well, I’m just a poor writer and can’t afford eating in the main Robuchon dining room on most days.

(Macarons: hellooooo there)

After all, who am I to say no to Michelin star winning macarons that go for $8 a pop? Or perfect mousse-topped cakes or crumbly crusted tarts at $30-something? OK fine, their coffee is a bit steep at $40/small paper cup… but their coffee is also five times better than anyone else’s, so I guess it balances out.

It also helps that, aside from the stunning sweets, the Salon does a beautiful selection of eat-in dishes. Not too long ago, over a session of Saturday brunch girly gossip, I sold my soul to the salmon fillet marinated in sake and mirin with miso sauce ($190). The fish was so soft and buttery—a perfect canvas for the Japanese marinade. But what made me love more was the accompanying vat of Robuchon’s famed mashed potato purée. It was rich, velvety and oh-so-buttery. B-e-a-utiful.

(Sake-mirin salmon: sorry for the shaky hands)

(King crab jelly layered with tomato coulis and avocado cream: summer flavored!)

I’ve had a fair share of other stellar eats at the Salon. Another stand-out is the king crab jelly layered with tomato coulis and avocado cream ($90). The smooth, summer-flavored layered mixture paired so well with the tiny croutons floating atop the avocado cream. Cap any Le Salon meal off with a few macarons, a cup of black coffee and there you have ample reason to love the place too.

FOOD: 4.5/5
SERVICE: 4.5/5

Shop 315, 3/F
The Landmark
16 Des Voeux Road Central

BLT Burger: The Good Glutton

Confession: I am not big on burgers.

There. I said it. It’s not that I despise beef patties sandwiched between two burger buns, it’s just that the burger is not really something I would actively order off a menu. Maybe it’s from living next to an In-n-Out Burger shack for two years back when I was in LA. Maybe.

(BLT Burger)

(It's what's inside that counts...)

Despite my burger ambivalence though, I do appreciate a good burger when I’m fed one. And the ones that BLT Burger churn out are. Good, that is. So so good. And as part of Laurent Tourondel’s empire of deliciousness, why wouldn’t BLT Burger kick ass? I went with the signature BLT ($98)–a large and in charge 7oz 100%Black Angus beef patty, blackened and charred around the edges and still beautifully pinked and juicy in the middle. Topped with big fatty strips of bacon and the “LT” veggies… I chomped away happily on this under the soothing blast of the restaurant’s 80s soundtrack.

(Chocolate-praline layer cake: OMG, I love you)

But if the burger was good, the dessert was killer. Absolutely. The Valrhona chocolate praline layer cake ($58) puts the best things about American gluttony and transforms it into a delectable layer cake. Moist, dark, sweet, sinful. Amazing. There must’ve been a gajillion calories in that hefty slice (and à la mode, no less!) but really, when it’s so beautiful, who gives an eff?

FOOD: 4/5
ATMOSPHERE: 4/5 (if you love 80s rock)

Shop 301, Level 3

Ocean Terminal
Tsim Sha Tsui

ABC Kitchen: Market Fresh

The first time I tried out ABC Kitchen was back in March for a dinner organized by the one-and-only Mr. Lau. He's the awesome kind of foodie you want to be friends with - enthusiastic, knowledgable, nice, generous, and soooo in the know.

This was exactly the case with ABC Kitchen. Who woulda thunk that there'd be a fine dining western joint in a cooked food market? I didn't. But here it is - complete with tablecloths, wineglasses, excellent service, all sandwiched between and Indian-Nepalese restaurant and a ChiuChow snacks stall. Awesome.

(Margherita pizza)

(La bouillabaisse)

As for the food, I've been several times now and I have to say, dinner is definitely infinately better than lunch. The bouillabaisse is particularly good and they're extremely generous with the seafood. Also loved the braised til tender beef cheeks. I cut them apart like butter with my fork. Mmmm.

(Braised beef cheeks)

(Look ma, no knife!)

(Signature roasted suckling pig)

Special mention goes to the suckling pig. I still prefer Chinese style roast pig (crunchy skin) but ABC's version follows Spanish recipe. As a result, the skin is less crisp, but the meat becomes unbelievably moist and supple.

(Sticky toffee pudding: mmm...)

(Creme caramel)

The sticky toffee pudding sealed the deal for me. And if YOU'RE still not sold... get this - ABC serves illy's coffee!

ABC KITCHEN ($$/$$$)
CF7, 1/F
Queen's Street Cooked Food Market
38 Des Voeux Road
Sheung Wan

The French Window: Free Time + Pictorial

Some recent changes in my life has rendered me with a whole load of free time on my hands. In the past week or so, I’ve been waking up in the afternoon, buying random hardcover books (Taschen’s Paris, anyone?), buying random magazines (Japanese Bento mag, Donna Hay), spending time back in the kitchen, drinking more, reading more, writing more. You get the gist of it. Freedom.

And with all this time, I finally have no excuse not to upload the food photos from days gone by. So many meals unposted about, so many photos un-uploaded. Let’s start with…

The French Window (from April, 2010)

(Amuse bouche: tomato tart)


(Vegetable salad, bell pepper sorbet and pesto)

(Organic marrant egg, morels cream, green asparagus)

(Roasted ‘pigeon au sang, polenta churros, spiced red wine sauce)

(Herring potato salad with Avruga caviar and carrot)

(Wagyu beef cheek a la Bourguignon with carrot confit in red wine sauce)

(Lemon meringue tart)

The French Window ($$$$)
Shop 3101, 3/F
IFC Mall
8 Finance Street