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A chronicle of all things fun - eating, drinking, traveling... plus the occasional ranting

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  • 06/07/14--00:08: Simple brunch
  • I hadn't seen one of my friends for a long, long time... as she had been away in Europe trying to pursue an interest outside of banking.  Having finally faced up to reality, she recently returned to Hong Kong and rejoined her former employer, although she was lucky enough to be able to kinda combine her interest in art into her new position.  I thought it was high time that we caught up with each other, and made plans to return to Upper Modern Bistro for brunch.

    I have been remiss in not visiting my old friend Philippe since my first visit last year, and since then another old friend Jeremy - formerly of Caprice - has joined Philippe.  I, along with a number of others, was overjoyed when news came a couple of months ago that Jeremy would not be leaving Hong Kong.  This meant that Hong Kong would get the keep one of its most seasoned mâitre d'hôtels, and we would have our supply of Jeremy's amazing selection of cheese!

    I greeted Philippe in the open kitchen soon after I walked through the door, and Jeremy came over not long after I was seated.  It's good to see my old friends!  What was immediately apparent was the improvement in the level of service - which had been a source of complaints judging from the feedback I've gotten from friends.

    We received a warm batch of bread, and right away one can see little touches from Jeremy.

    I definitely wanted cheese at the end, so I chose a very simple starter:

    Pig trotter and oyster toast - diced pig trotter confit, with black beans, poached oysters and topped with chopped green herbs and Parmesan bread crumbs.  I could pick out the distinct flavors of cumin, and I think there were a couple of drops of truffle oil.  Pretty interesting mix of ingredients, and surprised at the use of black beans... especially since white beans is more common in traditional French stews.  I was also surprised that the oyster ended up dominating the flavors.

    Then we let Jeremy loose and unleash the cheesy onslaught.  Of course Jeremy never disappoints... and my friend was suitably impressed.

    Brillat-Savarin fermier - my favorite triple-cream.  Sooo creamy and melt-in-your-mouth, and nice acidity here.

    Croix Cathare - goat's milk cheese made by monks.  Very thick and creamy, nice and rather subtle in terms of flavors.

    Briquette de Joursac - from Aveyron.  Pretty high acidity here, pretty nutty and strong "goaty" flavors.  Very thick and solid in terms of texture.

    Louvie-Juzon - goat's milk cheese from the Pyrénées.  The pungent, goaty flavors were much heavier here.  Acidity was there on the palate, and the rind was very bitter.

    Coup de Corne - from the same monks who made the Croix Cathare.  Nutty with a little ammonia, especially evident with wine.  Bitter finish.

    Coulommiers - a little salty, kinda nutty with a slight bitter finish.

    Comté, millesimes 2010 - nice and full-bodied.  Sweeter and more moist than expected, with complex layers of flavors.

    Époisses fermier - nice and runny, bitter, very nutty and really salty on the finish.

    Fourme d'Ambert fermier - very salty as expected, and the mineral flavors really came through.

    Jeremy also very kindly provided us with some apricot and mixed berry jams.  These were absolutely complementary to the savory and creamy cheese.

    We weren't looking to have any wine, as we both had engagements after lunch, but I guess that just wasn't gonna fly with Jeremy.  He very kindly poured us a glass to go along with the cheese.

    2012 Schlumberger Pinot Gris Les Princes Abbés - nice and fragrant, slightly ripe on the palate, very round body, with a hint of bitterness on the finish.  Very refreshing.

    My friend and I were very, very full after the barrage of cheese.  I'd say that we made a pretty good dent, and other than the Comté and Fourme d'Ambert, there wasn't much left of the others.  I ended up packing the leftovers... and was determined to make an 8-cheese grilled cheese sandwich for tomorrow.

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  • 06/07/14--07:15: Casual tea house dinner
  • I spend the afternoon hanging out with some friends and sipping on some white wine.  Dinner time came around, and we decided to satiate our hunger at Luk Yu Tea House (陸羽茶室) - a place they frequent.  Luk Yu is a Hong Kong classic that just isn't on my list, even though I've worked within walking distance from it for years.  But I was happy to go along and munch.

    Double-boiled pig's lung and almond soup (杏仁白肺湯) - one must order this soup when one is here.  Very rich and creamy, full of almond fragrances and flavors.  The pig's lung were very clean, and the flavors were very mild and delicate.  I had a second bowl.

    Deep-fried prawn toast (炸蝦多士) - not bad.  At least they used chunks of real prawn, and not just prawn paste.

    Fried sliced pigeon with ham (燒雲腿鴿片) - the ham slices are a little dry but tasty like jerky.  The pigeon meat was pretty good, but I was surprised at what was supposed to be pigeon skin.  It was definitely a lot thicker and chewier - almost to the point of being crunchy - than any pigeon skin I've ever had...

    Braised pomelo skin with frog's legs (田雞腿柚皮) - never had this combination before... The pomelo skin was OK.

    Walnut cream (核桃露) - pretty nice, actually.  Definitely the good stuff.

    I brought a bottle of wine to dinner, and quickly found myself buzzed as I realized I had been drinking intermittently for the last 8 hours...

    1995 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Special Selection - sweet on the palate.  A little smoky, a bit alcoholic, and minty.

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  • 06/08/14--07:35: Classic entrecôte
  • I met Wilson Kwok, the proprietor behind W's Entrecôte, at dinner on Friday.  I had been going to this place for steak frites ever since I first came to Hong Kong almost 20 years ago, and have fond memories over the years, although it's been a few years since I was last there.

    I was surprised to hear from Wilson that business hasn't been so good lately.  I guess that just shows the mentality of the people in Hong Kong... since they seem to be only looking for the latest (and not necessarily greatest) places - egged on by the PR / media machine trying to drum up business for the new venues.  So it's kinda sad to see that this place - which has been serving very solid food at reasonable prices for two decades - being forgotten by the general public.

    I thought a return visit was in order, so I made up my mind to come back tonight.  I also decided that I would write about tonight's dinner - even though normally this type of food doesn't show up on this here blog.  I wanted to remind people that these guys are still around, and I'd like to see them stick around for another 20 years.  In Francophile territories, places such as Le Relais de l'Entrecôte do brisk business on a daily basis, since they are the French counterpart of the classic Cantonese roast meat (燒味) joints - everyday fare that never falls out of favor.  I'd love to see places like this become a more permanent part of the dining scene in town.

    Thankfully, Mr. and Mrs. Tigger decided to join me for dinner.  I've been here with Tigger before, and this is the type of no-nonsense, value-for-money place that he would enjoy.

    Salade verte aux noix, style W's - very simple, and it's good to start with some greens.

    Escargot à l'Alsacienne, sur les champignons - this was ordered by mistake, but I was happy to chomp down on some shrooms and snails.  Tried to stay away from the mash...

    Entrecôte, 8 oz - absolutely perfect, and I'd forgotten how much I love that herb butter sauce.  Not only was it a perfect complement to the entrecôte, it was also great with the fries!  I had to keep myself from finishing the fries... and thankfully I ran out of the sauce.

    I asked for medium-rare, and what I got was perfect.  Nicely charred on the outside to give that smoky flavor,  Red and juicy inside, with just the right amount of blood and juices.  For someone who's not a big steak guy, I was a real happy camper.

    I took a glass of house read to go with my meat, and this was just what I needed.  I think Tigger liked it, too.  I was also pleasantly surprised to run into another old friend as he took his wife and two girls here - introducing the next generation to the simple pleasures of steak frites.  Believe it or not, they still use those red and white checkered tablecloths here...  For all the high-end, fancy schmancy places that I seem to frequent and favor, there's a special place in my heart for this place and others like it.

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  • 06/09/14--08:30: Playdate with Uwe, episode 2
  • It's been more than a year since our incredibly fun dinner with Uwe, and an email came around asking if another gathering was in order.  We were reminiscing about some of the Art Basel-related creations, and debated about visiting around that time to see what fun stuff Uwe would come up with this year, but unfortunately the lot of us just couldn't get our act together in time...

    So we came back to the Mandarin Grill + Bar tonight, ready for another fun evening.  When Uwe asked me what I wanted for tonight, I asked him simply to surprise us.  I never doubted him for a second.

    First came a bunch of nibbles, beginning with anegg sabayon made with mushrooms - and there were definitely some tasty chunks at the bottom of the shell.  We debated about whether the shells were from real eggs or not, but I don't think they were...  Anyway, these were really delicious.

    Cheese gougères were next, with nice, creamy centers.

    Spherical olive - somehow the membrane felt a little thicker tonight, which required more pressure to break it open.  The end result was that the liquid inside went straight to the back of my throat, and I tried very hard not to choke on it.

    Oyster and potato leek soup - I couldn't catch the name of the oyster, although it was a "fine de xx" but clearly not Fine de Claire.  The potato and leek mousse filled the small shell, and they used a few pearls of caviar as garnish.

    Summer -  I had something similar last year, but I'm wondering if Uwe's doing one of these per season... maybe more.  The foliage was made with freeze-dried tomato and decorated with mozzarella balls, olive oil caviar and more; the trunk was Parmesan powder; and the "sous bois" salad came with jamón ibérico.  Final touches came in the form of a few drops of 25-year balsamic vinegar.

    BFG - Heston Blumenthal's black forest gateau.  Made with sour cherries, chocolate, foie gras and balsamic vinegar.

    I cut slices of this and spread it on the toast.  Soooo yummy.

    Lobster - this is where the connection with the Krug Room leads to decadence.  The Australian marron lobsters were taken out of their shells, put in a bowl and "rinsed/soaked" in Krug Grande Cuvée.

    A short while later, the end result was placed in front of us.  In addition to the lobster, there was some yuzu-scented gelée, flavored with a little soy sauce, along with lobster tomalley.  The texture of the lobster was absolutely perfect, the yuzu (柚子) lent a wonderful fragrance, and the tomalley added a complexity and depth to the flavors.

    Spring - a deep-fried spring roll, stuffed with very tasty Japanese hairy crab (毛蟹) full of umami.

    Tea - O-M-G.  This was just awesome.  Uwe brings us a set used for the Japanese tea ceremony, and this is a course that requires audience participation.  The ceramic bowl came with a green powder that looks like ground green tea, but was in fact basil.  Then tomato consommé was poured on top.

    Then one picks up the bamboo whisk, and make sure to whip up enough froth.  I must admit that I got special treatment here... While the others were complaining about how tough it was to get it frothy, Uwe came and did mine while I waited with the camera...  Finally, a few flower petals on top.

    This was, quite simply the best "green tea" I've ever had.  The fragrance from the basil was simply incredible.  The purity of the flavors with just basil and tomato... Wow!  I'd drink this tea any day!

    Langoustine - cooked perfectly, with streaks of watercress and paprika, and flash frozen bisque on top.  Very yum.

    Turbot - the grilled turbot was probably the weakest dish of the evening.  Not that it was terrible, but it just wasn't as exciting as the others.  The girolles were good.

    Miyazaki - Miyazaki beef (宮崎牛), to be exact.  The beef was cooked at 60°C for 85 minutes, then coated with onions and breadcrumbs and deep-fried for 30 seconds.  Served smoked with onion bark on the side.  Gotta say that this looked a lot like what I had at Les Créations de Narisawa.

    The beef was pure perfection.  Soooo texture, juicy and succulent.  That onion-flavored crust.  The onion "bark"... which tasted a little like the Sour Cream and Onion SunChips.  Garnished with spring onion shoots on the side.

    There was also a watercress and nori seaweed salad on the side that was surprisingly yummy.

    We finally came to dessert, which is always an event on its own.

    Garden / strawberry - so this came in two parts.  First we have the enclosed garden, with "carrot" cheesecake, olive "turnip", tiramisu "potato"...etc... all sitting on Oreo "soil".

    We also had some edible shovels made from chocolate.

    The other part of dessert featured a real garden shovel, which carried both real and pretend strawberries, on top of more Oreo soil.  Very, very yummy.

    The wines tonight weren't any less interesting compared to the food.

    1978 Louis Carillon Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Combettes - beautiful amber color, definitely showing age, with toasty and bready, yeasty notes, nutty, coffee and a little sweet Chinese licorice (甘草).

    1997 Sauzet Chevalier-Montrachet - sweeter, pretty ripe, still a little alcoholic.  More minerality here.

    1999 Gantenbein Pinot Noir - kinda big, ripe, with a little leather.  Still young and relatively closed.

    1993 Domaine Leroy Nuits-Saint-Georges - beautiful and floral, with leather, black cherries and passion fruit.

    1985 Faiveley Chambertin Clos de Beze - beautiful, floral and fragrant.  A hint of savory notes with wonderfully sweet fruit.  Very clean, nice and ripe.  An elegant wine.

    1990 Jaboulet La Chapelle - minty, ripe fruit and smoky notes.  Relatively closed.

    2010 Kapcsándy Estate Cuvée Cabernet Sauvignon - lots of coconut butter, minty, pine needle, ripe and sweet.

    Needless to say, this was another really fun evening.  Uwe continues to treat us to new ideas collected from around the world, and we get to have lots of fun while we eat.  We were chastised by Uwe for having waited so long to come back, but believe me, it won't take another year for our next visit together!

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  • 06/11/14--08:41: Magnum birthday
  • It's the Specialist's birthday, and this year she decided to do a bigger gathering.  After taking the number of guests into consideration, she realized that single bottles would never be enough to go around... and issued the order for us all to bring magnums to dinner.  Now this was gonna be fun!

    She's always been a big fan of Sup 1, and it's easy to make arrangements to get a little special treatment when you're friendly with the bosses.  Apparently they took on an extra dishwasher tonight just so they could handle our wine glasses... if the manager is to be believed.

    The Specialist gave BFF and I a ride to the restaurant, and we arrived well before anyone else... and I never expected anyone to be on time for a 7pm dinner in a (slightly) off location on a school night.  Well, it gave the staff a little time to prep the wines and glasses.

    One of us was real hungry and didn't wanna get buzzed drinking bubbly on an empty stomach, so he asked for some toast... and we got this cream of mushroom to go along.  Turned out to be pretty damn good, even though I was wondering if it came out of a can of Campbell's...

    Grilled ox tongue

    Cuttlefish, seaweed and sea urchin roll - always very good.


    Flounder wing (縁側)

    Octopus carpaccio - always fun to eat the crunchy suckers.

    Flounder wing and caviar sushi

    Minced toro, sea urchin and caviar sushi

    My daily ration of veggies...

    Pretty decent grilled chicken, but why was there bacon?

    The beef brisket was very yummy.

    Lobster linguine - YUM!

    Roast suckling pig - de rigueur here.  Just look at that crackling.

    Duck confit casserole rice - important to always finish with this dish.  Actually, I don't need anything else.  Just gimme this.

    But as delish as the food was, most of us really only care about the wines tonight.

    1997 Salon en magnum - nice and big nose of heavy toast, caramelized, ripe on the palate but acidic on the finish.

    2000 Laville Haut-Brion en magnum - a little toasty, flinty, a little nutty with lemon citrus.

    1993 Mouton-Rothschild en magnum - savory like soy sauce, smoky and cigar notes.  Classic Pauillac.

    1993 Harlan Estate from magnum - smoky, mineral, ripe on the nose.  A little sweet on the palate.  Very nice.

    2003 Mouton-Rothschild en magnum - a little blood, mineral, iron rust on the nose.  Sweet on the palate, still concentrated and tannic.

    1990 Lafite-Rothschild en magnum - fragrant nose with minty, smoky and a little lead pencil notes.  Very classic and nice.

    1982 Pichon-Lalande en magnum - smoky, green pepper and dried herb notes.  Drinking nicely.

    A very nice evening... I'm glad we didn't open that last magnum of Yquem... HIC!

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    I arrived in the Windy City today after my first long-haul flight while sitting in cattle class in a few years - in a US airline, no less.  A short flight delay meant I went through Friday after hours traffic trying to get into the city, but I didn't have much difficulty checking into the JW Marriott in the financial district.

    I dropped my luggage in my room, picked up my camera gear, and walked two blocks to Willis Tower.  I had booked a fast pass online while transiting through Narita Airport, paying double the normal ticket price to make sure I wasn't stuck in line for a long time.  Well, as it turned out, there was no line on a Friday evening... so I got up to the 103rd floor Skydeck in no time.

    The view was definitely spectacular.  I started by looking south, following the Chicago river down, with Lake Michigan on my left.  It was 7:30 p.m. but there was still plenty of light.

    Then I switched to an eastward view, looking at Lake Michigan head on, and the famous Magnificent Mile in front of me.  Chicago's other famous skyscraper - John Hancock Tower - rises up in the distance.

    Turning again, I followed the Chicago River northward and get a full view of downtown.

    Then I turned westward, and waited to step out onto the Ledge.  A protective pane at one of the ledges was cracked recently, but had been replaced after the incident.  So I simply stepped out onto the bay, looked down below me through the glass pane, and snapped a picture of my feet.

    The sun set slowly and late, and it was past 9 p.m. when the skies were dark enough for a nice view with all the lights.

    It was late and more than 7 hours since my last feeding.  I was starving.  So I came back down to ground level, jumped into a cab, and headed for one of the branches of Lou Malnati's Pizzeria nearby.

    Chicago's famous for their deep dish pizza, and I was determined to have my first taste of it since I last had it at Pizzeria Uno during college days.  After doing some online research, it seemed that Lou Malnati's is a local favorite.  Fortunately it was kinda late by the time I arrived, so it only took about 10 minutes for me to get seated.  I had pre-ordered my pizza when I got there, and about 30 minutes later, I had some food in front me.

    The Malnati Chicago Classic - they actually offered their pies in "personal" size for one, so I took advantage of that.  The toppings were simple and classic - Italian sausage, cheese and vine-ripened tomato sauce.

    This came in their famous "Buttercrust" which, unfortunately, I did not find to my liking.  It was buttery alright, but I thought it was rather tasteless.  With many food geeks around me who age their own pizza doughs, I expect the dough to be yeasty and tasty.  This crust had almost zero flavors from yeast.  I didn't get any of that wonderful fragrance I was expecting.  I guess I just don't "get" Malnati's...

    Chocolate chip pizza - also a personal size.  The menu led me to think it was something a little more special, but it was just a single chocolate chip cookie that came in a ramekin, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.  Not bad, but nothing really special.

    With my belly full, I decided to walk back to the hotel and get a feel for the city.  My first taste of "real" Chicago deep dish was a little disappointing, but the two meals tomorrow should be the highlights of this trip...

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    Day 2 in Chicago, and I'm skipping breakfast.  I rolled out of bed, cleaned myself up, and hopped into a taxi to my first destination this morning: Hot Doug's.

    Hot Doug's is one of Chicago's most famous food destinations.  Doug Sohn is famous for his gourmet hot dogs, and famously defied Chicago's ban on foie gras by continuing to sell his foie gras dogs.  Of course, the ban has since been repealed, to the delight of diners like myself.  Anyway, Doug announced last month that he was closing the place in October, so of course it means that I'd have to hit this place during this trip.  And today would be the only time I could fit it in.

    I got off my cab around 9:50 a.m., about 40 minutes before the place opens at 10:30 a.m.  As I walked towards the back of the line that had already formed outside, I counted at least 60 people in front of me.  Fook mi... I guess I'm in for a long wait.

    I've said numerous times that I don't line up for food - certainly nothing that requires more than a 15-minute wait - and it's true that there are very few things in this world that I would be willing to line up for.  But this was different.  These were supposed to be some of the best encased meats around, and he was closing.  So I dutifully stood in line and waited... until the doors opened the people started moving in... and waited... until I walked through the door... and stood in the line to the counter...

    All in all, it took me a little more than 2 hours to get up to the counter and come face to face with Doug himself.  I placed my order, got myself a drink, and found a seat at the counter next to the window.  A couple of minutes later, my dogs arrived.

    Foie gras and Sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and fleur de sel - the signature sausage.  I forgot to ask for toppings, so I was getting it "as is".  The duck sausage itself was very, very good.  In fact, I don't remember having a better, tastier sausage other than the ones where my friends made it themselves.  I think the Sauternes definitely gave the duck meat more depth in terms of flavors, like the way Mei Kuei Lu (玫瑰露) adds a little something to Cantonese sausages.

    The foie gras mousse was OK, and the truffle aioli was nice, although the fleur de sel meant that a couple of mouthfuls were suddenly a little saltier.  Overall this was a success, and I can understand why this is one of the best sellers.

    Bacon and cheddar smoked elk sausage with smoky bacon sauce and white cheddar cheese curds - I picked this because I've never had elk before.  Well, I couldn't really tell what was special about elk, because the rosemary and other herbs and spices in the sausage probably overpowered any distinctive flavors.  Having said that, this was still pretty good thanks to the smoky bacon and the pile of cheddar on top.

    Handcut duck fries - I knew I wouldn't be able to finish a whole order, but it would be a shame to come all the way and not try them.  They were pretty tasty for sure.

    I took away the remainder of the fries plus an extra foie gras dog.  Mo' Unni was arriving later today, and I hope she'll like it.

    I made my way back into town, hopped on to the L and went around the loop, and went shopping on the Magnificent Mile.  No, I wasn't shopping for myself, but I had three separate missions for friends.  Unfortunately, I came up empty on the first two... since they were apparently incredibly hard to find.

    Thankfully, I managed to hit the Vosges Haut Chocolate boutique and grab what my friend wanted.  Of course, if I make the effort to track down a local chocolatier, I might as well pick up a few more things for myself and other friends.  Well... I came away with a pretty nice haul.

    But now it was time to go back to the hotel... Dinner at Alinea awaits!

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    Tonight was always gonna be the highlight of this trip.  As soon as I found out that the conference was gonna be in Chicago, Alinea became the must-do dinner.  And as soon as the restaurant opened up their June bookings on April 15th (OK, I lied... I was drunk on the evening of April 15th, so I didn't book until the 16th) I visited the website and got myself tickets for tonight.

    The main worry about tonight, though, was whether Mo' Unni and I would be fighting jet lag during dinner.  I would arrive only 1 day earlier, and Mo' Unni would be arriving only hours before.  Would either or both of us be falling asleep at the table?

    We arrived at our appointed seating time of 5:30 p.m., which would be the second time I'm having dinner at one of the world's top restaurants this year (the other being dinner at Sukiyabashi Jiro).  I'm at least grateful that I didn't overindulge at lunch, so I had plenty of stomach space.

    Anyway, after we walked through the front door and down the dark corridor, we entered the actual foyer and were led to the entrance to the kitchen.  I paused for a couple of minutes, taking a picture while observing the action within.  No Grant.  Not unless he shaved both his head and his facial hair.  Oh well...

    After confirming that neither of us had dietary restrictions - and I would have bet money that Mo' Unni had to have at least a few things on her list - we sat back and waited to be hit with 16 courses over the next 4 hours.  And since Mo' Unni wasn't in any shape to do any serious drinking, I decided to try out the restaurant's wine pairing - which would consist of 10 different wines.

    Osetra: traditional - osetra caviar from Bulgaria, with yolk custard, brioche foam, gelée of capers, lemon and red onions.  A very interesting, deconstructed take on the traditional caviar on blinis.

    R.H. Coutier Brut - nice bubbles and mousse, very ripe, nice and full-bodied, woody and oaky.

    Salsify: branch camouflage - we were presented with a wreath of kiwi vines, and asked to locate our next course.  The salsify was dehydrated and marinated in soy and shallots.  Lots of umami, but very, very salty.

    Skate: brown butter, lemon, herb stems - we were asked to hold out one hand, on which this "hand plate" was placed.  The Atlantic spotted skate wing was poached in beurre noisette, and placed on top of a bed of 3 different type of ground grains, garnished with chervil and dill flower.  The skate wing was pretty good, but I couldn't get enough of that beurre noisette... especially with some lemon citrus providing a little acidity.

    2011 Georg Breuer Terra Montosa Riesling - very heavy petrol in the nose, smoky, white flowers, steely and flinty, with plasticky notes which were rounder and richer than most other German Rieslings.  This was actually slightly sweet and ripe on the palate, not bone dry as Andrew the sommelier described.

    Lobster: curry, earl grey, grapefruit - the lobster claw and tail were seasoned with Indian curry sauce, with a very tasty lobster bisque in the middle. On the sides were little coconut dots, spherical grapefruit pearls, Earl Grey cubes, compressed cucumber, a clump of wild rye crispies, and a custard made with cauliflower and vanilla.  Interesting, but not sure why all these diverse flavors were put together on the same plate.

    2010 Domaine de l'Octavin Pamina - this Chardonnay from Arbois matched the rice crispies really well, with its very heavy toasty corn nose that was raw, pungent, and just a little overpowering.  From the looks of it this was probably not filtered nor fined.

    Sweetbreads: orange, ginko nut, cinnamon chop sticks - this came in a Chinese take-out box with a plastic bag, and one picks up the contents of the box with a pair of cinnamon sticks, which had been burnt at one end to release the fragrance.

    This was supposed to mimic the American Chinese dish of orange chicken (eh? I always thought it was lemon chicken or orange beef?!), except they used veal sweetbreads which had been battered and fried.  I could have sworn that there was Chinese five spice (五香) here...  There were also dehydrated spring onions, heart of palm, ginkgo nuts and pickled crosnes (寶塔菜) - which turned out to be surprisingly crunchy without cooking.   A very playful dish.

    2011 Domaine du Viking Vouvray Tendre - aged in chestnut casks.  Definitely fragrant nose with an off-dry palate.

    Ebi: broccoli stem, yuzu, sea grape - grilled Hawaiian sweet shrimp (甘海老) with broccoli stem and sea grapes (海葡萄) on a layer of fried kelp.

    Wagyu: parsnip, black trumpet, kombu - before we started on the Chinese take-out box, this was placed on our table, and we were told to ignore its existence.  Then, before the start of the last course, this was lit on fire and left to burn for a while...

    Then it was taken aside and the items removed while the fire was still kinda going.  The parsnip "charcoal" at the top was removed, and the staff fished out the piece of A5 BMS 12 wagyu from Kagoshima (鹿児島) that had been hidden in the middle.  It had been cooked sous vide, quickly seared, wrapped in konbu (昆布), and was resting at temperature for a while before being kept warm by the fire.  Both the parsnip and the beef were sliced and placed on the serving "plates"...

    The beef was served with the parsnip, which had been cooked sous vide in the fat of the wagyu.  The parsnip was way, way salty.  There was a small chunk of trompette de la mort pudding and some deep-fried trompette de la mort.  Some parsnip cream was hidden below a layer of cuttlefish ink and soy gel, and this was also incredibly salty.  A ribbon of the kelp that had been wrapped around the beef was served, which had lots of umami and would have tasted rather salty normally, but which now seemed bland in comparison with the other parts of the dish.

    The Kagoshima wagyu, with the highest marbling score - was indeed very marbled and fatty.

    Sato no Homare Junmai Ginjoshu "Pride of the Village" (郷の誉 純米吟醸酒) - an unfiltered sake from one of my favorite breweries, with a seimaibuai (精米歩合) of 48%.  This was pretty sweet, rich in body, with fermented rice, pineapple and banana notes.

    Lily bulb: rambutan, distillation of caviar lime - at this point we were convinced that previous reports of Alinea going Chinese/Asian were true...  This palate-cleanser featured raw lily bulbs that were crunchy and refreshing, sweet rambutan, caviar of finger limes as well as some beautiful petals. Curiously the kitchen decided to add some salt to the acidic lime juice...

    Rhubarb: celery root, celery branch, licorice - when we arrived, we quickly noticed that a stem of rhubarb hung directly above each table.

    As this course was served, the stem was removed and shavings were made on top of our bowls.  There was also a section of rhubarb stalk that had been poached in red wine, a custard of celeriac and celery stems.  The inside the bowl had been coated with a layer of licorice and molasses, which now lent their distinctive flavors to the mix.

    2013 A Tribute to Grace Rose of Grenache - My Beloved Cousin would call this lolly water, and I'd have to agree with her.  Besides the obvious sweetness, my first thought was "bubblegum"... and Mo' Unni also thought it was just so Bubblicious... Also a little banana, and slightly ripe on the palate.

    Wood ear: pig ear, allium, black garlic - OK, so now we came to the full realization that we were actually having Chinese... Some braised wood ear fungus (which were, as expected, pretty salty as well as smoky) were served with allium flowers, alongside some fried wood ears.  There was a strip of deep-fried pig's ear, next to some tasty black garlic sauce.  Parmesan sauce was present as well as a Parmesan cracker, and cubes of smoked Anjou pear complete the picture.

    2012 Jamsheed Beechworth Shiraz - I was eager to try out this wine, which Andrew the sommelier had described as an "Australian Syrah" instead of a Shiraz.  Well, he was right.  While it had plenty of ripeness, it was cool fruit instead of the usual fruit bomb, along with lots of potpourri, pine needles and mint.  We both agreed that it reminded us of a Northern Rhône like Saint-Joseph.

    Black truffle: explosion, asparagus, parmesan - a little ravioli with a liquid black truffle filling, topped with the tip of an asparagus spear and a thin slice of Parmesan.  Yeah, this was very salty, too.

    Duck: foie gras, morel, dragon's breath - a dish with several parts.  First came a vase which sprouted "dragon's breath", which was the scent of garlic, (spring?) onions and ginger - basically 薑蔥 in everyday Chinese cooking.  This filled our lungs while we took in the remainder of the dish...

    Then there was a duck-shaped container, whose top was removed to reveal these little dumplings... The green ones had morel mousseline wrapped with perilla (紫蘇) leaves, and the white ones were duck mousseline and foie gras.

    Finally came other parts of the duck, which included duck breast, duck heart (which was salty), and a puff potato containing duck thigh confit (which seemed to be liquid).  The deep-fried shreds of garlic roots were very tasty, and the fiddlehead fern was interesting.  The white asparagus was surprisingly spicy, as was the white cylinder which was "solid dragon's breath".  A hodgepodge of flavors here, but I'm really not sure why they belong together.

    2009 Marion Valpolicella Superiore - forest and potpourri notes.

    Watermelon: strawberry, avocado, sudachi - compressed watermelon with a sprinkle of both strawberry snow and avocado snow.  Pretty nice.

    2013 Jorge Ordonez No. 2 Victoria - definitely a lot like Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, although the lychee was a little dialed down.  Sweetness was there, but slightly pungent with perhaps some sulfur.  Still young and raw.

    Blueberry: bubblegum, lilac, sorrel - blueberries done multiple ways - including crunch, powder...etc., with bubblegum noodles, lilac, yogurt, blood orange dots and sorrel leaves.

    Balloon: helium, green apple - so now came the famous balloons, and we had watched other tables try to eat this but with awkward results.  Made from green apple taffy, both the balloon itself as well as the "leather string" were edible.  I was disappointing that there wasn't enough helium, since I sounded more like Donald Duck instead of Alvin the Chipmunk after inhaling...

    Milk chocolate: pâte sucrée, violet, hazelnut - the original version of Uwe's various painted desserts is from here.  The centerpiece was made with pâte sucrée, armagnac butterscotch and milk chocolate pudding.  The frozen meringue on top was a little weird, and almost tasted a little salty or ammonia.  Nevermind the candied basil on top.  On the sides were sweetened crème fraîche, violet puddles, frozen hazelnuts and brown brittle.  I really enjoyed the chocolate pudding with the butterscotch...

    2009 Maculan Torcolato - nutty with orange blossom, peach and blood orange notes.

    Unfortunately, tonight was one of those times when very high expectations were not met.  I was not blown away, and this wasn't one of the best meals of my life.  There certainly wasn't anything wrong the the technical execution of any of the dishes, nor do I doubt Grant Achatz's creativity.  No, one of tonight's problems was that a significant portion of the dishes featured very Asian - and in particular Chinese - elements, but the chef has no fundamental background and understanding behind Chinese cuisine.  Often there were simply too many elements on a single plate, and I couldn't see how they were all meant to work together - and they often did not.  As I remarked to a friend, if I wanted to have molecular Chinese food, I'd go to Bo Innovation in Hong Kong.

    The other big problem tonight was that so many dishes were simply over-seasoned and salty, and Mo' Unni had the same feeling.  Grant Achatz wasn't in the kitchen tonight, so was the seasoning coming from the chef de cuisine?!  Or was this the Alinea "house style", and we were simply not accustomed to it or we don't "get it"?!

    Sigh.  Until Grant decides to go off his Asian/Chinese phase, I don't think there's any reason for us to return anytime soon...

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    After my slightly disappointing first nibble of a Chicago-style deep dish pizza, I felt I owed it to myself to have a second sampling, and it just so happens that Giordano's is a block away from my hotel.  Unfortunately, the boss decided to ditch me for dinner, so I called them up to pre-order my pizza, waited for a half hour and walked over.

    The special stuffed pizza - this was the small size that officially feeds two, but can easily feed three.  This was definitely pretty impressive.  The crust rises far above the top, and yes, it does make this look more like a pie, or a quiche.

    The crust was thick and hard.  Like the one at Malnati's it, too, did not have much yeasty flavor.  It's kinda like a quiche crust, except a little bland... and definitely lacking salt, butter or any distinctive flavor.  Having said that, I do like the texture better than Malnati's crust.  It seemed to have multiple layers.

    The word is that this isn't technically "deep dish", but they call it "stuffed pizza" because, unbeknownst to many, there is a very thin layer of dough right at the top, just below a thin layer of sauce.  It's soft so it can be mistaken for a layer of cheese, but I actually stretched it to confirm that it's not cheese.

    I really enjoyed this one.  I loved the classic combination of Italian sausage, green peppers and onions.  It's also not hard to see how much cheese is in this beast, and how thick it all is.  Even in size it is very much quiche-like, and much more substantial and satisfying in that sense.  This is something I can come back for.

    Well, I hit a wall sometime after I started on my third piece, and struggled to shove it all in.  Half of the small pie is a little too much for me, and I was definitely very stuffed...  I packed up the other half and took it back to my room.

    P.S.  I had a piece for breakfast the next morning, cold.  In all my years, I never thought I'd enjoy cold pizza, but this wasn't bad at all...

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    I was panicking a little. We were done with our conference and this was our last night in Chicago, but I hadn’t figured out where to take the boss for dinner. As usual he’s left it up to me to figure out where to eat, and this presents a challenge while we’re in a city that I had never been to beore.

    I knew it had to be somewhere along the Magnificent Mile, as the boss had hardly left our hotel since his arrival, and he should at least walk along the Mile. Should we play tourists and go to Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse, since steak is the thing to do here? I asked for his opinion, and was told that he would like to “try something new”.

    We showed up at the door to the Purple Pig, which had been mentioned on foodie discussion boards and seemed to have been rated highly in Zagat. Even the boss noticed that this was on the Rubberman’s Bib Gourmand list. They don’t take reservations, and there was already a long list of people waiting. We agreed to leave our name and come back in half an hour. Meanwhile, we could at least walk along the Mile.

    We were seated inside the restaurant upon our return. I’m pretty sure the boss isn’t used to how tightly packed the tables were, nor was he accustomed to the level of music and noise. It took some effort for us to carry on a conversation…

    The task of ordering, not surprisingly, fell on my shoulders. The only request from the boss was that I should keep the calorie count down. At the end of the evening, though, we both realized that I completely failed in this regard…

    Roasted bone marrow with herbs– this was one of the first things to jump out from the menu. Maybe I just naturally have a radar for this dish. I was hesitant at first, because this clearly wasn’t gonna be “low-calorie”. But as the boss noted that both tables to the sides of us had ordered this, he decided that he would try something he’s never had before.

    I was surprised that the bone wasn’t cut into shorter sections, but I guess it makes the presentation more impressive this way. The marrow was really rich and delicious, and the brioche slices had been toasted with an incredible amount of butter. I was in heaven, and ended up polishing off about 2/3 of this. My only complaint was that instead of spoons, we were given a knife and fork to dig out the marrow. Not the best way to get to the liquefied marrow. Oh and I also think that they shouldn’t have used so much butter for the brioche. The marrow was rich enough, and the addition of butter just became a little bit of overkill.

    Olive oil poached tuna with quail eggs– the lightest dish tonight, since it was marinated in olive oil and vinaigrette. Not sure the boss is used to the Mediterranean flavors of this dish, with lots of marinated bell peppers and onions.

    "JLT" Soft shell crab, pork jowl, tomato and frisee– soooo greasy. The soft-shell crab on top was deep-fried with lots of oil, and was sitting on top of a slice of greasy pork jowl.

    I guess basically it’s meant to be an open-faced version of BLT, but it was kinda hard to eat with your hands… Our waiter commended me on my choice of this dish, but I didn’t really get this…

    Grilled wagyu short ribs with romesco sauce– I was expecting to see ribs served length-wise, i.e. individual rib bones, but we got thin, cross sections instead. This was OK, but the boss noted that the beef was a little fatty…

    Not a particularly satisfying dinner, and definitely too heavy even for me. Actually I kinda felt a little ill at the end. We decided to stroll along the Chicago River back the hotel, enjoying the cool evening breeze. Hopefully my 26-hour stopover in New York City will be more successful from a culinary point of view.

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    I had an early morning flight this morning, so I was always gonna take my breakfast at O’Hare. After going through TSA’s security screening – where they make everyone feel like a terrorist or criminal – I scanned the plans for Terminal 3 and figured the best place to grab a bite would be Tortas Frontera by Rick Bayless. Having rejected numerous friends’ suggestions that I check out Rick Bayless’ restaurants serving Mexican fare while in town, I guess in the end I just have to have a little Mexican.

    The thought that griddled sandwiches may be a little big for breakfast did cross my mind, but I still went for one. As it turned out the egg and chorizo torta was pretty tasty, and I even found myself pouring enough of the green chili sauce in the middle to get a little kick. Not bad.

    After I arrived at the Mondrian Soho, I dropped my big suitcase with the bell boys and schlepped over to Katz’ Deli for the first of only three meals during my very short stay in town.

    Believe it or not, despite having lived in Manhattan for a whole two years and even counting a number of trips back after moving to Hong Kong, somehow I had never made it to Katz’s. Well, I guess it was always too out of the way for me, and if I had wanted to get my deli fix, Carnegie Deli was only a block or two away from my apartment. And staying in hotels Midtown meant that even places like Zabar’s or Barney Greengrass were closer options. But this visit had to happen sooner or later, and after reading fellow blogger Scubagolfer’s post on Katz’s, I knew the time was now.

    I dutifully lined up in front of one of the guys responsible for cutting the meat, and following Scubagolfer’s very helpful tip, slipped a couple of dollars into a cup in front of my guy before placing my order. I figured there was only gonna be upside from this move…

    As is traditional, the guy cut test slices for me so that I could approve the thickness of the cured meats. I probably should have asked him to cut the corned beef in thicker slices the way I prefer, but figured he’s the expert on this.

    Pastrami and corned beef on rye– I’m being a total copycat here, since this was exactly what Scubagolfer ordered. Instead of mixing the two up, I asked for the two types of meat to be segregated so I could better taste the difference.

    Even though I didn’t ask for the fatty pastrami – the way I would often ask for fatty char siu (叉燒) – I found myself liking the pastrami more. Besides the charred edges providing that smoky flavor, it was clearly more tender and juicy.

    The traditional style corned beef here was much drier and – surprise, surprise – even more salty than the pastrami.

    My one complaint about the sandwich was the bread. For some reason, the slices of rye just kinda disintegrated in my hands… so it became nearly impossible for me to hold the sandwich together.

    I also figured I’d get a drink that was impossible to find in Hong Kong – a chocolate egg cream. Quintessentially New York deli, but sooo rich.

    Well, I was totally weak today. I thought that since the sandwiches here were smaller than the ones at Carnegie Deli, I’d have a chance to finish the whole thing. I was wrong. I guess ordering egg cream didn’t do me any good in that department, and since the cured meats were so salty, I finished my drink much quicker than anticipated. In the end I managed to stuff down a few bites more than half the sandwich… finishing the pastrami side and leaving most of the corned beef side. Oh well…

    With my belly full, I took the subway downtown and headed for my one and only sightseeing destination on this trip.

    As I’ve been away from New York City for more than 6 years, I’ve never had the opportunity to visit the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. Fortunately for me, the Museum has just opened recently, so it would be the perfect opportunity to visit both.

    I had already moved to Hong Kong when the 9/11 attacks happened. I was particularly tired that day, and had passed out on my couch after having dinner. A phone call from Diplomatic Uncle woke up from my slumber, and I was told to turn on the TV to watch the live coverage of what was unfolding. I was stunned and horrified.

    The next morning I showed up at work at the offices of Lehman Brothers in Hong Kong. Markets were in free fall globally, and we waited while management updated us on what was happening with our New York headquarters – as they evacuated from the World Financial Center directly opposite the World Trade Center to the various business contingency sites and resumed trading. For the next few months Lehman bankers operated out of numerous hotel rooms at the two Sheraton Hotels in Midtown Manhattan.

    Not long after the event, word came that a former colleague from my first job was lost in the attack. He had been at Windows on the World in Tower 1 when it happened. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    As I arrived at the North Pool and came face to face with the sea of names engraved into the rim, I realized that they were not in alphabetical order. I had wanted to seek out the name of the one person who had some connection to me, but I felt lost. How many names would I have to go through while circling the pool before I would find it?

    I abandoned the task temporarily and focused on snapping a few pictures of the North Pool, from various angles. After getting a few shots I wanted, I paused momentarily and my eyes focused on the section of the rim in front of me. There it was, the name I had been looking for. By coincidence, or perhaps there was some mysterious force at work which naturally drew me to it, I came upon it without making any effort at all. David M. Berray. The one name among thousands that meant something to me. Instinctively I reached out my hand to touch the engraved letters, wanting to make that personal connection. Tears welled up in my eyes instantly.

    I bought a ticket and entered the Museum. This was such an incredible exhibition. One can find out just about every important or minute detail on the events that took place that day – and the stories that followed. From parts and remnants of the Twin Towers, to fire trucks damaged during the rescue, and all sorts of artifacts from the towers and/or their occupants. At one point I came across a collection of 3 ½” floppy disks, and realized that I hadn’t seen one of those in years…

    Part of the exhibit allowed visitors to write their personal messages on a group of touch panels, and visitors can indicate the city they are visiting from. The handwritten messages are then superimposed on a projected world map near the visitor’s home city, the letters/words appearing slowly as if they were being handwritten in real time. The multi-lingual display is particularly interesting. I made sure to leave my own message in the system.

    Finally, I went to the exhibit named In Memoriam, where one can look up information on every single person who perished in the attack. I found my friend David in the system and called up his details, then proceeded to project them onto the walls of the “inner chamber”. The walls of the exhibit were lined with photographs of most of those we lost, and I found David, there, too… smiling as always.

    I picked up a couple of souvenirs on my way out to support the museum, and left with a heavy heart. It was a long, long time ago that we last saw you, David, but we remember still… and you’re not forgotten.

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    This is one meal that is 7 years overdue. On my very last trip to New York - which was, unbelievably, eons ago – I was all set to go to wd~50. I had made it to the high temple of molecular gastronomy, elBulli, the year before, and had heard a lot of good things about Wylie Dufresne’s place. Unfortunately for me, I came down with a massive case of toothache that day, and was in no shape to take in anything other than liquids that required no chewing. I called the restaurant with a heavy heart, told them I had to cancel last-minute because of my toothache, and left the city with more than an ounce of regret.

    Tonight, on my one and only night spent in the city on this trip, I was determined to right this wrong. Initially my friend had suggested we go somewhere else, and because I didn’t wanna be difficult – and I was open to try out other suggestions – I was happy to go along with her choice. However, when I found out a week ago that Wylie announced the impending closure of the restaurant due to the premises being redeveloped, I knew it was now or never. Fortunately, my friend was able to get us a table.

    It took a little longer than expected for me to walk over from the Mondrian Soho to the restaurant, passing through parts of Chinatown and the heart of Little Italy along the way. The place was pretty unassuming, and I could see why the place was getting redeveloped.

    There were two menus on offer, and I was thankful that my friend agreed to do the longer, regular tasting menu with me. The shorter one had only half the number of courses and would have left me with a lingering sense that I hadn’t gotten the full picture.

    We started with these paper-thin sesame crisps. Really yummy thanks to the sesame seeds, and with just the right amount of salt for flavoring.

    Oyster in its “shell”, preserved lemon, snow pea, hazelnut– Shigoku oyster in an edible shell made of clay and squid ink. Kinda interesting, but I thought I chewed on tiny fragments of real oyster shell… The preserved lemon peel provided a little acidity; the shredded pods of snow peas gave a little crunch; and the pink hazelnut powder added a little more texture.

    Egg yolk-mashed potato ravioli, caviar, cucumber– oh this was really yummy! The ravioli contained warm mashed potato along with egg yolk, the latter of which squirted out once some pressure was applied with the teeth. The tiny brunoise of fried Idaho potatoes and cucumber added a little crunch as well as flavor. Pools of grinnell caviar, which I think may have been flavored with cucumber water, were served on the side.

    Avocado-pea soup, smoked crab, pistachio– a cold soup where the avocado flavors were a little more dominant than those of English peas. The pikito crab meat had nice smoky flavors. There was a sprinkle of pistachio powder as well as dots of pistachio oil.

    Charred chicken liver, Szechuan, injera, melon– the chicken liver mousse definitely had some burnt, smoky flavors. Not sure what the Szechuan reference was about, but there was perhaps the slightest hint of spiciness. The compressed melon cubes and carbonated yuzu (柚子) and melon sauce were kinda interesting, providing primarily sweet flavors; while the pickled pearl onion offered some acidity. Injera flatbread offered some texture.

    Shrimp grits, pickled jalapeño– a seemingly simple dish which offered a nice contrast of flavors, as the corn added some sweetness to the otherwise savory flavors, along with a slightly spicy kick at the end from the pickled jalapeños. Garnished with shredded scallions. Yum.

    Bloodless sausage, smoked marcona, lily bulb, mushroom– given how much I love all types of blood sausage, the fact that I was served a vegetarian “bloodless” sausage was nothing short of ironic. I think the sausage was made in part with red beets and black rice. There was a purée of Marcona almonds, some pickled lily bulbs (which, following my dinner at Alinea, would be the second time I’m seeing this very Chinese ingredient in the space of a few days…), and some porcini mushroom sauce. No pork, no likey.

    Black bass, parsnip, pickled ginger, nori mustard– given the texture and flavor profile, I wondered if the black bass had been salted or marinated… but it was pretty nice. There was a long and thin strip of parsnip jerky, which thankfully wasn’t anywhere near as salty as the parsnip from Alinea. There was the parsnip and ginger purée, a mustard and nori (海苔) wafer, and some dots made with honey mustard.

    Milk braised pork collar, sunchoke, black sesame, kaffir– not really sure if I picked up anything different from the pork having been braised in milk, but the tablets of pork collars were certainly very tender. The little blobs of kaffir lime cream were very nice, and the adding a little of the black sesame smeared on the plate to the pork left a nice fragrance in the mouth. The small cubes of fried Jerusalem artichoke were unfortunately very, very salty.

    Cured duck breast, curd-n-whey, sweet potato, rice noodles– the duck breast was cooked sous vide and then pan-seared, which delivered serious amounts of char that somehow gave a hint of ginger. Wylie played with string again in this dish, making it out of fried black rice. We had a sweet potato ribbon as well as some sweet potato purée. I liked the clump of milk curd, but didn’t quite appreciate the acidity of the whey.

    Verbena mousse, rhubarb, buckwheat, camelina oil– this palate cleanser consisted of a thin layer of rhubarb ice at the very top, followed by a layer of verbena camelina mousse with pickled rhubarb encased inside, and finally a thin layer of buckwheat sablé at the very bottom. Loved the fragrant verbena, but not sure about the camelina vanilla oil. Absolutely hated the tiny amaranth leaf garnish, since it just provided unnecessary earthy flavors.

    Apple tart, pomegranate, sorrel, pistachio– very yummy. I love how the flavors of the apple tart brûlée were so much more powerful than normal, and I definitely didn’t mind the extra intensity of sweetness. The sorrel sorbet offered a nice balance at the other end of the spectrum, tempered by caramelized pistachio crumble. The red grapes provided a little freshness, and the pomegranate sauce smeared across half the plate was so nice I kept trying to scrape it off the plate. There was also a nice little piece of pomegranate tuile.

    Ovaltine cake, marcona almond, cardamom, sheep’s milk– hmmm… neither my friend nor I tasted much Ovaltine in the cake, and we thought it was just regular chocolate. The star of the dish was the cardamom ice cream inside the tube of malt tuile, as the flavors were just so distinctive and pure. There was a little bit of sheep’s milk yogurt, and sprinkle of cocoa mint candy, a little wedge of grapefruit and some Marcona almonds.

    Cookie dough ice cream– white chocolate ice cream wrapped in a cookie dough glaze. The cubes were dense fruit jellies flavored with cherries and root beer. Pretty interesting.

    I hadn’t been sleeping enough, and was a little tired from running around today, so I thought it best not to do the recommended wine pairing or drink a large amount of wine. Instead I opted for a single glass of 2011 Joh. Jos Prüm Riesling Kabinett, which was very refreshing on a warm summer evening and not too sweet, and showed the classic notes of flint, white flowers and a hint of petrol.

    We were absolutely stuffed, and I felt a little bad for my friend since I kinda dragged her into this. No, this wasn’t a mind-blowing meal by any means, but it was nice and decent with a few highlights. More importantly, though, it was nice not to have one’s taste buds as-salted like mine were a few days ago. While Alinea may have been more playful, creative, with arguably superior technical execution, I found myself enjoying tonight’s dinner a whole lot more.

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    Last day in the US, and I’m standing in line for food again. This time around I’m waiting to get my hands on some of them world-famous Cronuts.

    I first met Dominique Ansel a few years ago when he visited Hong Kong. Our mutual friends arranged a dinner together, and the evening progressed into a very fun karaoke session afterwards. Fast forward a couple of years and he’s opened up Dominique Ansel Bakery with the help of my friends. I watched from afar as they gradually made a name for themselves.

    Then came the Cronut craze, and the ensuing trademark controversy. Lots of people around the world were trying to emulate the product, and Dominique and my friends fought to defend the product name as their trademark applications were pending approval in various jurisdictions around the world. At dinner a few nights ago, some people brought up the fact that Swissbeck Bakery in Hong Kong had rolled out a version they had called the “Cronut”. I casually mentioned that I was the person who had alerted the people at Dominique Ansel Bakery to this, since I knew that the application to trademark the name “Cronut” had already been submitted at the time. Of course I needed to look out for the interests of my friends.

    Now I was finally back in New York City, and there was no way I was leaving without visiting the bakery – both for Cronuts as well as a number of other creations. I emailed my friends in advance to let them know I was coming, and it was suggested that I get in the line before 7 a.m. Yes, despite being friends with the owners of the bakery, my friend Jay Essu and I lined up just like everyone else. And I was in line around 6:40 a.m. – a full 80 minutes before the bakery opened.

    The nice thing about the bakery is that just before opening time, the staff would come out and pass out goodies to people who were patiently waiting in line. First came the madeleines, which were hot from the oven. Then came little cups of lemonade. A nice touch to show some appreciation to their customers.

    When we finally got in, we each took our allocations of two Cronuts, and I got myself a few other things as well. Dominique and my friend were pretty excited to see us, and we sat down in the garden at the back to catch up. Dominique also arranged to send a few extra things for us to taste.

    Magic Soufflé - Dominique sent this out, with orders to eat it right away while it was still warm.  So cool to see a soufflé rise and stays up inside a brioche.

    Nice chocolatey center with a hint of orange.  Inhaled immediately.

    Dominique also sent out some more of the madeleines, and had to eat them while they were still warm.

    Strawberry balsamic and mascarpone Cronut with basil sugar - FINALLY!  After more than an hour and a half, we finally got to taste one!

    I don't know what I was expecting... maybe a little bit crispier and closer to a croissant?  But this was also a donut after all, and donuts are softer and chewier.  So this was kinda the best of both.  The strawberry filling was very sweet, while the marscapone was less intense.  Definitely some balsamic flavors here.  Inhaled.  Soooo good.

    Banana bread tiramisu - Dominique wanted us to try this.  I sometimes find banana bread to be a little dense for my liking, but this one was pretty good.

    Interesting that the light, almost ethereal marscapone would be paired with a dense base.  Pretty good.

    The giant peach - how could I, of all people, come here and not try this summer special out?!  Jay Essu commented that this wouldn't look out of place at a Japanese pâtisserie, and I would have to agree.  It just looked so cute...

    I absolutely loved this!  The lychee cream studded with Champagne-poached peach was so fruity and delicious I didn't even care about the financier at the bottom.  I'd take a couple more of this any day.

    DKA - well, if there was one item I was looking forward to more than the Cronut, it was the kougin amann.  Its one of my favorite French pastries, and it's so hard to find a decent one outside of France.  In fact, I only know of one place where I can get a good one in Hong Kong, and I don't get the opportunity that often...

    This was just wonderful.  I looooove this folded collection of flour, butter and sugar.  This is something I would travel far and wide for.  Dominique himself confesses that this is his favorite item, and this is as good as they come.

    Canelé - they made these with the large molds, and I just had to grab one of these.

    This is another one of my favorites, and here they are very, very good.  Gobble gobble gobble.

    Jay Essu and I were absolutely stuffed.  I can't begin to count the amount of sugar, butter and cream we had just consumed for breakfast, and it was all totally satisfying!  We also had a good time catching up with Dominique, and I think Jay Essu was glad that she got up early this morning for this...  I'm sure that the people in her office were glad, too... when they saw her collection of Cronuts and DKAs.

    This was a perfect ending to my trip.  I had planned to hop over to the New York Public Library, but I was running out of time.  Patience and Fortitude would have to wait.

    P.S. I grabbed a few more DKAs and canelés on the way out to take on the plane with me.  I needed more than half of each for my fix!  As it turns out, I needed 3½ Cronuts and 4½ canelés...

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    I was in Hong Kong for just around 12 hours before I was on a plane again, going back to Taipei to spend my birthday weekend with my family.  Some time ago I had seen pics of a Peking duck feast from a friend, and had been wanting to check the place out for myself, so I made a reservation last month while I was in town to celebrate the parental units' anniversary, and invited Last-Minute Uncle's family to come along.  What I didn't expect at the time was a surprise guest, in the form of my Brazilian Uncle...

    We drove out to Yilan a little early to try to check out the city a little. We were taking the second seating so we had a little time, but it's a pretty small town and there wasn't a whole lotta stuff to see - other than the old Yilan Station (宜蘭車站) that had been decorated by artist Jimmy (幾米) and Jimmy Park (幾米公園) across the road.  We soon returned to Luna Plaza (新月廣場) and Silks Place Yilan (蘭城晶英酒店) and went upstairs to Red Lantern (紅樓).

    The restaurant's really busy on weekends and holidays, so they open up the banquet hall and seat all the tourists there - especially the larger parties.  We were led to one end of the hall, and it felt like we were just going to a large-scale Chinese wedding banquet...

    They only do set menus on the weekends, and only for 4, 6 or 8 people.  We were 7 but given that there's one of us who can eat for 3, naturally we took the largest set.  I fully expected us to finish all the food anyway... Some of the menu required us to pick from a list of choices, and after I made the selections, the food arrived at our table pretty quickly... A little too quickly, in fact, and out of order.

    Flavors of Lanyang (蘭陽美味集): choosing 4 out of 8 possibilities

    Tomatoes marinated in plum juice (梅汁蕃茄) - these cherry tomatoes were pretty tasty... with skin removed so that they can really soak up the plum flavors.

    Cherry duck wings (櫻桃鴨翅) - very nicely braised... tasty.

    Spicy beef tendon (麻辣牛筋) - nice with just a small amount of spiciness, just strong enough to numb the tongue a little.

    Deep-fried century eggs with garlic and chili (避風塘皮蛋) - ordered this because I've never had anything like it.  Not bad, actually...

    Yilan Specialties (宜蘭特色菜): choose one of three
    Stir-fried beef with Sanshing scallions (三星蔥爆牛肉) - Sanshing Township (三星鄉) in Yilan County is famous throughout Taiwan for their scallions, so naturally they would offer dishes made with these scallions.  Pretty tasty.

    Stir-fried vegetables with duck fat (鴨蔥油拌高纖蔬菜): choose two from five
    White water snowflake (水蓮) - one of my favorite veggies in Taiwan.  Nice and crunchy.  Definitely high-fiber.

    Mixed five vegetables (五行皇宮菜) - somewhat interesting.

    The two veggie dishes came to the table stir-fried lightly, and we were given bowls of duck fat with deep-fried scallions that we were supposed to mix into the dish.  Very fatty, but oh-so-yummy.

    Chef's special offering (主廚私房菜): choose one of three
    Stir-fried prawns (油爆鮮蝦) - done the same way as the Shanghainese do, which is to say the marinade is slightly sweet, except that the Shanghainese prefer to use river shrimp (河蝦) which are much smaller in size.

    Steamed garoupa (蔥油石斑) - actually, not bad at all considering we're not in Hong Kong.  Fish was fresh and timing-wise it wasn't overdone.

    Cherry duck 5 served ways (櫻桃霸王鴨五吃) - this was the main event - the reason we are here tonight.  Everything else about this dinner is actually secondary, as the duck takes center stage.

    For the last few years, I'd been hearing about this "cherry duck (櫻桃鴨)" in Taiwan, and even had it at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei once.  What's so special about this duck?  Well, apparently it's a special breed that came from a company called Cherry Valley in the UK, and it's supplied by one particular farm in Yilan County.  Tonight will be the true test for the duck as we go through the whole bird...

    When they brought our bird and the chef starting to slice it up, I could see the oil and juices just dripping down onto the plate below.  I knew then that I would love this duck.  I want something that's fatty and juicy, not some skinny-ass duck like what they serve at DaDong (大董) in Beijing...

    Duck skin wrapped in Sanshing scallion pancake (片皮鴨卷三星蔥餅) - the waitress wrapped these for us, but I was a little unhappy at the quantity of these pancakes.  There were actually two types being served - the first batch of 5 included some battered and deep-fried scallions that was apparently crunchy and fragrant, while the second batch (which I had) had plain raw scallions.  This was a dinner for 8, so why would they only make 5 rolls of each type?  Shouldn't we be able to taste both, especially when we had a whole big duck to ourselves?!

    Having said that, this was pretty damn good.  The "spicy miso (辣味增)" was an interesting alternative to the traditional sweet bean sauce (甜麵醬).  The duck skin was fatty, juicy, and a little nice and chewy.  The scallion pancake was interesting, although I thought it was more for the pretty color than about the flavor.

    There were also cuts of lean meat that we took on its own.  Not bad at all.

    Three-cup duck bone casserole (三杯鴨骨煲) - I chose this instead of the lettuce wrap (生菜包鴨絲) because this is so much more Taiwanese.  The three cups refer to a cup each of soy sauce, sesame seed oil and rice wine that goes into the dish, along with plenty of garlic and Thai basil (九層塔).  I loved this.  I wish I had more space in my stomach to fit more of this along with rice.

    Cherry duck nigiri sushi (櫻桃鴨握壽司) - the pièce de résistance of the meal.  My friend had said that this was the best duck she's ever had, and it was largely based on this one particular piece of sushi.

    Oooooh yeah, this was pretty awesome.  That fatty, juicy, succulent, fragrant, crunchy and chewy skin... and the oil that oozes out with pressure which then gets soaked up by the rice... Yup.  I'd say this was very, very good.  Damn good.  Why do I only get one lousy piece?!

    Ma po tofu in duck fat (鴨油麻婆豆腐) - this actually came pretty early on with the appetizers.  I'm not a connoisseur on ma po tofu, but this was not bad.

    Simmered duck soup with Chinese cabbage (慢火白菜煲鴨湯) - this was really, really good.  All of the duck soups I've ever had in Beijing were bland, tasting like what you get after you rinse the dishes with water.  In Taipei, however, some places take the soup very seriously. Here the base they use is chicken soup made with old hen (老母雞) that's been simmered for 10 hours, then they add Chinese cabbage and the duck bones at the end.  Very tasty.  I seriously thought about taking the leftovers home.

    Eight-treasure taro mash (八寶甜芋泥) - I was pretty full but I had a spoonful.  Pretty good, actually.  Lovers of taro mash would no doubt gobble this up.

    Given that this was my pre-birthday celebration with the uncles, naturally I brought along a bottle of wine from my birth vintage.

    1970 La Lagune, ex-château - earthy, green grass, blackcurrant, smoky, fragrant, cedar and tobacco notes.  Drinking pretty nicely.

    Verdict for the night?  This was a pretty awesome Peking duck!  With more varied and interesting preparation, dare I say that I like this better than the duck at Song Kitchen (宋廚菜館) - for many the undisputed king of Peking duck in Taipei?  I think it just might be!  The rest of the food wasn't spectacular, but I thought they were decent enough.

    But this was a "pissy birthday dinner" for a reason, and it was all about the service (or lack of).

    First, on weekends this place was packed with tourists, and what ends up happening is that everyone is shoved into the large banquet hall, and your dinner is run like a multi-course banquet that just ends up being a production line.  The same dishes can be served to multiple tables at around the same time.  The atmosphere is completely cold, without any sense of intimacy or personal service.  You are just another table among (literally) 60 or more.

    Second, they make the same mistake of 90% of Chinese restaurants - which is to say they try to serve you all the dishes at once, or without about 5 to 10 minutes.  How are we supposed to be able to enjoy our food that way?  Unless we go in like locusts or piranhas and devour everything within 15 minutes or so, some of the dishes are bound to get cold when by the time we get to it.  We literally got our first 7 dishes within the first 10 minutes or less, and that includes the ma po tofu that was supposed to be part of the duck.

    What's worse, just as we were complaining to the staff about how quickly the dishes arrived, our duck came.  They were ready to serve us the duck just as we were starting to dig into the starters.  WTF?!  So all the starters were just gonna get cold while we inevitably chose to eat the duck first?

    I was pissed.  In fact, we all were.  And we kicked up a fuss.  The waitress knew she had a problem on her hands, and the first duck was sent back (in reality, it was just delivered to another table).  After the first 7 dishes, all others were on hold until we were ready to take on more food.  Things went more smoothly after our initial outburst.

    You can say that my expectation were too high, especially for a small city like Yilan where people were bound to be less sophisticated.  That may be, but this was at Silks Place, for chrissake.  It's owned by the FIH Regent Group, who owns Regent Hotels worldwide.  I would certainly expect a lot from these guys!

    If I ever come back, I guess I'll have to do it on a weekday - when there won't be a lot of tourists around, and you can actually order à la carte instead of being forced to take the set menu...

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  • 06/22/14--07:44: Another Simple birthday
  • After the pre-birthday dinner last night, tonight it was time to keep it small and just spend it with the parental units.  For the third year in a row, I chose to dine at STAY for this occasion, as the simple yet delicious food and the low-key atmosphere is exactly what I'm looking for.

    It's my fourth visit, and still I chose not to do one of their several set menus.  For a simple meal, I am happy to do à la carte and get a little more of what I wanted.  Mom of course did the same, and dear old dad picked the cheapest set menu despite our objections - not wanting to spend too much of his son's money.

    As usual there was a trio of bites as our amuses bouches:

    Chicken with chicken mousse coating

    Salmon with sour cream

    Tomato with sun-dried tomato and crisps

    We were drinking a bottle of red Burg tonight, so I thought it would be appropriate to pick dishes with Burgundian flavors.

    Fricassee of Burgundy snails, fregola, watercress and confit tomato - in keeping with tradition, I ordered fregola as the starter since... I don't know, I must have a thing for it.  I just love biting on it with my teeth.  I thought the watercress sauce was really delicious, and the confit tomatoes added a little tanginess.  The escargots were fine.  Flavors here seemed traditional at first glance, yet there were little twists.

    Hokkaido scallops "meurette style", red wine, quail eggs, asparagus and bacon - I loooove meurette, so when I saw that the scallops were being done this way, it seemed to be a no-brainer.  And of course, the flavors match the wine perfectly!

    Needless to say, the execution of the scallops was flawless.  The croûtons were great, and I would have liked to have a weee bit more lardons.  Otherwise this was perfect.  What I didn't do tonight was wipe the bowl clean with bread like I did last time...

    We also shared two sides of vegetables:
    Green asparagus

    Creamy cabbage and bacon

    100% Tahitian vanilla mille-feuille, caramelized vanilla puff pastry, vanilla ice cream - I couldn't end the evening without a little something sweet, so I asked for this. These guys are one of the only places - maybe the only place - in town that use Tahitian vanilla, so I just had to have some.  Pretty yum.

    Mignardises came in the form of vanilla cream puffs and chocolate truffles.  Not bad.

    Birthday dinner calls for a birth vintage wine, and this year I decided to splurge a little and open up something a little nicer compared to the last two years...

    1970 DRC Richebourg - I had low expectations of this bottle, given that the level was a little low at 4 c.m., but this was a pleasant surprise.  Nose was a little floral at first, with a little leather and animal notes, and definitely a little acidity on the palate.  Opened up more after 30 minutes, showing very lovely fruit and a little more sweetness.  Very elegant and lovely.

    This was a very good evening.  Mom really liked both of her dishes - which, incidentally, were recommendations from moi...  She's always had hit or miss experiences with Robuchon, and tonight really showed her that as far as she's concerned, we don't need to go back there.

    The service was also excellent tonight.  The manager (he looked the part, at least) took great care in extracting the cork, and even though he did eventually break it, he was so careful that no fragment fell into the bottle.

    At the end of the evening, when I noticed that they hadn't charged me corkage, I approached them and asked them to put it on the bill.  They refused.  The reason?  Despite having only been there on three previous occasions, the restaurant had a profile on me.  They realized that I had visited the restaurant on the same day for three years in a row, and figured it was for an occasion such as a birthday... and wanted to thank me for my patronage and loyalty.  Now THAT is great service!

    Guess where I'm going for my birthday next year?

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  • 06/23/14--23:32: Headless 3-star lunch
  • I came back to Hong Kong from my trips to the US and Taiwan bearing gifts for the Tiggers, so they very kindly allowed me to crash their usual lunch date at 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana.  It's been quite a while since I was last there, and I happily accepted their invitation.

    I'm a creature of habit, and when I revisit restaurants that are old favorites, I tend to go back to the same dishes that I love.  And so it was that I decided to forgo the normal set lunch and ordered up one of two dishes that I had been missing dearly...

    Artisanal chitarra with tomato and red king prawns - ah... one of my favorite pastas in town.  That wonderful al dente texture from the thick pasta... the gorgeous shellfish and tomato sauce that I tried to pick up with the chitarra as much as possible.  And when the pasta was all gone but there was still sauce left in my bowl, I picked up the leftover bread on my plate and dutifully scooped up the rest.  (Tigger suggested that I do an I Love Lubutin and use my index finger instead...)  The carabinero was delish, but wait... WHERE THE HELL IS THE HEAD?!

    OK, I know it's been a while since I've been here... but they've always served this dish with a single prawn, including the head.  Where did it go?!  For those of us who truly love carabineros, how is it possible that the kitchen would think to deprive us of the pleasure of holding the head between our fingers while we greedily sucked out every last bit of goodness from it?!  I don't mind getting my fingers dirty at all!  Why, oh why?!  Oh, the humanity!

    This place is definitely one of the (if not THE) power lunch spots in town, and I counted 5 other tables with people I know.  A mutual friend of ours knew that my birthday had just passed, and very kindly sent along glasses of Quintarelli Primofiore (I didn't ask Danilo for the vintage).  This was young but very delish, showing a lovely and fragrant nose of forest pine and potpourri.

    Many thanks for the kindness of friends.

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  • 06/24/14--08:11: Shanghainese, my ass...
  • Like my good friend Tigger, I am really a cheap bastard at heart.  So it's rare that I find myself attending organized wine dinners since the cost is often prohibitive.  Why shell out beaucoup dinero when I've got enough wines in my own cellar to make me a happy camper?  But once in a while, someone will come along with a proposition that looks interesting at a more reasonable price, and tonight was just such an occasion.

    L'Imperatrice Fine Wines has an interesting roster of grower Champagnes, including one that is a favorite of mine.  A few weeks ago I received an email about a dinner they were putting together that featured these growing Champagnes, and the venue chosen was Yu Lei (玉蕾) - the one KO Dining outlet I have yet to try out, with a macaron, no less!  And since the pricing didn't give me sticker shock, I roped in a friend who loves Champagne and signed up for it.

    Unlike my experience with lunch today, I didn't really know anyone other than my friend.  And we were both feeling a little antisocial tonight.  No matter... I cared more about the food and wine that I came for.

    One took at the preset menu, though, left me puzzled.  This place was always billed as a "modern take on traditional Shanghainese cuisine", but as far as I could see, NONE of the dishes were actually Shanghainese.  In fact, almost all of it was Cantonese.  This was most puzzling...  I felt more than a little disappointed, since a good part of the reason behind coming here tonight was to check out the food.

    Chartogne-Taillet Rosé - very nice, a little caramelized, sweet, lots of fruit with very prominent raspberry notes.  Almost a little pungent, possibly from sulfur.  Just about my favorite wine of the evening.

    Chef's signature appetizer platter (三彩特式拼盤) - the plating is attractive and creative, but this is where we see the only Shanghainese element in the entire meal.  The pig trotter terrine (肴肉) was a little more mushy than what I'm used to.  The quail egg was not bad, and the prawn and pretty decent.  I was so hungry by this point and needed some food in my stomach, so I started eating the garnish... and was this close to eating the chrysanthemums...

    Varnier Fanniere Cuvée St-Denis Grand Cru - heady mousse, lots of bubbles, very vibrant.  A little lean and boring, perhaps... Later on became a little oaky, with some minerality.

    Demarne-Frison Cuvée Lalore Brut Nature Blanc de Blancs - nose was a lot more caramelized, a little metallic, with honey and sweet grass notes.

    Double boiled winter melon with ginseng and wolfberry (參茸杞子冬瓜湯) - this was not bad, and I'm glad to get some warm liquid in my stomach that wasn't alcoholic...  There was also some conpoy (干貝) and watershield (蒓菜).

    Bérêche et Fils Brut Réserve - nose was a little sharp.  More acidity here, with lemon notes.  Starting to show a little age and oxidation.

    Moët et Chandon Brut Impérial - lots of bubbles.  Very familiar.  This was put in the lineup for "control" purposes...

    Emmanuel Brochet Le Mont Benoit Extra Brut - nose showed a little plastic?  Definitely very caramelized and marshmallows, a little metallic and mineral, with a hint of coconut butter.  A blend of 2008 and 2009.

    2006 Benoît Lahaye Grand Cru - more complex, showing even more ripe and caramel, with more pungent sulfur.  This was poured into a decanter and vigorously swirled for a few minutes before serving, in order to soften it up a little.

    Wok-fried wagyu beef fillet with capsicum (巴西葉和牛扒) - umm... I knew that this place was trying to be creative, but I failed to see anything remotely Shanghainese or Chinese here.  Everyone thought the sauce on top was pesto, because it definitely looked like it... smelled like it... and kinda tasted like it, too.  There's a disconnect between the English and the Chinese here... The Chinese said "Brazil leaf" and the waiter confirmed it, so I'm supposed to believe that it's actually corn plant leaves... although I've never heard of anyone cooking with it...  My money, though, is on the possible lost-in-translation between the Japanese chef and the Chinese staff... Anyway, the sauce was pretty decent, and there was also a layer of tomatoes between the green sauce and the beef - making it more Italian - but the beef was already cold when it was served.

    Baked Japanese Oyster with fish sauce (醬油燒三重縣牡蠣) - this was OK, with a starched glaze, but again we've got the disconnect between the English and the Chinese here... Chinese says soy sauce... so which was it?

    2005 Olivier Horiot Coteaux Champenois Riceys Rouge en Barmont - lots of sweet fruit, a bit of forest pine, a little minty with red currants.  Not bad for what it is.  Total production of 1,024 bottles and 25 magnums.

    2010 Cedric Bouchard Inflorescence Côte de Val Villaine - a really good-value blanc de noirs from one of my favorite producers.

    2009 Ulysse Collin Les Maillons Extra Brut, dégorgée 7 mars 2013 - so interesting... lemon citrus, and actually a lot like a white Burgundy.  Nose seemed aged but not really very caramelized, with high acidity, some toasty corn and very rich.  A beautiful blanc de noirs, and definitely the wine of the evening for me.

    Barbecued pork with honey and crispy pork belly (蜜汁烤叉燒拼燒腩仔) - fail.  The barbecued pork was pretty uneven between the fatty bits and the lean, dry bits.  The pork belly was definitely too dry.  Honestly this is pretty basic stuff, and I expected more from a restaurant with a macaron.

    Steamed three kinds of seafood in mushiki (籠仔蒸海寶盒) - a stack of three mini bamboo steamers arrived, each bearing a small dish:

    Braised sea cucumber - very, very forgettable.

    King crab leg - this was decent.

    Braised abalone - this was OK.

    Fried rice with chicken and corn (雞粒粟米炒飯) - one of the better dishes tonight. I'm a sucker for corn...

    Laherte Frères Les 7 Extra Brut - made from all 7 permitted varietals.  Oaky, flinty, mineral, a little ripe but acidity is still high.  Also pretty yeasty.

    Françoise Bedel Entre Ciel et Terre Brut - ripe and caramelized, with sugarcane and water chestnut water (竹蔗茅根), while also savory and mineral on the nose.

    Glutinous dumpling with mango and sweetened sago delight with diced mango and pomelo (芒果糯米糍餅楊枝金露) - these were OK but nothing to write home about.  The sago cream was one of the more diluted versions I've ever had.

    2003 Françoise Bedel L'Âme de la Terre Extra Brut - even more caramel and sugar on the nose, more prominent sugarcane and water chestnut water (竹蔗茅根), plus a little metallic copper.

    This was a very interesting evening, as it's my first opportunity to taste so many different growing Champagnes in one sitting.  Of course, drinking bubbly on an empty stomach just meant I got buzzed much, much quicker than usual...

    Food-wise, I was a little disappointed.  I'm not sure what the budget for food was tonight, but what we got was certainly not deserving of a macaron, nor did it have anything to do with Shanghainese cuisine.  I guess I'll need to come back another day and order à la carte...

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  • 06/25/14--08:08: Completing the trio
  • Peter Lam opened a trio of Japanese restaurants in the same location a couple of years ago, and I've had the opportunity to try out both Rozan (魯山) - which serves up some of the best sushi in town - and Gin Sai (吟彩), with a well-rounded variety of Japanese cuisines.  But Wagyu Takumi - the sole recipient of macarons from the Rubberman - was a place I never had occasion to visit.  So when a friend from out of town suggested that we meet up there, I heartily agreed with his choice of venue.

    Like its adjoining sister restaurant Rozan, the seating was pretty much limited to a small L-shaped counter along with a separate private space.  Chef Mitsuru Konishi was already prepping when I arrived, and soon the strong smells from the teppan and the grill were filling my nostrils.  As the ventilation really wasn't strong enough, I could see that my ability to smell the wines would be greatly diminished tonight...

    Boston lobster tartar with dill cream, lobster jelly and caviar (ロブスターのタルタル、ディルクリーム、ロブスターゼリー、キャビア) - a pretty good start to dinner.  There was surprising crunch inside the lobster tartar thanks to some finely diced chives, and all the flavors from the jelly, caviar, dill cream...etc. worked together perfectly.

    Deep fried zucchini flower stuffed with scampi and Mozzarella, zucchini puree, chorizo sauce (ラングスティーヌお詰めた花ズッキーニ、チョリソソース) - very interesting as the scampi was finely diced and mixed in with Mozzarella, finely diced chorizo and pine nuts before being stuffed.

    Japanese corn espuma with royale de foie gras custard (日本のコーンのエスプーマ、フォアグラロワイヤル) - very, very yummy.  I looove Japanese corn, and when you put foie gras custard at the bottom of that cup... the combination was just killer.  The corn stick had a thin line of corn purée and was sprinkled with bits of popcorn.  I could do with another cup of this.

    Abalone and Shimanto seaweed with barley risotto (鮑と四万十青海苔のリゾット) - the abalone had lots of bite to it, unless the steamed or braised versions I'd been having lately.  Flavor-wise this was on the heavier side.  The barley risotto had finely chopped cubes of lotus root (蓮根), giving it a nice crunch.  The celery foam on top was presented with some ground pink peppercorns.  Yummy.

    Pan-fried Japanese hairtail, fresh tomato sauce and eggplant puree (大刀魚のソテー、フレッシュトマトソース、茄子のピューレ) - I can't remember the last time I've had this type of fish at a high-end restaurant, but the texture really is much, much finer than your average cutlassfish that mom used to fry up when I was a kid.  Of course the skin was perfectly crispy.  Nice combination with the tomato and eggplant, as well as a little cucumber flower.

    Roasted French pigeon with salmi sauce (フランス産鳩のロースト、サルミソース) - I watched as the chef's little helpers took the pigeon out and sliced it up for the four of us.  There was a little section of pigeon wing confit, which was kinda interesting.  The roast pigeon breast was flawless.  But the surprise was the tempura (天ぷら) of pigeon liver, which had a nice, concentrated flavor.  Chanterelles and potatoes on the side.

    Charcoal grilled Hida wagyu tenderloin and teppanyaki Kagoshima sirloin (飛騨和牛テンダーロイン炭焼きと鹿児島鉄板焼きサーロイン) - how does one go wrong with marbled beef like this?  Clearly the tenderloin would be a little leaner, but no less "tender", juicy and delicious.  The sirloin was melt-in-the-mouth as expected - a beautiful example of what Japanese beef can achieve.  I was happy taking the beef "as is" with the truffled jus, but also dipped in the black pepper sauce just for comparison's sake.  Of course, I had to pick up the deep-fried garlic chips one by one and nibbled on them...

    Stilton cheese with black figs, red Port ice cream (スティルトンチーズとブラックイチジク、赤ポートアイスクリーム) - blue cheese and figs is always a good combination, and this worked really well together as the very salty flavors of the Stilton helped release the intense sweetness of the figs.  The Port ice cream was just yummy, period.

    Fromage-blanc sorbet and grapefruit custard (フロマージュブランシャーベットとグレープフルーツカスタード) - very nice combination here, and I especially liked the grapefruit wedges along with the blob of custard/jelly with its own membrane.  Nice and bitter citrus flavors.  Sorbet was very light and refreshing.

    I brought 2 magnums tonight as there were 4 of us...

    2001 Ramonet Bâtard-Montrachet en magnum - very toasty, lots of corn, and lemon citrus.  After 2 hours, the sweetness was really nice.  Drinking really well.

    1997 Joseph Phelps Insignia from magnum - tons of smoke, minerals, grilled meats, cedar, and very fragrant.

    A very good evening, with good food, good wines and good company.  The food did not let us down - there were no fails tonight, not even a dish that disappointed in the least - and there were a few nice surprises on the upside.  I'm glad I finally made it here, and it would be interesting to come back for a different menu.  Soon.

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  • 06/26/14--08:42: Principal Aikens
  • It was finally my turn to host an MNSC dinner tonight, and we settled on the date back at our last dinner.  I had called around to a couple of the best places in town to secure a private room for ourselves, and was looking forward to going back to a place I hadn't been for a long time, when Lord Rayas suggested that I host it at the Principal.  As it turns out, Tom Aikens would be doing a guest chef stint on that very evening.   We had a pretty good experience last year when Jason Atherton came to the Principal, so I had happily agreed.

    For some reason, the menu did not include amuses bouches from Tom, so we got them from the Principal's own kitchen...

    Watermelon and sangria

    Truffle puff and Anchovies

    Crab, horseradish, coconut - kinda interesting...

    Cauliflower pannacotta, sweetened golden raisins, truffle, mace flavoured gin - the panna cotta was pretty good, and of course I just love cauliflower.  The raisins also made it a little interesting.

    Beef tartare, juniper and coriander emulsion, pickled maitake - also with cubes of radish and some kind of grated cheese (like Pecorino?)

    Baked cod with ash, beef brisket, asparagus salad, asparagus bouillon - pretty damn good.  I love cod for its juicy, succulent texture, and having a big chunk of it was just really satisfying.  Yum.

    Piglet belly, confit squid, roast pineapple - how do I not like pork belly, especially from a piglet?  Loved the acidity from the pineapple, which worked really well with the pork.  The confit squid was a little curious, but I didn't mind as long as it didn't clash with the pork.

    And this is the point where our dinner took an interesting turn... The Ox and a couple of others were complaining about the portion size and the amount of food we've had so far, and wanted something extra.  So we called up the Butchers Club Burgers, found out that their last order was in a matter of minutes, and proceeded to run out of the Principal, en masse, and went down a couple of blocks for a "pre-dessert".

    The Ox ordered us four burgers, and he got them well-done (but why?!).  The seven of us would each have half, and one particularly greedy piggy ended up inhaling a whole burger by himself.  To be honest, I wasn't exactly starving, but I probably polished off my half in no more than 3 or 4 bites...  I wouldn't have gotten it well-done myself, but what this meant was the exterior of the patty was pretty charred, which was nice.  The ciabatta was OK, but I prefer other types of buns.  I think I remember having one, maybe two sticks of duck fat fries...

    I think the sight of a bunch of guys, half-drunk, running into Butchers Club Burgers just before closing time, clutching two empty wine bottles... was probably a pretty strange...  And this burger run was certainly unpredecented - both in the history of MNSC, and also within my own dining experiences.

    Apple Yoghurt, cinnamon twigs, compressed apple - we went back to the Principal to finish dinner with dessert.  This was not bad, as there was a good mix both in terms of flavors (dairy/acidity for yogurt, spice for twigs and acidity for apple) as well as different textures (creamy for yogurt, crunchy and flaky for twigs, and crunchy for apple).

    But tonight wine takes center stage, and I had been mulling over the line up for some time.  I still can't live down the experience of hosting the lowest-scoring MNSC tasting in history two years ago, and I was determined not to do something similar this year, regardless of how interest that tasting actually was...

    I left the wines in the care of Senki at the Principal, with no instructions about how they should be served... other than the order of the last 2 pairs.  He made the decision to double-decant the wines 2 hours before we even showed up for dinner, with almost no gap between the flights.  That was a pretty ballsy move... and one that left us a little worried at first.  As it turns out, the timing was just about right for the first three pairs, with no sign that the wines had suffered from the extended aeration.  But we ended up drinking the final pair a little later than planned, so the sweet fruit had gone by then...

    1970 Cuvée Dom Pérignon - really mature and caramelized, Chinese licorice (甘草), sugar cane and water chestnut water (竹蔗茅根水), orange marmalade, salty plum (話梅) notes.  Slightly bitter and a little short.

    This Champagne was now showing a beautiful hue... after almost 44 years in bottle.

    First pair: double-decanted 2½ hours before serving
    1999 Armand Rousseau Chambertin - heavy nose of toasty corn, sweet and ripe, with lots of black cherries.  95 points.

    1999 Guigal La Landonne - very smoky, a little floral, some leather, with a hint of pencil lead.  Very rich.  96 points.

    Second pair: double-decanted more than 3 hours prior to serving
    1989 Guigal La Landonne - very farmy with leather notes.  Very lovely.  96 points.

    1989 Henri Bonneau Réserve des Célestins - a little green a little smoky, a little savory.  95 points.

    Third pair: double-decanted about 3½ hours prior to serving
    1994 Opus One - a little green and chalky, not much fruit left, lots of brett, and black pepper.  93 points.

    1994 Dominus - very chalky, smoky, minty. 93 points.

    Fourth pair: double-decanted 5 hours prior to serving
    1982 La Mission Haut-Brion - smoky, a little chalky, a little black pepper.

    1982 Léoville-Las Cases, Réserve Nicolas - chalky, peppery, a little green, pencil lead.  A little pungent.

    Something strange happened to me tonight.  For the first time in quite a long time, I really wasn't paying much attention during dinner at a meal I was looking forward to.  I barely took notice of the first three dishes, and didn't bother asking the servers for individual ingredients like I normally would.  I guess I was just a little too focused on how the guys were drinking and enjoying the wines...

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    Since early 2007, I have been wanting to gear my future travels towards visiting more locations which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There are so many amazing places around the world to see!

    Here is the list that I have already visited so far. Click on the links to see pictures from my Picasa albums.

    Total count: 56 sites in 18 countries

    Greater Blue Mountains Area - 1976
    Sydney Opera House - 1976

    Angkor - 2001

    The Great Wall - 1997, 1999
    The Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Beijing and Shenyang - 1997, 1999 (Beijing only)
    Mogao Caves - 1999
    Temple of Heaven - 1997, 1999
    Summer Palace - 1997
    Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties - 1997
    Historic Centre of Macao - 1990, 1995, 2005, 2010
    Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang'an - Tianshan Corridor - 1998, 1999
    South China Karst - 2000
    Xinjiang Tianshan - 1998
    Westlake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou - 1998

    Paris, Banks of the Seine - 1994, 1995, 1997, 2002, 2009, 2010, 2011
    Cathedral of Notre Dame, Former Abbey of Saint-Remi and Palace of Tau, Reims - 2002, 2009
    Jurisdiction of Saint-Emilion - 2009
    Bordeaux, Port of the Moon - 2009
    Palace and Park of Versailles - 2009
    Historic Center of Avignon: Papal Palace, Episcopal Ensemble and Avignon Bridge - 2011
    Roman Theater and its Surroundings and the "Triumphal Arch" of Orange - 2011
    Historic Center of Lyons - 2011

    Agra Fort - 2007
    Taj Mahal - 2007
    Fatehpur Sikri - 2007
    Humayun's Tomb, Dehli - 2007
    Qutb Minar and its Monuments, Dehli - 2007

    Borobudur Temple Compounds - 2005
    Cultural Landscape of Bali Province: the Subak System as a Manifestation of the Tri Hita Karana Philosophy - 1997
    Prambanan Temple Compounds - 2005

    Fujisan, sacred place and source of artistic inspiration - 1983, 1985, 2002, 2004,
    Himeji-jo - 1998
    Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities) - 1998, 2006
    Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara - 2006
    Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range - 2003
    Shrines and Temples of Nikko - 2007

    Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi - 2008
    Petroglyphs within the Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly - 2008
    Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang'an - Tianshan Corridor - 2008

    Changdeokgung Palace Complex - 2008

    Melaka and George Town, historic cities of the Straights of Malacca - 2003

    Bahla Fort - 2007
    Falaj System of Irrigation - 2007

    Monastery of the Hieronymites and Tower of Belen in Lisbon - 2006
    Historic Centre of Oporto - 2006
    Alto Douro Wine Region - 2006

    Works of Antonio Gaudi - 2006

    Lavaux, Vineyard Terraces - 2008, 2011

    Historic City of Ayutthaya - 2008
    Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns - 2008

    United Kingdom
    Westminster Palace, Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret's Church - 1976
    Tower of London - 1976, 2005

    United States
    Statue of Liberty - 1994, 2006

    Itchan Kala - 2008
    Historic Center of Bukhara - 2008
    Historic Center of Shakhrisyabz - 2008
    Samarkand - Crossroads of Cultures - 2008

    This list will be continuously updated as my travels take me to more sites.

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