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

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  • 03/13/15--08:35: NuRmami
  • NUR was always a restaurant I would have loved to trash for a number of reasons.  First, the PR machine made a big deal out of Chef Nurdin Topham's time at Noma - where he staged briefly, then spent a few months interning at the Nordic Food Lab.  I used to say that "everyone and their dog has worked at elBulli", and nowadays that phrase is certainly applicable to Noma.  I'm not saying that Chef Topham's experience at Noma and the Nordic Food Lab wasn't revelatory or had influenced his cooking, but the guy spent a decade with Raymond Blanc, and nobody seemed to be interested in that piece of info.  That's perhaps understandable, I guess... because how many restaurant PRs in this town actually know who Raymond Blanc is?

    The second reason there was an open invitation to trashing was the PR spin about the restaurant's stated policy of sourcing ingredients locally - getting on the "local farm-to-table" bandwagon.  Now, I'm not pooh-poohing the movement.  I do support it and feel that it is best to eat things sourced locally - both from a freshness point of view and also from a carbon footprint angle.  But I was browsing through pages in blogosphere, and everywhere I looked there were things like Irish salmon, Gillardeau oysters, Stockyard wagyu, Taiyouran egg... etc.  So what, exactly, were being sourced locally, other than the few herbs and veg?!  Was this yet another case of PR spinning a story and hyping it up?!

    Whatever the case, I ignored most of the reports coming out from the initial flood of invitational meals and decided to stay away.  Over time, though, more friends whose opinions I trust delivered positive feedback.  Then Rubberman decided to give these guys a macaron at the end of last year, and that finally piqued my interest.

    So when I Love Lubutin asked whether I had any interest in checking out the place, I didn't hesitate to say yes.  She promptly called the restaurant for a booking, only to receive a confirmation e-mail that started by saying "Dear Mr. XXX"...  We both lamented that in the 21st century, there are still plenty of restaurants in this town where the staff assumes that a woman calling to make a reservation must be a secretary calling for her male boss.  It wasn't the first time, and it ain't gonna be the last...

    I arrived at the restaurant first, and immediately the staff assumed I was said Mr. XXX... I, of course, couldn't be bothered to correct them.  It is what it is...

    We were lucky to be seated in the alcove by the entrance, which appeared to have the best lighting in the entire restaurant.  However, I quickly realized I was surrounded by a ton of large glass jars, some of which contained liquids or items soaked in liquid.  With the way the jars were lit by spotlights underneath the jars, they actually created eerie glows within the jars.  I felt like I was in a biology lab looking at jars of specimens in formaldehyde... or maybe I was Steve Martin in the movie The Man with Two Brains.  Either way, it was a little freaky to me.

    The restaurant only offers a single tasting menu, so after confirming to the staff that I had no allergies or preferences, there wasn't much to do except wait for the food to arrive.

    First up was a trio of nibbles.  From the left:
    Beetroot taco - with beetroot chutney and watercress emulsion.  Sweeter than expected.
    Dehydrated candied carrots - with carrot powder on the side, along with cumin powder on sour cream.
    Melon with pickled cucumber - paprika on top.

    Next was a pair of crisps.
    Rice crisps with homemade ricotta, fennel and dill - the ricotta was very nice.
    Barley bread with pickled cordyceps - with thin wafers of mushroom stems.

    Jasmin tea kombucha - interestingly sweet on the palate, and actually smells and tastes like Muscat grapes, but I definitely tasted the tannins on the finish.

    Tomato: tomatoes, tomato essence - obviously a homage to Raymond Blanc's tomato essence.  Local tomatoes from Fanling were very, very sweet and delicious.  The was also some basil coulis in the beautifully refreshing and pure tomato essence.  Topped with coriander flower, basil flower, shallots, Thai basil, and purple basil.  Pure, clean, fragrant, beautiful.  Umami.

    Scallop: Hokkaido scallops, peas, yuzu, lardo - another beautiful dish.  Scallops were diced and buried in the bowl with scallop water, sugar snaps, pea soup, lardo, along with some flower on top. The peas were tender and sweet.  The scallop was delicious and perfect.  The only issue was the lardo.  I looooove lardo, but given that the scallop was diced into several pieces, shouldn't the lardo be also trimmed into smaller bits instead of being one big slice?  The other problem I had with it was that I generally prefer my lardo to be warm.  There's nothing more satisfying than lardo that's dripping with liquid fat, but that's not what is going on here.

    Mushroom: maitake mushroom, berries, broth - the maitake was pretty much unseasoned, and really needed to be rolled around in the mushroom broth along with the crème fraîche or risk being bland.  The pickled goji (枸杞) berries added a little sweetness, and of course the mushrooms delivered umami.

    Squid: noodles, brassicas, cultured butter - so... more guys doing squid "noodles".  There were shredded cabbage cooked in butter at the bottom, with the strands of squid on top.  At the top were rosette bok choy (塌窩菜) leaves which had been compressed in verjuice.  The homemade cultured and smoked butter made the cabbage taste a little like 奶油津白, and there was plenty of umami in the dish, too.

    Egg: scrambled Taiyouran egg, broccoli, seaweed - the scrambled eggs were done with seaweed butter and came with slices of konbu (昆布).  On the side we have pickled broccoli stem, broccoli juice, dill, dill flower, borage flower.  Then we've got puffed brown rice on top, which were a little sweet and tasted a little like Coco Pops.

    We were asked to mix everything together before eating, which created this mess...  Anyway, the flavors were good, but we wondered if this was a little too busy...

    With this course, we were also served some homemade sourdough bread, which was really, really good.  Beautiful, crunchy crust.  And we were given a quenelle of the cultured and smoked butter, and that was very, very tasty.  When I Love Lubutin - who is herself a walking stick of butter, and therefore a definitive authority on the subject in my book - declares that this was good shit... you know it's the truth.
    Mackerel: mackerel, cucumber, pickled guava, nasturtium - mackerel is one of my favorite types of fish, and while this wild mackerel was said to have been lightly grilled, and was still pretty tender and succulent, I kinda wish it had been cooked just a little less.  Served with "apple dashi (出汁)", which was made with apple, nasturtium oil (which looks like it's distilled in-house), and bonito (鰹節).  On the side we've got pickled cucumber, pickled daikon (大根) radish, nasturtium leaves, and little dots made with guava providing some sweetness.  Pretty good overall, with a nice balance of acidity and sweetness to go with the mackerel.

    Beef: beef tongue, radish, mustard - the beef tongue was brined for 2 days and slow-cooked for 24 hours.  Served with a custard made from Japanese mustard, along with watercress and pickled radish.  There was a beautiful piece of potato water on top, sprinkled with watercress powder.

    The beef tongue was a beautiful hunk of meat, chargrilled to create the perfect crust.  I love nothing more than Frenching all kinds of animals, cows more than any other.  This hit all the right spots.

    But I did have to endure the next 30 minutes of listening to I Love Lubutin talk about going into the kitchen to steal persuade the chef to give her more of that potato wafer...  Sigh...

    Apple: Aomori apple, cucumber, meringue, dill - a beautiful dessert.  That crunchy layer of caramelized sugar on top of the slice of pickled apple... Slurp!  Sitting in a apple and wood sorrel sauce, with pickled cucumber, apple meringue.  A little bit of dill on top.

    Doughnut: goji cream, strawberries, Thai basil - such a disappointing finish.  I Love Lubutin's been eyeing the doughnut from the beginning, and it failed on texture... Just too solid and hard.  The strawberries and strawberry sauce was nice.

    The two of us walked out of NUR with smiles of our faces, appetites which had been satiated, yet without the feeling that we've completely stuffed ourselves - which was really nice for a change.  Other than the final dessert - which disappointed on texture but not on flavors - I was happy with just about everything else I had tonight.  And there were quite a few highlights - including the tomato, scallop/peas, both the protein main courses, and the apple dessert.  Hit rate was pretty high tonight.  And the high number of dishes delivering umami did not go unnoticed.

    But the burning question remained: how well is the restaurant doing in terms of using local ingredients?  Well, I guess we can assume that many of the vegetables and herbs are sourced locally.  That's much easier to achieve.  We still had Hokkaido scallops and Taiyouran eggs from Japan.  It's much easier to source seafood locally, and I wondered about the squid and mackerel.  For meat is would be really tough, unless we're talking about poultry or game birds like pigeon.  Let's see how this progresses as time goes on.

    One final thought: since everyone talks about Chef Nurdin's history with Noma, we might as well make a comparison between my dinner tonight and my dinner at Noma Tokyo.  While Noma Tokyo was a spectacular dinner in terms of creativity, I have to say that I enjoyed my dinner tonight a lot more.  While there were a couple of cold or tepid dishes tonight, and there was acidity in many of the dishes, the majority of the dishes were at least warm.  That helps to keep my stomach happy, while the combination of cold food plus acidity resulted in an unsettled stomach for me in Tokyo.  So I guess this is just a lot more up my alley... for a guy with simple tastes who just prefers hot food.

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  • 03/12/15--08:35: Flavors of Niigata
  • The latest victim I chose to skewer review for the South China Morning Post this month was Ebi-no-Hige (海老の髭) - the first Hong Kong outpost of a hospitality group from Niigata (新潟).  The izakaya features a good selection of dishes that includes regional specialties, which both No Fish and I found interesting, so we picked this place over a couple of others.

    The set menus didn't look too interesting as they didn't feature much in the way of Niigata specialties, so I decided to order à la carte instead.

    Our server came and plopped the appetizer onto the table and left without any word or explanation.  I guess this is what we should expect from izakayas... or is it?  As it turns out, this was pretty much the case throughout the entire dinner - just about every dish came without any introductions.  I guess since I had ordered every single dish off the menu myself, the staff figured that was no need to point out the obvious...

    Anyway, one quick glance and it's obvious why we got this as the appetizer.  After all, the name of the restaurant literally translates to "shrimp's beard", and those are some long antennae!

    Besides the cooked prawn - whose tail was stuffed with a paste which was a mixture of rice and egg (and I had to get our server to ask, because he had no idea the stuffing even existed...) - there was a bowl of nanban-tsuke (南蛮漬け) made with some type of fish.  Always nice to have something acidic at the start to whet one's appetite...

    From here on the food arrived in rapid succession... and I think we got the next 5 dishes in the span of 15-20 minutes - thereby hitting one of my biggest pet peeves.  Sigh...

    Jumbo fried tofu (栃尾ジャンボ油揚げの炙り焼き) - once you added a little bit of minced ginger, spring onions, bonito flakes and poured a few drops of soy sauce on top... pretty good stuff.

    Really nice and puffy texture.

    Noppe (のっぺ) - never had this regional specialty before, but I liked the contrast in textures between the crunchy vegetables like lotus root, the springy fish cakes (かまぼこ), and of course I just love it when salmon roe (いくら) is involved...

    Mullet roe with radish (からすみ大根) - mullet roe is another one of my buttons that is easily pushed.  Just gotta order it whenever I see it.  Besides the flavor, I actually kinda enjoy having it stick to my teeth...  I guess it's my Taiwanese upbringing at work...

    Salt-grilled rosy seabass (のど黒塩焼き) - I was a little taken aback when this was requested by No Fish.  After all, there IS a reason why she's No Fish...  Anyway, this was half a fish, and it was just absolutely perfect.  Crispy skin with succulent, moist and tender flesh on the inside.  I never thought I'd have to fight for fish with you-know-who... and when I took my eyes off the fish for a minute, all that was left on the plate were the bones...

    Japanese vegetable assortment with 2 kinds of miso (日本産野菜の盛合せ 2種味噌で) - I would have been happy just to enjoy these delicious veggies on their own, but the snow-aged miso were pretty good, too.

    Stone-grilled pork roast "Koshi Gold" (黄金豚ロースの溶岩焼き) - the one disappointment tonight.  While I loved the strips of fat in the pork, the lean meat was overcooked and seemed a little tough and chewy.

    Eel with rice cooked in traditional copper pot (うなぎの釜戸炊き土鍋御飯) - Niigata's most famous produce is rice, and here they use Koshihikari (コシヒカリ) rice for their pot rice.  Eel over rice is something that's just so comforting for me, and adding some bamboo shoots into the mix provided a little more textural contrast in addition to the subtle flavors.

    We turned down the offer of green tea ice cream, as we had other plans for dessert.  When I asked for the bill, it turns out there is an automatic charge of HKD 50 per head for the appetizer and dessert.  I guess this is kinda like how some Korean restaurants automatically charge you for banchan (반찬)...

    I gotta say that I found almost all the food to be very solid and enjoyable.  This ain't fine dining - it's just simple izakaya food designed to go with... you guessed it... sake and other types of alcohol.  Most of the service staff could use a good deal more of training, but that's what you get when you visit a restaurant in the first weeks of its operation... at least in Hong Kong.

    Speaking of sake, I was a little surprised to find No Fish in a drinking mood.  I must have been stingy on alcohol at our last few meals together.  Anyway, she herself was surprised that I didn't pooh-pooh her choice of sake as being "too feminine"...

    Koshinosetsu Getsuka Ginjo Namachozoshu (越乃雪月花 吟醸 生貯蔵酒) - slightly sweet upfront but medium dry on the palate.  Clean and easy to drink.

    I had an evil plan of getting us some ice cream after dinner, since we were just 2 blocks away from Lab Made Café.  I had vaguely remembered seeing someone post an interesting and local Hong Kong flavor, and wanted to grab a scoop.

    When we arrived, though, said flavor was nowhere to be found.  Instead, one of the usual four flavors on offer has been turned into a random lucky draw, with the staff serving one of four flavors which, supposedly, they don't even know the identity of.  This was apparently in support of local social enterprise Dialogue in the Dark, whose mission is "to raise awareness and create tolerance for otherness in the general public" - including, obviously, people who are visually-impaired.

    So No Fish and I each for a different flavor, and ate our first few spoonfuls with our eyes closed and trying to spoon the ice cream into our mouths without the benefit of sight...

    The flavor of No Fish's scoop had that milky flavor but I couldn't place it, but when she said it was Vitasoy (維他奶) it all seemed to make sense.  My scoop was clearly made with tea, but instead of Japanese green tea I thought it had a deeper flavor profile and more tannic - consistent with Oolong tea (烏龍茶).

    A pretty fun evening out.  I guess I should stop being a tightwad and start bringing out bottles of wine again for dinner...

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    Tonight I attended a talk at the Fringe Club organized by Slow Food Hong Kong.  It's part of a whole series of talks featuring prominent chefs in town, and tonight there were two featured speakers - my good friend David Lai from Neighborhood (and formerly of On Lot 10), and Nurdin Topham from NUR.  The two of them took turns talking about their experiences in Hong Kong, focusing on their use of sustainable produce.

    Nurdin Topham is a relative newcomer to Hong Kong.  He talked about how the 10 years he spent with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons have shaped him, especially the philosophy of using high quality, organic, sustainable produce.  In the short period that he has been here, he spent a good deal of effort trying to make sure his ingredients are seasonal and come from local sources - as much as possible, anyway.  This was something I pondered while dining at NUR for the first time just a few days ago.  While proteins - especially meats - are hard to source locally, fruits and vegetables are a little easier... but even those can be challenging given the quality of sustainable and organic local produce.

    David Lai got up and talked about visiting the local seafood markets and building relationships with vendors.  The small space that was On Lot 10 essentially precluded the kitchen from offering a wider selection of seafood items on the menu on a steady basis, so David decided to change the format to essentially "catch of the day".  They would offer whatever he was able to find on his frequent visits to the markets.

    David said his original motivation for visiting the markets was to get to know the amazing array of different species, and to gain an understanding of the "seasonality" of these species.  He also felt that as Hong Kong began as a fishing village, it is important to cling on to that heritage and maintain ties to the seas surrounding us.

    Over time he has managed to build good relationships with the vendors, as they see him as someone who really cares about his produce.  This has enabled him to be shown certain catches that "normal" buyers don't see, or offered first dibs on some premium items that otherwise would be shipped off to the highest bidder in China.  As long-time customers of On Lot 10, my friends and I have enjoyed the benefits of David's relationships on countless occasions.

    The latter half of the session was devoted to addressing the topic of sustainability, and how our current consumption behavior is leading us down a disastrous path.  A lot of the issues that we are objecting to now is the direct result of our over-consumption, and we have to accept the reality that unless we change our behavior, certain things are here to stay.

    Industrial farming is certainly something that comes to mind.  When I was young, my family and I certainly did not eat as much meat as we are doing now.  For my parents' generation, they grew up during a time when meat was something that showed up on the table on special occasions.  It wasn't that they were particularly poor, but the supply of meat was very limited and nobody was eating much.  My mom told me that when you go to the butcher in those days, you didn't have the luxury of choice in terms of which cut of meat you got.  A piece of meat was cut into different portions, and which cut you got depended on luck and your place in the line - as customer #3 got a specific part and customer #9 got something else.

    So we are completely spoiled for choice today, thanks to our incessant demand - and the rise of industrial farming is a direct result of trying to meet that demand.  Today we have no choice but to have battery farms for chicken, and raise cattle the way it is done... because to do so in the "more natural" way as the old days would leave a large gap between demand and supply.  If we insist on consuming "organic", "natural" meat, I think we would need to cut our consumption, because there is simply no way to organically, humanely raise this much livestock and poultry.

    David also talked about overfishing, which has led to ever-dwindling stocks of certain specifies of seafood.  The inevitable outcome is the rise of aquaculture, as we will no longer be able to catch in the wild everything we wish to consume.  For those of us concerned with what we put into our bodies, it is imperative that we look for sustainable sources.  Since certain types of marine life will eat anything - including garbage - shouldn't it make sense that we care about who is farming them and what they're feeding the fish?

    Each seat at the talk was provided with a pocket copy of World Wildlife Fund's Seafood Guide, which shows various type of fish - both wild caught and farmed - and whether they should be consumed.  Of course, I've been looking at this over the last few years - and even have it on my smartphone - although, admittedly, I haven't always followed it to the T.

    Someone from the audience asked about alternative proteins - like insects, for example.  Of course there was a report published by the United Nations in 2013 on this topic...  Since Nurdin had been tasked with looking for ways to deliver delicious insects to the table during his time at the Nordic Food Lab, he seemed to be in the perfect position to answer this question...  And guess what?  They failed.  They just couldn't make insects taste delicious.  So I guess that idea's out the window!

    Instead of drastic solutions like eating insects, the chefs on stage actually had a very simple message.  Consume less.  We don't need to cut meat and fish completely from our diets, but if we each consumed just a little less of it on a daily basis, that would already have a significant impact.

    I think that's a fantastic idea, and certainly something that each of us can do pretty easily.

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  • 03/19/15--08:08: Neighborhood madam
  • I had the pleasure of entertaining someone special tonight.  Big Sister Madam has been out of town for a while, and I felt pretty privileged when she agreed to let me take her out for dinner over a bottle of wine.

    Our dinner reservation was a late one, so we met up at the Amber Bar for a drink.  I was curious about their wine cocktails, and ended up ordering one using Stonier's Pinot Noir as a base while adding crème de cassis, crème de lychees, and orange.  Not surprisingly this tasted very sweet, and with a few chunks of orange peel floating on top, this tasted a little like a very sweet sangria...

    Having been responsible for introducing Big Sister to On Lot 10, it was no surprised that she requested to go to Neighborhood.  It's actually been a while since I was last there, and I was ever so happy to show my friend David Lai some love!

    We weren't in the mood for a feast, so we just picked up a couple of "simple" dishes that struck our fancy...

    Rocket/pigsear salad - I wanted something with veg, and at the same time I could never resist the lure of pig's ears... especially when there are also croûtons and chopped bits of lardon thrown in.  Love the sharp acidity here.

    Wagyu tartare/oyster aioli - very interesting presentation... but it made sense given the oyster aioli.  The texture here was much finer than the hand-beaten beef tartare that David used to serve at On Lot 10, and I really liked having the oyster flavor come into the mix... because it kinda throws you off, but in a good way.  Add some chervil and black truffle shavings, and croûtons for texture, and you got yourself a pretty tasty dish.

    Bone marrow risotto - I could never resist something like this... and Big Sister definitely wanted some bone marrow.  Rich and just a little sinful, this was pure comfort food to me.  A little black truffle shaving never hurt anyone...

    Daily fish "bouillabaisse" - just gotta have a taste of one of David's classics.  I didn't ask what the daily fish was, but there was a nice big piece of bread at the bottom soaking up almost all of the bouillabaisse...

    We were both pretty full, and passed up David's kind offer of dessert.  I was just as happy eating 3 of the canelés by myself...

    I initially offered a bribe of wine to get Big Sister out, and asked her what she wanted to drink.  She was pretty specific in her requests, and since I just happened to have this lying around in the office...

    1999 Coche-Dury Meursault - served warm at the request of my friend, which opened up the nose but also meant the palate was less crisp, resulting in a slight bitter finish.  Nose-wise this was classic Coche-Dury, with plenty of toasty oak, roasted corn, and buttery corn.  Always a beautiful wine.

    It was so good to catch up with my friend and welcome her back to Hong Kong.  Looking forward to sharing more wines...

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  • 03/22/15--08:29: The end of a chapter
  • At a dinner earlier this month, I received word that Chef Hideaki Sato was leaving Tenku RyuGin (天空龍吟), a restaurant much beloved by myself as well as the Tiggers.  This came as a big shock to me, and I immediately checked with Chef Sato on his departure date.  When I was told that he was due to leave at the end of the month, I quickly organized a last dinner with the Tiggers.  It is, after all, their favorite Japanese restaurant in Hong Kong.

    Tonight's menu read a little like a "greatest hits" collection, with a number of my favorite dishes sampled over the last 3 years.  I was only too happy to be able to taste them again one last time...

    Deep fried sea urchin from Hokkaido wrapped in seaweed (レアに仕上げた浜中の "海水雲丹"サクサク磯辺揚げ) - I've had this before, and didn't really like it on previous visits.  Sandwiched between nori (のり) seaweed and then wrapped in rice paper before deep-frying.

    But tonight I think I appreciated it a little more...  Even though I still prefer the sweetness from raw sea urchin, tonight the sea urchin inside was barely cooked, so the flavors only changed slightly with the heat.

    Spring vegetables medley with abalone and hokki clam served with grapefruit sorbet (春野菜のお浸し 生薑と木の芽の香り 長崎"煮鮑"北海道"北寄貝"グレープフルーツのムースソルベともに) - I always love coming here in the spring, as the chef showcases a selection of spring vegetables.  Tonight we had sugar snap peas, rapeseed flowers, cabbage, and another type that the local staff failed to tell me.  The abalone from Kyushu was pretty delicious, as were the surf clams (北寄貝)... especially when taken with the sansho pepper leaves (木の芽).  There was a pool of dashi (出汁) at the bottom, and there was a hint of ginger, too.

    The little quenelle of grapefruit sorbet on top was really incredibly refreshing, and worked well with the other ingredients.

    "Black custard" with hotaru baby squid (イカ墨茶碗蒸し 富山"螢烏賊"色彩大根を添えと) - one of my favorite dishes over the last few years.  The squid ink adds an extra layer of flavors to the steamed egg custard, and the acidity from the ponzu (ポン酢) in the dashi just made everything so deliciously perfect... along with a hint of yuzu (柚子).  The different colorful radishes on top adds a little crunchy texture.  The firefly squid from Toyama Prefecture (富山県) were just absolutely incredible.  I can't even begin to describe how much I loved them... just bursting with flavor, quite literally!

    Charcoal grilled amadai soup with leek and turnip (焼甘鯛のお椀 "ボロネギ""聖護院かぶら") - probably the biggest disappointment tonight.  The filefish was definitely over-cooked, so the texture was a little tougher and chewier... especially the skin.  Which was such an incredible shame!  The flavors from grilling were nice, though.

    For the first time that I can recall, the soup base wasn't made of ichiban dashi (一番出汁), but made with the other parts of tilefish like the bones... etc.  This gives the soup a wonderful sweetness.  A little bit of kuzuko (葛粉) was used to thicken the soup slightly, and some yuzu rind was used to impart the familiar fragrance.  The Shogoin (聖護院) turnip and the leek were pretty nice, too.

    Assortment of sashimi (本日のお造り盛り合わせ) - I do love the way this is presented... with a little "painting" done with salt.

    青森"鮃" - the olive flounder from Aomori Prefecture (青森県) was pretty nice, and a little softer than I expected.
    大分"アオリイカ" - scored numerous times to deliver the desired soft texture, this bigfin reef squid from Oita Prefecture (大分県) was taken not with soy sauce, but with marinated nori seaweed.
    氷見"寒鰤" - winter is the best season for yellowtail, and this was from Himi (氷見).  Now I've had a lot of yellowtail in my time, and I gotta think that this was close to the best that I can remember... Very, very soft and tender... which made me wonder how long this has been aged.

    Charcoal grilled alfonsino covered with roasted rice (煎り米を纏った"金目鯛"の香煎焼き 金柑のガリ) - another of my favorite dishes here, and served with marinated kumquat tonight.

    The alfonsino itself was pretty juicy and succulent as usual, but the best part was of course the layer of crispy, roasted rice.  Just beautiful!

    Wagyu ribeye sukiyaki with smoked green asparagus ("のざき牛"リブアイ "燻製緑アスパラ"のすき焼き 温泉卵を絡ませて) - from Nozaki Farm in Kagoshima (鹿児島), I asked for this to be prepared to the temperature that the chef prefers.  This was, of course, just so silky and amazing.  Nice smoky flavors in the asparagus from Tochigi Prefecture (栃木県).  And that soft-boiled egg with the sukiyaki (すき焼き) sauce... I could eat another 3 bowls.

    Riced cooked with "sakura leaf" topped with deep fried "sakura shrimp" (龍吟 春の名物 静岡駿河湾 "桜海老"御飯) - yet another of my favorites, and definitely a favorite of the Tiggers'.  In addition to the usual deep-fried sakura shrimp, which were crunchy and amazingly delicious as always, there was also a sprinkle of plum (梅) powder on top.  Soooo yummy... but I wanted a double-portion.

    The yamaimo (山芋) was soaked in plum marinated, and came with a cherry leaf.

    A little sencha (煎茶) to clear the palate.
    RyuGin specialty -196°C mandarin candy and +99°C mandarin jam (昔懐かし....... -196°Cのみかん飴 +99°Cの飴炊きみかん) - I've never had the mandarin version before, and it was kinda nice.

    Broken up and with jam added.  As the jam was spooned on top, I started hearing crackling noises, and once I put the first spoonful in my mouth, I realized that the chef had added pop rocks at the bottom.

    Almond ice cream with strawberry and sweet red beans covered with meringue (苺とアーモンドのアイスクリーム メレンゲのドーム) - with some strawberry powder on top of the meringue dome.

    Cracking open the dome revealed the almond ice cream underneath, which was pretty nice.  You get both the sweetness coming from the meringue, the ice cream, and the red beans... as well as the acidity from the strawberries.

    And as always a cup of matcha (抹茶) to finish.

    An absolutely stunning meal.  I couldn't be happier than I came tonight, but also a little apprehensive.  What will the new menu look like after Chef Sato's departure?  I'm sure Chef Seiji Yamatomo has chosen a worthy successor, and I look forward to checking out the style in the coming months.

    But I also look forward to seeing Chef Sato and Takano-san at their new restaurant in Central.  Simple, healthy French cooking with Japanese ingredients.  お楽しみ!

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  • 03/24/15--08:08: 100-point Porn
  • Us MNSC boys are a disorganized busy bunch, with a few of us being out of town on a regular weekly/monthly basis, so as the years have gone by, it has become increasingly difficult to pin everyone down for our dinners.  After failing to agree on a date for our annual dinner - where all members would be present - for a whole three months, we delayed that gathering yet again and decided just to have the Ox host a regular tasting dinner tonight.

    We also had a last minute change of venue, and ended up - to no one's surprise - at The Porn Pawn.  I was, of course, only too happy to check out the dishes now available this season.

    Charcuterie board: Ibérico shoulder, air-dried duck, chorizo, pork rillettes, pickle, grape chutney, duck liver parfait, grilled toast - this was pretty awesome, especially the beautiful lardo, the rillettes, and of course the incredibly smooth parfait.  If I weren't worried about getting stuffed too early, I would have had another piece of toast and spread more parfait and rillettes on top.

    Crab, blackened aubergine, lime, gin - pretty interesting.  Crab meat sitting on top of a pile of blackened aubergine mash, along with what seemed to be lime sauce.  Round discs of radish (?) topped with a layer of gelatin made of gin.  There was some powder on top that tasted sweet and reminded me of peanuts.

    Razor clam, mitsuba, black garlic, pickled white radish - this looked strangely familiar...  Nice citrusy acidity, plus sweetness from black garlic underneath.  Mitsuba (三つ葉) was pretty crunchy.

    Suckling piglet belly, poached pineapple, confit squid - this was really good.  I just looooved the suckling pig belly, of course... with that wonderful, porky taste.  In addition to brunoise of confit squid, there were also little tablets which had been coated with bread crumbs before being deep-fried.  Both were very good.  And the thin slices of poached pineapple were just a really nice touch, bringing tropical fruity flavors while the acidity helped cut through the fat of the pork.

    1.2kg wagyu tomahawk -yup, it does look like a tomahawk...

    Pretty damn good, I gotta say.  Very, very tender and succulent, while nicely charred outside.

    1.2kg USDA rib eye - seemed slightly bigger than the tomahawk.

    Also very, very tasty.

    Mushroom ragout

    Big chips in beef dripping

    Extra fine beans - really crunchy and nice.

    Sticky toffee pudding, toffee sauce, date ice-cream - OMG, this was sooooo good... I just can't resist toffee, and even better when dates come along at the same time.  INHALED.

    The Ox was incredibly generous as usual, and served an amazing lineup of delicious wines we've all had before - and probably would never get tired of having.

    1990 Moët et Chandon Cuvée Dom Pérignon - rich and complex.  Delicious.

    First flight:  opened 1 hour and 15 minutes before serving.
    1985 Faiveley Chambertin Clos de Beze - really sweet and fruity, almost jammy, fragrant and floral, with a little leather.  Very clean.  96 points.

    1985 Faiveley Corton Clos des Cortons Faiveley - nose a little more muted, with a little more toast, slightly more dirty.  Also fruity but just not as clean.  91 points.

    Second flight: decanted 2 hours and 45 minutes before serving.
    1990 La Dame de Montrose - smoky, a little savory, minty, almost medicinal.  95 points.

    1990 Montrose - a little savory, slightly medicinal, smoky, a little hint of grass, earthy, and a little ripe.  Leaner on the palate.  Much sweeter with the second pour.  95 points.

    1990 Beauséjour Duffau - a little peppery, somewhat muted, a little grassy.  Opened up later to show more sweetness.  92 points.

    Third flight: decanted 3 hours and 40 minutes before serving.
    1985 Guigal La Turque - a little exotic, coconut, a hint of leather, sweet and a bit caramelized.  97 points.

    1985 Guigal La Mouline - a little ripe and sweet, some leather, bacon fat, rich, with coffee notes.  96 points.

    1985 Guigal La Landonne - kind of ripe and sweet at first, then a little muted later.  94 points.

    An amazing evening with 5 wines which earned 100-points from critics.  Yes siree!  I would love to have these wines again, and again...

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  • 03/25/15--03:48: Speedy goose
  • A quick dinner at Yat Lok (一樂燒鵝) before crossing the harbor for the Bolshoi Ballet, at the request of my friend.

    Given her penchant for the roast goose leg, and the fact that there were two of us, I suggested that we order a portion of lower-quarter (下庄).  Perfect amount for two people, plus you are guaranteed a leg.  I do love the prominent five-spice flavors of the goose here, especially the star anise.

    We also ordered a plate of blanched choy sum (菜心) on the side.  Gotta get your veg in!  A plate of rice on the side makes the meal complete.

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  • 03/26/15--08:36: Repetition at the speakeasy
  • For the last 6 months, as I have been raving about the private dining facility that I have been privileged to be introduced to, more and more of my friends have been asking me to take them there.  Since the place isn't really open to the public, I guess there really isn't an alternative for them... I am the only access since I'm considered "in".  So I've been going back on a monthly basis, as friends who have already been request for repeat visits, and friends who have read my previous posts ask to try the delicious cuisine.

    Yeah... I have a pretty tough life... This feels almost a little like On Lot 10, in a way that my friends always asked to go there with me, as they knew that our food would invariably be special and more interesting than if they went on their own.

    Tonight the party was larger than usual.  We had been doing dinners for 8 to 10 people, but in the last 2 days the ranks swelled to 13, which in a way helped bring down the cost slightly.  As usual I asked for a couple of modifications to the chef's proposed menu.

    Barbecued Iberico pork (黑毛豬叉燒) - we started with this as we waited for the last couple to arrive.  Very, very good tonight... possibly the best version I've had here.  It was truly half-half (半肥瘦), and that pork fat was just sooooo delicious... you wanna position it between your teeth, and just kinda put pressure on it and squeeze some of the liquid fat out, and feel it drip onto your tongue.

    Stir-fried bird's nest with milk (官燕炒鮮奶) - it's been a while since I last had this, and I was so glad we added this to the menu.  Lots of sweet and delicious crab meat, stir-fried with bird's nest, milk, and mixed with deep-fried vermicelli as well as a generous sprinkle of powdered deep-fried garlic.  While we took turns snapping pics, the smell gradually permeated the room.  Incredible wok hei (鑊氣).  I think we all would have loved to have more.

    Deep-fried crab claws (椒鹽肉蟹鉗) - physically they looked a little smaller than the ones we had last month, but these were still pretty big claws, and certainly the thickness was nothing to complain about!  So so good... and incredibly satisfying just to chomp into one.

    Stir-fried tripe with mixed vegetables (七彩炒肚尖) - pork tripe, celery, red bell peppers, water chestnuts, yellowed chives, sweet pickles, coriander and Indian almonds.  Still my favorite version of this dish in town.  However, tonight a few of us agreed that the balance was slightly off, as we seemed to be short some of the sweet pickles.  The Indian almonds (欖仁) seemed to be a little more toasted than usual, although I'm OK with that.

    Double-boiled chicken soup with whelk (淮杞響螺燉雞湯) - very good, with sweetness coming from both the wolfberries (枸杞) and the Chinese/Japanese yam (淮山).  I picked on a few pieces of the whelk.

    A few of us were getting a little tired of having steamed ocean tongue sole (清蒸海方利), even though it's not easy to find them these days.  So I asked the chef to suggest alternatives, and the choices were humpack grouper (老鼠斑), humphead wrasse (蘇眉), or Hong Kong grouper (紅斑).  All three species of premium coral fish, which the Cantonese especially favor, are clearly in the "Avoid" category on the World Wildlife Fund's Seafood Guide.  That makes for a difficult choice for someone who cares about sustainability, because there's gonna be guilt involved whichever one I ended up choosing.  After researching online through the usual channels (i.e. Wikipedia) and double-checking with the actual IUCN Red List, I settled on the humpback group since it is only listed as "Vulnerable" instead of "Endangered" like the other two choices.

    Steamed humpback grouper (清蒸海老鼠斑) - this was pretty decent in size, and of course it was very nicely done.  Very yummy.  Very guilty...

    Braised hundred-treasure duck (百寶炆大鴨) - always happy to have this, although this poor duck seemed to be missing most of its beak... while the tongue was still attached...

    This was really, really good... Loved the egg yolk and the shiitake mushrooms the most, but the lotus seeds, barley, duck...etc. were all good.

    Four treasure vegetables with superior broth (上湯四寶蔬) - always happy to have this... and that radish was as incredible as always.

    Sautéed rice rolls with minced beef, bean sprouts in satay sauce (沙爹牛肉炒腸粉) - always a crowd favorite, our portions are never enough even though most of us are pretty full by this point.  The diced onions in the mix - which are slightly raw - just added that wonderful kick.

    Jujube soup with longan and apricot kernals (南北杏龍眼紅棗湯) - always good to finish with something like this.

    We didn't coordinate too much on the wines tonight, but I requested for people to bring whites since I myself was bringing a magnum of red...

    2011 Willi Schaefer Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese - a little sweetner than I expected, with a little white pepper and flint in the nose.

    2002 L'Evangile en magnum - nice and fragrant, with cedar notes.  Sweet on the nose as well as ripe and sweet on the palate.  A little more forest notes on the nose later.

    2012 Castello della Sala Cervaro della Sala - very ripe on the nose, very buttery and nutty.  Overripe and a little bitter on the palate.

    2007 Olivier Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Referts - a little ripe and oaky, with lemon citrus notes.  A little bitter on the palate.

    2009 Le Puy - pretty young, ripe and sweet, with oaky and cedar notes.

    This was a pretty good night, and I think my friends enjoyed themselves.  However, I'm gonna have to have a lot more input in terms of the menu next time around... Even I am getting a little tired of having the same bunch of dishes repeatedly over the last 6 months!

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  • 03/28/15--07:15: Earth Hour 2015
  • It's that time of the year again, and for the seventh year I participated in Earth Hour.  While I stayed away from Victoria Harbor last year and simply jogged under the stars, this year I decided to go back and watch the harbor go dark.

    I wanted to make sure that I was out in the open before 8:30 p.m., and after a quick bite, Hello Kitty and I quickly left Harbour City and walked towards the harbor front.  By the time we reached the water, most of the major commercial buildings on the Hong Kong side that I could see had gone dark.

    All, that is, except for the HSBC Main Building in Central.  While they turned off the lights that are usually lit as part of the exterior structure, the newer LED panel was still on and playing a video.  Maybe somebody didn't get the memo.  Or maybe someone screwed up.  Or maybe they wanted to be the only thing visible during Earth Hour and show that, in its 150th year, HSBC really does own this town.  Whatever the case, the LEDs remain lit until 8:45 p.m. - a whole 15 minutes into Earth Hour.

    The Agricultural Bank of China didn't get the memo last year, and its signage remained on throughout the entire event.  I'm glad to see that they decided to participate this year.

    Anyway, we kinda hung out and enjoyed the evening breeze for the next hour or so.  Somewhere along the time, we did notice that the LEDs at the top of China Resources Building in Wanchai kinda came back pretty early... if they were turned off at all... At around 9:15 p.m. - 15 minutes before the end of Earth Hour, we started seeing a few commercial billboards light up in Causeway Bay.  Sogo was the first among them.

    Two years ago, I complained that when the lights started turning back on, I felt the Samsung LED sign was incredibly blinding.  Tonight that honor goes to the LG sign, which seemed much brighter than its compatriot.  The LED panel above CCB Tower was a close second.

    I was really happy to see the people of Hong Kong participate in this very meaningful exercise, even if it is largely symbolic in terms of the actual energy saved.  We really do need to work harder to conserve energy and help save our planet.

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  • 03/29/15--08:10: Bolshoi in Hong Kong
  • I'm lucky to have friends around me who love performing arts, and they always manage to take time out to book tickets for sought-after shows.  Last year my friend Ninja booked tickets for us to go see Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's production of Iphigenia in Tauris.  I was so, so grateful that she remembered how much I enjoy Pina Bausch's work... then I proceeded to do a complete fuckup when I got the showtime confused, and organized a weekend eating trip to Macau.  Not only did I deprive myself of a great performance, I also ended up making Ninja go watch the show on her own.

    This year Ninja and I kinda coordinated early, and she picked up tickets to a bunch of shows.  Most interesting among them were the two shows by The Bolshoi Ballet.  Yes, I can count the number of times I've seen ballet on one hand, and this would be the perfect opportunity to get more exposure.

    As Ninja was supposed to be out of town for business on the day The Flames of Paris was showing, she very kindly ceded her ticket to me so that Hello Kitty could come see the show with me.  We also ran into ILove Lubutin and the Great One at the performance...

    Honestly, I wasn't a fan of this production.  I know there was a story that was being told here, but I just didn't think ballet was the right medium for that story.  From the very beginning of Scene 1 when the Marseillais appeared on stage, their movements just looked completely silly and laughable to me - and it kinda set the tone for the rest of the performance.  The soldiers were practically crawling across the floor, which

    Maybe I was suffering from food coma, or maybe I was just tired... but I actually fell asleep through the first half of Scene 2.  I really tried to stay awake, but to no avail.  I knew the soloist dancing the role of Mireille de Poitiers was doing a good job, but I saw too little of her performance.

    I managed to wake up during intermission, and in any case the music for Act 2 was much more energetic, as was the dancing itself.  Much more interesting, this second act, but the story also got a little gruesome.  We ended with the guillotine, forchrissake...

    A few days later, I finally got to watch the second show with Ninja.  Jewels was much more up my alley.  It didn't have a story to tell, but rather, it was simply choreographed by George Balanchine around three different musical pieces.  To me, what this meant was that the focal point was squarely on the dance movements themselves, and I really paid attention to the purity and beauty of movement.

    I took an immediate liking to Emerald.  The costumes were beautiful and the elegant, graceful movements were perfect for the music.  Nina Kaptsova turned in a beautiful performance, and I think this was my favorite part.

    Ruby was set to Stravinsky, and much more upbeat and energetic.  For some reason, a particular move towards the beginning brought to mind the last dance in the movie Center Stage, where Amanda Schull was also dressed in red and was dancing to Jamiroquai's Canned Heat.  I liked this part, although I thought Ekaterina Shipulina was too stiff and her movement control wasn't precise enough.  Anastasia Stashkevich put in a stunning performance.

    When the curtain lifted to reveal Diamonds, the crowd let out a very audible collective sigh - presumably at the sight of a line of white tutus glistening with rhinestones.  While Ekaterina Krysanova was good, she was deliberately slow in some parts, putting her out of sync with the corps de ballet.  As Ninja complained after the show, the whole beauty of Diamonds is the impeccable synchronization of the movements.  When your principal dancer chooses to set herself apart, the magic is destroyed.

    We were surprised to run into my friend David Lai, a.k.a. The Man in the White Tee who, incidentally, "dressed up" in a sweater and wasn't actually in a white T-shirt...  It was good to see him, especially outside of his restaurants!

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  • 04/03/15--02:22: A very Good Friday
  • It's the first day of the long weekend, and I had the privilege of being the "plus one" (and brought along a "plus two"...) of my friend as he hosted a winemaker over lunch.  I had briefly met Etienne de Montille on our MNSC trip to Burgundy a few years ago, and was very happy to make his acquaintance again today.  We were having dim sum at Seventh Son (家全七福) today, and having done a very poor coordination on wines with my generous host, I brought along a very casual bottle.  It's a decision I would soon regret...

    We ordered a round of dim sum and quickly went back to the wines on hand.  This was definitely a mistake and I should have known better.  Since this place is just like Fook Lam Moon (福臨門), it means that the kitchen will just send out every single dim sum item in the space of 5 minutes... and you'll end up with 10 plates in front of you that you can't finish without things getting cold.  I had long ago learned to order dim sum in multiple rounds at Fook Lam Moon, but I was totally distracted today...  So we had to send a couple of items back while I grumbled about this service issue.

    Puff pastry with barbecued pork (蜜汁叉燒酥)

    Spring rolls with shredded chicken (雞絲炸春卷)

    Steamed prawn dumplings (七福鮮蝦餃) - apparently Etienne's favorite dim sum item.  These were pretty good.

    Beef shank marinated in fenjiu (汾酒牛展) - supposedly marinated in fenjiu (汾酒) from Shanxi, but I couldn't really taste the alcohol...

    Crispy pork belly (脆皮燒腩仔) - pretty good, as expected.

    Steamed barbecued pork buns (蠔皇叉燒包)

    Steam riceflour rolls with prawns (滑爽鮮蝦腸)

    Deep-fried chicken barbecued kidney in egg custard (雞子戈炸) - at first we didn't tell Etienne what this was made with, and he seemed to really enjoy it... enough that we ordered a second plate.  When we finally told him the interesting ingredient, he wasn't the least bit fazed.  But of course he wouldn't be, since it's part of French cuisine and referred to as "les amourettes".  As a Burgundian winemaker, he wanted to make sure that we understood the difference between "Les Amoureuses" (which we drink) and les amourettes (which we eat).

    Deep-fried taro puffs with chicken (雞粒荔芋角)

    Pan-fried radish pudding (香煎蘿蔔糕) - FAIL.  While the flavors were fine, these were simply too wet, and fell apart in between my chopsticks too easily.

    Deep-fried prawn toasts (窩貼明蝦) - surprisingly Etienne wasn't a fan, but these have absorbed a ton of oil during the frying process...

    Steamed pork dumplings (蟹皇蒸燒賣)

    Stir-fried lobster (炒龍蝦球) - flavors are a little milder with this version, where the black beans and capsicums were replaced by onions.  The lobster was very tasty.

    Crispy chicken (當紅炸子雞) - even Etienne thought this was pretty tasty.

    The chicken, which was likely to have been raised locally due to the on-and-off ban on live chicken imports from mainland China, led to a discussion on sustainable/organic farming locally in Hong Kong.  Our visitor could not fathom the Hong Kong government's lack of support for local farms, since it's something that the government of his country strongly supports.  Well... we all know that the Hong Kong government only really cares about big business... and that means catering to the interests of real estate developers.

    Stir-fried kailan (清炒芥藍) - only the peeled stems here.

    After we finished our wines, we had a little bit of dessert to finish off...

    Walnut cookies (核桃酥) - pretty good but a little off the normal standard.

    Black sesame rolls (芝麻卷) - I wanted to show Etienne this classic dessert, which has been nicknamed "film (菲林)" for obvious reasons.  Something tells me Etienne enjoyed eating these...

    Well, we were lunching with a winemaker, so of course we were drinking...  Guess who brought the cheapie bottle?

    Paul Déthune Blanc de Noirs - pretty fragrant nose, caramelized, and nutty.  Kinda round on the palate, with a slightly acidic finish.

    2008 de Montille Corton-Charlemagne - very buttery, with marmalade notes and a little flinty.  Very ripe and round on the palate, but with a dry finish.  Very enjoyable.

    1993 Domaine Leroy Nuits-Saint-Georges Aux Boudots - nose of sweet grass, with a little leather and floral notes.  Dry on the palate.  The second pour delivered a nose that was so open and beautiful, which was ripe and sweet and almost jammy.

    1990 Montrose - I was certainly not expecting to drink this wine again so soon.  Nose of animal and leather.  Almost a little stinky and savory, with some coffee notes.  Very lovely, but probably needed a little more decanting time.

    Many thanks to our host for a very enjoyable lunch, and I had a lot of fun engaging in discussion with Etienne.  I hope to have the opportunity to see him again soon.

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  • 04/07/15--07:31: Pasta dinner
  • A friend and I were getting together for dinner over a bottle of wine, and as usual we were racking our brains trying to choose a venue.  Wanting something simple, the choice eventually came to Gradini.  This was pretty perfect for me because it's just literally across my office, so I ended up working a little before dinner.

    The menu featured plenty of classic dishes, which was just fine with us.  It's always good to gauge a kitchen by how well the classics are executed...

    Cesare salada - I was a little disappointed that the salad wasn't prepared tableside, given that the chef originally came from Nicholini's, and that's how Caesar's salad was served there.  Anyway, this was fine, but nothing special.

    Linguine alle vongole veraci - I had a bite of my friend's pasta.  Pretty good, but one of the clams I ate had a little bit of sand inside.  Pet peeve...

    I took the daily special of linguine with Sicilian red prawns.  I liked the flavors here, with the sweetness of tomatoes plus the goodness of shellfish in the sauce.  Unfortunately the prawns were a little mushy, although they still tasted fine.

    Rigatoni alla Norcina piccanti - I also took a bite of my friend's other pasta.  Not bad at all.  I love the Tuscan sausage and the spicy tomato sauce.

    Cassata - both of us found this presentation a little strange, and didn't quite like the way this was "deconstructed"...

    2004 Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino - this wasn't the Riserva, so it was accessible immediately after decanting.  Very sweet on the nose, and slightly sharp and alcoholic at first.  Nice and fragrant nose of forest and black fruits.

    A very nice and enjoyable dinner.  Nothing here was mind-blowing or on the cutting edge, but I thought the food was generally pretty solid and reasonable for the price.  Given the dearth of choices in town when it comes to Italian cuisine, I think this is a place I can certainly come back to more often... especially given its location.

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  • 04/08/15--08:14: Out in the 'hood
  • Hello Kitty felt that some flag-planting was long overdue, and decided that she would not let the opportunity slip by again.  Since she has never been to any of Chef David Lai's restaurants, she requested that the ceremony take place at Neighborhood, because... who else would be in a better position to take her there?

    We decided to sit at the bar tonight, as we wanted to sit next to each other instead of across.  This also made it easy for us to talk to David, as he spent a good amount of time behind the bar hanging out with to entertain us.  We decided to take it easy on food tonight, as we really just wanted to hang out while casually munching on the simple dishes.

    Yellowfin tuna toro / fennel / fava bean / bottarga - this came highly recommended, and was OK.  At least it wasn't bluefin...  The fennel added a light touch of flavors along with the basil, while it was a new experience for me to have the fava beans raw...  There was plenty of anchovy sauce and balsamic vinegar on the side to add a little ooomph to the dish.

    Vaucluse asparagus / morel / escargot / wild garlic - also came highly recommended, and the asparagus was definitely tasty.  The gnocchi were a little too soft and fluffy for me... I would have preferred a little more bite.  The morels were awesome, and were prefectly paired with the escargot.

    Acquerello risotto / bone marrow - it's almost unthinkable to come here without having the bone marrow risotto.  Just very yummy and homey, and of course having black truffle shavings on top don't hurt one bit.

    Baby squid / borlotti bean / squid ink - David very kindly sent this out from the kitchen.  This had actually caught my eye earlier, but I hesitated with the squid ink since we were drinking a bottle of red tonight.  His squid is always tasty, and of course the squid ink just made everything better.  The peppers were very, very nice, as were the somewhat crunchy beans.

    Roast pigeon - today's daily roast.  The minute I took a knife to this I realized I had slipped up.  I should have asked for this to be done more "pink", the way a French diner would have it.  While this was not technically overcooked, and the meat was still tender, the "doneness" was really more suitable for "Chinese palates".  Very tasty, and nice and gamey.

    Cat anus pastry Canelés - we didn't order any desserts, so these came after the pigeon.  I was actually offered more of them, since the staff here know that I like 'em, but I politely declined.  Tonight I would be content with just one cat's asshole...

    36 mo. Comté "Bernard Anthony"-  it's actually Bernard "Antony"...  Not surprisingly, this was pretty delish... and nutty.  Chomp.

    Brie de Meaux "Alléosse" / black truffle - I always love a good Brie de Meaux, and again... shaving black truffle on top ain't gonna hurt!  Nice and ripe.  Thanks again to David for this.

    2003 Kistler Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast - fruity and sweet, almost jammy.  A little forest pine, animal, black cherries, and caramel.  Very fragrant nose.

    Many thanks to David for indulging us, for letting us sip from his Whisky collection, and for helping someone with the all-important flag-planting...

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  • 04/10/15--08:30: Que pasa
  • Following our last successful expedition to NUR, ILove Lubutin decided that she wanted to hit another restaurant with me.  Neither of us have tried Quest by Que, although we've both heard good things about the place.  As luck would have it, she knows Chef Que's wife... so it wasn't a problem for us to get a table.

    Grilled octopus, watermelon, pickled watermelon skin, ice lettuce - the octopus was smoky from grilling, and had a very tender texture.  But it lacked any seasoning whatsoever, therefore it was imperative to take the octopus with plenty of other ingredients in the same mouthful.  The watermelon provided some juicy sweetness, while the pickled watermelon skin added acidity.  The crispy rice paper added additional texture, while the kaffir lime leaf chiffonade and turmeric foam both contributed some fragrance, and the sauce came with a little spicy kick.  Pretty enjoyable dish to start with.

    King salmon, galangal and beet root jelly, avocado, salmon roe - with basil seeds at the bottom along with salmon roe.  I couldn't taste the galangal in the jelly, only beet root.  The avocado came with finely chopped raw onions.  There was a nice touch of sweetness provided by the yuzu (柚子) in the sauce.  Overall this was pretty good for me.

    The salmon was lightly torched, so it was still pretty raw inside.  The piece of crispy salmon skin at the top was very nice.

    BBQ Iberico pork belly bánh mi, chicken liver pâté, black pepper chả lụa sausage, pickles - hands down our favorite dish of the evening.  This "deconstructed"bánh mi was so delicious that both of us could have swapped out another course for an encore.  The layer of chopped Iberico pork belly was incredibly tasty and crispy, and worked so well with both the pâté and the homemade sausage.  The bread at the bottom looked thin, but turned out to be just the right amount.  The pickled daikon (大根) radish and carrots on top added the requisite crunch and acidity, while cilantro and spring onions provided the finishing touches.  My one wish?  More sriracha mayo please!

    Bún riêu crab cake, pickled cucumber, cherry tomato pico de gallo - more flavors of Vietnam with a new spin.  The traditional flavors of the rice vermicelli soup are made into a crab cake, with fragrant bits of lemongrass inside.  A small pile of crab eggs was added on top.  The pico de gallo had a nice touch of acidity, and the foam on the side - which I found familiar but couldn't quite pin down until ILove Lubutin declared it as crab shell / shellfish - was certainly rich with flavors.  Mmm mmm good.

    Pan seared cod escolar fish, green pea purée, sweet shrimp ravioli - menu says cod, but our waitress told us it was escolar.   The pea purée was a nice surprise in terms of flavors.  The shrimp ravioli?  I'd advise against doing what I did... which was putting pressure on the sphere until the "skin" burst and all the shellfish broth gushed all over my plate.

    Neither of us have heard of this deep-sea fish before, but it had a lot less fat than cod... and the texture was certainly much firmer - more akin to mackerel.  Came with a delicious fish sauce caramel and crushed nuts.

    Stuffed quail, carrot purée, pickled romanesco, chipotle nước mắm - ILL and I had to think for a few minutes, but we both decided that we ranked this below the escolar.  The quail wasn't bad, but it just wasn't all that interesting even with the liver in the stuffing.  We couldn't taste the chipotle in the fish sauce foam, but it did manage to turn the carrot purée somewhat savory.  The pickled cauliflower was good, but these weren't romanesco as the menu indicated...

    Strawberry compote, soursop sherbert, pandan panna cotta, macaroon - a very nice and refreshing dessert.  The pandan panna cotta came with familiar flavors found in many Nonya kuehs, and I loved the soursop yogurt sorbet for its acidity.  The strawberry compote came with fragrant lemon grass and basil seeds.  Not a fan of the "France round cookies" but I guess they did add a little texture...

    Frozen Vietnamese mocha, coffee ice cream, condensed milk, chocolate meringue - what a dessert to finish the dinner with!  As if I wasn't already feeling full after the last course, this definitely pushed me over the edge.  Starting at the bottom, we have a thin layer of chocolate brownie, sprinkled with some chocolate-covered rice crispies, with a layer of marshmallow, then a big chunk of coffee ice cream, and some condensed milk poured on top.  Finally, we have bits of chocolate meringue on the side.

    Because the whole thing was frozen, the brownie at the bottom was a little too hard, and the marshmallow in the middle became a little too chewy.  But that coffee ice cream was just incredible... I've never had another coffee ice cream with such an intense flavor of the roasted coffee beans.  I normally prefer fruity and refreshing desserts, but I gotta give pretty high marks for this one.

    After we were done with our food, Chef Que came over to say hello.  He ended up hanging with us a little, and asked if we would mind being guinea pigs and try out a few bottles of wine he was thinking of adding to his wine list.  What, me objecting to tasting wines?  Hello?  I did think, though, that the Cali pinot would have a better time standing up to the strong flavors of his food.  And ILL did suggest to the Chef that he offer the bánh mi as lunch takeout...

    So ILL and I had a second successful outing, as both of us were pleasantly surprised.  From my one and only previous experience with Chef Que's food, I knew that he could take familiar Southeast Asian dishes and reinterpret them - in the same vein that Alvin does with Bo Innovation.  While I found his food too salty at TBLS, I was happy with the level of seasoning tonight.  I would be very curious to come back and see what else he can put together...

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    I was planning to work late and have a simple dinner on my own, when a friend pinged me.  Was I busy tonight?  No.  She needed a pick-me-up.  Could we go to David Lai's Neighborhood tonight?  Well, I wasn't feeling particularly hungry, but I could certainly keep her company.  I happened to be in touch with another friend who was already at Neighborhood, and we quickly arranged for me to take over her table after her time was up.

    I wasn't the least bit hungry, thanks to the fact that about 2½ hours before sitting down to dinner, I decided to inhale a bag of incredibly delicious, recently-expired Calbee yuzukosho (柚子胡椒)-flavored potato chips.  So from my perspective, ours was gonna be a low-revenue table for David...

    Truffle poached artichoke / smoked garlic aioli - David very kindly sent this out to start us off.  I have come to love David's steamed artichokes at On Lot 10, but this poached version was even better.

    Sea urchin / sea bream ceviche - this really appealed to me because ceviche means acidity, and that was just what I needed to kickstart my nonexistent appetite.  This fulfilled its purpose perfectly thanks to the sharp acidity.  The combination of the silky sea urchin, thick chunks of sea bream, thin slice of cucumber, shredded red onion, paper-thin wafers of red radish, balls of smooth and creamy avocado delivered a mélange of flavors as well as textures.  The coriander and kaffir lime leaf chiffonade added the extra fragrance.

    Rocket / pigsear salad - the last time I had this salad here, it came without any trace of the egg.  Today the egg made it a whole lot richer, and also dialed down the acidity from balsamic vinaigrette.  The pig's ear was still tasty, the croûtons still yummy.

    Acquerello risotto / bone marrow - I don't think I can ever get tired of this dish... and it seems everyone else loves it, too.  Tonight the rice was definitely undercooked and hard, but I like it that way.  Those chunks of bone marrow?  Manna from heaven.

    No dessert for us, so we simply had the canelés.  Always wonderful.

    David was amazed that I didn't want to drink anything (so was my ex-colleague at the next table)... but I really don't need to drink at every meal.  After asking me several times, I finally relented.  He very kindly sent us two shots of chartreuse, and told us to take the herbal solutions for medicinal purposes...

    As my friend e_ting wrote just a few days ago, I wish Neighborhood really was my neighborhood joint.  (Incidentally, e_ting and I really are neighbors...)  I looked around and there were three familiar faces in the restaurant - besides, of course, David and Shirley who know me by name.  So yeah, while it isn't exactly like Cheers for me, it's definitely got that neighborhood feel to it...

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  • 04/09/15--07:44: Deep-fried nobodies
  • Another month, and another review for the South China Morning Post.  Interestingly, when I received the list of suggested restaurants for me to check out, there was something from my hood.  Since very few of the other restaurants looked interesting, and the chance of reviewing something else in my hood in the future is likely to be slim, I jumped on this rare opportunity.  I also roped in my neighbor e_ting, who had just returned from a prolonged absence from our hood.

    Jin Cuisine (晉薈) in the Holiday Inn Express Hong Kong Kowloon East (that's a real mouthful!) isn't exactly a new restaurant, but it qualifies for a new review as it changed from serving Shanghainese to Cantonese cuisine.  So off we went!

    Not wanting to monopolize things, I asked e_ting to share the ordering duties with me.  Many of us tend to order very specific items when visiting restaurants for the first time, which we use as "litmus tests" to gauge whether a kitchen can deliver on the basics.  I got to see what her tests were.

    Sweet and sour pork (菠蘿咕嚕肉) - yes, boys and girls, your eyes aren't deceiving you.  Two Chinese people, who aren't gweilos, walked into a Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong and voluntarily ordered sweet and sour pork.  This is her test, and to be honest, it's a pretty good one.

    To be honest, this was better than I expected.  While someone complained about the presentation, the execution was pretty decent.  No, they didn't use hawthorn (山楂) for the sauce... it was still ketchup-based.  But the batter was relatively thin, and stayed crunchy even after a long time.  The pork was just fatty enough to be tender and juicy.  All in all, not bad at all.

    Sautéed fresh prawns with salted egg yolk paste (黃金海中蝦) - an increasingly common dish nowadays.  We had a difference of opinion on this one.  I agreed with her that the shells could have been a little more crunchy - and we both ate all the shells, by the way... although I left parts of the heads and the tails on my plate.  But while I was happy that this seemed to be a "lighter and healthier" version with less salted egg yolk coating the prawns, e_ting's take was that it's already gonna be a cholesterol buster, so why only go half way?  Nevertheless, I thought these were tasty and didn't complain too much.

    Pan-fried lotus root cake (香煎蓮藕餅) - my only experience with lotus root cake had been versions that I'd tasted at high-end places like Guo Fu Lou (國福樓) and Fook Lam Moon (福臨門).  Those versions had diced cubes of lotus root encased in minced pork patties.

    So imagine my surprise when this showed up...  Two thin layers of lotus root sandwiching a little bit of minced pork, battered and deep-fried.  Very tasty, actually... because the lotus root was thin and therefore crunchy.  We did think the batter had soaked up a little too much oil, though...

    Stir-fried mushrooms with ginkgo nuts and asparagus (野菌銀杏炒蘆筍) - more veg for our daily quota, but nothing to write home about.  If anything, this came covered with a little too much cooking oil... so that everything glistened under the lights.

    Deep-fried Chinese fritters with syrup (金絲脆麻花) - this has always been one of my favorite desserts... when it's done right.  This wasn't bad, but just a little too thin... and not gratifying enough when you bite into it.  We wondered why the color was so orange, but figured it was just some coloring the kitchen added.

    All in all, food was pretty decent and there were no fails.  Price was reasonable, too, for a hotel restaurant - albeit some distance from city center.  But the service left much to be desired...

    Let's face it.  We're nobodies, and we certainly don't expect to go to a restaurant we've never been to and get pampered by the staff.  It wasn't surprising that the staff were fawning over the TV and movie star in the private room next door.  It's also understandable that the staff would pay more attention to regular customers, but was it really necessary for four of them to greet the two regulars coming to sit at the neighboring table?

    At the end of dinner, the question was raised whether anyone had poured tea for us during dinner.  The reality was that other than coming to bring the 5 dishes and 1 bowl of rice that we ordered, we probably had two changes of plates - the second in preparation for dessert.  Otherwise I don't think the staff paid any attention to us.  Again, we don't expect special service or attention, but we did feel a little ignored neglected.

    Oh well, it's not like we would make this our regular hangout, anyway...

    The more concise review written for the South China Morning Post's 48 Hours is here (may require subscription).

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  • 04/16/15--06:27: Casual Filipino eats
  • This morning my friend Susan Jung from the South China Morning Post put up a link to her review of Lab Eat, a new Filipino restaurant and bar.  She had raved about the place a few days ago, telling us it was the best Filipino food she's ever had.  Well, since I was looking for ideas on where to eat tonight in that general vicinity, I decided to go check it out for myself.  Purely coincidentally, my dining companion knows one of the partners who invested in the restaurant.

    Filipino cuisine is one that I am completely unfamiliar with.  I haven't had the slightest urge to hit a Filipino restaurant in the last 20 years that I've been in Hong Kong, and my one and only trip to the islands was more than 25 years ago.  So yeah, this would be a little eye-opener for me.

    The fact that there were only two of us severely limited the number of dishes we could try, but I was really looking forward to this experience.  Since neither of us know much of anything about Filipino cuisine, we both looked to our friends for suggestions - me picking dishes from Susan's review, and my dining companion from her Filipino friends.

    We started with cocktails, and I ordered my current favorite - negroni.  This was OK, but I've really been spoiled by the ONegroni that I get at On Dining Kitchen and Bar.

    Kinilaw na tanigue - this was described as "Filipino ceviche", which is kinda accurate.  The cubes of Pacific mackerel are mixed with vinegar and diced onions, chili peppers, ginger, and what seemed to be green bell peppers.  Lots of crunch here, and while the zesty acidity was expected, the strong kick from ginger was not.  My first bite included little bits of bird's eye chili that I didn't pick out...

    Sinigang na hipon - described as "tom yum without the spice", this big bowl of sour vegetable soup came with our choice of protein - shrimp.  Morning glory, eggplant, radish, and tomato were all thrown into the mix.  To be honest I liked this MUCH better than your average tom yum kung... because I can't take both the acidity and the spice.  With I could have drunk a few more bowls of this.

    Crispy pata - despite Susan thinking this "wasn't very exciting", we just couldn't resist crispy pork knuckles.  No, not in a million years!  It's true that the meat was a little too dry and hard, but that skin!  And the collagen!  Deep-fried garlic on top?!  I was such a happy camper...

    Garlic rice - had some of this to go with the dishes.  Nice.

    Not bad at all for a casual meal.  Maybe Filipino cuisine isn't seen as one of Asia's more exciting offerings, hence the general low-level of awareness of the dishes.  The fact that dishes had to be described to us using ceviche and tom yum as frames of reference underscores this point.  But I liked what I had, and I only wish there were more mouths (and stomachs) around tonight so we could have tried more dishes.

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    For the longest time, the Great One has lamented about the fact that she has never eaten at The Eight - the Cantonese restaurant in the Grand Lisboa Hotel with three Michelin stars.  Her routine for Macau usually consists of a very long lunch at Robuchon, after which she no longer has any stomach space for the dinner she always planned to have.  So any other restaurant basically has zero chance of making it on her list...

    Ever since my first visit there 4 years ago, I have been raving about this place... and I really do think it is the best Cantonese restaurant I have been to in the Hong Kong/Macau region.  Apparently Fergie decided to check things out for himself a few months ago, and he's become a fan as well.  So we finally decided organize an excursion to Macau tonight for the Great One's benefit since, as they say... when the Kat's away, the mice will play.

    I rarely ever let establishment owners or chefs know in advance of my arrival - except for establishments in whom I have the utmost confidence.  As this is the Lisboa and I will invariably order up a bottle or two in advance, I pinged the PR team at the Lisboa to ask for help.  After consulting with Fergie, I put in an order for a few dishes, and asked them to fish out an old bottle of Riesling for me.  I also told them about the crew I was bringing with me.

    We were greeted upon arrival by the lovely Eugenia, as well as the hotel's Chinese FnB manager Kenneth - whose father, Lai Yau-tim (黎有甜), is the man behind Tim's Kitchen (桃花源).  After introductions, they very politely left us alone in the privacy of the room they arranged for us.

    We began, as usual, with two bites of amuse bouche.  The first was a little abalone with pomelo jelly...

    ...followed by wagyu beef cubes with pine nuts and celery in crispy bird's nest.

    Barbecued and smoked pork (明爐叉燒不見天) - this cut of pork is apparently from the legs... and supposed to be lean (i.e. not marbled), but of course there was just a nice layer of fat on top!  It's my second time ordering this, and I really, really love this.

    Barbecued pork (玫瑰蜜汁叉燒) - Eugenia very kindly arranged to send us their signature thick-cut char siu, knowing how much I love it.  It's also good as a comparison with the other pork dish.  Unfortunately, though, the lean meat tonight was the toughest and driest I've had from all my visits here.  The marbling and charring was still delicious, but tonight the thick cut backfired a little.

    Deep-fried crystal blue shrimp mousse filled with goose liver pate (鵝肝醬藍天使蝦丸) - these looked pretty interesting on paper, and looked very old school when they arrived.

    We were a little disappointed with the amount of goose liver pâté inside, and we also thought that the pâté would be a little softer and more gooey.   Still pretty interesting, though.

    Steamed crab claw with egg white in ginger and vintage Chinese wine (薑米酒蒸蟹拑) - there was something else we pre-ordered which was no longer available, and Eugenia remembered that I liked this from my last visit, so she very kindly arranged for this as a complimentary substitute.

    And what a substitute!  The giant crab claws were really fresh and sweet, while the steamed egg white custard was just full of the flavors of Chinese wine, and were mottled with tiny bits of finger.  One of us (not naming any names here...) inhaled the crab claw so quickly we were left wondering if the kitchen had forgotten to put one on top of the custard...

    30 years vintage tangerine peel chicken (三十年陳皮雞) - one of my favorite dishes, and I was bummed when I couldn't order it last year when live chickens were banned due to avian flu.

    The paper-thin, crispy thin was really delicious.  Underneath was a pile of shredded chicken with 30-year old tangerine peel chiffonade.  Now THIS was the reason for ordering the dish... the incredibly fragrant vintage tangerine peel, whose flavors had penetrated the moist and tender chicken meat.  Yum.

    Suckling pig filled with fried rice and preserved meat (原隻乳豬焗飯) - it seemed wrong to come with this crowd and not order this... given how we're all such big fans of the Kimberley Pig.

    Given there were only 4 of us tonight, we decided to just order half a pig.  Introspect, this was a real mistake... and we should have just order the whole pig and go home with a bigger doggie bag!

    The Great One promptly declared this to be her new favorite suckling pig, even better than the Kimberley Pig - whose standards had been slipping over the last couple of years.

    As for me, I'm still kinda partial to the sticky rice stuffing from the Kimberley Pig, although there was no doubt the rice stuffing here - made with Cantonese sausage (臘腸) and liver sausage (潤腸) - was incredibly tasty.  At one point I was reminded of the fried glutinous rice with preserved meats (生炒糯米飯) we had at the private dining facility...

    Rice noodle with pigeon fillet in a stone bowl (石鍋野菌鴿片過橋米線) - I was glad Fergie singled this out as a dish he wanted to try, because I remembered it as one of the tastiest soup noodles I've had in Cantonese cuisine.

    The mushrooms were first stir-fried in the scorching-hot stone bowl, then Shaoxing wine (紹興酒) and the milky pigeon broth were added along with the rice noodles.  Finally we added pieces of stir-fried pigeon, sugar snap peas, more mushrooms as well as wolfberries to our liking.  The result?  An incredibly tasting bowl of noodles, with wonderful depth of flavors in the broth.  Perfectly comforting as it warms the stomach.

    Baked Alaska with red bean sorbet (火焰椰子紅豆蛋糕) - I tried this on my last visit, and since I had just seen it on Lemon Tea's FB page, I figured I could order it again.

    I do like the coconut-flavored red bean sorbet, but even a quarter of this was pretty rich.

    Black and white sesame pudding with sesame ice-cream (黑白芝麻布甸配芝麻雪糕) - another favorite dessert of mine.  That black sesame half was just delish.

    Coffee jelly (咖啡啫喱) - hands down my favorite dessert here.  So much coffee flavor here, and that layer of rich cream on top... Slurp!

    Finally... the little petit four that comes at the very end.  Ever since my first visit, this had been a mini Portuguese pasteis, but tonight it was a little coconut jelly with mung beans in the shape of a rose, topped with some bird's nest and gold foil.

    One must finish the meal here with this small cup of Hong Kong style milk tea (港式奶茶)... and it is still my favorite milk tea.  Period.

    Fergie couldn't possibly go through a dinner like this without some wine, so we picked out a couple of bottles from the hotel's extensive cellar...

    1971 Christoffel Berres Erdener Prälat Riesling Auslese - wonderful nose of mandarin orange and marmalade, with some nutty and apricot notes.  Nice acidity on the rounded palate.  Finish was a little short, and also slightly bitter.  Beautiful amber color.

    2007 Giuseppi e Figlio Mascarello Barolo Monprivato - decanted but still really young.  Very ripe and fruity nose, definitely strawberry and jammy.  A little sharp on the palate.

    All of us - except for the Great One - were completely stuffed and could eat no more.  This was clearly too much food for the four of us, yet there were so many other dishes on the extensive menu that the Great One wanted to try.  I guess the only solution is to plan a return visit soon...  And no, none of us could have eaten that bowl of Shanxi handmade noodles that we talked about at the Noodle and Congee Corner (粥麵莊) downstairs, after dinner... even if there were only a single strand of noodle in the bowl...

    Many thanks for the hotel for the wonderful arrangements and service, and of course for those delicious, extra dishes.

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    A couple of weeks ago I received an email from my friendly neighborhood prime broker, inviting me to a lunch session with a couple of their senior managers from head office.  I gotta admit that the discussion topic wasn't exactly the most exciting, but what caught my eye was the word "Amber" in the subject line.  Well, as I said in my reply, it's "very difficult to turn down Amber"... innit?!

    After we all sat down and introduced ourselves, our guest speakers kicked off the discussion while our server began bringing the food in.  First, of course, were the bread baskets to go with the butter that had already been laid out on the table.

    Curiously, there was no cutlery on the table at all.  It's true that a meal at Amber always starts with a number of nibbles - all of which are eaten with one's hands.  But there were no bread knives on top of our bread plates... so I ended up spreading the butter by pressing my bread against the plate itself.  A little surprising for such an establishment, but it's a minor slip-up.

    Of course, when one is friends with I Love Lubutin, one cannot help but snap a pic of the scene, put it on social media, and declare oneself "no fork use (冇叉用)"...

    The nibbles start coming in, but nobody moved a muscle.  Not for a while, anyway...  Eventually hunger gets the better of me, and I started grabbing them and shoveling them - discretely - into my waiting mouth.

    Mushroom Puer tea, with cream and chives - pretty nice mushroom flavors.

    (Fennel?) macaron - a little sweet with nice acidity.
    Virgin Bloody Mary - very nice, with a spicy crust.

    Tomato pita bread - nice and crispy on the outside, with a fennel purée inside.

    Barbajuan - with lemon, tomato, fennel, and basil.

    The amuse bouche came, and at the bottom of the bowl were a couple of chunks of asparagus, along with sautéed morel and button mushroom bits.  These were topped with a layer of arugula foam that were distinctively acidic, and I could have sworn the kitchen added mustard in the foam.  I was told, though, that mustard was added to the deep-fried chip.

    White asparagus, cooked and raw over a saffron and Meursault 'anglaise', dekopon, hyuganatsu citrus, watercress and lamb lettuce - very light and refreshing, with very clean and pure flavors from the white asparagus.  The saffron flavors were very prominent in the anglaise, and the acidity was also very evident.  There were dots of watercress coulis on top of the anglaise. The bits of hyuganatsu (日向夏) were more acidic and lighter in terms of flavor, while depokon (デコポン) was expectedly sweeter, more intense and full-on.

    Pyrenees lamb, braised then smoked shoulder with lemon thyme, espelette mousseline and grilled charlotte potato with bannou negi - we were given a choice of either sea bass or the lamb, so OF COURSE I picked the lamb shoulder...  And I was SOOOOO GLAD I DID!!!

    I immediately picked up the wonderful, smoky scent once the plate was laid down in front of me.  My Nontron knife cut into this tender hunk of meat easily, and I was instantly in love.  The meat was sooooo tender... and just incredibly tasty.  I took my time savoring the taste, and was just about the last person to finish the main course...

    This was served with a side pot of mashed potato with lamb jus.

    'Williams' pear and jumbo dried raisins poached in macvin du Jura with buttermilk and organic lemon peel sorbet - delicious.  I always love pear desserts, and this one came with a nice buttermilk sorbet with fragrant and lemon peel.  The dried white raisins were definitely pretty big, and this whole thing was fairly light.  Yum.

    Of course, we finished with the petits fours.  As usual, I just took the fruit pâté and the calissons.

    A very delicious but heavy lunch.  Many thanks, of course, to my friendly neighborhood prime broker for this treat.  Burp.

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    Despite decent-but-no-magic last visit, I'm back at Akrame tonight with the Great One... at the kind invitation of Chef David Lai.  Apparently Chef Akrame Benallal was back in town, and I was invited to join a small group for dinner.  I figured that going with David couldn't hurt, and the food was bound to be better when Akrame himself was around.

    Even though I'd seen my weight shoot up over the last week and secretly preferred the 6-course menu, I decided that I should just take 8 courses like everyone else.  Based on past experience, I did not expect the leave the restaurant feeling stuffed.  I would be right.

    After taking out my camera, I put my bag on the floor against the wall.  As the owner was in the house and she certainly remembers me, a stool was offered for my bag, but I politely declined.

    As usual the meal started with a small selection of nibbles.

    These "oreos" were made with Parmesan cookies and sardine cream filling.  Yum.

    Celtuce with foie gras (?) and raspberries - can't remember what the filling was... but possibly not foie gras as the whole thing was pretty light.

    Olive chip with Greek yogurt

    Polenta with smoked haddock and coffee sabayon - soft and delicious polenta, with olive oil that Akrame makes himself.  The haddock was salty and wonderfully smoky.  Yum.

    Gillardeau oyster tartare with nori seaweed, apple, olive oil, and pepper - refreshing and delicious, with the finely diced apple providing nice crunchy texture as a contrast, as well as acidity.

    Mussels with curry sauce and mustard foam - definitely felt that kick from the curry.

    Lobster cooked in lobster consommé, with lentils and tarragon chantilly - one of Akrame's signature dishes seems to be the way he finishes cooking his lobster in a container by immersing it in hot lobster consommé.  This was nice.  But we all complained to the chef about not being able to drink that consommé...

    Sea bass with charcoal butter and red wine sauce - ahhhhh, yes, Akrame loves his charcoal.  This was delish.

    Carrots, beurre noisette, anchovies, and lemon rind - served on the side.  Loved the flavors of the anchovies.

    Our palate cleanser came and it was a delicious mandarin sorbet topped with Campari jelly, served in a shot glass made of ice.

    Pigeon with cocoa, asparagus, and watercress sauce - all but one of us went for the pigeon, and it's easy to see why.

    The pigeon wasn't as rare as I would normally prefer, but it was still very tender.  The cocoa was an interesting touch.  Of course this is now asparagus season, so needless to say the spear was very nice.

    Comté and spinach, with leeks and onion consommé - now THIS was interesting!  A millefeuille made with layers of Comté and spinach!  Very, very nice.  Loved the charred leeks and the consommé.  Nice touch with the chervil.

    Chocolate mousse, edible charcoal, green cardamom - the charcoal strikes again...

    Choux ice cream with chocolate chip - apparently the ice cream is made with choux pastry that's been ground up.  Kinda interesting.

    Cream cheese with mixed berries and beetroot granita - liked the cream cheese, liked the berries, but unfortunately I'm one of those people who dislike beetroot because I am sensitive to the earthy flavors.  Oh well...

    Our petits fours were the usual dark chocolate with sea salt, plus some meringues (?).

    There is always wine when our hostess is around, and the restaurant very kindly arranged to waive the corkage for us this evening.

    1990 Nicolas Potel Meursault 1er Cru Perrières - prominent toasty notes, nice and buttery, with some minerals and lemon.  Ripe on the palate but nicely balanced.

    1999 Jean-Marc Boillot Pommard 1er Cru Jarrolières - nose of very exotic spices, a little leather.  A little closed at first, slightly smoky.  Still somewhat tannic on the palate.  Second pour after chilling the wine was much better.

    1986 Cos d'Estournel - nose of black olives, very savory, pretty smoky, and graphite notes.  Later on the acidity was noticeably higher.  At nearly 30 years of age, there wasn't as much fruit detectable from this bottle, but starting to taste a little mature and perhaps a little tired.

    This was a pretty good dinner.  We were certainly well-treated tonight, and a very friendly Chef Akrame came to explain each course.  There were a few dishes which were very tasty, and certainly all of the dishes demonstrated the creativity of the chef.  I was satiated but not stuffed, although we decided that supper with pizza or noodles was no longer viable at this point...

    But a couple of us experienced a little sticker shock when the bill came.  I should have remembered that when starred chefs from France visit their outposts in Asia, the menu is often "special" and there is a corresponding increase in price.  I am sure some of the 40% premium charged tonight was reflected in the quality of the ingredients.  But at HKD 2,000 a head for an 8-course dinner (for food only), they are putting themselves in the price range of Amber, Pierre, Caprice and the like.

    And at that top price range, customers have expectations not just about the food but also ambiance, service... etc., which the three aforementioned restaurants are in better positions to provide given they have the resources of 5-star hotels.  Near the start of the meal - perhaps just after the nibbles and as the first course was being served - we found ourselves with no utensils.  I can't believe that this happened to me for a second time today - and both times at restaurants with macarons from the Rubberman.  As my hostess remarked, it's just a "no fork day" for me.  But I digress...

    Put it simply: at the price being charged tonight, I would expect to have my mind blown, at least by one or two dishes.  I wasn't.  It was very good, but a meal at either Amber, Pierre, or Caprice would have produced a few more "ooohs" and "wows" from me.  It was very much like my lunch at Sushi Mizutani in Tokyo - everything was technically faultless, but where was the magic?  Maybe I just don't "get" Akrame, the same way that some people don't get Pierre Gagnaire?

    I gotta go see him in Paris to be sure.  But since I've already cancelled my wine trip to France this year, I guess it's gonna have to wait till next year...

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