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

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    So this was it.  My most anticipated meal on this trip.  The Best Restaurant in Thailand, and the Best Restaurant in Asia - that is, according to Asia's 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna.

    I became a big fan of Gaggan Anand when I went to his pop-up in Hong Kong.  He was doing something that was unique and very appealing to me - using modern cooking techniques to present traditional flavors... in this case Indian cuisine.  To me, he's the Indian counterpart to Alvin Leung of Bo Innovation... only better.  Because of my self-imposed exile from Thailand for the last few years, I was never able to come to Gaggan, his eponymous flagship restaurant in Bangkok - until now.

    I pinged Gaggan and told him I was finally making my way to Bangkok, and we made arrangements for me to come to dinner tonight - since he would be busy with his obligations with Asia's 50 Best Restaurants for the previous few days.  I scheduled my trip to accommodate tonight's dinner, because there was no way I was leaving town without dining here!

    Since both the Great One and HaoKouFu had already dined here a few days ago, I was faced with the prospect of dining alone - which isn't ideal, but I'm a big boy and I've done it plenty of times.  So when the Jet Setter pinged me last night and told me he was in town, I was only too happy to invite him to join me for dinner tonight.

    I showed up at the restaurant before doors opened at 6 p.m., and got a warm welcome from Gaggan himself.  He very kindly seated us at one of the chef's tables with a view of the kitchen, and gave word to the restaurant manager - who goes by the simple nickname of 'A' - to take care of us.  This was gonna be fun!

    Even though I normally don't drink wine with spicy food, I decided to take the sommelier up on his offer of a few glasses.

    2014 Willi Schaefer Graacher Riesling feinherb - acidity was pretty high here.  Dry on the palate but there is ripeness on the finish.

    Dinner starts with a series of snacks, which we are asked to pick up with our hands... as no cutlery is provided.  No fork use, but no problem!

    Dewdrop - I had seen pictures of this posted over the last couple of days, and was really looking forward to this beautiful dish.  Made with grape juice, aloe vera, and (sansho? 山椒) flowers.  I rolled it into my mouth just like a giant dewdrop, then popped the membrane with some pressure.  Incredibly refreshing and clean flavors.  What a great way to kick off dinner!

    Edible plastic spiced nuts - something I had at the Hong Kong pop-up.  Yup, still tasted like those wasabi-coated peanuts.  Of course the bag wasn't plastic... but made of rice paper.

    Yogurt explosion - another signature nibble that I had in Hong Kong.  Spherification of yogurt with black cumin seeds.  Yum.

    Chocolate chilly bomb - my favorite snack from the pop-up.  Gaggan's version of pani puri, with coriander water, cumin, ginger, chili, and other spices injected into the hollow white chocolate sphere, then sealed with silver foil.  This was delicious, as the richness and the sweetness of white chocolate helped coat the tongue and tempered the spices.

    Salli boti - Gaggan's take on the popular Parsi dish of meat curry with potato sticks.  The base was a deep-fried medallion of finely shredded potato, topped with another spherification with spices like black cumin seeds.  A little spicy, and somehow reminds me of eating certain dry, uncooked instant noodles straight from the packet.  This was delicious, but a little tough to eat in one bite due to its size.  One needed to open one's mouth wide both horizontally and vertically for this to clear...

    Uncooked curry cookie - a disc of compacted curry-flavored powder... probably came out of a dehydrator.  Kinda like eating tasty flour.

    Papadum uni - I've never seen a papadum made with rice crispies, but I'm happy to try one!  Hidden beneath the Hokkaido sea urchin and the strawberry was a little bit of avocado mash.  This one was pretty tasty, too.

    2010 Les Arums de Lagrange - good acidity, a little bit of oak, with some minerality.  Initially flinty on the nose, then showed a little ripeness.

    Idly sambhar - yet another new take, this time on a popular south Indian dish.  Idly now comes as a fluffy sponge cake, topped with a sambhar-flavored foam and curry leaf.  Very light and airy.

    Indian tamago - this Japanese-looking egg custard actually contains no eggs, and contains onions, ginger, green chili, and other tasty bits.  Definitely tasted Indian.

    Foie gras sundae - foie gras mousse with mango cream in a mango cone.  There is a sprinkle of some type of sugary powder on top.

    Then came the plates:

    Charcoal - this came covered in a glass dome, with plenty of smoke inside.  They don't tell you what it's made of, and one is supposed to blind-taste and guess.

    The Jet Setter was trying to think of the (non-English) name for this, but I knew (almost) exactly what this was.  I checked with Gaggan, and was told that I was one of the very few people who got it right... except for the the use of a different source of regional protein.  I'm not sure if he was blowing sunshine up my ass, but it's a relief to know that I'm not completely clueless...

    Magic mushroom - mushrooms with white and black truffle oil, with edible soil made with mushrooms, sprinkled with green chili powder on top.  Nice umami, and of course lovely fragrance from the truffle oil.

    Red matcha - the bowl starts out with tomato, star fruit, and grape sitting in some coriander oil and black salt.  This was to be consumed first.

    The teapot contains hot tomato consommé, which is then mixed with freeze-dried tomato powder with a bamboo whisk as we eat the contents of the bowl - like the Japanese tea ceremony.

    The "tea" is then poured into the bowl so that it mixes with the coriander oil.  This was inspired by tamatar dhaniya shorba - the Indian tomato soup with coriander.

    Story of fish called kin-medai - kinmedai (金目鯛) is the Japanese word for golden alfonsino, but here they've done a play on the phonetics, and translated it to Thai as kin (กิน, "eat") and medai (ไม่ได้, "cannot").  The dish comes in four parts, and is presented in a stacked bowl.

    Act 1 : oil poached with gunpowder - the filet is sprinkled with gunpowder, a south Indian blend of spices.  The fish marinade tasted a little sweet here.

    Act 2 : fish head with rice kedigree - this take on the khichri was slightly mushy, but certainly tasty.

    Act 3: eggplant smoked with fish smoke - delish with smoked fish skin, with lots of cumin here.

    Act 4: fish bone jelly with orange segments - the taste of the jelly was surprisingly familiar, with some green spices here.  I liked this better than I thought I would.

    2009 Jaboulet Vacqueyras Les Cyprès - a bit smoky, with some burnt rubber.  A little ripe on the palate and still some tannins.

    Rangoli - rangoli is the Indian art of creating colorful patterns on the floor with ingredients such as flowers, flour, colored rice, or colored sand during festivities.  Here they've used purple sweet potatoes and beetroot.  Interesting that the sweet potato was more savory.

    The New Zealand lamb chop was marinated and cooked sous vide for a few hours in Indian spices, then finished by spending 3 minutes in the tandoor.  Sooo tender.  Sooo delicious.

    I want my curry!!! - I had seen a picture of Gaggan playing dabbawalla, bringing tiffins to the table, and here it was in front of me!

    OK, so chicken tikka masala isn't exactly "traditional" Indian food, but it's something that many of us are familiar with and can recognize.  It's got some nice tangy flavors.  And the naan... just looove the crunch I felt when I bit into it.  Can I take two tiffins to go, please?

    Mithai ki maki - date sugar ice cream inside pistachio rolls, with sesame and almond crunch on the outside.  This tasted a little like a colder, denser version of Japanese castella (カステラ).

    #Gohgan - created with Chef Fukuyama Takeshi (福山剛) of La Maison de la Nature Goh in Fukuoka (福岡市).  Underneath the miso and caramel Canadian "maple leaf" was a quenelle of sake and vanilla ice cream, grape snow to provide some acidity, and finally cape gooseberries on the side for some serious tartness.  Very good.

    Roots of love - supposedly two of the chefs in the kitchen fell in love and created this.

    At the end of the coriander root was a chunk of dark chocolate, which was buried in the chocolate soil and covered with rose mousse.  While the story is nice, I didn't find this very special...

    Photo courtesy of the Jet Setter
    Cold-dripped Ethiopian mocha - grown at altitudes of over 2,000m. Served with coffee poured over dry ice to release coffee aromas.  Not bitter on the palate.  Mild but this thing's got layers, with a slight hint of acidity and just the tiniest hint of bitterness.

    The Jet Setter and I were STUFFED.  This was simply too much food for us, although I enjoyed just about every single course we had.  I keep saying to people that with these multi-course meals - especially ones that run into the teens - it is really fucking hard not to have a failed dish.  There were definitely no fails tonight, and the only one that didn't strike my fancy was the very last one.  Looking back at my experience during Gaggan's pop-up in Hong Kong, I know that he's only gotten better since then.

    The Jet Setter was pretty happy that I saved him from having to eat hotel room service, so he insisted on paying for dinner.  When he came back to the table, A discreetly motioned for me to follow him to a quiet part of the restaurant.  Apparently, Gaggan had left word with him to comp our dinners.  Now, this isn't standard practice for me.  I seldom accept free meals from restaurants and I'm always happy to pay my own way.  The last time Chef Richard Ekkebus - who I have the honor of calling a friend - decided to comp me for a lunch that he made specifically at my request, I spent a good 10 minutes arguing with Amber's restaurant manager about it.

    Except Gaggan had already left the restaurant earlier to attend to his PR and media duties.  He wasn't responding to my messages asking him to let us pay, and I didn't want to make life difficult for A.  So we graciously accepted this treat and thanked them.

    On our way out, we saw these freshly minted awards from 2 days ago prominently displayed at the restaurant entrance...

    Many, many thanks to Gaggan and the team for such a fantastic meal.  This was definitely my best meal during my short trip to Bangkok, and I will be back.  With Gaggan announcing that he will close his restaurant in 2020, I'll be back sooner rather than later...

    P.S. Earlier in the day, the Great One was looking for the tiffins that Gaggan used in the restaurant, so I suggested that she ask Gaggan directly about them.  While we were able to find some after our lunch, Gaggan decided to send her one... and asked me to bring it to her.  And since I'm playing courier, Gaggan generously decided to give me one, too.  It's good to have friends in high places, innit?!  Yay!

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    My 3-day trip to Bangkok wasn't just focused on fine dining establishments.  We are in Thailand, after all, and one must make time for the more "authentic" and "local" fare - especially given how many times we've been told by Thais that food at the places we we've been visiting were "not really Thai food".  HaoKouFu and I discussed how we could fit these into our itinerary, and decided that we would have to hit these places for late-night supper.

    The two of us each suggested a place, and as it turns out the two eateries were literally within 50m of each other - on Thanon Mahachai.  We checked a number of blogs and looked up TimeOut Bangkok, and were satisfied that both places would be open till the wee hours.

    So... on my first night here, we didn't eat very much at the party for Asia's 50 Best Restaurants.  Not that the food wasn't good - can you imagine a bunch of Asia's best chefs being served crap food?? - but we just wanted to get a taste of what's out there.  So the Great One, HaoKouFu, and I met up with a couple of fellow attendees from Hong Kong and headed over.

    It was around 11:40 p.m. when we got off the taxi in front of Pad Thai Thip Samai (ผัดไทยทิพย์สมัย) - arguably the most famous eatery serving the "national dish" of pad Thai (ผัดไทย).  But the restaurant was closed, and there were no tables out on the sidewalk.

    We were stunned.  Wasn't this place supposed to be open till 1:30 or 2:00 a.m.?!  What happened?!  This was certainly a disappointment, but all was not lost.  All we had to do was to walk a few steps to Raan Jay Fai (ร้านเจ๊ไฟ).

    Jay Fai translates as "Sister Mole" in Thai, and refers to the chef of the establishment.  Yes, she does have (more than one) prominent moles on her face, but one might not notice at first glance due to the skiing goggles she wears while cooking.  That's because she cooks over charcoal fire, and she needs the goggles to protect her eyes from the embers blown around by the electric fans she uses to keep the fires hot.  She also keeps her hair neat under a knitted hat, wears makeup, and gets around in pink Wellington boots.  And she wasn't particularly happy about a group of tourists surrounding her taking pictures and videos.

    There are a number of dishes to order here, but the place is arguably most famous for their crab omelet.  Actually, infamous might be more suitable in this case, because these are pricy.  Whereas our crab omelette cost merely THB 90 at Krua Apsorn (ครัวอัปษร), the ones being served up here range from a whopping THB 800 to 1,000.

    Crab meat omelet (ไข่เจียวปู) - once you get past the sticker shock and order it, you'll immediately see why the price is completely justified.  This is the THB 800 version, and it's pretty sizable.  The five of us ordered TWO of them.

    Cutting this open elicited gasps of ecstasy around our table.  Just look at the amount of crab meat that's been rolled inside the crispy shell!  The crab meat was sweet and delicious, and the egg wasn't soggy or greasy but nice and crispy, with that distinctive flavor that can only come from being cooked at high heat - what the Cantonese call wok hei (鑊氣).  Sooooo delicious on its own, but also works well with some chili sauce.

    We also order some of their famous "drunken noodles" - one with prawns and one with mixed seafood.

    Drunken noodles with prawns (ผัดขี้เมากุ้ง) - these were very interesting, because the noodles weren't strands but rather very wide sheets, like oversized versions of kway teow (粿條) or pappardelle - only much thinner and softer.  These were also stir-fried with plenty of chili so they turned out to be pretty spicy.

    Drunken noodles with mixed seafood (ผัดขี้เมารทะเล)

    We were pretty happy with the food, and the Great One fell in love with Jay Fai immediately.

    Which was why two nights later, we found ourselves back on Thanon Mahachai.  This was after the Jet Setter and I had a huge dinner at Gaggan, and HaoKouFu had finished her dinner at Le Du, and the Great One had gone through a long dinner at Nahm.  None of us were hungry, but we were determined to hit this busy street once before.

    With our experience two nights ago, we decided to come a little earlier, and met up around 10:30 p.m.  Pad Thai Thip Samai (ผัดไทยทิพย์สมัย) was in full swing, and there were plenty of tables spilling onto the busy sidewalk.  There are quite a few cooking stations in full view, all cooking over charcoal fires.

    By the time I joined the others, orders for three different pad Thais had already been placed.  As I was still pretty full from dinner, I was just happy to tag along and nibble...

    Pad Thai

    Superb pad Thai (ผัดไทห่อไข่กุ้งสด) - this comes wrapped in a thin layer of egg, like the Japanese omlet rice (オムライス).

    Pad Thai with prawn oil (ผัดไทเส้นจันมันกุ้ง)

    To be honest, I wasn't in the best shape to do a tasting... especially since I was only nibbling a little bit of each.  Maybe I'll have to come back another time when my stomach wasn't about to explode.

    But we weren't done yet.  We went back to Raan Jay Fai (ร้านเจ๊ไฟ) for more crab omelet (!!!)

    Once again we ordered two crab meat omelets (ไข่เจียวปู), but tonight Sister Mole decided to give us one that costs THB 1,000 and another that costs THB 800, so that we can see the difference in size.  I continued to just nibble.

    Our Thai friend also ordered the drunken noodles with seafood (ผัดขี้เมารทะเล), but this time with what seemed to be flat mung bean noodles.

    Dry congee with prawn (โจ๊กแห้งกุ้ง) - apparently this is a specialty here, and comes with a boiled egg.  It was a little on the "dry" side, and was pretty interesting.  Served with deep-fried dough sticks on the side.

    I could eat no more, and I think the others were pretty happy, too.  Sister Mole seemed to have softened up a little tonight, perhaps because the Great One told her in no uncertain terms that she was "number one".  She even took off her goggles and had her picture taken with the girls.  Definitely a happy ending...

    P.S.  When we finally left Thanon Mahachai past midnight, Pad Thai Thip Samai was still heaving.  I wonder why it closed so early Monday night...?

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  • 03/05/16--07:45: Living up to the hype
  • I can't tell you the number of times over the last 3 months I've been asked if I have eaten at VEA.  It is arguably the hottest new opening in Hong Kong, and during the soft opening period my social media feeds were flooded with pictures and posts about the place.  The PR for the restaurant had also very kindly invited me to go for a taste but, as usual, I preferred to wait and go on my own dime.

    So I finally succumbed when some friends invited me to join them tonight.  They had had a very good meal there, and were eager to introduce me to the place.

    I arrived to find that, regrettably, we had counter seating.  Now, for someone who chases after good food all the time, I am surprisingly ambivalent about open kitchens.  During a good meal, I'm so busy with my photography, tasting, taking notes, and trying to carry on conversations with my dining companions... that I actually don't have a lot of time to observe and watch what is being done by the kitchen staff.

    The downside here is that the counter is raised pretty high, so we end up sitting on these tall, awkward bar chairs.  Since I'm pretty particular about taking pictures of my food, and do it from different angles, I found myself getting off the chair to try to shoot from a low angle for just about every single dish.  And the process of getting in and out of my chair became really tedious... especially when, at every instance, the staff thinks that you're trying to go to the men's room.

    Anyway, I'm pretty sure no one else would have this problem...  I'm just the weird and picky one.

    We started with a series of snack, some of which were already on the bar in front of us:

    The leaves were made with pesto, farro, egg white, and pine nuts.  The flowers were made with sour cream, potato, and beetroot.

    The grissini branches were made from black olives and black pepper.  These were a little too crunchy and hard for my liking.

    These clam tarts were made with Chinese fermented black beans (豆豉), clam juice, coriander, and pickled chili.  Tasted a little salty at first.

    Crispy chicken skin with tom yum powder, coconut cream, and citrus.  They definitely got a kick!

    The quail eggs pickled in Japanese vinegar and smoked.  Nice and runny yolk.

    Then the dishes started coming:

    Tuna, Hokkaido uni, espelette, burnt cucumber jelly - the first dish certainly made a real visual impression.  A bed of tuna tartare with piment d'espelette emulsion and mixed with crispy multigrain, topped with tongues of Hokkaido sea urchin, discs of fermented radish, cucumber discs and balls, multi-colored edible flowers, scallion purée, and covered with a layer of cucumber jelly.

    There was a good mix of textures here, from the soft and creamy sea urchin, to the tuna, then the cucumber and crunchy pickled radish, to finally the hard bits of what seemed to be black wild rice.  Good contrast of flavors, too... with the sweetness of sea urchin paired with the acidity from the pickled radish, and the little bit of spice from piment d'espelette.

    The frozen longan was provided on the side to deliver a sweet and refreshing finish.

    Abalone, goji berry, risotto, shirako - it's good that I took a second look the menu and noticed one of my few forbidden items on the list of ingredients for this dish!  No fish cum for me, please!

    The abalone from local waters was indeed very tender.  It sat on a bed of risotto that wasn't cooked with any cream (interesting, because this novice cook who burns his food doesn't remember adding any cream to any risotto he has ever cooked...) because the creaminess was meant to come from the fish cum... which was, of course, absent from my plate at my request.  There's also a puddle of red onion consommé to provide more flavor.  Garnished with sansho leaves (木の芽), perilla flowers, and wolfberries.  Delicious.

    Langoustine, kohlrabi, fennel, custard apple - the New Zealand langoustine was pretty sweet and tender, served with a reduction made with the langoustine head.  The kohlrabi is homegrown and roasted in beurre noisette.  Garnished with fennel, fennel pollen, and homegrown begonia.  The chunks of custard apple were pretty sweet, but judging from the texture they seemed to be atemoya instead of the sugar apple varietal.  Nice acidity here for balance.

    Egg, truffle, Parmesan, caviar - Taiyouran egg yolk raviolo on a bed of  homegrown spinach and cheese mash, surrounded by Parmesan foam with truffle oil dots and topped with a quenelle of sustainable Italian white sturgeon caviar.  Very rich and creamy.  Very good.

    The deep-fried Chinese cruller was flavored with truffle oil was crunchy and delicious, although it was a little more greasy (but thankfully not soggy!) than I would have liked.  Perfect for mopping up the Parmesan foam.

    Guinea fowl, celeriac, black truffle, hazelnut - Bresse guinea fowl roulade stuffed with foie gras and Périgord truffle, on a pile of truffled cabbage, with Tasmanian cherries and truffles and some gremolata with hazelnuts, and sauce Périgueux.  Note the separate rings of dark meat (thigh) and white meat (breast) for the roulade surrounding the foie.  Very, very tender... with wonderful flavors from browning the exterior.

    The truffled cabbage was particularly delicious.  Oh and of course the sauce Périgueux was hearty and felt very "winter-ish"...

    Baby lamb, fuyu, bamboo, water chestnut - this was the weakest dish of the evening, despite drawing inspiration from clay pot with mutton brisket (羊腩煲) - a local favorite in winter.  Starting from the left is a disc of water chestnut pickled in Japanese vinegar; braised Chinese lettuce topped with shiitake mushroom roasted in beurre noisette; local bamboo shoot poached in olive oil; baby lamb brisket wrapped in tofu skin (支竹) and topped with lamb skin puff.  The sauce streaking across the plate was made from fermented miso (isn't all miso fermented by definition?) and fermented tofu sauce (腐乳).  At the top of the dish was a slice of roasted lamb loin, served with powdered konbu (昆布) to add a little umami/MSG.  The puddles are basically sauce made from the lamb bones, with some chopped lamb skin.

    OK, so basically this is a deconstructed 羊腩煲.  Normally I am a HUGE fan of deconstructed dishes, but in this case there were just too many elements... and it's pretty difficult to fit them all into one bite to get back the combined flavors from the sum of the parts.  So in that sense, this came up short.  But there was no fault with the execution here... just a philosophical difference.

    Strawberry, beetroot, rosemary, yogurt - a whole lotta different forms of all the ingredients, with macerated strawberries, candied beetroot, roses made from beetroot, rosemary sablé, quenelle of strawberry and yogurt sorbet; strawberry and rose royale snow in the middle.

    As Hello Kitty keeps telling our friends, "beetroot and us aren't friends".  Neither of us are fans of the earthy flavors that we find in beetroot so we'll never order it, but we usually won't ask the kitchen to remove it, either.  In this case, the rose flavors completely dominated and overpowered the beetroot, so this turned out to be perfect for us.  It's very rare that both of us can love a dish with beetroot as an ingredient.  Bravo!

    Milk jam, salted duck egg, quinoa - milk jam ice cream on a bed of toasted quinoa, topped with shavings of salted duck egg yolk.  This was beautiful, with the delicious interplay of the savory and sweet flavors.  The quinoa was really toasty and crunchy.

    What looked like the napkin we got at the beginning of the meal turned out to be a lychee cocktail with a rose marshmallow this time around...

    The petits fours came in a ball-shaped container with stacked trays, opening up to reveal three different layers:

    Orange Earl Grey madeleines - very good, but the madeleines are slightly on the dry side.

    Salted kumquat macaron and chocolate caramel truffle - the macarons were really interesting, since I love preserved kumquats.

    Condensed milk mochi

    For tea I chose peridot, which was a blend of verbena, kumquat, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves.  Very fragrant, and a perfect girlie drink for me to finish the evening.

    While this place was meant to be known for their cocktails (and cocktail pairings), us winos only want to drink our own wines... And the five of us ended up opening (only) four of the five bottles we brought along...

    2000 Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill - ripe and caramelized nose, with a little bit of straw and some marmalade.  Nice acidity on mid-palate and finish.

    1990 Trimbach Riesling Clos Sainte Hune - classic nose of petrol, flint, rubber, and white flowers.  Very lean and almost monolithic.  Beautiful.

    1996 Comte George de Vogüé Musigny Vieilles Vignes - opened but not decanted for 1½ hours.  Still closed on the first pour, almost a little green.  Put into a decanter for the rest of the evening.  Showed a little of the vanilla oak much later, and after three hours it finally opened up.

    1971 Palmer - popped and poured.  Lovely nose showing smoke, savory notes like black tea, pencil lead, with some nice fruit and a little green capsicum.  Almost a little coffee, with a final bit of farmy and stinky notes at the end.  A beautiful and elegant wine.

    A lovely evening with delicious food and wine, and the only thing that kinda detracted from our 4-hour experience was the pain of me getting up and down the bar chair... but that is easily fixed by booking a table on my next visit.  I never got around to tasting Chef Vicky Cheng's food at his previous establishment, but VEA is certainly one of the most exciting new venues to have opened up in the last 6 months.

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    This was the second self-imposed exile that I decided to give up in as many weeks... except this particular exile only lasted about six years instead of eight.  I must be feeling pretty magnanimous lately...

    My one and only previous visit to Ming Court (明閣) came six years ago, after the restaurant's first promotion to 2 stars.  The dinner ended in disaster, and most - if not all - of the attendees have never set foot in the restaurant since then.  In fact, we collectively snorted with disdain at the mere mention of the name of the restaurant.

    But a friend was visiting from halfway across the globe, and we haven't seen him in a few years.  After multiple rounds of discussions, one of our friend's friend - who works for Cordis Hotels - finally stepped up and offered to get us a table here.  Since we know our visitor had pretty good experiences with this place in prior years, the Great One and I bit our tongues and joined the party.

    As the friend from Cordis was dining with us, we were set up in a private room and had quite a few staff fawning over us.  Obviously a very different experience from 6 years ago, when we were left fuming over the service.  The menu was also designed to showcase a few of Chef Mango Tsang's special creations - and those the previous chef, who happened to be his younger brother.

    We started with some snacks while waiting for everyone to arrive.  These deep-fried crispy wafers of lotus root were really delicious, although I would have preferred them with slightly less salt.  The candied walnuts with sesame were nice, too.

    Ming Court amuse bouche : silk tofu, gold leaf, plum sauce, chilled (明閣前菜 : 銀稔醬金箔豆腐) - this may look like an ordinary stack of sliced tofu (OK, with some silly gold foil on top...) but the hidden secret lies in the sauce, which is made from 銀稔 - a type of mangosteen - along with white vinegar, ginger, sugar, and chili.  It was a little sharp and pungent, almost like mustard.  I don't recall ever having tasted this sauce before, but it's a classic ingredient used in some old school Cantonese dishes.

    Ming Court appetizer duet : suckling pig, roasted (明閣兩小碟 : 化皮乳豬件) - what's not to like about suckling pig with crispy crackling and a layer of fat underneath?

    Cod fillet cube, Chinese vinegar, fried (江西老陳醋鱈魚粒) - the sauce made with aged Zhenjiang vinegar had a lot of sugar, so it was very viscous and sticky... almost like honey.  Unfortunately this didn't work with the cod, whose fishy flavors were unusually strong and seemed to be drawn out by the vinegar.

    Tea pot chicken consommé, matsutake, bamboo pith (茶壺松茸竹笙清湯) - nice presentation.

    The fragrance of matsutake mushroom (松茸) was obvious, and it was very comforting.  The bamboo piths (竹笙) were chopped into little bits so they could pass through the spout and be drunk.  Very nice.

    Cod fillet wrapped in minced shrimp, spiced shrimp, fried (龍皇披金甲) - this is something that the Great One and I had during our disastrous dinner last time.  Thankfully, the fish wasn't muddy this time, although it might be due to the substitution of cod for garoupa.  The cod with shrimp paste was decent, the shrimp was OK, and I guess the potato mash was just to fix the two parts of the shrimp to the plate... because it was completely bland.  Not really sure why the big segments of spring onions were there...

    Conpoy, scrambled egg, bean sprout, stir-fried (桂花炒瑤柱) - very old school.  Stir-fried at high heat, wonderful wok hei (鑊氣). The egg had that bouncy texture.  Absolutely delicious.

    And you know what?  To do it this fine really takes skillz!  I didn't see the chef make the dish, but I've watched another chef do this using a pair of chopsticks instead of a spatula, and it was mesmerizing.  I have no doubt that Chef Mango can do the same.

    Australian wagyu beef, black truffle paste, pan-seared (松露和牛禮物盒) - this was a pretty big chunk of food sitting on my plate...

    Cutting this open showed the stuffing inside.  Not sure why they needed to have so much stuff inside, since this became pretty filling - especially at this stage of the meal.  The beef was also overcooked.  Not a fan.

    Duo of vegetables : Chinese cabbage, Yunnan ham, superior broth, simmered (玲瓏雙蔬 : 上湯雲南火腿浸津白) - good 'nuff for me...

    Kale, ginger, stir-fried (薑汁芥藍) - lots of ginger here.

    Fried rice sizzler, Silkie chicken, Shao Xing wine-scented, crispy conpoy, wolfberry, pine nut (窩燒滋補竹絲雞炒飯) - another dish that was stir-fried at high heat.  So delicious, especially with some rice crispies.  The black bits are actually the Silkie chicken, which have black skin black/grey flesh.

    Almond cream, egg white (蛋白杏仁茶) - interesting that the egg whites came in such big chunks, leading to a more solid texture compared to the fluffy "egg drops" that is normally seen.

    Osmanthus, wolfberry curd (杞子桂花糕) - this was much, much better than 6 years ago, since this wasn't solid blocks of hard jelly.  But why this is called "curd" on the menu?!

    Honeyed egg pastry twist, sesame crunch (麻香蛋散) - very nice and fluffy.

    Custard bun, steamed (奶黃流沙包) - very hot, very molten filling.  Yum.

    We brought along a few bottles since corkage was waived...

    2006 Cloudy Bay Te Koko - green apple, flinty and savory mineral, polyurethane notes.  Later on nose turned really ripe.

    2008 Vincent Girardin Corton-Charlemagne - toasty nose, with lovely lemon citrus.  A little ripe on the palate but still got the acidity.

    2006 Jean Noel Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Caillerets - overripe and caramelized nose, with honey and Chinese licorice notes.  A little ripe marmalade on the palate.

    1994 von Schubert Maximin Grünhäuser Herrenberg Auslese 45 - classic petrol and white flowers.  Surprisingly not very sweet for an auslese, with nice acidity.

    It was great to be able to catch up with our friends tonight, as we've kept in touch over the years while sharing our common love of food, but seldom manage to see each other.  I'm also grateful for the opportunity to try Ming Court again, as I probably would not have gone back willingly on my own.  Food does seem better this time around (after they were re-promoted to 2-star status), and with the special arrangements tonight, of course service was impeccable - with big discounts to boot!  A happy and very filling evening.

    P.S. what's with the English translation of the menu?!  They seem to have taken after Man Wah (文華廳)'s penchant for listing out the main ingredients and separating them with commas, but here they've decided to leave the cooking method last... Kinda reminds me of the way Yoda talks... Totally weird and unnatural.

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  • 03/09/16--07:38: Death by beef
  • A group of us had the privilege to be invited to dinner at Neighborhood tonight.  We were all friends with Chef David Lai, and he decided to host a dinner centered on some delicious beef.  You see, David was in Germany recently and had enjoyed beef from a local breed, and he decided to bring some back and share with his friends.

    I arrived to find the back room of the restaurant half-occupied by friends, and as more of us arrived, we eventually settled on separate tables for boys and girls.  I guess the conversations were likely to be very different!

    First came the charcuterie platter.  Yes, I went straight for the lardo... and was surprised that the air-dried beef was particular tasty with rich flavors.

    After some more bread and butter, the main event arrived.

    "Casina Asturiana" ribeye - if I recall correctly, the animal is around 8 years old, and this was dry-aged for about 50 days.  This acted as the "control" so we could compare the flavors of the two types of beef.  I absolutely love this!  Older cattle just have deeper, richer flavors, and the extended dry-aging really made the meat more tender and imparted that wonderful blue cheese flavor.  And this was cooked perfectly.

    Bavarian Simmental - this was the star of the evening... and looks like we've got a T-bone here somewhere, dry-aged for about 50 days.  Unfortunately, the kitchen overcooked this... and promptly got a dressing down from David.  I do have to say, though, that the aging didn't produce the same kind of flavor as the Spanish Casina Asturiana... except just around the bones.  The flavors were much milder in the middle.

    Besides all the beef, we also got a few sides, such as this very creamy mashed potato...

    ...and of course these awesome taters.  Soooo delicious.

    But hey, we gotta balance things out with some salad, right?  Even if there was lardon and croûtons...

    We were completely stuffed... especially since the girls sent over the bulk of their pan of Simmental over to us.  Then David decided to send us way too many portions of their famous chocolate palette...  Sooo good, but sooo rich.

    There was plenty of wine with this crowd in the house, and I got to taste a few...

    2004 Bollinger La Grande Année - a little toasty, with some ripeness and a slightly bitter finish.

    2007 Henri Abelé Sourire de Reims - tons of toasty oak and a little pungent.  Lighter on the palate.

    1997 Mauro Veglio Barolo Castelletto - sweet fruit, dried herbs, very fragrant nose.

    2000 Guado al Tasso - nose of sweet fruit and very fragrant.

    2000 Fisher Cabernet Sauvignon Lamb Vineyard - opened 1½ hours earlier.  A little smoky and oaky at first, and sweet fruit came out later.

    As usual, we finished with the delicious canelés.  There was a minor episode when someone's hand got slapped for taking one too many of these, but we don't gossip about such things...

    When it came time to settle our bill, David told us that there was "nothing to settle".  He simply wanted to treat us to the special beef he had brought back.  This was, of course, way too generous of him... and while we are all on very good terms with him, we don't take advantage of our friends.  So we decided to leave a reasonably generous tip, just to make up for a part of their lost revenue tonight.  Many thanks to David for this special treat!

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  • 03/15/16--07:50: The Quest continues
  • It's been a while since No Fish and I last met up for a meal, and we finally found some time for it.  She had initially set her sights on a (relatively) new and exciting opening, but given I was scheduled to go to the very same restaurant 10 days prior, decided that she would like to finally check out Quest.

    I really enjoyed my visit to Quest last year, and was especially fond of his creations inspired by Vietnamese flavors.  ILove Lubutin and I kept waiting for him to launch his bánh mi takeout business...

    A quick look at the restaurant's FB page, though, showed that recent dishes no longer carried the same Vietnamese bent.  This was a little disappointing for me, but Chef Que explained to us that the lighter and more Asian dishes are available in the warmer months, while he serves up his "comfort food menu" in the colder months.  After going through the menu, No Fish and I could certain see what he meant by "comfort food"!

    Yellowtail tartare - I loved this.  Nice cubes of raw yellowtail with some fresh herb persillé, topped with little pearls of cream cheese, pickled red onions, and dill.  The sauce covering the yellowtail was creamy and came with an interesting kick, almost like horseradish.  Probably my favorite dish of the evening.

    Maple-glazed pork belly donut - with powdered pork crackling and pickled cucumber.  The donut and the sauce was surprisingly sweet.  The pork crackling has been crushed into powder and coated on the exterior of the donut.  Someone was pretty happy with the donut...

    The pork belly disintegrates into shreds, much like what Chef Que did for The Mooink - his crossover burger with the Butchers Club Burger last year.

    Mac and cheese - with Applewood smoked cheddar, chorizo, and a chunk of braised oxtail on top.  More comfort food.  Thankfully the macaroni wasn't overcooked and mushy.  It was generously coated in the cheese sauce, with nice acidity coming from the cubes of chorizo to balance the cheese.  The spices in the sausage, along with the diced capsicum, kinda lent this a more Spanish feel...

    Poached lobster with clam and saffron chowder - the lobster was pretty nice, and done mi-cuit.  Nice acidity from the saffron broth, although I wouldn't have called it a chowder.  Besides the clams there were little cubes of a white root vegetable, which were too sweet to be radish or turnip... and also a little too crunchy for that.  Pretty delish.

    Grilled spring chicken with chicken nugget, honey chipotle devilled egg, and Brussels sprout coleslaw - my least-favorite dish of the evening.  The chicken had plenty of spices rubbed on the outside, and while wasn't tough and chewy, most of it was rather on the dry side... and certainly not what I would call "juicy and succulent".  The exception was the "nugget", which was definitely dark meat and most certainly tender and juicy.  The honey chipotle sauce not surprisingly reminded me of melted Velveeta with jalapeño... and delivered quite a strong kick (both on the tongue and to the sinuses) along with acidity.

    Cherry Oreo tart - the crunchy, chocolaty tart crust carried a bed of sour cherries and a dollop of vanilla ice cream on top, sprinkled with some Bourbon icing.  A pretty good combination and not simply something that was deathly sweet, thanks to the acidity from the cherries and a hint of alcohol from the icing.

    It's been a while since we last drank together, so I brought along a bottle...

    2002 Comtes Lafon Volnay 1er Cru Santenots-du-Milieu - decanted upon opening.  Nose was relatively muted, with a little animal and leather at first, with some slightly-stewed fruits.  Died horribly after 2 hours in the decanter and became unpalatable.

    Chef Que came over to chat with us after our dinner, as it wasn't a very busy night.  Here's a guy with passion and skills, but somehow his cooking hasn't really been clicking with diners in Hong Kong recently... or so it seems.

    With his price point, he operates in exactly the "death zone" in my book... neither expensive enough to be serious fine dining featuring the best ingredients money can buy, nor cheap enough for the price/performance ratio to go off the charts.  I've said time and again that restaurants charging HKD 600-800 a head are usually places I avoid, because more often than not, I don't get excited by the cuisine... nor do I feel I get my money's worth.

    Having said that, while I really was more excited about his Asian-themed menu (which I hear will be back by next month), I do feel that I've gotten my money's worth tonight.  And I most definitely want to come back after the "summer menu" is back... especially when Chef Que told us about his experiments with a donut-based bánh mi!

    P.S.  The corkage was waived on our bill, so I tipped enough to make up for the waived corkage.

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    I have been remiss.  It's been more than four months since my first (and previous) #OccupyAmber session, and that is no way to get a movement going!  So when Hello Kitty suggested that we go somewhere nice for dinner tonight, I knew there was no better place to take her... PLUS, it would appear that she's never had the famous Hokkaido sea urchin dish that Chef Richard Ekkebus is threatening to take off the menu at Amber!  This needed to be rectified ASAP.

    So the two of us walked in, got seated, and it wasn't long before Richard very kindly came to greet us.  We had looked over the menu and found the current degustation menu pretty interesting, but as I follow three of Amber's chefs on Instagram, I've been seeing a bunch of delicious-looking dishes on my feed lately.  After getting the nod from Hello Kitty, I asked Richard to send us whatever he fancied, without "a foot on the brakes" in terms of quantity.

    Our welcome drink was the mushroom tea I had on my last visit, with a mushroom steamed egg custard at the bottom, some chiffonade of seaweed (わかめ?), and a mix of Pu'er tea (普洱茶) and mushroom consommé.

    Mushroom macarons with pumpkin purée and orange zest.  Love the pickup from the citrus zest.

    Lodged in the pine cone was a beer batter beignet of autumn mushrooms with blackcurrant on pine sprigs, as well as an autumn leaf made of pumpkin purée with green yuzu (柚子) peel.  Again, the fragrant zest made a noticeable difference.

    The familiar amuse bouche came, with chunks of Jerusalem artichoke at the bottom surrounded by (cep?) mushroom foam, along with hazelnuts and bits of black truffles.  A layer of crispy Jerusalem artichoke chips topped the dish.  Loved this as always, enjoying the nice acidity of the foam.

    Shimaebi prawn: the head fried crispy with kalamanski emulsion - methinks there's a typo here as the citrus is usually called calamansi or kalamansi (no 'k' before the 'i')...  Anyway, we were kinda surprised to be told that we should eat the head first... since the flavors from the deep-fried head would no doubt be heavier compared to the tail.  After all, the deep-fried heads usually come after the tails when one is at a sushiya or a tempuraya.

    The deep-fried head was oh-so-crunchy... and the legs came off with just a little bit of pressure, and crumbled in the mouth with the slightest pressure.  Sooo damn good.  Hello Kitty and I joked that the calamansi emulsion was similar to Thousand Island Marie Rose sauce, but with deeper flavors coming from both the prawn and the citrus.

    Shimaebi prawn: tail raw; marinated with citrus and beetroot - the other part of the dish featuring the tails of the Hokkai shrimp (北海縞海老).  The raw tails were delicious, but unfortunately for Hello Kitty and I, they were marinated with beetroot... and we're not friends with that.  I loved the shrimp eggs on top.  Thankfully the flavors here were dominated by the three different types of citrus: pink grapefruit, hyuganatsu (日向夏), and depokon (デコポン).  The three citrus fruits were also used together to make the coulis.  Very light and refreshing.

    Wild Japanese yellowtail with burrata di bufala, fennel, and green Amaou strawberries - this was presented as a dome, with thin slices of yellowtail covering the top and decorated with the fronds of Florence fennel along with some flowers.  The flowers were mildly acidic, and almost produces a little bit of numbness on the tongue.  Served with celery gazpacho poured around the dome, with a lovely fragrance.  Finally, there are also slices of green (unripe) Amaou (あまおう) strawberries from Fukuoka Prefecture (福岡県).  According to Chef Maxime Gilbert, they had to beg the farmer to harvest them before ripening.  This was a little surprising, because I would have thought at least one farmer had already done it for Chef René Redzepi... who served them at Noma Tokyo last year (unfortunately, I didn't get that dish for my dinner...)

    Peeling back the yellowtail reveals a ball of burrata, which was still somewhat creamy but not at all runny.  Hidden between the cheese and the yellowtail were slices of dried and pickled Japanese radish which, according to Richard, they buy once a year and preserve themselves.

    Hokkaido sea urchin: in a lobster jell-O with cauliflower, caviar, and crispy seaweed waffles - as Hello Kitty uttered as she picked up the mother-of-pearl spoon seconds before digging in, this was the pièce de résistance!  She was pretty excited about finally getting a taste of this, and wasn't the least bit disappointed.  Caviar, sea urchin, lobster, cauliflower... "There's nothing here that I don't like." No doubt countless diners have already waxed lyrical about the iconic dish, and I was still elated by the smooth and creamy sensation of it all, as well as the symphony of flavors coming from the different ingredients.

    Crispy seaweed waffle, which we took bites of in between spoonfuls of the sea urchin...

    My only complaint?  Why was the portion so puny?!  We would have devoured something 5 times the size... or at least double!

    Jerome Galis green asparagus: with raw and marinated kibinago, seaweeds, nori purée, seawater foam and matcha - my first bite of green asparagus from Jerome Galis came last year and it was a revelation.  My first bite of this particular spear brought back those memories... fresh, sweet, and vibrant.  Served with seaweed, salicornia, and silver-stripe round herring (黍魚子) on top.  Definitely tasted flavors of the sea... especially from the herring... not to mention the nori (のり) purée on one side as well as the seawater foam with matcha (抹茶) powder on top.  A beautiful dish.

    Bamboo shoot: cooked and butter roasted with garden pea purée, pickled radish, grilled peanuts, charred leeks and sweet garlic broth - I love bamboo shoots, but this piece was a little on the "old" side... so the exterior edge was just a little tough.  The sweetness of the bamboo was actually overpowered by all the other ingredients that came with it... such as the grilled peanuts, the garlic flower, the garlic emulsion, the charred leeks and sorrel... and even the pea purée.  The Chinese expression of 喧賓奪主 (stealing someone's thunder) seems to fit the situation...

    Normandy scallop tartare - with diced black truffles, olive oil caviar, salicornia, and chives. All this sat on a bed of steamed custard (our waiter said coulis) made from the fat of jamón ibérico de bellota.  The scallop was naturally fresh and sweet, and worked rather well with the black truffle.  Of course, who could resist the delicious flavors from the ham fat?!  Both in the custard below and also in the foam on top.  There were also little croûtons at the bottom.

    Then there was the "ham on toast" on the side... with beautiful slices of jamón ibérico de bellota and slices of black truffle sitting on the thinnest wafers of sourdough.  DAMN that's good!

    Aveyron lamb 'blanc de blanc': cutlet milk poached then caramelized with buckwheat and Parmesan Reggiano cooked like a risotto, raw sunchoke and black winter truffles - I loooooove lamb, and as this baby lamb was 2 to 3 months old, I'm wondering if it has been weaned or still feeding on milk.

    Lamb chops are among my favorite cuts of meat, and this was... MUAH!  Soooo soft and tender, very succulent, and that beautiful and tasty fat.... WHY O WHY DID I ONLY GET ONE SMALL LOUSY CHOP?!  Oh and let's not forget about that generous (microplane) shaving of black truffle on that piece of crisp.

    Underneath the round discs of black truffle and Jerusalem artichoke were pieces of lamb saddle, which was also very tender, but slightly harder to cut.  At the bottom you have a really tasty "risotto" made with buckwheat, hazelnuts, and Parmigiano Reggiano... surrounded by mushroom foam.

    French unpasteurized cheeses: matured by Bernard Antony - but of course!

    Brillat-Savarin - ah... the triple-cream cheese ice cream!  Nice and creamy, of course, with acidity on top of the savory flavors.

    Selles-sur-Cher - thick and creamy as always, with nice acidity.  The rind was very ripe and slightly bitter.

    Mimolette - I didn't ask but this was likely aged 24 months.  Salty with rich flavors.

    Époisses de Bourgogne - from Gaugry, au lait cru, bien sûr!  Kinda ripe and soft now, and definitely strong with the ammonia.  Slurp.

    "Carrot cake" - with carrots cooked in honey, shaved carrots, carrot purée, orange peel, blood orange juice, blood orange sorbet, and sorrel.  The purée was incredibly sweet, and in fact the carrots were pretty sweet, too... The sweetness was balanced with wedges of blood orange and the sorbet, as well as some acidity coming from the leaves.  For the first time in a long while, I didn't hiss at the sight of sponge cake on my plate...  Very, very good.

    Passe Crassane pear: poached and raw with Gianduja mousse, toasted hazelnut praline ice cream and microplane grated black winter truffles - this was nearly identical to the dessert I had last October, except, of course, a different cultivar of pear was used... we didn't have a huge pile of black truffle shavings back then!

    Loooove all the hazelnuts, and of course the pear was wonderful.

    Petits fours - even though I was very full, I still nibbled on a few of these...

    This being Amber and all, I chose a nice bottle of wine that I thought would be drinking well... and I was absolutely right.  I couldn't have asked for a better bottle tonight.

    1991 Opus One - decanted upon opening.  Very smooth.  Fragrant nose with earthy and savory notes.  After 50 minutes smoky, cigar notes became prominent.  After 90 minutes some sweet grass notes emerged, along with nice fruity notes.  Drinking extremely well.

    This was yet another fantastic meal at Amber.  Come to think of it, I don't think I've had anything less than a stellar meal on each and every visit in the last 3 years.  The kitchen is really delivering at an extremely high level, and while many may disagree, there is something to be said about why they've managed to snag the No.4 spot on the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants this year.

    This Arrogant Prick is ever grateful of the way his needs are catered to at Amber, and counts himself lucky to be on good terms with Chefs like Richard and Maxime.  Many thanks for making Hello Kitty a very happy camper!

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  • 03/17/16--08:29: A request for Buddha
  • Sooo... before I had a chance to fully digest my huge dinner at Amber last night, I had to go eat another huge meal... at my favorite Cantonese private dining space.  Apparently I have a fan in North America who is sadly deprived of good Chinese/Cantonese food, and asked to be taken to what is now my favorite spot for Cantonese cuisine.  So here we are.

    This was a group of newbies... as only three of us have been here before.  Expectations were pretty high, and as usual I worked with the chef to come up with a menu that worked for everyone...

    Barbecued Iberico pork (黑毛豬叉燒) - this was one of the two requested dishes, and it certainly did not disappoint our first-timers.  Without the usual reddish honey glaze, the soy sauce-dominated flavors were more pleasing to the palate.

    There was just enough fat to make things interesting, and also just the right amount of charring in some places.  The flavors of the pork itself registered well with the guests.  As ILove Lubutin will say : 豬有豬味!

    Crystal king prawn (玻璃大蝦球) - I asked for this because not only is it a classic dish that showcases the chef's skills (including knife-skills), the sheer size of these prawns are bound to impress!  There was enough flavor here without the need for any additional condiments.

    Traditional Buddha jumps over the wall (古法佛跳牆) - the main event of the evening.  Ever since I was first introduced to this dish, it has been included on the menu on every subsequent visit.  That's how much I love this.

    As usual each of us got an abalone, a piece of fish maw, a piece of sea cucumber, a goose web, along with some braised crispy pork belly, pig's tendon, and bamboo shoots.  Of course, we also got plenty of the sticky, lip-smacking-good sauce... which we used plenty of steamed rice to mop up.

    The abalone was very, very tender and delish... although I'll freely admit that I'm not an expert when it comes to them.

    Double-boiled chicken soup with whelk (淮杞響螺燉雞湯) - one of the guests requested soup, so we got something very classic... which tasted sweet thanks to the Chinese yam (淮山).

    The dregs were served up separately, and we picked on this pile...

    Steamed brown-marbled grouper (清蒸老虎斑) - this baby was pretty big... more than 3 catties at least.  It was slightly overcooked - which isn't uncommon when steaming a fish of this size - but still very tasty.

    Steamed minced beef patty with aged mandarin peel (陳皮蒸牛肉餅) - I was pretty excited when I found that this was gonna be on the menu, because this was a dish I'd heard about but never had... and this place is famous for their stock of aged mandarin peel.

    And I wasn't the least bit disappointed.  The beef patty was very, very tender... with a soft and bouncy texture, and plenty of diced water chestnut for sweetness and crunch.  The fragrance from the aged mandarin peel was incredible.  Yup, wolfed down even more steamed rice with this.  Just had to be done.

    Four treasure vegetables with superior broth (上湯四寶蔬) - the veggies here are often one of the highlights of the meal, and this combination of mushrooms, radish, broccoli, and choy sum (菜心) was cooked by slowly adding superior broth (read: ham stock) to the pile.  That makes for some incredibly tasty veg, especially the radish.

    Steamed fragrant rice in lotus leaf (飄香荷葉飯) - we were honestly too full by this point, and had already eaten a ton of rice, so we only had small spoonfuls here.  This was very, very good... with lots of flavor and lovely fragrance.

    Almond cream with lotus seeds and egg white (蓮子蛋白杏仁茶) - this is always a nice end to our meals here... especially when the lotus seeds have been cooked until soft and almost mushy.

    I brought along a bunch of wines for the gang... knowing that they can drink.

    1989 von Schubert Maximin Grünhäuser Herrenberg Auslese 137 - nose of petrol, white flowers, lemon, with a hint of polyurethane.  Nice acidity here, and almost a little fizzy.  Rounded on the palate.

    2001 Kracher Scheurebe Trockenbeerenauslese No. 9 Zwischen den Seen, from half-bottle - big, grapey and raisin nose, with honeydew and marmalade.  Sooo incredibly sweet on the nose and the palate.

    1985 Hospices de Beaune Mazis-Chambertin Cuvée Madeleine-Collignon par Bouchard - very disappointing as the fresh fruit never showed.  Instead we got very savory black olives, leather, and stewed fruit.

    2003 Pavillon Rouge de Château Margaux, en magnum -  decanted for more than an hour.  A little exotic, a little toasty, somewhat chalky and toasty.  Later on some smoke emerged.  Tannins still here.  Disappointing.

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  • 03/18/16--00:37: Mo' sushi
  • Aaaaand... as I was still feeling full and digesting the huge dinner last night, I joined a couple of friends for a late lunch.  I've been hearing a lot of good things about Sushi Mori Tomoaki, but since I don't eat a whole lotta sushi in this town, I never bothered to check it out.  My friend who works near the restaurant thought it would be worthwhile for me to make the trek, and I'm glad I did.

    Since my friend knows the chef, we decided to follow his recommendation.  Little did I know that we would be having dinner omakase (お任せ) for lunch...  We asked the chef not to serve us tuna, as is my usual practice.

    Steamed egg custard (茶碗蒸し) - this came with the usual shiitake mushroom, fish, fish cake (蒲鉾), and shredded crab meat.  Unfortunately the crab meat had the texture of steel wool... but the yuzu (柚子) fragrance was lovely.

    Marbled flounder (真子鰈) - came with two parts.  Chewy and springy.  Served with salt.

    Marbled flounder wing (縁側) - softer but still kinda chewy.

    Baby seabream (春子鯛) - first piece of sushi.  The rice was a lot wetter than I'm used to, and kinda loose.

    Thread-sail filefish (皮剥) - served with sauce made with its liver, along with very finely diced scallion sprouts (芽ねぎ) and perilla flowers.  Beautiful and creamy.

    Golden alfonsino (金目鯛) - really soft, fluffy, and oily.  Delicious!

    This Japanese horsehair crab bowl was really, really delicious.  The chef took some sea urchin suspended in sea water (海水雲丹) and mixed it in with the meat from the body of the Japanese horsehair crab (毛蟹). Meat from a leg of the horsehair crab is placed to one side, then a dollop of crab tomalley (蟹味噌) is spooned on top... garnished with some perilla (紫蘇) flowers.  So. Damn. Good.

    Hokkai shrimp (縞海老) - these were wrapped in kelp (昆布締め).  Very, very nice.

    Japanese geoduck (本海松貝) - geoduck is probably my least favorite item for sushi other than fish cum... and these two pieces expressed the reason perfectly.  Just really, really strong and "fishy" flavors... and not in the good, fish oil kinda way that I like, but more like hospital disinfectant...  Very crunchy and fresh, no doubt... and this even came from the waters around Japan.  But I no likey... I tried to give a piece away to the Great One, but surprisingly she turned me down...

    Ark shell (赤貝) - from Kyoto, seasoned with yuzu juice.  Pretty nice... and I don't normally like this.

    Spanish mackerel (鰆) - lightly torched and came with a dab of yuzukosho (柚子胡椒).

    Rosy seabass (喉黒) - torched, naturally... Very tender and succulent.  Yum.

    Gizzard shad (小鰭) - aged for 1 week after marinating in vinegar.  Served with a thin slice of kelp.  Acidity was surprisingly high here.

    Japanese green sea urchin (馬糞雲丹) - nom nom nom.

    Northern sea urchin (北紫雲丹) - ah... the famous "white sea urchin (白雲丹)" from Hokkaido.  Sooo plump and delicious, with a sprinkle of black salt.  This was the "second place" supplier whereas Rozan (魯山)gets theirs from the "first place" supplier which, naturally, commands a higher price point.

    Since none of us wanted tuna, the chef had to think about what kind of roll to serve us.  He decided to wrap long, thin strips of golden cuttlefish (墨烏賊) that has been aged for 1 week, along with spicy pollock roe (辛し明太子) and perilla leaves.  Yum.

    Conger eel (穴子) - grilled and torched.  Lots of sauce here.

    They brought out this grilled egg (玉子焼き) just as they finished making it, so it was still steaming hot.  A truly beautiful sight...

    Nice and spongy... so fluffy!

    The melon was pretty ripe and sweet.

    This was waaaaaay too much food for me at lunch... especially after 3 days of heavy-eating.  I walked out of the restaurant very satisfied in terms of my palate, but in physical pain due to a bloated stomach.  Gotta take it easy next time!

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    Earth Hour was celebrated for the 10th year tonight, and I participated for the eighth year.  As we did last year, Hello Kitty and I went out to the Kowloon Public Pier next to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.  However, this year we also took Kuma out with us, and arrived just before 8:30 p.m.  Some of the buildings on the Hong Kong side across Victoria Harbour had already gone dark.

    One by one, most of the major buildings visible on the waterfront turned off their exterior lighting, and the stretch from Sheung Wan to Fortress Hill was uncharacteristically dark.

    Last year's offender HSBC got the message this year, and turned off all their lights - including that huge LED panel - at their HSBC Main Building early this year.  The China Resources Building also turned off the lights at the top of their building.  Most people went along with the effort, and even slow pokes like Kweichow Moutai (贵州茅台) managed to turn off their neon sigh by 8:40 p.m.

    There were a few offenders who didn't get the memo this year.  DBS's bright neon sign didn't get turned off until about 9:05 - a whole 30 mins into Earth Hour - and kept trying to tell us about some free Tesla promotion.  The neon sign next to it, which promotes the Qianhai New District (前海新区) across the border in Shenzhen, stayed on the whole time.  And some new building next to the World Trade Centre in Causeway Bay also kept their running LEDs on.

    But by far the most glaring (pun intended) offender was the PLA.  The People's Liberation Army Hong Kong Building (中國人民解放軍駐香港部隊大廈) - with its lone red star at the top - decided to leave all of their external lights on the whole time.  It was so bad that I jokingly called it the lone beacon of light in Victoria Harbour...  Maybe they had no idea about Earth Hour.  Or maybe they know but just don't give a rat's ass.  Given that they did turn the lights off last year, I'm leaning towards the latter explanation...

    A couple of other guys seem to be on a different clock than the rest of us.  Last year Sogo turned their neon sign back on about 15 minutes early, and this year the light came back on at 9:10 p.m.  The COFCO (中粮集团) neon sign lit up a couple of minutes later.

    Just after 9:30 p.m. we started to see the lights come back on one by one, and soon the central harbor front on the Hong Kong side returned to its normal, lively state.

    Hello Kitty and I were happy to have participated in Earth Hour again this year.  But the happiest of us all has got to be Kuma.  He turned out to be real popular with the ladies, as one after another came over to say hello and pet him.  We even ran into a newlywed couple (or maybe they were about to be married) taking wedding photos, and the bride came up to Kuma to pet him in her wedding dress... and there was a perfect shot of white-on-white for a minute.  Too bad I didn't snap a picture of my own, but the couple's photographer sure did!

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    It was finally time for another gathering with the MNSC boys, and tonight's dinner was hosted by our resident Jayer fan Curry.  So it's no surprise that many of us were really looking forward to what our generous friend might be serving us...

    Once again Curry took us to Seventh Son (家全七福), one of the top Cantonese restaurants in town.  This year, however, he chose not to serve up a vegetarian menu like last year... although a few of us probably wouldn't have objected to having more veg in our diet for a change.

    Deep-fried cordyceps mushroom (炸蟲草花) - these were really nice!  The batter was crunchy and not soggy at all.  Yum.

    Pan-fried taro patties (香煎芋頭餅) - not as crunchy as the lotus root patties, as these were more soft and chewy inside, but still tasty.

    Barbecued whole suckling pig (大紅片皮乳豬全體) - ah... the standard by which many of us measure all other roast suckling pigs...

    That crunchy wafer of crackling was as delicious as always, and no, I don't bother scraping the fat off the bottom like some of my friends.  Tonight, though... I tried to be good and limit my intake of this piglet... only a few pieces of the tasting crackling and a couple of piece of the hand-shredded meat.  Hell, I didn't even take one of those legs to chew on!

    Braised bird's nest soup with partridge (燕窩鷓鴣羹) - made with shredded Chinese francolin (and maybe some chicken?).  This was a very nice substitute for sharks' fin.  My first time having this old school soup.

    Braised beef brisket with radish (蘿蔔清湯腩) - so simple. so classic. so good.

    This was very tender... and I didn't mind the strong star anise flavors one bit.

    Steamed mullet head and belly with jujube and black olive (紅棗欖角蒸烏魚頭腩) - a pretty interesting alternative to the normal steamed garoupa.  Really nice flavors with aged mandarin peel (陳皮), jujube, and Chinese black olive (欖角).

    Steamed duck in plum sauce (蒸梅子鴨) - another old school dish.  I didn't want to eat too much tonight so I only picked at this... but the duck itself was very flavorful.  I enjoyed the gizzard a lot more, and ate a few more slices of that.

    Taro and duck seem to go hand-in-hand in Chinese cuisine, so we were also served some very soft slices.

    We didn't get a carb dish at the end since there was already way, waaay too much food, but we did ask for more veg... so we had stir-fried kailan with diced ginger (薑粒炒芥蘭). Nice and crunchy, but the ginger wasn't the best thing for our palates when it came to tasting wine...  Had to rinse out my tongue afterwards.

    The wines tonight were, as usual, fantastic.  The amazing part was that all the bottles were in excellent condition - a testament to Curry's focus on provenance.

    First flight: decanted 30 minutes prior to serving.
    1973 Petrus - lovely nose with tobacco and smoke, cedar, and sweet grass.  Really smooth on the palate.  With second pour the nose was even more smoky.  Classic and beautiful.  96 points.

    1973 Lafleur - a little more burnt rubber in the nose.  A little animal and herbs, like Chinese licorice (甘草) that is sometimes found on preserved plums.  Riper with more concentration on the palate, and also more tannic.  95 points.

    Second flight: decanted for 1 hour prior to serving.
    1919 Cheval Blanc, ex-château - we knew this was really old shit when Curry told us that this was an ex-château bottling, which was purchased at auction several years ago.  The color was really light, and the wine was very murky.  I thought I was pretty aggressive when I went out on a limb and guessed it was from mom's vintage, but as it turns out I was still more than 20 years off!  The nose was initially really sweet with tons of desiccated coconut, which I really loved.  But the palate showed that the wine was very old and over the hill.  About 1½ hours after decanting the sweetness started to fade in the nose, and very strong notes of cep mushrooms showed up.  92 points.

    1982 Cheval Blanc - nose was kinda ripe and sugary like honey.  Much cleaner, and almost a little floral.  Definitely an above-average bottle of this wine.  96 points.

    Third flight: decanted 2 hours prior to serving.
    1978 Guigal La Landonne - nice and sweet nose, with smoke and a little bit of black olive later.  Beautiful.  96 points.

    1978 Lafleur - nice with plenty of woody notes, smoky, minty, a little bit of green pepper, a little earthy.  Three hours after decanting the nose showed a little Chinese angelica (當歸).  97 points.

    Fourth flight: decanted 2½ hours prior to serving.
    1990 Beauséjour-Duffau - sweet and smoky nose, with slightly cooked fruit but still relatively lean.  96 points.

    1990 Jaboulet La Chapelle - a bit more peppery, smoky, a little bit stinky.  There was a lot of potential here but the wine was still closed.  96 points.

    What a fantastic evening!  We had good food, an incredible selection of wines which were a privilege to drink, and friendly banter among good company.  What else can one ask for on a Sunday night??

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  • 03/22/16--08:33: Eating art, 2016 edition
  • Art Basel Hong Kong is upon us, and every year around this time, Chef Uwe Opocensky and his team at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong - the Official Hotel Partner for Art Basel Hong Kong - would come up with an "art menu" to celebrate the occasion.  I've had some of those creations in the past years, but this was the first time I came to the Mandarin Grill + Bar just for the Art Basel dinner menu.  I've been meaning to come back and visit Uwe during this period, and when My Favorite Cousin offered to take us out to dinner to celebrate her promotion, this became an easy choice.

    The menu tonight was presented on an artist's palette, and since Hello Kitty and I are silly people, she decided to pose for a picture with the menu... Peek-a-boo!

    First came the little nibbles:
    Mushroom sabayon - what's not to like about warm liquid packed full of mushroom flavors?

    Fermented sourdough sticks with pickled onions and flowers - the sticks are still pretty hard.

    Spherical olives

    We were also presented with some bread - including the Parker House rolls that I love so much - and an array of olive and avocado oils from around the world.

    Chinese calligraphy: brushes, Alaskan king crab, coriander, wasabi, orange - served with 5 different dips : Japanese orange was pretty sweet and zesty with seasoning; red bell peppers with Madagascan pepper; coriander pesto as by far the best; yuzu (柚子) seemed to have some dashi (出汁) added as it had distinct savory notes; and wasabi (山葵) mayo.

    The tips of the "brushes" contained shredded Alaskan king crab inside puff pastry, with a little bit of spiced caramel holding the tips in place.  We dipped them into the different "inks" one by one.  So much fun to eat!  Uwe did warn us, though, not to draw on the tablecloth with the brushes...

    Street art: hands, chalk, carrot, beetroot, cucumber, pumpkin, tofu, onion - inspired by street artists Uwe saw in Paris, who painted with chalk.  In place of chalk Uwe has served up their selection of organic vegetables, which were either marinated or roasted.  Underneath the veggies was a pile of mayonnaise made from tofu (豆腐) supplied by Kanda-san...  Very delish.  Too bad I couldn't have used the "chalks" to draw anything...

    "Floating Illusion" - a dish inspired by Damien Hirst's iconic artwork: mackerel, langoustine, cucumber, horseradish - inspired by Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Uwe has replaced the shark with mackerel here... and we're not exactly gonna eat formaldehyde, either.

    Uwe brings out the 3 boxes, with sections of the mackerel suspended in jelly.  Obviously not quite as impressive as a whole tiger shark, but this was still pretty cool when displayed on the table.  I had seen press pictures of the dish before, but only when the boxes arrive did their scale hit me... and I realized that we weren't gonna dig into these boxes for our food...

    The jelly was made from fish stock, cucumber juice, and horseradish.  The mackerel was stuffed with langoustine and nori (海苔) seaweed.  I love mackerel, so this all tasted fine and normal to me... but apparently many Asian diners felt the dish was too fishy... especially the jelly.  I guess I don't have an Asian palate, then... because this didn't taste a whole lot different from pickled herring and stuff, although there was the distinct taste of pepper in the mackerel.

    On the side there was langoustine tartare, fresh and pickled cucumber salad.  This was pretty nice and refreshing.

    Paint box: red, yellow, white, black, green, beef - a whole lotta different colors for us to paint with!  The purée included spinach, parsnip, pepper, baba ghanoush, cauliflower, truffle, pumpkin, onion, garlic... plus fermented mustard seeds, deep-fried garlic, flowers, truffle mash potatoes, and regular mash potatoes.

    We were encouraged to mix and match the "paints" with the hunk of slow-cooked beef short rib, which was really, really tender and tasty.  And lots of fun to eat, too!

    Art excavation: box, chocolate, ice cream, cake, sand - no surprise that we would end up with another playful dessert.  This huge box was brought to our table, and we were instructed to use the brush and shovel exactly the way they would be used on an excavation...  So I took the brush and started to brush away some of the top soil, which seemed to be made of graham cracker.

    So there were some gold coins made with chocolate...

    and some of these lions made of chocolate...

    which were filled with yuzu ice cream.  The gold bars were chocolate whisky cake, and there were also medallions made of mud cake.  The bottom soil seemed to be made of chocolate.

    But there was simply too much... which isn't anything new when it comes to Uwe.  The surprising thing was that My Favorite Cousin - who is normally a chocolate fiend - actually controlled her intake.

    I brought along a bottle of bubbly for My Favorite Cousin:

    2000 Egly Ouriet, dégorgée en Mai 2008 - lots of caramelized sugar in the nose here, with a good balance between acidity and ripeness on the palate.  Also notes of Chinese licorice (甘草) and marmalade, and ended up pretty ripe and slightly bitter on the palate.

    I hadn't planned on drinking a bottle of red tonight, because I thought that 2 bottles might be a little much for the three of us on a school night.  However, Uwe very kindly sent us a bottle to go with our beef...

    1998 Grand Mayne - decanted upon opening.  Sweet nose with straw, sweet grass, leather, mint, and a little earthy and smoky.  Classic and just drinking beautifully right now.

    Once again we ended up having a really enjoyable and fun dinner here.  I must sound like a broken record, but my friends and I always have tons of fun when we eat here... maybe because we still haven't grown up and like to play with our food.  I'm so glad we came back for this special menu, and look forward to more of Uwe's creations in the future!

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  • 03/24/16--07:58: Drinking art
  • I knew there would be numerous venues around town offering special creations as Art Basel Hong Kong rolled into town this week, and I wanted to see what else was available besides Uwe's creations.  As I browsed through Hong Kong Tatler's article on the subject, the first item that popped up was this cocktail at the Artesian - the bar at the Langham Hong Kong.  The picture showed what looked like one of Salvador Dali's clocks draped over a cocktail glass, and this immediate caught my attention.  After making some enquiries, I made a reservation and showed up with Hello Kitty.

    We were informed beforehand that each cocktail takes some time to make, so we would need to be patient... and this was the reason why reservations are necessary.  The bar area was half-empty when we showed up, and it appeared that no one else was there to enjoy these special cocktails.  Perfect for us, then... since we didn't have to wait our turn.

    There were three different cocktails on offer - each inspired by world-famous piece of art.  Of course we decided to get all three and share...

    When bar manager "Rush" Limbu started on the first cocktail, we immediately realized why they take so long to make.  The base of the cocktail is made first, with a layer of egg white foam on top that acts as the "canvas". Then Rush puts different food colorings on a plate - his "palette" - and proceeds to draw on the foam with a toothpick.

    Salvador Dali, "The Persistence of Memory" - Los Danzantes Mezcal, Grand Marnier, Domaine de Canton, Fee Brothers Orange Bitters, orange juice, and egg white.  Definitely very citrusy, and the Mezcal flavors were pretty prominent.

    Piet Mondrian, "Tableau I" - Saffron Gin, elderflower liqueur, Chartreuse, The Bitter Truth Lemon Bitters, fresh lemon juice, egg white, and grenadine.  This was a lot more to Hello Kitty's liking, since the lemon juice base made it more acidic.

    Vincent van Gogh, "Starry Night" - Chalong Bay Rum, Frangelico, Strega, Bittermens Xocolatl Bitters, Blue Curaçao, fresh lime juice, and egg white.  For some reason this tasted EXACLY like Nothing... full of coconut that you'd find in Malibu.  But this was oh-so-pretty... and looking at it made us so happy.

    Once the other bar patrons saw Rush making our cocktails, they started ordering them, too.  Before we knew it, the better part of an hour had passed, and Rush looked like he was getting a little sore in the lower back from bending over for so long.  It definitely looked like hard work, especially when he had to color in those squares for the Mondrian drop by drop...

    This was something pretty special, and we really enjoyed the time we spent here tonight...  Rush definitely worked pretty hard to create these drinks for us, and we almost didn't want to drink them for fear of ruining his work!

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    I'm back in Tokyo for a quick trip during cherry blossom season, with Hello Kitty in tow for a visit to HelloKittyLand.  Unlike my previous trips from the last few years, though, this year I would be hitting a few touristy spots along the way... starting from the very first stop after we landed and checked in.

    I first heard about the Robot Restaurant (ロボットレストラン) from JC, whose photo album from three years ago entitled "Japanese chicks battle robots" showed a series of bewildering pics.  I found them amusing, but I was never gonna make it one of my stops when I'm in Tokyo.  When Fergie and I walked past it by chance two years ago, I snapped a picture outside the place, but of course our schedule was already full.

    As I was planning my trip this year, for some reason I really wanted to hit this place... and Hello Kitty was kind enough not to raise any objections.  So I booked my tickets online through the restaurant's website and made it our very first stop on this trip.  And no, I didn't plan on actually eating here...

    We were pretty tight on time, and after we quickly dropped our bags off at the hotel, we took the subway to Shinjuku.  Shinjuku Station is arguably the busiest train station in the world, and it's never been easy to weave through its complex maze of exits.  So of course when we were already running late, I managed to lose my way and come out the wrong exit.

    We arrived at the restaurant right around the 5:55 p.m. show time, and were thankful that our seats weren't cancelled as my confirmation email had stated.  We were directed up to the third floor, which turned out to be a lounge where they parked the patrons while waiting for the performance area to be prepped.

    A few minutes later we were sent down into the basement to find our seats.  The two of us were seated in the front row at the very end, so we didn't have a very good angle for photos and videos.  Oh well...  We were asked to turn off our devices with Wifi capability before the show started, and would soon realize why.

    As the show started, we see a bunch of floats roll out, some with performers onboard.  These were controlled by handlers with Wifi devices.  There were LED lights, drummers, singers, dancers, guitar players... In short, nothing less than an assault on your senses.

    Of course there were also robots!  Some had performers hidden inside to control their movements, while others had "riders".

    There were four main segments to the show, which lasted around 1½ hours.  In between segments when the staff were shuffling the motorized floats around and prepping for the next segment, we would be entertained by clowns and dancers.  Most of these were pretty dull, but one segment with dancers with lasers and moving to the tune of a medley of Michael Jackson's hits was pretty cool.

    Most of the stuff was pretty wild... between the costumes (although there seemed to be less scantily-clad women than I had imagined), animatronics, lights, sequins, rhinestones...  And yeah, the segment on the war between the nature-loving spirits with their animal friends against invading evil alien robots was really out there...

    The last segment was what I would imagine Carnaval to be like in Rio... and the costumes certainly looked that way.  We were all issued glow sticks and encouraged to wave them around.

    After the show ended, I walked around in a daze for a few minutes, unable to find my bearings.  My senses were in overload, and I wasn't entirely kidding when I said that I was deaf and blind...  But I'm pretty glad I finally came and experienced it for myself.

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    After a couple of quick stops to fill our stomachs while recovering from the overwhelming Robot Restaurant (ロボットレストラン), I decided to be lazy and took a cab to our next stop.  It's a pilgrimage I have to make on every trip to Tokyo, and I'm glad I got the chance to come back to Tamanegiya (酒たまねぎや) once again.

    As usual Master served up a little amuse bouche... with some braised fish and also a couple of cape gooseberries.  The cape gooseberries were very ripe and sweet tonight.

    I tried to take things easy at the start, knowing that I'll be going after some heavy-hitters towards the end...

    Shun Kanmuri Daiginjo Tobin Show Special (駿 冠 大吟醸 斗瓶選抜酒), 26BY - with a seimaibuai (精米歩合) of 40%.  Nose of banana and a little bit of fermented rice, but surprisingly smells a little dry.  Nice sweetness on the mid-palate with a dry finish.

    Azumaichi Daiginjo Tobintori Katsuki Special (東一大吟醸 斗瓶取り 勝木スペシャル), 24BY - with a seimaibuai of 39%.  Not much on the nose here.  Pretty smooth and soft mid-palate, with a slightly dry and spicy finish.

    Hatsukame Show Special (初亀 鑑評会出品酒), 27BY - once again Master has bought up all 34 bottles of this.  Also not much on the nose except lots of fermented rice, with medium dryness and a little sharp on the finish.

    Hatsukame Kame Junmai Daiginjo (初亀 亀 純米大吟醸), 10BY - with a seimaibuai of 35%, this is a koshu (古酒) with 16 years of aging.  Surprisingly muted nose, but very rich on the palate with plenty of depth here.  Pretty spicy and dry on the finish.

    Master also gave us some grilled mullet roe (カラスミ) from Taiwan, which spent enough time over heat to take out a lot of the moisture.  The texture was more dry and didn't stick to the teeth too much.

    Then I decided to go for my usual vertical of Isojiman Nakatori 35... asking Master to pour me four glasses with each glass from a different vintage.  Master has seen me do this before, and asked me whether I would like to taste a fifth vintage.  Hello?!  He knew the answer to that question!

    As it turns out, our neighbors at the bar were also from Hong Kong, and the gentleman decided to join me for the vertical tasting.  As some of the bottles didn't have enough to deliver two pours, Master very kindly opened up 4 fresh bottles for us.

    Isojiman Junmai Daiginjo Nakatori 35 (磯自慢 純米大吟醸 中取り 35), 26BY - the only glass not poured from a fresh bottle.  Lots of banana and sweet, ripe tropical fruit in the nose.  Fresh and vibrant.

    Isojiman Junmai Daiginjo Nakatori 35 (磯自慢 純米大吟醸 中取り 35), 25BY - more clean and tight compared to the 26BY, with lovely floral notes and also honeydew melon.  Sweet on the palate with a little dryness on the finish.  Pretty elegant.

    Isojiman Junmai Daiginjo Nakatori 35 (磯自慢 純米大吟醸 中取り 35), 24BY - more elegant, plenty of honeydew melon, and pretty sweet on the palate.  Later on showed a little of that paint thinner with the banana smell (香蕉水).  The favorite of the crowd tonight.

    Isojiman Junmai Daiginjo Nakatori 35 (磯自慢 純米大吟醸 中取り 35), 23BY - also kinda fruity, showing more fermented rice.  A little drier on the palate.

    Isojiman Junmai Daiginjo Nakatori 35 (磯自慢 純米大吟醸 中取り 35), 22BY - a little banana and honeydew melon, with some floral notes.  A little bit of acidity here.

    Normally I would ask Master to bring out something much, much older, but tonight I felt that I had had enough to drink.  After all, I was surviving on only a couple of hours' of sleep and had been running around all day.  Time to go hit the sack...

    The only unfortunate thing about tonight was that I was unable to smell a number of the sakes properly.  There were two reasons for this: master was grilling tuna collars for two groups of guests, so the smell filled the place for a while.

    But the other, more annoying, reason was that the Japanese guests were smoking inside the bar.  It really pisses me off that other people would pollute the air with cheap cigarette smoke when I'm spending good money on expensive wine or sake, as I get easily 80% of my enjoyment from the nose itself.  But since Master didn't say anything, I bit my tongue and suffered in silence.

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    It's our first morning in Tokyo, and we met up with some friends for a late breakfast/brunch.  Hello Kitty was catching up with one of her friends from Hong Kong who had settled in Tokyo, and we were also joined by 娜姐 who had just arrived earlier today.

    When Dominique Ansel Bakery opened up in Tokyo last year, I was unable to join a bunch of friends for the opening party as I was busy with work commitments.  Therefore I was determined to make it here and try out some of their Tokyo specials - especially their Cronut.  The location is pretty close to a prime shopping area, so I was pretty happy that everyone was agreeable to my choice of venue.

    We got ourselves a big table on the second floor.  While others chose to order savory dishes, I decided to taste as many of the cakes and pastries as possible.  The sugar fiend in me definitely came out to play today!

    But for the Cronut, we had to go downstairs and buy it from the counter - and of course there was a 2-Cronut-per person limit.  But what I found annoying was that we had to buy them for takeout and weren't allowed to eat them on the second floor - while others sitting downstairs could munch right away.  We made sure to buy enough to give some away later in the day.

    But first I needed a drink!  The chef's original hot chocolate was something I'd seen on their social media pages, and I wanted to try it for myself.  Our waitress dropped the marshmallow flower into the cup, and we all watched as the flower opened up to reveal the chocolate truffle in the middle.  On its own, the hot chocolate was actually pretty rich and not overly sweet - thereby achieving a nice balance with the sweet marshmallow.

    Grilled cheese sandwich - I was pretty glad that Hello Kitty ordered this, because I had seen this online and really wanted a bite.  One could be forgiven for salivating merely at the sight of the cheese oozing out from the thick-cut Japanese milk toast.  I did take a bite of this, and what a glorious (half) mouthful!  Well-grilled with plenty of fragrant butter to get that toasty flavor, with the butter fully-absorbed into the fluffy bread... and runny cheese!  I wish I had another stomach so I could order one of these for myself.

    Four of the desserts arrived around the same time, making for a pretty picture on the table.

    Jasmine white flower - an absolute beauty.  A white flower whose petals were made with white chocolate and decorated with drops of "morning dew", with jasmine-flavored pearls in the middle.

    Inside the lychee mousse exterior was a layer of mango as well as an almond biscuit at the bottom.  I just loved this combination of flavors - with mango and lychee being two of my favorite fruits of all time, and tropical and floral fragrances rolled into one.  If only I could eat it all myself...

    Blueberry tart - so pretty, with plain and blueberry meringue on top, plus shavings of lime zest.

    Lemon curd in the middle on top of the blueberry curd, giving it a bit more acidity.

    Chocolate typhoon - yet another beauty.  A chocolate tart with gianduja chocolate and topped with a swirl of milk chocolate ganache, and hazelnuts inside.

    As pretty as this was, it actually reminded me of the legendary circular guillotine (血滴子) that I saw in Chinese martial arts movies as a kid, with spinning blades designed to cut and inflict some serious damage...

    Paris Tokyo - Dominique's adaptation of Paris Brest for Tokyo, using matchaganache and passion fruit curd, decorated with white chocolate made to look like ginkgo leaves.

    This definitely tasted very Japanese to me...

    Frozen S'more - I never got around to having one of these when I visited New York a couple of years ago, so when I saw some girls biting into these, I figured we needed to get ourselves one, too.

    Inside the torched marshmallow was a center of frozen custard surrounded by crushed chocolate feuilletine.  Since we were sharing, I didn't get the satisfaction of grabbing the stick and just biting into it - as one would do after torching a marshmallow over camp fire.  But it was still pretty yummy.

    DKA - I already had a few of these before, but I figured this was his signature item that I preferred over the Cronut, so the others should get a chance to taste it, too.  This was Hello Kitty's favorite, since it wasn't overly sweet yet all the flaky, buttery goodness was there.  I just looooove kouign amanns!

    I gotta say I was pretty full from all this, even though I just took bits of everything.  I wish I had more room for their seasonal items with hyuganatsu (日向夏), strawberries...etc.

    A few items were consumed later in the day, which definitely wasn't ideal:

    Sakura honey almond Cronut - with salted sugar and salted sakura blossom.  I had these in late afternoon while looking out at a blooming cherry blossom tree at Tokyo Midtown.  I gotta say, though, that while I liked all the flavors here, they put way too much almond ganache in the middle.  Not only did this make the Cronut more soggy with time, it also made it very messy to eat... as a blob of white ganache would gush out every time I bit into the damn thing.

    Peep-a-Boo - FAIL.  These were supposed to be little chicks peeping out of egg shells, made of two layers of marshmallows sandwiching a salted caramel center, then coated with a layer of chocolate on the outside.

    Unfortunately these were impossible to eat.  You can't spoon it out of the real eggshell it came in, so the only way was to break the shell bit by bit.  Once you removed the shell, you found yourself holding onto a chocolate-covered egg.  Wouldn't it have been better or easier if they used candy shells instead of real ones?

    And I also didn't understand why they offered this as a takeaway item only, and wouldn't let us eat on the second floor.

    Anyway... in spite of my issues with these two items, I was really happy to have finally made it here.  With our stomachs full, it was time to do some shopping...

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    Dinner time rolled around, and I found myself at Yoroniku (よろにく) once again.  Before my friends graciously agreed to let us tag along on their Tokyo trip, they had already made plans to come here based on my recommendation, so of course I was only too happy to be back at this very good yakiniku (焼肉) joint.

    There was a little miscommunication regarding our booking.  Due to the original size of our party - before a couple dropped out - we were booked into a private room.  Apparently one must take one of the two set menus if one books a room, but I always found their set menus boring... and of course I had the audacity to tell it to the manager's face!  After a quick discussion with the manager - and assuring him that we were hungry and would order enough food to at least cover the cost of the set menus - he kindly agreed to let us order à la carte.  Yay!

    Since I was the only one who has been here before, I was tasked with ordering for the group.  Which was pretty easy since I just about picked out every single item from the daily special menu...

    Maybe it's because we were in a private room, but I don't recall getting an amuse bouche last year.  There was a mix of bamboo shoots, tofu, seaweed (青海苔), and sansho leaves (木の芽).

    Yoroniku salad (よろにくサラダ) - I figured we gotta start with some greens to balance out the barrage of red meat that was coming...

    Thick-cut tongue (厚切りタン) - gotta start things off on the right foot, with some tongue!  And only thick-cut will do.

    Loin (ロース) - not bad at all for an "ordinary" cut of beef.

    Korean pancake with Kyoto vegetables (京野菜のチジミ) - this is kinda like a veggie dish, no?  Even though we each got one little slice...  Not too bad.

    Kalbi without equals (並じゃないカルビ) - this was oh-so-fatty and oh-so-good.  Had to order another portion later.

    Shoulder triangle (カタサンカク) - the front third of the rib cage.  I tried to do this myself and follow instructions last year to cook it for 8 seconds on each side.  Didn't fail too badly, I think...  Very nice texture here, with a little bit of chewiness.

    Top shoulder blade (ミスジ) - also a few seconds on each side (menu dictates 3 seconds each side...)  A cow yields only about 3kg of this.  Very silky and tender.

    Silk loin (シルクロース) - the house signature cut.  Very silky and tender, indeed...  thanks to all that fat which melted in the mouth. Our waitress came to cook this for us to ensure that we don't fuck it up...  Then we were served a tiny rice ball and encouraged to wrap the beef around it.  Soooo good.

    Premium select sirloin (特選サーロイン) - one of our favorite cuts from last year.  Needless to say this was very, very good.  Just look at that marbling!

    Chuck flap (ザブトン) - shoulder side rib.  Such thin cut.  So tender.  Look at that amazing marbling!

    Soooo damn good with rice and a raw egg yolk.

    Filet mignon (フィレミニョン) - very soft and velvety despite being leaner.

    Chateaubriand (シャトーブリアン) - the only cut that was priced per piece instead of per portion.  Very tender, and surprisingly more fatty than expected.

    Gopchang (コプチャン) - small intestine.  Tons of fat.  Needed to be slow-grilled around the edges of the grill instead of having the fat dripping down in the middle and getting all flamed up.

    Kamenoko (亀の子) - this is part of the round tip (シンタマ) just above the hind legs.  The cut was a little thicker than I expected, and the meat itself was a little leaner.

    With all the grilling throwing our bodies out of balance, it was imperative to take in something to cool down our constitution.  Shaved ice is one such solution, and once again I ordered both varieties.

    Houjicha shaved ice (ほうじ茶のかき氷) - I don't understand why this always comes first, since the flavors of the houjicha is so heavy and smoky that it kinda overwhelms the palate.

    Shirokuma shaved ice (しろくまのかき氷) - in contrast this would seem very bland, as it was served with just condensed milk with a couple of small pieces of fruit.

    We ordered a few rounds of sake from the limited list...

    Tatenokawa Junmai Daiginjo (楯野川 純米大吟醸) - as this came not in bottles but in one-go (合) servings, I never saw the bottle and had no idea which of the many daiginjos this was.  Surprisingly a little savory on the palate, with a pretty spicy finish. So maybe this was the Honryu Karakuchi (本流辛口) bottling?

    Kokuryu Daiginjo (黒龍 大吟醸) - kinda spicy on the palate, with flavors reminiscent of fermented tofu.

    I was very, very happy with the meat tonight... which, of course, went down really well with some steamed rice.  But the one drawback of being in the private room?  There was so much smoke and not enough ventilation... Towards the end all the smoke was coming straight for my eyes, and they were tearing up pretty badly.  Definitely coming back with a smaller group next time so that we could sit outside.

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    I enjoy a bowl of ramen (ラーメン) as much as the next person, but I don't go ga-ga over them.   Especially not when I'm outside of Japan.  There's a lot of mediocre crap out there, and I never know what's actually in the soup base in the bowl in front of me.  But things change when I'm in Japan, and once in a while I'll go and get my fix.

    For the longest time my go-to ramen was Hakata Tenshin (博多天神) - a chain that my friends Cow and Chicken introduced me to a long time ago.  It's been a few years since I last paid them a visit, and since there was a branch only steps away from the Robot Restaurant (ロボットレストラン) in Kabukicho (歌舞伎町), it seemed like the perfect opportunity to slurp down a bowl after the show on our first day.

    The reason I love the ramen here is the soup base.  It's pretty much the only ramen soup that I can handle drinking an entire bowl of, since it's pretty much devoid of MSG and not excessively salty.  The reason is simple: they make their own stock from pork bones, skin, and fat.  I know this because each branch has its own huge pressure cooker, and occasionally while you sit and slurp down your noodles, you can see the staff dump the raw materials into the pot, use a hose to fill it up, stick a wooden oar into the pot and stir... before closing the lid and boiling the hell out of the contents.  This particular pot is actually on the small side, as the one in the Shibuya branch requires someone to climb a ladder in order to access the opening.

    The result?  A milky-white broth that is rich in flavor but light on salt.

    Ramen with pork belly, seaweed, and spring onions (ネギのりチャーシューメン) - they're certainly not stingy on the pork, and with the extra seaweed and spring onions on top of the wood ear fungus as well as half a hard-boiled egg, this made for a pretty tasty meal.  I didn't completely finish the bowl of milky broth, but came pretty damn close.  Craving and hunger very much satiated.

    I was real glad that I came back for another bowl... since it really has been too long.  I think Hello Kitty liked the broth, too.

    On day 3 of the trip, we met up with a foodie friend who had just flown in from Europe.  She was going to hit her favorite ramen place - Kagari (篝) in Ginza - which seemed to be getting a lot of attention in the last couple of years, especially among the tourist crowd.  Although we were out sightseeing for the day, I decided to reshuffle our itinerary so that we could join her.

    Hello Kitty and I were a tad late coming back from Tokyo Skytree, and as a result we only arrived after 12:30 p.m.  There was already a line outside to the end of the alley, so we waited patiently for our turn.  Normally neither of us would wait in line for food any longer than 15-20 minutes, but we would make an exception for this.

    Following just over an hour's wait, it was finally our turn to get inside the tiny 8-seater.  After hanging our coats and putting away our bags, we sat down and waited for our bowls to arrive.

    White chicken soup soba (鶏白湯SOBA) - with extra pork belly (チャーシュー) and fresh bamboo shoots from Kyoto (京都筍).  The soup was thick and creamy, and I could definitely taste the chicken fat.  However, I also tasted the grainy texture of the soup, which made me suspect (with no confirmation) that they also added some flour into the soup - even though some people reported diced onions being added.  The other issue I had with the soup was that it was simply too heavy-handed with salt.  I definitely needed the glass of water on the side.

    But that chicken was just so incredibly tender and succulent... and dabbed with a little bit of yuzu (柚子) zest for the wonderful fragrance.  The bamboo shoots were fresh and sweet with a nice crunch.  The extra pork belly turned out to be unnecessary and paled in comparison to the chicken.  I'd order extra chicken instead.

    I was pretty happy to have met up with my friend and to have tried out this very interesting Chinese soba (中華そば).  But next time the wait had better be a lot shorter than an hour...

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    It's been nearly 19 years since Cow, Chicken, H-man and I first began working together, and we've kept our friendship over the years.  I try to meet up with them on each of my trips to Tokyo, getting together for a meal (or three) over wine.  It's traditional that H-man and I coordinate and bring wines to dinner - even if it involves me lugging some bottles from Hong Kong and the wines having to suffer a little bottle shock.

    The four of us had a pretty good time last year at La Ruée vers l'or, so H-man once again booked us a table there.  Not only is the restaurant BYO-friendly, but sommelier Chiba Kazuto (千葉和外) is apparently more knowledgeable about and adept at handling Californian wines.  This was important because the theme I had proposed for tonight was one of California's highly sought-after wineries - Sine Qua Non.  H-man and I would each bring a pair of wines from the same vintage, with the pairs being 10 years apart.

    As soon as I arrived and dropped the wines off with Chiba-san, I delivered another package to the H-man.  He had totally forgotten about the fact that I had bought a copy of Sine Qua Non's book, since the purchase was made almost a year ago.  He was ecstatic at the sight of the beautifully-crafted book, and no doubt would spend some quality time perusing through it.

    As usual the menu was pre-set for us, knowing that we would be red-heavy in terms of wine.

    Amuse bouche - anchovy sablé and a chiffon-y onion short cake.

    Chilled cauliflower cream soup, firefly squid and nano-hana confit - Wow!  This was absolutely beautiful!  I loooove chilled soups, and this one was so creamy and so sweet.  Did I mention that cauliflower is one of my favorite vegetables?  And they added a nice touch with the firefly squids (螢烏賊) that are now in season, after they have been marinated in olive oil with garlic, aglio olio-style.  The rapeseed flowers (菜の花) were also a nice seasonal touch.  So refreshing and awesome.

    Butter sautéed scallops, spinach purée and potatoes - needless to say the Hokkaido scallop was fresh and sweet, and done mi-cuit.  Served with sugar snap peas and strips of lardon.

    Pork braised in beer "carbonnade", marinated purple cabbage - when this arrived I immediately noticed that the pork was kinda wobbly, although I jokingly protested that my piece wasn't as wobbly as I normally prefer.  Knowing that "I like 'em jiggly", Hello Kitty very kindly offered to swap her piece of pork with mine.

    And what a glorious piece of fatty pork rib this was!  Besides the obvious, delicious fatty bits, the meat was simply very, very tender.  Love the liquefied onions from the carbonnade.  Chicken was particularly fond of the Brussels sprouts which had started to open up.  Meanwhile Cow remembered that we had a very nice pork dish from our dinner last year, too.  Ugh!  If only we had gotten bigger pieces of the pork...

    Roasted lamb chops, seasonal vegetables, curry scented oil, potato purée - and then there was THIS glorious piece of Australian lamb chop.  Plenty of fat that delivered lamby goodness.  Perfect execution, and with the cap, too!  That curry scented oil with cumin just worked wonders with lamb.  Oh man... why didn't I get TWO of these?!

    Crème caramel - I decided not to have any cheese while the others nibbled, because I was getting a double portion of this... thanks to Hello Kitty.

    But the center of attention tonight was squarely on the wines.  In my wine circles it's rare to see Sine Qua Non pop up, not to mention having four bottles in one sitting.  The excitement level was high!

    1996 Sine Qua Non Omadhaun and Poltroon - right off the bat this showed good amount of toasty oak, very fragrant, with lemon, fruity, and floral notes.  A hint of marmalade, with straw and a little sweet grass.  Definitely very ripe and sweet on the palate.  An hour after opening, showed caramelized sugar and vanilla.  Two hours after opening it was still really toasty with lots of buttery corn, which faded a little to show some leather notes even later.  This Roussanne and Chardonnay blend was just incredible.

    1996 Sine Qua Non Against the Wall - served 1 hour after decanting. A little chalky on the first whiff, kinda dirty. Unfortunately this never went away for the rest of the evening. A little savory mineral, then showed coconut and vanilla oak. Later on more savory again with soy sauce. Very smooth on the palate. Second pour showing some cooked fruit, a little more smoky and a little leather. Unfortunately this probably suffered from some bottle shock as it was only allowed to rest for 2 days after a flight.

    2006 Sine Qua Non The Raven No. 1 Grenache– served 1½ hours after decanting. Soooo powerful, so sweet and rich. The alcohol was so sharp it burned the hairs of one’s nose. Minty and a little dried herbs on top of the sweet fruit, like a young Bonneau one would taste in the master’s cellar, but cleaner. Almost a little pine needle with black pepper. Love how it tastes on the palate. A little coffee after 2 ½ hours and still really sweet. An amazing wine.

    2006 Sine Qua Non The Raven No. 3 Syrah– served almost 2 hours after decanting. Lots of iron, ripe and sweet fruit. Amazingly minty with herbs, incredibly almost seemed like cool fruit. Totally awesome. After 3 hours showed some mocha. A monumental wine that begs to be aged for another few decades.

    This was such a fun evening! The food was delicious and extremely good value. The wines… well, there’s never any doubt to me that the Krankls make incredible wines, and if it weren’t for the ’96 Against the Wall, it would have been a perfect lineup tonight. I look forward to drinking H-man’s 2006s in 10 years time!

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    I try to fit in a tempura (天ぷら) meal every time I’m in Japan, and this trip I decided to check out Fukamachi (深町), which have themselves a little macaron. The location was pretty convenient and we ended up there for the second half of the lunch session.

    They open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Arriving at 12:30 p.m. gave us less than 1 hour for lunch, and the staff asked to make sure that we were OK with finishing a little earlier. Psychologically I felt a little rushed from the start.

    I chose the most extensive menu, which gives you 2 prawns, 3 different types of fish, 5 types of veg, and a bowl of rice topped with a prawn cake. Pricing-wise, the addition of the prawn cake over rice costs an additional JPY 2,000… which seems kinda steep to me.

    Prawn heads– two prawn heads arrive to tell us that the tails are coming next.

    Prawn (車海老)

    Icefish (白魚)– I nicked a few of these from my friend who opted out of prawns.

    Prawn (車海老)– second piece.

    Japanese angelica shoots (たらの芽)

    Butterbur bud (蕗の薹)– a huge one, curiously served whole. I took it in one bite and had a little trouble chewing on it. Bitter as expected.

    Japanese sillago (鱚)

    Bamboo shoot (筍)– from Kyoto (京都). Very young and sweet, nice crunch.

    Scallop (帆立貝) – very, very nicely done. Mi-cuit!

    Lily bulb (百合根)– took a piece from Hello Kitty.

    Shiitake mushroom (椎茸)

    Green asparagus (アスパラ)– very nice as it’s in season.

    White asparagus (白アスパラ)– stole a section from Hello Kitty. Very, very nice.

    Conger eel (穴子)– pretty good.

    Tencha (天茶) - we had a choice and I would always pick this option.  The kakiage (かき揚げ) is served over rice ochatsuke (お茶漬け) style.

    Apple sorbet (りんごシャーベト)– pretty nice, actually.

    We managed to finish just around 1:30 p.m., but it wasn’t a pleasant experience. The ventilation was poor and I walked out smelling like I’ve been deep-fried. And there were times when a second piece was placed in front of me before I had a chance to pick up the previous item. So in that sense, it’s a little like being at Tempura Kondo (てんぷら 近藤)... and that's not a place I would return to anytime soon.

    P.S. Hello Kitty took the vegetarian option and was very happy with her meal of fresh, seasonal vegetables.

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