Hello Kitty wanted to have some of the famous Sri Lankan crabs while we were in Singapore, as she's heard about people having black pepper crabs. The reality, though, is that the national dish is in fact chili crab, and I was thinking about a place which would make a good introduction to this dish. I wanted somewhere a little different from all the popular places frequented by tourists and locals alike.
Kuay pie tee
She also wanted to have laksa, which got me thinking about Violet Oon. As it turns out, National Kitchen by Violet Oon has chili crab on the menu, and it would also give me a chance to have another bowl of that awesome dry laksa that I love so much. So I booked us a table for lunch, and went on a quick visit to the Peranakan Museum before walking over to the National Gallery for a bite.
Given that we were ordering a Sri Lankan crab, I kept to just 3 dishes. This turned out to be just the right amount for us.
- a delicious dish, but service here totally failed. At other restaurants, the crispy, deep-fried "top hats" are presented separately from the poached turnip shreds, and it is up to the diners to stuff the hats. I was away from the table for a few minutes, and this dish was served in my absence with the fillings already inside the shells. This meant that by the time I returned to the table, the sauce accompanying the filling had already soaked through the bottom of the shells and was leaking out... which made eating a little messy.
In spite of this, these were absolutely delicious. The taste of shrimp broth stood out in the turnip shreds, and adding a little dab of sambal enhanced the overall flavor profile. The only issue with eating kuay pie tee
, as Hello Kitty found out, is that it has to be done in one bite.
- I finally got to have this again, and I was very, very happy with this. Other than the fact that the thick rice vermicelli were a little overcooked - which I remember was also the case on my last visit - the flavors were all there. The "pesto"
delivered galangal and turmeric on top of the chili and lemongrass. And those shredded laksa
leaves! Just wonderful. Everything I'd want in my bowl of laksa
, without a whole big bowl of broth. I think Hello Kitty liked this, too... for the complexity of the flavors.
- well, I wanted to try something a little different, and I sure got what I wished for. But first, a word on pricing. These crabs are sold according to the "market price" (hence the Cantonese expression "海鮮價") everywhere, and not being a frequent visitor to seafood restaurants in Singapore, I was no longer familiar with what falls within the norm of that market price. So when I was informed that the price was SGD 13 per 100g of crab, for a moment I experienced a little sticker shock... A quick search online got a couple of hits regarding pricing at other places, and confirmed that there was indeed a significant premium here. Given that the crab weighed close to 1kg, this ain't gonna be cheap.
But I figured that since I came for a different take on the chili crab, I wasn't gonna back down. That would turn out to be the right (but painful) call.
There seems to be a good amount of tomalley in this crab, judging from this segment of the body.
- the fried buns are de rigeur
when ordering the chili crab.
The chili sauce smothering the crab was very, very delicious, and naturally I dipped the mantou
into the plate. Unlike other commercial versions popular in this town, this one was significantly less sweet, and also showed very little evidence of eggs. Just lots of garlic and chili.
Lots of tomalley
in the shell. Hooray!!!
Now it was time to carefully place the tomalley on the mantou
For the first time in quite a while, Hello Kitty finished her food long before I did. Unlike me, she handles the heat of chilis with ease, and simply chomped down on her half of the crab. In fact, she inhaled three of those mantous
without me even noticing! Meanwhile, this weakling was suffering as his tongue burned for the better part of an hour, all while trying to stop anything from dripping down from his runny nose into his food. Ice tea and lots of water helped a little.
I was pretty happy to have made it here, and enjoyed everything in spite of the price premium paid. The only slight disappointment came as some of the meat in the claws were kinda stuck to the shells, but otherwise it was a very satisfying lunch. Now we'd have to walk off some of the calories inside the National Gallery...
I found out that a friend from KL was also in Singapore this weekend, and we agreed to catch up over a meal. When he suggested that we go check out a relatively new Peranakan restaurant for dinner, I didn't hesitate to say 'yes'. After all, my friend is a baba... and it would be a real treat to dine with a foodie who knows what he's talking about when it comes to Peranakan cuisine!
The Peranakan is at the western end of Orchard Road, inside the newly-renovated Claymore Connect shopping mall. This is an area I was pretty familiar with, given that dad's office was in Orchard Towers for a while (along with the former infamous "four floors of whores"). I'm glad to see that the mall below the Orchard Hotel has been given a makeover, and as we approached from street level, we could see a number of kebayas being hung in the restaurant's windows.
I was a little startled by the abundance of Christmas decorations inside a restaurant purportedly serving Peranakan cuisine, but I was reassured once I saw my friend. Since I'm dining with a baba, guess who's NOT doing the ordering?
First we were given small baskets of hae bee hiam rolls
. These were soooo good and a perfect way for us to start our meal.
Kueh pie ti
- we just had these for lunch earlier in the day, so it would be fun to compare. Here it is served in a funky platter, with 10 of the top hats wedged in its own slot.
It is up to the diner how much stuffing to add, which is great since it keeps the shells crispy. The shrimps are much smaller, but they are whole shrimps instead of prawn halves elsewhere. Flavor-wise the stuffing seemed milder compared to Violet Oon's version
we had earlier in the day.
Sup bakwan kepiting
- this was really delicious. The soup was cooked with some bamboo shoots, which gave it a mild but distinctively sweet taste.
The meatballs were made with pork, prawns, and crab, and seasoned with some white pepper. They were very, very tender as well as tasty. Probably my favorite dish of the evening.
Nonya chap chye
- Hello Kitty requested for veg, and guess what our baba
friend ordered? This, of course, is classic Peranakan. Unfortunately, while the seasoning was lighter than the version at Candlenut
, this, too, was stewed until the cabbage started disingregrating into a pile of mush. My Canto Kitty just ain't a fan...
Kaki babi pong teh
- OK... I'm happy anytime you give me some pork, especially when you stew it with some skin and fat... This was very, very tasty... with lots of garlic and fermented soy beans delivering some umami. But if I had to be picky, I would say that the pork was a little overcooked. Still happy to eat this, though.
Ayam buah keluak
- ah... the macdaddy of Peranakan dishes. And... about what I expected. Traditional preparation means the chicken was overcooked and tough. That, my friends, is why I very much prefer Malcolm Lee's preparation using wagyu
or short ribs. I like the flavors of the nut but prefer not to gnaw on tough and stringy chicken.
We were given little spoons to scoop out the black paste stuffed inside the shells of the nut. It's an acquired taste for sure, and I have acquired it over the years. Having finished all of her steamed rice in the early part of dinner, Hello Kitty found the flavors of the paste on its own a little too heavy for her taste.
- I could never resist ordering chendol
, especially after getting my favorite version of it last night. This is obviously a much more traditional, with plenty of gula melaka
poured over the shaved ice. Yum!
Overall, this was a pretty decent meal, and I'm glad to have caught up with my baba
friend. But as he said, it's hard for commercial Peranakan restaurants to taste "authentic", and he could do a better job cooking Peranakan food... and he's only an amateur compared to his mom and his aunts. Anyway, this meal reminded me of the reasons I enjoy dining at Candlenut
so much - the Peranakan flavors are similar, but the ingredients that Malcolm Lee uses are so much better.
P.S. we didn't have any rendang
tonight, because my friend was told by the staff that the rendang
they cooked tonight wasn't any good. Kudos to the staff for having integrity to not serve dishes they felt was subpar.
I didn't have any firm plans for lunch today, as I was expecting to be by myself while Hello Kitty spent her day working. I was kinda thinking of getting my hae mee tng (蝦麵湯) fix, but the lunch place suggested by Chubby Hubby wasn't open today. When Hello Kitty decided to join me for lunch, and mentioned Chatterbox in passing, I figured we could get two birds with one stone...
Chatterbox at the Mandarin Orchard Singapore (formerly the Mandarin Singapore and subsequently renamed the Meritus Mandarin) is a Singaporean institution. The hotel was brand-spanking-new when I first arrived in Singapore as a young child, and the cafe was famous for its Hainanese chicken rice during my early years. By the time I was back in Singapore during my teenage years, the Mandarin was a place for us to take our dates - both to Chatterbox and also to Top of the M. I continued to patronize Chatterbox as an adult, even though my palate had developed and newer outlets had popped up serving better versions of Hainanese chicken rice.
It's been more than a decade since my last visit, and I figured I'd walk down that memory lane again.
But things are no longer the same. The hotel has undergone yet another renovation, and Chatterbox has been relocated from its street level location facing Orchard Link to Level 5 in the Mandarin Gallery. The surroundings were no longer familiar to me.
The menu also went through changes - and the prawn noodle soup had been taken off. I was disappointed that I wouldn't get my fix today. So I dutifully ordered up the cafe's signature dish...
Mandarin chicken rice
- I knew that this had ceased to be the best Hainanese chicken rice in town quite some time ago, but hey, when in Rome...
As I suspected, the chicken was tender but on the bland side. The good thing was that I requested for the drumstick, and the meat at least had a little more bite to it. The rice was deliciously fragrant, and probably the best thing sitting on my platter. I wasn't sure why there was a piece of silken tofu
in my soup, but whatever. This was OK, but at SGD 27 per serving, most of this was going towards (internal) rent and staff salaries...
Chatterbox lobster laksa
- these guys have obviously decided to make a luxe version of the local laksa so that they could charge you a whopping SGD 36. This was Hello Kitty's choice. Yeah, it's nice to have a whole Boston lobster in your bowl, and I have to say that it was pretty good.
- a few weeks ago a drink called "Michael Jackson"
popped up on my radar. This immediately prompted a few WTFs from me, and a quick search on the web showed that for some reason, I had been completely oblivious to its existence in Singapore. It's actually made by adding grass jelly (chin chow
) to soya bean milk, and the Michael Jackson reference becomes self-explanatory once you look at it... Well, I guess I just had to order one up, but honestly... I don't get why you'd even put these two ingredients together.
This was a pretty filling lunch, but not very satisfying - at least for me. Having sworn off eating Hainanese chicken rice in town on my last visit, I broke my own rule and went for the most clichéd
version. Talk about the boulevard of broken dreams...
This was another itch I had to scratch. A chain restaurant serving Hokkien cuisine being awarded a macaron by the Rubberman. The temptation was simply too much, and I just had to check it out for myself. So I called in reinforcements and asked my friend L and her hubby to join us, and as it turns out, their young son also wanted to come and dine at one of his favorite restaurants... So we trekked a little further from our hotel to the Putien (莆田) on Kitchener Road.
The complimentary preserved radish was pretty decent, but the other bowl of peanuts was almost empty when I arrived...
Pork belly with garlic (蒜泥白肉)
- Hello Kitty's oft-requested dish. The pork came in very thin slices, and were nicely done.
Braised pig intestine (九转粉肠)
- the dish I most wanted to try, and it turns out, we had to order a second portion because it was the favorite dish of our friends' son.
This was very, very delicious... and very, very tender. I absolutely loved this. But were there really 9 layers here, as the restaurant claimed? I couldn't tell...
Fried homemade bean curd (干炸嫩豆腐)
- these came with those deeper and slightly smoky soy bean flavors that I've come to appreciate in my tofu
, and were surprisingly moist and limp for something that had been fried.
Putien shrimp roll (莆田虾枣)
- these were pretty nice and tasty.
The blend of minced pork and shrimp was pretty tender. Of course, the crispy deep-fried batter made things even better.
Putien style oyster omelette (一品海蛎煎)
- just had to try this out. Not bad, but this became a little soggy pretty quickly.
Fried Heng Hwa bee hoon (兴化米粉)
- I had expected this to be stir-fried at high heat, but there was no wok hei (鑊氣)
at all. Instead, the very thin, hand-made rice vermicelli was slightly on the moist side. Still pretty tasty, but I was a little disappointed since I had expected something quite different.
Sambal white water snowflake (参巴水莲)
- I was surprised to find this in Singapore, as I had only seen it in Taiwan. I love the crunch, but these came a little thinner than the ones I'm used to seeing at home, although the veg is apparently imported from Taiwan.
Deep fried pig's trotters with salt and pepper (椒盐猪手)
- it's difficult for me to resist ordering pig trotters, and I really wanted to have them deep-fried. I had to order the minimum order of 2 pieces, and happily chomped away on one of them. This was soooo good. Crispy and tasty, but of course plenty of salt and pepper.
L had been eyeing the other piece that was looking rather lonely on the plate, when her husband decided to cut her half of it. She was clearly a fan, and decided to take the remaining half, too. She declared it to be the best dish of the evening, as it had withstood the relentless blast from the aircon and managed to maintain its crispy texture.
Stir-fried green dragon vegetable with garlic (蒜香青龙菜)
- I've never heard of 青龍菜 before, but it certainly tastes like chives and has that slight spicy kick that one finds in chives as well as garlic scapes. Pretty nice, actually.
The four (and a half) of us were stuffed. I had, admittedly, ordered too much food in the hopes of trying more dishes, but thankfully some of the dishes came in different sizes and we had the option of asking for a smaller portion.
Was it worthy of the star? Well... I don't think any of the dishes today were FAILs, and overall they were pretty tasty. But judging by the amount of liquids that Hello Kitty was pouring down her throat, I'd say there was a fair bit of MSG in the food here. The food was pretty humble and not really anything fancy. So... NO, I don't think they should have gotten a star.
P.S. They really need to do something about the aircon here. Not surprisingly, they served up a bunch of the dishes all at the same time, and with the arctic vortex blowing on our table, it wasn't long before the food got cold. And diners had better come armed with at least another layer of clothing, or risk catching a cold...
About 2½ hours after our flight from Singapore landed in Hong Kong, we had refreshed up and gotten dressed up for dinner at Amber - a meal I have been eagerly anticipating for the last two months. The reason? Virgilio Martinez from Central is back in town to do a 4-hands dinner with Richard Ekkebus at Amber. This was not a dinner I was going to miss.
After meeting him at his pop-up last year
, we discovered that we shared a mutual friend. As I plan ahead for a possible trip to Peru, I figured it would be good to catch up with Virgilio again. Of course, Hello Kitty and My Favorite Cousin were only too happy to see the "handsome chef" again...
First came two "snackings" by Amber:
Guinness Dry Stoute beer with onions and crispy cereals
Kabocha pumpkin and maple syrup
- pumpkin purée
inside a thin sheet of pumpkin, with caramelized pumpkin seeds. Nice and sweet.
Followed by two from Central:
Sea urchin, rocoto and black maca
- with rocoto
chili emulsion and little chunks which seemed like meringue
. There's a nice acidity balance with the umami
and the sweetness from meringue
. Very, very delicious.
Tunta, Andean herbs uchucuta
- the bitter white potatoes from Andean Altiplano were freeze-dried to produce tunta
) to preserve them. They were rehydrated, grated, then puréed
, dried, and fried to make crackers. The uchucutachile
sauce on top was made with Andean herbs, and tasted nice and acidic.
Then we were served alternating dishes from each restaurant:
Ebisu winter oyster coagulated at 70°C with sake leese, lemon, Granny Smith and salicornia
, by Amber - the slow-cooked oyster was topped some some creamy sake
lees, with some chunks of Granny Smith apple and diced salicornia mixed in. A thin, circular disc of ice made with Granny Smith apple was laid on top, with dots of lemon and Granny Smith gel. The Granny Smith and lemon obviously delivered some acidity, and there was some bitter aftertaste from the alcoholic sake
lees. The oyster was a little briny, but it was balanced by the sweetness and creaminess of the sake
lees. A pretty nice and refreshing start.
Razor clams, aji amarillo, jicama, borage
, by Central - WOW! We were impressed by the razor clam dish at last year's pop-up, and this time Virgilio served up a different variation. And it's even more beautiful than what we had last year, with a few more purple borage flowers.
Inside the paper-thin slices of jicama
were chunks of raw razor clams, together with some lime foam. I'm not sure what the creamy, white substance was, but it almost felt like crème fraîche
to me... and for some reason reminded me of avocado. The sweetness of the clam was paired with the acidity as well as spicy kick from the aji amarillo
Cep mushroom, globe artichoke, 'wet' hazelnuts and autumn truffle served like an autumn salad, on the side a cep tea and a cep baked in brioche
, by Amber - artichoke purée has been piped inside tubes made of thin slices of artichoke. On top sat a chunk of cep, with a thin disc of Parmesan as well as autumn truffle as garnish. Truffle coulis
on the side.
is always delicious.
The cep inside the brioche
was just really sweet, and the sprinkle of diced truffle and chives helped enhanced the flavors. Sooo delicious.
Avocado, loche squash, kañihua
, by Central - chunks of roasted avocado, with thin chips made presumably with loche
, and the bowl was otherwise filled with kañihua
grown high in the mountains. Lots of acidity in the sauce here... perhaps it was made with tamarillos
, just like last year? The crunch from the tiny, nutritious kañihua
grains was very nice. The jasmine flowers left a wonderful fragrance in the mouth.
Foie gras poached in mushroom tea with charred Japanese shiitake, pickled enoki and black garlic
, by Amber - the duck foie gras
was, naturally, very tender from poaching, and worked perfectly with the duck consommé
foam. The shiitake had nice and smoky flavors thanks to char-grilling, and the black garlic certainly stood out. The thin discs of ceps on top were nice, enhanced by small slivers of kaffir lime leaves.
Beef anticucho, quinoas, muña mint
, by Central - Virgilio must have taken some of the feedback we gave to Richard last year to heart, because his beef dish this time around wasn't tough at all. The anticucho
was made with braised rump of beef, although I would have preferred the popular anticucho de corazon
... Once again the dish was served with tricolor grains, but this time they were kiwicha
, which were dyed red with airampo
and green with quinoa
leaves. Garnished with apple blossoms.
Milk was poured onto the dish, and it was infused with Andean muña
mint and thickened with quinoa
. Overall this was almost the same dish as last year, but with a much more tender choice of beef.
Apple poached with virgin almond oil, reine des reinettes and celery stalk sorbet
, by Amber - the poached Reine de Reinettes apple seemed to have been flavored with a little cinnamon. The celery sorbet on top was garnished with chiffonade
of celery stalk. The sauce in the bowl had a hint of licorice, almost as if it were made with fennel...
Cacao, dry plants, clay ash
, by Central - no surprise that Virgilio carried over some clay for us.
Underneath it all was a scoop of chocolate ice cream, covered with shavings of white chocolate which have been mixed with chaco
clay as well as a mixture of herbs such as muña
mint and (perhaps) marku
Finally, our petits fours
Chocolate mousse with raspberry
The wine pairing was optional at extra cost, and I had little interest. But My Favorite Cousin seemed to have had a rough day, showed up at dinner a half-hour late, and she needed a few drinks. So for the first time in a long while, I actually looked through Amber's wine list to try to pick out something. Sommelier John Chan reminded me that they had picked out a small selection of wines and reduced their prices - something which I had noticed at my last dinner with their top selections of Burgundy like DRC. But those wines were originally at pretty ridiculous prices, and even the "reduced" prices weren't attractive enough.
Tonight, however, a couple of wines caught my eye. I ended up taking John's recommendation on a couple of bottles whose prices had become acceptable to me...
1985 Hospices de Beaune Meursault 1er Cru Genevrières Cuvée Philippe-le-Bon, par Remoissenet Père et Fils, ex-domaine
- the attraction here was that it was only released in March 2016. Very ripe, almost a little sweet on the palate. Nice and fragrant nose, but seemingly just a little tired. Later on toasty and buttery corn notes came out.
2008 Jean Noël Gagnard Bâtard-Montrachet
- first pour was a little pungent, later on a bit chalky and dirty. With the new pour this cleared up and became kinda mineral and flinty. Acidity was on the high side. So the restaurant had discounted this from just under 4x retail to about 2x retail, which made things a little easier to stomach...
It was so good to catch up with Virgilio again, and to discuss visiting the different sights of Peru. I did ask him about his plans for moving Central from Lima to Cusco, which had been reported for some time. It turns out that due to the proposed new location's proximity to the Inca ruins at Moray - at an altitude of some 3,500m above sea level - he encountered some licensing issues. So instead of moving the entire restaurant from Lima to Cusco, the new location - due to open in March 2017 - will be a gastronomy museum and food lab which may only serve as little as 10 guests. Central will stay in Lima, although it, too, will move into new digs.
I look forward to visiting both locations in early 2018, and watching Virgilio deliver his magic on his home turf!
Not having grown up here, I'll admit that I haven't known my friend Paulo for as long as many others in town. I met him in early 2001, at the very beginning of the formation of what would soon come to be known amongst our friends as the Monday Night Supper Club. Coincidentally, it was also around the time when he was starting up a little wine business that he would come to call Altaya Wines.
I remember our first meeting vividly. Along with quaffing down bottles of Bordeaux such as 1982 Figeac while getting our fingers greasy with roast pigeon, Paulo casually showed us his first wine list. Three pages of computer print-out. Forget the 1982 First Growth Bordeaux... at the top of the first page were wines like 1900 Margaux, 1945 Mouton-Rothschild, 1947 Cheval Blanc, 1947 Petrus, and lots more. These were wines that James Suckling had called "Wines of the Century" in his piece written for the Wine Spectator, and here was a 24-year-old who had all of them in his inventory. And he also knew exactly who to sell them to.
WHO IS THIS GUY??
Well, it's 15 years later, and Paulo had very kindly invited me to a dinner celebrating the 15th anniversary of his little company. From its relatively humble beginnings, Altaya has grown to become a major player, and not just in Hong Kong. The last time Decanter published their Power List in 2013, Paulo was ranked No. 42 out of the 50 most-influential people in wine. Incidentally, this was 3 places above Stephen Browett, the Chairman of Farr Vintners, whose company Paulo had tried to buy before starting Altaya Wines. At least that was the story that Frédéric Engerer, CEO of Artémis Domaines, told the crowd tonight.
There were lots of people in attendance tonight - dignitaries, clients, friends, winemakers and representatives from Bordeaux. The entire first floor of the Hong Kong Club was filled with people. As I stepped off the elevator, I went to the seating chart to find my table. The Ox and I had been placed in "Central Otago", while a few others of MNSC were placed in "Burgundy". I guess that means the Taiwanese contingent had been banished to Siberia...
There were a couple of speeches tonight, but the entertainment was provided by the duo of James Suckling and Frédéric Engerer - who recounted their respective early memories of Paulo. These two have gotten to know Paulo very well over the years, and certainly had enough stories to draw a few laughs from us.
We started the evening with some bubbly, of course...
2004 Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill - ripe on the palate, drinking beautifully.
Venison pâté, figs, beetroots, Cumberland sauce
- pâté en croûte
is always a good idea, especially in game season. And this was a pretty good one. Just not the beetroot...
2001 Les Forts de Latour, en magnum
- classic Pauillac, with smoky, pencil lead, earthy, wonderful ripe fruit, fragrant cedar notes. Beautiful.
- smoky, minty, ripe fruit, a little more concentrated than Les Forts. Riper and sweeter, but acidity also higher on the palate. Later on also showed cedar notes.
Wood pigeon and winter black truffle agnolotti, ricotta, pigeon jus
- the wrapper for the agnolotti
was thicker and more chewy than expected, but the pigeon stuffing inside was very smooth, and very delicious.
2001 Haut Bailly
- fragrant nose with cedar and smoke.
2001 Smith Haut Lafitte, en magnum
- lovely and fragrant nose, with more on the body. Really nice.
Beef two ways: en croûte tenderloin and braised cheek, 12 hour carrots, parsnip
- interesting presentation...
As one of my fellow diners - who is well-respected in the local food and wine circles - remarked, the tenderloin was flavorless. It was very tender, and interesting to have it served en croûte
, but ultimately it failed the flavor test.
The cheek, however, was nice and tender. Perfect with the parsnip purée
2001 Pichon Baron, en double-magnum
- soooo ripe and sweet on the nose, with a little coffee. Very fragrant and lovely.
2001 Léoville Las Cases
- a bit more green on the nose, with exotic spices and dried herbs. Nose seemed more open with cedar and earthy notes.
Brillat Savarin, Époisses, Bleu de Brebis, assorted marmalades, toasted walnut bread
- how interesting to find the three different types of cheese paired with different marmalades, and even more interesting to find the chocolate and sorbet to be made with the cheese that they were being paired with. Imagine my surprise when the filling inside the chocolate bonbon
turned out to be savory!
2001 Mouton-Rothschild, en magnum
- lovely nose with lots of coffee, sweet, smoky, and a little lighter on the palate.
- I think I inhaled 3 or 4 of the canelés
Lots of glasses laid out in front of me at the end of the evening...
And what a wonderful evening this was! The MNSC crew gathered to celebrate the success of our friend, and we got the opportunity to meet make a few new friends over some very lovely wines. As for my favorite of the evening? I think I would have to hand it to Mouton, which barely edged out Pichon Baron this time...
Tonight's dinner has been brewing for a few weeks. Knowing my fondness for the wines Manfred Krankl makes at Sine Qua Non, I was asked to join a few fellow aficionados for an evening where we delve deep into SQN territory. As the day approached, however, a few friends had to drop out due to more pressing engagements, so we ended up with a smaller crew and, consequently, a much less crazy list of wines to go through.
Our organizer suggested that we do the dinner at Table - Ingredient Based Cuisine - 淨化海鮮, which took me by surprise. While I had not tried their cuisine, the limited exposure I had based on social media posts pretty much all focused on the fact that they "purify" seafood by putting them in holding tanks for a few days. But given our red-heavy lineup, we were obviously gonna need a good amount of meat... Our organizer assured us that he's had some fantastic beef here, so I figured I'd go along.
Our amuse bouche
was made with... hell, I can't remember... but it was pretty tasty... given that it was battered and fried.
This was made with preserved lemon, tuna, and scallops
. Not bad.
Oyster soup, iberico jamon
- I didn't "get" this soup. I didn't ask the chef about how this was made, but it seemed like the oyster was put into a blender and puréed
... And then for texture there were grains of puffed rice (?) added? I didn't care for the flavors, and didn't care for the acidity here. Now, it's pretty normal to pair some lemon juice or something acidic and refreshing with raw oysters, but the acidity just didn't work here with this warm, murky liquid. The flavors just didn't jive.
On the other hand, this piece of toast with jamón ibérico
was delicious. But that's just a matter of having the right ingredients.
Venison tenderloin, cherry shiraz sauce, cepe-walnut-crumble
- FAIL. The tenderloin reached the table cold. And while it didn't look like it was terribly overcooked, there was surprisingly little gamey flavor, or much of any flavor. It really needed the acidity of the cherry sauce to go down.
At this point of the meal, it's pretty much thumbs-down all around...
Grilled Korean 1++ Ribeye
- now THIS was the shit! I know how good Korean beef can be, especially when they're slaughtered and served on the same day without having been frozen. This certainly did not disappoint. Nicely charred and served on a big block of Himalayan rock salt, the seasoning was done by rubbing the slice of beef on the salt. Very nicely marbled and very tasty. YUM!
Mud crab meat and roe, garlic rice
- finally, some of the seafood that this place was supposedly known for! If memory serves, these mud crabs were Australian, and had plenty of roe and tomalley.
The crabs themselves were reasonably tasty.
But we all know that the pièce de résistance was the rice. Chef Sandy Keung said that she uses "sushi rice" for the dish. Well, that might have impressed most of the people who come here, but not this Arrogant Prick... I asked for the specific cultivar, and was told that it was Koshihikari (こしひかり). In any case, we were all salivating as the orange goodness was slowly and thoroughly being mixed in...
It was worth the wait. This was soooooo damn good! And how could it not be, when there was so much cholesterol and fat in it?! I would have been happy to just have this and nothing else...
- apparently these were sautéed
with Phu Quoc fish sauce. Pretty good.
- we needed a little something more to go with our wines, so we continued with the cheese...
Comté, aged 24 months
Mimolette, aged 18 months
Comtesse de Vichy
- finally, something sweet to finish up the evening. Bite-sized to make things easier. Served with both chocolate sauce and truffle sauce.
But of course, the whole point of tonight's gathering was wine. There were only five of us this time, so we decided to open only five bottles of SQN. Given their high alcohol levels, opening more would have been really dangerous...
2004 Sine Qua Non The Rejuvenators
- a blend of 56% Roussanne, 24% Viognier, and 20% Chardonnay. Opened almost an hour before serving, initially showing a little grass and lemon citrus notes. Opened up more and got better after 80 minutes or so, but never really reached the heights of many other SQN whites.
2007 Sine Qua Non Stripes and Stars
- a rosé
made with 55% Syrah and 45% Grenache. Lots of minerals, fruity, with a hint of leather.
2005 Sine Qua Non Over and Out
- this Pinot Noir was a little earthy, with sweet fruit and a little leather in the nose. When it opened up, it showed beautiful floral and violet notes.
2010 Sine Qua Non Five Shooter Grenache
- made with 75% Grenache, 16% Syrah, 2.5% Mourvedre, 4.5% Roussanne, and 2% Viognier. Mint, eucalyptus, and very floral. Wonderful ripeness and sweetness, with huge concentration.
2005 Sine Qua Non The Naked Truth
- 90% Grenache and 10% Syrah. Fragrant with cedar and mint, along with violet notes. So ripe and sweet, and so beautiful.
2002 William Selyem Port Mistral Vineyard
- sooo rich and sweet.
This was a pretty fun night, even though we ended up opening far fewer bottles than we had originally planned. I can't wait till our next gathering early next year...
Tonight we celebrated the birthdays of two good friends. Fergie and Cha Xiu Bao have their birthdays just two days apart, so they have a habit of doing a joint birthday dinner together. This year a group of us tagged along to make it more of a party. Someone suggested that we go to this place for their hotpot, featuring cuts of local beef. That sounded pretty good to everyone, so a table was booked and a menu was written up - with seafood dishes for the first half of dinner, and hotpot at the end.
The only problem is... a bunch of us didn't really check the location of this restaurant. We knew it wasn't fancy, but it turned out to be in an industrial warehouse in the boonies. Sure, there was public transport, but the walk from the train station turned out not to be a short one. Then there was the unfortunate fact that it was pissing cats and dogs all day, which made it very difficult to grab a taxi. In the end, it took some of us almost two hours just to get to dinner...
So a few of us were thinking: "This dinner had better be fucking worth the trek!"
By the time I arrived, some of the seafood was already laid out on the table.
Deep-fried squid and tofu with salt and pepper (椒鹽鮮魷豆腐)
- these were OK.
Chilled flathead lobster (凍食琵琶蝦)
- these were pretty nice, with plenty of roe and tomalley in the heads. Very satisfying to chomp down on half of a flathead lobster like this...
Stir-fried abalone with leeks (京蔥爆鮑魚)
- what's not to like about some fresh abalone? Scored to let the seasoning get into the abalone, with a mound of leeks and chili peppers to provide some contrasting textures. Very nice bite that is both firm and springy.
Steamed razor clams with minced garlic and glass vermicelli (蒜茸粉絲蒸聖子皇)
- these were huge... no, YUGE!!! It's been a while since I last had the classic Cantonese preparation of steaming with tons of minced garlic, spring onions, and glass vermicelli
, and this was soooo good!
Steamed fish (清蒸海魚)
- we didn't check what kind of fish we got, but it sure was tasty. No complaints here.
Then came a full-frontal assault of beef... all different cuts... and some which I had never even seen or heard of before. All in a pot with bone broth and sections of corn on the cob.
Top shoulder blade (ミスジ)
- this is one of my favorite cuts of beef in Japanese yakiniku (焼肉)
, and I was so happy to see it tonight. Except... someone the whole plate disappeared before I had a chance to even dip one slice myself into the hotpot. I lodged a loud protest, and as a result we got ourselves a second plate a little later.
Beef shank (牛𦟌)
- this was pretty damn good, too... I normally don't see it cut up this way.
Skirt steak (橫隔膜)
- very tasty, as expected, even without the marbling.
Sternum cartilage (牛白肉)
- now this is something I had never seen or heard of before. Hello Kitty was very, very excited about this, as her daddy had shown it to her and she knows how rare this is. This is literally the cartilage part that is closest to the sternum in the middle of the cow's ribcage, and supposedly each head of cattle would only yield about one catty of this. Hello Kitty has only seen it served in small slices - certainly not something like these giant strips!
It's interesting to cook them in the pot, as they kinda shrivel and wrinkle up. The texture is both tender and slightly crunchy. Such a unique experience!
- these are the cartilage/tendons bits around the area between the brisket and the short plate. They came already cooked, but dunking them into the hot broth melted the fat and make things much, much better.
Short plate (腩底)
- taken from between the 5th and 8th ribs. Pretty damn tasty, too.
- now THIS was a real treat - perhaps even more than the sternum cartilage (牛白肉). This comes from the hump on the back of the cow near the neck, and the chef said that he would have to cut away all the fat surrounding this little bit to extract it. None of us had ever seen it (or even knew it was edible), and upon seeing this plate, our eyes just became as wide as those doe-eyed Japanese cartoon characters. Just look at that marbling! Simply.amazing. What a revelation!
Oh, and the birthday boys were quoting Fergie and singing about "my humps, my humps, my humps my humps my humps"...
After we've cooked all the beef, we then got our plates of veg... The Chinese lettuce were put into the pot, and after they've been cooked... Oh, man... These things were coated with so much beef fat and collagen that we weren't sure we could still say with a straight face that we were eating vegetables... Oh and those corn on the cob were damn good, too!
Finally, we got the restaurant to give us two packs of Demae Itcho (出前一丁)
instant noodles to cook in the pot. Our resident experts insisted on timing it and cooking only for exactly two minutes. All that fatty and beefy goodness in the soup. Slurp.
This being a birthday and all, of course we brought along a cake. This mont blanc
from Patisserie Yamakawa
wasn't bad at all...
A birthday celebration simply couldn't do without a good amount of alcohol, and of course we brought along enough to make everyone happy... Thankfully our organizer even brought along a few glasses, since I was too lazy to stop by my office to pick up my Riedels...
Champagne Barons de Rothschild Blanc de Blancs
- acidity a little on the high side, which wasn't surprising given it's a blanc de blancs
Azumaichi Junmai Daiginjo Shizuku Shibori Senbatsushu (東一 純米大吟醸 雫搾り 選抜酒), 14BY
- this was AMAZING. This is made only in exceptional years, and comes from the best tobin (斗瓶)
selected by the brewery master for sake competitions - and each tobin
can fill exactly 10 isshobins (一升瓶)
. So you can see any bottle bearing the extra red sticker must be truly special.
And it was beautiful! Very fragrant nose, with rich fermented rice notes. Very sweet on the attack, nice and a little round on the palate. After warming up a little, this became slightly more dry on the finish. What an awesome bottle of aged sake! And why did I only buy one bottle?!
2009 Poggio di Sotto Brunello di Montalcino
- smoky and a little fruity.
2013 Flor de Pingus
- aired for a little while before I tasted it. Kinda softened up the tannins, with ripe and sweet fruit.
Caol Ila Old Malt Cask 18 years
- cask strength, but I prefer it neat. Very peaty, and the alcohol is naturally very sharp and torches the hairs in my nose...
Sawanotsuru 1999 Koshujikomi Umeshu (沢の鶴1999年古酒仕込み梅酒)
- using koshu (古酒)
from 1999 as the base, this was a lovely "marriage" between sake and plum wine. The flavors of the Nanko plum (南高梅) from Wakayama Prefecture (和歌山県) really shone here, with a nice and savory nose.
A very, very, very enjoyable evening. Even though this was waaaay out in the boonies, and all of us had trekked long distances to get here, at the end of the evening it was totally worth it. We toasted the chef with our sake
and whisky, and thanked him for the special treat he had given us. The memories of tonight's beef would probably stay with us for a very, very long time...
I needed to meet up with the Great One to hand over all the goodies we had brought back from Singapore - including some of her favorite instant noodles - so she roped me in on one of her reviews. Tonight's victim was Samsen, and since I know next to nothing about Thai street food (I refuse to eat it on account of hygiene fears dating back to the '80s), I figured I would also rope in my Thai foodie friend.
Green mango salad w/ tiger prawns, crispy shallots, chili and coriander
I arrived late, a few minutes late after the official opening time of 6:30 p.m. The space was almost full, and the Great One had done her first round of ordering. I happily sat and waited for the assault...
- this was a little spicy for me, but very nice. I especially loved their use of dried shrimps, as they had a lot of flavor and also provided a contrast to the fresh prawns. Flavors were well-balanced here.
Fried marinated pork collar w/tomato and chili dip
- probably my favorite dish of the evening. The pork collar was, naturally, very tender (a plus); it was fried (another plus); there was a ton of deep-fried garlic on top (yet another plus) which reminded me of Polo Fried Chicken
in Bangkok; and came with fragrant kaffir lime leaves.
Fried eggs w/ chili jam, crispy shallots, crispy garlic and coriander
- this looked pretty good...
and it was! The yolk was still runny, and I loved the crispy exterior. The chili jam was also very tasty, with the tamarind providing both acidity and sweetness.
Wagyu beef boat noodle w/thin rice noodles, pork rinds and Siamese watercress
- the flavors here were pretty rich, and got the thumbs up from the native. I'm not really sure whether the slices of beef or the meatballs were really made with wagyu, but it didn't matter much to me. There were plenty of deep-fried shallots and other garnishes adding flavors, and of course I thought they didn't give us enough of the deep-fried pork rinds...
Chopped pork salad w/ fresh Thai herbs, pork skin and spicy lime dressing
- probably the weakest dish tonight. The larb
came with some acidity thanks to the lime dressing, and thankfully wasn't too spicy for me when I picked out all the chili. But did they really have to give us half a head of iceberg lettuce to go with the larb
Thai omelet of crabmeat and spring onions w/ Siracha sauce
- the Great One was wondering whether this would be as good as the one cooked by Jay Fai
, but at a mere HKD 108 in Hong Kong versus THB 800 or 1,000 in Bangkok... the answer would be a resounding "NO". Having said that, the chef wasn't being stingy with the crab meat, although the omelet was slightly on the greasy side. Still tasted nice, though.
Stir fried wagyu beef w/ wild ginger, garlic, chili and red basil
- this was the most spicy dish tonight, as I couldn't avoid all the chili seeds and flakes which had stuck to the slices of beef.
Wok fried Thai watercress, yellow beans, chili and garlic
- a little bit of veg is always good, and these came with fermented soy beans. I'm guessing the "yellow beans" is a literal translation from the Chinese?
Thai iced milk tea
- I really LOVE Thai milk tea. I've always loved how sweet they make it, and I also love how silky it is thanks to the addition of condensed milk and evaporated milk. I also love that the local tea leaves give it a certain fragrance not normally found in Ceylon tea. I ended up ordering this when we finished the savory dishes, as I didn't want to screw up my palate. In retrospect, this would have been the perfect choice to douse out the flames dancing on my tongue...
"Red rubies" served on shaved coconut ice w/young coconut meat and pomegranate
- this is a pretty classic dessert, although I must admit that this is one of the better versions I have had. The jelly covering the chunks of water chestnuts definitely tasted a little "bubble gum", although that's not necessarily a bad thing. I was actually surprised to see real pomegranate seeds added here, along with crunchy pieces of coconut flesh. While this is a sweet dessert, I was a little taken aback by how savory the coconut milk was.
Pandanas coconut dumplings in warm salted coconut cream
- the coconut cream was definitely pretty rich, and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
dumplings were stuffed with shredded coconut inside, which was very sweet thanks to the palm sugar. Yum.
I was really, really stuffed. As usual, the Great One simply over-ordered, since there was no way that the three of us could have put away 8 savory dishes and 2 desserts... But I was happy to have come along, and thankful that my Thai foodie friend could provide some color for us.
After a few months' absence, I was back at my favorite private dining facility. The crew tonight was largely the same as this dinner last month, and most of us are already regulars here. What we were all excited about, though, was the fact that it is now winter... and a couple of game specialties are now in season and available.
Pan-fried medallions with birds' nest (琵琶燕窩餅)
There was 16 of us tonight - the biggest group I'd ever been part of. So all the dishes got supersized, and some of us who brought wines brought two bottles of the same wine. This was gonna be fun...
- one of my favorite dishes here, and always great to start with this.
The medallions are made with egg white, birds' nest, and crab meat. Nicely browned on the exterior from frying at high heat, with a very fluffy interior. Very delicate dish.
Crystal king prawn (玻璃大蝦球)
- this dish always impresses when it's presented... Just look at all those giant prawns on the same plate!
The prawns have been "skinned" and scored before cooking, and the flavors here were just so delicate. I love the fact that the chef uses neither baking soda nor corn starch.
Stir-fried shark's fin (桂花炒魚翅)
- Hello Kitty and I don't eat shark's fin, so we left my portion to the others.
Pan-fried rice birds (香煎禾花雀)
- now this
was a real treat! The Man in White T-Shirt had talked about bringing these birds over for the chef to prepare, and I couldn't believe that he actually did it!
The birdies were stuffed with Cantonese liver sausage, and the fragrance of the Mei Kuei Lu (玫瑰露) was so lovely. Biting down crunches the tiny bones in the bird's body, and more pressure squeezes the soft, paste-like sausage out of the cavity. So happy we got to eat this!
But... given that these little guys have been classified as "endangered" on the IUCN Red List since 2013, I think this will be the last time I eat them. I can't really justify eating them - however occasional - when I have refused to eat shark's fin for almost the past 2 decades.
Braised mountain turtle (紅燒大山瑞)
- I didn't ask the chef about the size of the turtle, but it ain't small! Look at all that skirt on top!
Braised with pork belly that has been deep-fried first, and served with shiitake
mushrooms and shredded Chinese lettuce. Yum. The sauce was so good (with lots of collagen) that we asked for bowls of steamed rice so we could soak it all up.
Imperial scholar's five-snake soup (太史五蛇羹)
- the other highlight of the evening. I've waxed lyrical
about this very special snake soup
many, many times... And since I first had a taste of this a little more than 2 years ago, I haven't been able to find another version in Hong Kong or Macau that can do better.
Served with the usual condiments of white chrysanthemum petals, coriander, the finest chiffonade
of kaffir lime leaves, and deep-fried wonton
The soup itself was as good as ever. Incredible knife work in terms of slicing all the ingredients, and beautiful flavors coming from making the stock out of snake bones. I didn't hesitate to take my second bowl.
Steamed sole (清蒸海方利)
- with 16 of us, it was necessary to have two of these. Nicely executed tonight.
Traditional salt-baked chicken (古法鹽焗雞)
- now, this ain't your ordinary salt-baked chicken. One look at the feet and you know that the Man in White T-Shirt had brought over a poulet de Bresse
from Miéral so that the chef can apply his skills on this wonderful bird. It really doesn't get better than this!
While everyone took their turns picking at the chicken - and I had jokingly allocated just two pieces to our Chicken Fiend - I very wisely chose to gnaw on one of the famous blue feet. Definitely made the right choice. The other parts of the chicken could wait, but there are only two of these for every chicken...
The only downside to using poulet de Bresse
for this dish is that one does not get to have the giblets...
Stir-fried pea shoots with liver sausage (膶腸炒豆苗)
- this was AWESOME. And very old school. I loooove liver sausage, and of course the pea shoots are very, very tender while they're in season. Combining the two was just heavenly.
Sautéed rice rolls with minced beef, bean sprouts in satay sauce (沙爹牛肉炒腸粉)
- a perennial crowd favorite, and Hello Kitty gave her portion to me. Absolutely love that kick from the "satay
Double-boiled ginkgo nuts and lotus seeds (銀杏燉湘蓮)
- a great way to finish up our meal, with jujube
, longan, lotus seeds, ginkgo
nuts, and apricot kernels.
One of our fellow diners brought along a bag of fruits from Xinjiang (新疆). These apples and pears were indeed pretty sweet.
In addition to bringing our own birds, of course we also brought our own bottles to dinner. The bottle count was fairy civil and turned out to be just 10 for the 16 of us, although there was a bottle of Crown Royal that others enjoyed in which I chose not to partake...
2002 Bollinger R.D., dégorgée le 24 juin 2014
- dry on the palate. After a little while, the nose opened up a little more and showed oxidized and caramelized notes.
Katsuyama Den (勝山 伝), 28BY
- a junmai daiginjo (純米大吟醸)
with seimaibuai (精米歩合)
of 35%. Huge, sweet nose of ripe banana and tropical fruits. Kinda rich and round on the palate. A little sweet but slightly dry on the finish.
2008 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet
- so ripe and caramel, with notes of straw. Kinda dry on the finish.
2007 Peter Michael Chardonnay Mon Plaisir
- buttery on the nose. Slightly sweet on the attack. Nose became sweeter and more buttery later.
2000 Etude Pinot Noir Heirloom
- pretty sweet and fruity, but the palate was a little flat.
2002 Camus Chambertin
- smoky and savory nose, with black olive notes.
2004 Armand Rousseau Chambertin Clos de Beze
- showing beautiful floral and violet notes.
Another awesome dinner here, even though once again... we were not able to say hello to our old friend Nicky Tse. I'm looking forward to closing out this crappy year with one final dinner here at the end of the month.
It's December, and my friendly neighborhood prime broker has kindly arranged another lunch to close out the year. This year, they've decided to do the lunch together with another firm that we are friendly with, and suddenly we found ourselves sitting around a rather big table for a change - this time at Duddell's (都爹利會館).
Steamed shrimp dumpling (鮮蝦餃)
Dim sum combination (點心拼盤) - three little items to start:
- this was some sort of shrimp dumpling, which was pretty good.
Steamed vegetable dumpling (蒸粉果)
- all veg inside, which was just fine with me.
Chicken spring roll, garlic (蒜茸雞絲脆春卷)
- pretty decent.
Double boiled matsutake mushroom with bamboo pith and Chinese cabbage (竹笙菜膽燉松茸)
- a very nice bowl of soup. The flavors from the matsutake
were OK, and I always love to have me some bamboo piths. Nice and clean flavors.
Crispy pork ribs with sweet and sour sauce (貴妃香酥骨)
- I wasn't real excited when I first saw this on the menu, but these turned out to be pretty tasty! Great combination of crispy batter and delicious fat. And I didn't mind the fact that this was sweet and sour at all.
Poached seasonal vegetable in fish broth (魚湯浸時蔬)
- it's always nice to have veg in fish broth, and this was pretty comforting.
Fried rice with minced beef with crispy garlic (蒜香牛崧炒飯)
- a very delicious bowl of fried rice. I knew I should have taken it easy, but I just couldn't stop myself from finishing this bowl.
Chilled sago cream with mango (香芒楊枝甘露)
- one of my favorite Cantonese desserts... Slurp.
Petit fours (美點薈萃)
- the osmanthus jelly was ice, and the lotus seed paste puff was not bad, either.
I had thought about bringing wine to lunch, but gave up on the idea as I was still moving a little on the slow side after last night. My friendly neighborhood prime broker decided to open up a couple of bottles so we could all have a sip...2014 La Crema Chardonnay Sonoma Coast
- very fruity nose, with lots of tropical fruits and sweet vanilla oak.
Many thanks for the annual treat, and looking forward to many more in the years to come.
The time is finally here. My dearest godson Bear is moving away, and I would have one last dinner with him before he leaves. I'll see him next summer, but the next few months are gonna feel a little weird...
Scrambled egg and Alba white truffle
Babu wanted to do a white truffle dinner at 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, but since none of us are regulars, we didn't even bother to call the restaurant during their busiest season. My favorite Neighborhood was booked out for a private event tonight, so we couldn't go and shave to our hearts' content. As a consolation prize, I found out that there's also a white truffle menu at CIAK - In the Kitchen, so we booked an early table to suit Bear's schedule. This dinner ain't gonna be cheap...
- this was Babu's starter, but she insisted on sharing it with us. Very fluffy and tasty eggs, with lots of truffle shaved on top. Yum.
Pizza tartufo bianco, mozzarella, taleggio and Alba white truffle
- this was undoubtedly the most expensive pizza
I have ever had, priced at just around USD 300. The reason is simple - about 90% of the price went into those shavings on top.
As he did with the scrambled eggs, the chef pushed the little cart over. A few large chunks of white truffles sat on a plate, and he picked one up and started shaving - making circles over the pizza
. Then he put the truffle down, picked up another one with a slightly different fragrance, and started shaving again. Chef Umberto Bombana likes to shave from different truffles onto the same dish and deliver a "blended" fragrance, so all the restaurants under his care do the same.
Honestly, this is a sight to behold. And I can't begin to tell you how good the pizza
smelled... and tasted. Simply beautiful.
Classic carbonara homemade tagliolini
- I've always loved the carbonara that I could order off the menu at 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana
, so I figured I'd order one up here tonight. Big mistake.
I had seen a friend post a picture of her carbonara
at the new CIAK on the other side of town, and she reported that it was too wet and bland. At the time we thought it might have been teething problems with the new kitchen, but it turns out CIAK in Central is doing absolutely the same thing...
My friend was right. This tasted mostly of egg yolk, but the consistency of the sauce was just wrong. Waaaay too wet, and actually I could taste a certain level of grainy, powdery texture on my tongue. There was almost no trace of onions, but the small and dense cubes of pancetta
(or perhaps it was the lean part of guanciale
?) made things slightly better.
This was definitely a FAIL and nothing like this
Homemade tagliolini, butter, Parmesan cheese and Alba white truffle
- Hello Kitty shared a little bit of this with me. This turned out roughly the same as the carbonara
, as the sauce was also a little too wet for my taste. They must have adapted to the local Hong Kong palate for some reason... But the saving grace here, of course, was the truffle that was shaved on top. How can I not love something with all that beautiful truffle on top???
This was a very indulgent dinner, but the important thing was that everyone left with smiles on their faces - which is natural when you've just been enveloped in the wonderful fragrance from white truffles. I was glad to spend a little more time with Bear before he left, and will be missing him for the next 6 months...
A few weeks ago my caviar
supplier pinged me and asked me if I would be interested in taking some belugacaviar
. I've bought stuff from him sporadically for the last year and a half, and in all this time he's never offered me any beluga
. My interest was piqued, and after checking with a few friends for interest, I placed a small order and arranged a couple of tasting sessions.
We were supposed to do the tasting at our friends' place tonight, but due to unforeseen circumstances we needed to find another venue. This usually means asking a chef or a restaurant for a favor, so I pinged my go-to chef for stuff like this - the Man in White T-Shirt. Thankfully he was amenable to such requests. After all, he himself has BYO'ed fish and chicken to other restaurants... So we took the second seating at Neighborhood
, and asked the boss to join us for the tasting.
- apparently these came from a 22-year-old beluga
sturgeon weighing about 161kg. The boss very kindly arranged to present the tins on shaved ice for us.
Upon removing the lid, I was finally able to see the eggs. They looked a little darker than in the picture my supplier sent me, and the eggs looked a little smaller than I expected. But hey, what the hell do I know, anyway? The last time I had belugacaviar
was some years ago, when I brought my jars from Kazakhstan to Pierre
. The eggs tonight certainly looked better - showing a grayish hue as they glistened under the light.
I brought along a couple of mother-of-pearl spoons so we could scoop the eggs out without having them react to metal. This begs the question, though... If the eggs really give off unpleasant flavors when they come into contact with metal, why is so much caviar
shipped in metal tins instead of glass jars?! Is that just pure bullshit or what?!
In addition to the caviar
, I also brought along our own blinis
and crème fraîche
I first scooped some caviar
onto a blini
, wanting to get the pure flavors of the eggs. Not very salty at all, and the flavors were delicate without being too fishy, with a little bit of smoky notes.
Next I placed the eggs on top of crème fraîche
that I had spread on the blini
. The mild acidity of the cream neutralized the saltiness of the eggs, which would seem to make the two a match made in heaven.
When we ran out of blinis
, I resorted to the playful way
that Uwe used to serve me caviar
- by first putting some crème fraîche
on the back of my hand... and licking it all off.
This was quite a treat, even if the 5 of us had to share 100 grams of this treasure. I do think, though, that putting it on ice wasn't the best thing. Although the eggs didn't come into direct contact with ice and therefore did not freeze, the fish oil did end up congealing near the bottom half of the tin - as one can see from the lump on top of the back of my hand. I think next time I would just serve from a chilled tin.
Now that we were done with caviar, it was time to order some food! This was my friends' first visit to Neighborhood, so naturally I was tasked with ordering...
10yr+ Spanish "Cassina Asturiana" beef ham
- we didn't pre-order the Spanish beef for main course, but we figured we could at least have the ham. Lots of flava here.
- this is supposed to be guanciale
, but there's so much fat that it might as well be lardo
... Mmmm... cured beef fat...
Heirloom tomato terrine / burrata cream
- this is always a good dish to order. Made from seven (?) different types of heirloom tomatoes, peeled, and compressed. Wonderfully sweet and flavorful, enhanced by the beautifully fragrant basil. Spreading a little bit of the liquid, burrata
cream and balsamic on top was just perfect.
Sucrine lettuce salad / crab roe
- this was unexpected, but really damn good. You'd think because it says "lettuce salad", that you're actually eating something healthy. Think again. Sure, you get half a head of lettuce, but you've got this creamy spread on top, sprinkled with little chunks of what looks like hairy crab roe... and garnished with some chopped chives and a bit of balsamic vinegar. I gotta say... grabbing this with your hand and biting into it was really satisfying.
Warm Riviera vegetables "Ducasse" / truffle
- this is always one of Hello Kitty's favorites, and did not disappoint. A nice bowl of carrots, radishes, fennel, peas... with a nice and slightly acidic sauce and shavings of black truffle. What's not to like?!
When it came time to order a second round of hot dishes, we decided to get ourselves a little lump of white truffle
- coming in at less than 50 grams. We asked the person with the sharpest nose to choose from a pre-selected tray of three, and as we would find out later, she did a terrific job!
Fried egg / potato cream / guanciale
- eggs and fatty pork would always go well together, not to mention adding potato cream into the mix. That soft, liquid orange yolk just looked soooo good...
Then you shave a bunch of white truffle on top. Whoa! No explanation needed for what would become a gooey mess on the plate.
"Finansiera" sweetbread / chicken giblets / marrow
- this was requested, but we got a lot more than we bargained for... at least by my book. Besides sweetbreads and cockscomb, there were obviously quite a few chicken testicles there... And of course the Man in White T-Shirt made sure to put some on my plate...
And of courrse, we would cover each dish with truffle shavings. Yum! Very hearty. Oh and Hello Kitty very kindly took care of the testicle for me.
- this was off the menu, but the Man in White T-Shirt knows how much I love this stuff. This was AAAAA, and so stinky and good. Good to see that there were three of us who dug into the dish with gusto.
Tagliolini with white truffle
- the other natural pairing for white truffle... just a bowl of simple egg noodles tossed with butter. Simple. Pure. Awesome. 'Nuff said.
Bone marrow risotto
- can't come here without having the bone marrow risotto
Especially when you get to shave so much white truffle on top! Really hearty, warm, and pure comfort food. Such wonderful richness. The fragrance of the bone marrow alone would be enough to make me happy, never mind the truffle!
Australian wagyu hanger steak
- someone wanted a little more red meat, so we had to make do with this Aussie wagyu
... which was nevertheless very, very tasty in its own right. A nicely done piece of hanger steak can always deliver those deep, beefy flavors.
Brie de Meaux "Dongé" / black truffle
- can't complain... especially when there's black truffle encased inside!
- for some reason we ended up with this dessert anyway... but I ain't complainin'! The rich and smooth chocolate is really tough to beat... and we shaved the last of the white truffle on top for good measure.
- very few things can make me happier at the end of a meal than this.
With this crowd there is always plenty of alcohol. Tonight we kinda went a little over...
Egly-Ouriet Grand Cru Vieillissement Prolongé, dégorgée en juillet 2008
- a bottle that I carried back from Reims all those years ago. 60 month on lees. Wonderfully caramelized nose, toasty, very ripe and rich, with savory salty plum notes. Nice depth of flavor here.
With this as the chaser to beluga caviar
, this brought out a little more of the smoky flavors.
Daishichi Myoukarangyoku Junmai Daiginjo Shizuku Genshu (大七 妙花蘭曲 純米大吟醸 雫原酒), 24BY
- brewed in 2012 and released in 2016. Aerated in bottle for about 40 minutes before serving. Very sweet on the nose, with plenty of banana notes, really fragrant. Reasonably sweet on the palate but a little dry and spicy on the finish.
Daishichi Myoukarangyoku Grande Cuvée (大七 妙花蘭曲 グランド キュヴェ), 2013 version, released in July 2015
- this bottling represents the pinnacle of Daishichi's offerings. The 2013 version is the third iteration of the Grande Cuvée, and is a blend of 21 vintages of the "regular" Myoukarangyoku brewed between the years of 1988 to 2008. The 1,256 bottles of this version were released over three years - generally on July 7 of each year - and this particular bottle would have come from the last batch.
Aerated for 40 minutes before serving. A little more dry on the nose compared to the single vintage bottling, and also more elegant and fragrant. Sweet on the attack but more dry on the palate. With further aeration the nose became sweeter. According to other, more experienced experts, it would seem that we should have aerated this bottle for half a day at least...
With a single slice of white truffle, the nose turned really, really explosive. The amazing combination of the truffle seemed to have been magnified by the alcohol and sweetness of this sake
. Absolutely unbelievable! This was probably the best use of this thin slice of white truffle, EVER.
2012 Lécheneaut Gevrey-Chambertin
- nice and fruity, with some forest and dried herb notes. Huge nose of toasty corn.
With a single slice of white truffle, the toasty nose was enhanced further. At this point it's approaching the level of a Coche-Dury Meursault in terms of toast...
2006 Louis Roederer Brut Nature
- nice and toasty nose, with ripe and yeasty notes. This would have been a nice accompaniment to the caviar, too.
Lots of reaction when you drop a slice of white truffle in the glass. Pretty nice, too.
A very, very happy evening. I think from now on Imma shave some white truffle into every glass of wine I drink...
After getting four hours of sleep after our evening of live wild-caught Atlantic lobsters washed down with Champagne and sake, our alarm clocks went off shortly after 5 a.m. We were taking a morning flight to Ho Chi Minh City, as I accompanied Hello Kitty once again on a work trip - this time to check out a beachfront resort at management's invitation.
After an hour's delay, we landed in Ho Chi Minh City and were picked up by Be from Princess D'Ân Nam Resort and Spa. We'd been told that the travel time to the resort would be roughly 3½ hours, but the four of us were pretty comfortable in the minivan from the hotel. The best thing? After failing to rent a wifi router from one of the telecom providers at the airport, we were relieved to find wifi in our minivan. The long journey suddenly became less tedious. So thankful for small mercies...
A few of us got a little hungry at the start of the ride - as it had been a few hours since our breakfasts at the airport lounge - so Hello Kitty whipped out the lobster rolls that she had prepared using our shipment of live wild Atlantic lobsters. Now THAT's what I call a sandwich!
About halfway through our journey, we came to a rest stop so that we could have some lunch. Quán Com Lê Hoàng is a simple place, and everyone orders a bowl of phở.
Wanting to be a little different everyone else, I decided to order pork phở
. The slices of pork were overcooked and a little tough, and the broth tasted so sweet that I was sure a lot of nước mắm
has been added. Not the best phở
I've had, but I didn't have any expectations. A glass of cà phê sữa đá
was sure to be the first of many Vietnamese coffees I would have on this trip.
Thanks to our lunch stop, we finally arrived at the resort about 4½ hours after leaving the airport. We received a warm greeting from Michael, the new manager of the resort, and we led quickly through the grounds to our accommodations. Hello Kitty and I were given one of the Princess Villas, which included an outdoor plunge pool with a deck, as well as an open air bath tub.
We agreed to meet Michael at the restaurant at 6 p.m., which happened to be a little less than half an hour after sunset. The lights were already on in and around the pool, but there was still just a faintest glow of twilight in the horizon. The visuals were stunning. There was no doubt in my mind that we were in for a relaxing weekend by the ocean.
Since we're at a beach resort, and I'm the guy with a fondness for girlie drinks, what better way to kick off the weekend than starting with a Blue Hawaiian
We sat down to dinner, and I decided to go à la carte
Our amuse bouche
was a cup of tomato and watermelon soup
Bò cuốn lá lốt nướng, sốt hành hoa
- the beef "lá lốt"
was minced beef wrapped in betel nut leaves, but I didn't expect the leaves to be cooked, too... Kinda reminds me a little of Greek dolmades
, but with beef. Plenty of the usual herb condiments and a couple of lettuce leaves. The cold rice flour noodles helped balance the dish, and very tasty once you added some "Vietnamese dressing". I especially liked the fragrance from the betel nut leaves.
Đùi gà kho sả, ớt, phục vụ với cơm hấp
- this was pretty tasty, too! The simmered free range chicken was cooked with lemongrass, chili, and onions. It came served with some sautéed water spinach with garlic, and steamed rice. The chicken was very tender, and the flavors worked very well together.
I also pinched a little bit of each dish from the daily special set menu that Hello Kitty was sharing with someone else in our group.
Gỏi cá mai Phan Thiết
- the anchovies salad from the nearby town of Phan Thiết was pretty tasty, with spicy, sweet, savory, and acidic flavors all coming together - right up Hello Kitty's alley. Served with thin sesame wafers.
Canh chua cá bớp
- the cobia fish appears to be a local specialty. The soup was, not surprisingly, hot and sour... with tomatoes, taro stem, okra, and other herbs and spices. And of course chili, which I accidentally bit into without looking...
Sườn heo kho tộ
- these stewed pork ribs were pretty nice.
Gà xào ngũ sắc
- the chicken with five colors (white, green, yellow, red, and black) signify the five different elements of metal, wood, earth, fire, and water. This was OK.
Rau muống xào tỏi
- sautéed water spinach with garlic.
Michael had told us about the homemade ice cream they recently started making, so of course I had to take a look at the ice cream menu.
Rum 'n' raisin, with dark Jamaican rum soaked raisins
- this was really awesome. The raisins were soaked in Captain Morgan, and they were sooo tasty.
Shredded coconut with pineapple and Bacardi rum
- pretty decent, with frozen cubes of pineapple.
We had a very enjoyable and tasty dinner, with views of the ocean and the sounds of the surf coming in. Wonderful end to a very long day...
After a pretty good night's sleep, we woke up early, took a quick dip in the villa plunge pool, and headed out to the restaurant for brekkie to begin our second day at Princess D'Ân Nam Resort and Spa
The the sun was out, the sky was blue, and the thought of relaxing by the water put smiles on our faces.
Our amuse bouche
this morning. A healthy start to the day!
The pastry basket looked decent, so I took a pain au chocolat
. The layers were pretty flaky - especially on top. The center was a little more moist than I would normally prefer, but hey... we're at a seaside resort in Vietnam, not Le Salon de The de Joël Robuchon
When in Vietnam, drinking Vietnamese coffee seems de rigeur
. Cà phê sữa nóng
seemed to hit the spot. They didn't serve us the coffee with the traditional phin
on top, but that didn't affect the taste one bit. Love it with sweetened condensed milk. And once you get past the sweetness, you'll actually realize how strong the coffee really is...
Breakfast is the perfect time for a bowl of phở bò
. Here the bowl is served with cooked slices of beef, beef shank, and meatballs. The broth here was much, much better than what we had on the road yesterday - the nước mắm
was much less obvious. I had never been served phở
sauce before, but today I experimented by adding a little bit of it into the broth, along with a bit of chili sauce.
Last night I told Michael that I was going to go through all the ice creams on the menu, so there was no reason not to have ice cream at breakfast. The coffee and Cognac ice cream
was pretty decent - and actually perfect in the morning!
After we were done with breakfast, Be took us on a tour of a nearby attraction. Linh Sơn Trường Thọ Pagoda
sits on Mount Tà Cú, and is home to Vietnam's longest reclining Buddha. Upon arrival at the foot of the mountain, we were ferried to the cable car station, and rode the cable car up the side of the mountain, then part way down the other side.
Getting off the cable car at the other end, we come to the part of the forest inhabited by lots of monkeys. I have an intense dislike for monkeys who hang around touristy areas, thanks to a nasty experience at Pura Uluwatu in Bali, so I kept my distance. Be brought a whole bag of bread from the resort and tossed them at the monkeys. You've never seen such greedy animals...
After Be and Hello Kitty finished feeding, we started our hike up to our destination. The shrine is supposed to have been built around the year 1880. Those stone steps can be pretty steep...
At the end of our climb, we finally reached the reclining Buddha - completed in 1966 and recently repainted. The statue is 49 meters long to represent the 49 days Buddha spent meditating under the bodhi tree.
After spending a little time here to enjoy the tranquility - broken by the conversations of the tourists - we make our way back down and head back to the resort. The cable car ride was just as enjoyable going down as coming up. Mostly silence during the trip, other than the sounds of birds and the faint noise of the wheels above us.
Binh Thuan Province - the region that the resort is located in - is the large producing region of dragon fruit in the country. We saw lots of dragon fruit trees on our way to the resort yesterday, and we asked our driver to stop along the road so we could take some pictures of the fruit on the trees.
Dragon fruits belong to the cactus family, and are green when unripe. The farmers grow them year-round, and when the weather is too cool to ripen the fruit, farmers turn on the lights that have been installed around each tree at night - apparently putting a strain on the national electric grid.
After ripening, this particular cultivar (Hylocereus undatus
) turns red on the outside.
It was a little late by the time we got back to the resort, and finally time for some lunch.
We started with some baguettes
, which were done Vietnamese style... meaning they were pretty puffy and airy on the inside while the exteriors were thin and crispy. These were served with some cucumber and yogurt dip
I wanted a bành mì
but was having a difficult time deciding between two of the options. In the end I opted for the bành mì với thịt nguội và phô mai
as curiosity got the best of me.
The sandwich seems to have been made with some ham and Brie, and tasted kinda like a French jambon-beurre
... except for the presence of lettuce and tomatoes... and the fact that this baguette
isn't French. Very nice, but maybe I should have gotten the version with beef and lemongrass...
Gỏi cuốn tôm, thịt, phục vụ với rau thơm, mắm đậu phộng
- Hello Kitty started with these fresh rice paper rolls with prawns, pork, cooked egg, and herbs inside. These were dipped in a hot and sour peanut dip. Very, very delicious.
She also had some clay pot braised pork belly
, which were pretty tasty.
Another meal, another opportunity to sample more ice cream. I picked only two for lunch...
Dark chocolate with orange zest and Cointreau
- definitely tasted the orange zest.
Chocolate brownies with Baileys and ginger
- I was wondering why I would need a set of knife and fork for my ice cream, but then I realized that this scoop came on top of a brownie...
Now that our bellies were full, it was time to go for our massage treatment at the resort spa...
I wasn't very hungry yet. After all, it's only been 4 hours since we finished our late lunch, and I haven't done very much other than getting myself a massage, and hanging out by the plunge pool of my villa while tuning the pictures I had shot earlier today.
But Michael had prepared a treat for us tonight. One of the specials at Princess D'Ân Nam Resort and Spa
is the barbecue dinner on the beach, featuring a range of local seafood as well as other meats. As much as I had wanted to try out more Vietnamese dishes they had on offer on their menu, dinner on the beach was something I hadn't done in quite a few years.
The setting was really lovely, and we were literally just steps from the surf. Listening to the sounds of the waves while feeling the cool breeze hitting my face was a pleasure I'd not had in quite some time... and it felt really, really nice. Now, if only this had been a table set just for Hello Kitty and I...
We started with a range of salads, which included cucumber
, and mixed salad
There was also a range of grilled vegetables
, which included carrots, potatoes, onions, zucchini, and eggplants.
The local seafood was as fresh as I could have asked for, and arrived at a nice and leisurely pace, accompanied by a range of sauces to choose from...
Grilled sea scallops with spring onions
- I took one quick look at the five scallops on my plate, and became totally dismissive of them due to their small size. Then I took my first bite, and my opinion of the dish did a U-turn. Yes, the spring onions made a difference, but what made this into an AWESOME dish was the presence of a few cubes of deep-fried lard
. Forget those scallops with bacon wrapped around them. THIS IS DA SHIT. I wanted more.
- nice and smoky, and definitely very fresh. But a pain in the ass to get this off the stick...
- these were very, very good. I didn't even need any of the sauces provided.
I didn't find any sand or grit on the back of these prawns, which was great.
- these lobsters were caught in local waters, and while they were completely different from the wild Atlantic lobsters I had been having lately, they were equally tasty in their own right.
Grilled cobia fish fillet
- I don't think I've ever had cobia before, but this fish features prominently on the resort's menu. Consistency-wise this kinda reminds me of cod, but a bit more firm.
We were getting a little stuffed at this point, and asked the staff not to send us the additional chicken, beef, and pork dishes. Michael had wanted to show us the full works, but I guess we Asians just have small appetites...
I decided that I wanted to have some wine tonight, and told Michael that I'd treat the group to wine. I asked Michael for his preference on whites, and picked out a bottle of red from the wine list that I thought was drastically under-priced.
2013 Pascal Jolivet Sancerre
- mineral, almost green apple notes.
2001 François Lamarche La Grande Rue
- decanted and served 70 minutes later - which was definitely too long and not the original intention. The nose seemed fine while decanting, but clearly this was a wine that did not need much aeration. When we drank it the wine had lost its freshness, and had gone a little soft on the palate. There was some astringent tannins along with the acidity, and showed a little smokiness as well as some stewed fruit. The wine died quickly in glass. A little disappointing, but not too surprised.
We adjourned back to the restaurant for coffee and dessert. Yes, even though I was kinda full, there was no way I was gonna pass up more ice cream!
Fresh strawberry and Grand Marnier
This was such a nice and relaxing evening! I went for a quick walk along the beach, letting the waves wash over my feet. I've been staying away from beach resorts for way too long, and it was nice to get a taste of it again.
It's our last day at the Princess D'Ân Nam Resort and Spa, and there were still places needing exploring. Unfortunately we woke up to the sound of rain, and it looked like we were gonna be stuck inside our villa.
But first, some breakfast. We took an umbrella, walked through the gardens and made our way to the restaurant. Sustenance is needed.
Our amuse bouche
today was a ginger and passion fruit juice, along with a slice of watermelon. Always nice to start with some fruit in the morning.
This morning I decided that I needed to try out the range of jams from Le Fruit
, since they are all made with tropical fruits. I took a piece of brown toast, tore it into pieces, and spread a little dab of each jam.
Banana and dragon fruit jam
Mango and star fruit jam
Mì xào hải sản
- the fried seafood noodles was nice, just a little spicy. I loved the texture of the noodles, because they had just enough bite and weren't soggy in the least bit.
- Hello Kitty finally got a chance to have this. The beef stew with potatoes and carrots looked delicious.
And it was! The beef came with tendons and was a little chewy, but very tasty. Worked so well with the baguettes
We needed a little exercise after breakfast, so we strolled through the grounds - particularly the Ginger Garden
designed by the very person who designed the Ginger Garden next to the National Orchid Garden within the Singapore Botanic Gardens
. I remember the Ginger Garden in Singapore well, as I went through it two years ago and found out - to my surprise - that bananas were gingers. This part of the resort was definitely my favorite, as it felt like I was immersed in a tropical rainforest.
But we also had one last activity - getting on the resort speedboat to take a closer look at the Kê Gà Lighthouse
, which is visible from the resort. Thankfully it had stopped raining and the sun was kinda peeking out a little. But the sea was still pretty choppy, and given our tight schedule, we chose not to disembark and only stayed a short while on the water. We did get a closer look at the shrimp farms on the water, as well as the fleet of fishing boats from the nearby village.
Before we knew it, it was time to grab lunch before we headed back to Ho Chi Minh City. Didn't we just finish brekkie a couple of hours ago?!
We didn't have an opportunity to drink the bottle of Bottega Prosecco di Treviso Brut Il Vino dei Poeti
that was placed in our villa, so we decided to bring it to lunch and share it with everyone.
I brought out the two types of snacks we bought on our way in the other day. I had wanted to try some local snacks, and figured it was now or never.
Bánh tráng xâu ống tôm
- the rice paper itself was a little thick and tough, and needed a fair bit of work with one's saliva to soften it up. So I ended up taking sips of the Prosecco and letting the alcohol do the work... The dried shrimps had a nice and spicy kick, which was enhanced by the effervescence of the Prosecco.
Cơm cháy chà bông
- not unlike the ones found in Thailand, and these rice crispies were pretty tasty... especially with that pork floss on top.
Our bread basket today looked a little different, and came with some pita
bread. We were also served some hummus
. Not bad at all.
Trứng chiên thịt băm
- I wanted to try this Vietnamese omelette with minced pork which, as it turned out, wasn't very different from some of the omelettes found in regional Chinese cuisine... with spring onions and onions inside.
Canh mùng tơi nấu tôm bằm
- this soup had previously gotten good reviews from others in our party, so Hello Kitty decided to give it a shot, and try to keep it a light lunch at the same time. The Malabar spinach turned out to be pretty earthy, and for a while I thought it might just be a very earthy local variant of pea shoots.
The soup also came with some shrimp, adding some umami
Gỏi cuốn tôm, thịt, phục vụ với rau thơm, mắm đậu phộng
- Hello Kitty liked this so much yesterday that she decided to order it again.
I (mistakenly) thought that I had gone through all the alcoholic ice cream on the menu, so I stopped having any more ice cream today. Something else caught my eye...
- the menu said that "coconut cream is the Vietnamese twist" on the flan, but I honestly couldn't taste any coconut flavor... But hey, I'm happy eating flan anytime!
While we were passing through dragon fruit farms yesterday, Be had told us that, unbeknownst to most outsiders, the outer skin of Hylocereus undatus can actually turn from red back to green as it ripens further, and this morning she brought us a few. We thought we would share and do a comparative tasting alongside a "regular" one with the gang.
The riper, "green" dragon fruit was indeed riper and sweeter to the taste.
We were stuffed, and needed to head back to Ho Chi Minh City so that some of us could fly back to Hong Kong. We bid farewell to Michael, Be, and the restaurant staff who have pampered us over the last few days. Hopefully I'll get to come back here on another occasion to unwind... maybe on my next trip to Ho Chi Minh City. Many, many thanks to the resort for their wonderful hospitality.
More than 4½ hours after leaving Princess D'Ân Nam Resort and Spa, with a detour to Tan Son Nhat International Airport to drop off the others, we finally arrived at InterContinental Asiana Saigon. We checked in, changed to dressier clothes, and walked over for our dinner appointment.
Before leaving home, I had send emails to the concierge at InterContinental Asiana Saigon and asked that they help me make reservations at several restaurants in the city. The concierge team was highly efficient and confirmed my bookings within the same day.
So you can imagine my surprise when I stepped through the front doors to the Hotel Continental Saigon and found that the courtyard that was supposed to be the Continental Palace Restaurant being occupied by a wedding party.
We went to the hotel reception and asked, and they confirmed that the restaurant had indeed been booked out for a wedding. We told them that we had a reservation at the restaurant, at which point the staff picked up the phone and called someone.
We were stunned to be told that because of this wedding that was going on, our reservation at the Continental Palace had been "moved" to Le Bourgeois, another restaurant within the hotel. Would we please take our dinner there? No apologies given for this arrangement.
I couldn't understand how this happened. The wedding must have been booked months in advance - like everywhere else in the world. So when the concierge at the InterContinental called to make my reservation a few days ago, the restaurant would have known that they could not accommodate us. Why the hell did they confirm the booking back to my concierge?! They could have just told my concierge that there was a wedding tonight, and therefore it was impossible to serve us.
With my head still spinning, we walk through the doors of Le Bourgeois. The manager points to a table by the window of the empty restaurant, and we take our seats. The menu is delivered to us, and there is no Vietnamese food, as expected. We asked about our reservation being moved, and inquire whether we could have Vietnamese food from Continental Palace. The answer was negative.
We shake our heads and get up to leave. The manager panics, asked us to stay, and go back to fetch another menu - this time mentioning my name in the process, as if to show that he's got a plan for us.
We are shown a menu from La Dolce Vita - another restaurant in the hotel. There's nothing Vietnamese on the menu. By this time I've lost my patience with the manager, who barely cares about what I wanted, and we walked out vowing never to return to the Hotel Continental Saigon ever again.
After vowing never to return to Hotel Continental Saigon, we still needed to find a place to have dinner in Ho Chi Minh City, so we decided to walk over to the Rex Hotel. Cung Dinh Restaurant was the other recommendation from Foodie Baba, and I had originally made a dinner reservation for tomorrow night, but hey, we needed a contingency plan... and this was the best option when you're walking around town without access to Internet or Google Maps.
Walking into the lobby, the location of the restaurant wasn't apparent, so we asked staff at the reception for directions. The helpful gentlemen came out from behind the desk and showed us the way. We walked over and found - to our utter amazement and disappointment - that there were no customers in the restaurant. The restaurant was busy catering for a wedding in the adjoining hotel courtyard... the same situation as the Continental Palace Restaurant we had just left!
We tried to get someone's attention, but were ignored by the restaurant staff. We went back to the hotel reception and once again asked for help to confirm our dinner reservation tomorrow. This time the helpful staff escorted us to the restaurant, and found someone from the restaurant who reassured us that our reservation for dinner tomorrow is still valid, as there is no wedding scheduled.
But our problem remains unresolved. Where would we eat tonight? As we were about to head back to our hotel for Internet access so that I could pull up addresses of restaurants on my hit list, Hello Kitty came up with a brilliant idea: why not head to the Rex Hotel's famous Rooftop Garden for drinks and a few bites? That would certainly take the edge off what was turning out to be a frustrating start to our stay in HCMC...
We got ourselves a table on the edge of the rooftop, right next to the stage and overlooking Ho Chi Minh Square. There was a lot of activity going on down on the street, including a pretty good band singing live. Soon that would be drowned out by the live band performing right next to us...
We started with a round of drinks to unwind from the stress. I know that both drinks look green, but one of them is more girlie than the other. Guess who had the girlie drink?
Khai vị ba miền : chả giò, chạo cá thì là, bò nướng lá lốt
The spring rolls were pretty tasty.
Fish paste with dill was pretty good, too... and came wrapped around a stick of sugarcane.
The beef wrapped in betel leaf was the same that I had at Princess D'Ân Nam Resort
two nights ago, but the one at the resort was much better.
Cánh gà đút lò nhồi pate và nho khô
- these stuffed chicken wings looked pretty good...
Cutting them open revealed the stuffing, which had pork pâté whose flavor reminded me of Cantonese liver sausage (膶腸) with their distinctive Mei Kuei Lu (玫瑰露) notes. There were also a few green peppercorns providing a little kick. Very, very delish.
Chả cua nhồi xôi lá cẩm
- these stuffed crab shells came with magenta leaf sticky rice on the side, which were pretty tasty.
The stuffed crab meat had green peppercorns, wood ear, and what looked like carrots inside. Also pretty tasty.
This was a pretty good dinner, and I'm glad we were able to come up with a good alternative for tonight. We enjoyed watching people hanging out on the street below, and I was definitely a little mesmerized by the revolving crown a stone's throw away from our table...
We kept waking up early in the mornings on this trip, which in theory gives us a head start on the day. We have a limited amount of time in Ho Chi Minh City, and I had already mapped out all of our meals here - including breakfast.
Hello Kitty wanted phở
, so we took a taxi to Phở Hòa Pasteur
for breakfast. When we arrived at the address, we saw a construction site where the restaurant was supposed to be, with a sign outside... Merde
Of course, why should anyone expect that in Vietnam, renovation that was supposed to be completed by yesterday would actually get done on time?! From what we saw, it would be more than a few days before this place would be up and running again.
Disappointed, we asked to taxi driver to head to our next destination so that we could have some coffee. Du Miên Cafe
wasn't far away from our present location, so it would be a quick ride from here.
We went for an unexpectedly long ride, during which our taxi driver got a little lost and reversed direction at one point. The frustrating thing was that since we didn't have data roaming - and decided not to buy a 3G SIM card to replace our own SIM cards - we had no idea where we were while we were lost. If we ever came back to Vietnam again, I'm definitely bringing my portable wifi router so that I can stick a local 3G SIM card inside. We resorted to calling the cafe and asking the staff to speak to our driver in Vietnamese, because on our first attempt the woman told us she didn't speak English and hung up on us...
We finally did arrive at our destination, and it turns out I had been a little confused and marked the wrong location on Google Maps. I had pinned Du Miên Cafe
on my map, but had shown the address for Du Miên Garden Cafe
to the taxi driver. The latter branch is actually located slightly past Tan Son Nhat International Airport! No wonder it took us so long to get there!
We walked through the garden and the water fountain, found ourselves a table and sat down. Besides coffee, we needed a little breakfast, and Hello Kitty decided to be a little playful and ordered something unorthodox. I took her lead and ordered something else unorthodox, and we would both come to regret it...
Cà phê sữa nóng
- this was a lot
stronger than the ones we'd been having at Princess D'Ân Nam Resort
Damn! I know there's condensed milk at the bottom of the cup, but even discounting for that, one can definitely taste the richness of the butter in the beans. Taking the coffee without condensed milk surely would have blown my head off... it's that
French fries with butter and sugar
- I have no idea why Hello Kitty ordered this, and both of us sort of stared at the plate when it arrived. So... it's just a bunch of fries, with a pat of butter and a little dish of sugar. We ended up picking up the fries individually, rubbing them on the butter, then dipping them into the sugar.
Stir-fried macaroni with diced beef
- this one's on me. It wasn't the least bit interesting, as it's just beef cubes stir-fried with tomatoes, onions, and capsicum, which was then poured on top of some pan-fried macaroni
Feeling unsatiated after two crappy dishes, we decided to follow the lead of several neighboring tables and ordered a bowl of bún bò Huế
. We kept seeing these bowls passing by with a plate of herbs such as shredded banana blossom, bean sprouts, basil, spring onions, and perilla leaves piled high, and it looked really enticing.
This was pretty satisfying. The bowl of noodles came with thin and chewy slices of beef shank, pork meatballs, and a thin, flat piece of pork paste that reminded me of otak otak
in terms of shape and texture. The broth was slightly spicy but very well balanced with the other flavors.
We hung around a little to take some pictures of the grounds, then headed back to our hotel for a quick break before lunch...