January 28, 2013

Salty ships and peaty drams

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I'm entertaining a friend from out of town, and tonight was the only chance for me to see her before she heads off.  She had spent the last few days exploring Hong Kong, and managed to hit some pretty interesting places.  I was struggling to think of some place to take her when she suggested 22 Ships.  My first visit 2 weeks ago made a pretty good impression, so I was happy to go back and try some of the other dishes.

I was running a few minutes late, and my friend was already seated by the time I arrived.  Once again we were squeezed into seats at the end of a bar, but this time next to the toilets and the kitchen entrance.  I know this is bar food, but the lack of space means one gets to be pretty cozy with one's neighbors...

Salt and pepper squid with ink aioli - very yummy.  The batter was really light and fluffy, and the little squids were delicious on their own, even without the heavy flavors coming from the ink aioli.

Spanish breakfast, chorizo and potato - pretty yummy, with soft-boiled egg and tomato buried in a pile of runny potato mash.  Cubes of potatoes and crispy, pan-fried slices of chorizo made up the topping.  A modern interpretation of the classic.

Fried pig ears, ash aioli - I love pig's ears, and glad that my friend was willing to try them.  This was a little different from what I'd normally find in Chinese restaurants, but still pretty good.  Not as much crunch, though...  We couldn't out what the ash on top of the aioli was, but I was reminded of Yoshihiro Narisawa's creations involving spring onions that had been burnt to ashes.

Razor clams, broad beans, sherry - my friend (who isn't Chinese) didn't like this dish, and commented that it tasted "very Chinese".  I'd have to agree with her.  The clams themselves tasted a little strong in terms of the "fishy" flavors, and while I'm pretty sure that Spanish jamón was used, the combination of broad beans and ham does taste very Chinese to me...  I grew up with that combination in mom's Shanghainese cooking.

Miso grilled mackerel, wasabi avocado, cucumber chutney - I think the mackerel may have been marinated, as it definitely tasted that way both in terms of flavor and texture.  The green wasabi avocado tasted pretty light, overpowered by the dots of salty miso (味噌).  While the cucumber cubes were light and refreshing, for some reason there was a layer of sauce on top of the mackerel that was just really salty.

Hake, romesco, courgette - the fish was pretty delicious and nicely done.  The romesco was full of roasted nutty flavors along with the peppers.  The topping of courgettes, peppers and mint leaves were pretty interesting, but here again the use of salt seemed a tad on the heavy side.

I had a glass of López de Heredia Viña Gravonia Crianza.  Dunno the vintage, but the wine was pretty forgettable...

"PBJ" peanut parfait, blueberry sorbet, salted peanut crunch - just about the best dish of the evening... frozen raspberry "ice", together with a delicious blueberry sorbet, worked really well with the peanut parfait and the peanut crunch.  At one point I thought I was eating Reese's Peanut Butter Cups...  Very yum.

Honestly, my return visit didn't produce the result I was hoping for.  Maybe we just didn't order the right dishes this time...

My friend asked about b.a.r. Executive Bar as she had heard about the place.  (She does seem to get around!)  We finished dinner quickly, and headed off to get my daily dose of vitamin C...

I'd always start myself with some of Hidome-san's famous fruit cocktails.  First up was a delicious Nansui pear (南水梨) from Nagano (長野), something that I'd had before and knew would make me happy.  And happy I was!  My friend also loved it, and chose vodka instead of rum as her base.  The pear was just so incredibly ripe and sweet, and the alcohol was almost completely masked... one could have easily mistaken the hint of alcohol to have come from the overripe pear itself.  Thank you, sir... may I have another?

Next up were Hakata Amaou strawberries (博多あまおう) from Fukuoka (福岡), made with a little vodka into a strawberry martini.  The name Amaou (あまおう) is a Japanese acronym, meaning red (あかい), round (まるい), large (おおきい) and delicous (うまい).  All of those may be true, but honestly the martini tasted a little diluted, and didn't present us with the full flavors of the strawberries...

Towards the end of the evening, Hidome-san would offer some strawberries to us on ice, and they were pretty delicious on their own.

I moved onto whiskies, and picked the Nikka Miyagikyo 12 Years (ニッカ 宮城峡) to start.  Hidome-san suggested that I have it with the "whisky mist", which meant serving it over crushed ice.  Pretty interesting as it cooled the whisky pretty fast, and certainly tempered the taste.

By this point Hidome-san was getting very talkative, and telling us a lot of history regarding whiskies and cocktails.  I asked him to compare two different bottlings from Ardbeg, whose whiskies are well-known for their peatiness.  He jokingly told us that he's been in a couple of Hong Kong hospitals lately, and thought that the Ardbeg Alligator (made with charcoal whose patterns resembled alligator skin) smelled like Canossa Hospital, while the Ardbeg Corryvreckan was more like Hong Kong Sanatorium...  I took the Corryvreckan straight up, enjoying the peaty, hospital disinfectant nose slowly... which was also a little savory.

Hidome-san is well-known for his knife skills, and decided to take out a block of ice and cut my friend a "special ice".  Basically, he took a sharp chef's knife and transformed the block into a multi-faceted, 500-carat piece of gem.  We joked about the different Cs of this "diamond", and wondered whether the color would be D, and whether the limited amount of striations would qualify it as "VVS1" or some other grade...

Our lesson continued, and a bottle of Nikka Taketsuru 12 Years was brought out and poured into two glasses, each with a cube of ice.  The first glass was stirred while the second glass remained untouched.  We were then asked to taste the difference.  Clearly the glass that had been stirred tasted a little milder, sweeter, thanks to the aeration and faster dilution.  The whisky from the first glass was then poured into a cobbler shaker and given the famous "Ichiro treatment", and ended up tasting even more different from the second glass.

Finally, even though I was already pretty buzzed and had more than enough to drink, I ordered up my final cocktail for the evening - a Japanese screwdriver with tangerines (みかん) from Saga (佐賀).  Earlier my friend had asked Hidome-san if she could eat one of these, and we could tell these were nice and sweet.  We were even given a lesson on how to choose the best tangerines!

This was a long evening, but turned out to be really enjoyable in the end.  Of all the times I had been to b.a.r. Executive Bar, tonight was by far the most enjoyable visit, as we chatted with not only Hidome-san but also some of the other patrons.  I look forward to my next return...

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