December 30, 2008

Cozy Nino's

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Last night I had dinner with my colleague and a few of his friends, and coincidentally ran into a partner of mine in a business venture. Later on we find that this partner also has a connection with my colleague through a third person...proving again that the world (or at least Hong Kong) is very small, and that 6-degree of separation business may actually come down to 2 or 3 degrees in this town...

Anyway, the venue was Nino's Cozinha, the Portuguese/Macanese place I visited 2 months ago. I have been wanting to come back, but was never able to get a reservation on short notice because the place was so small yet popular. So I was pretty psyched when I found out that I would have be able to sample the yummy cuisine again.

Funnily enough we actually started the meal with the leitão assado no forno - the roast suckling pig. Because this has to be ordered in advance - and we weren't able to do this - we had to take the 1/4 pig that was left over from other tables' orders. It was delivered to our table as soon as it was ready, and this came before all of our tapas. The pig was pretty good, but I didn't get enough to really appreciate it fully. I did manage to nibble on an ear, though...which was interesting.

Next came a series of tapas:

Chouriço assadas - the sausage was pretty tender and juicy, full of flavor.

Presunto de 'pata negra' - your run-of-the-mill pata negra ham - a bit dark and not fatty enough for my taste. But I guess the price wasn't so expensive, either...

Bacalau frito com batatas fritas - bacalhau in potato croquette. This was as awesome as the last time, and exactly what I wanted. Still really yummy with a good blend of bacalhau and potato on the inside, while the deep-fried shell was light and crispy.

Mexilhão fresco - I'm not a big fan of mussels ever since I read Kitchen Confidential, so I only took one to sample.

Then the main dishes started to arrive:

Galinha ã Portuguesa - the Portuguese chicken was pretty decent, although I would have preferred the tastier piri piri chicken with that wonderfully spicy sauce.

Arroz de pato - the famous Portuguese duck rice, done slightly differently here. You still get the slices of duck sausage on top, and the shredded duck meat inside, but they used long grain rice and cooked it in a dry style. The individual rice grains weren't sticking together, and were more chewy as a result of being dry. It's different, but I'm thinking I like it when the rice sticks together and the top is a bit more burnt or au gratin.

The pièce de résistance of the evening was certainly camarao com pimenta no forno - the shrimp with pepper in claypot. This was surely as good as the last pot I had. The fragrance of the peppers - green, white and black peppercorns - hits you immediately. I joked about having my sinuses cleared, but when I accidentally bit into a peppercorn, my nose started to run and my sinuses were being cleared.

Camarao assado na panela com alho e cebola - the prawns were juicy and tender, and the garlic olive oil was to die for. But the stupid waiter took the plate away after we had taken out all the prawns...did he not realize the whole point was to soak up the oil with bread?

Costelas pimentão no forno - the beef spare-ribs were done really nicely, covered with this delicious sauce.

Legumes assadas na panela com tomate e porco - cabbage in tomato-based sauce, which I didn't have very much of.

At the end of the meal, I was a tiny bit upset because I realized that Uncle Joe, the manager, had decided to cancel my order of bacalhao a bras. This is one of my all-time favorite dishes, and I just couldn't believe that he just made the decision to nix it.

I was pretty full so ended up not having any dessert.

On the whole it was yet another wonderful meal. I didn't drink much of the wine, because my stomach has been a bit upset for the last two days. But I'm really glad I went back to Nino's and look forward to my next visit.

December 29, 2008

Memories of Central Asia

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I woke up in the middle of the night today, having fallen asleep on my couch out of fatigue. As my eyes began to focus, the first images that I saw on the TV looked really familiar. Suddenly it hits me: it's one of the medressas in Bukhara!

A quick check tells me that the movie is The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam. So it's a movie about the famous Persian poet/mathematician/astronomer. I had come across Omar Khayyam while researching for my Central Asia trip earlier this year, but this was in his capacity as a poet and author of the Rubaiyat. Later while touring the Ulugbek Observatory in Samarkand, there were displays of Omar Khayyam's portraits as well as copies of his work in astronomy and mathematics.


The movie was obviously an embellished account of the life of Omar Khayyam as well as the popular story linking Omar Khayyam with Hassan-i-Sabah, the founder of the original band of assasins - the Hashshashin. The plot is moderately entertaining. But whatever the reality behind the story, it's a movie which talks about a few key figures during the Persian/Seljukid era. Morever it is shot mostly in Bukhara and Samarkand, two of the most beautiful cities in Uzbekistan.

Now that it's been 6 months since my trip, it's pretty exciting to see footage of the Registan Square - the Ulugbek Medressa and especially the glittering Tilla-Kari Medressa - as well as Bibi Khanym Mosque, Kalon Mosque and its minaret, the Ark in Bukhara...

So who cares if all of the backdrop was built some 4-5 centuries after the time of Omar Khayyam, and also some 1-2,000 km away from where he would have been? I suppose it would be much more difficult to film this in Esfahan in Iran, compared to the tourist-friendly Uzbekistan... For people who have never been to this part of the world, the movie gives a glimpse of the beautiful Islamic architecture - located in two cities which are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

As for me, all the images evoke wonderful memories from earlier in the year, and remind me that all the hardship endured on the trip were well worth it. I have seen these sites with my own eyes, and hopefully the memories will stay with me for a very long time.

December 27, 2008

The bull

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No, we are not talking about El Bulli. Far from it. I did, however, nibble on some flavors of Spain at El Toro with some friends. One of the friends in attendance has sampled the food on an earlier occasion, and thought it was reasonably good.

We started with some tapas. At first I was very distressed to find the conspicuous absence of bacalao from the menu. Spanish cuisine without bacalao? My opinion of the place immediately goes down a notch...

We start with some jamon iberico, which is not bad at all. At least, it's better than the stuff that I had at Forchetta. The ham is soft and moist as it should be, with enough fat to make it tasty.

As a substitute for the classic bacalao croquette, I ordered Hokkaido scallops croquettes. The exterior looked a little too brown, but the dish was delicious nonetheless. The creamy interior had some Hokkaido scallops in the center.

The stuffed squid with confitated onion and black rice was pretty tasty. The rice was not al dente, but I didn't mind it being a little soggy. Kinda reminds me of a similar dish I had at Yin Yang in Hong Kong.

The creamy lobster and saffron rice was not bad at all. Very tasty, and much better than your standard paella. This was a very popular dish.

What came next sounded really interesting when I read it on the menu, but we all agreed that it didn't really work. Crab meat with herbs bread and white warm chocolate. Hmmm...pretty bad translation from the Chinese name... Anyway, a very ho-hum dish.

The New York cut beef with French mustard was pretty good. Nicely charred on the outside while pink and moist on the inside. I didn't take any of the mustard, choosing instead to sprinkle sea salt. One of us is off red meat at the moment, so she had to watch us devour the juicy meat, while we try in vain to convince her that the beef wasn't any good...

The stewed rabbit leg "chasseur" style was pretty delish, but more interesting because it's rare to find such a dish in Taiwan. I'm glad we decided to order it.

Finally we have the suckling-pig leg low temperature roasted, which would be the perfect last dish for any Spanish meal. Here, too, the pig was delicious. I'll take fatty, tender young meat and crispy roasted skin any day!

We ordered all four of the desserts on the menu, and I taste two of them. I thought the chocolate warm piramid with lime was delicious - like little chocolate-flavored pyramids of madeleines.

I brought a bottle of 2003 E and E Black Pepper Shiraz, which I joked about being a cheap wine since I bought it from Costco. It wasn't a "wow" wine, at least not now, but it was pleasant and easy to drink.

The chef came out to chat with us, in particular because I had asked about bacalao and cod earlier. He tells me that the Taiwanese palate doesn't take to it well, and that the ingredient simply costs too much for the locals. He did promise to procure the materials if I gave him enough notice next time...

December 25, 2008

Fall of a pornstar

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As has been widely reported, Japanese celebrity Ai Iijima (飯島愛) has been found dead in her apartment in Shibuya. I first saw the story on a news website last night, and this has become the front-page story of a prominent newspaper in Taiwan.

I did not follow the Ai-chan's AV career as I wasn't in Asia at the time. By the time I returned to Asia, she has already transformed herself into a mainstream celebrity - one of the most successful cases of someone leaving the porn world and gaining mainstream acceptance. On occasion I have seen Japanese TV shows where she was a guest.

So why do I care enough to write about her? Well for one thing, she is about my age, and news of her passing somehow struck a cord in me. One does not usually think about dying young. This makes me reflect upon my own mortality.

The other reason is that I've always thought she was very pretty, and in fact bears a striking resemblance to one of my dear friends. Even though I have never met Ai-chan, I am reminded of my friend each time I catch the radiant smile of this celebrity. This is the reason for my sense of affinity. I am sad that she is gone.

No, she was not someone I fantasized about. Having watched the movie adaptation of her autobiography Platonic Sex, I simply wish that she eventually find happiness and move on from what she had gone through in the early years. She will no doubt live on in the memories of many...

December 23, 2008

Half a century away

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Tonight was the last MNSC dinner of the year, which is also the "birthday tasting" of our host. Over the last few years he has consistently brought out wines which were really, really old...and I guess we never learned our lesson about what always tends to happen at his December tastings... The venue was the China Club, which actually does a very good job with the food provided that you arrange a special menu with the chef.

Here's a run down of what we had:
Crispy deep-fried tofu skin (香煎腐皮卷) - something "light" to whet the appetite. I didn't dare pour on the sweet-n-sour sauce for fear of ruining my palate.

Stir-fried tripe in XO sauce (XO醬油泡爽肚片) - any worries about ruining my palate was put to bed with this dish...the spicy XO sauce - lots of chilli here - completely numbed my taste buds for a while. Otherwise this was pretty nice.

Conch baked with goose liver (鮮鵝肝焗格蘭嚮螺) - a really delicious dish done like a crab cake, except the mixture of the liver and the shellfish together works really well. Yum yum!

Fish broth stewed with preserved orange rind and jujube (陳皮紅棗燉生魚湯) - very nice clear broth, like a consommé, with the distinct fragrance of the orange rind.

Steamed fish (清蒸海上鮮) - this happens to be a very, very good steamed green wrasse (青衣) - a delicacy in Cantonese cuisine that is classified as "near threatened" according to Wiki. I don't have this fish very often, but it really was delicious tonight.

Fatty char siu (肥叉燒) - what can we say? We loooove good fatty char siu. This is better than what we had at Fook Lam Moon last week.

Roast duck (掛爐琵琶鴨) - skin is nice and crispy, and the meat is pretty decent, too. A rare occasion when I decided to cut out most of the fat...

Braised beef short ribs (紅燒牛肋骨) - very tender and cooked with many Chinese spices.

Chinese lettuce with fermented tofu sauce (腐乳椒絲唐生菜) - the fermented tofu actually isn't too strong, and is tempered by the slices of chilli peppers.

Homestyle stir-fried rice vermicelli (家鄉炒米粉) - this was absolutely fabulous. You can taste the flavor from the chef having fried this in a wok with high heat, what the Cantonese call wok hei (鍋氣).

We loved it so much that we ordered the stir-fried thin noodles with shredded chicken in soy sauce (豉油皇雞絲炒麵) as an encore. Do I ever walk out of any of these meals without being completely stuffed?

Our generous host decided to serve us some really old wines tonight - some almost a century old. We should have known by the fact that the wines were opened immediately prior to serving, without being decanted. As it turns out, most of our guesses in the blind tasting were off by half a century. This isn't surprising, given most of us have little or no experiences with wines dating from pre-WWII era...

1993 Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill - wonderful stuff with nose of caramel and crème brûlée.

1918 Gruaud Larose, chateau bottling - very sweet nose with notes of vanilla, oak, a little smoked meats, and surprisingly strawberry. The last element was the reason we thought it was a Burgundy... Very smooth on the palate. 93 points.

1918 Gruaud Larose, chateau bottling, ex-Nicolas cellar - nose was very farmy with lots of bacon, opulent smoked meats, and even stinky tofu (臭豆腐)! Fairly acidic on the palate. 89 points.

1918 Cheval Blanc, chateau bottling - nose of mint, sweet red fruits, honeydew melon, smoke, with a bit of medicinal brett. 89 points.

1918 Cheval Blanc, Calvet bottling - pretty sweet nose with the finish being a little tart in the beginning, but improved with a bit of time. 92 points.

1928 Cos d'Estournel - nose was a bit medicinal with some fruit. Finish was a little acidic. 88 points.

1928 Léoville-Las Cases - medicinal and brett, farmy, peppery, grilled meat with sweet fruit. Acidic finish. 92 points.

1978 Charles Noëllat Richebourg - explosively sweet nose with lychee, grilled meats (tea-smoked duck), farmy yet caramel nose. Acidic finish. Fantastic wine. 94 points.

1978 DRC Richebourg - even better than the Noëllat. Really sweet nose with tons of lychee, black cherries, preserved plums and mint. 97 points and wine of the evening by a large margin.

I am ever thankful for the generosity of our host, for the chance to drink these gems which will not exist in the cellars of mere mortals like myself. May I suggest that we do this on a more regular basis, so that we get more exposure to really old wines. How about a '21 Yquem next time?

December 21, 2008

Breakfast at the border

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For the third time in a week, I got up in the wee hours of the morning to ride in the passenger seat of a convertible, camera in hand. It was a gathering of car enthusiasts, and the convoy of cars (5 Porsches, 2 Ferraris, 1 Mazda and 1 Acura) set off before dawn in search of a bowl of noodles for breakfast.

Before starting off from the gas station in Happy Valley - which is right next to the police station - we received a visit from Mr. Occifer. Mr. Occifer took a quick look at the group of cars and, while standing next to the red convertible Ferrari 355 Spider, told us that he preferred for us to go slow in the city and not create too much noise. Of course everyone nodded their heads in agreement. But what do you think happened next?
  We drove out to the New Territories, past Tai Po, Tolo Harbour and the reservoirs, and finally end up at a store on Bride's Pool Road in Luk Keng. The store is located on the waterfront, facing Starling Inlet to the north. We are now at the border with China, since the Closed Area Boundary actually extends to the mangrove trees at the water's edge. Shenzhen is just beyond the hills in the picture.

We arrived early but were soon joined by lots of other drivers, and the parking lot filled up quickly. It seems that lots of people were hungry for noodles and sandwiches that the store had to offer. I myself took a bowl of instant noodles with egg and luncheon meat (餐蛋麵). While the noodles themselves were not of the local favorite Demae-Itcho (出前一丁) brand, the egg was fried very nicely and the piece of luncheon meat was seared to perfection (if there is such a thing...) It seems like a helluva long way to drive for a morning coffee and a bowl of noodles...

But the view was spectacular. It was an absolutely beautiful day, and the wetland near the border was populated with white egrets looking for food. The drive on the way in along Bride's Pool Road, hugging the shores of the reservoirs, was also fantastic. One could not have asked for better weather for a drive in the country. I'm glad I went out with the gang today, even though I was dragged out of bed with a phone call when it was still dark...

December 19, 2008

Lafleur vertical

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The second MNSC tasting of the month (!) took place tonight at Fook Lam Moon (福臨門), which has recently received a Michelin star. It's my first visit since the publication of the guide, and I wanted to see how the place was doing.

This was quite a filling dinner with 9 dishes, which are as follows:

Stir-fried shark's fin (炒桂花翅) - light and fluffy as always, it's a great way to start the meal.

Charred fatty char siu - pretty decent, but not the best I've had.

Braised goose feet and abalone with lettuce (鵝掌原隻30頭鮑跟唐生菜) - very good stuff, although not exactly wine-friendly...

Stir-fried tripe (油爆肚仔) - very well done as the tripe had a crunchy, springy texture.

Stir-fried lobster with black beans and green peppers (豉椒炒龍蝦球) - delicious and fresh lobster, with the added kick of black beans.

Baked crab shell (釀焗蟹蓋) - lots of onions to add some crunchy texture, with fresh, sweet crab meat. Delicious as usual.

Deep-fried salt-and-pepper short ribs (椒鹽排骨) - I didn't get around to having this, because our host sent it back complaining about the lack of fat...

Pea sprouts blanched in ham broth (上湯浸豆苗) - one can never go wrong with this...especially when in season.

Claypot rice with preserved meats (腊味飯煲) - we asked for a 2:1 ratio between the liver and preserved sausages (潤腸,腊腸), the usual preserved meat (腊肉), and the wonderfully tasty duck (油鴨). This was a really nice way to wrap up the meal, although all the rice crispies (飯焦) were gobbled up by one person...

I finished with a bowl of almond cream (杏仁露), which was fragrant yet not too sweet.

Our host was extremely generous and offered a vertical of Chateau Lafleur - the famed Pomerol estate. Wines were served blind, as usual, in three flights.

1964 Lafleur - nose of soy sauce, preserved plum, game meats and a bit of smoke. Still tannic and grippy for a wine of this age. 88 points.

1971 Lafleur - grassy nose with good amount of sweet fruit, including orange, tangerine. A bit alcoholic and spicy. 87 points.

1981 Lafleur - nose of grilled meats and some sweet red fruits. A tad acidic on the palate. 93 points.

1983 Lafleur - a hint of smoke and mint at first. Very smooth on the palate, with a curious orange finish. Later on sweet fruit and forest notes emerged. 94 points.

1986 Lafleur - a really nice wine, with a really sweet nose and again orange notes. Still tannic and grippy on the palate. 95 points and my favorite of the evening.

1989 Lafleur - very concentrated but nose has shut down. A bit of smoked meats and soy sauce in the nose. 93 points.

It's not often that one gets to participate in a vertical tastings of wines from such a great estate. I'm very happy to have had the opportunity, and look forward to our next gathering - which would actually be next week...

December 18, 2008

Chicken saves the day

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Caught up with a couple of friends to pop open a couple bottles of wine. I haven't been back to San San Trois, and felt that I could introduce people to one of my two favorite chickens in town.

We decanted both bottles of red, and I ordered the food while I chatted with my friends. The familiar manager is conspicuously missing, which should have given me a clue.

A plate of sashimi arrives. SASHIMI?!! When did I order this?! The waitress explains that in the middle of chatting with my friends, I had agreed to her suggestion and indeed ordered raw fish. I am pretty upset, because the manager I know would never even have suggested that I pair raw fish with red wine. This is not a good start to the evening. I try to shove the fish down as quickly as possible so I could move on to drinking wine.

The usual duo of pan-seared sushi follow: seared toro (炙りトロ) and foie gras. The chef in front of us is also not the usual chef, but the guy who used to watch on the side. I smell trouble. Sure enough, the toro wasn't done the way I like it. It was just a bit too well-done. The foie gras is also a bit too singed... To be honest, I felt that the quality of their pan-seared sushi has been declining over the last 2 years, but they were still good enough that I kept ordering them. After tonight I think I will think twice...

The grilled kama came next, and this was also a bit sub-par. There was not a lot of meat and a bit more of the fat than usual. The best part about tuna neck is the meat that is not fatty itself, but has been flavored with fat around it. Unfortunately there just wasn't enough of it. So this evening is going horribly wrong by this point, including the wine. But more about that later.

Finally, the pièce de résistance - roasted Bresse chicken. My friends like the dark meat with bones so I'm happy to have them take the legs and the wings. With the Bresse chicken, the white meat is juicy and fatty enough to still be delicious, so I focus on this. Thankfully the chicken is still done well tonight. There is just enough fat to make it tasty, and the crispy, roasted skin fills the air with fragrance. Yum yum! Once again, the day is saved by....the Powerpuff Girls...NOT!!

Back to the wines...I brought a bottle of 1988 Henri Bonneau Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réserve des Célestins with much anticipation. However, as I uncorked the wine in the office, a very musty smell came from the cork, and I can't help but think that the wine is corked. After we started drinking at the restaurant, my fears were confirmed. What should have been an awesome bottle was indeed corked. And I think I bought this bottle from I was much luckier with its older cousin - the '86 - which I bought at the same time and drank a couple of years ago. The nose was initially muted with very little fruit and some wet chalk. It did improve over time in the decanter, but still a fraction of what it should have been. Totally disappointing.

In contrast, the 1996 Dujac Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Combottes was a beautiful wine. Initially the nose was heavy smoked game meats, sweet red fruits and plums. Classic, beautiful Burgundian nose. With time additional notes such as strawberries and florals emerged. Thankfully we had at least one great bottle for tonight.

I am wondering what happened to this restaurant. Was tonight simply bad timing - when both the seasoned manager and the chef were off-duty? After the performance tonight, I am not so eager to make a return visit some time soon.

December 17, 2008

Team Christmas dinner

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Tonight we finally had our Christmas dinner for the team, and after much deliberation we settled on Brasserie on the Eighth at the Conrad, my old favorite. I know the staff pretty well, so we were assured to receive good service on this evening.

While we waited for our food, my colleagues were hungry and dug into the fatty, delicious rillette on the table. These are absolutely irresistable, being made from shredded pork and lard. Yes, lard. That is what makes it soooo yummy and irresistable. Once you dig into it, it takes a lot of will power to stop. One of us - who shall remain nameless - had three serving of it, and in fact took to stuffing it inside a baguette to make a "sausage roll" out of it...

I started with my old standby: caesar salad. Today, however, it was a tad disappointing. Not that the taste of the salad was off, but it was the fact that they did not toss it to taste in front of me as they used to. Having your caesar salad made to order according to your tastes has always been something I enjoyed at the Conrad. But I guess it wasn't to be tonight.

I decided to have something different for main course tonight. While my colleagues were having the char-grilled kurobuta pork chop on my recommendation, I gave the Wiener schnitzel a try. I had never seen this on the menu at a French brasserie, so I thought I'd see how they would fare. They did well. While I was initially surprised by the fact that there were two medium-sized schnitzels instead of one giant piece covering the whole plate (as is traditional), the taste was pretty authentic and good. Definitely worth another try.

As usual, the staff was exceedingly nice to me. This time we were offered individual soufflés that turned out to be on the house. The ginger sauce was actually pretty nice.

The main disappointment tonight actually was the wine. I brought a bottle of 2001 Kistler Pinot Noir Kistler Vineyard, but it never really showed its full potential. The wine was a bit acidic on the palate at first, which improved with aeration as it gained body in the decanter. But it fell far short of what it could have been, and in fact performed worse than the Kistler Sonoma Coast that I had a few weeks ago.

It's always a pleasure to go back to the Brasserie, with food that is solid and not fancy. It also doesn't hurt if the staff knows you and treat you I will continue to patronize them in the future.

December 16, 2008

Last (Chinese) Supper

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Tonight I met up wth a couple of friends for a long-overdue dinner. One of the friends is leaving for the holidays, and we decided that we would go to Lei Garden (利苑) for her last Chinese meal of the year. I have never been to this particular restaurant at IFC, and in fact I haven't been to a Lei Garden in quite a few years. Now that the place has been given a Michelin star, it's time for me to take another look.

We started with the simple soup of the day (例湯), which was sweet with a slightly bitter after taste - perhaps from some American ginseng (花旗蔘).  A good way to start any Cantonese meal.

We were then served a plate of crispy roast pork (脆皮燒肉), which the waitress said was an "appetizer" portion. She wasn't kidding. The plate was tiny and only had about 9 or so small cubes of the pork. The layer of crispy skin was pretty thin, and the way the meat was cut made this dish seem delicate and refined. Initially I complained that the pork was too lean - I like these fatty - but soon found the layers of fat on other pieces. This was pretty good, but I prefer my roast pork chunky, fatty and with a thick layer of crunchy skin...

There was the usual serving of blanched pea shoots (清湯豆苗), and this was pretty delicious given that the veggy is in season.

The pièce de résistance arrives - a half serving of roast Peking duck (北京烤鴨). We asked the waiter to make thin slices of the crispy skin. The pancakes and condiments are laid out on the table, and we started to make our own pockets. What surprised me were the pancakes, as they were the thinnest I have ever seen for Peking duck. Another sign of how refined the restaurant is trying to be. But after giving it some thought, I realized that these were too thin for handling. I was too afraid that these would tear, and had to handle them very carefully while eating.

The second part of the dish was stir-fried diced duck wrapped in lettuce (炒鴨菘), which was pretty yummy. In addition to using the lettuce, I used up the leftover pancakes, being very careful not to tear the paper-thin skin.

For dessert we shared an order of deep-fried glutinous rice ball with seasame (芝麻擂臺) and deep-fried egg cuillers (蛋散). The cuillers were very nice, but still can't beat the ones from Kimberly Restaurant.

I did bring along a bottle of 1996 Dominus - the Californian product of Chateau Petrus owner Christian Moueix. It's still a pretty young wine, and I definitely felt the tannins on my tongue. Initially the wine was slightly acidic on the palate - a bit Bordeaux-like - but eventually showed its true colors as a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. A good wine that needs a bit more cellaring time.

So does the restaurant deserve its coveted Michelin star? While we weren't able to sample many dishes, the ones were did have were certainly delicious. And I can see that the delicate and refined touches - like the roast pork and the pancakes for the duck - would make an impression on the Michelin reviewers. But is it worthy? Perhaps, but I'll need to sample a few more dishes to be sure.

December 15, 2008


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Today for the first time we had the entire office working late on an urgent project. We needed to pull together and get cracking on this job, but not on an empty stomach! So we took our dinner break and ended up at Miso.

I was the last to arrive, and quickly looked over the menu. I haven't been to the restaurant for a few years, since it doesn't strike me as a place that needs revisiting. I initially thought about just ordering some cold inaniwa udon (冷やし稲庭うどん), but then something else caught my eye - another cold udon that seemed more creative and interesting. So I placed my order.

The gang ordered a few starters to share, which included some pan-seared ox tongue with marinated spinach. Someone thought the ox tongue tasted funny, so I decided to try a slice and see for myself. did taste funny. Fortunately I don't think it was the meat itself, but rather the funny sauce. I couldn't quite place it, but whatever it was, it didn't have any fans at our table.

My cold udon in seasame sauce with spicy teriyaki chicken came, and I was stunned. The udon seemed OK, but was swimming in a big bowl of sesame ponzu. This could make for a messy eating experience. What's worse is that the strips of chicken were laid on top of the cold udon. Now anyone who has ordered the classic tempura with cold udon/soba knows that the freshly deep-fried tempura is always served on the side. This is done so that the tempura isn't cooled by the icy cold noodles. Well, I don't know why this restaurant doesn't understand the simple rule. I wanted my noodles cold, not my chicken, but cold chicken was what I got. And never mind the stupid hot sauce that was on the chicken... I ate the chicken but left most of the noodles in the bowl, having lost my appetite somewhere in the process.

I guess I really don't need to come back this restaurant in the near future... regardless of how close it is to the office.

A dose of creativity

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I returned to the Mandarin Grill for lunch after a three-month absence. The last time I had lunch here, I received a job offer while my future employer lowered my defenses by offering me some nice Pomerol. Following the similar trend, the friend who bought me lunch today was trying to get on my good side in return for some favors...

We asked the chef for some recommendations of new dishes that they are trying out. As a result, I started with their version of the Waldorf salad with salmon. The salmon slices were slowly poached in warm water, which resulted in a texture very similar to that of gravlax - tender and moist. This was on top of a pile of sliced apple, julienned celery, grape slices, walnut chunks all mixed with a light mayo-like sauce. What is really interesting is that the whole thing sits on top of some hazelnut sauce - which honestly was probably just Nutella... On the side there are more walnut chunks, as well as the mayo sauce in powder form - the molecular touch. Overall I liked the salad, as it's got the right combination between soft and crunchy textures.

Next came the smoked Girolles mushroom soup. Why does every chef in town nowadays think it's cool to do the "smoked" presentation? It is probably cool for the first couple of times, but gets really tiring after a while - like chocolate cakes with liquid centers...yawn! Anyway, the mushrooms are presented in a bowl, and the waiter lifts up the small glass dome as the smoky nose ascends up one's nostrils. Mushroom soup is then poured into the bowl, completing the process. It was good mushroom soup, but not that exciting for me.

For main course I ordered the crab raviolo, lemongrass, edamame (枝豆). Here is an interesting creation combining Italian, Thai and Japanese/Chinese elements. The single large raviolo dominates the bowl, and the crab filling is sweet and has a springy texture...kinda like the Chinese wonton. The lemongrass-infused olive oil is at once fragrant and light to the taste, while the beans add a slight crunchy texture. Very enjoyable.

I am pretty full by this point, and pass on dessert. We did have some wonderful, warm madeleines with my espresso. It was not the lemon-flavored variety but full of brown sugar and caramel. A very nice note to finish on.

December 14, 2008

An evening of excess...

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Last night I was at a gathering of winos at my friend's apartment. These are people who were serious enough about wine to have sat for exams on the topic (except for moi). Naturally an evening with this group is usually a lot of fun.

There was a ton of food - everything from homemade to things that were brought in from clubs and restaurants. We had smoked salmon, Chiuchow marinated goose (鹵水鵝), soy-marinated baby abalone, roast suckling pig, chicken wings, fried rice with conpoy...etc. Then there was the wonderful slow-cooked wagyu tail, cooked with some Crozes-Hermitage and based on a combination of recipes, one of which came from my friend Susan Jung. The meat just melted in my mouth, and the abundance of carrots made the stew really sweet. We also finished off with a chocolate sponge cake that tasted like chocolate-flavored 馬來糕 - light, moist and not too sweet.

But the main reason for the gathering was the wine! As usual there was quite a diverse selection.

1990 Dom Perignon from magnum - a beautiful Champagne with lots of toasty oak, lemon and minerals.

2002 Comtes Lafon Meursault Clos de la Barre - ripe nose of lemon, lots of minerals with sweet butter. For a while it was acidic both on the palate and on the finish. Towards the end the palate was a bit sweet and ripe. This wine is already mature.

2002 Ravaneau Chablis Valmur - lots of mineral, flint and lemon in the nose. Very smooth and soft on the palate.

2000 Sylvain Cathiard Chambolle-Musigny Clos de L'Orme - notes of sweet grass, currant, a little farmy. Nose was pretty open and easy to drink.

2000 Armand Rousseau Chambertin - minty, smoky, a bit of smoked meats, alcoholic. Lots of concentrated sweet fruit. Delicious, especially towards the end after further aeration.

2001 Vieille Julienne Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes - pretty alcoholic nose, a bit sweet with farmy, sous-bois, and some orange marmalade towards the end. Fairy concentrated. This appears to the last vintage for this cuvée.

2005 Lou Dumont Charmes-Chambertin - vanilla, currant notes with a hint of roast meats. Acidic on the palate.

2001 Masi Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Mazzano - I got to this wine rather late, and it tasted flat and lightly acidic.

1996 L'Eglise-Clinet - a classic Bordeaux. Smoky, grassy, currant, slightly minty. Very open and a very nice wine.

2002 L'Eglise-Clinet - minty, alcoholic, smooth and concentrated.

1996 Chapoutier Hermitage Vin de Paille - an amazing nose of cane sugar - just like the Cantonese drink of 竹蔗茅根- as well as honey, orange marmalade and honey dew.

I was well stuffed and buzzed, but the gang decided to move to Kasbah for some shisha. Apparently most haven't experienced it, and they were in the mood to be adventurous. We ended up ordering two different flavors: spiced apple (with licorice) and apple and mint. Needless to say I got pretty high from the smoke, but it was a great way to cap the evening.

December 13, 2008

Hisashiburi Imamura

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It's been such a long time since I went back to Imamura (今村), my favorite sushi place in town. Last night I finally did revisit after a prolonged absence, and I came away with a very, very full stomach as well as some fond memories.

We arrived at the restaurant fairly late, but still found it to be full. I guess the economy hasn't hit this place as hard as some others. We sit down at the bar, asked the chef for omakase, and waited for the food to arrive...

Two pieces of hirame (鮃) was laid in front of me, and we were off! Along the way we had kinmedai (金目鯛), buri (鰤), kohada (小鰭, tastes like sanma), and moved on to all kinds of shellfish like mirugai (海松貝).

We took a break from sashimi and shared a matsuba crab (松葉蟹). This was really interesting because we were served with four different tastes of the crab. First we had the eggs (外子), which were tiny and - what else - fishy. The texture was very interesting because the eggs were so tiny, even smaller than the tobiko (飛び魚の卵) that one normally finds in Japanese cuisine. Then the crab meat was separated from the shells, and you have both the legs and the body with very different tastes.

The body was much sweeter, while the legs were naturally more chewy with more bounce. Finally you have the crab roe (内子) or the base of kanimiso (蟹味噌). All very good stuff.

This was followed by a selection of sushi, which started with uni (雲丹) that was very fresh and sweet, and included very sweet anago (穴子) and some seared toro (炙りトロ).

I was uncomfortably stuffed by this point, and realized that we have had about 18 different types of sashimi, the crab, followed by 8 pieces of sushi! That's a good meal by any account...

The chef was kind enough to pour me a cup of sake at the end of the meal, as I had chosen not to drink during the meal because of some wine consumption before dinner. This was the Kikuhime Yamahai Ginjo (菊姫山廃吟醸), from one of the best sake houses in Japan. This was very fragrant and a bit on the dry side.

I finished with a fruit plate, which was a bit disappointing. The melon wasn't very sweet, but the apple and the pear were OK. I didn't realize until afterwards that they have homemade yokan (羊羹). I'll remember to do that next time...

December 10, 2008

Olé, olé...Olé, olé...

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Tonight I caught up with a friend and unwound over a bottle of wine and some simple food. We were struggling with the choice of venue, when I suddenly thought of Olé. The idea of tapas and wine seemed exactly what my friend had in mind.

I brought a bottle of 2001 BOND Matriarch, a wine that is big enough to go with heavy food. As expected the wine was massively concentrated, with nose of vanilla and caramel on top of red fruits. The wine is still very young, and the tannins are still very much in-your-face. This would need another couple of years before reaching maturity.

We started with 4 tapas, beginning with - what else - jamón de bellota "JJJJJ". Both of us absolutely love jamón, and this was a perfect way to start the evening. The Jabugo jamón was pretty decent - not as juicy and fatty as I would have liked, but I was thankful that it wasn't dry.

Pimientos rellenos de bacalao was pretty good. Our waitress served each of us with one pepper, then scooped lots of the garlic and pepper sauce onto our plates so that we can soak it up with bread. The bits of bacalao in the pepper were yummy.

Croquetas de bacalao were delicious - done exactly the way I wanted them. Soft and creamy potato and bacalao filling enclosed inside a thin layer of crispy batter. I could have had 5 of these myself...

Finally, one of my favorites which unfortunately was not to my friend's liking: morcilla de Burgos y sobrasada Mallorquina. I have always loved morcilla, the Spanish blood sausage with lots of spices. Here it is served on top of a slice of bread, as one would see in a tapas bar. Very yummy.

The two of us shared a plate of costillas de cerdo al Mojopicón. The roasted pork ribs were pretty yummy, and the garlic sauce was absolutely delish! To top it all off, the string fries on the side - about the size of spaghetti - were heavenly. Yes, I could have eaten a whole plate of these fries...

We shared an order of cheese, and finally I took in the crema Catalan by myself... The waitress came and poured Cointreau on top of the custard, then proceeded to light it. After the blue flames died down, I started digging in. The hard sugar coating on top now tastes of oranges thanks to the Cointreau. What a way to end the evening!

We were satisfied without being stuffed, and look forward to our next meal together in the new year.

December 9, 2008

Oyster nirvana

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A gathering of Hong Kong foodies took place tonight at Nine.Line Oyster and Grill. There was the publisher of a local restaurant guide, a well-known blogger (and I'm not referring to myself), and a writer for a local weekly. Oysters would be the focus tonight.

Each of us started with a plate of a dozen oysters - 12 different ones. I don't remember ever having this many oysters in one go, and was pretty excited about this. Fortunately we were each given a list to help us identify our favorites. Here are my short notes on them:

Irish Rock (Ireland) - flavors were a bit muted, neither too briney nor creamy.

Namibian (South Africa) - flesh was fatty and creamy, sweet with a touch of brine.

Écaille d'Argent (France) - similar to Irish Rock, but with a better balance and more flavor.

Utah Beach (France) - briney but has some creamy texture. No doubt named after one of the Allied landing spots in Normandie.

Smoky Bay (Australia) - very briny.

Black Pearl (France) - briney with lots of metallic/mineral flavors.

White Pearl (France) - like the Black Pearl, briney and very good.

Franklin Harbour (Australia) - briney, mineral and metallic.

Spéciale Cadoret (France) - produced by the father/son team from Riec-sur-Belon, this was briney with a long finish.

Gillardeau (France) - this was EVERYONE's favorite of the evening. Produced by the family from Bourcefranc. It was briney with a very sweet, grassy finish that was so long it was almost like wine. Awesome!

La Belle de Quiberon (France) - curiously briney without the metallic and mineral flavors.

Belon 0000 (France) - crunchy texture, it was actually acidic and sweet to the taste.

We were having such a good time that we wanted more oysters! I ordered one each of the Utah Beach and Gillardeau. Honestly I wouldn't mind just having a half-dozen of the Gillardeau! I was doing pretty well after the oysters, so I had a bowl of oyster and sea urchin cream soup. That pretty much did it for me, and I shared a bit of the spinach fettucine with seafood to finish off.

There was plenty of alcohol, of course! We started with the 2004 William Fevre Chablis Les Preuses that I brought. Chablis is one of the best matches for oysters, in no small way due to the fact that the sub-soil contains fossilized oyster shells. The wine had a steely, flinty nose with lemon notes. The finish was very long and dry.

We followed with a bottle of daiginjo sake. This was on the sweet side, and worked perfectly well to balance the briney flavors of the oysters in the mouth, almost like a palate cleanser! I must remember this next time.

Then there was the 2004 Didier Dagueneau Silex, with an explosive nose of minerals, green apples and muscat. Steely acidity cuts through the flavors. What a wonderful wine that is giving so much now, without having realized its full potential.

Finally there was the 2005 Domaine de la Mordorée Lirac Cuvée de la Reine des Bois. The violet, floral notes were really nice. It's also a treat to drink something that is produced in reasonably small quantities. 

This was a really enjoyable evening. I look forward to returning for some yummy oysters.

December 8, 2008

White truffle heaven

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Tonight saw another MNSC tasting held at Amber, the newly minted Michelin 2-star restaurant. As usual we took up a private room for the occasion, but business seems to be pretty slow for the place. The main dining room seemed less than 1/3 full...

As usual there were the amuse bouches, which were scallops with apple jelly (presented like Thomas Keller's oysters and pearls); pumpkin soup with black truffles; and foie gras lollipop on sticks.

The first course was southern Australian lobster and foie gras ravioli simmered with black winter truffle over a creamy celeriac custard with poultry velouté. Wonderful ravioli combining the taste of "surf & turf"... The celeriac custard was a bit heavy, getting to the consistency of mashed potatoes. The velouté was divine.

The chef followed up with Erquy scallop, cauliflower & almond risotto "mantecato" with clementine scented oxtail jus and shaved white truffle. The chef came to shave some white truffles for us, and a small chunk of it fell off and landed on my plate. Of course he was only too happy to leave me with it... After I finished the dish, I happily chewed on the amazingly fragrant! How sinful!

The Challan chicken was done two-ways: breast with silver beet, parmesan whipped polenta with shaved Alba truffles. The meat was tender but did not wow me. Of course truffles are always welcome...

Part two was leg as a warm pate with black winter truffles. This was wrapped in greens and was a little more interesting, and shows the chef's creativity.

I was too full to have the cheese from Bernard Antony. For dessert the mango, lime & marscapone pavlova was ok...

We offered Chef Ekkebus our congratulations on his 2-stars. I do hope that this helps bring the customers in, because it sure felt a little empty...

Now MNSC gatherings are all about blind-tasting wines. So what did we have tonight?

We started with the 1995 Dom Perignon Oenothèque, which was one of the best Champagnes I have tasted in a while. Huge, powerful nose of toasty oak, pain grillé, yeast and minerals. This was really, really enjoyable.

The wines were served in 3 flights of two, each with its own theme. They were:

1985 Solaia - from the nose it was clear that this wine was old. Hint of grass, red fruits, caramel, and some oxidation. A bit acidic on the palate. 92 points.

1999 Solaia - smoky nose with star anise, mint, coffee, ripe prunes and a bit of wet chalk. Alcoholic and huge, tannic finish.

1988 Mouton-Rothschild - one of the surprises of the evening. Very smoky, grassy, grilled meats, coffee, pepper nose. Very smooth on the palate with a slight acidic finish. 96 points.

1986 Mouton-Rothschild - everyone's biggest disappointment, given the 100-point rating by many critics. Smoky, grassy and sweet - classic Left Bank nose. Good concentration. 94 points.

1994 Pesquera Janus - very sweet and exotic nose with orange, lychee, pineapple, jackfruit and red dates (jujube) notes. The finish tasted like the Thai sticky rice with coconut milk that is often paired with mango or durian. 95 points.

1994 Vega Silicia Unico - very sweet nose with lots of orange and minerals, almost blood-like. Reminds me of a Californian Syrah. 96 points.

December 5, 2008

My last two meals in San Francisco

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Today's my last full day in San Francisco. Time for just two more proper meals here before heading home. As I have finally finished taking inventory of my wine collection here, I am left with a day of relaxation.

And what better way to start the day than having lunch at Boulevard, Nancy Oakes' place down by the Embarcadero? The restaurant seemed popular with the public, garnering high ratings with Zagat and is also the proud recipient of a Michelin star.

I started with a glass of 2007 Barrel 27 High on the Hog, a Rhone-blend with Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. The wine was a bit cold so the nose was very light, with only a bit of oak and lemon. Sweet and hot on the palate with a bitter, long finish. Not very impressed.

I had a little trouble deciding on the starter, but in the end I settled on pan seared Monterey calamari - stuffed with jambalaya rice, crispy tentacles, lemon aioli, gumbo sauce. I like the idea of stuffed calamari, especially when there's a Cajun twist. I was not disappointed. The calamari was nicely pan-fried on the outside, with nice flavors of smoky sausage and peppers coming through. The gumbo sauce added a nice, subtle touch. The deep-fried tentacles were wonderful. Off to a good start.

The pan roasted local ling cod - wild rice & erbette chard, fondant orange cauliflower with herb bread crumbs, Sherry beurre blanc was also nicely done. The tender flesh had just enough flavor on the outside, and sits on a bed of yummy wild rice. The heavy flavor of the erbette chard stood out from the rice. The cauliflowers were interesting, as the topping is very similar to the herb sauce one finds in escargot Bourguignon.

I am stuffed and decide to pass on dessert. Good thing I was going to be walking around for the rest of the afternoon! But I'm real glad I was able to sample the creations by Nancy Oakes.

Dinner was a totally different experience altogether. At around 8pm I decided to head for dinner at Bistro Boudin, which is just around my hotel. I had passed by yesterday and know that it's part of a huge operation run by Boudin Bakery, and it got decent reviews on Zagat. I decided to try out a couple of seafood dishes while enjoying some of San Francisco's famous sourdough French bread.

I knew things weren't gonna be good right from the get-go. Despite the restaurant being less than half full, the woman at the reception told me that "only very large tables were available", and that I'd have to wait. She suggested that I sit at the bar and watch TV while I eat.  I initially thought that they had closed an entire section to make it easier on themselves, but found 2 diners sitting in a booth. I smile and agree to the suggestion, but I am upset at the treatment.  This got worse as a family of 4 walked in and was immediately seated at a table.

I'm at Fisherman's Wharf, so I go local and make it a Dungeness crab evening. Started wih Dungeness crab cake with roasted corn salad and whole grain mustard-lemongrass aioli. The crab cake was pretty big, and tasted alright. The addition of mustard was interesting. The corn salad was refreshing and provided a good balance to the savory crab.

Here we have another problem. Before I was finished with the crab cake, the waiter brought the main course over. He sensed that I was not quite happy, and took it back to the kitchen after I asked him to wait for 5 minutes. So the comments I saw on the Zagat's website are true - the service is all about rushing you through your meal and getting you out the door. My pasta was sent back to the kitchen, where the cook added a bit more sauce and sautéed it again. And it showed - the texture was off.

And what was it that I ordered? Why, it's the Dungeness crab “mac and cheese” - aged Vermont cheddar cheese, cream and freshly picked Dungeness crab. Well, "mac and cheese" is a bit of a misnomer, because they actually used rigatoni. The tubes were a bit too large for my taste. But the chunks of sweet crab meat were nice. Unfortunately the sauce was a bit dry thanks to being reheated.

The huge glass of 2005 Guigal Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc I got was way too cold, and showed nothing in the nose.

Yes, it is nice to be able to smell the bread baking downstairs. But would I go back to Boudin for mediocre food and poor service?

December 3, 2008

Dinner at Michael Mina

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Tonight I finally got around to dining at Michael Mina, a dinner that I missed on my last visit to San Francisco 2 years ago. It was a really wonderful experience on all counts, except for the fact that I was dining solo.

The restaurant is located just off the main lobby at the Westin St. Francis, on an elevated platform to the left. There's no separation of space between the bar and the restaurant, which makes for a noisy dining room. But the space benefits from the very high ceilings of the hotel lobby - even though it's already above the lobby floor - and dominated by 6 Ionic columns giving the room some character.

I went for the 6-course tasting menu, and as wine director Rajat Parr had come up with wine-pairings for each course, I decided that would be the way to go. I don't think I could have done better!

On arrival, I was presented with a flute of Chartogne Tallet Cuvée Michael Mina NV. Apparently one of my colleagues had arranged for this all the way from Hong Kong, which was a very kind gesture. There were typical citrus and oak notes, with lots of bubbles and a pretty yeasty attack. The wine was crisp and not too dry on the palate, which was quite a nice balance. Most of all, the finish was very long. Quite enjoyable.

The chef sent out an amuse bouche that is actually on the other menus: Dungeness crab - backfin meat, cioppino broth, tinkerbell peppers. The crab meat was very sweet and balanced very nicely with the cioppino. The olives were really wonderful and tasty, while the tiny calamari rings added additional texture.

I chose to have the foie gras terrine - sumac financier, pomegranate gelée, toasted pine nuts to start. The silky smooth, slightly sweet foie gras paired very well with the tangy sumac and pomegranate. The fragrant toasted pine nuts on top added a whole new dimension to the dish.

This course was paired with a glass of 2006 Kracher Cuvée Beerenauslese. I'm a big fan of the sweet wines from Austrian producer Alois Kracher, and it was refreshing to see this on the menu. Nose of honey, honeydew, apricot, orange blossom, with a bit of sharp acetone. The wine was actually slightly bitter mid-palate, tasting like orange marmalade.

What followed was crispy skin fillet of branzino - chick pea purée, olive tapenade, panisse croûton. The seabass was done perfectly - crispy skin while the flesh was tender and juicy. It worked very well with the chick pea purée, and also with the citrus pesto. The 'croûton' was creamy and delicious.

The wine for this course was 2005 Ladoucette Pouilly-Fumé - a totally underrated wine. Lots of minerals, flint and oak here, with a hint of lemon, a bit of sweet butter. Long and spicy finish.

My favorite dish of the evening was the pan-seared squab breast - chanterelle mushrooms, chestnuts, Brussels sprouts. You basically get it done two-ways on the same plate: the leg was a confit - crispy, concentrated flavors and sooo yummy. The breast was pink, juicy and tender. The sweet and bitter Brussel sprouts were great, and the black truffle grounds in the sauce completed the whole experience.

I didn't quite like the 2006 Gros Frère & Soeur Vosne-Romanée. The nose had lots of jammy sweet fruit, with hints of smoke and some caramel after a while, it was also very alcoholic. Basically the wine is just too young, and was very 'grippy' both in terms of tannins and acidity. Not well-balanced at this stage.

The chef kept the bar high for the next few dishes. The hand rolled cavatelli - confit rabbit, butternut squash, brown butter rabbit jus was awesome. I fell in love with the first nibble of sweet butternut squash, then the cavallo nero made this dish to die for. The bittersweet taste of the vegetable absolutely made the dish. What is cavallo nero and why was the taste so familiar? Why, it's also known as black kale, or a type of kai lan (芥蘭) to the Chinese!

The 2005 Domaine du Caillou Châteauneuf-du-Pape was pretty good, but still very young and alcoholic. Nose was a bit minty with strawberry marshmellows. Very long finish.

I opted for the lamb instead of Kobe beef. With a name like Elysian Fields lamb saddle - artichoke mustard, roasted tomatoes, potato gnocchi, this cannot be anything else but heavenly. The lamb was pink and tender inside, while the outer rim was seared perfectly. What was most important was that the chef left strips of fat on the meat, and nothing in the world beats animal fat that has been seared to a crisp on the surface. As I remarked to my server, "lamb is nothing without the fat!"

The 2006 Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage was a wonderful wine. Despite being made from 100% Syrah, the nose was very much like a Côte-Rôtie, with the telltale floral notes of violet and rose. The wonderful nose also included classic notes of smoked meats. Unfortunately it is also still a young wine, so it was too tannic and grippy on the palate.

I chose dessert over cheese, and the kabocha squash (isn't kabocha simply pumpkin in Japanese?) - butter cake, cocoa caramel, coconut curry ice cream was divine. The scoop of ice cream made the dessert - I thought I was tasting Thai green curry! Worked well with the butter cake.

I finished with a glass of the 2003 Royal Tokaji Company Tokaji 5 Puttonyos - this has got to be the "Blue Label" and another perennial favorite of mine. Nose of marmalade, cloves, a bit of honeydew and just a tad sharp with the acetone. The wine is still young and has a nice balance between the sweetness and the acidity.

But wait! There are still bonbons! Black sesame ice cream coated in milk chocolate, and orange ice cream coated in white chocolate. Topped with rice crispies. Truly sinful and I'm bursting at the seams.

What made the evening truly fantastic was my server Malcolm. It's not often that I rave about restaurant service, but I definitely need to commend Malcolm. It is so rare to meet someone at a restaurant who is so knowledgeable about food and wine. He knew every ingredient and exactly what it contributed to the overall taste of the dish. He also knew his wines, and is able to describe them and discuss similarities with other wines. He obviously knew I was really into food and wine, especially since I was taking pictures with my SLR the whole time. Exceptional service. And all the captains called me by name throughout the evening, even as I left.

I will definitely be paying the restaurant another visit the next time I'm in town.

December 2, 2008

Michelin Lands in Hong Kong

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So the results have finally been announced - the outcome of Michelin Guide's tour of Hong Kong eateries. Overall opinion seems to be reasonably positive - much better than the Japanese reaction to the first Tokyo guide. Internet discussion boards and food bloggers have already been in action, and I'm here to throw in my 2 cents...

There were very few stars in Hong Kong. This is not surprising, since many eateries (I wouldn't call some of these places 'restaurants') have zero decor and zero service. There are always surprises, however...

We have only one three-star restaurant, which is Lung King Heen, the Cantonese restaurant at the Four Seasons. Curiously it is also one of the few top-end Chinese restaurants I have yet to visit. Well, now that's gotta change.

I feel that a number of Chinese restaurants have had their status inflated, namely the ones from Shangri-La Hotels, Lei Garden and also the ones run by Maxim's. While some of the Maxim's outlets can deliver pretty solid food, I am not sure that they are deserving of Michelin stars.

The two most overrated restaurants on the list are BO Innovation and Hutong. Hutong is a well-known tourist stop which, while serving up decent fare, is mostly known for the stunning view and decor. As for BO, while I would not deny the level of Alvin's creativity, I have stopped going there since 1) it no longer thrills me as menu items do not change much; and 2) I felt the French chef really wasn't up to snuff. I haven't been back in a while, so maybe things have gotten better.

Our friends at Pierre must be disappointed, but I feel that I can understand why it only received one star: the wine list. To be fair, I haven't looked at the wine list lately, but from the very beginning I always felt it was a poor list. There are really not enough choices for a restaurant of this calibre. The pricing is also a bit out of touch with reality - which may be partly attributable to the fact that the wines were only acquired in the last few years at high prices. The food here is very solid, though.

As Chua Lan (蔡瀾) wrote in Next Magazine a few weeks ago, Michelin will achieve their objective of selling their guidebooks in Hong Kong. Many will be purchased by locals (such as myself, if I can call myself local) simply for the curiosity. We may not agree with their choices - and feel that they know nothing about Chinese food - but in the end, we will still buy the guides just to have a look. I'll be hitting my local bookstore when these babies come out...

Dining solo

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Let's face it: it sucks to have to eat alone in a restaurant. For years I have chosen to have either something really down-market or simply getting room service in my hotel room. Both are forms of torture for people who see themselves as foodies.

I'm flying solo for a few days in San Francisco. While I don't mind grabbing something simple like an In/Out Burger for lunch, dinners are completely different. Trying to find somewhere decent to eat alone (and not feel like Steve Martin in The Lonely Guy) is not easy.

Tonight I spent a good amount of time walking around Union Square, circling it a couple of times trying to find somewhere to go. I debated about going into Farallon, since I have passed by numerous times on previous visits. But nothing really struck me.

Finally I found myself in front of Kuleto's, Pat Kuleto's original restaurant. A quick look at the menu outside and I walked through the doors, requested "table for one" and found myself seated at the bar counter right in front of the open kitchen.

Sitting in front of this open kitchen was quite an experience. I immediately felt the heat coming from the open grills as well as the deep-fryer and open flames. It was also an opportunity to watch the head chef dispatch orders to all the line cooks, and see how the real cooking is done. And yes, the line cooks were all of Hispanic descent as Anthony Boudain would tell you in Kitchen Confidential.

I started with a glass of 2007 Cambíata Monterey County Albariño, as I wanted something that wasn't a Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio. The rather full glass delivered pleasant results - nose of tropical fruit, a hint of oak and minerals (even though the wine sees no oak). The wine was a bit flat (hence easy drinking) mid-palate, but it had a nice long finish...especially in the back of my throat!

I started with coppa di testa - head cheese again! This time there was a healthy chunk of it on my plate, along with some nice greens drenched in lots of olive oil and crispy melba toast. Yummy.

What followed was risotto allo zafferano, with gulf shrimps and day boat sea scallops. I complimented Chef Eric on the dish, and he promptly gave credit to his line cook Alex. The risotto wasn't as al dente as hardcore Italians would have it, but nevertheless I thought it achieved a fine balance and very much to my liking. The seafood was fresh and sweet, although curiously I always ended up with a grain or two of very fine sand (or something else hard) with my scallops. The saffron, basil and garlic combined to create something truly flavorful, and I lapped up the dish in no time. One side effect though - this was a bit heavy on the salt and I found my throat a little parched as I left the restaurant.

Perhaps it was because I was dining alone at the bar. Or because I was a little Asian furiously typing away on his Blackberry. But the staff was incredibly friendly and came by from time to time to make small talk. The captain had accidentally input the wrong order for my main course, and apologized several times for his error. I came out of the restaurant not only satiated, but felt convinced that I would return at a later date.


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