August 29, 2008

Legendary redemption

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A few of us gathered for a casual wine dinner at the Legend Concept tonight. It's been a few months since my last visit, so I wanted to see whether I would catch the chef on a good night. Fortunately, I did.  The general theme tonight for the wines was red Burgundy.

We started with a bottle of Riesling, which was poured out of a Jacob's Creek bottle. Initially I almost wanted to inflict physical harm to the owner of the wine...What was he thinking?! But on the palate it actually tasted nothing like what the crappy Aussie winery was capable of producing. The wine was very sweet on the palate - definitely late harvest. And the nose was full of toasty oak, minerals, and petrol - classic Riesling. As it turned out the owner was playing a trick on me, as the wine was actually the 1999 J.J. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese. An interesting choice as the wine to start with...

Next up was the 1990 Nicolas Potel Pommard 1er Cru Les Pezerolles. Unbelievably, there was massive amounts of tannins for a wine this age, and unfortunately the finish was short. The nose was reasonably elegant, with a bit of fruit still evident. The wine improved with time, but unfortunately it was still my least favorite bottle of the evening.

We moved to the 1994 Leroy Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru Les Vigneronds, which was a classic Leroy. There was amazing amounts of sweet fruit in the nose, along with obvious notes of leather. A very powerful wine with a good balance between acidity and tannin. Still going strong after a few hours.

I had some trepidation in opening my bottle of 1990 Armand Rousseau Clos de la Roche. Rousseau wines are known for their elegance and not power, so I thought this would be overshadowed by some of the other wines of the evening. In the end I was pretty happy, as the wine turned out to beat my expectations, especially considering the source of the bottle. This was a classic, elegant Burgundy through and through, with a nose of leather, grilled meats, good amount of sweet fruit (although not powerful like the Leroy), plum and even a hint of mint I thought. There was a good amount of acidity on the palate, but initially the wine faded quickly in the glass. Towards the end, a bit of smoke emerged from the nose. A very enjoyable wine.

The last bottle of red was the 1996 Robert Groffier Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses. A very big wine, my first whiff of the nose showed plenty of sweet caramel, then gradually came a bit of leather. The wine has lots of oomph! and has such concentration and finish. After a couple of hours it did soften a little, but was still going strong. A tough choice between this and the Leroy for the wine of the evening. 

We finished with a half bottle of the 2004 Yves Cuilleron Condrieu Ayguets. This was a big dessert wine, with loads of orange marmalade, apricot, honey and a hint of ripe melon. Very, very enjoyable.

In terms of food, we started with a platter of fruits de mer - consisting of two different types of oysters (one being Tasmanian I believe) as well as Alaskan king crab. The oysters were lean, briney and not creamy and sweet at all. Taste was decent but I felt it did not pair well with the Auslese. The king crab was obviously frozen, and while there was a good balance between the sweetness of the meat and the salt, the texture wasn't quite to my liking.

The soup was a totally regrettable consomme with some vongole and tomato bits. Once again the chef totally failed to deliver on the soup, just like last time. I am still scratching my head about this one... 

However, the chef started to redeem himself on the next course - scallops and spinach baked in pastry. This was a nice blend of the sweet scallop meat with the spinach, accompanied by some alfalfa sprouts. The pastry itself looked (and tasted like) Cantonese cha xiu sou (叉燒酥).

After a scoop of watermelon sorbet to cleanse our palate (unfortunately a little marred by the decision to leave the seeds in the blender), we were served the main course of roast quail stuffed with rice and liver. This was really nicely done, as the cubes of liver and the rice worked well with the bird. The cream sauce, mushrooms and baby pea shoots also worked well together as garnish. Yummy stuff, and much better than what I had on my last visit!

For dessert we had lemon cheesecake accompanied by mango and lobster ice cream. Huh? Well to be honest it actually reminds me of the lobster salad with fresh fruit that you sometimes see during Chinese banquets, except that you now have ice cream instead of mayonnaise...

Overall it was a pretty good meal, and redemption has been achieved...for now. Let's see what happens on my next visit.

Not quite worth Sevva-ing this time

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I made a return visit to Sevva today during lunch, along with a few other colleagues. We had someone who has never been to Sevva and was eager to try it out, so the anticipation was pretty high.

I wanted to try something different on the menu, so I chose the beef short-rib burger. The menu indicated that they drew inspiration from the Koreans, meaning it was similar to marinated kalbi - a bit sweet, fatty and tender. The burger also came with tomato and purple onions, plus fries on the side. Honestly, while I thought it was interesting to use kalbi as the meat, I wasn't wowed. I thought I was eating a glorified Mos Burger or McDonald's Fantastik... For the price that they charge, it was not good value for money. I'd much rather go back to Shake 'em Buns!

Two of my colleagues had the wagyu beef cheek and ox tongue pot pie that I had last time, and both thoroughly enjoyed it. The other colleague tried the Taiwanese beef noodle that she had heard so much about, but found it disappointing as there was too little beef, the broth was too sweet and the texture of the noodles not up to her expectations.

As two of us were disappointed with our food, we all decided to make up via dessert. The four of us ordered 5 desserts to share.

The signature crunch cake was interesting - it was a simple, light cream cake which came with some butterscotch/toffee crunch on the side. The crunch was really nice and fragrant, although I found the cake to be a little on the dry side.

The warm pear tarte a la mode was pretty good. It was done in the style of very thin tarte tatin, with sprinkles of nutmeg (I think...or was it vanilla?). Anyway it came with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, which is always welcome.

We also had the signature turtle pie - which was chocolate but filled with hazelnut and othe crunch bits, and topped with whipped cream. This was OK but did not wow me.

My favorite was the chocolate fudge cake with marmalade. The layer of fudge in the midde was rich enough for my taste, and the topping of candied citrus rind was a perfect match with chocolate fudge. Yummy!

For me the disappointment came with the coffee jelly (can't remember the actual name...), a cup of layered pure coffee jelly as well as creamy coffee/cappuccino custard. I was picturing something much sweeter, but instead it was unsweetened coffee jelly, and the custard was also unsweetened.

Well, the meal today was saved by the desserts. I guess I should look for something else to order next time...

August 24, 2008

Yummy Moroccan

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I went to the driving range tonight to try to regain some of my muscle memory for golf. After the short session, my cousin Maria and I decided to head over to Elements Mall next door and try out Malouf's - the newest outpost for Melbourne's Greg Malouf.

Malouf's first venture in Hong Kong - Soho's Olive - is high on my list for Middle Eastern cuisine, so I was eager to try out this place.  The place had nice, modern decor - with a comfy bar downstairs and the dining room upstairs. The music was a mix of lounge (can we say Hotel Costes?) and Mid East themed dance tunes. Very cool.

We started with the mezze platter - a mix of 5 starters. The merguez roll was tasty, and instead of the usual sausage, the meat was formed into a thin sheet and rolled with another sheet of dough, so it kinda looked like a Swiss roll. The crab meat and couscous cigar was also interesting, rolled inside a sheet of filo pastry. The falafel came in the form of round, flat discs like poker chips, and tasted nice with the yogurt dip. There was also a tomato and almond dip, and a mixed veggie chutney.

For main course I chose the bisteeya - the traditional Moroccan pigeon pie. This was really wonderful. The baked, flaky filo pastry contained shredded pigeon, almond flakes, along with finely chopped mint leaves and egg. The spices were wonderful, and the pigeon meat was very tender. The occasional bits of fatty skin added something extra to the experience. I didn't really care for the cabbage salad underneath - the dressing was a bit too acidic for me.

For dessert we shared the mulhalbia, the custard cream with strawberries and orange blossom water. On top of it all were thin strands of sugar just like the sai mai (龍鬚糖) I had in Ayutthaya. These were flavored with orange blossom water, and we had fun playing with them... I finished off with some Moroccan mint tea, and promised to return soon for another round of yummy food.

August 23, 2008

Where to have dinner when you're battered by a typhoon

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My friend Wendy was in town, and stuck in HK with nothing to do on a day when the city shuts down, batten down the hatches and braced for Typhoon Nuri. She needed a place for dinner, and since she was staying at the Conrad and most of the city's restaurants were closed yesterday, we decided on my old trusty standby - Brasserie on the Eighth.

Given that I've been to this restaurant many, many times, I was determined not to order the usual suspects. Usually it's either steak tartare, bouillabaisse or caesar salad to start, followed by the grilled kurobuta pork chop that I love so much. Instead, I started with something that I haven't ordered here for a very long time - foie gras.

I used to stay away from foie gras whenever I dined here, because it was always too dry from overcooking. However, the Tasting Foie Gras last night was well done. The sauteed liver was well-seared on the outside while retaining its soft, juicy consistency. Naturally there were a few grape halves as well as a piece of fig confit as accompaniment. The little bon-bon of mousse was fine and smooth as I spread it over a piece of toast. Finally, the triangle of terrine was also reasonably good, with the nice texture of veins adding to the experience. Very good indeed! I guess I can start having foie gras here again...

For main course I had the slow-braised beef short ribs in red wine sauce. This is something I have had once before, and it performed well on this particular night. The meat was so, so tender...almost melting in my mouth. Of course, the presence of fat and a bit of tendon helped create this effect. A simple dish that was well-executed. The steamed vegetables on the side helped to balance the full, fatty flavor of the meat.

On my recommendation, Wendy had the steak tartare to start and the bouillabaisse as main course. She chose to have the Grand Marnier souffle while I decided to be good and stay off dessert...

I brought along a bottle of the 1997 Arietta Red, an interesting Cabernet Franc-dominated wine. Arietta is run by John Kongsgaard, one of my favorite Californian winemakers. As I expected, I was blown away by the nose of this wine. It was just so amazingly sweet through and through, with strawberries, cotton candy, and a hint of leather. The wine was very, very sweet on the palate, and I was frankly surprised by the strong presence of tannins in this wine. Being from 1997 and at over 10 years of age, I naturally expected the wine to have soft and lovely tannins on the palate. Well, there was still enough tannins for me to chew on, and the wine has been poured from a decanter! Definitely a powerful, full-bodied wine that was still drinking well more than 3 hours after opening. Interestingly, when I opened the wine at home, I had to remove lots of tartaric acid crystals that had formed on the bottom of the cork, which had also stuck to the inside of the neck.

I was glad to have braved the wind and the rain for this dinner. I'll know where to go during the next typhoon...

August 22, 2008

A very cool commercial

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I must have been watching other channels on TV a bit more recently, since I've only just stumbled on this very cool commercial for the Discovery Channel.


 It's a nice, catchy song featuring some of the stars of the channel's shows - like Dirty Jobs' Mike Rowe and Mythbusters' Jamie and Adam. Being a fan of the channel, I naturally found this to be very cool.

August 19, 2008

High notes at Highcliff

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Last night Arnold hosted his first MNSC tasting of the year at the Highcliff clubhouse. He had arranged for an outside caterer and we were treated to a Chinese feast which left me very, very stuffed.

Of course, the wines served were also outstanding. The three flights each had a distinctive theme, and the identities of the wines were revealed after each flight.

We started with the 2000 Dom Perignon - the first time all of us had tried this vintage. The nose was very toasty, and the wine was a little "heady" and vibrant due to its young age.

First flight:
1988 Beaucastel - smoky nose of grilled meats, bacon fat but the wine was a bit short on the finish. There was no sweetness at all on the palate, and in fact was a bit acidic while there was still a good amount of tannins you can chew on. 93 points.

1988 Joseph Roty Charmes-Chambertin - the first whiff presented a very explosive sweet nose which disappeared pretty quickly. Afterwards a bit vegetal with distinct nose of green peppers. 90 points.

Second flight:
1989 La Fleur de Gay - nose very sweet, a bit medicinal with acetone notes. The combination pointed to a right bank Bordeaux. Caramel emerged later on. 92 points.

1989 Le Gay - sweet nose but again distinctively right bank Bordeaux. Notes of chocolate emerged with time. 92 points.

1989 La Fleur Petrus - nose was a bit funky with distinct notes of preserved lemon peel (陳皮), a bit sweet on the palate and tannins were pretty evident. 90 points.

Third flight:
1998 Rayas - an explosive sweet nose, with lychees all over and clearing up your sinus...lots of tropical fruit. Sweet on the palate, too. If this weren't the telltale combination for a Rayas, I would wonder if we were served a red dessert wine... Color was surprisingly light and the rim was already orange, misleading us about its age. 99 points for this wonderful bottle.

1998 Beaucastel Hommage a Jacques Perrin - very farmy with nose of smoky, grilled meats. Tannins very firm. Very distinctively Beaucastel. Delicious now but I'm sure it would only improve with age. 98 points.

We also had many courses of wonderful Chinese food. We started with giant "glass" prawns (玻璃蝦), which were very juicy and firm. I stayed away from the oyster or prawn sauce so that my palate wouldn't get messed up for wine.  Next up were little "omlettes" of pan-fried bird's nest with egg white and crab meat. These were pretty delicious with nice texture.  The stir-fried fish cubes with celery was next, followed by a wonderful pan-fried chicken. Then there was the delicious deep-fried spare ribs with garlic and chilli, which I really enjoyed.

The bowl of braised beef brisket with turnip (清燉蘿蔔牛腩) was exquisite, with really soft tendons. I couldn't help but have a second bowl of the char siu fried rice, since it was done so well and the rice grains so chewy. I'm pretty full at this point, but finish the delicious bowl of almond milk with lotus seeds and bird's nest (蓮子燕窩杏仁茶). I normally don't go for almond milk but somehow this seemed the perfect way to finish the meal.

After gorging myself on the wonderful selection of fruits, I decide that I couldn't fit anything more in my tummy, and bid farewell to the host and the other guests. I think next time I should turn down the second bowl of fried rice, regardless of how yummy it may be...

August 16, 2008

Plus ça change: lessons from the Beijing Olympics

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We are now more than halfway through the Beijing Olympics, and news about the Opening Ceremony continue to trickle in. All of this confirmed my belief that things in China haven't really progressed/evolved all that much after all...

I must admit I was pretty awe-struck by the artistic show for the first hour, under the direction of famed director Zhang Yimou (張藝謀). Zhang is one of my favorite directors, although his more recent works have demonstrated a clear shift away from his early style. He has been accused of focusing less on the story and concentrating only on the aesthetic aspects, but this is fine by me as I love the cinematography and some of the special FX of his recent works. The visual element is very important to me.


Well, the show was pretty. The giant scroll/screen was really something. And the sight of dancers gracefully "painting" on the scroll with "ink" really impressed me. Showcasing the four great inventions of the Chinese civilization was also a good way to allow the world to see the contribution made by the Chinese people.

But...somewhere along the line things went a little wrong. At the very beginning, when the TV was showing the footage of the 29 giant "footsteps" traveling across Beijing, I noticed something strange. The images I saw looked like CGI and didn't look like any live footage I had ever seen. The lighting was all wrong and it looks like it was processed. When the live broadcast cut to the view from inside the Bird's Nest, the contrast was all the more evident.

Of course, we now know that the first part of the footage was "faked" - it wasn't live at all! It was indeed computer enhanced. After this was uncovered, the organizers defended their actions by stating that due to the unpredictable weather and the difficulty of positioning helicopters to shoot live footage, they decided to come up with the best solution so that the image people saw would be "perfect." Hmmm...

Then, in the middle of the ceremony, we saw a group of children present the Chinese national flag, dressed in the native costumes of 56 ethnic groups found within China. As the procession went on, we also saw a pretty little girl in a red dress singing a song in a beautiful voice. As the camera focused on the little girl, I couldn't help but notice that she was offbeat...her lips didn't quite match the words I was hearing. As I was already intoxicated by this point (see The best suckling pig ever), I didn't give it another thought.

By now this segment has caused two separate "sensations": none of the children came from ethnic minorities - they were all Han Chinese - even though the program introduced them as minorities. And the little girl in the red dress was lip-synching to a recording made by the real singer, who was deemed to be not up to the visual standards of the officials. In other words, she just wasn't pretty enough for TV. The organizers, of course, again have their justifications. It's quite normal for people of one ethnicity to dress up in the costumes of another, they say, especially in a performance. That may be true, but then perhaps the program shouldn't state that they are minority children. That's a blatantly false statement.

As for the little girl, well...the Chinese officials wanted the whole world to see a pretty face, while at the same time hear the perfect voice. So by doing what they did, they were able to deliver the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, the rest of the world didn't buy this argument, and neither do I. William Pesek called it "China's Milli Vanilli moment" in his Bloomberg column, making reference to the disgraced pop duo who lost their Grammy Award after it was discovered that they lip synched everything.

This particular action by the Chinese officials have now further tainted the Opening Ceremonies, turning it into a big joke. When audiences pay good money to go to a live concert, they want the real thing. If they find out that the artist on stage was lip syching, you can bet that they would be extremely upset and even demand their money back. Why would the live audience inside th Bird's Nest that night - and audiences around the world who paid via the TV broadcast rights - feel any different? And can you imagine people's reaction (not to mention the artist's own feelings) if the organizer told Sarah Brightman that they preferred a prettier singer, so can she please just sing in the background while someone else stood on top of the globe and lip-synched to "You and Me"?

Oh, and it was also revealed that Beijing didn't want TV cameras and audiences to see empty seats at some of the less popular events, so they got "volunteers" to fill up those empty seats so that the world can see how popular the Beijing Olympics is. All this points to one message - that China is all about what's superficial, that presenting the best image possible is all that matters to the powers that be. This, coincidentally, fits in quite well with what we have seen from Zhang Yimou in the last few years - and is exactly what he is being critized for.

I have heard people complain about the "racist" West nitpicking the little flaws of the Opening Ceremony, a statement echoed by Wang Wei, the Executive Vice President and Secretary General of the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee. Mr. Wang called the accusing press "meticulous" - the exact quote in Chinese is "我認為你太吹毛求疵了".  I completely, respectfully disagree.

The whole world knows that the Olympics has always been regarded by the Chinese central government as its "coming out party." A chance to show the world the might of the Chinese people, and all the things that China can achieve. The fact that China threw an estimated USD 44 billion into staging the Olympics and building new hardware is a testament to how important this is to them. The whole world is watching, and China cannot afford to let the world see any flaws in the big show. But when you make such a big deal about something in public, you can't really complain about people putting everything under a microscope, because you invited the whole world to come and see it for themselves!

And the name of the game continues to be hardware, which really is what China has had to show for over the last 10 years. We know China now has lots of dough, and is certainly not short of people or labor. So just throw resources at something and build some impressive hardware to show people how great you are. Forget the software - it doesn't matter and you can't see it on TV anyway. Forget reality and what's underneath - coz all we need is the best image and face. We have the Bird's Nest, we have the Water Cube. We have a new airport terminal. What else do you want?! We just want the big picture, and sweep everything else under the carpet and forget about it. With this mentality, it's no wonder that the Olympics turned out the way it did.

Oh by the way, reports have surfaced recently that two of the Chinese girls on the women's gymnastics team are underage. This is of course denied by the officials, but honestly, when I saw them on TV I cannot image that they have reached puberty...

August 9, 2008

The best suckling pig ever

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Last night I had dinner with a group of friends at the Kimberley Chinese Restaurant (君怡閣) in the Kimberley Hotel. The venue was chosen because I had been dearly missing the stuffed suckling pig, and also because we could get a room with TV to watch the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics while we dined.

We brought our own selections of wines as is customary, but this time some of the friends actually brought their own wine glasses. We counted 9 1/2 bottles of wine, and decided not to open all of them as there were only 7 of us...

We started with the 1999 Moet and Chandon while a couple of us waited for the others to arrive. Very nice and easy to drink. As the rest of the crowd arrived the bottle count increased.

There was the Jacques Selosse Brut Initiale NV, a very nice blanc de blancs Champagne. I had never heard of this producer before, but was very pleasantly surprised by the quality. The wine tasted yeasty and a bit sweet on the palate, but at the same time very crisp. The nose was a little toasty, and reminds me of aged Champagne that I love so much.

We moved on to the next pair of whites, and what a pair they made!  The 2003 Comtes Lafon Meursault Charmes 1er Cru had the sweet and ripe nose of Japanese pear, with straw, buttery corn and hints of minerals and melon. A beautiful wine. However, it was blown away by its elder sibling...

The 2001 Comtes Lafon Meursault Perrieres 1er Cru had a knockout, explosive sweet nose, with tons of caramel, marshmellow and a hint of sweet corn. Despite the nose being so sweet, the wine was surprisingly acidic on the palate. What an amazing wine!

I brought the last white wine - the 1999 Sine Qua Non Tarantella - for Elen as she always loved the wines from Sine Qua Non. This interesting blend of Chardonnay, Roussanne and Viognier always produces interesting results. With the first pour, the Chardonnay was more evident and you get loads of minerals, toasty oak, as well as honey and some of the floral notes from the Viognier. Later on beeswax and sweet corn emerged, and as the wine developed further the Viognier became dominant, and it was floral all the way. The color was now golden and I must say that I really enjoyed this wine, and it's a much better showing than the last bottle I had 4 years ago.

The last pair of reds was also my contribution. The first bottle was more of a curiosity as the wine is no longer being made, and I'm pretty sure many people never knew of its existence. The 1991 Kistler Cabernet Sauvignon turned out to be much, much better than any of us had expected. In a blind tasting many of us would have marked it as a Left Bank Bordeaux, and probably a Pauillac! The nose was classic Pauillac with lots of smoke and a bit of grilled meats. There was no hint of the concentrated sweet fruit that would give it away as a Californian, except of the minty nose which would have pegged it as a Cabernet Sauvignon. Given the bottle age, the tannins have now become very smooth and yummy. This could have just been an off-vintage Bordeaux classed growth. I think most of the crowd really enjoyed this one.

The second red was the 2002 Red Car Sugar Daddy - which I opened around 7pm and only got to taste after more than 3 hours. It was without question a Californian Syrah - the nose was totally sweet and sugary, like alcoholic Ribena as I like to say. There were tons of minerals, again to the point of smelling like blood, and lots of sweet strawberries. Even after being put into a decanter, there was very little softening of its massive concentration. Not sure that this is the style of wine that this group enjoys, so maybe I should refrain from similar types of wines in the future...

Some words about the was excellent as usual and I again left the restaurant well stuffed. We had two starters: the braised pomelo skin (柚皮) and the deep-fried fish skin (炸魚皮). Both were excellent, although I missed the shrimp roe in the first and rather enjoyed the added spiciness of the second. After the prawn and fresh fruit salad (大蝦鮮果沙律), the pig entrail soup with salted vegetable and bitter melon (鹹菜涼瓜豬肚粉腸) was really enjoyable, with some black pepper and spices to pick up the taste. Then there was garoupa done two ways (大海中斑兩味): stir-fried with vegetables (菜元炒斑球) and deep-fried head and tail (鹽燒頭腩). This was also pretty yummy, especially the deep-fried portions.

After cleansing our palates with the veggies (上湯炆大芥菜), it was time for the piece de resistance - the stuffed roast suckling pig (金陵全豬烤金苗). OH MY GOD it was good! The piglet today had only a thin layer of fat underneath the skin, which made the whole experience even better than the last time. I drizzle sauce over the pig and the sticky rice stuffed inside, and I was instantly in heaven. I had seconds. Then I couldn't put another piece of food in my mouth.

For the rest of the evening, I felt like the guy in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life who would explode if he ate even just a wafer-thin mint. By the end of the evening, I was well stuffed and very, very drunk...and when I started falling asleep at the table, I knew it was my exit cue.

August 6, 2008

Directionless Nomad

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My recent trip to Central Asia has piqued my interest in the history and culture of the region, given its historical significance as the crossroads between East and West. While reading a copy of the Tengri, Air Astana's inflight magazine, I came upon an article on the pretty Kazakh singer Dilnaz Akhmadiyeva. Intrigued, I bought two of her CDs in Almaty before I left. The same article also mentioned that Dilnaz had a small part in the movie Nomad.  I vaguely remember reading about this movie, so I went to Amazon and, after reading the reviews telling me that it's worth a try, spent $10.99 plus shipping for the movie.

I finally sat down today and watched the movie. While the cinematography was stunning for the most part, and the musical score just as nice, the movie as a whole was a real dud. Nevermind that the movie was funded by the Kazakh government as an expensive PR movie ...or that the first director walked out and the film had to be finished by a second director ...or that the movie was filmed in both English and Kazakh, but neither in its entirety so that no matter which version you watched, parts of it were poorly dubbed ...or that the three main characters were portrayed by a German-looking Mexican (Kuno Becker), a Mexican-American (Jay Hernandez), and a Hawaiian/Chinese-American (Jason Scott Lee), with only the latter possessing Kazakh-looking features. I was turned off within the first 60 seconds of the movie, during the first narrative by Oraz (Jason Scott Lee's character). Oraz tells the story of the Kazakh people - who are descendents of Genghis Khan - who have seen their land invaded by foreign tribes such as the Jungars. Whoa! Stop right there! Say that again?!

First of all the Kazakh people, who are really a breakaway branch of the Uzbeks, are descendents of Turkic tribes from the region as well as the descendents of Genghis Khan's invading Mongol army, who swept into Central Asia and basically sacked every major city. While it is true that the later Kazakh and Uzbek khans could claim lineage back to Genghis Khan and his second son Chaghatai, I'm not sure that we can say the same about the majority of Kazakhs.

What of the invading Jungar bad guys? Guess what? They are otherwise known as the Oyrats, another Mongol clan. So this whole thing is about one Mongol clan invading another, as they share the same tribal ancestors. The only difference I can see is that the Kazakhs and Uzbeks converted to Islam while the Jungars adopted Tibetan Buddhism, and the war may be more along religious lines than ethnic.

Towards the end of the movie, the protagonist led the brave Kazakh people - guarding the fortress of Turkistan with traditional weapons - against the evil Jungars who had enlisted the help of their Russian buddies and their canons. Wrong again! History tells us that it was the Kazakhs who accepted Russian protection against the Jungars, before the Jungars were defeated by Qing Dynasty China.

I realize that the movie is adapted from Ilyas Ysenberlin's celebrated novel Nomads, and that it's only a fictional account of the life of Abylay Khan. But the inaccurate historical references, coming on top of bad acting, bad directing, bad dubbing...etc was just too much for me. It's no wonder that the movie got 14 rotten out of 15 at Rotten Tomatoes.

I guess the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev really wanted to polish up the country's image after all the hubbub stirred up by Borat...

August 5, 2008

'70 Horizontal

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Last night I hosted my second MNSC tasting of the year at Caprice. It's been about 6 weeks since the last MNSC tasting, and two months since I attended the last one, so I was very eager to have the opportunity to taste some fine wines.

The theme I chose for the evening was a '70 horizontal, across 6 different regions and 4 different grape varietals. I had been collecting some of these wines for the last few years, and had been eager to organize this tasting for my friends. I would be tasting some of the wines for the first time along with them.

We started with the 1990 Dom Perignon before dinner. This tasted very young for a Champagne of its age, with notes of straw and toasty oak. I haven't had a '90 for a while so it was nice to be reminded just how lovely this wine is...and the fact that replacement cost is now triple of what it was worth a few years back. The rest of the wines, served in 3 pairs, were:

First pair:
1970 Gros F and S Vosne-Romanee - plenty of bacon fat, grilled meats in the nose. Thought I also detected a bit of wet rag but it faded quickly. There was certainly a core of sweet fruits, but showed inconsistently because it was being masked by the meats. Even though this was only a village wine, the storage conditions seemed excellent when I picked it up a few months ago.

1970 Guigal La Mouline - I've been waiting to taste this wine for a few years since I acquired it. La Mouline is probably my favorite wine, and this older vintage certainly did not disappoint! Totally smoky, again with a lot of bacon fat, mint, espresso bean grinds and at the same time lots of sweet fruit comes through. Very awesome. Because of the age, the acidity did show through a little on the palate. Definitely the wine of the evening with an average score above 96 pts by the group.

Second pair:
1970 Musar - classic nose of sweet grass and brett as well as sweet fruit. I had this wine a few years ago and have been wanting to serve it at an MNSC tasting. Funnily enough I have been seeing younger vintages of this wine show up in the last month at friendly gathering.

1970 Vega Sicilia Unico - nose was sweet but a bit funky, with some wet chalk emerging in the middle only to fade away. I served this wine for my birthday at an MNSC dinner in 2002, when it was very well received. This bottle was the biggest disappointment of the evening.

Third pair:
1970 Latour - classic Left Bank Bordeaux, with mint and enough sweet fruit but not overpowering. A bit smoky. Good balance with acidity and tannins. This bottle showed much better than the one I served in 2002.

1970 Sassicaia - very powerful nose of strawberry jam, plenty of oak. Acidity was reasonably high. This was another wine for which I had high hopes, and it didn't fare well in my book.

The food at Caprice was fantastic as usual. We started with lobster carpaccio with Aquitaine caviar, nori seaweed and yuzu blanc manger. The salty caviar and the nori provided a strong contrast to the sweet lobster, and of course the citrus flavors of the yuzu just added another dimension to it. I really enjoyed this course.

The second course was duck foie gras terrine with Victoria pineapple jelly, crispy sweet spices and shiso leaves. The layer of pineapple jelly with two thin wafers of pineapple was very refreshing. The sprinkle of spices and shiso on top introduced a funky element to the classic dish.

The smoked ratte potato veloute with chicken sot-l'y-laisse, Girolle mushrooms and parsley emulsion was fairly interesting. The taste was heavy and salty, but the "chicken oyster" was very yummy. The veloute was quite heavy and you can taste the cream and feel the consistency of the potato on your tongue.

The monkfish fllet spirnkled with black truffle, creamy polenta and iberico ham was interesting, as the fish was wrapped in a slice of jamon iberico. The fish felt a little tough, and was stuffed with strips of black truffle. The "salsa" of black truffle and jamon iberico worked well against the polenta.

The final course was sisteron lamb fillet with aubergine en escabeche, sweetbread fricassee and aged balsamic sauce. The two strips of lamb were oh-so-tender, pink and juicy with thin layers of fat to impart the right amount of flavor. The sweetbread fricassee was also interesting, and a friend remarked that he thought he was biting into a chestnut instead of sweetbread...

I had cheese to finish the evening, and had the usual selection of 4-year old Comte, 18-month Mimolette, Epoisses de Bourgogne and another soft cheese whose name I couldn't remember. Great stuff.

To compensate for accidentally leaking the identity of Sassicaia before the blind tasting started, the manager kindly offered each of us a glass of 1971 Cognac. I am by no means a fan of this drink, but what I had in my hand was just incredibly aromatic - lots of toasty caramel and sweet grass.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening, and thankfully my abstinence from the wonderful bread of the restaurant meant that I wasn't as stuffed as I usually am... Now looking forward to the next gathering in two weeks!

August 3, 2008

Another sushi joint

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Last night I paid a visit to Sushi Hiro with a couple of colleagues. This establishment has been around for a few years, and in general it is excellent value for its lunch sushi set, but I always felt it was mediocre for dinner. Nevertheless, I was happy to give it another try.

They were obviously doing well enough to take over the floor immediately above their original location, and the space now includes tatami rooms.  We sat at the counter and asked for omakase - knowing what this would do to our bill at the end of the evening. I must say I don't have many regrets for doing this.

As usual one starts with sashimi. There was the usual selection of fish, including a very nice piece of o-toro. We were also served a gigantic oyster from Hokkaido - one of the largest I have had in a very long time. The oyster had been sliced in half, and even then each half required at least 2 big bites...The oyster was obviously very fleshy and creamy, and yet there was enough brine to give the creaminess a good balance.

The botan ebi (牡丹海老) was pretty large and reasonably sweet, but unfortunately not live. We also had some grilled fish between the sashimi and sushi - a small ayu (鮎) and a reasonably large aji (鯵). I had meant to ask the chef to serve us the aji as a tataki, then deep-fry the bones. But oh well... it's pretty good as a grilled fish, too.

Sushi was pretty decent, and towards the end we started ordering our own favorites. The uni (雲丹) was pretty fresh and we were served slightly larger and fresher pieces. I got a pretty large piece of unagi (鰻) which was coated with sweet soy sauce, and two of us shared a large and fat scallop (帆立) that was just so fresh and sweet. I ordered some ikura (いくら), thinking that they wouldn't have the untreated sujiko (筋子)... The ikura was so-so, but just as I finished my piece I noticed that the chef takes out a plastic container and out comes a chunk of sujiko... Aaarrgh!

We were all pretty full, and I settled for a Japanese white peach while the ladies chose peach sorbet. As expected, the peach was very ripe - sweet and juicy - and reminded me of the peach I had at the market in Bukhara. Wonderful stuff.

I brought along a bottle of Dassai Junmai Daiginjo 23% (獺祭「純米大吟醸」磨き二割三分). This fruity and slightly sweet (甘口) sake is one of my favorites, with the rice grains having been grown down to only 23% of the original weight. The nose was very fragrant with notes of banana and apricot. At a rating of +5 (日本酒度) it was nicely balanced between sweet and dry on the palate.

The bill came out to be just less than double of what I thought it would be before dinner started, but understandable since we chose omakase and had many yummy pieces. It doesn't quite measure up to my favorite Imamura (今村), but nevertheless is another nice place for sushi near my home.

August 2, 2008

The return to Da Domenico

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Last night I finally made a return visit to Da Domenico after an absence of more than 5 years. I had stayed away from this establishment because of a perceived lack of service, but primarily because I felt that anything that wasn't a "special" wasn't really worth having. But if one were to have the "special" then the bill would instantly skyrocket, leaving me wondering whether I would be better off at a 5-star hotel where at least there would be excellent service...

The reservation was for 8:30pm, and I was the first to arrive at 8:45pm. The first question from the waiter was something like: "Do you know when the others would arrive? The reservation was for 8:30?!" Hmmm... not a good start on the service front - but I guess it's not unexpected. I sit down at our table and wait for the others to arrive.

I immediately take note that the waitstaff - all two waiters plus a bartender/waiter - were buzzing around the place and running around like headless chickens. They were simply too busy and didn't know how to execute things in order of priority. For one of the tables, they didn't have time to clear the leftover plates and glasses until at least 30 minutes after the diners had left the restaurant. And there were a couple of tables around with leftover dishes. Took us a while to get their attention to bring us some water, as the waiter insisted on first laying down the extra setting that we requested, and then bringing us the menu...all the while leaving us very thirsty. When I got tired of waiting for them to come back, I went to the bar and asked for a corkscrew so I could do the wine service myself. I brought the wine to dinnr, so why couldn't I be the one popping the corks? The waiter happily obliged.

The 2003 Kongsgaard VioRus was a delicious wine. A very floral nose that was just classic Viognier, with notes of almond marzipan, minerals and sweet corn. The wine was very ripe and sweet on the palate, and with 14.1% alcohol it certainly also tasted very "hot". I loved it and couldn't have enough of this wine.

When the last few friends arrived around 9:05pm, we were told by the waiter that it was already "last order" and could we please look at the menu quickly. What?! 9pm last order?! Did I walk through a portal and ended up in another country?

For starter I ordered the grilled cheese, whose Italian name escapes me... The blob of cheese arrived on a plate with two halves of a cherry tomato, dripped in a bit of balsamic vinegar. Honestly, this really wasn't anything special - just looks and tastes like toasted mozzarella.

Fortunately the main course made up for all the disappointments up until now. The grilled scampi was simply awesome. I can't describe it any other way. Awesome. The plate was fully laden with the shellfish, and I was genuinely surprised with how many of them were in front of me. Of course, given the very high price for the dish, I would have been very upset if there were only a handful. I offer some to friends around the table and everyone is happy. The tail is very fresh and sweet, even better than the ones from the Mandarin Grill the night before. I dispense with the cutlery and dig in with my hands. With the head and the claws in front of me, I eagerly chew on these delicious bits and savor every bit. One of the friends saw what I was doing, and commented that I "looked like a kid in a candy store." He was absolutely right. I was in heaven. I left nothing to waste, going through every head and claw to try to get at everything.

Even though I didn't get a taste, the plate of linguine gamberi next to me also looked pretty damn good. The red shrimps out of their shells looked fat and yummy. Gotta try it next time.

I popped open the 2005 Guigal La Doriane because I ran out of the Kongsgaard. It was so different from my last bottle. The wine was explosively ripe both on the nose and the palate. Coming from 2005, it was understandably "hot" with a spicy after palate. It was pretty atypical for a Condrieu, since the floral notes were not very evident. We went through about half the bottle and I save the rest for another day.

We order two different tartuffos - black and white. Most places don't offer the tartuffo blanco, and I did not regret order this here. Yummy white chocolate with a bit of espresso infused.

So what's the verdict? A resounding YES! The service was non-existent, and I would actually give negative marks for it. And maybe you will have some dishes which leave you wondering why you had to pay such outrageous sums for them. But when you get to taste dishes like the grilled scampi (and by all accounts, the linguine gamberi), redemption would have been achieved. You will come back for more. And I most certainly will. Soon.


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