March 31, 2009

Crianzas and Sherries

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Tonight I met up with an old friend for some simple food and a few glasses of wine. We wanted something casual so I thought we'd visit Tapeo, a tapas bar that I've read about recently. There are a few places around town which brand themselves as serving tapas, but Tapeo seems to be the only true tapas "bar". There are no tables and customers sit on bar stools in front of the long, L-shaped counter.

We started with a 20g plate of Jamon from Jabugo and a glass of González Byass Alfonso Oloroso Seco. Interestingly there is an arbitrage in the pricing. It's actually cheaper to order two 10g portions than to order a 20g plate. Anyway the jamon was only OK, as they were down to the last bits of the leg and it wasn't as juicy as it could have been. The sherry was refreshing and nice, striking a good balance between dry and sweet (hence the oloroso seco I guess).

We followed with sardines a la plancha, which were actually much bigger than I expected! Nicely pan-fried with a roast pepper sauce to go along. I tried to take in as much of the fish head as possible...

The pulpo a a gallega was very nice. I'm usually not a big fan of octopus but the pieces were soft and tender, with just a bit of chewiness. Could do without the capers but that's a personal preference. I used the bread to soak up the paprika-flavored olive oil. Yum...

With the meat dishes we ordered a glass of 2005 Bodegas Navajas Crianza - can't remember exactly which of the three but probably Navajas. Pretty decent.

I had read about the crispy pork belly with quince alioli on the internet, and wasn't gonna pass it up for sure! It was nicely roasted - no doubt a lot of the fat has already dripped away during the process. The crackling was a bit tough the way I like it - similar to Cantonese roast pork (燒肉) - but not unmanageable.

I must say that I thought the duck breast and Pedro Ximenez to be a bit ho-hum. It's not exactly a "traditional" tapas item and it was a bit overcooked for my taste, but I'm very French when it comes to poultry - I like 'em pink.

We still have some room, so we order up some lomo de Córdoba. I've always loved lomo, as the slight spiciness of it makes my mouth water. It's cheaper than jamon, but easier to chew on than chorizo. Yum...

For desserts I had my second glass of Sherry, this time the González Byass Solera 1847 Oloroso Dulce. This is definitely a sticky and good for desserts. Very nutty and grapey.

For some reason churros and hot chocolate has shown up on the menu as a dessert. This is a breakfast item and one that I enjoyed immensely on my trip to Spain. But I guess I'm not likely to have it at breakfast here in Hong Kong, so I should be happy and just take it. Actually it's not enough to dip the churro into the hot' better to scoop the chocolate out with a spoon and drizzle it all over... My friend was watching his diet so I ened up having most of it. Heh heh heh...

We also had the crema Catalana and the raisin and Sherry flan, as a couple of other friends stopped in to say hello at the end. Both were pretty decent.

I think it was a pretty good meal overall. It's a very casual atmostphere, sitting on bar stools and hanging your jackets on the wall hooks behind you. The open kitchen means you get to smell everything as they're being cooked - which can be a little distracting - but also fun. Piero the manager (he's Italian) was pretty friendly so that also helped to improve my dining experience. Let's see how well they do.

March 29, 2009

Acker Act III: wine market rebounds

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I spent most of yesterday at the third Acker Hong Kong auction. I wasn't planning on bidding for anything and wanted to just sit in to keep my finger on the pulse of the market. What I witnessed was a pleasant surprise.

Since the last auction 4 months ago, wine prices have more or less stabilized. Financial markets around the world are still a mess, but there has been a bit of a rebound. Investors have - in my humble opinion - been lured into thinking that they have seen the bottom. Heck, HSBC has gone from that shocking close of $33 to $43.80 Friday, so the world must be all right again!

Right after I sat down, I noticed that the mood was different. There was good bidding action, especially on lots that were deemed to be cheap. Beaten down vintages like 2004 Burgundy were selling for twice the low estimate, which we thought was ridiculous... So a bit of that irrational auction room behavior has returned.

I registered for the lunch and sat with my friends at our own table. I started getting boozed up early by sipping on Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs at 11am. So no Krug this time...oh well.

A friend also brought along a bottle of 1998 Kongsgaard Chardonnay to share with us. Strong nose of straw, cheese, sweet honey, flint and lemon citrus. A bit acidic on the palate.

As lunch is served, two bottles of wine were brought to our table. The 2004 Comte de Vogüé Bonnes-Mares was a bit disappointing at first, with smoky, minty nose and brett and forest notes. It was acidic on the palate. The second pour was much better as sweet fruit notes emerged.

The second bottle, in the form of 2005 Magrez Fombrauge, was much more interesting. This is Bernard Magrez' garagiste wine, made from a tiny parcel out of the Fombrauge vineyard. I remember that the debut vintage of 2000 received rave reviews from Parker (98 points), and it's made in tiny quantities. None of us have ever had this wine before. The 2005 tasted like a New World wine - very concentrated fruit, with notes of coffee, vanilla, mint and toasty new oak. Still a young wine so there was plenty of tannin on the tongue.

The big draw this time was a large parcel of vintage Champagne from Big Boy Rob Rosania, the New York real estate investor and Champagne collector. More than 250 lots ranging from early 20th century were on offer, and Hong Kong certainly has never seen the likes of it. It's a rare opportunity to pick up some old gems, especially in large formats.

The superlot this time was a 12-case lot of DRC La Tâche across 12 vintages, which went for a hammer price of HKD 1.52MM before premium. The other notable lot was a single bottle of 1928 Krug Collection, whose hammer price was HKD 136,000 before premium. In contrast to November, very few lots got passed this time around. No doubt the more realistic estimates and reserves helped. The other surprise was how many people stuck around past 6pm. I thought I'd pick up some bargains at the tail end but it was not to be.

Nevertheless I did pick up a few small lots to add to the various birthday vintages I was collecting. From the looks of it, the wine market seems to have bottomed out. Lets hope it remains that way. We've got a few more auctions coming up so we shall see...

March 27, 2009

Black tie and blood sport

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Last night I attended the IFS White Collar Boxing Charity Fight Night at the Inter-Continental Hotel. I was there to support a friend who was making his second appearence in the ring. I dressed up in my tux for this charity event, but I found it an odd combination with a blood sport like boxing. There was also a charity auction involving sports memorabilia.

There were about 50 tables set up around the boxing ring in the center. I was seated at one of the farther tables but I didn't mind. I still got a good view of the fights. The fights were all pretty civilized. After all, it's mostly a bunch of bankers trying to take out some of their everyday aggression on each other. There was enough padding around the head, and the fights only lasted 3 rounds each. No one expected to see any knock-outs.

The 6 bouts were all pretty evenly matched, not only in weight class but also in terms of the boxers' abilities. Other than the first bout, it was tough for me to pick out a clear winner as a layman.

The main event of the evening was bout #3 - a match up between Merrill's Budgie and Credit Suisse's Gurnsey. The two senior sales traders were well-known in financial circles, and both were accomplished fighters. It was also a showdown between two big Wall Street firms, and both men made sure they had enough supporters on hand to cheer them on. I think they took about half the tables between the two of them... This turned out to be one of the best fights of the evening.

I was able to borrow a staff pass and stroll up ringside with my camera for my friend's fight. I thought about getting up to the catwalk for a better angle, but hesitated, so I made do with shooting the fight from a low angle and having the ropes get in the way from time to time.

From Alex Lin WCB Fight

My friend won his fight. I was happy for him, and glad that I was able to get close enough to take some decent shots of the fight. It was a really good fight and both men were aggressive and quick. In comparison, some of the other fights - especially the heavyweight - turned out to be unexciting.

Oh, and the food wasn't bad. The starter of foie gras terrine was OK, with a bit of caviar and jelly on the side. The cream of mushroom soup with scallops were kinda standard... The cod was actually juicy and delicious, although I wondered why they wanted to use rosemary with it. Finally, the chocolate and caramel mousse finger was a yummy way to finish up the meal.

As for wine, my friend treated us to a nice bottle of 2004 Michel Magnien Morey-Saint-Denis 1er Cru Les Chaffots, so we wouldn't have to drink the house wine. It was beautiful and classic. All the 2004 Burgundies I have drunk recently have all been beautiful, so I guess I should drink these up quickly.

Looking forward to my friend's next fight...

March 25, 2009

A warm reception

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I always love going back to Brasserie on the Eighth. There was a period of time when I used to go there often, and got to know a few of the managers. Even though I no longer frequent the restaurant, they still know me and give me a very warm welcome whenever I visit. Therefore I was only too happy to return tonight to celebrate a dear friend's birthday.

I started with pan-fried scallops with black bean sauce and asparagus. The three medium-sized scallops were done a little dry for my taste, but the flavors of the black beans was interesting. Can we say fusion? 

For main course, I went back to something that the Brasserie does well - slow cooked veal shank cremolata style. The meat is so tender after cooking that it doesn't take much for it to fall off the bone. It is just too yummy and perfect with red wine. The only flaw is that I wasn't able to get to the bone marrow...

We ordered two big soufflés to share, and the birthday girl got a nice and yummy chocolate cake. That was a pretty nice way to finish up the meal.

There was, of course, the obligatory Polaroid picture and the present of a Conrad bear. I think the birthday girl was happy.

I brought along a few bottles of wine to share with my friends. The 2006 Selbach-Oster Riesling Kabinett "Fish" was sweeter than I remembered, with hints of white pepper and plastic.

The 1970 Chasse-Spleen was unfortunately over the hill. There was some fruit left with mint, brett and smoke on the nose. Pretty acidic on the finish now.

1996 Lafon-Rochet - drinking reasonably well, with good concentration and a bit of brett in the nose. Slightly spicy finish.

It's nice to be back at the Brasserie, and the theme song to the TV show "Cheers" suddenly popped into my head - " gotta go where everybody knows your name..."

March 24, 2009

Bali wedding day 5: Thanks a lot, Tony Bourdain!

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Last day in Bali, and I woke up with beautiful views of the greenery in Ubud. I am finally able to look out from my terrace and enjoy the view and the tranquility, but not for long...

We decide to take breakfast at Uma Ubud's restaurant, since we weren't able to on our last visit. It's a nice breakfast that's designed to be healthy. The nasi lemak was so upscale I didn't even recognize it... Guess I'm too used to the ones that come in a banana leaf and costs next to nothing... I did notice that we were the only Asians having breakfast, and that 80% of the patrons were from Australia and knew each other. Maybe these are the guests from the wedding they had just finished hosting.

The focus of the day is on lunch, but first we needed to do a bit of shopping. A friend asked us to buy some vanilla so that she could make vanilla crème brûlée. We of course are only too happy to oblige, as long as we get to taste some of the finished product! After visiting a number of stalls and bargaining the price down, we finally bought about 100g of the longer pods which looked like they were in decent condition.

We head for lunch at Ibu Oka's. This is a famous restaurant which serves only babi guling - roast pig. It has been at the corner of Ubud's main crossroad next to Ubud Palace for a long time, but we found that they had moved. It is now in a larger, more beautiful compound hidden in an alley. The new digs are much, much nicer.

We sat down and ordered a regular portion of the roast suckling pig on rice, as well as an extra portion of the crispy crackling. While it has been a few years since our last visit, the prices have gone sky high during this time. What used to cost IDR 10,000 is now listed as IDR 25,000. And IDR 30,000 buys you just a few pieces of crackling. Whoa! I know that food prices - particularly the price of pork - has gone up worldwide. But I immediately thought of another factor - Tony Bourdain. Since our last visit in 2005, Tony has visited Ibu Oka's and introduced it to the Western world on 'No Reservations'. As a result, there are now only tourists at the new location, whereas we were packed amongst mostly locals in 2005. The complete absence of locals - other than tour guides accompanying tourists - tells me that prices are now so high that locals no longer give Ibu Oka their business.

The food arrived and we dug in. The meat was still tender and the wafer-thin crackling still yummy. But we noticed a reduction in the amount of spicy sauce given. The combination of everything was still tasty, but certainly much less spicy than before. I think this is in response to the changing customer mix, as tourists are less likely to be able to handle the heat. I remember that I found it difficult to take the spices on my last visit, but was completely OK this time around. I did enjoy the couple of pieces of fried pig intestines, although I thought the blood sausage was a bit too dry.

In spite of all this, we ordered a large portion of the suckling pig with rice to take away. This could very well be our dinner on the flight back, if we didn't find the food in cattle class to our liking. The pig was good, but we probably won't be back for a while as we search for another spot with better value for money.

We were dropped off in front of the McDonald's at the airport, and I promptly checked out the menu for anything special that isn't available elsewhere. Unfortunately there weren't any, so I didn't get my overseas Mickey D's fix this time around. On a brighter note, we were upgraded to Business Class for the flight back. This is probably my last upgrade before I lose my current tier status at the end of the month, and we were pretty happy to have a bit more space and a better menu. I guess the box of babi guling would make it back to Hong Kong after all...

March 22, 2009

French food in Bali

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Tonight we finally went back to one of our favorite restaurants in Asia - Mozaic. This French establishment in the middle of beautiful Ubud was introduced to me by a friend some 5 years ago. At the time it was my girlfriend's favorite restaurant in the world. While currently that honor belongs to another restaurant, nevertheless Mozaic holds a special place in our hearts. We have made it a point to visit the restaurant on every subsequent trip to Bali, and have even included a stop-over in Bali just to dine here.

We arrived about 2 hours after the original booking time, thanks to our excursion earlier in the day. We decided to go for the Chef's Surprise Menu to see what they could throw at us, and my girlfriend explained that the only preference she has is to avoid lamb, specifically if it has a very strong taste. Our server promised that the kitchen would not send us identical dishes, so that we may enjoy different experiences.

To welcome us, we were presented with cheese balls made from Parmesan, Gouda and filled with truffle cream. Not a bad start, and the truffle flavor certainly was nice.

The amuse bouche was a French oyster with Japanese seaweed and sake. I didn't ask which type of French oyster it was, but there was a briney finish which was mostly neutralized by the Japanese ponzu and sake. Very nicely done.

The first pair:
Sardine with kaffir lime zest, juice and jelly - nice thin pan-fried fillets, and the flavors of lime was certainly prevalent. This is totally up gf's alley and reminiscent of our first dinner here.

Gindara with red wine sauce, cèpe mushrooms and ginger balsamic soy emulsion - the rich flavors of the mushrooms and the emulsion were wonderful, but the cod itself was a bit disappointing as it was done the Western way. I love cod because it tends to be tender, juicy with a bouncy texture. While the execution tonight was not flawed per se, I wish it had been more juicy and not so firm.

Second pair:
Coral trout fillet with asparagus emulsion, truffle cream and asparagus tip salad – again, love the flavors but wish the texture wasn’t so firm. I’m starting to see a pattern here.

Mixed seafood with pasta sheet and clam juice, garden herbs broth – this was really wonderful. Tender and flavorful cuttlefish, langoustine and fish covered under a sheet of cilantro pasta, along with some scalloped potatoes, baby corn, string beans and cauliflower. Topped with a wafer-thin soft shell crab that was fried to a crisp. Great stuff!

Third pair:
Rabbit pastilla and loin with smoked foie gras, ginger and apple purée, apple gelee and sautéed boudin noir – I am reminded of the bisteeya that I had a couple of weeks ago (they are the same thing). This one, though, had lots of runny juices once you cut the phyllo pastry open. The foie was not bad, and the tiny cubes of boudin noir was really interesting.

Roasted quail with foie gras, chestnut purée and nashi pear – the quail was juicy and tender, perfectly executed. The foie was something else. It was charred on the outside while juicy and runny inside, just the way I like it. Gf thinks it’s the best pan-fried foie gras she’s ever had. I think it’s definitely up there for me, too. Bravo!

Fourth pair:
Javanese baby lamb with plum purée, toasted spices and Guiness Stout emulsion – I was kinda upset when this was brought to the table. Did gf not specifically mention that she doesn’t eat lamb, except when it’s not so “lamby”? Well, apparently the kitchen took on the challenge of wanting to see if gf would like their lamb. It turns out that she did, which I thought was bizarre. The thinly slices pieces had plenty of fat in them, which gave the meat the strong taste that normally makes gf flinch and puts a smile on my face. Amazingly, I didn’t think much of the lamb. Strong spices were used to try to cover up the taste of lamb, and the end result just wasn’t to my liking. It also came with a few pieces of toasted spices on the side, which was made from molasses, Szechuan peppercorns and almonds. I munched on these as candy, letting the mix of sweet and spicy flavors dance on my tongue.

Wagyu with beetroot, horseradish and chocolate ganache – the small cubes of wagyu were OK, and the horseradish gelée was interesting, but somehow I wasn't not a fan of the chocolate ganache. It tasted like it had soy sauce blended in and I thought I was chewing on pieces of Cantonese char siu instead of wagyu.

Potato mash was served with this course. This used to be a favorite of gf’s, and she did happily finish the whole serving. But we both agreed that the texture here was a bit grainy, although less butter and cream was used so it’s a lighter and healthier mash. I’m not a mash or potato fan, but I still think Robuchon’s mash is the best…

Fifth pair:
Coulommier cheese with black olive sauce and orange marjoram gelée – very nice cheese with nutty flavors, but unfortunately it was only big enough for two mouthfuls…actually, probably only one bite for me…

Imperial mandarin sorbet, fresh citrus and bergamot caramel – wonderfully refreshing, with slices of sweet and clean mandarins underneath. Perfect.

Last pair:
Chocolate trio: white chocolate pavé, mandarin chocolate soufflé and cinnamon chocolate mousse with bitter chocolate sorbet – the mandarin chocolate soufflé was very yummy, with candied rind that matched perfectly with the chocolate.

White chocolate mousse with mixed berries phyllo and ginger sorbet – the mousse was interesting since it was stuffed with passion fruit sauce. I didn’t like the mixed berries so much since it was a bit too sour for me.

We left the restaurant well past 11pm, being the last table to ask for the bill. We strolled back to our hotel in the cool evening breeze, satiated after another wonderful meal here. While Mozaic won’t ever feature in my top 10 restaurants around the world, we have always enjoyed our meals here and feel that it’s extremely good value for the quality that is offered. I look forward to returning, but I probably should explore some of the other options first...

Bali wedding day 4: pilgrimage to Besakih

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It's the day after the big wedding, and people began to take off. Some of us are sticking around Bali a bit longer, and decided to do some sightseeing. One of us flew on China Airlines and was able to organize a minibus with Dynasty Package (華航精致旅遊) to take us around. We gathered a posse of 10 and took off for the northern parts of the island, setting off just around 1pm.

Our destination was Pura Besakih, the "Mother Temple" on the slopes of Gunung Agung, Bali's highest peak and holiest mountain. I visited this holy temple on my first visit to Bali more than 10 years ago, but it was during rainy season and the mist was all around us. I was pretty excited to have a chance to return, especially on such a beautiful day. After a small detour and a quick stop for lunch along the way, we finally arrived at 5pm.

After making sure that everyone's got a sarong wrapped around their waist and covered up their bare shoulders, we set off on an uphill walk to the entrance. Along the way we hired a "guardian of the temple" - someone who is not an official guide but a local who can lead us inside the temple. Apparently tourists aren't allowed inside by themselves. We are in the middle of the Galungan - the semi-annual festival of victory celebrating the triumph of virtue over vice. This time around, there is a big celebration at Besakih that happens once every 10 years. There are umbul umbuls and penjors erected all over the temple grounds, and Besakih looks a lot more colorful than usual.

Our guardian slowly takes us around the main sights within the temple grounds, starting with the central temple of Pura Penataran Agung. We walked up the long flight of stairs to the entrance, but was only able to go just inside the main gate on the first level for a quick look. We continued uphill to visit a number of other temples, until we have reached the northern end of the complex. As Besakih sits about 1,000m above sea level, the views from here down to the rest of Bali is pretty spectacular. We also got clear views of the top of Gunung Agung, especially after the clouds cleared up in the late afternoon. The sun was beginning to set, and the warm glow basked all the structures - especially the gold paint on the merus - in beautiful light.

We bid our farewells to the guardian, and began our long journey back. It would be an hour and a half for the journey to Ubud, where we were checking into the Uma Ubud for 1 night. I bid farewell to my fellow travelers, and hope to be able to see them again soon. A quick shower after check-in, and I'm walking down Jalan Raya to my dinner appointment...a full two hours late!

Bali wedding days 2 & 3: Black tie in Bali

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I spent the last couple of days hanging out at the Ritz-Carlton in Bali, as a big group of us gathered here for a wedding. The weather is beautiful now, and we've got views of Jimbaran Bay out of our balcony. Life could be a lot worse.

I didn't do much on Friday, other than going down to the Kisik Pool to hang out for a couple of hours after breakfast. The long infinity pool is just perched above the private beach, and interestingly is filled with salt water. I'm normally not a pool or beach person, but it was sure nice to hang out and listen to the waves coming in. And watching airplanes land at the airport is always fun.

Dinner was at Menega Cafe on Jimbaran Beach. This is one of those tourist trap places where you sit on the beach and enjoy the standard grilled seafood dinner. The smoke coming out of these kitchens is incredible, and there are a string of these restaurants next to each other on the beach. Funnily enough, I actually ate at the same place when I stayed at the Four Seasons Jimbaran in 2004. The thoughts of the 2005 bombings flickered in the back of my mind...

After dinner a group of us adjourned to Ku De Ta for a drink. Again, it's been more than 4 years since my last visit, and I'm glad to see that it's still the place to be up in Seminyak.

Saturday was wedding day, so we took it easy. I took a short excursion to Impossibles Beach, a destination popular with surfers. I had wanted to take some pictures with my telephoto lens, but there was not a single surfer in sight. The water, though, was beautiful and there were some waves even around mid-day. The only unfortunate thing was that in my eagerness to get into the water, I left my Blackberry and wallet in my swimming trunks. I don't think either of them really enjoyed the dip as much as I did...

The wedding ceremony started late in the afternoon, at Astina Chapel - one of the two wedding chapels on the grounds of the hotel. I've heard long ago that the Ritz-Carlton in Bali is a fantastic place to have a wedding, and now I understand why. The setting is absolutely fabulous! The chapel is near the edge of a cliff and faces the ocean, with a reflecting pool just beyond the altar on the outside. The views are fantastic! There wasn't a single one of us who wasn't awestruck. And the cliffside makes for a magnificent backdrop for a photoshoot.

The only drawback to all this was that the bride wanted a black tie wedding. That meant me and the guys had to dress up like penguins on a tropical island with temperatures of 30° C. Not fun. But it made for a beautiful ceremony when all the guests were dressed up to the nines, including the guys.

Drinks and dinner were served on the vast grounds in front of the Ayana Villa, where the newlyweds were staying for the night. This place was huge! The lawn itself was big, with a Balinese pavilion which served as a DJ station and dance floor during dinner. The views of Jimbaran Bay were awesome. Then there's the two-story villa itself, with 3 bedrooms and adjoining baths. The master bathroom on the ground floor has a beautiful and big bathtub, and an attached shower "stall" that must have been more than 100 sq ft in size! The rain shower head was the biggest I've seen, hanging from an intricately carved wooden ceiling. It was just completely over the top!

We continued to party at the villa after dinner. As I expected, some of the guests decided to take a dip in the big pool in front of the villa - a couple of them against their will while fully dressed - while others soaked in the jacuzzi and were fed sparkling wine by their friends... A decadent but fun party that seemed the perfect way to end a beautiful and fun island wedding.

March 21, 2009

Bali wedding day 1: Balinese delicacies

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I'm in Bali for a few days attending a friend's wedding. For my first meal in town, I went back to Ketupat, the fine Balinese restaurant which is hidden amongst the tourist traps on Jalan Legian in Kuta. I first visited Ketupat in January 1998. The Asian Financial Crisis was full-blown, and IDR went from around 2,400 to 10,000. This made everything extremely cheap as most places hadn’t adjusted their prices in IDR. On that visit, we ordered so much of the mango juice that the restaurant ran out…

It took us a bit of time to figure out where we wanted to sit, and we finally ended up by the pool as the ladies wanted. I’ve always loved coming here, as one can choose to sit in the open courtyard and look up at the stars, or in more traditional ‘cabanas’. The group faced a dizzying array of dishes shown on the menu, and decided to order a few appetizers first to quash the hunger while we took more time to figure out the rest.

Meanwhile, we ordered a round of drinks and tried out arak, the Balinese liquor made from rice (or palm sap). I had mine on the rocks (arak es) so I could get the true taste of it. Actually it tasted like a stronger version of Korean sochu. After a few sips of our drinks, we were ready for the food...

Lumpia langsing – bean sprout salad wrapped in crêpes. Not bad but essentially a veggie spring roll…

Perkedel jagung - these fried corn fritters were disappointing. Kinda soggy and pretty salty, these are nothing like the ones made by my friends' Indonesian helper in Hong Kong.

Rempeyek - these are the delicious peanut crackers I've had before as snacks. Large, thin chips topped with lumps of peanuts and local spices. Yummy!

Nasi goreng petani - not sure why the vegetarian fried rice were served right after the appetizers, but it was pretty delicious.

Sate campur - a mixed selection with chicken, pork, beef and mutton. Served with two types of sauce and some ketupat - the rice dumplings for which the restaurant is named.

Udang batolok - prawns stir-fried with chilli and green tomato. This was actually pretty good.

Ikan bakar colo colo - this grilled snapper was served with a salsa of tomato, shallots, basil and lemongrass. Pretty nice flavor and the salsa was a surprise.

The waiter forgot to take our order of roast duck, and we decided to give it a pass as we were pretty full at this point. We looked around for some Indonesian sweets but wasn't able to find anything really intereting.

I'm glad I came back to an old favorite, and used the opportunity to introduce Balinese cuisine to my friends. Next time I'll make sure to have the duck and a few other classic dishes, maybe I'll finally do the rijsttafel!

March 16, 2009

An excursion down the Rhone

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The MNSC members finally gathered again tonight for the first time in 2 months. This tasting format was different from our usual in that each member contributed a bottle of wine that fit the general theme, without knowing what the others brought to the table. We would be drinking wines from the Rhone, excluding some of the familiar producers which we tend to rely on.

The venue was Golden Leaf (金葉庭), where some of the earliest MNSC dinners were held. It's good to be back here, as the food is good and the pricing is pretty reasonable after the discounts one can get.

We started with a few appetizers, including a deliciously tender char siu (叉燒) with nicely caramelized fat; sautéed diced beef with spicy salt (椒鹽牛柳粒); pan-fried mixed vegetables rolled in dried bean curd skin (上素腐皮卷); sliced pork rolls with cucumber and garlic sauce (蒜泥白肉卷); nice, refreshingly crunchy jelly fish tossed with spring onions and sesame oil (浙江海蜇頭); and deep-fried diced bean curd with garlic salt (蒜香椒鹽豆腐粒).

What came next was the roast Peking duck (北京填鴨). This was very, very delicious and looked absolutely beautiful when the waiter brought it in.

A mis-communication saw us each try to down a bowl of braised supreme shark's fin with crab roe (蟹皇海虎翅), which was simply too rich. We were pretty much done after this bowl...

We each got an individual serving of baked sea whelk stuffed with diced seafood, abalone, chicken and onion (鮮鮑焗釀響螺). Nice presentation, and tasted good, too, with curry powder and black pepper spicing it up.

I was too full to take in some of the dishes, but did manage to get a taste of the spicy eggplant with minced pork (魚香茄子), which was interesting because it was made with strips of fish cake.

The shallow-fried crispy chicken (金牌吊炸雞) had paper-thin crispy skin while the meat was very juicy and tender, but what does "shallow-fried" mean?

I finished with some veggie (上湯芥膽) and the signature fried rice (金葉庭炒飯), with crab meat and pine nuts.

The wines were supposedly arranged in order from lightest to heaviest by a sommelier that was brought in. All except one sat in decanters and we tasted them blind.

1989 Clos du Mont-Olivet Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Cuvée du Papet - nose was a bit alcoholic, with some fruit and grilled meats. A bit muted and slightly pruny, minty and spicy. A full-bodied wine. 90 points.

1995 Henri Bonneau Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réserve des Célestins - nose seemed a bit more interesting, with pronounced forest and bacon notes. I still felt that the nose wasn't as open as I would like. Concentrated and full-bodied. Still a young wine. 94 points.

1989 Henri Bonneau Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réserve des Célestins - the nose didn't smell like a Rhone at all...and we all would have guessed this was a Bordeaux in a true blind tasting. Nose was grassy, a bit earthy, really sweet and minty. Very full-bodied and even a bit tannic. I liked it even though I didn't know I was tasting the bottle that I brought. Unfortunately the group thought the wine was off, which I can't really argue with. 93 points.

1986 Henri Bonneau Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réserve des Célestins - wow! Nose was totally lychee like there's no tomorrow... A bit of iron and minerals in the nose, with some coffee notes. Seemed very young and vibrant with an awesome long finish. My wine of the evening at 96 points.

1990 Jaboulet Crozes-Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert - huge nose of ham/spam, animal and smoked meats. A bit spicy with forest notes. 94 points.

1989 Jamet Côte-Rôtie - nose was a bit medicinal and smoky. Very concentrated and clearly a Northern Rhone. 92 point.

Who would have expected there to be three vintages of the same wine this evening? It was truly a treat to drink 3 bottles of the Celestins side-by-side, even though the '89 was a little off. I'm now really looking forward to our next meeting, which will be a tour of Bordeaux in a few weeks' time...

March 15, 2009

A spicy affair

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I'm normally not a big fan of spicy food, and given that wine forms a large part of my dining experiences, I naturally tend to steer clear of cuisines that don't work well with wine. Last night I met up with someone who has just arrived from Japan who requested spicy food for dinner. Since we were catching a movie in Kowloon after dinner, I decided to give Yunyan Szechuan Restaurant (雲陽閣川菜舘) a try.

Of course everything was gonna be spicy tonight, and we started with crispy chicken with spicy dried red chillies and Szechuan peppercorns. Eh? What happened to the starter that we ordered? Shouldn't that have come first? Oh well... I should remember that I'm in Hong Kong and restaurants don't care much for serving dishes in the proper order... Anyway, the chicken was good - a plate-ful of chillies and actually more chicken cubes than I expected. I tried to make this a bit less lethal by shaking off some of the pepper seeds, but that only had limited effect. Eventually the numbing effects of the Szechuan peppercorns (花椒) got to me, and my mouth started to water...

The starter of sliced pork with spicy tasty garlic soya sauce and tossed flat pea noodle (蒜泥白肉) arrived, giving us a welcome respite from the chillis. This was nice and actually a bit sweeter than expected.

A big pot of mapo tofu (痲婆豆腐) arrived and it was time to get some rice. This was REALLY spicy, but sooo good. I ignored my now burning tongue and kept shoving more of this down...

The stewed eggplant with garlic and chilli (魚香茄子) was different from what I've had before. There was a distinct sour taste to this, and I knew it wasn't because it had gone bad. A careful look reveals small, soggy grains which were most certainly fermented rice (酒釀). I've tasted the dish with a bit of alcohol added before, but this one has got to be the strongest in terms of the taste.

Finally we had the steamed spicy chilli rice flour spare-ribs with taro and sweet potato in bamboo cage (原籠粉蒸排骨). I wasn't a big fan of this today. Somehow I felt that the rice flour wasn't done the way I liked it - it was all too mashed together and I preferred to see individual grains. But taste-wise there was no problem and I only wish I had more room to fit the food.

Overall this was a pretty good meal, though it did take my tastes buds out of commission for a few hours... Interestingly the restaurant was given "Bib Gourmand" status by the people at Michelin, and judging by the size of our bill I can certainly vouch for that!

March 13, 2009

Another big lunch

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I thought I'd take it easy on food today - having been out for dinner the last four nights - but it was not to be. Instead of having a simple sandwich at the Salon de The de Joël Robuchon, we ended up at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon for the set lunch.

We started with an amuse bouche of tomato concasse and asparagus jelly. The chef added mustard seeds into the concasse, making it a little spicy. The jelly is actually made from white asparagus and garnished with slices of both white and green asparagus. Pretty interesting balance of flavors, between the delicate asparagus and the sharper tomato and mustard.

My starter was the king crabe - in reality a giant wrap cut into two pieces. The filling consisted of curry-flavored Alaskan king crab legs, avocado, tomato, mozzarella, all wrapped with romaine lettuce with Caesar dressing and cracked red peppers on the plate. While it was delicious and refreshing, it was just too big for a starter. Honestly I was pretty full by the time I was done, and I still had a main course and dessert to go!

For main course I chose the agneau. A few nice slices of lamb, which are so flavorful from the layer of fat...and with the addition of oriental spices (cumin and other seeds) it was just working really well. The eggplant confit on the side was interesting, with roasted red peppers and parmesan cheese. Of course, I feel even more full by now from the lamb fat...

It's been a while since I had profiteroles, and these mini ones came with coffee ice cream and caramel sauce in addition to the bed of chocolate mousse underneath. Definitely sinful. But strangely enough, I started feeling better after the dessert!

The most interesting part about today's lunch came when we overheard the Taiwanese girls next to us talking about Robuchon opening an outlet in Taipei this coming September. I checked with one of the managers and he confirmed it, although he wasn't able to tell me the exact location. This is of course exciting news for me, as there will finally be a high-end French restaurant worth going to in Taipei! I can hardly wait...

March 12, 2009

Fly airplane

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Tonight's dinner has been a long time in the making. It all started last year at the Acker pre-auction tasting, when two of my friends met each other. My colleague who isn't a wine geek remarked to the other friend how enjoyable Chateau Latour was - a statement I think many people would agree with. Upon hearing this comment however, my wine geek friend retorted that - I'm paraphrasing here - "Drinking Bordeaux wines are like driving a Mercedez. It's a nice car, but you know what you're getting into. Burgundies are like Ferraris. You get a lot more excitement out of them."

With that, the invisible gauntlet was thrown. Someone would need to show that a Burgundy can indeed blow away Chateau Latour. And so it was that a dinner was set up for tonight, where I was to bring a bottle of Chateau Latour (from 1999) and my wine geek friend would find a Burgundy that would blow my colleague away. The venue for this showdown was the Legends Concept, the private kitchen in Wanchai we visit from time to time.

A couple of hours before dinner, however, my collegue informed me that he needed to bail due to some pressing engagements. Initially I was at a bit of a loss: the dinner was originally set up for his benefit, so the showdown need not take place without him. But I was loathe to cancel the reservation with the private kitchen, as I know the owners and it wouldn't be nice to cancel at the last minute. So the remaining two of us decided to have dinner by ourselves anyway, and it turned out to be a pretty enjoyable evening!

We drank the bottle of Burgundy that was to be the "Latour killer" - 2004 Dujac Clos Saint Denis. From the very first pour after popping the cork, this wine just had a big, beautiful nose. Lots of game and smoked meats, with heavy minerals. With some aeration we started getting sweet fruit like plum, plus bacon fat. Then some incense smoke. Medium bodied with a short finish, it was all over about 2 hours after opening when I sensed that the finish had turned a bit acidic. A very enjoyable wine, and once again showed that 2004 Burgundies are drinking beautifully right now.

In terms of food, I started with the pan fried duck liver with caramelized apple. It's been a while since I found this dish done just the way I like it - a thick hunk of liver browned slightly on each side, leaving it soft, wobbly and creamy. I was a happy camper at this point.

Cream of broccoli with cheese - I usually find the soups here pretty ho-hum, and tonight was no exception. The soft cubes of Emmental in the soup did provide an interesting texture, though...

Baked scallop and pea sprouts - the whole scallop was baked inside a round, flaky pastry together with pea sprouts (豆苗). Pretty nice except for the use of rosemary, which always overpowers the natural flavors and leaves me wondering why it was used at all... A dab of the honey mustard on the side made things kinda interesting.

Lemon-lime sorbet - a nice, zesty palate cleanser which necessitated the use of water as a cleanser afterwards, so that the red Burgundy doesn't taste completely awful following the sorbet...

French confit of duck - I learned long ago that if duck confit was offered on the menu here, one should definitely take it. The leg sat on a bed of diced mushrooms and was garnished with radish sprouts. The first cut into the leg yielded crispy skin and a yummy layer of fat... It's all good! Initially I wondered why the meat was so juicy - almost too juicy for a confit - but as I got closer to the bone it became slightly more dry. In any case it was really enjoyable to have this dish again.

We finished with a nice chocolate mousse, and I needed a cup of coffee to help digest the food...especially after the confit!

All I can say is that my colleague really missed out on the Ferrari today...

March 11, 2009

An organic evening

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A gathering of local foodies took place tonight at a very down-market location. Tang Lung Street (登龍街) is pretty "local" as far as locations go on Hong Kong island, but it is known for good eats. We were introduced to Tam Keung's Congee (健味粥), run by Mr. Tam who made his name as a pig-farmer with 健味豬. The twelve of us had the entire space upstairs to ourselves, and we were treated to a very delicious special menu.

Due to heavy traffic (it's race day in Happy Valley) and other factors, I arrived very, very late, and faced a table-ful of hungry diners... Thankfully they found it in their hearts not to tear into me to satisfy their hunger.

The first dish was stir-fried pig's heart and preserved sweet and sour vegetables (潮式甜酸菜伴心心相印). Right off the bat, we're having something out of the ordinary. I can't say that I've ever had pig's heart before, but I got no problems with trying it. It's a bit chewy, like some ligaments or the pig's throat that I've had at various restaurants in Hong Kong. There were also some bits of fatty pork mixed in, along with with yummy preserved veggies, celery, red and green peppers. Great start.

Deep-fried freshwater eel (椒鹽脆鱓球) - actually pretty light and crispy. Mr. Tam talked about how he treats the eel with cloves and cinnamon to rid it of the fishy taste.

Fishhead soup with Chinese herbs (天麻燉大魚頭) - really heavy smell and taste of the tall gastrodia tuber (天麻), even though I swear the smell is actually Chinese angelica (當歸). The soup was also boiled with chunks of pork and chicken feet, in addition to the fishhead. Nice and healthy.

Braised pig's knee (柱候醬扣豬膝) - what an awesome dish! It came in a big claypot and the whole table just went "Ooooooh!!!" Looking at the pile of bones covered in skin and tendons, glistening under the lights from all the melted fat and collagen, my mouth just started to water... And it was yuuuuummmy! I couldn't get enough of it. We asked for bowls of rice, only to be told off by Mr. Tam (this is a congee shop, after all). But we reached a compromise and they agreed to take half the portion and stir-fried some rice vermicelli with it. Of course the vermicelli would soak up all the oily sauce and turn this into the best dish ever. A couple of us (myself included) had multiple servings of this.

Braised fishhead in claypot (麵醬優質魚嘴煲) - I'm not usually a fan of fishhead, but I had to have some of this. Made from the heads of 18-month old grass carp (草魚/鯇魚) farmed by Mr. Tam, these fish feed on grass imported from Taiwan. A miso-like soy bean sauce (麵醬) is used to cook the fish, along with some garlic, organic ginger and cilantro. The ginger gives the whole thing quite a kick, in addition to neutralizing the fishy smells and tastes.

Pan-fried prawns in superior soy sauce (頭抽皇煎中蝦) - Mr. Tam confessed that he actually used second-run soy sauce (二抽) instead of the virgin/first-run soy sauce (頭抽). But in any case the soy sauce is homemade and organic. I've always liked prawns fried with soy sauce.

Salt-baked chicken (古法鹽焗雞) - this is wrapped in banana leaves (again grown by Mr. Tam) and baked in coarse sea salt. The chicken was raised locally although it's not free range. There's still plenty of flavor here, especially the skin. Certainly doesn't taste like the typical factory chicken...

Blanched seasonal vegetables (白灼時蔬) - mushrooms and ridged gourd (絲瓜) in a milky fish soup. Yummy.

Finally we get to the carbs, although we had some earlier with the rice vermicelli.  We were served two dishes that constitute a typical Cantonese breakfast - thin noodles stir-fried in soy sauce (豉油皇炒麵) and plain congee (健味金牌粥). The noodles were great, albeit a tad salty thanks to the homemade soy sauce. The congee was cooked with fish stock, and with the addition of the usual condiments (roasted peanuts, spring onions and preserved vegetables) it was just delicious. I was really full by this point and didn't get around to trying some of the pig offal congee (豬雑粥).

We finished with plates of oranges and starfruit, but just couldn't fit anything more...

What a great meal! Must return another time to sample other dishes...or just ask for the pig's knee stir-fried with vermicelli. The proprietor is clearly very passionate about ensuring his customers get the best possible natural ingredients, although he definitely has an attitude there...

With this group of foodies/winos, of course there would be wine, even when we're eating in a congee shop! Given that the ingredients are all organic, most of the wines tonight were organic, too.

1988 Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin Brut - toasty and yeasty nose with caramel notes. Smooth with a sweet mid-palate and a slightly acidic finish.

2005 Touchstone Chardonnay - nose of rubber, plastic and toasty oak. A bit ripe with nice acidity balance.

2006 De Villaine Bouzeron - this white wine from the estate in the Côte Chalonnaise is made from Aligoté, the "other white grape" of Burgundy. Serious wine buffs will no doubt recognize the name of the domaine as being that of the director of DRC. A clean, crisp nose with pear and banana notes. Again the acidity balance was nice. The best Aligoté I've tasted.

2004 Chapoutier Ermitage Le Pavillon - lots of sweet fruit with vanilla and slight metallic nose. Very full-bodied, concentrated with a long finish.

Dewazakura Daiginjo (出羽桜大吟醸) - 2007 vintage with some banana notes. Very nice and smooth.

2006 Temple Breur Riesling - surprisingly big nose of smoke, petrol, minerals, urethane plastic - all typical of older Rieslings. Ripe on the palate but not overly sweet.

2006 Bonterra Cabernet Sauvignon - fruity and concentrated, the wine is ripe and a bit "hot" with toffee notes. Fairly typical for the Cali Cab.

March 10, 2009


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Since sometime last year, there have been a number of articles in the press - both general and financial - about the financial product known as accumulators. They have earned the unfortunate moniker "I-kill-you-later" in Asian financial circles, due to the number of private clients who have lost significant chunks of their fortunes as a result of trading this product.  I recently came across an article appearing in the leading English newspaper in town, and I just have to set the record straight...

As a former derivative product banker, I am naturally defensive when I encounter unjust attacks upon my work or the works of my peers. Derivatives has been a dirty word ever since the days of Proctor and Gamble, Gibson Greetings and Metallgesellschaft (how many people know or remember what I'm talking about?), but I've always felt that the instrument itself was not to blame, but rather the leverage embedded in the product. This is true of most of the big blow-ups that we have seen, and is certainly the case with accumulators.

Accumulators, like most derivative products, was created as a means to express a particular view. In this case, the investor wishes to purchase a block of shares, and instead of giving a large "buy" order, the order is spread over a period of time such that the shars are "accumulated" slowly. The underlying premise is that the investor likes the stock enough to, say, own up to $1 million of it. And an important pre-requisite is that the investor has the financial means to pay for the shares.

At this point the investor has three choices: 1) purchase $1 million worth of stock all in one go at today's price; 2) spread out the purchase over a period of time, buying a small chunk each time, at the prevailing market prices at the time of purchase which can fluctuate; or 3) contract to purchase up to $1 million over a period of time, at discounted price that is fixed today, with the possibility of not purchasing the full $1 million under certain market conditions - namely the stock price rising above a certain trigger.

If this were a blue-chip stock that can be a long-term core holding in the investor's portfolio, and the discount were significant enough (10% or more, for example), it's easy to see why investors would choose option #3. You will always buy shares at a cheaper price compared to option #1, and your biggest downside is the possibility of having purchased only a small amount of shares at discount before prices run up and the transaction is "knocked out".  I've personally recommended the structure (as well as its counterpart, the "decumulator") to both private clients as well as corporations and institutions. I see nothing wrong with using this strategy to achieve the goal of buying or selling large quantities of shares. So what went wrong with the countless investors who lost their shirts?

Well, to put it simply: greed. Or a manifestation of that greed: leverage. Somewhere along the bull market run, investors decided that they weren't happy with getting a single-digit discount. They wanted more. So to achieve the desired double-digit discount, the structures had to be leveraged - two or even three times. The result is that the investor would continue to buy shares at the discounted price, but now they would have to buy two or three times the original number of shares as the share price fell below the discounted price. What used to be a $1 million exposure suddenly became 2 or 3 times that. An investor who has the risk appetite for $1 million on a certain stock may not feel the same way if the amount were $3 million, and the same investor may not be able to put up enough cash to settle the $3 million purchase.

Another way to achieve a larger discount was to choose stocks which were more volatile. So instead of accumulating blue chips, investors were turning into ever more speculative names. Obviously this increased the risk of share price falling below the discounted price - at which point your exposure multiplied. And you would be buying more shares just as prices are falling. Picking up blue chip stocks in a falling market can be a good investment strategy. If the companies are fundamentally sound, long-term investors can wait for the markets to recover. If you were looking at speculative stocks, however, that may not be such a prudent strategy...

The long-running bull market simply fooled many investors into thinking that they can't lose. They had done so many transactions where it was easy to make money, so naturally no one thought about the downside. In a bull market, accumulators kept getting knocked-out early so nobody ever thought that they'd be in a situation where they would be stuck buying the entire $1 million (or $3 million if leveraged). All they could think about was how little stock they managed to pick up on the last trade at the discounted price, which probably led to the decision to increase the size of the next trade so they can REALLY make money...

In the end it is the investors' own greed that became their downfall, not the derivative product which was simply a tool.  The banks may have provided the gun but it was the investors who loaded the bullets and shot themselves - and they even asked for a gun capable of firing three-round bursts instead of a single shot... My opinion is that the fault lies squarely with the investors.

Of course journalists would never write anything that puts the blame on the investors. It is simply too easy to paint the banks into villains who victimize the poor investors. As the article claims: "...The investor's risk is unlimited; the bank's is fixed."  The author also writes: "...the upside is limited and the downside is unlimited."

Well that is completely false. Anyone who knows anything about investing knows that when you go "long" and buy an asset, your loss is limited to the price you paid for the asset (in most cases anyway).  It is your upside that is unlimited because the asset price can theoretically keep going up and up. The only time you may be faced with a theoretical unlimited loss is when you go "short" and the price of the asset rises to infinity...

The bank also takes on more risk than meets the eye. There could be situations where the bank can lose on its hedging positions due to sudden and large moves in the market. But then the author of the article wouldn't know anything about that, would he... even though he is reported to be a "senior investment banker in the Hong Kong office of an international bank" according to our friends at Wikipedia. I understand our author was trying to be witty, being a "satirical business writer and humorist". But I don't see the humor in inflaming public sentiment with statements which are blatantly false.

Oh, and he also needs to work on his understanding of the rate of return, as his math is clearly wrong. Either he doesn't have a clue about how to calculate this number, or he is deliberately distorting viewpoints to paint a picture other than the simple facts. Either way I am not amused.

March 9, 2009

Menu change

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Another meal at Fook Lam Moon (福臨門) with a group of guys (and girl) that seems to only dine here when we meet. Tonight, however, there would be changes to the menu. We had gotten tired of ordering the same old dishes - however delicious they might be - and asked for something completely different. So here goes...

Chicken soup with sea whelk and bird's nest (螺頭雞湯燴官燕) - OK so there was no sharks' fin today, but we had bird's nest instead. It's a pretty darn good chicken soup, except there are expensive ingredients. I'm not big on bird's nest but at least it's more environmentally friendly than sharks' fin...

Shredded soft-shell turtle stir-fried with pickled mustard stem (榨菜絲炒水魚絲) - I haven't had turtle in a very long time as I normally don't order it, but this was pretty nice, especially with the pickles. Yet another dish that's out of the ordinary...

Pan-fried twin eastern star garoupa (煎封雙東星斑) - I really liked this dish, even though this isn't the most popular Cantonese preparation for fish. I have always liked the way fish is braised, having been pan-fried first to have a bit of crispy and crunchy skin. Really enjoyable and a nice break from the normal steamed fish.

Deep-fried crab claw (百花炸釀蟹拑) - these giant claws must have come from Sri Lankan crabs, because there is no way they could be this big otherwise. The shell has been removed, then the claw was coated in a layer of shrimp paste and deep-fried. As we were armed only with chopsticks and spoons, the only way to get at this is to pick it up my hand and chomp... But I have to say that this was really delicious.

Wolfberry leaves in ham broth (上湯浸枸杞菜) - no pig liver this time, but I'm really happy that this veggie is back in season.

Steamed goose with plum and taro (梅子芋頭蒸鵝) - a really delicious dish. The taro was done separately and so nice, even for a guy like me who doesn't normally eat it. The goose was fatty and yummy - is there any other way to have it? There were also lots of goose kidneys inside the claypot, and it's been a while since I've had it at a restaurant (instead of mom's). I think this was generally very well-received.

Wontons in soup (上湯韭黃粒雲吞) - really nicely done here. The wontons were plump with a good amount of shrimp packed into them, and the flavors of the yellowed chives was just classic.

I was already stuffed (again) but couldn't leave without having a bowl of the almond cream with egg white (蛋白杏仁茶).

I didn't realize we were celebrating a birthday today, or else I would have brought much nicer bottles of wine... But these were meant for casual drinking:

2006 Dr. Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese - from the great 2006 vintage and still pretty young, a sweet, honey and caramel nose with hint of orange blossom. Sweet on the palate, this was somewhat surprising to people who don't drink German Rieslings.

1997 Beringer Merlot Bancroft Ranch Private Reserve - hint of coffee, vanilla, toasty oak, red fruits with a bit of smoke. Still drinking pretty well.

2006 Mollydooker Merlot the Scooter - this was my first bottle of Mollydooker, even though I've bought a bunch of them. This was a stereotypical Aussie wine... Very sweet nose, with toasty oak, vanilla, coffee notes. Really sweet on the palate and a spicy finish, and very "hot" from the high alcohol. It is not difficult to see why Parker gives high scores to these wines but for my taste... let's just say that even I prefer something with a little more finesse...

I'm happy to have come to Fook Lam Moon and tasted some of tonight's dishes, so that I can mix it up in the future...

March 8, 2009

Moroccan flavors

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Yet another evening of gathering with friends and finding somewhere interesting to eat. I dragged everyone to the "dark side" so I can have another taste of the Arabic/Moroccan food at Malouf's. It's been over half a year since my last visit, and I was ready to relive some fond memories...

We had three starters to tide us over, beginning with the mezze. The cheesy ladies fingers were OK, and the smoky baba ganoush was not bad with the homemade jou jou bread. The almond falafel was nice as to be expected, while the salt cod and preserved lemon fritter had a nice, soft texture like one would find in a Portuguese or Spanish restaurant.

Batt moubakhar - the duck leg was marinated in "7 year master stock"...not quite sure what that means. While the frying made it look like a duck confit, the cumin salt used reminded me of Chinese 5-spice. The accompanying carrot salad matched the duck nicely.

Laban immor - the lamb dumplings were pretty good, with the interesting tastes of garlic mint yogurt with spinach and chick peas. A second round of ordering added another starter and some mains. I didn't take any of the shawarma as it's been made into a modern salad.

We had two orders of the bistayeea, since we would have been fighting for the pigeon pie otherwise. However these fell a little short of my expectations, given how yummy they were on my last visit. The flavor of the pigeon meat was less intense, and although there was still the almond and the sweet filo pastry, it was just a bit anti-climactic.

Malouf's Mouhrabieh bi kraides - this prawn and mussel tagine was interesting, with caramelized fennel and giant cous cous that look like white BB shots. Not sure what these balls are made of, but they sure are chewy.

Mozat bi baharat - the veal shank looked gigantic sitting in the tagine pot. The meat was tender although just a tad dry for my taste. The butternut pumpkin base was sweet and good. We can't walk out of the place without sweets, so here goes a third round of ordering...

Spiced pomegranate ganita with minted watermelon salad and lime syrup pistachio halva - I had a tiny spoonful and it seemed pretty good.

Mahallabia - I had this on my last visit, but the jelly on top of the cream is now made with rose scented strawberries. Still had the Iranian candy floss on top which is just dragon beard candy (龍鬚糖) to the Chinese...

Syrian apricot and almond tart with caramelized orange and orange blossom clotted cream - pretty yummy actually, and the caramelized orange was especially interesting as this isn't something we usually see.

Burnt honey ice cream and kataifi and toffeed figs - delicious caramel flavors.

I had the Moroccan mint tea, but unfortunately the tea had neither enough flavor nor enough sweetness...

Overall it was a pretty decent meal, if a tiny bit below my expectations in terms of food quality. However the real let down came in the form of service. The staff seemed poorly trained and generally slow, perhaps even a little nonchalant. We were a bit put off by this. The whole dining experience would be so much better - resulting in more customers - if the staff could just care about service a bit more... Oh well...

March 6, 2009

Izakaya dining

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It's been a while since I last met up with a couple of friends for dinner, so I caught up with them on a Friday over a casual meal at Irori (いろり), my favorite Japanese izakaya (居酒屋). Our last dinner together didn't work out so well, but I was excited to go back to Irori for another visit.

My friends arrived early and ordered the grilled marinated blow fish (ふぐみりん干し) and the gyoza (餃子) - both standard fare at any izakaya. From then on I took over and got us a bunch of my old favorites from the joint.

Aji tataki (鯵たたき) - haven't had this for a while, and it's nice having it with all the chopped spring onions. The deep-fried bones were good, too!

Tomato in sesame sauce (胡麻トマト) - this is a classic that I always order, and my friends were surprised that every table had a plate of this. Always love the cold, refreshing tomatoes.

Grilled ox tongue with spring onions (牛タン葱焼き) - I can't go to an izakaya without having some ox tongue, and this is buried under a mound of spring onions that neutralizes the "heat" of the grilled meat.

Deep-fried chicken cartilage (軟骨唐揚げ) - just about my favorite dish here, but this seemed a little sub-par today. Maybe not enough batter? As usual I doused shichimi (七味) all over to give it a good kick.

Crab miso (蟹味噌) - this is crab roe that was seasoned with a bit of lemon juice. I love the intense taste but would have preferred it raw, without the lemon juice. But I suppose that wouldn't go well with the Hong Kong palate...

Pirate cheese (海賊チーズ) - read about this on the internet so decided to order it. No clue why people rave about this. It's just blocks of Philly cream cheese topped with some spicy, mushy chopped seafood. Definitely not popular with the group.

Mochi pizza (もちピッザ) - always cool to order, these bite-sized mochi pieces are topped with ham, cheese and tomato sauce just like a pizza. Pretty fun to eat.

Deep-fried fishcake (薩摩揚げ) - this is actually pretty good, and my friends couldn't stop eating it.

It appears that appetites weren't satiated by this point, so a few more dishes were ordered...

Deep-fried sweet potato chips (薩摩芋チップ) - these are actually pretty good since they are freshly fried. The plate was decorated with some pine needles and looked pretty.

Braised fatty pork (豚の角煮) - the menu called this Japanese 東坡肉, which really isn't too far from the truth. You can take this into a Chinese restaurant and I would have definitely called it Chinese...

I always like to finish an izakaya meal with a grilled rice ball (焼きおにぎり). The grilling was well done, but I wish there was a bit more flavor to it. Had to drip some soy sauce and shichimi on top.

I did bring along my bottle of sake, this time it was Kakunko Junmai Daiginjyo (花薫香純米大吟醸) from Sudohonke (須藤本家). This unfiltered brew has always been one of my favorite sakes, having ground the rice grains down to 27% seimaibuai (精米步合). I was excited to drink this again, and I decided not to ice the bottle since it came from the wine fridge.

This turned out to be a mistake. The warmer temperature of the sake meant that the nose was much more pronounced, and as it turned out I didn't like it so much. While there were lots of tropical fruits such as banana, pineapple and orange in the nose, it also distinctively smelled like the Chinese white wines (白酒) that I dislike so much. Just smelled so "artificial". I started to wonder whether I had aged the sake for a bit too long. It's been 3 1/2 years since this was bottled... Definitely cloudy, and smelling like Chinese fermented rice (酒釀). I decide to ice the bottle, and the experience improved dramatically, as the lower temperature restrained the nose. I guess I'll stick to icing my sakes from now on...

A great meal for a Friday night, and a happy return visit to Irori after a prolonged absence...


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