September 11, 2014

Out on the Town

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Those who know me well know that I am never in a hurry to visit new restaurants, as the probability of "stepping on a land mine" is incredibly high.  Usually I wait a few months - sometimes up to more than a year - for places to work things out.  Why pay a good chunk of my hard-earned money if I'm gonna get subpar food and/or service?!

Starting tonight I'm throwing that philosophy out the window... if only for limited occasions.  I've been invited by the South China Morning Post to be a guest contributor to their First Served column - which appears in the 48 Hours weekly magazine and highlights brand new restaurants in town.  It's a short column, but it represents a complete departure of what you normally see in this space.  Let's see if they actually ask me to keep writing this stuff after a couple of times...

The restaurant I chose for my very first review was Town, the latest venture from Chef Bryan Nagao.  I haven't tasted Chef Nagao's food in years - probably not since my last visit to Kokage... but I figured since he's a well-known figure in town he deserves some coverage.

The place was maybe a third full when I arrived, and the staff very kindly poured me some tap water when lemon twist when I asked for it.  They even asked me if I was hungry and wanted some bread while I waited for my friend.  So far so good.

My friend arrives and before she has had a chance to catch her breath, a waitstaff comes over and asks if she wants to anything.  She is annoyed, and this would turn out to be the beginning of what she feels is "over-service".

I let my friend choose her dishes first, and it turns out that all three dishes were my first choice also... so I had to pick other ones that she could eat, since we were sharing...  Interestingly we saw Sicilian red prawns appear on three different dishes, which is unusual but on second thought made a lot of sense.

Sicilian red prawn carpaccio, black truffle caviar, yuzu, croutons - my friend's starter turns out to be the best dish of the evening.  Very fresh and full-flavored prawns, with the tiniest clump of truffle caviar, really tiny baby cucumbers with flowers, finely diced celery, croûtons and a bayberry (楊梅) in the middle.  The only annoyance is that the uneven sprinkle of salt meant that some mouthfuls were saltier than others.

Tempura shrimps, candied walnut, spicy aioli - these were pretty good, but it looks like something I would have at Nobu.  In fact, I did have something very similar there.  Some of the candied walnuts delivered slightly pungent flavors, and that aioli was definitely more spicy than I expected.

Bryan's suckling pig, clams, pancetta, baby spinach, miso broth - my friend again picked something that jumped out at me from the menu.  Everyone knows I'm a sucker for suckling pig... just gimme fatty pork any day.  The meat here was very tender and moist, and nicely flavored with the fat.  The skin was smoky enough that I could smell it from my seat.  While my friend found it a little salty with the miso broth, I found it a little bland without the skin as the piece I tasted did not soak up any broth.  The clams were made infinitely more interesting with the pan-fried chunks of pancetta.

Herb black codfish, wasabi gnocchi, Sicilian prawns, celery root, mushrooms - don't see no herb on my cod, but it tasted just like it should... very moist and succulent.  In fact it almost oozed juices... although the seasoning was slightly uneven.  The wasabi gnocchi were more of a curiosity than anything, but the Silician prawns were bursting with intense flavors.  Pan-fried chanterelles and celery root purée provided the contrast of savory and sweet flavors,

Soufflé yuzu with vanilla ice cream - the soufflé did rise, but it wasn't as wobbly as I would have liked.  Yes, it was fluffy, but somehow the texture was a little off.  I liked the fragrant citrus flavors of yuzu, but honestly once I shoved the scoop of ice cream into the soufflé and mixed it up, I couldn't tell it was vanilla...

At the end of the meal I found myself in unfamiliar territory...  My friend seemed to be a harsher judge of the food than I was, which doesn't happen often.  I didn't find any major faults with any of the dishes, other than perhaps the soufflé.  None of it was mind-blowingly good, but in general the savory dishes were pretty well-made and tasty.  Would I be adding this to my rather short list of go-to restaurants?  Probably not.  But given the quality of the food and the fairly reasonable prices charged, I would have no objections to coming back to try more selections from what the chef has to offer.

A few words about service... This is a new restaurant and I think the staff are trying a little too hard... I know this would be labeled a #firstworldproblem but when multiple waitstaff keep coming up to you after every single dish to ask how the food was, eventually it can get a little annoying.

Towards the end of the meal when I started to check my work email on my phone, one server came and talked to my friend, and they were probably discussing the story behind the restaurant when the server mentioned that the chef was "of the same level as the chef from Bo Innovation".  At this point I stopped fidgeting with my phone, looked up and asked for clarification.  "They belong to the same class" was the next sentence.  Neither my friend nor I have any clue what this person was saying.  Whatever it was, did it come from the chef himself or some bullshit PR machine?  Yes, both Bryan and Alvin put Asian elements into their "Western" food, but beyond that my simplistic mind don't see a whole lot of similarity, nor do I see the two of them at "the same level".  That just ended our evening on a weird note...

The more concise review written for the South China Morning Post's 48 Hours is here. (requires subscription)

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