Saturday, November 27, 2010

Dark Side Tang

Last chance for a meal with my friend C. who was leaving town tonight, and we figured a bit of local food would be appropriate. For once, I wanted to pick a place I had not reviewed before, so I chose to take her to Tang Court (The Langham Hong Kong, 8 Peking Road, TST). I had been introduced to this restaurant during a dim sum lunch with my fellow foodie Peech and was curious to try their dinner menu - it did not disappoint, despite the fact that some of my foodie friends have reported so fairly unpleasant experiences with the service at this place, and at times found the food "so-so". We enjoyed the food a lot, and found the service to be attentive and very friendly.We were (I would say surprisingly, given that this is a hotel restaurant) pretty much the only foreigners in the restaurant that night, and found our waiter to be very knowledgeable about the food and eager to advise on what to order (even if we ended up not following his recommendations). I will definitely return to this place to sample more dishes.

Appetizer: deep-fried tofu cubes in warm chicken broth

Very tasty.

The Chef's home-made vegetarian XO sauce. I could not resist trying it (despite the fact that none of our dishes required this to be added) and found it very good.

The Chef's home-made chilli sauce

Excellent - sticky, a bit sweet and hot. I wish we had ordered something to dip into this...

Char siu

Just about ok for me (my friend, who is not as picky, enjoyed it a lot). The honey flavour was good, but there was way to much jus in the plate. Tasty meat, but it came with pieces of fat between the meat rather than the meat being marbled, as is the case in other places. Assuming Island Tang's char siu is 9/10, I would give this a 6.

Double-boiled Chinese cabbage with bamboo fungus and yunnan ham soup

I have always been a huge fan of these clear, double-boiled soups found in Cantonese cuisine, and this one was right up my alley. The broth was packed with flavours from the ham. Delicious, warming and light.

Stir-fried pea shoots with garlic

The garlic had been roasted before being added to the veggie, giving a much milder and sweeter flavour. Excellent.

Crispy salty chicken

One of the Chef's recommendations according to the menu. Our waiter suggested the kitchen could debone the half-chicken for us, which we found was a good idea. Cut bones are one of my pet peeves, and I have to admit that even after a few years in my beloved Honkie, I still find it difficult to suck on chopped up poultry bones (even though whole bones have never been an issue) as I find the feeling of the hard, spongy texture of the bones on the tongue extremely unpleasant, if not off-putting. The chicken turned up on our table perfectly deboned and was very good - not as salty as I would have expected, with a flavourful and juicy meat. The skin could have been crispier though.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Creature of habits

This Frog is a creature of habits. If I enjoy a restaurant's cuisine, then I do not mind coming over and over again and ordering (pretty much) the same dishes, even within a short period of time. So when my friend C. told me she would be in town for a couple of days and mentioned she wanted to have some Sichuan food, I knew immediately where I would take her... Yunyan Sichuan Restaurant (4/F Miramar Shopping Centre, 132 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui). Yes, "Boring" some of you will say, "you already reviewed this place 3 weeks ago, Froggie!!". Well, yes, but I happen to really LOVE the food at this place, you see... and with the cold winter in Honkie these days, I bet it won't be long before I return to get my fix of their wonderfully warming food ;-)

Sichuan style roasted marinated duck

One of the signature dished according to the menu. This was delicious - the meat was moist and juicy, with rich flavours of Sichuan spices, and the skin was crispy/sticky. I will definitely order this again.

Crispy chicken dice with spicy dried red chillies and Sichuan peppercorns

Another signature dish, still as good as ever. Delicious crispy chicken, and what a kick!

Staying on the beaten track again - Ma Po tofu (tofu with minced beef and chilli).

This has always been one of my absolute favourite dishes, and as I have said before, Yunyan's version could well be the best in town. Silky, almost creamy tofu cubes, tasty minced beef, and plenty of chilli oil and spring onions. I just could not stop spooning it over my steamed rice - delish!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

♥ Joël forever ♥

Today a friend and ex-colleague was kind enough to treat me to lunch at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon (3/F, The Landmark, Central). We hadn't had the opportunity to catch up over lunch in a while and it was good to see her again - I am already looking forward to our next lunch together :-)

I had not eaten at L'Atelier for some time, and my last experience at Le Café wasn't really memorable, mostly due to a slump in service quality. I was therefore curious to see what the situtation was like at L'Atelier, and honestly I could not find anything wrong with our meal today. The food was fabulous and cooked perfectly to my liking, and the service was efficient and polite, as it used to be. I guess the visit from the Master himself back in September probably put things back on track... As usual, the set lunch was fantastic value for money, and the show at the kitchen counter is still as entertaining as ever.

Guess what butter L'Atelier is now serving... ?? Bus is it really Bordier ? Similar but not identical shape... warrants further investigation, will revert in due course (as I admired more than tasted that cone...)

Amuse-bouche: cauliflower cream, foie gras mousse, port jelly & a sweet and crispy soldier

Very good - the cauliflower and foie gras preparations were very tasty, and the port jelly was pretty fragrant. I am not too sure cauliflower and foie gras pair very well together though, but I think it's rather a matter of taste as the execution of this AB was faultless.

Starter: La seiche - le blanc caramelisé au soja, fine crème de chou fleur et chou fleur à la cru au citron vert (sauteed cuttlefish with caramelised soy, crunchy and cream of cauliflower)

I am a huge fan of cuttlefish and this was absolutely delicious. The work on the textures and temperatures was very interesting  - slight chewiness of the cuttlefish and creamy cauliflower, both warm, with crunchy citrussy raw cauliflower in very thin slices, excellent olive oil drizzling and caramelised soy sauce "ring". The flavours paired extremely well together. Very, very good.

Soup: les ravioles de foie gras dans un bouillon de poule et fleurette pimentée (foie gras ravioli in warm chicken broth)

Excellent broth, tasty mini-ravioli of duck foie gras, chopped dill and a side of whipped crème fleurette with a sprinkle of chilli (the menu was not specific on this point but I think I tasted piment d'Espelette). Very light and packed with flavours.

Main course:  le pigeonneau de Bresse rôti, purée de maïs aux chanterelles, jus au Porto (roasted Bresse pigeon with sweet corn mash, chanterelles and port reduction)

I think there is a bit of work to be done on the description of this dish on the menu... the mushrooms were craterelles not chanterelles (aka "trompettes de la mort" in French) and the pigeon was baby pigeon (ie pigeonneau). The corn mash was a mix of sweet corn, thin polenta and juice from the mushrooms. Apart from me picking up on translation details again, the dish was absolutely de-li-cious. The mushrooms were fragrant, as was the port reduction, and the pigeon came cooked medium and was perfectly pink, tender and juicy. The creamy mash tasted both of young, sweet corn and mushroom jus, and the attentive waiter placed a little bowl of water in front of me to rinse my fingers - like, do I look like I pick bones with my fingers in a Michelin-starred place lol ?? That would be unheard of...  ;-)
The pigeonneau was topped with a slice of excellent crunchy smoked bacon (poitrine fumée) and rested on a bed of young greens that had soaked up the juices of the hot meat. Good they took my plate away before I licked it, because THAT would have been really unsightly... XD

Dessert: Le marron - en mousse sur sa plaquette de chocolat au lait, paillettes de cassis (chestnut mousse with milk chocolate and blackcurrant flakes)

No blackcurrant flakes in sight (rather, the berries themselves showed up - topped with gold foil AAAARGHHH, but let's not go there...), and in lieu of a milk chocolate bar (ie a "tablette") it was more a few thin leaves (with more gold foil, I must be glowing from within right now...) and a cute (and unannounced) little quenelle of blackcurrant sorbet topped the delicious chestnut mousse. I am a chestnut junkie, so I knew this would be right up my alley, and it did not disappoint. The chestnut mousse was creamy and nutty, and with just the right amount of sweetness, and the blackcurrant sorbet was gorgeously fruity and gave a bit of balancing sharpness to the sweet chestnut. A light and excellent dessert.

Petits fours: mysterious green macaroon, chocolate pearls and pâtes de fruits

The macaroons' texture was very nice (as usual), but to be very honest I did not manage to identify the flavour. Definitely a bit of matcha in the cream, but there was a mysterious herb in the biscuit (coriander ? mint ??) which tasted a bit "green". Interesting but I would need a much bigger macaroon to analyse that taste properly ;-)

A big thanks to L. for treating me to lunch, my treat next time at Caprice ;-)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

2010 Spice Odyssey

Tonight I'm having dinner in Kingston with Wendy. Kingston Jamaica maaaan, with food author and Caribbean cuisine authority Wendy Rahamut. Since my last trip to the Caribbean last year, I had been looking all over town for plantain bananas, and finally stumbled upon them in the most unlikely place (a posh supermarket for expats that I normally only go to for very specific cooking needs, such as pancetta and now rabbit legs...). I bought a heavy bunch and patiently waited a whole 10 days for my babies to ripen. Plantains can be used green, but what I had in mind required them to be ripe and sweet...

The recipes below are very largely inspired by Wendy's excellent cookbook Caribbean Flavors.

Jamaican Jerk Chicken and herbed plantain gratin

Basic ingredients for Jamaican Jerk Chicken: onion, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, lime juice, garlic, ginger, thyme, chillies and chives. As I could not find habaneros or scotch bonnets, I used a combination of fresh bird's eye and dried ground Cayenne and chipotle peppers (and, as usual, increased the chilli content of the recipe).

Jerk marinade, after careful slicing, chopping, pounding and squeezing.

Organic chicken thighs and drumsticks, lovingly smothered with jerk marinade. Cover with film and leave in the fridge overnight.
Jamaican jerk chicken, after about 30mn cooking (turn once)

Unripe plantains

The same plantains, 10 days later, finally ripe.

Boiled plantains - if you have never smelled the wonderful aroma of a perfectly ripe, just boiled and still hot plantain, go get some now!

Herbed plantain gratin (with cheese topping)

Caribbean Flavors (Wendy Rahamut)

Caribbean cooking 101. From coo-coo to rice & peas, from jerk chicken to coconut curried goat, this book covers all the classic popular Caribbean recipes. Complete with beautiful pictures of the dishes, it also includes useful notes on island variants and possible substitutions for ingredients that may be hard to come by outside of the region. An excellent book, which I would highly recommend to anyone who, like me, likes exotic and spicy food.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan)

In his “Natural History of Four Meals”, Pollan raises his sharp pen again and applies his no less sharp mind to giving us a didactic exposé of the perils of the modern food industry, through the analysis of really 3 meals - you will be left to find the 4th one for yourself…

And perils there are many – from a fast-food meal, through a meal centred on ethically grown meat and finally with a foraged meal, Pollan goes through the menu of why and how food has become the sorry grub most humans in Western, so called “developed”, countries eat today, how some unrepenting romantics like Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms are doing their bit to try and make the pasture and the kill floor a better place, what the meaning of food really should be, and what place it should really occupy in our societies and daily lives.

Much of the content in this book echoes ideas other contemporary writers have voiced. In a manner alike to Jonathan Safran Foer, Pollan asserts that “Eating puts us in touch with all that we share with the other animals, and all that sets us apart. It defines us.” It is food as the central pillar of civilisations, that both makes them and drives them to their demise. He also agrees that part of the problem faced by the US today, the origin of its “national eating disorder” should be looked for in the fact that “as a relatively new nation drawn from many different immigrant populations, each with its own culture of food, Americans have never had a single, strong, stable culinary tradition”, which allows the food industry to exploit and “exacerbate [our] anxieties about what to eat, the better to then assuage them with new products”, turning the US into a nation of “notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of healthy eating”, which he refers to as the “American paradox”.

The author of the Botany of Desire can be clearly felt pushing the pen, and I very much enjoyed the evolutionary spin given to the analysis of the botanical success of Zea Mays (aka corn) as a species, which I am sure Richard Dawkins would manage to fit into his Extended Phenotype theory. Pollan’s analysis of the evolution of agriculture, from a calorie-producing enterprise to a calorie-wasting one also commands attention. The author also ventures into the contradictions of USDA standards, the ties of the organisation with the industry it pretends to regulate, the not-so-honest premises of organic farming, and the truly evil intentions of the agricultural, food and fertilizer lobby groups. And yet in this very dark age, rays of light and hope emerge in the persons of alternative farmers and growers, who opted out of the mainstream hypocrisy and greed to pursue the values and ideals they trust. But, outnumbered as they are, how long until they are definitely put out of business by Big Agro and their timid voice reduced to silence?

It’s Pollan – it’s witty, humorous and light, and never grim or cynical in the face of disgrace or immorality. Yet it speaks volumes for who wants to listen. It reads cover to cover almost without a breath, and leaves you panting for more. It is the nemesis of Kraft mozzarella and the chicken nugget. It is urgent mandatory reading for anyone out there who pretends to have even a remote interest in quality food, and will expose hidden (and hideous) mechanisms even the best informed foodies may ignore – and it is also recommended for all the others. One can hope it will wake America and the world from years of ignorance and indifference. One can only hope…

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Gratefulness is the beginning of happiness

I openly admit that I do not find American culture particularly appealing or interesting; to me, the US is a young country devoid of meaningful traditions, a "melting pot" of pseudo-cultures where nothing really takes root but the latest (and quickly supplanted) fads; it is the country of intellectual "heavyweights" such as Oprah Winfrey, Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Choprah, it has given the world some of its greatest evils (Dubya and the atomic bomb, just to name a couple) and its self-professed mission of "policeman of the world" spits in the face of honest policemen everywhere. I could go on with the ranting (don't even get me started on raw milk cheese or cattle farming) - that would be neither informative nor constructive.

That said, I feel lucky to have been invited for the 2nd year in a row to celebrate a typically American holiday, Thanksgiving, at the house of some dear Sino-Korean friends; some members of that family spent a number of years in the US, and still respect the tradition now that they are living in Hong Kong. As last year, a giant turkey was the guest of honour at the table, and copious amounts of delicious food had been prepared by a few diligent fairies. One of the family members had been very sick this year and spent quite some time away from home getting treatment, and I was very happy to see her back and reasonably well to celebrate the holiday with us - this was, truly, something to be grateful and thankful for.

Having recently hit a bit of a bump in the road myself, albeit (thankfully) of a different and much less serious nature, I have been focusing on getting back on the bike, and could unfortunately not participate in the cooking or shopping trips to the market to prepare for this awesome meal due to prior commitments, which I very much regret. If several years of practising yoga and reading the writings of various swamis has taught me anything, it would be this: there can be no genuine happiness where there is envy or resentment. If you want to "be the change you want to see in the world", it starts with the baby-step of being grateful for what you have. I think that day, I truly grasped the meaning of Thanksgiving. Maybe going forward I'll cut some slack to these poor Americans and try to look beyond the appearances. Maybe, after all, there is something to be learned from them as well...

Veggie sticks, creamy Roquefort dip with walnuts

I zeroed-in on the celery sticks - celery & blue cheese is one of my favourite things!! My faithful tastebuds identified the Roquefort immediately - easy for me as it's my favourite cheese. This appetizer platter really had my name on it!! :-)

Roasted bell pepper dip with crème fraîche
Creamy and bursting with flavour - delicious!

To ensure optimum moistness, the Resident Surgeon re-injected the cooking juices into the turkey. Aouch... 
The almighty turkey, waiting to be devoured...
Table-side carving

The cooking juices of the sweet potatoes, reduced to a glaze
Baked purple & orange sweet potatoes, glazed in their own reduced cooking juice

Baked baby vine tomatoes with garlic, thyme and olive oil, served with fresh basil
Braised Brussels sprouts with thyme & shallots

Beetroot salad with feta, hazelnuts and Italian parsley

Mashed potatoes & onion confit (15 onions in that bowl, patiently reduced to a jam though numerous hours of careful cooking...)

Kalbi chim (Korean braised short ribs)

Very tasty and tender meat with plenty of collagen. Very very yummy. I regretted not to have room for a second piece...

Pumpkin pie - I really liked the spice mix and the discreet sweetness. Good crust too - overall a very good pie.

Pecan pie

This pie was totally awesome. Roasted pecans, butter, brown sugar, whisky and home-made crust. Here again, no room for seconds. Best pecan pie I have ever had - period.
Fresh figs (stuffed with Serrano ham & slightly torched)

Apple pie - I did not try it as I was running out of stomach space for all these goodies, but it looked pretty good too...

My foodie buddy Peech did not only bring back macaroons from Paris, he also brought cheese!!

This is raw milk Vacherin Mont d'Or, from Fromageries Androuët (as are all the wonderful cheeses below)

Raw milk Vacherin Mont d'Or - perfectly ripe

Cabri Ariégeois, which is like a goat's milk version of vacherin

30-month old Comté. Aaaah, the sweet nuttiness and the salt cristals!!

Raw milk Epoisses from Gaugry - the last cheesemaker in France to make Epoisses with raw milk I am told. So sad :-(

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Pierre Hermé and his famous Macaroon

As my foodie buddy Peech was in Burgundy recently on a vinotherapy (a quite gruelling one I am told, involving several dozens of tastings a day...), he needed a rest on the way back and stopped over in Paris for a couple of days. He was kind enough to buy me a box of macaroons from one of Pierre Hermé's famous shops. He obviously took great care during transport, as these are extremely fragile, and they reached Honkie in perfect condition and amazing freshness.

"Pierre Hermé and his famous macaroon", says the cute box - if there was a Nobel prize for gastronomy, these little pillows would be a prime candidate...

The selection in my goodie box (front to back, top to bottom, left to right):

Chestnut and Matcha - I think this is my favourite after the white truffle. I am a huge chestnut fan, and this combination was just perfect. Sweet, smooth chestnut cream with a fragrant center of matcha cream. I could have gobbled down a dozen more;
Rose & rose petals - a classic, always as good as ever;
Crème brûlée - my third favourite from this box. This was totally amazing - it tasted exactly like Crème brûlée, each and every layer of flavour was there: the vanilla aroma, the creamy/buttery taste and that slight hint of caramel. Brilliant;
Quince & rose - one of the seasonal flavours. Quite fruity with a nose of rose that was much more muted than in the rose macaroon. Very nice and subtle;
Mogador (milk chocolate ganache and passionfruit macaroon) - an old favourite. I find it interesting that this macaroon is built as passionfruit macaroon around chocolate ganache and not the other way round, which keeps this somehow classic combination of flavours ever appealing;
Chuao (chocolate and blackcurrant half-macaroons, sandwiched around blackcurrant cream) - another favourite. The chocolate in the top-half macaroon was very intense, and the blackcurrant cream brought some balance with its fruity and slightly acidic notes. Very, very good;
Infiniment caramel (salted caramel) - classic. "Like a Chanel suit, it will never go out of fashion." Sorry I HAD to pull a Carrie Bradshaw on this one ;-)

Seasonal flavour: white truffle & roasted Piemont hazelnuts

I was lucky to get 2 of these - absolutely a-ma-zing!! The white truffle was very fragrant, and worked perfectly with the sweet, crumbly, creamy texture of the macaroon. Like Peech, I would think that the hazelnuts could have been done without, even though they were excellent. Such a noble ingredient as white truffle doesn't need props and texture tricks, it should be the star of its own show without the need for a sidekick...