Monday, March 28, 2011

So... this is goodbye

Our little group of foodies gathered at Hoi King Heen (B2, Intercontinental Grand Stanford, 70 Mody Road, Tsim Sha Tsui) one last time with Lady Agar, who is due to fly off to new horizons in just a couple of days. Hoi King Heen is highly praised by a few local foodies, and I was curious to see what the hype is all about. There was (as usual) too much food, so a few of us left with doggie bags - not that the dishes were out of proportions, but I think we pre-ordered quite generously. Overall, we had a pretty good meal and the service was swift and coordinated. Now would I rate this place as one of the top places in town for Cantonese food? Maybe more likely in the top 25 than in the top 5... none of the dishes was bad or really disappointing, but the use of MSG and chicken powder was quite obvious in some of them. Quite a few dishes had a very similar appearance, due to the omnipresence of little balls of everything - winter melon, papaya, cantaloupe... *yawn* No one had probably made so much use of a cuillère Parisienne since the 80s...

Tea smoked scallops

I did not find this dish very enjoyable. Strangely, some of the scallops had been sliced after being smoked, they were lacking in moisture, and the taste was far from subtle - the very strong smoke flavour completely overpowered the delicate shellfish and was a bit bitter. A good idea in itself but poor execution - I do not think this method of smoking should be employed for anything that doesn't have a skin to block the harshest notes of the smoke, and it probably works best on fatty rather than lean flesh.

Braised winter melon stuffed with black olives and preserved veggies

Quite a spectacularly beautiful dish, shaped like a bunch of grapes...

Braised winter melon stuffed with black olives and preserved veggies - close up

Some of us joked that they looked like the eyeballs in the soup in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom... the slimy sauce didn't help obviously. I found this dish very bland. Winter melon in itself doesn't have much flavour, so it is quite challenging to pair it without overpowering it - here the preserved veggies and olives filling was probably a bit too subtle. More pleasure for the eye than for the palate in this dish...

Stir-fried giant prawns

The texture was perfect, sign of some expert cooking - the prawns had that bouncy bite that only super-fresh seafood has. Taste-wise, not a hint of baking soda could be felt in the flesh, which is always appreciated, but some unnaturally strong umami was present in the thin glazing on the prawns - I suspect there might haven been a touch of MSG involved...

Steamed garoupa - a star in its own show...

Now that was one crowded dish... the sauce in the plate was made with salted egg yolks and crab roe and was pretty delish, with some additional smokey aroma I couldn't quite identify. The green disc at the bottom was spinach and tasted impeccably fresh and not "earthy" (as sometimes spinach does), and on top of it came a shiitake mushroom cap filled with shrimp paste - the mushroom was ok but frankly, I don't care for shrimp paste, which I find completely uninteresting (unless it's done the Vietnamese way and barbecued around sugar cane sticks, but then again most of the enjoyment then comes from chewing on the sticks and most of the taste from the BBQ smoke...). I would say both veggie layers did not bring much to the dish, apart from some height... The garoupa itself was pretty good and wrapped around a "matchstick" of pretty tasty yunnan ham, but the textures of both ingredients did not really work together and it was impossible to cut through the ham without completely destroying the fish. The dish was topped with a chive flower bud and sprinkled with some pretty sweet dried carrot. Each flavour taken separately was quite pure and beautiful, but the dish just didn't work for me.

Beggar's chicken

Looking too neat and tidy to be honest... and what's with the aluminium foil!?

Beggar's chicken, deboned - where is the stuffing??

Beggar's chicken - the verdict...

... guilty of blandness! To be fair, this was good quality chicken, with a good dose of fat an some pretty concentrated chicken-y flavours, but it tasted nothing like the woody, leafy and mushroomy delicacy I had come to expect after a few visits at Tien Heung Lau. The meat certainly was very moist, but lacked in flavour as the stuffing was very scarce. The lotus leaf aroma was noticeably absent, and no wonderful liquorice aroma could be detected either.

Braised beef with papaya

A very good dish. Tasty chunks of beef, very tender from the long braising and helped by the enzymes in the fruit, in a tasty (MSG?) gravy... but what's with the fruit balls!?

An Elf-esque swoosh on my plate :-)

Pork ribs with sweet prune and sesame sauce

This was pretty good. The fatty pork had been deep-fried and was coated in a sweet and sligthly sticky prune sauce - a bit like an upmarket version of your traditional sweet and sour pork... Why did this dish require melon balls? Only Chef knows...

Fish soup with rice noodles

I love a good milky fish soup, but this was clearly a miss... the fish flavours were way too discreet and the mushrooms used were not fragrant enough to save the dish. The use of chicken powder in the broth was quite obvious and not very pleasant.

Pan-fried dumplings

The texture was very nice - crispy at the bottom, sticky on the top. I was less convinced by the filling though, which had a very strong (too strong...) taste of pork fat (so porky it was almost dirty, if you see what I mean...), even though it had an interesting and contrasting crunchy texture.

Custard puffs

At first I thought someone had mistakenly ordered turnip puffs for dessert :o)

These were ok. The puff pastry was flaky and buttery, but the filling was a bit too thick and was probably enhanced by synthetic vanilla.
Almond cream with egg white - one of my favourite desserts :-)

This was whipped up tableside by the staff... amazing (never seen this elsewhere). The texture was very nice with a decent almond flavour but the cream was too sweet for my taste.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Light my fire

Our little group of foodies is soon to lose one of its members, to the great distress of the remaining ones... Lady Agar is leaving us soon to live her own version of the American dream, and a few "last chance" meals have been organised to wish her well. After Cepage last weekend, we gathered today for dinner at Yu Chuan Club (Shop B, 1/F, Hundred City Centre, 7-17 Amoy Street, Wan Chai) for a bit of spicy food. Yu Chuan is one of the famous private kitchens in HK and whips up excellent Sichuan dishes for a very reasonable price (about HKD 200 per person, which is incredibly cheap given the variety, quality and quantity of the food here). Overall, this was a pretty awesome meal. I enjoyed some dishes more than others, but this was down to a pure matter of taste rather than something being wrong with the said dishes. I would highly recommend this place to anyone who likes "manageably spicy" Sichuan food - none of the dishes was painfully spicy, even if on average well seasoned and for some of them quite hot. The more diners, the more dishes your party will be served, so round up the chilli junkies and book a large table.

Sliced pork

Very tender, with nice chunks of fat, and plenty of different chopped veggies added for texture. Very good.

Mouth-watering chicken, aka "saliva chicken"

This version was better than the equivalent at Da Ping Huo - fewer bones in the chicken, no floppy greasy skin, and a more fragrant sauce. Pretty good even if it's still not my favourite dish...

Noodles with chillies, Sichuan peppercorns, scallions, sesame oil etc... very nice

Chilli-marinated century eggs

Pretty good eggs with a good dose of ammonia and a chilli kick, with chopped scallions to add some crunch. Very nice.

Chilli-marinated century egg and noodles - close-up

Chilli-tossed cukes

A classic, very nicely done. Sesame oil and chillies made this dish very tasty.

Steamed pork with mystery starchy root veggie and chilli "crumble"

A very very good dish. Pork, carbs, fat and chillies - 4 essential food groups in one dish, what's there not to love?

Stir-fried prawns with egg yolk

A nice twist on a traditional recipe. In other restaurants the prawns would be de-shelled and deep-fried, then coated in egg yolk sauce. Here they were shells-on, and fried until crispy outside and still tender inside in a light egg-yolk based coating. Very good. Note the care taken with removing the legs, antennas etc... so that diners can munch on the shells without having to take anything off.

The mystery chilli "soup"...

... revealed some delicious garoupa fillets and sweet potato noodles with bean sprouts. Delicious and not as spicy as the coulour would let you think (you could actually drink the broth, which was yummy and packed with flavours).

Chilli frogs

Actually these were apparently toads and not frogs (it seems where the French use frogs, the Chinese prefer toads...). The meat definitely was tasty (unusually so) but I did not really enjoy this dish as the legs had been chopped up and there was tiny pieces of bones everywhere. I would have preferred the legs to be left whole for us to munch on... the slightly thick sauce was medium spicy and really tasty.

Mystery soup #2 - with mystery meats!! I passed on this dish, not being a huge fan of offal...


Probably steamed then flash-fried, and served with a thick sweet-sour sauce. Not really spicy but still pretty good.

Stir-fried chilli crabs

First coated in chilli batter, fried, then stir-fried with more chillies and Sichuan peppercorns... This is the kind of crab you eat with the shell, and quite frankly even if I am not a big fan (soft-shell crabs are one of my biggest pet hates), I have to admit that this was delicious and I quite enjoyed the crunchy legs and other bits - and I even had seconds (never say never...). This was supposed to be the spiciest dish of the evening, and even though it was clearly a notch or two above the others, I did not think it was that spicy... or is it that most of my tastebuds died after Da Ping Huo three weeks ago??

Crispy fried tripe with chilli

This was particularly delish - crispy rings of fried tripe, slightly chewy, with wonderful flavours and just kissed by the chillies. Yum!

Ma Po Tofu

This was surprisingly mild. The sauce was more meaty than spicy, and the fermented beans were quite nice. I love this dish and this was a pretty interesting version - I obviously had to have several servings and ended up taking most of the leftover tofu away in my doggie bag. It made for a fabulous office lunch the following day... all the more than said lunch box was lovingly quenelled by the Quenelle Fairy :o)

A big hug to the Quenelle Fairy for organising yet another fabulous dinner.

Not all lemons are created equal...

... or so did I realise recently when a fellow foodie was kind enough to share with me a jar of his freshly made Meyer lemons marmalade. Meyer lemons? Never heard of these before, I must humbly admit I had to Wiki it... turns out this divine citrus is originally from China and was brought to the US at the beginning of the last century, where the variety was perfected to give what is now known as the "improved" Meyer lemon. Being a cross between an orange and a lemon, the Meyer is much sweeter than your ordinary lemon, so much so that it can actually be eaten on its own. The fruit, and particularly the skin, is very fragrant and aromatic and has almost a medicinal quality to it - I am sure it would actually be pretty awesome prepared in the same way orangettes are (candied and dipped in dark chocolate - Meyerettes, anyone??).

For now I only got to taste the ripe fruit (available in season from Great in Pacific Place for those of you who are in Honkie) and the absolutely wonderful marmalade made by my foodie friend... the thin cut of the peel allowed the aromatic Meyers to express their full potential, and I enjoyed quite a few delicious desserts by just dropping a generous dollop of the golden delicacy over a full-fat (French...) vanilla yoghurt.

A huge thank you to W. (aka The Caramel Fairy) for sharing his enlightening delicacy with this ignorant Frog.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Much hoo-ha but no wow

An ex-colleague was in town tonight and when he suggested having dinner at Whisk (5/F The Mira hotel, 118 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong), I had to oblige - not only because I had long wanted to try out the place, but also because I was really surprised by the request. The gentleman in question is not exactly a foodie or even remotely curious about food, and prefers to stay in a pretty narrow comfort zone, generally located between the rib and the flank: in over a year of working together and some 6 or 7 visits to HK, the only restaurants I remember visiting with him are Ruth Chris' Steakhouse, Wooloomooloo, The Intercontinental Steakhouse and Bistecca! The experience was far from pleasant and I will not be looking forward to going back anytime soon - not that the company was bad, but I found the place overall pretentious and overpriced, the service was horrendous, and the food was only so-so, with a total lack of wow-factor. Also as a keen food photographer, I need to complain about the absolutely crap lighting conditions in the restaurant - not only is it dark for shooting (even with a fast lens...) but you cannot even see your food properly. Part of the enjoyment of eating also comes from your sight, and I find it most unpleasant to have to eat my dinner in the lighting equivalent of a cave.

I arrived first and was unceremoniously handed a couple of menus (by which I mean I had to move my nose away from the trajectory of the menu to avoid a regrettable incident) and I ordered some sparkling water. One point for them, they have Badoit. Minus one point - the chick waiting my table proceeded to drop a wedge of lime in my glass without even asking, and I rushed to fish it out... Not a very good start, I had been there for like 3 minutes and I was already mildly irritated by the strange mixture of incompetent yet incredibly haughty service.

My guest arrived and we ordered a bottle of white wine from the list of "promotions"; the bottle turned up at our table at room temperature(!!) and was promptly whisked away (no cheap pun intended) by the staff and dunk into an ice bucket. Now come on people, what kind of service is that? It's bad enough that you don't think of keeping white wine in the fridge, but when it's one of those you are pushing as the choice du jour, that just compounds the incompetence.

AB: seafood custard, crab, bisque sauce

This was a complete failure. The custard was overcooked and the bisque sauce so strong it killed any flavour or sweetness the crab may have had.

The bread basket was remarkably uninteresting - the mini-baguettes, although cutely shaped, had completely the wrong texture, more like a stiff Japanese milk bun than proper French bread. The black bamboo bread tasted of almonds and... not much else. What that black colour was supposed to deliver taste-wise, I haven't quite figured out yet...

Japanese Scallop Sashimi Avocado, Yuzu, Oscietra Caviar

I had a hard time picking my courses. Not that I was spoilt for choice, it was actually quite the opposite - none of the dishes on offer actually caught my attention more than the others, and the flavour pairings were all giving an impression of déjà vu... I ended up picking scallops for starters as I thought you couldn't go wrong with Japanese seafood - turned out I was wrong. The scallops that turned out on my plate looked nothing like the friendly Hokkaido giants I was expecting - even though they were obviously very fresh, this was disappointing. The caviar was ok but I was annoyed that so many of the grains had burst. I could not really detect the characteristic flavour of yuzu, and they could as well have used ordinary lemon for all I could tell. The avocado cream wasn't particularly interesting and did not have any of the good nutty flavour a ripe avocado has. And why would one think that pairing guacamole with raw scallops is a good idea escapes me... But I have to admit that the droplets of beetroot puree on the plate were sweet and particularly delicious.

Australian lamb loin
Crispy ratatouille, eggplant, piquillos

The "crispy" ratatouille came in the form of a fried spring roll filled with a slightly undercooked ratatouille-ish mixture of veggies (with way too much bay leaf) and was oily and not very good at all; neither was the aubergine, which was done as a warm dollop of babaganoush-like texture (and quite oily too, like it had stayed under a lamp for too long). The lamb was nicely cooked but did not have the gamey flavour that I like so much. A very disappointing dish. And where are the piquillos?? (answer: see those red blobs on the plate?)

Flaky apple tart
Roasted almond, vanilla ice cream

This is supposed to be The Dessert you must have when dining here, so was it worth waiting 20mn for...?

Flaky apple tart - close up

Well... not really. First, I have very conventional tastes, and I like apples on my apple tart - too few of those on this one, and too much almonds and confectioner's sugar (plus a drizzle of a pretty artificial-smelling vanilla sauce). The pastry was very flaky indeed, but more like a superposition of many filo sheets than a proper puff pastry, and was too oily for my taste. But the vanilla ice cream was delicious - I am not much of an ice cream person, but I have to admit this was possibly the best vanilla ice cream I had had in a long time. Creamy, with plenty of vanilla seeds, and not eggy at all - really nice. We ordered some Tokaji to help the tart glide down, taking the pain to specify we wanted it with the dessert (read between the lines: not before or after). One waitress delivered the right glasses to the table, another took them away, replaced them with completely the wrong ones, and we still had to ask for our wine when the tart turned up...


Mediocre. These were served to us as we were right in the middle of munching on our apple tart (!!). The little white chocolate cup contained an orange liquor-flavoured cream (overpowering) and the cream puff was soggy and bland. The other 2 remained untouched.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Fukushima Mon Amour(*)

This post goes a little beyond the ordinary, generally more light-hearted purpose of this blog, but I need to vent… I am finding the news coverage of the recent dramatic events in Japan positively sickening. What kind of a douche can in his right mind draw a comparison between the possible meltdown at Fukushima power plant and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and go on to add “as the only people to have experienced an atomic bombing, the citizens of Japan are rightly scared of radiations and their possible effect on human health”? I am asking, people. Because it is our responsibility, not just as readers, but as citizens of this planet and repositories of the soul of mankind, to keep in check these miserable doom mongers and sensationalism brokers that dare to call themselves journalists, and to voice our disapproval and disgust. I am filled with revulsion by the shameless exploitation of this human drama and by the total lack of respect afforded to those who are in the midst of it. News report after news report, same ignorant verbiage, the same senseless cackle… They won’t shut up unless you stop listening.

Great tragedies are beyond words. Dignity calls for silence.

Do me, do yourself, do the Japanese people a favour – turn off the TV, switch off the internet, stop hiding behind your newspapers. And start acting. Today.

(*) Hiroshima mon Amour (Japanese title 二十四時間の情事, 24 jikan no jôji or « A 24-hour liaison ») was written by Marguerite Duras and filmed in 1959 by French movie director Alain Resnais; the movie recounts the story of an actress starting a relationship with a Japanese man she meets while filming a movie on peace in post-war Hiroshima. The central themes of the movie are the duty of memory and the utter impossibility for words to capture the essence of great human tragedies.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Weekend Lunch Club

Our little group of foodies has found it increasingly difficult recently to organise our traditonal Friday Lunch Club gatherings... so we ended up organising a Saturday Lunch Club and braved the cold drizzle to gather at Cépage (23 Wing Fung Street, Wanchai) for a long and lazy session. This restaurant had been on my to-eat list for ages, and I had been looking forward to this lunch a lot... we ordered from the regular lunch menu, and if some of the side dishes were a miss, some others were a massive hit. Overall, I had a pretty awesome meal and will be looking forward to coming back and trying their à la carte options.

First AB: toasted sourdough bread, iberico ham and tomato "ceviche"

What a brilliant combination! The ham was delicious and full of salty porky goodness and the tomatoes (for once) tasted like... tomatoes! What a nice way to wait for late comers...

Excellent bread - sourdough with raisins and brioche

The sourdough was perfect. The brioche had a slightly thick and rather tough bottom, while the top part was perfectly light and fluffy - issues with the baking, or with the reheating?

AB 2: almond panna cotta with orange "juice"

Sweet ABs are something I would expect from Pierre... this was particularly good. The panna cotta was actually much lighter in texture than normal but still pretty creamy and packed with almond flavour, to which the bitterness of the orange sauce brought interesting contrasting flavours.

AB 3: sweet corn velouté with caviar

The corn velouté tasted amazingly fresh and sweet. The pairing with caviar was interesting and turned out to work quite well.

Stuffed squids with melody of olives, Iberian chorizo and Japanese mustard
This was just so totally awesome, I had to mop my plate clean with a piece of bread... delicious, tender baby squid, stuffed with their own chopped up tentacles and veggies, in an umamissimo olive and tomato sauce with tiny cubes of chorizo. Brilliant flavour combination and faultless execution.
Steamed Tasmanian salmon with "Verjus" from Périgord 
I normally don't order salmon, whether in sushi bars or otherwise... it has to be one of the most boring and overdone fish ever. This being my first time at Cépage, I was very much in "Come on Chef, WOW me!" mode - the presence of verjus in the dish sounded interesting and I was curious to see how the kitchen would pull this together. The salmon came perfectly medium as I like it, and was gently sprinkled with some piment d'Espelette flakes. The verjus sauce just worked brilliantly with the fish, and the plating was very arty and beautiful. This dish was just brilliant.

Salmon - nicely cooked and still slightly wobbly inside...

Poached Conference pear with pink guava sorbet and plum powder medallion
The perfect light dessert - fondant slices of fragrant poached pear, topped with pear jellies, fruity pink guava sorbet, and meringue discs sprinkled with slightly sour plum. The toasted pine nuts were completely unnecessary though, I left mine on the side of the plate...

Petits fours

The cannelés were surprisingly good, while the madeleines were a miss (wrong texture, not enough butter and sugar, too much lemon peel - or was that lemon oil? - and the browning looked really strange). Pretty interesting mulled wine jelly, the marshmallow tasted so close to the Haribo version it was suspicious... the salted butter caramels had (too) large salt cristals sprinkled on them, and the cranberry and almond shortbreads were ok but not really interesting.