Saturday, May 28, 2011

Seasonal highlights

I have been raving about Caprice (6/F Four Seasons Hotel, Central, Hong Kong) to a lot of my friends, and despite this, Agent J from the J&T Special Unit had resisted for the best part of a year paying his respects to this temple of fine French food... well tonight that was about to change, as Agent T managed to lure him in on account of having out-of-town guests to honour. I think it won't take too long for him to book his next lunch there ;)

In season: green Vaucluse asparagus

As usual, Chef Vincent's very fine cuisine triggered bouts of ecstatic grunting around the table and the service was absolutely impeccable, even if none of the restaurant manager or his trustworthy second-in-command were in sight.

Amuse-bouche: mini-brioches with garlic & spinach and cauliflower mousse

Still as nice as last time and unfortunately still a one-bite affair :)

Baby baguette and sesame roll

No introductions needed for these classics. The roll was at its usual buttery and nutty best, and the baguette was a very welcome vessel to carry a load of Bordier butter.

Amuse-bouche: bouillabaisse jelly, codfish brandade mousse, seasonal vegetables, shellfish coulis

Lots of marine flavours here, all brought together by a delicate spice touch and rounded up by cream. Delicious.

Vaucluse Green Asparagus with Wild Salmon Tarama, Sour Cream Blinis and Dill Pesto

A truly gorgeous light starter, full of seasonal flavours. The asparagus were very tasty and fondant, and paired very nicely with the mild and creamy tarama and the delicious smoked salmon strips. Tiny blinis with cream and a single salmon egg completed the gorgeous plating, together with a few drops of an amazingly intense dill coulis. Very pretty and equally delicious. 

Atlantic Sea Bream with Marine Crushed Potato, Pork Knuckle Andouillette and Red Wine Sauce

This dish got me at hello... did you say red wine sauce with fish!? The sea bream was firm as it should be and cooked to my liking. The bed of crushed potatoes was tossed with seaweed (and what I thought was a very light touch of Meaux mustard) and the flavours worked just perfectly with the fruity and slightly acidic wine reduction. The pork knuckle andouillette was deliciously full of pigginess, which added even more umami to the dish. The slice of andouillette came topped with an unannounced (and IMHO unnecessary) cooked oyster, which was so bitter I could not even finish it. Even if it has been more palatable, this additional briney note would have sort of thrown off the delicate balance of flavours in the dish, and I am glad I tried the shellfish on its own rather than waste a mouthful of this otherwise awsome dish.

The cheese board... always a feast for the eyes and the palate.

I know better than to order dessert here now... I would therefore allocate precious stomach space and calories  to cheese - my selection today would include Chaource, Brin d'Amour, coulommiers, roquefort, comté 4 years,
époisses and a couple of excellent runny goat cheeses I should have noted down.

Entremets: not quite sure what the exact name was, but it was like a deconstruction of a meringue lemon pie. Not a bad idea per se, but as usual with this PC I was in fault-finding mode the second this turned up on our table. The meringue sprinkles were slightly citrussy and the crunchy texture quite nice, as was the ice cream, which was very thick and was presented to us as almond. To me it tasted more of marzipan with bitter almond than simply almonds, and also had some very tiny pieces of candied citrus rind, which cut the sweetness of the marzipan and was a very nice touch. The disappointing part was the biscuit crumbs at the bottom. While the texture was pretty nice (a bit too hard maybe...) and the taste buttery, the flavour felt overall very flat and should have been enhanced with more amonds (or even vanilla). It bugged me for a good 2 hours after leaving the restaurant before I finally figured out what was really amiss - not enough salt in the dough!! That's what it was... It takes just a pinch to bring out the flavors, and the omission here really weakened an otherwise decent pudding.

It's very sad, I can't even be bothered to shoot the petits fours anymore... *YAWN*

Friday, May 27, 2011

Retour à la Cuisine de Tim

After my first amazing experience at Tim's Kitchen (84-90 Bonham Strand, Sheung Wan, HK) last year, I was very happy to be able to join a dinner organised by a friend for her out-of-town guests. As there was more than 10 of us in attendance, we were able to order many dishes and get a good sampling of the Chef's skills. It was mostly gweilos around the table (one of them vegetarian), so the ordering veered on the safe side of the menu, but the food was absolutely delicious throughout, better than I remembered even (if that is possible...) and the service was remarkably attentive and efficient (rare enough to be mentioned, particularly as far as Cantonese restaurants are concerned). I will definitely be looking forward to my next visit as soon as snake soup is in season again...

Preserved eggs

These were as good as I remembered - perfectly gooey and smooth yolk, and of course plenty of ammonia. I normally never do this, as they are quite filling, but tonight I decided to have a second helping :)

Honey glazed roasted pork

I joked with a fellow diner that for once it was good to see char siu that does not glow in the dark... The nice caramel brown colour revealed plenty of sweet flavours and the meat was tender and juicy without being overly fatty. Very good.

Roasted pork

Served with its traditional mustard dip. The skin was nice and crispy, but the meat was a bit too fatty for my taste. The flavours were excellent though.

Stir-fried giant glass prawn

I rarely try to impose my way on group dinners, but tonight I did insist we order this. I think some of the diners might have missed the point of this understated dish,  but the spectacular prawn certainly did earn a few points with others. The peanut oil flavour was less present this time, but the dish was still amazingly delicious. The prawn was firm and cooked to perfection, and its sweet and delicate flavour was brilliantly complemented by the yunnan ham-infused glaze.

Braised whole crab claw with winter melon

Another dish I suggested we order... this had to be the biggest crab claw I had seen in a very long time! It was just enormous. Expertly deshelled and cooked to perfection. The melon starchy glaze was delicately flavoured with ham, and the execution of the dish was just absolutely flawless. Wow.

Now tell me... what kind of person orders 3 sorts of chilli sauce in a Cantonese restaurant, exactly??

Answer: a Singaporean :o)

Seasonal soup with pork and lotus root

A cloudy soup with mild and slightly sweet flavours. Very nice.

The soup ingredients - lotus root, pork belly and a mysterious rhizome...

Pomelo skin with shrimp roe

I think my insistence to order this dish proved a bit too adventurous for quite a few of my fellow diners... oh well, more for me then :) I had to stop the waitress in her tracks before she proceeded to massacre it with a spoon in order to be able to shoot the thing whole ...

Hello yummy, come see mommy... :)

Stir-fried scallops with vegetables

Nice flavours and good execution but nothing too adventurous here...

Stir-fried Australian beef with asparagus

I found the asparagus interestingly astringent, almost bitter, which paired nicely with the sweet and slightly fatty beef. The meat was tender and juicy. Not an overly original dish but very well executed with nice, clean flavours.

Roasted chicken

Perfectly brined, with an awesome crispy skin, and plenty of wing tips for me to munch on :)

Egg white in tomato sauce

This was one of the few dishes we ordered for our veggie guest, and it was surprisingly good. The tomato sauce was very fruity (think - like a good passata), slightly thickened with cornstarch and veering on the sweet and sour with a nice onion kick. This dish paired deliciously with the fried rice...

Fried rice with egg white and scallions

Firm grains, neatly separating, not too oily and with nice texture from the egg white and flavour from the scallion. Pretty nicely done.

Stir-fried Chinese lettuce with fermented bean paste

This veggie is normally stir-fried with shrimp paste, and was surprisingly good. The fermented bean sauce was very flavourful.

Spicy deep-fried tofu

I love deep fried tofu, and this version was particularly yummy, all the more so once smothered with the Sriracha sauce we asked for earlier (as the spiciness of the tofu itself was, in true Cantonese fashion, quite mild).

With such a feast, there was no hope of even attempting to squeeze dessert in, and we gently rolled back home.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Part of your 5-a-day

Ever since I first paid a visit to b.a.r. Executive bar (27/F Bartlock Centre, 3 Yiu Wa Street, Causeway Bay), I had been obsessed with returning to this amazing Japanese bar. The place is the sushi bar equivalent of a booze joint - not many seats around the room, and you definitely want to grab a stool at the bar, as it is where the show is. The Japanese cocktail master who officiates in the place certainly has some of the most entertaining shaker skills I have ever seen. We tried counting his moves and failed...

Fresh Apricot with apricot brandy

We decided to start the evening with a few bites of Japanese food, just to cushion the blow, as last time Peech and I came to this bar...errrr... well I can't exactly remember what happened. You get my point. We decided to pay a visit to one of his favourite Japanese haunts (Irori, 2/F Bartlock Centre, 3 Yiu Wa Street, Causeway Bay), which happens to be conveniently located a few floors below the bar.

Japanese tomato in sesame citrus sauce

A fleshy and fruity Japanese tomato, nicely firm to the bite, generously dressed up with a deliciously nutty and citrussy, creamy sauce. The balance of flavours was perfect.

Japanese white corn

These delicious kernels are in season again. They are traditionally eaten raw, and are so sweet the sugars actually start to ferment inside the kernels, adding a nice kick. Simple and beautiful.

Grilled ox tongue with spring onion

Slightly firm to the bite, packed with that delicious umami only grilled meat has, and nicely complemented by the slightly astringent taste of the onions, which cut down the fattiness. Delicious and very nicely done.

Firefly squid

I love the firm and slightly chewy texture of squid. These lil' babies were full of sea flavours and came with a delicious white miso dip.

Striped jack

The slices were cut quite thick, which really brought out the delicate flavours of the fish. The fish was of course impeccably fresh.

Stir-fried burdock with chicken

A nice flavour combination - slightly astringent burdock, nutty sesame oil, fruity shredded carrot and tasty sliced chicken. Very nice.
 At this point I was feeling very full, and it was time to move a few floors up to get a liquid dessert... On top of his amazing shaker-twirling skills, the cocktail-sensei at Executive bar has an exceptional flair for flavour pairings, and uses fresh fruits in a lot of his cocktails; when entering the room, one is always greeted by an overflowing plate of fresh fruits to pick from, which will be paired on the spot with whatever he feels you should drink... I like to think that there are no to identical cocktails made from the same fruit in this place, which is probably not strictly true, but one has to admire the care put in their preparation. Depending on your choice, the fruit will be peeled, deseeded, squeezed, crushed, mixed and finally blended and shaken-shaken-shaken before ending up in your glass. The alcohol content feels deceptively discreet, and it is very easy to have 5 too many of these delicious concoctions. Tonight, we would stay in the safety zone and settle for 3 cocktails only, followed by a whisky (as it turns out the place also has an extensive offering of very fine cask nectars...)

Fresh Apricot with apricot brandy

Fresh Asian pear and bacardi

Fresh Japanese melon and bacardi

Nightcap for grownups - Suntory Hibiki 21 years

I never used to like whisky so much until I tasted my first sip of the Japanese's take at this beverage - always very round and sweet, they drink very nicely. Note the hand-carved ice ball in the glass...

It was then time to go home and I proudly stumbled out of the bar walking (almost...) in a straight line ;)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Meet The Man Who Fed Me Parsley

I hate parsley - that's my number one pet hate when it comes to food. This evil, curly little green thing can ruin a whole dish for me. Well today actually it didn't, and that is probably a first ever. Not that my palate is changing, no... it think it may actually all be down to the skill (the word I really want to use here is genius...) of the Chef. For the first time, I get to try a dish where parsley actually blends in with the flavours rather than clash with everything else on the plate and fight for domination... I was privileged today to have lunch at Gaddi's (1/F The Peninsula, Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong). This venerable institution, all heavy velvet curtains, ankle-deep carpets and shiny brass door knobs that is The Peninsula hosts a couple of very fine restaurants, and this is one of them. Gaddi's is old fashioned as only a serious timeless classic can be, and in its kitchen Chef David Goodridge makes wonders happen...
Fellow foodie Sunday Driver being a VIP here, she organised lunch at the Chef's Table for us; while the rest of the party splurged on an offal feast, I stayed in the comfort zone and ordered from the seasonal menu. I had long wanted to come to Gaddi's - I walked in excited, I walked out in awe...

Amuse-bouche: black olive and anchovy crostini, cheese feuilleté, cheese and black pepper roll

All served warm. Delicious feuilletage, tasty cheese and slightly pungent anchovies. Homely yet refined.

Echiré butter - What do you mean, it's not Bordier??

I highly respect you, Chef Goodridge, for not succumbing to the Bordier fad in town. And also for remaining off the Michelin map...

I know a good bread basket when I see one... (cheese croissants, whole wheat and raisins,
épi baguettes)

The perfect épi baguette - crispy without being hard at the tips. Impressed.

Amuse-bouche: Colchester oyster sashimi, rose champagne mousse, pink grapefruit granité and Oscietra caviar

When the staff presented the dish, I was a bit incredulous. Very daring flavour pairings here, I thought, this is never going to work... turns out, it did work. This was absolutely amazing. The fruity bitterness of the grapefruit granité echoed the delicate bitterness of the fatty oyster, and the slightly sweet champagne mousse added sparkling and mildly astringent notes, elegantly complemented by the salty caviar. A revelation.

Gratinated white asparagus with morel foam

Asparagus as still in season for a short while, so I wanted to grab some before they disappeared for another long year... these chubby specimen where extremely tender for their size - I cut through them like butter, not a string in sight. They were also extremely fragrant and tasty, and had been gratinated under a morel-encrusted cheese blanket. Some delicious buttered spinach topping and a supremely yummy morel foam finished the dish. Solid, almost rustic flavours, perfectly paired and balanced, and impeccable execution.

Old fashioned, I said...

Baby lamb 3 ways with seasonal vegetables and morel cream sauce

Also in season for a few more weeks, baby spring lamb. This one came from the Pyrénées region of France (the mountainous region at the Spanish border) and was succulent. The loin was cooked sous-vide, medium as requested and perfectly pink. The fatty belly had been braised and was gently caramelised, and the oh-so-tender chop came with a gremolata-like parsley topping that was actually quite delicious. A whole roasted garlic clove, steamed white asparagus and some minted crushed green peas topped with a gorgeous morel cream sauce finished the dish. Unreservedly awesome.

Side dish for the lamb: potato gratin with parmesan

Sweet, fondant potatoes under a buttery and cheesy crust of slightly pungent cheese... what's there not to love?

Pre-dessert: Cavaillon melon and champagne

Chef Ludo's touch on the desserts shows immediately to the trained eye - Caprice never really replaced him and we still miss him sorely everytime we go back. It's melon season again so PCs all over town are dusting off their cuillères parisiennes and scooping like there's no tomorrow... add a spakling champagne and melon juice jus, a quenelle of vanilla ice cream and a croustillant of buttery caramel and hazelnuts and you have one of Chef Ludo's signature fruity and delightful desserts. I can't wait for apricot season to see what delicacies he will treat us to this year :-)

More Chef Ludo at work - Layers of strawberries with coconut and mascarpone

Now that's what I call a dessert with the "oh la la" factor... and Chef Ludo is going molecular!! The white sphere are the forefront was a thin white chocolate shell filled with yoghurt ice cream, and a strawberry sphere was hiding behing the biscuit... the swiss cheese-like slice is white chocolate and the cake itself was a light coconut meringue biscuit topped with mascarpone mousse, strawberry jelly and wild strawberries. Light, fruity and delicate. So enlightened, so Ludo :-)

Petits-fours galore: financiers, passion fruit tarts, chocolate-coated caramel slices, fondants

Classic flavours, outstanding execution - butter, butter, butter!!. God I missed you, Chef Ludo!!

In Defense of Food (Michael Pollan)

Here I am, reviewing yet another book by Michael Pollan… what can I say? It is urgent to read Pollan. If one of his books replaced each sugary snack sold in vending machines in US schools, the world would be a better place (and it wouldn’t be such a silly place to start, when one knows the correlation between sugar-laden diets, hyperactivity in children and teen violence). In this Eater’s Manifesto, the ever sharp minded Pollan sets to debunk quite a few dietary fads of the past 70 years or so, and defines a seemingly simple, common-sense approach to food: Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants. It will surprise a lot of his readers, but the vast majority of the new products that flock the aisles of the average supermarket each year do not deserve to be labelled as food. From the widespread use of chemicals and sweeteners, to bogus health claims and nutritionist myths, Pollan addresses all the contradictions of the modern food industry and its collusion with Big Pharma, and advocates a return to simple, portion-controlled meals. Easier said than done, in a world where the safety of the food chain has been compromised to a point that one can now die from EHEC-contaminated beansprouts. If Pollan’s material covers mostly US sources, his conclusions can be extended to many a modern society. Anyone with a sincere interest in their, and the planet’s, long term health should read Pollan.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The best egg tart this side of Lisbon

Tucked away in a back alley, just around the corner from Hotel Sintra and a stone's throw from the Grand Lisboa Hotel, is a little corner of paradise... Margaret's Cafe e Nata (Margaret's Coffee and Cream in Portuguese). This modest establishment makes just about the best egg tarts (pasteis de nata) in the whole of Macau and Hong Kong. I am a firm believer in the superiority of the Macanese/Portuguese egg tart over its Chinese sibling (sorry, Chris...), and when I cannot trek over to Macau, I get my fix from Lord Stow's Bakery (G/F Excelsior Hotel, Causeway Bay, HK). But Margaret's golden delicacies are on a whole different level. From the buttery and incredibly light and flaky pastry to the heavenly vanilla egg custard, every detail will let you know that the owner of this joint has spent the best part of the last 20 years or so bringing its recipe to absolute perfection. The place also sells a mean iced coffee (the strong instant coffee and condensed milk version) that helps the treats glide down, and some yummy-looking sarnies. Finding a seat is almost impossible as the place is packed from dawn til dusk and queues frequently extend a dozen or so metres outside the door, so ask for a takeaway box. The friendly staff is helpful and speaks excellent English.

Hello babies, come to mama...

Find me if you can... (Gum Loi Building, Rua Almirante Costa Cabral, Macau)

The crust don't lie... just look at that swirl!!

Creamy and eggy custard