Akrame – Trying to make the fleeting, unforgettable

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Putting trust in the kitchen

Firstly, before I start, I shall issue a spoiler alert! Akrame is like a good movie that loses a bit of it’s charm if the movie trailer is just a bit too informative, or if there is too much expectation riding on it. I know the whole idea of a restaurant review is to give you an idea of what you’re going to be eating, and help you decide whether or not it’s worth shelling out some money for, but let me just stop you there and assure you – Akrame is worth it. Secondly, whilst all of the photos really do showcase the creative thought and attention to detail in each Akrame dish, the menu changes every two weeks, thus it may be that the dishes you see here will not be served when you visit.

Menu Planning, by Akrame

Menu Planning, by Akrame

As we sat down at our table, PB told me a little story about the chef Akrame Benallal, which I shall now tell to you. He had a very modest childhood and growing up without his father, he learned quickly to take care of himself. When Benallal was doing his restaurant apprenticeship at the tender age of 14, which was 25km away from his home, he used to hitch hike every day without other means to get there.  In 2004, he wrote to Ferran Adrià explaining that he had a lot to learn, and he wanted to work under him at El Bulli. After a stint there and also working with Pierre Gagnaire (who Benallal calls “Beethoven in the kitchen”), at the age of 25 he opened a restaurant in Tours, but his food was so molecular, too complicated. One day, some of his regular customers walked in, and Benallal decided that instead of making his deconstructed molecular tomato dish, he plated a black Krim tomato with salt, pepper and some olive oil … and the customers said it was magnificent. Sadly it was too late as his restaurant went bankrupt, but so the story goes from there …

To read more about the inner workings of this dynamic young chef, this SCMP article is a good one.

There is no menu at Akrame, you are simply offered a choice of a four-course (HK$788) or six-course(HK$998) menu, with optional wine pairing for both (HK$368 and HK$528 respectively), making this the simplest ordering experience you will every have (even simpler than at The Principle).

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Amuse bouche – Olive crisp and greek yoghurt

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The amuse bouches – squid ink ‘paper’ with smoked eel, parmesan cookie with fish roe, turnip with anchovy and brown butter

After being served a yummy walnut and raisin bread with a tonka bean and lemon butter, we are given a selection of amuse bouches. The eel, served on the thinnest of thin wafers, and the turnip disks with anchovy sandwiched in between, were particularly memorable.

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In waiting for the soup course …

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Pumpkin soup with mandarin orange and rye bread crumbs – Paired with Delamotte NV champagne

The serving of the soup always seems to follow the same protocol – the soup dish is brought to the table with flavour components on display – in this case, mandarin orange slices and those wonderful rye breadcrumbs. They really added a nice texture. The soup was served HOT, smooth and silken. The dish was really a sum of its parts, and would have fallen short had it not been for all of its ingredients.

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Braised razor clams with spinach and spinach mayonnaise – paired with Domaine Schlumberger Riesling Grand Cru

The razor clams were tender and tasted of the sea on a sunny day! The spinach was so very fresh and the riesling was very well paired.

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Raw oysters with passion fruit foam and oyster jelly – paired with Christian Moreau Chablis

We felt like the passion fruit foam over-powered the taste of the oysters, and both agreed that this was our least favorite dish of the night. The chablis was very mineral-y and complemented the tartness of the passion fruit perfectly however.

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The lobster is served raw, in a mason jar, then poached in a lobster and tarragon broth

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Poached lobster with celery root puree, chopped green apple and celery root, and a green apple compote – paired with La Moussiere Sancerre

At this point, the meal just kept getting better and better! Raw lobster tail poached at the table and served on a lightly-flavoured celery root purée, which really let the lobster shine. What a fantastic dish.

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The Principal: Deserving of a 1 Star Rating

There are only certain occasions when I agree with the Hong Kong Michelin Guide‘s rating of a particular restaurant in Hong Kong – you know as well as I do that some of their 1 Star ratings are just preposterous. However I am so happy (and so is my belly) to say that The Principal is completely, entirely 100% deserving of it’s 1 Star rating!

Chef de Cuisine Jonay Armas hails from the Canary Islands and takes a fresh and thought-provoking approach to each of the contemporary European dishes. He applies molecular techniques to some, whilst others are more complex versions of traditional dishes, and each dish appeals to your five sensations of taste: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami.  There are three Tasting Menus available, and what is more notable is that one is of them is entirely vegetarian.

We went for the 7 course menu at HK$ 890 with optional wine pairing – some dishes are certainly more impressive than others; PB and I found that with each course that was served, we were more and more excited to be served the next. I would definitely say that this is the best of The Press Room Group‘s restaurants, and we are eagerly anticipating our Sunday Brunch reservation in January 2014 (it gets booked out weeks in advance). If you are looking for a date venue to impress, boys, this is the restaurant to reserve a table at.

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SNACKS: Passion Campari

The server will warn you not to take a bite of this, but to put the whole thing in your mouth. Once you take a bite, a cool, passion fruit Campari-laced liquid bursts out of its waxey container, much to your surprise!

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SNACKS: Mimetic peanut

This peanut buttery imitation of a peanut definitely amuses your bouche. I love how it is served on a bed of crushed peanut shells.

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Sesame Dentelle & Pâté Bonbon

These two were less impressive, but you can never go wrong with a pâté bonbon!

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UNI: Chawanmushi, sea urchin, sake, dates

On The Principal website, chef Armas says, “My aim is to respect the origins of each ingredient, to pay homage to the cooking methods that have come before while introducing my own interpretation.” Well he has certainly done this with the UNI dish – chawanmushi served in a cute sea urchin vessel and topped with uni and a date crumble (of sorts).

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EGG: Free-Range Onsen Egg, Iberico Ham, Parmentier, Chanterelles

I love, love, love onsen egg, and order it whenever I see it (here, here and here). This one did not disappoint, with potato cream and the most delicious fresh petit pois. When was the last time you ate a fresh green pea? I can’t even remember … before this dinner, of course.

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A very souped-up version of Egg and Soldiers

PB lifted up the glass bowl to get the very last bit in the bottom, and all of a sudden, we smelled SMOKE! We didn’t realise immediately where it was coming from and thought that perhaps something was burning in the kitchen, but we then noticed the wood-scented smoke trapped in the hollow space at the bottom of the glass bowl.

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BLUE LOBSTER: butternut, béarnaise, wild rice, tarragon

The wild rice was crispy like a popped rice, which imparted a smokey, burned popcorn flavour.

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COD: Black and white

The white sauce was a cod-juice cream, and I can’t recall what the black was.

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A view from the top

Bulgarian Bessa Valley Wine

Bulgarian Bessa Valley Wine

The wine list atlas at The Principal is impressive both in its size and in its range. We opted for the wine pairing for our meal (HK$400), and found it to be of excellent value and selection. We were served a new glass of wine with each course, and towards the end were making an effort to finish our glasses before the next course.

For our main course selection, we were served this Bulgarian wine, and I was intrigued enough to take a picture. I’ve never tried (let alone heard of!!) Bulgarian wine before, so I decided to do a little research. Apparently, Bulgaria is one of the world’s oldest wine growing regions, but a law voted during the Gorbachev period as a result of anti-alcohol measures called for uprooting the country’s vines. The Enira vineyard is located in the Bessa Valley region, and for those planning a trip to Bulgaria any time soon, a wine tasting there sounds like good fun!

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SUCKLING PIG: Baby endives, lemon purée, cabbage, pomegranate

Whenever I take a Tasting Menu, I always find that the main course lacks the flair and genius that the appetiser courses do. This suckling pig was nice, but not as amazing as what preceded it.

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La Rotisserie comes to Wan Chai!

I had heard stories about La Rotisserie in Sheung Wan, when it first opened.

“The line goes around the block!”

“Whenever I go they are always sold out 😦 “

“Their chocolate cake is like crack – seriously addictive.”

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I wasn’t about to go all the way to Sheung Wan from my office in Wan Chai, only to be disappointed and cheated out of my chicken. So imagine my glee and excitement when I found out that La Rotisserie has opened in Wan Chai, and that at long last, I finally had the opportunity to try it! For the first few days of opening, they were having a promotion of HK$50 (instead of $68) for a lunch set – 1/4 chicken, a portion of sides, and house-made iced lemon tea or soup of the day (cauliflower and coconut milk = yum) – well, that’s over now folks, sorry! But really, the regular price of HK$68 is very affordable, and what you get for it is worth ever dollar.

I have very fond smell-memories of walking down the street in Paris and seeing a huge oven cabinet full of crispy brown-skinned chickens spinning slowly on a spit, around and around and around they went. I could smell them from all the way down the street, far sooner than before I actually saw them. La Rotisserie has brought this beautiful method of chook-cooking to Hong Kong. The do it simply, efficiently, and effectively. The focus is on the ingredients, corn-fed free range chicken from France. They even go so far as to advertise the French producer, Picalou, on their menu (although try to find anything about them online and you’ll be at a loss). Their chocolate and their cream is also imported from France, and these ingredients go into that wicked chocolate cake (laced with sel de guerande) and their quiches.

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There are a few stools to sit on in-house, but really these chooks are meant to be taken away – a smart response to rising shop rents in HK, and the need for good food, fast. And since these meals are meant to be taken away, attractive packaging was also well thought out!

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The chicken is succulent, juicy and so very tasty. Make sure you specify (when you are ordering) whether you would like breast or thigh meat. I’m a thigh girl, and whilst this free-range chicken leg didn’t have as much meat on it as I would have liked, I was comforted in the fact that this chicken was happy, and therefore healthy.

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The herby potatoes, cooked underneath the spit in chicken juices and fat, and seasoned with herbs, were incredible. As I was sitting on my stool eating, I glanced into the kitchen as they were chopping and preparing the biggest carrots I have ever seen grown in Hong Kong – all of their sides are made on-site.

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I couldn’t resist getting a slice of their chocolate cake (and another slice to take home for PB so he wouldn’t get jealous) – it’s more of a tarte than a cake. Made with Valrhona chocolate and the secret recipe of the chef, I took it home and followed their instructions – put it in the microwave for 10 seconds and ate it slightly warm. The sel de guerande really cut through the sweetness – I always love a little bit of salt with chocolate.

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Memories, at Cinta J

IMG_6156Having grown up in Hong Kong, there are several places that will always have a special place in my food memory. When we were young(er), my parents were creatures of habit when it came to food, and I can’t remember if it was because they loved these places, or if it was because my brother and I always insisted that we go there. Cinta J was one of these places.

It has relocated a few times in my lifetime – I still remember when it was in the basement of a nondescript building that I can’t recall, we always sat at the table next to the big fish tank, perhaps to amuse us kids (back in the day, when Ipads didn’t exist). Now it is on Jaffe Road, down the street from Joe Bananas and opposite Dusk Til Dawn. A bright neon sign lights the way, proclaiming it’s offerings of Filipino, Indonesian, Malaysian and Thai food.

Crispy Pata is probably not something that a child, or an adult for that matter, should have been eating every other weekend, but we did, and it was (and still is) crazy good. In the 20 years that have passed, the Crispy Pata at Cinta J has remained the same. What’s more, the kitchen churns out those babies one after the other, each table at the restaurant getting their fix of pigs trotter and leg that has been simmered in spices, rubbed with seasonings and then deep fried to crispy perfection.

A simple garnish of onion rings is all it needs

A simple garnish of onion rings is all it needs

The satays here are also good, thick chunks of meat in generous portions, brought to the table with a mini cast iron burner to heat them before you et them – a nice touch! I’ve had better peanuts sauces though.

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1 dozen mixed satays

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Catalunya comes to Hong Kong!

Thanks to our friends AB and VZ, we managed to get a table at Catalunya last weekend, Hong Kong’s newest Spanish restaurant. Until now, we have had a few Spanish restaurants to choose from (Fofo By El Willi being my personal favorite), but I must say, none as classy as Catalunya. Earthy and sensual tones, plush banquets, wood paneled ceilings, warm red walls and a stunning central lighting fixture: there’s only one word for it, and that is sumptuous.

The choice of location is a strange one, off the Wan Chai Road, on a street that houses an office building, a Baptist Church, Queen Elizabeth Stadium, a hospital. In other words, after a certain time of day, the only activity on this road comes from Catalunya, and the flashing lights of ambulances as they pass the restaurant. Nonetheless, the restaurant was packed, and we were seated in the Cocktail Lounge for a short while to wait for our table. Not to worry at all, we kept ourselves busy with sangria, cava, and something to whet our appetites.

The word has already been spread that Catalunya’s Executive Chef Alain Devahive Tolosa honed his skills for 1o years at El Bulli with Ferran Adria, a molecular master of creative and thought-provoking cuisine, which I sadly never got to try. But Catalunya is very different, it’s warm, comforting, indulgent, and introduces you to tapas that are different from the run-of-the-mill. Here they serve a cross-section of Catalan favorites – a tortilla is not just a tortilla, and bikini is not a bikini.

You’ll see what I mean …

We started off with the only molecular item on the menu, a ‘spherical olive’, created by the process of ‘inverse spherification’. Olives are pressed for their juice, mixed with calcium chlorate, then submerged in sodium alginate (!!), which causes the outer layer of olive juice to harden, but not all the way through. The result is olive juice that looks like an olive, is shaped like an olive, but bursts in your mouth upon the slightest pressure of your tongue. I haven’t had many experiences with molecular cuisine, and it is a curious thing to bite down on something that you think is one thing, but is in actuality, quite another.

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Spherical Olives @ $15 each

“Have them in one bite and watch out for the pit!” Many of Catalunya’s individual dish descriptions on the menu have these cute, tongue-in-cheek comments which I found quite amusing. It made reading the menu fun, and also entices you to order certain dishes that you may not have ordered, because sometimes the title itself doesn’t jump out at you.

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Iberico Ham

We were very generously given a few appetisers to start with while we were waiting, so I wasn’t exactly sure what they were, and whether they represent the regular portion size. All I can say is that this ham was incredible.

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Pa Amb Tomaquet HK$55

“Your first introduction to Tapas” the Pa Amb Tomaquet, or tomato bread, was a good start – a sweet tomato sauce, garlic scent and rustic bread.

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Mediterranean Red Prawns HK$500 (portion unknown)

You choose the style, we give the flavour.” Aaah the famed gamba roja. I say famed because I recently watched an episode of “Around the World in 80 Plates” where the contestants travel to Barcelona and cook with them – ever since I’ve wanted to try one. Ours were served grilled, and the flavour of the prawn was just incredible. I loved the richness of the prawn head juice … is there a proper name for that stuff? We were completely spoiled with this starter, and it was on this high that we were then seated at our table.

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Ham Cheese and Truffle ‘Bikini’ HK$115

“You’re not getting a swimsuit!” These little parcels of calorific goodness are not to be missed! Truffle shavings, heaps of melted cheese and ham in between two pieces of pan-fried bread. As for why it’s called a bikini? Well, I’ve read that in Catalonia, the ‘bikini’ is a tapas bar staple – a Catalonian truffle, ham and cheese sandwich, if you will. When it’s cut into quarters diagonally, each piece resembles biniki bottoms!

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Happy tummy food at Maya Café

As I grow older, my appreciation for food that is good for me has grown too. Those who know me well might be quite incredulous of this statement – I am a meat-eating, butter-loving, cake-baking foodie who once would balk at the idea of putting a grain or pulse anywhere near my mouth. I honestly still feel like a meal without meat is not a fulfilling one – but I’m getting better.

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Maya Café

Having this food blog definitely helps me to be more open to the idea of eating vegetarian/raw/vegan food. Yes, I know they’re different, and that I’ve grouped all three together in a rather indifferent manner, and yet that’s what they are to me. Vegetarian/raw/vegan = boring. But as I’ve said, things are starting to change, and it’s nice having a light and unbloated tummy after a meal … every now and then.

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The Pick Me Up: Carrot, Apple & Ginger Juice

Red cabbage

The Raw Energy: Tomato, Red cabbage, Celery & Lemon Juice

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The juices are tasty and served in cute glass jars

Thanks to my beautiful veggie friend AB, I heard about Maya Café, located on Moon Street in the trendy Star Street area. She had brought home their quinoa salad as a starter when I went over for dinner at hers, and to my surprise … it was good!

Maya Café has been open for a couple of months and is owned by Mina, a super friendly and approachable Indian lady who runs the front-of-house, and Tina, the French chef. I was eavesdropping on a conversation at another table, and heard that Mina used to work in the diamond industry, and Tina used to be in fashion!

Mina was very happy to answer any questions that I  had about the menu. No butter or flour is used in any of their dishes, and whilst not all of the food is vegan, all of it is vegetarian.

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Dahl of the day – white, red and green lentils

Both the soup of the day and the dahl were vegan, and the dahl was particularly tasty! I am not a lentil lover, but there were lots of layers of satisfying flavour to this dish.

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Soup of the day: Sweet Pea Soup

For the main course, I just had to order the Quinoa Salad again. The veggies change according to what is freshly available.

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Quinoa Salad

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LoveBites Lunches: Chez Patrick Restaurant

It’s Restaurant Week in Hong Kong and for the first time, I went online and checked the list of participating restaurants. DW and I went to check out Chez Patrick restaurant in Wan Chai, which moved here from it’s previous location in Soho, where Chicha now stands. I’ve been meaning to check it out, and a 3-course set lunch at HK$ 248 was a good motivation to do so!

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This event is a good way for some restaurants to gain some extra coverage, perhaps attract some clientele that would have not considered dining there before. Chez Patrick is not one of those restaurants, as chef Patrick Goubier has built a very solid reputation for quality ingredients and excellent French fare, as seen by the success of his restaurant and Chez Patrick Delis. It does give diners a chance to sample some of his cooking at a reasonable price (the 3-course dinner is HK$438) – if this sounds enticing to you, then go and book your table now, as restaurant week ends this Sunday 3rd March!

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His Wan Chai restaurant is tastefully decorated, ash grey wood paneled walls, golden lighting fixtures and a little splash of colour (love that bright yellow banquette!) It’s warm, inviting, and cozy. The Restaurant Week menu covers some French favourites (escargot, quail) a little of the norm (crab ‘cakes’, salmon fillet), and something a bit different (fresh goats cheese nougat). It was easy to make our choices, and while we were waiting for our starters, we were served an amuse bouche.

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As we were about to start, Chef Patrick himself personally came to our table to greet us. He said hello, took our hands and kissed them (!), thanked us for visiting his restaurant, and then proceeded to explain the reasoning behind his amuse bouche. For the chilled gazpacho, he described how he soaks cherries in kirsch overnight as part of his base stock, and adds a touch of lavender. “The goal is to refresh your palate” he says – and refreshing it was, and particularly welcomed on another uncharacteristically warm February day. The salmon rillette is chilled and mixed with shallots, capers and lemon juice – a really wonderful combination that can never go wrong.

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For our starters, we both chose there Crabmeat Cold ‘Cake’, with Fresh Tomato, Basil and Pine Nuts. It was a very generous portion of crab, and although we enjoyed the dish I felt that they might have gone a little easier on the basil. The pine nuts gave a nice bit of crunch.

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For the main course, the Pan-seared boned Quail, Confit Onions and Smoked Bacon Tartlet with Red Wine Sauce was wonderful. The quail was nicely cooked, and I really enjoyed the deconstructed tartlet underneath. I couldn’t remember the dish from the menu, so I asked the waiter what it was, and he told me it was choucroute – I think he’s got his French terms mixed up! A small round of crispy pastry was topped with confit onions and little pieces of smoked bacon, and finally with the quail resting on top.

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Chef Patrick approached us and we asked him lots of questions about the food. He is a wonderfully sweet man, passionate about his restaurant, so friendly and happy to answer any questions that we had – I felt like we could have talked to him for much longer. He speaks with a soft French accent, and punctuates his sentences with a lot of “ya’s”. Where does he source his ingredients? All of the poultry at Chez Patrick is imported from France, and his beef, seafood and other such items are sourced from wherever he finds nice products. Beef from Australia, lamb from New Zealand, lobster from Maine … he mentioned that he is more and more sourcing his seasonal organic vegetables from Hong Kong, and that they ‘are getting much, much better at that, ya.” We are much less affected by seasonality here, and are in a central location for produce. “Not like in France, ya. When there is no asparagus, there is no asparagus!”

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DW ordered the Salmon Fillet, with Red and Yellow Bell Pepper Sauce. It was the most beautifully presented dish, salmon surrounded by a yin-yang of sauce, nestled on a bed of wild red rice. Where is the rice from? It’s imported from France, from the Camarague region at the end of the Rhone River, where there is more wetland, and where the rice is grown. It takes longer to cook than Asian rices, with a nutty taste and is a little more chewy in texture. It was a nice addition to the dish, and almost nicer once we knew exactly where it had been harvested!

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A Dim Sum Compendium

I recently read an article about a book called “The Paradox of Choice – why more is less”. Being quite an indecisive person when it comes to consumerism, I can relate to the authors premise that whilst choice is good for us, we are presented with too much choice nowadays. It can be psychologically disadvantageous and ultimately, makes us more unhappy. And so, faced with all of this choice, many of us do the simplest thing – choose the same option over and over, because we know it, because we’re comfortable with it.  While this is all a bit too serious as an introduction to dim sum, the logic is quite the same.  There are many choices in this city for Dim Sum – which one should we choose?

I have a long list of Dim Sum restaurants in my phonebook, a Dim Sum Compendium, if you will. Some are the good old favorites, some are the easier option, some take that extra effort to get there but are worth it, and some are on my “To Eat” list. All are worth trying – why choose, when you can have them all? Continue reading

Plaza Mayor, Hong Kong

The chefs at work

The chefs at work

After failing to secure a table at Ted’s Lookout, we decided to head over to Plaza Mayor around the corner for some tapas instead. I haven’t been to the Star Street area in a while, and it’s amazing how many new places have opened up in the last year. Named after a stunning central plaza in Madrid, it was a grand name to live up to. Sadly, it didn’t quite do so.

The original Plaza Mayor, Madrid

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Madame Sixty Ate

After discovering that Linguini Fini doesn’t take reservations, we decided to go to Madame Sixty Ate for dinner on a Tuesday night. I dined with 3 girlfriends, and a colleague of one from Bangkok who was in town for a few days. This lady looked amazing, has two children (the oldest 13!), runs marathons, and she doesn’t look a day over 32. I’ll eat whatever she’s eating, thank you very much!

The restaurant is nicely laid out with good space between tables so you don’t feel like other people are intruding on your conversations – great for a catch up dinner or an intimate date. The kitchen is open and you walk past the chefs busying away on the way to your table. I’d heard about this restaurant many times, and each time was a raving review – however, I couldn’t for the life of me remember what the tag phrase was that everyone mentioned. So when asked our very attentive waiter where the chef was from, he explained that he used to be culinary director at the W Hotel (Ah! That’s what it was!”). “You mean the guy with the crutches in the kitchen?”, one of us asks. Turns out that he was in a serious bike accident where his bike collided with a minibus (bleeping minibuses!!), and he’ll be in recovery for 6 months. Anxious to get back to it, he left the hospital after 5 days and went straight back to the restaurant, where he sits on a bar stool conducting the kitchen likes it’s an symphony orchestra. Now that’s what I call a dedication to food!