Hong Kong, China,
tasted on December 12, 2005 — We've already established that
some of the best food in countries outside of the United States is
located in high end hotels - especially in Asia. And while we had
fantastic Chinese food in Bangkok we
still needed to have world class dim sum. Enter Spring Moon. Located
at the gorgeous Peninsula hotel in Kowloon (a short and cool ferry
ride from the Central district to Kowloon). I had some time to kill
so I checked out all the cool modern and ancient art at the
Hong Kong Museum of Art. I am nothing if not cultured. (Like
Spring Moon is famous not only for its dim sum but
for its amazing tea service. Since tea is not my thing I figured I
was the wrong person to report on the joys of tea. I went for dim
sum. There is something about taking an ethnic cuisine, a cultural
gem that's been honed and polished for thousands of years, and
refining it with the best ingredients and most delicate preparation
so that it is a simple perfect example of that culinary tradition.
This is the kind of food that I personally respond to the most. And
this is what I ate at Spring Moon.
Things started off with ...
Hong Kong, China,
tasted on December 11, 2005 — It's harder than you might
think to figure out which of tens of thousands of restaurants you
want to eat one of your three precious meals at while you're in Hong
Kong. You ask around, but you never know if the people you're asking
are trustworthy. Are they discriminating? Everyone thinks they are,
but most people can't be trusted. It's hard. While at my Thai
cooking class there was a couple visiting Bangkok from Hong Kong. I
figured they were into food enough to take a cooking class and they
were from Hong Kong. Yes. I'm profiling foodies with expertise in
countries I'm traveling to. Am I proud? No. Am I hungry? Yes. This
is how I ended up at
I had a reservation and was a touch early when i
arrived at the Yung Kee building. There was an entry way and a sign
seemed to indicate there was a restaurant on the 4th floor. Like in
Japan where space is at a premium it's not uncommon for restaurants
to be located on the upper levels of a building. I walked in and
handed the maitre'd the card from my hotel with the details of my
reservation. The dining room was small and gorgeous. It seemed super
high end. They told me they hadn't heard of me. I insisted that I
had a reservation. There was some conferring among the staff and
then one of the staff members escorted me right out the door. This
was weird. He was pleasant enough and asked me to follow him. I
hoped he was taking me to get food or get the reservation situation
cleared up. We went back in the elevator and headed for the
1st floor (different than the ground floor I got in at). The door
opens to a sheet of plywood blocking our exit. At this point I
am waiting for Rod Serling
to speak of my predicament. My escort hits the button for the second
floor. We get off and enter a pretty sizable restaurant (relative to
the dining room I saw upstairs). Down the stairs is another equally
large room filled with tables and diners. My escort, deposited me at
the front desk at this other Yung Kee where they did in fact
have my name on a list. I was worried they didn't like my jeans.
Turns out there are multiple versions of the restaurant nestled in
various nooks and crannies of the Yung Kee building. I don't know
what the specifics were of the one I originally stopped at but
it looked cool. The hostess who took me on as her new charge looked
like she could kick my ass and just might. She took me to my table
back up on the second floor. She left me there but looked like she
was reserving the right too kick my ass later.
The menu was kind of funny. The opening paragraph
crowed about the restaurant making a top 15 restaurants in the world
list in Fortune magazine... ...in 1968. Seems like a bit of a
stretch. That said, it was followed by a
they'd entered into competitions and won with over the past few
decades including Iron Chef. That was pretty cool. I also got seated
next to German tourists in what seemed like the westerner zone. They
were all drinking beer with dinner. Not sure why that was funny.
Dinner started off with an amuse.
Preserved Egg and Pickled Ginger. Iillustrating just how much of
a wuss I am this may be one of the scariest looking things I've been
served in awhile. The white part of the egg was translucent. But the
black glop where the yellow yolk had been was particularly
frightening. It took me a few moments to screw up my courage but
knew I at least had to take a big bite. I bit into it.
Surprisinglyit was pretty close to a simple deviled egg where the
yolk was super thick and creamy. The blackness of the yolk did
eventually get to me though.
The specialty of the house was
Goose. It was prety good. It was super fatty with ultra crispy
skin. You do need to watch out for the bones though. The meat was
juicy and there was something in the center of the goose. Beans?
Maybe boiled peanuts? I did feel like the goose could have been
served at a higher temperature. It was room temp and that lessened
my enjoyment. Maybe the fact that
runner had the dish for me but wouldn't put it on the table
until the waiter showed up a full minute later had something to do
Next up was
Broccoli with Garlic Sauce and Goose Liver Sausage. Delicious.
The garlic sauce was sharp and thick. The sausage reminded me of
boudin noir. Dark, hearty, and chunky.
After that I got
Rice 'Yeung Chow' Style. This was served nice and hot. I never
thought that a simple fried rice could move me. But this one did.
Perfect light fried rice with bits of pork, broccoli, egg, and
scallion. Quite simple. quite good. There were juicy plump shrimps
buried in middle. That was a pretty nice surprise. Yay!
Kee is a
factory and it's not cheap. The service is not going to be super
(especially if you don't speak the language) and they are serving
what seemed like
hundreds of diners
But as far as an authentic Cantonese experience combined with a menu
with dozens of interesting things you've likely never heard of, it's
pretty enjoyable. My rice and broccoli were both very very good and
unique. If I'd sent my goose back to get heated up it would have
been just as good as its flavor was quite enjoyable. With all that
fat I don't think it would have dried out any time soon. Of course,
it's pretty lame for the money to get something served at the wrong
temperature. But I look at Yung Kee as more of a challenge for
someone not experienced with Cantonese food. You've got to fight to
get the proper authentic experience. I think it also helps if you're
there with more than yourself so you can try a broader range of
dishes. I'd love to go back to Yung Kee with a native speaker and
see what other exciting Cantonese food I could try.
January 26, 2006 — New designs in the tastingmenu
Salmon Ngiri, Tamago Ngiri, Ikura, California Roll,
and more. Enjoy.
Cambodia, tasted on December 6-10, 2005 — (Note:
continued from yesterday's post on
being in Cambodia.) There are two
factors I thought of as potentially illuminating in terms of what
food in Cambodia would be like. 1) They were a French colony, and 2)
the water isn't safe to drink. The first raised my hopes that the
French/Southeast Asian mix of food traditions would result in
something wonderful. (I consider the Vietnamese sub one of nature's
finest creations and it's an obvious example of this type of
colonial culinary melding.) And yet, how can a country where you
can't drink the water have their act together enough to offer great
food in abundance? And in the end, the latter factor won out...
My only experience eating Cambodian food in the past
has been in Boston, MA at a
series of Cambodian restaurants owned by the same family. And
the food there us quite enjoyable. It's not Thai. Nor is it
Vietnamese. It's in the general vicinity but still all its own with
an emphasis (from my limited perspective) on lime juice and beef.
Lots of beef. Other stuff too, but definitely more beef than I'd
seen in any other Asian cuisine I was familiar with.
I’m a big planner. I like to figure out all the
details in advance and I do so on a regular basis, whatever the trek
I’m taking – Cambodia, supermarket, whatever. So, I decided I
wouldn’t plan things out for Cambodia. I suppose I’m trying to grow
a little. A little. ; ) When I got to Phnom Penh I browsed the web
for recommendations and I even sent mail to a fellow blogger
(western) who’s living in Cambodia. Only later did I notice that
every recommendation I got was for food within a 1 km radius of my
hotel. My hotel is absolutely
beautiful and conveniently located to the museums and the palace.
The center of the tourist trade. And sure enough, every restaurant
recommended to me was in that same zone. Frommer’s only recommends
restaurants in the tourist area. For god’s sake, couldn’t they even
find one Khmer restaurant to recommend? I should have known better,
but I finally relented and decided to try the 'best French
restaurant in town'. I understand that there were many deeply
negative effects from the colonization of southeast Asia, but that
doesn’t mean there was no upside. And the fusion of French and Asian
food in Cambodia and Vietnam is definitely upside. As I mentioned, I
figured, French food in Cambodia would be interesting and delicious.
For the most part that's unfortunately wrong. It was more lame
tourist crap. I knew I had to break out. After some cajoling, one of
the hotel staff finally admitted to me that there was a big
restaurant district a couple of kilometers away, but it was across
the Mekong River, and I’d need one of the motorbike or tuk tuk
drivers to take me there and bring me back as no tourists go there,
so there are no drivers waiting around to take tourists anywhere. I
knew this was the place for me.
In the early evening as the sun was setting I found
Ravy the tuk tuk driver. Ten dollars round trip to Prek Leap.
(Cambodia basically operates on US currency.) We started the trek
out to Prek Leap on a series of progressively worse roads. And while
the bumps were terrible, at least I got to breathe in the pollution
from the trucks that kept veering way to close to us for my comfort.
(Strangely Phnom Penh seems less polluted to me than Bangkok did.)
After we crossed the river, there were literally
hundreds of restaurants lining the road. Some huge monstrosities.
Some tiny little shacks with a TV where all the diners appeared to
be there so they could watch the soaps, news, or sports on the TVs.
After much convincing of my driver he finally took me to a
middle-sized place. It was in fact a restaurant located in
behind someone's home. The proprietor's were tickled that I was
there, everyone giving me looks like - "Oh aren't you an odd little
visitor here. Maybe you're lost." But after negotiation, and with
the help of my driver I got a couple of
beef dishes and some beer of course (cause I'm desperately
trying to avoid drinking any water or eating anything that is
uncooked). The food was ok. Better than the crappy tourist lunch I
had, but not as good as Cambodian food I've had in the U.S. And
slowly I figured out that this place (and many nearby) were focused
mainly on providing lots of beer and prostitutes for the Cambodian
men that frequented the places. My driver assured me that in fact
the gaggle of girls serving me dinner were not in fact daughters of
the woman who owned the place and took my order, they were in fact
girls from the countryside who were there to service the various
Cambodian men who came into drink and then use the girls' services.
They all looked super young. Scary. I went home hoping that the next
day would prove more successful.
I tried one other local place. I was searching for a
"crusty rice" restaurant. I never did find one. I did however end up
at another restaurant where they were super amused that I was there.
Two little girls (this time actual family members thank god)
kept poking me in the back while I ate to try and get my attention.
Eventually they were shooed away. This place was back on my side of
the river but outside the tourist district near the hospital. The
guide told me where to go for crusty rice, but I never did find it.
The loc lac (beef dish) I got was not really cooked enough. I ate
not quite enough to look like I enjoyed it but more than enough to
convince myself I had contracted some sort of raw beef disease. They
also gave me a pitcher (not a tall glass, but an entire pitcher) of
beer. Before I left however a little kid came by and offered
to sell me this little fried rice cracker in a bag. My hosts told me
it was called
Noumbai k’dan. It was super crunchy, savory, and delicious. Not
bad for six cents.
I did try hotel restaurants as well as the rules
that hotel restaurants are almost always bad doesn't usually apply
in Asia. The restaurant at the Amanjaya in Phnom Penh, K West Cafe,
was actually not bad, especially when I ate the
Khmer dishes. I avoided ordering pizza, spaghetti, or
hamburgers, but the loc lac was pretty decent. However up in Angkor
I stayed at the
Raffles Grand Hotel D'Angkor. The hotel was gorgeous in a very
colonial way. Very old, great service, and it really transported
you. I felt as if I'd just completed a three month journey from
England and found a small oasis of civilization where they still
served tea. Aside from feeling sort of uncomfortable in this
colonial make-believe, and the fact that I don't enjoy tea, it was
really a very cool place. That said, they catered to a more
traditional tourist crowd (read, retired Americans). The requisite
buffet was not very good. The high end restaurant serving dinner was
not bad though. The soup in particular was good.
While Siem Reap (the Angkor region) is thriving on
tourism (when I visited the region a new hotel seemed to be opening
every week), the capital Phnom Penh is thriving in a different way.
Despite the corruption, people are obviously trying and there's
motion and economic activity everywhere. There's even some modern
Khmer offerings. My hotel was one, and a restaurant owned by the
same folks was another. The restaurant I went to - Malis - was
beautifully designed, served modern Khmer food (according to the
chef), had an open kitchen, etc. felt like a western restaurant in a
good way. There were definitely some
culinary highlights food was somewhat uneven, but they had only
been open for a few days. If I were back in Phnom Penh I would
definitely go to Malis to see how they'd evolved. There's money in
Phnom Penh for a very small percentage of the population. But that
percentage is growing I think.
I did have a very positive food moment that involved
no actual eating. We were out in the countryside when I learned that
the fields we were passing were filled with rice. I realized that I
didn't know what rice actually looks like. I was a little
embarrassed taking pictures of
the folks harvesting the rice, but it was cool to actually
what rice looked like as it grew. Neat.
My quest was really to find authentic and fantastic
local food. I failed in the latter, and unfortunately I think I may
have succeeded in the former. By no means was my five days spent in
Cambodia an exhaustive food exploration. But I really did try to
cover many places on the spectrum (including
markets). And I felt like the food I found was pretty
representative of a lot of the food available to the various strata
of society. And it wasn't very good. I don't know if it's the
poverty, the restrictions I put on what I ate because of the water,
or something else entirely. I know from experience that Cambodia
food is a wonderful and unique cuisine. I just wasn't able to find
any that really made me super happy. I almost hope I get comments
telling me that I blew it and chose wrong at every turn. And if only
I'd done X or Y I would have had wonderful food in Cambodia. At
least in that case I would learn what to do next time.
should say that there was one exception. The
baguettes. They were sitting at stalls on the side of the road
every morning in various parts of town. Breakfast for the local
population. More than once I asked Ravy to pull over so I could grab
one and wolf it down. The baguettes were among the best I've ever
had. Why is it that in this country with rampant corruption and
abject poverty they make bread that's about 1000 times better than
any baguette I've ever had in the U.S.? (There's some flame fodder.
Anyway, even though I felt like I could have had a
better food experience, don't think for a second that Cambodia isn't
an incredible place. I fell in love with the country. Things are
moving so fast there that I bet the food options are improving on a
daily basis. I can't wait to visit again.
December 6-10, 2005 — (Note: I know this is a food
blog, but I was really touched by my trip to Cambodia so today in
the first of two posts on the country I want to give some background
on my experience there.) I am guilty of romanticizing southeast
Asia. It’s dangerous to do it as at best you’ll end up disappointed
and at worst it can be condescending. That said, there’s no denying
the romance and beauty of the region. I’ve wanted to travel here for
much of my life and have finally gotten to make the trip. And in
many ways, in my mind, Bangkok was always the iconic representation
of what I hoped to see. I’m not sure how to express what I was
hoping for. I think the fact that I love Asian food and Asian
aesthetics combined with the prospect of encountering a really
different society and culture where those came from was attractive.
And I fully expected Bangkok to be the highlight of my trip.
In fact, (and this is probably my fault for not
getting far enough off the beaten path,) Bangkok seemed to me two
dimensional. I admit this is because I only had a few days and I
wasn’t able to break out of the tourist routes. But that’s part of
the problem, breaking out of the well worn tracks that zillions of
tourists have beaten down before you. And in many ways, everywhere I
went in Bangkok was optimized for tourists. I almost went down the
same path in Phnom Penh. Almost.
Phnom Penh was immediately different than Bangkok.
Bangkok is clearly on its way to becoming a world class city. It's
decades (or longer) from having the polish of London or Tokyo, but
all the basic elements are in place – the excitement, the breadth,
the depth, the special qualities. Phnom Penh is dusty, it’s small
(relatively), its dilapidated, its broken. The
National museum houses a tiny fraction of the treasures this
country once had, but looting, the Kmher Rouge, and civil war have
seen most of it leave the country.
The museum itself is beautiful and sad. He objects are nice, but
the building is gorgeous. It’s also worn and frayed. But it’s worn
and frayed from use as well as abuse. And ultimately it’s sad and
endearing. I know that Bangkok is dusty and dilapidated as well, and
I don’t mean to condescend, but really, Phnom Penh may be leaps and
bounds ahead of where it was during the Cambodia civil war, but it
feels (to me) like a I would imagine Bangkok felt 20-30 years ago.
And yet, Phnom Penh is clearly alive.
The people are going about their day, every day, and
there are tons of them. The streets are teeming with
Cambodian faces. And just about all of them are quick to offer a
genuine smile. Commerce is everywhere. I mean everywhere –
stuffed into every nook and cranny that can handle someone selling
something. People aren’t just selling (and buying – though it
appears there’s 10 vendors for every customer), but they are living
their lives. One of my favorite moments so far was riding past a
local school at 5pm just as streams of kids were pouring out of the
gates of the school all in their blue and white uniforms. Tons of
parents on motorbikes were picking up their kids and taking them
home. It was just another day. And there it was, I found the Bangkok
I was looking for, it is Phnom Penh.
It's important to remember a few things though:
the guy driving me around every day in his "tuk
tuk" (a canopied pair of benches on wheels attached to the back
of a motorbike - bigger than a moped, smaller than a motorcycle)
made about $100 a month. He spent $30 for the one room he, his
wife, and two boys (6 and 10) lived in, $36 a month for English
and Japanese classes for his eldest son (who he hopes will be
come a tour guide and earn $1000 a month - I think he's
overestimating what they make)
80% of the country is illiterate
50% of the country thinks the king is not of
this earth (descended from god)
the ruling party the CPP are descended from the
faction of the Khmer Rouge that escaped to Vietnam to escape
the government is super corrupt
the leaders of the Khmer Rouge who committed
auto-genocide are still around and in their 70s and 80s. While
they should all be put on trial for crimes against humanity
those trials have not begun and nobody expects them to begin
Some people believe that in the '70s the king
himself (now a sort of honorary uber-king to make room for his
son to be actual king) was complicit, and some people believe
that trials would expose not only his involvement but China's
support for the Khmer Rouge and for the murder of as many as 2
After bombing the crap out of the country
(secretly), the US supported the Khmer Rouge over the Vietnamese
puppet government in Cambodia. They preferred the government
who'd turned the entire country into a forced
labor/"re-education" camp over the one who was pro VIetnam.
(Though the Vietnamese sponsored group I'm sure they weren't
much better in terms of human rights and corruption, but they do
happen to basically be in power today.)
Everyone in Cambodia lost people either to the
bombings by the Americans, the general fighting, the Khmer Rouge
murdering people (Pol Pot believed anyone who wore glasses was
an intellectual and murdered intellectuals), or all of the
above. I met one guy who was one of 12 siblings. There were only
six left. Some siblings escaped to the Thai border and were
recruited to fight for the Khmer Rouge while they were in
retreat. Some were recruited by the government that took power
after the Khmer Rouge were chased out. Brothers ended up
fighting against each other. But some of his siblings they don't
know what happened to. Likely they were orphaned through all the
forced moves by the Khmer Rouge and eventually forgot where they
lived and live to this day somewhere in the country not being
able to find the rest of their family.
The school where I saw all the parents picking
up their kids at the end of the day was both inspiring and
creepy. Inspiring because of the scene that played out at the
end of the day while I was riding by. Creepy because the school
looked identical to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (formerly
prison camp "S-21"). It looked identical because before S-21 was
the site of tragedy it was a high school.
In other words. This is a fucked up place.
Beautiful. Lovely friendly people. But a fucked up place
was lucky that I got to spend a few days not only in Phnom Penh but
in Angkor as well. Angkor is essentially the icing on the irony of
Cambodia. Angkor is a stunning collection of ruined cities and
temples. The remnants of the foremost civilization in the world
between ~1100 and ~1400. And as they pointed out in the signs at
the killing fields, the Khmer Rouge tried to regress the country
back to the stone age. From foremost civilization to teetering on
the edge of the stone age in 600 years. Makes you think.
Tomorrow, in part 2, we talk about eating in
Mei Jiang, Bangkok, Thailand,
tasted on December 5, 2005 — It may seem that if you've
waited to travel all your life to Thailand that eating anything but
Thai food would be a crime. This is in fact, not the case. Let me
apologize in advance for this gross generalization and romanticism.
I claim that in Asia in general there is a much stronger emphasis on
food quality, flavor, freshness, and aesthetics than there is in
North America. Furthermore, in the major modern cities in Asia
(Bangkok, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul) it's just as interesting to try a
foreign cuisine as it is to eat the native food. You wouldn't think
twice about trying to get kickass Italian food in New York, why not
get amazing Chinese food in Bangkok? Why not indeed. This leads to
the next counter-intuitive decision which is to get that Chinese
food at a hotel restaurant. As
I've discussed before
in detail, hotel restaurants aren't the place to eat except of
course in modern Asian cities with high end hotels such as the
Peninsula hotel where I had a fabulous Chinese dinner at
I can think of no better word to describe the dining
room than "expensive". And I mean this in a positive way. It wasn't
ostentatious or stuffy. It was actually
beautifully designed and
understated. It just was so well done, and so many staff were on
hand to wait on my every whim that you just knew that this was a
place for... how can I say it... the well heeled. I felt pretty
pampered. But ultimately who cared if they were attentive or
jerks... I was there for the food.
As I sat down a dish of
Candied Sesame Walnuts appeared. They were adorably yummy. And
especially tasty with the addition of the
dipping sauces. The kind staff came by and offered me a knife
and for. I acted all tough and said no thanks. I could make it
without them. Next up was a
Seafood Wonton amuse bouche. This thing had a perfect fried
crispy lightness. There was a refined oiliness in a good way. For me
the wonton wrapper was the star player of this bite more than the
Two dishes in one showed up next. How about a plate
Duck and Barbecue Pork. Mmmm... fatty goodness. Both were very
good. But the pork was very very good especially in combination with
the Shanghai Sauce (chili paste and oil) and the fresh chili sauce
What better way to balance the fat and flavor of the
pork and duck than with a delicate broth and dumpling combo.
Lobster Wontons and Brassica in Clear Broth to be specific. Be
warned that this dish went way beyond my relatively narrow ability
to describe it. I will do my best but don't be surprised if at the
end of this paragraph you don't even know where to begin to
understand what this soup tasted like. The broth was incredible and
special. It had a deep flavor but remained light with a core of
uplifting almost lemony (but not lemon... it's a "yellow" flavor?)
muted brightness in the center. The brassica seemed close to baby
bok choy to me. It was cooked to a perfect blend of tender and crisp
textures. The dumplings were sublime. These perfect hermetically
sealed tiny bombs of soft seafood goodness would in your mouth
with a bite. But only after you bit. Before that there was
absolutely no interaction between the broth and the lobster contents
of the dumpling. The waitstaff offered me some white pepper for my
soup before I even had my first taste. Thank god I said no. I did,
out of curiosity, save a bit of soup at the end so I could
experience it with the recommended white pepper. This was a mistake.
When you mess around with perfection there's only one way to go.
You would think that if I'm traveling all the way to
Bangkok to eat Chinese food so I can tell you about it in the blog
that I couldn't pass up a soup offered on the menu called Monk Jumps
Over the Wall Soup. You would be wrong. I'm not a big abalone fan
(yet?) so I passed. Jeffrey Steingarten I'm not.
I did however have the relatively tame
Chicken with Black Bean and Chili Hunan Style. Though it may be
a favorite I simply couldn't resist. It was just what I hoped for in
my dreams. There was just enough smooth sauce to coat the chicken
and vegetables and not a molecule more. The sauce was just thick
enough to coat but not hide the meat. The sauce made things better
without dominating. And the chicken was impossibly soft, delicious,
flavorful, and restrained. Super good.
I was pretty full but somehow found room for the
delicate cookies placed before me at the end of the meal. The
first was a chewy coconut with custard cream. This one was enjoyable
but the second one blew me away. It was a butter cookie. It had an
amazingly butter and crispy thin shell surrounding an airy iniside.
I wanted to buy a box of these and take them home with me. No such
someone please explain to me why it's so hard to make refined
Chinese food this good fewer than 14 hours from my house by plane?
It's moments like this when I realize that I have a hard time being
happy. Instead of reveling in the fact that I did get to eat at Mei
Jiang, all I can think of is my frustration that there isn't a
branch within 20 minutes of my house. I suppose there are worse
problems in the world. Luckily, no matter what your problem, when
you're in Bangkok, Mei Jiang will take care of you and make
you forget them - at least for a little while.
Cooking School, Bangkok, Thailand, tasted on December 5, 2005 —
A semi-regular feature of any tourist adventure in Thailand
(especially when visiting Bangkok or Chiang Mai) is a cooking class.
I was both excited to learn some basic Thai cooking skills, and
leery of a tourist trap. I told myself that I would find some small
hip cooking school that was off the beaten track in terms of
tourists. Unsurprisingly, I failed. After the 27th time when I tried
to get someone to recommend me the little known authentic Thai
cooking class, and the response was "Blue Elephant Cooking School.
It's the most famous." I gave in. Besides, they had a class that
started off with a trip to the market. And that seemed like a nice
way to start.
The Blue Elephant Cooking School is located in a
colonial style building (note: not sure if this is an
appropriate characterization as Thailand is the only country in the
immediate vicinity that was never colonized) on this small parcel of
land surrounded by the tumult and height of Bangkok. The first hour
or so of our class was spent heading to a
local market. I thought we would buy the ingredients we were
going to cook. But in retrospect that was silly. The Blue Elephant
had their act together and already had all the ingredients we
needed. Our trip to the market was most
informational though not functional and that was ok. Then it was
back to the school for some instruction and hopefully cooking.
It turns out, that despite being the "most famous"
cooking school, the class was pretty enjoyable. Even though we were
on rails (the
ingredients had mostly been prepped for us) my dishes came out
as good or better than most Thai food I've had in the U.S.
The chef kept repeating this as well showing his disdain for the
quality of many Thai restaurants.
I was worried at the beginning when we entered a
standard classroom setting that we'd only be watching him cook, but
after each demo we went to a
kitchen across the room where we got to cook ourselves. It was
cool. One weird moment was when he warned us about the unripe papaya
juice saying it would hurt our eyes and stain our clothes but it was
ok to eat. I guess unripe papaya juice is essentially edible bleach.
We learned and cooked several dishes including:
Green Chicken Curry (Keang Keaw Wan Kai),
Sour and Spicy Prawn Soup (Tom Yam Koong),
Stir Fried Rice Noodles (Phad Thai), and
Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam). The chef really took the time to
try to articulate what the flavor of each dish should be. He'd
learned Thai cooking at his mother's side and had many years as a
professional chef. I remember him going on at length about how the
sweet flavor should never come first on your tongue. For me this was
huge. Thai food is one of those cuisines (like Mexican) where the
uninitiated joke about how it's the same seven
and flavors recombined in hundreds of slightly different
combinations. But this is missing the point. There is not only wide
variety in Thai food but strict discipline in terms of flavor
profile and balance. And while I wasn't happy that I made my green
curry three hours before
I ate it at the sit down "luncheon" (not sure what the
alternative was) it turns out that our food came out pretty good
anyway. In fact, I think the food that I made that day was
better than almost every Thai restaurant in Seattle. Unfortunately
that's not saying a whole lot, but still I was impressed. Whether I
can duplicate it in my kitchen is another matter entirely, but I
will have fun trying.
January 17, 2006 — As often happens with vast media
empires such as our own, the primary medium in which we express
ourselves sometimes feels a touch too limiting. The blog and the
electronic books aren't enough to contain all our brilliant insights
and witticisms. Therefore we turn to the cotton canvas and introduce
the new tastingmenu
Sarcasm aside, we're excited about our new online
store. Aside from helping fund this little venture, the tastingmenu
shop is not our gift shop as you exit the museum. It is in
fact our perspective on what we think makes for cool culinary
couture. T-shirts are the cotton canvas for today's social
commentary. I knew this when days after this
was on TV, this
t-shirt was available for sale.
OK. It's just enthusiasm about food. Not social
commentary. But hopefully there's something there that folks will
relate to. Some examples:
We're not just excited about produce either. These
vintage food illustrations are cool too:
There's also a variety of pithy sayings you may or
may not find represent your perspective including "Yes. I do need
seven kinds of olive oil.", "Screw the menu. Give me one of
everything.", and my personal favorite, "I'm not a vegetarian
because I love animals. It's because I hate animals."
There's more in our inaugural version including some
vintage napkin folding graphics as well as the first in our series
of Classic Kitchen Tools.
Sorry for the infomercial. And while we're not
trying to be
Kottke, and we don't mind defraying the costs of the site a bit,
the truth is that we think there's a lack of hip, funky, cool, and
vintage food t-shirts and schwag. And hopefully tastingmenu can help
fill that gap.
OK. Now we're done with the promotional blah-blah.
The shop will only be mentioned from now on when we have some
particularly notworthy new graphics that we think are hot. Tomorrow
we're back in Thailand.
tasted on December 4, 2005 — The name of this restaurant
certainly gets your attention. And it's meant to. Luckily,
Cabbages & Condoms is not a reference to the menu, but rather is
the name for the broader hotel and restaurant chain that is
dedicated to raising money for a non-profit that among other things
supports family planning and anti-AIDS efforts (Population
and Community Development Association). You would think that a
restaurant in service of a charity would feel it could rest on its
good works rather than focus on making great food. You would be
Cabbages & Condoms is located down a side street (a
"soi") in a busy Bangkok neighborhood. That description, however,
works for pretty much every restaurant in Bangkok that's not on a
main drag. The almost alley-like street from which you enter gives
you the impression that the restaurant will be tucked away and
small. It's tucked away, but certainly not small. It's huge in fact.
As you pass the handicraft store and the buckets of condoms you
large open air space threaded with little white lights. Like a
lameass, I opted for the indoor air-conditioned dining room.
As I sat down, the ridiculously attentive but not
overly familiar service resulted in a dish of delicious super savory
Brown Rice Crackers arrived in front of me. They were like a rice
cracker and an
cracker had babies that preserved the best
aspects of both. Yummy.
The first of the items I ordered arrived -
Chaw Muang. It was steamed minced chicken and onion wrapped in
dough. It was chewy, doughy, soft, and slightly sweet, and...
purple! Cool. Super yummy dumplings.
Next up was
Yum Nuea Yang, Thai spicy and sour salad of pan-grilled beef.
This dish was super fresh bright, tangy, and spicy. Pretty great.
This was followed by
Moo Tod Kra Tiem Phrik Thai,
deep-fried pork with
pepper and garlic. The pork was not delicate but in a good way but
not overbattered. It was super savory without any accompaniment
whatsoever. That said, the dried, fried, onion shavings added some
good flavor as well. I'm pretty sure this was the best schnitzel
I've ever had in my entire life.
that accompanied the dishes was so fragrant. perfumed, and light. Delicious.
Thinly sliced cucumbers were everywhere. Super crisp and light. And
of course, never mealy.
The meal was interesting as there were were really three distinct flavor profiles
represented by each of the dishes. But once I got the essence of
each dish I found myself mixing bits and pieces from each and
enjoying the novel combinations.
this point during my time in Bangkok I had everything from
street food to mom and pop hole-in-the-wall to big family and
tourist restaurant to hotel high-end refined. And frankly all
rocked. Is it possible to get
bad Thai food here? Do I just have an incredibly low bar? I've
mentioned before how tough it is to do all this eating eating on my own.
I can't really finish everything I order.
At Cabbages & Condoms I did. I couldn't help myself. It was just so
good (and of course cheap). Thai cooking is based on a deep
understanding of flavor and making sure it exists in each dish in
generous quantities. But let's be clear on something, strong flavors
don't mean there isn't subtlety. There is. Plenty. Strong flavors
interwoven in subtle combinations.
After dinner, instead of a mint with the check they
give you a
condom. Of course.
Tomorrow I try to learn how to cook some Thai food
tasted on December 4, 2005 —
While there are many high end and high quality restaurants and food
experiences to search for on this planet, perhaps the most reliable
quality food experience in the world is street food. Of course there
are exceptions, and some countries are better than others, but in
general I believe this. Street food is most of the world's answer to
fast food and there are several reasons why it's often your best bet
for something great to eat. Mostly it's because quality is about
focus and street food vendors have no choice but to focus. The space
limitations alone require it. They also help force the street food
vendor to restock with fresh ingredients each day. And in much of
Asia the street food is a local tradition and authentic. It doesn't
get much better than that.
After that type of introduction you'd think that I'd
have a seriously detailed survey of Bangkok street food. You'd be
wrong. But only because I suck. I think it would have taken me weeks
to really get even a shallow but semi-complete view of the street
food experience. Instead you'll get a super basic (and incomplete)
intro as well as a decent number of
pictures of what I was able to find in my few days in Bangkok.
Some random tidbits in no particular order:
- There are three main places for street food
(you'd think there would be only one - the street) in Bangkok.
They are 1)
the street (even
late into the night), 2)
food courts in malls (or entire malls), and 3) the huge
outdoor markets (like the
Chatachuk weekend market).
- The malls are a good place to get your bearings. The food is
excellent (again unlike food courts in North America) and it's a
controlled environment in which
- The food is incredibly cheap. For some reason the malls have
these systems where you have to buy the
mall food scrip. If you have any leftover you just turn it
back in for cash. Their not making money on the exchange rate so
I guess they think it's easier to pay with their coupons.
- The food is incredibly good. And there are tons of options.
I especially enjoyed everything that was deep fried. And in many
everything was deep fried.
- Did I mentioned the
deep-fried bacon-wrapped hot dogs?
Fish balls are woefully underrated. In Asia they know how to
make fish balls. Chewy, spongy, smooth, and super savory. Some
days I felt I could go through about a hundred of them.
had these little
mini chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry donuts. I don't know
why I was surprised to see them, but I was. That said, they were
super delicious. Why does miniaturization always make things
Bottom line, if you're lucky enough to be in
Bangkok, Thailand, or just about anywhere in Asia, I highly
recommend you sample early and often as you pass one food stand
after another. You pretty much can't go wrong.
It doesn't have anything really to do with street
food. But I love the soda variations I find around the world. What
the hell is
tasted on December 3, 2005 —
In general, eating alone is no way to eat. Eating is a social
experience meant to be shared. Social interaction aside, when you're
trying to get a sense of a restaurant, going with many people is
best so you can try as many dishes as possible. Imagine how
difficult it is to try a bunch of dishes when you're not only eating
alone, but the food is served family style (as it is in most Thai
restaurants). I suppose that's all I can really complain about given
how good the food was at Celadon, a super interesting and refined
Thai restaurant at the Sukkothai hotel in Bangkok.
Celadon is a beautiful restaurant. Thai design is
gorgeous in general with all the dark wood. The modern lines
combined with the
sculptures and icons are just beautiful. It was still my first
day in Thailand so I decided to order calmly and have at least
one thing that I knew so I could acclimate my stomach slowly.
Satay fit the bill. You might argue that chicken satay is so
simple, why order it if you're trying to see whether there's any
talent in the kitchen. I claim that the simpler dishes are the true
litmus tests because there's no hiding if they aren't good. When
something is simple, the flavor has to be right out in front. And
it's easy tell when it isn't.
No worries with the satay at Celadon. The meat was
buttery and creamy. The peanut sauce had sweet and roasted
qualities. Though only accompaniments, the cucumbers were excellent
too. Attention anyone who makes food for other human beings and
cares about quality. Attention to detail makes a difference. A big
difference. The cucumbers had these ridges and were sliced small and
super thin. Their texture was super enjoyable especially in
combination with the chicken.
When you spend this much time telling others what
you think of various food experiences it's important to know your
own blind spots, limitations, and biases. I won't claim to be
introspective and secure enough to know them all (much less admit
them) but I will point out that I am a sucker for refined ethnic
cuisines. And Celadon was definitely refined Thai food. It's not
that the ingredients changed, or the recipes were modernized. It's
just that things were done with care and precision. Refined to me is
the opposite of rustic. I like both, but I really adore refined. The
flavors feel clean and pure to me. And while Celadon plays the
refined notes well, I was also pleased to see that their dishes
could be hearty at the same time. Case in point was my next dish -
Curry of River Fish Dumplings. In terms of trying new things,
this seemed like a good idea. Frankly, the fish balls were amazing.
They had a slight rubbery quality in a good way (like a sausage or
Vietnamese beef ball should). The texture was super smooth and the
flavor was deep. These were heavenly.
Celadon has a dirty little secret - it's in a hotel.
The Sukkothai hotel to be exact. And frankly, hotel restaurants are
almost never good. This is because hotels need restaurants on
premises (to serve room service, breakfast, etc.). In order to
entice restaurants to reside on premises they either create them on
their own (following their own mass market formulas) or the
subsidize the restaurant's existence. Either way, the staff of the
restaurant are almost never competing for business. They have a sure
thing. It doesn't matter how bad they do as the hotel will never
shut them down. They can't. This atmosphere makes for lousy food.
This however appears to be mainly an American phenomenon. In Asia,
forget it. Some of the best restaurants I've eaten at are in hotels.
And Celadon is no exception.
For my final dish (I know it's a bummer that I only
had three) I got a regional specialty from central Thailand. I
thought that would mix things up a bit. I ordered
Yellow Curry Rice with Prawn, Chinese Pork Sausage, and Eggs.
This was a perfect complement to the spicy curry. The rice was sweet
but not overly so. Normally I'm not someone who enjoys an emphasis
on the sweet part of the spectrum, but the little juice pineapple
cubes were super enjoyable. The dish was also covered with (what I
think were) coconut filaments. Well, to be honest, I'm not sure what
they were exactly but they tasted like coconut cotton candy.
was pretty much a superb first day in Bangkok. My
essentially a grandma's restaurant was excellent as was my dinner at
a high end hotel restaurant. (By the way, the high end here was also
pretty cheap - $6 for an entree.) So far I'm pretty much in love
with Bangkok and the food at has to offer.
tasted on December 3, 2005 —
been to Thailand a couple of weeks before I arrived. They made only
one restaurant recommendation for all of Bangkok. I figured I better
get there first. It was a bit of a challenge as the language barrier
seemed to ensure that the cabbie would have no idea where the place
was even though I had the front desk at my hotel write down the
address for him. Apparently knowing the restaurant is located on
Phraeng Phuton doesn’t help much if you have no idea where Phraeng
Phuton is. At the last minute I found that one of my maps actually
had the street on it and directed the cabbie to drop me off nearby
You need to understand that to me, upon arrival,
Bangkok was like a ripe fruit, bursting with possibilities, and I
was worried that in my haste I would let too much of the juice drip
onto the floor. (OK, that’s kind of yucky imagery but you get the
gist.) If I wanted a small restaurant, not frequented by tourists,
off the beaten path, and family-owned, this was the place. Needless
to say I was pretty proud of my accomplishment at even getting there
when I was asked a question by the owner and chef
Mrs. Krachoichuli Kimangsawat that I couldn’t answer: “what
would you like to eat?” It hadn’t occurred to me what I might want
for lunch, so I decided to put my fate in her hands. This was a good
While I waited for my food I ordered a Coke. I was
pretty clear on not drinking tap water (or putting ice made from tap
water in any of my drinks) and while I thought of asking to see if
they had Pellegrino, I decided to settle for a Coke. It always
tastes better from a
glass bottle anyway.
Soup was first.
Tom Yum Goong specifically. This is a soup I love and adore and
have had many times. I still remember the first time I ever tried it
when the wall of sour and spicy hit me like a heart attack. It
really blew me away. This was at once a more confident and down to
earth soup than almost any other instance of Tom Yum Goong I’d ever
tried. It was hearty, thick, and rich. There were fragrant bits but
it was also sweet (but not overly so). The flavors were very
balanced but not shy either. There were also enormous prawns in the
soup. The shells were mostly gone, but the heads were there in their
full glory. I admit I was a wuss about the heads, but I ate the
bodies hungrily. The soup was very good.
Next up was
Mee Grob. Think of it as a nest of fried noodles with sauce and
(in this case little shrimps) dotting the noodle landscape. The dish
was certainly deep fried but there was zero grease. The noodles
themselves were crunchy but never too hard. And the flavor of the
sauce was sweet but not cloying. It almost had an orange juice
flavor. Mrs. Kimangsawat assured me it was lemon juice. Excellent.
Finally I had the
Banana Flower with Shrimp and Chicken. I really had no idea what
the hell a banana flower was so
she was happy to show me. I apologize if I misunderstood, but I
believe she showed me an example that was young and not quite at the
point where it was ready to be included in my dish. I was right to
trust them. While the first two dishes had
similar flavor profiles, this dish was different. It had more of an
emphasis on the savory tones tones than the other two dishes. It was
also creamy with a super light acidity (maybe from citrus?). And
most enjoyable there was a build up of pepper on your palate way at
the end of the finish of the flavor. The effect was that by the end
the dish had a nice kick to it. Excellent with the fragrant and
perfectly cooked rice that was sent my way.
I’m not sure I could have asked for a better first
meal in Bangkok. And while I typically don’t mention cost as it
varies and people’s perspectives on cheap and expensive can be
vastly different, this meal cost $5.25. It would almost be amusing
if the food weren't so good.
Innoseki Innovation, Hong Kong, China,
tasted on December 2, 2005 — Secret restaurants appeal
to me on a deep level. I figure, if someone is willing to break the
law to make food for people, then there’s not much they wouldn’t do
to make that food worth eating. Imagine my excitement when I heard
that Hong Kong was filled with these restaurants out of people’s
homes. I wondered just how much risk the proprietors were taking
given that they allowed their names and addresses to be published in
the New York Times, but I decided to seek some out nonetheless. The
first in my quest was Bo Innoseki. It turns out that Bo Innoseki
went legit and moved to highly designed restaurant in a high-profile
location next to Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Much to
my embarrassment I only found this out by showing up at their old
speakeasy location and then convincing someone local to let me
borrow their cell phone to call the restaurant and find out why the
front door was locked. Twenty minutes later I found the new place
and made my way to the relocated and renamed
Innovation. Would being ‘legit’ affect the food? Since I had
nothing to compare to I didn’t know (though a fellow diner told me
that the food had gotten more complex since they moved) but I was
There were several set menus. I chose the most expansive
– the White Truffles and Hairy Crab Feast.
In front of me was a
beautiful custom tray obviously built just for the restaurant. The
inlaid pattern was beautiful. I didn’t have to wonder for long what the
holes at the top of the tray were for. First up was “The 3-Salads” –
in a Cone,
Waldorf in a Drink, and
Niçoise in a Bite. Each came in a little cup that fit neatly into
one of the holes at the top of the tray.
At first I thought, “oh isn’t this clever”. But rather
than shticky, the reconstructed salads in their new forms were actually
quite enjoyable. What I liked about each was the clarity. Each little
morsel started out with my tongue wondering – “what is this?” (What?
You’re tongue doesn’t wonder?) And then mid-taste the flavors would come
into focus and I’d think… “hey, this tastes like a Waldorf salad”. The
Caesar had a nice anchovy component. And sure enough, in each case the
flavors came together very nicely to be exactly as advertised. Neat and
enjoyable. (I often wonder what I would have thought if I’d tasted the
food blind. I think naming of dishes, and setting expectations in
general has so much to do with how we perceive food. It’s seems silly
but it’s true.)
Next up was
Pumpkin Rice Pudding, and Cucumber Jelly. I couldn’t decide what I
thought of this dish until the very last bite. And that last bite was
superb. The trouble was that I had a hard time getting the perfect
balance of ingredients in my mouth with each bite. The sliver of dried
tomato served to focus the foundational flavors in the dish. As I ate at
first I thought the dish was a bit all over the place. But I realized in
the end that all the makings of greatness were there if I could get them
to balance on my tongue. In writing about food I’ve taken on the
obviously more difficult role of critiquing the food I get to eat. I’ll
leave the easy part of coming up with a solution for how to make every
bite sing like the last bite of this dish to the chef.
The uni was followed by
Belly, Essence of Morel, and Air Dried Foie Gras Shavings. This was
super enjoyable. I was surprised at how much flavor the foie gras
shavings had. They really conveyed not only a solid foie gras flavor,
but had a deliciously smooth textural quality as well. Yummy. Afterwards
Caviar with Oyster Tofu. Another clean and simple dish. But I really
enjoyed the flavor combinations. The sea was well represented, and the
caviar wasn’t weak. (I hate it when Caviar shows up with very little
flavor.) The tofu was custardy in a good way. Nice.
At this point in the meal a waiter I hadn’t seen before
approached me with a slightly uncomfortable look on his face an started
to tell me that the his manager and the Chef had a request. At first I
thought he was going to ask me not to photograph the food. Instead he
proceeded to invite me to the chef’s table (or more accurately the
Chef’s bar located in the
prep and plating area of the kitchen in the back of the restaurant.
I readily agreed of course and joined five other customers sitting at
the bar and having their dinner cooked in front of them. I think they
were moving me so they could make room for a big party. I didn’t care. I
always enjoy the show.
My first dish at the bar was
Steamed Foie Gras, Sticky Rice Soufflé, Iberian Braised White Daikon,
and Caramelized Green Daikon Juice. I realized, kind of amused, that
this dish was really foie gras mochi with the daikon balls as little
tapioca pearls. Aside from the cute factor, the dish was interesting and
As I ate I noticed the chef was behind the bar
chatting with customers, and encouraging the kitchen staff to
perform at their best employing a broad range of techniques both
encouraging and critical. For me it was nice to see the unvarnished
activities in the kitchen. It was also clear that
Chef was part of the reason many Hong Kong residents came to the
restaurant. Not just his food but his personality.
Next up was
Truffles, Chinese Pasta, with Egg. This dish was magnificent.
There’s really no other way to describe it. While the pasta/egg/truffle
combination is relatively standard, this particular version was original
and special. The pasta was uniquely Chinese (as the chef told me as he
shaved a generous amount of truffles onto my plate, “everything in this
dish comes from China… except the truffles.”). The noodles were like
elongated thick penne tubes with an enjoyable chewy quality. As you
began the dish you broke the yolk to really bind all the elements
of truffle shavings were delicious as always. And frankly, given my
deep and abiding love for white truffle I worry about being balanced in
evaluating dishes that contain them. But this dish was so much more. The
pasta itself was either pan-fried or put in the salamander to get a
crispy brown top (in retrospect I think some kind of broiling in a
salamander was the technique – like you would use on the top of a good
baked macaroni and cheese). The crisp texture of outside of the pasta
was a perfect textural complement to the rest of the dish.
A little surprise dish form the chef followed. Not on my
with Foie Gras, Caramelized Pear, and Pine Nuts. It was just a
spoonful, but that’s all I needed. The flavor profile was certainly more
traditional with the sweet complementing the foie. But I enjoyed the
textures together even though the softness of the tofu and foie were
similar. They were still complementary. The chef later told me he
thought of it as a tofu dish where the foie gras was playing a
The foie was followed by
Nut Crusted White Fish with Escargot Duck Egg Sauce and Pea Shoot Royale.
The pea custard had loads of flavor – it was chock full of green
pea-ness. (No, I never get tired of that joke. And yes, I am in third
grade.) But really it was quite good. The escargot and the white fish
were not as flavorful. I could have done without one of the seafood
items in exchange for the remaining one to be more flavorful. Even with
this mixed dish it’s still very clear that one of the chef’s strengths
is isolating the core flavor of an ingredient and making sure it’s not
only preserved, but highlighted through the cooking process. The value
of this should not be underestimated.
This skill was featured in the
Crab Soufflé with Aged Jiangsu Vinegar. The soufflé was like a
freshly cooked crab in soufflé form. Yummy. The vinegar was good too
though I could have done with maybe a touch less.
Time for a palate cleanser –
Ginger Beer to be specific. Huge fire on the finish of this one. It
cleared my palate alright and scorched the back of my throat (but in a
good way). I was ready for the next dish.
And next up was
Jasmine Smoked Sea Bass with Chrysanthemum Glaze and Pickled Ginger
Pellet. I’ll admit that I usually eschew dishes that have the word
“pellet” in them. But we’ll chalk that up to the language barrier. In
fact, this dish had a genuinely special combination of flavors. There
was sweet with ginger and a smoked flavor as well. Frankly, the dish was
reminiscent of sushi.
One note to mention is that the pacing was kind of
rough. It was actually superb when I was in the dining room, but once I
moved to the kitchen things were a bit haphazard. I think the chain of
command in the kitchen was a little confused because sometimes the chef
would make it his business to take care of the customers personally and
sometimes he was busy cooking. Not sure there was one person focused on
the diners there. But it wasn’t a huge deal.
It’s funny how in tasting menus chefs often still feel
the need to make the last savory dish something bigger than the others.
Personally I can live without it as I’ve already eaten a ton of food. In
this case though it wasn’t entirely unwelcome as the somewhat larger
portion was of
Striploin, with Mixed Mushroom, Mustard Potatoes. The beef was super
buttery. I mean, it literally at times tasted like a stick of grilled
butter (in a good way). And the mushrooms were perfectly cooked.
Dessert didn’t go exactly as advertised but it was still
quite good. I started off with
Chocolate Pudding Cake with Port Marinated Strawberries and Vanilla
Sauce. As someone who writes about food you want to not gush every
time someone puts hot liquid chocolate in the middle of chocolate cake.
To put it simply, it’s just not cool. But there are some things that are
simply innately GOOD. And yes, there are worse and better examples. And
this happened to be a better example. Much better. Fantastic
liquid bittersweet chocolate was oozing out of the center of my little
cake and mixing with everything. The strawberries were a rich
complement. Super yummy.
And finally I got
Lychee Foam with Rose Water. This was a nice cloud-like closer for
It turns out I was supposed to get Vanilla Ice Cream
with White Truffle Shavings instead of the chocolate. And although I
would have liked to try it, I was pretty happy, pretty stuffed, and
pretty jet-lagged so I expressed my gratitude and made my way home on
the tram that takes you from one end of Hong Kong to the other.
Leung is obviously trying to do something special. And I think he is. I
think as with anyone trying to innovate, there always has to be a
grounding in solid flavors and textures, and it’s clear that for the
majority of the meal his dishes are well grounded. It also felt, at
least to me, that when the innovation borrowed from the regional
traditions, that’s when it seemed the most solid, flavorful, and frankly
special. And any restaurant capable of that is worth going back to.
Bearings, Hong Kong, China,
tasted on December 2, 2005 — Taking almost three weeks
to tour around Asia and expand my culinary palate (not to mention my
worldview) seemed like a precious opportunity and I didn't want to
waste a single minute. And as often happens when you're nervous,
you've gotta shake the nervous energy out of your system so that you
can focus and do your best. And in this case my best was supposed to
be experiencing as much authentic food in Asia as possible. Frankly,
my first several hours in Hong Kong were not my best. By no means do
I feel I really did some valuable surveying. I'd call my first
several hours more of a random survey. That said, maybe you can
learn from my mistakes and random successes.
I was planning several stops through multiple countries
in Asia. In the past I've been guilty of overplanning (choosing every
single meal months in advance) as well as following the wrong
recommendations (often from mainstream media or non-quality focused food
directories). I guess I'm a slow learner. But I was determined on my
first day to do two things in Hong Kong - experience some serendipity
enjoying the street food in the area, and using
Peyman's Law: choose
places to eat based on the length of the line out the door; the longer
the line, the better the food. These seemed like good themes until my
dinner (for which I did have a reservation).
It turns out that a) when you're in a city without a
bunch of street food, b) you don't speak the language, c) you're not
really sure what to order at restaurants serving the local food, you've
essentially increased the level of difficulty of eating something good.
First up I went into a cafe cause I was starving for some breakfast. I
checked out the menu and only saw western-ish fare. I figured, maybe a
ham breakfast sandwich in Hong Kong might be new and interesting. I
also ordered a
chocolate milk. Not super exciting, but I ordered just a little so
that I would have room to sample things as I walked the city. My ham
sandwich showed up and it reminded me of all the finger sandwiches I'd
eaten in Japan - no crusts. I guess it was good, but interesting? Not
really. The chocolate milk was interesting, but not particularly
enjoyable. Basically they took hot chocolate and poured it over ice.
I did salvage breakfast by walking by a tray of baked
goods and pastries outside Restaurant Du Lac Bleu. I can't resist a
pastry filled with sausage, and I immediately learned that Hong Kong
was excited about these little bundles of deliciousness as bakeries
across Japan. This one was up to snuff - buttery, soft, and smooth bread
surrounding essentially a mini-hot dog. Yummy.
I saw some interesting food markets as I wandered
around. I'd have to say the most interesting thing I saw was the
cage filled with live frogs. Mmmmm.... frog soup. I don't know why I
assumed they were going to be made into soup. I've never had frog soup
much less ever heard of its existence, but for some reason these looked
like soup frogs to me.
I wasn't too proud of my breakfast efforts but I thought
I had a good strategy for lunch. I wandered through a bunch of side
streets in the Central district until I found a place serving lunch that
had a line around the corner. Unfortunately I fumbled the ball on the
one yard line. I really had no idea what to order. I could have done
some research in advance and written down some common dishes I wanted to
try. Instead I was reduced to spying the dishes of the diners around me
and pointing to one of them to indicate what I wanted. Unfortunately
they all appeared to be eating
scrambled eggs with shrimp which can be a good dish, but not
necessarily super interesting. I kind of felt pressured as the language
was a real barrier at this particular place and I was taking so long to
order that I
just pointed to the nearest pile of scrambled eggs so they
could get my order going. Well, the dish was kind of greasy and not too
flavorful, but at least this
old guy across the path (the restaurant appeared to occupy two
corners of an alleyway) would step out of the back of one of them
roughly every 3.5 minutes to scream something at the people on my side.
You'd think after the seventh time I would have steeled myself against
it. Not so. Every time it made me jump in my seat. Chalk lunch up to
opening jitters. I was determined to up my game for dinner and the rest
of the trip.
BTW... special thanks to our friends over at
Accidental Hedonist for
the nomination for the 2005 Food Blog Awards. We were nominated in the
Best Food Blog - Restaurant Reviews category. We're in good company with
four excellent blogs, but of course since this is a poll-based contest,
we hope you vote for us. Please vote for us
New Year, New
January 3, 2006 — It's been a long break, but we're back.
Finally. With each year that tastingmenu gets written we try to
improve so that there's reason to keep coming back. Two years ago we
did our first cookbook.
Last year we helped put on the
and put out our second
cookbook. We knew we had to top ourselves this year so we've got
quite a bit of excitement planned for the year. More publications,
the second annual tasteeverything awards, some new accessories, and
of course tons of detailed writeups and closeup photos of the best
food experiences we can find from all over the planet.
While we rely primarily on our taste buds to decide
which of those food experiences to share, perspective does count. And
while we feel reasonably well eaten (the culinary equivalent of
well read), we often feel that we're lacking enough perspective
and experience to really understand the quality of some of the food
Here on tastingmenu we're starting a new series of posts
called "Tastingmenu gets schooled". This is going to be a
three part series, with each part consisting of multiple entries here on
the site. In each major part of this series we're going to try and
personally broaden our experience so that ultimately the entries on this
site get better. The first part involves broadening our culinary
palate... in Asia.
It's hard to bring authority to the table on a
particular type of food when you've never eaten it in its native
country. And while we certainly know which food tastes great to us, it
would be better if we had a baseline to compare. Asian food has always
been a favorite of ours, but while Japan has been visited many times
(with one stop in South Korea as well), we've never been to some of the
other countries in the region - and there are many.
For part 1 of Tastingmenu Gets Schooled we're spending a
few weeks in Asia - Hong Kong, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Angkor Wat, and
Tokyo to be specific. Starting with our next post we'll be reporting on
all the exciting food happenings that we were able to manage in our
relatively short trip. It's not exhaustive, but hopefully it gives
enough of a sense of the food in each country - especially China,
Thailand, and Cambodia to which we've never been.
As for future parts of Tastingmenu Gets Schooled we'll
reveal those as time goes on. Let's go!