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Posts from the ‘Hong Kong’ Category

Yung Kee

Ah, Christmas. The season for goose, at least in theory. There's something very Victorian and impractical about the bird that makes me want to tackle preparing one. I've entertained the notion of cooking one for a few years but have never been inspired enough to see my antiquated fantasy through.

I had never even sampled the dark poultry until a few weeks ago in Hong Kong. I was remiss for skipping Yung Kee on my last visit deeming it too touristy. Now that I'm older and wiser I care less about bucking convention. I needed to try the roast goose no matter how popular it might be.

Yung kee exterior

I hate to say that the most memorable part of my meal was the gratis starter. Our waiter, who was a dead ringer for George Takei in looks and strongly in voice, first asked, "Do you want the appetizer? It's a Chinese specialty." Sure. I knew what was coming and was well aware why he wouldn't bring it by default to non-Chinese customers. I wasn't scared of a preserved egg. I love fermented things. Or at least I thought I did.

Yung kee preserved egg and ginger

I was expecting something firm and salty, but this was translucent and goopy and tasted sort of blue cheesey, kind of like a rindy soft cheese with ammonia urine undertones. The flavor by itself wouldn't have been so freakish if you thought it was cheese, but the flavor combined with the dark color and gelatinous texture was disturbing. You're trying to intellectualize how an egg could possibly age into this transparent, gooey state and still be edible.

Judging from the diners at the table next to us, you're supposed to put a strip of pickled ginger on top of the egg and chomp away. That worked, the sharp rhizome cuts through the funk though it was a little messy and gray gel stuck to my chopsticks and gave me the heebies.

Yung kee roast goose

As usual, we grossly over ordered. A half portion of roast goose was way too much for two, but we had been burned in Beijing by a miniscule half portion of Peking duck. Shows how little I know about birds; apparently geese are way larger than ducks. The skin was crispy and the meat was much richer and gamier than I had anticipated, not really like duck at all and definitely not like chicken. I kept thinking that the scary gray egg gel on my chopsticks was tainting the meat until I realized the poultry had a strong musky flavor of its own. Not a bad one, mind you. Plum sauce is served along with the goose, and oddly the sweet peach colored condiment is what we call duck sauce in the U.S. even though I've never ever eaten it with duck, just egg rolls. Maybe it should be renamed goose sauce.

Yung kee seafood soup

We felt guilty for never ordering soup in Chinese restaurants so we had the mixed seafood soup, very Cantonese and delicate and likely thickened with a little cornstarch. Probably an extra course that we really didn't need, though.

Yung kee vegetables with crab meat

Vegetables with crab meat turned out to be mushrooms and baby bok choy. Also another mild dish. That may sound like a strange comment, it's just that I tend to have mixed feelings about Cantonese food because it is simple and pure where I like bold and oily Chinese cuisine. Not that I can't appreciate a steamed vegetable.

Yung kee fried rice

I never eat fried rice (yet we did twice on vacation) but it seemed like a popular item at Yung Kee. It was very light and non-greasy and not soy sauced to death like here.

I felt totally fine, stuffed but fine, after our meal. We took goose and fried rice to go (I do love that doggie bags are not frowned upon in S.E. Asia) and grabbed a drink in Lan Kwai Fong afterwards. The story could've ended right there. I wish it did.

Then, in the middle of the night I was struck by the most painful, violent stomach cramps I've experienced in 36 years and spent hours alternating between vomiting and laying in bed trying not to move, even shifting a few inches would trigger another bout of barfing even though there was nothing left to barf.

While hanging out the hotel bathroom my mind kept wandering back to that black egg. Evil egg. I'm not saying that Yung Kee poisoned me, I had been flu-y and nauseous on and off all week, but something I ate that night set off a gut-wrenching experience that wouldn't end. I would eat Chinese roast goose again, certainly, maybe even a few bites of preserved egg because I don't hold food grudges, but the post-Yung Kee trauma only added to my feelings that this was quickly becoming the worst vacation ever.

Yung Kee * 32-40 Wellington St., Hong Kong

Victoria City Seafood

Supposedly this seafood restaurant is one of the best places to sample exquisite dim sum. I'm sure it is quite fine, but I'm just as happy with lower brow buns and dumplings. Subtlety is almost always lost on me, though—theres a reason Ive never been compelled to take a Japanese food vacation.

It was initially baffling because this isnt a dedicated dim sum parlor, you are handed nearly a dozen menus, some which contain small items that could be eaten in the yum cha manner. It took us a while to pare the choices down and decide. Really, I'd rather just look at whats on offer from an old fashioned cart. But menus were the point, I'd never tried the cooked to order style before and wanted the experience. Now I know.

We didnt go hog wild, it was a refined sort of meal with around five small plates of food including egg tarts. I say around because I cant for the life of me recall all that we ate. I know we tried salt and pepper shrimp, shrimp rice rolls, baked meat buns…er, and one more. Now I know why food bloggers are so snap happy. I could use a visual memory aid.

Ive heard complaints about the price, but I didnt find it to be outrageous. Thats the beauty of eating little things. Even if prices are double the more work a day venues, thats still only $5 per plate as opposed to $2.50.

Victoria City Seafood * 30 Harbor Rd., Hong Kong

Morton’s

Predicting the future can be tricky. Theres no way I would have ever guessed that my final meal in Asia would be at an astronomically priced American steak house chain. We were spending our last day in Hong Kong trolling around Kowloon, and somehow got it into our heads that for dinner wed check out this massive mall food court I'd read about, a few subway stops further out at Kowloon Tong.

Well, the mall existed (complete with a university attached–odd) but this supposed fast food mecca was nowhere to be found. All we could see was a KFC, Café de Coral, Yoshinoya, a mediocre Thai place and a smoothie joint. We were starving, and by now it was too late to take advantage of another harebrained idea wed had–to hit Mortons during happy hour for their skyline view of Hong Kong and free mini steak sandwiches.

While I got something tiny to hold me over (four KFC Baby Wings, which are truly infantile, perhaps even premature–the point was not spoiling my appetite and they certainly didnt) James sorted out his credit card being frozen. After a little semi-desperate hemming and hawing, we realized it was getting late, we were in the middle of nowhere and we had to be up early to catch a flight back to the U.S. We said, fuck it, lets just go to Mortons and get a big, fat juicy decadent American meal.

Just a few days earlier, Alvin, James coworker and Singapore transplant, had been telling us how hed thrown a company Christmas party at Mortons and that the staff seemed sort of baffled by the meal. The massive portions and meat-centric concept kind of freaked the locals out.

What freaked me out were the prices. Wow. Ive never been to a Mortons so I dont know how Hong Kong compares to America. But I'm sure theres a mark up. That afternoon I had been staring longingly at the See's Candy display at Festival Walk. But at nearly $40 for a one pound box (which can be ordered online in the U.S. for $13.60), I just couldnt bring myself to spring for 16 ounces of nostalgia. Mortons has you over the same hump. Their porterhouse for two was HK1100 ($141). For comparison, Peter Luger, which many would say is America's, if not he world's best steakhouse, a total different league than Mortons, version for two is $75.

We put price out of our minds and drank up Bombay Sapphire gin and tonics and Johnny Walker Black (theyre obsessed with JWB in Asia) scotches and sodas. I got the $63 double cut filet mignon. We had giant salads filled with blue cheese and anchovies, sides of hash browns and of course, creamed spinach. My side of béarnaise ensured I was getting enough cholesterol. We couldnt even finish our steaks, but never relinquishing our thrifty cores, we got doggie bags and packed them in our luggage the next morning.

This was an atypical total high roller, power dinner, and it was really really fun. I'm sure a kick-ass sharks fin, birds nest, abalone and all Chinese banquet wouldve set us back as much and been more locale appropriate, but sometimes you have to go with your meat-loving gut and make chain-hating travel purists cringe.

Mortonsbone
Back in NYC: gnarly-looking nibbled-on leftover bone

Mortons * 20 Nathan Rd., Hong Kong

Da Ping Huo

See, I'm not a foodie, fixated on ingredients, provenance, preparation, minutiae. Eating is fun, but I'm more about the experience. I regret not being able to recall details from every dish at this meal, but there were so many items, and not in tasting portions either. While I got over my public food photography phobia, I didnt feel this was an appropriate venue for geeking out (though I dont think anyone wouldve minded, after all, we were the only diners).

Si fang cai, a.k.a. speakeasies or unlicensed restaurants, seemed to be the rage in Hong Kong a few years ago, and still carry on. I'm not sure if Da Ping Huo still fits into this secret code, hidden door, word of mouth category, but it still feels worlds away from an established restaurant. It's not someones cozy home, but an austere concrete, metal and wood affair. Minimalist, chic-stark, but hardly soulless.

I knew the routine, primarily because I like to over plan and never leave anything to chance. It's like this: you must call ahead, there are seatings at 6:30 and 9:30, the menu is set and costs HK 250 ($32, which is a serious bargain) per person, and the eatery is owned by a couple. The husband, an artist with paintings adorning the walls, plays host, while his wife stays mostly behind the scenes as cook. Shes also a former opera singer, and I knew that she serenades diners at the end of the meal. Um, but I left this tiny detail out when originally explaining the concept to James, which was wise because it predictably freaked him out when brought up at dinner.

We were treated to (or traumatized by, depending on how much attention you crave) an unintentional private dining experience. My original worries about getting reservations were unfounded, and made me worry and wonder how they stay afloat (we were told they had four parties the night before). By this point during our vacation we were slightly more accustomed to the notion of being catered to in an unfilled room, and accordingly felt more relaxed than during our other foray into near solo dining at Frangipani.

We ordered a not too expensive Sauvignon Blanc (their corkage fee was surprisingly high, about $20, but I'm so not the oenophile—I'd never tote in my own bottle anyway) and waited for the food parade to begin. And once it started, there was no letting up. There are only so many synonyms for spicy and chile oil so allow me some slack because theres going to be some repetition.

First out were three cold appetizers in small saucers: shredded jellyfish in spicy oil, sweet and sour cucumber spears and bean curd rolls filled with tofu and mushrooms. Then there were impossibly slippery and chopstick-unfriendly transparent wide noodles bathed in yes, chile oil (I love chile oil, but I can see how its copious use might freak some folks out) and topped with something unexpectedly crunchy. After checking with the cook, we were able to deduce from our young waiter that they were deep-fried soybeans. The owners spoke next to no English and the waiter had a so-so command of the language, but didnt necessarily know food words and translations such as soybean. That was ok, it was kind of like a puzzle. We had cold poached chicken in chile oil, as well as a chicken and cabbage soup.

This was plenty of food and satisfying, but only the beginning. I realized we didnt have any rice, which would be a nice foil for all the chile spiked sauces, but perhaps its an appetizer/entrée thing because we were then informed that main dishes would be coming. Our plates were changed, rice was brought, and the big guns started appearing. A bowl of stewy, chile laden beef was brought out. At first I thought it was tripe, which I love, the meat was so chewy, but it was just a fatty cut. But good fatty (though gross seeming, I ate the remnants right out of our mini fridge before heading to airport two days later—it wasnt half bad cold) and tender. Classic ma po tofu arrived almost simultaneously and was crazy hot. It was at this moment that we realized that maybe youre not supposed to eat all of the food presented to you. I had no idea how many items were ultimately coming so it was hard to pace myself. We ended up “taking away” two dishes, both of these only at the owners suggestion. Normally I'd feel weird about this because I couldnt get a grip on doggie bag culture in Asia, which James and I are both unashamedly fond of.

The ma po tofu came with a preface that it would be spicy, which I was only half inclined to believe because I'm so used to restaurateurs saying items are hot when they are not, especially to Americans. Wow, the owner wasnt lying. The dish was tongue tingling in that front of the mouth hot way that you can even feel in your ears, not deep and creeping like Thai hot. On top of the burn Sichuan pepper conducted a background mouth buzz. The ground pork was firm and rich, the silky tofu like atomic white sponges. Breathing in or out merely fanned the flames. Our waiter seemed surprised that we could handle so much and admitted that he didnt like hot food (something we noticed common to many Hong Kongers). Maybe our taste buds have been dulled from smoking.

When new plates and a metal cracking implement were presented we got excited. A chile and garlic laden crab came hacked into large chunks. I'm not so good with extracting the meat since I didnt grow up eating crustaceans, but it was still fun. Seafood was followed by a dish of pork and yams, two flavors I adore but was too full to appreciate. Rich, almost gooey pork belly had melded into sweet tuber slices like a casserole. A peppery palate cleansing broth teeming with pea shoots buffered between the next and final savory course of pork dumplings. Two long slender skins were filled with smooth pate-like meat and sitting in a pool of what looked like red hot chile oil, but turned out to be mild and sweet. Dessert came in the form of tofu drizzled with a ginger syrup, which is very much in the Chinese sweets canon, and totally un-American. Refreshing rather than filling.

James posited that perhaps the cook wouldnt sing since we were the only diners. Ha, no such luck. Being serenaded can put pressure on you (do you smile, stay neutral, make eye contact?) and this was no strolling violinist or dinner theatre contralto. These were ear-piercing notes of Chinese opera. Which one, we didnt know, only that it was a “love song.” We were waiting for our wine glasses to shatter. It was definitely other worldly, at least other country-ish.

Somewhere during the middle of the meal there was a surprise interrupting incident when a large British group, ranging in age from maybe six to 76 randomly showed up asking “Sichuan?” They mustve had an inkling of what they were doing since they found the place and knew the style of cuisine, but thats where their knowledge ended. They then demanded to be served despite being walk-ins. The severe language barrier made it impossible for the owner to explain himself and the normal procedure. I could totally see a comedy of errors ensuing, but severely lacking in the comedy. I almost felt like I should say something helpful because it was going to end badly, but didnt think that was my place.

The waiter set the table, seated them and ran into the kitchen, likely telling the cook that six diners had popped in without notice. Mandarin shrieking commenced. Meanwhile the patriarch of the clueless crew was having a shit fit because there wasnt a menu. He just couldnt get the omakase (I know thats Japanese, but I dont know a better term) concept. “What do you mean, theres no menu. Ive never heard of such a thing.” Which turned into “Well, if theres no menu then well have to leave.” Completely offended and put out, the group were total preposterous British stereotypes, “well, I never…”

I was quietly busting a gut, but felt bad for the proprietors. And they apologized to us after the family left in a huff. And people think Americans are gauche. The fact that we “got” the meal and appreciated the efforts and graciousness of the hosts, made the evening feel more exclusive, like we really were members of some secret club. It's not that often that I feel more like a connoisseur and less like a clod.

Da Ping Huo * 49 Hollywood Rd., Hong Kong

Tuk Tuk

Whether this place is better or worse than the Tuk Tuk in our neighborhood, Ill never know because I refuse to patronize Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill Thai restaurants out of principle (well, I tried 9D once because its the nearest restaurant walking distance from our apartment). I dont know what it is, Ill eat mediocre Chinese, Mexican, oh, and slew of other cuisines, but anything less than great Thai food seems like a waste of calories.

We found it impossible to believe that Singapore, Hong Kong and particularly Malaysia (since they share a border) wouldnt have better Thai food than the U.S., but the general local consensus was “dont bother.” From what I'd read, from what our waiter at a Sichuan restaurant across the street from Tuk Tuk told us, and was evidenced by the table of Chinese regulars sitting behind us who ordered “not too spicy,” Hong Kongers dont care for hot food.

So no, the food wasnt spicy, it was blander than Lemongrass Grill, our benchmark for Thai blahness. But at least we found out and had our fears confirmed. We had set lunch specials and both chose papaya salad that was completely sweet and sour, I dont think there was a single chile note in the entire dish. My green curry was adequate, as were James chile basil noodles, but once again were lacking punch. The cook and staff were Thai, which only made me wonder what kind of food they made themselves.

Tuk Tuk Thai * 30 Graham St., Hong Kong

Spring Deer

1/2I'm sorry to have missed the famous roast goose at Yung Kee, but at least I got a dose of Peking duck (and plenty more roasted meats in between). If James had it his way we wouldve had peking duck every night in Hong Kong.

Duckcarver I'm sure there are fancier spots, but Spring Deer provided all that a peking duck meal should be: fun, mildly theatrical and fat-filled. We accidentally upped the cholesterol quotient by ordering a "vegetable." At least bamboo shoots and scallops sounded semi-healthy. Our charmingly intimidating mobster-esque waiter did warn "its fried," which didnt make sense at the time. What arrived was a massive tangle of shredded deep-fried greens speckled with deep-fried bamboo shoots and dried scallop floss. I had no idea how this dish was supposed to be eaten–in small quantities, as an accompaniment to something? We just plowed into it, and well, it was good, especially since were already fried greens converts thanks to Sripraphais watercress salad, which is deep-fried and battered.

Finally, the duck arrived. It took some time, but allowed us to snoop at the proceedings at nearby private dinner parties (we were seated in a weird back room, which was our own fault for showing up over an hour early. On the train ride from the airport James called and made reservations for 9pm, which made the host seem to freak out, so me being a nervous person about being the only diner in an empty room decided we should just show up at 8pm, especially since the whole reservations craze in Asia seemed like a joke half the time as wed end up in near vacant rooms. But this restaurant was crowded and they had a little name plate Mr. James made up for us for 9pm. We totally threw things off). There was lots of cognac and what looked to be sweet and sour prawns we were envious of. Springdeer One party was wheeled over a salt baked chicken, which was ceremoniously cracked open with a wooden mallet wielded by a drunk and/or goofy member of the group.

We were carved a lot of duck, really too much for two people, and on vacation getting food to go isnt terribly practical. But the duck was perfectly crispy and fatty, the flesh a different stronger better flavor than we were used to. The pancakes were also thicker and floury, almost tortilla-like. My only complaint would be that the cucumbers and scallions were cut too thick and stubby, making the roll ups too chunky. But thats a minor source of contention in the scheme of things.

Spring Deer * 42 Mody Rd., Hong Kong

Tai Hing Roast

Chinese fast food, sort of, and possibly better than Maxims or Café de Coral. Tai Hing serves roast meats on rice like NY Noodletown, which is a style I can identify with and certainly get into. We kept it simple and ordered individual servings of roast goose and roast pork that came with rice and a few greens. Simple and satisfying. Other people had dipping sauces that I guess you have to ask for. Being in HK 24 hours at the point, we had already caught on to a few local customs. The big one being how everyone washes their chopsticks and bowls in hot tea that comes when you are seated. It's for rinsing not for drinking, and I'm still not exactly sure why its done. Luckily, I never made any drinking the fingerbowl water faux pas. I'd seen this done a couple times in NYC Chinatown and thought the people were freaks. Now I know that its classy.

Tai Hing Roast Restaurant * 484 Jaffe Rd., Hong Kong

Maxim’s City Hall

We were unintentionally the first people in this not-so-hallowed, but popular dim sum hall. I'm never up, out and anywhere before noon, but our body clocks were out of whack since it was our first morning after twenty hours of traveling. I was thinking that dim sum was an earlier affair, more breakfast than lunch. I swear NYC dim summers are early birds. We got to the doors just as they were opening at 11am, but I didnt get this at first and tried to barge in, not realizing the red panels were shut for a reason and that the eight-to-ten other folks lingering in the foyer werent just loitering for fun.

It was a parade of treats, just the way I like it. Later dim sum at Xin was too austere and Victoria Seafood was pristine, but lacking the visual allure of picking and pointing. Ive heard that the cart style, which were accustomed to, is a dying breed, but its thriving at City Hall. I couldnt even tell you what we ate, as it was our first meal and faded from memory, and also because we tried so many tidbits that its a blur.

I know there were mini sesame topped pork buns, chee chong fun, taro dumplings a.k.a. woo gok, little stubby, yellow open-topped dumplings filled with pork and possibly orange roe (these were everywhere, but new to me). Also popular but new were super light and crispy shrimp-filled cylinders that werent quite egg rolls, yet were battered and fried and served with mayonnaise. Odd.

I know we had twice that amount of food, and werent ashamed of our gluttony until we noticed other tables were daintily picking at perhaps two to three dishes. Well, the tourists at least, who mightve been timid about ordering or possibly truly dainty eaters.

Despite being unfashionably early, it was a wise move since the vast room was almost to capacity by the time we left. The meal went smoothly (more smoothly than our finding the restaurant–its upstairs and in the middle of a municipal complex). NYC dim sum can be more frustrating, have longer waits, shared tables (I'm surprised we got one to ourselves here) and language barriers (we once waited an eternity in Brooklyn for our number to be called before realizing they were doing it in Chinese. Duh). Hong Kong is a breeze by comparison.

Maxim's City Hall * 7 Edinburgh Pl., Hong Kong

The Barn

I didnt intentionally want my first Hong Kong meal to be at a weirdo dive bar. I hadnt anticipated a woody structure at the end of an alley, festooned with Christmas lights, but after the twenty hours or so traveling and getting traumatized trying to hoof our luggage from the mere five blocks at Causeway Bay station to our hotel (all those staircases and flyovers, which are metric or Chinese or something crazy–the stairs arent spaced natural to American strides. I kept tripping, which probably had nothing to do with jetlag) we didnt have the energy to attempt a Chinese-only restaurant, which was all we were finding open after 11pm on a weeknight (the next night we discovered we were just going in a bad direction—plenty are open if you shoot off the other way).

So, we were the only Westerners in this low key pub filled with college aged (who knows they couldve been in their forties—yes, I'm stereotyping, but Asians age so damn well. Hmm, actually at the HK airport on the way back to NYC a tourism department girl caught and convinced me to answer a survey. When asking my age range she kept pointing at the two categories in the twenties. I was like “no, I'm in the 30-34 group,” which seemed to surprise her into responding “but you look so young of face,” which made me feel blissfully youthful for about thirty seconds) kids listening to Cantonese hip hop and pop, stuff that sounded just like Christina Aguilera but not in English.

We conservatively ordered Heineken rather than trying one of the many Red Bull concoctions being advertised. I noticed that at the few bars we visited they have drink prices displayed on menus and on the wall in at regular rate and happy hour rate. So spelled out and regulated, same with the sizes of the liquor shots. But we were starving, that was the main reason wed popped out of the comfy confines of our tiny hotel room.

The menu was full of bizarre bar food items like chicken wings with Switzerland sauce. I bravely tried salt and pepper squid, expecting little calamari styled crunchies like youd get here, but this was like a giant octopus cut up with lots of arms and tentacles. Luckily, seafood that looks like seafood doesnt scare me. The club sandwich we also ordered was probably more frightening. The layers consisted of ham, a white processed cheese, lettuce, tomato, fried egg and cucumbers, the latter two giving me the most pause. It wouldnt give Dennys Super Bird a run for its money, but at that moment it was the tastiest (and only) thing wed eaten in Hong Kong.

The Barn * 44-48 Leighton Rd., Hong Kong