Monthly Archives: November 2008

Dim Sum Frenzy

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

Most dim sum experiences in the U.S. are decently sedate ones. You arrive. You talk to a host or hostess to get a table. You sit and wait for the dim sum carts to come around (or, heaven forbid, you order from a menu…blah). The cart arrives and you pick an item or two or three. You get your dim sum dance card stamped and then you tuck into the delights. There’s a modicum of noise, you get excited at the prospect of the next cart and what it holds. As I said, sedate.

Now imagine a world where you are vying for food in a borderline animalistic manner, where you fight for a place to sit, leap up to grab the next morsel that is flying by, devour it with gusto then repeat the whole hedonistic tableau several times until sated. You stagger away from where everyone else is still undergoing the feeding ritual while someone else takes your spot to feed. On your way out, you realize that although you feel a bit dirty, you fight back the urge to go back in a few hours to repeat the carnage. Welcome to Hong Kong’s Lin Heung Teahouse.

Lin Heung is on one of those slightly hilly, narrow Hong Kong streets that bridge the gap between the high rises and the street vendors. The first thing you’ll notice once stepping through Lin Heung’s bright red and gold exterior entrance, is the dull roar of activity that is coming from the upper floor at top of a set of stairs directly in front of you. Greeting you at the top of those stairs is a room with a beehive of food frenzy. There are nothing but round, 8-person communal tables, most of which have 10 people around them. Two or three dim sum carts weave their way though the available aisleways, stopping nearly as many times to wait for people to get out of the way as dispensing steamer baskets of dim sum.

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

There is no hostess coordinating seats at tables. You literally walk a circle around the room (causing some aforementioned dim sum cart stoppage) until you see anyone who seems to be approaching being “finished” eating. Then you stand next to or close to them and give them the “you gonna eat that” eye until they start to get up. If you’re not fast, someone else will literally cut in front of you to help them out of their seats to secure their own table space. And forget about waiting until someone clears away the dirty dishes; you’d better sit down when the seats are available. If you don’t, you’ll lose those seats every time. Think that’s a little bit rude? Sure, but everyone else is doing it and you want to eat dim sum right?

a small slice of Lin Heung's dining room. (photo by wm. christman)

a small slice of Lin Heung’s dining room. (photo by wm. christman)

But Lin Heung is a teahouse first and foremost and as soon as you sit down, most people at your table are juggling one or two tea cups with lids, pouring out steeped water from one to the other or to a trough-like bowl in the middle of the table. The somewhat soothing ting-tang of the ceramic quickly gets lost in the cacophony of the rest of the room’s noise level but it remains constant throughout. Since we were the only foreigners there at the moment (a couple of others wandered in dazedly, as we were leaving), our waiter assumed that we just wanted a pot of crysanthemum tea. Although I will learn for the next trip to Lin Heung, the ceremony with which some folks were doing their tea cup jangling business was well beyond the scope of my feeble brain so I was grateful to just have a simple pot. And the tea ritual was the only thing remotely sedate about Lin Heung.

steamer heaven... (photo by wm. christman)

steamer heaven… (photo by wm. christman)

Although there are dim sum carts navigating the floor, the real action occurs when a new cart makes it’s appearance from a small but densely packed steam room. The noise level of the room actually goes up as several people from each of the tables get up, with their dim sum cards in their hands, race over to the newly laden carts.

Of course the race is all about getting the freshest, hottest har gow, sui mai, char sui bao, chicken feet and other house specialities. The cart driver is inundated with customers grabbing the lids of the steamer baskets and looking into them, moving them around and re-stacking them to see what is underneath, and people shoving their dim sum cards to be stamped before wandering away with their dim sum booty. There’s lots of banter and waving of cards. I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest locusts but I think I saw one cart nearly emptied of it’s contents in about two and a half minutes from the time it emerged from the steamer room.

Wanting to be one of the locals, I would scan and jump up with everyone else. This was well worth the effort as Lin Heung’s dim sum is bare-bones basic but truly excellent. There’s a certain rustic-ness to the dishes that conjours up home-cooking that adds to the delight. The chicken feet are bathed in black bean sauce and their own sticky-sweet collagen; the sui mai are fat, tall, pork-liver-y bites of goodness; shrimp in rice noodles are plump and slippery. There’s nothing fancy about any of the dim sum items nor do they need to be. Your table quickly becomes a teetering collection of steaming hot baskets, drips of sauces and refilled tea cups. You feed, you drink and when you’ve had enough, you push back, stand up and let the next person take your place.

yep, he ate here...(photo by wm. christman)

yep, he ate here…(photo by wm. christman)

Lin Heung is a real experience and although it’s fast-paced and noisy, it is packed with people who have a mission: to eat and drink tea. You’ll definitely get jostled. You may be mildly scolded by your waiter for not letting him or her clear the previous person’s plates. You’ll want to jump up to get your dim sum, over-and-over again. All of this is part of the adventure and when you’re done you’ll feel like you’ll return. If not the same day, the next time you’re in the neighbourhood.

Lin Heung Teahouse, 160-164 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong

“But I Won’t Kill You”

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

“I’m going to feed you but I won’t kill you.”

Ominous words with which to begin a meal, don’t you think? A mere 2.87 seconds after that bold declaration, Bo Innovation’s black-haired “demon-chef” Alvin Leung grins broadly indicating that all is right with his world which automatically means your “Bo” experience will be a memorable one.

Leung and his Hong Kong restaurant Bo Innovation has already made quite a name for itself with it’s unique and somewhat deconstructed, one-and-two bite sized renditions of classic Chinese and French dishes. From that description (and other things you may have heard) you might think that Bo Innovation strays close to the molecular garstronomic side of the cuisine scale. Not true. Although there are elements of that in Leung’s modus operandi, most are groupings of classic ingredients that evoke memories of the original dishes yet push the taste buds just a tiny step further.

Part of the …but the devil… staff (Leslie Scurry and I) showed up at Bo Innovation at it’s new address (see below) after much research and anticipation. Expectations as well as the desire to be blown away (dining-wise) were high. And most if not all of those expectations were surpassed. It was truly one of the best overall food experiences I have ever had.

Since discovery is such a key part of dining, just walking down the list of the 16+ course Chef’s menu to describe each dish in excruciating detail wouldn’t leave anything to your imagination so only a few will be talked about here. The banter that the both of us had with Leung was just as interesting as his food and it’s intricate preparation, that all the details will just kind of be all mixed. You can then fill in the gaps for yourself and maybe even go to Bo Innovation for your own experience.

The Chef’s Table is an eight seat bar that faces the plating kitchen (there is a main but small kitchen squirreled away behind this) where all of your food is prepared literally right in front of you. There are regular tables inside and out on the porch/balcony but really, the Chef’s Table is where all the action is. Everything is ultra-modern but kept simple, in easy-on-the-eyes greys, blacks and silvers. From minute one you are treated as if you’re the only guest(s) in the house. And although you don’t really need any knowledge of food preparation, techniques, or cooking to have a conversation with Leung, in our case we both learned so much more because we did.

molecular: xiao long bao (photo by leslie scurry)

molecular: xiao long bao (photo by leslie scurry)

Winding our way through Bo’s menu, we hit upon a few dim sum memories with “molecular” xiao long bao (usually a steamed “bun” with a dense egg/custard inside), and a fried taro dumpling with a smoked quail egg and caviar.

The former was had just the internal part of the bao and a postage stamp-sized sheet of dark vinegar. (With traditional xiao long bao, the bao’s sweetness is enhanced with a dab of vinegar…). The internal part of the bao looked like it was done using the sodium alginate “caviar” method, hence the “molecular” tag, only it was several times larger than the usual “caviar” produced with this method. (Leung actually said that he preferred making larger “caviar” as they were less time intensive and achieve that same effect). We were instructed to “put the vinegar sheet on your tongue” to let it dissolve then eat the xiao long bao. The internal part of the bao just exploded into that familiar xiao long bao flavor. This was my personal favorite of the entire meal.

taro and smoked quail egg with caviar (photo by leslie scurry)

taro and smoked quail egg with caviar (photo by leslie scurry)

The taro dumpling had so many things going on at once: crispy filigree, unctuous purple taro, smoky-hard yolk egg with the snap and brine of the caviar. Another delicious mouthful. Later on, a French-inspired “hairy” crab and crab roe souffle (with a cooling starfruit and pomelo salad) and a pan cooked cod with Hunan ham sauce and a novel toffee’d piece of salsify made their appearance. They were as interesting tasting as they sounded.

During the prep and presentation of one of the courses, a sheet of toro tuna with foie gras powder and freeze-dried raspberry, we got into a discussion about molecular gastronomy with Leung. He shared some of his thoughts about it and why he doesn’t use much of that sort of technique in his dishes. He said that he wanted to bring out natural tastes with disparate ingredients rather then coax them into being with chemicals.

I described the “stunt cooking” definition I had been working with as the practice molecular solely for the sake of experimentation, as opposed to creating a thought-provoking food experience, and he seemed to agree. He also talked about his experiences with the cuisine of Spain’s el Bulli and Ferran Adrià (the true master of molecular) and said that even Adrià was starting to move back to more traditional methods as the fad of molecular created a small raft pale imitators.

stunning: toro, foie gras powder and freeze-dried raspberry - note the tweezers to "roll" or "fold" the toro up before popping it into your mouth (photo by leslie scurry)

stunning: toro, foie gras powder and freeze-dried raspberry – note the tweezers to “roll” or “fold” the toro up before popping it into your mouth (photo by leslie scurry)

That said, the method for producing the foie gras powder for the toro course is an exercise in patience with a three-day drying period for lightly boiled foie gras in ~125°F degree ovens. You don’t want to do this at home, he said, stating that although the smell of the foie gras might be good for the first hour, three days of it is a bit much. Therefore, he does his preparation of this in a kitchen offsite.

The results though, are stunning – a concentrated foie gras flavor that only gets stronger once it reconstitutes in your mouth. The dried raspberry fills in the fruit counterpoint to the foie’s strength and the toro provides the buttery fat that makes this an outstanding dish in both concept and taste. And the tweezers give it a scientific feel.

oh that walnut soda! (photo by wm. christman)

oh that walnut soda! (photo by wm. christman)

The other dishes followed these filled out many components of a multi-course meal. Wagyu beef with truffle soy, fish and tofu soup with an anchovy crouton, a “very beefy” rice cooked only in the drippings of the Waygu beef. Dessert was a delightful four course on it’s own with am amazing apple crumble har gow and a small glass of walnut soda. The walnut soda was exactly like drinking a mouthful of freshly cracked walnuts. This is something that I would want to drink everyday.

young ginger foam frozen with liquid nitrogen (photo by wm. christman)

young ginger foam frozen with liquid nitrogen (photo by wm. christman)

Leung was also talkative about the other aspects of his restaurant: the new location (“I hated the other one”), wine, what’s next for him (opening up a Bo Innovation in London) and the fact that he just received a supply of liquid nitrogen. He made a young ginger foam and proceeded to whip it with the super-cold liquid nitrogen to produce a merangue-like bonbon that was like the lightest but most ginger-flavoured ice cream. Leung walked around the entire restaurant making these for nearly everyone who wanted to try it.

What makes Bo Innovation such an exquisite experience is not only the food and their compelling takes on classic dishes but the sheer enthusiasm that Alvin Leung shows for the unique combination of diverse ingredients he uses, the pinpoint execution of each and every dish, and inviting his guests to walk into his world for a few hours. It’s a world that I would gladly go back to again.

Bo Innovation, Shop No. 13 on Second Floor of J Residence, No. 60 Johnston Rd (restaurant is on Ship Street off of Johnston Rd.) Wanchai, Hong Kong, ph. 2850 8371

Sugar Cupcake Overload

I used to have an aversion to “designer” anything until I realized that certain designers actually do have their act together and produce well-thought out, and well-constructed goods. How that applies to cupcakes is dubious at best because a cupcake is a cupcake is a cupcake, right?

Judging from the consistently long queues at their recently opened shop in the Stanford Shopping Center, apparently lots of people think that Sprinkles is the next best thing to sliced…er, cupcakes. And at $3.25 a pop, lots of people apparently think that they’re worth it. Far from being a penny-pinching Scrooge when it comes to food, I stopped to buy a dozen and a half as a treat for the team that I manage in my real job and the reviews were mixed. And given that, how do they really stack up?

Sprinkles heavily emphasizes their sustainable ingredients, and nigh-upon-organic stance which is commendable. Ultimately, I think that often results in a tastier anything, including their cupcakes. They are all about freshness as well; frankly if they weren’t then they’d just be a Hostess subsidiary. They remind you that the cupcakes are best eaten on the day you buy them. Sure. They even go the lengths to request that their front door be continually closed in order to preserve the temperature and humidity inside the shop to keep the ‘cakes fresh. Ok.

Gaining a dozen is like ordering custom drapery. Overall, it’s not painful but if you’re in a hurry, you’re not going to get that sweet, calming sugar rush like pronto. One of their elves (my term, not theirs) takes your order of the 12 or so varieties that they bake every day (they actually have 20+ varieties on their “menu” and several other specials that don’t appear anywhere except on their daily special board) then relays it to a different set of elves to carefully, meticulously, cautiously fill a boxful. I swear I saw them using a pair of those nuclear fuel-rod tongs to transfer some of the more exotic one to boxes… Elapsed time between ordering at the first elf and getting my 18 cupcakes was about 12 minutes – nearly 40 seconds per cupcake. Fortunately, checkout is not done serially to that. 18 cupcakes cost me about $55.00.

The folks eating these cupcakes this day were prone to sharing (using knives to keep things semi-antiseptic) so I had a chance to taste several of the varieties. One could break them down into three basic types: not frosted, lightly frosted and moderately caked (that is, way too much frosting).

The absolutely gut-churning type was the over-frosted. Sweet without relent, the frostingwas the flavor and the cake merely a crumbly vehicle to carry it, which is unfortunate because the cake is perhaps the most consistent and best part of all three. Nearly everyone who had one (or part of one) ended up scraping off at least half of the frosting. One person chose not to and I haven’t seen him since. About two-thirds of their selections are in this category, so you’re probably better off spending $5-$6 for a half dozen at your local chain supermarket because the price reduction alone will make that soaring sugar rush much less financially painful.

The lightly frosted cakes were good overall – a nice balance between cake and sweet. This type included some interesting takes on convenience store fare (speaking of Hostess) with a moist dark chocolate, cream-filled rendition. All that was missing was the squiggle of white icing on top. It is perhaps unfair to make the comparison, but these completely blew away any notion of scraping the cardboard card of excess chocolate cake-i-ness.

The best (and simplest) were the relatively UN-frosted cakes. This day’s selection was the cinnamon sugar cupcake. The cake was allowed to shine through a light sheen of cinnamon-sugar dredge sprinkled on top. The cake, by the way, is consistently moist and fluffy and truly tastes fresh baked. Everything that Sprinkles purports to be resides in their cakes like this one. I could very easily eat a few of these in one sitting without feeling like I ate a half-pound of sugar.

The verdict? If you REALLY like sweet-sweeter-sweetest cupcakes, these are the ticket for you. But the balance of nearly all of the frosted ones is really unacceptably off putting. You’ll start off really digging the experience but end up with an empty baker’s cup full of regret. If you simply MUST pay $3.25 per, then go for the lighter, nearly-frosting-less ones. You can always buy a frosting “shot” to make yourself feel like you were back in the 2nd grade on bake sale day.

Gastronomy Non-Stop

and this was only day two! (photo by leslie scurry)

and this was only day two! (photo by leslie scurry)

A tipping point of any out of country food trip is the balance between how much food there is to eat and the number of hours in a day. Since we decided to make our excursion to Hong Kong and Tokyo officially a food trip, the tipping point quickly hit us like a ton of cooked, clay pot rice.

The three things essential to writing about this trip were: 1) finding the 40 or so restaurants that we targeted for this trip, 2) getting to then dining at as many of those places as possible, sometimes making the sacrifice of having two lunches and/or dinners in the time allotted, and then 3) sitting down and writing about the best ones. And guess which two won out?

Although diligent during the first two days in Hong Kong, the perils of trying to walk/ride to our chosen Hong Kong and Tokyo eateries caught up with us quickly. We withered under the weight of all of the good food we managed to find and eat that there simply was not the time (and in some cases, the will) to write. Needless to say, we had a good time, you just won’t hear about it all at once.

Coming up in the next few weeks will be some musings, rantings and ravings about some of the best food we had in both Hong Kong and Tokyo. The previous two postings below will give you a flavor for what we started the trip with.

And as a teaser, we did eat quite an amazing meal at Bo Innovation in Hong Kong and did the same at XEX restaurant morimoto in Tokyo, as well as at a decent-sized handful of smaller, but no less spectacular, places in both locales. Stay tuned.

Chinese Barbecue Battle!

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

The battle for barbecued and roasted goose and pork supremacy is tested every day in Hong Kong. Most are in the middle of the pack, some rise to the top, and almost none sink to the bottom. And if you think the middle of the pack is somehow slouching, forget it. The middle is 24K gold to the top of the heap’s platinum. Either way, you’ll end up with a valuable prize.

Here in California there are a large number of Chinese markets and most of them sell “barbecued” duck and pork. “Barbecued” is contrary to what Americans commonly know as barbecue, long strips of ribs and chunks of brisket slow cooked over smoke. While the meat in Chinese barbecue is roasted, it is also shellac’d (literally with a large paintbrush) with a soy/wine/sugar mixture that not only coats but seals in the succulent juices and imparts a sweet and savory taste. Major cities, Los Angeles, the SF Bay Area, and New York, may boast some pretty good renditions of these meats but going directly to the source, as usual, puts those to shame.

A co-worker (born and raised in Hong Kong) suggested Yung Kee, a famous roasted meat restaurant, for us to try. On my last business trip to Hong Kong, my manager and I opted for the friendly confines of the Yat Lok Barbecue in the oddly named New Territories area of Hong Kong. Once inside the Yung Kee restaurant the throw down commenced…

To make this a fair battle, we decided to order similarly at both restaurants: a plate of barbecued goose, a plate of barbecued pork and a seasonal vegetable dish, for caloric sanity. There were some extras thrown in according to our whim but the basics were the same.

The first impression of Yung Kee (32-40 Wellington Street, Central, HK (take MTR to Central station)) was one of Hong Kong dollar signs. There are three opulent floors and it looks like a perfect place for a wedding banquet or 20, all held at the same time – it’s huge. Black and white clad wait staff, red mahogany wood with requisite carvings litter the outer reaches of the landscape, white linen covers the tables. The menu prices also reflected the upscale image of the restaurant.

Yat Lok (Tai Ming Lane, Tai Po, New Territories, HK (take MTR to Tai Po Market station)) is almost 180° opposite of Yung Kee. A relatively tiny shop with a window display of their meats, a narrow dining room with round communal tables with a few rectangular tables (also communal) off to the side. The waitstaff is minimal and the action furious and loud. Everything is geared for those who simply want to eat.

Yung Kee’s goose was good although Les commented that it really didn’t have a standout flavor: good but not great. The prune sauce didn’t do much to lift the flavor. The pork on the other hand was succulent and flavorful with some nice crisp edges on the ends.

Yung Kee's goose, pork and choy sum (photos by leslie scurry and wm. christman)

Yung Kee’s goose, pork and choy sum (photos by leslie scurry and wm. christman)

The seasonal vegetable was choy sum (kind of like gai lan, Chinese broccoli) and was steamed with garlic and was decent. The real surprise was a small dish with pickled ginger and a 1000 year old egg, sliced in half. It was so good that we ordered another (the first one was brought out was sort of an amuse bouche). The total bill for the meal: HK$512 (about US$70 at the day’s exchange rate).

Yung Kee's 1000 year old egg (photo by wm. christman)

Yung Kee’s 1000 year old egg (photo by wm. christman)

Yat Lok’s goose was miles more flavorful than Yung Kee’s. Golden, reddish brown with snappy/crispy skin, the goose was dripping with juice and flavor. We ordered it on top of noodles and soup and that only enhanced the dish. The pork was also more flavorful than Yung Kee’s with a deep reddish brown hue, a slightly sticky surface and moistness throughout. The ends were a sticky, chewy, crispy treat.

Yat Lok's goose, pork and choy sum (photos by leslie scurry and wm. christman)

Yat Lok’s goose, pork and choy sum (photos by leslie scurry and wm. christman)

The choy sum was steamed first then sauteed with a shower of fried garlic on top. This was outstanding with every piece of choy sum tender and juicy, the garlic playing off of the fresh flavors. We also ordered a plate of the roasted pork which had all of the features of the barbecued one except for the sweetness. The super crispy skin pushed this outstanding dish over the top. The total bill for the meal was HK$230 (about US$32 US).

Yat Lok's roasted pork with super crispy skin (photo by wm. christman)

Yat Lok’s roasted pork with super crispy skin (photo by wm. christman)

The verdict? Yat Lok won by a country mile. Less than half the cost of Yung Kee (we also ordered a third meat and we opted for beer as well). But I would have still paid the cost of the Yung Kee meal for the quality and flavor of Yat Lok’s barbecued meats. It was really that good.

Yat Lok Barbecue, Po Wah House A, Tai Ming Lane, Tai Po, New Territories, Hong Kong

Yung Kee Restaurant, 32-40 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong

Hong Kong Food Heaven

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

After five minutes of walking one of Hong Kong’s market streets, the alternate language of the country is food. And as you pass rows and rows and rows of storefronts, makeshift booths and ramshackle huts, the sheer amount of edible eyecandy is physically staggering.

And that’s not even counting the actual restaurants that reach out to you every 25 feet. There is literally nothing that you cannot eat here, and that is why that there is perhaps no place on earth like China when it comes to food.

…but the devil… is in Hong Kong and Tokyo for the next few weeks. What started out two years ago as a 2-3 week planned food trip to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore (which partially resulted in the existence of this food blog) has ended up a slightly modified variant with a second trip already in the works.

In Hong Kong, we’re on the self-guided “Bourdain” plan shamlessly cribbing from his No Reservations: Hong Kong television show. The plan is to both visit as many of the nine places that were in the show, as well as discover some places of our own. And from the looks of it so far, it’s a daunting but potentially satisfying task.

To encapsulate the food variation in this culture is impossible. The sheer number of people demand a sheer number of choices. A trip down one, small market street (Russell Road near the MTR Causeway Bay subway station) will get you everything you need for tonight’s and subsequent day’s meals.

stacks of pork-y goodness (photo by wm. christman)

stacks of pork-y goodness (photo by wm. christman)

Meat? Everywhere. Spare parts of meat. Ditto. Preserved meats? Yeah, we got that too. Vegetables and fruit? The next stall over, and the next one too and 3-4 across the street. Fresh noodles? Which one of the 10-12 varieties would you like? 1000 year old eggs? Would like those hard or runny? Tea, beer, wine, soy drinks, soda? Um, yep. Are you getting the picture?

choy sum (photo by wm. christman)

choy sum (photo by wm. christman)

There’s really no way to write about it without a writing a gushing, detail filled novella that would probably bore the pants off a food stall hawker because food here is everywhere, and so pervasive that it’s a second way of life. Suffice it to say that if you areat all curious about why this is, you should try and get over here at your first chance. The experience will be worth the trip and you will definitely not go hungry.


If you’ve already either voted early or sent in your absentee ballots, great! If not, get out and vote TOMORROW 11/4/08.

Enough of the last 8 years. Elect Barack Obama.

And for those living in California…
Equality for all. Vote NO on California Prop. 8. Turn back the religious whack-jobs trying to impose their beliefs on you.


Asia Preview

Busy, busy, busy….very little time for posting while getting ready for a mini-food tour of Asia. I will hopefully be posting on a regular basis from Hong Kong and Tokyo over the next two weeks.

Here are some of the places that Leslie Scurry and I will be dining in (some of the sites are in either Chinese or Japanese language but most modern browsers can display them easily…you may not be able to read them but there are some great pictures on these pages…):

Hong Kong
Yat Lok Barbecue Restaurant
Tung Po
Bo Innovation
Under Bridge Spicy Crab

Restaurant Morimoto XEX
Toki No Ma
Taishouken Ramen
Funky Chicken