Friday, July 12, 2013

Pico de gallo

Pico de gallo, or salsa fresca, is a staple in my kitchen - especially since we moved to Hong Kong where good Mexican food was severely lacking until very recently. The one decent place in Hong Kong for Mexican food is Brickhouse, but a single taco will set you back US$7 for a tiny taco that would cost $1-2 in San Francisco - that's after you wait an hour for a table. I love good food - especially good Mexican food - but I have two basic tenets: 

1) I abhor overpaying for food. That doesn't mean I eat only cheap food, because I will happily spend $300 on an exquisite sushi or kaiseki meal, or $500 for a meal that I think is life changingly good. But I won't pay $7 for a taco that I know should cost me $2.
2) I hate waiting for a table at overhyped restaurants that refuse to take reservations like civilized people. Hong Kong's biggest offenders: Brickhouse and Yardbird (not that they care what I think, since they have more customers than they can handle)

But I digress. Pico de gallo - one of the easiest condiments to prepare for a fresh addition to Mexican food, fish, meat, chicken, chips...basically goes with almost anything.

4 firm plum tomatoes (other tomato varieties will work too, but I like the flavor of plum tomatoes for this salsa)
1/2 medium white or red onion
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1/2 small lime
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
A good sprinkling of Maldon sea salt
1/2 tablespoon of sweet paprika. All paprika is not created equal. My favorite brand is Caballo de Oros pimenton de la vera dulce, produced in Spain. If you live in a humid location, such as Hong Kong, leaving out paprika at room temperature can result in tiny larvae/bugs hatching (I almost fainted the first time I discovered them) so to avoid, keep your paprika in the freezer in an airtight container
3 or 4 squirts of chipotle Tabasco
A generous glug of good quality olive oil

Mix all the ingredients together, add salt to taste, and store in the refrigerator for at least half an hour before serving. The salsa will keep for 3-4 days.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Cafe 69

Everything about this casual restaurant off the main road in Bophut reminds you you are in Thailand - from the name, to the kitschy disco decor that wouldn't work anywhere else except the land of the thousand smiles, to the owner/chef Vivian who is a man but appears to moonlight as a ladyboy based on a photo on the restaurant wall, but most of all - the fresh, delicious, authentic Thai food.

 Soft shell crab and papaya salad wrapped in rice paper
 Thai Pad, Cafe 69's take on pad thai with amazing battered prawns and tamarind sauce
 Green chicken curry with mango
The interior - what you see is basically the entire restaurant, a tiny but lovingly kept restaurant in Bophut

Food rating: *** and a half
Bang for buck rating: 4

The essentials:

Location: Bophut, Koh Samui, Thailand
Dinner for two approximately 500-600 baht (~$17-20)

H Bistro at Hansar Samui

I wasn't expecting world-class European cuisine in Koh Samui, so was happily surprised when we ended up at H Bistro at the suggestion of a friend with a trustworthy palate. The food at H Bistro is excellent - and not just by tropical island standards - the creative, well-presented dishes here are on par with what you'd find at high end restaurants in major cities. Except that the food here comes with gorgeous views of a peaceful, laid back beach at half the price of a nice meal in Hong Kong or San Francisco. It may be expensive by Koh Samui standards where you can still find a bowl of street stall pad thai for 40 baht ($1.33), but a sunset dinner at H Bistro is one of the best meals you'll have in Koh Samui.

Amuse bouche - housemade ravioli with crab in buttery broth

 Chilled white asparagus soup with langoustine and white truffle oil - the complex flavors of this soup were incredible. Both white asparagus and white truffle have such unique flavors and you would expect the pungent truffle oil to mask the subtle flavor of the asparagus, but the flavors melded together beautifully so that you tasted layers of flavor - from truffle oil, to cream, to white asparagus. The soup came with a dollop of black caviar on the side, which is hidden here by the fried pastry on the left.

 Duck breast with smoked duck prosciutto, sweet corn blini with caramelized peach. I'm not a huge fan of duck (other than Peking duck), but the duck here was really well cooked so that the meat was tender and sweet without being too fatty. The corn blini reminded me of the arepas you find in Colombia.
 The view
 Seared Hokkaido scallop on forest mushroom risotto with porcini mushroom essence - the scallop tasted sweet and fresh and the risotto was rich and savory.
 Red prawns with artichoke puree, green peas and brown butter. The prawns were a tad too salty for me which ruined the dish, but that was the only real flaw in the meal.
 Sirloin with veal sweetbread and roasted vegetables
 White chocolate dome and bourbon vanilla raspberry ice cream.

Food rating: ****
Bang for buck rating: 4

The essentials:

Location: Hansar Samui hotel, Bophut beach, Koh Samui, Thailand
Chef's tasting menu for 2 (without wine): 4500 baht (~$150); a la carte menu also available with European and Thai dishes

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Sushi Sase

My husband wanted to go to Japan for a last-minute weekend trip but I talked him out of it. I didn't want to spend half the weekend in transit, even if it did mean eating amazing food for the rest of the weekend - crazy as it sounds, all I wanted to do was sleep in, do laundry and get some R&R right in our own home. To make it up to him, I decided to surprise him - if we couldn't go to Tokyo, perhaps I could bring Tokyo to us.

I often hear expats - especially those who previously lived in Tokyo, of which there are many in Hong Kong after the 2011 earthquake - complain that there is no good sushi in Hong Kong. I used to be among them. Sushi Kuu serves decent sushi but is bogged down by too many distractions on its menu - a sushi restaurant should really only serve sushi. I'd heard from friends that Sushi Yoshitake and Sushi Rozan are both excellent - that is, if you don't mind spending your kids' tuition money on a single meal. I needed to find something in between - sushi good enough to be considered very good sushi on par with Tokyo, but at human prices.

Surprisingly, I found just the spot, and it happened to be under our noses all this time. Sushi Sase, located on Hollywood Road in central Hong Kong, is a quiet sushi oasis - as soon as you step past the curtain and the automatic sliding door, you are transported to an authentic sushi-ya in Japan.

Chawanmushi (savory egg custard)

 First course of the Hokkaido set (available at lunch) - uni and ikura donburi
 Kai (red snapper)
 I forget what this was - looks like hamachi
 Hairy crab with roe
 Delicious hand-cut udon
 Tamago and unagi

It was a win-win for all - hubby's desire for Japan was temporarily but very satisfactorily quenched, and instead of getting on a redeye flight, we only had to walk down the street!

Food rating: ****
Bang for buck rating: 4

The essentials:
No website
Location: 49 Hollywood Road, Central, Hong Kong
Omakase - HK$1400 (~US$200); Hokkaido set (lunch only) - HK$400 (~US$50); Mini-kaiseki (lunch only) - HK$650 (~US$85)

Kyubey Ginza - A perfect meal

For most of my life, I used to categorize rainbow rolls and dragon rolls and California rolls together with nigiri - that is, eponymously with the term "sushi." I've since become a sushi purist after living in Japan, so that when I refer to sushi, I mean only nigiri sushi - vinegar-marinated sushi rice topped with fresh raw fish. Gunkan maki, the type of sushi wrapped with nori (often done with uni or ikura) counts too, but please, please don't say you want sushi and then eat California rolls or anything that includes a mayonnaise-based sauce. I don't know exactly what to call that type of cuisine - perhaps "Bastardized American sushi" would be most fitting. If you ever have a Japanese business client and take them out for sushi make sure there is no special sauce, fake crab meat or deep-fried soft shell crab within 100 feet of your sushi, and especially not in or on your sushi. I know - I sound like a food snob, but all you need to do is visit Kyubey in Tokyo and I think you'll understand where I'm coming from.

Kyubey is legendary in Tokyo. This is where gunkan maki is rumored to have been created. Astonishingly, it appears to have been left out of the Michelin guide's favor for the past few years, and perhaps that has to do with the fact that it is now a restaurant chain and the service and food quality is inconsistent across locations. This review is for the original Kyubey located in Ginza - I've previously reviewed the Hotel Okura location which was disappointing, but the Ginza location served one of the most impeccable meals I've had in my life. But enough talk, I'll let the pictures do the convincing.

Chu-toro (medium fatty tuna)

Maguro (lean tuna)

Kai (red snapper)

Uni (sea urchin)

Amaebi (Sweet shrimp - these little guys were alive and kicking when I took this photo. The chef swiftly de-headed and de-shelled them before serving)

The prepared Amaebi. The flesh was still beating with life when I ate it.


O-toro (fattiest fatty tuna)

Anago two ways - the one on the right was sprinkled only with a light dusting of salt and it was absolutely amazing because it allowed the sweet, subtle flavor of the eel to shine while the one brushed with sauce was overpowered by the salty sweetness of the soy. If I ever go back to Kyubey, I will ask for both my pieces to be served with salt only, no sauce.

Final course - maki rolls with pickles and tamago. The negitoro (fatty tuna with green onion) in the middle was the best negitoro I've ever had.

I asked for no "chewy" sushi (i.e. squid, octopus, clam or abalone), so one of my courses was a simple chawanmushi (savory egg custard)

The sushi omakase ends with your choice of a traditional Japanese red bean dessert or fruit. Even the watermelon here was the most delicious watermelon I've ever had.

Food rating: *****
Bang for buck rating: 5 (not cheap but worth every penny)
Location: 7-6, Ginza 8-chome, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Sushi omakase: 8,500 yen (~$90) at lunch, 10,500 (~$110) yen at dinner 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Roan Kikunoi

One of the perks of living in Hong Kong is the opportunity to travel - Hong Kong International Airport is fantastically well-connected to hundreds of international locations, and getting in and out of the airport is the easiest I've experienced the world over. Also, it helps that the husband works for an airline, which offers some travel perks.

This past weekend, we did a weekend trip to Kyoto, one of my favorite spots in Japan. Kyoto is so lovely and serene - it's a city where you still get to see geishas dressed in kimonos walking around in the Gion district, where you can spend a relaxing night in a ryokan eating an exquisite kaiseki meal and bathing in onsen and where there are endless opportunities to eat delicious soba, tempura, tofu, green tea desserts, kaiseki and street snacks.

Our final meal in Kyoto was kaiseki at Roan Kikuno, a 2-Michelin starred restaurant featuring traditional Japanese cuisine.

Hassun (appetizers): "horse reins" sushi (no horse involved, supposed to be shapes to look like horse reins), cod roe terrine, marinated tofu in pickled-ume (Japanese plum), broccoli rabe with mustard, sweet black beans, whitebait with yuzu, steamed kabocha pumpkin, marinated Fuki buds in miso

Amuse: steamed snow crab with grated red turnip, ginger and crab roe

Sashimi (first course): hirame (flounder) and botan-ebi (sweet prawn), grated wasabi and nori, served with soy sauced and flounder liver sauce (not pictured). The hirame dipped in a sauce made of hirame liver was amazing - rich, savory, brimming with umami

 Sashimi (second course): koshibi (baby tuna) served with marinated egg yolk sauce

Soup: minced duck meatball, yomogi (mochi made of Japanese mugwort), arrowhead root, leek, daikon, yuzu, carrot and gold leaf

As we were only having lunch, we did a truncated version of the kaiseki meal, skipping a couple of the courses, such as the yakimono (grilled course). Our next course was Japanese hotpot served with a broth made of sake, daikon and sweet carrot and a plate of buri (amberjack) and mibuna greens, which you cook quickly in the broth, then dip into the ponzu sauce and eat.

Our rice course (always the penultimate course before dessert): rice steamed with tilefish and shiso. The chef painstakingly takes out every fish bone in front of you, then mixes the rice together with the fish and shiso and serves the rice in individual bowls.

Japanese pickles to accompany the rice. A burdock soup was also served, which is not pictured.

Dessert: homemade strawberry ice cream and "sponge cake pudding" - basically a pound cake soaked in eggy custard with a creme brulee top. I didn't think the strawberry ice cream paired very well with the cake, but the cake was rich, creamy and delicious!

While the meal was pretty good and each course did a good job of honing in on the subtle flavors of each of the ingredients, the experience was, on the scale of amazing Japanese meals, only a 7 out of 10. It may have had to to do with the fact that we were 45 minutes late (the gods were against us - for whatever reason, the traffic that morning was horrendous), which admittedly I know is a cardinal sin in haute Japanese dining but we didn't know there would be so much traffic! Our tardiness clearly angered the chef so much that he refused to serve us himself and instead made his sous chefs serve us. The only problem with that was that none of the sous chefs spoke English and were not able to instruct us on how to eat the dishes (for example, the hirame liver sauce was only for the hirame, and the ebi should be dipped in the soy sauce), so we'd fumble and try to figure it out, then the chef would come over and admonish us: "no no no, hirame goes in liver sauce! Dip more sauce, more sauce!" The service marred our overall experience - I suggest that if you don't want to suffer the wrath of the chef, make sure you are on time!

Food rating: *** and a half
Bang for buck rating: 3

The essentials:
Location: 118 Saito-cho, Shijo-sagaru, Kiyamachi-dori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto
Average price of kaiseki: Lunch options for 4,200 yen, 7,350 yen or 10,500 yen; Dinner options from 10,500 yen to 18,900 yen

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cilantro corn rice (and thoughts on food critiques)

I've become that person. A person I hoped growing up I'd never become: an ajumma. Ajumma in Korean means "married woman" or "middle-aged woman" - and like many Korean words, is perfectly fine when used in certain contexts and carries a negative connotation when used in others.

When I think of the word ajumma, I think of opinionated middle-aged Korean women who tell you what's up, even if you never asked. And that's exactly what I've become.

On a recent visit to one of HK's hottest newly opened restaurants, when one of the owners came to ask how the food was, my dining companions all answered as they were expected to, with assurances of "everything's delicious." I answered with a half-hearted "'s good." pause. "I mean, some things could use some work, but generally the food was ok." I'm sure my friends wanted to hide under the table. But honestly, I thought I was being kind because: (1) the food was actually terrible, and I at least softened my response by saying it was ok, and (2) if a new restaurant wants to stay open in the long run and their food sucks, they need to fix it - but if people keep telling them that their mediocre food is good, they'll never know they have anything to fix.

The owner actually seemed interested in my response and asked what I would suggest. I told him their albondigas were too dry and needed to be made with fattier meat and that the potatoes in the tortilla espanola were undercooked, as were the onions, which should reach a caramelized state before the eggs are added. I could have gone on, but I thought I'd stop with the two most glaring shortcomings. The owner took my comments graciously and even sent a round of drinks our way. I hope the restaurant improves their food and succeeds, because I am a huge supporter of anyone trying to start a new food business, especially because I know how hard it is. And really, I'm trying to keep my ajumma comments to myself because I don't want to be that annoying opinionated customer!

When I opened love at first bite in Berkeley, I listened to people's suggestions, whether they were good or bad, reasonable or farfetched. Because as a business owner, that's what you have to do - you have to be open to both customers' praise and complaints. Sometimes, even when you want to tell people to go away, you have to smile and listen. And then you have to make a judgment call - whether their suggestion is worth taking into account or not. Sometimes, it's not.

One day, in the early days of the bakery, a person walked in and asked if we had any items that did not contain any of the following: gluten (which is in wheat), eggs, dairy or sugar. Um, an item that doesn't contain any flour, sugar, eggs or butter? In my head I screamed: "We sell cupcakes! What the hell do you think cupcakes are made of?!" But to the lady, I answered with the nicest smile I could muster: "I'm really sorry, we currently only have cupcakes and cookies that include those items, but you know what, we really should look into developing recipes that don't have any of them." She nodded in agreement and left the store. And I mentally checked her suggestion into the box called: NEVER.

Which is not to say that someone out there shouldn't open a bakery that is wheat-free, sugar-free, dairy-free and egg-free. Especially in Berkeley or the SF Bay Area, where there is certainly a market for it. But it just wasn't going to be me. In fact, one of the main reasons I decided to open love at first bite was because I felt that the area didn't have an old-fashioned American bakery - fancy French patisseries, artisan sourdough bread bakeries, vegan collective bakeries, yes. But not a good old-fashioned American bakery specializing in exactly what the woman didn't want: butter, sugar, flour, eggs.

However, in order to be successful, you have to take your customer base into account. And having lived in Berkeley for awhile, I knew that meant that I'd have to come up with at least a vegan cookie. But I refused to compromise on taste, or specifically, the down-home comforting taste of a lovingly made cupcake (which normally requires copious amounts of butter and sugar). In the end, I fiddled around until I came up with a recipe for vegan chocolate cake that was still sinfully rich and chocolatey, as well as a flourless almond orange torte that was moist and decadent. But I never could come up with a decent baked item that managed to be gluten-free, sugar-free, egg-free and dairy-free, which is why we never offered them (and to my knowledge, still are not offered at love at first bite). It's just not possible: it will not taste the way a cupcake should, in which case, you're better off not eating it.

Happily, the majority of my wonderful customers were perfectly content with what we were offering, and the niche we were trying to fill in otherwise vegan, hippie Berkeley (as a side note, I have absolutely nothing but respect for vegans and maintain a vegan diet myself, except that it includes meat, poultry, fish, eggs and lots of dairy).

These days, I cook mostly for my husband and myself, and the occasional dinner guest. And as fate would have it, I married a person who has an extremely sensitive palate. I've never been as nervous that someone would like my cooking or baking as I am with my husband. Mostly, because he's always right (don't ever tell him I said that).

There's rarely a meal that I prepare where when I ask him how the food is, he doesn't reply with "You know what would make it better? If you added a little [sugar/salt/garlic/soy/cheese/etc.]" And I have to admit - almost every single time, when I really parse the flavors in my mouth, I realize he's right. So when I put something in front of him and he says "this is good" without any other comment, I feel like I've won the James Beard award. And I can count on my fingers exactly how many times that's happened.

One of the first times he asked for seconds without any suggestion of how to make the dish better was when I made cilantro corn rice as a side dish to blackened Cajun catfish. The catfish itself had a little too much spice (the recipe I found called for WAY too much cayenne, and I really should have known better than adding the whole amount!), but the cilantro corn rice was delicious, and is a regular on our dinner table, especially with Southern or Mexican food. And best of all, it's extremely easy to make. I tossed this together because I happened to have cold leftover rice in our fridge, as well as a fresh bunch of cilantro (or coriander, as it's called in these parts) and a cob of sweet corn. It was a happy accident of flavors that compliment each other perfectly.

Leftover white rice - preferably long grain and at least a day old and refrigerated
Cilantro - chopped fine (I usually use just the leaves, but it's fine to throw in some stems too)
Lime or lemon
One ear of sweet organic corn (if you don't have this, you can use canned corn, but the results will be noticeably poorer)
Sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil
Butter (optional)

  1. Heat a glug of olive oil in a pan over medium high heat (about 1 tablespoon for each cup of cold rice). If you want a richer flavor, add a pat of butter.
  2. When the oil begins to form small bubbles, thrown in the cold rice. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, break down any clumps of rice.
  3. Squeeze lemon or lime over the rice (about 1/4 of a lime or lemon for each cup of rice).
  4. Sprinkle a generous pinch of sea salt over the rice and mix. Add the chopped cilantro.
  5. Using a sharp knife, cut the kernels of corn off of the ear and add to the rice. Mix and continue to cook a minute. Ideally, you want the heat high enough that some of the kernels will start to brown but not burn. Turn off heat and serve immediately.
This dish goes well with fish and Mexican food, especially with burritos or tacos.