Monday, 28 February 2011

Pearl by Jun Tanaka – A True Gem as Promised

Oh yes, Jun Tanaka was leading service during my visit. What privilege.

Through the revolving doors at Renaissance Chancery Hotel, we were stunned by the pure grandeur. It concurs with the name of the restaurant, dividers of pearl (faux, I assume) hangings in the entrance bar; contemporary chandeliers with more draping pearls; marble pillars and walls; gleaming pink ornamental plates and luminous tables (which were extremely camera unfriendly).

Canapés – toasted bread crisps with Hummus, Guacamole and Taramasalata
Despite the neatness, this is possibly the most boring canapé. These were as good as they could be. Move on.

Oysters – Poached Maldon Rock Oysters, Pearl Barley, Watercress and Spring Onion Risotto
Poached oysters? Such a dangerous choice. The description on the menu gave very little away as to how the dish would come together. It’s one of those risky items that could go so wrong so easily, but I chose to believe in Chef.

I gasped in awe by its presentation when it arrived, 3 mid-sized shucked oysters perched on individual piles of sea salt, the goodies still veiled by a delicate layer of foam. Was it beurre blanc? I can’t be sure. In one scoop, it revealed the brilliant green jus with the remaining grains of spring onion risotto hidden in the shell. The mouthful was an oceanic bliss. The oyster was plump and ample, its texture remained creamy and raw, just less slimy. The bouncy pearl barley amplified the wood-like undertone of Maldon rocks and encouraged chewing, which releases more briny flavours from the oysters, leaving a trail of mineral aftertaste.

I couldn’t contain my glee with each spoonful. It was the most accomplished and epic starter.

Monkfish – Cornish Monkfish with Artichoke Gnocchi, Roast Baby Artichokes and Chicken Wings
It was originally Plaice on the menu, but they ran out. I was intrigued by the combination and so didn’t switch despite my hesitation over Monkfish.

Again, stunning arrangement. Unlike my habitual choice of flaky fish, monkfish is dense and stringy. I didn’t mind this monkfish too much, probably due to the small portion. The fish was full of bounce and inundated with jus; its translucent centre eased off its chewiness and together with the gnocchi, it was complex.

The chicken wings were strange, however, as if one whole wing was pushed and condensed into half an wing, hence the compact meat as opposed to the usual tenderness of wings. I thought the coating was a little dry and harsh on the mouth too.

Duck – Confit Duck Leg Stuffed with Red Cabbage, Lentils and Dandelion Salad
This was substantial. The skin was marvelously crispy with a thin layer of aromatic fat underneath. It resembled Chinese roast duck. The red cabbage was subdued, almost unnoticed but it probably played it role in maintaining the juiciness of the duck. The deep fried runny quail egg on the salad was a nice touch, better still was the diced kidney hidden under the pile.

Mister would have preferred some milder flavours with the lentils to ease off the weightiness of the dish.  

Peanuts – Peanut Mousse with Salted Caramel, Banana and Passion Fruit Sorbet
We shared. The sorbet was more passion fruit than banana, nonetheless worked well with the nutty mousse and coffee crisp, further complicated by the salty peanut butter smear. The effervescence from the hidden fizz wizz popping candies was a pleasant surprise. It’s not for people with weaker teeth though.

Dining at Pearl by Jun Tanaka can be summarised as splendor and class. Service was swift and professional, with a healthy dose of cockiness. Cooking was undoubtedly perfect with the most ingenious blend of ingredients and inspiringly presented. It was a feast for all senses. Bonus was, of course, to see Chef Tanaka waltzing around the dining room with so much charisma. I loved Pearl, and would definitely return for the rest of the menu.

Pearl by Jun Tanaka

252 High Holborn
Tel: 0207 829 7000

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Pearl on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Lahore Kebab House - Introductory Punjabi

It’s been almost 5 months since my move from West to East London, and I have yet to check out Brick Lane. It’s a shame really. With the culinary debacle at The Spice Merchant still fresh in mind, I decided a bit of research (google) was necessary. Fellow foodies have collectively suggested Aladdin’s, Bengal Cuisine and Preen, but more urged to escape from the tout-flooded Brick Lane and venture further to New Tayyabs or Lahore Kebab House.

Originally it was Tayyabs that had won our curiosity. The queues are infamous and Mister made an online reservation, only to be told that they are booked up and didn’t bother replying when we called to confirm. Okay, Lahore then.

Lahore Kebab House must have spanned across 3 shops, with a double entrance and a spacious foyer. The kitchen was showcased, but it attracted much less attention than the 2 televisions hung on the walls of the dining room. Menu was printed on a laminated card. Punjab is a region between Pakistan and India, so the menu looked vaguely unfamiliar compared to the usual Khan’s at Bayswater. It was more Pakistan than India. As we were seated, a waiter brought over a bottle of still water and a plate of salad, which remained untouched.

The waiter had his eyes fixed on the cricket shown on Sky Sports 1, and was nodding as he approached us to take our orders. I asked if they offered mixed grill platters, he was mumbling ‘yes’ throughout my question. He answered ‘yes’ when I asked what was included in the platter, and if they did one person’s portion. I gave up. When I’d finally shut up, he asked if we wanted lamb chops. No. Yes? No.

Mixed Grill Platter (£7) - 2 Seekh kebabs, 1 Mutton skewer and 1 Chicken kebab
I could smell this platter creeping behind me. As I pressed the knife into the seekh, its juices were oozing out like a saturated sponge. It went quite easy on the chillies, just a pleasant mix of coriander and lemon juice to wake my senses. Mutton kebab was probably two steps up the heat ladder, heavier with cumin and paprika, nicely grilled to retain its succulence. I hate chicken breast. Bosphorus at South Ken does the best chicken leg kebab in my little universe, so nothing would compare. Sorry.

I have no idea if this was his idea of one person’s portion, but it doesn’t matter because they just charged each item accordingly, and these were all listed on the menu. Should have gone for the lamb chop too. They looked and smelt so good on the table next door.

Curry with Lamb on bone (£7)
This was one of the weekend’s special. There was no description of what type of curry it was, but we felt adventurous (I couldn’t decipher half the meat main dishes). At first I thought it resembled a milder Rogan Josh, but the flame slowly seeped through and the flavours of the spices bloomed. It wasn’t mild, but still manageable. No hint of stinging tomato, just a heavy load of spice and chillies with yoghurt. Lamb pieces were tender, flaky and fatty, which added the characteristic tang to the dish. Great stuff.

Garlic Naan (£1.50 each)
I think it was smothered with a layer of butter on the surface, as I could only smell butter but not garlic. More likely to be ghee, which is a kind of liquid cow's fat, popular in Pakistani cuisine I was told. Anyhow it was bouncy and fluffy, tastily greasy.

For just a tenner per head, we were stuffed to the brim and could only manage soup for supper. I know nothing about Punjabi cuisine, so have nothing to compare this experience to. Nonetheless I thoroughly enjoyed the meat and the heat. With a steady flow of customers well after 2 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, this place must at least benchmark. As for service, they don’t charge for it.

Lahore Kebab House
2-10 Umberston Street
E1 1PY
Tel: 0207 481 9737
Lahore Kebab House on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

A Date with Gauthier at Soho

We kept narrowly missing each other.  Given its recent Michelin success, I can’t defer this any longer. Finally, after months of rescheduling/refurbishment, I was ringing the bell at the doorstep of Gauthier Soho. There was no grand entrance on the hushed Romilly Street, just a firmly closed black wooden door. I found myself quivering slightly, more to the wintry February chill than excitement, but it did feel like visiting a date’s pad for dinner.

We were greeted warmly after a couple of minutes wait, and had our coats looked after at the narrow atrium before shown to our table on the ground floor.  There were 4 tables on our side of the dining room, and possibly another 3 on the other. Minimal adornment; a round mirror made with folded magazine pages on cream walls, trimmed crimson roses and a candle on the table, red cushion on chairs. It was homey.

First was the small talk, the canapés, introduced by the strikingly handsome French server, with the most engaging eye contact. Quail eggs, smoked salmon mousse and almond brittle with avocado & pumpkin dip.
Quail egg yolks were suffused with mayo and the lemon sauce smeared with salmon worked well as an inviting tingle to our palate. A hearty splurge of olive oil blended the dip, which was too weighty and spoilt the delicacy of the other two canapés. I can’t say these were the most innovative creations, but one shouldn’t moan about freebies.

We were handed the menu, with a choice of 3-5 courses or the 8-course tasting menu. Cynthia was tempted by the venison exclusive to the tasting menu, which was probably better value given the truffle risotto was included without supplement charges. But she was hesitant since Mister and I were opting for the more reserved menu. Then Damian came to rescue as he took our orders, offering the venison as Cynthia’s meat course so she didn’t have to tear her hair out. He added, “As long as you’re happy, I’m happy.” So far so good.

I suggested an older red from Chateau de Ricaud, the sommelier approved. We were presented both salted and unsalted butter, while another server came round with a selection of bread on a silver tray. Among the olives, raisons, rye, chorizo and cheese, I went for the slightly gristly mini baguette.

Amuse Bouchée - Red Bell Peppers Ravioli with Chicken Foam
I shan’t share my view on what this looks like. The peppers were in the form of jelly, sandwiched between two ultra thin, stock immersed pasta sheets. The combination of textures was interesting, airy foam, bouncy peppers and chewy sheets, but the flavours were somewhat ordinary.

Premier Plat
Black Truffle Risotto jus de Roti & Brown Butter (£18 supplement)

I have stopped pondering what risotto was doing on French menus ages ago. I didn’t smell the waft of truffle until it landed on my table. The risotto first arrived with patches of truffle oil floating on its surface, the familiar distinctive fragrance finally hit me. But the ultimate knock-out was seeing a whole truffle freshly and generously grated before my eyes, sending waves after waves of truffle perfume my direction. I took it all in with my eyes closed, inhaling deep breaths, before digging in. Hmm… I had a comical vision of floating on a humongous truffle with little ones dancing around me… Ahem. Hysterical, intense and nutty, pure extravagance.  It wasn’t all praises, however, the risotto was slightly overcooked to resemble a rice pudding, even to the consistency of a velouté, which gave away the chewiness of a classic al-dente rice dish.

Scottish Scallops, Williams Pear

I would hate to under-credit this dish. Despite the overpowering black truffles, the heady scent of grilled scallops broke through. Mister thought the pear slices were unwarranted, as he’d prefer a mouthful of creamy scallops without the crunchy intrusion. I, however, thought the natural crisp sweetness of the pears complimented the fleshy scallops beautifully.

Second round of bread was offered, with a different selection. The rosemary & cheese twist was scrumptious, and so was the tomato & basil roll.

Deuxième Plat
Soft Cod Cooked in a Pot, Wild Mushrooms, Crispy Pancetta, Salsify & winter Kale, Chicken Jus

It arrived in a silver pot, expertly transferred onto my plate, hence the faintly distressed appearance. And I say ‘expertly’ because ‘soft’ doesn’t justify the fragility of the fish. It was slippery on the tongue. The fish and mushroom have soaked up the jus, which brought all the ingredients together. Sensational cooking.

Soft Filet of Dover Sole, Clams & Baby Squid, Garlic & Parsley, Classic Fish Jus

Dover sole is dull fish, and regrettably the kitchen did little to revive it. Mister was under-whelmed to say the least. On the other hand, the crafted shallot-encased clams were intriguing in texture, and the baby squid was succulent.

Pan-fried Daurade

This was very fishy, nonetheless perfectly cooked and moist. Its accompaniments didn’t quite come together, though. I thought this recipe a little odd.

Troisième Plat
Grilled Guinea Fowl, Wild Mushroom

Now this is when I felt the date was running out of steam. While the fish course was wet and flirtatious, this was sloppy. It was more or less the same wild mushrooms and same jus with a massive slab of guinea fowl breast, which lacked character and contributed so little flavours to the dish. Even though this could be the least parched breast I have ever tasted, I still didn’t like it. Maybe I was hoping for some silken tender meat? I don’t know. I should have gone for the beef. A bit of an anti-climax really.

Rosemary Scented Cuts of Lamb, Leg, Loin & Shoulder, Parsnip

I was given a bit of the leg to sample, which Mister described was the best of the lot. Tender and juicy with only a hint of rosemary to bring out the lamb tang. Loved it. Mister did stressed that was the best part of the entire plate.

Cuts of Wild Scottish Venison, Celeriac Cream, Pumpkin & Beetroot

Now this was totally worth asking for. And I am not surprised Damian was so eager to show off this dish. So raw and crimson in the middle, yet so refined in taste, reining the wild deer in until its meatiness is unlock with each chew. A true winter dish.
(Note to Cynthia: could you please add more angle and a bit of focus to the dish next time? pretty please? :P)

We skipped the masterly Louis XV. A melting coat of dark chocolate enveloping chocolate mousse and a praline hazelnut base… sounds ever so sexy and tempting. I won’t succumb to it just yet. In hindsight, I should have swapped the meat for dessert.

I didn’t walk out of the restaurant thinking I had an astounding dining experience. But as I am writing about it now, most of the evening was pretty damn good. It was intimate and relaxed, and we were looked after by a handsome team of staff, which was accommodating, efficient and charming. Despite the guinea fowl, most of the dishes were flawlessly executed with a well thought-out recipe. Perhaps we haven’t quite connected on all levels, but we can work on it.

21 Romilly Street
Tel: 020 7494 3111

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Gauthier Soho on Urbanspoon

Friday, 18 February 2011

Dirty Eating in Taipei

I had 3 days in Taipei. Given the temperamental grey sky and its irregular spitting, the scenic countryside is not scripted in the plan. I came for the food.

Street food is the most characteristic culture of eating in Taiwan. Stalls selling all kinds of local delicacies cluster in night markets as soon as darkness takes over. With Bubble Tea in hand, I began the sweep.
Shilin claims to be the largest and most organised street food market in Taipei. Over 200 vendors agglomerate in an indoor warehouse roughly constructed by steel sheets, and more hawkers spill across 2 main streets in the neighbourhood. The shops on Man Ho Street generally sell trendy, cheap and cheerful clothes and accessories, while Kei Ho Street is lined with entertainment stores entwined with similar food stalls.

Youngsters follow a similar dress code of denim hot pants with a pair of tights teamed with furry boots and an oversized pullover. At the age of 24, I felt too old to plaster 2 layers of fake eyelashes on my eyelids, or wear bright purple contact lenses, but these teenagers all look mightily fashionable and identical.
Grilled scallops in Garlic salt
Squid & Stuffed Rice in Honey Mustard sauce
Roasted Bamboo Juice
Deep fried Stinky Tofu
Spicy Wonton Soup

Pepper Bread

Sharing is the key to stuffing more variety in one’s stomach. While the snacks were all fascinating and mostly unheard of, none of them were mouth-watering. That’s not to say the food was bad, just not my kind of grub. Take the stinky tofu. I am accustomed to stuffing hoi sin & chilli sauce into the centre before messily engulfing the smelly bean curd, sucking up the spilling sauces while burning my tongue. Here it was served with cabbage and some relatively mild fermented paste. It was still crispy, rustic and piping hot. But just wasn’t what I had anticipated.
Taipei is big. It doesn’t matter how close some of the streets appear to be, it’s bloody massive. 

YongKang Street is closest to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall metro station. And we love the metro. It’s an easy system and so dependable.

The Din Tai Fung on YongKang Street is approximately 3 streets behind the park, shouldn’t be too long a walk, yea? Wrong! What we don’t see on the map are the twenty odd lanes between the streets, only wide enough for a mini to squeeze through, risking a side mirror or two. Usually I don’t mind a walk, but there was so little to see along the street. Buildings were old, shops were vintage, and traffic was heavy…

25 minutes later we caught a glimpse of the horde outside Din Tai Fung. Earning a Michelin star sent the restaurant churning out branches across the world at the speed of chicken popping out eggs. Its reputable Xiao Long Bao has lured buses of tourists queuing up for their lunch. We were handed a palm size clipboard with a tick-list menu, and courteously informed that it would be a 55-minute wait.

Fine. We turned the corner into YongKang Street, lined with more eateries that have caught the media’s attention.

YongKang Beef Noodles

A chap from HK was coming out as we were looking at the pictures on the menu. He said the spicy noodles were so delicious he had 2 bowls. With high hopes, I ordered a small spicy beef tendon noodles, Mum had a half-tendon-half-meat noodles and Dad, after a long thought, opted for the same as me. Small was 200 TW dollars, large was 220. We added a steamed pig intestine to snack.
Small doesn’t really mean small. It translates to regular. I thoroughly enjoyed the noodles, supple, full of bounce and dense, holding the bovine soup in between for each mouthful. The soup wasn’t spicy, but it was strong in beef and spices with an undertone of chillies, which was a pleasant change from the floating layer of chilli oil. The tendons didn’t absorb the sauce it was cooked in though; I thought I could do a better job.
The pig’s intestine was steamed with broken rice or rice flour. Hmm... okay.

Yea it was alright. Would I down 2 bowls? No way. I would save space for others.

70% full, we made our way back to Din Tai Fung where we were only 2 tables away from being seated. Staff were ever so smiley. Despite the chaotic entrance and narrow staircase, the dining rooms were well-spaced with polished wooden tables and soft lighting against creamed walls.
The Xiao Long Bao were skilfully crafted as sacks full of soup that burst in the mouth, with a piggy meatball infused with a bit of lard. Noted the cloth to separate the dumplings from the bamboo steamer to prevent breakage and subsequent leakage. The skin was thin, but not the thinnest I have seen, still very good. 
Mini buns weren’t bad, nothing exceptional. The taro filling was scanty compared to the sesame and red bean paste.
Michelin? Controversial. It fits the equation though: Heart-felt service, immaculate toilets and above-par food.

Then my second stomach was geared up for desserts. YongKang 15 was recommended for serving shaved ice with condensed milk and a broad choice of toppings. Most people opted for the Big One with mango jelly, lots of colourful fruits topped with a scoop of mango ice cream. Not in a fruity mood, I went for taro and red bean.
Condensed milk would make marmite edible, so drizzle it on ice is bound to be nice. Except for the chunky mushy taro, I failed to see the hype over a massive bowl of ice. But then Dad was right: this was approx £2, which was still cheap by HK standard. Had we gone for a fruity pot, that’s £2 for ice cream, jelly and buck-loads of fruits.

With a full stomach, we made our way to the 101 Tower, the landmark once tallest in the world. That’s another 26-minute walk to the second closest metro station, Daan. Trust me, hailing a cab would have been equally exhausting.
Man isn't the trek to 101 pointless? I was born in Hong Kong where building architecture resemble transformers, and I currently live and work at Canary Wharf. So how impressed am I supposed to be with this fusion block in the middle of nowhere? Would I come to Taiwan for a Gucci tote or an Armani suit?

Growling… we hopped onto a taxi to ChiaTe, apparently the best kept secret by the locals, for some excellent pineapple pastries to bring home. Timed out for an hour in the hotel before heading to XimenDing.

More Sweeping in Taipei

The infrastructure at XimenDing is more modern and organised compared to Shilin. Building-size billboards and bus-size screens suggest the Taiwanese were inspired by Tokyo Ginza or Harajuku. This feels properly urban. Still, it doesn’t stop street food vendors dotting around the area. Wanderers here are even more heavily made up, dyed golden curly hair, some in lolita style, and 4-inch heels are nothing.
Lo mei is one of the oldest Chinese foodstuff. It is various meats marinated in a special soy sauce, its ingredients bespoke and secretive, until Chinese herbs and spices deeply infiltrated the skin and stain it dark brown. Though recipes all claim to be exclusively inherited from ancestors, I guess they are 90% similar. This shop Lao Tin Lu claims to be a specialist in lo mei. The cabinet displays trays of marinated chicken and duck feet/wings/kidneys and most popular of all, duck tongue. It looked bloody alien; part of the larynx and soft bones were still intact.
I bought one of each to try. The marinade was poise, soy sauce was aromatic with a hint of sweetness, and the array of spices was subtly spun-out as the sweetness subdues. Duck kidneys were my favourite and we bagged 500g of vacuum-sealed tongues to take home. While Westerners munch on peanuts and s&v crisps with a pint, Chinese suck on feet and tongues. However bad it sounds, we Chinese know better food.

(Another lo mei specialist called Shanghai Lao Tin Lu is located round the corner. Both shops claim to be the original and authentic. I genuinely don’t care. Chances are whoever pays less to the media for advertisement is deemed the impostor.)
Ah Chung Vermicelli
Gross gross gross. Absolutely disgusting. They may look like noodles, but it’s so overcooked to mushiness that they become part of the thick stock with too much corn flour. The locals love it, I think it stinks.
Car Wheel Cakes
Mine was freshly made as I opted for a savoury one with potato mash and cheese. The cookie shell was crispy and buttery with mash and melted cheese oozing. The pre-made ones with sweet fillings looked sad and abandoned…

Shida district is where the oldest university in Taiwan lies. It also hosts another night market flocked by university students. It was off the main street into a smaller lane, where hip and chic fashion shops intertwined with local eateries. The crowd was more toned down in Shida, equally trendy and dolled-up, but I found less Japanese anime characters walking around.

We saw a mob surrounding a food stall selling a different type of lo mei cuisine. So we joined...

This is how it works. Grab a sieve from the trolley and picked whatever one fancies, then join the queue with the basketful of food. One lady chops while the other lady weighs the hamper and charge accordingly. Finally the food gets dunked into this huge pot of broth boiling away. Ready to garnish with preserved cabbage in 2 minutes.

It’s like hotpot without the fun… Despite the colour of the lo mei bubbling broth, 2 minutes of submergence is unlikely to enhance any flavours. Meat was sinewy, bland or unbreakable; noodles were sticky and lifeless. The only thing I enjoyed was the silken tofu that was previously marinated. Nonetheless it was quite an experience.

Stuffed, we ambled around the alleys. Food stalls were selling more or less the same thing as the other night markets. There was one more thing that mister highly recommended that I had to try it for myself before leaving Taiwan. And the stall was easily spotted with the 30 odd people packed around it.

It’s a type of dumpling (anything with a lump of meat wrapped in the middle is called a fricking dumpling), like a bigger Xiao Long Bao, but half fried half steamed. Hsu-Ji does it so well. It’s just big enough to take up all the space in my mouth, where the meat juice exploded and trickled down the side of my lips. Oh it was messy but oh so good. The toasted sesame was key in boosting the flavours of the fluffy pork ball.

Before heading to the airport, we lurked in the food court of the Japanese-owned department store. Taiwan has imitated Singapore in developing a food court culture, but hasn’t quite got the gist of it. Fare in Singaporean food court tastes as good as it looks. Here, not quite.

We decided to bring this home to share with Bro though. Egg pudding in egg shells. The pudding wasn’t bad too, very eggy though it could do with more smoothness.

Despite our discrepancies in tastes, I am quite fond of the night markets. I like the diversity, where one can find anything from oyster omelette to fillet steak to teppanyaki. I like the freshness of food being made to order. I like the blending of tourists and locals all queuing for the same snack. I like the warmth and rawness of place.

I like Taipei. I have come to appreciate the straight forwardness of the language; friendliness of the people; directness of the food and general humanity of the city.