Impressions of Hong Kong – December 2014

Eight nights and eight days of eating in the intersection of the world’s palates is a luxury of tastes, textures and amazement. While the most culinarily diverse place on Earth is Australia, Hong Kong has food that is true to its origins, mashed with some of the best the rest of the world has to offer.

Tim Ho Wan waiting area in Hong Kong Station

Tim Ho Wan waiting area in Hong Kong Station

What the rest of the world has to offer is at a high expense given the challenges of bringing ingredients across from other continents. What Hong Kong brings in local Asian, particularly Chinese, is remarkable and remarkably cheap for travellers. There is a Michelin starred restaurant that you can eat at, and be fully satisfied, for around A$15 a person in Tim Ho Wan (several branches), but there is so much more than that.

Chicken congee

Chicken congee

I tried my first congee at Hong Kee Congee Shop, a little east of Causeway Bay, in an enclave that is worth discovering (Tin Hau). That was A$5. And it was divine. We had Hainanese chicken rice in Kowloon at Good Satay for A$7 after an arduous trek in search for several other restaurants that had closed. It was prepared with monotonous experience and it was fantastic.

Hainanese chicken rice

Hainanese chicken rice

We went out to dim sum at busy, dynamic, horrible shopping centre train stations; in gorgeous, ornate, glamorous rooms purpose built; and in places that almost spoke of their transformation into gastrotemples. We ate noodles on the 12th floor of Hysan Place shopping centre at Ho Hung Kee; and in holes in the wall like Mak’s Noodles with facilities you would have rather not discovered. They were there because of the skill of the chefs and the dedication of the staff and owners.

Honey glazed barbecue pork at West Villa

Honey glazed barbecue pork at West Villa

Many places have lost their soul through redevelopment and relocation. Really lost soul. But the food speaks to some of what is left behind from the loss. Some you don’t have a clue they are restaurants and then you walk into another world. Some, like West Villa, you find are on top of Dior et al and are probably a shell of what they were before relocating, that is but for the incredible food.

Decadence at Lee Gardens

Decadence at Lee Gardens

It is hard for me, having not been here for ten years, to fathom the change this city has seen. It is one thing to see a place a decade apart. Actually living through that change would be exciting, scary and difficult. One of my most powerful experiences was happening upon the protest camp in Admiralty. I believe in what they are doing, and luckily I don’t need to fight for these types of freedoms in Australia, or sleep on six lane highways that look more like the Walking Dead set in Atlanta. Desperately sad but extremely important for HK.
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The money in this city has staggered me for the first time having visited as a child, and as a young adult previously. Sure, you can eat cheaply and very well, but what I consider conveniences in Australia like quality and reasonably priced Italian, French, breakfast, coffee, beer, wine and cocktails, is very difficult or impossible to find.

The dessert trolley at Grissini!

The dessert trolley at Grissini!

Instead we had a delightful Italian meal at Grissini, but really paid for it considering lunch is comparatively cheap. Well I haven’t recently paid almost A$300 for two people to eat an Italian lunch recently! At least the food, service and wine were quality.

Duck with raspberry sauce and lentils at Grisini

Duck with raspberry sauce and lentils at Grisini

The best meal, not surprisingly to anyone who has heard of this restaurant, was Lung King Heen. It is really, really expensive. But it is really deserving of its accolades and it is an impeccable example of taking tradition and finding a modern edge without overdoing it. The subtlety is deafening. As is the complexity.

Braised abalone cube with star garoupa fillet in supreme oyster sauce

Braised abalone cube with star garoupa fillet in supreme oyster sauce

I learned a great deal from this trip. You can find exquisite French patisseries in HK, around the corner from cafés that do a single origin natural Ethiopian, down the road from one starred dim sum, across from an old Pawn Shop that is serving locally brewed IPA a few lanes down from egg tarts that there are lines for! It is like Flinders Lane but has the beauty of not knowing how great it is.

Fake security cameras at the entrance of Pawn! - Passions patisserie in Wan Chai - Kam Fung Cafe has amazing egg tarts - you can find brilliant coffee

Fake security cameras at the entrance of Pawn! – Passions patisserie in Wan Chai – Kam Fung Cafe has amazing egg tarts – you can find brilliant coffee

I learned that sipping tea at dim sum definitely aids digestion; that you cannot judge HK food by its cover; there is extreme competition in some places that creates happy hours that should be renamed crazy hours; that drinking 118 floors up in the air is cool (and cold outdoors); and that sometimes the view and the cake are better than the weak cocktails (at A$35 a pop!)

Banana split cake at Suvva - Happy hour Southside at Lily - Fook Lam Moon's decadent room

Banana split cake at Suvva – Happy hour Southside at Lily – Fook Lam Moon’s decadent room

In the end, there is no doubt this is the New York of Asia without some of the facade that you can experience in some of the greatest cities that I also love. Even with low levels of English speaking in many places you receive hospitality and respect that I wish we could offer across the board in Australia. All this when I know intuitively that these people, so many of them, are really struggling to make ends meet. If this place is expensive to me, imagine paying the constantly increasing rent (and other expenses) on low incomes, and not knowing the future of your great city.
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Hong Kong is a city I am comfortable in. It is inviting, intriguing, and indulgent. Just be prepared for the associated expense and be open to the restaurant that doesn’t look or feel like home. You are a world away.

Gami – Melbourne, City – Saturday 17 January 2015 – Dinner

Original fried chicken

Original fried chicken

Fried chicken is not a theme. It is a proven indulgent way to serve poultry. Korean is a theme, that is growing so quickly it will become the norm. There’s no kim chi here, but there is a lot of Korean fried chicken.

Gami has been busy from the first time I partook a couple of years ago, through to this evening. Its mission is fairly straightforward. Offer lots of fried chicken and beer, with a few different options on flavourings, and keep the price reasonable. It’s a mission it delivers on.

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The chicken here is succulent, cooked through, but not overcooked, with a delicious crust, fried consistently, without being horribly oily. There is lots of it too. Today we’ve gone for the original given Simon’s intolerance for chilli, but in the past I’ve tried them all. Garlic and soy, and chilli, seem to be the favourites of the regulars. And you can choose to have half and half too.

The jugs of beer is the absolute bonus. This isn’t the place to sit around dwelling on life. You sit, order, eat, and run. In between, having a cleansing ale to wash down the fried chicken is about as much satisfaction as you can get.

The thing I like so much about Gami, and several other places that have opened in recent years in and around the city, is that they do not offer every type of cuisine and dish. They do one or two things, and they smash them out of the park consistently. When you come here you know what you are getting.

Gami at Healeys Lane on Urbanspoon

Lolo & Wren – Brunswick West – Sunday 18 January 2015 – Breakfast

Pancakes

Pancakes

Brunswick is a happening spot. Though if you are not great with Melbourne suburb geography, you might not realise Brunswick West and Brunswick East are a long way apart. The collective depth of the three suburbs is significant.

Our trips to Pope Joan, still regular but less frequent, are a journey that has become second nature. Only on the basis that Pope Joan is in Brunswick (East) we decided to go a little further west and try out Lolo & Wren in Brunswick (West). Little did I realise that we might need a packed lunch from Richmond.

Winding through some main roads that were basically one lane for both directions for the last several kilometres we ended up at our destination. We were aware the location is a bit out of the way and nondescript, under an apartment block. While there are plenty of tables outside, the scenery is better inside, with a well thought out design that is conducive to enjoying breakfast. A few simple touches like the white and green tiled wall, the light wooden furnishings, and the obligatory communal table rising high above those who are not on stools. Not to mention the sexy Synesso machine.

Goodison breakfast

Goodison breakfast

The classic dishes are all here, but there is something more to almost every single one of them. Many of them are pushing off the page making it very difficult to choose. That is where Catherine and my love of sharing comes to the fore! In a soon to catch on addition to most modern dinner menus, we may soon see breakfast sharing, or even breakfast tasting menus. With so many dishes there for the tasting we settled on the ‘Goodison Breakfast’ and the pancakes.

First was of course the Goodison Breakfast which is basically Lolo & Wren’s version of a big breakfast. The slant was that every ingredient on the plate was excellent – high quality and full of flavour. From the potato and rosemary rosti, to the baked field mushrooms, and especially the pork and fennel sausage. That’s not to say the poached eggs, bacon, organic sourdough, and the delicious homemade tomato relish, were any less fantastic. Funnily enough, the only big breakfast that is an adequate match off the top of my head in Melbourne is at Pope Joan about 5km away.

For second (and final) course, we shared the pancakes which upped the ante even further. The menu describes it best – “Caramelised pear, almond and walnut pancakes with vanilla Mauri mascarpone, blueberry and rhubarb compote, fresh mint, and pure Canadian maple syrup”. To say the combination is exquisite is possibly going too far, and possibly not giving enough credit to the execution. On the latter, the most interesting textural and flavour punching element is the almond toffee strewn through the fluffy pancake vessel. When combining the ingredients in almost flawless technique, this is a killer dish. I observed it coming past a few other times, and from afar, each time it looked consistent.

What I especially enjoyed here was the diversity of coffee choices. The dual focus on food and coffee is something that is often missing or is unbalanced. There were two blends on offer, including one from Proud Mary, and an especially good single origin. I tried all three and have been awake ever since.

While it was very busy, thank goodness Lolo & Wren is not in a more populated spot, or closer to the city, because we actually got in. It is a confident demonstration of terrific food and coffee, and I haven’t even mentioned the excellent service by staff run off their feet. We’ll be back, and hopefully it will be just as great.

Lolo and Wren on Urbanspoon

Hakata Gensuke – Melbourne, City – Sunday 11 January 2015 – Lunch

IMG_3279There’s something oddly attractive about a line outside a restaurant. I know those who don’t pursue food like a hunter might completely disagree, but in my world, a line signifies there might be something worth waiting for.

Often it is a façade. It is great marketing or PR, a huge following of friends of the owners, or something intangible that makes others want to partake. Equally it can be a sign of greatness, amazing food at the right price-point, or a unique quality that captures the imagination of the population.

Signature Tonkotsu

Signature Tonkotsu

When we walked past Hakata Gensuke a week ago on the way to HuTong, we were intrigued by the crowd out front. Some research and a bit over a week later we were one of those waiting in line for the ramen shop to open at midday. Getting there by about 11.40am was good enough for making the first sitting.

The staff, the chefs in particular, shout their Japanese greeting at you as you walk in, which is traditional. Throughout the meal you find that the energy of the floorstaff and the chefs from their greeting sparks the atmosphere in the restaurant. You are presented with a piece of paper, and a pencil, and have a number of choices to make on the type of ramen, the noodle texture, its strength, and additions you can make.

Signature Tonkotsu

Signature Tonkotsu

Being our first time, we both chose the signature tonkotsu ramen, normal textured noodles, normal strength, spring onions, and I had an additional flavoured egg. Tonkotsu is made from pork bones and this makes for a rich broth, that in this case, is completely divine. Throw in some noodles, that from my experience, are very high quality in taste and texture; some thinly sliced pork (cha-shu), black mushrooms, spring onions, and a deeply flavoured egg; and you have one of the best Japanese noodle soups that you could hope for.

Gyoza

Gyoza

Japan is one of the many countries that I haven’t travelled to yet, but know I’ll experience at some stage soon. If I can find ramen better than you find at Hakata Gensuke around Japan, then that would be the only reason I need to buy the plane ticket. For now, I’ll have to settle for some amazing soup on Russell Street in the city.

Hakata Gensuke on Urbanspoon

Flying Brick Cider House – Wallington – Saturday 27 December 2014 – Lunch

IMG_3213In fashion, I am terribly late with trends. In food and beverage, I am generally not behind, though every now and again there is a trend that I either don’t gravitate towards, or that I don’t personally enjoy. Many years ago I didn’t like a couple of particular foods, most notably olives and anything in vinegar. Luckily I overcame that frustration eventually with maturity.

However, I have always had a palate for alcohol, especially wine. The only drink I haven’t got a liking for is cider. I would never defend this as there is no good reason with so many great ciders available, and it has become especially unfortunate given the huge growth in the popularity of cider. My only hesitance in going to a cider house for lunch is pretty obvious – would there be anything else to drink?

Well, there was plenty of wine and beer at Flying Brick Cider House so my fears were eased and my thirst quenched. Those more partial to a cider said that the selection (you can try the four on offer for $12) were all great.

Chocolate opera

Black forest opera, chocolate sauce & cocoa nibs

Flying Brick Cider Company have been producing cider for some time, but the Cider House only opened up in December and is brand new. In a prominent spot on the Bellarine Highway next to Adventure Park, it is already popular with the summer crowds, and probably an oasis of sorts for parents in need of a break from the adventures of their kids across the road. The building is not architecturally unlike many other breweries, wineries and cider houses I’ve previously seen, but is, all the same, a very nice place to eat and drink, with a sprawling outdoor seating area and lawn.

We’ve made a booking and are seated inside, but such is the openness of the venue that we feel outdoors. Consistently throughout the meal it feels like service is a bit disparate but reasonable. In the first few weeks of opening that counts as a pass mark. If the cider house keeps a large proportion of its floorstaff, and trains them up more on the food, and cider, I think service will be better than reasonable.

Portarlington mussels, flying brick cider, chorizo & mustard

Portarlington mussels, flying brick cider, chorizo & mustard

For lunch I choose the Portarlington mussels cooked in Flying Brick Cider and mustard, with chorizo. The combination of the chorizo with the mussels is addictive, especially for someone who loves saltiness. The mussels are a good medium size with abundant flavour, and the dish is very reasonably priced. Catherine goes for the pork belly, with pear and fennel coleslaw. The classical combination of flavours is well put together and the belly is well cooked. I also had a try of the fried cauliflower which is a nice share dish with good spice.

Pork belly

Pork belly, pear, fennel coleslaw

While the apple ciders are quality, the handling of the apples by the chefs in the tarte tatin for dessert left much to be desired. Catherine and I were sharing and given tarte tatin is a favourite, we were a bit deflated. The apples were cut in segments, that were too thick, and were barely cooked, let alone caramelised. I expect this is easily rectified as conversely, the pastry was nicely cooked. On the other hand, Kasey and Karl’s choice of the black forest opera cake, with chocolate sauce and cocoa nibs, was delicious. There was overwhelming menu envy after one bite.

Apple tart tatin

Apple tart tatin

I cannot emphasise how pleasant lunch at Flying Brick was on this gorgeous day. With large summer crowds lapping it up, it could be easy to become complacent. With a few improvements to the menu and growing experience on the floor, it won’t just be a great place for the summer months, but the cooler months too.

Flying Brick Cider House on Urbanspoon

HuTong Dumpling Bar – Melbourne, City – Thursday 1 January 2015 – Dinner

Shao-long bao

Shao-long bao

Luckily it was not my New Year’s resolution to eat healthy as this would not necessarily be a great start. Not that dumplings are necessarily unhealthy. It is just, as a rule, difficult to stop yourself from eating several dozen!

Market Lane has long been known as the home of Flower Drum, Australia’s most famous and long lived Chinese restaurant. It has also now, for several years, been the home of one of the best dumpling houses in Australia in HuTong.

Wantons in hot chilli sauce

Wantons in hot chilli sauce

The head chef here has over thirty years of experience and is considered a “dumpling master”. I wouldn’t disagree as on every single occasion I’ve been to HuTong the dumplings have been immaculate from a flavour and consistency perspective. This leads to quite high expectations which I hope are met again this evening.

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Deep fried squid in salt and pepper

The soup dumplings, known as shao-long bao, are the king of dumplings in this house and today they are exceptional as usual. The wrapper is delicate in taste, but strong enough to hold the soup and pork filling, which are both huge in flavour. It is an explosion in more ways than one.

That’s followed up with wantons with hot chilli sauce which have a stickier wrapper drizzled with the reasonably hot sauce. The prawn dumplings are quite generously packed and have a firmer texture, good for dipping in soy and chilli if you please.

With the stars of the show quickly annihilated, we enjoy the deep fried squid in salt and pepper (and chilli) which are tasty, but some are a little chewy. The crispy fragrant duck on the other hand is all beautifully cooked with glorious crispy skin for a flavour punch giving away to juicy duck meat.
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The question of dessert versus some more dumplings was answered swiftly by the majority of the table and to finish we tried the pan fried dumplings which come in an interesting presentation. It is difficult to top the shao-long bao, and indeed, while the pan fried dumplings are good, they are not the champions.

Pan fried dumplings

HuTong’s dumplings have again lived up to my high expectation, especially when washed down with a couple of Tsingtao beers on this beautiful New Year’s Day. I expect it won’t be long until the next visit to enjoy the fruits of the dumpling master’s great and enduring work.

HuTong Dumpling Bar on Urbanspoon

Gertrude Street Enoteca at Avani Winery for Gourmet Traveller – Sunday 4 January 2015 – Lunch

IMG_3251Earlier today my favourite magazine joined forces with an Enoteca I’ve known about for years, but had never experienced, in the glorious surrounds of Avani Winery. There is not much more euphoric settings for drinking great wine and eating great food than a winery!

This is part of a month long pop-up venture for Gertrude Street Enoteca which judging by the full house, is a fantastic idea. You buy your ticket in advance, and rock up to find the three course blackboard menu on offer for the day.

It’s a casual type of event, but as we know in Melbourne (and surrounds), fashion here is thankfully more of the shirt variety rather than the tank top. Everyone is well dressed including the many children (who are made to feel welcome), and the floorstaff too. While they too are casual, and have a relatively easy task today with only drink orders necessary, they do a nice job while still enjoying their day.

Mezze selection

Mezze selection

There’s a good vibe all round and this must flow out of the kitchen because everything we tasted was good to very good. To begin we had a selection of mezze. The highlight for me was the halloumi and zucchini fritter which combined the ingredients harmoniously. When adding the nice and thick tzatziki it had an even greater flavour kick. The marinated calamari was nice, but from a flavour perspective the salty kalamata and green olives, and the vinegary dolmades, had a bigger impact. The dolmades had a touch of sweetness through the rice with the addition of currants.

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Grilled chicken in ras el hanout, skordalia, cabbage and mint salad

I tried a glass of the Hindhirst* Riesling 2012 with the mezze and was impressed with the balance of fruit and acidity – a great food wine. For main I tried the Philip Pedley* Pinot Noir and again it worked well with the food. It isn’t as funky as some of the Pinot I go for, but there’s finesse and even some elegance.

The main course starred. Beautifully grilled chicken rubbed with ras el hanout which could be nicknamed razzle dazzle such was the flavour it provided when rubbed into the skin. It is in fact a North African spice mix that I’ve rarely seen but look forward to the next rendezvous. It was served with skordalia which is basically garlic mash potato Greek style with a texture like a Paris mash, maybe even thicker, and a cabbage and mint salad made like coleslaw. There was a little lemon to add some acidity too.
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Next was dessert but in the meantime one of the floorstaff offered a glass of the T’Gallant Muscat. It is a light enjoyable dessert wine. The torte to finish is delicious. Described as a German meringue with cream and berries, the especially gooey parts of the meringue are particularly amazing with the sweet cream and berries. While we had a good serving, we could easily go back for some more!
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Pop-up is not a new concept anymore, but when you change the setting of a great restaurant, to that of a beautiful winery, it is a concept that will never get less exciting. The floorstaff seem excited and the restaurant had the volume you associate with good times. What an afternoon in Red Hill!

* Apologies – yet to confirm exact names of the wines which I didn’t note down!

Gertrude Street Enoteca on Urbanspoon