Musings of a bon vivant in Hong Kong


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Starting 2014 with a bang Down Under

Better late than never- HAPPY NEW YEAR readers! Every year I’m astonished at how time flies and given that it is February already, I guess I really am in some sort of time warp. I have a bit of blogging catch-up to do but nothing keeps one more busy than travelling (wedding season!) coinciding with big holidays (Xmas, New Year, Chinese New Year). It must be a sign of old age when you and your friends constantly whinge about how the months are whipping by and how we “only just celebrated a New Year, how is it New Year AGAIN?” But this year the start of 2014 whilst low-key, was a little different- we were in Sydney to ring it in!

New Year in Sydney is all about the fireworks and we were fortunate to be at our friends’ place at Milson’s Point, a stone’s throw away from undoubtedly, one of the best spots to view the spectacular fireworks. I haven’t been fussed about fireworks for a few years and never really had the will to fight my way through the crowds in Hong Kong and freeze my butt off in London, but this time it had to be done. Our NYE dinner was a different experience too. Our friends had busted out the BBQ in true Aussie style and were producing all sorts of fare, including some highly addictive minced beef pies (courtesy of the oven not the BBQ pit, though that would have been REALLY impressive). Then, the time came for childlike wonderment. Cue an eighteen or so strong group of slightly inebriated friends stumbling over hill and over dale in Bradfield Park jostling with everyone to get a good spot. And I must say, I was quite enchanted by the fireworks. I’m afraid I don’t have any photos of the amazing BBQ spread, you will just have to take my word for it that our friend was quite masterful, even when drunk, but here are some photos of the fireworks captured on my humble phone. Sydney fireworks Sydney fireworks Sydney fireworks Sydney fireworks

To book dinners and lunches for a group of sixteen over several days was a bit of a nightmare, and I must say, aside from the exorbitant prices of some of our meals and some shockingly bad service, two meals stood out. One was a trip to the Sydney Fish Market and the other, to a lovely Italian restaurant in Surrey Hills.

Sydney Fish Market was just a glorious, roofed collection of retailers and restaurants housing the freshest array of seafood. To say that we gorged is a bit of an understatement. The raw seafood as well as the cooked was delicious. IMG_8670 IMG_8671 IMG_8672 IMG_8662 IMG_8663 IMG_8664 IMG_8665

Our exceptionally organised friend S, and Sydney Cordon Bleu alumni booked us lunch at a lovely Italian restaurant A Tavola, in Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, and on that day, the sun was shining, a fine breeze was blowing and we found ourselves hauling our asses up a fairly large hill to our destination. But it was worth the sweat. A Tavola was a fine example of how fresh pasta should be done; heartily, excellently and with gusto and no pretension. Simplicity at its best.

A Tavola

A Tavola

Our huge group sat at a long table and watched the chefs roll and shape fresh pasta next to us. The space is small but it was a hive of activity and the staff were smiley and friendly. We had a set menu of 3 Primi courses, 3 Secondi and 2 Salads to enjoy plus an additional dessert that we could not resist. Price point wise, the final bill was $94 AUS per person ($650HK).IMG_8552

Mesmorised by pasta

Mesmorised by pasta

Out of our Primi courses, I absolutely adored the Swiss brown mushrooms, peas, mint and ricotta salad and the fried Salami with polenta.

 Swiss brown mushrooms, peas, mint and ricotta salad

Swiss brown mushrooms, peas, mint and ricotta salad

Buffalo Mozzarella and proscuitto

Buffalo Mozzarella and proscuitto

Fried Salami Veneto

Fried Salami Veneto

The mains were beautiful but the Hand-cut pappardelle with slow braised beef in a red wine and horseradish reduction was the winner, although the pan-fried fish was also sublime.

Hand-cut pappardelle with slow braised beef

Hand-cut pappardelle with slow braised beef

Tagliatelle with cherry tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and basil

Tagliatelle with cherry tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and basil

Bonus pasta dish- can't remember what this was!

Bonus pasta dish- can’t remember what this was!

Pan fried market fish with dill mayonnaise, green olives and orange

Pan fried market fish with dill mayonnaise, green olives and orange

Chocolate ganache

Chocolate ganache

Oh, and the dessert? Even the most savoury of teeth would not be able to resist their Chocolate ganache with Amaretto biscuit concoction. My brain went into sugar overdrive when I tasted their homemade salt caramel ice-cream and torched meringue.

And so we left with blissful, satiated smiles and a leisurely walk back to the city centre with nothing but what was to be a gorgeous wedding and the Blue mountains to enjoy in the coming days.

IMG_8820

Chopstixfix rating: 4/5 

A Tavola, 348 Victoria Street, Darlinghurst, NSW 2010. Tel: +61 02 9331 7871

Email: reservationsdarlinghurst@atavola.com.au Opening times: Dinner Mon-Sat 6pm-late, Lunch Friday 12pm- 3pm

Sydney Fish Market, Pyrmont Bridge Rd, Pyrmont NSW 2009, Australia

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Ronin- Carving out its own identity

Matt Abergel and Lindsay Jang’s Izakaya sequel to Yardbird, Ronin, is too cool for school. So cool in fact, that I couldn’t find it. My friend and I stood there like muppets in the pouring rain looking at the general vicinity of 8 Wo On Lane and wondering, “Where the hell is this place?!”. It was only after we spotted someone mysteriously glide through a grey door at the bottom of the stairs on the street that we edged up to it and with ears pricked, heard music wafting through. Trepidatiously, (we didn’t want to perpetuate our cluelessness), I slid open the padded door and like Alice in Wonderland, stepped into the edgy confines of Ronin. Looking like two lost girls, we stood there awkwardly for a moment as we drank in the narrow space, the pickles lining the top shelves and the welcoming sight of booze at the bar.

Ronin Ronin barRonin

I like Ronin’s front door, even though its grey hue and padded exterior made me think of a high security mental asylum. But perhaps that is the idea. To ensure we never leave, or never want to! Ronin’s urban cool, minimalistic design and the small number of seats at the bar, around 14, (the back wall is for standing room only) makes it more of a watering-hole than restaurant, a place to unwind with an Old-fashioned and snack on some spectacularly good nibbles. Speaking of drinks, their Maple Old-fashioned packs a punch. I had heard good things about this tipple and the honey-golden liquid with its boulder of ice, was a sight for sore eyes. The strong and smooth maple syrup blends lovingly with the baked apple bitters but does not mask the explosive character of the Nikka from the Barrel whiskey which, after my first gulp after a long day, hit me square between the eyes and kept me merry for the rest of the evening.

Maple Old-Fashioned

Maple Old-Fashioned

The atmosphere at Ronin is casual but lively. Service was fairly slow, and our waiter forgot our order a couple of times and mixed up our order. This was almost, but not completely overlooked by his banter and a game of ‘guess where I am from’.

Market freshness dictates the daily changes to the menu, although of course, there are regular fixtures. As stated on their menu, “sharing is caring”, so if you are an only child like me, this could be difficult especially as one of their dishes in particular is enough to induce a compulsive eating disorder. Split into three sections- Raw, Smaller and Bigger, it is recommended, though it is fairly obvious, that you start with the Raw, then progress to the Smaller nibbles and triumphantly finish your meal with a Bigger dish. We were brought tender goose neck barnacle as a taster of things to come and soon our Saba Mackerel Sashimi with Persimmon arrived. This was good. The pickle and persimmon vinegar infused mackerel was a subtle and dainty and contrasted with the crunch of the pickle.

Goose-neck barnacle

Goose-neck barnacle

Saba mackerel sashimi

Saba mackerel sashimi

From the Smaller bites, our Okinawa market chips (sweet potato, yam and bamboo) with black sugar kept our hunger in check, like munching on popcorn during trailers, as we had a bit of a wait before that compulsive eating disorder dish came along. The Smoked Silver Beltfish Tempura with black sugar mayo blew my mind. These were like a fancy and exquisite version of that Brit tea-time favourite, fish fingers, and honestly, the mayo was ridonkulously kick-ass. My friend and I were very civilised and split our serving in half, though it was tempting to wrestle the last tempura from her fingertips.

Silver beltfish tempura

Silver beltfish tempura

Market chips

Market chips

Onto the Bigger dishes and we ordered the Fried Quail with an orange rind and sansho pepper marinade which was finger-licking good though the skin was more greasy than crispy. The meat was tender and juicy and I enjoyed the citrusy tang followed by a burst of fat.

Fried Quail

Fried Quail

The second stand-out dish of the night was the Udon with smoked onion, onsen egg and dried shrimp. I could have licked the bowl clean. After gleefully smashing up the onsen egg, the smoked caramelised onion, peas and salty shrimp combination made the thick udon deliciously gunky and oh-so addictive. Halfway through and I wanted another bowl.Udon with smoked onion, onsen egg and salted shrimp

Disappointingly, there are no desserts. I suppose an alcoholic beverage could be counted as dessert, but I really craved a sweet ending to the fried and salty dishes. But it did not matter, we relaxed and nursed our drinks, patiently waiting for the ice to melt and dilute the fire in our glasses.

I love the apparent isolation of Ronin with its Aladdin’s cave feel, and the air of mystery. It makes me think that one needs a secret door knock to get in. Whilst there are some stellar, mouth-watering dishes and an impressive selection of drinks, the service was not as smooth or efficient as it could be, considering Ronin’s size. In addition, prices are not entirely wallet-friendly, with the bill coming to $815 for two, for five dishes and one Old-fashioned each. That being said, the tempura and the udon are definite draws for me, and I will be visiting again, though I may wimp out of ordering a whiskey.

Chopstixfix rating: 3.5/5

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8 On Wo Lane, Sheung Wan, 2547 5263; roninhk.com. Mon-Sat 6pm-midnight. Closed Sun.

You can make reservations up to 7 days in advance by emailing: seats@roninhk.com


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Appealing to the Sens-es?

Private kitchens are so intriguing to us expats. When I first moved to HK and heard about them, I remember thinking that the label ‘private’ gives these places such an air of mystery and, for lack of a better word, coolness. The idea of knowing about a secret place to eat is appealing and fun, and more often than not, they make great venues for group dining. And for a while these mini restaurants, holed up in apartments or random, seemingly abandoned or dodgy-looking buildings held their appeal and garnered a strong following of patrons eager to have something different or perhaps better than what we can get at a regular restaurant.  From what I recall, many of the private kitchens used  to price their meals extremely reasonably as well, which made me feel that I had stumbled across not only an eatery that many did not know about, but also a place that served fantastic food at fantastic prices. What’s not to love? However, all good things must come to an end, and I feel that this is the case with some private kitchens beginning to lose sight of what used to make them so attractive, including high prices and serving food that strives too hard to set itself apart from everything else on offer. This was the case with newly opened private kitchen, Sens, which opened its apartment doors in February and specialises in ‘modern French Asian fusion’. Blending two or more cuisines together takes a certain amount of bravery, especially as not all flavours and ingredients necessarily work together. I sometimes think that the novelty of making a ‘collage’of cuisines becomes the element that a chef relies on, rather than the taste. With Sens set up in a residential apartment in Causeway Bay and sitting only six to eight people at a time and for one sitting only, it makes for a cosy environment.

Sens Private Dining

Sens Private Dining

A group of seven friends and I went along one Sunday evening last month, guaranteeing a night of good company. Corkage is 50HKD (private kitchens have started charging for corkage which I find irritating!) , but with everyone working the next day, it ended up being a fairly non-alcoholic night, with eight us sharing a very sensible one bottle- livers saved, hooray! Our friendly host, Joy, who opened Sens with her chef partner Michael Druont, welcomed us into her home, which had been cleared to make way for the prettily decorated dining table in the centre. Full respect to Chef Druont who we observed navigating a typically sized HK kitchen (i.e. TINY) with impressive skill, (I can barely cook bacon and eggs without making my kitchen a complete bomb-site, I have no idea how he churned out a 6-course meal replete with presentation).

I accidentally blew out the candle!

I accidentally blew out the candle!

Chef Druont, who had his own restaurant, Fleur de Sel, in France and subsequently worked in San Francisco and then for Starwood Hotels in New Caledonia, has a passion for French fusion and since his move to Asia, has been passionate about combining Eastern cuisine influences with French. At Sens, he has created a six-course degustation menu for $800 per person, a rather hefty price for a private kitchen, especially when I can have a veritable feast at that price at some fantastic restaurants in HK. So was the meal worth that pricing? Ingredients-wise, yes, I can see why they would want or need to charge that much as the menu was very seafood-heavy with uni, roe, scallops and jellyfish and also included duck and foie gras. However, we all were in agreement that there was not a particular dish out of the six that really wowed us.

To start there were Canapés- a fairly standard plate of tasty mini bites of prosciutto with sun-dried tomatoes, smoked salmon wound around cream cheese and smoked ham.

Canapés

Canapés

A pre-course taster was an Asparagus and mushroom consommé with pesto which was creamy and well-seasoned, whetting the appetite for the entrees and mains. Our first entree was the scallop with seared foie gras and quinoa. If I had to choose one dish that I enjoyed the most, this would be it. The scallop was quite perfectly prepared and I liked the contrasting nuttiness and texture of the qunioa against the bouncy scallop. The foie gras was a little over-seared but added a good, fatty flavour to the dish.

Asparagus and mushroom consommé with pesto

Asparagus and mushroom consommé with pesto

Scallop with seared foie gras and quinoa

Scallop with seared foie gras and quinoa

The prettiest dish of the night was the next entree- Poached Egg with Japanese Uni and Ikura with special chef consommé. The ikura (salmon roe) were fresh and the egg nicely poached. Presentation was lovely, but the addition of the jellyfish coupled with the roe AND the uni created an overpowering taste of the sea that drowned the petite egg and its glorious yolk. I would have much preferred the egg served with the jellyfish and the roe only, or just with the uni, to bring out the best in one of those ingredients.

Poached Egg with Japanese Uni and Ikura with special chef consommé

Poached Egg with Japanese Uni and Ikura with special chef consommé

Our first main was chicken ravioli with clams, Maitake mushrooms and an élixir of mushroom sauce. The ravioli filling was quite tasty but the pasta was a little dense. None of the flavours in that dish particularly stood out and the mushroom sauce tasted a lot like the asparagus and mushroom consommé that we had at the beginning. I think it would have been better if there was less sauce and the clams and the chicken did the talking.

Chicken ravioli with clams, Maitake mushrooms and an élixir of mushroom sauce

Chicken ravioli with clams, Maitake mushrooms and an élixir of mushroom sauce

Our penultimate main was a filet of Seabass on a bed of puy lentils and baby pak choi. The topping of roe gave this dish a wonderful burst of colour but the presentation was not enough to carry it through, as sadly the seabass was a tad overcooked. The lentils did not add anything to the dish and were lacklustre.

Seabass with puy lentils

Seabass with puy lentils

If the last two mains had made an impact or had been prepared perfectly, it would have saved the menu somewhat, but our final main- duck breast with raspberry sauce, was also overcooked for some of us (I was fortunate and had the slightly pinkier section of the duck). This for me was something that was fundamental, especially when you are charging your patrons $800 per head.

Duck breast with raspberry sauce

Duck breast with raspberry sauce

With the mains finished, we had our dessert to look forward to and we were told to expect their signature dish which arrived in the form of a Tomato and Mixed Berries Confit. The idea behind this dessert was clever. I liked the creativity of using tomatoes as a sweet, but the execution was poor. The tomato itself was not sweetened and the accompanying rosemary cream was savoury. When mixed with the berry confit, the concoction was fairly unpleasant. I commend Chef Druont’s attempt to fuse these flavours together, but unfortunately I ended up feeling like my palate was stuck awkwardly in no-man’s land of neither savoury nor sweet. The cream reminded me of roast lamb (I am sure this was not his intention) and the tomato was not only not sweet, it was bland.

Signature special Tomato and Mixed Berries Confit

Signature special Tomato and Mixed Berries Confit

Sens has a long way to go if it wants to establish itself. Chef Druont’s ability to present his dishes is good, but the ingredients and the flavours need some further thought. The menu was too seafood and too cream heavy and the sauce flavours too similar. The ambience was a little stiff and the lighting a little too fluorescent and harsh to make this a really intimate dining experience. I keep coming back to the pricing, but honestly, at $800 per person with corkage fee (I know that at $50 this may seem nominal but most private kitchens do not charge), I would expect much much more for my money. The dessert was extremely disappointing and I hope that they take the time to improve the execution as I believe Sens does have the potential and is worth keeping an eye on. But for now, they should experiment and perfect their menu.

Chopstixfix rating: 2/5

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Sens Private Dining and Catering, B3, Floor 25, Pearl City Mansion, 22-36 Patterson Street, Causeway Bay. Tel: 6165 5483

{This was by invitation (only me though) but the rest of my party paid for theirs and I split the bill with the rest of them}