Lost Heaven Silk Road in Shanghai

Panda Express does not give you a proper view into the regional variety of Chinese cuisine. Like in any large nation, the cuisine of China has substantial regional differences. While in Shanghai this summer, I tried something I’m not very familiar with – the cuisine of Western China – at a restaurant called Lost Heaven Silk Road in the Jing’an district.

img_2909

Based on the cuisine found along the ancient trading route, the menu offers foods from Xi’an and Dunhuang all the way to India, Pakistan and Persia. The restaurant owes much of its interior design specifically to Dunhuang, a small city in Gansu Province in the northwest of China, famous for its hundreds of caves decorated with ancient Buddhist art.

img_2888

Our first dish was cold oat noodles, a specialty of western China where oats are more common than rice or wheat. The noodles were served with a slightly spicy sauce flavored with peanuts and were a refreshing start to the meal.

img_2891

img_2894

There were many meat dishes, especially good were the lamb ribs. The meat was flavorful, tender and the sauces added a lot to the dish. The skewers pictured above had a nice spice rub with flavors of cumin prominent.

img_2893

We also had Xi’an rice noodles, which are flavored more by sesame oil and were more familiar as a Chinese dish.

img_2897

There were several vegetable dishes including this slightly curried okra dish that was not the typically slimy okra you might be familiar with. These would seem not out-of-place in an Indian or Pakistani restaurant.

img_2903

They also served so-called “Tang wei hu bing” buns, literally Chinese flavor foreign bread – pita bread stuffed with grilled meat and coriander. The flavors and style of more Middle Eastern cuisine was particularly noticeable here.

img_2901

For dessert we had a Kashmir style rice pudding. While nothing pretty to look at, the cardamom flavored pudding was pleasant.

img_2906

And a final sweet that left no doubt about where the far end of the silk road lies: baklava.

The restaurant is beautiful and the food is tasty. While one could quibble with its authenticity, I think they illustrate beautifully the reality that a lot of food is fusion, tracing the path of trade and migration and bringing together the ingredients, techniques and tastes of the people who make the journey.
Lost Heaven Silk Road
758 Julu Lu (Jing’an station)
+86 6266 9816
open for lunch and dinner daily
lostheaven.com.cn

Little Bao opens in Bangkok

There are a handful of restaurants in this world that I love and always look forward to visiting again. Little Bao, a hole in the wall Chinese burger bar in Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels, is one name on that short list. The good news is, I no longer need to travel to Hong Kong to enjoy the inventive, well-executed food: Little Bao BKK just opened!

IMG_4036

Tucked in the back of the 72 Courtyard community mall on Thong Lor, Little Bao BKK is nearly as hidden as its HK sibling. But once you spot the giant neon bao boy, you know you’ve found it! We visited on the second day of business and the chef, May Chow, saw us from the doorway.

IMG_4055

The space is several times larger than the original location and is designed with a contemporary feel that is influenced by classic Hong Kong diners of the 1950s and 1960s. They still do not take reservations, but with the larger space I suspect a seat will be easier to get than in Hong Kong.

IMG_4041

The menu is largely the same as the original location with just a few extra dishes. The execution meets the same high standards as the original with only a few minor exceptions, all of which are understandable given the newness of the team. Above, yellowtail with black bean ponzu and okra. Tasty combination of textures and flavors.

IMG_4042

The pulled short-rib pan fried dumplings with coleslaw is a favorite from the original menu. The meat is very tender and the dumpling has a crispy side, again offering a contrast of textures that is fun to eat.

IMG_4046

We ordered two of the classic bao, the steamed Taiwanese style buns that are sliced in half and then filled hamburger-style. In the foreground is the pork belly with shiso leek, sesame dressing and hoisin ketchup. In the bak, the Sichuan chicken with black vinegar glaze, Sichuan mayo and coleslaw. Both met expectations, although I found the chicken sauced a little more heavily than in HK, causing a bit of bun failure.

Interestingly, the HK branch makes a bit deal about having a “no bao cutting” policy, but in the new location, knives were provided. I do agree, though, that cutting the bao smashes the bun and destroys the product’s integrity.

IMG_4051

One special item is the “under the bridge” crab fried rice with chili garlic, black bean and shiso. The texture of the fried garlic is a pleasing contrast but it was a bit overpowering after a few bits. Also, you’ll notice that the “shiso” isn’t shiso at all, but green onion tips. We inquired about this and after a few minutes, the wait staff explained that the kitchen was out of shiso. Which is a shame, because the citrus flavor of shiso would have helped tame some of the heat of the garlic.

IMG_4053

For dessert, we ordered my all-time favorites: the fried ice cream bao. The bao buns are deep-friend, allowed to cool slightly, and then filled with ice cream: green tea with condensed milk in the foreground and salt ice cream with caramel in the background. This was almost as good as in HK but I found the buns a bit oily and the green tea ice cream tastes chalkier than I remember it in HK.

Overall, the restaurant is off to a good start. We noticed a few disconnects where supporting items on the menu did not match the ingredients that arrived on the plate. The staff was less engaging than in HIK and also less proactive. Again, we visited on their second day of business so these are things that we can expect to be resolved soon.

Meanwhile, I recommend this to everyone in Bangkok and any friends who are visiting. If you haven’t caught Little Bao in HK, here’s your chance!

Little Bao BKK
72 Courtyard
Thong Lor
Open daily from 6:00 pm
Reservations not accepted

 

Dining in Shanghai at Dadong

Dadong, a popular Beijing restaurant chain, opened their first branch in Shanghai to great acclaim.

IMG_3193

While famous for their Peking duck, the Shanghai branch of Dadong has also compiled a menu that features many specialties from Shanghai and surrounding regions. All of this with exquisite presentation and attentive service.

IMG_3121

The restaurant is located in a business tower adjacent to the Réel mall in the popular Jing’an district. The interior feels industrial but has many design touches that elevate it and add sophistication.

IMG_3124

Table settings are high-quality but playful. The menu is a nearly 100-page book with a different dish featured on each page with full-color photos that look like they have come from an art magazine rather than a restaurant menu.

IMG_3127

Dishes arrived at a rapid pace, almost without consideration to the limited space on the table. The first dish was a drunken chicken, marinated and served cold. The meat was succulent and tender, a refreshing start to the meal.

IMG_3132

The next dish was described as “pickled lettuce” but we decided this is a bit of a misnomer. They are pickles but I think they are pickled melons or gourds of some sort. Served with ground goji berries and fresh basil, this was a pleasant taste with a crunchy texture.

IMG_3136

The next dish was a tray of grilled, mashed eggplant with sesame paste – essentially, babaganouj, served on fried wonton wrappers. The flavor profile was not as strong as with a Middle Eastern version of the dish but it speaks to how there are some silk road influences in Chinese cuisine.

IMG_3139

A few minutes later, two chefs appeared near our table to skin the roast duck. The chef doing the cutting was supervised by a senior chef. The mahogany color of the skin was flawless.

IMG_3145

True to the authentic style, the skin was served with a thin layer of meat still attached. In Thailand, for example, the skin is usually completely separated from the meat. I prefer this traditional approach. Each diner had their own dish of nine accompaniments from hoisin sauce to white pepper to shredded green onion and daikon radish matchsticks. We could add these to the duck skin in fresh crepe-thin pancakes. Superb.

IMG_3149

Matsutake mushrooms stewed in spring water and served in a hot stone bowl. This was a let-down. While the mushrooms were nice, the broth tasted pretty much like spring water… and not much else. The faux-Christmas decorations also were off-putting. We should have just skipped on this particular dish.

IMG_3153

The next dish made up for it, though. These were oat flour rolls filled with Bolognese sauce and served with celery leaves. This is another “silk road” dish as oat flour is used to make noodles in western China, further along the historic trading route to central Asia. The Bolognese sauce also speaks to the influences that run both ways.

IMG_3160

A specialty from Suzhou, a region nearby Shanghai, is the squirrel-shaped deep-fried mandarin fish with sweet and sour sauce. The boneless fish is carved in a cross-hatch pattern, covered with egg yolk and deep fried. Afterwards, it is doused with sweet and sour sauce. This version was appealing although the sauce was a bit heavy and obscured the tender flavor of the fish ever so slightly.

IMG_3164

The next dish was a clever play on another local specialty, the lion’s head meatballs. A classic of Huaiyang cuisine which is found in Jiangsu province (of which Suzhou is a part), the lion’s head meatballs are oversized meatballs usually served with cabbage or other vegetables. One of the versions is served stewed in a broth. The clever play on this is that the meatball and broth were served “en papillote” on top of hot stones. A few star anise rested on the stones, releasing their spicy fragrance.

IMG_3168

The bags were untied in front of us, opening to reveal the pale pink meatball. If I recall correctly, our version was pork with crab meat. The meat was tender and very full of flavor, a delicacy that was as playful as it was flavorful.

IMG_3169

The next dish was thinly-sliced spring bamboo shoots sautéed with potherb mustard. This earthy dish provided a nice contrast to the meatball’s delicacy.

IMG_3179

A large bowl of stewed amaranth with mushroom slices and pear balls. This was a clever dish. The amaranth is a chard-like vegetable with an earthy flavor and a red color to the stems that tinges the broth a pretty pink. The pear balls add a sweet crispness that is a perfect foil for the earthy softness of the vegetables.

IMG_3187

To conclude the meal, we had a plate of steamed dumplings filled with “three delicacies”. I didn’t find out what those delicacies were but they were delicious. At this point, we were getting tremendously full and could have done with two or three fewer dishes.

IMG_3189

As we called for the bill, the server delivered a plate of fresh Chinese lychees nestled in a bed of ice with wisps of “smoke” from dry ice rising like the special effects in a martial arts costume drama.

Overall, Dadong proved to be a must-visit. And a must-visit with a large group, so you can try as many dishes as possible. If I had been dining with only one other person, we would have missed out on so many tasty things to eat. The attention to detail, presentation and overall service were impressive.

Dadong
Reel Mall
5/F, 1601 Nanjing Xi Lu near Changde Lu
南京西路1601号越洋广场5楼, 近常德路
Phone: 3253 2299
Open daily

 

A light lunch at La Cuisine de Bar

Fancy a soup and sandwich while exploring the Left Bank? For a light lunch, this narrow restaurant in the 6th arrondissement offers a simple menu built around bread from the acclaimed next-door bakery and Cuisine de Bar owner, Poilâne.

IMG_1164

We visited the location in the 6th arrondissement although there is another in the 3rd arrondissement as well as in Chelsea, London. The setting is cozy (read: tight) but also welcoming. The kitchen is a bar on the right, dining is along a banquet to the left and a small room in the back. The setting is bright but a bit warm from the open salamanders (broilers) in the kitchen.

IMG_1158

The menu is quite simple. Set menus or individual items. Sandwiches are all open-face slices of next-door bakery Poilâne’s beautiful loaves with a few simple toppings. The tomato, mozzarella and basil one was a delight.

IMG_1159

The smoke salmon was also nice. There were sets including the soup of the day and a glass of wine, reasonably priced.

IMG_1165

A view of the narrow kitchen. You can see where the heat was coming from! The staffing the day we visited was minimal: one person in the kitchen, two waiters and a person clearing and washing dishes. Based on how hectic and slow service was, I suspect they were short-handed at least one person. Who knows? Perhaps this is the way they normally run the show.

The service was polite but rushed. Trying to flag someone down to take our order was excruciating, until I realized that the waiter understood the order in which people had arrived and was taking the orders according to that. The wait was just something we had to deal with. It would have been nice to have been asked for some patience (the woman dining next to us seemed a bit put off) but we were on holiday, so why not just relax and enjoy the atmosphere?

IMG_1160

There were a few desserts including this very nice strawberry tart. As the rush was slowing near the end of the the lunch service, we took the time to enjoy a slice along with the coffee drinks that accompanied the set menu.

IMG_1163

With a cute cookie spoon with which to stir your coffee!

IMG_1167

The simple exterior of the restaurant on a sunny and warm Spring afternoon. Overall, I think La Cuisine de Bar is a worthwhile stop if you are on the Left Bank and are looking for a simple lunch. The bread is nice (buy a loaf next door!) and sometimes you want a simple lunch that still feels sophisticated.

La Cuisine de Bar
8 Rue du Cherche-Midi
Paris 75006
+33 1 45 48 45 69
Open daily

A classic French lunch at Le Soufflé

There is perhaps no dish more French than the soufflé. And one of the best places to have a soufflé at a reasonable price in Paris is Le Soufflé, an elegant dining room located a short walk from the Louvre and Tuileries Garden.

IMG_0916

We found Le Soufflé quite by accident, intending to have lunch at a recommended Asian restaurant just a few doors away. They were full, however, and we popped in at the upscale-looking Le Soufflé based on the charming exterior and the Zagat and other stickers posted by the front door.

IMG_0928

The young man greeting us was friendly and when we explained we had not reserved, he looked around the room and told us that if we could return in twenty minutes, he would have a table for us. After a short stroll around the block, we returned and were rewarded with a generously-sized table in the middle of the room.

IMG_0942

With a clientele that seems mostly made up of local office workers and older-school establishment types, I felt a little self-conscious. (“Look, the American!”) But the friendly and diverse staff made us feel welcome. In fact, the restaurant reminds me a bit of Cafe Jacqueline in San Francisco, in that the staff can seem a bit stern from the outside but they take good care of their guests.

The menu is relatively simple with a limited selection of soups and salads, a selection of savory soufflés and a selection of sweet soufflés. We ordered a set that included a salad and two soufflés.

IMG_0914

The soufflés (mine with a black olive tapenade and Tawn’s with smoked salmon) arrive relatively quickly. You sense that they must be preparing the choux base in advance and then folding in freshly-whipped egg whites. The size looks large, of course, impressively puffed up – but remember that a soufflé is largely air so a person can consume one relatively easily.

IMG_0921

For dessert, I opted for a rhubarb soufflé. This is one of my favorite fruits and was just in season so it appeared on many menus. The tartness of the rhubarb cut through the richness of the soufflé and made for a pleasant end to the meal.

The set lunch including a glass of wine and a coffee to follow was only EUR 28, about US$ 32. For the quality and quantity of food, it was quite a bargain. Le Soufflé is on my must-visit list for a quintessential French experience.

Le Soufflé
36 Rue du Mont Thabor
75001 Paris
+33 1 4260 2719
Closed Sundays

 

Breton Galletes at Breizh Cafe

The crisp buttery crunch was followed by the nuttiness of the buckwheat. Every bite that followed was comforting and hearty until the last bite, after which I was left satisfied but a bit sad. Such was the story on both of our meals at Breizh Cafe, a popular cafe in the 3rd arrondissement that produces succulent galletes – buckwheat crepes from Brittany – in a cozy, international setting with friendly service and, somewhat unusual in Paris, nearly a “no reservations” policy.

IMG_1189

The branch of this cafe in Le Marais, a district full of beautiful buildings and charming restaurants and shops, is cozy with tightly-packed indoor seating and a handful of tables on the sidewalk.

IMG_0781

Reservations were accepted for the following day when we arrived late and could not wait, but for the most part it is a first-come, first-served basis. The service is efficient, though, so waits seem mostly tolerable. The staff is welcoming and is happy to speak English, although they were quite patient with my broken French.

IMG_1183

In addition to crepes, they offer a range of ciders (available in the traditional bowl) as well as smoked sausages of various types. These made a lovely appetizer and I badly wanted to buy some from the next-door shop to take home.

IMG_0775

The main courses, a fixed menu plus some seasonal specials, are all the galletes – the buckwheat crepes that are surprisingly filling. The portion size is enough for one person, although you will be hard-pressed not to share! What I particularly enjoyed about Breizh was that they make the crepes nice and crisp. The texture adds such a nice contrast to the cheesy fillings.

IMG_1187

Desserts are made from wheat flour so they are lighter. This was a pear with salted caramel sauce. The neighboring show sells the caramel sauce and homemade salted caramels from Brittany. (Several tins of which made it back with us to Bangkok!)

This is definitely a must-visit, so much so that I ate two meals there on this trip.

Breizh Cafe
109 Rue Vieille du Temple
75003 Paris
+33 1 42 72 13 77

 

Chinese food comes to Paris

While in Paris, we visited two Chinese restaurants, one that playfully combines flavors, ingredients and concepts and the other that tries to more faithfully represent X’ian style cooking. One is more successful than the other, based on our visits.

La Taverne de Zhao

IMG_1096

The first stop was La Tavern de Zhou, located in the 10th arrondissement near Place de Republique and Canal Saint-Martin. This tiny restaurant is reputed for its faithful recreation of Xi’an dishes. In fact, multiple websites and reviews crowned it one of the best Asian restaurants in the city.

We arrived without a reservation but were shown to a table. Service  was a bit haphazard – I don’t expect California-like friendliness but they did seem a bit dismissive. We worked our way through the French menu and selected just a few items, highlighted specialties.

IMG_1095

The first was the raojiamo, or griddled steamed bun with meat filling. In this case, the choices are pork, pork with chilies, or tofu and egg. We ordered one with the pork and one with the pork and chilies. They were tasty although we added more hot sauce to both as they were in need of more seasoning. Perhaps Parisian palettes are delicate.

IMG_1093

The second dish was liangpi noodles. The making of this dish is interesting. I found this description on SeriousEats.com:

“…liangpi noodles are made by first washing a wheat or rice flour dough in water until its starches are completely rinsed off. This starchy water is then allowed to sit overnight until the starches collect at the bottom. The clear water above is poured off, and the ultra-starchy liquid below is steamed until it forms thin sheets with a uniquely crunchy-but-soft texture.”

The version here was dressed with a sesame oil and black vinegar sauce with cucumber and bean sprouts added. It was tasty but overall uninspiring. From what I’ve been told by friends who have visited, Xi’an offers a lot of really interesting, flavorful food. Based on what we tried (which was admittedly just a limited selection of the menu), it isn’t worth your time to eat here unless you live in Paris and are really desperate for Chinese food.

Address:49 Rue des Vinaigriers, 10eme arrondissement
Hours: daily except Monday
Telephone:01 40 37 16 21 (Reservations accepted, walk-ins welcome)

 

Siseng

The second place we visited was completely different. I would dub it the “Little Bao of Paris” in homage to my favorite restaurant in Hong Kong, which served steamed Taiwanese buns made into various types of burgers.

IMG_0960

Siseng, located adjacent to Canal Saint-Martin, has both a similar menu and a similar vibe. The space is small and cramped. The music is good. The energy is high. In short, it is a fun place to be.

IMG_0958Despite (or perhaps because of) the tight quarters and busy evening, the staff is extremely efficient while remaining friendly. Service in English was welcomed and they were patient when we tried our rusty French.

IMG_0949

The menu is much less bao-heavy than at Little Bao. In fact, there really are only two types of bao burgers. The rest of the menu has only about a dozen items plus a good selection of drinks and cocktails. We ordered these fried risotto balls that were made with coconut milk and lemongrass, which were spectacular. The flavor was rich and aromatic.

IMG_0957

We also enjoyed a vaguely Vietnamese dish called the “bo bun” – the menu says “don’t hesitate to eat it all!” – which are rice vermicelli with a chopped beef in curry sauce on top. Lots of fresh herbs and vegetables come with it. Authentic? Hardly. But tasty? Absolutely. This was a fun dish to eat and had great flavors.

IMG_0950 (1)

For the bao burgers, we had them both. This one, the Kaï, was a marinated chicken breast breaded and fried in katsu breadcrumbs and served with a basil and coconut milk pesto and a red pepper confit and homemade coleslaw.  The meat was tender and flavorful, the breading light and crunchy. It was a good bao burger.

IMG_0951 (1)

The second bao is the five spice burger, featuring a beef patty marinated in Chinese five spice mixture, served with a caramelized tamarind sauce, tempura fried onions, confit onions, rocket and spinach. It was nicely cooked and flavorful. The bao don’t seem to hold up quite as well as I would like, but that’s quibbling about details.

Overall, I think Siseng is a bit more “Asian-ish” versus Little Bao’s solid roots. Despite this, I think Siseng is one of the more interesting places we ate in Paris and is on the “visit again” list for our next trip.

Address: 82 Quai de Jemmapes, 10eme arrondissement
Hours: daily except Monday
Telephone: 06 68 89 77 88 (Reservations not accepted)