Food in Hong Kong: Little Bao

The final meal we had in Hong Kong over the New Year’s holiday was the most exciting and most memorable: a visit to a hole-in-the-wall Chinese burger bar called Little Bao.

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Located at the quiet end of Staunton Street in Central, a short walk from the escalator, Little Bao occupies a tiny storefront – maybe two dozen seats – with a large neon sign on the exterior. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations so we arrived about 6:30 on a weekday and faced an estimated wait of one hour. The friendly woman taking names suggested some nearby watering holes and offered to call when our table was ready, despite the fact that my phone number was overseas.

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In about fifty minutes, my phone rang and she let us know we could finish up our drinks and head back to the restaurant. We scored four prime seats, nestled along the counter facing the kitchen. (A second counter is placed along the wall to the left.) This afforded us a great view of the action. Adam, a friendly fellow, was running the front of the house and despite the hectic operation, had time to walk us through the menu and answer questions.

Little Bao has a short wine list with excellent selections from the Pacific Northwest. Thanks to there being no duties on wine imports in Hong Kong, these were good values and complemented the food very well.

The menu is divided into two sections. The first features baos – steamed buns filled hamburger-style with different ingredients – that are not intended for sharing. They have a strict “no cutting” policy although we did share our baos, each taking a bite and passing them unhygienically amongst our friends. The other part of the menu are dishes designed for sharing. With four people, we ordered one of nearly everything on the menu.

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The first dish to arrive was the orange chicken – fried chicken with salty egg yolk, a honey glaze, and orange zest. The salty egg yolk, a common but sometimes overpowering ingredient in Chinese cuisine, elevated the fried chicken to another level. You had a nice balance of sweet, salty, and savory with the citrus zest cutting through to unite the flavors.

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These short-rib pan fried dumplings (essentially gyoza) were filled with slow-braised beef short rib that was tender and rich, and served on a bed of celeriac coleslaw. It was like a pleasant collision of a plate of barbecue beef brisket and coleslaw with a Chinese take-out container filled with potstickers.

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The next dish was clams with bacon and potato, served in a white pepper miso broth with toasted miso-butter baos. The clams were tender and sweet and the broth was an interesting study in complementary flavors: the umami that comes from the miso and the subtle heat of white pepper.

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As they had been recommended by many reviewers, we also ordered the LB fries, served with a side of roasted tomato sambal and kewpie mayo. There’s a spray of lime on the fries but there must be something else – cocaine, perhaps? – that makes these batons of fried potatoes so very addictive.

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Directly in front of us was the bao preparation station. There are only four bao on the menu plus one special. We ordered all of them except for the regular chicken bao. Each bao was about four to five bites – about the size of a modest (but very vertical) hamburger. I can understand why they have a no-cutting policy: ingredients would fall out and you would lose out on the flavor gestalt of the experience.

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If I’m not mistaken, from left to right the bao pictures are the fish tempura (with tamarind palm sugar glaze and pickled lemongrass fennel salad), the pork belly (slow braised with leek and shiso red onion salad, sesame dressing, and hoisin ketchup), the Sloppy Chan (Taiwanese braised shitake tempeh, truffle mayo, sweet pickled daikon, and fried shallot), the pork belly again, and the special of the day, a spicy fried chicken bao.

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In the interest of giving you a closer look, here is the special, the spicy fried chicken with garlic black bean mayo and scallion coleslaw. All of the baos were tasty and they all succeed for the same reason: there aren’t too many ingredients, but enough to make the dish interesting. There are different textures and flavors and the soft but toasted bao bun absorbs some of the sauce so it isn’t just a neutral carrier for the ingredients but very much a part of the dish.

The food, which is excellent, is only a part of what makes Little Bao such a pleasant dining experience. There is a really good energy to the place. Part of this is because it is small and crowded, but in a way that feels intimate instead of cramped. Part of it is because there is great music, but at a volume low enough that you can still hear conversations with fellow diners. But the biggest part of the good energy is that you can tell that the staff seems to really love what they are doing and they enjoy working with each other.

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From what I’ve read, credit for that goes to the chef May Chow (pictured above). With a Canadian and Hong Kong background by way of the United States, she has built a team that is chosen for attitude rather than experience, treated well, and motivated based on their own interests. (Read more about that here.) I had a chance to chat with her for a few minutes and was very impressed with the way she thinks about food and running a restaurant. Thanks to a quick response to one of my Instagram photos, I also discovered that we have a common chef friend here in Bangkok: Jess Barnes of Opposite Mess Hall. In-depth profile of May at SassyHongKong.com here.

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Just as we were reaching that point of satiation, dessert arrived. There is only one dessert on the menu and that’s okay because that one dessert is so perfect, there is no need for anything else! It is an ice cream sandwich made with deep-fried bao, green tea ice cream, and a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk. When I write that it is “so perfect,” I mean that it achieves a spectacular balance of flavors and textures that is satisfying and made for the ideal end to this meal.

You can probably tell that I enjoyed the meal, huh?

Anyhow, if you are in Hong Kong, I would strongly recommend a visit to Little Bao. Come with one or two other people so you can share but not with a large group otherwise you will never get seated. Come prepared to wait a bit – bring a book or go to one of the nearby bars for a drink. Most importantly, come with an appetite, because you’ll need it.

Food in Hong Kong: Peking Garden

The New Year’s trip to Hong Kong included a return visit to Peking Garden, one of the nice restaurants that are part of the Maxim Group. I’ve enjoyed dining there many times over the years and was glad to see that everything is still up to the standards I remembered. As an added bonus, we were joined by an ex-Xangan and his partner, who were still in town.

P.S. – I’m not still in Hong Kong; just takes me a while to get all the pictures posted and entries written!

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We enjoyed a set lunch for six that worked out to about US$40 per person, if memory serves. May sound expensive for a lunch but as you will see, it was quite a lunch. Plus, the setting and service are very nice. As we arrived, pickled vegetables and tofu were set out for us to munch on as we ordered.

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The first dish of the set was jellyfish, a traditional Chinese delicacy. For some reason, the menu’s English description of this was “sea blubber,” which of course is as inaccurate as it is unappetizing! If you haven’t had it, the dish is served cold and the texture is slightly crunchy with a pleasant, slightly salty taste. An unusual texture if you haven’t had it but very agreeable.

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The next dish featured pork spareribs, braised and served in a rich gravy. These were nice and tender so eating them with chopsticks was easy.

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The next dish was a sweet and spicy prawn dish. You can’t tell the scale from this picture, but these were very generously sized prawns, very fresh and of excellent quality. Normally, prawns in many restaurants are basically just large shrimp. These were genuine prawns and such a pleasure to eat.

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The star of the meal (and a dish for which the restaurant is famous) was the Peking Duck. It was presented at the table for photos and then taken to a nearby cart where a waiter expertly whittled off the skin into slices. Unlike some restaurants, Peking Garden also includes a layer of meat with the skin, which I very much like.

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At many restaurants, the meat would be served on a platter along with a stack of pancakes (crepes) and garnishes. Instead, the servers at Peking Garden prepare the pancakes for you, each with some hoisin sauce, cucumbers, green onions, and a piece of the crispy-juicy-fatty duck skin. Little packets of heaven! Notice the gorgeous tableware, too.

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The final main dish was fried white fish in a sweet and sour sauce. The fish was also very fresh and of good quality. Just a pleasant was to wind down the meal.

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Some stir-fried greens provided some needed roughage!

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And dessert was a simple plate of fresh fruit. In general, Chinese meals don’t tend to have a lot of dessert. If not fruit, it is a simple dish that is usually not super sweet. Big chocolate lava cake would be out of place. Something that I really appreciate about Chinese food is its ability to achieve such nice balance.

Overall, the meal was a success on all levels: food, service, decor, company, etc. Peking Garden will remain on my to-visit list.

Xanga Meet Up Dinner at Island Tang

Over the new year’s holiday we were in Hong Kong, in part to take part in the second annual Xanga meet-up or, more accurately, the Xanga alumni meet-up. This year’s group was roughly the same as last year’s and once again a nice venue was chosen for dinner: Island Tang.
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Island Tang’s owner is Sir David Tang (of the Shanghai Tang retail brand) whose restaurants include China Club, which I wrote about two days ago. The interior of the restaurant is every bit as elegant as China Club but many degrees subtler. As Time Out Hong Kong described it, Island Tang is Hong Kong of the 1940s compared to China Club’s Shanghai of the 1920s.

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In fact, it isn’t too much to describe the space as gorgeous. There was tremendous attention to detail in everything from decor to menu design to place settings. It felt elegant from the very start.

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The menu is primarily Cantonese food. The pictures here are a selection of what we ordered, although not everything. Above is the wok-fried jumbo garoupa fillets with Hangzhou pepper, garlic, and preserved black beans. Tasty dish although the fish was a bit overwhelmed by all the other flavors.

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A traditional braised duck with “eight treasures” – additional ingredients which can vary by recipe but in this case included shrimp, scallops, and mushrooms among other things. Very tasty dish.

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We tried several different soups, most of which were similar to what I showed from China Club. One unique offering was a casserole boiled bean curd (tofu) stuffed with minced pork and mushroom. This was a very nice, subtle dish.

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One of the non-Cantonese dishes, a very tasty pan-fried Welsh lamb belly seasons with cumin. The skin was crispy, the fat was properly rendered, and the cumin gave it an earthy flavor that was delightful.

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Quite an interesting dish was the wok-fried papaya with honey bean and fresh lily bulb. Most of the time in Thai cooking, we use green papaya, so I was caught a bit off guard to find ripe papaya used in this stir-fry. The most interesting ingredient was the lily bulb, something I don’t think I’ve had before. The combination was light and flavorful.

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For some more vegetables, we had wok-fried kale with crushed ginger and rice wine. A simple dish, well executed.

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We ordered a variety of chilled, pudding-like deserts that were tasty but did not photograph well. The only item I did photograph were these glutinous rice and sesame balls, which thankfully weren’t as oily as I had expected.

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A final shot of the dining room. We started eating at 8:30 and by the time we left, were pretty much the last diners. These ladies left before us.

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The obligatory shot of the current and former Xangans plus four non-blogger guests. Will let you figure out who is who.

New Year’s Eve at China Club in Hong Kong

New Year’s Eve was spent at the China Club, a retro-chic private club in Hong Kong, for music from the early 1900s, atmosphere from all over the place, and food that was mostly Cantonese.

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Tawn and I dressed to the nines. We didn’t realize that the theme for the night was for Great Gastby-ish dress, otherwise we would have worn some vintage crushed velvet dinner jackets. I’m proud that I achieved one of my 2013 resolutions: being able to tie my own bow tie without watching the YouTube video to guide me. Success!

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The interior of the club, which occupies the top three floors of the old Bank of China building, has the feel of a Chinese tea house but with loads of contemporary art on the walls. It was a happening place with lots of young professionals crowding the tables. Someone needs to remind these young men that gentlemen do not remove their jackets at the dinner table.

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The menu is mostly Chinese, with an emphasis on Cantonese cuisine, the style indigenous to Hong Kong. We did order a few variations, though. Appetizers began with these deep fried prawns with foie gras, wrapped in tofu sheets, which featured large, fresh prawn meat.

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Soups are usually available per-person, that way everyone can order what they want. One of our friends had this crab claw meat (one perfect, unbroken piece) served in a lovely consommé broth with vegetables.

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The other friend and Tawn both ordered the sweet and sour soup, a classic that was very nicely done. (Yes, I tried a bite of everything!)

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I tried one of the special soups, which was braised beef brisket in hand-pulled noodles. The brisket was nicely tender and flavorful while the noodles had a pleasant “al dente” texture.

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One of the recommended dishes was the charsiu, or roasted, honey-glazed pork belly. This staple of Cantonese cuisine is succulent and, when done well, is the perfect balance of flavors and textures. The chef did a good job with this and another plate would have been welcome

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This is a Szechuan style dish: sautéed diced chicken with garlic, star anise, chilies, and spring onion. It isn’t as hot as you might imagine and was one of my favorite dishes.

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For variety, I ordered another Szechuan dish: dan dan noodles. This dish has a spicy chili sauce made with preserved vegetables and minced pork served over noodles. This particular version had a lot more sauce than usual and the sauce had less of the tongue-numbing Szechuan peppercorns than I have experienced in other versions. Nonetheless, it was enjoyable.

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Sautéed lotus root, sweet peas, water chestnuts, and various fungi served in a nest made from deep fried taro root. This was a wonderful example of the clean flavors, simple preparation, and elegant presentation of Cantonese cuisine. Of course, it can also be heavy and oily when poorly done.

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I ordered this dish as an appetizer and it arrived near the end of the meal. Familiar to people who dine at Vietnamese restaurants, it is chopped shrimp made into a paste, formed around sugar cane, and deep fried. Always tasty.

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We concluded the meal with some fried rice, this one a mixture of different meats and vegetables. As with most Chinese banquets (although this meal was ordered a la carte), the rice is served last so that you do not fill up on it during the meal.

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For dessert, we shared a few items that didn’t photograph well plus these lovely egg custard tarts. With a very flakey and not-too-oily crust, the tarts were a nice conclusion to the meal.

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We also inexplicably received fortune cookies. I say “inexplicably” because these are an American invention and not authentic in the least. To top it off, there seems to be a trend of fortune cookies increasingly reading like “advice” cookies. As one Chinese friend pointed out, the quality of writing must be suffering because the fortunes are now outsourced to a factory in China. Ha!

All in all, China Club was a good meal and a fun place to dine on New Year’s Eve. For more info, here’s their website. Note that the club is members-only so to go, a member needs to make reservations for you.

Weekend Lunch Now Served at Appia

One of my favorite new restaurants of the past year is Appia, the Roman trattoria on Sukhumvit Soi 31. Now that evening operations at the nearly always-packed restaurant are running smoothly, owner Jarrett Wrisley and owner/chef Paolo Vitaletti have introduced a lunch menu. Based on my first visit this afternoon, I think I now have twice as many reasons to make regular visits to Appia.

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The first thing I noticed upon arriving just before noon (the restaurant opens at 11:30 on Saturday and Sunday) is that the already welcoming dining room is even warmer and cozier with daylight streaming in the one wall of windows.  It would be very easy to just curl up in a banquette and spend the whole day there draining a few bottles from Appia’s thoughtful wine collection, grazing from lunch to afternoon snacks to dinner.

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The lunch menu is largely different from the dinner menu although you will recognize them as relatives. For example, the succulent porchetta appears not as a stand-alone dish but as a sandwich with roasted peppers and homemade pickles. There are a variety of salads, sandwiches, pasta and grain dishes (these, too, do not completely overlap the dinner menu) and a handful of egg dishes.

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With two of us dining, we had to restrain ourselves a bit while still trying a cross-section of the menu. We began with a roasted pumpkin salad, which is garnishes with rocket, pumpkin seeds, almond slivers, and pomegranate seeds, dressed with dijon mustard and honey. This salad was perfectly seasoned and the pumpkin was tender but not mushy, a texture that can be unappealing with a room-temperature salad.

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We also tried the crab sandwich served with spicy aioli and provolone cheese on whole grain bread, served with a side of the homemade pickles. While the sandwich may not have looked like much, its pedestrian exterior hid a generous portion of fresh, sweet, large-lump crab meat. This sandwich along with a salad would make for a very satisfying meal.

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The first of our two egg dishes was the uovo alla pizzaiola – two Parisi eggs (imported from Italy) baked in a vibrant tomato sauce topped with stringy fresh scamorza cheese. Served with some toast, this assertively seasoned dish verged on the hearty, even though it is vegetarian (albeit not vegan). Chef Paolo really coaxes a great deal of flavor out of just a handful of ingredients.

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The second of our egg dishes was Appia’s take on Eggs Benedict: poached eggs served on corned beef, chicory, n’dujia sabayon (think spicy spreadable pork sausage Hollandaise sauce), over sourdough bread. This dish packed a punch! The bitterness of the chicory was cut by the saltiness of the beef and all of it was tamed by the n’dujia sabayon. The dish brimmed with umami.

Prices are very reasonable for the quality of food, with sides and smaller dishes starting at around 140 baht and mains topping out at 380 with most in the 280-300 range. Since lunchtime dining has just been introduced, there isn’t yet a crowd, but I would imagine that before year’s end reservations will be advised.

 

Food in Chiang Mai: Burmese Restaurant

Along Niemenhamen Road, the artsy district of Chiang Mai located near Chiang Mai University, sits a nondescript restaurant with a utilitarian name: Burmese Restaurant. Recommended by a friend who moved to Chiang Mai recently, a recommendation confirmed by several Burmese staff members of the hotel at which we stayed, I went for dinner.

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The restaurant sits directly on the street at the corner of Soi 8, the cooking area and one dining area located outdoors, another dining area indoors. The crowd of diners was very light this Friday evening, maybe due to the impending rain. The friendly staff welcomed us and offered us a table indoors, turning on fans to ensure our comfort.

There are two menus, each a single page with about thirty items. One menu features Burmese dishes. The other menu features Thai/Chinese style dishes. We ordered from the Burmese menu with the exception of one vegetable dish. Unfortunately, several items we ordered were not available either because they were out already or the dish is not offered every day.

Here is a look at the dishes we ate – all of which were tasty. The entire bill for five diners was less than US$20. Needless to say, I’ll be back next time I am in Chiang Mai.

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We had ordered a curried fish soup that is the national dish of Burma. Sadly, it was not on the menu so we instead ordered this bean soup, which was tasty although not very distinctive.

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The goat curry, which our local friend enthused about, was also not available that day so we chose the chicken and potato curry instead. While it may not look particularly attractive, especially because of the oil slick on top, the curry was very flavorful and we ordered a second serving.

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The stand-out dish was this tamarind leaf salad, one of several salads on the menu made with what I would consider “unusual” ingredients. This salad was refreshing and it is difficult to describe the flavor of the leaves. The flavor is entirely pleasant and entirely unlike the taste of the tamarind fruit. One blogger described it as “eating al dente ferns”, which is about right. The salad is sweet and sour and salty with chopped peanuts and tomatoes.

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We also ordered a tomato salad, which was a pleasant surprise. With the exception of cherry tomatoes, which are generally very red and sweet, tomatoes in Thailand are usually pale pink and crunchy. These were anything but, and with onions and cilantro, they made for a refreshing dish.

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The menu contained many items translated into English as “curries” that are different from what you might expect, especially if you consider a curry as something with coconut milk in it. Instead, these curries feature a variety of spices but lighter sauces. The above picture is of an eggplant curry dish that was very nice.

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There was also a boiled duck egg curry dish that was tasty. While you see a lot of chilies in this (and other) dishes, they were not particularly spicy at least by the standards of Thai cuisine. As one Burmese friend described it, the food is more similar to Northern Thai cuisine than the super-spicy Northeastern or Southern Thai cuisines.

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The only item we ordered off the secondary menu was this simple stir-fry of greens and pork. While the salads we ordered had lots of greens, it felt like another dish of vegetables would help balance things out.

This is probably only the third or fourth time I have eaten Burmese food, and the first time in more than a dozen years. Without a doubt, I need to seek it out more often!

 

 

 

Adventures in Cooking: Raviolo

At a friend’s recently opened Roman style restaurant (about which I will write), I enjoyed a “raviolo” – singular of “ravioli” – a single, large filled pasta. His version has an egg yolk in the middle and it is cooked to just the right point that as you cut into the raviolo, the egg yolk pours out. Very dramatic presentation. I decided to try my hand at the concept and make my own raviolo.

The end result, which looks pretty enough, is about seven inches in diameter. Truly, I did make “ravioli” as there was one for Tawn and one for me. I just like saying “raviolo”. All things considered, it was a bit of a misadventure due to lack of experience and finesse on my part. But we learn from our mistakes, right? Well, I try to.

The filling was made of braised spinach and chicken, seasoned liberally with garlic, rosemary, and chili flakes.

I used Thomas Keller’s seven-yolk pasta dough recipe, which is my go-to recipe for pasta. Instead of pulling out the KitchenAid mixer, I hand rolled the dough. First mistake, as I couldn’t roll it nearly as thin as I should have. That may be because I didn’t let the dough rest long enough after kneading. It was getting late and I wanted dinner on the table before 9:00.

A good-sized portion of the filling was placed in the midst of the dough and an egg yolk was nestled on top. This was my second mistake. I separated the egg yolks at the same time as I separated the egg yolks for the pasta dough. In the intervening hour or so, the yolks formed a slight skin on them, so when I tried to pour them onto the filling, they tore. That ruined the effect of having a nice soft-cooked yolk to cut into!

Mama-mia! That’s a meat-balla! Well, actually, just a raviolo. Quite large and a bit of a pain to cut because I had no cutter large enough. Instead, I traced around a saucer with a sharp paring knife.

After about six minutes boiling (they were a pain to flip!), the ravioli were ready to serve. I put a simple homemade tomato sauce on top, sprinkling a bit of mozzarella cheese. As you can see, the egg yolk is hardly discernible as it has melted into the filling. The pasta skin, as I mentioned, was a little thick especially around the edges. All in all, I think it was an okay first attempt and was definitely a learning experience. Next time, I’ll make them a bit smaller, roll out the dough using the pasta machine, and separate the egg yolks at the last minute. The one thing I was pleased with was the filling. While it could have used more spinach (the darn vegetable just shrivels up to nothing when you cook it!), the flavor was very good – salty, garlicky, and slightly spicy.