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

 

Inexpensive dining in Paris: La Kantine

For a less expensive meal while in Paris, La Kantine, a cafeteria on the top floor of Le BHV department store in the Marais district, offers a wide selection at reasonable prices plus a well-lit dining area with a rooftop view of the neighborhood surrounding Hôtel de Ville in the fourth arrondissement.

IMG_1017

The new, modern BHV Marais department store is an update of the old Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville created in 1856. It is a good place to shop for souvenirs – the selection of teas, confections, etc. is extensive so if you want to bring some relatively inexpensive gifts home that aren’t the tacky touristy items, this is a good place to find them.

IMG_1015

The restaurant is a buffet: grab a tray and help yourself to whatever food you like. There are stations on the left that prepare foods to order including pasta dishes. There are a selection of quiches, soups and meat platters. There are different cheeses and desserts, as you would expect. And prices are clearly marked.

IMG_1012

The seating is bright and airy, a combination of communal tables and some smaller tables. There is a good view and one that might feel a bit out of the movie “Ratatouille” – the rooftops of Paris. There is no feeling of being rushed, so you can also use this as a place to catch your breath and plan your attack for the next part of the day.

Information:

Address: 52, Rue de Rivoli
Telephone : 0977 401 400
Located near Métro station Hôtel de Ville (line 1)
Open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 am until 8:00 pm (Wednesdays until 9:00 pm)

 

Holybelly

What would happen if an Australian or American style brunch place landed in the City of Light? No need to hypothesize: head to the 10th arrondissement and visit Holybelly to find great coffee, great breakfasts and friendly service.

IMG_1341

Holybelly is located near the Canal Saint-Martin, a working class neighborhood that has been increasing in popularity over the past few years and is gentrifying at an increasing rate. It still has its rough edges but the yuppies and hipsters of Paris are plentiful.

IMG_1330

The narrow interior leads to a larger, skylit seating area near the kitchen. The restaurant would be at home in Melbourne or San Francisco and differs from most breakfast restaurants in Paris by being coffee obsessive and offering a larger range of foods on the menu.

One notable difference from Parisian peers is the restaurant’s bold friendliness: the board above the coffee bar announces “Welcome to Holybelly, where the customer is always loved but ain’t always right.” The menus also offer similar salutations in both English and French. Tawn and I were first to arrive followed quickly by a rush of customers, most of whom seemed to be regulars, greeted warmly in French and English by the employees.

IMG_1336

The menu is fairly simple. We chose eggs cooked to order with two sides: roasted and pan fried mushrooms with thyme and garlic, and a homemade pork sausage patty. Everything came with beautiful artisanal bread from Du Pain et des  Idees bakery, where we had nearly wound up with a dozen croissants the previous morning. They also offered some varieties of pancakes and homemade granola for breakfast. A brief lunch menu kicks in mid-day.

IMG_1340

The highlight is the savory stack: a stack of griddled pancakes with fried eggs, bacon, homemade bourbon butter and maple syrup. You can turn that into “The Champ” by also ordering a topping of roasted and fried mushrooms. It was a pretty outrageous, and outrageously delicious, dish!

The coffee was fantastic, brewed from locally-roasted beans from la Brulerie de Belleville. Nice to have a proper latte after several days of cafe cremes that showed that Parisian coffee these days isn’t as great as it once was.

If you want to better understand Holybelly, read the facts page on their website, complete with Game of Thrones references. Better yet, fly to Paris and visit them.

Holybelly
19 rue Lucien Sampaix
75010 Paris

Open 9:00 am weekdays, 10:00 weekends, closed Tuesday and Wednesdays