Dinner at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon Bangkok

Joël Robuchon is one of the most successful chefs in the world, with a chain of eponymous restaurants in major cities around the globe. Last month, I had the opportunity to dine at the Bangkok branch of his “L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon” chain, literally the artist’s workshop of Joël Robuchon. It is widely considered Bangkok’s finest restaurant and I could see how that argument is made.

Let me share a bit about the experience, which was exquisite. I’ll preface this by sharing that four friends of ours generously gave us a certificate for the seven-course tasting menu with wine pairing, so we did not pay for this meal out of pocket. Additionally, Tawn knows the executive chef here in Bangkok, so let him know we would be coming, ensuring particularly attentive service. That said, I believe that this is a fantastic experience for anyone and a good value for the money, for an extremely special occasion.

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The restaurant is located a few floors up in the Mahanakorn Cube, a small shopping complex adjacent to the construction site for what will soon be one of tallest and most spectacular buildings on the Bangkok skyline. As you enter, you step into a small, darkly lit but richly decorated sitting room and are greeting by polite staff.

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The entire room is laid out as a long counter seating perhaps 30 people. There is a small private function room in the back. The layout is evocative of a sushi bar and thus the diners’ attention is drawn towards the kitchen and service staff. This reinforces the idea that the restaurant is an artist’s workshop: you are hear to observe the craft.

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We were seated at the middle of the counter with a direct view of the main cooking station. This also allowed us additional attention and interaction with the chef as well as the rest of the staff. There is a very good ambiance and you can tell that while the team takes their work seriously, they have fun and enjoy working with each other.

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The amuse bouche, a pairing of crisp and soft quinoa and a mouse with smoked piquillo peppers. Interesting pairing of textures and flavors just to whet the appetite.

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The breads are baked in-house by their pastry chef and the large bread bowl is refreshed throughout the meal, not that you particularly need to fill up on bread.

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Such is the attention to detail that the design of some of the rolls match the bread plates.

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Le caviar imperial de sologne – a surprise of Sologne Imperial caviar served on a lobster broth gelee with dainty dots of cauliflower puree. The flavors were very clean and the detailing was meticulous.

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Underneath the caviar is a thin disk of crab meat. And that is a flake of edible gold leaf in the middle. This was a good example of where beautifully balanced flavors and technique are amplified by the thoughtful presentation.

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Executive chef Olivier Limousin and his staff playfully presents the next course. He is a bon vivant and gracious host.

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La truffe noire – the black truffle. A poached egg with black truffle, perched atop a cake of risotto with shaved parmigiano reggiano cheese. A nice combination and another artful presentation, although I would argue the risotto was a tad under-seasoned.

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Le foie gras de canard – pan fried duck liver, roasted tangerine with chopped rosemary and a mango sauce. This was a very simple pairing, proving that simple flavors, executed well, can be amazing.

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Close-up detail of the cross-hatches on the surface of the foie gras, letting the fat render beautifully. Coarse salt and chives were the perfect addition to the rich main ingredient.

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Roasted artichoke on a thin puree of artichoke, served with chickpeas cappuccino scented with tumeric. This was a dish that surprised on two counts: not only was the dish itself very unctuous, but it was beautifully paired with a wine that made a beautiful transformation after a bite of the dish. Artichoke is usually kills most wines.

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The fish course was a black cod, marinated with miso served with a pumpkin veloute with chestnut and black truffle.

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Close-up of the fish, you can see how the scales appear to have been fried and turned into crunchy bits, which were distracting. I loved the flavor of this dish, particularly the broth. I didn’t identify it as a pumpkin veloute with chestnut and black truffle. It seemed much more like a butter and orange sauce, but maybe my palette was off.

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There was a dish of lamb chops with mashed potato that was exquisitely prepared. It is such a simple, rustic dish and yet so satisfying to eat.

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Likewise, the confit of Challans duck with potato mousse and black truffles with a parmesan crisp. It was beautiful to look at and satisfying to eat. I should mention that the lamb chops above and the duck confit were an either/or option: Tawn ordered one and I ordered the other, although we shared the dishes.

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A look at the confit duck hidden buried under the potatoes.

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A view of the “sushi” display cases along the counter: this one decorated in a wintry scene with powdered sugar and vanilla beans.

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The parade of desserts began with a gelee of Japanese Amaou strawberries with pink Champagne granite and meringue.

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A deconstructed picture so you can see the gelee and granite below the meringue.

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Then, in a Japanese black lacquered bowl, they served a gelee made from the Japanese soft drink Calpis (vaguely like a yogurt) covered with supreme of lychee, a raspberry coulis and a delicate flower meringue filled with raspberry.

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This photo shows more about the structure of the dessert, although it doesn’t do it justice. Very tasty treat.

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A few petits-fours were served, filling us beyond the bursting point.

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After we had called for the check, yet another dessert arrived, a chocolate and raspberry mouse, with a candle – a treat from the chef to celebrate our anniversary, which was the reason for the meal.

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The dainty little doily is edible.

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The staff took a picture of us at the end of the meal, looking much too bloated, I suspect!

Overall, it was a tremendous treat and at nearly four hours, quite an adventure. As for the question of value, this will always be a matter of opinion. The seven-course menu is 7,500 baht with a supplement of 4,000 baht for wine pairings. (A five-course option is 5,000 with 3,000 for the wine.) It is safe to say this is the most expensive meal we’ve ever eaten!

The decor, ambiance, hospitality, service, wine pairing, plating, flavor, technique and experience were all remarkable. For a very special occasion, it is an extravagant treat and you get you money’s worth. For less special occasions, there are thankfully less expensive lunch sets and there is also an a la carte menu.

As to the question of whether L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon is the best restaurant in Bangkok, I would say it is. You may or may not be able to afford it and you may or may not find it worth spending the money on, but the overall experience is better than anything else in town.

 

Taper Restaurant

In addition to having a spate of restaurants serving “Grandma style” cooking, Bangkok is also seeing a blossoming of brunch restaurants. The trend has been a bit longer in the making, but the rate of new openings seems to be increasing. We recently made two trips to Taper, one of the newest brunch restaurants in the Thong Lor neighborhood.

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Located on Soi Akkaphat, the awkward soi that runs parallel to Thong Lor from Soi 5, across Soi 13, and eventually turns into Soi 17, Taper is neighbors with Little Beast. Located on the bottom two floors of a shop house, Taper has a pleasing design with counter seating around an open kitchen on the ground floor, and a more formal dining areas on the mezzanine.

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The restaurant is a partnership between the two chefs from Le-Du restaurant and a third chef, who was a classmate at the Culinary Institute of America with one of the Le-Du partners. The interior is described as “modern Scandinavian” which would explain why when I first entered, I thought I had walked into a replica of the slightly more elegant Rocket Coffeebar on Sukhumvit Soi 49.

The most outstanding point of Taper is the friendly service. From the wait staff to the cooks to the partners, everyone was welcoming and checked in frequently during both our visits to see how we liked the food. Attentive, friendly service is a welcome thing and came across as most sincere.

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The menu is self-described as “Asian inspired brunch”. One example of this is their “world famous congee” – brown rice, mushroom, belly bacon, a soft boiled egg, and soy sauce reduction with ginger. What came out wasn’t really congee, but rather a thick blended soup, muddy in color, with a distinctly mushroom flavor. There was nothing particularly wrong with it, but at 330 baht, it wasn’t particularly outstanding, either.

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The Taper Benedict is a homemade buttermilk biscuit, so-called “63c” eggs, Hollandaise sauce, “thick cut bacon” (same as the “belly bacon” in the congee), and small rocket salad. The biscuits were nice enough, the sauce was very pleasant (but the surface congealed quickly because of the powerful air conditioner blowing above the kitchen-front counter), but on this visit the eggs had not been poached sufficiently.

Let’s not be nit-picky here, but the entire point of a 63-degree egg is that the proteins in the white are set but the yolk is still runny. (See the link above for more.) The whites in my eggs were still the consistency and color of cloudy mucus. I like soft eggs, but these were simply undercooked.

The thick cut bacon is such a tiny portion (and tough to cut) that it feels rather stingy. I would rather have two or three slices of regular bacon than to feel, at 290 baht a plate, that I’m getting short-changed.

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We tried another Asian-inspired dish, the “squid and salty egg”, which was fresh pasta with a sauce made of salted egg yolk served with grilled squid, chili, and coriander. This was a pretty interesting dish, the salted egg yolk giving a different taste than you might usually expect in a pasta sauce. The sauce was gloppy, though. The squid was tasty but being grilled ever so briefly, the texture offered no appealing counter-point to the pasta. Perhaps if it had been pan-fried and was slightly crispy, it would have contrasted better. At 290 baht, this was probably the best value of the four dishes.

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The fourth dish we tried was the duck and waffle, a crispy duck leg, tom yum mayo, buttermilk waffle, and honey butter. This is such a pretty dish and tasted fine, but bits and pieces were underwhelming. The duck didn’t seem to be a proper confit, so the meat was a bit dry and stringy. The waffle was nicely crisp but the tom yum mayo seemed quite thick, the sort of sauce I would turn out (as an amateur cook) from my kitchen. The flavor combination of the mayo mixed with the honey butter was enjoyable, but seemed a bit unsophisticated. The price for this dish was 390 baht, which was okay given what it was.

Concluding thoughts

So what to make of Taper? On our two visits we enjoyed the space and the pleasant service. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into the food and when we spoke with the chef, he seemed genuinely interested in our feedback.

The ideas are interesting, but it seems that the execution is still not quite right. The “congee” either needs to be a soup or actually be congee, especially at that price. The sauces need to be a bit more refined. The bacon either needs to be otherworldly or else more generous, portion-wise. The 36-degree eggs need to actually stay in the water long enough to reach 36 degrees.

I like what they are doing and want them to succeed, so will probably make another trip or two in the coming month to see if these rough edges get smoothed off. If so, I think Taper will settle into the neighborhood and last.

 

 

Food in Bangkok: Karmakamet Diner

Hot new “must try” restaurants in Bangkok are like dandelions: they pop up frequently but don’t last long. One recent flowery addition to the local dining scene, Karmakamet Diner, stands a chance at staying around, at least if their brunch is any indication.

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Karmakamet is a local brand specializing in high-quality and beautifully packaged perfumes, aromatics, and candles. They started with a small shop at Chatuchak Market and grew slowly. Eventually, a small tea shop opened at Central World Plaza and then not that long ago a cafe opened in Silom.

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In the last few months, they have opened their first full-blown restaurant in a stylish converted warehouse tucked just behind Emporium’s second car park structure. The building resembles a greenhouse-cum-factory with views of the pretty garden through windows glazed to keep the sunlight from being unbearable.

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The interior space is richly designed with lots of vintage-looking details. Most of the dandelion restaurants in Bangkok also feature fetching interiors, but Karmakamet Diner seems to have been more thoughtfully designed than most. It really is a pleasant space with interesting things to notice whichever direction you look.

Of course, my primary concern in any restaurant is the food. While I haven’t been there for dinner yet, I have had weekend brunch there three times over the past six weeks. Each time the food quality was consistent, the presentation attractive, and while the dishes are relatively pricey, I find them a fair value given the quality, portion size, and beautiful setting. Let’s take a look at what I tried – rest assured I dined with other people and didn’t eat all of this food myself!

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Home made granola with fresh fruits and yogurt. Tasty, although it is granola so I’m not sure that I can expect anything amazing.

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The crab-avocado sandwich has a spicy truffle mayonnaise, rocket, hard boiled egg, and tomato confit. This was a tasty sandwich although the use of plain thick-cut white bread was a bit of a letdown. Something whole grain would have been nicer.

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Panini with roasted vegetables, melted cheese, pesto, and a ridiculously tasty portion of ratatouille. A pretty simple dish but well-executed. The choice of bread was very good.

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The croque madame was one of the highlights. Layered buttered toast with Gruyere cheese, ham, bacon, and sous-vide egg, topped with melted Mozzarella. It is every bit as rich and decadent as it sounds. Perhaps not for the high of cholesterol!

2014-02-10 05A pasta dish featuring capellini with cod roe and garlic. This was a nice dish, pleasantly salty from the roe. There was also a very spicy crab pasta (not pictured) that was enjoyable and, true to its promise, very spicy.

2014-03-01 5Penne with N’Duja, an Italian spicy sausage that seems to be quite the favored ingredient here in Bangkok these days, along with Burrata cheese. The sauce was really tasty, though, and the pasta was properly cooked.

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Eggs Benedict – available with either ham or smoked salmon, or with salmon patties as a substitute for the English muffins. I tried the ham and the salmon patty versions and enjoyed both. The eggs were perfectly cooked with firm whites and liquid yolks. The Hollandaise sauce is smooth and velvety although just a bit more tart than I like. There is a careful balance to achieve with the acidity, maybe a matter of preference more than anything else.

2014-02-10 03The “full breakfast” features just about everything you would consider to be a breakfast food, plus a bit of mixed greens salad. It is a huge portion and makes you glad that food is generally served family style here in Thailand. As a side note, food at Karmakamet Diner did come out family style in a hodge-potch manner. Diners ordering individual plates be forewarned!

2014-03-01 2The so-called “can’t resist pancake” – the pancake is buried under duck confit, sautéed potatoes, crisp bacon, and sour cream served with a side of maple syrup. My first reaction (before taking a bite) was “what the heck is this mess?” After I tried it, all was forgiven. The pancake is really just there to absorb all the tasty flavors from the bacon, duck, and syrup.

2014-03-02 3For dessert, we shared a massive slice of French toast surrounded with fresh fruits and topped with an orange sauce and maple syrup. Shared among four or six people, it is just the right amount of sweet with which to conclude the meal.

Service was generally attentive and responsive. One thing that I greatly appreciate is that the kitchen properly warms the plates before putting food on them. Especially for dishes like Eggs Benedict, a cool or even room-temperature plate will cause the sauce to quickly form an unappealing skin. The plates were warm, almost hot, to the touch. Bonus points for attention to that detail.

Without having tried the dinner menu, I’m not yet sure if Karmakamet Diner is just another pretty dandelion restaurant, soon to fade with the changing trends. But if brunch is any indication, I think they may blossom into something much more lasting and substantial.

Lunch at Quince Bangkok

Recently, I stopped by Quince restaurant in Bangkok for a weekday lunch, a long-overdue chance to revisit a restaurant that features thoughtful food in a pleasant space. Tucked behind a furniture shop on Sukhumvit Road, Quince has gone through at least two chefs in about eighteen months. Originally helmed by Jess Barnes, now at the excellent Opposite Mess Hall, the menu at Quince continues to impress.

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This being lunch and dining with only one other person, I didn’t get a chance to try a broad selection. This special, a beetroot risotto with asparagus, parsley, and feta, was nicely composed and properly cooked. I would have preferred the beetroot to have been diced and folded in at the last moment instead of being pureed into the dish, but you have to admit that the scarlet color is striking.

P1280677From the regular menu, the ricotta gnocchi with zucchini, green pea, lemon, mint, and chili was nicely executed, bright flavors with good attention to the vegetables not being overcooked.

The interior of the restaurant continues to be one of my favorite in Bangkok – lots of light without being overly bright, different rooms have different types of energy. It is an especially good place for lunch or brunch, simply because it isn’t as crowded. I look forward to another return visit soon.

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.

Food in Hong Kong: Shanghai Min

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While in Hong Kong, we took a break from Cantonese food to have some Shanghainese cuisine, dining at Shanghai Min on the 11th floor of Times Square.

P1280488This beautiful restaurant has a swanky interior with tastefully embroidered tablecloths and elegant decorative touches.

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Our meal began with the “signature pan-fried crispy pork soup buns” or sheng jiang bao. These were good but not quite as good as the ones we had in Shanghai back in November 2012. This version felt like they had been made a bit before and sat for a while – the inside of the dough was a little gummy from the moisture of the filling.

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Next arrived a crispy scallion sesame cake, a carb fest that was much less heavy than you might imagine.

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Another classic was the spicy tofu with minced pork. This is almost more of a Hunan style dish, to my mind. It was tasty, though, spicy but not unbearably so.

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The standout was the “straw-tied pork belly” with Chinese steamed buns. Not only was the pork belly exceedingly tender but the neatly cut squares wrapped with straw (not edible) was pleasing to look at.

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So nice that it deserves a second shot. If only I had wiped that drip of sauce off the plate before taking the picture!

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Final dish was an interesting stir fry of small disks made from rice cake (like Japanese mochi) called chao nian gao. It is braised with scallions and pork in a savory sauce.

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Braised Shanghai cabbage (bok choy, I think) with shredded bean curd sheets and mushrooms. The sheets have the texture of very thin, fresh pasta. A nice clean finish to the meal.

Overall, I was very pleased with Shanghai Min. I first ate there several years ago and it is still every bit as enjoyable. If you are looking for a break from Cantonese cuisine, this is a worthwhile place to visit.