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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

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.

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.