Thursday, December 21, 2006

In Hong Kong, health requires wealth - Life Cafe

The customer rep guy from PURE fitness (gym) called me the other day to remind me that my credit card entitles me to a reduced joining/monthly fee. I went into PURE about 3 weeks ago (?) for a free trial and I have to say, it's one of the best I've been to in Hong Kong. I can say this with a little authority because I had a lot of spare time on my hands when I first got back to Hong Kong so I did actually go and take advantage of quite a few of those "one-day free trials" out there. PURE costs quite a bit more than most of the other 'executive' clubs, but if you can afford it, it's worth every cent.

So I went in and had a listen about this deal, which turns out still to be about double of Fitness First and Seasons, so I suppose I'll have to give it a miss for the time being, considering my current situation.

A couple of days before this call, I visited a cafe on Shelley Street, next to Eat Right. I wonder if it was pure coincidence that these two cafes for the health-conscious are right next to each other. Maybe soon we can call Shelley Street "Vego Street"...

I remember reading about Life as a hippie kind of place with a Birkenstock-wearing clientele. When I read 'hippie', I think dreadlocks, sweeping beaded Indian cotton sari-like dresses, and colourful Tibetan prayer flags. To me, 'hippies' are vegans into raw food, and, in keeping with the theme of nature, marijuana. I imagined the café to be more of a crumbling (or at least made to look crumbling) wooden shack than the minimalist dark-wood ski lodge that it turns out to be.

The diners certainly aren't dreadlocked either; the look could indeed include Birkenstocks, but paired with hip leather biker jackets (animal activists: attack!) rather than faded, tie-dye cottons.

I've spent so much space to describe the customers because they better define the price range and target market of the café. Coming from Australia, where fresh produce is plentiful and organic is increasingly becoming the norm rather than a niche, the prices on Life's menu are a little astounding. The least expensive food items are the soup and dahl of the day, going for $35 for a small or $55 for a large (which, to their credit, lives up to the size). Both come with house bread, which was on this particular day, a yeast-free heavy millet-looking slice. (WTH do yeast-free and organic have in common anyway? What makes you think people who suffer from coeliac disease have to consume organic products? They're put together in the 'niche' category so often that you wouldn't be blamed if you thought it was common knowledge.) A serving of edamame beans, so often offered as a complimentary starter at Japanese restaurants, will set you back $45.

I went for salad, and was advised that a mini ($30) would only be a scoop and that the next size up (small) would be $75. The benefit of choosing this size is that you can choose a maximum of three salads, for a bit of variety, which was welcomed wholheartedly by this indecisive eater.

The roast pumpkin salad was great, the mushroom (white button - boring!) and potato was fine, the beetroot and chickpea, I suppose, would have been good for roughage, as the chickpeas seemed hardly cooked.

Although a little pricey, I must admit that the quality of the ingredients was very good on this visit, which is absolutely necessary for a place that offers so little in the way of culinary skill (salads, pizzas, simple noodles). For coffee, pop into Eat Right next door, unless half-heartedly frothed soy milk is your thing.

At least I left feeling I did something good to my body for once. Akin to a session at the gym, really.

Life Organic Health Café
10 Shelley Street
Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2810 9777

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Wonton noodles - Not the Mak's you know

It's been ages since I've been to Mak's - almost forgotten how to get there. This isn't the one featured in tourist guide books, that one's on Wellington Street around Soho I think, and should be a lot larger (and a bit more expensive). This one's tucked inside the narrow Wing Kut Street, off Des Voeux Road Central, with street hawkers and random clothing stores as its neighbours. We got there at around 12.45 and I was half expecting there to be a line, especially because it's not much more than a hole in the wall, but to my surprise, we got seats straight away (albeit sharing a table with two other lone diners).

The waiter comes to take our orders before we even had time to settle on the tiny stools, which was fine since we both wanted the wonton noodles they're most famous for anyway. Wonton noodles come in two sizes, large or small bowls. Usually small is sufficient if you're not particularly hungry. At $21, it's a steal, especially since Wellington St is selling them for $25 (I think) and Tsui Wah (which isn't even a specialist wonton store) is probably asking around the $30 mark.

There are about five wontons in the small serving along with plain egg noodles that are excellent clean-cut strings. The wontons themselves have a similar fresh, almost crunchy quality that unfortunately does not seem to be able to be expressed by a word in the English dictionary. In Chinese it's 爽. The pasta around the dumpling is extremely thin, delicate and silky, allowing diners to see almost exactly all the ingredients within - which is mostly, a very fleshy and tasty prawn.

We even polished off the soup afterwards...

Mak's (Chung Kee)
Wing Kut St
Sheung Wan
(strictly speaking between Sheung Wan and Central, close to Central Market)

Monday, December 11, 2006

I can't believe it's not summer! - 798 unit & co

Hau Fook Street has always been a bit of a refuge for hungry shoppers on this side of the Victoria Harbour, since eateries along Canton Road can be pricey and/or unreliable, and a bit far from us 'hip' people (look, it's a euphemism, okay? No need to spell out that we can't afford a new Bottega every weekend...) who shop at Rise, and in and around Granville Road.

Then again, Hau Fook can be a bit boring, dominated by cheap and cheerful Canto outlets, with the dessert shop that everyone knows (I forgot the English name) as its only salvation.

Introducing 798 unit & co. - a new(ish) NY bistro type place in the heart of Hau Fook Street, right next to the groovy design/homewares store Homeless. According to my friend, 798 is in fact the Hong Kong outpost of a restaurant by the same name in NY. Anyone been (to the NY one)?

Located on the first floor, the dining room is quite spacious, especially by HK standards, featuring a stainless steel open kitchen at the entrance, where cakes are also displayed. There is an almost nautical feel with the round windows lining the side (painted black) of the space that looks out to HF Street, and mirrors on the back wall where several white banquettes are also located. Tables and chairs are simple solid wood that squeal and grumble like a kid and a grandpa rolled in one (though both would be quite unhappy making those noises) when moved upon the black and white tiled floor. Tables are sans tablecloth and with paper napery, but good basic silverware (as you would expect at any decent cafe, not to mention restaurant in say, Melbourne). Lighting is a little in sufficient for me, but then again maybe I'm just not enough of a romantic. One last comment before getting onto the food - the aircon is bloody freezing.

I've been here two times now, and my impression of the food, unlike the quality of food itself, has been quite consistent - not exactly up to scratch... sometimes.

The first time I went, I had a fennel risotto with some sort of fish, which was fine. I remember being glad that the risotto was actually cooked to the correct texture (though it was nothing amazing). It was the fact that fennel was on the menu that caught my eye. Ask someone at some so-called 'western' restaurants and they wouldn't have a clue what it is. That was the night I had a glass of wine off their winelist. I couldn't resist at $38 a glass (yes that is HKD), but just let me say, price can never determine quality, but can be suggestive of it nonetheless.

On my most recent visit the service was unattentive to say the least. Do they understand that the same course for people on the same table have to be served at the same time??? Just because I ordered roast chicken doesn't mean my friend's (mediocre) Thai-inspired risotto had to sit under the freezing aircon-created conditions for a full 10 mins (at least) before my dish arrived. errr, sir, ever heard of planning? Or even an apology?!

My roast chicken was fine - huge portion - about four to five pieces of honey-glazed roast chicken spruced up with paprika or something. A little too sweet for my liking, but the baby spinach (salad) underneath helped. For dessert we had banoffee pie (they spelt it 'banoffi' - more on menu proofreading should-haves later) which was very nice. The cream on the pie seems to have been chilled for a while and by the time we ate it, was marshmallowy, which suited me fine, although my friend said it was quite different from what she had on her last visit. We also had a lime pannacotta that was way sour - I only liked it because I'm the kind of person that basically drinks vinegar from a soup spoon with my xiao long bao and drowns my viet broken rice in nuoc cham.

They've changed the presentation of the menu since I last visited; added Chinese translations (not that that affects me as such) and updated some of their offerings, which is what all good restaurants should do. But apart from the 'Banoffi' incident, we noticed a pasta dish claiming to feature summer vegetables. I know winter isn't really wintry in this part of the world, but it certainly ain't summer any more by anyone's standards. Unless of course, they were using imported vegies from Down Under or the Kiwis, which I doubt. I can smell a hint of pretentiousness in the air...

The main thing to give them credit for is for their Hau Fook Street-friendly prices. Pastas go for about HK$60-90 for more than acceptable portions, and there has definitely been thought put into the food, just not enough care on the part of management - both within and beyond the kitchen. The wine list is horrific, but I guess they're just trying to keep within (customers') budget and good enough for most of the target market. But I mean, anyone in the right mind would not have wine in HK that costs $28 a glass, $140 by the bottle (pompous comment by me that night: "I usually have wines by the glass at the price of that bottle"). Okay enough said.

798 unit & co.
1/F 9 Hau Fook Street
Tsim Sha Tsui
Hong Kong
Tel: +852 23660234

Best Burgers in Town? - Main St. Deli

The festive season's come again and for some reason I'm getting hungrier and allowing myself to eat more. Yay for oversize clothes this season! Popped down to Main St. Deli at the Langham Hotel in TST for dinner - I'd been to their 'high-end' restaurant The Bostonian before and wasn't too impressed, so I wasn't really expecting much.

I think it was a Wednesday night - mid-week, nonetheless - but they were full. The waiter at the door asked to have my name to put on the waiting list and said it might be a half-hour wait because there were three to four other names on the list. (Possibly because of the trade fair on right now?) Really weird, because every time I walk past this place is near empty. Anyhow, seeing I had to wait for my aunt, I grabbed a copy of HK Mag and sat down. So my aunt (who suggested we come here and is pretty much a regular) arrives and is equally stunned that the place is full. She proceeds to hassle the girl (in a nice way - perhaps they recognised her), at which point a table leaves, and we get offered that table. So much for a waiting list haha...

The decor is, as the name suggests, very down-to-earth, although still quite American. Think Dan Ryan's with more lights plus a bit if art deco. The four-seater banquettes would be the best seats, but unless we wanted to be back on the lobby seats, a normal dining table it was.

The food - burgers, sandwiches, salads and grilled meats pretty much says it all; portions are at least 1.5 times of what is usually offered, i.e. very American. My aunt tells me that the Monster Burger is the best - a pretty 'standard' sort of beef burger with pickles, tomatoes etc. The burger varieties are pretty standard and if I remember correctly there's a vego one too. We order the most expensive one on the menu (one of the things you can do when dining out with aunties and uncles kekeke...), a wagyu burger with foie gras. Thank goodness we're 'supposed' to gain weight around Christmas. The wagyu, according to the manager there, is graded M7 - if that means Marble Score 7, then it's pretty damn good (max is 12, anything above 9 is great). In Australia, only really bad cuts and bad grades of wagyu are ground into mince for burger patties, and I've had a pretty bad one before at Urban Burger.

The foie gras is actually a foie gras terrine (which is usually cheaper and should have been indicated on the menu but wasn't), and although encased within the wagyu patty, makes no effort to stay inside it once you bite into the burger - it just comes oozing out. All very messy as the juices, oils and sauces start dripping and soaking the so-so bun, but at the same time extremely indulgent.

Along with a generously sized grilled chicken salad and a huge slice of NY cheesecake (both very decent), I felt like I didn't need to eat for the next three days (but of course I did and had custard buns for breakfast the next morning...)

I'd probably go back on a cold drizzly day when everything else seems to have failed me, because I know their burgers won't. Although I think I'll stay away from the foie gras (terrine) for a while.

I'm a little inspired for a burger hunt now. I've heard good things about the one at the Lobby Lounge of the Intercon...

Main St. Deli
Langham Hotel
8 Peking Road
Tsim Sha Tsui
Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2375 1133