Monday, February 26, 2007

Manga Wine and Muslim Food - Xinjiang Yisilan Fanzhuang

Fans of the comic Les Gouttes de Dieu / Kami no Shizuku (神の水滴 / 神之水滴): Do you recognise this wine? It's talked about in the 8th book

And I had it! Wahaha! I think it's probably the least expensive wine in the whole series. I'm no wine expert (I don't think I'd even count as an amateur) but I think it'd be safe to say that Lou Lan isn't a very interesting wine, but at least it's not foul, like some overpriced Great Walls out there. They didn't specify which grape varieties they used, opting instead for a generic 'dry red wine' title, like many Chinese reds.

I went on a five-day trip to Beijing recently, and this place where I found the Lou Lan was our first dinner stop. The food of every province (or at least almost every) is represented in Beijing, being the capital of China, particularly cuisines from the north-eastern parts of the country, i.e. neighbours of Beijing. Food in this part of the country is often heavier in salt, herbs, oils and fats due to colder, longer winters and generally harsher conditions. Subtlety and finesse is more of a southern thing - Northerners, stereotypically, are more down-to-earth, rough n' ready kinds of people who need to consume more because of the climate and their labour-intensive work, whereas Southerners, especially those along the coast, are known to be good businesspeople and live on more arable lands, hence they tend to be more picky about food and the finer things in life.

Back to this first restaurant. It serves food from Xinjiang province (or maybe it's a Special Economic Zone? I'm not too sure) and is right behind the Xinjiang Hotel and next to official Xinjiang office in Beijing, hence often frequented by officials. We were assured that we were getting authentic food.

Lamb is the main attraction here, as it is the most commonly consumed meat in Xinjiang. Also, as many Xinjiang people are Muslim, pork isn't regularly served. We had ribs, soup, and probably a stir-fry kind of thing, but I've forgotten and forgot to take photos of it - so it must have been pretty good.

L-R: Sheep's milk yogurt; a snap of our brightly-coloured room; naan-like bread (unfortunately served at room-temp), lamb soup with carrots and herbs, absolutely fabulous roasted lamb ribs with finely-diced bell peppers.

Xinjiang Yisilan Fanzhuang
7 San Li He Road
Kai Ding District
Tel: +8610 8683 2666

Friday, February 09, 2007

New York - The Big Apple Pie, Tart and other baked goodies

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of New York? Sex and the City? The Statue of Liberty? No matter, wherever I go I'm thinking about fooooood.

I went on a little quest for bakeries, coffee and chocolate - since, firstly, I like baked goods, and secondly, it would allow me to try more places. I was short on time (2-3 days) and there were only a certain number of proper dining establishments I could visit. Pastries I can fit in between - breakfast, morning tea, afternoon tea, supper, you get the point.

So here's a quick overview of what I had on my whirlwind NYC bakery "tour":

Chocolate and Pear Tart from Once Upon a Tart
Can't say it was great - the chocolate was super heavy and the pear was a nice change - I just wish the top of the chocolate and/or the tart were crispy - then there'd be a good contrast to make the whole thing less, well, heavy. I also had a cranberry choc chip cookie (not pictured - I ate it too quickly haha and it wasn't so much of a looker). It was the white sugar crispy variety - I dunno, I like my cookies to be slightly chewy, especially these hugeass ones. These can totally be dwarfed by the heavenly cookies from Olive's (see last item). Plus, although I've learnt not to expect much in the way of service, esp in NYC, but things actually had gone quite well for me, until I came into this store...

Apple tart from Ceci Cela
This French bakery is perfectly located (shopping tea-break wise) at the conjunction of Soho, Nolita and Little Italy. All things flaky seem to be their forte - this apple tart is simple but great - the chunky, slightly charred baked apples have an excellent texture and the pastry is hard to fault. Also bought a financier that I laster had on the plane (it was too dark so I couldn't really take a photo) and it was very, very good. Perhaps it was the effect of heightened palatal and nasal senses (of not having light i.e. not being able to see what I was eating), but the almond meal in the financier shone through so well. Never had anything quite like it. Coffee was pretty decent too (if not a bit pricier than the city's average). Totally deserves all it's good comments I read on the net.

Old-fashioned Apple Pie from the Little Pie Company

I was waiting to go into the musical that I went and got student rush tickets for, so I took a little walk around the block. Right next to Esca (to which I later went for post-show dinner), this is a really low-key kinda place. No faff, no frills, just lots of pies and baked goods. Bought this "mini" apple pie (about 6 inches diameter at the rim), without really thinking about when I was going to eat it (how typical of me - I'm just a prolific food shopper). Ate it on the plane, eventually. Maybe I'd left it for too long and I should have put it in the oven, coz the pastry had gone a bit soggy and probably expanded with the moisture. So I ended up scoffing mouthfuls of soggy shortcrust before I could get to the apple. A decent pie, I suppose, but let's just say I wasn't crazy about it. The coat guy at Esca seemed to want to try it (I'd left the bag with him along with my coat) so I guess it's pretty famous...?

Unfortunately I didn't have the patience to take photos of their uber scrumptious choc chip and double choc chip cookies. I just had to eat them right then. There were crumbs all over my mittens, scarf etc. but did I care? This kitchy, country-kitchen lookalike also seems to do a thriving trade in sandwiches (you can see them being made right behind the front counter). Their salads didn't look bad either. Next time, next time.

Once Upon a Tart
135 Sullivan St (between Prince and Houston)
Soho, NYC
Tel: +1 212.387.8869

Ceci Cela
55 Spring Street (between Lafayette and Mulberry)
Nolita, NYC
Tel: +1 212.274.9179

Little Pie Company
424 W 43rd St (near 9th Ave)
Tel: +1 212.736.4780

120 Prince St (between Wooster and Greene)
Tel: +1 212.941.0111

New York - Caffe Falai

I guess I'm starting to understand what people mean when they tell me I come from a place where there's a vibrant cafe culture. There aren't streets after streets of little cafes in New York or Boston - there are diners, ethnic eateries, restaurants and chains. If you want a coffee, you usually go to Starbucks. There are as many Starbucks (and Dunkin Donuts, in the case of Boston) as Pret a Mangers in London. Scary.

I need places that are open for breakfast in the morning, right through lunch and afternoon tea, probably even early dinner that serve good coffee, light meals and are nice to sit in in between Olympic shopping sprees. Actually seemed kinda hard in the States. Maybe I'm just not "in the know", but it was with great relief that I found Caffe Falai. It's exactly what I wanted, and they have their own bread (probably not baked on the premises but I know the owner has eateries/bakeries elsewhere, like Falai and Falai Panetteria, which I also visited the next day).

Caffe Falai is a recently opened small 20-seater-ish place (definitely small in American terms - everything seems bigger over there haha) on the border of SoHo and Nolita, perfectly located for shopping. It's bright and airy, in an all-white space with two large shopfront windows facing Lafayette St. The fittings are probably best described as modern day vintage. Think granny's furniture, mirrors, and her tiny tile bathroom floor, but all white. Nice.

It's about 14.30 when I step in, a bit beyond the usual lunch peak, but Falai is humming along nicely. Guess I wasn't the only person who was attracted by the news on Gridskipper or wherever. Seat spacing is Parisian - i.e. be slim or it's elbow to elbow. How pompous, just like me! Haha. Nah, not really, it's actually really chill, but classier than sister store Falai Panetteria down in the slightly dodgy LES.

They have two menus, one for breakfast (all day as all good cafes should - 0800 to 1700 - yay!) and one for snacks and lunch - simple pastas, panini etc. Prices are very friendly; you can definitely leave for under $10 if you aren't starved. I order something entitled "root vegetable" under the insalate section, expecting a cold salad, and a minestrone. The vegetables were actually served hot, and in shallow pool of clear broth and were fresh, sweet, and perfect beyond description. They were all baby veggies - dutch carrots, brussel sprouts, parsnip etc. and despite it being late winter, seemed like spring vegetables. Really never had anything quite like it. Hopefully they'll keep up with the fresh ingredients, because that's what makes the dish.

The minestrone was good too - more like a stew than a soup and was great with the crusty fennel seed bread. It came in a quaint soup dish, complete with a cover. Coffee was decent, typically less strong than what I'm used to, as with every American coffee I've had thus far, plus they use the infamously smooth but hard-to-extract-flavour Illy.

Perfect perfect perfect is all I can say. Excellent value, swift service, and exactly what I want from a cafe. Better than the best in Melbourne (bar the coffee). Now that's saying a lot.

Caffe Falai
265 Lafayette St (near corner of Prince)
Soho, NYC
Tel: +1 917.338.6207