Friday, January 30, 2009

War of the plates

There are two cities to which our little SAR is often compared - a) Shanghai and b) Singapore. All three places are renowned for excellent local cuisine, but it seems that the battle on the western front has yet to be won.

Shanghai is probably the weakest in this respect, given the relative lateness that her country has opened itself up to the rest of the world, though I dare say, like in many other aspects of modern life, she is catching up at an alarming pace.

Hong Kong and Singapore seem likely equals - though I might suggest the latter does better in the non-hotel restaurants category.

When one city invades the other with its culinary prowess, should the invaded admit defeat or victory? Allow me to explain. Defeat, because local restauranteurs have either not seen, or not had the skills to fill a gap in the market that the invader has landed upon; victory because the invaded has lured the invader onto their soil?

Hong Kong has seen such an invasion recently, that of Cepage, newest offspring of the prolific Les Amis restaurant group from Singapore (who own an eponymous new French fine diner, Canele patisserie etc.). They've taken over the old Ingredients space on Wing Fung Street (Star Street area, Wanchai) and, in my opinion, have launched an attack on the Hong Kong dining scene that local F&B providers should be afraid of.

In terms of interior design, it doesn't look like much has been done (if the owners see this they may want to kill me) - a fresh lick of paint, wallpaper, furniture, a bathroom remodeling maybe - but no significant structural changes to make us forget the corporate bigwig feel of the erstwhile Ingredients. (The glass cellar, understandably, has been kept - it's pretty cool and to knock it down and build another for the sake of change would be a waste, really.)

So the food. We went for lunch, which is, for now (and for Hong Kong), a complete bargain. Two courses go for $200+, three courses $300+ and a menu gourmand of 4 courses for $460, which is what we went for.

Amuse bouche - venison with Jerusalem artichoke puree

Pretty big serve for an amuse! Very well done nonetheless; the venison was perfect - rare, but not bloody, tender without being textureless. The puree was super creamy... yum

Oysters with green apple gelee

Not entirely successful - first of all because the menu promised Kumamoto oysters, which as you can see, were not delivered. These are French (can't remember the exact type). They were probably freshly shucked ans plenty of seawater was left in it as proof - not a good idea - it was wayyyy salty and the apple gelee did absolutely zilch. I do regret about not voicing out about this (the oyster switcharound and the let down that this dish was).

Entree (or appetizer, so as not to confuse the Americans) - poached organic egg with pork rind, mixed mushrooms and black truffle.

Fabulous! I love a poached egg, and this one was perfect. The pork and stewed mushrooms melded into one big, gloopy, wholesome mess made for indulgent spooning. Make sure you have enough bread to mop up the rest.

Main - mourning chicken

Well, that's what it is, but not what they called it - to them it was just spring chicken stuffed with black truffle. Look a bit dry to you? It did to me too, but it was pretty damn tender inside. The weeny bit of jus (not pictured) helped too.

Dessert was a chocolate fondant with white chocolate filling and vanilla ice cream (no pictures, sorry, because by then I had had too much of the lethal cocktail of empty stomach + Krug + Chateauneuf du Pape). Not earthshattering, but good nonetheless. Along with the petit fours, they also served some freshly made chocolate madeleines, which was a nice touch, though the cakes themselves were a little dry, imho. And - drumroll - the coffee was decent!

A note about the service - all in all fantastic, if a little uptight (we were one of only two tables that day, and sometimes I feel the staff were lurking a little - or maybe it was just the indifferent decor), but they deserve a gold medal for offering my vegetarian friend choices for her menu (I called them the night before to tell them that I'd have a vego guest) and most of the time, we thought her dishes were even better than ours! The sommelier even offered her a complimentary glass of wine that he felt better suited her meal - I hope this kind of attention to detail stays as the guest volumes increase.

A very satisfying meal. I do hope they survive on enemy land (and under the current economic climate). Call me a traitor, but I'm liking this invasion. Bring it on.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Water, water everywhere

So I was in Venice recently - people kept telling me it was super touristy (true, but it was better 'cause this was super low season and the rain was pretty horrible) and that food isn't that great (not so true). About the latter, I have to say I ate better in Venice than I did in Milan. Cost-wise, the bacari / cantina (wine bars) offer a free spread of antipasti in Milan while their Venetian counterparts have a paid tapas-like selection, but apart from the free, fresh mozzarella so often found in Milan, I'd easily pay 1-2 euro for some Venetian baccala (salted cod that is whipped to a creamy paste - delicious) or polpette any day.

Some highlights:

Osteria di Santa Marina
A trattoria lookalike serving creative, yet still traditonal Venetian/Italian fare. 'New Comfort' is probably what I'd call it, for lack of a better phrase in my current jetlagged state. Fresh pastas were lovely as I had one of the better seafood crudo plates here.

Il Ridotto
Modern - from the decor to the cuisine, but not molecular or, god forbid, fusion. Very refreshing for a place so steeped (and tied down) by tradition and history. Had our best wine of the trip, a 2004 Brigaldara Amarone della Valpolicella for only 50 euro! (That's a complete bargain in Hong Kong terms). The surprise menu with 4 courses is also good value at 50 euros, considering mains are around 25 euro. Mains were the main let down (beef cheek slow cooked with cinnamon and cloves - was a bit dry and taste was not as exciting as I'd hoped, the fish (sea bass?) was average, a little overcooked), other dishes were well done and creative without going overboard.

Da Fiore
It's one of only two restaurants in Venice to have a Michelin star (the other is the Met Restaurant at the Metropole Hotel) - whatever - but the food (mostly seafood) was actually good, though don't go in expecting frills and foams a la francaise - the best thing I had here was a simple roasted eel served with raw celery shreds and it was divine.

Al Covo
Written up in just about every tourist guidebook, this place is probably a wee bit overrated and the service a wee bit 'over-enthusiastic American' for my taste (one half of the husband-wife ownership is American), but nonetheless they have an enjoyable, seasonally-aware menu.

Ate lots more, like nougat and hot chocolate, but will have to leave it till later to elaborate...

top to bottom, left to right:
osteria di santa marina: chestnut ravioli with black truffle and pumpkin sauce, fresh pasta with duck (?) and tomato sauce; il ridotto: squid ink ravioli and shrimps, beef cheek on mash, warm panettone-like cake with vanilla bean ice cream; da fiore: roasted eel with raw celery shreds; al covo: very rare top round beef.