Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Best Things I Ate in 2019

Grilled sea cucumber, Yue Hai Hui, Shenzhen
Hello, welcome. Why are you here? We've long since established that I no longer blog. I just pass through once a year now to record a year of eating. For slightly more frequent updates (no promises), head to @e_ting on Insta.

Anyway, 2019 is coming to an end, so let's get on with it.

Hong Kong
In no particular order

Soy Sauce Chicken, Hop Sze
There's something about the way they cook this chicken - it's only very lightly poached, probably lower in temperature than usual, that makes it soooooo juicy. I have to say, my mom makes a killer soy sauce chicken but even I want to take her here to learn to make theirs.

Congee, The Chairman
This congee is almost like a rice puree, but no blades were involved - the rice melts into this form after hours of boiling. I love the purity.

Dill brined cabbage with charred vegetables, Roganic
There are many good dishes at Roganic, but this (which I suppose is a signature) remains the best and makes non-veg eaters love veg.

Scones, Lobby Lounge at Intercontinenal Hong Kong (not pictured)
The only place I've had proper scones - properly sized, properly baked. Not dry rocks, or teeny weeny little coins of dough. Scones are not hard to make, people, it angers me that so few in this town are up to scratch. But this one totally is, and I think I ate about a half dozen on my own.

Chocolate, rosemary, Arbequina, MONO
Genius of a dessert - flavours I've had together before but are so purely presented and beautifully accentuated in this dish. Really looking forward to seeing more of Ricardo's work now that he has his own place.

Tsuiyama crab, Nikushou
Sweeeeeeet sweet seasonal crab. Nikushou's boss, Anthony, is crazy about good ingredients and it really shows.   

Egg tarts, Bakehouse
It's like a HK egg tart and a Portuguese egg tart had a baby. 

Sai Oua, Sausage Commitment
I've loved Sausage Commitment's sai oua since trying them at their pop-ups. Once they announced they sold online, I had to get my hands on some. Sour, spicy, salty - they're about the greatest thing you can add to a weekend morning fry-up. 

Hot chicken sandwich, The Chicken Bar
Max's fried chicken sandwiches at Okra are already a favourite, and this version, doused in hot sauce and sandwiched in whiter than white bread, is a total winner. I like it more than the whole fried chicken actually.

Peking duck, Xinrongji Hong Kong
Probably the best Peking duck in Hong Kong, even though XRJ isn't a Beijing-style restaurant. There are plenty of great dishes here - the duck is a great excuse to gather a few people and come here if you haven't yet. (Other dishes I love here are the sweet potato, sea anemone, and wild craoker and fish maw soup - the latter is pricey, so order carefully).

Jamon mochi daikon dashi, May 2019 menu, Haku
I reckon Agustin has really come into his own this year - his knowledge of Japanese cooking and passion for ingredients is finally coming together in highly composed dishes. This mochi with jamon is a great example - the ingredients sound disparate, but actually jamon works really well in dashi, if you think about it properly (umami and all). The texture of the mochi is what really tipped the scales for me here. I could cut it with chopsticks and yet it had bite and didn't threaten to dissolve into the dashi. 

Japanese pork belly with BBQ Sauce, SOMM
I know what you're thinking. Pork belly is like, so basic. But this is cooked perfectly and the BBQ sauce is tangy, layered and complements the fattiness perfectly. It's slightly charred too. Most dishes at SOMM are actually cooked pretty perfectly. It's become one of my recent faves. 

Chicken mince consomme, Legacy House (not pictured)
This is a revival of an old Shunde dish. It's not the most amazing version I've had (102 takes the cake there) but it's nicely done and I really appreciate that they're bringing back old Shunde dishes.

Tartare nori roll, Nectar
This "tuna" is so close to the real thing, I wish I could buy jars of it. I'm sad that Nectar has closed, but there's no stopping Peggy. Whatever she does next, I hope it involves this tartare.

Soups, Ser Wong Fun (not pictured)
As a Cantonese grandma at heart, I can't live without Cantonese broths, and the fact that Ser Wong Fun has dozens to choose from daily is godsend.

Frog's legs with parsley and garlic, Louise
Plump, juicy, garlicky without scaring off anyone. A balanced, fine version of a classic.

Century egg with tofu espuma, Tate Dining Room (not pictured)
A genius way to introduce a "challenging" ingredient.

Tuna, The Araki / Off Menu
I first tried Araki-san's tuna at Off Menu's preview, then at Off Menu itself and finally at The Araki. All three times were great - he really is a tuna specialist. I'm intrigued that he served sustainable bluefin. A little more digging is required to verify those claims, but don't you just love the idea that bluefin can be sustainable? Dinner at The Araki itself was interesting, he used some local ingredients like tiger prawns, but purely from an eating perspective, tuna is definitely his strength.

Basque cheesecake with white truffles, Interval
Comme Ground, Interval's sister cafe, is serving Basque cheesecake (inspired by La Vina in San Sebastian) every Friday and Saturday. To finish off a tasting of the new menu, we were offered a piece with white truffle on top - proof again that cream and white truffles are a match made in heaven. BTW, another highlight at Interval was the nam yu fried chicken - perfect meal/snack to go with their natural wine.

Threadfin, VEA
I loved the meatiness and intense flavour of this dish. Vicky's flavour combinations have only gotten better over time, as he discovers more and more about our local foodways.

Hanwoo beef, Beef Bar (not pictured)
It was just a steak, but there was lovely flavour to this beef. Somewhere between pure grassfed and grain. Best had in small slices or cubes though because it can be tough. (Ours was pre-sliced, which was perfect).

Kale, moringa and pear salad, Fivelements
A spa restaurant? I'm not kidding. Fivelements has surprisingly great food, that just happens to be gluten and dairy free, and completely vegan. 

Corn puree, Amber
I actually enjoyed the draft version that I had at their test kitchen before Amber reopened - it was pure corn, no caviar, but I guess caviar is kind of what Amber's crowd expects? The corn was sooooo sweet and pure - there's nothing else. Even the crackly top is made of corn. 

Grilled piquillo peppers with house-cured bottarga, Neighborhood (not pictured)
I caught the piquillo peppers a la plancha bug when I was in Spain and hadn't had a proper version since. This was delightful, as Neighborhood always is, where everything seems so casually cooked but turned out totally perfect. The house-cured bottarga was the intense-seafoody-umami cherry on top.

Scallop quenelles, Belon (not pictured)
Light and pillowy, like clouds on the tongue. Daniel is a genius, and all of Hong Kong knows it - what else do I have to say?

Outside Hong Kong
In order of distance from Hong Kong (roughly)

Grilled sea cucumber at Yue Hai Hui, Shenzhen
This is the black blob in the opening photo of the post. I normally don't love sea cucumber, I get the texture and everything, but there was never much flavour. This came out grilled, charred even, and smelling of a steak - no joke. The texture was crazy - almost flaky and brittle on the outside, and melting within.

Taro baked in lard at Yao Ji, Panyu
Imagine a bread and butter pudding, but savoury instead of sweet, and chock-full of beautiful lard from free range pigs and grits-sized pellets of ground taro with just a teeny bit of bite, and somehow a slight bounciness to the whole "pudding". 

Chenchunfen at Huang Jun, Foshan
Literally translated, these are "noodles from Chen Village" - they're made by grinding rice and water to create a thin rice milk, which is steamed. For a long time I though chengchunfen were jjust glorified cheung fun, but Huang Jun proved me wrong. I don't know how they do it, but thee ribbons were slightly elastic, ever so thin, and glided across my tongue like some kind of smooth, pliable ceramic.

Dandong beef fillet from Voisin Organique, Shenzhen
The dish itself was a bit meh but the beef, from Dandong, northeastern China, was a revelation. I'd heard Dandong beef being used for hotpot before, but in a steak, it was just full of flavour. These are purely grassfed, I don't know at what age, but please, food gods, don't ever destroy their way of production.
"Raw" stir-fried glutinous rice at 102 House, Foshan 
I wrote "raw" because it's important to distinguish between real shengchao 生炒 and fake (most places these days). "Raw" stir-fry means to put glutinous rice into the wok, uncooked. The dish is therefore made kind of like risotto, but on higher heat and hence with more turning, with the rice absorbing liquid gradually. A lot of places pre-steam the rice then fry it up, making it mushy - it's a completely different thing. To stir-fry from "raw" take a lot more time and effort, and the results at 102 are stunning. The rice is al dente, the grains are fairly dry, only sticking ever so slightly together when pressed (instead of clumping if they'd been steamed), and the stock it's absorbed is has so much umami. 102 is one of my favourite Cantonese restaurants right now, and this unassuming mountain of rice is just one example of the intense techniques hidden from view that make Cantonese cuisine great.

Hokkaido scallop with chestnuts and black truffle, Alain Ducasse at Morpheus, Macau
I would never had thought that black truffle, chestnuts and scallops would go together so well, but they did, so this dish is purely here to document this discovery.

88 Fortune Treasures at Sichuan Moon, Macau
The 24-course degustation menu at Sichuan Moon just about kills you with food, but pretty much every course is delectable and excites the palate. The 88 Treasures, one of the earlier courses, is a great example of how they keep things interesting by contrasting flavours and textures to great effect.

Taro and lard soup at Yung Fu, Shanghai 
I just realised this is kind of just be a more pureed version of what I had at Yao Ji. I guess I like taro. And lard.

Handmade soba at Kochi, Matsu
Work trips in Japan almost guarantee good food, but this one stood out - the soba was bouncy and al dente, and actually tasted of buckwheat. It was just magic and found completely randomly.

Sour river fish soup at Paste, Bangkok
I love clear soups and the sourness here in Bee's Lao menu (although I tried it in her Bangkok restaurant) was just so refreshing yet nourishing at the same time.

Lump crab meat stir-fried with flower buds at Krua Kling Pak Sod, Bangkok
I love crab, I hate de-shelling. Enter KKPS. They do lump crab with everythinggggg!

An apple that I've sadly forgotten the name of from Otago Organics, Otago Farmers' Market, Dunedin
Apples are such a boring fruit to Hongkongers - they don't taste like anything here. I almost said no when I was offered a sample at Otago Farmers Market. Actually, I did say no. It was G who said yes and his eyes lit up as he urged me to take a sample. It's the kind of apple that makes you go, "I'd forgotten what apples tasted like until this".

Cuore di Paganica, Ugo de Paulis, Paganica, L'Aquila (Abruzzo)
This little salumeria makes their own ham, and their version is as good as any artisanal product, with fat that just melts on your tongue.

Mixed herbs with gin at Reale, Castel di Sangro, L'Aquila (Abruzzo)
Visiting Niko Romito's restaurant was a dream (a dream I had twice, as I went twice in one trip!) His cooking is minimalist and decidedly different. This dish of mixed herbs on an almond puree is dressed in gin - it's all kinds of bitter but in a really good way - and then it's paired with a Moscato d'Asti to cleanse and balance - it was unbelievable.

Arrosticini at Ristoro Mucciante, Castel del Monte, L'Aquila (Abruzzo)
Grilling things on charcoal is just different, it's so much better. This outdoor "restaurant" is basically a butcher's shop in the middle of nowhere in Abruzzo, with some charcoal barbecues you can help yourself to outside. Being surrounded by Abruzzo's gorgeously rugged landscape probably helped, as did the amazing, relatively undiscovered wines of the area, like Valle Reale.

Panzanella at Castello di Ama, Chianti
I'd never liked the idea of putting stale bread in a salad, but somehow in the hands of Castello di Ama's chef, this dish is moreish as hell, punctuated by crisp cucumbers and vine-ripened tomatoes. I really should have learned to make this from them.

Tenerumi pasta at Tenuta Regaleali, Sicily
The large leaves of the zucchini plant, tenerumi, are used in Sicily to great effect. The flavour is grassy yet deep, and goes great with olive oil. This time (my second visit to the beautiful Regaleali estate) we had tenerumi in a pasta soup. I don't really remember but I think I shamelessly asked for seconds.

Italian olive oil Just in general. Visiting Italy and being given a whole lot of great olive oil recently makes me wonder how I've lived without proper, fresh, cough-inducing olive oil for so many years. I've had great ones mostly from winemakers who co-plant olives, such as Tasca and De Fermo.

Brioche at Da Alfredo, Salina
I'm pretty sure I've talked about this before. These brioches make my heart melt. They're puffy but gluten-y (stretchy in a good way) and have a subtle zesty tang to them that makes me think they must use oranges in the dough somehow. Everyone else looks so puzzled when I wax lyrical about them - I dunno, maybe it's just me.

Breakfast in the middle of Masai Mara on a morning game drive, Kenya
Ok so this isn't about the food so much as the sheer craziness of eating bacon and eggs surrounded by wildebeest (the bacon was damn good actually - not too thick, not too thin, crispy and almost brittle round the edges). Nature is amazing, and although I'm not an animal person, I totally recommend going on safari at least once. 

See you next year (or not). Again, find me on Instagram, I really don't live here anymore.

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