Hong Kong Day 1: Lamb Bam, Thank You Ma’am

Hong Kong has always been near the bottom of our Asian to-go-list, because it seems more like Singapore than anywhere else within four hours’ flying distance. And if you can fly the same amount of time (or less) to see pygmy elephants in the wild or explore the 12th-century ruins of what was the largest pre-industrial city in the world, then why would you choose to go somewhere more or less like Singapore? But we felt like a short trip, most of Asia seemed swelteringly hot at this time of year, or prone to typhoons, or both, so we figured it might be a good time to visit the place most likely to have widespread air-conditioning and well-constructed buildings.

We landed on a Friday evening, so all this post will feature is photos of our rather decent-value hotel (because I’ve realized I sort of enjoy seeing those sorts of mundane snapshots in other people’s travel journals) and the first instalment of a magnificent 2-day roast meatfest.

Dorsett Regency Hotel (Corridor)

The Dorsett Regency Hotel is in the Western District of Hong Kong Island, which is not where you should stay if you are the type of Hong Kong visitor who’s just there to shop, shop, shop, unload your bags back at the hotel and then shop some more. But if, like us, you like the idea of staying somewhere with more of a neighbourhood feel and view taking public transport as a fun way of exploring a city (unless that city is LA, because I’ll need my own car to stalk Simon Cowell), this place is worth a look. It helps that the hotel’s rooms seem larger than the rabbit-hutch impressions I was getting on Tripadvisor of other hotels with similar prices but more touristy locations, and the hotel operates an hourly shuttle bus which will get you to the heart of Hong Kong island in about 10 minutes.

Dorsett Regency Hotel Room

Dorsett Regency Hotel Room

Once we’d checked in and established that the wi-fi worked – because that is obviously the correct way to order priorities: roof over head, check, ability to sit on ass under said roof squealing at cat videos, check – we headed out to Ba Yi restaurant for dinner. It specializes in Xinjiang cuisine, especially lamb dishes, although it also has camel!

Here is the filling of the lamb pancakes, which are served Peking duck style i.e. the filling, condiments and wrappers are served separately and you assemble your own. I realize it might have been better to show you a photo of a finished pancake, but that would have delayed me from cramming it into my mouth. These were as hearty and satisfying as you can imagine a pancake of mirepoix and meat to be.

Lamb Pancake Filling

One might not expect much from a vegetable dish in a meat-dominated restaurant, but each bite of these string beans with Szechuan pepper and minced meat was an umami-packed mouthsplosion.

Spicy String Beans

Although we had hoped to try the lamb skewers which Ba Yi is famous for, they’d run out, so we went with the roast lamb rack instead. Second choice never tasted so good. This was wonderfully tender, just fatty enough for me to revel in that juicy fat flavour without getting grossed out by too much of it (I have a fairly low threshhold for fatty meat) and Alec said it was some of the best lamb he’d ever had. A man from the West of Ireland has had a lot of lamb.

Roast Lamb Rack

Candlenut Kitchen

Since Candlenut Kitchen doesn’t seem to have garnered many reviews on the Internet so far, I guess it’s a tiny bit more worthwhile giving my two cents on it than, say, agreeing with the vast number of other people who rightly observe that Everything With Fries is deeply mediocre.

We ate there last week on a quiet Thursday night, the meal an unexpected but happy consequence of workday Facebook noodling where Chin Chai Chef mentioned in her status that she was drooling over pictures of the restaurant’s food, and I suggested the next logical step.

Kueh pie tee: Very appealingly presented with the four hot, crisp pie tees nestled in a bed of sesame seeds. I sprinkled a generous amount of the seeds over the top of my pie tee. There was a strong flavour of pork in the filling which I wasn’t used to, though – if you like pork this is fine, but it is a bit of a surprise if you’re just expecting juicy turnip tastiness.

Chap chye: This is where I admit I’m a bad Peranakan – I don’t like chap chye and never have. But since the only other vegetable option on the menu was sayur lodeh, it still made sense to pick such a quintessential Peranakan dish over something we could get at any nasi padang stall. So I can only say that this was fine, no better or worse than any other chap chye I’ve had. But given that vegetable dishes have formed some of the highlights of meals I’ve had at other Peranakan restaurants (bayam pais from True Blue back when it was on East Coast Road and affordable, also jantung pisang kerabu and sambal terung from Peramakan), it would be great if Candlenut Kitchen could add at least one or two more vegetable options to its menu.

Babi pongteh: This is where I admit I’m a bad Peranakan again. I’m not a big fan of pork, so my opinion of this dish would be lukewarm even if Emily of Emerald Hill herself cooked me this dish using pork from the laziest pig in the Straits Settlements and tau cheo fermented in the tears of the Little Nonya. So let me give you Alec’s view instead – despite the colour of his skin and his shocking inability to sew beaded slippers, he’s probably eaten more Peranakan food in the five years he’s been here than many Singaporeans have in their lives, so I think it’s a fair substitution. While he liked the tenderness of the meat, he found the gravy rather one-note, lacking the complexity he’s enjoyed in other versions he’s had of this dish. He would have been happy with the dish if he’d cooked it at home or had it in a food court, but for restaurant prices he was expecting something better.

Ayam buah keluak: Obviously, no review of a Peranakan restaurant is complete without such an appraisal. I liked this, the chicken was very tender and the gravy and the paste in the nuts robust yet not overpowering. The serving comes with three nuts but you can add extra nuts for $2 each. Go ahead, you’re worth it.

Chendol cream: A coconut milk panna cotta topped with the “green worms” and a generous drizzling of gula melaka syrup. I thought this was a creative twist on the traditional dessert, and a very pleasant closer to the meal.

Apparently, Candlenut Kitchen is the fledgling effort of a young, talented chef eager to use the skills he learned in culinary school to streamline the production of Peranakan food, which is traditionally labour-intensive. While I still favour Peramakan for its consistency, variety and value for money, I wish Candlenut Kitchen the best and hope that the restaurant will be successful enough to survive and grow into its strengths. With useless Peranakans like me around who can’t be bothered to learn how to cook these dishes at home, we need all the passionate restauranteurs we can get to keep this glorious cuisine alive.

Gettin’ Iggy’s Wid It

Cheapskate non-foodie restaurant review alert! I took the day off on my birthday so we took advantage of set lunch prices at Iggy’s since we could never dine there otherwise. The $55++ per person set gets you two hors d’ouevres, a main and a dessert each. We usually share everything even when we go to fancy places, which is nice in terms of tasting variety but a little embarrassing if the maitre d’ arrives just as you’re hefting your platter of half-eaten osso buco across the table. Here’s what we tried.

Hors d’ouevres:

  • Pan-fried foie gras with French toast, caramelized peach and mango mesclun salad. I seem to remember enjoying the foie gras at St Pierre’s a little more, perhaps, but this wasn’t far behind.
  • Home-made burrata. Very nice, but not the ascent to cheese heaven serenaded by tomato seraphim that it is at Valentino’s.
  • Home-made papardelle, mushroom and Kurobota pork cheek ragout. Delicious, but I’m glad they do this as an hors d’oeurvre rather than a main because it’s too rich for me to handle in large portions.
  • Spring salad of mushroom, tomato, mango, avocado, mesclun, red onion, fine herbs, lily flower, Hollandaise. A nice contrast to the above three hors d’oeurvres.

Mains:

  • Sakura ebi cappellini. I wasn’t keen on this but I’m not a prawn person. To me, it tasted like fried bee hoon.
  • Sea bass with tomato confit and aubergine caviar. The fish was done perfectly with crispy crust and moist, flavourful flesh. I would have liked a little more tomato confit and aubergine caviar to eat it with, but perhaps they’re deliberately stingy with the condiments to force you to appreciate the tasty fish.

Desserts:

  • Campari jelly with blood orange sorbet and forest berries. Very refreshing blend of flavours and textures. I’m not a dessert person but this was one of the best desserts I’ve had in a while.
  • Caraibe chocolate bar with mascarpone ice cream and green lime zest. Marginally nicer than the usual moist chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream combo, but I was a bit underwhelmed. I’d been hoping for the lime zest taste to be more prominent.

I would recommend Iggy’s to anyone who wants to feel a little pampered but keep costs under control. The service is warm and professional, the atmosphere intimate but not hoity toity, and the number 36 takes you right to the doorstep. Just don’t think about the number of McSpicy meals you could have consumed for the price. (If you don’t like the McSpicy, ignore that last sentence. If you do like the McSpicy, meet me for one now. It’s 2.18 a.m. and I’m huuuungry.)

Valentine’s Whey

They say you’re meant to put in effort to keep the thrill in your relationship and you know, I’ll be the first to admit that walking around the house bedaubed with green facial mask goo while continuously singing the Ponyo Ponyo song is probably not the way to drive my man wild with desire. Of course, it’s also true that said man’s idea of hot hot love these days is opening the oven door to take out his freshly baked bread.

Given the depressing picture of terminal marital decline I’ve painted, it would be fair to assume that we spent Valentine’s Day eating McDelivery in front of the TV and guffawing loudly at some juvenile dude comedy like Blades Of Glory while chugging beers. It would be fair to assume this because that is how we spend many, many days. (Happy happy days.)

But in fact, we had a totally cheesy Valentine’s Day this year!

Literally.

Home Made Ricotta and Whey Bread

The white gooey dollop is delicious, creamy home made ricotta (too wet, I know, I got impatient and didn’t drain it enough). And with the whey left over from the cheesemaking, Alec made bread.

I think we did pretty well at getting into the spirit of Valentine’s Day. This time next year, we’ll be walking the streets wearing matching T-shirts, me clutching a posy of wilting roses and Alec carrying a huge teddy bear with “I Lurv U” embroidered across its belly.

Ghetto Rocket (Or, I’m Out For Cress-idents To Represent Me)

Sorry about the food-heaviness of some of these recent posts – work and learning WordPress have been kicking my ass, so it feels easier to slap on a picture of a salad here than write thoughtfully about my initial impressions of Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop – though when looking up the Amazon link to include in this post, I conveniently found that this review captures them quite well.

We made this Tamasin Day-Lewis recipe for pear and blue cheese salad because we happened to have most of the ingredients for it.

We’ve adopted watercress as our poor-man’s-rocket, since it’s a fraction of the price of rocket but still has the peppery kick. Cheese is very pricy here so we try not to go mad with it, but Alec saw the Cashel blue cheese in Jones the Grocer a few weeks back when we made our first visit to Dempsey Road in about two years, and couldn’t resist. YUPPIE. If you try this, you should note that the sesame seeds make the whole dish, so count them as essential. It’s not the best food photo, but I liked the texture of the seeds and watercress against the pear glistening with olive oil, dribbles of balsamic vinegar and its own juice.

Last night, I made Martha Stewart curried apple and potato soup, which was delicious though not particularly photogenic. It went really well with a simple avocado and watercress salad, and 2 slices of kneadyguy bread.

And now, just to keep things here slightly more street than ending a post with Martha Stewart, here’s an excerpt from Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. It’s not perfect but I found it quite evocative, and more successful than some of Chang’s other ambitious attempts to set context and mood:

It was 1977.

Bob Marley was in a foreign studio, recovering from an assassin’s ambush and singing: “Many more will have to suffer. Many more will have to die. Don’t ask me why.” Bantu Stephen Biko was shackled, naked and comatose in the back of a South African police Land Rover. The Baader-Meinhof gang lay in suicide pools in a German prison. The Khmer Rouge filled their killing fields. The Weather Underground and the Young Lords Party crawled toward the final stages of violent implosion. In London, as in New York City, capitalism’s crisis left entire blocks and buildings abandoned, and the sudden appearance of pierced, mohawked, leather-jacketed punks on Kings Road set off paroxysms of hysteria. History behaved as if reset to year zero.

In the Bronx, Herc’s time was passing. But the new culture that had arisen around him had captured the imagination of a new breed of youths in the Bronx. Herc had stripped down and let go of everything, save the most powerful basic elements – the rhythm, the motion, the voice, the name. In doing so, he summoned up a spirit that had been there at Congo Square and in Harlem and on Wareika Hill. The new culture seemed to whirl backward and forward – a loop of history, history as loop – calling and responding, leaping, spinning, renewing.

Hungry Eyes

Cat under parked car

At the Ponggol Nasi Lemak branch in Tanjong Katong, there is always a little cat that darts and scurries under and in between the parked cars in hope of scraps from the tables of the pavement diners. He keeps his distance and isn’t as insistent as strays elsewhere can be, but there’s no questioning what he’s after. I took the photo on the left while waiting for Alec to bring back our plates of nasi lemak.

There he is again, eying my newly arrived nasi lemak:

Occasional Foodiness

We do a fair bit of cooking but I haven’t bothered to write much about it here since cooking is hardly a novelty to either of us. For the same reason, I have hardly any photos of the stuff we’ve cooked so far, because taking a photograph of my food before eating it would just never occur to me. But since my sister was crouching over our baked fish, snapping away like the keen food photographer she’s become, I thought I’d try my hand at it too, and am quite happy with the result.

It’s fish baked Greek style with dill, tomatoes and potatoes, from a Nigel Slater recipe. We used kurau (threadfin) steaks, and the dill is from our makeshift balcony herb garden. It’s a pretty great recipe because you hardly have to do anything – you chuck potatoes, onions and garlic in a baking tray with olive oil, bake for 10 minutes (180C), add the fish on top and surround it with tomatoes, season with herbs, lemon juice, salt and pepper, bake for 35 minutes more and it comes out perfect.

Apart from that, we also made chicken piccata and roasted aubergine, tomato and chickpea soup, and much credit for the delicious success of those dishes goes to the reliability of Elise’s recipes. My mum made braised cabbage with wholegrain mustard, which went very well with everything else, and I whipped up apple, pear and banana smoothies for dessert. It was probably the easiest, cheapest, least stressful, most universally successful dinner party we’ve ever done. And contrary to Alec’s yuppie parody, I can assure you that all ingredients (except the chickpeas, weirdly, we needed Cold Storage for those) can be purchased in NTUC Marine Parade.

Things You Can Get In Joo Chiat

In a red light district in some other country I’d know this pun was totally intentional, but in Singapore’s Joo Chiat I’m not too sure.

I snapped this last week while waiting for my food in Tasty Penang, a restaurant across the road which had such laughably incompetent service (but to be fair, pretty damn good Penang char kuay teow and I don’t even like char kuay teow usually) that all the customers in the restaurant bonded through their shared frustration. In somewhere like Singapore where almost no one makes conversation with strangers, it was an amusing change to see people winking and laughing with the people at other tables as they asked, for the umpteenth time, where their laksa was.

We were back in the same area a few nights ago for sweet potato leaves and steamed fish with sng buey sauce at Lau Hock Guan Kee Bak Kut Teh. We’ll be going back soon for its assam fish head curry, rated “die die must try” by Makansutra.

Man, I love Joo Chiat.