Friday, May 04, 2012

Dining at one of San Pellegrino's 50 Best Restaurants in the World

There are good restaurants, and then there's the world's 50 best restaurants. Lucky me was able to try one on the list. Sydney’s famed Tetsuya, opened by Japanese chef Tetsuya Wakuda in 1989, has reaped countless accolades, so expectations were running quite high for his first project outside of Sydney, Waku Ghin at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. It’s a very spacious 8000 square feet temple of fresh ingredients, knowledgeable chefs and interactive dining experience. With only 25 seats available for dinner, this is a crowd and noise-averse diner’s dream.
Prior to the dinner proper drinks were served at a quiet lounge with comfortable chairs and magazines to read, for the early types or those disinclined to pre-dinner socializing. After walking through high ceilings and minimalist décor with touches of luxe here and there, we were ushered into one of several private enclosures with high seats facing a gleaming steel cooking countertop. A chef came in and introduced himself as well as the 10-course degustation of the day. Ingredients were presented to guests before cooking, accompanied by a brief explanation of where it was sourced and how it will be cooked.
To start with a small white cup on a saucer was placed before us. Tiny globules of bright orange Hokkaido salmon roe formed a glistening layer over a chilled flan. The roe was bursting with the freshness of the sea, while slightly salty it paired excellently with the bland and smooth flan.
The next dish was greeted with excitement. A lightly marinated Botan Ebi with Sea Urchin and Oscietre Caviar sat regally atop an uni shell on a bed of ice. Each mother-of-pearl spoonful was a revelation. The uni was perfect in itself, with no trace of fishiness; when swallowed with the pop-in-your-mouth caviar and crunchy-slippery Botan it danced in your taste buds. This was easily a favorite of the night.
At this point little details didn’t go unnoticed. On a wooden counter top behind the chefs sat a still life of glass bottles filled with oil, soy sauce, seasoning, water and a neatly folded white towel. These were the seasonings most often used throughout the meal, in restrained quantities so as not to overwhelm the palate. The water and towel, used to clean the steel cooking plate after each dish, were used so efficiently it seemed like nothing was cooked on the steel plate at all. Chefs chatter according to their guests’ response; ours was more reserved than the one serving those beside us. It was just slightly uncomfortable sharing a room with another trio; perhaps a divider would work, since the room could accommodate a party of six.
Still reeling from the beautifully presented caviar, we politely tried the small slice of grilled freshwater eel (Anago) that hid a sliver of decadent foie gras and zucchini. Served with a sweetish sauce, this was a simple way of starting off the round of cooked savory dishes. The serving size was small enough that we could enjoy the richness of the eel and foie without being too full to eat the remaining 7 courses. While delicious it paled in comparison to the sensation of the Botan-uni-caviar triumvirate.
Freshly-caught and delivered Tasmanian abalone took center stage next, each one expertly scored, grilled and cut into quarters and gently laid on a bed of micro arugula, stewed grape tomatoes and fregola (a type of pasta from Sardinia) frolicking in a flavorful broth and dotted with olive oil. The abalone, with its slightly charred edges, was like squid in texture, somewhat rubbery on the outside leading to a soft bite in the center. The broth tasted refreshing and summery, with a mild bitter kick from the arugula pairing wonderfully with the sweet and acidic tomatoes. While I praised the abalone I could see my companions were not as enamored, not because of the flavors but the texture.
A beautifully sliced piece of raw, quivering, orange-spotted lobster provided color contrast to the green leaf it was on. This treat was unexpected as it was not on the menu. Served with a creamy dip, it was again a symphony of simple, natural flavors and acted to cleanse the palate for the next dish, Braised Canadian lobster contentedly swimming in a heady licorice-scented tarragon sauce. The lobster flesh was moist and imbued with the liquor used in the sauce. After finishing off the meat there is the temptation to spoon the sauce, which resembled a dark tomato soup, and finish it to the last drop.
After several seafood courses the men were of course anticipating the meats, and they were not disappointed. On the menu both "Sumiyaki of Tasmanian Grass-Fed Beef Steak with Tasmanian Wasabi Mustard" and "Japanese Ohmi Wagyu Roll from Shiga Prefecture with Maitake, Wasabi and Citrus Soy" had two appealing words-- Beef and Wagyu. The first was five bite-sized cubes of steak grilled and brushed with barbeque sauce. The sauce was not too sweet and was more soy-based and when the fork tender beef was smeared with a bit of the light green tangy wasabi mustard it was an explosion of sweet, salty, spicy all at once, followed by the “hit” only wasabi can give. Wagyu beef speaks for itself, it’s the undisputed King of beef cuts, and to overcook or over sauce it does not do it justice. At Waku Ghin it was treated with utmost respect. A sprinkling of salt and pepper, a deft hand in cutting and rolling, a few second sear and it was done. Our plate was minimalist, with a small mound of fried garlic slivers on one side, a dab of fresh wasabi and some finely grated leeks on the other. Lightly grilled mushroom slices were the finishing touch. Purists would eat this as is, with a sliver of garlic for crunch and taste and a smoky, chewy mushroom accompanying the fat-marbled and extremely tasty beef slices, while others would dip a bit it in the citrus soy for a zesty flavor profile. Either way the Wagyu shines.
At this point in the meal we were starting to get full, so the last savory dish of a few spoonfuls of rice and a poached snapper immersed in consommé was very much welcome. It rounded off the dinner nicely, satisfying those looking for some carbohydrates while warming the insides with the mild-tasting broth and soft fish—similar in comfort to a chicken noodle soup but much more refined. Fragrant green tea was the appropriate finale before we were ushered into the main dining room to partake of dessert and the spectacular Singapore skyline offered by the floor-to-ceiling glass windows.
Three sweets were presented, a bittersweet granita of grapefruit with Chartreuse Jelly, a mousse-like Japanese style cheesecake and a tray of Petit Fours with macarons, mochi balls, meringue and cookies. Sweet-toothed ones would most likely protest at the lack of cloying sweetness, but Ghin is a restaurant of restrained pleasures. From the décor to the menu, everything was moderately seasoned, crafted with care, presented simply but beautifully, letting the freshness and provenance of each ingredient be the star of the show, rather than fanciful plating or exotic flavor combinations. In the end, we still could not get over the uni; we wanted more. And wanting more always translates to "we will be back". Small wonder Waku Ghin is consistently named one of the world's 50 best restaurants. I was bowled over. A year on and looking at the pictures, I still am.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Why Do I Love Cooking and Eating?

It makes me remember. Sensations, pleasures, fleeting memories. Happy, exciting times. Special, personal moments. It makes me adventurous. Throwing caution to the wind as I embrace new textures, new tastes. It unleashes the creative in me, in anyone who attempts to please both eye and palate. Most of all, it makes me believe in something better.

Food is transformative. I see something bright green and sprightly wilt ever so slowly under the influence of heat and steam, turning a raw vegetable into one of slightly crunchy goodness. I visualize pink turning white, red turning pink, grill marks seared on flesh as if branded and possessed. I struggle to contain my excitement at the intoxicating sight of seafood curling up or ever so slightly shrinking, as if afraid of the heat but tamed by it.

I am witness to ordinary, almost unwanted cuts of meat absorbing the colors of the sauce they're cooked in -- deep tomato red, dark earthy brown, creamy blushing pink, bright sunny yellow, virginal blinding white, milky chocolate brown; absorbing the flavors of wine, onion, butter, or cream, stock, garlic, or tomatoes, soy sauce, sugar or any one of a myriad ingredients that have the power to convert plain into magnificent.

Only the delicate art of frying can turn flimsy and yielding into crackling and bold, full of confidence and swagger, curling up as it swims in bubbling oil, each second making it crispier, crunchier, more appetizing to shatter in one's mouth.

To observe a soft, pliable, homely piece of dough rising, and becoming a hunk of chewy, oven-baked receptacle for any number of spreads, jams, butters, pates and thick chowders is a solemn experience. To inhale the wondrous scent of pastries, cakes and breads baking is a moment unmatched.

How folding ribbons of batter, composed of earth's simplest treasures, become a cake, that, after some window dressing, metamorphose into something dreamy, elegant, pretty, decadent and delightful is a mystery, a result of science and magic and yes, a fair sprinkling of fairy dust.

From spartan to ornate, from unsightly to mouthwatering, cooking and baking wield the power of alchemy, and is the driving force behind the optimism and hope I harbor within me.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Stufffing Myself Silly

"I'm a better (wo)man than this. I will not succumb to gluttony."

This is my mantra the entire 3 weeks that I find myself in Manila, Subic and Batangas, ostensibly to spend time with my family (which I did!), but let's face it, I was hoping to stuff myself silly in less than a month, since long vacations like these are too few and far between.

In Subic, a gigantic pizza takes center stage (literally). For something so showy, its substance surprises; a chewy crust cradles gooey four cheese goodness.

Another Subic find, mushroom burger. While it didn't knock anyone's socks off, the meat was cooked medium rare and the chargrilled flavor was evident in every bite.

The temptation to "taste" just a bit of this soft, pillowy ensaymada and its Westernized cousin the cinnammon roll was just too strong.

Ar Angel's Kitchen in Greenhills, their famous pinakbet rice topped with bagnet and served with chocolate bagoong satisfied a curiosity I've harbored since reading about the dish. While the individual components were not the best renditions, the overall presentation and blending of tastes worked pretty darn well. A creative dish!

A party at home was catered by Mongolian Grill! The scent of sizzling meat and seafood, the sight of fluffy white rice, the anticipation of how your "experimental sauce" will taste was a build up of excitement for a Mongolian fan such as myself. Then you see the rice tossed with the vegetables, the meat joyfully dancing in the air, that blur of movement as your rice is placed in a bowl, hot, can one be enough?

**Other no-holds barred pig out moments include: brunch at Bistro Filipino (always a clever, ingenious little gem of a restaurant), cheese steak from Charlie's Grind and Grill, a dripping mess of tender, thinly sliced beef and molten cheese that sticks to the roof of one's mouth; Taiwanese beef noodle, oyster omelet, black gulaman and other street snacks from Mien San in Gilmore Avenue (a childhood favorite); lunch at Cafe Romulo (the only disappointment during my 3 week dining spree), dinner and wine at Masseto, where I chose to try two attractive sounding appetizers instead of a main, and coffee at Bag of Beans in Tagaytay.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Bo Innovation

Alvin Leung is the tattooed, long-haired demon chef of Bo Innovation, the 2 Michelin starred restaurant famed for its take on molecular gastronomy. Dinner there can cost upwards of HKD1000, so good friends and I settle on the HKD198 lunch. On the day I finally sashay over to the second floor of a side street in Wan Chai, who do I see lording it over the kitchen but a chef with long bangs and tattooed arms in a sleeveless black chef's uniform -- so for a moment there I thought the demon chef would be cooking our lunch. But on second glance I realize it's not him, which is a bummer but totally understandable given that we were there for the less expensive and less varied lunch set.

Appearances of chefs aside, the all important question is: Did Bo live up to its reputation? I'm not an expert on molecular gastronomy, having eaten at El Bulli only in my dreams, and I have yet to muster the courage to splash on Bo's dinner chef's menu or tasting menu, so I can't say my opinion truly counts. But for those who are interested, let's just say I didn't die and go to foodie paradise, but I would go back for dinner. They should turn down the air-conditioning though. It was a freezer inside. The pinpricks of sunlight that danced on our skin when we left were oh so welcome. Maybe we should have eaten on the casual terrace outside.

We were greeted by this unique place setting with a diagonal fork rest.

My companions and I ordered the set lunch with different dishes so we could taste them all. This was my friend M's savory foie gras bread pudding, which was tiny, rich and had a hint of 5 spice powder.

Two golden orbs of scallops with dollops of fragrant kaffir lime sauce peeking through. This dish was an easy favorite. Imagine a bite of soft scallops followed by an intense flavor hit from the tangy, zesty, creamy sauce.

P's foie gras potsticker. A lone piece of luxury. It tasted like potsticker with foie gras inside. Decadent. I really can't be more poetic or descriptive than that.

Porcini "fun gor", deep moss green steamed dumplings filled with exquisite porcini mushrooms. A sensual, inspired creation that could convert a carnivore. Slippery sliced porcini encased in a thin, light, dumpling wrap.

"lap mei fan", steamed rice with preserved meats in normal restaurants, but Bo is anything but normal. Steamed rice is reincarnated as rice krispies, and preserved sausage is not to be seen, but tasted. The white ice cream underneath the krispies was redolent with the flavor of sausages and Chinese wine. There was also a hint of duck powder. Texture and temperature wise this dish was a revelation. One expects the krispies to be sweet, like the cereal, but it's bland, and the ice cream is anything but. It's as if they distilled the essence, the soul, of a Chinese sausage and magically transformed it into tongue-numbing cold ice cream. A fascinating dish, but it will do nothing to tame hunger. So men with big appetites beware, this restaurant is not for you.

Oxtail "xiao long bao" with avruga caviar. The best looking of the lot but the least attractive to our taste buds. I prefer the genuine xiao long bao. This one had a too-thick skin and insipid broth, like an older fowl with a tough exterior and tasteless meat.

Starch du jour: rice with fish roe. 2 words: more! more!

Duck with green salad and crispy taro. Not a memorable dish, except for the sweetish sauce and the hidden duck meat inside the taro shell. Now that was a nice surprise since I was wondering how one itsy-bitsy piece of duck leg could possibly tide me over for lunch!

"Ballotine of Chicken beggar-style, lotus flavor". Now this is something I would order again. Beggar chicken in Chinese restaurants is more of a showy dish than anything, flamboyant in presentation but lacking punch. Not so with this winner. Each bite begged (no pun intended) to be savored, the sauce was something you wanted to lick, if you were in the privacy of your home.

24-hours cooked pork lasagna, a quail egg yolk sitting pertly atop. P beamed when she saw the egg. As hinted at by the name, this dish was composed of many layers of pork slices that probably bathed gently in a vinegar and sugar braising liquid (an upgraded Chinese adobo). Now after 24 hours in a gentle bath, it's only right that one feels soft, smooth and silky, which was how the pork felt on the tongue. Sometimes, though, it's a case of too much of a good thing-- this dish was too sweet, the seasoning too intense, we all felt bored after a few bites.

Dessert was a simple affair: a chocolate pastry boat filled with souffle. The sprinklings you see on the side are not reddish cocoa or colored icing sugar but a berry dust (I'm guessing raspberry). I've never encountered such a crackly shell in my life! Each time my fork or knife came near a small bit would jump onto my napkin. In case you're wondering, I would pick the bits up and eat them. They were delightful, after all.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Hospital Food

If hospitals all over the world serve what Matilda International in HK does, I think there would be a spike in admissions, longer-staying patients, and more visitors than usual.

My 7-day stay in this lovely place overlooking the harbour (with fabulous, sweeping views of Aberdeen, Lamma Island, and the few breathtaking mansions that line the Peak) was made all the more special because of the menu. Before I get into that, though, let me say that Matilda also has what it takes to be a premier medical facility.

Are the doctors professional yet reassuring? Yes. Mine were more than competent and a joy to encounter. Are the nurses and midwives knowledgeable, accessible and friendly? Most definitely. There were several Pinoys and it was great to be chatting to them in Tagalog. Are the facilities adequate? It's a 100-year old hospital blessed with modern equipment, spic and span public spaces while maintaining a classic, homey ambiance in the rooms (one friend thought I was in a bedroom with a hospital bed when she saw pictures).

What sets this hospital apart, though, is the food. Rumor has it a former hotel chef runs the kitchen, and after a week of "ordering" three meals a day, I can say with certainty that whoever is boss of that distant universe where my meals come from, can cook, and cook well. Oh, lest I forget let me say the plating is mighty pretty too (especially the salads).

Most hospitals will give you a choice of dishes from a very short (and blah-sounding) list. Some will just deliver tasteless looking mush on a tray, hoping you will be ravenous enough to finish it off and thank them for it (not to mention pay for it as part of your bill). At Matilda there is a menu to choose from, with both Western and Oriental breakfasts and main dishes, vegetarian options, pasta, sandwiches, soup, salad and dessert. The descriptions are well-written, similar to a restaurant, with nutritional info for each dish. Quite understandably, the prices can be steep compared to other HK hospitals. This isn't a problem for patients, who as part of their package are allowed to order 1 starter or dessert and 1 main dish for lunch and dinner, as well as their choice of breakfast. Family and friends who visit or stay have to pay, and pay they do, because they also want a taste of the food!

Here is a list of what I've been eating, and what family/friends have been ordering since I was admitted:

Peach juice, oatmeal cereal, bakery basket and fresh fruits
Congee with sweet corn and steamed pork and vegetable bun
Congee with mixed beans and seeds with steamed barbeque pork bun
Congee with minced pork with wok-fried rice vermicelli with chicken
Grapefruit juice with all-bran cereal, bakery basket and fresh fruits
Sausage Omelette with toast

Cappa Ham with Artichoke Heart Platter
Chicken Consomme with Vegetables Julienne
Mixed Garden Vegetable Soup
Potato and Leek Soup (Little boy loves this!)
Club Sandwich with Chips
Wheat Baguette with Smoked salmon and Salad
Baked Free-range Chicken Breast with Herb Sauce and Steamed Rice
Grilled Rib-Eye of Beef with Herb Gravy and Mashed Potato
egg Noodle in Soup with Wonton
Sweet and Sour Pork
Wok-fried Fish Fillet with Celery (the fish was tough and overcooked, I guess you can't have everything)
Wok-Fried Broccoli with Chicken (I have to say that Matilda wins hands down when it comes to Western dishes, their Chinese ones could improve)
Grilled Mixed Vegetables Salad with Feta Cheese and Balsamic Dressing
Pan-Fried Salmon with Balsamic Glaze, Pine Nuts and Baked Potato
Cream of Mushroom Soup
Tomato Basil Soup
Papaya with Black Dates and Peanut Soup (I was feeling very "health-conscious" after delivery)
Wheat Pita with Grilled Vegetables and Avocado Dip
Wheat Linguine with Mixed Mushrooms and Parmesan

Not bad, wouldn't you say? :)

Baked Pistachio-crusted Sea Bass with Mashed Potato

Caesar Salad

Baked Spaghetti Bolognese

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Trying New Restos and Loving Them!

Living in Hong Kong can make a foodie out of even the most food-averse of souls. There are restaurants everywhere; in commercial areas, malls, office buildings, markets, quiet residential streets, a nunnery, temple, up the mountain, by the beach. Name the location, and HK is sure to have an eatery or food store around the corner. Food just assaults the senses, from the moment one steps off the plane, boat or bus. You can find almost all kinds of cuisine the world has to offer if you are resourceful enough. You can eat out every single day for every meal and not repeat a restaurant for a year. This is what makes HK so exciting for me. I cannot adequately describe the awe I feel at eating at a place older than I am, the delight at being lucky enough to eat at Michelin-starred temples of food, the adrenalin rush that comes with planning a food sojourn somewhere out-of-the-way, the anticipation in trying out a new restaurant, the pure joy that courses through me when I pop something innovative and truly well made in my mouth.

For the past month I've been fortunate enough to be able to try three out of four new places with the people I enjoy being with the most: my 2 boys. Hubby and son are creatures of comfort and they have their favorites, as do most people, so we tend to gravitate towards the tried and tested. When I'm alone or with adventurous friends we try new places, even hyped-up ones (I am admittedly a sucker for hype).

With Franco from one of my favorite Manila food blogs tableforthreeplease I ate at the Shanghainese private kitchen Gong Guan. This was to kick start the weekend habit of trying out new places. Last Father's Day we gobbled up Fu Sing's yummy dimsum. Tonight we ate refined and delicate Cantonese cuisine at Island Tang. Tomorrow brunch is at the Press Room, a New-York style eatery with an interesting brunch menu.

Island Tang is an oasis of calm in the middle of the rush hour pathway that is Queen's Road Central. They say it's quite crowded and noisy at lunch so dinner is the way to go. The place is decorated in the 1940's style, with comfortable chairs spaced reasonably apart, so unlike most Cantonese restaurants that try to squeeze tables in every imaginable space. There are ceiling fans, chandeliers, mirrored private rooms, and a beautiful condiment tray bearing cut glass bottles of soya sauce, Chinese vinegar, salt, pepper, chili paste and chili oil. The service is unobtrusive yet attentive, and we were given tiny servings of a bean curd skin roll with crunchy (bamboo shoots? this is my guess, I forgot to ask) salad mixed with mayonnaise to start with. Our server then proceeded to take our order and recommend dishes. He noticed me studying the chopsticks and explained that they were made of buffalo bone, which explains the color variation.

After a pleasant interlude our dimsum appetizers came. We ordered the steamed crab and egg white dumpling and puff pastry wrapped wagyu beef and mushroom, both highly recommended by our knowledgeable server. The dumpling skin was very thin and soft, and held a juicy interior with the most delicate of flavor, as opposed to blandness. There was nothing overwhelming about this dish, yet its simplicity made it all the more attractive. The wagyu was the perfect partner, then. It was rich and redolent of fatty beef flavor coupled with the sensuousness of slippery mushrooms. Not very Chinese, this dish, but very haute cuisine and definitely a winner.

Some notable dishes include the kale (choi sum) with ginger and rice wine, nice and crunchy yet soft, and the cha siu which was melt in your mouth tender, and without the sweetness of Fu Sing's sauce (so hubby likes this more because he's not a fan of sweet food).

Not all restaurants are perfect though, and I have to say the peking duck 2-ways did not elicit moans and groans around the table. Though not disappointing; in fact the pancake wrapper was a nice discreet size, almost paper-thin and a joy to chew; the flesh wasn't as tender or tasty, the skin not as crispy or fatty as that of Peking Garden. The lettuce with minced duck meat was cut with scalloped scissors to a perfect bowl shape, definitely eye candy, but lacking in ooomph, flavor-wise. A fried noodle dish with chicken and satay was forgettable.

We missed out on a lot of the other dishes on the menu, since we were only 5, but my eyes were drawn to the seafood in hot and sour soup (and all the other soups, for that matter), the roasted pork belly which they ran out of, deep-fried frog's legs, all the seafood choices, traditional braised duck with eight treasure (my mom makes a mean braised duck), roasted crispy pigeon, stewed wagyu beef cheek, and spare ribs with sweet and sour strawberry sauce. Good thing we live in HK so there's always a next time!

Island Tang can be found at shop 222, The Galleria, 9 Queen's Road Central.
+852 2526 8798. It's by Shanghai Tang founder David Tang, and is reminiscent of China Club, which is also a favorite, but since it's for members only and I'm not one, I'll settle for Island Tang. :)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Dimsum at Fu Sing

If there's anything HK does well, it would be dimsum and roasts.

Where to go for dimsum in HK if you want:

Touristy, noisy and cavernous: Maxim's at City Hall
Popular, small and not that easy to find: Dimsum in Happy Valley
Full of locals, noisy and of average quality: Metropol
Quiet, relaxed atmosphere: Moon Koon at the Happy Valley Racecourse
Other popular places: Victoria City, Treasure Lake
The best cha siu appetizer and cha siu bao I've had so far? Fu Sing in Lockhart Road.

Today, Father's Day, we squeezed ourselves (me more than hubby and son because I'm 8 mos preggy) into a tight dining space to enjoy some cha siu, cha siu bao, steamed shrimp dumpling, fried sticky dumpling, lotus wrapped sticky rice with steamed yellow chicken and wolfberry, fried vermicelli and crystal noodle with shrimp, and the best of the lot: fried taro and scallop spring rolls.

Their a la carte menu looked so interesting as well, and I spent some time craning my neck to check out what other tables ordered. I think it's time to arrange a lunch or dinner with friends in the coming weeks!

Fu Sing: 1/F, Sunshine Plaza, 353 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai. +852 2893 0881.