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Songhelou, Suzhou, China

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Back in 2000, I went to Suzhou for the first time, and had one of the most memorable meals at the classic Songhelou restaurant. One of the dishes, Cherry Pork, had the most wonderful taste even this old brand has changed. At my last visit it looked old and tired, but bizarrely with the old Chinese charm. Now it’s refurbished and turned into a 21st century restaurant. The decor has received the much-needed TLC.

The dishes were still the classic dishes from the region, but with the ever-increasing health conscious customers, it seems that the cooking has undergone major transformation also.

As one of the main excuses for this repeat visit was to re-live the moment of that melt-in-your-mouth cherry pork (with a very unhealthy but absolutely delicious chunk of pork belly fat), we ordered the dish once again. However, this time it was a total disappointment – while there was not so much fat which might be more healthy, but the meat was drier and tougher, and the sauce was not intense like before (the only way to describe what it was like in 2000 – imagine the best gravy made from the meat fat, and then it’s many times more intense with flavour).

We also ordered another Suzhou classic dish – Squirrel Fish. This was not  a new species of fish; instead it’s a fish that’s been deboned, fried and shaped like a squirrel. There’s more information about the origin of Squirrel Fish on the web. The dish was beautifully presented, but with a more sweet and very little sour flavour. This is not unusual though for this region. To accompany these two rather rich-flavoured dishes, we had a mixture of four vegetables which was a good dish though the pool of oily soy sauce was slightly less welcoming.

  

While Songhelou is one of the classic Chinese restaurants in Suzhou, I found that it failed to sparkle on this occasion. Without the  attraction of the Cherry Pork, perhaps I’ll head to Deyuelou on the opposite side of the road next time I’m in Suzhou.


Address:   (Quanqian branch) No. 72, Taijian Lane, Pingjiang District, Suzhou, China
Telephone: +512-67700688
Website: www

Opening Hours: Daily: 11:00am-1:30pm, 5:00pm-8:30pm

Food: 7/10
Ambience: 3/5
Service: 3/5
Total: 13/20 [Based on visit in January 2012]

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Fatty Crab, New York City, United States

September 23, 2011 Leave a comment

When hurricane Irene struck New York City during the last weekend in August 2011, New York went into an unprecedented shutdown. Not only did the public transport system closed down that weekend, most shops and restaurants decided to stay shut the whole weekend. I’d hate to think the amount of business lost during that weekend, especially when the weather improved dramatically by Sunday morning.

Still, because of the transport limitations and I was staying near Columbus Circle, I decided to go somewhere not too far away for dinner. Fatty Crab on Upper West Side announced on Twitter that they were open on Sunday evening, so that seemed to be a good place to walk to for dinner.

The restaurant was not a typical Malaysian restaurant – the decor and music was very much appealed to the younger trendy Western crowd. The food was “inspired” by Malaysian cuisine (as the restaurant said so on the website) and other neighbouring South-East Asian countries.

Because of the hurricane, it was a reduced menu, but there were still plenty of choices on there. So to start, we opted for Jalan Alor chicken wings, and pork steamed buns. The belly of pork sandwiched in the steamed bun was divine – the flavoursome meat was served with a sweet soya and chilli sauce, with boiled eggs and coriander as garnish.  The chicken wings were coated with a rich glaze of soya sauce – maybe a bit too much sauce but the dish did satisfy my craving for chicken wings that evening.

Pork Steamed Buns & Jalan Alor Chicken Wings at Fatty Crab Upper West Side, New York City

The next dish was Bobo chicken satay with lontong cakes, red onion, peanut sauce. The chicken unfortunately was somewhat too burnt on the outside and without any proper marinade, a bit bland and dry inside.

Red curry okra at Fatty Crab Upper West Side, New York City

For the main courses, we chose Fazio Farms Fatty Duck, with pickled mustard greens, gula jawa, thai chili; red curry okra and rice. Unfortunately the duck, which was deep-fried, was so tough and greasy that after two small bites I already felt that I’ve had enough. The okra was somewhat overcooked and just did not look very appealing to go into the mouth.

Fazio Farms Fatty Duck at Fatty Crab Upper West Side, New York City Red curry okra at Fatty Crab Upper West Side, New York City

 

The meal started on a high with the pork belly in steamed buns and then gradually went downhill from there. Service was warm and friendly without being pretentious – that’s a major plus. The place was vibrant and certainly would make a fun night out with friends, as long as quality of food was not high on your list.

Address: 2170 Broadway (Between 76th & 77th Street), New York City, NY 10024, United States
Telephone: +1 (212) 496 2722
Website: www.fattycrab.com

Opening Hours: Monday to Wednesday: Noon to Midnight ;  Thursday & Friday: Noon to 02.00am ; Saturday: 11.00am to 02.00am;  Sunday: 11.00am to Midnight

Food: 5/10
Ambience: 4/5
Service: 4/5
Total: 13/20 [Based on visit in August 2011 ]

Northcote, Langho, United Kingdom

June 12, 2011 1 comment

After a whole day sightseeing around the Lake District and then a longer-than-expected drive on the motorway, I was looking forward to a quiet evening at Northcote, another stop on the gourmet trip in the north of England.

It was a cold and busy Friday evening, and the hotel was bustling. As usual, Darcy, Bob, Russell and I got to our drill of sipping champagne before dinner. With all the travelling during the day, we were quite hungry by the time we made our way to the dining room (despite having a large number of scones for cream tea at Sharrow Bay in Ullswater.

The amuse bouche was goat cheese mousse with beetroot ice-cream and rocket. It was a good balance of flavours in the goat cheese and beetroot, however there was probably a little too much goat cheese but not enough beetroot.

The first course was shavings of Radholme wild duckling, smoked foie gras snow, pomegranate, black pudding crumble and watercress. The toast that came with this dish was burnt and actually was a bit pointless (or did none of us get the concept?) – after all it’s not a parfait or terrine or foie gras. The foie gras snow was non-existent in taste – we would not know what the dusting was if it’s not explicitly mentioned on the menu. The duck slices had a delicious flavour but it was a little too cold. The pomegranite worked well and was bursting with flavour that complemented well with the duck. A few more salad leaves would also be more welcoming.


The second course was roast halibut, Shorrocks Lancashire cheese fondue, streaky bacon, tempura Ascroft’s cauliflower. it was a shame that the fish was way too overcooked, resulting in a rather dry texture – other than that, the tempura and bacon worked well with the fish.

The celeriac consommé (with partridge turnover and sage) had an intense sweet flavour, though this was somewhat spoilt by the soggy pastry on the partridge turnover. The partridge meat was a little dry also.

The main course  was butter puff pastry wrapped Cockerham goat, cultivated mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes, savoy cabbage. This was a rather heavy dish: after the last course with the pastry, I thought it was a bit repetitive to have another dish with yet more pastry; and the goat meat and battered vegetables just added to the stodginess of this dish. We all felt rather unhealthy after this main course.

The dessert was quince, chestnut and praline trifle, with sky dancer beer choc ice. The choc ice was so cold and hard that I was worried about cutting into it and then part of it would fly off the wood block and hit someone like a bullet. The choc ice probably came straight out of the freezer and put onto the wood block and served straight away; but it could have been better if it’s left to warm up for a few minutes. I loved the trifle – the quince jelly would have been very bitter on its own but it worked wonders with the rest of the trifle, though I somehow missed any bits of praline that was supposed to be in it?!

The meal was somewhat disappointing – the dining room was a bit stuffy and noisy, and the meal was not as good as expected. Was it just below average because its a busy night? I wasn’t sure.

Address:  Northcote Road, Langho, Blackburn, Lancashire,  BB6 8BE, United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 (0)1254 240555
Website: http://www.northcote.com/
Opening Hours: Lunch: Monday to Saturday: 12:00 – 13:30, Sunday: 12:00-14:00 ; Dinner: Monday to Friday: 19:00-21:30, Saturday 18:30-22:00, Sunday 19:00-21:00

Food: 7/10
Ambience: 3/5
Service: 3/5
Total: 13/20 [Based on visit in November 2010]

Dinner, London, United Kingdom

May 30, 2011 1 comment

With the success Heston Blumenthal has achieved in the past 10 years with the Fat Duck in Bray, in 2011 he finally opened a restaurant called Dinner, inside Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge, right in the heart of London. It was a much anticipated affair, having planned to open in late summer 2010, and then the date kept pushing back. When the reservation line finally opened, the world went wild to try to secure a table – I was not in a rush to book a table and so I waited until I had the excuse to go…. It didn’t take long though before my “dining” partner-in-crime from Philadelphia, Darcy, notified me of her final schedule for her London trip. As expected, all evening bookings were gone, but I managed to secure a lunchtime booking.

I never expected it to be a replica of the Fat Duck, and I would not want to anyway. The restaurant menu was a rediscovery of the dishes from the Victorian era, and many of the recipes were modern updated versions of the dishes described in old cookbooks (I have even found in my local library a recipe book on Victorian cooking that had a list of dishes that looked like the menu from Dinner!). Some of the dishes such as the Meat Fruit were featured on television not long ago.

We spent a fair amount of time choosing our dishes but eventually we got there. As for the wine, Darcy asked the “trainee” sommelier for the lighter red wine, and he ended up recommending a Spanish red wine that he described as “full-bodied”. She then asked if there’s any Austrian wine, and he spent a few minutes flicking through the wine list in front of us while saying that there was one, but in the end he couldn’t find the page (or maybe there just weren’t any). At the end, he recommended a bottle of Pomerol which he described as “too young”. We saw a few other tables with the same wine and thought it was probably OK, but he must have been instructed to sell as many bottles as he could. It was not a promising start.

Darcy and I both went for the Meat Fruit  – it looked like a mandarin orange outside, but the inside was a very smooth, soft and rich full-bodied flavoured chicken liver parfait, and this was served with grilled bread. Darcy was impressed enough with this that she said she could come back to the restaurant just for this.

Russell had the roast scallops, which was served with cucumber ketchup and borage – the dish was refreshing and light, even though the scallops were not of the best quality.

For main course, originally both Darcy and Russell wanted to have the beef royal. However, that was not available on the day, and so instead they had to settle with sirloin of black Angus, which came with mushroom ketchup, red wine juice and triple-cooked chips. While the sauce was intense and rich in flavour, the steak itself was not so exciting – unfortunately both steaks were over-cooked (Darcy asked for medium, while Russell asked for medium-rare… even by British standard, the medium-rare one looked more like medium verging on to well-done). The triple-cooked chips were disappointing, with very little potatoes in them, and they tasted like thick crisps rather than chips (or fries as the Americans would say). We were not impressed.

For me, I went for the powdered duck which was served with smoked fennel and potato puree. The duck was tender enough, if somewhat dry, and this was compensated by a rich flavoured sauce. The potato puree was very smooth – I wouldn’t want to know how much cream was added into the potato mash to make this.

As for desserts, Darcy opted for cheese instead. Russell went for the baked lemon suet pudding which was served with caramel and jersey cream. The dry suet encased the gooey soft lemon syrup inside the pudding, and Russell’s verdict was “Heston does one-star dumb down” – interpret that in whatever way you want!

For me, I went for the tipsy cake that was served with spit roast pineapple. It was one of those dishes that needed to be pre-ordered at the start of the meal. When I took the first bite of the tipsy cake, it reminded me of the pineapple buns (bo lo bao) in Chinese bakeries! In fact, every subsequent mouthful of the cake tasted even more like that. The only thing that distinguished it from the cheap Chinese buns was the roasted pineapplie which was sweet enough but not overpowering, and worked well with the sponge cake.

After we left the restaurant, we went for a long stroll at Hyde Park, and we wondered if it was worth returning to the restaurant. It was not long that we came to the consensus that if it was not so difficult to get a table and the price was slightly lower, it could be worth a return trip. However, we were left wondering what the real hype was about. There were some outstanding dishes (eg the meat fruit) but some were off the mark.

 

Address:  Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London, SW1X 7LA , United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7201 3833
Website: www.dinnerbyheston.com

Opening Hours: Daily: 12:00-14:30; 18:00-22:30

Food: 7/10
Ambience: 3/5
Service: 3/5
Total: 13/20 [Based on visit in April 2011]

Pollen Street Social, London, United Kingdom

May 30, 2011 1 comment

In terms of “making the noise”, Jason Atherton (formerly head chef at Maze) and his new venture, Pollen Street Social, must be way up there at the top. It was an eagerly anticipated place to add to the London eating out scene, and that’s not surprising given the high standard Maze managed to achieve in the past few years. I was impressed with Maze most of the times – exciting menu, exquisite dishes with food that’s exciting to look at and eat. I had some very memorable meals at Maze, despite my last meal (being the surprise 40th birthday dinner organised by friends) being a bit of a let-down. I had a lot of respect for Jason Atherton and so I was looking forward to going to Pollen Street Social, to see what new level of excitement this talented chef could offer. The restaurant opened in mid-April, and I had the perfect excuse to go there with Russell for his pre-birthday dinner in early-May.

It was a decent-size venue – somehow reminding me of a slightly less glitzy version of Maze. It was not full at the time of us arriving, but it was already pretty noisy. After ordering some cocktails, we started studying the menu and debating what to eat. We were told that we could create our own tasting menus as some of the main courses could be served in half portions, allowing for more dishes to be sampled. So that’s exactly what we ended up doing.

For start, Russell, being a foie gras lover, opted for smoked foie gras with black sesame and smoked golden raisin. That was a no-brainer really.

For me, I was intrigued by the “Full English Breakfast” – it was an interesting reconstruction of the ingredients found in a breakfast: poached egg, bacon, tomato sauce, mushroom etc. It sounded more interesting than it looked, and it looked more interesting than it tasted. It was pleasant enough but somehow lacking any wow factors.

For the second course, we decided to do a fish course. I opted for the roasted cod with sea vegetables, creamed potatoes, lemon peel and English asparagus. I was not sure if the fish was frozen previously – even if it was not, the texture certainly seemed to point to that.

Russell had the roasted halibut, Catalan paella, sprouting broccoli, pork-ham fat and mussel stock. When the dish first came out, it was without the paella and it actually looked nice. But once the generous portion of the paella was piled onto the plate, it actually looked a mess (as in the picture below) – the presentation needed improvement.

For the meat courses, the Roasted Dingley Dell pork, beetroot, hops, seeds and grains was on the dry side – another disappointment. I had rack of Cotswold lamb with braised belly and sheep’s milk curd, which was better, though it was quite a heavy dish. So by the time we finished eating this course, our stomachs felt like they were weighed down by a ton of bricks.

 

For the desserts, Russell went for the traditional English rice pudding, hay ice-cream and lime jelly. The rice pudding was nice enough on its own, and it did not really need the other ingredients which made the dish too busy really. My Sangria mousse, blood orange granita with curd milk jam was very tangy bitterness – to the point where it was not that pleasant as a dessert. I finished it but it’s not something I’d have again.

 

On the whole, we were walked away from the restaurant feeling disappointed. We didn’t expect this to be Maze reincarnated, but we just could not think of anything which would entice us to come back for another visit straight away. The restaurant could just be trying to find its feet still – Maybe we would give it another try after 6-12 months.

Address:   8-10 Pollen Street,  London, W1S 1NQ, United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7290 7600
Website: www.pollenstreetsocial.com

Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday only: Lunch: 12:00-14:45 ; Dinner: 18:00-22:45

Food: 6/10
Ambience: 3/5
Service: 4/5
Total: 13/20 [Based on visit in May 2011 ]

The Chairman, Hong Kong

April 27, 2011 1 comment

Away from the busy streets in Hong Kong, this restaurant is located up the hill from Sheung Wan, in the quiet street of Kau U Fong, and boasts the use of the finest ingredients and the absence of artificial stuff such as baking soda for tenderising the beef and MSG for enhancing the flavours. It had only opened for less than 6 months when I visited in January 2010 and the tables were already being booked up a few weeks in advance.

One of the signature dishes was Crispy Small Yellow Croaker served with Balsamic Dressing. If I remembered correctly, the fish as soaked in olive oil for a substantial amount of time, in order to soften the bone, so that the whole fish, including the bones, could be eaten. Was it really that special? I didn’t think so. If anything, it’s a very fiddly dish – some of the bones were just not crispy or soft enough to eat, and some of the sharp bones were just too dangerous to swallow.

The Smoked Pigeon with Longjing Tea & Chrysanthemum was OK. The meat was moist enough but I expected a slightly richer flavour of the tea in the meat – I could have done a better version at home. The Pan-fried Minced Pork Cake with Salted Fish tasted better than it looks – even though I wasnot a fan of salted fish, I could eat a whole piece of the minced pork cake.

As for the main courses: Steamed Fresh Flowery Crab with Aged ShaoXing Wine & Fragrant Chicken Oil was disappointing – While the crabs were fresh enough, but again the flavour is lacking somewhat. The soy sauce chicken was the usual standard – the restaurant claimed to have used the top quality soy sauce for making this, but did the higher price justify that improvement (or lack of improvement) in flavour? The Braised Layered Beancurd with Morel & Chinese Mushrooms was probably the nicest main dish out of the whole lot.

On the whole, the dishes here were not cheap, and the enjoyment I got out from this premium in price was minimal. Maybe the place was just a media hype (and a place for spotting celebrities and famous Hong Kong socialites), or maybe the place was still trying to find a firm footing in their style. We’ll have to see….

Address: 18 Kau U Fong, Central Hong Kong
Telephone: +(852) 2555 2202
Website: www.thechairmangroup.com

Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday 1200-1500 ; 1800-0000

Food: 6/10
Ambience: 3/5
Service: 4/5
Total: 13/20 [Based on visit in January 2010]

The Vineyard at Stockcross, Newbury, United Kingdom

April 27, 2011 Leave a comment

I had hoped that, with Daniel Galmiche taking over from John Campbell at the Vineyard, the standard would not have gone into a freefall, despite the loss of 2 Michelin stars due to the departure of Campbell. The evening started off well (well, the restaurant anyway, the hotel is another story which will be covered in another post) with the Vineyard cocktail (Mandarin essence with champagne) complimentary from the head chef – merci beaucoup Daniel!

While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the food, the front-of-house service was a complete letdown. The wine sommelier was not knowledgeable and she gave the impression that she wanted to be elsewhere other than at the restaurant. When asked for advice for wine (esp for an alternative to Chablis), she was so unhelpful that I might as well close my eyes, open any page of the wine list and select one randomly – when we posed the question “so, what’s this wine like?” and she said “oh, it’s nice.” I could have given that answer myself! For God’s sake, if the wine is not nice, you wouldn’t have included it in the wine list in the first place surely. So we ended up having a bottle of Chablis because of this. The presentation of the wine list was a complete joke – a stack of spiral-bound paper that look as if it came from a small home office!

The waiters and waitresses were OK but there’s a lack of personal warmth and welcoming touch to the whole experience. The decor of the restaurant was very much the same – it’s a restaurant but it lacks that level of intimacy I expect with this class of restaurant.

We had the tasting menu which consisted of the following dishes:

(1) Veloute of lentils, smoked bacon espuma – it was a pleasant surprise to find the flavour from the edge of the dish differed quite a bit from the centre of the dish. It was thick and full of flavour.

(2) Frisee salad, shavings of Iberico ham and foie gras – The presentation of the bite-size ingredients was good, though I thought the foie gras would probably look better as small cubes. The salad could have done with a bit more olive oil dressing as it was a bit on the dry side.

(3) Pan-roasted diver caught Scottish scallops, caramelized endive, autumn salad – “what scallop”, “large and chewy, lacking in scallop flavour” were 2 of the verdicts I have received back from my guests. I thought the scallop was overcooked. The endive was sweet and strong in flavour, and maybe that’s too overpowering for the delicate flavour of the scallops.

(4) Steamed fillet of John Dory, honey and chilli glaze, Jerusalem artichoke – this was Daniel Galmiche’s signature dish, and it did not disappoint. I was a bit worried that the chilli glaze would be too strong for the fish, but he got it just right, The highlight (amongst a number of the lowlights) of the evening.

(5) Roasted fillet of Balmoral Estate venison, salsifies, butternut squash puree – The presentation of this dish was beautiful and looked more like a dessert than a main course. However, the venison was tough enough that we should have had steak knives to cut the meat.

(6) Fromage blanc, Granny Smith, Calvados sorbet – Another dish that excelled in the presentation. As much as I hated fromage blanc usually, I actually liked this. The downside was that the alcohol flavour in the sorbet was too much that it dominated the other flavours completely. A shame really. Also we were a bit puzzled that this dessert was served in March when it would be more suitable as a hot summer dessert.

(7) Passion fruit, banana and white chocolate – the sweetness of white chocolate went well with the rather strong sour taste of the passion fruit.

Now the question is – will I go again? I may, but I can think of Michelin-starred restaurants that are better value for money at the moment. Daniel only took over the restaurant in October 2009, and so maybe he needed more than 5-6 months to get the place back on track. On the website it says “The Vineyard at Stockcross has triumphed in the National Restaurant Awards, scooping the Hotel Restaurant of the Year title and securing the No.6  spot on the list of the UK’s Top 100 restaurants.” – at this rate Vineyard has a lot of work to do if they are even contemplating of keeping these titles in the 2010 surveys!

Address: The Vineyard at Stockcross, Newbury, Berkshire, RG20 8JU , United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 (0)1635 528770
Website: www.the-vineyard.co.uk

Opening Hours: Daily: 12.00pm to 2.30pm; 7.00pm to 9.30pm

Food: 7/10
Ambience: 3/5
Service: 3/5
Total: 13/20 [Based on visit in March 2010]