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Palazzo Tursi in Genoa (now town hall)

Last month, Jon and I spent a week in Liguria, the coastal region of northwest Italy.  Of course, this being Italy, there were plenty of regional foods to enjoy, the most famous of which is pesto Genovese (aka pesto) and focaccia.

Because Jon and I flew in and out of Genoa, we decided to spend a weekend there before moving on to the Italian Riviera, which was meant to be the focus of our trip.  What turned out to be pleasant surprise in Genoa were the dozens of beautiful old palazzo lovingly restored and open for tour — the city was a former trade and banking powerhouse — and the food wasn’t half bad, either, though I suspect with a little more research, we would have eaten like kings.

Below is a roundup of what we ate and saw in Genoa:

baby calamari and pesto at Soho Restaurant & Fishworks

Soho Restaurant & Fishworks.  Our B&B owner highly recommended it, and the restaurant has a bar/lounge vibe going on, so we probably would have enjoyed the decor more if we’d gone for dinner instead of lunch.  In any case, seafood is the restaurant’s focus, which makes sense given its location close to the port.  Overall, our food was well prepared.  Jon and I especially enjoyed the baby calamari and pesto, as well as the squid ink tagliatelle with prawns.  We spent 48 euros on lunch, which seemed a bit pricey for two starters, a shared main and a glass of house white, but the food, while simple, was fresh and tasty.  You could do a lot worse.

Mua’ Ristorante also had a bar/lounge aesthetic.  We found the restaurant through this glowing May 2010 writeup in the New York Times, calling it “one of the city’s finest restaurants.” The restaurant aims to serve regional specialties with a twist, but Jon and I most enjoyed the dishes that skipped the “twist.”  A starter portion of mandilli al pesto (wide, flat sheets of egg pasta) for 9 euros was a highlight.  Dinner for two totaled 59 euros with a single glass of wine, and other than recommending that you order the more traditional dishes on the menu, my only complaint was the too-cool-for-school servers who seated us in the back near the loos.  I hate when that happens.

room-temperature fried anchovies at Trattoria da Maria in Genoa

Trattoria da Maria is located very close to Mua’ Ristorante, but is the opposite in style and price.  It’s homey and was described by The Minimalist (Mark Bittman) in this July 2006 New York Times article as “one of my favorite restaurants in the world. I must, however, issue a caution: this is really a workingman’s lunch place, a dive, a cheap eats joint.”  When Jon and I showed up for lunch, we were immediately reminded of another Mark Bittman recommendation, Chez Palmyre, in Nice, but this one compared less favorably.  Yes, the lunch was cheap (8 euros prix fixe for a starter and main), but our food wasn’t especially tasty.  I was most looking forward to the fried anchovies, but they were served lukewarm.  Who wants lukewarm fried food, at any price?

walnut pesto pasta (pansotti) at Gaia Ristorante in Genoa

Da Gaia Ristorante was the worst of the restaurants we tried in Genoa.  It came highly recommended by our B&B owner, but it was old-school in a bad way.  Pricey menu and dingy decor, with food that was weighed down by thick sauces.  We thought a place like this would make a strong showing with regional specialties like pansotti, a  ravioli filled with a variety of greens, marjoram and ricotta cheese, and tossed with a walnut pesto.  But we found it tough going to finish our two starters and two mains.  Maybe Da Gaia shines when it’s cold outside.

hall of mirrors at the Palazzo Spinola in Genoa

Of the palaces we visited, I most enjoyed the Palazzo Spinola, which now houses artwork and decorative knicknacks on the top floor (thus making it the “national gallery”), but I think the real draw were the rooms of the mansion itself.  Touring the rooms is like being on an episode of MTV Cribs, 16th-century-Grimaldi style.

San Lorenzo Cathedral in Genoa

Jon and I also spent many a sunny hour sitting on the steps of San Lorenzo Cathedral, the city’s main cathedral, eating gelato or snacking on focaccia.  There are a couple of places near the cathedral selling both, and though we never settled on a favorite focacceria, we did think that for gelato, the nearby outpost of Grom Gelato was hands down the best option.  Having sampled their wares five times in 36 hours, I consider myself an authority on Grom’s flavors.  It turns out they’re all delicious.

shared lounge area at B&B Quarto Piano in Genoa

We stayed at B&B Quartopiano, wonderfully located in Genoa’s atmospheric old town next to the Palazzo Spinola.  The living room/common area is stylish and comfortable, and our room was also clean and sleek.  However, for 150 euros a night for a small “comfort” (cheapest) room, I was expecting a much better breakfast (comprised of defrosted and toasted pastries, along with large but oddly-flavorless cappuccinos), and more importantly, a lift.  It’s not just that the B&B, true to its name, is on the fourth floor of an old palazzo.  It’s that each floor has incredibly high ceilings, so you end up climbing seven solid flights of stairs, which can be exhausting (with or without luggage), even when you’re not 33 weeks preggars.

Genoa Aquarium.  Unless you have kids, avoid the much-hyped Genoa Aquarium.  Like many port towns hoping to rejuvenate piers and wharfs that have fallen into disuse and disrepair, Genoa has splashed out and heavily marketed a newish Aquarium.  Jon and I had run out of things to do on a quiet Sunday, so we decided to check it out.  It’s dark, crowded, loud and expensive (18 euros per person).  But if you have to go, buy your tickets from a tourist information office.  There’s a particularly helpful one located on the Piazza de Ferrari.  This way you can skip one of the queues (to buy the tickets) and go straight to the queue to get into the aquarium.  Tickets are timed entry, and we found going late in the afternoon minimized the time spent queuing.

Overall, Genoa turned out to be more than just an airport in and out of Liguria.  The cheerleader materials at the Genoa Tourist Information office described the city as like Barcelona before BCN hit the tourist big time.  While I wouldn’t make Genoa a destination on its own, if you’re headed to the Italian Riveria (Portofino, Santa Margherita, the Cinque Terre), it’s worth spending some time in the city.

B&B Quartopiano, Piazza di Pellicceria, 2, Genoa; +39 348 7426779 (cheapest rooms start at 150 euros/night in May).  Closest metro:  San Giorgio.

Da Gaia Ristorante, Vico dell’Argento, 16124 Genoa; +39 010 2461629; closest metro:  Darsena.  Open Monday-Saturday, 9 am to 6 pm.

Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Spinola, Piazza di Pellicceria, 1, 16123, Genoa; +39 010 247 7061; 4 euros a person admission with no English brochure or map available.  Open Mon-Sat 8:30am-7:30pm; Sun 1pm-8pm.

Genoa’s Palazzo Ducale, the former Doge’s palace,now an art museum and exhibit space, just behind the San Lorenzo Cathedral.  Piazza Matteotti, 9, 16123 Genova; +39 01055 74 000

Genoa Cathedral (aka San Lorenzo Cathedral), just up the road from the Genoa Aquarium

Grom Gelato, Via di San Lorenzo, 81, 16123 Genova  2 euros for a small (two scoops) gelato

Mua’ Ristorante, Via San Sebastiano 13, Genoa, 16123, +39-010-53-2191

Soho Restaurant & Fishworks, Via al Ponte Calvi, 20, 16124 Genova; +39 010 869 2548

Trattoria da Maria osteria con cucina, Vico Testadoro, 14r, Genova; +39 010 581 080; 18 euros for two people at lunch.  Metro:  de Ferrari;  Open Weekdays 11:45am-3pm, 6:45pm-9:30pm; Sat 11:45am-3pm


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Cowley Manor

A couple of Thursdays ago, wanting to take advantage of the recent sunny and warm weather, Jon and I called up Cowley Manor in the Cotswolds to see if they had any last-minute specials for the weekend.

The good news is that they had a few “Better” rooms available.  The bad news was that these rooms weren’t offered on discount and still cost £385 a night.  (What happened to the general hotel practice of lowering prices to fill an empty room?)   Instead, Cowley agreed to waive its two-night minimum stay requirement, so we could arrive on a Saturday morning and make full use of facilities both that day and Sunday.

a "better" room at Cowley Manor

When Jon and I visited Cowley Manor last August, we’d tried out the “Good” rooms (the cheapest ones available) for £250 a night.  I was pretty happy with the room we had, which was in the Main House and had views of the beautiful back gardens.

The “Better room,” while more expensive, wasn’t as appealing as the “Good” room, I thought.  For the additional money, a Better room got you a suite spread over three floors, including your own sitting area.

I’m not sure who values having their own little sitting area, but it wasn’t me.  I’d much prefer to take advantage of the large, stylish “common area” sitting rooms in the Main House.  The other reason I wasn’t keen on our Better room is its location in the converted stable blocks, which by definition lack the Main House’s heaps of character.  So if you’re deciding between the “inexpensive” Good rooms and the pricier “Better” rooms, I say take a Good room and spend your savings on an extra spa treatment.

caesar salad

chicken sandwich and chips

On our last visit to Cowley Manor’s restaurant, we thought the menu offerings were fussy and not well executed, so this time we kept most of our meals simple.  Sandwiches, chips, salads were all  simple, freshly made, and good value at less than £6-7 an item.

Breakfast was lovely, partly because whoever supplies Cowley Manor with its croissants is a master.

We would’ve skipped dinner in the restaurant, but because it was included in the price of our room, we didn’t motivate to leave Cowley for a meal elsewhere.  The food was just as fussy and unimpressive as we remembered from last August, with the low point being dessert.  I asked the waiter if the “cinnamon donuts” were freshly fried, and he replied that they were and highly recommended them.  I also asked if the accompanying “apple crumble sorbet” could be replaced with just plain vanilla ice cream, and again, he swore the apple crumble sorbet was not to be missed.

Sadly, our waiter was 100% wrong on both fronts.  The donuts were hard as a hockey puck.  totally bizarre, and honestly, a 50p bag of Tesco donuts would’ve been superior to what I was served.  The apple crumble sorbet was watery and gritty.  Just awful.

gardens at Cowley Manor

fountains at Cowley Manor

But food isn’t Cowley’s strong point.  The grounds and spa are.  Taking advantage of the lovely weather, we did lots of walking around the gardens, which have both manicured bits and wilder bits.

wellies on loan

Key for getting through the wilder, muddy bits:  wellies.  Lots of wellies in every size are made available for guests.  Definitely a great, practical novelty for us Londoners.

outdoor (heated) pool at Cowley Manor spa

indoor pool at Cowley Manor spa

And of course, the Cowley Manor crown jewel:  the spa is as peaceful and pampering as ever.  Treatments are long and relaxing, and all the staff super accommodating and attentive.

If you’re looking for a lovely country getaway, it’d be hard to surpass Cowley Manor.  Ideally you drive there so you can sample food in nearby Cheltenham, though, and while you’re at it, save yourself the train and taxi fare, which add up.

Cowley Manor, Cowley, Gloucestershire, GL53 9NL; (0)1242 870 900; reachable via First Great Western train from Paddington Station to Kemble Station (1.5 hours or less depending on whether you have to switch in Swindon) and about £40 per roundtrip ticket. Then a 30-minute taxi ride costing £35 each way.

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Antiques market near Place de la Republique. "I just happened to have these lying around in my house."

Often you hear that there’s nothing like Paris in the springtime.  But actually, I’d say there’s nothing like Paris for the winter sales, which generally run from early January to mid-February.  Wait for the first couple of weeks to pass by.  The crush will have died down in most stores, and many things will be on secondary markdown.  Although price tagging is haphazard at best and some of the fancier stores make you ask which items are on promotion, the bright-colored SOLDES signs everywhere is, to my mind, very festive.

As my opening paragraph suggests, Jon and I were in Paris for the first weekend in February to take advantage of a little sale shopping.  Of course, while there, we had to eat.  (Shoppers among you, if you’re at Le Bon Marche – and why wouldn’t you be? –  my fave place for a quick, cheap and tasty lunch break is at Cuisine de Bar, next to Poilane on Rue Cherche-Midi.  Tartines, hot open-faced sandwiches, is their specialty, and the Saint-Marcellin-and-ham one is stellar.)

And if I haven’t mentioned it before, in general, if you’re looking for a well-edited and up-to-date list of restaurants in Paris, you can’t beat the “Editors’ Pick” feature of Paris by Mouth, a collective effort by well-established food writers and bloggers in Paris.

mackerel in "bread soup" at Rino

rare duck breast at Rino

Our favorite meal this time round in Paris?  Dinner at Rino.  4 courses for 38 euros and 6 courses for 55 euros.  Go for the 6 courses.  You’ll get a nifty offal dish and a cheese course.

The dining room is super casual and lively.  Most diners seemed to be in their 30s and 40s and having a rollicking good time.  A great place to visit with friends.

The food was delicious and creative.  Our dinner started strong:  potato tortellini with a hint of lemon, served in salty smoked fish consomme, with hits of sweetness from onion and bites of octopus.  So many subtle flavors with each bite.  I definitely wasn’t expecting that sort of sophistication given the casual atmosphere.

Fillet of mackerel in a bread soup was firm and meaty, and I loved the addition of sweet cabbage and nutty brussel spourts with tiny breadcrumbs for texture.  Rabbit kidneys were a tad rubbery but visually fun to see them on a skewer with similarly-sized escargot.

Duck course was outrageously bloody but delicious.  Cheeses were well chosen, and our dessert was simple and refreshing:  a bergamot-scented semi freddo-covered fresh fruits, dried fruits and candied nuts.

Service was super attnetive (we must have gone through at least six carafes of tap water).  Bonus points for being within walking distance of the hotel we always stay at, the much-loved Grand Hotel Francais.

Rino, 46 Rue Trousseau, 75011 Paris, +33 (0)1 48 06 95 85; closest metro stop:  Ledru-Rollin (8).

profiteroles at Bistrot Paul Bert

It may be listed in every english-language guidebook and blogged about repeatedly, but I suspect that because of its location in the 11th arrondissement, Bistrot Paul Bert still feels like a local joint.  Jon and I turned up for Friday lunch without a reservation, and it was pas de probleme to find a table.

As is the case with most places in France, the 3-course prix fixe lunch menu (16.50 euros) was incredibly good value.  Bonus points at lunch for my learning a new word in French:  topinambour.  Jersualem artichoke.

Highlights of our lunch: the rich cream of topinambour soup, perfect for a winter’s day; the roast lamb, served with incredible char and juicy, pink meat; and a heaping huge serving of chocolately profiteroles and cheese.  Simple, classic, well-executed bistro food.

I tried to sneak a side order of their famous frites into our order, but our waiter replied: “je ne vous promets rien” (I promise you nothing), and of course frites never arrived.  Can’t win ‘em all.

Bistrot Paul Bert, 18 Rue Paul Bert, 75011 Paris, +33 (0)1 43 72 24 01; closest metro stop:  Rue des Boulets (9)

crab avocado (18 euros) at L'Agrume

veal chop (32 euros) at L'Agrume

It’s no exaggeration to say I’d been looking forward to eating at L’Agrume for at least the last 12 months.  Great pedigree; rave reviews.  For a sampling of the hype, read John Talbott’s January 2010 rave review, and of course this April 2010 blurb in the New York Times.

In any case, our dinner there was nice, but not what I was hoping for, which was something more like what we had at Rino – creative fare at good prices.

We weren’t keen on the prix fixe menu (reasonably priced at 35 euros), so we choose from the a la carte menu, which was much pricier, with starters hovering around 15 euros and mains generally in the low 30s.

L’Agrume was generous with luxury ingredients (Jon’s starter was packed with crab meat, and mine with lobster meat), but didn’t seem to do much with them.  And while I did, in fact, devour my veal chop (and Jon the same with his fillet of Dover sole), neither dish was prepared with any sort of twist.  I wish I’d read this Gourmet Traveller June 2010 post before going to L’Agrume, because she’s right on the money to say the food didn’t seem like anything you couldn’t cook at home.

Based on our visit, L’Agrume seems to be a strong choice if you want large portions of tasty, straightforward cooking in a casual setting.  The place was still packed at 10 pm on a Friday night, so the atmosphere is nice and buzzy.   We were especially happy with the wines-by-the-glass options.   But if you go, know that the a la carte gets pricey.

L’Agrume, 15 Rue des Fossés Saint-Marcel 75005 Paris, +33 (0)1 43 31 86 48; closest metro stops:  Saint-Marcel (5) or Les Gobelins (7)

worst loh boh gao (radish cake), ever, at Le Pacifique

Ahh, Sundays in Paris.  I’ve stopped bothering trying to book restaurants.  There are so few good ones open that day, and because most boulangeries and places in Chinatown stay open on Sunday, I find that planning on baked goods and banh mi is a something to look forward to.  On this particular trip, it was the weekend after Chinese New Year, so Jon and I headed to the Right Bank Chinatown around Belleville to rustle up some dim sum (“cuisine a la vapeur” en francais).

We took a recommendation from Clothilde Dusoulier’s “Edible Adventures in Paris” and sought out “Le Pacifique.” And you know what?  It sucked.  Possibly the worst dim sum meal I’ve ever eaten in my life, and you know I’ve eaten a lot of dim sum.

I’ll let the above photo of stodgy, *deep fried* and radish-and-pork-less loh boh gao represent what our dim sum meal was like.  And each steamer still cost 4.50-5 euros, which I’d hesitate to pay even at a Michelin-starred place like Yauatcha or Hakkasan, much less at a greasy-looking spot surrounded by French people ordering nems. Avoid like the plague.  If this is the best Paris has to offer by way of dim sum, then I weep for Parisians.  For your Asian fix in Paris, stick with the Vietnamese food.

On the plus side, we bumped into Chinese New Year dragon dancers on our way down the street to pick up banh mi at the reliably-delicious Dong Tom/Panda Belleville banh mi takeaway shop.

Dragon dancers for Chinese New Year in Belleville

Le Pacifique, 35 Rue Belleville, 75019 Paris, +33 (0)1 42 49 66 80; closest metro stop:  Belleville (11).

Dong Tam (Panda Belleville) banh mi, 16, rue Louis Bonnet, 11th; closest metro:  Belleville (11).

(the seeingly ubiquitous) Henry Moore at the Rodin Museum

Not food related, but just a brief note that Jon and I have started to make trips to Paris to coincide with the First Sunday of the month.  Free museums.   Whereas I wouldn’t pay another 12-15 euros to visit a museum for the third, fourth, fifth time . . . for free, I don’t mind popping in and out to see a few faves and move on.  I love it.

This time around, the weather was sunny, so we revisited the Rodin Museum, which has lovely sculpture gardens, of course, and is a manageable size.  There’s a Henry Moore exhibit going on as well, so in case you haven’t had your fill of those, you can get two big-name sculptors for the price of one if you head now to the Rodin Museum.

Musee Rodin, 79 Rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris; +33 (0)1 44 18 61 10; closest metro stop:  Varenne (13).

Grand Hotel Francais

Where to stay in Paris:

Everyone has their favorite place to stay in Paris, I know, but I can’t say enough good things about the boutique hotel, Le Grand Hotel Francais.  We’ve been staying here on every trip to Paris since reading positive TripAdvisor reviews about it in 2008 (maybe since 2007, even?).  The rooms are great value for Paris – clean, modern, comfortable.  The hotel owner, Zyad, is incredibly hard working and friendly, and despite the hotel’s recent recognition by TripAdvisor as one of the top 25 hotels in France, Zyad is still at that front desk, working 90 hours a week to make customers feel welcome and cared for.

At this point, I look forward to seeing Zyad every time we’re in Paris, and so in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll share that sometimes, like this time, Zyad upgrades us to higher-floor, larger rooms when they’re available.  But he did that for us the second time we stayed there, long before we were what you’d call “regulars.”  And even when rooms are full and we end up in a ground floor room, I think paying 110-135 euros a night (depending on the time of year) is still good value.

I’m also a huge booster for the 11th arrondissement, in general, especially if you’re a food lover and want to explore a pretty but non-tourist-fied neighborhood in Paris.

Grand Hotel Francais, 223, boulevard Voltaire, 11th; +33 1 43 71 27 57; closest metro: rue des Boulets (9) or Nation (1, 2, 6, 9, RER A)

To read a sampling of other Paris posts I’ve written over the last couple of years:

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Hong Kong skyline as viewed from the Star Ferry

After our trip to Taiwan, Jon and I spent three nights in Hong Kong, partly because we flew Cathay Pacific and had to stop there anyway.  (Incidentally, the economy class seats on Cathay Pacific are awful.  They don’t recline!  Rather, the seat’s bottom cushion slides forward, which causes you to sink down at an awkward angle.  How this is supposed to be a good thing, I don’t know.  Goodbye, sleep, and hello, neck-and-back cramp.  Avoid!)

Luckily, horrible plane seats aside, Jon and I had a fab time in Hong Kong.  Because we were there for so brief a period, we relied exclusively on food tips from close friends who either lived there until just recently or who visit there often for work.  We ate four outstanding meals in Hong Kong, and for that, I give many thanks to Cathy, Bobby, Phu and Aaron.

Jon and I arrived on a Sunday, around lunchtime.  Because we wanted to make it to dim sum during proper dim sum hours, we took the unusual-for-us step of avoiding mass transit, and instead we took a taxi to our hotel in Causeway Bay.  It was an easy and scenic 40-minute ride, costing 370 HKD ($48 or £30 at 8 HKD = $1 and 12 HKD = £1).

loh boh gao at Lei Garden restaurant in the Elements Mall


shu mai at Lei Garden

First stop:  Lei Garden Restaurant.  The West Kowloon branch in the Elements Mall.  A must for dim sum, said our friends.  True that.  Don’t be put off by the fact that there are numerous locations in Hong Kong, Macao and Singapore.  While I can’t vouch for this Lei Garden being the best of all the Lei Garden locations, I will say that the dim sum we had was outstanding.  All the classic dim sum dishes were represented; ingredients were great quality and fresh; everything was well made; decor was chic and comfortable; and we were surrounded by large groups of Chinese-speaking family and friends catching up over good food.  The true spirit of dim sum.

Shu mai was especially memorable — flavorful without being filled with fat, as is too often the case with shu mai.  The loh boh gau (radish cake) was thoroughly perfumed with pork and turnip and had a perfect crisp to the exterior.  Prawn cheung fun also deserves special mention for its silky-but-firm noodle and sweet, perfectly-cooked prawn and celery filling.

Jon and I didn’t see any unusual dim sum dishes on the menu, but if we lived in Hong Kong, we’d be here every weekend.  Of course we over-ordered and had 8 dishes, costing us 264 HKD total ($34/£21).

West Kowloon Lei Garden Restaurant; Second Level, Elements Mall, No. 1 Austin Road West, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong; +852 2196-8133.  Closest metro station (which even has an exit directly into the Elements Mall):  Tsim Sha Tsui (red line).

beef and prawn dumpling noodle soup at Tsim Chai Kee (22 HKD/$2.80/£1.80)

Our second stop:  Tsim Chai Kee.  When I think of Hong Kong food, dim sum and noodle soups jostle for prominence.  Tsim Chai Kee sits across the street from the more-famous Mak’s noodle shop near the start of the Midlevels escalator.  Jon and I were told by different sources that Tsim Chai Kee’s noodle soups were bigger, tastier and cheaper than Mak’s, and although I can’t weigh in on Mak’s, I feel confident arguing that Tsim Chai Kee serves a best-in-class Hong Kong noodle soup.

The restaurant is small, so expect to share your table with strangers.  You get a choice of noodles (the thin, yellow egg noodles are the classic and TCK’s version were wonderfully al dente, rather than rubbery like they often are in London), and a choice of toppings.  A soup with one topping is 17 HKD ($2/£1.40).  With two toppings, it’s still a bargainous 22 HKD ($2.80/£1.80).  We ordered a soup with just prawn won tons and another with beef and won tons.  As if the sweet, plump prawn won tons and the tender slices of beef weren’t enough of an attraction, the soup broth was wonderfully meaty and fishy.  Go.

Tsim Chai Kee, 98, Wellington Sttreet, Central, Hong Kong (close to where the Midlevels escalator begins).  According to TCK’s business card, there’s another location at 153 Queen’s Road Central, and an associated noodle shop called Yeung’s Noodle at 219 Hennessy Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong.

the "queue" at Tim Ho Wan at 2 pm on a Monday

I first got the idea to visit Tim Ho Wan after reading Hollow Legs’s June 2010 post about it.  A Michelin-starred, divey, no-reservations-taken dim sum place in HK?  This I had to see.  Hong Kong friends warned me about the queues but recommended I put my name down, take a deli-counter-style number from the lady manning the door, and then wander around the nearby Ladies Market until my number was called.

With a few hours to myself one afternoon, I figured that I could avoid Tim Ho Wan’s infamous queues if I if I showed up as a party of 1 on a Monday afternoon at 2 pm.  Nope.  I still waited 45 minutes, which was fine.  I spent that time bargaining down the price of dozens of pairs of chopsticks at the Ladies Market, which was enormously entertaining.

The beauty of dining alone at divey restaurants like Tim Ho Wan (whose press, ironically, seems to have originated from the chef-owner’s background as the former dim sum chef at the Hong Kong Four Seasons hotel) is that the resto will automatically seat you with other solo diners.  I sat with a local Hong Kong man who had *taken the day off from work* to eat here because apparently the queues on weekends are just too insane to bear.  In any event, I was pleased to have someone with whom I could share (maximize) dim sum orders.  And it was nice to hear Tim Ho Wan enjoyed fame among locals.

Tim Ho Wan's signature dish: baked BBQ pork bun (12 HKD/$1.50/£1)

First up:  Tim Ho Wan’s signature dish:  “baked BBQ pork bun.”  A twist on the classic char siu bun, but here, instead of using a steamed bun, a crispy, sugary biscuit-like exterior is used.  This was very tasty, but rich.  It’s the offspring of a buttermilk biscuit and a char siu bun.  I can see why it’s popular but feel sorry for the poor soul churning out thousands of these every day.

spare ribs with fermented black beans (12 HKD/$1.50/£1)

The other standout dishes I ordered were the steamed spare ribs in fermented black beans and the fried beef balls.  The spare ribs had a great kick and a perfect ratio of meat to fat. Not too gloopy.  Beef balls were impossibly tender.  Great examples of classic dim sum dishes.

the "kitchen" at Tim Ho Wan

Everything else I tried – pan-fried turnip cake (loh boh gau), sticky rice dumpling and beef cheung fun – was good, but not any better than what I’d had the previous day at Lei Garden.  Overall, I’d agree with everyone who says that there is delicious dim sum to be had at Tim Ho Wan, but I reckon there’s equally good dim sum all over Hong Kong.  I definitely have no idea why Tim Ho Wan has a Michelin star.  People who depend on the Michelin guide to give an approximation of the level of service, decor and cooking they can expect from starred establishments . . . well, let’s just say Tim Ho Wan would drive such people mad.  In any event, the food there is indeed good quality and very cheap, with very few dishes costing more than 12 HKD (or $1.50/£1).

Tim Ho Wan is open daily from 10am-10pm. Shop 8, 2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok, Kowloon (00852 2332 2896).  Closest metro:  Yau Ma Tei (red line).

spicy crab at Under the Bridge Spicy Crab restaurant (390 HKD/$50/£31)

Under Bridge Spicy Crab Restaurant was where Jon and I had our last meal in Hong Kong.  I was skeptical and wary when I saw multiple photos of Anthony Bourdain plastered all over the restaurant facade.  But the restaurant’s signature dish, spicy shelter crab, was outstanding.  The crab was sweet, but the best part is the garlic-salt-chili crust the crab is fried in.  The other stuff (clams  for 60HKD and sauteed chives, 39 HKD), was forgettable.  With two drinks, we paid 560 HKD ($72/£45) total, with most of that cost being the crab, which was worth every penny.  In fact, when you’re finished with the crab meat, the fried garlic-chili is addictive with white rice.

For a super-complete point of view on this place, read this May 2010 Follow Me Foodie blog post.

Under Bridge Spicy Crab Restaurant, 414-424 Jaffe Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong; +852 2834 6268; closest metro:  Wan Chai or Causeway Bay (blue line).

So that’s it on the food, but before I go back to blogging about London restaurants, I feel compelled to offer one last Hong Kong tip:

a very-hidden gem: Chun Sang linens

It’s no secret that Hong Kong is a shopper’s paradise, but bargains are hard to come by these days.  For anyone looking for table linens, though, I highly recommended Chun Sang linens in the Midlevels.  Overlook the horrible store facade and try to ignore the horrific merchandising (or lack thereof).  Show up with your table measurements, and the shop keeper can find you anything.  Gorgeous linen tablecloths for less than £50.  We combined our shopping trip with the obligatory ride up the Peak Tram, whose terminus is nearby.

Chun Sang Trading Co. (Distributors of Embroideries), 3-4 Glenealy, Ground Floor, Block B, Central, Hong Kong

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Food stalls at the Shilin night market in Taipei

Night markets are a feature of many Southeast-Asian cities (well, definitely cities with large Chinese populations, anyway), and while I appreciate the beauties of a sunny daytime market in, say, France and Italy, in my opinion, night markets are the best of the market genre.

First, they’re practical.  When you’re in a hot, tropic climate, it makes sense not to go out until dark, and after being cooped up in air conditioning for much of the day, being outside again is a heady release.   Second, there’s a liveliness that only nighttime brings.  The carefree and festive atmosphere of night markets is hard to match.  In Taipei, night markets open at around 4 or 5 pm, but they really don’t get going until 8 or 9 pm, when families and friends meet up for a stroll, some shopping, and/or a bite to eat.

Shilin night market in Taipei isn’t the only night market in town, but it’s the biggest.  You could happily shop or play carnival and arcade games there for days.  I, of course, go for the food.  I was last at Shilin night market in 2002, and the major change today is that there’s an enormous covered tent now that houses the majority of food stalls in one place.  It’s certainly convenient, but it means you can expect an unbelievable human traffic jam at around mealtimes.

jian bao at Shilin night market

I already talked about the brilliant jian bao in my previous post about dining out in Taipei, generally.  These are a must-have.

zen bing (a burrito-type deal) stall

zen bing seconds before being rolled up into a burrito-like shape

Zen bing.  They’re a Chinese burrito.  You take a thin flour-based shell (almost like an eggroll skin), and you get it stuffed full of goodies like Chinese sausage (which is sweet), roast pork, fresh bean sprouts, sliced up egg omelet, scallions, crushed peanuts and a little chilli sauce.   For normal people, a zen bing constitutes a solid meal, for less than $2.  For me, ’twas but another snack.

dan bing

Scallion pancakes (tsong you bing) are great.  But throw on a layer of egg and eat it hot off a griddle, and it’s even better.  That’s a dan bing.  They’re commonly eaten as a brekkie-on-the-go in Taiwan, but in my humble opinion, they’re good at all hours of the day.  Much like breakfast foods, generally, yes?

Chinese spiced fried chicken breast at Hot Star

Hot Star is one of the more famous stalls in Shilin night market.  There are at least two stalls in the market, in fact.  For 55 NT (less than $2), you get an *enormous* wedge of what appears to be schnitzel (chicken breast pounded thin, breaded and fried).  Bite into it, though, and you’ll know this thing is all Chinese.  The spices.  A little star anise, a hint of cinnamon,  some turmeric and fennel in there, too, I think?  I must confess that I should have shared this one with someone.  I made the strategic error of eating one on my own, which left scant space for the dozens of other goodies on offer at the night market.

Chinese sausages

Chinese sausages.  The ones at Shilin night market are famous, though I suspect it’s because they’re so large.  If you’ve never had a Chinese sausage before, this is a good place to try them.  For me, it was just a Chinese sausage.  Sweet, porky, smoky.  Good stuff.

owa jen (oyster omelet)

Last but not least, owa jen.  The oyster omelet.  One of those staple snacks of Taiwan.  You can guess what’s in it based on the name.  There are a huge variety of them at Shilin night market though.  The oyster-to-egg ratio varies; the runniness of the egg varies.  I could have devoted a whole separate meal to testing out all the owa jen stands, but when you go to the night market, make sure you try at least one.

In case it’s not obvious, I didn’t make it to dessert that night.  Next time.  And before someone busts me – no, I didn’t eat stinky tofu that night.

Shilin night market.  Closest metro station:  Jian Tan (red line).  Just exit the station and you won’t miss the giant covered tent housing most of the food vendors.  Bring wet wipes and arrive hungry.  If you’re on a budget, you could happily eat at the night market every day and never get bored.

Here’s a sampling of other blog posts about Shilin night market:

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Taipei 101 (tallest building in the world until the Burj in 2010)

Happy (belated) Thanksgiving to all my American readers!  I trust you all gave thanks, over-ate and over-shopped.

It’s been exactly a week since I’ve returned to London after having spent 9 days in Taiwan and 3 days in Hong Kong.  I’m still jetlagged beyond belief, which is yet another annoying sign that I’m getting old.

I spent several happy childhood summers in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital city, so take this next sentence with a grain of salt:  Taiwan is a *superb* place to visit if you like to eat Chinese food in all its many-regioned glory.  Thanks to 50 years of Japanese rule, as well as the ocean bounty that comes with being an island nation, the sushi’s delish, too.

There are dozens of direct one-hour flights between Hong Kong and Taipei each day, so the next time you’re planning your fab long weekend in Hong Kong, don’t overlook little ol’ Taiwan.

gua bao from Shi Jia Gua Bao at 21 Tong-Hua Street, Taipei

Small eats, xiao chi, is a major aspect of dining out that Taiwanese peeps are justifiably proud of.  In every city we visited (and on this trip, we visited Taipei in the north, Kaohsiung and Chiayi in the south, and Yingge on the outskirts of Taipei), storefront shops, street vendors, and stalls in nightmarkets sold, at all hours of the day, xiao chi.  My two favorite examples of xiao chi are gua bao (braised pork belly sandwich in a mantou, a steamed yeast-risen bun) and jien bao (pork-and-soup-filled buns that are steamed and pan fried).

In Taipei, my favorite gua bao was to be found at Shi Jia Gua Bao (special thanks to Taipei local, Wei-Ming, for this tip).  The shop is at 21 Tong-Hua Street, which you’ll find close by the Tong Hua night market.   A bite of the melt-in-your mouth braised pork belly filling, garnished with pickled mustard greens, fresh cilantro and crushed peanuts is to experience savory, sweet, crunchy and soft all at once.  At the shop, you can order a gua bao that’s mostly fat, no fat, or half-and-half.  The best part:  each costs NT 45 ($1.50 or 95 pence at current exchange rates.  Namely, $1 = 30 NT; £1 = 48 NT).  Closest metro stations:  Liuzhangli and Da’an (both on the brown line).

jian bao at ShiLin night market

My fave jian bao of this trip was a version I picked up at Shilin night market, which is such an extravaganza of delicious food, crazy carnival games and random things for sale that I’ll do it more justice in a separate post.  The jian bao had a perfectly crispy bottom, soft, fluffy bun wrapping, and juicy, meaty-porky filling.   They differ from similarly-soupy xiao long bao because the dough is fluffier/thicker – it might even be yeast-risen, actually.  Like the dough of a mantou.  In any case, I’m pretty sure I bought five jian bao for 60NT ($2/£1.20) or something ridiculously cheap like that.  Closest metro station:  Chien Tan (red line)

I could wax lyrical for ages and pages on Taiwan’s xiao chi, but instead I’ll cover more of those in my planned Shilin night market post and move on to restaurant meals.

Si Hai Yi Jia, "Four Seas One House"

We ate at a couple of fancy, relatively-pricey restaurants while in Taipei and Kaohsiung, and most of those meals were Chinese banquet style, meaning we’d sit at the table for hours and be served a dozen different courses. It’s an interesting dynamic to be the guest of honor at a Chinese banquet — everyone’s counting on you to eat everything and register appreciation.  No pressure, of course.

Among the sea of banquet meals, though, the restaurant meal that stands out was at a popular neighborhood place, Si Hai Yi Jia, whose name translates to “Four Seas One House.”  Sort of a “we are the world” kind of saying.

spare ribs at Si Hai Yi Jai

There, we ate some outstanding Beijing duck, dumplings of all varieties, the best scallion pancakes I’ve had in years, and memorably-good sweet-and-tart ribs.  On the Beijing-heavy menu were also delicious examples of local specialties like drunken chicken.  I’d highly recommend dropping by this place for tasty, good-quality food in a bustling, casual setting.  Also a plus were the servers, who weren’t shy about sharing [strong] opinions (in Chinese, though) on what you should order.

Si Hai Yi Jia, Lane 36, Ba De Road, Section 4, Taipei, Taiwan; +886 2 2873 9288; closest metro station:  Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall (blue line)

Second-fave restaurant meal in Taipei was actually somewhere in the middle of Yang Ming Shan National park.  No lie, though.  It’s a pain to get here without a car.  We took the underground/MRT to Chien Tan station and then took a 30-minute bus ride to the national park visitor center, followed by yet another 30-minute long shuttle to the restaurant.  The only plus side about the journey (which would probably take an hour, total, by car) is how every form of public transportation in the Taipei metro area accepts the EasyCard – a sort of mega Oyster Card.  I know this isn’t a food-related tip, but definitely get yourself an EasyCard the minute you get to Taipei.  It’s so much handier than (a) having to figure out what the fare is; and (b) digging around for change all the time.

kitchen at a mountain top Yang Ming Shan resto

The restaurant is no great shakes to look at.  It’s basically a shack near the bus stop at the top of a mountain.  But here you’ll find some of the freshest and most interesting greens of your life.  Nothing is cooked until you order, but it comes to the table fast.

dragon's beard

We loved the fresh mushrooms, braised tofus, sweet yam-and-ginger soup and variety of greens (including a melt-in-your-mouth dish of sweet potatoe shoots).  But I will always remember the colorfully-named “dragon’s beard” greens, which were crunchy, slightly sweet and just refreshing.  It was great mountaintop eating.

Finally, quick notes on two restos in Taipei that fell short of the hype:

Shin Yeh fried oysters

Shin Yeh restaurant has several branches in Taipei, including one inside Taipei 101 (which we couldn’t get a reservation for).  The resto got a rec in this New York Times article from March 2008, and we ended up at a Shin Yeh location not far from Taipei 101, close to the Taipei City Hall metro station, inside yet another luxury goods shopping mall.

The restaurant was huge and decorated in that generic beige look that’s all the rage among luxury hotels around the world.  That said, the service was great — attentive and helpful — and the food, while enjoyable, wasn’t anything special (see e.g., Shin Yeh’s version of drunken chicken and their crab-and-sticky rice).  The restaurant’s “thing” seems to be to use good-quality ingredients to prepare typical Taiwanese dishes.  Prices are relatively high, but still affordable by US/UK standards. Shout out to Shin Yeh’s fried oysters, though, which ought to be served in bars everywhere.  Juicy, briney and battered-and-fried with a deft hand.  Probably a nice place to get oriented to local specialties if you don’t speak or read any Chinese, or if you miss the tidiness and calm of a fancier restaurant.

salmon belly (200 NT) and premium fatty tuna (250 NT) at Mitsui

Jon and I had an afternoon to ourselves in Taipei (the trip to Taiwan had been to attend a wedding, so most times, we were not alone).  So we set out to find premium sushi in a city that claims to have more Japanese restaurants than any city outside of Japan.

Cue Mitsui, which I’d read about on London Eater’s site earlier this year.  It sounded delicious, high-end, but cheap by London standards.  We ordered a lot of items a la carte, and strangely, the sashimi was underwhelming.  Maybe we went on a bad day, but my fatty tuna was still part-frozen, rather than silky-smooth, melt-in-your-mouth.  The salmon belly had a slightly better (less frozen) texture, but it was flavorless.  Grr.  Jon and I did better with the “cooked” items like grilled eel, but that’s so wrong in a sushi restaurant with a great reputation.

Service was nice, and the room is sleek and chic in all black.  But we ate much better sushi when we were in the southern port city of Kaohsiung (if you’re down there, the horribly-translated-into-English restaurant “Sea World” serves some mean sashimi). At least our meal cost only 2600 NT (£28/$43 each), including drinks.

Mitsui, No 30, Nong-an St., 1F Taipei City, Taiwan; +886 (02) 2594-3394;  closest Metro:  Minquan West Road (red line).

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Din Tai Fong (XinYi Road branch) in Taipei - merchandised? Nah.

First, you spot the crowds on the sidewalk.  Then you spot the xiao long bao cartoon character.  This is Din Tai Fung.  Last week, as part of a 9-day trip eating my way through Taiwan, I visited the original Taipei location of what can only be called a xiao long bao empire.  The place is fabled among locals, tourists and food lovers around the world, it seems.  For background on Din Tai Fung and a sense of the adoration this place inspires, read this.  (Also, loosely related, but highly entertaining, is this October 2010 NYT Magazine article touching on food-crazed people and XLB).

the kitchen at Din Tai Fong

In any case, our party of eight arrived at Din Tai Fung for a weeknight dinner, and we were mildly alarmed by the number of people already spilling out of the restaurant (Din Tai Fung takes no bookings – ugh).  Luckily, this place isn’t written up in every guidebook and travel article for nothing.  These people have a system!  The ladies in headsets hand you a number, a menu and an order form so that while you’re waiting for a table, you can tick the boxes comprising your order.  When your number’s called, you hand in your order form, and seemingly by the time you’ve reached your table (the place is surprisingly large, though maze-like), dishes have started arriving. We were in and out in less than an hour.  Don’t even think about lingering.

While waiting for our table, I peeked into the kitchen, which is towards the front of the restaurant.  The room was oddly silent except for the hissing of steamers cooking what must be hundreds of thousands of xiao long bao a day.  There must be a high incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome among the cooks when you consider the number of delicate pleats that go into each xiao long bao.

XLB at Din Tai Fong - "regular" with just pork (190 NT) and pork with crab roe (330NT)

Onto the star attraction.  Deflated.  Seriously.  The skin is perfect, almost-translucent but strong.  The visual appearance isn’t bad (but it’s not great).  But here’s the failure:  the bottoms aren’t sagging with soup.  We ordered four baskets of different xiao long bao, and none of them were especially soupy.  I like my xiao long bao to be so full of soup that when you lever them gently into your soup spoon, you feel like a kid playing a type of carnival game (“don’t break the skin/leak the soup”).  These guys were so lacking in soup that you could pretty much throw them around like softballs without worrying about leakage.

"shu mai" at Din Tai Fong

We tried a lot of other dishes at Din Tai Fung, and unsurprisingly, most of them were comprised of the same ingredients that go into XLB.  The shu mai, for example, even looked like XLB, but were topped with prawns.  Efficiency at work.  But it’s not shu mai.  Get the chicken soup, though.  It’s amazingly rich and flavorful.

While the Din Tai Fung XLB disappointed because of their lack of soupiness, they were still tastier than anything I’ve found in London.  (Leong’s XLB used to be better when they first opened, but lately it just barely satisfies a craving).  And at 190 NT ($6 or £4) for a basket of ten “regular” pork-only xiao long bao, Din Tai Fung won’t break the bank.  I’d say make the pilgrimage the next time you’re in Taipei, but in my opinion, the better XLB experience is to be had at nearby Kao Chi, which we visited the next day mostly because we were doing some shopping in the area (the housewares department at Sogo Fuxing branch is unbeatable if you’re looking for high-quality, attractive rice bowls).

Credit to A Hungry Girl’s Guide to Taipei, which was handily organized by MRT station so that once I knew we were headed to Sogo, I could quickly scan for nearby dining options.  (Something I should consider doing on my own blog except for the admin hassle of re-doing the archived posts).

xiao long bao at Kao Chi, 180 NT ($6 or £4) for pork-only

Kao Chi was not only calmer and more upscale looking than Din Tai Fung, but also its XLB were, happily, soupier and better seasoned (i.e., I didn’t need to rely on soy sauce and vinegar).  The skins weren’t quite as translucent as those at DTF, but they were still thin and delicate, and I’ll trade a slightly thicker skin for more seasoned soup broth any day.

So go to Din Tai Fung to say you’ve been there, but don’t forget to drop by Kao Chi for a better dining experience, both in terms of food and atmosphere.

Din Tai Fung, 194, Xin Yi Road Sec. 2 (cross street:  Yong Kang Street), 10651 Taipei, Taiwan; +886 (0)2 2321 8928; closest MRT station:  Daan Station (brown line).

Kao Chi, 152, FùXìng South Road Sec. 1, Taipei, Taiwan; +886 (0)2-2341-9984; closest MRT station:  ZhongXiao FuXing (blue and brown lines)

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