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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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dim sum platter (£12.50)

Hakkasan is well known for its sleek Christian Liaigre-designed interior and its sky-high prices.  The place has done well enough that there’s now a Mayfair location, as well as outposts around the world.  And with Alan Yau no longer the man in charge, you can’t help wondering if the food and service are still any good.

I have a slightly different image of Hakkasan, though, as a place that serves up very good Chinese food using quality ingredients at reasonable prices.  Hakkasan’s menu is huge and diverse in price and style, and the cost of your meal can very enormously depending on what you order.

Several times a year, Jon and I drop by for what can only be called a casual dinner.  The only thing that keeps us from going more often is the effort it takes to dress up a bit (though jeans and a black T seem to go over just fine on a Sunday or work week night).

Last Sunday night, for example, we were too lazy to cook and wanted to bring my visiting-from-the-US mom someplace good.  And she has a weakness for Chinese food.  So off we went to Hakkasan.

Normally, we don’t bother with starters, but we broke our own rule last Sunday and got the dim sum platter, which was overly steamed.  The rice flour wrappers on all four types of dim sum were gloopy and smooshy, and the reddish-colored one didn’t even taste good.  I think it might have been a tomato wrapper filled with tomato gel.  At least the scallop filling of the shu mai was good.

silver cod in champagne sauce (£35)

We did much better ordering mains, as always.  The one pricey dish I get sucked into at Hakkasan is the restaurant’s signature “silver cod in champagne sauce.”  I know it’s the equivalent of ordering Nobu’s miso cod, but it really is pretty tasty.  Silken shards of cod in a citrus-perfumed champagne sauce.  I look forward to it every time.

tofu, aubergine and mushroom claypot (£12.50)

Silver cod aside, in general, I love the humble claypot dishes at Hakkasan.  Maybe you’re paying a couple quid more than you would at a divey Chinatown place, but at Hakkasan, you get top-notch ingredients and a skilled, consistent hand at the stove.  The tofu and aubergine claypot is a star, with both main ingredients cooked to silky-smooth perfection, and the umami-rich mushrooms boosting an already powerful flavor mix.  Eaten with plain white rice, it’s the best.

twice-cooked Duke of Berkshire pork belly (£15.50)

Twice-cooked pork belly is now available seemingly everywhere, thanks to the growing popularity of Szechuan cuisine, but Hakkasan’s is spiced and flavored just right every time.  There’s just enough kick from the citrus-scented, tongue-numbing Szechuan pepper corns to cut the fattiness of the pork belly, and the medium-firm tofu and cabbage add great texture.  This one is another favorite of mine with white rice.

sauteed morning glory (£10)

Hakkasan always seems to be out of the sauteed snow pea shoots (yet it’s always on the menu), and I always end up with sauteed morning glory as a substitute.  Crunchy, slightly sweet, doing its wonderful vegetable thing.  You can’t have a Chinese meal without greens, yes?

With three bowls of rice at £2.50 a pop and just lots of tap water, our dinner for three people totaled a perfectly-reasonable £105 with service charge.  If we’d avoided the £35 silver cod, I’d say £70 for three people would have qualified as a particularly reasonable cost for a filling and delish dinner.  Point is, you can go to Hakkasan for more than the scene and pricey cocktails.  You can go for the food!  So try to ignore that raucous party of Russian oligarchs nearby and just enjoy the cooking.  There are some real gems on the menu.

Hakkasan, 8 Hanway Place, W1T 1HD; 0207 927 7000; closest Tube station:  Tottenham Court Road.
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bacon-onion roll at the Ledbury (aka my beloved)

Considering how often I recommend the Ledbury to friends (and how often they report back that they’ve had a marvelous time there), I don’t know how I let over *two years* go by since I last ate there.  It’s sad, really.

Two weeks ago, Jon and I met four close friends for Sunday lunch there.  We were joking about how far we’d all traveled to get to Notting Hill (coming from Islington, Hoxton and Shad Thames).  But you know, the Ledbury is well worth the schlepp.

I’d never been to the Ledbury’s Sunday lunch before, which is a shame because at £40 a person for three courses and several amuses, it’s great value.

The downside for food lovers when ordering a la carte, though, is that a lot of bargaining and bickering breaks out over who orders what.  This is where the Ledbury’s stellar service made its first appearance of the day:  our server noticed several of us wanted to try the Saint-Nectaire truffled toast with buffalo milk curd and onion broth, so with grace and style, she stepped into our conversation and offered that course as an amuse for the table.  This gesture freed us up to try out the other starters.  We both laughed at ourselves for having drawn her attention and loved that she solved our “dilemma” of who would order which starter.

my Sunday lunch starter: courgettes, crab and frozen parmesan

The weather being warm and sunny, and having eaten about five of the Ledbury’s outrageously-delicious bacon-and-onion rolls, I ordered the courgettes, crab and frozen parmesan starter.  The dish was, indeed, super refreshing, though the frozen parmesan wasn’t as interesting a texture or flavor as I’d thought it’d be.  My bad for ordering what amounted to the “chicken option” on the menu.

my friend's Sunday lunch starter: turbot roe, fried turbot and stunningly-good radish

My friend J’s starter of turbot in multiple forms and served with assorted root veg deserves mention for being both visually attractive and surprisingly delicious.  Who would’ve thought radish could steal the show?

a starter the Ledbury threw in as an amuse: Saint-Nectaire (cheese) and truffled toast

Fresh curd of Hampshire buffalo milk with wild mushrooms, and a broth of grilled onions

The major highlight among the starters, though (perhaps of the entire meal) was the truffled, cheesy (Saint-Nectaire) toast served as an amused to our table.  You dip the truffled toast (wonderfully nutty, floral and earthy on its own) into the curd and it’s like the ultimate comfort experience, bringing to mind egg-and-soldiers.  What an outstanding dish.  Next time you eat at the Ledbury, make sure to have this course.

crisp pressed suckling pig with white carrot, Pedro Ximénez and toasted grains

My main course of suckling pig was lovely, though as I get older, I have to say I become less excited about main courses.  It always has to be a sizable portion of protein, so is it just me, or do you feel like the creativity of most kitchens shines in the starter courses?

Jon opts for the (generous) cheese course (£7 supplement)

Dessert time.  Jon goes for the groaning, tempting cheese cart.  He’s a greedy one, but the Ledbury doesn’t hesitate to plate his sizable selection.

wild and Gariguette strawberries, meringue, ewe's milk yoghurt and beignets

Me?  I’m stuffed by the time we get to dessert, but I’m thinking beignets are calling my name.  (Donuts fresh out of the fryer!)  Turns out the beignets of my strawberry, meringue and yoghurt dessert are the least interesting.  I thought I was in for a competent tarting up of Eton mess, but actually, my dessert was mind-blowingly intense and refreshing.  The tangy, creamy ewe’s milk yoghurt was a great foil for the sweet, fragrant strawberries.  Crunchy meringue bits for texture.

Rave reviews around the table for desserts, especially the Ledbury’s creative pairings of creme brulee flavors and ice creams.

caramelised banana galette with salted caramel, passion fruit and peanut oil parfait

Our server noticed that we failed to try one of the desserts on the menu, so once again brought it out as an amuse for our table.  It’s the banana galette with salted caramel, passion fruit and peanut parfait.  A great mix of textures and flavors, but most of all, we love the gesture.  Although we were here for a 3-course Sunday lunch menu, we feel like we’ve gotten a tasting menu.

Our spirits high and our tummies full, we all rolled out of the Ledbury four hours later wondering why we hadn’t been back sooner.  With all the trimmings (aperitifs, wines and coffees), our meal came to £75 a person.  If you’ve eaten out reasonably often in London, you know that there are too many places charging a lot more money for a much lesser experience, so on that basis, I’d call the Sunday lunch at the Ledbury a great value.  Go!

The Ledbury, 127 Ledbury Road, W11 2AQ, 0207 792 9090; Closest tubes: Notting Hill Gate, Westbourne Park, Ladbroke Grove. £40 Sunday lunch menu.  Best deal in town.

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Bea's of Bloomsbury at One New Change near St. Paul's Cathedral

Last weekend, my lovely friends and family in London threw me a baby shower.  Baby showers aren’t big here, but from the name, you’ve probably guessed that the occasion revolves around “showering” the mom-to-be with gifts.  Essentially, this means the shower was tons of fun for me and required tons of goodwill and patience on the part of friends and family who attended.

My friends couldn’t have chosen a better venue for the shower:  afternoon tea at the newish Bea’s of Bloomsbury location at One New Change.  Unlike neighboring restaurant, Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa, which is large and loud and mediocre, Bea’s is quiet, relaxing and maintains the same high standards that you’ll find at the original Bea’s of Bloomsbury location.

meringues, 'mallows, brownies, blondies, scones . . . oh my!

The decor at Bea’s at New Change is sleek and chic, and what I most appreciated was how everything tasted as good as it looked.  The cheeky serving tiers at our tea held buttery, crumbly scones, rich brownies and chewy meringues.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the blondies, which tasted unpleasantly under-baked, but happily that was the only clunker at our tea.

cupcakes and savouries

Most cupcakes in London bakeries rely on frosting to cover up the fact that the underlying cake is dried out.  Happily, this isn’t the case at Bea’s, whose cupcakes were moist and came in interesting, delicious flavors like passion fruit and Bailey’s.  Savoury baguette sandwiches were also fresh and delicious.  We shared platters piled high with vegetarian and meat-lover’s sandwiches and washed it all down with individual pots of Jing tea.

the end of the affair (fantabulous wellies and flowers courtesy of friends)

It was a great afternoon tea, and when you compare the generous spread at Bea’s with that of London hotels charging 2-3 times the price, you’ll see why I was so impressed with Bea’s version.  Considering how tourist-friendly Bea’s location is, they could probably get away with serving mediocre food, but I’m glad they don’t.

Afternoon tea at Bea’s is £15 per person and £22.50 with a glass of Moet.

Bea’s of Bloomsbury One New Change, 83 Watling Street (aka the side of the One New Change mall that’s closest to the Thames/Millennium Bridge), EC4M 9BX; 0207 242 8330; closest Tube station:  St. Paul’s
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Zucca restaurant

Zucca opened on Bermondsey Street back in March 2010, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve unsuccessfully tried once every month or two to get a table there.  If you think Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner is a hot ticket these days, Zucca is still going strong 14 months later. Last week, I finally gave up on snagging a weekend table and took a Tuesday evening spot.

So what’s Zucca’s appeal?  Oh, I don’t know.  Chic decor; good service; simple, fresh Italian cooking and low prices?  A dime a dozen in London, right?  Sure.

zucca fritti (£3.95)

There were plenty of tempting-sounding starters on the menu.  Jon and I ordered three to share, and while all of them were good, if I had to prioritize, I’d put the zucca fritti (fried pumpkin) at the bottom of the list.  Sure, they’re a house specialty, but diminishing returns kicked in after just one or two of these.  Perhaps better to order them if you’re with a bigger group.

grilled asparagus, egg, parmesan (£4.75)

Grilled asparagus, egg and parmesan was as described on the tin.  Each component was fresh and well-prepared (the egg and asparagus, that is), but the flavors never came together.  Maybe it needed a sauce?

mozzarella lentils garlic shoots (£4.25)

Loved the creamy fresh mozzarella complemented by the earthy, meaty lentils.  The garlic shoots lacked bite, but I’m biased towards scare-away-your-date strong garlic flavors, I must confess.  The mozzarella and lentils could have easily taken on stronger garlic taste, though.

casarecce with bolognese (£7)

Highlights of our dinner were definitely the pastas and the main we shared.  Rustic casarecce pasta retained a chewy al dente texture, and the pork ragu was stunningly good with a great balance of acidity, sweetness, salt and meatiness.

taglierini with fresh ricotta and spring herbs (£7)

The taglierini with fresh ricotta and spring herbs was lifted from ordinariness by a slight citrus flavor.  If I had to complain, I’d ask that the kitchen go a little lighter on the olive oil next time.

grilled veal chop (£14.75)

And the veal chop is as good as everyone says it is.  Tender, juicy, charred.  Unbelievably good value for £14.75.  I contrast Zucca’s version with the similarly-excellent one I ate at Paris’s L’Agrume a couple of months ago, which cost 32 euros.

affogato (£4.25)

I couldn’t resist ending dinner with affogato, which was a generous serving but how sad that there were bits of ice/freezer burn in the scoops of vanilla.

The room is large and comfortable, and while the furniture isn’t quite as luxurious as that of L’Anima, the all-white contemporary look of the two restaurants is similar.  And Zucca is about 1/3 the price of L’Anima.  With a couple of glasses of prosecco and wine, our total for two came to £65.

If you can afford to be choosy about tables (i.e., you’re not like me and just incredibly grateful to have finally landed a reservation), avoid the one or two right in front of the kitchen pass.  The servers hover there waiting to ferry dishes to customers, and you’ll end up feeling like there are four pairs of eyes watching your every move (which I assume you agree is a minus, but if you consider it a plus, then by all means request it).

Zucca, 184 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 31Q; 0207 378 6809; closest Tube station:  London Bridge (it’s still a 15-minute walk from the Tube station, though).
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Ba Shan restaurant interior

Like many readers of food blogs, I’m ruled by my stomach.  Like many Americans, I miss the American-Chinese classic known as “the General.”  Put the two characteristics together, and it makes sense why, when Mr. Noodles announced the appearance of General Tso’s chicken at Ba Shan (the former Szechuan restaurant now revamped as a Hunan place), I high-tailed it to Ba Shan immediately.  It hardly mattered that the last time I was at Ba Shan, it was just another inconsistent Szechuan restaurant.

pickled spicy cucumbers (£4.90)

The hard part was deciding what else to order besides the General.  This being a Hunan place, we figured it’d be wise to try the pickled goodies, and Ba Shan’s spicy cucumbers were highly addictive.  Crisp, refreshing, and with a chili kick alleviated by soy sauce and sesame oil.  We felt virtuous eating vegetables prior to the arrival of the General.

General Tsos chicken (£7.90)

Like most highly-anticipated things in life, Ba Shan’s General didn’t quite meet expectations.  For starters, the chicken pieces are too small, and the sauce wasn’t intensely sweet and salty enough.  This being a Hunan-inspired dish, I was expecting more chili spice.  And there really shouldn’t be any stir-fried vegetables in there (at most, you usually see big chunks of broccoli on the side).

Click here to see how the General is supposed to look and taste.

Still, even if the dish wasn’t quite General Tso’s chicken, it was tasty.  I mean, battered-and-fried chicken pieces dumped in a lightly-sweetened soy-based sauce.  Hard not to like it.

Pengs fried tofu (6.90)

And for the tofu lovers out there, Ba Shan’s version of Peng’s fried tofu was excellent.  Large, meaty slices of tofu slathered in chilis and sauce.  Perfect over plain white rice.

Overall, Ba Shan has improved a lot by becoming a Hunan restaurant, so I’ll be back to try some of the other dishes.

Alas, the search for the General continues . . . .

Ba Shan, 24 Romilly Street, W1D 5AH; 0207 287 3266; closest Tube stations:  Leicester Square or Piccadilly Circus.
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Yashin sushi restaurant, High Street Kensington

Like many food lovers, I regularly crave high-quality sushi.  Sadly, though, I’m often disappointed by the hyped-up spots in London.  For example, in 2010, Sushi of Shiori sounded like the second coming.  But when I finally snagged a counter seat there, I was disappointed.  Never again will I allow my expectations to rise like that, I vowed.  I’ll stay content with my perfectly good, friendly, local sushi joint, Sa Sa.

But then Yashin appeared.  I saw this glowing review by London Eater, and this one by Tamarind & Thyme, and my vow didn’t stand a chance.  Blow torch sushi.  Have you heard of it?

Jon and I had an 8 pm booking last weekend, and sadly, although there were open seats upstairs at and near the sushi bar, we were told we could only sit downstairs.  Oh well.  The downstairs is wood-panelled, small and kind of quiet.  You’re close to the bathroom and coat check, though, in case those are pluses for you.

sake taster "Set C" (£8.20)

Sake tasters are available at reasonable prices.  My takeaway:  test tubes are weird to drink out of.

prawn tempura roll (£6.80_

Yes, I know I’m visiting a restaurant staffed by skilled itamae.  But I still want a prawn tempura roll.  Yashin takes pride in flavoring its rice and sushi so that you *don’t need or want to drown it in soy sauce*.  This first taste of what the kitchen could do lived up to that promise.  The prawns were sweet and still slightly warm, and the rolls were packed with peppery and citrus-yuzu flavor.  No need for mayo, much less soy sauce.

soft shell crab salad (£8.40)

I haven’t had a soft-shell crab this juicy  and fresh in *years*.  The crispy mizuna greens and accompanying rice wine vinaigrette were a perfect foil.

8-piece omasake (£30)

And then the main attraction – omakase.  Jon and I had foolishly eaten a late-day snack, so we played it safe with Yashin’s smallest omakase option:  the eight-piece.

Much has been written about Yashin’s omakase, so I’ll just note generally:

1.  The blow-torch thing is genius.  It adds a wonderful charred, smoky flavor to silken raw fish.  Let me emphasize: the fish does not get ruined/cooked.  It’s just flavored.

2.  The different seasonings pair well with the various fish.  Salmon with some ponzu-and-wasabi kick, for example.  Delicately-sweetened eel.  The guys doing the flavor pairings are spot on.

Overall, I loved our food.   Definitely worth the pricetag.  We paid £94 for two people, and that’s without drinking much.

Downsides:  the downstairs room is kind of depressing, and the service, while seemingly well-intentioned, was not the best.  We were in and out in under 40 minutes, partly because our sushi arrived quickly, and mostly because the second we took our last bite of sushi, a woman cleared our plates and then nobody asked us if we wanted anything else.  In fairness to Yashin, we really didn’t want anything else that night, but blowing almost £100 for a 40-minute meal just feels really weird.  As if you just stopped in for a quick bite to eat in the neighborhood, yes?

Yet clearly Yashin aspires to be more of a destination restaurant, so turning a table in less than an hour just seems wrong.  i know this is going to sound petty and slightly weird, but it would have been nice of Yashin had spaced the food out a little more and made us feel like we were welcome to linger over a coffee or tea.

So.  Fresh, creative, delish sushi.  Decent decor and buzz if you’re upstairs.  Polite-but-too-fast service.

I’ll be back for the food, and next time, maybe I’ll line up a movie or show after dinner.

Yashin Sushi, 1A Argyll Rd, W8 7DB; 0207 938 1536; closest Tube station:  High Street Kensington
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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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Dumplings Legend

Happy Year of the Rabbit!  (Of course, I keep thinking that Rabbits get a bum deal for having *just* missed being a Dragon – which everyone knows is much cooler).

By coincidence, LondonEater also blogged today about Dumplings Legend, the latest Chinatown offering from the Leong’s Legend people.  And I completely agree with him that DL is aiming to be the Din Tai Fung of London.  Having recently visited the original Din Tai Fung in Taipei, I can say that  Dumplings Legend certainly looks the part, from the white-chef-hatted cooks assembling the xiao long bao in the window down to the xiao long bao-headed cartoon character.

I’d gone to Dumplings Legend hoping it was a dumpling house.  The sort of place that specializes in all that is beautiful in the world of filled dough, from baozi to jiao zi to xiao long bao.  Instead, it’s a place that serves several types of xiao long bao and then offers a long menu of totally random and generic “Chinese” dishes.

pork and crab xiao long bao at Dumplings Legend (£6.50)

It sounds like LondonEater had dim sum at DL, whereas I was there recently for dinner.  That said, we both ordered the star attraction at Dumplings Legend:  the xiao long bao.

The XLB we ordered were visually unattractive, but at least they were super soupy.  They were no better than what you’d get at Leong’s, though, so considering the rest of our experience at Dumplings Legend, I’d return to Leong’s.  (Note that even at Leong’s the quality of XLB has gone downhill over the years.  Click here to see how gorgeous the XLB used to be there, way back in August 2008.  It as if the more XLB are offered in London, the worse their quality becomes.  That makes no sense, until you figure most of the XLB seem to be offered by restaurants that share the same ownership as Leong’s.  A mere facade of competition).

steamed crab and sticky rice (£16.50)

In any even, while the XLB tasted alright, I wouldn’t stray too far from the dumpling offerings at DL.  The space is large and sits on Gerrard Street, so I reckon it’s a commercial necessity to appeal to the many diners who are randomly picking a place to eat in Chinatown.  Which means it’s not surprising the rest of the food is pretty mediocre.  The menu blurb at Dumplings Legend talks up the seafood offerings, so we gave the steamed crab a go.  And while the crab was large, the meat was a bit tough and not very sweet.  And the sticky rice pretty dry, failing to absorb any delicious crab flavors.

sweet and sour spare ribs (£7.50)

I had hoped that sweet-and-sour spare ribs might be the real deal, but instead it was just cloying orange sauce poured over tough bits of fried spare ribs.  Classic Gerrard Street fare.

Service, while rushed, was fine up until the end of our meal, when the waitress dumped vinegar and soy sauce all over my shirt while clearing our table.  She tried to wipe at it (always dab, people!  dab!), and when I asked her to just give me napkins so I could dab myself, she disappeared and was replaced seconds later by another server who just handed us the bill.  You could only laugh, really.  We paid the bill, and while Jon was using the gents’ upstairs, another server swooped in to change the table cloths while I was still sitting there.  It’s not like there was a queue of people waiting to sit down, either.

So, for food and service, thumbs down.  For xiao long bao, Dumplings Legend was fine, but for the same quality of XLB, just go around the corner to Leong’s Legend.  They offer better food, generally, and the service is better.

Dumplings Legend, 15-16 Gerrard Street, W1D 6JE; 0207 494 1200; Nearest Tube station:  Leicester Square.

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interior of Hiba Lebanese restaurant

For reasons not worth going into here, last week, I ate Lebanese food three nights in a row.  Yalla Yalla on Thursday.  Hiba on both Friday and Saturday.  Both places enjoy positive TimeOut reviews, with Yalla Yalla enjoying some extra buzz after the recent opening of its Oxford Circus branch.

Still, I left Yalla Yalla thinking it was a nice option to have when shopping on Oxford Street, but otherwise, I wasn’t super impressed.  The service was a bit pushy (my friend and I ordered seven mezze to share and the server still asked us “are you *just* having mezze?  no main courses?”), and the food, while attractively presented, ranged from not-good (e.g., squeaky, over-salty halloumi) to good-but-not-memorable (e.g., fattoush).

24 hours later, I’m at Hiba Restaurant, an oasis on an otherwise forlorn stretch of Borough High Street.  Where Yalla Yalla was spare and Wagamama-cafeteria-dining like, Hiba aims for chic, nighttime atmosphere.  It’s warm and inviting, and I was glad we’d made a booking, because the restaurant was packed on both Friday and Saturday nights.  Minor hiccup when a server told us we’d have to wait a few minutes for a table “because you were 14 minutes late for your booking.”  I swear we were less than 5 minutes late for our booking, but in any case, I could have done with less accusation, generally.

best grilled halloumi, ever (£5.50) at Hiba

Star attraction at Hiba:  Halloumi.  There were many tasty, memorable dishes at Hiba (e.g., crispy, fragrant falafel, refreshing grilled aubergine with tomato, onion, parsley and mint (bazenjan al-rahib)), but for me, the halloumi stole the show.  I ordered it both nights I was at Hiba, and it was superb on both nights.  Yielding, almost-juicy tofu-like texture.  No squeakiness.  Mild, creamy almost-mozzarella flavor with a hit of smokiness from the grill.

salty grilled halloumi topped with even saltier olives at Yalla Yalla

Contrast with Yalla Yalla’s version, which looked pretty.  But the halloumi was a bit squeaky and grilled to dryness.  Worse still, the halloumi’s saltiness was further compounded by the salty olive topping.  My friend and I, lovers of halloumi, couldn’t finish it.

fattoush (£4.95), kibbeh (£5.50) and labneh (£4.75) at Hiba

chicken wings at Hiba were saved by the garlic labneh (£5.50)

Order anything at Hiba that comes with labneh, a thick cheesy-tangy yoghurt.  The chicken wings at Hiba, for example, were a bit scrawny, but they were saved by the garlicky labneh served on the side.  Hiba’s kibbeh, which was better/more moist than Yalla Yalla’s version, still benefited from the rich labneh we’d ordered.  Labneh can transform any dish for the better, it seems.

slight advantage to Yalla Yalla's fattoush, which was beautiful and well dressed

I will say that Yalla Yalla does a better job of plating than Hiba does.  Everything at Yalla Yalla was visually prettier, especially the fattoush.  Salads usually taste better when they look pretty, I think.

Yalla Yalla's sfihe, pastry filled with minced lamb, onion, tomato and pomegranate molasses

But it takes more than good looks to win me over.  Take, for example, Yalla Yalla’s sfihe, whose menu description sounded perfect.  But in reality, the “pastry” was really just a stodgy, thick bread filled with very little lamb/onion mince.  The pomegranate molasses had such a strong flavor that more savoury mince filling was desperately needed to balance things out.

Yalla Yalla's baklava (not pretty and about £5)

Hiba's baklava - lovely to look at and lovely to eat. And free!

Ending was no competition.  Pale, stolid-looking baklava at Yalla Yalla for about £5 versus delicious, flaky baklava for free at Hiba.  Advantage Hiba, obviously.

Prices at both restaurants were similar, with most mezze costing less than £5 and most mains at £12.  None of my three meals cost more than £25, including service and wine.  If you’re looking for a relaxing, tasty night out with friends or a date, Hiba fits the bill perfectly.

Hiba, 134-138 Borough High Street, SE1 1LB; 0207 357 9633; closest Tube station:  3 minutes’ walk from Borough

Yalla Yalla, 12 Winsley Street, W1W 8HQ; 0207 637 4748; closest Tube station:  5 minutes’ walk from Oxford Circus

Hiba on Urbanspoon
Yalla Yalla Beirut Street Food on Urbanspoon

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interior of Kopapa restaurant

Despite the fact that I have, for several years now, eaten Sunday brunch at the Providores about once a month (Turkish eggs changa with a side of chorizo, I love you), when Peter Gordon’s name comes up, I think immediately of Muzede Changa, a restaurant in Istanbul where Gordon is consulting chef.  I remember initially being skeptical that a London-based Kiwi chef serving as a consultant to an Istanbul restaurant could result in anything worthwhile, but the food was delicious, and the easy blend of Turkish and other cuisines left me a life-long fan of Peter Gordon’s.

Fellow resto bloggers Gourmet Chick and Greedy Diva proposed Gordon’s latest venture, Kopapa, as the meeting spot for our days-before-Christmas catch up, and I didn’t need any persuading.  Gourmet Chick’s writeup is here, and I’m pleased to report that Greedy Diva appears to be as big a procrastinator as I am and still hasn’t posted yet about our dinner there!  (For an anonymous pro opinion, see the review in this week’s TimeOut).

Overall, I liked Kopapa.  The service was friendly and attentive, and the dining room is casual and welcoming.  Most of the dishes we tried were good, with just a small minority of forgettable, “skip it” clunkers.  For sure, it’d be a great place to drop by for coffee and dessert, and it was a perfect spot for a friendly catch-up.

It took the three of us a while to scan the menu, partly because three food bloggers tend to talk a lot about what to order, and partly because the dish descriptions are so long.  Also, because most of the dishes are small, you end up having to make a lot more decisions than if you’d just gone with a starter-main-dessert structure.

The three of us shared 7 small plates, 1 main, and 2 desserts, and that was just the right amount of food.

The five tasty dishes:

tuna tartare (£6.00)

“Sesame infused tuna tartare with soy and wasabi tapioca, crispy lotus root and shiso” – that’s the menu description, and it’s long, yes?  This was the sort of dish that characterized much of what we tried on the Kopapa menu.  Boring, safe tuna tartare well prepared with just enough “twist” to lift it out of boring land.  Here, we had firm chunks of raw tuna served in a refreshing and well-balanced dressing with nut, citrus and salty flavors.  I didn’t taste much heat from the wasabi, but the texture and prettiness of the lotus root was a nice touch.

duck breast with pickled pineapple and goats curd (£6.50)

“Indonesian marinated magret duck breast, goats curd, beetroot confit and pickled pineapple” – you have to admire Kopapa for bucking the current fashion of over-simplifying descriptions to the point of unhelpfulness (e.g., a restaurant’s labeling an elaborate salad as just “greens”).  But there really is such a thing as TMI.  Anyway, similar to the tuna tartare, the rare duck breast was good but boring on its own, however, it was livened up by the sweet-and-sour pickled pineapple and creamy-tangy goats curd.

coconut sticky pork ribs (£5.80)

“Coconut sticky pork ribs” were crowd-pleasingly sweet, sticky and fall-off-the-bone tender.

duck liver parfait (£5.60)

“Grilled duck liver parfait with tamarind raisin chutney and grilled flat bread” — loved that there was no shortage of flatbread to accompany the creamy liver parfait.  And the caramelized sugar crust was clever, complementing the liver with its texture and sweetness.

parmesan bone marrow toast (£5.20)

“Parmesan and bone marrow on toast with horseradish” – Gourmet Chick noted that this distinguished itself from the bone marrow at St. John, which I agree with, but strangely, was thinking at the time that the flavors brought to mind St. John’s welsh rarebit.  In any case, as you’d expect, this dish was rich and comforting, and I wish there’d been more horseradish.  I crave spicy kick, apparently.

And now for the three “skip it” dishes:

grilled aubergine

“Grilled aubergine with tamarind caramel, coriander, pickled ginger and za’atar” – I found this whole dish bland despite all the flavor-packed-sounding accompaniments.  Normally, I love anything aubergine.  But this dish was just mush with occasional and imbalanced flashes of sweetness and ginger.

butternut squash (£4.20)

“Five spice and cumin crumbed butternut with coconut cucumber raita” – Breaded and deep fried.  I thought it’d be right up my alley.  But again, oddly bland and still-too-firm butternut squash.  Maybe if the squash had been boiled longer before frying so that it was softer and sweeter?

pork belly (£15.80)

“Cripsy pork belly on almond skordalia and buttered kale with moromi miso & tarragon dressing” – It just tasted like pork belly.  Well-prepared pork belly with a good, shatter-with-a-fork crispy crackling.  But when you read the menu description, you expect something more spectacular than plain old pork belly.

Desserts – simple and delicious.  A good ending.

boiled-orange cake (£5.80)

“Boiled-orange and almond cake with passionfruit custard” – we wondered if it was the orange that was boiled, or the whole cake.  Gourmet Chick did some digging around and tells me it’s steamed.  I’ll go with that.  Incredibly moist and infused with citrus, complemented by the tartness of passionfruit.

“Double-chocolate and macadamia nut brownie with Golden Crunch ice cream” – sure, it was a lame-sounding choice, but sometimes you just want a brownie with ice cream.  And the ice cream with its honeyed crunch was outstanding.

Total spend:  £109, including service and a modest bottle of wine, meaning we paid £36 each for a generally-tasty, relaxed evening out.  I look forward to going back.

Kopapa Restaurant, 32 – 34 Monmouth Street, Seven Dials, Covent Garden, WC2H 9HA; closest tube stations:  Leicester Square or Covent Garden, though I hoofed it over from Tottenham Court Road, and the walk didn’t take much more than 10 minutes.
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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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