Archive for August, 2007
I’m not as informed within the Hong Kong foodie world as I’d like to be – so it was only this past week that I finally made a visit to Xǐ Yàn Sweets down in Wanchai’s Wing Fung Street. All credit goes to my mom, who is always reeling off names of restaurants that I should try out, for varying reasons!
Xǐ Yàn Sweets is the brainchild of artist-come-restauranteur/chef Jacky Yu. The original Xǐ Yàn started in 2000 as a ‘private kitchen’, or speakeasy/underground restaurant, that are popular in Hong Kong. The menus change constantly and you eat what the chef decides to prepare that day, a good indicator that the food served will be fresh and seasonal. In fact, written at the bottom of the sample menu for the speakeasy is the following disclaimer:
Note : the menu may be subjected to slight changes if the chefs believe that certain ingredients available for the particular day is not as satisfactory for serving.
To find out more, check out a wonderfully written and comprehensive review of the original Xǐ Yàn over at Cha Xiu Bao!
The name of the establishment, Xǐ Yàn (囍宴), is a nod to the traditional Chinese wedding banquet, but the dishes couldn’t fall further from the rigid, set styles of banquet fare, where there will be one chosen regional cuisine throughout the entire course progression. The marriage, if you excuse the pun, of many different regional Asian cuisines at Xǐ Yàn means that in one night you’ll be able to sample delectable dishes ranging from sweet Japanese tomatoes with sesame sauce (which my tomato-aversive mother declared as the best she had ever tasted) to coconut chicken soup. A peek at the sample menu from their website also reveals dishes such as foie gras somen, tofu ice cream, and scallop on glutinous rice with olive & black bean paste – showing a true fusion of some of Asia’s best cuisines, with a slight Western/European touch.
Goldfinch Restaurant may not be a familiar name to most, but perhaps its dimly lit interiors, smoked mirrors and characteristic leather booths will stir up memories of one of Wong Kar-wai’s most famous films, In the Mood for Love, where the small, intimate restaurant is the unique setting for So Lai-chen (Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan’s (Tony Leung) first dinner together.
It can be said that restaurants like Goldfinch laid the foundations of Hong Kong’s first ‘fusion’ movement; it opened in the 1960’s when the economy was only starting to see some light, and dining out was more of a luxury. With a nod to Hong Kong’s colonial identity, restauranteurs and chefs began integrating more ‘Western’ style dishes into their menus, such as steak and pasta, while adding a Chinese twist – thus serving ‘see yau sai chaan’ (literally ‘soy sauce Western meals’), the colloquial description that has come to characterise such unique eateries.
It has been nearly a month since that fateful day when an email from DailyCandy.com arrived in my inbox, boasting of London’s next best gelataria. Having been confined to getting my gelato fix exclusively from Cafe Ciao on Charing Cross road, I was eager to sample Scoop’s authentic Italian gelato, made with the best Italian ingredients. So after an afternoon of mooching around the Tate Britain, I finally made a visit.
Well, actually, I had previously made two unsuccessful attempts to seek out Scoop this month, attempts of which were foiled only because I never noted down the address and just knew it was in the general vicinity of Covent Garden… So this time, I sketched a rough map in my diary to make sure I would find it.
Once you’re inside the door you’ll be greeted by a massive display of at least 15 flavours of gelato, all heaving and rolling (well, not actively, but you can almost see the movement) majestically in their containers; some drizzled with rich dark chocolate, some dotted with little crunchy biscuits. The interior is bright and cheery, decked out in orange walls and bright blue tables at the back (thought there are only three tables for seating. It’s a shame that there isn’t any al fresco seating!).
As the girl in front of me hummed and ahhed over her choices, I hovered around the glass case, eyes a-darting from gelato to gelato. I knew I had to get pistachio, my absolute favourite. But what else? Soon the woman behind the counter (who looked slightly frazzled) asked what I wanted. Going with the medium chocolate-nut cone, I chose pistachio, tiramisu, and Arabic coffee. It’s worth noting that the large cone will get you FIVE scoops! I had the medium one, which was 4 pounds (eep). A little word of advice: pick your favourite flavour last! My poor pistachio was buried deep within the cone, smooshed by the other two scoops; when in reality that was the first flavour I wanted to try. Indeed, think ahead, my friends…
The chocolate nut cone was scrumptious, but I think I will stick to a cup next time as I didn’t like how the sweetness of the cone interfered with the natural flavours of the gelato – as a result, while the entire thing was tasty, it was just err-ing on the side of being too sweet. I blame the chocolate (but it was so good…). The Arabic coffee flavour was amazing – earthy yet light at the same time, a world apart from regular coffee, which I assume is due to the flavour of cardamom (which I’ve never tasted before). Very good. The tiramisu in comparison was a little weak, which is probably my fault for choosing two flavours that share the coffee element. The Arabic coffee was stronger and so washed out the flavour of the tiramisu. Finally, after wolfing down the first two scoops, I finally reached my pistachio. I knew when it happened because that deliciously smooth, fragrant buttery nuttiness hit my tastebuds. Mmmmmmm, I sure do love pistachio. It was as great as I’d expected it to be – the pistachio gelato is, according to the website:
…uniquely made with pure pistachios from Bronte, a tiny Sicilian village known world wide for its limited pistachios production (once every two years). The volcanic soil of Sicily gives the pistachios a unique and delicious toasted flavour.
After smacking my lips with satisfaction, I decided that my visit wouldn’t be complete without a classic Italian cappucino – and I was particularly interested in how well it would be made. I’ve rarely ever had a truly GOOD cappucino in London – the coffee shops usually think that they can get away with a pitiful slick of airy foam on top of what is otherwise just a latte, what with all the milk added (read: all the milk that wasn’t bubbled into foam). So I went up to the counter and ordered one, also taking the opportunity to chat to Matteo. And he took the opportunity to proudly tell me that their gelato is freshly made each day, with the finest ingredients. I asked him what his favourite flavour was: “It changes, depending on my mood!”. In the meantime, his friend (who he has known forever from Tuscany) got to work preparing my cappucino.
My coffee though, was surprisingly underwhelming. It was no different from the pretend-cappucinos many cafes in London serve – the foam too airy, and it wasn’t even a centimetre thick. I’d drank most of the foam off even before I’d reached the halfway point! Shrugging and getting back to my newspaper, I thought, “at least the gelato was stellar…”
At this point Matteo came out from behind the bar and came over to my table and amicably started chatting to me. I can’t even remember how it started, but it was such a friendly gesture. He came over and pointed to the freezer to my left (filled with sundaes, cakes and puddings) and started telling me about the fantastic tasty things he was planning for Scoop – such as introducing more classic Italian desserts, as well as offering mini semifreddos, tiramisus, and so on. He really has a passion for Italian desserts, and clearly wants the whole of London to know more about them and eat them ;) Anyways, I just couldn’t leave without telling him about the mediocre cappucino – how would any self-respecting Italian allow the memory of a badly made coffee stay with a patron? Indeed, he looked slightly appalled and quickly spoke in rapid Italian to his mate, and before I could protest, they whipped me up another one, free of charge. Matteo said he was surprised that the first one turned out the way it did, because his friend owns a coffee shop in Italy. Every barista has his day I suppose!
The next cup was truly magnificent. Dense, creamy foam with little, even microscopic, air bubbles. Sitting haughtily, rising just slightly above the rim of the cup. Perfect. And the final mark of a great cappucino? When there’s still a layer of creamy foam sitting at the bottom of the cup after you’ve drained all the espresso. I was satisfied. I thanked the both of them, feeling just slightly embarassed that I’d made myself seem like such a demanding customer.
After more shop chat with Matteo, I took a few pictures and off I went, smiling. This is definitely going to be one of my usual haunts now. The fact that Matteo is so passionate about what he does, is dedicated to educating Londoners about Italian dessert, and genuinely cares about what his customers think and chats to you like an old friend, is truly commendable.
40 Shorts Gardens
Phone: 0207 2407 086
I used to have a flatmate who came from Beijing, and this is a dish that she made for me once that I immediately fell in love with. It’s a popular northern Chinese dish of shredded potatoes with chilli and vinegar, and from what I can glean from the internet, it’s original name is qing jiao tu dou si (青椒土豆丝), or ‘green chilli potato shreds’. It was nothing like I’d ever eaten before – a testament to the vast differences between northern and southern Chinese cuisine (the latter of which I am more familiar with, having lived/living in Hong Kong). The potatoes are shredded finely (a skill in itself) and quickly stir-fried with hot chillies, splashes of vinegar (usually Chinese black rice vinegar), and seasoned with soy sauce. It’s cooked very quickly so that the potatoes still retain a crunch; this was definitely a strange experience at first, having only eaten potatoes in their starchy softness, in the form of mashed potatoes and chips. But it definitely works – it’s refreshing and the texture resembles the radish, somewhat. It’s difficult to liken it to anything, really.
I’ve converted quite a few people onto this dish, and it’s easy to see why. It’s simple, yet novel (for us ignorant people not familiar with northern Chinese cuisine anyway!). It’s light and tasty – spicy, sour, and savoury all at once. And it’s incredibly easy to make – the most grueling part is just slicing the potato meticulously into thin shreds, something you will undoubtedly get used to. I usually only quickly stir-fry the potato for about 5-6 minutes, just until the starch of the potato comes out and the liquid in the wok (from the soy sauce, vinegar, and any water in the potato) starts to thicken.
Potato shreds with chilli and vinegar
1 medium potato, peeled (avoid floury potatoes)
1 tbsp sesame oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped (I’m just a garlic fiend!)
1/2 red chilli, finely chopped
1 1/2 tbsp rice vinegar
1 1/2 tbsp light soy sauce
pinch of sugar
1 spring onion, chopped
1. Prepare the potato by cutting it in half lengthways. Place each half flat side down, and slice each thinly (3-4mm, if you can manage, the thinner the better!). For every 4-5 slices, lay flat and slice again lengthways, to create long matchstick-like pieces. Leave to soak in a large bowl of cold water to prevent the potatoes from going black.
2. Heat the sesame oil in a non-stick wok, and add the garlic and chilli. Saute for about a minute. Note: You can leave out the chilli at this stage if you want a really spicy flavour, and add them in the final stages of cooking. I tend to add them at this stage because I’m a wuss and can’t take the heat of the chilli and so cook most of it out! I know, defeating the purpose…
3. Meanwhile, drain the potatoes in a colander. Add to the wok and quickly stir fry for another minute. Add the rice vinegar, soy sauce and sugar. Keep tossing the potatoes for another 4-5 minutes until you start to see the liquid in the pan thicken.
4. Add the chopped spring onions, toss once more to mix in, and serve.
So what’s the best dish you’ve ever learned from a friend? :)