Archive for January, 2008

a case of ‘we already knew that’

Monmouth Coffee aka REAL coffee.

So in London, the peeps over at Which? have finally worked out that chains like Starbucks have been offering the consumer ‘inferior coffee at inflated prices‘. Now tell us something we didn’t know.

I admit to having fallen for Starbucks’ clever marketing strategies when they first arrived in Hong Kong – for a time, I’d drink nothing but caramel macchiatos and frappucinos, I’d never tasted a real espresso before in my life, and for my undeveloped palate, the sweet milky “coffees” served by Starbucks suited me just fine. I was never raised on coffee, but tea (that much is obvious), so the strong bitterness of espresso was never something that attracted me.

Somehow, somewhere along the line I began to appreciate the brew a lot more. Maybe it was from working at the student union bar at my university – oddly, they didn’t make it compulsory for all staff to attend barista training (only about 6-7 of us went) – where I first learned the basics of making coffee. The trainer, a seasoned barista herself, was dead serious about coffee. We had an hour long seminar on the history of coffee, the do’s and don’ts of coffee making, and finally we spent another few hours getting to grips with the espresso machine and coffee grinder. At the end of the day, I’d made the perfect cappuccino that garnered a round of applause from our trainer and the rest of the group. Since then, I’ve never been able to forgive anyone for a poorly made cappuccino – it seems like most people think that its the same thing as a latte.

it's that time of the year!L: Don’t do it! I still get sucked in by the ‘red cups’.

Another thing I can’t stand about Starbucks is their ‘caramel macchiato’, which is basically a milk drink with oodles of caramel and about a drop of espresso. ‘Macchiato’, meaning ‘marked’ in Italian, the most common usage being in the drink ‘caffe macchiato’ – an espresso with a drop of milk or foam. It’s hilarious how Starbucks turns this right around and marks the milk with very little coffee and a mountain of caramel (if it were a ‘caramel macchiato’, surely it means to be marked with a bit of caramel, not an entire half-bottle?). I still stop by Starbucks occasionally for a quick drink, but it’s never on the merits of its coffee – I go when I suddenly need a sugar fix. I’m going to kick the habit this year, because thinking about how much milk and sugar are in its drinks makes me ill.

So to offset the bitter tone of this entry, here are some places where I’ve had some pretty decent cuppas:

1. Flat White
Located in Soho (right across from Yauatcha), Flat White is one of the best destinations for a decent coffee. Care is given to both making it, and serving to the customer – the first time I went there I was momentarily baffled by the friendliness of the staff, who asked me for my name so they could write it on the cup. Somehow it seems so much nicer when they’ve prepared you your coffee and say, ‘Here you go, Charmaine!’ with a smile. I haven’t tried the signature flat white yet, but their latte was so decadent, creamy, and full of zing.
Flat White, 17 Berwick St, Soho, W1F 0PT, London (020 7734 0370/

we're not dead2. Sacred
Located just off Carnaby Street, Sacred is one of my favourite places for a drink and a natter around the area. It’s particularly good in the summer, when you can lounge on the sofas on the ground floor, or the alfreso seating outside of the cafe, soaking up the sun. Their cappucinos may not be up to scratch (still too much milk, too little foam), but the coffee is acceptable and they’ve got a fabulous range for tea-lovers as well. The aboriginal/tribal artefacts that decorate Sacred are fun and give the place its very unique kind of atmosphere.
Sacred, 13 Ganton St (off Carnaby St), W1F 9BL, London (020 7734 1415/

ca phe vn 3. Ca Phe VN
(photo credit: Ca Phe VN website)
A lovely couple, Rob and Thuyen, bring their love of Vietnamese coffee to the East London community. They set up stall every week at Broadway Market, selling classic Vietnamese brews as well as more unusual drinks such as artichoke tea (which I haven’t had the courage to try yet). Vietnamese coffee is a result of French colonial rule, and so uses French coffee beans. Ground and placed into a unique metal coffee filter, where the espresso drips slowly through – the resulting espresso is extremely strong, though the strength is offset by sweet and creamy condensed milk. A perfect pick-me-up, especially in the winter cold. I bought one of their single-cup coffee filters (extremely cheap!) and a bag of ground coffee (from Buon Ma Thuot) so my dad and I have been enjoying many a Vietnamese coffee here in Hong Kong. You can find their wares at the Algerian Coffee Store in Soho, or can order online at the Ca Phe VN website, alternatively there are many other stores listed in their stockists page.
Ca Phe VN, Broadway Market, E8, London. Open every Saturday 9am-5pm.

Honorary mentions
Benugo at the V&A Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Rd, E2 9PA, Bethnal Green, London
Scoop, 40 Shorts Gardens, WC2H 2AB, London (my review)


January 26, 2008 at 2:16 pm 3 comments

waiter, is that a pantyhose in my tea?


Many times I’d walked past 蘭芳園 (Lan Fong Yuen) and gazed at it in wonder, but never stopped because I thought it to be more of a take-away stall (though I noted that you could perch on the small wooden stools on the raised platform in the front). Sneaky peeps – turns out there’s an entire restaurant hidden behind that facade! Entrance is from that small corridor on the left of the stall.

inside �芳園
Who knew?

I was meeting two friends who happened to work in the Central district, so we arranged to have lunch there. Unfortunately, between the hours of 12:30-1:30, all the restaurants (even so-so ones) in the area are attacked by the brigade of OLs (office ladies) and besuited bankers and other working folk. When I got to Lan Fong Yuen at 12:50 the place was already heaving and there was a queue steadily forming outside. Because of its popularity, they have a policy that if all members of your party aren’t present, you can’t get a table. Two of us ended up waiting for the last person just outside of the restaurant, behind the stall, which was basically their kitchen. We watched the efficient staff do their magic in the tiny space – one man was in charge of making the famous ‘pantyhose’ milk tea (practically five orders a minute, from what we saw), another in charge of their equally famed thick toasts with peanut butter/condensed milk as well as their pork chop buns, and another piling on the toppings onto platefuls of steaming-hot ramen before the waiters would whisk them off into the restaurant.

Left: A worker busily makes cup after cup of milk tea. There are about 4-5 kettles on the boil at once on the stove. Right: My cuppa. Note the happy men in the background slurping up their ramen!

We were eventually seated at a table in the corner, along with two other groups of people – they come and go quite quickly, so in the span of half an hour there was a cheerful group of young male office workers, a young-woman/old-man couple, two teenagers, and then a tourist couple from mainland China. It’s certainly elbow-to-elbow dining, but it’s fun because you get to peek at what everyone else is ordering (the satay beef noodles looked a bit putrid, but judging from the reactions, it was divine; seeing different dishes also made me wish I’d ordered a pork chop bun – it’s so round and cute!).

lunch @ �芳園 I already knew what I wanted to order – I had their signature braised ramen noodles with pan-fried chicken breast and scallion oil, and a hot cup of pantyhose tea. Who knew that such simple fare could be so good? I’m not generally a fan of instant ramen, but at the very least, it was cooked very well – al dente and not soggy and watery. The pan-fried chicken breast was also surprisingly good – juicy, and with a crisp skin and SO. MUCH. FLAVOUR. There was sliced cabbage for texture, and the scallion oil was magnificent, it really brought the whole dish together. Humble food but oh-so-good (and probably oh-so-unhealthy!). It cost $36 for the lunch together (roughly £2.50) and we left feeling happy and satisfied. It’s worth noting as well that the service was really friendly – which you don’t really expect it to be, considering how busy and popular the place is (as a rule of thumb, the more popular a place is here, the less staff feel like they have to try hard with good service).

ReutersIt’s worth mentioning that ‘pantyhose’ tea doesn’t really refer to what’s in it (bless you), but it does refer slightly to how it’s made. The brew is filtered through a nylon fabric that hangs like a stocking, thus its name as ‘pantyhose’ tea – reason being it really filters out any imperfections and grains in the tea, as well as somehow integrating the evaporated milk and tea together more smoothly, which results in a super silky brew. The strength of the tea is also a result of it being brewed for exactly 13 minutes, according to the owner. At times, I’m tempted to try it on my own with an unworn pair of stockings just for fun. (A trick that my dad uses to make his tea smoother, actually, is to add discarded egg shells into the pot – allegedly, some famous milk tea vendors also add this to their brew – the remaining egg white sticking to the inside of the shell somehow helps to add a smooth texture to the tea. You still have to filter it, of course, but in this case we just use a fine sieve.) By the way, the above image is courtesy of Reuters, who wrote a pretty good article on pantyhose tea, as well as Lan Fong Yuen (take a look at the related video!).

Afterwards I had a good stroll around the markets of Gage Street (where Lan Fong Yuen is located) and Graham Street. I swear I never get bored of doing so (I’ve already been twice in the week I’ve been back in Hong Kong). There’s just something so alive about these markets and streets that I can’t help but feel a pang of sadness every time I think about how they’re going to tear it down. A post about the area will probably follow, eventually.

蘭芳園 (Lan Fong Yuen)
2 Gage St, Central, Hong Kong
Tel: 2544 3895
Open daily 7am-6pm

January 16, 2008 at 6:15 pm 17 comments

ode to an egg tart

新鮮出爐! fresh egg tarts

Hot, silky custard
in a crumbly puff pastry –
an eggy delight.

Far better than
those cold, stodgy custard tarts
sold back in Britain.

January 13, 2008 at 4:41 pm 5 comments


A freelance journalist and full-time gourmand, eating her way mostly through London and Hong Kong.

Current location: London


Charmaine currently digs: the smell of coffee; adding ponzu to everything; bill granger; still eating natto with every meal; caressing her Nikon FM2n.



January 2008
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