Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop, Hong Kong

Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop

In 2009, I visited Hong Kong for the first time in over twelve years. On that trip, I ate at Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop at IFC and was totally blown away. After years and years spent eating insipid bowls of wonton noodles in London's Chinatown, I was reminded of how awesome this dish could be, when done right. This time around, prior to making it down to IFC, I had already eaten at two other wonton noodle places, Mak's and Tsim Chai Kee, the day before. I was, thus, very interested to see how Tasty compared, both to my memory of it from two years ago, and to its two competitors.

As this was a mid-afternoon snack, I went for the Small House Speciality Shrimp Wonton Noodles in Soup, at HKD 33 for a bowl not much bigger than Mak's - the rent at IFC no doubt factoring into the pricing.

Small House Speciality Shrimp Wonton Noodles in Soup

And the verdict? Somewhere in between Mak's and TCK. It was definitely still very good, just as I remembered it in fact, but my suspicion upon tasting Mak's version the day before was that it was on a different planet altogether, and today only served to confirm that. If I had never tried Mak's, I would have been extremely happy with Tasty's rendition, but once you've had the very best, everything else pales in comparison.

In a nutshell...
In my 24-hour survey of three of the supposed best w0nton noodle places in Hong Kong, Tasty came in a solid second. There's no shame in that - Mak's, after all, is otherworldly good. Tasty, proud owner of a Michelin Bib Gourmand for three consecutive years by the way, serves a very good bowl of wonton noodles, one that easily eclipses highly-rated Tsim Chai Kee.

7.5/10

Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop
Shop 3016-3018 Podium Level 3, IFC mall, 1 Harbour View Street, Central, Hong Kong
+85222950101
Average Price: HKD 50

Man Wah, Hong Kong

Man Wah

Hong Kong is, needless to say, not short of dim sum places; and with so many options and just two lunches on our whistle stop visit, we had to make our choices with great care. We opted for one upmarket venue, and one more traditional shop, starting on the first day with Man Wah at the Mandarin Oriental, said to be one of the very best exponents of modern, cutting edge dim sum in town.

The setting, on the top floor of the hotel is a rather spectacular one, with breathtaking panoramic views of Victoria Harbour and the city’s skyline, and a grand, if rather ostentatious, décor. The restaurant is only small and it was, unsurprisingly, full on this mid-week lunchtime, so I would definitely recommend reservations.

Roast suckling pig

We ordered largely from the dim sum menu, pleased by the flexibility shown by the restaurant in offering to make three dumplings for every serving, one for each of us, even if a standard serving sometimes contained two or four - all dim sum restaurants should adopt this approach; there is nothing more annoying than trying to split three dumplings between four. Anyway, I digress. In addition to the dim sum, we
couldn't resist sampling the Roast suckling pig - it was an accomplished plate - tasty and crisp, if ever so slightly more greasy than I would have liked.

Tiger prawn, bamboo shoot dumplingPork siu mai, truffle

Of the dim sum, Tiger prawn, bamboo shoot dumpling, known to you and me as har gau was absolutely terrific, with a superb, paper-thin wrapper, and a big, juicy prawn - this was a near perfect rendition, and just made one sigh at the sorry versions that pervade almost all London places, including the much vaunted Hakkasan and Yauatcha. After that opening, I was readying myself for a dim sum meal like I'd never had before, but sad to say, little did I know that the peak had already been scaled and it would be a slow and steady descent from there.

Lobster dumpling, black bean sauceBeef tenderloin puff, black pepper sauce

Lobster dumpling, black bean sauce again displayed an exquisite, thin skin, but failed to excite the palate. Pork siu mai, truffle was fairly standard, save for the piece of truffle on top which served no purpose except to inflate the bill. Beef tenderloin puff, black pepper sauce had a lovely flaky pastry but a none-too-convincing filling that was a touch too peppery. Barbecued pork bun was soft and wonderfully fluffy with a tasty filling that was, however, blown totally out of the water by the char siu we were to have that very night at Lung King Heen. Golden taro puff, abalone was average by Asian standards; the abalone combination not working all that well.

Golden taro puff, abaloneBarbecued pork bun

To finish, Fried flat rice noodles, U.S. rib eye beef, X.O. chilli sauce promised so much, especially after the delightful X.O. sauce had been provided as a dip with the dim sum and met with universal approval, but delivered so little, lacking in even the tiniest bit of "wok hei" - the flavour imparted from a flaming wok.

Fried flat rice noodles, U.S. rib eye beef, X.O. chilli sauce

Dessert then took an absolute age to come, somewhere in the region of 20-30 minutes, despite more than one reminder. When it finally did arrive, Bean curd pudding, Okinawa black sugar syrup was pretty good with a velvety smooth texture, but one's enjoyment of the dish couldn't help but be tempered by the wait that preceded it.

Bean curd pudding, Okinawa black sugar syrup

In a nutshell...
Man Wah would easily trump any dim sum restaurant in London but this is Hong Kong, the home of dim sum, and the bar here is set considerably higher. There was no doubting the level of refinement of the dim sum here, but given the location, given the stream of glowing reviews, given the extremely robust pricing, Man Wah failed, singularly, to meet expectations.

5/10

Man Wah
Mandarin Oriental, 25th Floor, 5 Connaught Road, Central, Hong Kong
+85228254003
Average Price: HKD 500 (for dim sum)
1 Michelin Star

The Chairman, Hong Kong

The Chairman

The Chairman, a two-year-old restaurant tucked away in a quiet corner of Hong Kong's Central district, has garnered quite a name for itself thanks to its distinctive brand of Cantonese cuisine, and already been awarded a Michelin Star - no mean feat in Asia for a small, independent venue not affiliated with a hotel or located within a high footfall shopping mall.

Crispy Small Yellow Croakers served with Balsamic Dressing

After perusing the menu, most notable for a lengthy mission statement about using the best produce and being a restaurant created by food lovers, for food lovers blah blah blah, and hearing a passionate description of the menu's star items from the gentleman who served us, we settled on 4 dishes to share, starting with the Crispy Small Yellow Croakers served with Balsamic Dressing. This was a complete disappointment - it was a component of the tasting menu, and also highly recommended by the waiter so I was hopeful of something a little bit special but far from it - this was simply deep fried fish - err great. I am pleased to report, however, that this represented, by some distance, the low point of the meal.

Smoked Baby Pigeon with Longjing Tea & Chrysanthemum

Smoked Baby Pigeon with Longjing Tea & Chrysanthemum had a really lovely tea smoked taste to it. Steamed Fresh Flowery Crab with Aged Shao Xing Wine, Fragrant Chicken Oil & Flat Rice Noodles, present on every table we surveyed and clearly a signature dish of the restaurant, was superb. The crab meat was sweet and lush, the shao xing wine present in just the right quantity and at no point overpowering, the fragrant chicken oil added another level of depth and complexity to the sauce, and the slurpy rice noodles were the perfect accompaniment to lap everything up. A wonderfully balanced dish – I absolutely loved it.

Steamed Fresh Flowery Crab with Aged Shao Xing Wine, Fragrant Chicken Oil & Flat Rice NoodlesSteamed Fresh Flowery Crab with Aged Shao Xing Wine, Fragrant Chicken Oil & Flat Rice Noodles

The Chairman's Soy Sauce Chicken didn't sound the most exciting option - don't get me wrong, I love a good soy sauce chicken, I just don't tend to order it at fancier restaurants because the best versions I have tasted are at stalls in South East Asia - but the waiter recommended it so highly that we almost couldn't not order it. We were given no cause for regret. Packed, apparently, with 18 different flavours - quite a few more than your regular soy sauce chicken I dare say, it was splendid - the sauce very tasty, as you might imagine - a little bit herbal-y, but by no means excessively so; the chicken nice and moist. It was lovely.

The Chairman's Soy Sauce Chicken

Dessert is almost always a weakness at Chinese restaurants, and the pudding selection, or lack thereof, indicated a similar theme here. We settled for one serving each of the Osmanthus & Wolfberry Ice-cream, and Pickled Ginger Ice-cream. Of the two, the gorgeous osmanthus & wolfberry was easily the standout.

Osmanthus & Wolfberry Ice-cream

In a nutshell...
The Chairman is a quality Cantonese Restaurant, with a difference, and in a place like Hong Kong, that takes some doing. I would happily recommend, and return, in a heartbeat.

7.5/10

The Chairman
18 Kau U Fong, Central, Hong Kong
+85225552202
Average Price: HKD 500
1 Michelin Star

Tsim Chai Kee, Hong Kong

Tsim Chai Kee

There are two places that always come up in any discussion about the best wonton noodles in Hong Kong - Mak's Noodle and Tsim Chai Kee. Conveniently, they are located directly across the road from each other, so one can easily try both and decide for themselves in the space of, conservatively say, half an hour. We went first to Mak's, had an amazing bowl of noodles there, then crossed over to TCK where, curiously enough, there was a bit of a queue this Monday mid-afternoon, when Mak's had been practically empty. The wait was only short, mind, and we were soon seated, the three of us sharing a table of four with a solo diner.

The menu didn't take much perusing - 3 King Prawn Wonton Noodles please! A plate of kai-lan appeared on our table almost instantly. Err... o
h it's complimentary? Great! The bowls of noodles - full-sized regular bowls this time, unlike Mak's tiny portions - followed shortly thereafter. I took one spoonful of the soup and knew immediately that this was an inferior product. The soup had none of the depth or complexity of flavours bursting out of Mak's rendition. The noodles itself were fine, and the wontons weren't bad - filled with a large, bouncy prawn they were considerably bigger than Mak's, but still, not nearly as good.

King Prawn Wonton Noodles

In a nutshell...
I’m finding it very difficult to give Tsim Chai Kee a fair rating, because I ate here five minutes after Mak's. If TCK is indeed one of the two best wonton noodle places in Hong Kong, as is often said, then it is without a doubt a distant second - this is a battle Mak's wins hands down, with one hand tied behind its back. It isn't even close. To be honest, I can’t understand why TCK is even in the conversation when all one has to do is cross the road to sample an infinitely better version. And I really do mean infinitely better.

That's not my problem. My difficulty lies in determining how much worse that Mak's TCK was. If I had eaten here first then crossed the road rather than the other way around, would I have thought TCK was good, and that Mak's was simply even better? I suspect I might have. After all TCK wasn’t bad, and it’s clearly very popular; and Hong Kong people know their wonton noodles (although a large part of me suspects it's the prices more than anything else - TCK charges HKD 19 for a big bowl and throws in a free veg, Mak's is HKD 30 for a tiny portion - that draws the punters in here).

A bit of help did arrive the following day when I ate at another highly regarded wonton noodle place, Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop at IFC – that meal provided conclusive proof that Tsim Chai Kee was not even the second best in town.

A decent wonton noodle, but some way short of the best.

6.5/10

Tsim Chai Kee
98 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong
Tel: +85228506471
Average Price: HKD 20

Mak’s Noodle, Hong Kong

Wonton Noodles

I love wonton noodles. And no where in the world is this simple dish done better than in Hong Kong. I ate at three wonton noodle places in less than 24 hours on my recent trip there - and those were just snacks!

We arrived into Hong Kong in the early afternoon, checked into the hotel, then went immediately in search of a bite to eat, at the world famous roast goose institution, Yung Kee. But Yung Kee had sold out of roast goose, and would only be replenishing its stocks just before dinner. So we strolled a bit further down the same road (up a small incline, then back down again on the other side) to Mak's, which I had actually earmarked for a mid-afternoon snack the following day.

Mak's is widely considered to be one of the two best wonton noodle places in Hong Kong, alongside Tsim Chai Kee which, coincidentally, is right across the road. Mak's, made even more popular by Anthony Bourdain who featured it on his show, is famous for its diminutive portions. And indeed, they were tiny - the size of soup bowls. They were, however, totally amazing. The noodles were done perfectly, with a slightly chewy texture; the wontons were just super, with a smooth, silky wrapper, and crucially, not over-stuffed with the brilliant filling; but the undisputed star of the show, the element that lifted the dish from a good one to an absolutely great one, was the broth - it was packed full of flavour; but it wasn't just the depth of flavour, it was the complexity - the layers and layers of flavour. Wow. Just wow.

Mak's Noodle

In a nutshell...
The best wonton noodles. In the world. Ever. Portions are miniscule so you'll want two, at the very least.

9.5/10

Mak's Noodle
77 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong
+85228543810
Average Price: HKD 30

Rodizio Preto, London

Rodizio Preto

I must confess, I'm not a particularly big fan of Brazilian rodizios, or at least not of the ones in London (I've never been to Brazil ). What's not to like about an all-you-can-eat-meat restaurant, you ask?! Well what sounds, on paper, like a great idea - unlimited barbeque meats of all varieties brought to your table endlessly until you say stop, frequently fails to deliver in reality because the meat is so often too dry, and service slow and inconsistent. Rodizio Rico is the biggest and most well-known of the rodizio chains in town, and the only one I had previously been to (on three separate occasions, years apart), but Rodizio Preto has been the beneficiary of a number of good reviews, and when a friend needed a place for dinner before watching Wicked The Musical, we, suffering from a dearth of presentable options in the area, decided to give the branch on Wilton Road a try.

Rodizio Preto1

First, a cursory mention of the buffet of salads and traditional Brazilian dishes - the spread was alright, not nearly as wide a selection or as good in quality as that at Rico, but not too bad. Now onto the main event, the meat!

Rodizio PretoRodizio Preto

I'm not going to go through all the different meats that were served (mainly because it became a bit of a blur after a while) but by the end of the meal, I was left in little doubt that Preto was better than Rico. The quality of the meat was clearly superior (for a start, lots of different cuts of sirloin, which wasn't served at all at Rico, I don't believe), as was the flavour. The meat again lacked moistness at times, but, on the whole, was also much better than Rico's on this count.

Rodizio PretoRodizio Preto

Service was friendly, but somewhat disappointing, with progressively longer gaps between meat servings as the night wore on and the place filled up; and some types of meat only making it to our table once, or sometimes, not even at all. It was a complaint I had with Rico too. What was most unfathomable was why so many waiters carrying full skewers of meat kept walking right by, forcing us eventually to have to resort to hailing them down.

In a nutshell...
Not my favourite kind of restaurant but Rodizio Preto deserves recognition, nevertheless, for being the best rodizio in London, easily surpassing its more popular counterpart, Rodizio Rico.

5.5/10

Rodizio Preto (Pimlico)
72 Wilton Road, London, SW1V 1DE
+44 (0)2072338668
Average Price: £25

Rodizio Preto on Urbanspoon

Spuntino, London

Russell Norman is the owner of possibly the "coolest" collection of restaurants in London, with Polpo, da Polpo, Polpetto and Spuntino all being lauded not just for the quality of their food, but also the vibe and atmosphere they are able to generate, both on the premises, and in the general consciousness of the public - that all-important, often elusive, largely unquantifiable "cool" factor (and I don’t mean just dim the lights and turn up the music, as so many places do these days).

This was actually my first time at one of Norman's establishments, and early impressions were positive. Though mostly empty when I visited (it was early), the easy going tattoo-clad staff, and the relaxed nature of the place immediately appealed. Spuntino is not large, dominated by a 23-seater bar, and there was an unmistakably New York feel about the establishment, which is rarely a bad thing. Its website proudly proclaims "No telephone, no reservations" - my dad would balk at such a laissez faire approach, but I guess that's all part of the “cool” factor. And with Spuntino hardly struggling for patrons, it would appear to be working.



I had read much about Spuntino - pretty impossible not to if you're even a casual peruser of food blogs - so went straight for the most praised items, starting with the Ground beef & bone marrow slider. Given my recent burger quest, I felt especially well placed to critique Spuntino's mini-burger, and it didn't take much more than half a bite to reach the conclusion that this was a very average attempt - the bread was decidedly middle-of-the-road; the sides of the patty burnt and hard.



Next, the Truffled egg toast that had far more of a whiff of truffle than a taste of it. The bread, meanwhile, was far too hard in parts. It was a nothing dish that one could easily replicate at home.

Lastly, the Mac & cheese, and finally a dish worthy of the hype - the macaroni was perfectly cooked - soft but firm; the cheese entirely present, but in just the right amounts that the plate never became cloying - quite an achievement for a dish like this; the crunchy bits on top finished everything off very nicely. It was a near perfect rendition, and certainly the best mac & cheese I've ever had.

For dessert, I couldn't resist the Peanut butter & jelly sandwich, which utilised two slices of peanut butter ice cream as the 'bread' in the sandwich, not unlike the PBJ at Maze and Pollen Street Social. The ice cream at Spuntino wasn't of quite the same standard, but the jelly wasn't as overpowering, making the overall dish much better balanced here. The chewy peanuts sprinkled on top were unnecessary, adding a textural component that actually diminished the whole.

In a nutshell...
Spuntino easily passed the "cool" test - Norman clearly has the right touch in that respect. The food, on the other hand, though entirely decent, failed, with the exception of the mac & cheese, to really hit the heights. A place I would happily grab a quick bite at, but not one I would queue for (and rumour has it that queuing is frequently the order of the day here).

6/10

Spuntino
61 Rupert Street, Soho, London, W1D 7PW
Average Price: £15-£20

Spuntino on Urbanspoon

Meals that blew me away in 2011

(Yes, I know it is now April, and that this post is, thus, long overdue).

There are good meals, really good meals, great meals, and then there are the meals that simply blow you away. After an especially successful year in 2010, during which I had the great privilege of enjoying no less than five "blow me away meals", 2011 exhibited a reversion to the mean with just one such experience:

Mak's Noodle, Hong Kong - My one and only "blow me away" meal of 2011 wasn't at one of your usual multi Michelin-starred fine dining suspects, but rather at this humble noodle house in Hong Kong's Central district that, quite simply, served me the most amazing bowl of wonton noodles I have ever had. The complexity and depth of flavour found in the broth of this ordinary, everyday dish was just out of this world, and never to be forgotten. (My full review of Mak's will be hitting the blog soon - I'm just a little bit behind!)

Mak's Noodle

Xin Ji Shi (New Jesse), Shanghai

Xin Ji Shi

The original Jesse, or "Old Jesse" as it is now known, on Tianping Lu in the French Concession, is widely regarded as one of, if not the very best restaurant in Shanghai serving authentic local cuisine. However it is notorious for being impossible to get into unless one queues for a substantial period of time, and with a group of seven, we essentially had next to no chance. So instead, we opted for its second branch at Xintiandi, Xin Jin Shi or "New Jesse", which is considerably more accessible.

Jishi's Salted Chicken"Grandmother" Braised Pork with in Brown Sauce

Now Jesse, whether Old or New, is not a fine dining restaurant; nor does it profess to be. Its decor is simple, but quaint, and the food - traditional Shanghainese fare, is very much the focus here. Despite its modest ambitions, there were some nice touches, most notably the provision of serving chopsticks without us having to request them - the only restaurant on the entire trip to do so.

Fried Nanjiang's Vegetable with Bean Curd Skin

We kicked things off with Jishi's Salted Chicken and "Grandmother" Braised Pork with in Brown Sauce - the chicken was decent enough, but the pork was surprisingly, and disappointingly, tough. Meanwhile, Fried Nanjiang's Vegetable with Bean Curd Skin, was reasonable, but nothing all that special. So far, a rather lukewarm opening from New Jesse.

Fried Prawn & Chicken in Red Pepper

Next, Fried Prawn & Chicken in Red Pepper, one of the "New Jishi Specials", and finally a dish to savour. The prawns and chicken were beautifully deep fried, without the slightest hint of residual oil, and the heat imparted by the red pepper made for a lovely, and extremely tasty dish. A second "New Jishi Special", Fried Mandarin Fish w/ Rice Wine & Butter fared almost as well, and was thoroughly appetising. Crab Meat with Vegetable was a very basic preparation, yet one that stood out for the combination of crunchy vegetable with firm, sweet, crabmeat that really showcased the quality of the raw ingredients used.

Fried Mandarin Fish w/ Rice Wine & ButterCrab Meat with Vegetable

Bean Curd Skin with Crab Cream, was again, a relatively simple combination with just two primary components, but the end result was something a little bit special. The crab cream was a preparation we had yet to come across, despite having consumed a fair amount of crab in the week that preceded this final meal on our China trip, and the pairing with the slurpy, translucent, almost vermicelli-like bean curd skin was one I had never previously encountered - it  worked a treat.

Bean Curd Skin with Crab Cream

The prize for dish of the night, despite stiff competition from what had come before it, went to the penultimate dish of the night, Seamed Cured Ham with Sliced Bean Curd. We had many a ham dish on this drip, some (Jardin de Jade) better than others (Deyuelou), but Jesse's was hands down the best. It was perfect - sweet, salty and fatty ham, combined with the crunchy bean curd skin, wrapped up in a lovely soft muntou, or bun, making for one of the best "sandwiches" you will ever have. It was so good, we even ordered a second serving. Proceedings were then concluded with a simple Shanghai's Fried Noodles.

IMG_9326

In a nutshell...
After an indifferent start, Xin Ji Shi hit its stride and by the end, we had, once again, enjoyed a very good meal. Rumour has it that Old Jesse is even better than New Jesse; in which case I must really try to find a way to pay it a visit it my next time in Shanghai. In the meantime, the memory of a top notch meal at New Jesse will be plenty to sustain me. A fitting end to a great culinary tour of South East China.

7.5/10

Xin Ji Shi (New Jesse)
9 Xin Tian Di Complex, Tai Cang Road, Shanghai, China
+8652163364746
Average Price: RMB200

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