A reunion Middle Eastern style

My friend Nouhad invited the kid and I to lunch in the SoHo area of Hong Kong and since Nouhad is Lebanese Australian, she wanted to take us to this small Lebanese restaurant she liked to go to.

My son and I arrived a few minutes early and after we were seated I noticed a man (presumably the owner) behind the counter staring at me. He smiled and I smiled back thinking he was being friendly. However, he seemed somewhat familiar and I couldn’t help stealing stares back when he wasn’t looking trying to place him.

It wasn’t until the menus were given to me by our server that everything fell into place! The restaurant is named Assaf and I immediately realized that name and of course, the man behind the counter. I first met him about 18 years ago when he arrived in Hong Kong to manage Beirut, the first Lebanese restaurant in the territory.

When Nouhad arrived, he walked over and I say “you are Joseph Assaf, no?” and his response “yes, I thought I knew you! I recognized you the minute you walked in, that’s why I was looking at you” — and I thought he was checking me out — KIDDING!!

We began with an array of the usual appetizers. Hummus is lovely, and I immediately sat back to think about how I am having a Middle Eastern meal in Hong Kong, and it is authentic in taste and presentation. This is the beauty that is Hong Kong. You are in the heart of Asia, yet, the availability of cuisines is astonishing — except for good Mexican food!

Babaghanoush is always my favorite and it is nicely textured here albeit, I couldn’t taste much of the “grilled” or “roasted” part of the eggplant.

We ordered Tabbouleh which is a light and refreshing way to contrast the creamy and heavy dips. The dressing was okay, but strangely there was no bulgur wheat in the salad.

Haloumi is something I’ve made at home. It is readily available at the Middle Eastern grocery stores and so easy to prepare. For Hong Kong, I guess haloumi can be an exotic, luxurious item and therefore, privy only to restaurants. We ended up getting two orders of the haloumi.

I love falafels and these did not have the green hue I was accustomed to. Still, they were crunchy on the outside and nicely crumbly on the inside.

We got a plate of garlic spread, chili sauce and yogurt sauce and had to refill the garlic spread a few times because it was just too good to resist.

I ordered the kofta for the kid since he can’t live on vegetarian food alone and the one here is seasoned beautifully. I remember the first time I ate Lebanese food in Hong Kong and how everything was served with French fries. Seems like it still remains true.

Joseph was kind enough to send along a plate of chicken which was flavorful and the kid loved it so much he abandoned the kofta.

We also received an array of lovely desserts including baklava and halva. I usually dislike halva because it can be overly sweet and very chalky in consistency. The one here was delightful, very crumbly and only a little bit sweet with hints of rosewater. Joseph tells us he gets this imported from Lebanon from a special place.

I was happy to break up my Chinese meals with a Lebanese one and especially so when I got to see a familiar face. When we were leaving, Joseph and I said our goodbyes and hope our paths will cross again soon.

Assaf
37 Lyndhurst Terrace
Central
Hong Kong
+852 2851 6550

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Chili Club stays true for two decades

The Chili Club has long been our “go-to” place for Thai. Throughout the 90s, my friends and I would embark up the narrow staircase to the second floor to eat here at least once a month. In 2003 when I visited Hong Kong, the Chili Club was on the dining itinerary and so, in 2011, why should it be any different?

My lunch with BFF Robert and our friend May started with hugs and chatter which delayed the ordering process. The restaurant has had a make-over in the last 8 years but since my pals still frequent it, I was confident the quality of the food has remained true. I just didn’t realize how much the portions had shrunk until May told me what I had ordered wasn’t going to be enough. At the end of the day, we ordered the following, which, in America, would be WAY too much food for four people.

Tod Mun Kung or deep fried prawn patties (HK$36/US$4.60/3pcs) were quite lovely and had a light panko crust covering the minced shrimp patties. Light and perfectly textured, they were a delicious start to our meal.

Por Pia Tod — vegetarian spring rolls — (HK$38/US$4.90/3pcs) were average. Though flavorful, the bean threads inside were a bit overcooked, but on the whole it was a decent vegetarian offering.

One of my “must-haves” is Yum Nuer Yang or Thai beef salad (HK$58US$7.45) was stunning but unfortunately, so small I could’ve eaten two plates on my own. I was really shocked at how small the dishes were, all served on bread-sized plates. May kept telling me the portions had been small for years now, but I guess it was really noticeable after 8 years while they’ve been getting a slow steady shrinkage.

If I order curry at a Thai restaurant, I will usually pick Kaeng Kiew Warin (HK$78/US$10) or green curry. You choose your meat — we opted for chicken — and it was just the way I liked. It was thick and not too sweet although I would’ve liked it to be a bit spicier and again, the only problem was the miniscule little bowl in came in.

My son wanted more Thai beef salad since the little plate wasn’t enough for us. May suggested Nuer Yang Jim (HK$58/US$7.45) instead. Charcoal grilled beef with spicy sauce was a huge hit and the small portion was a fight between the kid and I. Each piece of meat was tender and the sauce had a hot-tart flavor which enhanced the beef even more.

Robert ordered Pad Thai (HK$60/US$7.70) which was just okay. The noodles were bland, not that I’m a huge fan of pad Thai to begin with but flavorless makes them even less appealing.

I’m not a fan of savory foods which lean heavily on the sweet side and Pla Sam Rod (HK$95/US$12.20) fried fish in 3 flavors was a bit too sweet for me. The fish was flaky and moist but the sweet and sour sauce with julienned peppers was not a good match for me.

To round our meal off, stir fried morning glory (HK$48/US$6.15) was the greens of the lunch and it was tasty indeed. I would’ve wanted two more plates but six bucks for an appetizer portion of vegetables was just highway robbery!

Desserts have never been my thing, but one of my favorites here is the coconut jelly wrapped in banana leaf. It is a two-layered dessert with a clear coconut jelly on the bottom and a coconut milk topping.

We also tried a water chestnut dessert which was very interesting but also delicious. None of the desserts are overly sweet. This particular one comes in soup style with sago swimming throughout and chunks of water chestnuts coated in a toothsome tapioca shell. You get the chewy and crunchy in one bite. Very unique indeed.

The food is still stellar even though the portions are shameful. It is good to know that something dear to my heart has been consistent in taste for the last 20 years and I can come back again and again knowing I’ll have a great, but expensive, meal.

Chili Club
88 Lockhart Road, 1/F
Wanchai
Hong Kong
+852 2527 2872

Playing guest chef for the evening

During my trip to Hong Kong, I was invited to guest chef at the Kowloon Cricket Club (KCC) for one evening in The Restaurant, the KCC’s fine dining room. A month beforehand, I created a menu and liaised with the General Manager, Robert Blythe as to the availability of the ingredients. After several emails, we came up with something I thought would be well received by the club’s members.

A week before the dinner, I met with Executive Chef King Sing Yim and Grill Room Head Chef Kai Tak Tsang to finalize the menu and discuss how I envisioned it to come together.

On the night, I arrived three hours before service. I went through each of the dishes from preparing, cooking and plating with the staff so they could go through service without a hitch as I would be busy with the diners and not be able to be in the kitchen 100% of the time.

The menu consisted of a trio of amuses bouche — a salmon roulade with asparagus drizzled with a dill dressing, an olive tapenade on top of olive crostini and a Mediterranean-inspired “salsa” seasoned with sumac.

Since most of the diners were not familiar with sumac I had the task of explaining how prevalent it was here in southern California and how it is used quite a bit here.

The next course was heirloom tomatoes with burrata on rocket (arugula) leaves. At first I had suggested a pesto dressing to accompany but on the evening, I decided it would overpower the beautiful heirlooms freshly flown in from France and instead, we dressed it with a sprinkling of sea-salt and a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

The heirlooms and burrata was a huge hit. The majority of diners had never experienced heirlooms and were blown away by the intensity and distinctive flavors each tomato produced. I know this sounds weird but we are so lucky to be blessed by the gorgeous produce so readily available to us.

I think what really blew me away was the fact that although all types of fruits are available in Hong Kong, and they all look vibrant and luscious, they possessed no taste nor the aromas of the fruit. It was something my son pointed out when a bowl of sliced peaches was put in front of him one day. He took a bite, looked at me and said “this tastes like nothing”. I had never noticed this before when I lived there.

The third course was a “palate cleanser” of gazpacho which I came up with off the top of my head. It was a tomato and avocado puree with a dollop of sour cream and lime juice.

There were three entrees to choose from including fish, beef and a vegetarian option. The beef dish is something I cook often at home. My son loves meat and cajun seasoning is great when you need to blacken a protein. I brought some cajun seasoning over for this purpose. Brussel sprouts with bacon is a side I make often — and is my son’s favorite — as well as garlic mashed potatoes.

The fish course was inspired by Piaggio On Wheels’ steamed chimichurri fish. I make this often at home using whatever white fish I have on hand. Here, sea bream is cooked en papillote and served with ribbon zucchini and carrots and drizzled with chimichurri. A wedge of lemon is baked alongside the fish lessening the acidity of fresh lemon for an added citrus appeal.

The vegetarian option was inspired by Soho Taco’s portabella mushroom taco. Chef Gabriel Zambrano was kind enough to supply me with the seasonings for me to bring along and I used it to create the portabella, red and yellow peppers entree. It was absolutely delicious and it was also my choice for dinner that evening.

Diners were lucky enough to be treated to a dessert trio — Fleur de Sel ganache chocolate cake, apple crisp served with vanilla ice cream in a chocolate cup, and chocolate pot de creme.

A five-course dinner meant a lot of stuffed stomachs at the end of the night and I had so much fun doing this even though I was exhausted by the time I made it home. Definitely a highly memorable experience.

Kowloon Cricket Club
10 Cox’s Road
Kowloon
Hong Kong

He Jiang — a tale of two cities

My dinner at He Jiang was one which brought a host of emotions in me. My meal was shared with old friends and colleagues and I could think of nothing better than to break bread with them.

He Jiang is located at The Cosmopolitan Hotel and brings together cuisines of Sichuan and Shanghai, hence its name “He” meaning “together” and “Jiang” meaning “delta”. Being Shanghainese, I am always hyper critical when it comes to the food of my peeps and being an avid fan of Sichuanese cuisine, I also know a thing or two about it.

My fellow journo friends Bernice, Andrew and Steve joined my son and I at He Jiang for dinner and this particular restaurant was chosen because our dear friend Danny is now the Director of Food and Beverage at this hotel. We’ve known Danny for close to two decades when he was a manager at The Mistral, the Italian restaurant at the Grand Stanford Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui East in Kowloon.

Our table is already presented with some amuse bouche — candied peanuts and a ‘pao tsai’ — spicy pickled cabbage similar to kimchi but without garlic which is quite typical of cuisine from northern China.

We began with an array of appetizers, some selected by Danny and some I ordered from the menu. Sliced Pork with Chili and Garlic sauce (HK$68/US$8.70) is a Sichuan specialty and utilizes poached pork sliced thinly and doused with a chili sauce made from the highly potent Sichuan peppercorns. The flavors were complex and the numbing effects were evident but not overpowering.

Assorted Vegetables (HK$58/US$7.45) is a nice calming dish after the spicy one and has three types of vegetables in a light dressing with a hint of sesame oil.

One of my favorite cold dishes is Minced Beancurd with Shanghainese Wild Vegetables (HK$48/US$6.15) but I was disappointed to find it on the dry side. It required a lot more sesame oil than what it was tossed in.

Beancurd skin rolls with vegetables (HK$58/US$7.45) or better known as ‘mock goose’ is a dish my mother prepares at home. Again slightly disappointing as the beancurd is too hard to chew and my son spits it out after it became a little too labor-intensive to work it to a swallow-able level.

I was happy to find Nanjing Salted Duck (HK$78/US$10) to be perfectly seasoned and texturally pleasing. This is one of those dishes which is very typically Chinese and not something easily found on menus in the West.

Braised “lion’s head” with vegetables (HK$88/US$11.30) is a ubiquitous Shanghainese dish and one which should be familiar to most people. I make this at home too when time permits. The meatballs were beautifully prepared and the use of Shanghai bok choy is also traditional. My only gripe with this was the intensity of its flavor. You might say “what?”, however, the sauce is not meant to be this strong and thick, but rather more of a brothy consistency.

Deep fried spare ribs with garlic (HK$88/US$11.30) was quite a hit with the kid and he managed to eat more than his fair share. It was not fatty nor was it grisly and the garlic added an extra touch to the crispy exterior.

Everyone loves Dry Sauteed String Beans (HK$78/US$10) and the one here is no different. Well prepared, perfectly shriveled with diced preserved vegetables to give it the flavor we are so familiar with.

Spicy Bean Curd with Minced Pork and Mushrooms (HK$78/US$10) or mapo tofu is done the right way here with ample Sichuan peppercorns to give it its numbing after-effects. It is flavorful and best eaten with hot steamed rice.

My favorite dish of the evening was Pan Fried Yellow Fish with Garlic (HK$48/US$6.15 each) these little yellow croakers are something I grew up eating. It is my father’s favorite and my mother used to braise it in dark soy sauce. Here, they are fried and very crispy on the outside while remaining extremely moist on the inside. I could’ve eaten a few of these on my own.

Steamed Pork Dumplings (HK$44/US$5.65/4pcs) or better known as xiao long bao or XLBs were decent, but honestly, we get better at Din Tai Fung in Arcadia so I wasn’t all that impressed with these. The wrapper was a little too thick for me.

The end of our meal saw two desserts which brought bittersweet memories for me. Osmanthus Pudding (HK$38/US$4.90) was a work of art with artistically jello-pieces dotted with the Osmanthus flower and so pretty I almost didn’t want to eat it. Osmanthus is also one of my grandmother’s favorite dessert ingredients.

The second dessert was one which reminded me of my grandfather. Deep Fried Egg White stuffed with Mashed Red Bean Paste (HK$48/US$6.15) was something my grandpa would always order at the end of a meal. He would always eat too much of this and when we pointed it out, he would laugh loudly and eat another piece just to make a point.

It brought back memories of my childhood spent sharing meals with my grandparents and it also made me remember how much I missed my friends here in Hong Kong. This was indeed one of those dinners which made me remember my life here, and maybe, miss it a little.

He Jiang
at The Cosmopolitan Hotel
387-397 Queen’s Road East
Hong Kong
Tel: +852 3167 7833

honest hearty hole-in-the-wall fare

It was an outing in Sham Shui Po with my new friend John MacArthur whom I met on Facebook through a mutual friend. John was taking me to lunch at one of his favorite little eateries and I was eager to follow. Sham Shui Po isn’t one of those areas that I venture out to on a regularly basis, not even when I lived here, so the thought of someone showing me a hole-in-the-wall was really exciting.

After a short taxi ride, we arrived outside of Shandong Chinese restaurant and I didn’t know this was the place because there were tons of other restaurants around. I exclaimed “oh, Shandong food! I like this sort of food”.John asked if I wanted to eat that or, there were Thai places just around the corner. I was quite happy to step inside and eat this food without much hesitation.

The restaurant seats about 25-30 people tightly and they were generous enough to give us a four-top and left us in peace to peruse the menu. John asked if I read Chinese and I said I do, but only menus, which definitely comes in handy while in Hong Kong because the majority of hole-in-the-walls do not go to the trouble of translating anything into English.

Just a quick word of warning, since there is no English name, I am using a phonetic version of the Chinese (Cantonese) written into English and then a translation.

We started with Ma Lat Gai (HK$22/US$2.85)– poached chicken with a Sichuan peppercorn sauce — tender, moist pieces of chicken with bone intact and drenched with a gorgeous numbing peppercorn sauce with tons of cilantro.

Chuen siu or skewers (HK$10/US$1.30 each) is offered in lamb, chicken or pork and we opted for one of each. Our favorite was the lamb. All of them were seasoned with cumin and salt, cumin being one of the widely used spices in the most northern parts of China.

Tza Tseung Meen (HK$20/US$2.60) or Chinese bolognaise is a noodle dish with a ground pork sauce topped with julienned cucumbers. The base of the sauce is made from beans and my mom makes a mean version of this. Unfortunately this was weak in flavor and I wouldn’t order it again.

My favorites were the Sui Gau or dumplings (HK$12/US$1.50/5pcs). We ordered five pieces of two types. The Chinese celery filling was nice and the celery retained its crunch. There was also a good ratio of meat to vegetables which keeps the filling moist.

However, the dill and pork was our favorite with the wonderful aromas of the dill shining through. I am so glad I ordered this — I didn’t even know it was dill in Chinese so it was a pleasant surprise when we bit into them.

Of course, no Chinese meal is complete without some sort of greens and John loves the Potato Shoots (HK$10/US$1.30) which are blanched and then drizzled with a light soy sauce. I love this vegetable and sometimes buy it from the farmers markets.

These little places are still my favorites to eat at. The food is good, simple and tasty. This meal only set us back a mere HK$120/US$15.40 total. We were full and very satisfied without breaking the bank.

Shandong Chinese Restaurant
G/F, 81C Un Chau Street
Sham Shui Po
Kowloon
Hong Kong

Mos definitely not my thing

I was walking around the mall the other day with my brother and sis-in-law and they asked me if I’d had a Mos Burger before. I looked at them quizzically wondering what a Mos burger is. They both chimed in that they were these tasty small burgers from Japan and that I should definitely try it. First off, I’m not a big burger fan, secondly, Japanese and spaghetti never worked for me so why should Japanese and burger be any different?

We get to Mos Burger and it’s a fast food burger spot. I almost laughed out loud when I saw the menu: rice burgers? croquette burgers? SERIOUSLY? Can anything be more unpalatable? Croquettes are kinda gross anyway with its mushy interior and often less than stellar exterior. And sandwiched between a soft hamburger bun? And oh, there is also the “Fresh Burger” — hmmm as opposed to what might I ask?

However, I kept an open mind and told them to order whatever they want and I promised to taste it.

My brother ordered the Mos Burger (HK$21/US$2.70) which was a small sandwich a tad larger than a slider. The beef patty was very processed, like a Mickey D’s beef patty but less flavorful (if that was even possible) and very dry. A slice of tomato accompanied along with a slathering of a sickly sweet sauce the consistency of runny chutney. Suffice to say it was pretty nasty.

Saku Saku Chicken Burger (HK$23.30/ US$3) was a tad better. At least the sauce was more palatable but still, on the sweet side. This chicken patty had a handful of shredded lettuce thrown in and the sauce had a slight kick to it so the sweetness wasn’t as evident or as gnarly on my tongue. Both burgers had a texturally unpleasant bun — that of white bread — very popular in Asia.

Mickey D’s McChicken is a buck and about the same size as the Saku Saku. If I were to actually make a meal of it, I’d probably need to eat 3 or 4 of them to really make any sort of a dent in my belly. Still, Mos Burger seems to appeal to local tastes and they can be found at shopping mall all over the city. It might even work in Irvine. Who knows?