Joyful-ly ripping us off with a smile

Attending a reunion in Las Vegas for my high school in Hong Kong meant a Chinese meal was definitely in store for everyone. Our dinner at Joyful House consisted of three tables and school-mates who had attended the Hong Kong International School some time during their life-time.

We started off with Peking Duck ($39 with 10 buns) which incidentally was already stuffed into buns when it arrived at the table. We were a little disappointed at the meager amount of duck in the thick ‘bao’ — it felt like we should’ve gotten three times as much duck than what was offered.

Salt and Pepper Calamari ($12.50) was much better. Crispy pieces of squid was lightly coated and tossed with garlic and the ubiquitous salt and pepper mixture we Chinese love to put on all sorts of fried meats.

Although I enjoyed the Fried Veggie Rolls ($8.95 for 5 pcs), I thought it was a lot of fried foods after the calamari, but once I got over the exterior, I quite enjoyed the julienned carrots, bamboo shoots, wood ear mushrooms and bean sprouts stuffed inside.

Sauteed Shrimp and Broccoli ($14.95) is one of those dishes which isn’t that exciting but accepted by all. I thought it was just okay, nothing special.

The next dish was a bit strange. Filet Mignon with Portabella Mushrooms in Black Pepper Sauce ($15.50) sauce was delicious but I’d never had it with portabella mushrooms before, nor have I ever had portabella mushrooms at a Chinese restaurant before.

Sauteed Green Beans ($10.50) were perfectly cooked though. Preserved vegetables and ground pork made it authentic and so flavorful — perfect eaten with hot steamed rice.

When the Steamed Fish (market price) came, I was happy because I love it but not so happy to see that it was flounder — one of the most affordable offerings when it comes to steamed fish — but was happy to drizzle the soy sauce and green onions over my rice.

I was told we were getting E-Fu Noodles ($10.95 for plain so I’m guessing add $5 for the duck?) with shredded duck but when it arrived, it was just your regular noodles, not e-fu noodles at all. When I queried it the server insisted it was e-fu noodles. Both my friend Cynthia and I — Chinese and well aware of what e-fu noodles are — were adamant they had stiffed us in this area.

I was glad I didn’t have to organize and know what a thankless job it is to be in charge of making arrangements for a large crowd, but Joyful House really did a number here based solely on the meal. Even though everything tasted fine, it definitely wasn’t a $500/table meal! I’ve had a 12-course seafood banquet in San Francisco for a table of 12 with lobster, crab, shrimp, fish, chicken, etc for that price!

We ended up paying $50/person for our meal which included wine and beer although not everyone drank alcohol. I felt they had overcharged us so naturally, I went to their website and found the prices of each dish and did my own calculations.

I’m guessing the amount of food would be enough to feed 6-8 people and took into account the “market price” of the steamed flounder (which in Irvine runs anywhere between $10-$15 depending on size of fish) so I was lenient and gave it a $25 price tag.

Being a frequent consumer, I’m glad to know I wasn’t far off in my calculations. At the end of the day, our meal would’ve cost — before tax and tip — $32 between four people, $21 between six  and a mere $16 a piece if shared between eight. Four people would’ve ended up with plenty of leftovers to spare!!

Joyful House
4601 Spring Mountain Road
Las Vegas, NV 89102
Tel: 702-889-8881

Joyful House Chinese Cuisine on Urbanspoon


plan B meant ending up at Palio Cafe

It was by default we ended up here. I was in Las Vegas for a high school reunion and one of my roomies had never been to LV before so we wanted to take her to a Vegas buffet. We made our way to Bellagio and wanted to hit their’s but the line was so incredibly long and we were starving so we found this little cafe inside the hotel and decided to just eat there.

Palio Cafe is not a full service restaurant, but rather, you order, take the food with you, find a table and enjoy.

Between the three of us we got an array of things to share starting with the Chef’s Salad which was decent enough greens and a bit of ham, boiled egg slices, and a little too many croutons for my liking — I hate croutons.

Antipasto Platter was quite nice actually with three types of meats, mozzarella, provolone, olives, grilled zucchini and some bread to go with it. We loved the prosciutto and the olives best.

They offered two types of Quiche — chorizo and a vegetarian. Both were nicely textured, although flavor-wise, I preferred the chorizo over the veggie one purely because it was a lot more flavorful.

Everyone enjoyed the Salmon Platter — thinly sliced smoked salmon on flatbread with a sprinkling of microplaned boiled egg and other acoutrements made this rather lovely actually.

If you are in a hurry and wanted something to eat then Palio Cafe is a good choice. The turnover is high so people are in and out rather quickly so if waiting at a buffet isn’t an option, then this place might just make do! My only complaint is that it is on the pricier side but then again, you’re at the Bellagio.

Palio Cafe
at The Bellagio
3600 Las Vegas Blvd S
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Tel: 702-693-7111

Palio (Bellagio) on Urbanspoon

A visit to Break of Dawn is always memorable

Break of Dawn has become one of those places my friends and I like to go and get some grub whenever we feel the urge for some eclectic fare. It is strange that I love BoD when I’ve never been a huge fan of Western breakfasts preferring to eat another option when given the opportunity.

But I guess this is the reason why I love BoD. Although they are open for breakfast/brunch, and there are a lot of offerings suited for just that, most of the dishes take on a personality of their own. They are not simply breakfast items, but rather, bold dishes with individuality to be enjoyed any time of the day.

If you’re not feeling terribly hungry but find yourself dragged out on a weekend morning, order the Kabocha Squash bisque. It is served with an eggroll which gives you a wonderful alternating texture from the creamy soup. This item isn’t big but is a tasty way to feel involved with the others without gorging on a huge plate of food.

I’m a huge fan of Eggs Benedict because I love poached eggs. There is nothing sexier than a runny poached egg which oozes at the mere touch of a fork or knife. The seductive way the yolk flows onto the rest of the items on my plate makes me weak. Seriously!

The Benedict here is served with an Asian pesto and the poached eggs are always done to perfection. I like to pierce them ever so slightly and at the touch of my  knife, it breaks apart to reveal the beautiful hue of the egg yolks.

Mac n Cheese is generally what my son orders. Poached eggs are to me what mac n cheese is to him. He’s a sucker when it comes to mac n cheese. The funniest thing is, he loves the Vietnamese Dragon Chili sauce made in-house drizzled all over his mac n cheese. The one here is good, but please don’t take my word for it. I’m not a mac n cheese aficionado, but my lil mac n cheese connoisseur likes it just fine.

My favorite is the Smoked Salmon which is served on top of oatmeal galettes and topped with poached eggs. Yes, there is a recurring theme here — poached eggs generally equals “I like very much”.

I don’t like oatmeal. I know it’s good for me, but it just tastes nasty, however oatmeal galettes — well, they are a different story. These oatmeal cakes are crispy on the outside and texturally so pleasing to me that I think if I had these galettes, I might be able to eat oatmeal every single day.

Bison Sausage is another item worth trying if you like a tasty sausage. I love the spices in this and the stronger flavor of the bison makes for a seriously good sausage. What makes this dish unique is the use of black Onyx rice, a Vietnamese black sticky rice, if you will, and peanuts.

Recently, I found myself hooked on the Portuguese Sausage. It is nothing like the Portuguese sausages I’m accustomed to, you know, those reminiscent of longanisa with the sweetness and high fat content. These have a great snap and are so delicious.

Those with a sweet tooth can either satiate their cravings with Creme Brulee French Toast as a main dish, or share it at the end of your meal as a finisher. I am glad it is at a level I can handle — sweet, but not to the point where I feel like my mouth is in dire need of a scrubbing. I can handle this level. In fact, it is quite addicting. One bite is never quite enough for me.

The other stand-out sweet dish is the Cinnamon Bun with a coffee and almond glaze and served with whipped cream. The sticky bun is not super sweet and my son can probably eat a whole one AFTER his meal if I allowed him to.

The best time to visit Break of Dawn is during the week, but of course, that is generally not at all feasible for most people. I try to stay away on the weekends because the wait can be as long as an hour, sometimes even longer, but the crowds keep coming. And frankly, where else are you going to find a menu created by a classically trained chef without breaking the bank? And to top it off, the food is really REALLY good!

Break of Dawn
24351 Avenida De La Carlota #N-6
Laguna Hills, CA 92653
Tel: 949-587-9418

Open Tuesday to Sunday
8.30am to 2pm

Break of Dawn Restaurant on Urbanspoon

feeling like a “lady who lunches” at Raya

Most people will tell you that restaurants with a view will usually produce an average culinary experience. After lunching at Raya, I’ll have to say, that statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. The minute you enter the restaurant, the expansive window running the entire length of the dining room is a breath-taking sight. Every table affords a view of the Pacific Ocean and your meal can easily run much longer than you originally anticipated.

While we perused the menu, a tantalizing bread bowl was brought to the table and it was the most difficult thing to stop myself from eating more than I should have. I was trying to cut down on carbs but I told myself, a taste wouldn’t hurt. Sadly, I took about two to three tastes more than I needed to.

We started with a duo of ceviches. Ceviche Bay Scallops is absolutely delightful with a seasoning I am highly familiar with — furikake, a seaweed based seasoning Japanese people often put on their rice or rice porridge.

Ceviche Mixto is a mixture of squid, shrimp and white fish in a delicious tart dressing. The seafood is fresh and whets the appetite in anticipation for what else is about to arrive.

I was a little skeptical about the Avocado Tempura as I’ve tasted this from several other establishments which did not please me, but of course, I should’ve known better than to judge this before tasting it. The avocado was soft on the inside with a lovely crunchy exterior. Served with watermelon, the fruit cuts the oil from the tempura batter and creates a perfectly harmonized mouthful.

For the entrees, we selected Miso Alaskan Black Cod — a perfectly prepared piece of fish with a light brushing of miso. The flavorful bean paste did not overpower the delicate white fish while the acoutrements of braised daikon radish and asparagus were seasoned just very subtly to complement the dish. Lemon togorashi aioli gave a spicy citrus kick while the kabayaki sauce lent a salty sweet component.

Pan Seared Sea Scallops was definitely one of the highlights of the meal, although everything was exquisitely prepared. Succulent scallops seared to perfection shared space with roasted corn, sushi rice, nopalito (cactus), with tender pieces of char siu pork belly, snap peas sitting in a white soy mojo. The combination of flavors brought our senses to the fore and it was just heavenly.

An order of Truffle Fries was requested and I tried my hardest to stay away as I was on a low carb kick, but couldn’t resist and managed to shove a handful down my gullet. They were too good to pass up.

And while we were all rather full by now, we couldn’t pass up on the tempting desserts on offer.

Sticky Toffee Pudding was definitely true to its name. It was sticky, gooey and just what the sweet tooth fairy ordered, but it was really not all that sweet which appealed to my palate. I had a spoonful to taste but knew there was one more to come.

Churros with Chocolate Dipping Sauce was really difficult to overlook. Crispy with a soft interior, coated with just a dusting of sugar and the warm chocolate dipping sauce was just about enough to send me over the edge.

A trip to Raya deserves at least three hours, to soak in the view, sip on a cocktail and enjoy the wonders of what the menu has to offer. But don’t take my word for it, go experience it for yourself!

at The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel
1 Ritz Carlton Drive
Dana Point, CA 92629
Tel: 949-240-2000

Ritz-Carlton Raya Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Grabbing a final bite before heading home


This is my last Hong Kong post and it begins with my former roommates Bernard and Juliana, along with their son Liam meeting my son and I after we checked in at the Airport Express in Central to have a final meal with us.

If you’ve never been to Hong Kong, you won’t know that there are spots set up in convenient areas everywhere on the territory where you can check-in your luggage and get your boarding passes on the day of your travel. Your luggage then is transported to the airport while you can go about your day in a leisurely manner. And when you’re ready to head out to the airport, you hop on the Airport Express, the highly efficient subway system which takes about 20 minutes to get you from Central Station to Chek Lap Kok airport.

After we checked in, we met the O’Driscoll family at Crystal Jade which is located directly above the check in at IFC. There was a bit of a wait, but we were still waiting for them to arrive, so I put our name down and as luck would have it, were given a table about a minute after they got there.

The restaurant serves Shanghainese food so to speak. It is essentially a “mian shir” restaurant — serving “doughy” products, or, a high carb meal. This always seems to delight the children for some reason but I guess carbs are beloved by all.

We started off with Vegetarian Rolls (HK$48/US$6.15) which were really good. The crispy exterior of the dried tofu sheets with the myriad of shredded vegetables were absolutely delicious.

Xiao Long Bao (HK$30/US$3.85) were decent and my son enjoyed them immensely.

The little fried buns called Sang Tseen Bao (US$26/US$3.35) were perfectly fluffy on the top with the crunchy bottom and a nice pocket of ground pork filling inside. I like how they weren’t too heavy on the bun with a good amount of moist filling.

Stir Fried Rice Cake (HK$62/US$7.95) is a Shanghainese dish I cook often at home and most of the time, I’m not happy with what I get at a restaurant. Here, they did it the right way, with dark soy and tons of vegetables.

Soup Noodles with Pork Chops (HK$48/US$6.15) were a bit strange. The noodles were nicely al dente, but the pork chops had to much coating and tasted very westernized to me.

My favorite dish was the Twice Cooked Pork (HK$62/US$7.95) which had thin slices of poached pork belly stir fried in a thick, spicy sweet sauce with vegetables. This is served with flour pancakes which you wrap the pork with and eaten like a little parcel.

Amaranth with Broad Beans HK$52/US$6.70) was surprisingly good. Amaranth is one of my favorite vegetables but I’ve never had it cooked with broad beans before. Note to self — try to make this when you get home!! The veggies were tender and the broad beans added a different textural component to the dish.

Vegetarian Steam Dumplings (HK$24/US$3) were beautifully prepared with a light wrapper and a nice pocket of chopped vegetables inside. I could’ve eaten more, but we were already pretty full by now.

The kids got an order of Fried Rolls (HK$16/US$2) you can get them steamed as well but what fun is that?

For a restaurant located at Airport Express, it is seriously good and not expensive. It is a great place to have a last meal with friends. However, if you are traveling alone and are eating on your own, you can also check out the various eateries located at the airport. They are incredibly good even offering wonton noodles, dim sum and siu mei (roasted/barbecued items). For me, eating with friends is always the best way to go.

Crystal Jade La Mian Xiao Long Bao
at International Finance Centre (IFC)
Tel: +852 2295 3811

a bizarre hodge podge of deliciousness

My dear friend Richard Feldman, owner of seven restaurants in Hong Kong insisted on taking me to this little place he knows for my last dinner before I head home. With a handful of friends in tow, we embark on New York Club, a hole-in-the-wall flanked between auto shops on a hidden street corner. The restaurant itself seats about 6 people indoors, and several tables are set up on the street for those who aren’t opposed to dining without AC.

Of course, dining without AC in Hong Kong’s sweltering weather was not an option for me, and Richard managed to finagle us up to the second floor, into the restaurant owner’s private quarters — someone’s living room in fact — for our meal.

I was already a little concerned when he told me the place served Shanghainese and Thai food. What a weird combination I thought. Still, I trust Richard’s taste buds for two reasons: him having lived in HK for the last 23 years and him knowing my palate pretty well.

The menu is a hodge podge of strangeness. Apart from the Thai and Shanghainese, there is Malaysian, even garlic bread, to my son’s delight.

We started with a Shanghainese favorite, a cold dish called “kau-fu” which are gluten bits braised in a dark soy sauce with wood ear mushrooms and beancurd knots. What surprised me the most was that it tasted EXACTLY the way my mom makes it. I immediately pushed all my worries aside in anticipation for the rest of the meal to arrive.

Jellyfish and Cucumber Salad is another item I grew up eating. Here, the best part of the jellyfish is used — not the strands, but the larger, crunchier pieces. The salad is tossed with a soy, sesame oil dressing.

My mother does Braised Sweet and Sour Spare Ribs the same way it is served here. The meat falls off the bone and Chekiang vinegar is used to give it that tart sweet richness. My son loved this and I’m contemplating making it at home.

Because a few of my friends are vegetarian, we ordered both Vegetable Wontons as well as Meat and Vegetable Wontons. I actually liked the vegetarian ones a little better even though they were both good. I just felt that the meat ones needed a little more salt in the filling.

I was a bit disappointed that we weren’t able to order more Shanghainese items because they required advance ordering, so if you are planning to stop by New York Club, make sure you call a day ahead to order things like Lion’s Head Casserole, Yi Tuh Shi — a casserole with salted pork, bamboo shoots, fresh pork and beancurd knots.

Moving on to the Thai offerings, we made the perfect decision in ordering Lemongrass Pork Cheek. It just tasted so much better texturally and much stronger flavor. We should’ve ordered another plate of this but we wanted to try a lot more stuff so we refrained from doing so.

Papaya Salad is tart and spicy and highly refreshing. The green papaya was nice and crunchy, but some of my friends found it too spicy to continue. My high tolerance for spice paid off here and it was like an addiction eating bite after bite of it.

Thai Vegetable Curry was probably one of my least favorite items purely because I make Thai curry at home and I much prefer eating things I don’t cook at home. The spices were well paired and even though I liked it, I left most of it for the vegetarians to enjoy.

Prawn Cakes were a favorite — very light and crispy on the outside. We tried to order another plate but the owner insisted we try the Prawn Toast instead, but sadly, we should’ve just gotten the prawn cakes because they were so much better.

Pad Thai is not something I ordinarily order, but we got some Vegetarian Pad Thai and it was the weakest item of the night. It didn’t matter seeing I don’t like pad Thai anyway so I only took a taste.

Hainan Chicken was superb. Moist, tender poached chicken is served with Ginger Rice (ordered separately), but I could’ve just eaten this and nothing else and I would’ve been happy.

The piece de resistance was the Garlic Crab. Unfortunately, the portion was kind of small and I had only two pieces of it when I could’ve eaten the entire crab on my own. The salt and pepper flavors plus the fried garlic created the best flavor ever. This was delicious!

We ended the meal with two vegetable dishes. Pea Shoots with Zucchini was light and seasoned with fish sauce. This is a nice dish for those who do not want something spicy.

For me, Stir fried Kang Kung was the epitome of deliciousness. Chili, garlic, fish sauce all cooked together with the water spinach on high heat is so simple but stunning!

We had a few more dishes which I don’t have photos for, but I’m sure with what’s been listed, you’ll have plenty to choose from should you find yourself in Hong Kong and looking for a unique dining experience.

I highly recommend you call to reserve a table and pre-order some of the Shanghainese specialties. Our dinner ran us around HK$220/US$28 with tip and that included soft drinks and a bottle of white wine.

New York Club
20 Brown Street, G/F
Tai Hang
Hong Kong
Tel: +852 6530 0288