Friday 30 January 2009

Meatball Minestrone

A bowl of soup and a glass of wine in front of a roaring (coal-effect) fire? Hell yes! This one was inspired by Heather's glorious Minestra al pomodoro e pesto. Unfortunately I didn't have any filled pasta in, but the idea of using little meatballs for the meaty component was sheer genius. Meatballs (good pork and garlic sausages squashed out of their skin), carrot, leek, onion, tomatoes, chickpeas, spirali pasta and shredded cabbage simmered to succulence and dolloped with a spoonful of (bottled) rocket pesto. Proper food.

Wednesday 28 January 2009

Not much more to tell

So we pootled around Singapore for a few hours - completely failing to consider that it is incapacitatingly hot. Then we had a very good curry at an unremarkable food court, tried desperately to rehydrate, and went to the airport.

I like that you can hardly tell the difference between the real animals and the statue!

Monday 26 January 2009

Jumbo Seafood - East Coast Seafood Centre

One of our main goals for our trip to Singapore was to eat chilli crab. Not that we are shallow or anything, but to hell with culture and temples - this was about the food.

I did the teeniest bit of research and came to the conclusion that we should go to the East Coast Seafood Centre. If I had done a teeny bit more research (like, you know, googling or something) I would have had a better idea what I was getting in to. But as it was I was picturing some sort of air-conditioned warehouse with seafood stalls and melamine chairs. And that isn't it at all.

What it actually is, is a long stretch of coastline with a big park, bike paths, open-air barbecues, camping facilities, and a cluster of restaurants. They all seemed to have places where you could sit indoors, but on a dry, hot evening, sitting at an outdoor table as the sun set seemed just the thing.

Operating on the hypothesis that the busiest restaurant was likely to be the best, we settled on Jumbo Seafood.

I ordered fresh lime juice. I think it was Kalamansi lime i.e the delectable calamondin that we have as a bonsai that I put in my G&Ts sometimes. It was just the right amount of tartness and I knew it was going to be just lovely with our food.

It seemed rude to just order crab, so we got a small serve of crispy squid as a starter. Boy was it good! Tiny little squid cooked so hard they were like crunchy bacon, then coated in a sweet, salty, vinegary, chilli-laced sauce. Yum!

And then the main event. It was absolutely wonderful! They were Sri Lankan king crabs; I was disappointed initially, because when I have had chilli crab in Australia it has always been with lovely Australian mudcrabs, which I had considered the pinacle of crab-dom. But these were packed with sweet white meat. I have never seen so much meat to shell! And the shell wasn't unmanageably hard either - getting the meat from the shells was much easier than on most muddies.

I'd seen a couple of blogs suggesting that Chinese fried bread rolls were the thing to eat with chilli crab, so we duly followed instructions and ordered some, but to my taste they were too sweet and doughnutty. Steamed rice would have been better to soak up the delicious thick sauce, but the staff had lost interest in us and we couldn't find anyone to order it from. So we ate the sauce off the serving spoon. I'd go back to Singapore just to have more of that crab. It was that good.

Sunday 25 January 2009

That's better!

So we made it to Singapore. And then had to rush around trying to see everything we wanted to see in only 24 hours.

We checked into the hotel (which was a challenge - they wouldn't take debit cards, we didn't have any local currency on us and the ATM at the airport didn't work) and set out immediately for Raffles. Paul felt that a Singapore Sling at the Long Bar at Raffles was the appropriate thing. I felt that if it was so bloody appropriate he should drink one of the vile things.

How did such a putrid beverage achieve such fame? I could sort of understand if people treated drinking them as a challenge, like snake blood wine, but no such connotation of bravery attaches to the Singapore Sling. I mean really - gin, cherry brandy, Cointreau, Benedictine, Grenadine, pineapple juice and angostura bitters. Are they serious? That isn't a cocktail, it's a martini-drinker's nightmare.

And as it happens, I have a particular loathing of pineapple juice ever since a flight from Singapore to Frankfurt as a teenager. There was no drinking water on the plane, I'd eaten something dodgy and all they could give me was pineapple juice. And let me tell you, it tastes the same in both directions. Think of that, next time someone suggests a Singapore Sling.

However, by filling my mouth with the complimentary peanuts (shells dutifully thrown on the floor) I managed to get through the drink. And then Paul let me have a gin & tonic.

Saturday 24 January 2009

Hey, that's not Singapore

Our plans hit a slight snag when we tried to fly out of Australia. While we queued, we could see a piece of paper being passed down the line. Not a message on a screen, not an announcement over the loudspeaker. A piece of paper. Telling us that our flight had been cancelled and we would be shuttled to a hotel.

When we (eventually) got to said hotel, we fortified ourselves in the bar with nachos and champagne. Nachos are a brilliant bar snack - I don't know why you don't see them more in the UK. But it is a good thing we did, because to add insult to injury, our "complimentary" buffet dinner was inedible. So we went back to the room, watched Iron Chef's Lettuce Battle and From Russia With Love. And crossed our fingers in hope that the next day we'd be in Singapore.

Friday 23 January 2009

Mt Tomah Botanic Gardens

We spent a couple of days in the Blue Mountains, outside Sydney, with my grandfather and aunt. Not having been there in almost 3 years, we were very keen to see how their garden had come on - Paul had left a couple of oak saplings that are now a good 4' tall.

The basalt soil (it's all old volcanoes around there) and elevation has made it the perfect place for a cool-climate botanic garden (Sydney's famous botanic garden is lovely - but there are only so many plants that like Sydney harbourside weather and a sandy soil!). So as well as pootling around my grandfather's garden, we also took an outing to Mt Tomah.

I particularly enjoyed the proteacea garden, with lots of fab proteas and waratahs. And a glowing pink pompom tree (Dias Cotinifolia) to make the other South African plants feel right at home.

But there comes a point where you can't walk around looking at plants anymore. Particularly when the sun is quite fierce (which it was, although I got some good foreboding clouds in my pictures). A shady spot and a cup of tea become necessities. And, if possible, a small treat with the cup of tea.
Paul is much more single-minded about his small treats than I am. They begin and end with scones.

He isn't indiscriminate - they have to be good scones. And it has to be a red fruit jam - preferably strawberry but raspberry is tolerated. And of course while clotted cream is the ultimate, properly whipped cream is good too.

The tearoom at Mt Tomah produces a very good scone. Light, fluffy and the right-sized portions of jam and cream.

My custard tart was passable. They called it a Portuguese custard tart, but it lacked the slightly burnt skin that is so appealing on pastel de natas. The custard was a bit too cold, so the taste was a little dulled. Still - lovely afternoon out in a beautiful spot.

Thursday 22 January 2009

Epoque - Cammeray

When we lived in Sydney, we rented a great flat in Cammeray, looking across Middle Harbour. We had a lovely big park where we could fly our remote control plane and buzz dogs (see picture of plane crashing). It took 8 minutes on the bus to get to work in the CBD. We had 3 excellent restaurants and a host of OK ones within walking distance.

Our schedule this trip was too tight to do absolutely everything we wanted to do - but we did get to go back to Epoque. This "Belgian beer cafe" was part office, part living room for us. Whether it was just hopping off the bus a stop early to have an afternoon beer, walking up the hill for a pot of mussels when we couldn't be bothered cooking or using it as a convenient spot to meet friends, it was our place.

So along with Paul's brother, sister in law and their enormous children (how can people be so tall?) we made a respectful pilgrimage.

I think I would have cried if it wasn't as good as I remembered. As it was, I almost cried when two of the waitresses were still the same. 3 years is a lifetime in hospitality.

For me, there was never any doubt. I was going to have a mussel pot with frites and mayonnaise. And a hoegaarden beer. It took a moment or two of vacillating between marinere, provencal and white wine mussels, but I settled on the white wine.

Paul, in memory of the many meals of suckling pig that we have enjoyed with family and friends, selected crisp roast pork belly. My gosh that was a plate of food. Mashed potatoes, sauerkraut, apple puree and gravy cuddled up to the slab of meltingly soft meat and crisp crackling. It felt like coming home.

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Observatory Hotel, Sydney

I love afternoon tea. Even if it is just a cup of tea at 4pm, I think it is a lovely little break in the day. And if it is a 3-tier cake stand with all manner of delectable goodies and a glass of champagne as well, then so much the better.

Sydney's Observatory Hotel is known for their decadent tea, but for some reason I had never been there before. Well OK, the reason is that the last 3 times it has been planned I have been responsible for booking it and left it too late.

This time, it wasn't my responsibility to book, so we got the table without a hitch.

The only real service issue was that they didn't want to bring our pots of tea until we'd finished our pink champagne. But we both wanted to savour our champagne and alternate it with sips of tea (which isn't as disgusting as it sounds). But a word in the ear of the waitress got that sorted out.

The food was a lavish array.

From the bottom of the cake stand we had smoked salmon, egg, cucumber and ham, cheese and mustard sandwiches, and miniature quiche lorraine. I got extra cucumber and ham, cheese and mustard due to the allergies and non-pork-eating of my friend SSS.

In the middle were minature cupcakes, tiny squares of tiramisu, fruit tartlets, creme brulees, cheesecake and glasses of pannacotta. The cupcakes were a bit nothing, and I did think it was overkill to have creme brulee AND pannacotta, even though they were both fabulous. The tiramisu was my favourite - more like an opera gateau really - layers of cake, chocolate and coffee, topped with gold leaf.

On the top layer were scones with jam and cream. It wasn't clotted cream - you don't often get clotted cream in Australia - and I think it should have been whipped slightly thicker to stick to the scone better. The jam was a bit too runny too. Normally I can eat a scone fairly daintily, but this time I had to lick off the jam dribbles. Only from my fingers - I draw the line at licking the tablecloth.

Sunday 18 January 2009

Pilu at Freshwater

Way back in the mists of time (and I can't believe it was so long ago), I turned 30. To celebrate my birthday, Paul took me to a lovely restaurant in an old house overlooking Freshwater Beach in Sydney. We were living in Sydney at the time, so it was pretty local...

We ate delicious food - I still remember the smoked Iranian figs that came with the duck I ordered. We watched the moon rise, stretching a path over the water and had a magic evening.

That restaurant has long since closed, but the restaurant now there is Pilu, which has won any number of awards and accolades for their delicious Sardinian food.

The combination of good food, fond memories and beachside location made it a clear winner for a lunch with a couple of dear friends. The fact that a cookbook I was given for Christmas contained Giovanni Pilu's signature recipe for roast suckling pig just confirmed the wisdom of the choice. It was Meant to Be.

Once there, sitting in the wide verandah, looking down at the beach at a comfortable, airy table, an epic struggle with the menu ensued. Four foodies, ten choices of primi, five choices of secondi and the added complication of daily specials meant a long fought battle to make decisions.

Firstly, however, there was the struggle with the wine list. Pilu has won awards for its Italian-weighted list, but I have to say it was something of a slog. Pages and pages of it, without many in a sensible price bracket. I ended up choosing a Corte Giara pinot grigio from the Veneto - which was excellent and reasonably priced, but I did feel a bit backed into a corner.

Then we had to choose food.

Paul settled on calamari filled with baby squid & pinenuts. Two fat, gilded tubes appeared, bulging with the filling. He was still full of flu, but still appreciated the tender calamari and the flavours of the filling.

I opted for a dish of malloredus - little shells of saffron pasta - with discs of zucchini smaller than a pencil in diameter, tiny chunks of calamari and garnished with a grating of lovely salty bottarga. It was gorgeous. The pasta was firm to the bite, which I don't usually like, but in this case the calamari was so tender and the zucchini so soft and delicate that it really needed the firmer pasta to contrast.

Belinda's boned quail stuffed with chicken liver looked lovely. She said it was rich and delicious.

Helen's prawns with fregola (small pasta, a bit like couscous) tomato and chilli was another success. The prawns were huge and partly shelled for ease of eating.

So far, so good - it isn't often that you order 4 dishes and they are all equally successful.

The main courses were easier. Having read about the roast suckling pig, I just had to have it. Helen was of the same mind. And boy was it good!Thick slices of the most tender, buttery meat, topped with salty, rosemary-tinged crackling. Some nicely sour apple puree and some herby salsa verde completed the plate. A bit of nicely dressed green salad was all that we needed for perfect bliss.

Paul and Belinda opted for a seafood stew with crisp sheets of carta di musica. Fortunately bibs and fingerbowls were provided to help while they tackled the generous bowls of mussels, crab and prawns and splashed around in the rich tomato broth.

At this point there was no way I could have ordered a dessert. Although I was fascinated by the fried pastries filled with ricotta and served with bitter honey, I just couldn't have done it justice.

Belinda, however, pulled on her big girl pants and stepped up to a vanilla bean pannacotta with abbamele.

With our coffee (I had a perfect, icy shakerato) we were bought a dish of moist little zucchini and polenta cakes and some lovely crisp almond biscotti. Such a perfect lunch to share in good company and lovely surroundings.

Friday 16 January 2009

A Queensland Christmas

Christmas Day ended up being a delightfully low-key event with my mother in Queensland. My husband had come down with my feeling of cruddiness, so he spent most of the day in bed after we opened our presents. My stepfather was spending 45 minutes out of every hour face down, in an effort to re-attach a wayward retina. It was a hot day, the pool was lovely and I had books to read and dogs to cuddle.

Then in the evening, it was cool enough for a cooked meal. My mother produced a succulent stuffed turkey breast with some little potatoes and vegetables, then lovely cheese, coconut cream and kaffir lime pannacotta, and some excellent wines.

Paul had his usual polite bite of the dessert before focussing on the cheese. Which left an almost whole pannacotta for me to have for breakfast the following day, with a gorgeous ripe mango cheek cut into cubes. A taste of tropical heaven.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Kyo Hachi - Hong Kong

On our second night in Hong Kong we headed up to The Peak. And were turned away at the tram station at the bottom by the two-hour wait just to buy a ticket. Curse the appeal of twinkly lights. So the next day we set forth again.This time it was only about a 15 minute wait before we were on a tram and ratcheting up the steep incline.

We had a coffee (despite the proliferation of Starbucks - or perhaps because of it - drinkable coffee is a bit hard to come by in Hong Kong but there is a pretty decent coffee shop on The Peak), admired the view, bought some tourist tat (beaded cotton velvet slippers for £2) and took loads of photos.

And then it was time for lunch.

Kyo Hachi, a Japanese restaurant, had a nice looking menu and was certainly more appealing than the wildly popular Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Given that London also isn't too strong on Japanese food, I didn't feel too bad about eating something that wasn't Chinese. We sat in a booth by the window and gazed out at the view.

My sore throat had developed into a feeling of full-blown cruddiness, and I thought the grilled pork sounded light and tempting. And although it turned out to be a huge meal of delicious tender slivers of meat, chilled tofu in a tangy sesame dressing, seafood chawan mushi (steamed, savoury egg custard), rice and miso soup, it really was tempting. I managed to give everything a good go.

I don't think Paul had quite realised that his "mixed sushi with rice" was going to be chirashizushi - all of the usual fillings and toppings scattered over a bowl of vinegared rice. It didn't take him long to recover from the shock and dive in. The chirashizushi looked so pretty with all of the bright cubes of fish and omelette interspersed with pearls of salmon roe, slivers of nori and scattered snipped chives.

For inexplicable reasons, Paul is not much of a custard fan, so he only had a polite spoonful of that. He did, however, hoover up the crunchy crab salad garnished with tobiko, and the miso soup.

It wasn't a cheap lunch, but for an infinitely civilised respite from noise, crowds and tinny piped Christmas music, it was just the thing. Definitely worth a visit.

Monday 12 January 2009

Superstar Seafood

One of the things we have really missed being in the UK was yum cha. In Sydney, it was a very regular Sunday brunch or lunch destination. In London, they serve dim sum at dinner, and you don't even get the trolleys trundling past - you order from a menu.

So we were very keen to have some good dim sum in Hong Kong. We ended up back in Times Square (10th floor this time) at Superstar Seafood, a pretty well-known dim sum restaurant chain. Isn't the decor amazing? It looks like someone decorated the Fortress of Solitude for a hooker's hen night.

Disappointingly, while there were a couple of waitresses carrying trays and pushing trolleys, most of the ordering was done off a menu.

The har gau were pretty good, the char siu bao fluffy and well-filled, the "golden crispy platter" of tofu, pork and some other stuff was golden and crispy and not at all greasy. The spring onion pancakes were excellent, but I didn't like the curry sauce that came with them. For me, the pick of the dishes was the green beans in spicy pork sauce. We've had something similar at our local Chinese place but never done as well.

On balance, I would have to say that I prefer both the food and the atmosphere at Marigold in Sydney! But maybe we were just there a little late in the day (about 2pm).

Friday 9 January 2009

The Water Margin

Our first night in Hong Kong, the concierge suggests that we go to the 12th floor of Times Square. He says we'll find good food up there. He'd previously told us that we had to be put in a different room because we were too big for the original room, so I figured he understood the importance of food in our lives. And I also suspected that he would fear me crushing him like a bug if he steered me wrong.

I confess that my barometer was set to sceptical when we found the 12th floor of Times Square (which isn't that straightforward, despite the signs and a carefully drawn map) and the first thing we saw was Tony Roma's Chicago-style Ribs. The second thing we saw was a pizza & pasta place. I can't swear to it but I think there were red-checked tablecloths.

Fortunately, before we gave up in disgust and despair, we saw Water Margin, promising food from the provinces of Northern China. The board-covered menu at the door was promising: there was nothing on it that sounded familiar. The wooden rafters, paper lanterns and fabric drapings were attractive. There was a nice woman at the entrance who smiled at us. After many hours on a plane with flight attendants who ranged from the dismissive to the surly, it was nice to be smiled at.

They were pretty busy, so we sat at the front to wait for a table. I had a lemongrass and ginger mojito. As I had started a sore throat on the flight, the strong ginger kick was very soothing.

By the time we were shown to our table, we'd made some decisions. We were definitely going to eat pigeon, for example. The waiter was very careful to point out that our appetisers were cold, but we figured what the heck.

First thing out was a dish of smoked pigs cheeks. Which frankly looked like more like dried apples than charcuterie. Had a similar texture to dried apples too, and a strongly smoky, subtly porky flavour. Can't say I would rush to have that one again, but it was interesting.

Next up was pigeon bathed in a Chinese moutai wine (distilled from sorghum). This was delicious - tender cold meat, succulent and delicately flavoured. A bit of a fiddle to eat around the bones, but well worth it.

The first main course we ordered was a dish of steamed pumpkin in crab roe and salted egg sauce. Now, I know this looks disgusting. It gives a clear impression of regurgitation. But the flavour was just amazing. Delicate, perfectly tender, sweet slices of pumpkin were covered in a thick, creamy, slightly gelatinous, faintly fishy, salty sauce. If my life depended on it I wouldn't have been able to identify crab roe or egg, but the overall impression was just delectable.

The last dish we ordered was crispy beef brisket in a sea of szechwan peppers. What arrived was nothing like I imagined (I was thinking sort of crispy shreds of meat in a szechwan pepper crust or something) but so superior!
I think the brisket must have been cooked slowly, then tossed in cornflour and deepfried until crisp and then strewn through a deep dish of chillies (the superfinefeline got a much better picture of the chillies when she blogged about Water Margin in 07). We had to dig through the chillies to get to the pieces of meat. We wondered how many times each dish of chillies gets reused - they surely couldn't throw them out after one appearance on a plate?

So. If you are in Hong Kong and sick of the Western interpretations of Cantonese food, do see if you can find the 12th floor of Times Square. It really is worth trying something new sometimes!


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