Saturday, May 29, 2010

This is why I travel

I'm in Hong Kong over the Memorial Day Weekend, and this is a foodie's town to die for. How many places are there where you can eat up and down the entire food spectrum? Starting from outdoor street dining, where you can get homestyle classics like haam-yu chow fan (salted fish fried rice), to Hong Kong's typical dim sum, and going all the way to the growing private kitchen trend, secretive places in the most random locations, with innovative chefs serving in a small, cozy setting.

My trip started with meeting with my friends Abhilash and Prashanti, who are visiting Hong Kong for the first time, and we decided to go eat at Temple Street Night Market, just regular street food. I had just arrived off my flight, and as always, was looking for some good food for my arrival. We settled on the south end of Temple Street, where there's a concentration of open-air seafood restaurants. Interestingly, there's also a number of Indian/Nepali restaurant/food stall promoters. As we were looking for places, these Indian promoters would come up to my friends, speak to them in Hindi, and try to convince them to go eat in their restaurants. Abhi said it best "I'm not going to Hong Kong to eat Indian food!" Our meal: 1/2 roast duck, braised tofu, garlic fried bok choy, salted fish fried rice, and a bottle of San Miguel beer. Total price: HK$240, or about $10 per person.

The next day, I met with with my Hong Kong based INSEAD friends for a dim sum lunch, and joining me were Travis and Amy, and Travis's parents, who were traveling through Asia for the first time. This was a proper restaurant, on the 2nd floor of an office building in Wanchai, and ironically, a few blocks down from a building that my grandfather used to live back in the 50's. There's such a clear difference in dim sum from the US and Hong Kong! We had an amazing won-ton soup, with a great seafood flavor in the broth, beautifully wrapped har gow (shrimp dumplings, pictured left), with a translucent soft wrapper that actually stayed together when you picked it up. And the best part.... Shanghai xiu long bao, steamed dumplings that are designed to carry a bit of soup and ground pork inside a thin wrapper. It was so great to see my INSEAD friends again, and was a great experience for Travis's parents, who were trying dim sum for the first time. And finally, it was great practice my "food-level" Chinese. Unlike dim sum restaurants in the US, the food wasn't served on steam carts, which means you have to order from a paper ticket, with all the dish names in Chinese. I was trying to place our order (with some help) from my friends, but I really realized how much slower I am at reading than just ordering.

At the end of our dim sum lunch, I asked Nana, my INSEAD classmate and fellow HK foodie about what other place I should try. I had previously listed a number of things that I wanted to eat/try while was hear, and realized I probably had more things I wanted to try than meals in a day. Nana suggested going to a private kitchen. Private kitchens are a bit of a new trend in Hong Kong, I had first heard about them maybe 2-3 years ago. They sounded a bit like the old speakeasies in the Prohibition days, restaurants hidden inside housing estates, perhaps unlicensed, but with a gourmet dining experience meant to be only shared with a few people. Don't think shady, think something like a supposedly "private" clubs, but anybody is welcome to go in, only if you knew where to go! The first private kitchen I had heard about was a Sichuan style place, but that one was fully booked. My classmates recommended Xi Yan, and said that the location looks like an apartment building, without any signs on the outside, but I just had to trust the address (left). And so I went in, not knowing what to expect. I almost expected to be eating inside somebody's personal flat. But, when I arrived on the 3rd floor, I was pleasantly surprised. See the entrance photo on the left. It appeared that somebody had combined 2 apartment flats and turned them into a restaurant!

The restaurant was nicely decorated, and had some really great new interpretation for traditional Chinese dishes. There was a set menu, with about 5-7 courses. The first appetizer was a salmon sashimi, encrusted with ground green onion and ginger. It tasted a lot like a classic Chinese steamed fish dish with onion and ginger, but instead, it was a onion/ginger paste was encrusting the fish. The other amazing dish was a basil sorbet. Would have never thought of using Basil, but it was blended with a bit of an aniseed flavor that gave it a sweet herbal flavor (and maybe sometimes, reminded me a bit too much of a cough syrup). The best dish was a deep fried grouper, encrusted with shrimp paste and lemongrass, and served with a bit of peeled grapefruit on the side. Very clever combination of flavors, as the citrus flavor of the lemongrass and bit of grapefruit "juice" helped to cut down on the strong flavor of the shrimp paste, and the citrus I think also made the fried fish feel a little less greasy.

Definitely a great experience, totally by surprise, and had that element of surprise for each dish, not knowing exactly what you were going to get. And it seems the clientele was quite international, there were about 2-3 HK families there, a table of 20-30 year old American-born Chinese, and a table of young Britishers next to me. Because of a mix-up in the reservation, there was a chance that I wasn't going to be allowed to eat here because the reservation was for 6, but I was the only one there, but the waiter made an exception for me. And I'm so glad he did!

And so, this is why I travel. Exploring new places, enjoying nice food, re-visiting old friends, and always looking for unexpected new finds. The private kitchen was such a wonderful find, I can't wait to explore more next time!

And, here's some customary photos of the beautiful HK skyline...

Where I ate:
1. Temple Street Night market, south section has seafood, north section has claypot rice.
2. Fu Sing Restaurant, 1/F, 343 Lockhart Rd, Wanchai
3. Xi Yan Private Kitchen, 3/F, 83 Wan Chai Road, Wanchai, HK$500 for prix fixe meal