Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, you’ve got to live in the moment - one second to stop at a corner to contemplate which way to turn will get you trampled by a crowd or flattened by a bus.  Even my NYC roots could not prepare me for how fast everything moves in Hong Kong, and I find myself on edge almost constantly.  I’ve adapted by becoming very reactive, which includes the way I’ve described the food.  In one moment I’m in awe of how vibrant and fresh things are, and in the next I’m shocked by how tired, processed and bland much of it seems.
The street-style markets here are amazing.  Food that is literally alive is everywhere, frequently killed on the spot and cooked before your eyes.  I expect and have experienced that kind of freshness on the shores of Mexican beaches, but I was not prepared for it in such an intensely urban setting.  It’s really something to  watch skilled fishmongers pull twitching creatures from a  seawater tank, clean them precisely in seconds, then hand them to a partner who puts them on a  stick and fries or boils them before handing it over to you, all in a matter of about 4 minutes. 
This setting produces one of the best bites of food I’ve ever had.  It was a 4-inch piece of octopus that had been skewered and par-cooked.  When I ordered, it was dunked for about a minute into intensely spiced boiling liquid, redolent with Szechuan pepper and star anise which adhered to the sea creature the way the spices do to crawfish at the best Louisiana boils.  It was tender and tasted so fresh, with the sweet flavor of the octopus somehow able to stand up to all of that spice.  $1.50 bought me a food memory I’ll never forget. 
I’ve appreciated the food recommendations I’ve gotten from friends who have been to Hong Kong, and have followed some of them with good success.  But when I travel, I also like to follow my nose and the locals.  I look for crowds, see what they’re eating, and join them.  This is a dangerous method in Hong Kong.  There are a lot of people here who like terrible food.  Some of the most crowded spots are serving mushy spaghetti with ketchup sauce (that’s literally what it is) or limp elbow macaroni with cheap hot dogs in bland broth.  These people are not tourists.  Most of the above is served in places that have no English menu, and you won’t find a Caucasian face in sight.  It’s authentic Hong Kong cuisine, perhaps even the archetype.  I tried one of these places after waiting 20 minutes for a seat, and while I’m glad to have experienced this part of HK culture, suffice to say that the food tastes precisely as it sounds.
You can’t go to Hong Kong without having dim sum, and I did so at a super-crowded spot called The Dim Sum Corner, which I stumbled upon while walking around.  Despite the unusually English name, the place didn’t seem touristy at all – it was teeming with local businessperson-types who were waiting in line for a seat at prime lunch hour.  I had standards that I get regularly at dim sum places back home: egg custard buns, shumai, steamed rice rolls, and turnip cake.  I wanted to see if these standards were better at a mid-tier HK place than they are back home.  Better doesn’t begin to describe it.  This was whole different league.   The turnip cake was especially delicious, with a more varied, interesting texture on account of unprocessed turnip pieces, and more robust seafood flavor than I’m used to.  The egg custard bun was oozing in a way that I haven’t seen before, and the liquefied yolk was contained by dough that’s much thinner than what I’ve seen before.  A greater level of skill went into all the food here, and it showed.
I had a few higher end meals too, which ran the gamut from disappointing to revelatory, with one sort of in between.  A ha-ha-named place called Ho Lee Fook has been touted quite a bit by local bloggers, but its version of Modern Chinese food tasted just like regular Chinese food to me, at quintuple the price in a dungeon-like setting with horrible Springsteen music playing.  Ronin, a supposedly-izakaya style seafood place from a much celebrated chef who used to work at Masa had some really delicious bites (oysters with cucumber-pear juice and yuzu kosho), but also a few elements that seemed more style-over-substance (“mandarin salt” served on the side of some fish tempura).  Ronin staff were also annoying about upselling luxe ingredients and drinks (yes, I like uni, but I’m not ordering your tiny $30 uni supplement and stop asking already).  The revelatory meal was at a place called Serge et le Phoque, run by a 2-Michelen-starred French chef and his Parisian business partner who came to Hong Kong a couple of years ago.  The restaurant has an all-French wine list and French-accented staff, but the food transcends borders, with a focus on Japanese ingredients and styles perhaps more than anything else.  Every morsel of food I tasted at this place was spectacular, highlighted by things like dried fugu skin with teriyaki glaze, sea bass with a “risotto” made from land-based seaweed (samphire) cut into rice-sized bits, and an amazing lemon custard served with capsicum jelly and tarragon.
I’ve eaten more noteworthy things that I’ll lump together here for the sake of expedience.  Pineapple buns (which don’t have any pineapple) are really wonderful, and are described well here: http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1587246/secrets-behind-serving-hong-kongs-hot-cross-buns .  Portland Street in Kowloon is a mecca of diverse cheap eateries, and the one I settled into was a Yunannese places serving “mountain goat noodle soup,” a giant, $4 bowl of very gamey deliciousness.  Egg custard tarts are everywhere, and the ones I’ve tried at random bakeries have been OK, but surprisingly not as good as the ones at Cai back in Chicago.
Hong Kong is massive and dense, and it’s impossible to make much of a dent in the city’s food with just a few days.  I’m glad to have heeded bits of advice from people, but nothing beats the enjoyment of just wandering around and trying what looks good or interesting.  I even loved the experience of sharing a table (this is how it’s done in HK –people just sit wherever there’s a chair) with a cigarette-smoking cab driver while eating terrible macaroni soup.

Monday, February 9, 2015


Our remarkably ill-conceived first dish at Formento’s was an unfortunately good predictor of what was to come.  Italian-American pizzerias and restaurants have been serving pretty much the same garlic bread for decades.  Slice open some bread, spread garlic butter on an exposed side, and toast it.  Simple enough, and undeniably tasty.  For $5, I knew Formento’s would do something to try to improve on this standard.  Use especially good, fresh, house-baked bread perhaps.  Maybe some kind of special organic garlic.  What I didn’t think is that they would utterly reinvent the dish in a way that made it impossible to eat.  Instead of cutting the loaf open and toasting it, they served a whole loaf, untoasted and scored so that the “slices” came just halfway down the loaf.  Then, inexplicably, a server lifted a carafe with some kind of thick, emulsified garlic sauce and started pouring it over the top and between the crevices.  I wanted to scream at him to stop, or grab the carafe from his hands.  But it was too late.  He had created a gooey, Cinnabon-style mess.  When a manager came by to ask about our meal, I asked her how we were supposed to have eaten the garlic bread.  Some people try a knife and fork, she said.  Others try with their hands but fail.  She didn’t really know either.

Formento’s tried to improve on eggplant parm too.  The downfall of many versions of this dish is that the fried eggplant quickly becomes soggy under layers of sauce and cheese.  Formento’s came up with a way to prevent that from happening: burn the hell out of the breading in the deep fryer.  It stayed crispy.  I’ll give them that.

Speaking of soggy, that’s the way to describe the Caesar salad at Formento’s  A Caesar salad is crisp.  It’s the defining principle.  Formento’s used too much of the leafy green part of romaine lettuce, and way overdressed it .  With plenty of whole anchovies on top, this dish was a fishy swamp.  Most bizarrely, instead of serving croutons on the salad, they served a block of some kind of gooey, bread-pudding-like thing which had been pan fried or something to give it a dark color on the outside.  Croutons rock on a Caesar salad, Formento’s.  If you want to upgrade a Caesar salad, just make the best damned croutons in the universe.  Not pudding.

The breading on the fried calamari was like beach sand.  So dry and chalky.  The good thing about that is that the texture made the breading easy enough to wipe away, revealing calamari that was tender and delicious.  They plated it with a sauce that tasted like ketchup.   Scrape off the breading, avoid the sauce, and squeeze some lemon over the top, and this was the one dish of the evening which could be rendered palatable.

The same cannot be said of the orecchiette with broccoli rabe and sausage, which I could not stomach after 2 bites.  The homemade pasta was very poorly executed.  It was gummy.  It was swimming in some kind of thickened, overly acidic wine sauce.  What surprised me most about it though was that the presentation revealed that the kitchen does not understand what this pasta shape is about.  The point of orecchiette is that the little cups are great at catching bits of stuff that form the dressing.  That’s why sausage works so well, as long as it’s crumbled.  Crumbled bits of sausage inside little orecchiette cups are one of life’s great joys.  Formento’s decided to “update” this dish by using 2-inch-long pieces of sausage instead of the crumbled kind.  With some of the other failures of the evening, I could perhaps chalk them up to growing pains of a new restaurant.  This one was more disturbing though, as it showed an utter lack of understanding of the fundamentals of Italian cooking. 

A day after dinner, I read this recap of a Formento’s preview dinner that my friend Mike Gebert attended.  Two of the dished I had are pictured there.  At the preview dinner, the garlic bread looked like normal garlic bread, and the Caesar Salad had actual croutons.  Why they changed these things, I have no idea.  But maybe there is some hope that they’ll go back to the old ways and get this place figured out.