Thursday, March 25, 2010

Soup Worth Sweating For

I know, I know. What am I doing, eating hot soup in the middle of this punishing Manila summer? I thought the same thing when my sister, Foxychef, sent me a text that she is having Shabu-shabu (an oriental stew consisting of meat, seafoods, noodles and vegetables, usually cooked right on the table) with my parents for lunch and they are picking me up at the office. But then, I haven’t seen Foxychef this excited about food in a really long time, so I knew that there must be something special about this particular shabu-shabu.

Lau Chan is a small operation and it looks like it hasn’t changed since the day it opened. The dated furniture, harsh fluorescent lighting and grandma’s wallpaper immediately tell you that this is not a date place. For sure, that is not the reason this place is packed during lunch and the dining room is abuzz with activity. “It’s all about the food”, I thought to myself.

After we were seated, the server asked us what kind of broth we wanted for our shabu-shabu. From a sheet of paper, we picked out the items we wanted to cook in the broth, such as fresh beef and squid balls, vegetables, sliced beef belly, fish cakes, and udon noodles. Bowls of minced garlic, hot chili peppers, sate sauce and shabu-shabu sauce were placed in front of us. Compared to the ones at Mini Shabu-shabu, the sauces are much tastier and more authentic.

As we wait for the broth to boil, I wonder just how different this shabu-shabu could be from the others I have tried. After all, boiled food is just that- boiled food. Right?

Wrong! As we slowly immersed the ingredients into the boiling soup, you could smell the deep, concentrated spices that you can only get from hours of simmering. The flavorful broth lends its strong essence to the vegetables and the meats as they quickly cook in the hotpot. Paper-thin slices of beef belly are dipped into the pot for a few seconds before dunking it again into the sauce mixture. With the thick udon, this stew on its own is a pretty hearty meal. But, with the savory aromas from the pot and the addictive dipping sauce, I could not stop myself from cooking and eating until there was no space left in my groaning stomach.

Full beyond belief with sweat hanging from my upper lip, I lean back on my chair with a satisfied grin. That was probably the best shabu-shabu meal I have had so far. And it only got better when we got the check for less than P1000. It’s going to be hard to top that.

Lau Chan Shabu-shabu and Fast Foods
Mabini St.
Malate, Manila

Lu and Wagyu

It was a great morning to begin with.

The summer sun was bashfully peering through our blinds in the bedroom, the slits allowing a peek at the majestic expanse of the golf course below, while the sheets and pillows were pleasantly cool from the air conditioning. Matt is sleeping soundly beside me, muttering incomprehensible phrases in German while he dreams. I enjoy these quiet moments in the morning when I get to move around at my own pace, going through my morning rituals as I slowly get energized for the day ahead.

I check my e-mails as I usually do, and there it was: an invitation to dinner from Luis de Terry at his restaurant, Lu. It was exciting enough to be summoned to a tasting dinner by one of Manila’s explosive new chefs, but when he said that it was a tie-up with the local distributors of Snake River Farms Wagyu beef and Kurobuta pork, it was truly what some of my wildest gastronomic fantasies are made of. Without even asking if I could bring my husband or if our common friend Maggie was also going, I immediately say “yes”. All of a sudden, what was a pleasant morning just got ten times better, and I jump back into bed and snuggle up to my hubby (Yes, pervs, we just snuggled).

Fast forward to a week later and I was psyched. As I walked into Lu’s well-lit interior, the handsome chef/owner greeted me and introduced me to his sister and friends. We then chatted about the dishes and I asked him if there was going to be wine pairing. “Of course! “, he exclaims, “in fact, I better get started before I have too much Krug”. “Krug champagne?! Why didn’t you say so! Give me some of that!” I tell Luis, who quickly motioned to the bartender and then made a beeline for the kitchen. I get my bubbly from the bar and scan the room for a seat.

Luckily, I spot the familiar face of my Tito Randy and make my way towards him. A ferocious foodie and wine lover, he was also one of the lucky few whom Lu invited to the event. Always full of energy and armed with a quick wit and great sense of humor, I could not have asked for a better dinner companion. Plus, he’s a cardiologist, so in the worst-case scenario that my heart stops beating after five courses of wagyu beef, then at least I’m covered.

The other guys at our table were: Ramon del Gallego, brother of part-owner Christine; and Tito Locsin, Christine’s boyfriend. Without bias, I really think we had the craziest table. Conversations flowed naturally and topics transitioned with ease from food to travel to sex and back again, punctuated by raucous fits of laughter. I noticed we had a lot of visitors at our table (like Teddy Montelibano and Manoy Llige), and I kind of wished that we had more space to accommodate all the interesting characters I met that night.

Finally, the event opens with an introduction about Snake River Farms and their products. As we fidgeted in our seats, eager to get dinner going, they showed us a short documentary about the company, its history and their commitment to excellence. The clip was quite informative and made me appreciate the dinner that was about to be served even more.

In the short e-mails Chef Lu and I exchanged the week before the dinner, he described vaguely to me what he plans to do with the featured meats. Although he did not go into detail, he told me that he has informed Alternatives Food Corporation (the local distributor of SRF products) that the food will be prepared in his signature bold style. This means, of course, lush and exotic flavors from Latin America, Africa and the Mediterranean with a breath of sexy Asian influences. This is normally scary terrain for me, but I learn to trust Luis and his craziness and just brace myself for the culinary roller coaster ride I know I am about to go on.

First to tease our palate was an appetizer of Flat Iron Carpaccio & Curry Cream Nigiri/Top Blade and Artichoke Phyllo Pinwheel. I pick up the “sushi” with my fingers and scrape a bit of the cream with it. The cream was surprisingly light but firm, like it was vigorously whipped and then chilled. The curry was not overpowering and the musky flavor acts as an accent to the lean meat. The boys seem to favor the pinwheel, though, with its complex play on textures- the tenderness of the beef alongside the crisp asparagus, fresh scallions and fried phyllo. A shot of sake completes the plate and highlights the playful allusion to Asian flavors. We all agree that we were off to a good start.

The next course was a Pillowed Kurobuta Pork Belly Confit/Kurobuta Cochinita Pibil on Turmeric Puri. The pork belly was served kuapao-style in a thick but airy bun. I was hoping for more flavor and crunch from this one, so I preferred the Pibil which was perfectly juicy and aromatic, accented by the sweet-sour of the pickled onions. The dish was accompanied by a glass of Mays Chardonnay ’07. I liked how it was young and had a nice acidity to it that cut through the sweet and pungent flavors as well as the rich fattiness of the pork.

The “fish” course came in the form of a Moroccan Ox Tongue & Fresh Water Prawn Salad, accompanied by the same white wine. “They said it cannot be done”, Luis shared later on. But true to his rebellious style of cooking, he went ahead and grilled the ox tongue around batonettes of zucchini and mushrooms. It had a very mild smokiness to it and a surprisingly soft texture. This dish was a modest success, a chilled-out interlude to what has so far been a full-on attack on the senses.

My favorite dish for the night was the Harissa Glazed Tenderloin Brochettes/Peruvian Anticucho Hanger Steak. This is a great example of taking the highest-quality ingredients and using simple techniques executed to perfection. The brochettes were grilled medium-rare and alive with the flavors of exotic spices. The hanger steak was lean and butter-soft, the couscous pleasantly fragrant and fluffy. Amazing, amazing flavors, all around. I hope they put this on their regular menu. The accompanying glass of Chateau Pauillac ’04 had a nice full body that went well with this bombshell of a dish.

I go outside for a smoke and by this time people are in a party mood. I loitered outside a bit longer than usual and, when I came back inside, my table companions have started with their Wagyu Gold Rib-eye with Dalandan-Chipotle Butter, accompanied by a glass of Callejo Reserva ’05. My steak was a tad overcooked, which I think is partly my fault since it must have been sitting in the warmer while I was outside. I can only imagine how good the dalandan-chipotle butter would be on a medium-done steak- I loved how you just get a whiff of the local citrus and the butter is both garlicky and just a bit spicy. At this point, I barely finish half of my steak as I feel my stomach being stretched to its limit. I marveled, though, at the men’s appetites as Manoy took small slices from Tito’s steak while he was not looking.

When they set the dessert- Honeydew Melon & Ginger Ice Cream/Wasabi & Orange Tiramisu- down on the table, I can only sleepily stare at it for a moment as I imagine my stomach cursing me. I get extra motivation when I hear Tito Randy exclaim, “Wow! Who would have even dreamt of putting wasabi in Tiramisu? And it actually works!” I take a spoonful of the tiramisu and let it linger in my mouth, as I felt the familiar heat from the wasabi make its way up my nasal passages. Chocolate and orange is a classic combination so it’s not surprising that these two would come together. The ice cream was also a lovely combination of sweet fruitiness and heat, nicely tying up the theme of the dessert.

After dinner, we all applaud the organizers and Chef Lu for an excellent meal. Everyone was definitely on party mode after all the wine and a few of us decided to stay on for some cocktails. After Tito Randy bid us good night, Manoy, Ramon and I ordered more cocktails and (gasp!) shots of Patron (as a much sober Christine looked on in amusement). Luckily, I was sleeping at my parents’ place nearby and did not have to worry about driving home. I was having so much fun with my new friends that I did not want to leave. Eventually, my triple-vision gave me the signal that it was time to re-hydrate and call it a night.

That evening of pure indulgence was definitely one for the books. Lu’s bold and eclectic flavors is something Manila’s culinary landscape has never seen before- a living, breathing organism that is a combination of different tastes and cultures- and it’s exciting to watch how it will continue to evolve. Thank you so much, Luis, for inviting me. I am eagerly awaiting the next one.

G/F Joya Lofts and Towers
Joya Drive, Rockwell
Makati City
Tel. no. (632)4033991

Alternatives Food Corporation
(Distributor of Snake River Farm products)

Unit 908 Richmonde Plaza
San Miguel Ave. cor. Lourdes St.
Ortigas Center, Pasig City
Tel. no. (632) 6317228-30

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Dinner with a View

It was our last night in Hong Kong and it was officially “date night”.

As much as I longed to try L’Atelier de Robuchon in Landmark or Bo Innovation in Wan Chai, I was just not in the mood to travel far from our hotel. I check my Michelin Guide for something in the area and picked out a resto that was within our budget and not more than ten minutes by cab.

Since Timmy and Cielo were having dinner at a restaurant below, Matt and I decided to have dinner at Aqua, located high above One Peking Road at Tsim Sha Tsui. The elevator took us directly to the restaurant’s lobby where we were greeted by the receptionists. I avoid using the word “chic” since it seems cliché, but it really is the best way to describe it. The frosted acrylic walkway is dimly-lit from below which gives you the feeling of walking on a cloud (or at least, what I imagined it to feel like).

You are then ushered up a few steps towards an automatic glass door that opens into a high-ceilinged dining room. A glass wall three stories high frames the priceless view of the harbor and Hong Kong’s famous skyline. It makes you wonder how much this piece of property must cost. The dark interiors are punctuated by the hanging red lanterns and flickering candles atop hard wood tables. The feel is very cosmopolitan and very posh.

As we requested, we were seated right by the window, which we figured out was not necessary since it seems that the dining room was configured in such a way so that all tables look out onto the harbor. It was a bit tight getting in and out of the couch seat, but other than that, it was a pretty cozy spot.

We ordered a bottle of Italian red wine- a very young (sorry, I forget the vintage) Fontanafredda Eremo, which is a Barbera and Nebbiolo blend. It was very easy to drink, and I remember liking it even more after an hour or so in the glass.

A unique feature of the restaurant is that it serves both Italian and Japanese food. Matt and I love both, but since we favor pizza more than sushi, we opted to go Italian. For our first course, we decided to share the Canelloni with Goat Cheese, Veal Shank Ragout and Spinach Cream, topped by a Porcini Mushroom. Wow! What a stunning dish! Unfortunately, the flavors do not match the presentation- more sex appeal than substance. What a pity.

Hugely disappointed by the first course, I waited for the entrees with mounting dread. Within minutes, our main courses were placed before us. Mine was the Black Angus Tenderloin , Foie Gras, Spinach and Sweet and Sour Pearl Onions. The beef was so incredibly tender it was like chewing on a marshmallow. The flavors all around it were very subtle, allowing the meatiness of the prime cut to shine. The foie added just the right amount of richness, and was also seared to perfection.

Matt also had foie in mind and ordered the Pizza with Duck Confit and Roasted Foie Gras. The crust was thin and crispy, just what we expected from a good pizza. The duck, though, could have been more seasoned. Matt thought this was ok but I could tell he was not completely happy with it. Guiltily, I share my juicy steak with him.

As we waited for dessert, Timmy and Cielo arrived and joined us after their dinner at Hutong. Dessert was a Warm Chocolate Cake with Hazelnut Ice Cream. If you do not like dark chocolate like Cielo, this is not for you. Matt and I liked it, though, loving the bittersweet and gooey center of the cake and the creamy gelato on the side.

We were also given complimentary Grapes soaked in Grappa (a strong Italian spirit made by distilling the pomace of grapes) which acted like a digestivo. It adds a nice touch to the fancy meal.

Although it was a pleasant meal, I would not visit this restaurant again for the reason that I know I could have better food for the price I paid. I can imagine why people come here- the interiors are beautiful and the view, priceless. Come here if you want to impress a hot date, maybe a supermodel that eats paper for breakfast. Otherwise, bring your Hong Kong dollars elsewhere.

After dinner, we met Jin at the lobby of One Peking and then we dropped by the Tapas Bar at Kowloon Shangri-la where Timmy had to meet up with some colleagues for some after-conference schmoozing. The rest of us had some drinks in another table while we waited for him and our other friend, Wolfgang.

After a shot of tequila, Cielo was ready to call it a night, while the rest of us went to Kimberley Road for drinks at Knutsford Terrace. We went to this bar called All Night Long, which is manned by an all-Filipino staff- from the band to the bartenders. We had fun dancing to 80’s glam rock songs and doing shots. Hungry after all that dancing, Wolfgang volunteered to walk to Ashley Road and pick up some Doner Kebabs from Ebeneezer’s. Needless to say, we devoured most of it, and brought home a couple of extras. Until this day, Timmy regrets giving us the two remaining Kebabs and not taking back one to the hotel.

We left All Night Long at around 2:30AM to bring Jin home to her pad in Clearwater Bay and got back to our hotel at 5:30AM. Yes, it was quite the joy ride, truly a very memorable one. Well, for most of us at least. Jin admits that she cannot remember anything from the time we sat on the bar at All Night Long.

I love Hong Kong.

29 & 30/F One Peking Road
Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong
Tel. no. (852) 25459889

All Night Long
9 Knutsford Terrace
Kimberley Road
Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong
Tel. no. (852) 23679487

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Yummy Yummy La Mian

After a night of partying at Lan Kwai Fong, I woke up in our dark hotel room with the expected dry mouth and throbbing headache. Matt, who seems to have been hit harder by the vodka truck than I was, is lying motionless next to me, his body emitting what seems to be the harsh smell of gasoline. I knew it was almost noon and so we have surely missed our complimentary breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant.

So, as I await signs of life from my husband, I just lay there and fantasized about brunch. The moment I awoke, I was already craving for noodle soup and dimsum, and I knew exactly where to go.

I haul a semi-conscious Matt out of bed and into a cab at around 2PM for brunch at Harbour City. It was raining that day, so I thought it would be best to stay indoors. Besides, at the sorry state we were in, I don’t think either of us was in the mood for sightseeing and exploring.

We head straight towards Crystal Jade La Mian Xiao Long Bao on the third floor of the shopping mall, expecting to be immediately ushered into a half-empty restaurant. “Don’t worry,” I reassure Matt, “It’s 2:30PM. I’m sure the lunch crowd is gone”. Boy, was I ever wrong! There were at least twenty people standing outside, staring transfixed at the number board, hoping that their number comes out next. We got our own number stub from the receptionist and we waited our turn, quite impatiently.

Now, it was bad enough to have to wait in line for a table. But, like a bad joke, the number board was doing this strange flip-flop with the numbers. 356, 357, 358, 359… And then it would go back to 90, 91, 92, and so on. Tired, hungry and hungover, Matt and I were about ready to pounce on that number board and tear it into tiny pieces. Before we knew it, we turned on each other and started fighting about going there. So, to end our madness, Matt got some spinach quiche from a nearby Starbucks to stave-off our hunger until we get a table.

After almost an hour, we were finally shown to our table. Despite the huge Sunday crowd, the modern and casual dining room was clean and organized. The wait staff was scurrying around as fast as they could, but it did not feel chaotic. We immediately order from the Shanghainese menu as if we were a table for four. We sip on some hot tea which was on the table when we arrived, assuming it was complimentary. We were shocked later on to discover that we were charged for it! I do not really mind, since I would have ordered hot tea anyway. But I just do not think it was right to serve customers an item which they did not order and then charge them for it.

Anyway, our food finally arrives, starting with some dimsum. I got myself some Xiao Long Bao (Shanghai Pork Dumplings) which is the restaurant’s specialty. The dome-shaped dumplings- filled with a savory pork filling and hot soup- are dipped in dark vinegar, and then consumed by first puncturing the thin wrapper with my teeth and then sipping some of the soup. When the contents have cooled, I suck the dumpling into my mouth, enjoying the strong flavors of scallions and the juicy pork. Obviously, I devoured this before realizing I forgot to take a picture. (Note: Actually, I think Matt asked me if I wanted to take pictures of the food, and I just grunted in reply. Oh well.)

What really made this meal note-worthy, though, was the La Mian with Spicy Beef Soup- another house specialty. La Mian are Chinese hand-pulled noodles cooked either in a soup (usually beef or mutton-flavored) or stir-fried in a tomato-based sauce. The one we ordered was in a steaming, spicy broth flavored with thin beef slices and big red chilies. The result was simply divine- the soup was aromatic and rich in flavor, the spice level was just enough to make you sweat a bit, not painful at all. The noodles were firm, almost elastic, to the point that it took some effort to cut them. For me, it was close to perfection, the best bowl of noodles I have had in a very long time.

Matt also ordered some dishes for himself but they were just ok. We both agreed that the La Mian was the star of this meal.

After our late brunch, we walked out of Harbour City and saw that it was still drizzling. With our stomachs full and our heads still buzzing from the night before, we just shrugged and decided to go back to the hotel for a nap. I was a bit guilty about wasting a whole afternoon in the hotel room when I should be enjoying the sights and the shopping. But then, with the cool, rainy day and our tummies full of delicious hot soup, I really could not think of a better thing to do at that point.

Crystal Jade La Mian Xiao Long Bao
3/F Harbour City
Canton Road
Kowloon, Hong Kong
Tel. no. (852)26222699