Fish head with minced peppers

Fish head with minced peppers

Rosie postulates that spicy food alleviate allergy symptoms, so with my nose congested through memorial day weekend, we decided to lunch at Hunan house and test out her theory.
While Cantonese and Sichuan food are familiar to the western palate, Chinese cuisine varies greatly based on regional differences. Hunan cuisine, like the two above-mentioned, reigns among the eight most famous Chinese culinary styles. Hunanese cuisine, like Sichuan food is spicy, but it relies not on tongue numbing characteristics of tiny but deadly Sichuan peppercorns. Instead, a ton of fresh chilis, both green and red are used in abundance. We recruited JW, another spice lover to test out 4 dishes.

The cold spicy tongue and tripe appetizer is authentically Sichuanese, slick with fiery red oil and those potent peppercorns that render your tongue momentarily dysfunctional. Next was a platter of tofu soaking up some light red sauce that had been enhanced by broth and peppers. Although humble looking, the tofu was smooth and nutty, and possessed a clean, bracing flavor from the light sauce. Large chunks of bell peppers and very tender ginger finished that dish. Next was a humble looking dish called chicken casserole on the menu. We would not have ordered it had it not come highly recommended by the helpful proprietor, with its really generic name and the fact it was not even on the specials page. However, the lean and flavorful chicken (unlike the garden roaster variety) stewed in a deep flavorful sauce that thickened as the casserole bubbled over an open flame was my favorite dish, the sauce, both spicy, sweet, salty with a little funk from fermented soy bean paste addictive particularly with rice. I ate a second bowl of rice just sopping up the sauce.

The unassumingly delicious chicken dish

The unassumingly delicious chicken dish

Just wonderful as the chicken may be, the piece de resistance was definitely the fish head cooked with fresh minced peppers. The braised fish head is not presented whole but thoughtfully chopped into 2 inch chunks to facilitate marination, rendering the freshwater fish tender with minimal mud taste and saturated with the delightly taste of soy and chili. Another dish that requires plenty of rice, which we happily ate, seconds and thirds included. Only quibble about this dish was that the chopped up head made it really difficult to locate the fish eyes that rosie and I both coveted. Hehe.

With Hunanese food  conveniently found in Flushing, the regional cuisine is definitely going to break my usual rotation of Canton/Shanghai and Sichuan food!

Hunan House

13740 Northern Boulevard, Flushing

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For some reason or another, I’ve found myself hunting for a reasonably priced dinner on the UWS quite a few times in as many weeks.

When Ruoying was still in town, we hit Lincoln Center for a London Phil performance, and a pre-theater dinner at Landmarc. Located on the 3rd floor of the Time Warner Building, Ruoying claimed it was the first restaurant she’s been to in the city that’s requires an elevator to get to. How true, most places we go to are steadfastly located on ground floors and basements! The elevated view of Central Park aside, Landmarc served its purposes of being  convenient, relatively affordable yet close to Lincoln Center. The food,while a little inconsistent is decent too, with a very meat and potatoes menu to satisfy most tastes. Steak? Check. Burger? Check. Pasta? Got it. Salads? Yup. The extensive and well-priced wine list is yet another bonus. Ruoying’s pasta special was a tad over-priced but came with plenty of clams and was nice and al dente. I was in the mood for steak tartare and Landmarc’s version did not disappoint, very tart and flavorful with plenty of good country bread to go along with it. Unfortunately, the fries were overpriced, mealy and tasteless. We finished up with a slice of lemon tart, very lightly priced, and very small to justify the cost and headed off to the concert in 90 minutes flat. On previous occasions, I’ve enjoyed similarly well-prepared but not too exciting meals, the bone marrow and the shrimp salad being wonderful standouts, and shared a few glasses with good friends, in a comfortable setting that does not require much prior planning to get to, thanks to its ample room. In conclusion, Landmarc is hardly a destination spot, but seeking decently priced food in the area is challenging, and Landmarc plays to its niche well.

Last Saturday saw me and a few friends at Shun Lee Cafe for dinner before catching the excellent French film “The Class”. The cafe is the casual sibling of the more ostentatious Shun Lee Restaurant, whose reputation as a purveyor of gourmet Chinese has always been a little shaky amongst Chinese food enthusiasts. Our dinner was rather middling, with the dim sum quite dry and bland, the faux asian sauces (soy, mustard, hot sauce ala packets from takeout Chinese shops) on the table absolutely necessary to make things taste better. I was just disappointed that they had to prove me right. But all was not lost, the pork knuckles and oxtail stew was a surprise hit, the pork knuckles cooked long enough to retain some characteristic chewiness but still fall-of-the-bone soft and the stew, redolent of sugar, soy and accentuated by carrots reminded me of my family’s oxtail stew. Service was excellent, with the cafe allowing us to be seated while waiting for our companions to all arrive and the decor and particularly the animal-shaped lampshades, shall we say, was worth the entry fee.

If the dinners at the aforementioned restaurants seemed to have compromised my tasty ideals, my meal at Kefi on Sunday certainly made up for the blandness of Shun Lee’s food from the previous night. The last time I was at Kefi, the restaurant was still operating out of its previous smaller location. The current version is a mammoth for New York standards, seating more than a hundred in 2 levels, with a hopping bar scene to boot. But it’s perenially full, with UWSiders keen for Mediterranean food on a low budget, and the place was packed at 6pm. Reviews have accused the restaurant of deteriorating service and food standards, but Yanru and I experienced none of that. The bartender was helpful with wine choices while I waited for my dinner date to arrive, and our server funny, energetic and generous with a free shot of blood-orange flavored ouzo. Our food, rather amazingly priced at under $10 for mezes and under $20 for mains came quickly as the restaurant turns tables furiously to make the low margins work. I loved my plate of warm feta, less crumbly than usual, setting a stage for a melange of Mediterranean flavors, the brine of capers, olives and anchovies, sweetness of caramelized onions and roasted peppers, a little sourish kick from cherry tomatos. A generous stack of pita bread graced the crock of cheese, willing me to drag pieces upon pieces of bread through the creamy white paste. A plate of meatballs were generous with the juicy chunks of ground meat emitting alluringly smoky charred smells, and served alongside pickled onions and a tangy yogurt sauce. Yanru enjoyed her hefty casserole of rabbit pasta, the hand made noodles a testament of chef Michael Psilakis Italian training. The only slight misstep for me was the sweetbreads. The offal itself was well-done, lightly crusted and delicate, topped with amazing fried onion bits, unfortunately overwhelmed by the overpoweringly sour sauce. Still, 3 out of 4 ain’t bad especially at those prices, and when you can eat so well at such gentle prices, in an occasionally rowdy but congenial tavern-like setting, its no wonder Kefi’s an UWS hit.

Landmarc

10 Columbus Circle (3rd Flr)

http://www.landmarc-restaurant.com/twc/

Shun Lee Cafe

43 W 65th St (bet Columbus and CPW)

http://shunleewest.com/index2.htm

Kefi

505 Columbus Ave (Bet 84th & 85th Sts)

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yin/yang pot

So here I am wishing for signs of spring, but  instead I get a cold front, blistering winds and a foot of snow dumped upon me unceremoniously on the first day of March. Whilst drinking soup out of a box in the pantry is a practical way of staying warm, it is not the ideal winter meal. I can only conjure memories of the hot pot at Little Fat Lamb to make myself feel better. Now if only my trip to Little Fat Lamb for the bubbly cauldron of hot pot happened this week and not 2 weekends ago. Then I would be able to slurp the piping hot soup, served in one big pot or a split one for the variety seeker. Both the spicy sichuan and the milk white concoction boiled long and slow with chinese herbs (goji berries, red dates, dang gui etc) are good. We swished razor thin slices of lamb and beef in the broth till just cooked and dragged the meat in a concoction of sauces before devouring it. Meatballs, fishballsm and other types of meat such as frozen fish slices (the freezer burn a little concerning) also made their appearance, as did some more exotic animal parts. We opted for the safe choices this time, with only duck tongue mildly more offal-like. Germaine and I seemed to be the only cartilage lovers so we split the plate.  To finish, a handful of vermicelli, some vegetables and a thoroughly warmed and satisfied stomach. Hotpot is a salve for cold days indeed.

Little Fat Lamb

36-45 Main St (Flushing)

hot pot!

hot pot!

Happy Niu Year! I am spending Chinese New Year in NYC again, but had the great fortune of spending the last few days in Las Vegas with my sisters, hanging out, eating, and watching Wang Li Hong live in concert. Instead of cooking our own reunion meal on the eve of CNY, we opted for hot pot at Champion Gourmet, a Taiwanese restaurant in Las Vega’s Chinatown strip. We had eaten there only 2 days before, dining on Taiwanese street food like a bowl of spicy beef noodles, the broth rich and the meat well-braised and fried oyster omelette, more sticky tapioca gum than egg and covered with a ketchup based sauce. Wonton in spicy sauce was indeed swathed with a piquant, garlicky mixture that brought tears to the eyes.
On the night of Chinese New Year’s eve, my sisters and I sat down to a bubbly pot of clear broth, accompanied by platters upon platters of meat and vegetables. We swished the paper thin slices of beef through the boiling water and our own sauce concoctions, and sampled fishballs stuffed both with meat and fish roe. We sipped the scalding soup and slurped noodles loudly, appreciatively. Halfway through our meal, the proprietors closed shop and sat down to their own reunion dinner with their daughters and granddaughters, also sharing hot pot, the big communal cauldron of broth symbolizing unity. Although our parents were thousands of miles away, it felt like we were eating with family.
Champion Gourmet
5115 Spring Mountain Rd
(702) 388-1168
We joke around our house that our father is a dyed in the wool China Man, especially when mealtimes are concerned. Like me, dad is an adventurous eater (you can’t call someone who’s had dog meat otherwise), but nowadays, he is happiest when there’s rice on the table.  Consequently, we incorporated an Asian meal everyday while we were in Paris. Paris is not exactly known for the diversity of ethnic food options, but with some tips and a little sleuthing, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the Asian food Paris had to offer.
The 13th arrondisement was our stomping grounds for Asian cuisine, being where Pari’s original Chinatown (another has sprung up in Belleville) is located. Over the course of 3 nights, we became intimately familiar with the triangular patch of urban area marked by Tolbiac, Porte d’Ivry and Porte d’Choisy metro stops, each almost equidistant from the row of restaurants that line both Avenues d’Ivry and Choisy.
pho special at pho 14

pho special at pho 14

Vietnam was part of the French Indochine, so we were not surprised to see a good representation of Vietnamese cuisine in Paris. I found Pho 14 by way of chowhound, and the pho was just what the doctor ordered on a night where temperatures had plummeted 10 degrees celsius from the night ago. The lines were spilling out of the restaurant as we arrived and people actually opted for quicker but chillier al fresco dining in sub 40s weather. A neighboring Vietnamese pho shop happily absorbed the spillover from Pho 14, but for those who wait, they will be treated to steaming bowls of pho. Both the beef and chicken broth, while a little less scalding hot than I prefer had meaty, concentrated flavors and were topped with fresh meat and the bounciest meatballs I’ve seen in a while. We also ate freshly fried spring rolls wrapped in lettuce and dipped in sweet and smelly dipping sauce and some rice crepes served with Vietnamese pate and irresistibly fragrant fried onion bits.

roasted platter
roasted platter

While P was studying abroad in Paris, he used to eat roast duck at a Chinatown restaurant and would constantly reminisce about it after he returned to the US. This bit of memory drove my appetite for roast duck in Paris. Unfortunately, P’s memory has blurred somewhat, so instead of a defined address, we chose our roasted meat restaurant based on the shininess of the lacquered ducks on displayed, ending up in Restaurant Imperial Choisy. While the roasted meats are Cantonese, the restaurateurs are Teochew (yes, Teochew seems to be the dialect to know in Paris). The roast duck turned out well, with a crisp skin and flavorful meat, but the roast pork was too chewy. Cooked dishes fared better, and we enjoyed a simply steamed bass and a very good rendition of claypot tofu devoid of the brown gunk that mar too many chinatown dishes. 

steamed bass
steamed bass

A couple days later, we wanted to return to Restaurant Imperial Choisy, but due to a wait decided to venture over to the restaurant across the street to Likafo. What a stroke of luck, because the latter was even better. The room, decorated with strips of chinese menu signs (its authentic!) was packed with mostly Chinese diners tucking into a myraid of dishes. We started with a seafood and seaweed soup and was pleasantly surprised to find the fishballs bouncy and not the gummy specimens found in the US. A bowl of steamed tofu was packed with homemade tofu and the vegetables stir fried with fermented beancurd had excellent “wok hei”. The steamed pork patty topped with a huge chunk of salted fish reminded me of a favorite restaurant in Geylang, and we were treated to a delicately steamed flounder, exhorbitant for chinatown standards at 40 euros, but done really really well. Possibly the best steamed fish I’ve ever had outside of Asia. In general, we found the cooking style in Parisian Chinese joints to be lighter than those in US chinatowns and much less dependent on oil and sugar. Once again, the servers spoke a mix of Chinese, Cantonese and Teochew, and my dad felt right at home being called “ah hia” meaning big brother by the middle-aged waiter.  

Japanese - Chinese at Ebis

Japanese - Chinese at Ebis

Ebis was our only non-Chinatown chinese pick, and came highly recommended by WiWi, our friend from Chicago days. She joined us for dinner at this restaurant in the 1st arrondisement, a cross-culture marriage between a Chinese kitchen and a Japanese front-of-house, or a Taiwanese proprietor and his Japanese wife. While lunchtime crowds get to eat ramen, the dinner menu is purely Chinese, with a focus on Sichuan cuisine. Only the green tea ice-cream with azuki beans was Japanese. WiWi had so eloquently described her favorite dish, S15 on the lunch menu, prior to dinner that we had to order it. S15 turned out to be chicken, roasted and then fried with crispy skin and impossibly moist meat. The scallops in black bean and chili sauce were big and fresh tasting in the slightly spicy sauce while the mixed tofu and seafod patty were fried greaselessly to form golden nuggets that spurt savory juices in one’s mouth. Rice at Ebis was excellent, fragrant and not too sticky, and takes the ribbon for “best rice”. That rice was not free. Neither was tea. But that seemed to be modus operandi in Paris. Finally, in Paris, you do not get fortune cookies after mealtime either, but that is no real loss when dinner is good!

Names and Addresses:

Pho Banh Cuon 14 (129 Ave de Choisy)

Restaurant Imperial Choisy (32 Ave de Choisy)

Likafo (39 Ave de Choisy)

Restaurant Ebis (19 rue Saint-Roch)

Danny Ng’s appears to be party central on Saturdays. All the round tables were filled with large raucous parties and whilst my friends and I were there last weekend, we heard 3 renditions of the birthday song being sung at every corner of the tight room. I was mercifully spared by my dining companions from the humiliation.

It seems to be a curious case, at least on the outset, because Danny Ng’s looks like any old Cantonese restaurant in Chinatown to me. It is small and cramped, not particularly festive looking (discounting the red table clothes and wall displays of dried shark’s fins), service is as Chinatown advertises – quick and brusque- and the menu choices verged on staggering but that is nothing too out of the ordinary. But after working through the sprawling menu (with suggestions by Lily’s mum, Mrs Chan), my crew and I enjoyed an excellent meal without a big dent in the pocket afterwards.

The pace of service is frenzied, and no longer then 10 minutes after ordering did our food arrive, without any distinctions between appetizers or entrees. As in most Cantonese restaurants, we got the soup of the day (ginseng chicken) and desserts (red bean and sago soup, oranges) on the house.

Next up – a barrage of food pictures:

Baked conch

Baked conch

Baked conch: Michelle and I wanted to cut down on the conch orders from one each to one for every two people to avoid over-ordering. In the end it was a futile attempt as those who did not get one each decided to take matters in their own hands and order their share because it was super tasty. The conch shell was filled with chewy meat that had been sliced up and filled back into the shell and then broiled. The hot soup trapped in the shell was particularly delicious and umami packed.

Fruit Salad Jumbo Prawns

Fruit Salad Jumbo Prawns

Fried shrimp with walnuts and fruit cocktail: How long have I not ordered this childhood favorite? The Chinese love mixing sweet and savory and this is a textbook example of how to do large bouncy shrimp with mayo and condensed milk, sitting on a mound of fresh fruits. Non-Chinese may be a little irked out, but I tell you, this is crazy stuff.

Chicken

Chicken

Chicken with preserved vegetables: Very moist roasted chicken with thin, crisp skin and a coating of salty preserved vegetables. Rustic and great with rice.

Beancurd roll

Beancurd roll

Beancurd roll: Because one has to counter all that meat eating with a bit of greens. But the packet of mixed vegetables wrapped with a steamed beancurd skin is both virtuously healthy and delicious that even the most avowed carnivore gladly dug into it without being strongarmed.

Prime Rib

Prime Rib

Prime Rib: Some of the menu items sound more Western than Oriental in the menu. Examples are Pastrami Fried Rice and the Prime Rib, which one typically associates with a steakhouse. The meat is tender and swathed in ubiquitous brown sauce. Unfortunately, it was bland and not very memorable.

Ee fu Noodles

Ee fu Noodles

Ee-fu Noodles with mushroom and chinese leeks: My special order. Noodles on a birthday symbolizes long life, so a platter of noodles at any birthday banquet is de rigeur. I love ee-fu noodles, and Danny Ng’s was non-greasy and packed with ingredients.

Steamed Crab

Steamed Crab

Dungeness crab steamed over glutinous rice: Loved the sucked in breath of anticipation and the united sound of exclamation my friends made when the top of an oversized bamboo steamer is lifted up to reveal, under a puff of steam, an orange crab packed with fresh meat sitting on top of a mound of soft, sticky glutinous rice, the crab juices staining the rice a uniform golden color. Curiously, people demolished the rice but left a good amount of crab alone as it was a messy endeavor cracking crabs. It meant a ton of leftovers for crab omelette, crab rice, crab noodles that I fed myself with the next week.

Eggplant

Eggplant

Egglant Casserole: The dish to make it 8. Good luck that eggplant’s my favorite vegetable too? Excellent on rice.

Danny Ng’s Place

52 Bowery (Bet Canal and Bayard St)

It must be Ying’s impending departure that’s sparking a state of nostalgia and broodiness. Last night we ate at Cha-an, where I wrote my second food blog entry the Friday after I returned to New York with my trusty camera. The attendees were the same, Yanru, Ying and I, and the topics of discussion were probably similar too, that of work and of men. The sesame creme brulee was as good as ever, creamy with a slight smoky flavor, and just sweet enough. The 3 course dessert set did not disappoint either, except for perhaps overly icy chestnut icecream that had the unappealing consistency of frozen milk. The warm chocolate pudding/cake was wonderful, and so was the red bean choux pastry, and the green tea macaron, albeit a little tough to chew was redeemed by the bitter-sweet green tea cream. We left the tea house and hugged good bye in a torrent of sudden snow that quickly turned into icy rain. I’m going to miss these dinners without Ying terribly.

Today I met up with friends from college and had dim sum again at Jing Fong, where the food was reliably cheap but more salty than usual. A girl was visiting from Chicago and I asked her about changes in Hyde Park. It was sad to find out that the Hyde Park Co-op, where I’ve bought way overpriced and not too fresh groceries during my time had/was closing, to be replaced by a chain called Treasure Island. There goes another neighborhood institution.

And tonight, feeling even more antisocial than not, I begged off dinner with Yanru and her friends and wandered alone in Chinatown, blissfully vacant at 8pm. I found Teochew food at New Chao Chow Restaurant just off Canal Street. The soy-braised duck called out to me and I ordered that in a bowl of hor fun (rice noodles) and ordered a side of stewed pork innards. The noodles were only ok, the duck was pale brown and not deep chocolate like what I’m used to, and the soup resembled salty water. But they had 5 types of chili sauces on the table, including the traditional condiment for duck rice, a murky red chili sauce that’s grainy with the inclusion of chopped dried shrimp and umami packed. And thankfully the innards – including pork intestine, ear and stomach – were braised well and much more flavorful, in a rich sweet and salty black soy-based braising liquid. The innards were also clean tasting, and all the textures were there, crunchy ears and chewy stomach, with some sweet pickled vegetables to clear the taste in between bites. I ate and remembered the sunday brunch tradition shared long ago with my parents, when we’d frequent a kway chap stall in the CBD area, below a multi-storey carpark adjoining a now-forgotten Ministry building. Ruoyi and I were not innard shy and would eat everything with gusto, while Ruoying would go for the braised egg and tofu. Regretfuly, that happened way back, before Chicago, before my mum became vegetarian, before we became too busy/ too far away to have lunch together on Sundays.

After dinner, I ended up at Quickly and bought a cup of milk tea (with egg pudding and tapioca balls) despite the chilly weather, and reminisced about high school, my pals in choir, Marina Square and the quickly shop in that poorly designed and unattractive shopping mall we once hung out in between carolling sessions at the Ritz and the Raffles. Too bad there’s not a single branch left in Singapore.

I’m not quite sure whether the food invoked the memories, or if the memories induced me to seek out the foods. It could be circular, but should nostalgia strike again, I’m comforted to know that I can find it all in the city. 

Cha-An

230 E9th St (Between 3rd & 2nd Aves) 

Jing Fong

18 Elizabeth St (between Canal & Bayard Streets)

New Chao Chow Restaurant

111 Mott St (between Canal & Hester Streets)

Quickly Restaurant 

237 Grand St (Near Bowery St)