Archive for septembre 2010

Xia Long Bao: the good and less so, Shanghai

septembre 27, 2010

Shanghai is home to what has become one of my favourite dishes of all: Xia Long Bao. Nowhere else have I eaten Xia Long Bao which were more tasty, juicy, and amazing than here. Funnily enough, this rather complex dish is best enjoyed in very simple places. Contrasting one of the latter and what can arguably be seen as being one of the more expensive restaurants in the city can lead to some surprising outcomes! Take for instance Yu Gardens, where you will find a host of stands, restaurants, and god knows who, who will sell you these fantastic soup-filled dumplings. We came for breakfast, as this place is seriously popular, and went to what is considered the best restaurant around. Dare I say that I have not had a better breakfast yet? I think I can safely state that fact.

Now, these places aren’t fancy, they’re simple, clean, honest, and very popular(at least some of them are). Most offer good value for money too, as a meal here can cost as little as a fiver (€). If you call that excessive, rest assured that you’ll always find something cheaper if you look for it. However, we wanted the best, and found this spectacular place (as I was with Chinese friends, I have no idea about the name). Not because of the service, not because of the design of the dining room, but because of the bustling ambience and much more importantly the bloody marvellous food.

You can eat dumplings filled with various things, from crab, to pork to mushrooms and many other nice things. We tried about 8 different types and loved every single one of them. All had beautiful, perfect dough, intense and very tasty soup inside them, and simply fantastic fillings. Taking one of these and dipping it into vinegar before letting it disappear in one’s mouth is about as great as food can get. They explode, and overwhelm your palate the stunning stock. Wow wow wow! Outstanding stuff.

Less enjoyable and very different was the experience of the Park Hyatt’s restaurant. Due to the hotel’s fantastic location and building the view here is breathtaking, but the Xia Long Bao are simply not that great. Certainly capable, but far away from what one can get in Yu Gardens. At about twice the price of a whole meal in the best restaurants of the latter, one gets about three pieces here. Foolish and still not expensive for what is the city’s most luxurious hotel, but the only reason to go here is the view (for me at least). Don’t expect too much from the food and you’ll have a lovely time.

Unfortunately, the rest of the food in this restaurant is not all that exciting neither. There is safe, bland and uninteresting selection of sushi, the odd piece of grilled cod, and a dry, over-salted crispy pigeon.

The only thing that can make up for it is the fantastic wine list. With that of the Opposite House in Beijing, this was the best wine list I saw in China. It had Selosse, Vouette & Sorbée, Chave, and tons of other interesting wines. Kudos for that! However that and the view are the only reasons why one should go here. Service was not stunning neither and rather unfriendly compared to other places of similar standards. So lesson learned for me: Xia Long Bao does not necessarily go that well with luxurious restaurants. There are some that can pull it off (notably in London), but in China, I did not come across a single fancy place that beat the most down to earth, simple eateries.

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Viajante, London

septembre 17, 2010

I must admit that the first lunch I had at Viajante was good fun. The food was very good and there were only a few issues that bothered me. However, those were probably due to the fact, that the restaurant had been opened just a week before. So, when I decided to go back a while ago, I was looking forward to what I expected being an even more polished experience.

First of all, service was indeed better and more confident. We were greeted warmly, and had nothing to worry about throughout the entire evening. The team and style of service fitted in perfectly with the style of the food and the restaurant’s concept.

The food too had some very strong points to make. Take for instance the fantastic bread and butter served here. It is unlike anything that is being served in London. Whilst some may find it gimmicky, I find it addictive and quite good for a change. Equally excellent was a vegetable dish. With lots of different elements, the dish did not only look beautiful, but also tasted very well. Every vegetable was carefully prepped and seasoned and thus had something to add to the picture. It was sensible, modern cooking that worked. Not really inventive, but very well done.

Another very good dish was an egg yolk with asparagus and lobster meat. The runny yolk worked brilliantly with the nicely timed crustacean and the al dente-cooked asparagus. The omni-present tapioca-enriched sauce was of course also on hand.

A third dish I very much enjoyed on the last meal too was the skate with yeast, brioche and nut-butter. The dish itself was just as good as on the first time, however what startled me was that the fish quality was also on the same level as the first time: Mediocre. Now that is something I can’t really understand. Why does a serious chef, such as Mendes, not get better fish? Surely people like Brett Graham, Phil Howard and Jocelyn Herland manage to find fantastic produce, so it might be worth doing the same. At least if the restaurant has the ambition to be amongst the city’s very best. I for my part was a bit disappointed by what was served here.

The same goes for some of the other dishes too. Obviously no dish was bad, all safely 1* material, but some just didn’t work. A good example for such a case was a combination of pork neck and prawns. Served with nothing else but a few braised leaves, the two products lacked a combining element. Each was prepared without any technical mistakes, but the dish as such did not really seem like something into which someone had put a bit of thought. Furthermore, none of the two proteins was of impressive quality, thus making the dishes’ success even more questionable.

However, desserts better than on the first visit, and we thus ended on a more positive note to say the least. All of the desserts served were tasty, fun and light. What they proved yet again is the precision that reigns here, and the kitchen’s technical dexterity.

Overall, one can say Viajante has reached cruising speed now. The restaurant seems to be busy, and has found the customers that fit into the concept. The food is mostly very capable, without any technical issues, and generally speaking entertaining and fun to eat. For modern cooking, London hasn’t got much to offer than can rival Nuno’s food, so I would not be surprised to see it get a star in the next edition of the Michelin guide. But, a major issue can still be worked on: The quality of some of the produce served. Especially everything coming out of the sea is not always as fresh as it could be, in a restaurant of its standard. It might be a bit more expensive to serve constantly fresh fish, but with only one menu, and that menu costing at least the same as most 2* restaurants’ in Mayfair, one can ask for a little more rigor in that department. The lack of very good or outstanding products inevitably results in some dishes not working at all, such as the pork and prawn combination or in other dishes not being as perfect as they could be.

Nuno is a good cook, someone who obviously is ambitious and talented enough to belong to the elite of this city’s culinary scene. So let’s hope this issue will be dealt with, or has already been dealt with, so that we can have an even better time when we come back! And there will definitely be a return, as this is a very fine restaurant.

China Club, Beijing

septembre 10, 2010

The China Club in Beijing is a bit of a legend. Being a private members club, it counts among the most exclusive hotels and restaurants in the capital. Having only 8 beautiful, individually styled rooms means that it is a really individualistic hotel, with a lot of personality and charm. What is also great about it, is that unlike many other luxurious hotels and restaurants in Beijing, it is hardly visible for the passers-by, seeing that it is composed of a number of traditional courtyards.

Take for instance the bar, which must be one of the most beautiful in China. The style is timeless, and beautifully allies old and new elements. It simply makes you want to stay there, talk, read, think do anything one likes. Sitting down here is about as great a place as one can imagine for a pre-dinner drink.

However, the food is the real showstopper, as it is fantastic. Having gone through the wine list, which was expensive and not very interesting, we stuck to tea and very good juices. To start the meal, a few pieces of sliced lotus root were dressed with a sweet/sour sauce. Light, tasty and of intriguing texture, this was a most enjoyable start to the meal.

Also served were some deep-fried, smoked eels. Delicately crispy, perfectly seasoned, these pieces of eel were fantastic.

A first warm course was even more interesting. A rice cracker was topped with scallops and a sweet and sour sauce. What was interesting here was the play on textures and flavours. The rice gave the crunch, with the scallops adding something of a delicate and tender element. The flavours were very good and highly interesting, with only one point to criticise: The scallops could have been of slightly higher quality. Very good.

Following this pork kidneys were ordered. Fried with cashew nuts and an intensely flavoursome sauce, this was a real masterpiece. The kidney was perfectly cooked, and of such delightful flavour and texture that it was hard to keep one’s hands off the dish! A real treat, that showed how hearty, yet complex Chinese cooking can be. Excellent.

The masterpiece however, was the Mandarin fish. Beautifully presented, the entire fish was brought to the table, covered in a pinenut sauce. Again, a slightly sweeter dish, it was quite remarkable. Of very high quality, it was cooked perfectly, whilst having an incredibly crunchy outside. I was baffled by how tasty this was, a real treat, that I haven’t experienced in such a perfect way before. Excellent.

To finish the meal, we ordered some warm mochi, which were good, but hardly on the same level as the previous courses. Some noted that they were probably not freshly made, however that is something I can not comment on. Still, it was a good, light end to what was a fantastic meal. Good.

Another great restaurant in China. Whilst the food overall was maybe not quite as phenomenal as at Da Dong, it was splendid nonetheless. Especially the kidney and mandarin fish were real eye-openers, which I will warmly remember. This is another very serious restaurant, that delivers on all levels, from the stunning room, to good service and of course, the great food. Oh, I wish I wouldn’t live 10.000km away from Beijing…