Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Day Trip to Macau

It is an easy ferry ride over to Macau (or Macao) from Hong Kong and we were excited to check out this former Portuguese colony.  The ferries run regularly all throughout the day and night, though sometimes they are in high demand.  We had to wait about an hour going over and would have had to wait longer on the way back, but paid to upgrade to first class so we could get on the next boat.  It is a quick and comfortable ride.  The weather was very grey (typical in this climate) so there wasn't much of a view, but fortunately it was only rocky when we were docked waiting to leave.
Arriving in Macua, you see the many casinos on this side of the island.  Gambling is illegal in mainland China, so this is the nearest mecca for gamblers and immensely popular.  You have a lot of the usual players, such as Sands and Wynn along with more unique spots like the Grand Lisboa.

View as ferry is docking in Macau
We grabbed one of the tourist maps and located the various sites we had hoped to see.  We decided to take a cab over to the A-Ma temple, from which we could walk to the historic center easily.  I had also found a couple recommended restaurants near there so we could enjoy a tasty Portuguese lunch.  (The ferry terminal is not very accessible via walking so taxi or bus is probably the best way to start out here.  If you're going to a casino, they all offer shuttles as well. You will see the women in various casino uniforms waiting outside to guide you in that direction.)

A-Ma seemed to be a recurring theme on this trip as I had been reading a lot about this goddess of seafarers (Matau) in a local memoir and we were located by the Tin Hua metro stop, which is the equivalent goddess in Hong Kong.

It is a very old and well-known Taoist temple and is believed to be where the name Macau originated.  Supposedly, the Portuguese sailors asked the name of the place upon arriving and approximated the goddess' name Matau in to Macau.      
Inscriptions and incense cones
After visiting the temple, we walked up the road to locate one of the restaurants.  It struck us how this was such a unique mixture of Portuguese and Chinese.  Many of the side streets reminded us of small towns in Spain.  We located O Porto Interior restaurant and tucked in to a feast.  We refreshed with some iced tea (served with simple syrup to sweeten it--yum!) and dove right in to an appetizer of clams and garlic bread.  The clams were unbelievable, with a broth you couldn't stop sopping up with the rolls.  The garlic bread was made with the same rolls, but spread with gobs of butter and fresh garlic...really good, but we scraped off a little of the garlic as it was a bit too much for all but the most ardent garlic lovers.  Bryan had a great steak, while I went with the traditional cod fish.  Everything was so tasty and fresh, it left us longing for a trip to Portugal.

Well fed, we were energized to make our way through town to the historic sites.  The historic center of Macau is dedicated as a Unesco world heritage site for its unique history, with over 20 locations representing the culture heritage of the area. We saw Senado Square, St. Augustine's Church and the ruins of St. Paul's Cathedral along with the many historical buildings throughout the center's winding streets.  Once again, the coexistence of the European heritage along with the Chinese was striking.  We walked through tight crowds with various shops, Chinese restaurants and scenes you would see in Hong Kong or China, while rounding the corner to see an old European church or former government building.
Ruins of St. Paul's

We made a quick stop (overcoming the large lunch) for the famous Portuguese egg tart at one of the many bakeries along the way.  They absolutely did not disappoint--eggy, sweet and with a buttery, flaky crust. I could have eaten more, but two was probably sufficient.  Egg tarts are seen in many of the bakeries in Shanghai, but from what I have tasted they cannot compare.

We also ducked in a few shops, but mainly enjoyed strolling and viewing the architecture with the crowds.  We then began to make our way back towards the ferry side, via the casino area.  No gambling for us today, we simply enjoyed the casinos from the outside.

We thought we would walk back to the ferry, but began to get tired (and realized it is a bit hard to approach on foot if you don't know exactly where you are going) so we stopped at a Metropark hotel and took advantage of their shuttle.  We thought we'd try the "we're staying at a Metropark in Hong Kong" card, but they didn't even ask.  Relief for the feet!

It was a much better view leaving Macau in the evening and arriving back in to Hong Kong with all the lights.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Hong Kong Bites

So, not surprisingly, where to eat in Hong Kong took some priority in our (my) planning.  We have become fairly enamored of several Cantonese restaurants in Shanghai and I was determined to take part in the local dim sum and tea house ritual.  Here are a couple of our yummy (or interesting) experiences, covering the gamut from extremely traditional to contemporary fusion.  Like Shanghai, you can truly get it all in Hong Kong (it just comes with a lot less honking and pushing in Hong Kong)...

The Classic "Experience" of the Tea House
Lin Hueng Tea House (or Lian Xiang Lou)

This is a quintessential Hong Kong experience, unchanged over many years.  We were a little wary as we had heard they make no concessions to tourists and therefore no English (or really even Mandarin, of which we at least know a few words) so we thought we'd take a look and "scope it out".  Heading upstairs to the dining room, the place was packed.  Bustling with "renao", the hot, sweaty loud atmosphere that indicates a place is great...we were quickly swept up in the action.  Before we could decide what to do, we were ushered in to a small corner spot, a stool procured to squeeze us in an already packed table of about ten.  Guess we will go with the flow!

We were brought some dishware along with hot water and the lady next to us was kind enough to gesture and briefly tell us we should wash out our cups/dishes in the boiled water.  So, we followed along as instructed while glancing around trying to get the flow.  Being dim sum, various bites are brought around on carts...but as I had heard, at this place, you generally don't (can't) wait for them to come to you.  The patrons jump up when a cart comes out of the kitchen and the best dishes are quickly gone.  We easily got some sweet, steamed bread that came by the table and I then braved the carts to see what I could get.  I got some tasty shrimp dumplings and then got a bit stymied by the pork choices (the meatballs looked harmless but were chewy to say the least).  

After a few snacks, we felt like we'd had a sufficient experience to say we'd done it.  I can't say that the food was anything special, but it was something unique for us.  In a world where so much becomes modernized and more homogeneous, this was a fun trip back in time, so I'm glad we braved it.  We were far from mastering the we left still pondering how we could have managed to get some of the better dishes that people seemed to custom order.  Next time, perhaps we'll go with a Cantonese speaker and see how the experience contrasts.

Classic DimSum at Maxim's Palace

When we arrived we were afraid we had somehow missed Dim Sum hours due to a sign out front regarding tea hours, but it simply meant we had missed the special prices (reduced very early and later afternoon).  This was probably a good thing because we were able to get seated immediately (whereas on our way out, there were probably over 100 people waiting).

This place has the large Chinese banquet hall look and was definitely several steps above the first tea house in elegance.  They had a massive dim sum menu as well as other a la carte dishes.  They do have some carts that come around with items (particularly sweets), but most items are ordered with a checklist and brought to you from the kitchen/stations.
Everything I had was delicious.  It was typical dim sum fare, a lot of steamed buns and dumplings.  My favorite was probably the roast pork snack (shocking as a previous non-pork eater and former vegetarian, this is often my favorite dish).  Melt in your mouth!

Even though no English was spoken, we managed just fine as the menu had English and the waitress took control.  We started out observing to figure out what we might have to do in terms of picking items but once we realized we would order most items from the checklist or menu, it was easy.  I probably could have completed the checklist myself, but the waitress did it for me as I pointed to items.

The only "faux pas" we probably made was that we did not clean out our dishes (a la the previous place) and later realized people were doing this.  This is often done using the weak tea they provide (as we saw people doing here).  Oh well, no one looked too strangely at us and we drank the tea.

Contemporary International
Le Chef 

Leafing through some freebie foodie magazine while we ate breakfast, I read about Le Chef restaurant.  It was described as Spanish-influenced and the overview of the meal sounded very tempting.  With rainy weather later that evening, we decided it would be nice to have a reservation for a nice dinner rather than wandering around searching.  It is actually located in a Metropark hotel (we were also staying at this brand) so we called our concierge to book us a table, though we probably could have walked right in.  It was a nice setting, very well decorated and quite "swank" and we had a great window seat to watch the bustle of the streets below.

The food lived up to the magazine's praise.  It was definitely influenced by molecular gastronomy, but never in sacrifice of taste.  They have a couple set menus, but we decided to go a la carte.  Bryan started with a wagyu beef appetizer, which was simply prepared to highlight the delicious beef (I tasted a piece and have to say, this could win me over to being a beef eater).  The beef was adorned with cherry tomatoes which held a nice little surprise as they were filled with salt flakes (and maybe olive oil) that contrasted and highlighted their fresh sweetness.  He also got an iberico ham plate.  The ham was delicious, as true quality iberico always is.  This is probably not the highlight dish for a place like this, since the ham really stands on its own without help from a great chef.  It did have an interesting "olive oil powder" served with it, which was innovative if not special in taste.  We shared a "mantis crab" dish (which I think is really called a mantis shrimp).  The large shrimp was done to perfection and the waitress poured a wonderful hearty broth on top of it.  The shrimp sat on a bed of fine seaweed and the whole thing worked perfectly together.  Finally, we split a main dish of lobster.  It was a small but delectable portion...again, done perfectly, so the sweet lobster meat stood out.  This was served with a mozarella "balloon" which was another interesting molecular touch and a "turnip ravioli" which tastes better than perhaps it sounds.
Mantis shrimp with seaweed and broth (maybe not the most photogenic dish!)
It's obviously a testament to Hong Kong's dining scene that this place was not more crowded. It was a real treasure, but much like Shanghai, Hong Kong attracts some of the world's top culinary talents and you can get anything from fabulous $1 dumplings to multi-course meals that cost more than the average per capita income.

We started off our daily "bites" in Hong Kong at a  great little cafe right next to our hotel called Peace Square.  They had wonderful breakfast sets and great coffee, along with a pretty diverse lunch and dinner menu.  It was a bright and peaceful place, a wonderful little neighborhood treasure.  Why anyone would choose the Starbucks down the street remains a mystery to me.

When we post about our day trip to Macau, I'll share some of our tastiest bites of the trip...our little bit of Portugal in Asia.  Yum...I'm day dreaming about Portuguese egg tarts now...

Monday, April 1, 2013

Shanghai Restaurant Reviews: Picks from Around China

You can get just about any type of food in the world in Shanghai.  We've previously shared a couple of our Mediterranean favorites and have newly discovered Casa 700, a great Spanish restaurant and DeMarco for outstanding Italian.  But, of course, the greatest number of options come from the regional cuisines of China.  Again, you can get it all here, from fiery Sichuan hot pot to crispy Beijing duck.  I constantly bemoan all the pitiful renditions of Chinese food I ever had in the U.S. but I'm dedicated to overcoming that by sampling as much as I can here.  Here are a few short reviews of some we have tried:

Cuisine/region: Beijing  
Smart Shanghai listing

This chain from Beijing is known for its duck, though it has a huge menu spanning various Chinese regions.  While a Beijing native would likely pick a local favorite over this large chain, this place does know what they're doing.  When we crave some of that crispy skin, it is nice not to have to travel to Beijing (though I look forward to sampling some there!). Your duck arrives on a cart and is skillfully butchered table side (you can tell these guys do this every day by their speed and skill) and presented to you along with scallions, sauce and the pancakes to roll the pieces of duck in to tasty little pockets.  Small bits of the crisp skin come along with a small bowl of sugar for dipping (if you've never had it, have no doubt!).  A lot of patrons get the carcass in a bag to make soup later.

The atmosphere here is nothing great--think large banquet hall--but always lively and packed.  It is fun to go with a group so you can enjoy the duck and also try some of the many other dishes.

Favorite dishes:  Beijing roast duck, pan-fried pork buns

Tidbits: The menu is bilingual but the staff generally are not.  You can easily get by with gestures, though.  The staff who answer the phone can generally understand enough to get a reservation and you will receive a text message confirming your reservation and providing the restaurant address/info. (automated, so only if calling on a local mobile #).  It always seems pretty crowded, so a reservation is recommended.

Cuisine/region: Yunnan
Southern Barbarian

This is a favorite amongst Shanghai expats for homestyle Yunnan, along with the more upscale Lost Heaven. Everything we sampled was tasty and they also have one of the most extensive international beer lists in Shanghai.  This place is a bit dingy and not much on atmosphere, but it is fun to taste their wide array of choices to sample the homestyle cuisine of Yunnan (some are even daring enough to try the various bugs such as fried honey bees).

Favorite dishes: fried goat cheese, fried potato pancake, spicy mint salad

Tidbits: They obviously cater a bit to expats, so the menu is bilingual.  This is a great place to go when you're in the mood for beer as you'll rarely find such an extensive list.

Cuisine/region: Cantonese/Hong Kong Cha Chaan Teng  
Tsui Wah

Tsui Wah originated in Hong Kong and has several branches throughout Shanghai.  We discovered it because the Tianzifang branch was always packed with locals so we knew it had to be good.  We've been to the Tianzifang branch and one near our home, they are quite consistent.  The wait at Tianzifang, especially, can be quite long.  Tsui Wah offers up a large menu of mostly Cantonese favorites along with some of the popular western imports and unique blends made famous in Hong Kong's cha chaan tengs.  They run a bakery where you can get the various popular Cantonese baked goods to take away, as well.  The food is consistently tasty and pretty inexpensive.

Favorite dishes: Sizzling prawns on fried noodles, fried rice with dried scallops and prawns, honey barbecue pork, pineapple bun

Tidbits: The menu is in Chinese and English, but the staff are mostly Chinese speaking only.  We have always managed with our limited phrases and gestures, though.  Expect a wait at Tianzifang and many of their branches.  Grab a pineapple bun or other baked good to tide you over.  Pay your check afterwards at the cashier.


For a bit of better atmosphere with the same tasty Hong Kong dishes, Molokai is a great choice.  It has a clean, modern design with an open air kitchen.  Everything we have tried is tasty and they have a nice array of choices.  Consider saving room for some baked goods, such as the sinful buttered condensed milk toast.  They have a creative list of drinks too, from the ubiquitous milk tea to fruit combinations and even some innovative alcohol concoctions.

Favorite dishes: fried rice with ginger, toast with butter and condensed milk

Cuisine: Modern/fusion  
People 7 Restaurant
Trip Advisor listing

Great design touches everywhere, even beautiful placemat art
This one does not necessarily fit under one Chinese region, as it serves an array of dishes inspired by various Chinese cuisine and ingredients, often with a bit of a twist.  I would say this place is all about the atmosphere, but the food deserves more credit than that.  However, the atmosphere and presentation make it special.  Somehow they have created a innovative, modern atmosphere without pretension.  It is all a bit mysterious, with a "trick" front door and a bathroom that is like a hall of mirrors.  It is interesting and yet the overall effect is very "chill".  We sat on the 3rd floor, a romantic setting amongst the tree tops in the Former French Concession.  They also have a great bar and lounge area downstairs where I enjoyed the most delicious dessert coffee ("floating coffee", i.e. an ice cream float made with coffee).
Chinese broccoli in ice bowl (with rose petals)

Spicy tofu in paper bowl (comes over its own little burner)
Favorite dishes: The spicy tofu was great, but I think the winner was the udon noodles in vinegar (hearty udon noodles with a sweet sauce almost reminiscent of cinnamon, veggies and pork).  The stir fried beef was also delicious, and every dish looks as good as it tastes.  The prices are not bad considering the atmosphere.

Tidbits: Don't wait until you're desperate to go to the restroom as it may take some time to figure it out.  There's a secret to getting in the front door (google it if you don't want to play detective).  If you have poor eyesight or bad balance, this might not be the place for you.  Check out the cool dumbwaiter system traveling up from the first floor.  Plan to get a drink or coffee in the lounge afterwards, you'll want to spend some time here.

I decided to separate Shanghainese places in to another post, so look for more deliciousness to come, along with a post about my beloved dumplings (again, I think that will need to be its own as there is so much dumpling deliciousness!).  Happy eating!