Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Free Rice

Free Rice

I just discovered this great website called Free Rice. Set up by the people at the site has the twin aims of offering a free way to enrich English vocabulary and helping end world hunger by providing free rice to the hungry.

The site works by a simple process of matching words to their meanings; each correct answer earns a donation of 20 grains of rice to the World Health Organization. There is a feature to hear the word and the site remembers your vocabulary level and total donations. Funded by non-obtrusive advertising at the bottom of the screen it really is a fun, easy and slightly addictive way to make a small difference. Checkout the website.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Pearl on the Peak

Shop102, Level 1, the Peak Tower
Visited 26th January 2008

To celebrate Australia Day we kept with our theme of Australian restaurant's in Hong Kong and visited Pearl on the Peak. This new take on Melbourne's highly awarded Pearl is situated on the second story of the Peak Tower; one of the most scenic locations in Hong Kong. Somehow we managed to get the coveted corner table, yet unfortunately cloud set in and all we could see through the giant floor to ceiling windows was an insipid white haze.

The menu has Asian and Middle-eastern influences as well as offering many Western favourites. Seeking advice I was persuaded to try the sweetcorn and crap soup. The beautifully presented soup and crap were severed separately and accompanied by a fried crab wonton; a delightful mix of luxurious flavours. For a main I continued in the vain of self indulgence and ordered up a chunk of aged rib eye. The excellent steak was full of flavour and accompanied by tasty bone marrow and red wine risotto. The mouthfuls I wrestled of my brother's pork chop and Naomi lamb were both just as superb. Desserts took self-indulgence to the next level and I enjoyed peanut semifreddo sandwiched between two crispy caramel wafers. Naomi didn't like the bitterness of her chocolate pudding, but my brother on the other hand talked up his chocolate and berry soufflé as one of the bests desserts he'd ever eaten (not bad praise from such a fat guy). To drink us boys shared a bottle of Punters Corner Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, a decent wine despite the poor vintage. Naomi in a sweet daze was more than satisfied with her favourite De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon by the glass.

Pearl on the Peak oozes class; the decor is tastefully stylish, the staff slick and the whole place has a polished and professional vibe. A visit is not a cheap venture, but for such high quality food, outstanding service and spectacular views I think it actually offers pretty good value. The mains started at $298 though the steak was $378, while desserts and entrees were all about $80. Our bill came to $2553 for the four of us with three courses, coffee and wine. Stinking of sophisticated style, Pearl on the Peak is absolutely superb and definitely one of the best restaurant experiences to be had in Hong Kong.
Visit the terrible Chinese language website of Max Concepts, Pearl's Hong Kong partner.

Service Charge; Paying for Nothing.

'Tipped Off' by Pavan Shamdasani
HK Magazine, 25th January 2008, p.16

"What's up with the Hong Kong service industry?" wrote Pavan Shamdasani in last week's HK Magazine. Shamdasani, searching for reasons to explain Hong Kong's apparently terrible service asked if the city was too fast paced for decent service, if it's a cultural difference or if terrible service is due to the minimal wages received by waiters. The average monthly salaries of fast food and restaurant staff were compared to office assistants, janitors, telesales and retail workers, who all received noticeably more; though hotel waiters were a lot better off than their industry peers.

Many of the restaurants I visit are in Yuen Long; well away from the flash hotels and high prices of Central. Out here service is often uninspiring, yet strangely seems to be worse in Chinese restaurants. Even places that offer higher quality dinning, such as Wing Wah, still have shocking service. Is there a link between Chinese restaurants and bad service? Perhaps the process of serving the centre of table rather than individuals has created a culture of inefficient rudeness? Is it the disinterest of dinners or the nature of the job that cause a lack of enthusiasm? Or is it, as Shamdasani suggests, related to pay and working conditions? What ever the truth of this assumption one must ask why is service in many Hong Kong restaurants seen as being so bad?

I hate the 10% "service charge". This compulsory levy charged in virtually all Hong Kong restaurants is a counter productive lie. If prices can't cover the cost or running a restaurant put them up 10% instead of fibbing on the menu - if the service charge is compulsory it should be included in the price not as a crafty hidden footnote. Calling it service charge is another fallacy; it doesn't go to the serving staff so why pretend it does? If I'm asked to pay service charge I don't tip, if I'm not I virtually always do. Scrapping this dishonest 10% would mean putting up perceived prices, but all would benefit; consumers from actually seeing how much they're paying and service staff from clientele who are more likely to tip. Some Hong Kong restaurant have fantastic service - the New York Cafe, Olive and Pearl on the Peak are three obvious examples at different price brackets - so scrap the myth of a "service charge" and at least offer an environment in which those that do a good job can get rewarded.

Cantina Cecconis

43 Elgin St, SoHo
Visited 25th January

It was Australia Day weekend and my brother was passing through town, so we thought we'd checkout a few Hong Kong restaurants with Australian connections. Cantina Cecconi's was our first stop; a modern Italian restaurant that is the Hong Kong incarnation of a popular Melbourne eatery. Located on Elgin St, the place was bursting with a jovial Friday night crowd. The tables were packed close together, the décor is slick and modern and the place has an excited, vibrant feel.

Cecconi's is all about Italian food with a menu sprouting many of the classics as well as a few more interesting options. I had a serve of seared scallops to start; presented atop their shells the six pan-fried scallops weren’t huge, but were extremely tasty. My brother indulged in a ball of baked mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto and served with radicchio salad; a delightful mix of textures and flavours with delicious saltiness countered by the sharpness of the salad leaves. For a main I went with slow cooked rabbit that was so meltingly tender it was falling off the bone. The generous portion of rabbit had a stew like consistency and was served atop a pile of wet polenta; a filling and satisfying dish. My brother and his partner both enjoyed their lamb shanks, but Naomi found her pork 'cotaletta' a little too tough. The drinks were flowing we had a couple of tasty bottles of Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a delicious Italian white, and a decent bottle of Valpolicella.

The packed intensity of Cecconi's on Friday night was pretty full on and it seemed the type of place you'd have to be in the mood for; certainly not an option for a romantic meal, but for our purpose of a boozy catch-up it was great. The food was good, but not cheap; the entrees were $108 each and the mains ranged from $168 to $198. Our bill was $2,682 for the four of us, but we did drink three and a half bottles of wine and had entrees, mains and a couple of desserts. I was unfortunately disappointed with the service. The waitress who looked after us was obviously new and she did a terrible job, however the rest of the staff seemed efficient and helpful. Cecconi's impressed me as fun place for a quality feed.

Visit restaurant website.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Breakfast at Staunton's Wine Bar

10-12 Staunton St, Soho
Visited 20th January 2008

A mate was visiting from Singapore and I'd given him a thorough tour of Lan Kwai Fong the previous night. As we'd had Yum Cha Saturday and we were meeting another mate in Central for Sunday breakfast we decided a good old fashioned fry up was in order. Perched next to the mid-level escalator, Staunton's Wine Bar is something of a Soho landmark. They've a good winelist and on weekend afternoons happy drinkers spill forth all over the street. When I'm in Soho I often head to Staunton's for coffee because it's served in the best big mugs in Hong Kong.

It was hungry and hung-over and it only took me about a second to decide upon a 'full English breakfast'. The packed plate placed before me was piled with two poached eggs, bacon, a sausage, baked beans, a grilled tomato and mushrooms. It all hot, freshly cooked and just what I needed. The bacon was crisp and the eggs were perfectly done. I admit I'm from Melbourne - home of the cafe breakfast - and I'm critical, but for me bread is often the weak link of a cooked breakfast. In this case it was a couple of thin slices of average, brown, 'supermarket style' stuff; serviceable, but some Ciabatta or Turkish bread would have been fantastic or even just a good quality fresh, thick cut loaf. My meal was well cooked and tasty, but it wasn't excellent; the bread was a turn-off and the pool of sloppy canned baked beans did nothing for me.

I like Staunton's; it's always a good place to stop for coffee, beer or bacon. The service is professional, the decor light and airy and the prices fair for SoHo; my fry-up was $108 and the couple of coffees I drunk $32 each. My meal was tasty, but basic and the rest of their breakfast menu is of the same ilk; good but not interesting or exciting. I'd love to see Staunton's offering a few more creative options; all up satisfying but simple.

Visit restaurant website.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Arthur Metz Gewurztraminer 2006

Arthur Metz Gewurztraminer 2006
Alsace, France, $112, plastic cork seal

I've had a bad time of Gewurztraminer recently. Three average bottles of wine over as many weeks were nearly enough to put me off the varietal, but lucky I found this little number rolling around the back of the fridge.

A fine yellow colour, with just a sparkle of gold. The nose is lush and aromatic; there's banana and tropical fruit flavours, alongside ginger, flowers and a slight smokiness that's interesting and appealing. The palate is ruled by ripe red apples and tropical fruits; perhaps mango. There’s also lovely spicy flavours and a few drops of honey. Arthur Metz Gewurztraminer 2006 definitely has traces of syrupy sweetness, yet it's also somehow crisp and refreshing; a very drinkable drink. While it doesn't have amazing length, it's an enjoyable wine and for the price offers excellent value.

Sunday, 20 January 2008


Shop 19, 1/F Peak Galleria, The Peak
Visited 17th January 2008

With two of Naomi's sisters visiting we took a evening trip up the Peak to soak up Hong Kong's pretty lights and their smearing of pollution. While the Peak isn't rich in dinning options there're a couple of standard choices, unless of course there's an Australian icon in the house. Rock legend Jimmy Barnes was belting out his stuff at Cafe Deco and the Peak Lookout Cafe was packed with eager punters indulging in pre-gig beers. Starting to get desperate we stumbled across to Simpatico; a place I've never noticed before tucked away up on the first floor of the Peak Galleria. Though it doesn't have spectacular views it's a pleasant restaurant with smart white decor and a slick modern feel.

Simpatico serves Italian food stamped with authenticity. I ordered ossobuco; Naomi went with soup, 'Sister 1' with roasted spring chicken and 'Sister 2' with a 'pescatora' pizza. I enjoyed my ossobuco which was braised in a thick sauce and served with saffron risotto. Naomi's soup was OK and the sneaky slice of pizza I tried was pretty good with a crisp, thin base and simple topping of tomato and plump seafood. The chicken got a rave review and so did the roasted rosemary potatoes it came with. I sucked on a couple of glasses of decent Toscana Rosso; a tasty IGT wine from Tuscany.

Our experience of Simpatico was a positive one. The staff were friendly and tried hard to be efficient, while the atmosphere was lovely despite lacking the big views. The grub was good, though not particularly cheap; my ossobuco was $218, the pizza $136 and a glass of wine $75. The food was perhaps a little stock standard for a restaurant in that price range - while good, it wasn't overly exciting. Simpatico is definitely a option if you're looking for dinner up in Peak land; I just wish I was allowed to go and see Barnesy.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Hing Lok Restaurant

11D Pak She Praya RD, Cheung Chau
Visited 12th January 2008
An unusually clear and sunny Saturday inspired a trip from Central Ferry Pier 5 to visit the little island of Cheung Chau. Naomi and I enjoyed exploring the village's winding backstreets, visiting Pak Tai Temple and walking around the southern headlands for spectacular vistas of Lantau, Hong Kong and Lamma Islands. Cheung Chau is famous for seafood and we tucked into lunch at the busy restaurant strip on Praya Rd. We picked Hing Lok Restaurant at random and like its competition it makes the most of the great views with alfresco seating by the harbour. Lunch at a seafood restaurant with someone who doesn't eat seafood can be a bit tricky, but Naomi and I made the most of it and picked a few 'Australian favourites'. We shared 'sweet and sour chicken' and 'beef fried rice'; I also had a cheeky serve of 'pepper and salt squid' on the side. I really enjoyed the fried rice that was simple and satisfying with finally diced beef, spring onion and egg. Naomi was more than happy with the chicken which wasn't overly gluggy or sweet. The lightly battered fried squid was fresh, succulently tender and well seasoned with just enough 'pepper and salt' to compliment a big cold bottle of Tsing Tao.

Eating outside on such a pleasant day was fantastic, as were the views of fisher folk going about life in harbour and the peaks of Lantau sparkling in the sun. The food at Hing Lok Restaurant was basic, but good and excellent value at just over $100 for the three dishes. Big bottles beers for $20 are bargain and ideally suited for a long lunch. The alfresco atmosphere on Praya Rd is great, though I'm not sure if there'd be a bit of an aroma from the harbour at low tide. A visit to Cheung Chau is always recommended and Hing Lok Restaurant certainly isn't a bad spot for lunch.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Villa Russiz Tocai Friulano 2006

Villa Russiz Tocai Friulano Collio DOCG 2006
Capriva del Friuli, Italy, €16.50, cork seal

This is my entry for Wine Blogging Wednesday #41. Fork and Bottle who are running the event warned it can be difficult to find Friuli wines, but not if you've just visited Italy and were able to ask the lovely people at Enoteca Scali. The wine's made from 100% Tocai Friulano grapes and comes from Italy's northern most wine region; Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Classified as DOCG Collio, Villa Russiz Tocai Friulano 2006 is produced by the “A. Cerruti” Villa Russiz Institution; a charitable trust that does education and youth work along side its serious role as a winery.

Villa Russiz Tocai Friulano 2006 is a pretty straw gold colour. There was an initial whiff of grassy herbs, which was quickly replaced by an attractive nose oozing ripe pears, apple juice and almonds. The palate was a wealth of delightful flavours; cantaloupe, nectarines, grapefruit and pears with a slight bitter aftertaste. On the first sip there was a pinching slap of sharp acidity, but the wine settled down and became seductively full and lush, almost syrupy in its rich texture. At 15% alcohol it packs a punch and unfortunately alcohol dominates the finish. Villa Russiz Tocai Friulano 2006 impressed me with its complex, interesting palate and rich lushness; though the alcohol was off-putting.

Visit winery website or the home of WBW.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Hong Kong Masters

'Toast of the town'
South China Morning Post, 11th January, p.C1

It was fantastic to read in today's paper that two Hong Kongers have passed the Master of Wine exam. Jeannie Cho Lee and Debra Meiburg, both Hong Kong residents, are now well on track to becoming Asia's first Masters of Wine when they hand in their dissertations in June. The Master of Wine exam is heralded as one of the most difficult in the world and from last year's eighty-two candidates only twelve passed. Congratulations Debra and Jeannie.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Adega Coop Borba Reserva 2003

Adega Coop Borba Reserva 2003
Borba, Alentejo, Portugal, cork seal

Back in Hong Kong and it's time for a drink. I picked this up from Chip Seng on my last visit to Macau. It's made by the Adega Coop, based in the town of Borba in southern Portugal and is classified as an Alentejo DOC wine. Made from 75% Trincadeira, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Alicante Bouschet it's also interestingly matured in chestnut as well as American and French barrels. The strangeness continues, with an inspection revealing the classy looking label is in fact made of cork.

Adega Coop Borba Reserva is intriguingly dark in colour. The nose is subdued with raspberries, blueberries and a squeeze of meat juice. The palate has a mix of flavours including olives, handfuls of cheeky red fruit, tomato and a touch of green vegetable. The wine is approachable with restrained alcohol, a noticeable vibrant fresh acidity, subtle tannins and good palate length. Adega Coop Borba Reserva 2003 is an interesting wine; the flavours on the palate are difficult to pin down and perhaps a little confused, but offering something different it's an enjoyable drink.

Visit winery website.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Simon Tam on the Money

'Perfect Match' by Simon Tam
South China Morning Post, 3rd January, p.C7

I've previously been critical of Simon Tam's Thursday wine and food column; 'Perfect Match'. I argued the average cost of the wines was often ridiculous and matches like Grange and 'joong' rice dumplings and Krug and a fry-up were excessive to the extreme (see here). This week however things look a lot better as Tam suggests wines to go with Thai style raw prawn 'sashimi'. The three wines chosen have an affordable average price of $178. His inclusion of Mateus Rose was superb. Despite what snobs in the wine establishment may think (and luckily I'm too young to be influenced by the older generation's produce against rose based upon the once syrupy, sweet tackiness of this beverage) at $98 and widely available Mateus is an honest and accessible suggestion. While I haven't had the Antinori Montenisa Franciacorta Brut from Lombardy I've recently been impressed with Italian sparkling and don't begrudge it getting a gig. And then there's Tam's final suggestion, the Plunkett Gewurztraminer 2007, a wine I love with biased flamed passion. I use to live relatively near the vineyard in Victoria's Strathbogie Rangers and it's fantastic to see a wine that's not a style Australia is usually acknowledged for from a region that most Hong Kongers would never have heard of. Well done Tam it's great to see you're on the money this week.

The Salt House

63 Abbey Rd, London
Visited 31st December 2007

New Year's Eve and we were flying home from London. I've always thought welcoming in the New Year on a plane would be fun, especially flying first or business class; we however were stuck in economy on a very average discount carrier. The £5 they charge for disgusting quality mini-bottles of wine meant lunch with my brother and his partner at The Salt House became our New Year's celebration.
This rather nice pub in Abbey Road has a slick dinning room out the back where we enjoyed a slick meal.

The menu offers a selection of international dishes, the usual pub favourites and a houmourous thesis on the origin of their produce. To start we shared 'duck pancakes' and 'squid with chorizo'. The spicy Spanish style squid was lovely and tender, while the Peking duck was awesome; served as a whole crispy duck leg it was superior to any attempt I've had in Hong Kong. For a main I went with a more traditional British option; roast pheasant. The whole bird came served with parsnip chips, red cabbage and an intense, dark sauce; it was delicious and perfect for a winter's day. Naomi enjoyed her rack of lamb, my brother gleefully grappled with a huge serve of fish and chips and we washed it down with a pleasant bottle of Brouilly. Oh yes and dessert; a couple of monstrous plates of apple crumble and sticky toffee pudding pushed the boundaries of satisfied into the land of stuffed.

It was New Years and despite the lack of party poppers and legless drunks, lunch at The Salt House was superb. The food was of the upmost quality and the whole experience one of polished efficiency. Bills in Pounds Stirling tend to be scary and while £100 isn't cheap, for such top-notch grub in London it's not totally unreasonable. Slamming English food is easy enough to do, but places like The Salt House make a positive impression, especially when they're able to do both traditional English dishes and a range of international ones with such precision.
Visit restaurant website.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Eating Tuscany

Trip to Tuscany
22nd to 29th December

Thousands of years of history means Tuscany has plenty to offer the visitor. We had an absolute cracker of a time wandering the ancient streets of Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, Monteriggioni and Volterra; climbing the dome of Florence's Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, walking in the woods around the house and exploring the coast. Tuscany also has a culinary tradition stretching back thousands of years and, as good culture tourists, we made a point of giving it due importance in our itinerary.Coffee and cake
Italy, coffee, coffee, Italy; well it's a given and that's the thing I like most about drinking coffee in Italy - it's essential necessity is assumed. We enjoyed caffè lattes (probably officially later then is allowed) and delightful little cakes at Volterra's great patisserie. Another top spot in Volterra was Web and Wine where the internet was juxtaposed next to ancient Roman ruins. Naomi was very enthusiastic about the thick, gluggy, ultra rich Italian hot chocolate; her favourite example was from a tiny cafe hidden in the back streets of Florence.

The quality of the patisserie merchandise was top notch and most Italians aren't afraid to indulge. My favourite sweet treat was a custard tart with ultra crisp pastry and an airy, subtle filling. Purchased from an unknown bakery in Florence it was all the sweeter because I had to buy it to get change for a parking metre; of course it was great telling the others all about how good it was afterwards. Restaurants
Italy's contribution to world food is undisputed; you can buy a pizza in any isolated backwater and even the most inept home cook can somehow manage to throw together a decent bowl of pasta. Being in Tuscany I was keen to see how the professionals did things on their home turf. We usually ate a restaurant lunch while we were out and about, with dinner tending to be a more subdued affair at the house. Regional produce was everywhere and we sampled some excellent salami, cheese and of course the local vino.

I've already written about Osteria Castelvecchio and Ghostbuster Ristorante Pizzeria, but another culinary highlight was Ristorante Il Sacco Fiorentino in Volterra. We visited this spacious restaurant on our final night for a thoroughly enjoyable meal. I had a delicious serve of fresh pappardelle pasta and venison ragu, followed by wild boar steaks topped with cheese and sage. Chocked with seasonal dishes and reflecting the local love of hunting the menu included an interesting selection of game and winter vegetables.

We stumbled across Il Gambero in Pontedera; an industrial town we passed on our return to Pisa airport. The pizza oven was devastatingly turned off so my brother missed his calzone, but we were more than happy with hearty pasta and plates of fresh seafood. My calamari was flavoursome and tender and everything was again awesome value at under €40 for the four of us. It was interesting to note that most restaurants had very similar menus, but when it's so good who really cares. Everywhere there was an emphasis on quality ingredients and I just love the fact that people in Italian aren't afraid to eat. and a sly slice of Pizza
Italy's famous for lots of things: fashion, art, cathedrals, bad drivers, shonky towers and of course pizza. There are a couple possibilities if you're keen to chow on a slice of Italian pizza; the first option is to order at a restaurant and devour. The second is to buy a slice to takeaway from a bakery; where it's usually cut from a gigantic slab, weighed and heated.

In 2000 my brother and I were backpacking through Italy and got really got into the pizza by the slice scene - so much so we had to ration ourselves to two slices a day to try and maintain some kind of dignity about the waist. Our all time favourite spot was the 'bakery on the corner' a couple of shops down from our guesthouse in Florence. I was off to rediscover the 'bakery on the corner'. While the others stood patiently shacking with cold amongst the treasures of San Lorenzo leather market, I triumphantly stumbled through memories to find the pizza at the end of the rainbow. The place was called Forno di Stefano Galli, the cake display wasn't quite as big and shinny as I remembered but the pizza was just as good. Now if only I had a chance to try to find that tiny little bar in Venice...

Ghostbuster Ristorante Pizzeria

Via Aurelia 961, Castiglioncello
Visited 26th December 2007

Italy is a long way from the MCG so making the Boxing Day Test was going to be difficult; instead of the cricket we went to the beach. Tuscany isn't known for its coast and the stretch we drove between Cecina and Livorno was a pleasant un-touristy area with quiet little towns, rocky cliffs and the odd dark, sandy beach. Ghostbuster in Castiglioncello won us with its name and logo, but instead of a shrine to 80s tack we were greeted with a stylish, airy restaurant, packed with satisfied looking locals.

Ghostbuster's menu is classic Italian and I couldn't go past seafood gnocchi. These delightfully tender little gnocchi were served with whole prawns, langoustines and a rich, creamy sauce. The others went with pizzas, linguine with mussels and pesto and the usual insalata mista on the side (surely one of the snappiest named dishes in Italy). The food was superb and deliciously fresh, however Naomi was shocked by the anchovies crowning her Napoletana pizza (which later research proved to be spot-on authentic). Surprising I drunk water - perhaps I was feeling sorry for my brother who stupidly put only his own name on the car insurance and thus limited his mid-day wine consumption or perhaps I was just hung-over.

Ghostbuster was perfect; friendly service, excellent food and a slick setting. The bill came to only €45 which was great value for such a satisfying lunch. That evening we pulled out a VHS copy of Ghostbusters found hidden at the house and lost ourselves in classic 80s cinema and some Bill Murray magic.