Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Chapel Down 'English Rose' Brut

Tenterden, Kent, £19.99, cork

When my mother's in town I normally rustle up a bottle of Champagne, but as she's an English Woman so I thought this might be an even better. English wines are gaining a bit of creditability and sparkling wine is at the forefront. Chapel Down from Kent is one of the leaders in this emerging industry. Strangely their extensive website fails to give any details of their wines, but I think this is made from 100% Pinot Noir grapes. The bottle does tell me the grapes have been hand-picked in Kent, Sussex and Essex and it's made using traditionally bottle fermentation.
Pale salmon pink in colour with super fine bubbles; it's a pretty start. The nose smells delicious with a big wallop of raspberries, hints of tangerine and bath salts. The palate's fine, dry and linear; it's a pretty sleek operation. I taste plenty of sweet red summer berries as well as a hint of grapefruit. We polished off the bottle before dinner, but I'd be interested to see how this wine went with food as I was really impressed with its stylish structure - decent line and length is, after all, rather unusual for a Pom. Chapel Down 'English Rose' Brut really is a lovely wine. I too knew an English rose once (sigh) ...

Visit winery website.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Mr. J Secret Restaurant

250 Wusing St, Taipei
Visited 26th October 2009

My girlfriend loves Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chou and somehow a romantic long weekend in Taipei became a bit of a Jay Chou odyssey. The first day we had a decent lunch at Butaya his Japanese tonkatsu restaurant and on our final day we visited his flagship outlet Mr. J Secret restaurant. A bit of fast talking meant I avoided the noodle shop where he liked eating dumplings as a school boy (I kid you not). Mr. J Secret Restaurant actually ended up being a bit of a secret and we had to ask directions off a policeman to find it. We eventually found ourselves feeling a little out of place in the grounds of Taipei's Medical University, where the restaurant is found. Inside it's decked out in tribute of the movie Secret, which our man Jay not only starred in but also directed. The waiting staff are garbed in the uniforms of the school in the movie and we sat next the 'magical' piano around which the film revolves.

Mr. J Secret Restaurant claims to be 'French-Italian Restaurant' which I think means it serves a random mix of western food. I ordered a set lunch with a salad and spaghetti bolognese, along with a Taiwan Beer. My little Jay Choy fan went for mushroom soup, the 'authentic' Italian curry chicken risotto and a bubble tea. One of the options for salad dressing was 'orange' and I couldn't resist; while the dressing was surprisingly good the four tiny lettuce leaves and half a cherry tomato wouldn't have been enough to feed my hamster. The pasta was pretty average with the watery sauce lacking meat and needing another couple of hours of slow cooking. The mushroom soup was OK and the risotto was weird, but OK, though not made with risotto rice. Our lunch cost TN$757 (about HK$200) which was OK I suppose.
Mr. J Secret Restaurant is an acquired taste and that taste is Mr Jay. I guess you've got the impression that the food is just OK, but that's not why you go. If getting your photo taken next the piano from Secret, staring at massive photos of Jay Chou or buying a souvenir magnet is your idea of a good time then Mr. J Secret Restaurant is for you. If you're a fan you've probably already been, if not don't bother.
Visit restaurant website.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Hot Star Large Fried Chicken

Stall 535, Shilin Nightmarket, Taipei
Visited 25th October 2009

In my girlfriend's Cantonese Travel Guide they listed Hot Star Chicken as 'No. 1'. Last time I was in Taiwan the large queue led me to this very stall and the fact I'd tried the chicken before simply made me keener to get back to Shilin Nightmarket to try it again. After a day spent exploring Danshui we dropped into the market on the way home for a feast of the snack food that Taipei is famous for.

Life's pretty easy at Hot Star Large Fried Chicken; you've got the simple choice of a fried chicken fillet without bones (more convenient) or a fried chicken fillet with bones (bigger and definitely the way to go!). The next difficult decision is how much spicy you want it. The massive fried chicken fillet we were presented with was truly gargantuan. Obviously made from a whole chicken it was even bigger that the legendary palmers of the Skinny Dog. Hot, fresh and surprisingly tender the thing was good. The spice mixed tossed all over it gave it a nice chilli kick and for a piece of fried chicken it was remarkable oil free.

My local late night stable in Yuen Long, Big, Big Chick, is based upon this style of Taiwan fried chicken. However much I love Big Big Chick, Hot Star Large Fried Chicken leaves it for dead. While it's probably outrageous to suggest flying specifically to Taipei to get involved with a piece of fried chicken bigger than your head, if you get the chance check out Hot Star Large fried Chicken!

Nazars Turkish Ice-cream

Ferry Pier, Danshui
Visited 25th October 2009

Danshui is a town located at the mouth of the river with the same name and is an easy day trip from Taipei. It’s known for its ‘romantic’ sunset views and historic Fort Santo Domingo, but also has a winding street market that pulls the punters. The market was decent, with plenty of tasty snacks, but what we were both hanging out for was Nazar's Turkish Ice-Cream. We’d heard rumours about this bloke and were pretty excited when we found his little shop on the waterfront, just near where the ferries depart from.

Ordering an ice-cream from Nazar is pretty easy, there’s only chocolate and vanilla to choose from, served in a standard single cone. However the trick isn’t ordering your ice-cream, but getting it in your hand. Nazar packs the cone with cold, ultra sticky ice-cream and offers it to you, you grab for it, but the cone spins out of your reach. It’s offered again, you go to take it, this time the cone spins upside down and slips your grip. After five, maybe ten minutes of fun and games you’re finally presented with your ice-cream. Turkish ice-cream is interesting stuff; it’s sticky rather than creamy and Nazar’s was pretty tasty, though very different from your standard ice-cream cone.

Nazar is a master entertainer and the punters flock to the show. He smiled the whole time and we stood mesmerised. I’ve found a clip on YouTube that probably does him better justice than my clumsy description. While it’s good, in all honesty the ice-cream is irrelevant, the reason I'm recommending you visit Nazars Turkish Ice-cream is for the pure joy of the show.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Raohe Street Night Market

Raohe Street, Songshan District, Taipei
Visited 24th October 2009

A public holiday in honour of the Chung Yeung Festival means a sneaky trip across to Taipei for the long weekend. After arriving late Friday, Saturday was all about sightseeing: Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, the Wanhua District, Sun Yat-sen Hall and Taipei 101. Later in the evening, somewhat under duress I found myself at the massive Wufenpu Clothing Market. While originally a wholesale operation this massive market now does a roaring retail trade for the fashion conscious looking for a bargain. As I obviously don't fit that category I adopted my usual shopping strategy and grabbed a couple of cold beers from a convenience store and found a perch to watch the world spin past. After the bargains had been shot, bagged and hung it was only as short stroll to Raohe Street Night Market.

When ever I mention Taipei to my work colleagues they begin to rant about snacks, street food and night markets; while it may be a bit of a stereotype, it seems to me that Hong Kongers main interest in Taipei is their obsession with Taiwanese snack food. On my last trip I visited the vibrant Shilin Nightmarket and grotty Huaxi Street Tourist Night Market, so this was my first trip to Raohe Street. The market was smaller than I expected and the close sided street was jammed with stalls and a pulsating mass of punters. Though it was crowded the market had a vibrant and lively feel with plenty going on.

We arrived just planning to have a 'snack' but ended up having several. First off it was a couple of big, juicy pan-fried buns purchased from a bloke frying them up right in the middle of the road. Beautifully textured with soft, light dough and crispy bums, these were some tasty buns. We stepped into a little restaurant for some noodles and had a serve of la mian with beef and chilli, along with a really interesting plate of seaweed and tofu; a dish I'd never had before. The spicy noodles were good, though really rich with all the fat from the meat. The seaweed was an interesting dish that offered a good contrast to the heat and oily richness of the noodles. Apart from the always popular food stalls there were plenty of places selling a variety of clothes, handcraft, household stuff and crappy souvenirs. And yes somehow we managed to do more shopping on the way out. Too be honest I wasn't expecting much when I arrived at Raohe Street Night Market, but I loved it. Packing a surprisingly good punch for its size it is one of the better options amongst Taipei's parade of nightmarkets.
Visit market website.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Scotchmans Hill Shiraz 2004

Bellarine Peninsula, Geelong, screwtop

Adelaide may have the famous names, but Melbourne is surrounded by some pretty high quality wine regions. The Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula are well known in Hong Kong, but the underrated areas of Sunbury, Macedon and Geelong are also worth checking out. Scotchmans Hill is the biggest producer in Geelong; an area known for boutique operations, and thus manages to get a few bottles on Hong Kong shelves. The winery was established on an old dairy farm in 1981 and is still family owned.
This smells pretty tasty with warm dark fruits, milk chocolate and tobacco. The palate is bright, nice and even has a little spice. It's got plenty of persistent dark fruit flavours with a delicious sweet finish that reminds me a bit of old school blueberry bubblegum. It’s a balanced and drinkable wine; the length is good, while fine tannins add structure and persistence. Scotchmans Hill Shiraz 2004 is a tasty little number that’s certainly worth trying.

Visit winery website.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Wither Hills Pinot Noir 2007

Wairau Valley, Marlborough, $255, screw-top

A game of Risk and a wine style that not much of a risk at all; New Zealand Pinot Noir. The label tells me it's made from fruit from two vineyards found at the southern end of the Wairau Valley area of Marlborough and as the winery justifiably says "the finest wines are always created from exceptional vineyards".
Wither Hills Pinot Noir 2007 is lovely intense crimson colour. When we opened it the nose was initially all floral and breezy but it developed in the glass and soon became a story of gamey meat and earthiness. My friends who I drunk this with were all local Hong Kongers and it was interesting that they thought it smelt like 'luncheon meat' while for me it was very much "smoky bacon". Rich and delicious it's a pretty damn tasty wine. It's sweet and sour with cherries, plums, red currents and the whole thing is wrapped in intriguing spice. While you can taste a hint of the oak the whole package is beautifully bright and accessible. The palate's ever so long and Wither Hills Pinot Noir 2007 really is a fine wine. Though we didn't have a winner in "the game of global domination" we had loser who really deserved it - good results all round.

Visit winery website.

An Old Whine

Geisweiler Vougeot 1987

While I've got a bit of oldish Aussie Cabernet and Riesling tucked away back in Australia; in Hong Kong I tend to drink young wines. The lack of decent cellaring facilities in the village house I call home and the ridiculously inflated prices of restaurant wine lists mean I just don't have access to old wine at reasonable prices. I was pretty happy then when a mate arrived with a bottle of 22 year-old Burgundy. The occasion a game of Risk, the wine a Geisweiler Vougeot 1987.

Expectation turned to hesitation when I poured the wine. A dull yellow colour it was obviously past its best. Having a sip the fruit had dried up and all that was left was a brandy like alcohol. Oh well, such is wine and such is life. My mate said the wine was a present from his ex-girlfriend so I wonder...

Monday, 19 October 2009

Shanxi Cut Noodle Restaurant

G/F, Citi Mall, Yuen Long
Visited 18th October 2009

I think noodles have replaced lasagne as my favourite hang-over food; there's nothing better than a bowl of steaming soup or plate of wok tossed noodles to get you back in fighting condition. Sunday morning (yes let's call it morning) we found ourselves in Shanxi Cut Noodle Restaurant looking for the route to recovery. Shanxi is a province in northern China, the name means 'mountain west' and refers to the regions lofty position west of the Taihang Mountains. The area relies heavily on wheat and thus noodles (along with vinegar) dominate their cuisine. This basic little restaurant is located on the side of Yuen Long's Citi Mall and there's another branch on Castle Peak Road.

Though there's no English menu, but there are plenty of pictures so pointing is ordering. We went with pan-fried la mian with chicken, dao xiao mian in soup with braised beef and a helping of pan-fried dumplings. Li main means 'pulled noodles' and here the chef makes each individual serve to order. He deftly pulled and folded to transfer a ball of elastic dough into giant slithering noodles; watching him was an impressive sight, he's a craftsman. When cooked the monstrous plate of these perfectly cooked al dente noodles came with slithers of fresh cucumber, carrot and deliciously moist shredded chicken. For the soup noodles we went with the signature 'knife cut noodles' and these tasty guys came served in a rich broth and topped with tender stewed beef. With the big serves we really didn't need the handmade dumplings, but these were also a winner. Presented crisp and sizzling hot, stuffed with chives and pork, they were a delicious treat.

Maybe I'm just starting to better appreciate the subtleties of China's regional cuisine, but Shanxi Cut Noodle Restaurant got me excited. Sure it's a basic setup, but the quality of the handmade food is obvious. Seeing the chef prepare noodles to order is fantastic and everything we ate was obviously freshly cooked as well as just plain delicious. Our bill for a filling lunch for two came to a very reasonable $112. If you're walking the streets of Yuen Long feeling a little under the weather then Shanxi Cut Noodle Restaurant is the place.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Sushi One

29 Leighton Rd, Causeway Bay
Visited 10th October 2009
Saturday night and somehow I found myself shopping in Causeway Bay; this, it must be said, is the stuff of nightmares. Luckily though the only thing in Hong Kong that takes priority over shopping is eating and so dinner offered an escape from the crowded corners of the fourth level of hell. Sushi One has a few branches around splattered across Hong Kong and the one in Causeway Bay is a pretty large setup. A massive saltwater fish tank dominates one wall and a long sushi train the other. There's normally a line queuing out front, but we got a seat at the counter pretty quickly.

I’m always a bit suspect of ordering premade sushi, so we chose snacks off a pretty standard menu. We went with miso soup; fried chicken gristle; salmon, octopus, grilled squid, inari and seared beef sushi; a soft-shell crab hand roll and a shrimp tempura roll. The quality was generally pretty good and I enjoyed the shrimp roll, salmon sushi and miso soup, while the squid and octopus where meltingly tender and some of the best I've had in Hong Kong. On the other hand the seared beef sushi was touted as a house 'deluxe' special, but the tiny serve was certainly nothing special.

While Sushi One certainly isn’t the best Japanese food I’ve had in Hong Kong it does a pretty good job of dishing up decent food at fair prices. Apart from the single piece of beef sushi that was a rip-off at $35 the rest of the dishes ranged from $9 to $26. We were both stuffed at the end of our meal and paid a very reasonable $85 each. I was surprised with how efficient and friendly the staff were for such a busy place. In many ways Sushi One is just your standard Hong Kong style sushi joint, but it does a pretty good of offering some tasty food, and in my opinion it’s worth visiting just to look at the fish.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Bacalhoa Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

Terras do Sado, MOP142, cork

Portugal has a large proportion of the world’s grape varieties, yet the good people at Quinta do Bacalhoa decided to have a go at Cabernet. Their attractive website is all in Portuguese, and while I couldn’t read a word, the photos of the winery do look impressive. There’s 10% Merlot in the mix and the wine was matured for eleven months in new oak. The Terras do Sado is a coastal region directly south of Lisbon that is divided by the Sado River.
It’s dark in colour, though red rather than purple. It smells of black fruits and oak; I wrote ‘sharp fruit’ on my tasting note. Even at the first sip it’s obvious that this is a wine that’s easy to drink. Lots of blackberries are wrapped up in soft, sweet tannins. The length isn’t amazing and there’s a bit of alcohol on the finish, but it’s not overly disturbing. It’s an interesting wine because it doesn’t really taste of Cabernet or Portugal, but seems to be just a generic ‘new world’ style. Soft and smooth Bacalhoa Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 is highly glugable; though Cabernet and new oak aren’t really what I expect from Portugal.

Visit winery website (Portuguese only).

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Spring Deer

1st Floor, 42 Moody Rd, TST
Visited 5th October 2009

The hype around Spring Deer amazes me; this place is so popular that you need to book at least a month in advance. On the few previous occasions I'd tried ringing I was told I could maybe have a table in the corner at 10.30pm if I was lucky and someone cancelled. Eventually the food gods smiled and somehow I managed to get a reservation at a reasonable hour, one Monday night. The restaurant's located up some grimy stairs near the eastern end of Moody Road. Inside it crowded, noisy and probably looks the same as it did decades ago.

People come to Spring Deer for the Peking duck, so the first thing we did was placed our order - "whole birds only, no smaller serves". We also went with pork dumplings, sweet and sour pork, a serve of choy and noodles with chicken. The d
uck was good, though seemed a bit 'clunky' - the pancakes were thick (though this doesn't bother me as much as many in Hong Kong), the cucumber slices way too chunky and the bird really fatty. The big steamer of dumplings that came next were good; meaty and moist inside, they had plenty of flavour. In Australia sweet n sour pork is the symbol of bad, Anglicised Chinese food and we ordered this realising that my brother had been in Hong Kong for nearly a month and hadn't tried a local version yet. Spring Deer's rendition was pretty good: tender pork and a nice balanced sauce, though I found it strange that we were simply given a plate of meat with no other components to the dish. The veggies were a favourite; the massive pile of fresh, mini bok choy came simply served with garlic, was fresh and delicious. We finished with handmade, pulled noodles with shredded chicken. The la main were tasty and chewy on the bite, but the dish itself lacked flavour and I had to add a big wallop of chilli to give it a bit of interest. To drink we shared a few big bottles of beer and a bottle of reasonably priced white.

I enjoyed my meal at Spring Deer; the good quality, traditional food was tasty and fresh. It also offers pretty damn good value; a full Peking duck was only $280 and our total bill came to under $200 a head, including drinks. Despite having a fun night and enjoying the food, I left Spring Deer feeling a little empty. Thinking about it I suppose I was disappointed by the hype, not the restaurant. This place is so talked up that when I encountered something that wasn't Earth shattering I felt a tad let down; sure the food's good, but the "best Peking Duck in the world" - come on. Is Spring Deer worth a visit? Yes. Is it worth booking a month in advance? No.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Tai Tam Coteaux

Tai Tam Country Park
3rd October 2009

I'm a keen runner so when I saw an event that married wine tasting with running I was one very excited little camper. Organised by Wine Hot to raise funds for the Variety charity, the event was held at Hong Kong Island's spectacular Tai Lam Country Park. The themed run was styled as a journey through the wine regions of France. As things got underway I wasn't just impressed by the mere existence of a pre-race toast, but by the fact it included a pep talk about how the event wasn't timed, how there would be no places allocated and how it most certainly was not a race.

My brother and I headed off at a pretty good pace. The running was good, the views spectacular and the first few wines decent: a Corbières Rosé; Domain Pelle Menetou-Salon 2007, a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire and Seppi Landman Gewurztraminer 2008 from Alsace. We were within the first twenty or so to arrive at the tasting table located on the Tai Tam Upper Reservoir dam wall, but somehow ended up being the last to leave. While sipping Chateau Moulin-à-Vent 2007 from a tiny cup something strange happened: what had previously been a charity run somehow metamorphosed into a day on the booze; it honestly felt like we were in a bar. When the boys serving the Beaujolais were finally dry, we headed down hill for a sip of Cuvée des Vignerons Vacqueyras 2007, a sample of Chateau Puy Castera Haut-Médoc 2004 and at the finish a plastic cup of Albert Beerens Champagne. What would normally be a half an hour run had become a six marathon; it was dark when we crossed the line. Sam, the bloke responsible for the running the show, was great; he didn't just put on the event for charity, but also insisted that we didn't leave until all the booze was finished.
Sunday I woke up with a very sore head; a half eaten bag of Big Big Chick scattered next to me and a wine stained t-shirt crumpled on the floor. While I may have indulged a tad too much; the Tai Tam Coteaux was an absolute blinder of a day. I enjoyed the wines - my favourites were the balanced Moulin-a-Vent and the rich and silky Vacqueyras - I enjoyed the scenic run, but most importantly I enjoyed the spirit of good natured fun, generosity and camaraderie that infiltrated the day. The Tai Tam Coteaux was awesome; get on board next year folks.

Visit event website.