Te Quick Pasta & Herb

This place sits with its big windows glowing on the second floor of a building next to the Mid-Levels escalator and I’d noticed it many times when passing by on my way up. It advertises itself as offering quick pasta and drinks in a cafe style setting. The other night around 7pm, I wanted a quick bite before heading on somewhere else and thought that this might be exactly what I was looking for.

I clambered up the stairs into the large interior, all white and brightly lit by clinical white lighting. The place was eerily empty. Two ladies sat behind the counter in an open kitchen area, staring down at the phones with their headphones in. I kind of awkward disturbing them to ask if the place was even open. They gave me looks that really seemed to grudge my intrusion on whatever they were doing. They didn’t speak much English and just sort of pointed over at another lady who was looking at her macbook behind a counter in the corner. I went over to her and she pointed at the big board with different, appetizing pictures of the pasta dishes.

I chose the carbonara, which was one of the cheapest pastas on offer at HK$60. Then I went and sat down in the spookily silent restaurant, bathed in the bright glow. As I passed the kitchen area, I did see one of the ladies putting some cream in a frying pan, suggesting that at least the sauce was freshly made. I wanted to use the wifi (they advertise it as being free) but couldn’t find anyway to do this and after the less than friendly reception I didn’t really want to ask.

After about ten minutes, they brought the pasta over to me. The portion was pretty small for the price, and looked even smaller because it was served on a large flat plate. The sauce spread out across this from the small heap of pasta in the middle. This sauce was pretty watery and had a very bland taste. It seemed like watered down cream, without any strong Parmesan or cheese flavour to it at all. Because the spaghetti used was the really slippery pale kind, this light sauce just slid off it so it was really hard to eat the two together. Instead of bits of pancetta, the pasta had big flat squares of fried ham in it that really didn’t work. The dish also needed a lot more pepper, preferably of a much coarser grind. Overall it tasted like a cha chaan teng attempt at Carbonara, a long way from anything authentic.

Te strikes me as a really nice idea. A casual, reasonably priced pasta place would be a great addition to Soho or even other parts of HK. But in Te’s case it seems like the idea is poorly executed. Based on the dish I had, it seems like they are cost cutting on the pasta to the extend where the quality and size just aren’t good enough. That’s perhaps why it was empty at a peak dining time.

Directions

1/F, Cheung Hing Commercial Building, 37 Cochrane Street, Central
中環閣麟街37號祥興商業大廈1樓

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Jun Yakitori

About

There are surprisingly few proper yakitori restaurants in Hong Kong. Places like Sapporo Ramen and Watami offer it as well as other things, and others do full on barbecue, but there’s not many dedicated to the little barbecued skewers. Which is why I was so eager to try Jun Yakitori when I read it was one of the best yakitori restaurants in the city.

The restaurant feels like one of those hidden backstreet restaurants you get in Tokyo. Entering through swinging wooden doors, you step into a slightly gloomy, tavern-like interior. There are small wooden tables and writing scrawled over the lumpy clay walls. To one side is a bar counter behind which a woman busily tends to skewers on the hissing grill, sending smoky smells wafting through the room.

The slightly confusing menu has a wide selection of meat, fish and vegetable skewers to be grilled, costing from about HK$20 upward. We started with a few chicken skewers. The ‘Chicken With Long Onion’ turned out to be small pieces of meat interspersed with pieces of leek. These were nicely cooked so the leek was just lightly charred and still had a freshness and crispness, while the meat was well grilled to leave it with a smoky and succulent taste. Unlike many satay skewers, which have very chewy and fibrous bits of chicken, these were pleasingly soft. A few pieces were perhaps a little too salty, but it was a promising start.

Next came skewers of Chicken skin that looked depressingly small and shrivelled on the plate, but made up for their size with the flavour they had – indulgently fatty and juicy. Following these where a couple of chicken heart skewers which had wonderfully soft and smooth texture and had been done in a way that really brought out meat’s potent flavours.

The dried mushroom skewers were somewhat disappointing. While they had the nice woody flavour typical of these big brown mushrooms, the grilling had dried them out and they really could have done with a bit more moisture – their lack of juiciness contrasting with all the pieces of meat. Quail egg skewers were better though, coming garnished with strands of seaweed that contrasted nicely with the smooth creamy white of the eggs.

Then came the highlight – a wonderfully cooked piece of grilled saba (mackarel). The fish’s skin was beautifully charred and blistered by the grill, leaving it tasting really moreishly salty and smoky. Its crispness contrasted perfectly with the soft white fish flesh inside, the flakes of which were all infused with a subtle smoky flavour. I felt like I could easitilyorgo the rest and come here just to eat this dish.

To finish off, we had a roasted rice ball with cod-roe inside. This was also really excellent.The big plump grains of pearl rice round the outside a nice golden colour and deliciously cirspy, while the rice around the roe stayed soft and perfectly cooked.

The portion sizes of a lot of the dishes here are admittedly quite small. But this is made up for, in my opinion, by the quality of the cooking and ingredients. This is definitely a good place to come to have yakitori.

Directions

33A Hillwood Road, Tsim Shah Tsui, Hong Kong
+852 2311 9291

Hunan Garden Restaurant

The large dining room of Hunan Gardens looks impressively grand and historical, with wood paneled walls bearing large oil paintings, white pillars, and big chandeliers hanging down from the ceiling above. It’s all fake, of course. The restaurant’s actually high up in the anonymous, modern sleekness of one of Times Square’s towers. But once sat at one of the elegantly laid tables, it’s not too hard to suspend disbelief and feel you are actually in a magnificent colonial mansion.

The menu is equally decadent, with a good twenty pages worth of Hunanese, Sichaunese and other Chinese dishes including exotic items like frog and shark’s fin and numerous others bearing large price tags.

Our Hong Shao Rou (Red Braised Pork Belly) had meat that was nice and tender with flesh that showed none of the dryness or stringiness it can still have at some places. The large top pieces fat were juicy and slightly sweet tasting. But the pieces of meat didn’t really have that rich and potent flavour that slow cooking can given them. They lacked the fragrant notes of the chinese rice wine they are braised in and didn’t have even the slightest tingle from the chilies, which I felt could almost have been added to the dish at the end here. I also thought that the sauce was just a tiny bit on the thick side, not so much as to make it really gloopy, but still a little heavy. Overall, though, the delight of eating such luxuriantly soft, fatty pork won through these slight limitations in its taste.

The Rice Crackers And Shrimp In Tomato Sauce used fresh, whole tomatoes and the sauce still had some only partially broken down pieces in it. This made it wonderfully fresh tasting. The puffed rice crackers soaked up this bright, healthy feeling sauce. The crackers had a crispness to them with contrasted with the soft smooth texture of the shrimp in a really satisfying way. This combination of ingredients in this dish, with cool fresh vegetables and light tasting seafood, felt very different to most Chinese dishes I have had in the past. In my opinion, it was something that worked really well.

We also had Chicken With Walnuts In A Broad Bean Sauce. This presented a really satisfying contrast of textures, between the spongey pieces of chicken breast and the crisp pieces of knobbled walnut. It was a combination that worked brilliantly. That said, I agreed with one of my companions who felt that the ratio of walnuts to chicken leant too much towards the former. The nuts tended to clump together because of the sticky sauce, forming big clusters that were less pleasing to eat. The sauce itself was good however. Often I have found that the pungent taste of broad bean sauces is a bit overpowering, but here it was nicely restrained, with just a little bit coating the meat and nuts and helping to sort of lubricate the dish.

The Sei Gwai Dáu (Green Beans With Minced Pork) were also very good. The beans were cooked nicely al dente, so that they still had a crisp bite to them which added to their fresh taste. They were just lightly scatter with flavourful pieces of mince pork, unlike in some restaurants where there is a huge heap of very bland meat.

Overall, I feel that Hunan Garden offers above average food which just about matches its mid-range prices. While some of the dishes fall down in certain aspects, and are not as good as those you would get in a higher end place or a private kitchen, they all show some real care in their cooking and exhibit some really interesting tastes and textures. Hunan Gardens is a good place to try a wide range of different Hunanese and Sichuan food and feel confident you are getting close to the real thing.

Directions

13F Times Square, 1 Matheson Street, Causeway Bay

Chung Gye Chon

The graffiti strewn back walls that line the start of Kimberly Street, a small lane parallel to Kimberly Road in TST, didn’t seem to promise much in the way of eating here. But moving further along the street revealed a hidden cluster of Korean restaurants and food stores.

In the middle of these was the glowing orange sign of Chung Gye Chon, one of two restaurants on the street offering proper ‘at the table’ Korean barbecue. Inside the restaurant was full, and more people were lining up out the front. We waited about twenty minutes and then were given a table.

Chung Gye Chon’s menu has an impressive range of different meat, seafood, and vegetables for barbequing and a decent variety of other dishes. I wouldn’t say it is quite as extensive as Sorabol (Hong Kong’s more famous Korean restaurant) but there was still plenty to choose from.

Our pork ribs came smothered in a red paste, much thicker than the meat marinades that I’ve seen in a lot of places. This marinade clearly had a very carefully considered blend of spice and other ingredients, giving it a very distinctive pungent and spicy flavour. As the pieces of meat were laid out to hiss on the metal, the paste’s flavours seeped into the flesh so that it was subtly tinged by them. Bits of the paste stayed on the outside, going a deep red and becoming slightly charred, so each piece ended up with a great-tasting smoky, spicy skin. The marinade also meant the cooked pieces were also amazingly soft and loaded with a gentle, but tasty spicy flavour.

The bibimbap (stone pot rice) was also an excellent version of the dish. Just the right amount of the pungent-tasting red gochujang sauce was added to coat everything but not completely overwhelm with its flavour – so that the freshness of the vegetables could still come through. All these vegetables were prepared really well, chopped into quite delicate pieces so none of their textures or tastes seemed overly weighty.

Thin green strands of spinach added a bit of earthiness and twisted through the rice to give a complimenting texture. Mushrooms with a strong flavour were finely sliced to moderate this impact. There was also the really nice addition of some thin fibrous brown strands which I think were mushrooms of some kind and had a really nutty, woody taste. It was great to scoop up a ball of soft plump rice and fresh bits of vegetable, all infused with the pungent and spicy sauce.

The dish kept hissing and cooking for a long time at the table, so that all the vegetables and rice warmed, softened and combined nicely – adding to their hearty comforting feeling. And then when you turned the rice over from the bottom of the pot it had fried a light golden colour and turned into crisped pieces that were equally impressive.

The beef sirloin steak for the barbeque was less stunning. The piece of steak looked very high quality, with little seams of fat cutting through it. The waiter cooked it for a long time on both sides, so that it was heavily browned on the outside and the meat was cooked right through to the centre. I would have preferred it a bit less well done. This long cooking time meant that while the meat had a good flavour it was a touch tougher than I would have hoped for. It also tasted a little bland when placed alongside the marinaded pork.

We also had a kim chi pancake. This was really very doughy, like a heavy omelette and quite hearty tasting, but a bit stodgy, as a result. The batter was stained a deep red colour. It tasted strongly of the pungency and spice of kim chi. But unlike the cabbage dish, where the tastes can be quite sharp, here they were nicely balanced by the softer tones of the egg and dough.

As is fairly standard for Korean food, the main dishes came with a staggering array of side dishes that crowded over the table. All of these tasted very fresh and made a nice compliment to the main items. There were fairly standard things like bean sprouts and the spicy pickled cabbage of kim chi, along with some more exotic items like a chestnut jelly that had a cool and savoury flavour.

Based on the excellent bibimbap and barbecued pork ribs, I would definitely recommend visiting Chung Gye Chon for authentic and well cooked Korean food. It is a good, and probably slightly cheaper, alternative to a trip to Sorabol or one of the other better known Korean restaurants scattered across Hong Kong.

Directions

Shop A and B, 1J Kimberly Street, Tsim Sha Tsui

Contact 

+8542 2367 8895

Hing Kee

Last night we went to Hing Kee, a much praised restaurant doing Bo Jai Faan or claypot rice that’s tucked in a grimy backstreet behind the tourist thronged Temple Street Market. The restaurant’s popularity, and the ongoing buzz about it on openrice, meant that as usual there was a long line of people waiting outside. They have a lot of tables in different shops round the area, though, so the queue moved pretty quickly.

But does Hing Kee’s food actually live up to all the hype it gets? Bo Jai Fan’s combination of rice and meat cooked in a clay pot is fairly simple, unpretentious, and hearty in style. So there’s not much a restaurant can really do to distinguish itself in terms of fancy cooking techniques or ingredients. But Hing Kee sets itself apart from other Bo Jai Fan restaurants by getting this basic combination absolutely spot on.

Our beef clay pot came with a big pile of succulent strips of beef laid on top of the rice, contrasting with a lot of restaurants which are really miserly with their meat. We broke an egg over the dish and the white soaked down into the rice, cooking as we mixed it and covering the grains with a fluffy eggy tasting coating that made the rice really hearty and heavy. This savoury egg coated rice combined well with the more juicy strips of beef mixed in with it.

Our second pot was chicken and Chinese mushrooms laid over rice. The small pieces of on the bone chicken were impressively juicy – the method of cooking perhaps allowing them to keep a lot of moisture so that they hadn’t dried out at all. The meat’s soft creaminess went well with the more earthy and fibrous texture of the dark Chinese mushrooms used.

The smoked fish and pork pot also had a nice balance of different flavours. Big pieces of silver skinned fish were laid on top of the rice. The dry, coarse flesh of this had a really striking and powerful flavour – salty and fishy and smoky all at once. Its intenseness was nicely softened, though, when eaten with a soft slice of the pork or some of the rice. Strips of ginger also added a really nice sweetness.

With all Bo Jai Fan, the rice at the bottom goes a crispy brown as it cooks against the side of the pot. It can be really nice to scrape up pieces of this crisped browned rice, that have a great crunchy taste. Here we did get some perfectly crisped rice, although some of it had also turned a little bit too black to be edible. For the clay pots to be absolutely perfect, it would be good if they weren’t burnt on the bottom at all, but that might be asking a bit too much.

Along with the clay pots we also had ho beng, or deep fried oyster omelette. This was perfect. In some restaurant’s the omelette is too thick and just the outside is fried and crispy, leaving a stodgy mess of uncooked egg and oyster inside. But here the tangled strands of egg were all nicely crisp and brown with just a thin layer of soft egg in the middle. Often I also find places use too many oysters, so these completely overpower things, but here they were nicely restrained, with just a few of the juicy oyster held in the crispy casing and plenty of spring onion mixed in too. Added to this, the omelette was really dry and crisp, with none of the soggy oiliness that some can have. It had clearly just been made and tasted fantastic.

So overall, I would say that Hing Kee definitely lives up to the praise it’s been given and is well worth the half hour or so you’ll have to wait. While other restaurants around do also serve fairly decent bo jai fan, many of them slip up on a few elements of the dish, while here you can enjoy clay pots that are almost exactly the way they should be.

Directions

Raku-En

About

I’m writing this quite a while after going to Raku-en and am not able to remember too much detail about the separate dishes we had. But the quality of the Okinawan food offered here made me want to write at least a short listing to be updated on a second visit.

Hidden away at the top of a tower, this place specialising in Okinawa style Japanese food felt authentic the moment we stepped in. Japanese magazines and other items crowded the front counter, sake bottles lined the walls, and all the tables were already filled by excited groups of young Japanese.  It’s one of several Causeway Bay based hideaways for Hong Kong’s Japanese community.

The menu had a massive range of small plate dishes ranging from about HK$40 to 70. I am fairly new to Okinawan food, so was fairly bewildered a choice of dishes that stretched from stuffed fried chicken wings all the way to snapper carpaccio.

The pork belly in miso had beautifully soft pieces of meat which melted in your mouth, their small layers of fat adding a richer buttery hint to the taste. Each spongy piece has soaked up the sauces stronger flavours and let these drift sumptuously out as you chewed.

Fried chicken sunk into a pile of crumbled bread and garlic and chilli also tasted great. Each crisp piece of chicken would gather up so of this pile to add to the crisp flavour of the skin. Both this, and the skewers, were ‘snack style’ dishes prepared excellently and with extra elements.

The stuffed chicken wings were another example of this. With the bones taken from the middle of the meat, little fleshy white pockets were filled with a pasty stuffing. This was sealed in a wonderfully crisp skin that was perfectly fried to fill it with taste whilst keeping it from being to charred or oily.

Almost all of the other dishes we had followed a similar trend – full of flavour and with meticulous attention to detail. The cod showcased as well as anywhere I have been in Hong Kong the Japanese ability to prepare fish in a very simple way that brings out all of its flavours.

Overall, Ruku-en is a great place to go to explore Okinawan cuisine and to try a wide range of different dishes. I felt confident that the things I was eating were genuine and that whatever I ordered it would be well prepared and offer something interesting.

Directions

12 F Circle Tower, 28 Tung Lung Street, Causeway Bay

Website

http://www.rakuen.com.hk/

Cost

About $40 to $80 per dish.

The Flying Pan (Wan Chai Branch)

About

Lunch in The Flying Pan was depressing. I had looked at the menu in Central before, but decided it was too expensive and headed elsewhere. I should have done the same this time. But needing a quick meal, I decided to stick things out.

Sunk in one of the leather chairs, I scrolled through the menu and was struck again by how expensive everything was. Even the most basic omelettes were over sixty dollars. Surely frying a couple of eggs in a pan couldn’t produce anything that amazing that it warranted this kind of price? The fried breakfasts were even more, mostly topping the hundred mark and reaching up to the same kind of prices you’d pay for finely cooked French food elsewhere.

I was loathe to spend more than about fifty dollars on lunch and I really needed a coffee as well, so I searched onwards, determined to find something cheaper. A burger for HK$37 looked promising, but then I realised I’d need to order a whole load of extra ingredients to make it even vaguely interesting. Finally I settled reluctantly for a breakfast burrito. At big wrap stuffed with beans and rice and cheese could be pretty good, I naively persuaded myself.

“The breakfast burrito is just eggs and beans,” the Filipino waitress said when I ordered. “You want to get some bacon or something to go with that?”

It’s always a bad sign when the waitress is telling you openly about the limitations of the restaurant’s food. I should probably have backed out at this point. But a little like George Bush in Afghanistan, I was strangely determined to press recklessly onwards without heeding how much damage I was doing.

Coffee has been the main reason I came here, so I hoped this would at least be decent. But the only variety on offer was a ‘bottomless’ pot of drip coffee. At $30, this cost more than the best coffee in most of Hong Kong’s other cafes. Basically I was going to pay extra for the chance to drink unlimited amounts of coffee that would probably turn out to be so watery and weak I’d only want half a cup. I ordered it and felt my heart sinking.

The burrito came quickly. I’d love to say this was testament to the chef’s dexterity for Mexican cooking, but more likely it was credit to the power of the microwave. It was barely bigger than a Mars bar. Its wrap was reasonably crisp, but inside there was just a mixed up past of canned beans, rubbery egg and plastic cheese which stretched with each bite. None of it really tasted of anything much at all. It arguably had more flavour than the coffee, though, which tasted like somebody had taken a regular cup of instant coffee and just diluted it five or six times. There was none of that bracing, bitter taste of really strong dark coffee that I had been craving all morning.

I grimaced and sat back in my chair, feeling truly miserable as I listened to the hardcore club music pounding out of the restaurants many speakers. Staffed entirely by Fillipino’s, filled with lost looking gwei-los, and blaring these tunes, The Flying Pan feels very like the different Wan Chai nightclubs that surround it. But in the middle of the day on a Saturday, this might not be what you’re really looking for while you eat lunch.

There are reasons to go to The Flying Pan. If you’re a tourist who gets lost if you stray more than a hundred yards from your hotel, or if you’re desperate for something to eat at five in the morning after stumbling out of the bars in Wan Chai, then perhaps you’d consider it. In these situations, you won’t mind paying stupidly high prices for plastic food and impotent coffee. Otherwise its probably best to stay away.