Thursday, October 15, 2009

Our Garden - A few new things

It's been a while since we wrote about our garden. The cooler weather brought some new crops with it. Some of these may not be that common in Hong Kong. From the top:

Kaffir Lime - Mum and dad have been asking almost 30 different shops and garden centers in Hong Kong for this. None of them carry this seemingly common south-east asian shrub. There was one garden center, KK Horticulture, which cater specially for expat which claimed they had it before but died during winter in Hong Kong, a fairly dubious claim, given the mild winter in Hong Kong. They got their two plants with their luggage from Singapore where they bought them in the market. It's fresh leaves add a distinct flavor to Thai curry and they are often included in the Thai spice pack (together with lemon grass, chili and galangal ginger) that you can buy in supermarket. Lets see if they survive 20C Hong Kong winter.

This big chili pepper is the only plant grown from seed that managed to survive all the rain and typhoon through the summer. Mum and dad probably need to rethink their seed growing program.

Buddha's hand citron
- They got this from a friend's garden center. Positively creepy.

Mulberry - This was bought in March and was always looking sickly. No leaves and no fruit were coming out. Then after the very last typhoon, it came back to life!!. The fresh mulberries are great. They are much sweeter and have more flavors than the raspberries that you can buy in supermarket. The leaves are supposed to be nutritious as well. You can put it through food processor to make mulberry leaves juice. You can then taste what silk worms feed on.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

San Francisco - Coi, Part 2

Here's a quick run down on what they could remember from the meal but, as in most food blogs or restaurants' reviews, words never do justice to your experience whether they were good or bad.

Summer, Frozen in Time - Plum, Frozen Meringue, Yogurt
The most memorable dish of the whole meal and perhaps the best dish during this trip. It was a literal explosion of flavors. Every spoonful of the icy pink-orange appetizer got a different part of your taste buds to work overtime. The frozen meringue kept the aroma of rose petals from coming out until it was melted in your mouth. The next dip into the appetizer you get the flavor of plum. It was best described by the now overused cliche, like a box of chocolate; you never know what you are gonna get. Only that, it was far better than any box of chocolate.

Melon and Cucumber - Aroma of Mint
After the spectacular first course, this continued to clean your palate while introducing you to a different set of flavors with green being the theme color.

Inverted Cherry Tomato Tart - Black Olive, Basil
Mum is not a fan of olives and she asked for the olives to be taken out. She didn't know what she was missing. The black olives were turned into a crispy top and added texture to the whole dish.

Chilled Piquillo Pepper Soup - Fresh Pole and Shelling Beans, Zatar, Nepitella
A gazpacho style soup which condensed all the natural flavors into another challenge to the taste buds. A quote came to mind:

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in the Physiology of Taste, appearing in 1825, that Bertrand, the steward of the Prince of Soubise, used fifty hams for one supper, but only one ham appeared on the table, the rest being essential for his sauce espagnole, white sauces, and so forth.

A great dish should be something more than meets the eye. You just can't tell how many different ingredients that have gone into that simple bowl of soup. Mixing a lot of ingredients is the easy part, but creating the right mix takes years of experience and flair.

Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter - Young Carrots, Burnt Rice, Cocoa Nib, Cilantro
Not their favorite. While there wasn't anything wrong with the dish, like most executions where the chefs tried to introduce the 4 (5 in the case of Cyrus's canapes, the fifth being Umami) basic tastes, they always tasted funny and never quite bring out the best of the food. Perhaps it's the natural human desire to enjoy the right mix.

Monterey Bay Abalone Grilled on the Plancha - Nettle Salsa Verde, Spicy Breadcrumbs, Lemon Zest
Pan-Grilled Matsutake - Potato-Pineneedle Puree
Both dishes were fine displays of bringing the natural flavors of the main ingredients. While the Chinese way of cooking abalone, fresh or dry, emphasizes on the sauces, grilling was a simple delivery. You can adjust the taste depending on how much puree or salsa verde you add.

Slow Roasted Lamb - Chard Leaves and Stems, Garum, Rosemary
Mum is not a lamb fan. She got a piece of beef instead. The lamb was perfectly cooked and very tender. But the most flavorful part was also the most unhealthy part, the lamb fat, probably shouldn't go into too much detail.

Cavatina - Sweet and Spicy Greens
PB&J - Niabel Grape, Pistachio Butter, Apple, Sorrel
Caramelized White Chocolate Parfait, Semi Frozen - Huckleberries, Anise
The cheese was tasty but nothing to write home about. Mum and dad liked both desserts. The Niabel grape tasted a bit like the Japanese Kyoho grapes.

Echoing the very first course, "Frozen in Time", it was well past midnight when they had their fresh chamomile tea to finish the night. The unhurried delivery of the dishes, sometimes by the chef, Daniel Patterson himself and the fading light through Japanese paper left you plenty of time to enjoy and decipher each dish. Time was frozen after all!!

Only when they left the restaurant and walked back to the hotel were they reminded the seedy surrounding area. Some zaftig blondes in super short skirt waiting outside the disco nearby waiting to be ushered in.

PS -

, the last item in the ingredient list, literally means picked from the forest. They were told, the small white alyssum flowers on top of the first course were hand picked by the chef from the forest.

Monday, October 12, 2009

San Francisco - Coi, Frozen in Time

The journey from Napa back to downtown San Francisco was much smoother on a Saturday and the only small mishap was Dad driving into the Muni bus lane. Oops. GPS was slow to correct its bearings but they still managed to find their way to the hotel. After unloading all the luggage with the hotel porter, they decided to keep the rental car for the night since meter car parks were free from 6pm Saturday. After a brief rest in the hotel watching NCIS back-to-back marathon, they headed out again to the final Michelin starred dinner of their journey. Dad was convinced that he could find the way to the restaurant without bringing a map. But then at night, every street looks the same in a foreign country. After asking a few people in the street including a bunch of Singaporean students, who were probably even more lost than dad, they arrived at Coi.

Coi, pronounced "kwa", is located literally next door to a strip club around the nightclub area along Broadway street. The restaurant opened its door in 2006 and got its first Michelin star in the 2008 which came out in October 2007 and its second star in the 2009 guide in October 2008 (confusing right?!)

They get ushered into their designated table, sat down and were shown the fixed price menu of the day. It was not the most desirable table as mum was sat facing the entrance which looked into a section where all the waiters and waitresses juggle for utensils. So they asked for a table change and was told that there was table that would be freeing up soon. And mum and dad decided to wait to start their dinner after they were reseated. It was 8:30pm and hunger started to set in, as the lunch they gobbled down in Taylor's Refresher was well and truly digested. They kept themselves busy by looking around at the people, the decor and at the menu. There was a menu of the dishes and then there was another page telling you where each ingredient came from. The emphasis was on the use of local Californian fresh produce. The restaurant was the probably the most informal among the Michelin 2 star restaurants in San Francisco and some of the guests were wearing jeans that night. The service was relax and unhurried and the decor reminded dad of Japanese clubs in the 70s and 80s, with the lighting covered by Japanese paper.

There's a limit to how much you could appreciate with an empty stomach. After waiting for what felt like an eternity, 3 tables asked for their bills consecutively and they got a table at a quiet corner of the restaurant. Their first course arrived and it was well worth the wait.

More to follow..........

Wine Country - Stag's Leap Wine Cellars

Life turns on a dime. Warren Winiarski, a college professor in the US, bought a 50 acre plot of ranch in Napa in 1970 and turned that into a vineyard. A bottle of his very first vintage (1973) won the now famous 1976 Judgement of Paris against some of the most prestigious red wines from Bordeaux including Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and Chateau Haut Brion. The competition was organized by a British wine merchant, Steven Spurrier, who wasn't selling any Californian wines and didn't think Californian wines would win. Mr Winiarski kept the winery running until August 2007 when he sold Stag's Leap Wine Cellars to a consortium of Chateau St Michel and the Antinori family of Italy for US$185m!!

A renew interest in Judgement of Paris was developed by the movie Bottle Shock, a dramatized version of the event. If you look at the actual score, the difference between Stag's Leap and Mouton-Rothschild was very small, 0.05 point. So for a competition with eleven judges grading each wine out of 20 points with no predetermine grading guidelines, 0.05 point difference was a real flip of a coin. But this coin flip was perhaps the best marketing tool for Stag's Leap for over 20 years.

Mum signed up for the vintage release party for Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, the only other item in their itinerary which was pre-booked other than the dinners and accommodation in San Francisco. The estate is located along the Silverado Trail. It has an artfully built decent size man-made lake with a running creek of running water. You know it's man-made as soon as you see the color of the water which is turquoise blue. Dad knows the color well. It's the dye to stop the growth of algae in ponds. Still it's beautiful.

The event provided the tastings of the 3 latest vintage releases, Fay, SLV and Cask 23 in the beautiful surrounding of the estate. They also got a tour around the estate including going into the wine cellar inside the man-made caves and a taste of the freshly picked wine grapes. The caves were deep inside the hill and extended in different directions and there's even a banquet hall inside for special occasions. The ripen wine grapes were small and very sweet.

Wine Country - Wine Train, Merryvale, Taylor's Refresher

These three seemingly unrelated topics got lumped together because mum and dad saw them at around the same time. It's now difficult to disentangle the three.

The wine train is a 3 hour slow-train journey from Napa to St Helena and back. You are served lunch or dinner inside the train while you enjoy the views of the wine country. Mum and dad did not try the wine train, but their journey did get delayed by the wine train while waiting for it to go past.

Merryvale is a beautiful vineyard at St Helena, but they didn't spend much time there except buying a map poster that they haven't seen elsewhere.

The main attraction for them was in fact Taylor's Refresher, a famous burger joint with a steady stream of people lining up and waiting for their names to be called after they have ordered their choice of burgers. The seating are open-air and is located right across Merryvale. It has been serving burgers from the same roadside spot since 1949. The grease and fat in all the menu items were the best ingredients to line up your stomach before wine tastings.

Wine Country - Rubicon Estate

Some wineries are worth writing about because of the famous wines they produced, some vineyards have spectacular views. In this case the winery, Rubicon Estate, has a famous owner, Francis Ford Coppola and an almost theme park like atmosphere.

When you first enter the winery, the word "grand" comes to mind and that word will keep hitting you until you leave the estate. The wine cellar is located in a Victorian house surrounded by perfectly manicured garden with a few fruit trees dotted around the pathways. You can imagine Mickey and Minnie walk down these paths with their entourage following closely behind. The theme park settings continue inside the Victorian house where you would see some of Coppola's playthings being displayed including a car from an old movie. It's definitely worth stopping by just to experience the different atmosphere this winery imparts.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Wine Country - time to go, Healdsburg

After a simple continental breakfast with excellent fresh orange juice in Madrona Manor and a quick morning swim, it was time to say goodbye to the lovely town and hotel. Before heading south back to Napa, they made one last pit stop at downtown. Broad daylight didn't take any quaintness away from this little town. Shops were like they were from Disney movies in the 70s. Powell's, the candy store, was like it's taken out of the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Mum and dad also bought us some bright red harnesses as souvenirs from Fideaux. We would have preferred the Foie Gras Dog Biscuits, but c'est le vie. They also met George, the white mini Schnauzer, waiting quietly outside Fideaux for his round of treats.

Wine Country - Cyrus, Healdsburg

After a late afternoon swim and a shower, they felt refreshed and headed back out to downtown Healdsburg to have their third Michelin starred dinner in as many days. It was almost dusk and most of the shops were closed with not a huge amount human traffic. A woman went past and somehow they got into a quick chat with her. As soon as, she realized that they were going to have dinner in Cyrus, she started raving about the place. The Healdsburg locals are probably quite proud of their famous restaurant.

Cyrus is located inside Le Mars Hotel right at the heart of Healdsburg downtown and you can read all the rave reviews on its own web site. While not as fiendishly difficult to reserve a table as the French Laundry, it was full house the night they dined there. The dress code was not as strict either, but most of the diners dressed up for the occasion. The decor was a bit aloof but the staff were mostly approachable and very knowledgeable as they found out during dinner.

It's difficult not to make comparison between the two restaurants as they were dining there almost back to back. Perhaps, it was the season, some of the theme dishes, ingredients and even the style were quite similar between the two. You might care to compare the two attached menus. Of course, most foodies would not line up their restaurants visit in such a way.

Overall, all the dishes were delicious and perfectly cooked. The desserts were particularly good and so was the bread selection (but then Robuchon in Macau is still the one to beat in this category). The cheese trolley offered a mesmerized array of choices made easy only the "cheese sommelier". The "rare and fine" wine pairing was definitely a worthy education process and experience.

People debate if these expensive restaurants are worth visiting. If they know the number of ingredients that go into each dish and the number of steps in the production of each, their question might turn into, "How do these restaurants turn a profit?" Especially if you have tried making some of these concoctions at home.

Wine Country - Madrona Manor, Healdsburg

After the light lunch in Buchon Bakery, they decided to head for Healdsburg and looked for a place to stay for the night. Hotels in downtown Healdsburg, which is a tiny area, have rack rates which are challenging for the budget conscious. A simple room in the boutique Hotel Healdsburg is displayed at a rate of US$360. And the Relais & Châteaux certified Les Mars Hotel starts at US$545 and the only room left for the night was asking for US$775. And there wasn't much of a last-minute discount. After checking at a few places and thought they were not worth the price, they went outside downtown to Madrona Manor.

Madrona Manor is an hotel with accommodation in the main building as well as some small lodges outside it. One of the lodges, Meadow Wood East, was available and they managed to negotiate a good rate for it. The lodge was divided into a sitting room and a bedroom. The decor was very Oriental. The main door opened out a small porch overlooking one of the many gardens.

The weather was so good that they managed to have a swim before dinner. But to mum and dad, the best part was picking raspberries and toybox tomatoes from the garden which supplies produce to the Michelin one star restaurant within the hotel. Mum even took and ate a bright red heirloom tomato. Her excuse was she wouldn't want the tomato to drop on the ground and get rotten. Hmm.......

Located less than one mile away from downtown Healdsburg, Madrona Manor is definitely a lovely place to stay if you are looking for a sanctuary with peace and close to mother nature.

Wine Country - Buchon Bakery

They picked up a light lunch at Buchon Bakery before leaving Yountville to head for Healdsburg. The beef brisket with rye bread was full flavored and the macaroons were great value at US$2 a piece. The lemon tart was delicious but still couldn't beat the ones they tried in Paris or from Joel Robuchon when they first opened in Hong Kong.

Buchon Bakery is worth a separate entry because it also sells Foie Gras Dog Biscuits!! Maybe mum and dad will find the recipe and bake some for our next birthday. Yahoo!!

Wine Country - more vineyards and wineries

You might ask what is the biggest difference between the vineyards we saw in New Zealand and the ones we saw in Napa. The answer is - "Not a lot!". But in Napa, mum and dad saw rows and rows of ripen wine grapes hanging on the vine waiting to be picked. It was the harvest season after all. There were grapes on the vine and there were also crates after crates of harvested grapes. A special aroma permeated the air, especially around the wineries. It was the smell of grape juice, not red wine. The hand picked grapes were transported in crates holding half-a-ton of grapes each to grape crushing machines spewing out the juice and leaving the grape skins and branches out. You would not imagine a US$100 bottle of wine started with such humble beginning.

The economic climate probably created a surplus of grape production. There was a cardboard sign saying - "20 tons Cabernet Sauvignon grapes for sale". These are the independent growers who own vineyards but have no wine producing facilities selling to wineries who don't have their own grapes but pick and choose from others. As these grapes are perishable, they would go to waste if they can't find buyers. And this is precisely what's happening this year in Napa. Take a look at this weblink to see the predicament facing the grape growers this year.