Cloudy with a chance of great food

The problem with work trips is that one has very little time for personal entertainment.

But this year I made sure to ditch the convention district in Melbourne and go farther in search of a nice place to dine. My colleague and I ended up on Flinders Lane and discovered Cumulus, Inc, a little restaurant with a busy vibe that I so love.

I also love the way the restaurant deftly combines black, white, wood and steel to create a clean, timeless space.

Cumulus, Inc was packed when we got there at 6.45pm and only the bar was free. That was absolutely fine, as the seating location gave us clear views of the kitchen staff at work and the myriad dishes that were being prepared.

We started the evening with some Prosecco and took our time to study the menu which offered a decent selection of local oysters, warm appetisers, salads, meats, fish, cheese and desserts. The friendly staff told us that most of the dishes are for sharing. Brilliant! That meant we could order a wide selection of items and not be too stuffed at the end of the night.

“Everything is beautiful here,” the same friendly staff chirped as she brought out our flutes of Prosecco. “You can order a few dishes first and then add more should you still have space.”

That was a great idea.

So we began our culinary adventure with an assortment of oysters.

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They were all so gooooood.

Next came the baked chilli mussels.

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I’m no master chef and I have no idea how the brilliant peeps of Cumulus, Inc managed to turn these common little creatures into such an enjoyable treat.

Just as we slurped our last mussel, we saw dishes of broccoli salad being brought out and remembered that we ought to have some greens in our meal. So we added that to our order.

Next, the highly recommended tuna tartare with crushed green pea salad.

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It was very pleasing to the eye, that vivid red shade and beautiful jade green. But I did not think it tasted especially memorable.

The cold chopped broccoli salad with green harissa, black garlic and Espelette instead proved to be quite the star. It looked simple, but the sweetness of the broccoli worked so well with the other ingredients, making this dish very enjoyable. Unfortunately, I did not take a photo of it when it came, thinking that it looked too plain to be spectacular. Ahh, must always remember to never judge a book by its cover.

Our final dish was foie gras parfait with toast. Pretty to look at and tasty, but nothing out of this world.

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I like how dishes are served one after the other at Cumulus, Inc, which encourages diners to enjoy their food slowly and partake in conversation with their mates. It also gave us time to study the variety of desserts that came out of the kitchen. Oh, temptations abound!

We definitely had room for dessert, and ordered the strawberries, fromage blanc ice cream & flaky pastry, and chocolate mousse, sour cherry & salted walnuts. The former won the beauty contest, but the latter was so good I died and went to chocolate heaven.

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We were just glad to have come upon Cumulus, Inc. Turns out this place has been mesmerising diners since 2008. Dang. What have I been missing out on the past four years of work trips to Melbourne! :(

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I’ll be sure to be back on my next visit to the city.

Fresh carrots and dirt

The Australians are known to support local produce, and in their fertile land fresh foods are abundant.

So when this dish was served up along with fine wines from local wineries at a pre-dinner cocktail at Yarra Valley Lodge’s Bella Restaurant, I thought, “Wow, did they just scoop these carrots from the ground and plate them along with the dirt in which they grew?”

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Silly me. Of course not. It is just the masterpiece of an ingenious chef who used creamy goat’s cheese and mushroom bits to recreate dirt to best present these organic baby carrots.

Kudos to the chef. I love it when effort is put into food presentation!

Eat, shop, sleep Hong Kong

It was seven years ago when I last visited Hong Kong and it was also during the festive Chinese Lunar New Year then.

What a lot of difference seven years have brought to our experience when we returned to Hong Kong for a short vacation this month. Although there were already many Mainland Chinese tourists in Hong Kong then, the crowds on the streets were not quite as maddening as it was now. This time, we heard more Mandarin being spoken than Cantonese, the official language of Hong Kong.

And somehow, the service level in the average shop in Hong Kong has dipped quite considerably. Gone are the cheery chirps of “Welcome! Feel free to look around. No obligations to buy!”. Now, exhausted, grim faces greet us wherever we went.

Not easy serving the hurried Mainlanders, I suppose.

Anyway, when in Hong Kong, stops at a few places are requisite – especially when you are a first time visitor. Although the husband and I have been to Hong Kong before, this time we were joined by my newly retired father and little brother who have never set foot in the Fragrant Harbour.

So we brought them to Victoria Peak to spend an entertaining hour at Madame Tussauds and then watch the sun set up at the observatory deck at the highest point; Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple to offer some joss sticks to the deities and see the flurry of activity common during the Lunar New Year (images below); and the ever popular Avenue of Stars in Tsim Sha Tsui.

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The aged female sorcerers who offer to literally beat off villains from one’s life from their stations under the Canal Road Flyover, between Causeway Bay and Wan Chai, are also a recommended sight for tourists. So there we headed one afternoon.

What the sorcerer does is to use magic and a litany of curses that sounds almost musical to the ears to break down the client’s foe while smacking a paper figurine of the targeted villain with a single old shoe (the older, the more worn the shoe, the more brilliant the curse). The curse is complete just when the paper figurine is reduced to shreds. Then, with another set of prayers, the sorcerer then bless the client with good luck, good health, prosperity and happiness going forward.

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It was a process most fun to witness and I wonder how many more years will we have before this ancient trade finally dies out.

We also paid our respects to Hong Kong’s retail diversity, from the chic shops in Causeway Bay and the traditional dried seafood and herbs paradise in Sheung Wan, to the myriad factory outlets in Citygate Outlets. Although daddy said he wanted to shop while in Hong Kong, he turned out to be quite disinterested in doing so once we were at the shops. Instead, it was I who spent more than I ought to, on clothes and accessories that I don’t quite need. Ah, so much for my New Year’s resolution!

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We also indulged in the fruits offered by Hong Kong’s culinary paradise.

The hotel where we stayed at for three nights, Regal Kowloon Hong Kong, has a Chinese restaurant that is renowned for its honeyed roasted pork (also known as charsiu). We enjoyed it twice during our stay, along with a variety of delicate dim sum and other dishes which included an excellent steamed grouper (it came with a hefty price tag of HK$1,200 or S$196 but was worth every cent).

Here. Say hi to the HK$1,200 fish. Its death was not a wasted one.

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We also stuffed our faces at Chi Ji Wanton Noodles which is famous for its, well, you guessed it, wanton noodles; Mido Cafe, a traditional Hong Kong-style tea house that is popular for its well preserved 60s ambiance although I thought its food was overrated and overpriced; and Morton’s The Steakhouse at The Sheraton Hotel, only because we all desired a change from Chinese food and a slab of prized Porterhouse always sounds so seductive.

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However, my favourite experience on this trip is our visit to Cheung Chau Island, accessible by ferry from Central Pier No. 5. The island stands in stark contrast from cosmopolitan Hong Kong. Its shores are swamped with colourful fishing boats that haul in fresh sea harvest for the many seafood restaurants close to the pier. Its people go about on foot and simple bicycles, pausing occasionally to shout greetings to a neighbour.

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Houses and shops line the narrow roads that wind uphill. Occasionally we would spot houses with interesting frontage.

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There are several attractions such as Cheung Po Tsai Cave, home of a notorious pirate and a few temples. A cave is a cave and I doubt daddy would care much for it. So we went in search of the temples instead.

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Besides seafood, Cheung Chau has street carts that sell tasty boiled balls of fish meat on skewers and other snacks, as well as traditional breakfast items such as rice porridge with lean meat and century eggs, steamed rice rolls drenched in hoisin sauce, soy sauce and sesame seeds and squares of pan-fried radish cakes.

One particular shop – Li En Ji – on the right of the pier, just past the big seafood restaurants, serve up pretty good breakfast items at absolutely pocket-friendly prices.

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Oh I could eat these simple fare everyday!

The one thing that we did not get to do while in Hong Kong, much to our regret, is to eat a roasted goose from the Michelin starred Yong Kee Restaurant on Wellington Street, just off the side of Lan Kwai Fong’s bar street. A flu scare was in the winds while we were there, and fowls from China were culled and destroyed just days before. Locals we met advised us against eating anything with wings, and we chose to be cautious.

Perhaps next time we will have a full roasted goose. :)

Osaka – good for gluttons

Osaka is very much like Singapore and most big, commercial cities – its people are always in a mad rush, traffic is heavy and commuting is a very stressful exercise.

While we did not quite like that aspect of Osaka, we do love, love, love its food culture and abundant options of restaurants in Minami (accessible by Namba Station) and Kita (accessible by Osaka Station).

Minami, where Dotonbori and Shinsaibashi shopping street are, is a hive of activity in the day and night. It is fascinating to see the array of lightboxes and oversized food replicas adorning the front of shops and buildings, eagerly beckoning consumers to come their way and spend some money. As if the lightboxes and oversized food replicas aren’t enough to entice consumers, most shops hire staff to stand at the entrance to shout their wares.

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Oh yes. A trip to Osaka isn’t complete without taking a photo of Glico Man!

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We took a step further by getting TWO photos of Glico Man – one in the day, one in the night.

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Since it was tough deciding what to eat in Minami, we ended up having three lunches in a day – one at a kaiten-zushi shop, one at Kani Doraku (our second go on this trip, with the first mega crab feast in Kyoto) and one at a western-style bistro where we had excellent sundaes (which the locals prefer to call ‘parfait’).

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Boy, I’m glad we have big Singaporean stomachs and appetites!

There’s also plenty to eat in Kita. Immediately around where we stayed, at Monterey Osaka, close to Osaka Station, is a long strip mall that houses a computer and gaming shop and a mind-boggling selection of restaurants. There, we patronised an okonomiyaki specialty shop, an izakaya that serves cheap set lunches in the day and Eki Bacon – out favourite! – a place for imported beers, sausages and crispy, roasted pork.

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There’s something wonderful about Japanese pork. I’m not usually a fan of pork, as it tends to stink. But pigs reared in Japan produce a particularly sweet and tender meat that tastes delightful however it is cooked.

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If there’s one thing I miss about Osaka, it has to be the crispy, roasted pork from Eki Bacon. :(

Eat a bowl of chuka-soba

Feeling hungry in Wakayama?

Well, don’t go a-hunting for ramen. Ask for directions to the nearest chuka-soba eatery instead.

In Wakayama, the locals refer to the popular noodle staple as chuka-soba, which means Chinese soba. Well, hardly surprising, as the origins of ramen have been hotly debated and some believe that the noodle dish was brought from China into the Land of the Rising Sun.

Every region in Japan has its own version of ramen, and here in Wakayama chuka-soba is often served with a darker, richer pork broth.

Grab any tourist map and chances are you will find directions to a multitude of recommended chuka-soba shops.

So while the good husband and I were in Wakayama, we hunted down Arochi Marutaka Chukasoba, a small shop on Tomodacho which is easily identified by its yellow exterior and a large cartoon of its founder.

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It is said that Arochi Marutaka Chukasoba was founded 60 years ago as a small, outdoor stall and its tasty broth of pork bone and soy sauce earned it a loyal following.

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Arochi Marutaka Chukasoba’s chuka-soba is truly worth all the praises that have been heaped upon it. The broth is rich and so addictive, while the noodles are done just right. The usual ingredients – chashu (slices of roasted pork), menma (bamboo shoots and kamaboko (fish cake) – are tasty too.

We enjoyed it so much that we drained our bowls.

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Each bowl of chuka-soba costs 600 yen. Order a plate of pan-fried gyoza (300 yen) to go with your noodles – they are done very well here too!

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Arochi Marutaka Chukasoba opens from 5.30pm to 3.30am.

Crossing Yunnan’s bridge

I’m not a big fan of China and my routine visit to Kunming every alternate year is strictly business. However, I’ve learnt to find a single thing of beauty in the destination and focus on it, so as to reduce the pain of being there.

And that single thing of beauty is a noodle dish that everyone in the city – throughout Yunnan province, in fact – knows and loves.

It is called 过桥米线, pronounced guo qiao mi xian. In English, the name means ‘cross the bridge noodle’.

It is not a pretty dish to look at, with all ingredients carelessly mixed up in a broth so oily that it makes your arteries and heart whimper in fear.

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But it makes a tasty meal, provided the cook gets the broth right and the ingredients are fresh since they are cooked right there and then in the boiling hot broth.

Plus, the story behind it is quite interesting.

A long time ago, in ancient China, there was a scholar who was buried deep in his books prior to the imperial exams. For some strange reason, he chose to revise his books in a place far from home and his wife had walk a long distance just to deliver him his dinner. By the time she got to him, his dinner would be cold. The smart woman, however, discovered that oil was a good heat insulator. So she poured a layer of oil over the broth, and kept the rice noodles and other ingredients in separate bowls, only to add them all into the broth after she gets to her husband.

And because she had to cross a bridge on every trip, the noodles was called ‘cross the bridge noodles’.

This story also explains why the noodle dish looks like a mess – because one has to mix everything in the soup bowl and stir.

‘Cross the bridge noodles’ is therefore served with all ingredients separate. For a party of five, our plates of raw quail eggs, assorted mushrooms and vegetables, deep fried pork lard, chrysanthemum petals, raw pork, raw chicken and ham made a pretty tall tower.

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Each of us took a serving of each item and tossed them all into a huge bowl of piping hot, oily broth. A quick moment later, in went the pre-cooked rice noodles.

Yummy, especially when the weather is a cool 10°C outside… and inside too, since most public buildings in Kunming does not come with internal heating.

The Brothers Jiang chain of restaurants is renowned for serving up tasty bowls of ‘cross the bridge noodles’ at very affordable prices. The most basic version with minimal ingredients costs RMB18 (S$3.70); while the most extravagant option with a variety of meats and seafood costs RMB88. The fancy option, by the way, is named 状元, or top scholar.

We ordered the second priciest version, one that comes with plenty of local wild mushrooms, which Yunnan is also famous for. It costs RMB55 a bowl. Cheap and good. :)

Word of warning – English is not spoken here and don’t expect the eatery to be spick and span. It is really a place for the locals.

Supanniga’s super crabs

Love crabs (the kind from the sea and not from one’s pubes)?

I do.  Very much.

So imagine how wonderful it is to have a menu dedicated to crab lovers at Bangkok’s Supanniga Eating House.

Some items on this new menu includes humungous clumps of real crab meat cooked in garlic, salt and pepper and a crab version of hor mok (below).

ImageMy army of hungry companions and I ordered every item from this menu, as well as several dishes from the regular selection, and went to heaven with every morsel we savoured. The crab dishes were done so well that we ordered second rounds.

Supanniga Eating House is definitely joining my list of must-gos in Bangkok now.

Good luck finding this restaurant though, as it sits in an inconspicuous three-storey shophouse along Thong Lor. :)