Sunday, 21 February 2010

Manoeuvring around the madness at 'March into Merivale' (16 Feb 2010)

Madness and Mayhem at 'March into Merivale'
Whether or not you’re a fan of Justin Hemmes’ Merivale empire you do have to admit (as a foodie) that he’s put a hell of a lot of effort into setting up a good selection of restaurants to cater to his more discerning customers. “March into Merivale”, which is an annual event, provides an excellent opportunity to try food from across the Merivale gastronomical empire. Did I also mention that this was a free event? Despite my na├»ve belief that this would be an intimate and exclusive evening, it turns out that half of Sydney was not only invited but also decided to show up. And who could blame them, after all, not only was there free food but also a seemingly endless supply of free drinks.

March into Merivale” was held in the Ivy room at the Ivy, and featured small bites from across the Merivale empire including Mad Cow, Est., Lotus and Bistro CBD. Arriving just before 6pm Mrs FBC and I joined the not insignificant queue which, thankfully, was fast moving and unhindered by the normally ubiquitous clip board girls (Mrs FBC and I both pre-registered but this seemed unnecessary on the day).

We made our way into the Ivy room where we were immediately offered a free drink (beer, wine, champagne or cocktail) by the eager, and at this point un-fazed, staff. In the centre of the room was what at first appeared to be a makeshift stockade erected by desperate chefs fending off ravenous hordes. However, on closer inspection this was really just a collection of kitchen stations manned by still equally desperate chefs rushing to serve up morsels of food to hungry Sydneyites. Quickly dismissing the food tables at the front of the room we made our way to the back where the masses were somewhat more subdued. Despite this it still took considerable effort to fight our way through the crowds to our first sampling.
Help... get these hungry people food before they eat me!
Chefs - making sushi as FAST AS THEY CAN!
I’m not sure if it was the free alcohol.... or desperation brought on by fasting all day.... or simply a mob mentality, but at times the crowd seemly truly desperate to partake in the free samples.
Is this what Sydney has come to? A bunch of freeloaders??
Many a plate was emptied before it had barely touched the table, with worried kitchen staff scrambling to bring more and more food out lest the crowd be angered. Plates of finely seared beef served with a mustard garnish nearly caused a riot, with only bloodied plates left behind as a reminder of the once delicious food on offer. Small boxes containing light and tender Farafelle pasta with delicious bolognese sauce were well worth the fight, as were the mini hamburgers which were snatched up a handful at a time and only attainable by those willing to brave the worst of the crowd.
Unfortunately, our photos aren't that great as there were just too many hungry people around that got in the way... but we gave it a go in true food blogger style :( Check out Simon Food Favourites for much better photos from the event!

Many delectable morsels of food on offer... but get in quick !

Seared beef served with a mustard garnish - nearly caused a riot with the iron deficient crowd 
Having been defeated by the frenzy we retreated to the back of the room from where we could watch the crowds continue to press the increasingly desperate staff. However, this move proved to our advantage as new waves of kitchen staff began to circle the room bearing plates of further food including my favourite, a tasty (and cute) mini steak pie with peas on top.
Mini steak pies with mashed pies

Mr Justin Hemmes surrounded by a gaggle of women. He's the guy behind the blurry lady

The Hungry Hordes at 'March into Merivale' Launch Party

There are a stack of events on as part of 'March into Merivale'. Check out details here.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The world's cheapest Michelin starred restaurant - Tim Ho Wan, Mongkok (Hong Kong)

Yum Cha enthusiasts await their turn
Where in the world can you have a meal in a Michelin starred restaurant for under AUS$15. Yes ... you heard right... not $1500 or $150... but 15 bucks!
The place is Tim Ho Wan (meaning 'add good luck')  -  a pokey little dumpling restaurant/cafe in downtown Mongkok in Hong Kong AND also the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world. Our ultimate goal is to fill our bellies with dumplings and still have enough money to hit the shops in  Hong Kong.
Mr FBC and I were excited about the opportunity to have our first 'Michelin star' dining experience since reading about it in the SMH. We are 'food obsessed'. So, like all good food bloggers, we made sure we arranged one of our only 2 days in Hong Kong around the pursuit of food.  
As we soon discovered, to achieve this feat we required 3 important things:
1. Strategy
2. Patience
3. Snacks (!)

We arrived at 10.30am using the 'strategy' of getting there well before lunchtime to have yum cha brunch. The place only opens at 10am but there was already a mass of people waiting outside. Through essential observation I realised there was a ticket system. Mr FBC and I got our ticket from the lady at the counter and our number was no. 67. "Do they start their numbers at 60?", I asked Mr FBC hopefully.  "Number 5, number 5", the ticket lady yells out in Cantonese. Thank god that I understand basic cantonese numbers (thanks mum!)... but  whaaaaat??.... we're number 67??? At this moment in time, Mr FBC and I are wondering if we would be eating yum cha today. We figured we would go exploring Mongkok instead of waiting around the restaurant. This leads me to our next critical skill....
The Winning Ticket (after a few hours) is No. 67
Our anticipated wait meant Mr FBC and I had plenty of time to explore Mongkok, which has the highest population density in Hong Kong. Mongkok is a super busy place and walking the streets around the restauarant can leave you with sensory overload. There's the 'Ladies Market' on Tung Choi Street which sells lots of clothes, handbags (plus the odd fake handbag or two), watches (plus the odd fake watch or two).  Then there's Fa Yuen Street, also known as 'Sneaker Street', which is lined with shoe shop after shoe shop. Mr FBC bought a new macro lens for his Olympus DSLR camera at Sai Yeung Choi Street South, which as you would expect is known as 'Electronic Street'.

Mr FBC and I decided to head back to Tim Wan Ho every hour to check on the numbers - which was a good strategy.  Here's a tip if you ever go to this place. Make sure you either wait patiently for your table or you are very good at estimating when you're ticket  number will be called. There are signs in both Chinese and English on the doors which indicate that if your waiting ticket number is over 5 numbers it will no longer be valid (e.g if you're ticket is 45 and they're up to 51). You will need to register for a new ticket again. We saw it happen to a few people while we were waiting and you really feel their misery. But as the saying goes, "You snooze, you loose!". Be aware - the ticket lady will make no exceptions.
While you are waiting you can also studiously review your ticket which also happens to be the menu (don't worry - there are English menus). You need to tick the dishes that you'd like to order and you give the ticket to a waitress on the way in.
Waiting, waiting...
Fast forward two hours later....Mr FBC and I are getting a bit peckish and we're still not sure when we would eat. We didn't want to eat too much and wanted room for dim sum. So, we settled on a coffee from starbucks and some waffles from ubiquitous food booths in Mongkok. The waffles were sweet and crisp... a bit like think ice cream waffle cones. A good choice to abate our hunger for awhile.

Waffles from a food booth in Mongkok
More waiting.....
Yum Cha goers clamouring for tickets from the 'ticket lady'
After a total of three loooong hours, but with plenty of shopping in Mongkok to fill in the time, Mr FBC and I finally get into Tim Wan Ho with our ticket. Phew!
The owner of the restaurant is Mak Pui Gor, a former dim sum chef from at the three Michelin-starred restaurant Lung King Heen located in Hong Kong's Four Seasons Hotel. Suppose he wanted to branch out and cook for the 'real people'.
The Michelin Star Experience?
Once in the restauarant, there was definitely a frenetic vibe in the place. Or it could just be the ravenous stomachs of all the diners who would have had to wait an average 3 hours like Mr FBC and I. We ordered 7 dishes and made a strategic decision not to order 'rice dishes' so we wouldn't get too full. In hindsight, we probably could have ordered more but... ah 'live and learn'.
There really isn't too much to see once you are inside. Everyone is packed in and the place only fits around 20 people. So, I think the experience is primarily about the food as opposed to the decor.

Inside Tim Ho Wan
The first dish to arrive was the Fung Zao (otherwise called Phoenix Talons). The chicken's feet were very moist and tender, with the skin falling easily off the bones. The combination of chilli and black bean sauce were perfect. Definitely good chicken's feet.

Fung Jao - steamed chicken's feet with black bean sauce 
Next was the steamed dumplings in 'chow' style. These plump parcels were filled with a mixture of garlic, chives, pork, dried shrimp and mushrooms.
Steamed Dumplings in 'Chow' style

We also got some spare ribs. The meat was very tender and melted in your mouth.
Steamed spare ribs with black bean sauce
Yum cha is never really yum cha if you don't order  sui mai. Often I use this dish as a standard to compare restauarants. These siu mai's were perfectly steamed with a good ratio of pork to prawn wrapped inside a thin wheat flour wrapper.

Siu Mai - steamed pork dumpling with shrimp

The next steamed bamboo basket was filled with har gow (steamed prawn dumplings)... another good yum cha staple. These were perfect. The rice paper wrappers were perfectly steamed and translucent, revealing pump juicy prawns. Yum!
Har Gow - Steamed prawn dumplings

Another dish that we ordered was the rice paper rolls stuffed with prawns.  The rice noodle was beautifully steamed making it light and soft, containing plenty of plump fresh prawns to dip into the pond of soy/oil sauce

Cheung Fun -Rice noodle rolls stuffed with prawns
Our final dish that we had to complete our dining experience was the 'char sui bau'. I believe this is the signature dish of the restaurant and I've read that they make up to 750 a day. They definitely didn't look or taste like any other char sui bau that I've had - but they were great. I could have had more. I usually expect the shell of the bun to be made of the white fluffly dough. However, this bun actually looked more like a 'bo lo bau'  (chinese pineapple bun) with the shell being sweet and slightly cake-like in texture. The insides were filled with a delicate char sui (BBQ pork) filling.  Anyway, these little babies were very popular for diners. Looking around the room, every table ordered them and we saw at least 4 tables ordering extra and taking them home in a container.
Here's another tip - make sure you order extra of your favourite thing and take it back to the hotel with you. The char sui baau probably travels really well and would make for a delicious afternoon snack.

Char Siu Bau - baked bun with BBQ sauce
Char siu bau - side profile
The final cost for all that: HK$96 which is equivalent to just under AUS$15 - bargain!  The cheapest dish we got was the steamed dumplings at a measely HK$10 (about $1.40).
None of the dishes were drastically different to other yum cha that I've had around the world AND I'm not sure how many times I would want to wait 3 hours for my lunch.  However, it does have that famous 'michelin star' and I think that the quality of the food was well above other yum cha places. I suppose the key to the food at Tim Ho Wan is to keep is simple but to cook it extraordinarily well!

The final bill at HK$96 (equiv to AUS$14) 
Paper place mat which depicts the food on offer.
Our final tip: Try and get there well before10am and hopefully the queue isn't that long. If you get there after 10.30am then you are looking at around a 3 hour wait (unless the novelty has worn off for the Hong Kong-ers). Don't bother going there after 1.00pm in hope of getting a ticket as they stop handing out tickets around that time and will ask you to return at 3pm.

Tim Ho Wan 
Open 10am -10pm
 2-8 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok, Kowloon

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Guangzhou...home of Yum Cha (Li Wan Restaurant)

This visit to China is a particularly special one for Mr FBC and I. For me, it's an opportunity to join my family (there's 16 of us in total on this trip - including my aunt/uncle/cousins, plus some second cousins) to go back to the province and Chinese villages where my mum, dad and uncle spent their childhoood - on the island of Hainan (more on the 'island' and the 'village' to come in future posts!).  
As there were no direct flights to Hainan, my family decided to fly from Sydney to Hong Kong and then catch a train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou and stay for a 2 days before going to Hainan.
I was a bit sceptical about why we needed to stay in Guangzhou. I hadn't heard much about it and it frankly didn't interest me.  Some basic geography  to give some context - the city of Guangzhou is located in the Guangdong province on the southern end of the coast of China. It's pretty close to Hong Kong and is where the Cantonese dialect and cuisine comes from.
My disinterest was soon allayed after reading the following facts from the Lonely Planet guide that Mr FBC kindly downloaded for pre-departure reading:
"Eavesdrop on an average conservation in Guangdong and it always comes back to one thing: FOOD" ;
"The city boasts the largest number of restauarants per capita in China"; and
"Guangdong is home to the ever popular dim sum"
Food.... dim sum...I was sold! 'Dim Sum' also known as 'Yum Cha' to Sydney-siders is probably one of my favourite meals. Yum Cha literally means ' to drink tea' but in reality it means getting to taste lots of morsels of food and ensuring that you can never get food envy.
I'd like to say that we had Yum Cha for every meal... but alas... we only had Yum Cha twice AND in the same place (in our hotel). It's too hard organising 16 people. Fortunately... it was great. We were staying at the Garden Hotel and the yum cha restaurant, 'Li Wan Market', is located on level 2. 

 A very cute feature of the restauarant is that you get to eat your Yum Cha in a Chinese Sampan (aka a cantonese style 'boat' - check out the story on wikipedia). The restaurant has about 10 Chinese Sampans and my family were lucky enough to have yum cha in 3 of them.
Yum Cha in cute little Chinese Sampan Boats

Yum Cha in Guangzhou is not like Sydney - you don't get trolley ladies who cart the food around. Instead, you tick what you want on an order sheet (which was all in Chinese). Thank god my mum and dad knew how to read Chinese! I do like trolley ladies but I suppose your food is then fresher as it's cooked to order.
We ordered the relevant 'Yum Cha' staples for my family which included:
1. Har Gow - steamed prawn dumplings. These were spot on which plump prawns wrapped in yummy translucent dumpling skin. 
Har Gow
2. Sui Mai - steamed pork and prawn dumplings. These had juicy fillings held in a wonton wrapper.
Sui Mai
3. Fong Jao - chicken feet. Mr FBC is not a fan of these but I love them. The chicken feet are steamed in a soy and chilli sauce. It's very fatty but delicious. Get over your fear of 'eating feet' and give them a call.  There's an art form to eating chicken feet. You need to learn to suck the fat of the bones and subtely spit the bones out.
Chicken Feet wrapped in Tofu
4. Chueng Fun - rice noodle rolls drizzled with soy sauce and hot oil. These rolls are usually filled with either prawn, beef or pork. This place had rolls filled with what I would describe as deep fried dough sticks which were also filled with a prawn and mushroom filling.
Rice Noodle Rolls
Cross Section of my Rice Noodle Roll
5. Daan Tart - egg custard tarts. A Yum Cha meal with my family never feels right if you don't get your 'Daan Tarts'. The custard was hot and sweet and the pastry was super flaky. Yum, yum.
Egg Custard Tarts
6. A random bamboo basket of things -  Despite having my staples, I do like to try other things. This time we picked beef balls. These were made of steamed beef mince with corriander and shallots - very moist and flavoursome.

There were lots of things to see in Guangzhou so it was great to fill your stomach and start the day with delicious dumplings at yum cha.

Fresh Vegetables on Display

I assume this says 'Li Wan Market' Restaurant in Chinese

Li Wan Market Restaurant
Garden Hotel - Guangzhou
368 Huanshi Dong Lu, Guangzhou, China

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Mr and Mrs FBC's eating escapades around China

Hi all,
Apologies for the lack of post over the last few weeks. We've spent the last few weeks having a fantastic but whirlwind holiday in China (Guangzhou, Hainan Island, Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong).
Importantly, we've had  COPIOUS amounts of culinary delights which will hopefully make for interesting reading.
Here's a tasting plate of our stories to come:
  • Guangzhou - yum cha capital of the world
  • Tropical paradise and village feasts in Hainan Island
  • The supposed 'best Peking Duck' in Beijing
  • Snacking - Shanghai Style
  • The worlds cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world - a dumpling house in Hong Kong
Btw... we stayed in some fantastic hotels and had a drink or two at a couple of unique bars which were not technically 'food related' but definitely worth spreading the word to FBC readers. Hey - you might as well have a nice drink to accompany  delicious food and have a nice place to rest before going on the next culinary journey.

Stay tuned!
Mr and Mrs FBC