Dim Lit Alleys HK

 

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Hong Kong is a beehive, a swirling, buzzing swarm of activity, people rushing, working, eating, buying, lifting, shouting, moving, on and on. And look up. This is not a single plane but rather everything- malls and stores and restaurant building go ten stories up, escalators and stairs and elevators whisking shoppers up and down. Apartment buildings are tall and tight, like a table full of glasses crammed together so they are nearly touching. We blast around in bus, ferry, train and super cool Toyota taxi “limos” that feel like 80s Benz’, more leg room that you should be allowed in this town.

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his friends always wanted him to go to bars with them

Kowloon, “the dark side” is across the bay and is the dirty cousin that every city has, not as many expensive cars or handbags but more fun and even noisier. Neighbourhoods are lined with street food stands that range from the familiar to the outrageous, food on a stick rules here and portability + dynamic taste makes for lineups. Curved bubble waffles smelling of vanilla custard and toast, barely cooked squid legs on a stick with dark soy glaze, “tacoyaki” Tim Bits with chunks of octopus with soy glaze, mayo and shredded seaweed are eaten with a skewer, and crisp fried chicken dusted with mind numbing cayenne dust, it just does not end. They don’t call it poutine but there is a stall with the ubiquitous fry concoction, here a little beyond curds and gravy as you can imagine. Hmm.. Chuck Hughes should have set up shop here 5 years ago.

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squid on a stick, just like in Saskatchewan

tacoyaki

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Hong Kong bubble waffles at Mammys
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you know, a fish shaped sweet bun filled with soft ice cream

I scout out snacks in our area as I know that tonight, after a long shoot day, Anna will not want to park for a long haul in a restaurant but rather walk and eat light on the go. Each of the little side streets and alleys yield options, single shops and solo entrepreneurship’s filled with imagination, sweat and dedication, no company manual or standard greeting proffered by waiters, yes the little guys that we like so much. Maybe a plate of noodles or some steamed green vegetables, a curry, a little sandwich with something crisp, some ginger and Japanese Kewpie mayo? We shall see, the alleys wait, I can hear them breathing…

 

Walking in HK

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An exchange of info through social media brought my attention to Yardbird, part of a three outlet group run by expat Calgarians Matt Abergel and his sister Tara Babins who opened 5 years ago. All I know is that Matt has always worked in Japanese kitchens and came here via Vancouver and New York. Then it turns out that Anna’s producer had planned to go to Yardbird after meeting Matt at a wedding last summer, fate in the form of yakitori. We agree to meet around 8.

Earlier in the day, we had “mastered” the subway system, a way to always get to know the bitty better and take more control that only relying on taxis. Feeling smug, we looked on a map and charted our path and scoffed at the notion of a short walk to the restaurant. As it turns our, the last street before our destination is “Ladder Street” thus named after the fact that climbing the hundreds of steep steps is kinda like climbing a ladder a dozen or so floors. The best part is that halfway up, when you realize just how far it is to go, there is a funeral parlour in case you cash in prior to filling up on drinks and chicken parts. The benefit is that once you climb the mighty stairs, you can eat and drink all you like without guilt.

This is a modern, dialled in, chef driven place that puts high priority on fresh ingredients, skilled cooking and attentive service. Homemade pickles, a spin on a Caesar salad, corn tempura, a tasty White Ale from Japan and a bottle of white make for a solid welcome. For charcoal grilled Yakitori skewers, we go to chicken oyster (the nugget attaching thigh to backbone that chefs hoard for themselves), thigh and leek, tail and chicken meatball that we dip into an egg yolk enriched tare sauce (like teriyaki). We boost these small plates with Korean Fried Chicken and Brussel Sprouts with caramelized, black and dehydrated garlic. Matt joins us to talk shop and we have good laughs with Kenneth Chan, a guy who has really good English until I realize that he moved here recently from Chicago, heh heh, sorry. Staff are really friendly and every one on board is certainly into their job, from keen servers who have the confident swagger that assures you that they like the product to warrior line cooks, hell bent on getting the yakitori just right despite the surface-of-the-sun sort of heat beaming out of the binchotan charcoal grill that forces them to wear napkins on their faces like bank robbers. That takes dedication. Certainly a very impressive operation, I marvel at the challenges that one would face opening and running restaurants here, great stuff. Chatting with Matt, he tells me of the mentorship he benefitted from working for great Japanese chefs – he has taken the cooking skills from his masters and blended it with an open, cooperative management style, looking to others for their strengths and trusting people to do their job. I taste his Apricot infused Shochi from a massive glass jar, floral and just slightly sour, a nice end to a lovely evening, then we take a cab home while I silently curse those stairs on Ladder Street.

Hong Kong – arrival

After eating our way through a wide variety of South East Asian countries, coming back to Hong Kong is a big step toward heading home, with plenty of foreigners, a high use of English language, and certainly more familiar foods; not just from the use of Western ingredient but also because the Cantonese cooking is that most common to the Chinese cuisine that we are used to in Toronto. And while I feel as though I have spent weeks ogling strange and beautiful foods in fresh market settings, this is a really big, busy modern city. We are surrounded by skyscrapers filled with tiny apartments and offices, each window either littered with drying laundry or the signs of computer work. If you lived here you would have a high tolerance for people and “personal space” would not be on your radar. But it’s cool, it is hip and stylish, plenty of signs of extreme wealth (woops, another Tesla and two more Rolls Royce, or is the plural Ryce?) and also wonderful vestiges of clinging to the past kinda culture. Wonderful paradoxes like looking down onto a park and seeing ancient old men doing tai chi and reflecting quietly on life while just metres away, a fence indicates the beginning of a schoolyard filled with the noise of play by a thousand little kids, a cacophony of laughter, shouts and screams of joy.

We walk forever, tucking into alley ways and looking at strange store signs, looking up always, things here go up 5 or 10 or more stories. A single tower might house 20 or more restaurants. I look at what appears to be a menu board for a restaurant when in fact it is a listing of the 18 restaurant located within.

Noodles, wonton and braised greens everywhere, yes. A more formal lunch is a destination place where we dined on the famous soup dumplings nearly 4 years ago. The dumplings are made to order, with a filling of meat and vegetables with a cube of gelled meat stock reduction, which turns to liquid while the noodle cooks. Eating requires training – first place in spoon with chopsticks, bite a small hole to suck out the juice then add a few drops of a ginger spiked vinegar sauce, woof – really spectacular stuff. We also dine on a mapo-dofu (tofu with spicy sweet sour pork ragu) and a chicken dish with chilies and peanuts, the chefs add a handful of Szechuan pepper, or numbing pepper which, unlike the ones back home truly leave your mouth with the feeling that you have just touched your tongue to a 9 volt battery. Zoinks.

Next, we figure out the underground train so that the rest of the week can be made easier with public trans, we travel so far underground that I suggest to Anna that “ any deeper and we’ll be home soon” har har.

 

Lunching in Ari, Bangkok

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Anna had a full day of work on a shoot with Ian Kittichai at Issaya Siamese Club so Aaron wanted to show me “his” Bangkok.  Just to clarify that, he lived her for 3 years working as restaurant chef at the Centara Hotel so know his way around town. He has a working use of the language and of course knows all the places to get the best raw food, snacks, drinks and restaurant food. I think that if you came to Bangkok you might be tempted to stick to the neighbourhood that your hotel occupies and not see much outside of the major tourist sites. Honestly, it is a little intimidating but if you venture onto the sky train you will quickly figure out the system and have the whole city at your beckon. The train only costs a buck or two to get to most destinations; bear in mind that if you only looked at the tourist areas of any given city you would not get a realistic impression of local life.

Our first stop was Ari, a neighbourhood where Aaron and his wife Pai lived, busy around the main road and train stop but then trickles into a quiet block, likely not much different from where any of us live. However, the abundance of street food and produce in the busy area will make your head spin. In addition to the shops, the sidewalk is painted into yellow rectangles, each a leased spot for vendors, mostly food but also a full range of things like shoe repair, mending, tailoring and so on. It has ruined us for “food festivals” as it appears that every day here is a food fest. People have the knack of setting up quickly and constantly offering fresh, clean stuff all day long, it never ends. From something as simple as a tray of peeled segments of pomelo to a complicated snack or dessert, it is all there, all the time. He said hello to many of the vendors along the way, many recognizing him or feigning interest with a big smile (hey, why not?). We approached a corner divey sort of place and he announced “this is the best Thai restaurant in the world!” – I waited for the guffaw but he was serious. They don’t open until 11 so we planned to come back. We headed over to the “Ontagon Market beside JJ Market”, a fresh produce and wet market with an astounding variety of prepared food, all remarkably fresh and delicious looking. Honestly, it looked like what a super high-end yuppy grocery store would aspire to have in their case, just wonderfully shiny and properly prepared. We bought a few things, tasted, strolled and asked questions. BTW we were the only foreigners in the place. I did notice that those things that I might have thought would be jarred/canned staples like curry pastes, nam prik or dipping sauces were simpley prepared, ready to be packed into a bag. Everything goes into a bag. Cold drinks, hot slices of sausage, fried chicken, sauces and “kits” of fresh seafood with sauce or marinade in order to make a soup or stir fry. There is also a keen use of fermentation everywhere, a vestige of the pre-refrigeration days, fresh pork sausage for example has a fermented rice “sour” added to it for flavour also because it would prevent bacterial contamination. And by the way, the place was spotless.

After a walk through a mostly closed (public holiday) open air market for furniture and such, we headed back to Ari for lunch. First, I must explain the concept of “Lady Boys”; there are a lot of transvestite and transexual men in Thailand, many working in bars or in the sex trade. What became apparent right away was that most of the staff were in this genre and if I may guess, maybe just carrying on with a service career after leaving the bar life. Who cares. What matters is that this little corner restaurant, unassuming and with very good reason, had many excuses to be mediocre but rather, served us what I might suggest was one of the best meals I have eaten in the last year. Food is ordered in small plates and cooked to order, there is no formality in service or decor, the cutlery the cheapest possible metal utensil made on the planet. Barely metal. The cooking style is known as Esam, from the North of the country and unlike any Thai food I have tasted. The chefs work in front with a good set of mise en place; garlic, onions, chilies, some sauce bases, tons of herbs, peanuts and crisp shallots. The food that comes out is as tasty as it gets and they simply drop off the dishes nonchalantly. I tell Aaron a story about being in a famous American restaurant where the waiter would set down the plate, announce the dish and not leave until you gushed and exclaimed “oh my god it is so wonderful, this is just the best” Ugh. We eat fried chicken and grilled pork neck, full of citrus and chili and the sauce translates to “fire whore water”, nice, thanks Aaron. There is a mound of crisp fried Morning Glory shoots with this freaky sauce of minced pork, onion, lemongrass, galingal, coriander and basil, ridiculous. Sticky rice. Papaya salad smashed in a mortar with fresh raw crab. And more, just silly. I exclaim to the chef and waiters just how wonderful and life changing the meal was and they were basically, “yeah, whatever” ha ha I loved it. It made me pause and hit the restart button. They were not doing this for money or to get their picture on a magazine or social media shot, you know that stupid open-mouthed expression with devil horns or thumbs raised, they were simply doing a job, something they are good at doing.

We rolled out of there and spent some time at a major mall, wandering around in a full belly stupor, looking at every possible form of electronic gadget, real and knock off. A wonderful food hangover. Aaron had to catch a flight back to Singapore so we said goodbye unit the next visit, he bounced off and I went back to the room to look at the pics and think about food. What a day, really, what a day.

Welcome to Bangkok

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Ho Chi Minh City was terrific so I had to wonder if a short trip to Bangkok would be similar, maybe a little spicier, or would it be different in a way that we didn’t get? Our last time here was just a couple of days so our view of the city was limited to one small neighbourhood. Our friend Aaron Foster, Niagara College grad and Exec Chef at Westin Singapore used to live here, working as restaurant chef in Centara Hotel – he gracefully offered to fly up for a day to show us around his Bangkok. Aaron’s wife Pai is from Thailand and he spent enough time here to both speak Tinglish and a decent amount of Thai. He is very much at home here, negotiating his way with ease through tiny corridor back lanes, through the public transit and around markets – and he can order from a menu like a champ.

We toured his old hotel restaurant, a place that I had heard about for year and seen pictures of but had built an impression that it was much smaller than the real thing. The Centara is a 1000 room hotel on top of an ultra modern mall packed with every brand name store you could imagine and then some. Red Sky is on the 55th Floor, open air with a high end menu and a view that is honestly breath taking. And big. The place is huge and I now know that this is where he cut his teeth in terms of learning to manage. Doing 200+ covers nightly is tough enough without the struggle of language and cultural barriers, I know of the many challenges he had in learning to deal with people without the shouting that many restaurant chefs seems to adhere to; he made mistakes, he dealt with that, learned and moved ahead. It was so great to see his old staff welcome him like a relative returning home and I noticed that it is polite to ask after family and health before any work talk.

Next stop was a local dive to meet up with Pop, a Thai chef who is living in Singapore working as Aaron’s sous chef at the Westin. I met Pop a few weeks back when we were in Singapore and I spent a couple of days in the kitchen with the whole team. We settled in to the open air joint with plastic furniture and no frills. This was the food, however, that chefs eat after work, snacking on spicy crunchy and beer into the wee hours – yes it was early evening but Anna and I knew right away that this was the right place. A simple broth with pork bones did not look like much but was so full flavoured from lemon grass, herbs and chilies that we were all digging in, delicious. What followed was a series of grilled pork with fiery hot dipping sauces, fried catfish with sweet vinaigrette, crisp duck heads, green papaya salads, ribs and frosty cold beer. We talked about food mostly, asking Pop & Aaron questions about ingredients and preparations, and compared Vietnamese to Thai food. A wonderful evening – we said goodnight to Pop and headed back to our neighbourhood, a wild corridor of flea market vendors, sex trade workers, food stalls, bars and all sorts of wildness. We went to bed early, no dirt, sorry.

Lunch with Linh

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I met up for lunch with Linh Phan, a Vietnam repatriate whose family left in ’72 and made a home in Toronto. He came back 20 years ago after a Canadian upbringing and education, ready to seek his success in the new Vietnam, a country that has since rebuilt and is thriving, especially with the ambition of smart, hard working people like him. The average age here is 25, the population has tripled to 90 million since the early 70s and although the  red flag with Star and Hammer & Sickle flies, there is clearly a movement towards independent business. Everyone works; if not employed, they start their own business, even as simple as selling fruit or cold drinks on the side of the road. Everyone works. The cost of living is low and there is high quality food everywhere – even if it seems like it should be dodgy street food, it is so fresh and always moving that it is much less likely to be “iffy” that one might expect. Simple cafes and stands offer signature dishes and the flavours are explosive; always balanced with a dipping sauce or a side crunch. Wet blends with dry, sweet with hot and salty with sour. Wonderful.

We start with a Northern style Chicken Pho in a small stand on a busy street (that does not narrow down the location). Instead of the usual herb toppings for Beef Pho, this has chilies, lime and a side dish of chicken blood pudding and plucked eggs (those before a shell forms). Delicious broth, noodles with a bite, dense chicken, and fast, it was a treat.We are a moving target, off to the next location.

In a little Quan next to the river I experience Bahn Khot, a rice batter crust, like a Yorkshire Pudding topped with fresh shrimp and peanuts. This is wrapped in mustard leaves with grated green papaya and banana stem, plus leaves of shiso, mint, basil and some others I could not identify, then dipped in watered-down fish sauce with fresh ground chilies. Good grief, so complex, cooling and tasty that I was looking for ways to describe it. Nice, I was describing it to a local expert, yeah.

We cruised around several neighbourhoods, including Linh’s house and a visit to our pal Jack Lee’s cooking school, where my wife Anna was shooting an episode for a new tv series. We snuck out for another in a long series of snacks, this one, Banh Cuon, a fresh soft sheet of tapioca starch filled with pork, topped with sprouts, herbs, crisp shallots and fish sauce. Like a see-through ravioli or dumpling, this was an incredible savoury blast of rich, gentle flavour, fulfilling yet low in fat. Honest, a remarkable taste sensation.

We didn’t say “goodbye” but rather “see you later” – it’s just too good to not come back here.

 

Saigon, We Need to See More of Each Other

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Saigon, I mean, Ho Chi Minh City, you are making me want to come back and stay for a month or more, to get to know you better, to be a regular in your restaurants, to build conversational buddy relationships with your shopkeepers. I want to stroll down your main street like John Travolta holding paint cans, I want to be that guy. You are just so cool, your coffee is damn good, and your food, I mean, really – I need to learn more.

Saigon, Walking

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Chef down a dark alley

Saigon is a wonderful walking town, a collection of neighborhoods filled with shops, food carts, endless rows of parked scooters and people milling about, doing their thing at what seems to be a calm pace. And it’s hot, like 35C all day long, not a lot of breeze or cloud cover, the sort of heat that must be punishing for so many of the jobs where you work outside, man oh man. In our usual manner, we walk endlessly, looking for those cool spots, that great place to get a coffee, or the market that has the perfect produce lined up like it’s waiting for a picture to be taken. Yes, we stand out because we are a minority and me, especially as I am a giant here, yet I’ve found that if I smile at someone and continue to do so, they eventually smile back, I get no trouble.

Little alleys yield tiny shops with small run ladies’ designer clothes, handcrafts, the most beautiful things for the kitchen and dining table, small cafes with the super local coffee laced with condensed milk and snappy little bars with iced Bia Ha Noi. The city has a surprising number of trees and potted plants so you are never far away from green stuff.

 

 

Thibault

Lunch today is a return to a place we enjoyed last night, a diversion from our usual approach of not repeating restaurants while in town for a short stint. But the food was simply so delicious that we can’t help ourselves. Quan Bui is a short walk from our hotel, closer than you trust had it not be recommended by three different people, it seemed too easy. This is the one that sets the new standard, a type of cuisine that redefines what we know, a series of tastes and textures that make eyes widen, that sort of are-you-kidding-me food. We met Thibault, a guy from Savoie, France who came here three years ago for a new start. “Things were not good back home, no jobs, and there was not a positive feeling socially” – he came and started a small business, part dinner theatre, part cultural centre to reflect his admiration for Vietnamese arts. He has settled in working with this restaurant, very comfortable and at ease with guests, guiding them through the menu offerings. He sells us on a dish of Chicken with Honey, a sauté of Jasmine Flowers with Garlic, Beef and White Eggplant Salad with Sweet Potato Leaves, Tofu with Passion Fruit and more. Each dish is so good that we spend as much time exclaiming to each other of the flavor as we do chewing! The food truly has expanded our understanding of the Vietnamese kitchen. This is as good a set of flavours as we have tried anywhere in the world in the last several years.

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Move steadily and don’t flinch or they will run you over

While the many offers of a back massage are tempting, we spend the rest of the afternoon walking through back streets enjoying temples, shops and sights, getting better at each crosswalk at negotiating scooter traffic with more and more confidence. The trick is to watch out but at the same time walk steadily at a constant pace and let them move around you – if you flinch, you are in trouble. The surprise is the ability of people to a) pile an incredible amount of stuff or bodies to carry on a scooter and b) the uncanny skill of being able to nap on top of a parked bike, anywhere, anytime.

The kids are just awesome, mind you, kids are great everywhere, they just want to play and do so in the funniest place, this guy was imitating construction workers across a busy street, his hangout, a bus shelter.

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His playground, a bus shelter- he was having fun imitating the construction workers across the street

One of the highlights of the day was finding the Pasteur Street Brewing Company, a tiny tap room serving craft beers brewed an hour outside of town by a collection of mostly American expats devoted to making quality brews enhanced with local ingredients. We tried three amazing brewskies; a Passion Fruit Wheat, a Saison with Lemongrass and Black Pepper, and a killer Jasmine IPA. Really great stuff.

More to come over the next couple of days, here is a look at what we saw.

Hello Saigon

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We ate our first bowl of Pho while listening to Kenny G belt out “Jingle Bells” (it’s February)

On a map, it is called Ho Chi Minh City but this clean, groovy, welcoming place is only called Saigon by those who live here. Vietnamese food has become ubiquitous in North America for quick, cheap eats but our menu base typically does not go beyond a few favourite dishes. Driving in from the airport, the streets are filled with scooters, unlike other parts of South East Asia where cars rule. The shops are inviting, the produce is shouting at me “take my pic, buy me, eat me” and everyone is moving smoothly, no panic, just doing their thing. I’m here to explore the  markets, meet the cooks and look beyond the obvious, well, only after a couple of stabs at my go to dishes like Pho. Anna and I tucked into our first sample late morning in a coffee shop filled with office workers, the only thing making it even more special tother than actually being in Saigon was the fact that in mid-February, the music running over the system was Kenny G playing Jingle Bells, true story. And yes, it was spectacular. These pics will give you an idea of what the first couple of hours of walking looks like but look forward to seeing dishes featuring stir fried Morning Glories, steamed Jasmine Flowers with Garlic, and a range of Northern dishes that I have never tasted. Am I a little excited? Yuh-huh.

 

Bruce Lim, part 2

 

The spirit of hospitality shows its head in many ways, sadly most in our mind are in a commercial sense, a great restaurant experience, a warm welcome to a cool hotel, a visit to a wonderful winery, yet the most genuine one is that which comes from sheer friendliness. I had an amazing day spending time with Chef Bruce Lim in various cities within the greater metro area of Manila. Our common  bond of being cooks brought us together and he shared his world with me without restraint, I met his tightest pal, his kids, he showed me the inside track of his food scene without ambition of showing only the best, the most “correct” or any other limitation, it was just a day. One that I won’t forget; here is another look at Manila, from a Taiwanese lunch in Quezon City to a rough and tumble, yet awesome wet market, hope you enjoy the pics.