Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Fanciest Dim Sum I Ever Ate

Part of the fun of returning to Hong Kong is in seeing how food in its "original" context is so much more varied and nuanced than the standardized version that gets exported to the States. To see the myriad interpretations of a dish in its homeland is, I think, one of the strongest arguments against the idea of a single, representative "authenticity" when it comes to food. Dim sum is a perfect example of this.

In the States, dim sum is generally a casual affair. As with most American Chinese cuisine, its hallmarks involve tasty, quick food at a cheap price with minimal attention paid to the quality of service. More often than not, it's raucous, noisy, and crowded, with some jostling for the har gow lady's attention to be expected because no one's about to settle for anything less than the shrimp dumplings that JUST came out of the kitchen. Even the "nicer" dim sum places (some might say the "gwailo" dim sum places) are still more large than intimate, the previous night's Chinese wedding banquet hall transformed into rows of ten-tops crowded with tea-swilling regulars. Only the glittery foamcore cut-out names hanging on the wall mark any change in experience from week to week.

Suffice it to say, then, that dim sum as I grew up with it, is not a "precious" experience. The Chinese are a feisty bunch, and when delicious delicious bbq pork buns are at stake, there's no time to worry about the teapot that invariably leaks on the tablecloth as you refill your neighbor's cup, or whether the eggs in the custard tarts were free-range.

At least, that's what I thought dim sum was about, until I had "all-you-can-eat" dim sum at the W Hotel at Kowloon Station in Hong Kong. I would venture to say that the W brand tends to be too cool for me on any given day, but the disconnect between this mod boutique hotel line and my clearance Old Navy duds and 4 year old Target sandals seemed especially striking early on a Saturday morning (the all-you-can-eat offer is only available from 9:30-11:00 am). As a twenty-something, there's also nothing to up your cool factor like going out with your parents and young niece and nephew. Much as I adore their company, I think they all needed a giving or taking of about 20 years to make our motley crew fit into the target demographic of the W hotel hip yuppie.

As we entered the lobby through stylishly massive doors, vaguely techno music pulsated around us. Appropriately beautiful people stood behind the registration counter, ready to cater to the whims of the slightly more beautiful people who stay in such places.

Then I turned to the right, expecting to see supermodels and TV celebrities waiting for their fancy cars to be brought round. Instead, I was bemused to find a small gaggle of decidedly plebeian families. Parents crowded anxiously around the closed doors of the Sing Yin restaurant, waiting for the magic hour when the dim sum feast would begin. Meanwhile, their assorted kids frolicked amidst a giant iron horse sculpture, and plastic black boxes that were too sleek to be comfortable seating implements. As my niece and nephew experimented with the utility of cushions on a backless sofa, I was grateful that they might be spared the burden of self-consciousness for another few years at least.


As befit its mod surroundings, far and away, dim sum at the W was the fanciest dim sum I've ever had (at HKD$175 per person, or about USD$23, it was probably also the most expensive dim sum I've ever had). Gone were the claustrophobic arrangements of tables designed for 10 but squeezing in 15. Gone was the bright lighting that makes dim sum a curious Sunday rendezvous for hip and hungover twenty-somethings. Gone was the noise, the chaos, the flat-screen TVs showing Chinese dramas or the football game.

Instead, what followed for the next two and a half hours was a decidedly refined and civilized affair. The five of us occupied what amounted to a semi-private room, surrounded by painted glass panels. Our chairs came with armrests and cushions; no fighting for extra chopstick-maneuvering room here. The interior of the restaurant was dark, and the selective lighting both lent a certain atmosphere to my foodie pictures and made me curse my low ISO settings.


It's interesting what happens when you take familiar food out of its usual context. While other Hong Kong restaurants have expanded beyond the usual har gow, siu mai, char siu bao rotation into more innovative and experimental dishes, the W selection deviated little from the expected list of dim sum staples.

Standard fare in above-standard surroundings

And yet, the setting definitely made a difference vis a vis the eating experience. Even the picture a few paragraphs above, simply capturing our table and assorted dishes, evokes sophistication rather than banality. While other travellers might take pictures of their overcrowded tables in a noisy dim sum hall to say, "I am cool because I travel to exotic places to eat exotic food," this picture draws upon a different kind of a cool, a "W" cool, rather than a "Lonely Planet" cool.


Though chrysanthemum and goji berry jelly generally impresses, the dessert appeared particularly rapturous under the dramatic lighting.


Fried spring rolls, neatly lined up on a white platter, seemed to hold a deeper message.


Shadow -- rarely found in dim sum food photography -- gave these fried taro balls a hefty sense of gravitas.


As the fanciest dim sum I've ever eaten, Sing Yin probably doesn't fit the vision of "authentic" Cantonese dim sum that some travelers or even locals might be looking for. And while $20 and change per person for dim sum is twice the price that I would expect to pay anywhere else, it seems like a reasonable deal when you factor in the calmer, upscale ambience and attentive service. I'm probably still not going to fool anyone into thinking that I can hang with the hip crowd at the W on a Friday or Saturday night. But maybe they'll be kind enough to let me sneak in every now and then on a Saturday morning.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Finishing out Tokyo

Whew, who knew it could take so long for me to blog about 48 hours in Tokyo? But here I am finally finishing out my posts on my August trip. Clearly the two weeks in Hong Kong that preceded Tokyo will see this blog through the end of the year...

Just some bits and pieces that didn't quite fit in anywhere else or didn't seem to merit a full blog post on their own:

In-flight snack on ANA; I'll take this over stale pretzels and coke any day (thanks again for the deluxe air tickets Mom!)


A big part of the reason I was intimidated about navigating Tokyo on my own.


A manmade stream-like feature running through a park in Ropponggi where people can "rent" a seat:


Further along in the park, a tranquil scene at dusk:


A fairly delicious avocado and "Italian frozen yogurt" shake from the food basement of Mitsukoshi in Ginza. What made it "Italian", I don't know, but the attention to detail with the petite mint leaf tickled my fancy:


Lunch at a delicious Kyoto-style small plates place in the Nakameguro neighborhood. This place was tucked away from the street down a narrow little path with nary a sign (as far as I could tell) to indicate that it was even there. Definitely would never have found it on my own. Thanks for lunch Taro and Christine!


Cold udon was perfect for the 30+ degree Celsius weather


The history of Sensoji temple juxtaposed against the hypermodern Sky Tree broadcasting tower in the background


Cheerful mini-temple


Something about the way this bike was parked outside the restaurant and the black and white photo in the window made me think of an old Japanese film. Maybe channeling the quiet simplicity of an Ozu film?


All the guidebooks talked about the "salarymen" aka government workers who throng Tokyo's izakayas and bars after work. I have no idea if this crowd worked for the government, but this picture captures the faceless anonymity that that term always conjures in my head:


A big reason I was delighted to be navigating Tokyo on my own -- more tonkatsu for me!

This was at Maisen, a well-known tonkatsu establishment. Their special sauce totally made the meal -- none of that thick gloppy sweet stuff you squeeze out of a bottle.


This stuff was fresh, with I have no idea what inside it, but definitely had hints of fresh ginger and maybe even pineapple? I recommend dousing the tonkatsu with it to get that perfect bite:


All in all, not too shabby for a glorified layover methinks!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sensoji Temple and Carving Out Your Own Fortune


For some reason, Senso-ji, the major Buddhist temple in Tokyo, was closed when I visited it in early August.


Luckily, my visit to Asakusa, the neighborhood around Senso-ji, was not a complete waste. Not far from the temple is the kitchenwares district, with shops upon shops selling all sorts of food-related implements. Including those awesome plastic food models found outside many a restaurant. I was actually hoping to come away with some kind of plastic food as a souvenir (how cool would it be to have a bowl of udon on my desk, ALWAYS), but the prices seemed exorbitantly high for this unemployed vagabond (USD$20 for a keychain with a plasticized crepe at the end of it at one store!).

There is also a shopping street, the Nakamise, leading up to the temple that was bustling despite the temple’s closure.


In addition to the usual knickknack and souvenir stores selling fans, ninja costumes, and perpetually waving cats, were snack stands selling freshly made rice crackers:


I chose to indulge in a deep fried cake filled with a green tea paste:


Though I didn't get to actually enter the Senso-ji temple, I did participate in one of its popular rituals.


How to get your fortune told at Senso-ji temple:


(My favorite part is the warning at the end against being arrogant or fearful based on your fortune.)

Step 1: Shake the canister (politely!) while thinking of your wish.
[insert picture of tall hexagonal silver canister with a small hole at the top here. I tried to take a picture, but just couldn't get a good photograph out of it.]

Step 2: Note the number on the stick and find the corresponding drawer:


Step 3: Open the drawer to reveal your fortune:


If you get a bad fortune, you might want to do this so as to leave the bad luck behind:


But if you are destined for awesomeness, like me, and draw stick number 78, feel free to carry your fortune with you and go on to rock out in life. Of course, in case you have doubts about your proverb-interpretation skills, you can always consult the handy breakdown of what this all means in layman's terms at the bottom:


No matter what you draw, though, don't forget the final takeaway from those initial instructions: "You can carve out your own fortune."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Sushi Breakfast at Tsukiji

Of course, no visit to Tsukiji is complete without a sushi breakfast (or so the guidebooks tell me). Although there are several places to eat in the outer market, two places in particular have become the “biggies” that attract all the attention.

This picture doesn’t quite do the crowds justice, as the line breaks off after a certain amount of people, and continues around the corner.

Finding places to eat while travelling can be an interesting process. On the one hand, you want good food, which usually means following some kind of recommendation, whether from friends, friends of friends, guidebooks, online forums, etc. Often a few places rise above the pack and end up getting repeated by everyone – which presumably ends up being a testament to the quality of the place. On the other hand, I often question the real value of going to said "must-visit" places. Is this place REALLY so much better than the others? I have this perpetual instinct to try to find the "undiscovered" gems instead, rather than following the previously trodden path of so many others. At a crossroads, I’ll sometimes err on the side of risking a bad experience for the opportunity to stumble on an undiscovered gem, rather than following the crowdsourced advice of "tried and true".

Thus I was of a mixed mind about where to eat. On the one hand, I only had 48 hours in Tokyo, and precious little time (and stomach space) to waste on a so-so meal. On the other hand, I had heard that most of the places in the market were of fairly comparable quality, which seemed to resonate with me. I mean, they’re all getting their fish (purportedly) from essentially the same source (i.e., 20 yards away) – what could make them so different anyway? Ever the bargain hunter, I decided to eschew the long lines in front of the “biggies” in favor of finding a less-touristy, potentially cheaper option.

The sushi bars must be in collusion, though, as there didn’t seem to be a cheaper option to be had. Apparently using lower prices to draw more customers in isn’t the practice here. Despite the fact that almost every sushi place, save the biggies, was practically empty, they pretty much offered the same options: various set menus starting around 2100 yen (at the time I was traveling, about USD$25-30) and up. Suddenly my options seemed to be 1. wait in line with everyone else to have the iconic experience at Daiwa Sushi or Sushi Dai, or 2. take my chances on one of the other places that seemed essentially deserted.

Standard offerings

Overwhelmed with indecision (as I am wont to do), I finally ducked into Ryu Sushi (i.e., not one of the “biggies”) on a whim.

I wish I could say that my gamble paid off. I wish that I could tell you to head over to this place on your next trip to Japan, rather than those too popular for their own good biggies. I wish I could say that the sushi set I ate made me feel like I had died and gone to heaven, and included the freshest fish I had ever tasted. Lord knows that’s the prescribed formula for most travel writing.

Looks great, but is it tasty?

Like the time I got a free “student” haircut and ended up with much too short bangs instead of shelling out the cash for a real live professional stylist (now that I think about it, actually, I’ve done that twice…), however, my sushi experience was only kind of so-so. Truth be told, aside from the novelty of being in Japan, at Tsukiji, and not entirely able to communicate with my restaurant staff, the sushi I ate was fairly forgettable. While undoubtedly fresh (as in, I couldn’t smell anything off about it), most of the fish I ate was distinctly tough and chewy. Not the end-all, be-all of sushi eating that I had heard legends about.

Much-prized "toro", or high-grade bluefin tuna, on the right

Surprisingly, the most enjoyable parts of my breakfast involved eating things that I don't normally enjoy eating. Like eel.

Whether sliced in rounds and steamed with some soy sauce and ginger, or lathered with sauce and broiled in the form of unagi, I just don't like the texture or the taste of that snakelike sea creature. And yet the eel here was (here’s the travel writing formula kicking in again, though I say this without any exaggeration) a revelation to me. It melted in my mouth with just a hint of sweetness from its accompanying sauce, something slightly thicker and sweeter than soy, but definitely not the usual unagi iteration.


I was taken aback to have actually liked an eel dish. Just to be sure I was actually eating eel, I pointed to the empty dish, then made an undulating motion with my hand. Drawing upon my memory of those visual placards found at almost every sushi restaurant in the States outlining sushi types and their names, I tried to remember the word for eel.

“Ana?” I asked.

“-go” the sushi chef responded, nodding. I had left off a crucial last syllable, but had essentially identified my breakfast species correctly. Who knew that I could like eel?

Wasabi is another thing I can generally do without while eating sushi. Part of that comes from my relatively low tolerance for spicy things. Though, as I've gotten older, and especially in more recent years, I've been starting to enjoy more spicy foods, recognizing that they impart something more than just heat on the tongue, watery eyes and cleared sinuses. I'll usually just put a small dab of wasabi in my soy sauce dish (for some reason it just looks odd to me without the wasabi. Childish, even), and give it a little swirl, though I do cop to swiping off the wasabi-tainted rice that sneaks into my nigiri.

The wasabi at this sushi bar came from a fresh wasabi root, however. Unlike with the industrially produced, reconstituted green paste that one usually associates with sushi, eating this wasabi was like discovering a new side of the sushi world. Though I've had fresh wasabi before, it hadn't been the revelation for me then that it was here. I don’t quite know how to articulate it, but this wasabi was complex and layered, with flavor and piquancy hitting at different parts of my mouth in contrast to the simple, smooth, straightforward sashimi. I was tasting several different things at once, not just a mustardy spiciness that shoots up your nose. For the first time in my life, I actually appreciated wasabi.

Don't mess with the guy with the knife

After finishing my meal at Ryu Sushi and feeling full but not impressed, I did (and still do) wonder if I should have bit the bullet and waited in line with the other tourists for the iconic Sushi Dai or Daiwa Sushi experience. I’ve seen and read various reports by friends that indicated that it was well-worth the experience, and perhaps I missed out on an amazing, life-changing meal. Then again, what’s the fun of travelling if not to take some risks and make your own path, for better or for worse? No regrets, just more reasons to go back.