Wonton Noodle-off! Tsim Chai Kee vs Mak’s Noodle, Wellington Street, Central Hong Kong

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IRON CHEF WONTON NOODLE!  ALLEZ, CUISINE!

On our final day in Hong Kong we went on a Wonton Noodle Quest in Central.  Our friend had told us about a famous shop where you could get an excellent bowl of wonton noodle soup and a plate of greens for about AUD$5, and BYO ridiculously cheap beer from the 7-11 nearby.  What sounded even more fantastic was the competitor store across the street run by the son of the first one’s owner, so we could do a taste test of both!

This turned out to be not exactly the case.  Mak’s Noodle on Wellington Street is the famed shop (see Wiki!), but the one across the street isn’t ‘Son of Mak’, it’s an unrelated business called Tsim Chai Kee.  Son of Mak (NB: probably not really called that) is somewhere else.  But bugger the family dynasty – let’s wonton!

We went to Tsim Chai Kee first, as that was the one our friend had been to previously and was incorrectly thinking was the famous one (confused yet?).  We all ordered the King Prawn Wonton Noodle and the Vegetable With Oyster Sauce.  We’d been already to the 7-11, which had a 2-for-HK$28 deal on giant Japanese beers, including a lovely amber ale ‘Autumn Flavour’, which at 6% alcohol content I had to drink rather slowly!

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The steaming plates of salty-sauce-doused water spinach were served almost immediately by one of the team of very efficient, very bossy, green apron-ed, unsmiling dinner ladies (definitely not “waitresses”).  A few minutes later our noodle soups appeared, with three fat double-prawn wontons in each, a generous serve of noodles, and a rich and slightly sweet broth.

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Everyone else at the communal tables was eating the same thing, and we followed their lead adding chilli oil and bit of the oyster-saucy spinach to our noodle bowls.  Superb nosh.

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The joint was crammed with businessmen, school kids in uniform, couples.  All slurping quickly – this was not a place to linger (I think the dinner ladies would’ve turn into bouncers if we’d opened our second beers, post-noodles). There were a few booths for four, then communal tables.  I liked the dark wood and minimalism, and the afterthought of a fancy chandelier.

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So!  After this first delicious bowl, I was all primed and ready for Round Two across the street… but the boys were already piking.  So we took a ride up the hill on the elevated walkway/ giant outdoor covered escalator, finished our beers, then they decided to branch off for gelato and I walked back down to Mak’s on a solo mission.

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No BYO beer allowed here, cry.  But I had a tiny private booth near the noodle-making station in the window (that was pretty cool) and was given a complimentary cup of oolong tea (probably a better idea than more beer).  I ordered the same thing as before, with the key dish here called “Shrimp Wonton with Noodle Soup”.  I noted, and gave Mak’s full marks for, its even fancier chandelier.

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The oyster-sauce greens here were gai lan: the crunchy, stalky Chinese version of broccolini.  Somehow it seemed a little awkward eating a whole plate of this – it was no bigger than the water spinach dish across the road, but it was pretty hard work getting through all those crunchy stalks.  Plus it wasn’t the sort of vegetable which could be added nicely to a noodle soup.

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There were four wontons but they were much smaller – apparently this is more authentic; they’re meant fit in a teaspoon. The bowl itself was also smaller than at Tsim Chai Kee, but there seemed to be just as much noodle, and the noodle was definitely superior.  But sadly the soup was far too concentrated and salty for me, and that’s extremely rare.  I couldn’t finish it, but I ate up all the excellent noodles, having explored the condiments tray and added a sauce which tasted like sesame paste + chilli oil.  That was good.

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I know Mak’s is the famous one, but I much preferred Tsim Chai Kee.  It gets tops marks for BYO; the amusingly bossy dinner ladies (I think I impressed them by efficiently paying our HK$117 bill with exact change); the plump king prawns in the wontons; the versatile spinach; and the tasty soup.  Mak’s only scored points for the superior noodles, spicy sauce and fancier chandelier.  The bill at Mak’s was still very cheap but nearly twice as much as TCK, whilst my wonton noodle + greens were only half as nice.  However, Mak’s has a more extensive menu plus decent seating capacity with a bit more space, so it could be a good place to go in a group and share a couple of different and inexpensive dishes.

Mission for next HK visit: find ‘Son of Mak’, for a third taste test!

Good Food Month “Ultimate High Tea” at the Shangri-La Lobby Lounge

During Sydney Good Food Month, I enjoyed a Ladies’ Afternoon for Ladies with my dear friend and her mum: an Ultimate High Tea in the Lobby Lounge of the Shangri-La Hotel. We plumped for two rounds of the ‘Afternoon Tea Favourites’, which was the Good Food Month special and included a glass of fizz as well as tea or coffee and a three-tiered extravaganza of savouries, scones and sweet treats. And for a bit of variety, our third serve was the ‘Chocolate Indulgence’ off the regular menu – a similarly gorgeous tower of mostly chocolate delights. We settled in to the comfortable sofa and prepared to achieve sugar comas all round…

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The Afternoon Tea Favourites featured a tier of savouries: a brioche with roast beef, a mini bagel with smoked salmon, a strange black cone (black food is the new black) with whipped goats cheese & finely diced tomato, and a tiny chicken & celery éclair.  All but the (dry, limp and boring) éclair got the thumbs up.

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On to the scones! I think it’s impossible to serve really good scones in a commercial setting, as they are only really good when they are straight out of a hot oven. These ones weren’t bad, just suffering from not being freshly baked five minutes before. The presentation with the miniature glass pots of toppings was lovely though. The Afternoon Tea Favourites had plain and sultana scones with softly whipped cream and a fantastic home-made jam with whole chunks of fruit. The Chocolate Indulgence had choc chip scones (so wrong, but so good!), whipped cream, and a mysterious fruit-flavoured milk chocolate ganache we couldn’t immediately decipher. A few spoonfuls later, we decided it was passionfruit! Much deliciousness. Pot scraped clean.

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At this point we all had a little pause from food, and enjoyed our tea and coffee. I had an infusion of rosemary and peppermint, which was both palate cleansing and stomach settling. We then embarked on the marvellous patisserie creations on the top tiers. I particularly loved the Caramelize Me Macaron: a choc-banana macaron, with a teeny pipette of caramel to be squeezed in, and caramel popcorn on top! Too mad. The fancy berry custard shots were also a winner, with the Good Food Month special versions topped with bouncy, musk-flavoured meringue. Less crowd-pleasing was the Tropic-Anna, with white chocolate, coconut, mango, pineapple and coriander (!) in various textures and shapes. I was a fan but the others weren’t so keen on that combo. The Triple Chocolate Brownie was a divine layering of distinct textures – cake, fudge, mousse, thin chocolate.

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Over on the Chocolate Indulgence tower, there was an éclair of sorts which was far more successful than the nasty chicken thing, though I can’t remember what the flavour was (maybe chocolate + coffee? Or chocolate + salted caramel?). The crispy Chocolate Cone was deliciously filled with chocolate mousse and a cherry syrup, like a Kirsch chocolate from the ‘80s. The Chocolate Roulade was mostly ignored, as it was just a less-interesting version of the layered brownie, and we were full to burst!

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The service was a little awkward, but at least there was service, unlike my earlier experience at Blu Bar upstairs. We weren’t hurried, and sat happily in those very comfortable chairs for the best part of two hours, before going shoe shopping to walk off some of the cake! A splendid Ladies’ Afternoon for Ladies – special thanks to my dear friend’s dear Mum xx

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Shangri-La Lobby Lounge on Urbanspoon

Sur le Plage! (Lamma Island, Hong Kong)

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On to a boat and off to the beach! We caught a ferry round to the south-west of Hong Kong Island to Lamma Island.

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The fabulous ICC building in Kowloon, which at night is brought to life with a moving light display, including a pair of swimmers doing laps up and down the building as though it were a lane in a swimming pool!  Also that ferry in shot is the same as the one we were on board.

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View from the ferry once we got round to the south side.

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My excellent lunch that day, on board the ferry: Firecracker Lobster flavoured crisps. Misleadingly not at all spicy.

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Hello Lamma Island! Note all the people totally overly dressed for going to the beach. Full marks for sun protection.

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Such prettiness…

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…until you discover the main swimming beach is just around the corner from a coal power station. We decided not to put our heads under the water.

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Part Deux of my excellent lunch: a red bean ice-cream.

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The ice-cream was curiously un-creamy but the red beans were nicely nutty and not too sweet. Much refreshment, very fibre.

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The beach looked much better to the left, where you couldn’t see the power station!

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We got the ferry time wrong so had to have several pints of icy cold Tsing Tao at The Island Bar near the pier.  Behind the bar was Kay, a chatty, laidback Glaswegian ex-pat, who had left Scotland in 1972 seeking sunshine and never returned.

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Beach… and heavy industry!

Hong Kong Cocktails

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First cocktail of the holiday, not counting our host’s killer Ardbeg Sours on arrival: Pimm’s Royal (Pimm’s No. 1 cup, ginger, lemon, bubbles) at ToTT’s, Hotel Excelsior, Central.

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A refreshingly classic Mojito in Frenchy chic surrounds at St Germain, Happy Valley.

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A Chilli Lime Margarita and an Apple Pie at Mama San, Central.

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The Other Birthday Girl’s sparkling Coconut & Passionfruit Daiquiri at Mama San, Central.

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An Earl Gray (sic) Martini with tea-infused gin, lemon & orange at Café Gray Bar, Central

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Last cocktail of the holiday, boo hoo: the crazy Pot Pouring Ketel Black, Aberdeen St Social, Soho.

Sunday Brunch at Blue Butcher, Hollywood Road, Central Hong Kong

On the final Sunday of our Hong Kong holiday, we were all very much looking forward to the Seriously Decadent Sunday Brunch Deal at Blue Butcher in Central.  Free-flow booze, a deluxe buffet, waffles made to order, a “Foie Gras Station” (?!) and then mains and pudding!  We’d get there at midday and eat and drink at our leisure into the early afternoon, then roll home (and not eat again for 24 hours).

Instead, upon arrival, we discovered that Blue Butcher employ, on a Sunday morning, an Inappropriate And Too Loud Cocktail Lounge Band.  A man and a woman, with a guitar and a shaker, mic’d up and overly amplified, doing cheesy covers which all would have been totally fine (at some distance) in a lounge bar at 7pm, but it was COMPLETELY IRRITATING as a backdrop to our midday brunch.  And guess where we were sat?  Right next to them…!

The next disappointment was the service.  Could we sit at any of the other empty tables?  No, they are all reserved.  All of them?  Even downstairs?  Yes. But those people aren’t going to be here for an hour and we made a booking too and we’re here right now, so why can’t you just shift us over there?  Oh no, other people reserved those exact tables.  (I DO NOT BELIEVE YOU MISTER.  Sigh.)

Alright, so we have to stay put.  Hopefully the band will take a break soon.  Can we have drinks?  How do we order drinks?  Even just some water?  Where’s that waiter gone?  Why are there waitstaff walking around a half-empty restaurant not paying attention to anyone?  Is the cocktail music getting to them too?  We promptly abandoned the idea of free-flow booze (or even the free-flow Green Goddess cooler, which sounded lovely) and decided on just a Bloody Mary each.  Achieving said Bloody Marys took another 15 minutes.  This was the one time on our Hong Kong holiday that I resented the obligatory and automatic 10% service charge added to the bill.

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We eventually found plates (Surely they are next to the buffet?  No?  Where are they?  How can they fail at plates?) and started on the the “Cold Starters Buffet”.  Here is where Blue Butcher redeemed some points.  The salad platters were gorgeously presented, frequently replaced, and full of quality ingredients in deliciously innovative combinations.  But you needed to be quick with the seafood – many other diners had zero idea of civilised help-yourself behaviour and treated it like a Sizzler chain.  One does not take a dozen oysters and a dozen prawns in one go at a fancy restaurant buffet!

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Coffin Bay oysters & sweet prawns (only 3 of each, mind); a fantastic herbed gravlax with bitter leaves & long-stemmed baby capers; a little insalata caprese; and Waldorf salad with the winning addition of halved red grapes.  I have inherited my mother’s love for Waldorf salad and will make it with halved red grapes from now on.

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The Bloody Mary finally arrived and was admittedly very nice, and I still continue to like jars even though they’re apparently so passé now.  Round 2 from the buffet was repeated in Round 2½: gorgeous chunks of sashimi-grade raw tuna with finely mandolined fennel, spring onions and cucumber, with a creamy jalapeno dressing.  Fabulous.  I was happy just to eat this and nothing else more.

The “Belgian Waffle Station” and “Foie Gras Station” offered made-to-order waffles with a variety of toppings, and foie gras pan-fried and served with toasted brioche.  The brioche looked a bit dull so I daringly combined my waffle order (just a modest quarter) with the foie gras, sealing the deal with maple syrup.  I surprised myself by liking this, given I’m not usually a fan of sweet with savoury.  I think the success lay in not too much syrup, plus it helped that the waffle wasn’t inherently sweet.  In fact it was textbook perfect: eggy and yeasty, with just the right ratio of crispy to cakey.  The foie gras was obviously a rich, fatty indulgence which I wouldn’t have eaten had it not been part of the prix fixe.

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“Meet you at the Foie Gras Station, old chap.  And I have a club in Mayfair.”

Having eaten all those protein-filled salads, plus waffle, none of us were terribly hungry for more.  But you can’t just get the starters buffet and foie gras waffles – the set-price brunch also includes a main and a pudding, and at the price they charge, you don’t want to miss out.  This would have been absolutely fine if we wanted to linger, booze on, and eat at a very relaxed pace (our original plan) but not so fine given that the band and hopeless service were totally killing our Sunday brunching vibe.

Finally and with much awkwardness we were offered another table not immediately beside the amps, and our mains were served.  The others all had the wagyu burger but I couldn’t cope with that idea, and instead chose the slow cooked eggs and jamon on toast (hollandaise on the side) hoping that might be lighter.  It may have been lighter, but it was actively disgusting.  The eggs had been cooked so slowly as to still be slimy and cold; the toast was bread; the jamon was one measly sliver; the mushrooms were enoki and therefore stupid with this dish; and I had to ask twice for the hollandaise.  I ate the yolks and the scrap of jamon on the vaguely warm bread and wished I hadn’t.  No photo.  No stars.

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Everyone else’s burgers got the thumbs up, but everyone hated the oily, underseasoned chips.

We literally could not eat another thing (nor hear another crap song) but didn’t want to be jibbed on the pudding we had to pay for anyway. I spied other tables eating slices of something nice, which didn’t seem to be on the menu. I asked for four serves of that to go. Good idea – turned out to be a delicious maple syrup and lemon tart with vanilla cream, which kept well in the fridge and was lovely for afternoon tea the following day.

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Excellent pudding. Happily eaten in the absence of the Blue Butcher’s cover band.

There were so many things that annoyed us about our visit to Blue Butcher it became ridiculously comical, and we were laughing about it both at the time and in memory afterwards, so as a holiday experience with our dear hosts it was certainly not a fail. But none of us are rushing to repeat it – nor recommend it.  Sunday Brunch seems to be a big thing in HK, and there are loads of trendy places, especially around Central/Soho/LKF, doing fancy (and pricey) specials. I would strongly suggest going elsewhere than the over-hyped and and undeserving Blue Butcher.

Wednesday, Thursday, Friday

Wednesday’s lunch: a freebie sandwich  from Ruby & Rach in the David Jones Food Hall!  I had booked us in for their Good Food Month brunch special, which was sadly called off the day before due to an unexpectedly large number of cancellations.  Perhaps everyone was Good Food Month’d out?  Such a shame, as their planned New York Jewish Deli menu looked right up my alley.  But I received an apologetic email and a free sandwich of my choice to make up for the disappointment – too kind!  I chose the Rebecca, which I’d not previously tried – like a Rachel with slaw & Russian dressing, but with a brined mushroom rather than pastrami.  The mushroom was surprisingly sweet: I was expecting more savoury tang from the brining. But nae bother – there was more than enough savouriness and tang with the Swiss cheese, pickles and slaw.  A most excellent sandwich, and surely counting towards my 5-a-day!

(NB: I’ve since tried the ‘shroom as a meat substitute in the Ruby with the traditional sauerkraut, and I do think that’s the winning combo.  The other non-beef option of turkey pastrami is best with the slaw, if you want to mix things up!)

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Thursday’s lunch:  My first ramen in nearly 3 weeks!  A most foolish and masochistic, self-imposed drought.   Having previously enjoyed the Vegetable Tonkotsu at Ramen Zundo (but still not a huge fan of their noodles) I spied the Vegetable Tonkotsu at Ramen Ikkyu (where I love the noodles).  And it was the first time I’ve struggled to finish a bowl of ramen, it was that chock-ful of vegetables!  Hidden beneath all that broccoli, cloud-ear fungus, bean sprouts and corn was a huge quantity of mandolined carrot, cabbage and white onion.  Definitely all of my 5-a-day in there!

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Friday’s aperitivo: I headed down to Bunker Bar with some of the work girls, with my heart set on their Good Food Month ‘Bar Hop’ $20 special.  Bunker Bar’s offering was a Watermelon & Ginger Sour (Tanqueray gin, watermelon, kaffir lime, citrus, egg white, ginger & ginger beer) with a softshell crab slider.  The cocktail was my second-favourite type of cocktail (frothy) (green is my #1 preference) and was most refreshing, and the slider was stupendous.  Whilst for a whole burger I’m not the biggest fan of brioche buns, for a single-serve slider they’re perfect as you can squish the filling down, which is often awkward with a mini roll where the ratio of filling to bread is whack.  And what filling!   A whole little crispy crab, plus SE Asian flavoured crunchy vegetables, pickles and chilli mayo.  Mmm.

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They kept refilling the free prawn cracker bowl, so we had to keep having cocktails!  The four of us shared a big glass jar of some sort of vodka/cucumber/lemon/ginger deliciousness – it was one of the two cocktails available in sharesies size. The mini ladle and silver metal cups were great fun.  We then tottered down the street to Bamboo Bar and again ate All The Dumplings.  An excellent end to the week!

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