so-so sojourn at Sapphire

Austin’s been meaning to get me here for a while now and we finally make it to lunch with Priscilla and Selene. It was a beautiful day so we decided to sit outside underneath the big umbrellas to enjoy our meal instead, although the interior was rather inviting as well.

Quite a few things caught our eye and after a quick discussion we sat back and sipped our iced teas ($5 — was terribly steep for iced tea!!!!) and Austin on his Adult Lemonade ($14 — highway robbery!) while we waited for our food to arrive.

Priscilla’s Daily Curry ($13) was pork and it was served with steamed rice. I liked the flavor of the curry, a nice mix of spices with only a hint of heat, however, the pieces of pork were very fatty and half of it was left untouched. There was also a higher potato ratio to the pork which resulted in a high carb dish.

I had eyed the Grilled Prime Sirloin Steak with Blue Cheese Butter ($16.50) but Selene was looking at it too so this was something we were all in agreement with. The steak was at the right temperature albeit I could taste the iron-y aftertaste of the meat which wasn’t very pleasant for me. I also wanted more blue cheese on the steak. The accompanying slaw was absolutely delicious and thee acidity and subtle sweetness of the dressing delightful.

The Crazy Cobb Salad ($16.50) was my choice and it sounded so great on paper. Lobster, shrimp, scallop, roasted pork and chicken topped a bed of mixed greens. I asked for the tarragon dressing to be served on the side. The scallop was raw so they offered to cook the scallops more. Really liked the creamy tarragon dressing though.

Austin’s Kobe Beef Havarti Cheeseburger ($16.75) was the best item we ordered, mind you it didn’t look like much when it arrived on the plate. I thought it looked really boring without much fanfare, but once I took a bite of it, the flavors burst in my mouth and I wish I had decided to order two of these instead. The dijonnaise was a really nice touch and I thoroughly enjoyed the accompanying garlic fries.

In lieu of dessert, we opted for the Chelsea’s Selection ($12) a sampling of four artisanal cheeses from Sapphire Pantry’s “Cave d’Affinage”. My favorite was the blue.

At the end of the day, the meal wasn’t reflective of the price tag. Again, yes, I know we are paying for eating in Laguna Beach and should be thankful for the lovely views, but when my food isn’t wow-ing me, it makes it really hard for me to feel like my meal was justified. I’m glad I ate with my good friends though because THAT was the best part of the whole Sapphire experience.

Sapphire Laguna
1200 S Coast Hwy
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Tel: 949-715-9888

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A final dim sum meal in Hong Kong at Zen

I’m glad I had another dim sum meal before leaving Hong Kong. It is still the best you’ll ever get anywhere in the world.

I was supposed to meet my god-parents for lunch and my brother and I decided to reserve a table at Zen, a restaurant which I remembered to be good back in my day, and it was in a central location situated within the Pacific Place mall, convenient for all. My god-sister as well as my sister-in-law joined in and there is nothing better than having a dim sum meal with four or more people for the best effect.

I can never leave dim sum without eating Har Gow, shrimp dumplings. The wrapper is good here, not thick but again, not as translucent as the ones at 1-Michelin star Shang Palace.

Chicken’s feet is one of those things which you either love or hate. There is no in between about it. I happen to love it and believe it or not there is a good chicken’s feet and then there’s a great chicken’s feet. You don’t want a mediocre chicken’s feet.

Great chicken’s feet are those that just melt when you suck on it. You don’t want the ones still hard and stuck to the bone. The ones here are perfectly cooked and the black bean sauce clung to each digit.

I generally don’t like Fried lo bak go because I like the steamed version. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the latter here so we opted for the fried kind which, incidentally wasn’t bad at all. The daikon is mashed into a paste and then formed into a pan, steamed and then cut into squares before they are fried just before serving. Bits of Chinese sausage and cured meats dot the pieces giving them added flavor.

One of my brother’s favorite dim sum items while growing up was Pai Guat, steamed pork spareribs with black bean sauce. Now, this isn’t one of my faves and I don’t usually order it, but since it’s on the lazy susan, I picked a piece up to try. Meh…. as always, I can take this or leave it.

Cha Siu Bao or steamed barbecue pork buns are my son’s favorite and he devoured these pretty quickly only stopping to let me take a quick snapshot of what was in his hands.

I generally don’t like Ham Sui Gok (deep fried crescent dumplings) because the ones in America because they tend to be dense and very heavy. At Zen, each morsel is airy and light with the inside hollow. The mochi exterior is so light and fried perfectly that they are not greasy at all. The interior has a dollop of very flavorful ground pork, dried shrimp and mushrooms. I quite enjoyed these.

Shu Mai — pork dumplings — aren’t on the menu whenever I go to dim sum but these were ordered for the kids. They were okay. I don’t particularly care for them whether I’m in Hong Kong or the US.

We ordered some spring rolls for the kids and these were decent. Nice crispy exterior with a decent filling.

I was happy when my brother orders a tureen of Soup of the Day which happened to be pork with carrots and jeet gua (fuzzy melon). The soup is rich and dark in color and flavor and I slurped it up with vigor wishing there was more.

A plate of Siu Ngor (roasted goose) was quite lovely. The bird was plump and the greasiness from the skin moistened the flesh to give a crispy skin covering a tender succulent slice of meat.

Vegetables round out the meal and Vegetables in a Clay Pot was so intensely flavorful I wish I had some steamed rice to accompany it as it was bordering on the salty.

Braised tofu was a filler just in case you didn’t get enough dim sum and it was okay, nothing spectacular.

My brother ordered Seafood Hor Fun (thick rice noodles), something I definitely did not care for. First of all, I don’t like hor fun noodles, they are slimy and slippery and really tasteless. Secondly, the seafood topping was also slimy so that unpleasant texture doubled making it very unpalatable for me. Not only that, the dish was bland and I added a bunch of chili sauce to it to get the two mouthfuls down my throat.

At the end of the day, the dim sum is always a good bet for lunch at a Cantonese restaurant. Soup of the day in a tureen is another Cantonese specialty so take advantage of what they do well at. You won’t regret it.

LG1 Pacific Place Mall
88 Queensway
+852 2845 4555

my 3-decade history with Tsui Hang Village

I’m returning to my Hong Kong reviews — and there aren’t many of them left — this one being rather dear to my heart. My friend Bernice was reviewing Tsui Hang Village for her magazine and asked me to tag along. Tsui Hang Village was my mom and her best friend’s favorite place to go for meals when I was in high school and college and remained their favorite until we emigrated to Australia and her friend to Canada.

Therefore, a lot of memories were spawned from our time here and returning was a bittersweet memory. My mother’s best friend passed away a few years ago and the mere thought of eating here brought many memories of our meals together even though it is technically no longer the same restaurant.

The reason being, the original Tsui Hang Village has now moved from the ground floor upstairs but still remains in the Mira Hotel (formerly Miramar Hotel). The restaurant is now modern and chic, no longer the loud, glaring Chinese restaurant of yesteryear. The restaurant is trying to attract the younger crowd, the kids and grand-kids of the patrons who used to frequent decades ago and by the looks of it, it is succeeding.

Bernice and I perused the menu and I saw a few things I definitely wanted to order, one of which was the Braised Duck Tongue (HK$58/US$7.45) I love duck tongue and even though we can get it in California, it isn’t always braised in a sauce worthy of this delicacy. Often, the flavor is too weak, but here, it is robust and rich, making them absolutely a joy to start the meal off with.

I also love Roasted Goose (HK$118/US$15/half) and we ordered half (you can order a whole goose too for HK$180/US$23) but unfortunately, the goose was tough and chewy. The skin which is usually prized for its crispiness was also on the stale side leaving it hard to swallow. We left it and the server took it away and removed it from the check.

Bernice was wanting some soup so she chose Mandarin Peel Shredded Duck and Sliced Fish Maw Soup (HK$216/US$27.70 for two bowls). Fish maw or “swim bladder” is the gas-filled organ that keeps the fish afloat. The mandarin peel was awesome, very aromatic but not overpowering. I love how it infused the soup but I was really hoping for more fish maw as I only detected a few strands swimming in my soup. That was sad since I love the almost jelly fish-like texture of the fish maw.

One of the house specials is the Shredded Boneless Chicken HK$180/US$23 half portion) and it is the most flavorful, tender chicken I’ve ever tasted. I don’t know why chicken always tastes so much better in Hong Kong. Served with two sauces, one a ginger scallion and the other, a ginger-salt-oil (沙薑汁) which is so hard to find States-side, I crave it whenever I eat poached chicken — the ginger scallion one I have mastered quite well.

Braised Pomelo Peels with Shrimp Roe and Seasonal Greens (HK$128/US$16.40) was ordered because we had such a wonderful pomelo rind dish at Fook Lam Moon and were craving more. This was cooked the same way, but texturally it wasn’t as refined. The rind retained a lot of liquid making it spongy in texture rather than melt-in-your-mouth soft.

I had seen Steamed Bean Curd in Duo Sauce (HK$168/US$21.50) on the menu and was impressed by the ‘yin yang’ presentation. I love tofu and here its silkiness is enhanced by the use of soft tofu. One side was topped with a plump shrimp, while the other, a succulent scallop and black bean sauce.

Generally while dining in Hong Kong, we don’t accompany meals with steamed rice, preferring to end the meal with a rice or noodle dish. This is precisely what we did here. Braised Rice with Conpoy, and Assorted Meats in Abalone Sauce wrapped in a Lotus Leaf (HK$118/US$15) was simply stunning.

The rice is encased in a lotus leaf and the steaming process allows the fragrance of the leaf to be infused into the rice. The rice itself is already beautiful flavored with so many ingredients dotting it, but add to it the lotus leaf and the rice it taken to a new dimension. If you get a chance to try lotus leaf rice, I suggest you don’t pass it up.

In the US, the only way to enjoy dessert soups is to go to some place like Phoenix where they specialize in desserts. In Hong Kong, restaurants tend to have an array of sweet soups to round off a meal.

Bernice chose Double Boiled Milk (HK$28/US$3.60 ) which is tipped to give women a beautiful complexion, while I stuck with my favorite of Walnut Cream (HK$28/US$3.60). The walnut cream was definitely far better than the one at Fook Lam Moon. Here, the intensity of the walnuts came through both in flavor and color albeit, the consistency was a little too watery. I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

We also sampled a half portion of the Crispy Water Chestnut Rolls (HK$21/US$2.70) — diced water chestnuts encased in a crispy batter and fried. The crispiness of the batter contrasted with the crunchiness of the water chestnuts make for a really fun mouthful.

At the end of the day, I still like Tsui Hang Village a lot. Even though it doesn’t look anything like I’d remember, just knowing I’m dining here is enough nostalgia for me to return again. And oh, for the shredded chicken of course!!

Tsui Hang Village
at The Mira Hotel
132 Nathan Road
Tsim Sha Tsui
Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2376 2882

pop-up with big potential and big heart

The first time I watched MasterChef was in Australia when I was visiting my family one summer. When it premiered in the US two seasons ago I was immediately hooked and have been an avid viewer since its inception.

When my friend Marian The Foodie sent me information about RnD Table, an underground popup restaurant to be headed by Mike Q Kim, one of MasterChef’s first season contenders, I was very excited but due to some unforeseen circumstances, I had to pull out of its debut and only managed to make it to its fourth appearance.

Mike met Reuben while working at Jose Andres’ The Bazaar at the SLS Hotel and decided to get together and create RnD Table, bringing together a mix of their cultures and their experiences. In doing so, Chef Mike’s heritage comes into play where the dishes presented are his take on traditional Korean favorites. He says he couldn’t understand why Japanese and Chinese cuisines are so widely popular to those outside of the culture while Korean food seems relatively unknown. It is with that he decided to create a menu to showcase.

We started with Croquette & Dumpling (Mandu 만두) potato and beef croquette, cabbage slaw, oxtail dumpling, shimeiji, purslane, sriracha.

I’m not a big fan of croquette because it is really difficult to get the textural combo just right. Most of the time there is too much mush and not enough crunch but once in a while, I come across a really good croquette and am blown away. Unfortunately, this was not one of those times. The croquette had some bits inside which wasn’t pleasant and the interior was very bland and flavorless.

The mandu looked nice but again the filing was too mushy and again, disappointing. The sriracha aioli was delicious but didn’t do much to help either of these. Same goes for the spicy pickled soy fluid gel. It was so tasty, but not enough to mask the two items on the plate.

At this point I was worried about what’s about to come, but when Yellowtail Sashimi (Hwe Dup Bap 회덮밥) arrived, I was wow-ed by the presentation. When I took a bite, I was happy that it was absolutely delicious!

The yellowtail sashimi had components of chogojujang (Korean hot pepper paste) perilla leaf (shiso), nori, arugula, asian pear and masago and surprisingly, even with THAT many items on the plate, it worked! Of course, I tasted each dollop separately and was blown away by the richness of the nori puree paste and craved more of the gojujang and shiso.

I’m a huge fan of Dongchimi (동치미) which is the ‘soup’ base for a Korean summer time cold noodle dish I love. The Granita was a take on the broth using lobak radish (the Chinese daikon), asian pear, fresno pepper, green onion and tomato heart, all components of the Korean broth but made into a palate cleanser in a small shot-sized glass.

I was immediately enamored by this cold, refreshing palate cleanser upon contact. My mouth tasted the dongchimi but my eyes were fooled, but boy was it an aesthetically pleasing trick.

As most of you know, I am a big fan of Korean cuisine and you also may know I’m a bit of a purist. Therefore it is no surprise that I love samgetang (삼계탕) a chicken stuffed with sweet glutinous rice and stewed in a soup with ginseng. dried jujube, onion, garlic. Chicken Risotto is RnD Table’s version of samgetang but I can’t put my head around it because I expect more broth, less rice with a stronger more prominent ginseng taste.

Braised Shortrib (Galbi Jjim 갈비찜) was just okay for me. My portion of shortrib was not tender while Austin’s was fall-off-the-bone. Braised in an ancho chile-soy, the flavor was spot-on and permeated through the meat well. I wasn’t sure I liked the Mexican influences of pico de gallo, carrot, cilantro-lime-crema and coriander tortilla chips on the plate though. The two flavors didn’t mesh well for me.

Surprisingly, my favorite course of the evening was dessert. Yes, surprise surprise!! The use of molecular gastronomy was most evident in this dish. Carbonated watermelon, honeydew cake, coconut milk ice cream, yuzu, vanilla gel and basil looked so busy on the plate, and ordinarily, that would be a big deterrence to me. However, each item had such a unique flavor of its own which also worked well together. My favorite was the coconut milk ice cream and the yuzu!

There is no “set” price at RnD Table although the suggested donation is $60 which covers the cost of the ingredients only. Sodas and water are provided and you can bring your own wine if you wish to have that to accompany your meal with.

For a taste of what RnD Table has to offer, you can follow them on Twitter or “friend” them on Facebook.

Getting our grub on at Crow Burger Kitchen

There were so many things I liked about Crow Burger that I returned again with more friends after its opening not too long ago. Both the decor and color concept are things that really appealed to me. I also like the patio seating as well as the inside option although, the latter seems like it would get kind of claustrophobic when the place gets busy.

They have an extensive beer menu and the servers will go through them with you — patiently might I add — when you have loads of questions to ask. The menu, however, is pretty simple, burgers, burgers and more burgers. And for those of you who aren’t the burgering type, well, they haven’t left you out — there are enough items on the menu to please.

I’ve had the Green Bean Fries ($5.95) at Crow Bar and these are exactly the same as those from the ones there. To say that they are “fries” is somewhat misleading as they are just grilled green beans served with an olive “tapanade” which is more aioli than tapanade, but it is killer and very delicious I even use them on my fries.

I was extremely partial to the Vidalia Onion Rings ($5.95). Thick rings of sweet onions are well coated and fried to perfection so you end up with a crunchy exterior encasing perfectly textured onions. My only gripe was that there were only six rings and for six bucks, it was kind of steep.

And speaking of fries, I’ve had Duck Fat Fries ($4.95) on both my visits and the first time won hands down over the second. The first time, they were crispy, flavorful and absolutely perfect, everything great fries should be.

The second time, they were soggy, limp and although my friends ate a few, I insist we send them back. When they arrived back, they were better, but still, not as good as they were on my initial visit.

The other great thing was the house-made ketchup. I’m not a ketchup fan because it is usually too sweet, but the one here had the right amount of tartness and not too sweet. Seriously good stuff!

The Spicy Sausage Burger ($9.75) sounded rather intriguing. On the menu it said  Nuerenberger & Spicy Brat sausage, although I think they meant Nurenberger since Germany’s most popular sausage is a Nurenberger bratwurst seasoned with marjoram although I’m not sure if that’s the case with the ones here.

A house-made mornay sauce, whole grain mustard, arugula accompanied on a pretzel bun with the two different sausages. I thought the flavor combo was killer but there was too much juice and sauce (not that I’m complaining) and the inside of my roll became soggy pretty quickly and the whole thing fell apart. Next time I’m going low-carb on this one without the bun.

I tried the Cheeseburger Cheeseburger Cheeseburger ($8.95) consisting of the house-ground patty, black pepper cheese, cream cheese, goat cheese, fried onion, garlic mayo on a wheat English muffin.

I’m not a huge burger fan but the patty was juicy and very tasty indeed and with the three-cheeses to add to the flavor, I proclaimed it a fantastic burger especially with the crispy onion ring giving it a nice crunch. The only problem was again, the wheat muffin wasn’t able to hold up to the filling and completely broke apart rather quickly.

If you want something simple and delicious, check out the Hangover Style ($9.95) burger with the same deliciously hand-ground patty cooked to juicy perfection topped with smoked bacon, a sunny-side-up organic hen’s egg, smoked bacon and sharp cheddar. I would’ve liked the egg cooked just a tad longer as the undercooked egg white clung to the bun which grossed me out a little.

My favorite was The Grinder ($9.50) which is enough to feed two. Generous slices of mortadella, capocolla, genoa salami is stuffed between a “grinder” roll (a white Submarine style roll) with Danish fontina cheese, wild greens, organic tomatoes, oregano dressing and pepperoncinis. It was an outstanding Italian sandwich, one I would order again!!

We decided to try a fish burger while we were at it and Just Out of Water ($7.95) sounded great offering opah either grilled or blackened. Unfortunately, this item failed miserably for us. The fish tasted like it had been previously frozen with the texture mushy and wet (and not in a good way like a moist piece of fish should taste).

We had requested it be grilled but there were no grill marks on the fish whatsoever and the fish looked like it had been nuked for all we know. Horseradish coleslaw, tartar sauce on the wheat bun may have been great acroutrements, but I just couldn’t get past the fish. I inquired but they insisted the fish was fresh and not frozen.

Regardless of the misses, I liked it here. Service is good and the great items are seriously delicious. Just know the right ones to order and you’ll have a wonderful experience. Stick with the restaurant’s namesake — the burgers — and you’ll pretty much leave happy.

Crow Burger Kitchen
3107 Newport Blvd
Newport Beach, CA 92663
Tel: 949-673-2747

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definitely a hidden Vietnamese pearl

I was rather excited to eat at Vietnam’s Pearl. It’d been years since I last visited and it’s received a major makeover, making it barely recognizable with a fresh bright coat of paint and its modern decor.

I met some friends for a late lunch and the first thing I noticed was how the menu now has an entire section dedicated to low carb selections making this an ideal spot for me. My gripe when I eat Vietnamese has always been the overabundance of carbs and here, it allows me to indulge without a carb overload.

We started off with Goi Cuon Tom ($4.50), shrimp spring rolls which are pretty much on par with what you get everywhere. I like how there is no rice vermicelli and only shrimp and vegetables. The hoisin dipping sauce is not bad either.

I wanted to try the Ga Chien Don Voi Rau ($6.75) but didn’t want to eat it with rice. I just wanted the 5-spice chicken with salad and that’s exactly what I got. The chicken is nicely seasoned but not exactly the 5-spice I was accustomed to. It tasted more like a Chinese barbecue (cha siu sauce) brushed over the chicken — good, but not what I was looking for.

If you like salads, definitely order one of the cabbage salads on the menu. I opted for Goi Tom Nuong ($7.75) with beautifully seasoned charbroiled shrimp atop a perfectly dressed cabbage salad. More nuoc mam dressing is provided in a small bowl should you require more.

Com Ga Gung or Ginger Chicken Served with Rice was requested “atomic” by my friend who’s love of spicy food is pretty much on par with my palate. Even though I thought this dish was tasty it had too much hot sauce in it masking the ginger flavors all together. I prefer my heat from chilis instead of chili paste or sauce. Despite being “atomic”, it still wasn’t as spicy as I thought it’d be.

If you prefer to stick with the ubiquitous, there is nothing quite like a bowl of Bun Dac Biet — cold vermicelli noodles with charbroiled pork, egg roll and shrimp. This is always a good choice when the weather’s hot and you can’t stomach anything soupy or piping hot.

I took a taste of another friend’s Com Ga Nuong, Trung Chien ($5.95), a rice plate served with charbroiled chicken and the egg omelette. I asked for  a fried egg to be added.

I don’t know about you but for me, an Asian rice plate always tastes better with a runny fried egg. The chicken was so tasty I could’ve eaten it on its own. but in the end I pretty much polished off my entire plate leaving only some rice.

Whenever I don’t feel like driving out to lil Saigon, this place more than suffices to satiate my craving!

Vietnam’s Pearl
1215 Baker Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: 714-540-2212

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