Taj Mahal Club – Kowloon, HK

Taj Mahal Club
B4, 3/F, Block B, Chung King Mansion
36-44 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

Kowloon, Hong Kong
+852 2722 5454

There are some cuisines that for some reason or another just seem more conducive and better appreciated in a group environment.  For me, Indian is one of those.  Perhaps is the still relative niche-ness and lack of true understanding of the diversity of this country’s food culture by many North Americans that leads one to want to share with others – perhaps out of fear of making a disappointing decision while ordering the unknown. Others might suggest that its just simply wanting to try a little of everything on the usually large menus of such restaurants – which in and of itself is not a bad thing for someone that is continually trying to broaden their perspectives and knowledge.

While in Hong Kong recently, it dawned on me that there might be a hypothesis worth testing.  Does the lack of great familiarity with Indian cuisine also work hand-in-hand when dining in a group where most people don’t know each other well?  A double dose of hesitation, uncertainty and tentativeness so to speak.   I decided to have an actual experiment and our group’s decision to share a meal together in a strange country (no native Hong Kongers in our posse), with non-native cuisine and in a location (the restaurant was inside an actual residential complex) that was slightly intimidating, even further complicated matters.

Located on the third floor, and with a group of ten members, we opted to take the stairs up to the Taj Mahal Club restaurant, despite the existence of an elevator.  In hindsight, I am not sure that was the wisest decision, as the halls were darkly lit and dingy, with all sorts of local residents (all apparently Indians) sitting in the stairwell passing time with friends, and it felt like we were invading someone’s private space.  I swear I also saw smears of red on the walls which did not look like paint at all, and made me think this place has a sketchy past.  But once you get to the front door, you are welcomed by a brightly lit display, complete with press coverage dutifully collected and shown on the wall – including both local and foreign media.

Despite the relatively uneasy start to our night, the meal itself was an excellent example of the ability to get authentic ethnic cuisine in a country not native to that type of food.  The various curries we ordered included some staple chicken and lamb for those more timid, as well as more pure vegetarian options (yes, those people still do exist!).   The lamb version that I sampled had an ample amount of spice and was flavorful and the hot kick from it certainly made the bowl of rice and plates of fresh naan go all the more faster.  The coconut milk-based curries on our table were a bit sweeter and thus satisfied those for whom high levels of spice was not appreciated.  Simply put, our folks with various preferences meshed well with the curry menu and it enabled everyone to get at least one that they enjoyed, thus not leaving anyone out.

Tandoori chicken is always a catch-22 for me.  As much as I enjoy it, too many times I’ve been let down by it being overcooked and a dry, flaky mess of meat.  Thankfully, Taj Mahal Club does an amazing job with this.  The meat was tender and juicy, and the marinade had held up incredibly well through the cooking process.   An assortment of other dishes were on our table, but given the size of our row, I was unable to get other images.  But judging from the loud conversations and general jovial mood and rapidly depleting plates and bowls, I could tell that things were just as tasty at other sections of our row.

So how would I conclude my tested idea?  I would say that whenever great food can be had, it certainly helps to relax the mood on a night out with people who are meeting for the very first time.  The diversity of Indian cuisine, even in just the well known curry dishes alone, work well to meet the personal tastes and needs of everyone at the table, from carnivores to vegetarians, lovers of spice and those who are not.  When people are not really comfortable with a type of cuisine, I think that even works to help break the ice and enable those who are slightly more familiar to share what they know, and engage others in conversation.  A sort of exploration as a team occurs, with everyone anxious to give their thoughts and opinions on each dish, knowing that its a safe environment with nobody really standing out as a true expert on the cuisine so their impressions won’t be smashed to smithereens.

I’m sure the cold pints of Kingfisher didn’t have anything to do with it either…

Hei Yuet Seafood Restaurant – Causeway Bay, HK

Hei Yuet Seafood Restaurant
517 Jaffe Road
Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2980 2565

My visit to Hei Yuet Seafood Restaurant began with a memorable entrance…

After wandering around with an American friend of mine (who was visiting Hong Kong for the very first time to meet up with me during this trip, despite having lived in another Asian country for the past eight years) among the busy streets of Causeway Bay, we sought out some refuge from the masses of people and satisfy our growing hunger at the same time as it approached 8pm. After trying to get into several other places that we came across and had long lineups out the door, we continued zigzagging the streets until we came to the ground floor entrance of the restaurant.

Taking an escalator ride up to the first floor, we immediately saw a boisterous room and thought we would be turned back again. One of the waitresses was near the front and the first thing that came out of non-Cantonese speaking mouths was, “do you have an English menu?”.

Now, I am not sure if foreigners are a rarely seen presence here, but she immediately called over another worker and they broke out into a burst of laughter, while looking back in our direction. I made eye contact with my friend, who had just as bewildered a look on his face as I did. Scanning each other dressed in casual t-shirt & jeans attire and after spotting nothing out of the ordinary, I returned my confused gaze to the woman, as if asking for an explanation with just my eyes. It was not the kind of greeting we were expecting, and we didn’t know if we should be amused or offended. But she then grabbed some menus off a table and started leading us deeper into the restaurant. But by this time, all the people sitting at tables near the front had turned their attention to us in mid-meal, and it felt like we were making the long lonely walk to an execution chamber. Has this ever happened to any of you?

From here, things did not really improve as we got led all the way to the very back corner, and to a smallish table even though it was clear that others more in the middle of the room were open. Frankly, it felt like we were being treated like second-class customers. But with the language barrier, it made it hard to be understood, let alone protest the strange treatment we were getting. With our hunger being more important to satisfy, we resigned ourselves to this blatant discrimination and settled into the menu.  Furthermore, while placing our order, the male server seemed intent on “up-selling” us on dishes that included crab and abalone, when we were vehemently saying NO to, and clearly pointing to other dishes in the menu booklet.  As he walked away, we were not quite sure what he understood and what we would eventually get delivered to our table later.

An assortment of Canton-style dishes could be had, but we immediately knew we’d dig into some of the seafood-inclusive offerings. Looking back on it, I didn’t realize that prawns were such a heavy component of what we did end up choosing. The Har Gow was delicate, a perfect thin, translucent wrap around a nice meaty shrimp (Incidentally during my entire time in Hong Kong eating dim sum on several occasions, I never once experienced those much thicker filling wrappers that you unfortunately get too many times in dim sum restaurants on the west coast).

I tend to agree with those that say Cantonese cuisine is perhaps on the blander side, amid all the other regional styles of Chinese cooking that I have been exposed to. Some would go beyond this characterization and say its flat out boring. After more than a week in Hong Kong, eating mainly Cantonese, by the end of my time there, I was in full agreement with this latter group. I found it interesting that a few local Hong Kong people that I met had said to me that you could get just as good, or even better Chinese food in restaurants over in Canada (Vancouver and Richmond in particular) since so many top chefs had gone abroad.

Hei Yuet Seafood Restaurant was cleary a popular place with the many tables filled with diners, and our general summary of our dishes was of a satisfactory grade.  Nothing overly exciting was ordered, but everything that was, came out prepared solidly and not disappointing on taste.  I could not forget the service component of the evening though, so would have to say it did put a damper on our overall experience.  I still don’t know the Richmond restaurant scene as well as I could, to even justify the afore mentioned claim put forth by the Hong Kongers, but I am sure some of our readers have some thoughts on this matter and would love to hear opinions.

Oriental Restaurant and Bar – Sai Wan Village, HK

Oriental Restaurant & Bar
Sai Wan Village
New Territories, Hong Kong

[A return to the other side of the ocean with this post, as I try and catch up on my recent travels. Please enjoy them as Vancouver-specific posts will be rotated in, along with Foodosopher’s regular contributions from Alberta]

Venturing into the remote parts of the New Territories courtesy of a four hour long hike along a segment of the MacLehose Trail was a welcome reprieve from the urban madness and concrete jungle that travelers usually associate with Hong Kong. The entire trail measures over 100 kilometers long, and stretches over mountain peaks and valleys across lush forests that truly takes you away from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Well into my journey, I came to a small little village called Sai Wan, that appeared as an oasis after long stretches of not seeing any signs of local civilization.

Having exhausted my water supply, I was dying for some liquid replenishment, but as I stepped inside the entrance of the Oriental Restaurant & Bar to buy a bottle of water, I realized that I was also quite hungry. Luckily my two other hiking pals were also in need of some food and we decided to take an extended break on the patio of this establishment, as the sun began to make its way into the late afternoon sky.

To our surprise, we soon saw a bunch of other customers sitting at the tables in the back of the building that faced the Pacific Ocean. Even more unexpected was the fact that all of them looked very refreshed and not drenched in sweat from having hiked the paths that our group had (we later learned that there was a bus stop just ten minutes away that these people had probably used to access this little village). Even in the midst of such splendid nature, these Hong Kongers were taking the easy route – those darn spoiled city folk!

Perhaps some readers would concur, but after some extended, strenuous physical activity, your cravings for food changes. For some, it makes you want to consume more having burned so many calories. Other times, coupled with dehydration, it makes you crave salty things. Both of these sensations had hit me as I sat down on the cheap plastic chair at our table and scanned the menu booklet.

As I closed my eyes to give myself a moment to calm down, I knew I could eat just about anything. But at the same time I was aware that I couldn’t expect too much from a place like this, that was literally in the middle of nowhere, so I opted for a safe bet – the Special Fried Rice. Again, I am not sure if it was my physical state at the time, but this was a delicious plate of fried rice which included simple ingredients such as green peas, onions, egg, etc. Nothing “special” about it per say, but for a hungry hiker, it really hit the spot! For me when it comes to fried rice, its the rice that is vital. Can’t be too mushy and each rice kerenel must have that little bit of a crisp exterior.

And the view didn’t hurt either!

Further adding to my sudden relaxed state was seeing one of the waiters carry out some cold bottles of beer to a small boat that was sitting in the shallow water and wishing I could be on that watercraft.  Talk about paradise!  But I knew my hike was not yet finished so indulging in that desire would have caused my friends to leave me for dead on the intense trail back to the nearest town site.

I love coming across these expectation-exceeding little spots on my travels. They don’t always have to be in these beautiful natural surroundings, a hole-in-the-way food counter in a side street in the city will do just as well. Great food, interesting scenery, amusing service staff, etc. they could all help make these kinds of experiences a long lasting memory. I hope to have the opportunity to continue to explore and find these places that stand out for me and I can fondly look back on many years later. Oriental Restaurant & Bar will certainly be one of them. Happy trails!

Ramen Santouka – Quarry Bay, HK

Ramen Santouka – Hong Kong branch
1F, JUSCO Kornhill Store
Kornhill Plaza (South), 2 Kornhill Road
Quarry Bay, Hong Kong
+852 2967 4044

Now if you are at all familiar, you know that authentic Japanese ramen in Hong Kong is hard to come by, even in that food crazed place. Amid all those miserable, wannabe places serving up their Hong Kong-interpretations of the dish, many of them with weak, one-dimensional broths that are always dreadfully lukewarm (why is that?!?!), you will appreciate Ramen Santouka coming into this market and straightening things out before the perception of ramen in SE Asia hits rock bottom. In essence, I am looking at Santouka as the guardian of ramen in this part of the world with their recent entries (July 2008 – Hong Kong; January 2008 – Singapore), and appreciate their efforts in this culinary fight against more poor “copies” out of China.

With their humble beginnings in Asahikawa, located in the upper part of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, Ramen Santouka began as a simple nine-seat shop in the spring of 1998. The proprietor started out the business with a basic premise – to serve the best ramen he could to his family – I know, it sounds like something out of that cult classic flick “Tampopo“. They further built upon this motto by striving to achieve what they call a ramen that “is easy to understand, and that can be eaten many times over the years and you won’t tire of”. With this simple start, an capitalizing on the popular boom in shio-tonkotsu ramen, the Santouka empire has grown over the past twenty years into what is fast becoming an expanding global operation – as along with its 44 outlets spread throughout Japan, it now boasts 8 overseas branches (6 in the United States, 1 in Singapore and 1 now in Hong Kong). I’d say they have achieved their early goals.

Having been familiar with Santouka’s offerings from eating at their Shibuya and Shimokitazawa locations in Tokyo over the years, I was pleased that my recent visit to Hong Kong enabled me to sample it in their latest overseas venture. With the extreme popularity of the JUSCO hypermarket (run by the Japanese AEON group), I immediately learned that Santouka will not have any issues with foot traffic. I believe in America, they have followed the same strategy by placing their outlets within existing Japanese food/cuisine-friendly confines such as shopping centres catering to the local Japanese community, etc.  As you fight through the hoards of traffic, the moment you enter the main doors and walk down the steps to the first floor, you run smack dab into the window display and entrance way of Santouka. Their distinct noren, complete with their trademark backwards spelling of their name is retained, along with some supporting flags bearing the same characters.

Nearby are other notable Japanese shops that have been transplanted here, selling sweets, desserts, etc. but Santouka clearly garners most of the attention here. An impromptu waiting area made up of about twenty stools closed off by a taped-off series of poles, try to prevent waiting customers from getting in the way of the people headed to the supermarket section of JUSCO. On this day, the seats were all occupied as I arrived on the early Saturday afternoon (regular business hours are 11am to 10pm with last order called at 9:30pm), causing one staff member to come outside and pass out menu booklets to give those waiting a chance to see what could be had inside and also pre-order.

A smart strategy, as it not only built up the anticipation but also helped give the hurried kitchen a chance to know what was coming. For those in a rush and unable to wait, on the other side of the place was a take away window, though only ramen dishes were available. I am not sure if they put the soup and noodles in separate containers for this, but wonder why anyone would want to eat ramen as take away, as for me part of the experience is eating inside a ramen-ya.  You would think that non-ramen dishes would be better suited for take away, but hey that’s just me.

As I was more interested in catching up with an old friend who had come down from Guongzhou just to see me on my trip, I didn’t really catch much of what was going on around me – though I did feel the tables were fairly closely put together (resulting in plenty of stares when I whipped out the camera from my bag and started shooting away). After about a twenty minute wait after being seated inside, our meals arrived. With the last of the late-summer heat still present outside, I elected to go with the Tsukemen (cold noodles, with the hot broth used as a dipping sauce), and an Ikuradon to add more volume as I was feeling quite hungry.

The noodles were of a thicker variety (as you get in their Japan outlets), perfect for this dish as the broth clung beautifully to it, probably aided by the difference in temperature between the soup and the noodles. The tonkotsu-shoyu soup was as bold, fragrant and teetering on the delicate line between sweet tones (from the vegetables and sanma used in making the broth) and savory as I remembered it. Inside was a boiled egg, menma, onions, nori, and chashu. For some people, I could see them saying that this is on the salty side, but for me, who prefers stronger flavors, it suited me just fine. It is always so nice though, to find that even after several years, and in a different country to boot, that the memories I had of the soup were intact and well represented by the Hong Kong branch.

The second component of my meal, the Ikuradon, was nothing special. The rice was a tad undercooked (or had dried out from sitting in the bowl during prep), but the ikura itself was fresh and full of that tantalizing pop when you bit into each morsel. For its small size, it was just right in terms of adding some more volume to the combination meal. I think others around us had not seen many people eating a ramen bowl and a rice dish together, as I got some inquisitive looks (and this was after my camera was put away).

The challenge in making sure an original dish is duplicated successfully by the same food operation is critical in any expansion plans. For without it, you will run into those customers who know the basic offering and compare it negatively to any offspring and say that its not the same. That alone will end your path to business growth. Not to mention the countless other first time customers who will come away saying that it is not good, without even knowing the rich history and taste properties of the main menu items that exist at the home base. I suppose whenever I visit a branch outlet of a personal favorite/well known restaurant, I am reminded of a quote from Michael Jordan that went something to the effect of “I play hard every game and give it my all, because there will always be someone out there in the crowd who is seeing me for the very first time”.

I think food and restaurants should hold that same standard, if they are courageous enough to operate and even more so, when they are actively growing their operations organically and taking steps out of their home base (or country for that matter), for many will have an impression built up in their minds of the original and demand it, time and time again. Santouka has succeeded in this regard in my opinion, bringing to Hong Kong a solid ramen selection, that is on par with what you get in their Japan-based outlets.  Job well done!