Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Lunching at Hong Kong's three Michelin star L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon

A beautifully presented amuse-bouche 

A main course that looks like a work of art ;b

Mashed potatoes that look like butter, and 
butter that looks like pastry!

"Exceptional cuisine, worth a journey."  That's what the three stars awarded by the Michelin Guide are meant to denote of a restaurant.  And as of 2017, there are just six dining establishments in Hong Kong -- out of an estimated total of over 15,000 in the territory -- that have been deemed worthy of such praise by the inspectors for France's Michelin company that began producing guides for their home country in 1900 but only since 2009 for this part of the world.

Much referenced and cited, the Hong Kong Michelin guide also is fairly controversial; with some of its picks and exclusions being heatedly disputed in local foodie circles, and Michelin-starred chefs often involving themselves in these discussions too.  But while the common consensus over the years has been that the Michelin inspectors seem to not be the best of judges when it comes to restaurants dishing up Asian fare, it does seem to be generally agreed that they're pretty much right on the money with regards to their assessments of those dining establishments that serve Western food. 

Consequently, my expectations were high indeed when I went and had lunch last week at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, the only French restaurant in Hong Kong with three Michelin stars since 2014 -- and, for good measure, a place in the Asia's 50 Top Tables list.  In a nutshell: I was expecting deliciousness galore throughout (along with the kind of professional service that would add to the impeccability of the overall experience)! 

Although I was having it in a French restaurant in Hong Kong, my thoughts early on during the meal drifted to Germany as I dug into some of the most satisfying bread I've eaten outside of those I've enjoyed on my visits to Deutschland, and saw the green asparagus that was the center-piece of the enticing amuse bouche and ate the tender white asparagus (with foie gras rolls and iberico ham) that I chose as my appetizer since, thanks to a visit to the Rhenish town of Schwetzingen, I had learnt that that spring vegetable is a much looked-forward-to seasonal delicacy.  At the same time, I also was floating in the clouds a bit because the food really was tasting pretty heavenly.    

Unexpectedly, however, I got brought down to earth by a bouillon so overly peppery that my first spoonful of it actually caused me to have a coughing fit!  And while the chunks of foie gras and meat, the small whole white mushooms and slices of celery that were in the soup were delicious enough, I was shocked at how bitter the brussel sprouts -- a favorite vegetable of mine that even preparers of boarding school dinners previously hadn't been able to ruin for me! -- included in the mix were.

Fortunately, things did improve after the disappointing soup course.  If I were absolutely critical, I'd feel obliged to report that the saddle of lamb served for my main course was not as easy to cut as I would have liked.  On the other hand, I have zero complaints about the accompanying vegetables (which included flavorful green asparagus and baby potatoes along with the famous Robuchon creamy mashed potatoes).  Indeed, all the vegetables -- bar for the puzzlingly sub-par brussel sprouts -- served during the meal were so wonderfully prepared that I now understand why this restaurant feels comfortable to offer a vegetarian lunch option priced at over HK$1,000 (or over US$130)!

A dessert of ultra smooth chocolate, creamy ice cream and flavorful pear compote followed, with the meal drawing to a close after a generous selection of petit fours was laid out before us.  Free to linger, the friend I was with and I leisurely drank cups of tea (that were needed after the rich food we had had) while continuing to enjoy each other's company as well as the welcoming ambience of this fine dining establishment which, to judge from our observations that day, is a favorite place for people to have their birthday meals.   

Upon leaving the restaurant, we were moved to immediately assess our dining experience.  While L'Atalier de Joël Robuchon received the unequivocal approval of my friend, I have to admit to not being as thoroughly impressed.  In all honesty, I feel that I've eaten better meals -- including lunches -- in some other restaurants here in Hong Kong, including at fellow three Michelin star-rated Lung King Heen, and zero Michelin star The Chairman, Uehara and Godenya.  At the same time though, I can see why the Michelin guide inspectors would find this dining establishment to my liking; something I still can't quite understand with regards to the also three Michelin star-rated Bo Innovation!   

Monday, March 20, 2017

The lure and allure of the world's most kawaii supermarket!

Yes, Hong Kong is currently playing host to a
One of the cashier's desks at a supermarket where the sheer act
of grocery shopping will feel kawaii for some and hell for others!
Devoted fans of Hello Kitty would have known to expect
to see (Hello Kitty-fied) apples at this supermarket... ;b
It's taken more than a month but I finally bowed to the inevitable earlier today and paid a visit to the world's first Hello Kitty pop-up supermarket, which opened in Hong Kong on February 12th (and will stay Hello Kitty-fied through to the end of May), and which I received advance word about -- including from various well-meaning friends -- weeks before it opened its doors for business. 
As I made clear in a post on this very blog some years back, I'm not a fan of Hello Kitty edibles.  Hence my not having keen originally to visit a Hello Kitty-fied supermarket, much the way that I've not been attracted at all to go to the Hello Kitty-themed dim sum restaurant in Kowloon or the Hello Kitty Secret Garden cafe in Tai Hang (though it's true enough that I couldn't resist snapping some photos of its kawaii exterior when I passed by the latter a while back).
Truly though, the publicity for this Hello Kitty pop-up supermarket has felt pretty relentless; with advertising for it emblazoned not just on more than one tram but also buses and even mini-buses for weeks now.  And slowly but surely, the thought seeped into my mind that I could always just go and enjoy the sight of the supermarket's decor and more than 250 items on sale (including sushi and apples as well as candy, cookies and expectedly sweet stuff) that bear Kitty-chan's visage without making a purchase.
As it turned out though, I ended up not leaving empty-handed.  For, as I discovered during my visit, there are kawaii -- but also useful! -- Hello Kitty-themed kitchenware on sale there as well non-Hello Kitty-themed groceries, including the kind of edibles from Japan that I do like to consume.  And one of those items each are what I came away with from my first and still maybe last trip to the world's first -- but probably not last -- Hello Kitty pop-up supermarket! ;b

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Ballaké Sissoko's music and my African connections

The concert program for the Hong Kong 
Arts Festival's World Music Weekend
A little more than a month ago, I attended the opening concert of this year's Hong Kong Arts Festival one day before the 2017 edition of the fest officially got going if the listed dates are to be believed.  So it seemed appropriate enough that I'd attend one of the three concerts collectively billed as making up the World Music Weekend taking place today despite the final day of the annual mega performing arts feast officially having been yesterday!
Kora player Ballaké Sissoko is by no means the first Malian musician I've heard performing.  Some two decades ago now, a friend from Mali introduced me to the music of his country by playing me cassette tapes of performances by such talents as songstress Oumou Sangaré.  And, in fact, Sissoko's not even the first Malian musician I've seen and heard live; what with my having been there when Tuareg band Tinariwen wowed the audience at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2012!
While listening to Sissoko playing on his 21-string harp-like instrument (whose sounds I personally associate more with that made by the guitar), I couldn't help but get to thinking about my friend, his countryman.  The rippling sounds that flowed from Sissoko's kora also brought to mind the lyrical music I heard in Timbuktu, Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako's affecting portrayal of Mali under the rule of foreign jihadists whose list of haram activities included music-making, however innocent and beautiful -- and made me feel ever so glad that the West African country is once more largely rid of those overly-puritanical religious extremists.  
In addition, even though it's over on the other side of the African continent, one of Sissoko's sets got me thinking back to my time in Zanzibar all those years ago.  In particular, his music triggered memories of many an evening spent hanging out with friends on that Tanzanian island; not so much because it was like the music that got played on those occasions when we decided to just listen in silence rather than -- as we were more often to do -- lay back, gossip and laugh a lot but, actually, because it actually got me thinking of night-time in Africa itself.
Here's the thing: even when one lived in an urban area in that part of the world, one still would be able to see lots of stars twinkling in the black sky and have the air filled more with the sounds of people talking, sometimes singing, and going about mundane activities than hear such as vehicles moving around or other machines being operated.  And somehow, that African night scene was what Ballaké Sissoko's music conjured up in my mind -- to the extent that even when my eyes were physically wide open, it at times seemed like I was seeing something else other than the interior of the auditorium I was seated, and he was performing, in this afternoon!
All in all, it was quite the hypnotic experience; one which I'd love to hear if it was shared by others at this afternoon's concert.  This much I do know though: after the performance's conclusion, there was much clamoring by audience members for CDs of Sissoko's evocative music.  And, in light of my experience at the concert, it made sense to find that among those for sale was one with the title Musique de Nuit

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Musings on the value accorded street art in Hong Kong

What price having street art, not just colorful paint, 
on to the walls of buildings in Hong Kong?

Are they valued or not?

To judge by their treatment, sadly maybe not

The fourth Hong Kong Walls festival was launched earlier today in Wong Chuk Hang, a part of Hong Kong which is much easier for to get to for those who don't live in the area on account of the establishment of the MTR's South Island Line late last year.  After work is completed on all the murals, I plan to go check out the street art; like what I did with the Hong Kong Walls creations at Sham Shui Po last year.     

Even one year on, the street art still on display over in that particular area of west Kowloon is quite the treat to view as far as I'm concerned.  At the same time though, I get the feeling that they've never been able to capture the heart of local residents and foreign tourists in the way that many of those found in Penang's heritage enclave have done.

For one thing, I've never seen that many people on the hunt for them when I've been in Sham Shui Po (to do such as eat at a favorite noodle restaurant, shop at a street market or get an umbrella repaired).  For another, some of the street art really doesn't look to have been treated with much respect at all, with advertising and such having been stuck onto them as well as pretty mundane items being placed close enough to spoil the pictures. 

As an example: as of two weeks or so ago, the daruma mural by Japanese graffiti artist Suiko has had a handbill stuck on part of it and a drinks machine erected next to it.  And lest anyone think that these are specifically anti-Japanese actions, here's pointing out that I found that a similar fate had befallen a portrait of local entertainment legend Leslie Cheung I spotted in a nearby alley.

Thank goodness then for some of the Sham Shui Po street art to be way too high to be easily disfigured or defaced.  In particular, Spanish artist Okuda's 3D-looking "Rainbow Thief" -- which covers several floors of an old apartment building -- is still looking very good indeed.  Indeed, I'd venture to say that it's one of those creations that really has added color and class to a section of Hong Kong that's often maligned and under-valued in the collective imagination.  

Friday, March 17, 2017

Imaginatively named flora and eye-catching presentations galore at the 2017 Hong Kong Flower Show! (Photo-essay)

There are a number of annual events in the Hong Kong cultural calendar that I try not to miss.  Even before I moved to the Big Lychee, I already would make it a point to attend the Hong Kong International Film Festival (which is getting off to a later start than usual this year -- and for which I got tickets for 18 screenings just this morning!).  But other events that I've added to my "must check out" list over the years include the Hong Kong Arts Festival, the mega art fair now known as Art Basel -- Hong Kong, the lunar new year flower market, and the Hong Kong Flower Show.

With this year's edition having got going when I was away in Penang, I was glad to find it still going on upon my return -- and, in fact, runs through to this Sunday.  In fact, so eager was I to go check it out that I went over to Causeway Bay one afternoon despite it actually still being on the drizzly side -- and was rewarded with the rain stopping altogether less than hour an hour into what turned out to be a visit there of more than two hours (which I only put to a halt because I was getting hungry but didn't fancy paying over the odds for mediocre looking food within its grounds)! 

Did the person who created this floral arrangement
know something the rest of us didn't? ;O

Talk about being prepared... including to
be the object of attention while doing your job! ;b

Speaking of eye-catching: this Meteor Shower rose sure is :)

It may not be as visually attractive as others but
its Dragon's Tongue name sure is evocative!

The combination of the artificial and the natural
sometimes can make for a pretty picture :)

What's the Hong Kong Flower Show without 
some whimsical creatures?!

A great composition with a charming fake --
but non-floral -- puppy peeking out at people ;)

I must say though that the one mega floral arrangement that got me 
gasping in surprise, and almost disbelief, was this -- whose centerpiece 
was a mother and child figure around which white smoke billowed! ;O

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Penang site with a significant role in Chinese history and at least one Hong Kong movie

Sun Yat Sen looms large in the history of 
this Penang heritage building...

...for in addition to having been a local merchant's home, 
it also was the Chinese revolutionary's Penang base!

Last week, I returned to the site of my first encounter with a Chinese movie star.  Rather than it being here in Hong Kong, it actually was back in Penang; at a location which actually is far more well known for the part it played in Chinese history than in a Chinese film.

Built around 1880 as a merchant's home, the long row house at 120 Armenian Street served for a time as the home of the Penang Philomathic Union, a reading club which was a cover for the underground movement led by Dr Sun Yat Sen, the Chinese revolutionary who had a major hand in overthrowing the Qing dynasty and establishing the Republic of China (which continues to this day in Taiwan).  

In 1910, Dr Sun moved the Southeast Asian headquarters of his Tongmenghui party to Penang.  After setting up residence as well as his political homebase in this townhouse, he also went on to establish, publish and print copies of the Kwong Wah Yit Poh newspaper -- which remains in operation to this day and is the world's oldest Chinese newspaper -- at 120 Armenian Street.   

Now home to a Sun Yat Sen Museum, art imitated life when the historic building served as a location for Road to Dawn, a 2007 historical drama directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Derek Chiu and starring Taiwanese actor Winston Chao as Dr. Sun Yat Sen.  As it so happens, the house's owner cum custodian of the Sun Yat Sen Museum was (and is) a friend of mine.  And when she asked me if I'd like to go with her to meet Winston Chao at 120 Armenian Street, I of course jumped at the chance to do so!

Unbeknownst to my friend, years before I became a "born again" Hong Kong movie fan when living in Philadelphia, I had seen Winston Chao star in Ang Lee's entertaining The Wedding Banquet (1993) and also had seen him in Ang Lee's sublime Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994).  But I had to come associate him with Sun Yat Sen after seeing Chao playing the Chinese historical personality in Mabel Cheung's The Soong Sisters (1997) -- and, as it turned out, have subsequently seen the actor also portray Dr. Sun in another film (1911) as well as Road to Dawn.

After moving to Hong Kong, I viewed another Hong Kong movie about the 1911 uprising.  Directed by Derek Chiu, 72 Martyrs had its theatrical release during the 100 year anniversary of a key revolt which took place in Guangzhou but in which a number of Penangites and other overseas Chinese played significant parts.  

I must admit: it felt rather strange to watch a Hong Kong movie in Hong Kong with scenes set in Penang and featuring characters from there.  It had happened before (with such as Moonlight in Malaya).  But I think in the case of 72 Martyrs (and also, Road to Dawn, which I ended up watching in a Hong Kong cinema years after I had left Penang), there was more emotion involved because I was watching what actually were important events in Chinese history being shown having taken place in my home state!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Alcohol-free and vegetarian meals aplenty in Penang!

Puppet Ponyo presided over our table at 
It may not look it but the kacang botol (winged bean) salad
was the spiciest of the dishes on this table!
One of my favorite snacks/desserts when back in Penang :)
The evening after I returned to Hong Kong from my most recent trip back to Penang found me once more spending time with friends at Sake Bar Ginn.  As it so happened, the previous time that I had drank any alcohol prior to that occasion also happened to be at Sake Bar Ginn a few days before my eight day Penang trip.  Put another way: I didn't drink anything alcoholic while back in Penang this time; and despite there being a particular watering hole there that I do like, it really didn't take much effort to be alcohol free while there! 
As I explained to my fairly incredulous friends at the sake bar that I've come to think of as a cross between the eponymous establishments in TV series Cheers and the Midnight Diner movies for me: I prefer to drink during meals rather than outside of them but I also tend to steer clear of alcoholic beverages when eating spicy food -- and as it so happens, a lot of my favorite Penang foods are on the spicy side.  Consequently, my drinks of choice at meal times in Penang tend to be non-alcoholic concoctions like rose syrup with lime and ice or various fruit juices.     
Something else that I noticed this time around is that I really do tend to eat a lot more fruits and vegetables when I'm back in Penang; and this even when it's not durian season!  As it so happens, I had a few vegetarian meals on this recent trip, including a banana leaf rice lunch, an ethnic Chinese fried noodle dish known as "cheap mee" because it's traditionally one of the cheapest dishes on offer in Penang and has mee (egg noodles) as its main ingredient, and a large order of the distinctly Malaysian fruit salad-prawn paste combination known as rojak.  And in addition to the many glasses of fruit juice that I drank on this recent trip, I also once again enjoyed eating more than one portion of coconut jelly as well as the flesh of the fruit that serves as its container.
More than incidentally, I also love drinking coconut water but won't drink coconut milk and was horrified to discover while living in the West that people there actually drink the latter liquid and have it as ingredients of alcoholic cocktails such as piña coladas!  Something else that shocked me -- and would similarly shock my brother years later when he went to boarding school in England -- was that quite a few people we knew in England (and, in my case, the USA too) had no idea that coconut water existed, since the coconuts found in their parts of the world didn't have any clear liquids inside of them because they already were old and dry! 

So frustrated, in fact, was my brother when trying to convince his boarding schoolmates of the existence of coconut water that he told us more than once that he wished he could bring a young, clear liquid-filled coconut, with him back to England from Penang.  Adding to his vexation was his schoolmates also not believing that coconuts were anything but brown and hairy on the outside, and -- what with it being the days before the internet came along -- his having great difficulty finding pictures of green young coconuts to show them! ;b