Monday, February 06, 2006

Happy Harbour Restaurant, Rowland Heights, CA

Happy Harbour is currently considered the top (or at the very least, the second best) Chinese seafood restaurant in the California southland. In Rowland Heights, a restaurant had better be good to convince people to make the trek out there. I've got the good fortune of coming from a family of foodies who like to frequent these fine Chinese restaurants and we've developed a bit of a familiarity with some of the restaurant owners/managers. Jackie Zhou, the Directing Manager, made sure we were taken very good care of, but everything leads me to believe that the service in this restaurant is beyond what you would normally expect from a Chinese restaurant.

We had the luxury of their finest private room, a beautiful corner room hidden behind two large exquisitely decorated glass doors. At all times the room was attended by two waiters who made sure your tea cup, beer glass or wine glass was always full. On one side of the room was a dining table for ten; on the other side, couches and seating area for people to relax to the side. Upon entering, a waiter would greet you and direct you to the seating area to pour you a cup of tea of your choice. When your party fully arrived, they would move you to the main dining table and bring out some appetizers as well as show you the wine bottles they had previously brought to the room to recommend. It was all class. I can't say enough about the service or the decor. It was classic Chinese decor done up in a very traditional seafood restaurant style, but clean, professional and very well executed.

The food was great. I'm not even going to go into details of each dish other than to say that they were good in allowing the natural tastes of the dishes to come out instead of having sauce overbear the natural flavors. The portions were ridiculously large. We had 13 dishes plus some freebies and each was just way too big. Just think.... a large whole roast pig, the second biggest bowl of shark fin I've ever had (second only to one at the Thai Village Restaurant in Singapore) It could have easily fed 15 people. We suspect that their normal servings are not that size but that due to the special circumstances of the dinner that night, they made the dinner a bit glitzier than normal. The manager admitted to us that the profit margin on our dinner was less than the profit margin they'd have had on a normal table and we believe him wholeheartedly. The food was very tasty and elegantly presented. Each time a dish came out, the manager would come showcase it to the table and tell us what it was and then they'd take it aside and divy it up into ten portions. Without further ado since my words can't do enough justice to the food, this is what we had:

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Universal Hilton

The Universal Hilton by the world famous Universal City and Universal Studios is a great location for travelers out of town looking to enjoy a couple days near a fun theme park. But for many in the southland, it has long been dreaded when associated with a Chinese wedding. Tonight, my impression (and my entire table of 10) of the place has been changed, for the better.

- The Lobster Salad was a delight. The lobster was fresh as was the fruit and the sauce, though creamy, was not overbearing.
- The Braised Lamb Chop was very flavorful and cooked just right. The meat was both succulent and tender.
- The Braised Ying Yang Scallops were not bad: two methods of cooking scallops, both decent. I'm not a big scallops fan but I managed to finish both of them.
- The Prince's Shark Fin Soup with Crabmeat wasn't bad at all. Of course, you could barely spot shark fin in it, but the taste was not bad. I put a little bit of vinegar in mine to improve the flavor, but realistically, the soup was pretty good. It's just that I had some much better shark fin soup the night before (more on that later!) and that unfortunately affected my opinion tonight.
- The Braised Abalone with Fish Maw was excellently done on a bed of lettuce. I very much enjoyed the flavor and thought the fish maw was prepared superbly.
- Garden Vegetables Topped with Conpoy Topping turned out to be broccoli topped with dried scallops. It was another braised type dish but pretty tasty. Nothing to write home about, but not a disappointment other than the fact the garden vegetables were boring.
- Chef's Special Succulent Garlic Roast Chicken wasn't really all that special at all. It was fairly tasty but the chicken was a bit overcooked and could have been presented a little bit better.
- The Steamed Fresh Catch was tasty and the table finished it quickly. The fish was fresh and the sauce just right. They also steamed the fish just right.
- Double Happiness Egg Noodles with Mushrooms was actually very tasty. By this time, everyone was too full to eat, but I managed to put down quite a bit still. Light and springy with just enough flavor, these noodles were a great way to end the meal.
- Puree of Sweet Beans and Lotus Seeds was a fancy name for a sweet dessert that many restaurants will serve at the end of the meal. I didn't think it was that bad although several at the table complained that it was too sweet.

Everyone pretty much was impressed with the meal and thought that a new chef had been hired. Next time someone says we're having a Chinese banquet at the Universal Hilton, I'll remember this experience and not cringe.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Mandarin Noodle Deli - Temple City, CA

Certain friends have been ranting and raving about Mandarin Noodle Deli in Temple City for quite a while now. Temple City is a bit far out there, but today I made the drive out to join the throngs of people, all Chinese, waiting for a table. The smart regulars would order their food before they got a table so that food was ready and coming out as they sat down. We were seated after a short wait, but the three waitresses managing the room were too busy to get to our order immediately and we waited some ten minutes (which in high-turnover Chinese restaurants, is an exceedingly long time).

The three of us ordered five dishes. Be prepared to tell the waitress, “No,” because she will be recommending dishes to you even after you’ve ordered more than enough to have to ask for a doggie bag. I saw several tables order their fair share of food and yet the waitresses would still recommend dishes. Every table was taking some food home. On a surprisingly good note, the dishes and utensils were impeccably clean, a seemingly rarity in high-turnover Chinese restaurants. For a refreshing drink, try their strawberry juice instead of ordering the traditional tea.

Although we’ve been told their dumplings are quite good, we decided to skip an order of dumplings to try their thin onion pancake ($2.90) and their sliced beef with pancake ($5.99), both of which we’ve heard fabulous things about. Their thin onion pancake was ok; I’ve had better. Personally, I like them a little bit greasier, not as fried, and with more scallions. Their sliced beef with pancake was essentially rolls of fried pancake stuffed with sliced beef and scallion. I’ve heard a lot about this dish and thought it was very well made. Perhaps the beef could have used a little bit more seasoning, but I was not disappointed and would recommend the dish.

Cold Spicy Beef Tendon ($5.45) is a popular dish in many restaurants and one of my favorites. We were sorely disappointed with this dish here. The beef tendons were of good quality, but they did a horrible job of slicing and presenting them appropriately. On top of that, this dish, when properly made, is supposed to be numbingly hot. However, the dish was neither numbing, nor hot. I do not recommend the dish.

As we waited for our order to be taken, we noticed that nearly every table was ordering a chicken dish. Whether this was because the dish was good or because the waitresses just kept recommending it, I don’t know, but we decided to try it. The Sun Tung Chicken Salad ($7.50) really was nothing more than shredded chicken (some with skin on still, but those are the tasty pieces) atop a bed of cucumber chunks. It was then covered with a light sauce which appeared to be a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, vinegar and chicken stock. I personally liked this dish quite a bit and while it was good, my lunch companions didn’t think it was as amazing as our waitress described it as. I get the feeling that the waitresses would have been the type to say, “Oh, everything’s good here.”

That would have been enough to fill our stomachs, but the waitress suggested we get a noodle soup, so we easily succumbed. We had ordered the Beef Tendon Noodle Soup ($5.55) but the waitress recommended that we get the Beef Stew/Tendon Noodle Soup ($5.95) instead, so we did. The dish was good and jam packed with a lot of noodles, even if the beef itself was somewhat lacking. I’m not quite sure how to describe it but the broth was tasty, the noodles cooked just right and the beef very tender. I would recommend this dish over any of the other dishes I tried, and may very well go back to try some of their other noodle dishes because of it.

Bargain Chinese eats are a favorite of mine, especially when you can order a whole bunch of little items to try. At $12/person with tip, this restaurant is certainly higher than many other restaurants in the area, but I thought the value was there. And apparently others did too because as we left, there was still a line of people waiting to get in.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

En Japanese Brasserie
Chefs: Koji Nakano and Yasuhiro Honma
Location: Manhattan, New York City
Featuring: The En Signature Menu - "A complete menu highlighting our favorite dishes"

The adventurous may want to try a meal at this unorthodox homey izakaya restauant located in busy Manhattan, New York City. The En Signature Menu is only $100 for two people, a bargain considering the number of courses they provide. The atmosphere is comfortable for discussion and the dishes will certainly inspire commentary. En Japanese Brasserie prides itself on freshly-made tofu which is availably nightly at 6:00, 7:30, 9:00, 10:30 and 11:30pm. And of course it was the first dish served.

Freshly-made scooped tofu (served warm or chilled with wari-joyu). Ours was warm but came on a bed of ice (with other appetizers) so what was originally supposed to be warm or chilled was just neither. It was good tofu, but for a dish that a restaurant built a reputation around, it was extremely disappointing.

Fresh Yuba Sashima. It was tasty, but I'm a big fan of yuba. My dinner companion, a recruit, was not a fan of this dish. Perhaps she didn't like the texture inherent in yuba or didn't like the creaminess of the dish.

Vegetarian Sashimi (konnyaku with white miso-vinegar sauce). Pretty interesting dish that seemed like a gelatinous sashimi slice. I can't say that I liked it. Just imagine some cold, tasteless, gelatin slab against your tongue.

Beef Tataki (lightly seared filet mignon). This was pretty good, a testament to what the restaurant can do with simple dishes.

Nigiri Sushi Sampler. This was one of the best courses. The fish was fresh and the serving size just right.

Seared Chu-Toro (marbled tuna belly in garlic soy). This was delicious, perhaps their best dish. I could have easily eaten more. It was seared perfectly and the garlic soy gave it an extra little kick.

Ebi Shinjo (shrimp fritters deep fried with salt). Not a very memorable dish. In fact, I can't remember anything other than popping them in my mouth.

Hamo Kara-Age (deep fried pike eel). This was served along with the Ebi Shinjo. It was equally memorable.

En Original Tsukune Chicken Sausage (and poached egg). I liked this dish. My dinner companion didn't care too much for it and was a bit turned off by biting into some crunchy parts (my guess is chicken cartiledge, which supposedly has good medicinal values for those arthritically prone).

Nama-Fu (broiled wheat cakes with miso paste). Another dish that just didn't quite measure up. It wasn't very interesting at all and of course my dinner companion disliked it.

Saikyo Miso Grilled Black Cod. Everyone and their mother is now preparing black cod with a miso glaze. The dish is just overdone. But, it tastes good and En Japanese Brasserie gets this dish done just right. The miso glaze flavor tempts the palate and the black cod just almost melts away. This was very well done.

Kakuni (Berkshire pork belly braised in sansho miso). Prepare for a bit of fat when you eat this, but don't worry, it's part of the dish so none of you spit out the fat, please. I felt that they needed to strengthen the flavor a little bit although they really couldn't braise it any longer as the meat was already about to fall apart.

En Garlic Shiso Fried Rice. Ok, this was a disappointing dish. When I order a signature menu featuring their favorite dishes, I'm expecting more from the rice department than fried rice and garlic. Other than that, it was fairly good.

I might have missed a couple dishes, but that was a pretty complete summary of the dishes we were served. We also ordered the Spicy Chu-Toro Scallion Roll (marbled tuna belly mixed with okra). I honestly didn't realize there was okra in it until now as I type this up, but the roll was ok. It was tasty, but they wasted good chu-toro on a spicy scallion roll. The chu-toro that went in the rolls was not of the same quality as the chu-toro served earlier. I supposed they have to do something with the odd ends and bits.

For dessert, the En Signature Menu provided a tofu souffle which was not well received by us. I ate it anyway being the pig that I am, but it really wasn't delicious in the slightest bit. Not being satisfied, we ordered the pudding trio (yuzu, red bean and green tea) and we ended up leaving that pretty much untouched.

The service is ok, the presentation of the dishes were spectacular, but the food was essentially hit or miss. A couple of the dishes knocked it out of the ballpark, but a good number of them also left me wanting to chug a coke. Nevertheless, this restaurant has a place in Manhattan. If you're going for that one dish there you like, by all means, go. Heck, go everyday! If you're going to take clients out on a budget and want to impress with something interesting, this is a fabulous deal. If you're one of those people that will give anything a try, well, this is a great place too! But, if you're not looking for an adventure and unwilling to risk distasteful food, maybe you ought to stick to another place you're more familiar with or check out a place like Blue Ribbon Sushi.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Greenwich, CT - ValBella's

My firm provided the following excerpt on ValBella’s from a recent survey: "The stylish decor is most inviting: sleek black upholstered chairs at well-spaced tables, white walls above dark green wainscoting, a working fireplace, a few oriental carpets on the dark wood floors and subdued halogen lighting from above. It's an elegant setting for such northern Italian specialties as chicken breast with champagne, artichokes and shrimp, and braised veal chop embellished with cherry and roasted peppers in a port wine sauce."

Amidst a power schmoozing event in one of the private rooms, I stepped out to enjoy the decor in the surprisingly large restaurant and discovered certain treasures like their well-regarded wine cellar. You won't get enchanting accounts of decor from me, but suffice to say that I agreed, more or less, with the decor description my firm had provided me.

For the cocktail hour, we were treated to an array of hor d’ouvres including lobster cocktail, shrimp cocktail, mozzarella with roasted pepper, proscuitto and melon, Valbella meatballs, baby crab cakes and foccacio bread topped with grilled vegetable and goat cheese. Each was served on an individual tray by courteous waiters who would actually hand you a toothpick with the food dipped in your preferred sauce. Another waiter would immediately follow with an empty tray to collect discarded toothpicks and napkins. This was immensely helpful as I've been to many events where clumsy hands made a mess. The waiters were knowledgeable about the food and were very suave with their joint ability to balance the tray in one hand while serving the food with the other. Service and presentation was great. The lobsters for example, came on one tray in a row (perhaps like six to a tray of 1 to 1-1/2 pound lobsters) still in their original shell with pre-cut meat. The waiter would then take a toothpick and take a piece of the meat, dip it in your desired sauce and hand it to you with a napkin. Very professional. The lobster cocktail was fresh and sweet with a firm texture, as were the gigantic shrimp cocktails. I'm not sure what was in the Valbella meatballs, but they were very tasty and a big hit with the crowd. Less popular were the baby crab cakes which seemed to have too mushy of a consistency for me (and presumably for others as well). The proscuitto with melon was great, but that's a dish you can't really mess up if you start with quality ingredients. The mozzarella with roasted pepper and the goat cheese grilled vegetables were ok. Nothing spectacular, but still palatable.

As if we weren't already full, cocktail hour came to an end and we sat down to dinner. We each had two pastas, two salads, an entree and dessert. Some, like myself, would go on to have two desserts.

The pastas were penne vodka and rigatoni molanzana. Both were great. The penne vodka had just a light creamy sauce with a subtle taste. The rigatoni had a tomato-based sauce with artichokes and was equally great. The pasta was al dente; for me, that was ideal, but some others might find it a bit hard. I was a big fan of the pastas as they were light and enjoyable. Generally, the table thought the pastas and salads were better than the entrees.

The salads were the traditional Caesar salad and Valbella mixed greens. With fresh ingredients, the salads were very popular. The dressings were both light and just right.

For the entrees, we were given the choice of a veal mignonette, a chicken special, a filet mignon (which turned out to be massive), a vegetarian special and three seafood specials (Dover sole, halibut and another fish).

I ordered the "highly recommended" Dover sole, which was just ok. I finished it all, but didn't really care for it too much. Another person who ordered it mentioned that the pastas were better. And yet another commented "[the fish was] highly recommended because they're trying to push it out of the kitchen". One nitpicky question I have is, "What happened to the fish knife?" Considering that the restaurant paid so much attention to details and service, I'm surprised they didn't provide the traditional fish knives. I was also able to try the halibut, which was overcooked and had much too much pepper.

After a disappointing entree, I gathered my thoughts and noted that the decor and professional service may be ValBela's best attributes. The food is good and the wine list extensive, but it doesn't make my cut for a top eat. It was great to see that they often did make a note of servicing females first and that they served from the right side most of the times. Of course, sometimes, they'd take shortcuts, but as the Queen of England was nowhere in sight, I don't think it mattered. Somehow, the salad service got botched with the men being served first and from the wrong side, but who's noticing anyway. The water pouring was ambitious and fanatic, which is great except that it was a bit sloppy. There were quite a number of incidences where the water missed the glass a little and there were numerous times they tried to pour flat water into my sparkling water glass (and eventually, one waiter succeeded).

There was a varied selection of desserts. I had an excellent "highly recommended" chocolate soufflé and very fresh, ripe mixed berries.

For what was supposed to be a pretty good review, I guess I brought up a number of negative facts, but that's just me being critical. The bottom line is that I would definitely come back to this restaurant. Of all the dishes I tried, only the entree failed to meet my expectations and truthfully, that's only because my expectations were artificially inflated by the beginning hor d’ouvres.

1309 East Putnam Avenue
Greenwich, CT

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

... hello?

Just a curious little inquiry as to whether anyone actually reads this or cares about what is written there, because there's a whole lot of silence out there! Not being a comment whore by any means, but one is wondering a bit whether the writing style is easy on the eyes, the cuisines being covered are agreeable, and the opinions valid, or at least, interesting? Would love to hear from any lurkers out there! :o)

p.s. Does anyone know what happened to I miss her lovely, knowledgable writing and cheerful photos!

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

St. Mark's Place, New York, NY - Yakitori Taisho

When you walk down the steps and enter through the doors of Yakitori Taisho, you're instantly zipped halfway across the world to Tokyo (where, incidentally, there is a sister establishment to the New York niche). From the bubblegum J-pop and J-rock bouncing around the narrow wooden bar-and-stool setup, to the hip, long-haired Japanese customers that look like they're straight out the edgy anime of hallucinogenic-laced, computer network buzzing Lain, I was instantly charmed. It's been a few years since I've been to Japan, and my memories have faded all too quickly despite the cramped notes that I scattered on broken leaves of paper along the way.

And all within an instant of stepping into the grilled smoky hideaway of Yakitori Taisho, it all came rushing back. That sense of comforting home-coming. The serene bell-like feminine voice that was the disembodied soul of the shinkansen. The grassy tip-toeing waves of swaying bamboo giants gently caressing one another. The uneven clip...clopclip... clop.. of wooden sandals that left me more unstable than 5-inch stilettos. The exquisite silken creaminess of matte-white mochi unparalleled in quality. The jewel-blue and neon-pink tones of heavily mascara-ringed eyes, and translucent paleness of washi-paneled walls and doors. Japan was a sensory heaven for me, and being reunited with it, even for less than an hour, made me smile in contentment.

Here, I was mesmerized by the quick flicks of the grill master pictured below. Make sure that he's in charge of cooking when you go, not one of the heat-fearing assistants that timidly yank at the skewer tips, jump back at the flame, and are prone to over-carbonize the meat. When the simple beauty of food comes from the perfect crispness of fat fried into a delicate shell and light smokiness tinging the sweet overtones of subtlely-marinated meat, a few seconds too little or much on the grill makes all the difference. Thus, the importance of having an expert eye (and heat-hardened hands!) at the stove.

His hands blurred with his quick actions in which he dipped, twisted, and flipped skewers with the delicacy of one playing the xylophones.

There's something magical about grilled foods, with the lovely interplay of textures and perfectly-warmed insides. Just as baked potatoes were comfort food for early 20th-century Laura Ingalls Wilder in her log cabin, salmon yaki onigiri (literally, "cook(ed) rice ball") had me purring in silent satisfaction. It was simply rice pressed around flaked salmon, and oh-so-lightly salted (optional). The crunchy outer golden-brown thick shell yielded to steamy, toothy short-grain rice and delicate bits of salmon. Two of these would make a lovely picnic lunch, desirable in either the summer or winter.

The menu features a wealth of meats, all carefully strung along skewers. We only intended to make this a snack stop, so we limited our selection to a trio of chicken gizzards, female smelt, and chicken skin. They came piled upon raw cabbage chunks, and drizzled with a dash of teriyaki sauce. The gizzards and chicken skin were both marinated in a sheen of teriyaki (typically, mirin, soy sauce, and sugar), and the juicy toothiness of the gizzards were fun to roll around in my mouth. The smelt were bulging with peach-creamy tiny balls of treasure; the sand-sized eggs were a lovely, crunchy counterpart to the white, flaky meat and crisp skin.

The shining star of the show, however, was the chicken skin skewer. WOW. This is food orgasm on a stick. Google image search for this, and you'll find a small collection of other Yakitori Taisho fans who also swear by this amazing little beauty. I put it in my 'crisp decadence to die for' category, along with creme brulee and roast piglet (much more ethereal and tender than the usual roast pig). The fat tucked into the skin renders into succulent oil that blisters the skin into fried heaven which can only be compared to fried pork skins the same way that high-grade maguro or toro (fatty tuna) sashimi compares to canned tuna. The skewer doesn't taste like any other chicken dish I've had. It crunched easily and delightfully noisily between my teeth, releasing its savory oils and clean, sweet mirin-soy flavors in a warm wave. Every bite was heavenly, despite Thomas Keller's (of French Laundry) philosophy that anything more than three bites is superfluous to the taste buds. I wished it could last forever, but all too soon, it was just a very sweet memory.

A memory to be treasured with those of my travels in Japan, and the beginnings of "Two Foodies" in New York.

Yakitori Taisho
5 St. Marks Place (between 2nd and 3rd)
New York, NY 10003