Friday, April 26, 2013

海底捞火锅: The Epitome of Dining Service

I guess anyone that has been to China would have at least one horror story to tell about restaurant service; Rude ones, non-existent ones, and those who seriously don't give a hoot about your meal. Well on the other hand, there are also operators who are going beyond selling good food, instead marketing their service as a plus point to attract customers. And right now, probably no one can do service better than 海底捞火锅.

As a Steamboat chain with outlets all over China (and one landing on our shore recently), 海底捞 not only pride itself in serving steamboat items with top notch quality, but has also been a legend in proving a wholesome customer dining experience. While the queue at its restaurants is pretty infamous (at least a 2 hours wait for walk-ins, especially in Winter!), you won't feel as if you have waited that long with all that complimentary snacks, board games, internet kiosks, manicures for the ladies and shoe polishing service for the gents etc. Yes, all free. I was later told by my relatives that the larger outlets even had table tennis rooms for you to pass time. You got to be kidding me.

And even the "smaller" outlet that we went was huge. With seemingly endless dining halls and corridors, each table was fully seated all the way till we left at 10pm. And with its 24 hours operations, people are still streaming in at wee hours.

When it was finally our turn, we choose the mixed soup base of Curry and Seafood (RMB59 ~ SGD11.80); the former being interestingly appetizing with a little kick of spice and the latter being delightfully rich and flavourful with plenty of clams, mussels and prawns within.

While I didn't take a shot of the condiments counter (RMB9 ~ SGD1.80 per pax, compulsory), the selection was simply mind boggling with all kinds of sauces and toppings you can and cannot think of. Not sure what to order or dip in for your soup base? Don't worry, they got a chart right there for you.

鸡毛菜(RMB8 ~ SGD1.60), 蓬蒿菜(RMB9 ~ SGD1.80), 金针菇(RMB13 ~ SGD2.60), 蛋饺(RMB12 ~ SGD2.40)

With one waiter dedicated to a few tables, he makes sure that you are very well taken care of; Aprons to prevent dirtying your shirt, ziplock bags to protect your handphone/wallet, clearing the soup foam every 10 minutes (no joke) and even matching your bowl of soup with the right condiments to make a even more awesome broth.

And yes, the ingredients were excellent. Vegetables were fresh and the homemade egg-skin minced pork dumpling were very tasty. What we also liked was that you could order just half portion of most items, great for the two of us who wanted to try plenty but didn't have the stomach space.

午餐肉(RMB14 ~ SGD2.80) 青鱼片(RMB15 ~ SGD3.00) 厚百叶(RMB8 ~ SGD3.60) 红薯粉带(RMB10 ~ SGD2.00) 丸类组合(RMB23 ~ SGD4.60) 虾滑(RMB20 ~ SGD4.00) 扇贝(RMB17 ~ SGD3.40)

With plenty of choices for the carnivores, their assorted balls were made almost starch-free with a meaty texture. The signature prawn paste was also thumbs up as it was almost as good as eating the prawns itself, less the troubles of peeling.

特级肥牛(RMB27 ~ SGD5.40) 五花猪肉(RMB18.00 ~ SGD3.60)

Well steamboat aren't completed without sliced meat, and our beef and pork choices were good enough to be eaten without dips.

Total bill for two was RMB270 ~ SGD54.00, being really filling and shiok on a cold day. My photos probably didn't do justice to the legendary service, but it was something to be felt rather than captured. Keep a couple of hours aside for this!

On the Singapore Branch: I have been there no less than three times already and while the service was above most restaurants, it wasn't quite the same feel with plenty of training still needed for the inexperienced staff. Prices too are easily three times of China's, though the food quality and condiment selections are pretty much comparable. An occasional good treat over the mass-produced steamboat buffets.

Tel: 021 62589750
Directions: A taxi from town is probably your best bet to this outlet, thats what I did anyway.
Check out their website for more branch locations

Taken with Nikon D70
Friday, April 19, 2013

小杨生煎包II: No Shanghai Trip Complete Without It

I don't think I need to reintroduce my favourite Shanghainese snack, as a trip to Shanghai surely warrants a couple of visits to Yang's for cheap, hearty and addictive meals. As it was the girlfriend's first time in Shanghai, I was eager to share with her what I thought was way better than 小笼包.

The system never changes eh. Find a table, queue at cashier to pay and get a receipt, and queue again at the kitchen counter to collect your freshly pan-fried buns.

生煎包 (RMB6 ~ SGD1.20 for 4 pieces)

Oh just look at that beauty; Thick crunchy bottoms with thin skin towards the top, an explosion of rich broth when you nibble on the edges, juicy ball of minced pork as filling and completed with a dash of sesame seeds and diced spring onion. The kind of lost-for-word awesomeness when you close your eyes to indulge in it.

A little tip for you, if 4 is not enough and 8 is too much, you can ask for a 1.5 portion of 6 pieces to satisfy your stomach.

咖喱油豆腐牛肉粉丝汤 (RMB10 ~ SGD2.00), 鱼丸汤 (RMB8 ~ SGD1.60)

While I like the my old favourite of curry-flavoured soup that was not too spicy and filled with beancurd skin, sliced beef and chewy vermicelli, the new exploration of its fishball soup was well rewarded as each ball was made with solid fish paste, giving a meaty texture with fresh flavour.

At less than SGD5 per pax for a really satisfying meal, its no wonder that Yang's outlets always attract long queues. Thankfully, the various outlets I went had pretty consistent quality so there's no need to rush for the original store. Find time for it when in Shanghai, no matter what!

Directions: Located within the 湟普汇 shopping mall, this outlet is quite convenient being a stone throw away from the Nanjing West Road MRT Station.
Check out their website for list of outlets

Taken with Nikon D70
Friday, April 12, 2013

Tim Ho Wan: Star-Studded Dim Sum, Not

This is an invited session

For those who have been to Hong Kong and are even remotely interested in seeking out good dim sum, Chef Mak's Tim Ho Wan shouldn't be an unfamiliar name. After all, his original shop has been crowned as the cheapest 1 Michelin-Starred eatery with affordable dim sum to boot.

Having said that, I have to confess that I have never actually set foot in the eatery since it opened, though the "no starry expectations" might actually be a good thing when I went for the the media preview of the Singapore store.

Located at the new wing of Plaza Singapura, the first overseas branch of Tim Ho Wan (with a second outlet coming up at Toa Payoh ERA Centre), boasted a rather spacious dine-in area and a takeaway counter for those on-the-go. With quite a crowd at the tasting event, only a partial menu consisting of their signatures and several others were available to the tables, with each of the items being made upon order.

While service was slightly blotchy that night with the same item coming in multiple portions that we did not order, it should smooth-en out as they get accustomed to running at full capacity.

Baked Bun with BBQ Pork 酥皮焗叉烧包 ($4.50 for 3)

First up, the one that converted many to Tim Ho Wan loyalists. With a sweet, slightly flaky skin, the baked bun itself had a light and chewy texture that was pleasant to chew on . Char siew, however, was just alright and somewhat lacking in quantity, as the bun seemed to be rather hollow within. In other words, it felt like a toned down version of the classic Polo BBQ Pork Bun which I would actually prefer the latter.

Dumpling Teochew Style 潮州蒸粉果 ($4.00 for 3), Prawn Dumpling 晶莹鲜虾饺 ($5.50 for 4)

In most Cantonese dim sum, the one easy rule of thumb to separate a good handmade dim sum from a bad one is the quality of the skin. Smooth, thin, and doesn't stick onto your teeth. Basic but very very important. Having said that, the two here were just passable, being not as smooth and transparent enough to see the diced veggies or prawns within. Perhaps I didn't brush my teeth properly that day too.

Fillings wise, the teochew dumpling was slightly overpowered by the taste of cilantro, while I had no complaints about the fresh, chunky prawns in the other.

Pork Dumping with Shrimp 鲜虾烧卖皇 ($5.00 for 4), Beef Ball with Beancurd Skin 陈皮牛肉球 ($4.20 for 3)

The siu mai scored plenty of points for me, as I appreciated its simplicity in nature and yet had a rich pork flavour with a firm bite.

The other one was frankly, a disaster. And surprisingly it wasn't so much due to the main lead of Preserved Orange Skin Meatball being starchy and lacking in beef taste, but because of the sidekick that seemed to be steamed in nothing but plain water. It was so bland that the pockets of water trapped within the beancurd skin sort of quench my thirst when biting into one.

Vermicelli Roll with Pig's Liver 黄沙猪润肠 ($5.50), Vermicelli Roll with BBQ Pork 蜜味叉烧肠 ($5.50)

Another one whose skin played a major part, and another one that failed to live up to expectations. A tad too thick and retaining a flour-y texture, the lack of fillings also seemed to play a part, though I had to admit that the pig liver was pretty good without the usual gamey smell. And oh yes, besides the surfaces that were in contact with soy sauce, the rest of the rolls were rather bland too.

Pan Fried Carrot Cake 香煎萝卜糕 ($4.50 for 3), Spring Roll with Egg White 赛螃蟹春卷 ($4.20 for 3)

The good? Unlike the Singapore counterparts that are more rice flour solid and and lacking in radish taste, this one had a soft texture and with generous thick strips of radish. The bad? I actually had to check the name and my picures right after eating to make sure that it was indeed pan fried, as the surface seem to have barely touched the frying pan with the interior being way too moist. And for the third time, bland.

A much more decent attempt at the usual spring rolls, as the egg white added to the overall texture.

Steamed Egg Cake 香滑马来糕 ($3.80), Wolfberry & Osmanthus Cake 杞子桂花糕 ($3.50 for 3)

Thankfully, the ending sweet notes were pretty satisfying. The steamed cake was delightfully fluffy that disintegrated easily just by rolling your tongue, while the very wobbly jelly had an excellent osmanthus fragrance and flavour.

Photog time with Chef Mak! (Taken with iPhone 5)

While I should be proud that a fellow Hongkonger has made it this big on the international platform with his humble dim sum, I coudn't help but feel that the Singapore Tim Ho Wan is probably only a shadow of its glory. After adding on 17% GST/Service Charge, the prices here aren't that far off from top notch local Cantonese restaurants and frankly, I would say that the latter would probably impress more in terms of quality.

Admittedly, I am particularly picky when it comes to dim sum (and Shanghainese food, for that matter) and that taste is subjective after all but hey, I have probably eaten more har gow siew mai in my life than an average Singaporean has eaten fishballs. Just saying.

Three months down the road when operations have stablized, I really hope that I can swallow my words, gladly with a couple of Baked Charsiew buns with it.

Tim Ho Wan
#01-29A/#01-52 Plaza Singapura
68 Orchard Road Singapore 238839
Tel: 6251 2000

Special thanks to Magdalene of Brand Cellar for the invite!

Taken with Nikon D70
Friday, April 05, 2013

泰康汤包: A Very Soupy Bun

Arriving at Shanghai on a cold, chilly morning, we left our luggage at the hotel first before going to get the girlfriend a warm pair of long boots (for only RMB80!), after which we headed for the famous Nanjing East Street to have a feel of the bustling shopping street. Since the weather was really encouraging for a hot lunch, I brought the girlfriend for some unconventional soup at 泰康汤包.

After squeezing through the busy shopfront of 泰康食品, head to the second floor for the old-brand Chinese snack shop where you might be lucky to grab a seat by the window to people gaze along East Nanjing Street. Be warn that the brand is now government-owned, meaning you get typical iron-rice bowl service standards from the staff.

Example? I asked for two bowls to share our noodles, one stone-faced staff rely the message openly to another, and the irritated another shouted back "why two? Give him one enough already". Welcome to China.

蟹黄汤包 (RMB15 ~ SGD 3.00)

Now if you have been to the Nanxiang Steamed Bun shops in Singapore, you will know that they have this bun that is filled with nothing but soup. And so this is the original (I think the recipe's fairly old at least) commoner version of it. A huge bun that wobbled like a waterbed, the staff skillfully grabbed one with her gloved palm and placed it (hastily) on my high plate. Drizzle some vinegar over it and you are ready to nibble on the side.

What flowed out was a really good stock of minced pork and crab roe with chunks of meat dug out with a spoon, warming us up from within immediately after the first sip. Feel free to finish the thin, smooth skin, though its primary purpose was really for holding the soup.

双菇大排面 (RMB25 ~ SGD 5.00)

Seemingly a popular choice on other tables, it was a fairly decent bowl of noodles with plenty of mushrooms and a huge piece of pork chop. No wow factor, but filled us up well at an affordable price.

Bill for two was RMB55 ~ SGD11.00. While the service can be teeth-grinding, it shouldn't be enough to dampen your spirit to try out the traditional snack. Slurp up for a good mid day break before exploring again!

Tel: 021-63221279
Directions: Near the start of Nanjing East Street towards The Bund, on your left. Look out for the giant signboard and the provision gift shop at first floor.

Taken with Nikon D70