Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Review: Faro (화로), Newmarket

The best, and perhaps only, modern Korean BBQ restaurant we knew of was Faro in town, and I'd been meaning to write about it for a while.  We were therefore excited to hear that a new branch opened just over a week ago in Newmarket, where HP8 on Nuffield Street used to be.  Not only that, there were new items on the menu, including sesame leaf rolls!

We headed off immediately to try this new venue out.  It seemed to be less dark than the Faro in town, and tables were partitioned off to give a sense of privacy.  There was also an area to the right that could accommodate larger groups.  Otherwise, it was much the same, with a grill ring in the middle of the table for you to BBQ your food, a button on the side of the table for summoning your waiter (common to Korean restaurants) and a pipe which you can adjust to hang above your grill, for extracting the smoke from your cooking.

Extraction pipes hung above each booth.
Floor seating for a larger group.
After perusing the menu for some time, we decided to go for a selection of entrees, as well as getting some meat and veg for the grill.  We also opted to try a rice dish with radish greens called shiregi (시래기영양밥), and were mildly surprised when the outgoing waitress suggested that it would taste "healthy" and that she wouldn't recommend it.  The vegetarian had had enough of bibimbap (비빔밥) though (mixture of vegetables, optionally with egg and/or meat, on rice, served with a fermented chilli sauce, which seems to be the safest vegetarian option), so we ordered the shiregi rice despite the warning.

Our entrees came first, the stir-fried peanuts labelled kong (땅콩무침) to begin with, then the sesame ssam with rice (깻잎밥).  And here I have to digress...

Sesame ssam: rice and black sesame seeds wrapped with a pickled perilla leaf.

While I was looking up the Korean for this dish, I discovered that kkaenip ssam (깻잎쌈) is actually a wrap with a perilla leaf, not sesame, the common mistranslation.  I confirmed this with a Korean friend:
Perilla is correct. Because both perilla and sesame seeds are used in the Korean cuisine in similar (but distinct) manners, one word, '깨', refers to both.

참깨 ('true' 깨) refers to sesame, usually more expensive, used as garnish or to get sesame oil (참기름, or 'true' oil)

들깨 ('field' or 'wild' 깨) refers to perilla, used for flavouring soups, or making oil (들기름), which is used as marinade or dressing for vegetables. 

Because the word '깻잎' simply means the 'leaf of 깨', not many Korean people would know which one it refers to. But the correct answer is perilla :)
Yay.  So we seem to have eaten a green version of what is growing in my garden.  It was a bit soft and fibrous, quite unlike the crisp and juicy feeling you would expect with a lettuce leaf, though perhaps not so different from a stuffed vine leaf in Greek or Turkish cuisine.

A couple of dishes from the Dinner Special page came out shortly after this (though they still looked like entrees to me): stuffed chillis called gochu jeon (고추전) and chicken on fried tofu, or dubu dak (두부).

Dubu dak and gochu jeon.
Then came the food for the grill, along with the usual Korean side dishes.  Each person was given two varieties: the pickled onion and a daikon salad.  We also had four larger bowls to share between the table, which contained kimchi, a green salad, a white jelly made of mung bean starch, and a sliced soy egg.  When we polished them off, they were later replaced by battered courgette slices and a mung bean salad.

Marinated boneless beef rib fillets, fresh cut top blade, marinated chicken with hot hot hot sauce, and side dishes.
I guess the thing about cooking your own dinner is that you've only got yourself to blame if it's burnt or otherwise suboptimal.  When the bars on the grill got black and sticky, a waiter would come rushing up to replace it for you, so vegetarians don't even need to worry about contaminated cookware.  Our marinated meats were good, but we could have done with some salt for the plain one.  Thinking back afterwards, they must have just forgotten to give us the sauces they'd advertised on the cover of their menu, which were supposed to be:
Galbi-Jang: best with marinated beef
Roast Salt: best with fresh beef & pork
Ssam-Jang: best with vegitable wrap

Marinated beef rib fillets on the grill.
You can also grill vegetables, though they were quite dry and tended to burn easily.  The tomato, in particular, wanted to disintegrate and stick to the grill.  Again, these could really have done with some sauce.

Grilling vegetables.
Finally, we received the shiregi rice, which was the $17 bowl of grains that the waitress had tried to dissuade us from. Yes, it did taste healthy, but it was also delicious.  I would have liked it more if it had had more radish greens, and where was the chilli paste mentioned in the menu?  It was also served with a decidedly unvegetarian soup: we found a prawn, some little clams and dried shrimps in the doen jang soup (된장찌개), which had tofu and vegetables in the soybean base as well.

Shiregi rice with doen jang soup and soy sauce.
We were so full after all this that we unfortunately had no room for desserts.  We were happy pandas after a fun and pleasant meal.  Although some of the food was bland, partly due to the missing sauces, this was no doubt due to the fact that the restaurant had opened less than two weeks ago, and we look forward to coming back when these mistakes will have been sorted out.

Panda Recommends

Mains: something off the grill menu ($11 - $13).  This is a Korean BBQ restaurant after all.  Don't forget (as we did) to ask for your sauces.

Vegie Pandas
Unlike the menu from Faro in town, the vegetarian options are not clearly marked here.  There are a number of beautiful entrees which you could order, as well as a plate of vegetables to grill, or go for the default option of vegetarian bibimbap (비빔밥).

Menu - page 1
Menu - page 2
Menu - page 3

Restaurant Details

49 Nuffield Street, Newmarket
(09) 529 4040

Opening hours:
Mondays to Sundays 11:30am - 3pm, 5:30pm - 10:30pm

The Newmarket branch of Faro is not far from Hansan, where HP8 used to be.

View Nom Nom Panda in a larger map

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Week in Hong Kong: Upmarket ramen @ Mist (創作麵工房)

(See closest Auckland equivalents)

You know how we said Hong Kong was a great place for cheap food, and you could have a filling meal for less than 30 HKD, or around 5 NZD?  Well, that's obviously the low end of the scale, and prices can go a lot higher.  We wanted to try out the other extreme with a 3-Michelin-star restaurant, but unfortunately it was booked out.  Instead, we picked a nearby ramen restaurant, one with one Michelin star.

Tucked away in a quieter part of Causeway Bay, Mist (創作麵工房) was full when we turned up for lunch, so we left our name and number and went for a walk while we waited for a table.  We barely had time to shop, as the call came surprisingly quickly.  We were seated at a bench overlooking the kitchen and presented with a beautiful hard-cover menu listing 5 or 6 choices, which you could have alone or as a set (i.e. with drinks and dessert).  There was also a recommended special, the abura soba, over which everyone had food envy.

We were seated at a bench looking right into the kitchen.
I'll tell you right now: these were probably the most expensive noodles we have ever had, at around 150 HKD a set, or about 25 NZD.  They were also probably the most delicious ramen and soba noodles we have ever had.  You get asked what extra toppings you would like, and you absolutely want to be upsold the BBQ Pork (which you can see a chef flaming with a blowtorch) and the boiled egg (which is so much more delectable than the name suggests).

The abura soba special was the first to arrive.  These were thin, dry noodles topped with meat slices, with broth on the side, as well as two little jugs of sauce for you to add to taste.  If I remember correctly, one was an oily soy based sauce, and the other was a light vinegar.  We tried not to drool as the waiter showed where the cutlery was stored, in a personal drawer underneath the table.

The abura soba (red bowl) was served with broth (black bowl) and sauces (white jugs).  We also ordered an egg and BBQ pork as extra toppings.
The ume shio ramen is recommended in the TimeOut guide, and was served with a preserved plum as well as a shiso or perilla leaf.

Ume shio ramen
We were particularly impressed by the "boiled egg", which was not quite hard boiled and not quite soft boiled, but something in between.  The yolk was neither runny nor powdery, but just set, and the white was coloured by a soy marinade.

Get the optional "boiled egg" - it's delicious.
The next day, we came across a picture of a similar egg for sale at a roadside eatery in Sham Shui Po, where it cost 4 HKD—a fifth of the price of the egg at Mist.  It was labelled 溫泉蛋, meaning "hot spring egg", so for a while there, I thought we had been eating what the Japanese call onsen tamago (温泉玉子), with the egg cooked for the best part of an hour at a low 65 degrees C.

A similar looking egg for sale at a fifth of the price in Sham Shui Po.

After further research though, I discovered our eggs did not look like onsen tamago (温泉玉子, "hot spring egg"), which are more like soft poached eggs.  No, what we so enjoyed must have been ajitsuke tamago (味付け玉子, "seasoned egg") or hanjuku tamago (半熟玉子, "half-boiled egg"), marinated "half-boiled" eggs which hold their shape, which are apparently often served with ramen, though we've never seen one before (we'll definitely have to make it to Japan one day.)

All in all, we had a fantastic meal at Mist, with high quality noodles, broth and toppings all working together.  The food is well presented in a stylish dining room, and the smartly dressed wait staff complete the picture.  Just remember to request a drink and a mouthful of dessert if you order a set though, because for some reason, only those ask will receive.  It seems strange that a restaurant of this calibre will happily charge you 20 HKD extra for nothing more than having said the word "set", but this is only a small thing and the meals are well worth the money.

Closest Auckland Equivalents

There are many places where you can get ramen in Auckland, but not to the same level of excellence.  I have also yet to see hanjuku tamago offered here, though perhaps I need to try adding a boiled egg to my noodles more often.

* Ramen Do
167 Symonds Street, Eden Terrace
(09) 377 1313

The sign outside with "Japanse Noodle Bar" in some bubbly comic font doesn't inspire confidence, but this little eatery probably serves the best ramen in Auckland.  The glossy menu with coloured pictures calls them Hokkaido ramen noodles and they are very well cooked and beautifully presented, with half a hard-boiled egg in each generous bowl.

* Ramen Daikoku
Tyler Street (next to Britomart Station), Auckland Central
(09) 309 2200

Part of the Daikoku family of restaurants, Ramen Daikoku offers a good range of ramen in addition to other dishes such as donburi.

* Mentatz
28 Lorne Street, Auckland Central
(09) 357 0960

Popular with students due to its proximity to the university as well as affordable prices, Mentatz turns out tasty meals, though service can be hit and miss.

Restaurant Details

4 Sun Wui Road, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong (香港銅鑼灣新會道四號地下)
+852 2881 5006

Opening hours:
Mondays - Fridays 12 - 3pm, 6 - 11pm
Saturdays 12 - 11pm
Sundays 12 - 10:30pm

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Week in Hong Kong: Roast Goose @ Yat Lok (一樂食館)

(See closest Auckland equivalents)

High on our list of things to eat in Hong Kong was roast goose, or siu ngoh (燒鵝), since you can't get this in New Zealand (as far as we know... not too sure why, since there are goose eggs for sale in Chinese supermarkets). We were taken to Sham Tseng (深井) last year, where apparently the best roast goose in Hong Kong can be found at Yue Kee Roast Goose Restaurant (裕記大飯店). It was good, but we actually preferred the goose at a place we found ourselves using the 2011 Michelin Guide, a tiny eatery on a narrow road in Central called Yat Lok (一樂食館).

Given a Bib Gourmand rating for good value, a dish of Roast Duck on Rice at Yat Lok was only about 30 HKD (~5 NZD) a year ago. They obviously focussed their attention on their roast meats though, as the rice was dry and the vegetables we ordered were old and tough, simply boiled in water, optionally served with oyster sauce.

Roast Duck on Rice

This year, we noticed they didn't get a mention in the 2012 Michelin Guide, but we went back for our dose of goose anyway.  The prices have gone up, which probably explains why they missed out on the Bib this year.  Their signature dish of Roast Goose Leg on Noodle Soup rose from 39 HKD to 47 HKD, if memory serves correctly, which still good value from our point of view.

This eatery seems to be a branch of the Yat Lok BBQ Restaurant in the New Territories, over which Anthony Bourdain gushed, as shown on a TV screen inside.  Some claim the Central venue is actually better, but in any case it is easier to get to.  Just make sure you turn up at the right time, as we tried to have breakfast there and were told the goose wouldn't be available till after 11am.

It's simple food in a simple setting, where the owners have tried to perfect one thing, and attained brilliance.

Closest Auckland Equivalents

We don't know of any place in Auckland that sells roast goose, but there are plenty of BBQ places where you can obtain roast duck, such as ...

* Love A Duck
547-549 Balmoral Road, Balmoral
(09) 623 0632

Original store has been around for decades, since 1991. Also has branches in Mount Eden, Auckland CBD and Northcote. [Added 20 May 2013: This Balmoral restaurant is now closed, with a sign outside saying "Business for Sale". Here is a really interesting read about how the restaurant started though.]

* BBQ King (得記)
187-189 Queen Street, Auckland Central
(09) 368 5218

Tucked into the little alleyway of Durham Street West, this basic eatery offers good value for money, with large portions and usually a complimentary soup when you sit down.

Restaurant Details

28 Stanley Street, Central, Hong Kong (香港中環士丹利街28號地下)
+852 2524 3882

Opening hours:
Mondays to Saturdays 7am - 7pm
Sundays 9am - 4pm

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Week in Hong Kong: Sweet Soups @ Wong Kei Tong Shui (王記糖水)

(See closest Auckland equivalents)

The Cantonese love to have their dessert in the form of a sweet soup, or tong sui (糖水, literally "sugar water").  It can seem like too much food after dinner, especially when it's made with a filling ingredient like taro, kumara or beans, but it's no worse than having bread and butter pudding after a heavy meal, right?

In Hong Kong, we were fortunate enough to live not far from a little shop specialising in sweet soups.  Wong Kei Tong Shui (王記糖水) is close to the North Point MTR station, and on most nights, you can see a queue going around the corner of the street.  Actually, there are two queues: the shorter one on the left, closer to the shop, is the one for dining in; the longer queue on the street side is the one for takeaways.


Queues at Wong Kei Tong Shui can go around the street corner.
Since the tiny shop only has a few seats, we have always opted for eating their desserts from the comfort of home. The polystyrene containers come in two sizes: most desserts could be had small for 15 HKD or large for 17 HKD.  The large tub holds roughly twice as much as the small one, so it is no surprise that I have never seen anyone order the small size.

Two servers are constantly filling takeaway containers from vats at the front of the store.
Although there were probably over 20 types of sweet soups available, we only tried a couple which we ordered over and over again, because they were so delicious we didn't want to take a chance with anything else.

Some of the sweet soups available.
One was a taro sweet soup with coconut milk and sago, or wu tao sai mai lo (芋頭西米露) listed on the menu as heung wu ye zap sai mai lo (香芋椰汁西米露).  They always ask you whether you want it with a drizzle of evaporated milk, or faa naai (花奶).  It went so quickly each time that I never managed to get a photo.

Another dessert we particularly liked was boiled glutinous rice flour balls, called tong yuen (湯圓), in this case filled with ground black sesame seeds and served in a thin ginger syrup.  This geung zap zi maa yung tong yuen (薑汁芝麻蓉湯圓) is the default offering, though you can also ask for the balls to be served in one of the other dessert soups, such as the sweet black sesame paste, or zi maa wu (芝麻糊).

Half-eaten tong yuen filled with ground black sesame.
On Christmas Day, we turned up for our usual dessert fix, only to find the shop shut!  For the first time, there was a queue for the dessert shop next door instead.  There were a number of others who were surprised to see their favourite shop closed; some joined the neighbour's queue, while others turned around and walked away.

Fung's Dessert (鋒少甜品) struggled with the unexpected patronage, with several customers having to demand their food after a long wait.  There was a delay with our tong yuen (though at least that meant they were freshly made) and we were disappointed with the number of balls that were served (only five in the container, compared with the eight or ten from our usual store).  The soup it came in was also more sugary and less gingery.

We were not able to compare the taro sago dessert between the two shops, because Fung's did not offer this option.  Instead, they had mango coconut sago soup, served cold rather than hot, which was actually surprisingly delicious.  The black sesame paste they made, on the other hand, was watery and bland.

There's a reason why there's normally a long queue outside Wong Kei Tong Shui.  Why not try it out, next time you are in North Point in Hong Kong?

Closest Auckland Equivalents

* Cheuk Cafe (卓悦美食)
466 Dominion Road, Mount Eden
(09) 551 3013

The only sweet soup here is the mango and sago one, but they have an exciting range of delicious and inexpensive desserts, as well as Hong Kong style snacks such as hot sandwiches and curry fish balls.  Although I have seen "durian snowballs" (balls with a thin glutinous rice skin, filled with durian and whipped cream or icecream) at China and Red Guard downtown, Cheuk Cafe is the only place in Auckland where I have come across durian pancake, that is, durian and cream served in a folded crepe (another of my favourite Asian desserts).  They also have an exciting range of icecream flavours, including lychee, mango, rose, durian and black sesame.
[Added 31 August 2014: Cheuk Cafe is now closed, but you can see another blogger's review of the place here.]

* Guang Zhou Soup Shop (廣州燉品店)
952 Dominion Road, Mount Roskill
(09) 620 2625

This plain looking shop with its hand-painted sign sells both savoury and dessert soups, as well as herbal teas and dishes with more solid substance.  Don't worry about all the Chinese on the walls; they do also have an English menu.  Prices here are ridiculously cheap, with a small coconut sago soup, sweet mung bean soup, peanut paste or sesame paste dessert costing only $2.  They may not be the best specimens of sweet soups, though well acceptable for the price, as the coconut sago we tried was thinner than the desserts we have had elsewhere.

* Hansan (漢山越南餐館)
Various locations, including Panmure and Newmarket
See www.hansan.co.nz for addresses and phone numbers

This Chinese-Vietnamese chain has some thick coconut cream desserts, not really liquid enough to be called a sweet soup, but warm and satisfying all the same.  Flavours include Banana Sago, Sticky Rice and White Bean, and Taro and Sticky Rice.

Restaurant Details

Wong Kei Tong Shui (王記糖水)
5 Shu Kuk Street, North Point, Hong Kong (香港北角書局街5號)
+852 2811 5611

Opening hours:
Mondays to Saturdays 6pm - 3am

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Week in Hong Kong: Vegetarian feast @ Veggie Palace (貴德宮)

(See closest Auckland equivalents)

There are many great meals to be had in Hong Kong, but one unexpectedly amazing dinner, or rather banquet, which we had was when a local took us to try out a Buddhist vegetarian place.  Veggie Palace (貴德宮) is actually a private kitchen in a random apartment block in Wan Chai.  You have to book ahead, and ring a doorbell to be let in, before taking the steps or the lift to the upper ground floor.

The entrance to Veggie Palace just looks like any apartment block.  Usually Security would be minding it too.
You are then confronted with a "Members Only" sign, which had us all asking "Member of what?"  Whatever it is, we were not challenged about it (perhaps it means only that you need to have made a booking?), and we found ourselves seated at a tastefully decorated dining area with high ceilings, separated from other tables by bamboo dividers.

A warm welcome behind a scary looking door.
Serene dining room decorated with paintings, calligraphy, lanterns and plants, soft music in the background.
You'd better have come hungry, because there is just the set meal here, which comes with a whopping 10 courses, plus nibbles and dessert, for only 200-and-something HKD, about 40 New Zealand Dollars.  If only someone had warned us to pace ourselves before we started eating!

Everything is vegetarian (you can also ask for a vegan meal), which is hugely liberating for the vegetarians out there.  What is more astounding than the variety of dishes is that they are so delicious, while not having been prepared with onion, garlic, or any of the "fetid vegetables", in adherence to su (素) vegetarianism.

Here's a rundown of what we had to eat, beginning with lavender tea and coated peanuts while we waited for our dinner.

Coated peanuts, tea and hot water
First course was a cold appetiser platter with Japanese influences.  There were century egg and tomato wedges, mock ham and luncheon meat slices, sushi rolls filled with egg and imitation crab sticks, served with wasabi and pickled ginger, and a seaweed and sesame salad topped with fen pi (wide mung bean noodles).

First course: cold appetiser
Next up we had a delicate dumpling soup, which we were surprised to learn had a pumpkin base.  I couldn't really detect much pumpkin flavour in the savoury broth.

Second course: dumpling soup
For a crunchy texture, we then had deep fried morsels of wontons and eggplant slices.

Third course: wontons and deep fried eggplant slices served on cabbage and carrot slices
This was followed by a sweet and sour pork dish, which came with multiple types of mock meat, from bites that still closely resembled wheat gluten, to something that looked like bacon, complete with a translucent fatty layer.  I don't normally go for mock meat dishes, which are often served at Asian vegetarian places to cater for part time vegetarians, but I have to say they were very well done here. One of the party even preferred this dish to real sweet and sour pork.

Fourth course: sweet and sour pork dish with mock meat
The next dish was a Western-inspired bake, which led us to debate whether they were eggs or potatoes.  They turned out to be filled eggs.

Fifth course: stuffed eggs topped with choose, served on a square of nori
Then came another dish with filling, this time eggplant slices stuffed with a fake fish paste.

Sixth course: fried stuffed eggplant
As if out of compassion for our bulging stomachs, we were then served a delicious soup made with strips of Coco de Mer (similar taste to coconut), fake meat, sweetcorn cobs and carrot chunks, again with a pumpkin base that didn't really make one think of pumpkin, a beautiful blend of sweet and savoury flavours.

Seventh course: sea coconut soup with pumpkin, sweetcorn and carrots
We breathed a sigh of relief when we were told that the next course would be the last.  It was a filling curry dish, to ensure even those with large appetites would be satisfied.  While no one really felt like eating anymore, we felt obliged to taste everything.  The beef balls were unbelievably realistic, and we all agreed that we would not be able to tell them apart from the real thing.  How can they do this without actually using meat?  The fish balls also tasted just right, though the texture was perhaps a little too soft.  I enjoyed the runny curry with fried potatoes and cauliflower, though I could only have a tiny bit of the rice, lightly fragranced with what might be barley, black rice and Job's tears.

Eight course: curry with beef ball and fish ball analogues, tofu, tomatoes, potato and cauliflower, served with rice and toasted baguette slices
It turns out there was actually more to come, with stuffed fuzzy melon next on the menu.  I love Chinese melons, both in and out of soup, so I forced this down, ignoring the pain that was growing in my full stomach.

Ninth course: fuzzy melon stuffed with fake pork, garnished with snow pea sprouts
Then another dish appeared!  This time it was emperor vegetable (皇帝菜), which had a pungent flavour like tongho (茼蒿), but apparently looks different.

Tenth course: emperor vegetable, with shiitake mushrooms
Finally, we were onto dessert.  The jellies with osmanthus flowers and goji berries (桂花糕) were beautifully presented, though very subtle in flavour.

First dessert course: osmanthus jelly
The real final course was a walnut paste dessert (核桃餬).  As I have a weakness for all things nutty, I had to somehow fit this in too.

Second dessert course: sweet walnut soup
As you may have guessed, there was simply far too much food, so it was difficult to enjoy all of it, even though everything was well cooked.  I would have loved to have had all this over several meals.  The staff were very good about not taking dishes away until they were eaten, and offered to pack the leftovers into boxes for us (we had heaps of the curry left in particular), so I did manage to have that for another couple of breakfasts.

I was excited to be able to taste vegetables that I have not had before, like the sea coconut and the emperor vegetable, though I was also impressed by how close the meat substitutes were to the real thing, particularly the beef balls.  I would dearly love to know how they produced that meaty flavour without actually using some form of meat.  The use of a pumpkin base for several dishes was also a novelty, because it just seemed to provide a neutral savouriness without tasting of pumpkin.  This meal was a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds, not to mention great value for money, and I would happily return to Veggie Palace, fully prepared next time for the number of dishes which would be served.

Closest Auckland Equivalents

* Loving Hut (formerly known as the Golden Age Vegan Restaurant)
61 Victoria Street West, Auckland Central
(09) 303 2531

You won't get a banquet-style set menu at this eatery, located diagonally opposite the Sky Tower, but you can get your mock meat in a wide variety of delicious Asian vegetarian delights, from Chinese roast duck to Malaysian laksas and curry puffs. [Added 29 November 2013: Unfortunately, this eatery has now closed.]

* Water Drop Vege Cafe at Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Temple (佛光山滴水坊)
16 Stancombe Road, Flat Bush, Manukau
(09) 274 4880

The sleekly decorated Water Drop Vege Cafe is inside the impressive Buddhist temple out by East Tamaki, and proceeds go towards the maintenance of the temple.  With plenty of parking and open to the public, you will have to walk through a mini souvenir shop before getting to the food, which includes Asian favourites as well as such dishes as "vegie patty with chips and salad".  Also a good spot for a cake and a coffee.

Restaurant Details

Veggie Palace (貴德宮)
UG3, Block B, Kwong Sang Hong Building, 6 Heard Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong (香港灣仔克街6號廣生行大廈B座閣樓3室)
+852 2838 6506

Opening hours:
Mondays to Sundays 12 - 3pm, 6 - 10pm 

You would never guess that there was Buddhist vegetarian dining in here

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Money Matters: An Evaluation of the Air New Zealand OneSmart Card

[Added 8 May 2013: Note that the OneSmart fees schedule is changing from 21 May.  The calculations in this post were based on the original fees schedule. I have made some new comparisons in a more recent post.]

Okay, so this post is not strictly about food, but it's about how you can save money when you need foreign currency, and that has an indirect impact on how much money you have for food, right?

A few days before I travelled to Hong Kong, I received my OneSmart card.  This is the new Air New Zealand Airpoints card which is combined with a Mastercard debit card and it earns you Airpoints when you make purchases on it.  The selling point of the new card is that you can store up to four foreign currencies on it and there are no commission fees and no ATM withdrawal fees (unless charged by the ATM operator).  I had spent far too much money on fees for withdrawing cash from ATMs on my last trip overseas, so I was keen to try this new product out.


If you don't activate your OneSmart card, you can basically just use it as an Airpoints card.  It's still got your FlyBuys number on it, as well as the Mastercard debit card number.  However, I wanted to use it as a travel wallet!  Plus, they put you in the draw to win $100,000 worth of flights if you activate by 11 January 2012.
[Added 16 Jan 2012: This date has now been pushed out to 29 February 2012, so if you've just got your card, it's not too late!]

You can simply activate online if you have sufficient proof of your identity (e.g. drivers licence) and address (i.e. you are listed in the White Pages).  Unfortunately, I was not listed in the White Pages, so I had to fill in a form, and have my proof of address (in this case a valid credit card) witnessed at a BNZ branch or Air NZ Holidays store.  [Added 12 May 2012: I've been told that just having a valid drivers licence is enough now.]  I had to wait about a day after that before I could see my currency wallets after logging in to OneSmart.  It took another day before I received the email informing me I could complete my activation (which I assume I had already done).

As part of the activation step, you need to provide two security questions with answers, and you will need to answer one each time you log in, after entering your login and password.  This is gets to be tedious after a while, and somewhat redundant given I don't have to do this for my internet banking at ASB, but hey, it's a small price to pay.

Loading money

Once you are an activated member, you can load money into your OneSmart account by transferring money from your normal bank account to the OneSmart account (being careful to include your details).  It can take a business day for this to go through, after which you will see the money in your NZD wallet, less the $1 loading fee.

Exchanging money for a foreign currency

To exchange NZD for a forign currency or vice versa, you go to the "Manage Wallets" tab within your OneSmart account.  You can drag the eight available currencies to and from your Active Wallets list, then click "Wallet Exchange" to transfer money between the currencies in your Active Wallets list.

Selecting the currencies you wish to include in your Active Wallets
Exchanging money between your Active Wallets

Using money overseas

Once loaded with money, you can use your OneSmart card just like any debit card, in stores, restaurants, etc.  However, it is not recommended that you use it to “pre-authorise” payment for hotel stays or car hire (see relevant help page).  If there is not enough money in the wallet of the local currency, an amount will be deducted from the next currency wallet using the corresponding exchange rate, or the transaction will be declined if there is not enough money overall.

You can also withdraw cash from ATMs overseas for free, unless there is a fee charged by an ATM operator.  I tried withdrawing cash at the ATMs of Hang Seng Bank and the Shanghai Commercial Bank while in Hong Kong, and in each instance the transaction was free.

Checking your balance

You will want to check your balance online, as there is a 1 NZD fee for a balance enquiry at an ATM, either in New Zealand, or overseas.

As with your credit card, it can take a day or two before a transaction appears in your Transaction History.  However, the amount shown in the "Overview" tab on your home page appears to be an accurate representation of how much you have in your wallet.  Pending Transactions are shown in your Account "History" tab, above your Transaction History.

The amounts shown in the home page appears to take pending transactions into account
You can view previous transactions monthly or quarterly, although I am not sure how far back the history goes... presumably 6 months, but maybe only 3?
[Added 10 Nov 2012: I can still see my transactions from last December, so at least 12 months, it seems.]

Transaction history
The transaction display is not very user friendly.  Here is a list of "features" that I would like to see improved:
  • The exchange rate is not shown when moving money between currency wallets.  You can work it out to a degree, but you wouldn't get an exact rate due to rounding.  Showing the rate will make it more transparent for comparison with other exchange options.  In the image below, it shows 344.77 HKD converted to 56.11 NZD.  The rate could have been 6.1445 or 6.1446
  • The inverse of the conversion rate is given for unsupported currencies.  In the image below, it shows 348 MOP @ 0.1612 resulted in 56.11 NZD.  But 348 * 0.1612 = 56.0976, which should have rounded to 56.10 NZD.  The actual exchange rate used would have been between 6.2016 and 6.2026, not 1/0.1612 = 6.2135.  The actual rate used should be shown in the Transaction History.
  • The currency conversion fee (supposedly 2.50%) for making purchase in an unsupported currency does not get shown.  You may not be aware you are being charged a fee if you did not read the Terms and Conditions, and even if you know about the fee, it is hard to see how much it was.  Again, this should really be included in the display.  [Added 10 January 2012: According to the CSR I spoke with, the exchange rate already includes the 2.5% currency conversion fee, which is why I did not see the fee in my transaction history.] [Added 8 May 2013: According to the new fees schedule which will take effect from 21 May, this fee was not charged previously, but will be from then on.]
  • Your balance is not shown with each transaction.  You have no idea how much money you had in your account when you withdrew money or made a purchase.  Nor is it shown anywhere in the Transaction History.  You need to go back to your home page to see how much you have in each wallet.  Having a balance by each transaction would be ideal, though a balance at the top of the page would also be better than nothing at all (clicking "View other currency balances" in the top right corner will show your current balance, but then your transactions have disappeared from view, and it is not relevant when you are looking at transactions from a previous month).

Transactions which appear for one purchase made in an unsupported currency
In the Pending Transactions section, prices in the original currency is not shown.  In the example below, I have made a purchase in NZ, but only had money in my HKD wallet.  The price of my groceries in NZD is not displayed.

Pending transaction section

Comparison with exchanging money for foreign currency cash at banks

The exchange rate offered by OneSmart is competitive compared to exchanging money at the major banks in New Zealand. [Added 10 Apr 2013: A couple of readers have pointed out that the OneSmart exchange rate is now significantly poorer than when I first reviewed this.  Please make your own comparisons before use.] Sometimes it's better and sometimes it's worse, possibly because it is refreshed more often than the banking websites, or due to the fact that I wasn't checking at exactly the same time. For instance, right now, 1 NZD gets you 5.9193 HKD on OneSmart.  At ASB, the sell rate is 5.9030 and at Westpac, it is 5.8988.  Four days ago, they were 5.8500, 5.8642 and 5.8872 respectively. You could say the difference is negligible unless you are changing large sums of money, but on top of this the banks charge a 1% commission.

Example 1
Suppose we take the Hong Kong rates from last Thursday, which were more favourable at the banks.  Let's say we start with 1000 NZD.

With OneSmart, you would need to have loaded up your $1000 first, which could take a business day.  You would then see $999 in your NZD wallet (loading fee of $1 deducted).  At a rate of 5.8500, this converts to $999 x 5.8500 = 5844.15 HKD.

At Westpac, which had a better rate than ASB, you might think you would get $1000 x 5.8872 = 5887.20 HKD.  But wait, you forgot to take into the 1% commission, which is $10 if you convert $1000. If you take this into account, you could be converting $990.10 and paying $9.90 in commission, which means you would take away $990.10 x 5.8872 = 5828.92 HKD (though the bank will normally work the other way round so it comes to a nice round number).

Example 2
Looking at it from the other way, how much would it cost to get 5000 HKD in cash?  Again, using the conservative rates favouring the banks, we have:

MethodExchange rateConverted amountFeesForeign amountTotal cost
OneSmart5.8500854.70 NZD1 NZD5000 HKD855.70 NZD
Exchange at bank5.8872849.30 NZD8.49 NZD5000 HKD857.79 NZD

When you take the commission into account, you are better off with OneSmart, though the difference may be greater or lesser depending on the exchange rates.  There are of course merchants that say they not charge commission.  I am not sure what their exchange rates are like, but for instance looking at Travelex online, you would need to order your money a minimum of 3 business days in advance, before collecting it instore.  Although you may find better deals elsewhere, with OneSmart at least you don't need to carry wads of cash around.

Comparison with using your credit card to get cash at overseas ATMs

Using your credit card is great in that you don't need to plan ahead (except for maybe letting your bank know you are travelling, so that transactions do not get declined).  However, you do pay a price for the convenience.  I don't know what other banks charge, but with my ASB Visa card, I end up paying $5 per overseas ATM withdrawal, in addition to paying an offshore service margin of 2.1% on top of loss from currency conversion.  This is particularly problematic if the ATM operator restricts the amount you get out to a low level (when I was in Buenos Aires, this was a maximum of 800 pesos a day, which is around 240 NZD, and you needed cash for store purchases because credit card surcharges were 3-10%).

Apart from paying $5 per withdrawal, which starts to hurt after a while, interest is charged on this immediately, so you want to pay off your debt immediately, or even better, start by putting money into your credit card account, so you owe a negative amount, as it were.

In contrast, once you've loaded money onto your OneSmart, getting money out overseas is free.  There is no overseas ATM withdrawal fee, no offshore service margin.  [Added 8 May 2013: Note this is changing in the new fees schedule effective from 21 May. Only 3 withdrawals per month will be free, and a currency conversion fee will now be charged for unsupported currencies.] You cannot withdraw money in person at a bank, but I have never found the need to do that.

With OneSmart, you are getting money out of the appropriate wallet.  A withdrawal of 2800 HKD (so you get a nice distribution rather than all big notes) results in exactly that amount coming out of your HKD wallet.  If you had forgotten to put money into your HKD wallet, but had money in your NZD wallet, I believe a conversion would be done on the spot.

A withdrawal of 2800 HKD using an ASB Visa card, using a conversion rate of 5.8800 would require 2800/5.8800 = 476.19 NZD.  On top of this you would pay 2.1% offshore service margin, i.e. 0.021*476.19 = $10.00, as well as a $5 fee for an overseas withdrawal.  That's a total of $15.00 in fees, and presumably you would be getting money out several times during your trip.

MethodExchange rateConverted amountFeesForeign amountTotal cost
OneSmartN/AN/A0 NZD2800 HKD2800 HKD / 478.63 NZD (assuming rate of 5.8500 when money transferred into HKD wallet)
Credit card at overseas ATM5.8800476.19 NZD15.00 NZD2800 HKD491.19 NZD

OneSmart is undoubtedly superior for getting money out at overseas ATMs, even if it does mean you need to do a little forward planning to transfer money over from your bank account.  This is especially true if you managed to lock in a good exchange rate when you moved money into the appropriate currency wallet.

Comparison with using your credit card to make a purchase overseas

So getting money out at an overseas ATM using your credit card is costly.  What if you are purchasing something from a store that will accept credit cards?  With ASB you can earn 1 True Rewards Dollar for every NZ$100-$150 you spend, depending on whether you just have the normal credit card, or a Gold or Platinum card.  With OneSmart, you earn 1 Airpoints Dollar for every NZ$100 you spend overseas.

Example 1 - making a purchase in a supported currency
With a credit card, you would need to pay an offshore service margin (2.1% at ASB), which does not apply to OneSmart.  Although you can earn reward points, the Airpoints you can earn with OneSmart would be as good or better.  Suppose you are purchasing an item worth 500 HKD, and that you have a Platinum credit card for the most reward points.

MethodExchange rateConverted amountFeesForeign amountTotal costReward earnt
OneSmartN/AN/A0 NZD500 HKD500 HKD / 85.47 NZD (assuming rate of 5.8500 when money transferred into HKD wallet)0.85 Airpoints Dollars
Visa Platinum5.880085.03 NZD1.79 NZD500 HKD86.82 NZD0.85 True Rewards Dollars

Example 2 - making a purchase in an unsupported currency
We took a day trip to Macau, and I was able to try using my OneSmart card there.  The Macanese pataca is not one of the currencies supported by OneSmart.  In this case, OneSmart charges a 2.50% currency conversion fee (higher than the 2.1% offshore service margin on your credit card) and you would have effectively converted your currency twice, if the money is coming from a foreign currency wallet.

Suppose you are making a purchase worth 500 MOP.  Using your OneSmart, it would always convert this to NZD first, since MOP is not a supported currency.  When I was there, 1 MOP = 0.1612 NZD, from which I assume 1 NZD = 6.2022 MOP, which is a better rate than the one used for a credit card purchase on the same day.
[Added 10 Jan 2012: According to the CSR I spoke with, the exchange rate already includes the 2.5% currency conversion fee, which is why I did not see the fee in my transaction history.]

MethodExchange rateOriginal amountFeesPurchased amountTotal costReward earnt
OneSmart (no money in NZD wallet)6.2022 [MOP]
6.1445 [HKD]
80.62 NZD
495.37 HKD
2.02 NZD
500 MOP
80.62 NZD
80.62 NZD
495.37 HKD / 84.68 NZD assuming rate of 5.8500 when money transferred into HKD wallet
0.81 Airpoints Dollars
Visa Platinum6.179080.92 NZD1.70 NZD500 MOP82.62 NZD0.81 True Rewards Dollars

In general, I would say it is better to use your OneSmart card for making purchases in a supported currency, but stick with your credit card in an unsupported currency, unless you have some money in your NZD wallet to avoid a double currency conversion.

Comparison with transferring money to a foreign bank account

Maybe you visit your destination so often that you actually managed to set up a bank account there.  OneSmart (with its $1 loading fee, maximum transfer value of 10,000 NZD) would be cheaper than making a telegraphic transfer to your overseas bank account (which has a $20-$25 charge at major banks).  Note there are limits on how much you can withdraw daily (1,000 NZD or local equivalent per 24 hours).  And you can't put money into your bank account (where it can earn interest) from OneSmart.  We are only talking about spending money here, right?

At the end of your trip

You've now finished your holiday, and you've spent less than you budgeted for on your OneSmart (well, you can't spend more than you've loaded, and it's pretty hard to have it bang on).  Do you take out as much cash as you can from the nearest ATM while still overseas and bring the cash back to New Zealand to exchange? Or do you leave the money there to deal with later, knowing you will be charged a $1.95 Account Inactivity Fee after three months?

Since you never go into a negative balance with OneSmart, you can avoid fees simply by having no money available for fees to be deducted.  However, that can be difficult to achieve, since ATMs only allow you to get out discrete amounts.  ATMs in Hong Kong let you get out multiples of 100 HKD; ATMs in New Zealand won't give you anything smaller than a $20 dollar note.  So you will always be left with a little bit, unless you have planned your purchases very well.

If you are someone that travels often, you could use the money for your next trip.  All you need to do to avoid the Account Inactivity Fee is to make a transaction on your OneSmart at least once every three months (and make sure you don't leave money in your NZD wallet, or you will be charged a Monthly Account Fee unless you load 500 NZD or more per month).  This lets you watch the exchange rates and move sums of money around your Wallets when they are favourable too.

But maybe you are not planning to travel again in the near future.  Or perhaps you would rather have the money earning interest at a bank.  Or maybe you just know you will forget to make a transaction.  You can't transfer the money back to your bank account, so if you don't want to use it up by paying for your groceries or buying things online, you will want to take the money out in cash.  Withdrawing cash at an ATM in New Zealand incurs a $1.50 fee, so let's look at how the exchange rates compare.  Right now, ASB will buy HKD in notes at 6.5493, Westpac at 6.5388. OneSmart shows the inverse of the rate as 0.1599, which I take to be a rate of 6.2539.

Suppose you had 900 HKD left at the end of your trip.  You could get all of this out at a Hong Kong ATM just before you leave, and exchange it back at New Zealand without paying a commission (we'll use the better rate from Westpac below).  Alternatively, you can just try to use your OneSmart at an ATM back at New Zealand, which would incur you a $1.50 fee.  Make sure you have checked your balance online first, as checking it at the ATM will cost another $1.00.

MethodExchange rateConverted amountFeesFinal amountNet amount
Use OneSmart at ATM in NZ6.2539900 HKD1.50 NZD143.91 NZD142.41 NZD
Exchange at bank after getting cash at overseas ATM6.5388900 HKD0 NZD137.64 NZD137.64 NZD

Although there is a fee associated with withdrawing money at a local ATM using OneSmart, its better exchange rate means you would end up with more money than exchanging money at the bank.  Due to the limitation of ATMs, you would only be able to withdraw 140 NZD, leaving a small amount left on your card, which you could use on a very small purchase at the supermarket, or simply let it get taken in fees, happy that you have already saved a lot getting cash out overseas.

I would probably not bother trying to get the money out in cash, but simply leave it there for the next trip.  Just remember to make a transaction on your OneSmart card at least once every three months, to avoid the Account Inactivity Fee, and don't leave money in your NZD wallet, to avoid the Monthly Account Fee.
[Added 31 May 2012: Apparently, a transaction does not have to be a purchase.  You could also load more money or simply do a small currency conversion.]

Other features

I mainly wanted to use my OneSmart card as a travel wallet.  It comes with other features which I have not tried out yet, including:
  • text and email alerts for every transaction
  • ability to top up your Airpoints Dollars
  • check-in for domestic flights using ePass
  • ability to transfer funds to other OneSmart accounts using your mobile


Although bringing cash and credit cards with you on holiday will always be useful, OneSmart can save you a lot of money, as long as you are aware of all the fees that could be charged and take steps to avoid those situations. It is particularly good for withdrawing cash at overseas ATMs, though I would also use it for making purchases while on holiday.  You do need to plan ahead and load your money before you need it, and the display of your Transaction History online could be improved, but these disadvantages are more than offset by the cost savings.

[Added 14 Nov 2012: I've now written a post on what to watch out for when using your OneSmart card.]
[Added 8 May 2013: The new fees schedule effective from 21 May 2013 is less attractive, as are the exchange rates from OneSmart these days.  Please see my more recent comparison.]
[Added 21 May 2013: Did you know about the new fees and terms before they took effect?]

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Week in Hong Kong: Stereotypes that don't apply here

We've just returned from a week in Hong Kong, a nice holiday mainly filled with eating and shopping, with the odd sprinkling of sightseeing.  The food landscape is definitely a different beast there, with a greater range in prices for dining out (you can get a filling meal for the equivalent of $4 NZD, to a high end dining experience for hundreds of dollars), and lots of smaller eateries specialising in one particular type of food (for instance roast goose or milk pudding).

The rules of thumb we've adopted in New Zealand don't seem to apply either.  Here are some ideas that have been well and truly crushed.

Western fast food franchises should be a last resort

You've got an excuse if you need to refuel quickly or have an inexplicable craving for fast food, but otherwise, there are just so many better (healthier, tastier and probably cheaper) choices out there, right?  You've travelled half way up the globe, so surely you should be trying out the local food instead.  Well, fast food outlets have a particularly useful function in Hong Kong, as a supplier of... erm, toilets.  Never mind that they are usually really dirty and you have to queue for ages to use them, when you've walked up and down several blocks looking for a bathroom, you are just grateful that there is one available at all.

Fast food outlets are also interesting in terms of offering items not in your home country.  We were particularly excited to see taro pie and gingerbread lattes for sale at McDonald's.

Sweet taro pie

Gingerbread latte and mint mocha

Avoid food courts in shopping malls

In Auckland, places like Food Alley = good.  Stalls at your local Westfield mall = bad, especially if there are warming drawers involved.  We realised this might not be true in Asian countries, when we found our best meal in Malaysia in the basement of the Lot 10 shopping complex. We can't say the same of a Hong Kong shopping centre, but there are perfectly acceptable meals to be had in them, from dumplings to mini burgers.

Restaurant chains will have poorer quality

There aren't actually too many restaurant chains in Auckland.  But when I see them, unless I hear otherwise, I assume that the original chef has been distracted by all the branches and the standard of cooking will be lower across the board as a result.

Hong Kong provides a counterexample to this theory in the form of Lei Garden.  Its Mong Kok branch has two Michelin stars, and a number of other branches have one.  In fact, the first time we ate at one of these places was when we saw the huge queue for Lei Bistro at the bottom of Times Square.  This was before we had purchased a Michelin guide so we didn't know what to expect, and we were blown away by the food.  This was dim sum that was delicate and light, familiar dishes that had been improved upon.

Unexpectedly good preserved vegetables, deep fried pumpkin and taro balls.
The egg tarts and bo lo bao (not pictured) were smaller than at bakeries, but very light and delicate, fresh and crispy at the edges.

Another chain that sells consistently amazing food is the Yee Shun Milk Company, which originally came from Macau, I believe.  Their steamed milk is silky smooth, and rich and delicious, and we have confirmed this at both of their Hong Kong branches.

Half eaten bowl of steamed milk, which has the smoth texture of tofu jelly but a strong milky taste.
Yet another favourite is the Ocean Empire (海皇粥店) chain, which serves great congee, freshly fried bread sticks ("twisted doughnut") and steamed ricesheet rolls.  The fact that they provide a good range of table condiments, so you can drizzle over your plate as much peanut sauce and sweet sauce as you like, or sprinkle over a dusting of toasted sesame seeds, just makes it that much better.

You can watch the fried bread sticks being made through the front window.
Congee, fried turnip cake with XO sauce, and zhaliang (fried bread stick wrapped in ricesheet roll).  We went a bit overboard with the sauce, and also added chilli sauce by mistake.
To be honest, delicious and inexpensive food is available just about everywhere in Hong Kong.  If you are happy to eat anything, you will not have trouble, though if you had a particular item in mind, you might want to do your research first.
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