Sunday, April 29, 2012

Review: Yum Cha @ Crown Chinese Restaurant (皇冠酒樓)

Our favourite yum cha restaurant in Auckland at the moment is not a place you might accidentally wander into.  Even if you happened to be in the Otahuhu/Papatoetoe area, you would never have noticed the faded exterior of Crown Restaurant, the peeling paint, the narrow doorway leading to a set of uninviting stairs.

And if you had seen it, you would have dismissed it instantly.  It has all the wrong vibes: a dirty mat at the front door behind a sandwich board proclaiming "BUFFET ALL YOU CAN EAT!!  EVERY Sun. & Mon. evening...," no way of seeing who (if anyone) was eating inside, no mouth-watering menu on display which you could have used to entice your sceptical friends.  It's a place that looks like it has remained unchanged for many decades, from the days when Asians in New Zealand were a novelty and rice cost a fortune and had to be supplemented with white bread.

Your fears might grow as you force yourself up those old, rickety steps, take one last look out the grimy window at the top, and follow the corridor around the corner, past the kitchen and towards a roadblock: people waiting to pay on one side, children in front of crayfish tanks on the other, and waitresses trying to push trolleys in between them.  Once the chaos clears though, you will see a large hall in front of you, surprisingly full of customers, including some sitting on the stage area at the far end, next to a historic-looking Chinese wall painting.  It feels like an RSA crossed with an old school theatre, a place at once incongruous with a thriving restaurant and reassuringly without pretensions.

Old but perfectly acceptable dining room, popular with young and old.
What brings us out here is the food. That, and the fact that you can just turn up without booking.  There is a good variety of dishes to choose from, pushed around in metal trolleys, and it comes out quickly, so you don't need to sit around for hours waiting for something you like the look of.  Spare ribs, chicken feet, tripe and tero-tero (intestines) project an authentic image, although there are also friendlier options for the less adventurous.

The steamed dumplings are hot, fresh and tasty, and we particularly enjoyed the open prawn and coriander dumplings which looked beautiful with a few golden vermicelli strands placed on top.

Special prawn and coriander dumplings.
Crown Restaurant also has excellent congee, which they top with fried breadstick and spring onion slices when you order it.  [Added 8 December 2012: They now also offer deep-fried fish skins!] I've always shied away from eating foods at restaurants which are made from cheap ingredients, which I could easily cook myself at home.  Trouble is, I have never made a successful congee at home, even though it is in essence just rice boiled in water with a bit of oil and salt.  This place makes up for all my past failures with just the right flavour and texture in their rice porridge.  They offer multiple types of congee, including the classic lean pork and preserved egg version (皮蛋瘦肉粥), which is the one which came around in a trolley on our last visit.

Simple but delicious bowl of congee.
Another dish we were excited to find here are the baked BBQ pork buns, char siu bao (叉燒包/叉烧包) of the smooth, glazed variety, although the more common steamed buns with the cracked top are also available.  The fried items such as the taro dumplings are more of a gamble, as they are prone to being only lukewarm.

Baked BBQ pork buns and deep-fried taro dumplings.
Those with a sweet tooth will be pleased with the dessert selection, which includes egg tarts (both the Hong Kong and Portuguese styles), fried sesame balls filled with lotus seed paste (煎堆, jin deui), pancakes filled with red bean paste (豆沙鍋餅, dou sa wo beng), mango pudding (芒果布丁, mong gwo bou ding) optionally served with Carnation condensed milk, the flat crumpet-like steamed "white sugar cake" (白糖糕, bak tong gou), and more.  [Added 8 December 2012: The selection today included tofu jelly (豆花, dou fah) and durian icecream balls (榴槤糯米糍, lou lin no mai ci).]

Trolley with dessert options, including egg tarts, mango pudding and filled glutinous rice balls.
Crown Restaurant may not be the type of place you would take your in-laws to, but look past its exterior and it offers you cheap and varied options for filling up on your favourite dim sum dishes.

Panda Recommends

[Added 8 Dec 2012: Crown Restaurant currently has a D grade rating, but New Flavour used to have an E and it was always full.  I've never let a rating put me off good food.]
Go for steamed dumplings and congee.
Avoid the fried things on offer, as these can be cold and unappetising.

Vegie Pandas
As with yum cha in general, to avoid eating only desserts, you may need to order something off the menu to supplement the few vegetarian items on the trolley (delicious as they are, steamed ricesheet rolls served with sesame and sweet sauce hardly make for a balanced meal).

Restaurant Details

Crown Restaurant
1/F, 12 East Tamaki Road, Papatoetoe, Auckland
(09) 279 8398

Opening hours:
Yum char Mondays to Sundays 10am - 2:30pm

Never judge a book by its cover.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Table Manners

Oh my goodness, I am getting old.  The other night at dinner, I found myself watching some children at a Chinese restaurant, and noticing all the things they were doing wrong, which I as a child would have been disciplined for.  I'm not sure when I turned into an etiquette nazi, but these little things also reminded me of the new rules I had to learn when we arrived in New Zealand decades ago.  I can't begin to imagine how many mistakes I must make at restaurants of other ethnicities, from not knowing the unwritten norms of behaviour.

I expect some rules are universal.  I would be pretty surprised if there were a culture somewhere where people would not consider you ill-mannered if you broke one of these:
  • don't lick your bowl or plate
  • don't take more than your fair share of a group dish
Other rules are more culture specific.  I've tried to write down all the ones I could think of, but I would love to hear of other people's experiences too.

Chinese Etiquette

I don't know if the guidelines I have been taught are Chinese etiquette, or specific to my area or family.  Some things, like
  • use communal chopsticks (or serving spoons/forks) to bring food from the shared plates to your own bowl
were brought into effect later on, perhaps due to greater health awareness after a number of Asian bird flu pandemic scares.  Some restaurants offer chopsticks in another colour to make it easier to differentiate between personal and communal serving chopsticks, but at other restaurants, you have to ask even to get extra chopsticks of the same colour.  As I said though, the use of communal chopsticks was a relatively new rule, and I remember I was surprised when a Taiwanese friend came over for dinner over a decade ago and asked if it was okay to pick up food with her own chopsticks, since there were no serving chopsticks on the table.

The fact that the kids the other night used their own chopsticks to grab food from the centre of the table and put it straight into their mouths also broke some other rules my father would remind us of:
  • bring your bowl up to the plate of food you are taking from
  • always put the food into your bowl first, even if it is just a quick dab onto your rice before you put it into your mouth, and
  • always bring your bowl up to your mouth to eat, rather than bending down to the table or eating with your bowl at a great distance (this is very different from Korean etiquette, where bringing a bowl up to your mouth is considered rude)
Perhaps he made those up to stop us from dripping sauce all over the table.

Some rules are just general politeness, such as:
  • don't pick through the dishes, though you can select the best bits for someone else, such as an elder
  • don't reach across the table or pick food from the far side of the plate from where you are sitting (飛象過河/飞象过河, lit. "flying elephant crosses river", a reference to the rule in Chinese chess where the elephant is not allowed to cross the river, and perhaps also to the distance travelled by your chopsticks)
  • pour tea for others before pouring for yourself
Others are more chopstick-specific Chinese rules, for instance:
  • don't put your chopsticks sticking up in a bowl of rice (because this alludes to the ritual of burning incense for the dead)
  • don't use your chopsticks to point at other people
And if you are the host:
  • offer far too much food.  There must be leftovers
After the meal, if you have some food stuck in your teeth:
  •  always cover your mouth with your free hand while you are using a toothpick with the other
Then there are the tea-related signals or gestures:
  • if someone pours you tea, thank them by tapping gently two or three times on the table with bent index and middle fingers.  I believe this is a Cantonese thing, and the story goes that this came about because in the Qing Dynasty, the emperor liked to travel around incognito.  When he poured tea for a servant, the servant could not kowtow in public, because that would give away the emperor's disguise.  Instead, he made this small hand gesture to signify the kneeling and bowing he would have done
  • when the teapot is empty, leave it with the lid ajar (but still on the teapot)
It looks like there are a lot of rules to remember for Chinese table manners, but there are equally many in Western culture, though you may not realise it if you have been brought up with them.

Western Etiquette

The first thing which is different in Western dining is that you use different utensils for eating.  I just about knew how to use a knife and fork, but the first time I had a multi-course meal I was stumped.  It is not obvious that you should
  • use your cutlery from the outside in
though I guess you might have noticed some slight difference in the size of the implements.

Cutlery humour from imgur.
Everyone has their own plate of food, so although you would also wait at a Chinese table for everyone to be ready, there is more of a delay at a Western meal to
  • wait for everyone at the table to receive their food before beginning to eat
Once you are actually allowed to start your meal, there are any number of rules you should observe, such as:
  • don't put your elbows on the table
  • don't talk with your mouth full
  • close your mouth while chewing
  • don't slurp your soup
  • don't smack your chops.  In fact, make as little noise as possible
  • don't blow on hot food to cool it down.  Stir hot soup, or simply wait for the food to cool
  • cut your food into small enough pieces for a mouthful.  Never lift a large food item and take a bite from only part of it
  • eat slowly; don't put so much food in your mouth that you have bulging cheeks
  • don't put a knife into your mouth or lick it
  • respect the table cloth, i.e. avoid drips and don't pile your bones on the table
  • when you are using a knife, the fork should be in your left hand with the tines pointing down; when using a fork on its own, it may be in your right hand
Then there are the cutlery positioning signals:
  • when you are taking a break from eating, leave your cutlery at a diagonal, with the tines of your fork pointing down
  • when you have finished eating, place your cutlery together side by side in the middle of your plate, with the tines of your fork pointing up
I've also noticed that at a restaurant, waitstaff
  • never stack plates on the table when clearing the dishes
Other Cultures

I don't have much of an idea about table manners in other cultures, though I do know that for Indian cuisine, you should always eat with your right hand, and wash your hands before and after the meal.  In Malaysia, after eating banana leaf rice, you fold the top of the leaf down to signify that you enjoyed your meal, or fold the bottom up (away from you) to signal it was was not satisfactory.

What else do I need to know to avoid becoming an uncouth barbarian in other parts of the world?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Foodie Excursion: Pick Your Own Chestnuts @ Chestnut Traders

Rather than hunting for chocolate Easter eggs, a friend's family had the children search for feijoas instead.  Makes sense really: not only is it healthier, but you always have too many feijoas waiting to be picked up if you grow them.  This is how I remember when the feijoa season is.  Recently though, I've come to associate something else with Easter: fresh chestnuts, where you can pick your own for only about one month in the year.

I actually wanted to go to Chestnut Charlie's in Clevedon, as it is probably the closest to central Auckland.  Unfortunately, though normally open every day, they were not open today, Easter Monday.  Instead, we went to Chestnut Traders in Helensville, which, by the way, isn't so much in Helensville as in South Head, past Parakai and even further north than Shelly Beach, where we had a late lunch of fish and chips.  Their website says to allow for an hour to get there.  Given you will probably miss the turn into Nancy's Lane, which leads to the property, I would allow for more time.  Come to think of it, it is probably no closer than Chestnut Ridge, which I had rejected (even though they had cheaper chestnuts) on account of it being technically outside greater Auckland, almost as far as Huntly.  I should have noted that you would be travelling almost solely on the motorway, while there were gravel roads involved in getting to Chestnut Traders.

What Chestnut Traders has going for it, though, is that you can combine a whole raft of other activities to the chestnut picking to make for a great day out.  A tour at Crescent Dairy Goats, for instance, or a nice lunch at The Tasting Shed or the Bees Online Cafe, followed perhaps by a visit to the MacNuts orchard, or outdoor pursuits in the Woodhill Forest, such as Tree Adventures, mountain biking, paintballing or quad biking.

Even if you have nothing planned other than chestnut picking, the very distance you travel to get there, combined with the scenery, makes it feel like an adventure.  To even get Chestnut Traders, you have to find the entrance to Nancy's Lane.  Then you open (and close behind you) a gate through which you can see a path leading into the distance.  You drive down this gravel road until you get to a gate for the Pakaka farm, where Chestnut Traders lives.  The house on the left is where you will probably find your host; the shed on the right is where the chestnuts you collect will get weighed.

Gate number 1, which you will see if you have turned down Nancy's Lane.
Being the city person that I am, I had no idea that chestnuts came in a prickly husk, multiple nuts to a ball of spikes.  Fortunately, the farm had spare gloves on hand.

Chestnuts, with a spiky exterior covering.
I was also clueless enough to imagine that I would be plucking chestnuts from trees.  Although they do indeed grow on trees, they dry out and fall down by themselves.

Chestnut balls sitting on the grass, just waiting to be collected.

Growing chestnuts, still on the tree.
It is tempting to pick up the first chestnuts that you see, but the biggest, shinest chestnuts can be found under the trees right at the end.  Ask where the best pickings are to be had, and you will be amazed at the quality of the chestnuts available.  Enjoy!

Road leading to the weighing shed, with chestnuts swept into piles in the background.

Farm Details

Chestnut Traders
1716 South Head Road, Helensville/South Head (allow for at least an hour from central Auckland)
(09) 420 2750

Opening hours:
Saturdays to Sundays 10am - 5pm

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Review: Holy Land Foods (مطعم الأرض المقدسة) *CLOSED*

[Added 10 January 2013: I was excited to see that they had a new sign above their restaurant when I returned from Europe in October, but when I checked the other day, it was gone and the windows were plastered with newspapers...]

We've just come back from Holy Land.  No, we haven't made a pilgrimage overseas or done anything religious.  We've actually just had lunch at an Arab restaurant on K'Rd, a couple of doors down from the Lebanese Cafe and across the road from Coco's Cantina and Mister Morning.

Yam Yam Holy Land Foods doesn't look as classy or inviting as its neighbours.  Had it not been recommended by a workmate, we would probably a) never have found it, and b) not have had the courage to enter.  Run by two Jordanian brothers who worked as chefs in the Middle East, this eatery offers Arab food as well as Western meals such as pizza and pasta.  I'm afraid we've never tried the latter, as it just doesn't feel right to walk into an establishment with Arabic script everywhere and order something like a chicken and mushroom penne.  The rest of the menu was definitely exciting though.

Some dishes, like the hummus and vine leaves, are already familiar from the more numerous Turkish restaurants in Auckland.  The hummus at Holy Land was thick, with a strong tahini flavour and served with a drizzle of olive oil, the way I like it.  Other menu items included things I had never heard of before, such as the "foul medames" (فول مدمّس), a bean dish.

The hummus with beans came with a pita bread (half eaten before I could take a picture, sorry).
We didn't realise that the hummus dishes came with a round of Lebanese bread, though perhaps we should have guessed.  We ordered a garlic bread as well, and we were glad that we did, because this flat naan-like bread arrived hot and fresh, tastier than the drier and thinner pita bread.

While we are on the subject of bread, Holy Land has a "Mini Pizza" section on their latest menu, which isn't necessarily what you might imagine at all.  As the pictures show, some are bread rounds with toppings, while others are more like filling wrapped in bread.  This is what the spinach and onion one looked like:

Spinach and onion "mini pizza".
The menu has been revised since we first came here late last year.  I was glad to see that they managed to find a newer and less scratched non-stick dish for serving their kofta kebabs and shakshokah (شكشوكة, eggs poached in a sauce of tomates and spices) too. Nothing kills the appetite quite like the thought that you could be eating something toxic.

Lamb Kofta Kebab with tomato & bread.
Also on both the old and new menus was the kabsa rice served with chicken or lamb.  The meat looked like it had simply been boiled, but apparently it was actually very flavourful.  You might want to get a salad as well to help with your 5+ a day though.

Slow-cooked Lamb on kabsa rice.
New on the menu was the Barbeque section, offering a selection of skewers and grilled meats, served with rice, bread, hummus and salad.  We ordered the Mixed Grill so we could try a bit of everything.  The chicken and kofta skewers were very tasty, though the lamb chops were too salty and the coloured rice was more or less like plain basmati.  Overall a good choice.

Holy Land Mixed Grill.
Also new was the very tempting Desserts section, including the Turkish Coffee, which arrived sweet and strong in a little metal pot next to a tiny silver-gilded tea cup.  One of our group burnt his hand on the metal handle of the pot and gingerly tried to wrap a serviette around it.  The chef watched in amusement before removing the napkin and just picking up the pot and pouring.  Ah, the true mark of a chef, as proven by the thickness of the skin on his palms.

After stuffing ourselves with the delicious dishes and over-abundance of bread, we were ready to leave, but we couldn't help asking about the knafe on a poster on the wall, which was previously only on catering menu (like the whole or half lamb on rice).  It turns out this is the same as the konafa (كنافة) on the new menu, a creamy dessert sprinkled with vermicelli-like strands and rose water syrup, and served hot.  The chef insisted we try it for free, and we demolished the thing before I could get a picture.  This in itself is worth coming to the restaurant for.
More than half-eaten rose water konafa, a warm creamy dessert with syrup.
The new Barbeque and Dessert options are great additions to the menu, and the grouping of the dishes into sections works well, but I can't help wishing that we'd managed to try some of the items that have now been removed, things like lentil soup and Jordanian mansaf (منسف أردني).  [Added 8 August 2012: there items are currently available again on the ramadan menu.]  Maybe I shouldn't have raised my eyebrows at their "French Fries Sandwich" in my previous post, because all the sandwiches have now disappeared too.

I don't have much of a benchmark for Arab cuisine, but Holy Land serves varied food at reasonable prices.  I don't know too many other places that offer pan-fried lamb liver, and I still need to find out if their "hotdog" is really something other than expected, just as what is translated as "sour cream" is actually the lower-fat strained yoghurt cheese, labneh (لبنة).  In any case, we will be coming back for more.

Panda Recommends

Mezze: Hummus, with or without toppings ($5.50 - $11.00).  These are only appetisers if you share them with others.  The hummus fateh comes with bits of pita bread mixed in, whose soft squishiness may not appeal to everyone.
Mains: Holy Land Mixed Grill ($18.50), Slow-cooked Lamb on Kabsa rice ($15.00)
Dessert: Rose Water Konafa ($6.00)

Vegie Pandas
The Shakshokah ($9.00) is nice if a little underseasoned.  You can also have a range of salads and dips ($5.50 - $6.00), pizzas ($10.50 - $12), mini pizzas or pastries ($4.00 - $5.00) and desserts ($4.50 - $7.50).

Menu - page 1 (ignore the delivery part)

Menu - page 2
Restaurant Details

Holy Land Foods (مطعم الأرض المقدسة)
347 Karangahape Road, Auckland Central
(09) 379 9325

Opening hours:
Mondays to Sundays 10am - midnight
[Added 8 August 2012: See updated hours in my more recent post]

Holy Land is on K'Rd, close to the Lebanese Cafe, Coco's Cantina and Mister Morning.

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Monday, April 2, 2012

Review: Cocoro

Do you have a bucket list of things to eat?  We've only had dinner at Cocoro twice, and it's already crossed two items off ours (freshly grated wasabi root and restaurant-cooked wagyu beef).  It's also given us an opportunity to try things we had not even considered (such as the piko piko and "mountain caviar" in my previous post), as well as other delicious dishes (high quality seafood and noodles, including the fatty cut of toro).

A 50kg 100% farmed sustainable Bluefin tuna, flown in from Japan.
Tucked away into a quiet little side street off Ponsonby Road, we would probably never have found this "new style Japanese" restaurant, had it not immediately gained fame by winning the Best Specialist Restaurant award in Cuisine NZ Restaurant of The Year 2011 (it has also just been announced today as being on the Metro/Audi Restaurant of the Year Top 50 list for2012, though we don't agree with everything on the list).  This little space was not as full as it deserves to be when we turned up one weeknight, and we wondered if it was because you cannot book unless you are planning to have the degustation.

The degustation menu changes regularly, and is great value at $80 for 6 courses (far too much food, especially if you go for the optional soba course).  It's definitely a good choice for that special ocassion, not just for the variety of highlights, but also because of the delightful presentation of the dishes.  However, it also leaves you too full to try anything off the specials menu, which we just had to come back for.

We were happy to see seasonal ingredients being offered.  The man at Depot was right: Bluff oysters are not as delicate as Tio Point oysters, but we enjoyed eating them all the same.  We also had fresh bamboo shoots, which we have not seen at a restaurant before, and they were tender and flavourful.

New season bluff oysters.

Charcoal-grilled new season bamboo shoots.
The pleasure of eating beautiful fish with freshly grated wasabi root does not come cheap, but we have been meaning to try this ever since discovering that most "wasabi" served with your sushi is actually horseradish and mustard with green food colouring.  Real wasabi definitely has a distinctive taste, what you could call lighter and sweeter than its cheaper substitute.  You have to grate it at the table, because it loses flavour in 15 minutes.

Farmed bluefin tuna - akami and toro sashimi with fresh wasabi root.
Contrary to what we've read about cooking wagyu at least medium to ensure the fat in the meat fully melts, the wagyu at Cocoro still looked well pink inside, though it arrived on a sizzling plate at the table, on a bed of
at least five different kinds of marinated fungi, including snow fungus, shiitake mushrooms, enokitake or golden needles mushrooms, oyster mushrooms and white button mushrooms.

Charcoal finished premium grain-fed wagyu, with at least five different types of fungi.
While special dishes like these can seem pricey, they are justified by the gourmet ingredients, and other items on the menu seem downright inexpensive.  The noodle side dishes are only $6 or $7. We particularly liked the udon, though the cold soba noodles were also nice.

A side of soba, with soup for dipping.  Large sushi platter in the background.
The desserts were delicious and very reasonably priced as well.  We had the black sesame creme brulee and were surprised you could actually taste the sesame flavour in it.  This came with a shortbread biscuit and a selection of fruit for only $7.

Black sesame creme brulee, with a sesame shortbread and fresh fruit.
You can certainly spend a lot of money at Cocoro if you want to, but you will be guaranteed a great experience, with unique dishes, expert kitchen creations, and attentive service.  Oh, and they even give you a hot handtowel and bowl of lotus root chips to begin.  No need to book, just turn up and you can choose off all the menus.

Panda Recommends

The degustation is great for a special ocassion, but we like to pick and choose.  We prefer the more traditional dishes than the more fusion ones.

Small Plates: Charcoal grilled new season bamboo shoots ($12), Farmed blue fin tuna sushi or sashimi ($8-$10/piece)
Sides: Udon warm broth noodles ($6), "Zaru soba" chilled buckwheat noodles ($7), South Island fresh wasabi ($4)

Vegie Pandas
The shiki-tofu (made using water from Mount Fuji) is delicious and silky smooth.  They will also make a vegetarian version of the chawanmushi.  In fact, you can have a whole degustation's worth of vegie dishes.  Just advise the chef not to use fish stock, as this is one ingredient that often makes visibly vegetarian dishes non-vegetarian.

Restaurant Details

56a Brown Street, Ponsonby, Auckland
(09) 360 0927

Opening hours:
Tuesdays to Saturdays 12 - 2pm, 5:30 - 10pm

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