Sunday, May 26, 2013

3 Places for Medium-Rare Burgers in Auckland

[Added 25 April 2014: Our favourite burger place in Auckland is now Burger Burger. And yes, it does medium-rare by default.]
[Added 7 March 2016: So many great burger places have opened in the past year—this list is well outdated!]

Eating in France was a revelation for us, not least because we tasted for the first time what we considered to be real American burgers, beautifully cooked and with the patty still pink inside. You didn't have to ask for them medium-rare, because that was just how they were, every time. The restaurants even used that lurid orange processed cheese, though occasionally someone would slip in a slice of camembert or something as well. We have not tried burgers in America yet, but that was how we imagined they would be.

The best such burger we have tasted to date, though, was actually in Hong Kong earlier this month, when we visited an independent burger joint called BurgeRoom. Look at what a piece of art that bun is, and how juicy the filling.  We also approved of the excellent service in slicing the burger in half for easy eating, with a skewer in each portion to hold the pieces together.  This is currently our benchmark for the perfect American burger. And yes, even the fries were good.

Bacon Cheese Burger at BurgeRoom.
Of course, this meant we were on the hunt for the same as soon as we returned to Auckland.  How could you make do with what Jesse Mulligan calls Murder Burger Fuelconsin after such an experience (never mind that Murder Burger isn't around any more; you could substitute Handmade Burgers if you like)?

We have yet to find that perfect American burger in Auckland, but that didn't stop us from trying to recreate it ourselves at home. Sadly, though we managed to produce some pretty tasty burgers, we could not find the same sort of cheese, and there was always just something that was not quite right. It is hard to articulate what the difference is, but our burgers were not American burgers.

If you are happy to settle for a burger with a medium-rare patty, skilfully and freshly cooked, then it turns out there are at least a few places in Auckland where you can get this.  You only have to ask... Below are the eateries where we have successfully ordered a medium-rare burger, in the order of how we rate them. None are in the same category as that BurgeRoom burger, our idealised American burger, but there is no reason why you can't enjoy them anyway.

1) Vinyl Coffee Shop

Top on our list is the cheeseburger from Vinyl Coffee Shop. Don't forget you need to ask for it to be cooked medium-rare. Since we last reviewed the place two years ago, this tiny cafe has upgraded their menu, but the burger is still going strong. It is now made from beef rather than lamb, which is definitely closer to our expectations of a classic burger, though the rocket leaves used do push it towards a more gourmet direction. We like the fact that the staff manage to keep the standard consistently high, while throwing in minor variations. The last time we ordered the cheeseburger (before we discovered you could have it medium-rare), it was filled with fancy lettuce with frilled edges, for instance.

Cheeseburger from Vinyl Coffee Shop.
The bun may not look as perfect as the one from BurgeRoom, the colouring not as golden, the sesame less evenly spread, but the bread was soft inside while having the slightest, delicate, crispy crust on the outside. The cheese was regular cheese rather than the orangey American processed cheese, but then we haven't found "proper burger cheese" for sale anywhere other than at the big fast food chains. The meat was juicy and pink in the middle. This was a very good burger, for a very reasonable price tag of $14.

A closer look at the filling.
This place gets extra brownie points for offering a good vegetarian burger and crispy curly fries too.

Vegetarian O.J. Burger, with onion rings and avocado.

Vinyl Coffee Shop
218 Dominion Road, Mount Eden
(09) 623 3821

Opening hours:
Mondays to Fridays 7:30am - 3pm
Saturdays to Sundays 9am - 3pm

2) Late Night Diner

It's an exciting time for Ponsonby, with new eateries popping up left, right and centre. Not just the same kinds of places either, but novelties for Auckland, like the collection of little restaurants in Ponsonby Central, where some businesses started life as food trucks and market stalls. You can have an Argentinian asado at El Sizzling Chorizo (Simon Farrell-Green has a nice write-up of its previous incarnation as a foodcart on Waiheke Island), for instance, and we are also keen to try Foxtrot Parlour's doughnuts, which you can inject with filling yourself, though we've heard their brunch and lunch options are excellent as well.

But I digress.  One of the new places to eat in Ponsonby is the Late Night Diner. This little spot has three booths and some bar seating, with interior windows looking into the Ponsonby Social Club next door (it's owned by the same people). You might have trouble finding a seat depending on when you turn up, but it sure has an attractive menu.  Where else would you go to get rabbit pot pie, crispy skinned fish on popcorn grits, hard shakes (milkshake with a shot of cigar infused bourbon or fernet branca, perhaps), or Oreo doughboys?

Our objective, of course, was none of those things.  We were here for the late night cheese and bacon burger with fries ($15), cooked medium-rare. It was a bit difficult to see what we were eating because of the dim lighting (we used the flash for the photos below), but this is not a beauty contest.

Cheese and bacon burger from the Late Night Diner.
The late night burger does a good job, though the patty was more medium than medium-rare, and it was maybe a little too dry. Simple yet gourmet at the same time, you can always order something else to go with it, as we did.

The patty was more medium than medium-rare.
This place does not pretend to serve healthy food, so we were surprised by how much we enjoyed the slaw we added as a side. Apart from the obligatory cabbage and mayo, the salad was sweetened by some grated carrot and date slices, and jazzed up with mint and lime. Now we have a balanced meal we wouldn't mind returning for.

Late Night Diner
152 Ponsonby Road, Ponsonby
(09) 361 2320

Opening hours:
Mondays to Wednesdays 5pm - late
Thursdays to Sundays 5pm - 2am

3) The Flaming Onion

We weren't really looking for a takeaway burger, but with all the hype around The Flaming Onion (the Herald's Viva magazine picked it as Best Burger late last year, alluding to chef Alistair Bingle's background at the Engine Room and Euro) and with their own website saying "Don't be afraid to ask for it medium rare", we decided to give it a go.

Like the popular Big J's in Mount Wellington, The Flaming Onion has a burger special every week. Unlike most other takeaways, though, they also offer hand cut agria chips, and use free range eggs, homemade sauces and good quality ingredients in general.

We ordered the beef and cheese burger, as it sounded most like what we were looking for. Despite the beef patty being thinner than at the eateries we have already mentioned, it was still pink and moist inside. The bun was too fancy for us though. The rosemary in the foccacia bap added an unexpected flavour to the burger (that was our chief complaint with Murder Burger too), and where were the sesame seeds? Although they have taken liberties with the bread, and it was overall not as exciting as Vinyl's burger, it certainly was not bad, and represented good value at $10.

Beef and cheese burger from the Flaming Onion.
We enjoyed the agria chips too. We were not able to eat them all (we couldn't even finish the burger), but they reheated well in the oven. Not sure we would drive out to Northcote for another Flaming Onion burger, but if you are in the area, why not?

The Flaming Onion
1 Lydia Avenue, Northcote
(09) 419 0325

Opening hours:
Tuesdays to Wednesdays 4 - 8:30pm
Thursdays 4 - 9pm
Fridays 12 - 9pm
Saturdays 1 - 9pm
Sundays 4 - 8:30pm
Mondays closed.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Feijoa Cider... of sorts

What do you miss from New Zealand while you are overseas? For me, it is neither Marmite nor Weet-Bix*, nor L&P nor Vogel's (oh all right, maybe Vogel's), but something that did not really originate in New Zealand at all: that highly seasonal little green fruit known as the feijoa.

* By the way, did you know that these two kiwi favourites are made by Sanitarium, which has a tax-exempt status because it is owned by a religious organisation, the Seventh Day Adventist Church? This "charitable business" is actually very good at marketing, with news of our "marmageddon" spreading as for as the UK.  And remember that jingle which goes "Kiwi kids... are Weet-Bix kids"?  Apparently, in Australia they had the same advertisements, only they sang "Aussie kids... are Weet-Bix kids"! I have always thought of the breakfast cereal as a New Zealand product, but it turns out it was invented in Australia.

Pile of feijoas.
Native to the highlands of South America, this aromatic fruit plays on your heartstrings like no other. If you have a feijoa tree, you will have more than you can give away for a month or two, to the point where you get sick of their unique juicy sweetness. Then just as quickly, your supply runs out, and you are left longing for your next feijoa for most of the year. If you don't own a tree yourself, however, and don't have a desperate friend or neighbour trying to get rid of their excess stock, then you are forced to pay up to $13.99/kg at the supermarket. Such is the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Vertical and horizontal cross-sections of feijoas.

While I love feijoas eaten fresh, in a crumble, or in a cake (I particularly enjoy this spiced feijoa cake with crumble topping), I wanted a way to save their fragrant flavour for later. Obviously, you can freeze the pulp, and use it for making ice cream or baking. My in-laws pickle the small ones whole (just minus the tops) in a secret solution of what might be salt and vinegar. Or you can use the traditional fruit preservation method and turn it into a jam (if you are ever in France though, and the waiter doesn't understand what you mean by jam, don't think "preserve" and ask for préservatif or you will get some very strange looks indeed). I decided that I wanted to make feijoa cider. After all, the first one I ever had, thick and strongly alcoholic at the Wine Cellar four years ago, was a deliciously memorable experience.

I found plenty of feijoa wine recipes online, but I didn't see much written about feijoa cider. I had no experience with brewing anything (unless you count a cheat's version of ginger beer), and was intimidated by the special equipment, fancy yeast, sterilising washes, and things I had never heard of before (like airlocks, hydrometers, pectin enzymes and campden tablets). So when I was forwarded an extremely simple recipe from a friend of a friend, I stopped my research and went for that instead. Based on Lynda Hallinan's apple cider recipe, which in turn comes from Walter the Saint, it looked like this:

Put 1.5kg of feijoas in a bucket (cut off any bad bits first, and I usually remove the tops, too). Squash enthusiastically. Add 6.5 l of cold water, stir and cover. Stir 2x a day for a week. Strain out solids and mix in 1 kg of sugar and the juice and rind of 3 lemons. Leave overnight. Strain and bottle in clean PET bottles (I usually fill 3/4- 4/5 of the bottle then squeeze out the air before capping). Drinkable after 2 weeks. Open with caution.

I didn't actually follow it to the letter. I couldn't bring myself to put the skins in as well, for instance. It looked like a pretty loose recipe anyway, so I had no qualms about using a stick mixer instead of squashing the fruit, or brown sugar instead of white.  I also unscrewed the bottle cap ever so slightly once in a while, to let out some of the trapped gases.

Feijoa pulp, blended with a stick mixer, and some cut feijoas in the background.
I tasted the drink after a month or so, and let's just say it was nothing like the feijoa cider from the Wine Cellar. This was basically a rather sweet lemonade, in which the scent of feijoa was all but gone. I shall leave it for longer to see if more of the sugar will convert to alcohol, but I do not have high hopes.

I will have to wait till next year before I have enough feijoas again to try Linda Isbister's recipe.  In the meantime, I guess maybe I should read up on proper brewing technique.

This post is part of Our Growing Edge, a monthly blogging event aimed at inspiring us to try new things. This month it is hosted by Sonya from And More Food.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Another Week in Hong Kong: North Point Sweet Treats to Queue for

If you have ever been to Hong Kong, you will know that there are not just people and buildings everywhere, but also plenty of good food to be found.  In fact, fantastic fresh food is so prized in the city that they have a serious problem with food waste: apparently up to 40% of food there goes uneaten, and most of it ends up in the landfill.

You have a good chance of a great meal just wandering in to anywhere that looks popular, but one area I make sure I go to every time I visit is North Point, particularly if I have a craving for something subtly sweet. I already shared with you last year a shop selling Chinese dessert soups, which has queues going around the corner.  That is certainly a good option for a post-dinner treat if you are in the neighbourhood, but what if you are looking for a little snack earlier in the day? Then I would recommend these egg-based crispy snacks...

Eggettes, or gai daan jai (鷄蛋仔) @ LKK (利強記)

Eggettes in Hong Kong.

A typical streetside snack in Hong Kong is the eggette, or gai daan jai (鷄蛋仔, "little eggs"), basically a waffle which is shaped like a honeycomb pattern of oval balls. You can find it for sale in many places, but the only ones I have purchased which have been consistently fresh and crispy on the outside, with the centre variously hollow or soft and chewy, have been at a hole-in-the-wall vendor called Lee Keung Kee (利強記).

Often hollow with just a bit of dough on the inside, the best ones are served hot and crispy.
Although this shop now has eleven branches, I have only tried the one in North Point, which I assume is where the business became famous, since it's also known as "that place in North Point".

Eggette-making in action.

Stalls that sell eggettes invariably also sell a waffle which looks much like what you would get here.  Known as gaak jai beng (格仔餅, "grid-patterned biscuit"), the difference is that this waffle (which is not really crunchy like the eggettes) is served folded in half with the delicious sauces of butter, peanut butter, condensed milk and sugar.  The only problem I have with it is that it is impossible to eat without the sauces dripping everywhere!

Hong Kong style waffle, opened up to reveal the sauces inside.

* LKK North Point Eggettes (利強記北角雞蛋仔)
492 King’s Road, North Point, Hong Kong (香港北角英皇道492號)
+852 2590 9726

Opening hours:
Mondays to Sundays 10am - 11pm

Paper bag with LKK branch addresses.
Queue outside LKK. You purchase the waffles through the little window hiding amongst all the newspaper clippings.
Egg Rolls, or daan guen (蛋捲) @ Duck Shing Ho (德成號)

I have mentioned egg rolls, or daan guen (蛋捲, "egg roll"), from Duck Shing Ho (德成號) in my blog before, but had not actually planned to buy them until someone reminded me again.  Apparently, once upon a time, you could just walk into the shop and buy your crispy delights, but these days, they are so popular that you have to queue.

Crispy butter egg roll from Duck Shing Ho.
We ended up visiting the shop three times to make a purchase. The first time we turned up, it was a Sunday, and they were shut.

Attempt #1: closed on Sunday
The next time, we turned up too late. The business was still open, but all the boxes I saw inside were already pre-sold to other buyers.

Attempt #2: shop open, but sold out
Finally, we turned up at 9:30am as instructed (though some recommend coming at 9am), and joined the already long queue.  Unfortunately, they did not have any more tins of the coconut flavoured egg rolls, but I did get to try the original and butter versions. I preferred the latter, which were more golden in colour than the pale original egg rolls, as well as crumblier and, well, more buttery.  Yum!

Attempt #3: queueing in the morning, 25 minutes in.
By the way, the queue on the left is for payment, while the queue on the right is for collection. I didn't realise until I got to the front of the payment queue that there is a restriction of 4lbs per person.  What that means is that unless you turn up with a friend, you are only allowed four of the smaller 454g tins. Makes it fairer on the people at the back of the line, I guess.

Finally, I get to collect my tins of egg rolls!
I was surprised to see that the butter egg rolls were only made of "fresh eggs, sugar, flour (cereals containing gluten), butter".  No secret ingredient like the vanilla essence in the recipe I tried (or perhaps just conveniently omitted?). There are no preservatives and the tin is not sealed—lift the lid and all you see is a sheet of waxed paper before you get to the crispy rolls. I guess that the success of making these, as with eggettes, is highly dependent on technique.

[Added 3 June 2013: By contrast, the egg rolls produced in mainland China under the October Fifth Bakery Macau brand not only come in vacuum-sealed packages (the 150g box I bought had five packets containing two egg rolls each, as well as a packet of desiccant), but also lists the following ingredients: wheat flour, sugar, egg, margarine [tallow, palm oil, soybean oil, salt, milk powder, emulsifier (E222, E471, E477), flavour, antioxidant (E320, E307), colour (E160a)], lard [contains antioxidant (E320, E321)], raising agent [E500(ii), E450(i), E341(i)], flour treatment agent (E928)!

* Duck Shing Ho Homemade Egg Rolls (德成號家鄉雞蛋卷)
Ground floor, 64 Java Road, North Point, Hong Kong (香港北角渣華道64號地下)
+852 2570 5529/+852 2571 5049

Opening hours:
Mondays to Saturdays 9:30am - 7pm

Monday, May 20, 2013

Money Matters: OneSmart's New Fees and Terms

Up until recently, I have been positive towards using Air New Zealand's OneSmart card while travelling overseas.  As late as in September last year, I have tested making transactions in a foreign currency on my Visa credit card and on my OneSmart card on the same day, and found the rates from OneSmart to be more favourable.  Lately, however, OneSmart's exchange rates have taken a turn for the worse, and for purchases I made earlier this month, it actually cost me less money to use my normal credit card for payments in-store. [Added 23 May 2013: Just to clarify, the OneSmart was still better for getting cash out at overseas ATMs, due to the high fees my bank charges to use my debit/credit card that way.] To add insult to injury, I discovered only two weeks ago that OneSmart's fees and terms are changing - starting from tomorrow! The most inconvenient changes for me are that:
  1. only three overseas ATM withdrawals per month will now be free
  2. you can no longer escape fees while leaving money in your OneSmart account indefinitely, just by making sure you have it all in foreign currencies, and making a tiny transaction every three months (though this is softened by the fact that the Monthly Account Fee has been reduced)
Of course, I was not at all impressed.  And I was worried for all the people out there who might not know about the changes.  After all, I only found out because I happened to log in to my OneSmart account.  You might also have found out if you happened to read one of the major national newspapers in detail a week ago, on 14 May.  Otherwise, there was nothing.  No letter in the post, no email advising of the changes. This, despite an Airpoints newsletter being sent out just two days ago, with the following opening paragraph:

That's right, this newsletter "which has been designed to bring you up to speed on any programme, partner, schedule or business changes we think you need to hear about" didn't have a single thing to say about upcoming changes to the OneSmart fees schedule and terms and conditions!

[Added 21 May 2013:
Despite this outrage, I have to say that there is a pretty neat feature being introduced at the same time: a Virtual Card which "means a 16-digit MasterCard card number, security code (CVC2) and expiration date that is different from your Physical Card and can be used to access your OneSmart Account. A Virtual Card can be used for online and telephone transactions only."
This isn't much use if you mislay your OneSmart card when you want to get cash out, but it is reassuring to know that your real number is safe if your virtual number used online has been compromised. If only I had a virtual card for my normal credit card too!
Information about a Virtual Card on the terms and conditions page.

Out of interest, how did you first find out about these changes?  I've created a poll which you will find on the right (unless you are reading this post in the mobile view).

[Added 27 June 2013: The poll is now over. The results are as follow:

I logged in to my OneSmart account  5 (29%)
I looked on the OneSmart website  2 (11%)
I read the newspaper on 14 May  0 (0%)
I read Nom Nom Panda's blog  9 (52%)
I read some other blog  0 (0%)
My friends told me  1 (5%)
I noticed I was charged a fee  0 (0%)

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