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Gung Hey Fat Choy! I kicked off my Chinese New Year Festivities at Hong Kong Bakery & Bistro with a bevy of local bloggers. Daniel B. organized the dinner to try the set menu featuring two dishes he’d never tried before. Set Menu A was on our hit list.

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Seafood & Fish Maw Soup was up first. A nice light fishy soup with egg white bits, thickened with cornstarch. If you’re wondering what fish maw is, it’s the gas bladder that helps the fish go up and down in the water. It’s pretty flavorless. Overall, good light start to the meal.

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Next up was the fabulous salt and pepper PLATTER. My family usually gets salt and pepper shrimp, so this was a real treat. It featured (from bottom clockwise): tofu, squid, bait fish, ribs, and in the center… jellyfish. Oh man, I want this platter all of the time! It was great! Salt and pepper tofu makes tofu automatically delicious, even if you’re not a tofu fan. Salt and pepper squid is an automatic win (though these were  bit small so they got a teeny bit overcooked/chewy). Salt and pepper bait fish. This was delicious, and not something I see very often in Cantonese/Hong Kong cooking. IMO very under-utilized because these tasted fantastic – briny and simple. Just tell squemish people that they’re fish strips, nuggets, or more squid. They won’t be able to tell.
Salt and pepper ribs. Where have you been all my life? Man, if there was a star, this was it. Crispy exterior, savory interior. Yes. Total win.
Jellyfish is a CNY mainstay dish, and it was nice to try the s+p riff on it.

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Abalone course. Abalone slices over bok choy and shiitake mushrooms. Abalone is another popular Chinese New Year dish because it’s expensive and symbolizes prosperity. But overall it doesn’t have a lot of flavor going on by itself, so it picked up a lot of the shiitake flavor. I wasn’t crazy about the thick brown sauce over it, but I liked how tender they got the abalone. This stuff can be prepared differently, and I’m not a fan of the texture when it’s rubbery and not cooked as much. This provided a lot of give. You know it’s a traditional dish when it’s expensive and the best you can say is that it wasn’t tough.

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Lobster, my love! Gotta love double ginger scallion lobster. Coated in a light cornstarch startch ginger scallion sauce, this fried lobster is another mainstay, and I was surprised to hear that Daniel B. had never tried it before. I’ve failed him as a friend! This was a great preparation of the dish. The lobster was juicy and succulent, and chopped up to dig out easily. “Easily” is probably a relative term, as part of the fun of this dish is getting messy eating it!

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Crispy Chicken is another traditional dish. This was covered in a garlic sauce, but the garlic flavor was pretty mild overall. Mmm, adorned with garlic crispy bits, too. This is a great dish any time of the year. Juicy plump chicken, crisp skin, simple chicken flavors. It’s a real crowd pleaser.

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Ultra blurry pig feet dish. Another first for Daniel B. This preparation was a bit tougher than other versions I’ve had. I prefer softer versions, but overall the flavor was good. Rich and meaty without getting too funky. The pieces were chopped up into easy to grab bits to gnaw on. There’s a lot of gnawing in Hong Kong/Cantonese Chinese food culture. 20160209_203636

Dessert time! What a pretty fruit platter!

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Red bean and tapioca soup  for dessert part two to end it on a sweet note.

CBH 001 amuse popcorn

“Hey m’dear, any interest in going to a whiskey tasting dinner tomorrow night at City Beer Hall  (in collaboration with The Speakeasy)?”

There’s something to be said for good friends who bring you food when you’re sick, generally check in on you while conquering the world, and take you as their date to a whiskey dinner. Deanna Fox is one of those friends and then some. *swoons at succinct offer of one of my favorite brown liquors*

City Beer Hall’s chef Dimitrios Menagias and Robert Mack, the man behind the Speakeasy’s cocktail program, teamed up to pair food with drink from Brown Forman (an American owned spirit and wine business). It was a good night.

We had a popcorn amuse atop a truffled mousse with mushrooms. Paired with the fun amuse drink below whose name I’ve forgotten because this happened a week ago and I have the memory of a fly.

CBH 001 Drink
CBH Course 1 Drink Indian Candy Corn cocktailCBH Course 1 Drink Woodford White Corn Bourbon

Course 1: Indian Candy Corn cocktail (left) featuring Woodford White Corn Bourbon (neat, on the right).
The bourbon itself had a strong caramel scent, and was a real kicky type bourbon. The cocktail was equally punchy.

CBH Course 1 Winter Salad

Course 1: Winter Salad. Grilled prawn, carrots, starfruit, napa cabbage, persimmon nuoc chom. A few kernels of freeze dried corn on the right that paired very well with the meal and bourbon. This made me realize how underutilized napa cabbage is in its raw, salad-y form. A great winter salad with bright notes from the persimmon nuoc chom.

CBH Course 2 Charcuterie

Course 2: Charcuterie. My notes on this dish are covered in hearts. Duck pastrami, foie gras mousse, venison, sweet corn mostarda, pickled green tomatoes. I was talking with some folks recently who said they just didn’t “get” foie gras, and I had to reconsider our friendship for a moment. It’s fat, rich, and delicious. What’s not to like? Duck pastrami was deliciously smoky, aand was great paired with the pickled green tomatoes. The sweet corn mostarta also contained some toasted corn.

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I just couldn’t help but take  bunch of pictures of this plate. There was so much to love!

CBH Course 2 Drink Lion's Tail

Course 2: Lion’s Tail with Old Forester 1870 (which I forgot to take a picture of, and the cocktail picture isn’t much better. sigh). I LOVED the Lion’s tail it was tart and smoky with clove flavors. More hearts drawn around this cocktail. The Old Forester 1870 is the founding brand. 90 proof, spicy, and burns just a tad when sipped neat.

CBH Course 3 Intermezzo

Course 3: Intermezzo, with a cocktail reprieve. Pomelo sorbetto, aperol, candied pomelo peel. Dimitrios knocked this out of the park. The skill alone in candying the pomelo peel deserves respect. They were so thin, and so perfectly candied. Covered in sugar, and not too dry or too chewy. One of our table mates wasn’t familiar with pomelo, and remarked that it tasted “kind of like weed smells”, which is actually kind of accurate with its dank tartness and pungent citrus oils. It’s great to see this citrus featured front and center, especially as a plate cleanser.

CBH Course 4 Manhattan

Course 4: Manhattan with Old Forester 1897, where I have clearly crossed over from sober to jovial as I’ve forgotten to take another shot of the bourbon in its neat form. This may have been my favorite to drink neat or with a few drops of water in it, despite my forgetfulness. It had a tart nasal note, a bit milder than the white corn bourbon in the first course, with what I can only describe as having  great spicy afterburn. Definitely something to warm you up on cold winter night. The Manhattan was also expertly executed, using charred bitters and rhubarb vermouth. And that cherry. Or as my notes read “Oh my god, that brandied cherry”. It’s juicy and delicious and I love saving it to chew with the last few sips of the drink at the end. I think I could just load that Manhattan up with those brandied cherries and be a happy woman.

CBH Course 4 Wild Boar

Course 4: Wild Boar. Smoked corn relish, spaetzle, baby kale, red pepper oil. The corn was smoked over apple wood, the spaetzle was made with parsnip and mustard seed which added a lightly sweet and vegetal note to the spaetzle. All of this worked wonderfully with the boar, and sipping the Manhattan along with this dish made me feel like a very lucky woman to be eating such a fine dish, and to have a friend who’d invite me along to even try this.

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I had to use every ounce of willpower to resist picking up the bone and sucking every bit of delicious cartilage and tendon off of the bone.

CBH course 5 Jack Daniels Howard St. Scaffa

Course 5: Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, Barrel Proof (left); Howard St. Scaffa (right). Wow, barrel proof. 130.8% alcohol. Holy caramel smell, with a subtle note of cinnamon. “Drinkable fire” someone noted at our table. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was playing in my head drinking this, in very enjoyable way. The Howard St. Scaffa featured a mellow cointreau noir and one drop of Angry God ghost pepper bitters. A definite way to turn up the heat.

CBH course 5 Stuffed Figs

Course 5: Stuffed Figs. Harbison, pecan, Shiva’s wrath bitters, dark chocolate. Harbison cheese stuffed into a Greek dried fig which was reconstituted in cointreau noir. The pecans were toasted and tossed in Shiva’s wrath bitters. This was a delightful way to end the dinner on a high note. The Harbison was creamy (a triple cream to be exact) with grassy, funky, rich notes that worked well to counter the heat of the drinks and complement the sweetness of the fig.

Way to end dinner on a high note. Mic drop Dimitrios and Robert.

Mother's Dumplings

Toronto was such a great city to visit. I’m still happily remembering my trip for my Uncle’s 100th birthday celebration. I’d heard Toronto had a big Chinatown with lots to see and do, and wanted to stay nearby. I booked an Air BnB reservation in the heart of Kensington Market, which was basically like a little hipster neighborhood in the middle of Chinatown. A microcosm in a microcosm (also, holy wow on hotel and rental prices in that neighborhood). It was cute and a great place to stay while on vacation. There was a ton of stuff to see in just a 1/4 mile radius, and even more to walk to within 5 kilometers.

One such place was Mother’s Dumplings on Spadina Ave. If there’s one thing I love it’s a good dumpling. Most reviews touted Mother’s as a must-try. The hardest thing was deciding on only two types of dumplings to try for Albany John and myself. We decided we’d get an order of 12 boiled dumplings and 10 pan-fried dumplings. Ah, the perils of being but two diners in a city full of treats to try.

They were out of lamb shu mai, so we went with a dozen pork and dill boiled dumplings. I never see this combination, so it was a must-try, and I’m really glad I did. I usually think of dill as an Eastern European flavor, but it went incredibly well with juicy pork and Chinese spices. Even soy sauce. I’ll definitely be making pork and dill dumplings of my own in the future. Seriously – a  nice bright punch of dill leaves really counterbalance the rich juiciness that good pork dumplings possess.
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Oh. My. Glob. Yes on those pan fried dumplings.
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DO YOU SEE THAT GLORIOUS LACEY CRUST ON THOSE PAN FRIED DUMPLINGS??? DO YOU?

I almost couldn’t even. But then I could.
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We got the pork and shrimp dumplings for our pan fried order. Juicy pork meatball with bits of shrimp inside, made even more texturally appealing by crisping up one edge of the dumpling. These were well executed – each skin was nice and crispy without being greasy. Oh, that fine lace edge was just divine, too. The skins on both the boiled and pan fried dumplings tasted the same – a  nice and hearty, thick dough that complimented the rich flavors inside. Held up well to boiling and pan-frying.

If you’re in Toronto, this is the place to check out. Cash only. Condiments at the table. Fast serivice.

Bday Party 1 Pig Roast Whole

I went to Toronto last month. Why? Well, that’s a great question with a long answer that starts with my dad. When my dad was a kid in Hong Kong, there were these families with kids the same age who he’d play with. After many decades, my dad reconnected with one friend, who immigrated to Toronto along with the rest of those families my dad knew as a child. This man and his siblings were throwing their dad a 100th birthday party, and, as my dad explained, he was practically family, so just consider him “Uncle”. And you know how Chinese parties are – BIG. You invite all of your family and close friends (and their families).

So I drove up to Toronto with Albany John and my little sister, for this “Uncle’s” birthday party. Hey, Toronto has one of the biggest Chinatowns, food’s gotta be good right? And I was also just a wee bit excited to meet these people my dad had known as a child. Everyone was so nice, and we got to sit with one of the “kids” in our generation at the table. And then I met her sister, and my dad goes “Wow, you two look alike!” and we both did a double take since we actually did look pretty similar in the face (I’m a little bigger than her since I’m only half Chinese). And her Chinese name is one letter off of mine. You know, I’m usually in the minority any where I go, and I guess it’s just something I’m used to. My siblings and I look a lot alike, but we don’t really even resemble our cousins on either parent’s side very much. So it was a very different feeling for me to see someone who looked like me. A new kind of fuzzy, if you will.

Okay, they do not mess around with 100th birthday parties in Toronto. The first course was crackling suckling pig. Each platter marched out on parade by a server, with sparkler and glowing LED maraschino cherry eyes.

Bday Party 1-2 Pig Roast SkinBday Party 1-2 Pig Roast Skin 2

The skin was so good. The exterior was crackly and delicate, yet substantial. The fat underneath melted away as you bit in. I haven’t had a suckling pig this good in years, if ever.

Bday Party 2 Shrimp 2 ways pan broccoliBday Party 2 Shrimp 2 ways fried

Next up was shrimp two ways – fried in a sweet-and-sour style, and pan-fried with some broccoli and garlic. Plump, briny shrimp. The sweet-and-sour preparation wasn’t my favorite, but the vermicelli basket was novel.

Bday Party 3 Fish cakes stuffed with scallop, asparagus, and roe 1Bday Party 3 Fish cakes stuffed with scallop, asparagus, and roe 2

This dish was a first for me, and one I quite took a liking to. It looks like a fish patty, but stuffed inside is a tender scallop. The briny roe made it pop with salinity, and man that asparagus was a great supporting character.

Bday Party 4 Birds Nest Soup

Bird’s Nest Soup – Yay! Not shark fin soup. Very progressive. Usually for a party like this shark’s fin soup would be on the menu.

Bday Party 5 Sea Cucumber

The womp womp dish of the night that wasn’t so much a dud, just a very… uh… traditional food that no one really seemed as interested in. If I’m trying to conserve stomach space, I’m going to give a little less to sea cucumber. Sorry, sea cucumber, but that’s just how it works. This was actually one of the better preparations – the sea cucumber was stuffed with fish paste, so it added a bit of flavor and a slightly firmer texture. I don’t think anyone at our table finished this one.

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Crispy garlic chicken was a big hit at the table – succulent chicken with crisp skin – what’s not to like?

Bday Party 7 whole fishBday Party 7 whole fish piece

Whole steamed fish! One of my favorite dishes ever. This was great – the fish was cooked perfectly, and that salty sauce compliments the sweet flavor of the fish so well.

Bday Party 8 fried lobster

Ginger fried lobster – this is where most of the table started tapping out from all of the different courses. And where I ate 75% of the lobster our table was served. Oh my gosh, it was so good. Chopped into easy-to-eat chunks, covered in that delicious ginger-scallion sauce.

Bday Party 9 soup

And then I started tapping out once the wonton noodle soup came out. Fresh noodles, gai lan, and shrimp wontons. I had a wonton because, hello, seafood.

Bday Party 10 11 Fried Rice and Cake

Oh yeah, then fried rice, and then some of the birthday cake. Stuffed. Absolutely stuffed.

At some point in the night, my dad was talking with one of the Aunties, and it turns out that we were all related, and we were all cousins of some sort. Even more of a fuzzy! The connection requires a flow chart to explain, but the gist is that there’s a connection from 3 sisters from the same village. They’d previously thought that when the sisterhood was talked about, they used “sisters” meaning they were in Hong Kong from the same village on Mainland China. But nope, turns out they were sisters and most of us were related by blood at the party, and the birthday boy is actually my Uncle!

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I know of no better way to start off a meal than with fried yucca and chicarron. Flores Family Restaurant is one of the few places you can get this fab appetizer.
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You can also get a papa rellena, which is a massive fried disc/oval of mashed potato stuffed with ground beef for $2.99. Seriously – share this. It’s great, but you’ll fill up on it if you order it for yourself, and there is so much more to eat. Creamy mashed potatoes filled with seasoned ground beef, the entire exterior crisped up.

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ALL OF THE PUPUSAS. Cheese, bean and cheese, and loroco greens. The loroco greens are incredibly mild and blend in well with the cheese. And who doesn’t love a soft corn exterior before giving way to any filling?
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Whole fried tilapia is another menu bargain at $10.99 and more than enough for two people to share. I happily crunched on the especially fried tail and fin bones.

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My big Christmas present from Albany John was dinner at The Crimson Sparrow. The Crimson Sparrow has a frequently changing tasting menu with the occasional Asian influence. It’s headed by owner John McCarthy, and the experience was thoroughly satisfying. We were there for a little over two hours – the meal was paced so well we didn’t even notice how late it was once we left!

To note, the lighting in the dining room is a bit low, and I’m still trying to figure out how to work my new macro lens, so I’ll include a link to Crimson Sparrow’s IG account with much better pictures of these dishes.
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First up was the smoked octopus on uni puree, lardo, and shiso micro greens (Insta Pic). This was a two bite affair and I could have easily done with a plate of this. The octopus was perfectly executed – smoky, tender and meaty, and the uni puree was a deliciously rich pairing. Just an outstanding dish.
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Brussels sprouts with snails, charred leek, miso, honey, cashews, and parsley (IG Pic). The brussels sprouts were deliciously crispy and nutty, and a welcome vegetal dish. I couldn’t discern any snails, but didn’t realize it until I was done with the dish. I really enjoyed this, just didn’t pick up on all of the flavors noted.
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Sunchoke soup! (Instagram Pic) Sunchoke puree with date, chestnut, hazelnut, pickled cauliflower, black truffle. Oh. My. Gosh. Truffles. I go gaga for truffles. Albany John, not so much. This was a rich and creamy puree of sunchokes. One where, if you made it yourself, you’d be hesitant to serve seconds. The cauliflower, dates, and pickled cauliflower were judiciously portioned out in a wee mince beneath the shaving of black truffle. The black truffle added a lovely rich earthiness to the soup. So wonderful, Albany John even enjoyed the truffle aspect. And darn, I was hoping to get an extra slice of truffle from his portion – tee hee. Just kidding – I’m happy he has found one iteration of truffle that he enjoys.
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Scallop on top of salsify puree with masago (IG Photo is slightly different, but you get the delicious idea). Yet another dish that I could have very easily eaten a lot more of. A perfectly seared scallop, still soft and briny, and hugged with black masago.

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Pork belly with white beans, fennel, bay, mustard, rye (IG Pic). I heard fennel and my ears perked up. Uh oh. I’m not normally a fennel fan. But however this was made – yes. I am a fennel fan. The pork was meltinly tender, and the beans were a nice contrast.

Main Course time! Salmon and beef were the two main course options, so we got one of each.
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Skirt steak with broccolini and black bean peanut sauce underneath (No IG photo). This was one the only *womp womp* dish on the menu. The black bean and peanut sauce was just too much – the fermented black bean too present, and oddly out of whack with Crimson Sparrow’s normally judicious portioning. The beef was well cooked, but compared to the rest of the menu this seemed, well, just too normal.
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King salmon on a bed of black lentils, with bonito, sweet potato, maitake, sweet fern, and rock chives (IG Photo). Oh, sweet heavens, yes. Yes a thousand times over. The salmon was so wonderfully (minimally) cooked. The crisp maitakes were a nice textural contrast while also acting as a meaty complement.

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And then there was my favorite of amouses – the dessert amouse. Mulled spice anglaise, red currants, pistachios (IG Pic). What a nice surprise! It was a sphere of mulled spice anglaise, which had me wondering how I could recreate this flavor at home. Maybe reduce some mulled cider and mix it with anglaise? J
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Dessert also featured two courses, and Albany John went with the cheese course – a sheepsmilk soft cheese, I believe, with Bonfiglio bread and some honey on the side.
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I went with the sake lees ice cream on top of green tea cake mountains with some preserved fruit. I realized after ordering that I generally don’t care for sake, so this ice cream on its own didn’t quite sing to me, but as it melted, it made a nice sauce for the cakes to sop up. The cakes were a bit dry and dense and seemed intentional to resemble parts of earth. Admirable to look at, that’s for sure.

Each tasting menu is $75, with wine pairings available for $55. They also have brunch on the weekends, and Sunday Supper (a paired down and more casual tasting menu for $45). I can’t wait to return to try brunch and supper.

 

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Yup, super late on this summary. Checked out the Tavern Noodle pop up with Chopsticks Optional and some other friends.

So. The good. It’s cool that there was a pop up shop. Novelty, and it’s likely not coming back.
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Spicy miso ramen was a dud. $10 was a bit much for this, especially since it didn’t taste much like miso, or much of anything. Just kind of a weak veggie/mushroomy broth.
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Pork ramen was tasty, but still a  bit high at $12. Rich and flavorful broth. Noodles were a little too underdone for my tastes. Chopsticks Optional ordered the entire menu.

We had a “large order” meaning, we ordered one of everything, and the expos seemed to have a lot of difficulty in getting it all together for some reason. I’m not sure why. We waited up at the front for a long time while others who ordered after us got their orders. The ramens were ready first, so it was the two baos, soy egg, and spicy radish that took forever to come out, even though they were sending out these orders for people who just ordered say, two ramens and two baos after us. Not the biggest deal in the world, but not a great expo running the helm.

Soy egg was too sweet, spicy radish needed some sugar to help balance the cutting blandness that daikon often has. The spicy radish was probably the most disappointing dish and very poorly executed. Baos were poorly executed (huge chunks of raw ginger in the pork baos). These sides could have been really good, but they just missed a few steps in execution.

Any way, it was a bit of a bummer to have so many misses on the menu, but the pork ramen was definitely solid. If they bring one dish on Peck’s Arcade, I hope it’s the pork ramen.
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And then Chopsticks Optional busted out some Cider Belly dougnuts, and all was right with the world.