Tag Archives: Food

#CatEats: Sampling Alan Wong’s Shanghai menu

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I never turn down any opportunity to eat anything created by Chef Alan Wong.

To be honest, I haven’t had a bad dish at his Honolulu restaurant, still considered one of the best eating establishments in Hawai‘i. Even his tilapia — incidentally, on the menu for Valentine’s Day this year — is top-notch. (So good, in fact, it beat out the highly palatable mahi mahi and opakapaka at a dinner event back in 2009, the majority of guests picked tilapia as their favorite. Yeah, he’s that good.)

So when I got invited to sample the menu for his new restaurant last week, I jumped at the chance.

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Wong, a James Beard award-winning chef and pioneer in the regional cuisine movement, has two Honolulu restaurants — his flagship location on King Street and the more casual The Pineapple Rom at Ala Moana Center. He’s opening his third location in Shanghai this summer — and we were able to sample some of the items slated to be served there.

The new restaurant, aptly called Alan Wong’s Shanghai, will open in the posh, five-star Portman Ritz-Carlton located along the renowned Nan Jing Road in the heart of the historic Puxi neighborhood.

The restaurant is a joint venture by Wong and Tama Food International, a Tokyo-based company that manages restaurants and fast food businesses, sport and resort facilities, and hotels. The sous chef who will be training the kitchen staff — Ryuta Sakuri — spent three months in Honolulu, working alongside Wong to craft the perfect menu for this Shanghai restaurant.

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The staff — including Wong — worked for three months in the test kitchen of Y. Hata & Co., whittling down the menu from about 200 recipes that Wong came up with himself. Every single recipe was videotaped and translated into Mandarin. That’s how serious Wong is about making sure this concept is executed correctly.

“It was more than just working with Chef and his whole team,” said Kevin Zhao, the assistant general manager for the restaurant who also spent three months here working with Wong. “He changed the way we live our lives.”

The dinner last Thursday, called “A Taste of Shanghai,” was sold out in 24 hours.

And since I’m not going to Shanghai anytime soon, I figured this might be my only shot to try the menu.

Here’s a glimpse:

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This was one of my favorite dishes: a fun take on a burger, this dish featured pork-shrimp hash as the “bun,” sandwiching smoked gouda cheese with a clever lup cheong jam, lettuce and a slice of tomato. Hard to eat but worth the effort.

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This “Duck Duck” was a crowd favorite. This well-seasoned duck meatball with a subtle serving of foie gras was steamed in rice paper and served with a tangy yuzu ponzu sauce in a saimin spoon. You gotta eat it all at once — and then you’ll want another. At least I did.

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A gorgeous plate, this panna cotta of sorts featured chilled shrimp, uni, ikura and cauliflower with edible flowers. The heat was provided by a kochi jang Asian pear and served with Tsing Tao beer.

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This beauty was actually an experiment. This is what happens when you deep-fry a lumpia wrapper — it puffs up like a pillow. It’s filled with Scottish smoked salmon and a smoked salmon mousse with capers, red onions and ikura.

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Everyone raved about this dish: Alaskan king crab in rice paper and deep-fried, topped with caviar and a truffle sauce.

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The sauce on this dish was addicting: Keahole lobster in its own yellow curry bisque with foie gras butter, spinach and mushrooms. All it needed was a bowl of white rice.

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I enjoyed this all-natural New York strip steak from Niman Ranch with a black bean sambal shrimp that was unusual and exciting.

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We got this dessert delivered by Wong’s new pastry chef, a young energetic Korean-American from California. This was a lilikoi tart with an Earl Grey kanten, caramel meringue and a brown sugar crisp. It was scrumptious — but you had to eat it quickly. It didn’t hold its shape for very long.

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The final sweet offering: a mint macaroon, an almond butter biscuit, a salted chocolate truffle, and strawberries and cream. No better way to end a perfect dinner. And yes, I got that bowl of rice, too.

So if you’re ever in the Puxi neighborhood in Shanghai — and you’re missing Hawai‘i — hit up Alan Wong’s Shanghai. While the menu will be vastly different from the one in Honolulu, the flavors are still unique Wong.

And it may likely be the best meal you have on vacation.

Alan Wong’s Shanghai, 2nd floor of Shanghai Centre, Portman Ritz Carlton, 1376 Nanjing Road West, Shanghai, China.

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#CatEats: Scratch Kitchen & Bake Shop in Chinatown

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About six months ago, another new brunch spot opened in Chinatown to rave reviews, particularly from my friends who worked in downtown.

In fact, one of them had gone there three times in one week.

So what took me so long?

Good question.

I have no good excuse. It’s not like I’m never downtown, either. It was just one of those restaurants on my to-do list that I never got around to, well, doing.

And that was a big mistake.

Scratch Kitchen & Bake Shop on Smith Street — halfway between two of my favorite Chinatown eateries Char Hung Sut and The Pig & The Lady — is a brunch-focused restaurant with a seasonal menu that features inventive dishes and Southern-inspired comfort food. It’s run by the former chef of Restaurant Epic, Brian Chan, whose parents own Little Village Noodle House nearby. (Another favorite restaurant.)

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Outside the restaurant on Smith Street.

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Inside. We got there early, so there wasn’t much of a crowd.

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Really clever detail here in the decor.

My girlfriend and I wanted to get there early — about 9 a.m. — so we sampled the breakfast offerings, which are only available until 2 p.m.

To be honest, it was hard to pick just one thing to eat.

The stuffed French toast ($10) made with Hawaiian sweetbread, strawberries, Nutella and whipped mascarpone was definitely tempting. (The restaurant only makes about a dozen of them, so you gotta get it while you can.) And then there was the “Milk & Cereal” pancakes ($10), also limited, with seasonal berries and sliced bananas.

But that’s not what we ordered.

No. Instead, we went with our lunch stomachs and ordered from the restaurant’s savory offerings.

And there were a few to chose from, including the creole shrimp and grits with a spicy smoked sausage and red eye gravy and the popular B.L.T. Benny with braised bacon and a truffled hollandaise sauce.

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My girlfriend got the calentado ($12, above), Scratch’s version of a popular homestyle Colombian breakfast dish with rice, beans, potatoes and some kind of beef — usually leftovers from the dinner before.

This calentado, though, was made with a beef short rib braised with cola for 12 hours atop sofrito rice, egg, pico, lime crema, crispy tortilla strips and something called a 142-degree egg. (Clearly not leftovers.)

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I couldn’t resist the smothered biscuit sandwich ($12, above), which came with these tiny smashed potatoes — that are deep-fried, too — that go through a lot of trouble to get this good.

Underneath that glob of chorizo gravy is a buttermilk biscuit with a housemade chorizo patty and a jalapeno-cheddar scramble that was so good, I was actually full — I had eaten breakfast earlier that morning — and I still finished it.

And then this happened.

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The server saw me eye-ing out the pastries. (We were sitting way too close to the bakeshop!) There were platters of chocolate-cranberry scones and bacon chocolate chip cookies. (Yes, I said bacon.)

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Here’s the chocolate-cranberry scone.

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And these are the bacon chocolate chip cookies. I remember them from Restaurant Epic.

We sampled the poached pear muffin topped with a pear streusel and a creamy anglaise (below).

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It was a lot of food — good food — and I was surprised at how much I ate that morning considering this was my second breakfast of the day.

But it was that good.

And just browsing the lunch menu, I could have stayed here for my third meal, too.

Scratch Kitchen & Bake Shop, 1030 Smith St., Chinatown. Hours:8 a.m to 2 p.m. daily. Walk-ins only. Phone: (808) 536-1669.

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#FUUD: Izakaya Torae Torae in McCully

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Back when people still read newspapers, there was a rule for food critics: wait a couple of months before reviewing a new restaurant.

The reason? You want to give new chefs and owners a chance to work out the kinks, tweak their menus, and get into a steady flow. It’s really only fair.

Well, thanks to something called the Internet — specifically, food bloggers and sites like Yelp — restaurants get reviewed almost before they even open. And it’s not uncommon for a new spot to get a buzz during its first few weeks of opening, then fizzle.

That didn’t happen with Izakaya Torae Torae.

This izakaya (Japanese tavern) in McCully opened in February to a lot of online chatter — and it’s still super popular nine months later.

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Inside the izakaya. The sushi bar peeks into the open kitchen, where you can watch your food being prepared.

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The wooden walls are adorned with hip art by Chanel Tanaka. Very different.

Hide Yoshimoto, the popular chef from Doraku Sushi, opened this neighborhood izakaya to rave reviews early on. (It helps when you organize a soft opening for all the social media foodies and bloggers.)

The menu here is extensive, likely part of the appeal. You can find just about whatever you want here, from salads to donburi (rice bowl dishes) to sushi to desserts. (The website calls it a “kitchen sink menu.” I like that!) And it’s obvious Yoshimoto brought along his Asian-fusion flair.

I went with a friend recently who’s been there before — that helps! — and here’s what we ate:

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The gyūtan (cow tongue), or tanshio, is one of my favorite izakaya staples. The salted meat has to be super thin and fried to an almost crisp, and this didn’t disappoint.

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Our server recommended the snow crab and cream corn croquette, a richer, softer version of what people would think of when they hear the word, “croquette.” The white cream filling was creamy — just a hint of Alaskan snow crab, really — and flavorful.

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The pupu-style jidori chicken plate was a surprise. You can get this seasoned with yukari (salt) or curry. I had heard the curry seasoning was a bit intense, so we went with the yukari and it was nicely done. Simple — and great with yaki onigiri (which isn’t on the menu, but ask anyway).

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My girlfriend loveloveloves the hamachi carpaccio, which comes with ponzu sauce and a hint of truffle oil. The fish was crisp, the onions added some crunch. Really a perfect dish.

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Another signature dish is the pork belly kakuni, a slow-braised pork belly from Sunterra Farm simmered in a shoyu sauce and balanced with an ontama and daikon. The fall-off-your-fork pork is packed with flavor. I think I moaned after each bite.

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One of my surprise favorites was this Angry Buta roll. Get this: pork belly and kim chee stuffed in this sushi hand roll. You can’t get better than that!

Some thoughts: You want to make reservations. We did — and though we were the first people in the izakaya, the place filled up quickly. And it was a weekday! And if you don’t get a stall out front — there are only a few and it’s not the easiest to back up onto McCully Street — you can park at Central Pacific Bank for a $2 flat fee.

Trust me, the walk across the street will be well worth the effort.

(CORRECTION: Now that the izakaya has its liquor license, it’s still BYOB, but you have to pay a $20 corkage fee.)

Izakaya Torae Torae, 1111 McCully St., Honolulu, O‘ahu. Hours: 6 p.m. to midnight Wednesday through Monday, closed Tuesday; happy hour 10 p.m. to last call. Phone: (808) 949-5959.

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Let’s get this cookbook funded!

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I’m a big fan of cookbooks.

Oh, a big fan.

While I already foster a very disturbing addiction to books — you should see my collection! — I’ve dedicated a portion of the bookshelves (yes, plural) to cookbooks.

New ones, old ones, the kind you buy as fundraisers for school and churches. I think I have every cookbook published by every hongwanji in the state.

10441092_896400808825_7249436248650005850_n copySo when I heard that my social media pal Nicole LaTorre (@ChefLaTorre), private chef and owner of Hawai‘i Sustainable Chef, was raising funds through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to publish her first-ever cookbook, I got excited. Like, really excited.

LaTorre, who’s self-taught and super passionate, will share more than 50 of her original recipes, from farm-to-table dishes to quickie appetizers to meals great for kids to things like a Malasada Creme Brûlée and Truffled Kalua Pork Grilled Cheese.

Ah, yeah.

“Whether you want an easy recipe or a more challenging project, the goal is to get people excited about creating food at home, with family or friends,” says LaTorre, who grew up in South Jersey. “Food brings people together and I hope people not only enjoy making these dishes, but enjoy making memories with the special people in their lives.”

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The book, which should be out in December, will include some of her resourceful DIY projects like making your own up-cycled produce bags and “mason meals.” And yes, there will be vegan, paleo and gluten-free options for her recipes, too.

Plus, LaTorre will include a list of locations on O‘ahu — more than 25 farms, farmers’ markets and other small businesses — where you can source your ingredients.

It’s a lot of information packed into one cookbook!

“Whether using one local ingredient or six local ingredients, each recipe counts,” she says. “Each local ingredient utilized helps support the local economy and the farmers who work hard to make these food sources available to us. I hope to showcase some new possibilities by emphasizing what we can create, by bringing multiple farmers together all on one plate.”

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So right after I kicked in some cash to fund her project, I asked LaTorre a few questions about her cooking, her cookbook, and what she means by Italian-Hawaiian fusion.

CT: What influenced you to write your own cookbook? I imagine people kept bugging you for recipes! (I get that, too, and I’m not even a chef!)

NLT: It’s always been a goal of mine to publish a book and after a handful of friends asked for recipes I thought it would be a great way to share all my best recipes with others. I realized as a private chef, I can only cook for so many people on any given day. By sharing my recipes with others, they can recreate my recipes any time they want!

CT: What do you enjoy about sharing your recipes?

NLT: Sharing recipes is something that my family has done for many generations. My mom has a recipe box with recipes from my grandmother and my Great-Aunt Mary, who cooked with me as a young girl. Although they are no longer with us, their memories live on through the gifts they left behind.

CT: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your cooking?

I grew up in South Jersey, right outside of Atlantic City. I like to describe my style as Italian Hawaiian fusion because many of my dishes are inspired by a combination of my Italian upbringing and my time spent in Hawaii.

CT: What’s your culinary/food background?

NLT: I’m a self-taught chef. In high school I had a cookie and brownie business. I made $50 a day selling chocolate chip cookies and homemade brownies to my peers every day for 2 1/2 years until the art teacher sent me to in-school suspension. Apparently, it was illegal to sell anything in school and keep the profits. Many teachers supported the “Underground Bake Sale,” but all good things must come to an end.

At the time, I saw a need in the market because students were hungry and the lunch periods were either super early or super late in the day. With no other outlet to purchase snacks of any kind, my business became successful pretty quickly. It was my motivation for going to school. I lost all interest in reading Shakespeare and focusing on topics that didn’t interest me, but felt excited to go to school each day because people loved the baked goods. As soon as I got home from school each day, I’d start baking for the next day’s supply.

There was a lot of gratification in knowing people loved my baked goods and continued to purchase from me day in and day out. I felt really proud.

CT: What happened after high school?

NLT: After high school I worked in restaurants, waitressing and bartending my way through college.
I always observed the plating techniques of the chefs and tried to make my dishes look as visually appealing. I had a boss who used to say, “We eat with our eyes first.”

CT: And then you moved here and started your company in August 2012. Love it?

NLT: For the last two years I’ve cooked for an amazing family every week, cooked for corporate events, other special events and private dinners.

CT: Any last words for my readers, many of whom, hopefully, will buy your cookbook?

NLT: At the end of the day, no one can do it alone. We all need someone. Many of these recipes represent the importance of working together and also define just how much Hawai‘i really brings to the table. A synergy and an appreciation for all those that make these recipes possible, from the farmer, to the fisherman, to the cutting board shaper and the compost company. We all play a part in helping to sustain Hawaii. I hope this book helps create more sustainable chefs.

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To help Nicole LaTorre publish her first cookbook, click here.

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What makes the best fries

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There are some foods you can’t separate.

Peanut butter and jelly. Waffles and fried chicken. And burgers and fries.

I don’t care how full I am, I will order a bag of fries with every burger, period.

The saltiness, the crispiness, the oiliness — fries are the perfect complement to a greasy burger topped with melted cheese and smoky bacon, leafy lettuce and a fresh slice of tomato. You really can’t beat it.

So when Frolic Hawai‘i asked me to blog about my Top 5 favorite fries, I actually had a hard time narrowing it down.

Because it really all depends.

While the basic criteria are simple — texture, temperature, crispiness, taste — the subjectiveness is what muddles the list.

Like nostalgia. Or price. Or when I’m eating these fries. (I’m far less picky about my fried choices when I’ve just come from the beach.)

And then picking just five was heart-wrenchingly difficult.

Truly, there are others that didn’t make my Top 5 list.

Like the crinkle-cut fries topped with Parmesan cheese and truffle oil at Home Bar & Grill. Or the unsalted skinny fries at Kua ‘Aina. Or the Jamaican jerk fries at Ryan’s Grill.

And don’t get me started on fries outside the island. (The fries at In-N-Out Burger [top] — individually cut at the restaurant, cooking in 100 percent vegetable oil, never frozen — are among my all-time favorites.)

So what should we be looking for in the fries?

Here are my criteria: they’ve got to be golden brown, slightly crispy and hot. I like the crunch, though I can deal with a soggy fry if it doesn’t taste like a wad of cooking oil. I’m not a huge fan of steak fries or ones breaded before they’re tossed into a deep fryer. (Remember when Burger King changed their fries? Terrible.) I like them on the skinnier side, fresh is always best, and double-fried makes ‘em better.

And hey, I’m never above a bag from McDonald’s, either!

Got a favorite frites? (I have lots of room on my Favorite Fries list!)

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