Thursday, June 16, 2011

Live Fish Da Pai Dong

Growing up in a coastal town meant that my parents and, hence, I fostered an unnatural and unquenchable love of seafood. Some of the greatest memories of my recent trip to China involve being taken out each night and sampling the weird and wonderful sea creatures displayed in the restaurant tanks.

They don't even need fancy signs to attract customers. Their food says it all.
One of my fondest (and only) memory of growing up in Fuzhou was when my dad scoured the markets buying up the city's entire supply of crabs for my poppa's birthday! Yes, we take our seafood very seriously.

It was quite lucky that when we did immigrate, we chose a place equally close to the sea, although I would frequently hear my parents complain about the lack of variety and the local's apparent aversion to shellfish -"You mean they use clams for fishing and not for eating?!" I would often hear them say. 

Frankly, I have to agree with them. I often find myself craving a nice plate of clams or whelks so I was pretty excited when my parents informed us that we were going to Live Fish Da Pai Dong -the country's only Chinese alfresco seafood dining experience. It is modeled on Hong Kong's "Da Pai Dong," a type of open air food stall, and one doesn't bother looking at the menu because all the prices are based on the season and the day's catch. As per Chinese tradition, everything is priced by the pound and a waitress takes us to different tanks where we can choose our food along with how we want them cooked.

Somebody's lobster
My father, deciding what to order

It's as big as my arm!
The kitchen is open till very late (2am late) to suit the hardcore seafood fans while its dining area is furnished with plastic tables and chairs only -because, after all, they're not a furniture store, they do food! And boy do they do it well! 
Their kitchen is so open that it's basically in the ordering area so one can inspect the chef's skills -and by inspect, I mean stare and drool from afar. It took everything in me not to leap across the bench and start digging in.

From this...
...To this: Diamond shell clams -$12/lb
Luckily for me, I did not have to wait long for our food to arrive. I've decided that's the beauty with Chinese cuisine -almost everything is stir fried so one's food arrives without having to wait hours for an oven! We started off with some diamond shell clams in a black bean and chilli sauce. The sauce provides some welcomed heat without overpowering the taste of the clams which were very fresh. 
Whelks -$15/lb
And this is how you eat one
My friends will probably cringe at this next picture, and then make some sort of face when they find out that whelks are actually a delicacy in China (especially Francesca, who used to have a pet sea snail). Whelks are simply cooked in boiling water and served with a simple dipping sauce (usually soy sauce and vinegar) so one can appreciate its natural flavour and they taste pretty good with a nice bottle of beer as accompaniment. These delicious morsels are quite similar to escargot but infinitely better because they provide more bite and don't taste like my garden.

Steamed crab -$25/lb
Another thing revered for its natural taste is crab. My father taught me that the best way to enjoy fresh crab is to cook it in boiling water so you can fully appreciate its natural taste -don't trust restaurants that try to deep fry it or mask it with chilli sauce (although I have to admit, I do enjoy a bit of chilli crab now and then). With such a simple cooking technique, there can be no doubt of its freshness.

Surf clams -$8 each
One particular item that wasn't priced by the pound was the surf clam. They were each steamed with vermicelli and minced garlic and served piping hot. The clams were crunchy and were very nicely offset with the soft, garlicky vermecelli. 

Geoduck -$43/lb
For all you Pokemon lovers, let me set this straight right now: we did not eat the offspring of geodude and psyduck. For those who have never tried this before, geoduck is a species of very large saltwater clam with large trunk-like bits and has quite a rubbery but crunchy texture when cooked. There were quite a few large slices of geoduck which lent their sweet flavour to the rest of the dish -the mushrooms were especially tasty as they had soaked in the geoduck flavour as well as the sauces.

Steamed wrasse -$48/lb

Despite my love of seafood, I have to admit that I'm not really a fish person. I'm just deeply in love with shellfish -perhaps it was the fact that my parents fed me a whole fish everyday when I was a child? Or maybe it's because we've just had fish for dinner every day for about a week? Or maybe none of the fish I've had compare to this particular dish of steamed wrasse?

This was probably the best steamed fish I've had in Auckland. The flesh was incredibly soft and flaky and quite oily without being sickly. Steamed fish at Chinese restaurants are generally done the same way, with some oil, soy sauce and a large heap of ginger and spring onions so it's really the fish that decides the calibre of the dish -the fresher, the better.

Stir-fried rice noodles with beef -$22

Sizzling venison -$28
If you've studied the previous photographs carefully, you would have noticed that there isn't much in the way of carbohydrates -as in, the stuff that actually fills you up. This prompted us to try some of the non-seafood dishes and were quite happy to learn that this seafood dedicated restaurant actually produced some very yummy meat dishes. The stir-fried noodles with bean sprouts and beef was very hearty while the venison (mum's fav) was so tender that it almost melted in my mouth with each bite.

"Liang Ban" Whelk with cucumber -$15/lb
"Liang Ban" literally means "cold mix" in mandarin and is basically like a salad. We ordered the whelk and cucumber salad to finish because we decided that dessert is for the weak. That, and the the fact they don't do desserts here. The whelk and cucumber was tossed (well, drenched) in a sweet vinegar sauce and was full of crunch. It had sharp and strong flavours and was actually a very refreshing end to the meal.

Marquees -the benefit of being outside, but with the comfort of being inside
If you, too, want to experience the freshest seafood Auckland has to offer then come to Live Fish New Zealand at the Auckland Fish Markets on Jellicoe St, Freemans Bay, Auckland CBD, New Zealand. Come with your pockets full though as it is pricey -and leave with your  bellies satisfied =)

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Barolo at the Langham

I started off the day feeling uneasy because, on the way to work, I realised that I had put on my stockings backwards. I kept thinking about it as the day progressed yet did nothing about it because I knew it was going to be a good day. You know why? It was Jason's birthday (31st of May if anyone's interested..) and, for months, I had planned for us to go to Barolo for dinner!

The foyer at the Langham
Status: arrived at work a little overdressed and then at uni where I was also a little overdressed. I reassure myself that it'll be OK once I get to fancy restaurant.

After a slaving away at our literature reviews (poor Jason, he always has to study on his birthday), it was finally time to cast them aside and head up to Barolo in my little Nissan March. I'm just going to take this time to gush about valet parking -it's the best! We just got out of our car and left it trusting that it would still be there when we came back. And it was. Life is good.

We were warmly greeted by the staff and led to some very comfortable corner seats which allowed us to sit closer together while observing the rest of the patrons. The room was scattered with tea lights and the foreign background music did much to set the mood. So far so good. 

Chef Alberto advertising his selezione menu
Being our first visit to Barolo, we opted to try out chef Alberto's personal 'selezione' menu for two which is a five course meal, for $99 per person, including:

• Four entrees
• Two primi piatti
• Two main courses
• A dessert tasting platter and
• A tasting platter of Langhe cheeses

Exciting, I know. What's more exciting is that we don't find out what we're having until it arrives at our table!  

Sparkling wine -$17 per glass
At our waiter's assistance, we started off with two glasses of New Zealand sparkling wine made from Hunter's Sauvignon Blanc. The wine was quite fruity and full bodied and we found that it suited our tastes superbly. 

Pesto, olive oil and freshly baked breads
We were eased into our meal with a variety of freshly baked breads with pesto and olive oil from the table while we waited patiently for our food to arrive. At this point, some very casually dressed people are seated a few tables over and look very out of place. I am extremely glad that Jason and I dressed up for this.

Rabbit terrine, salmon, beef carpaccio and goat cheese tart
After we devour our bread and dip, our very attentive waiter brought over our first course: the four superbly presented entrees. We started off with a pork scented rabbit terrine with grappa, truffle and hazelnut, toasted focaccia and aged balsamic. Might I just add that this was in my top two favourite dishes of the night? The terrine itself was simply delightful and the balsamic complimented it perfectly without being too overpowering. We then turned to the salmon  which was accompanied by grapefruit and watercress salad and drizzled in a Chardonnay vinegar syrup. How fancy -even the salmon hater (Jason, not me) couldn't hate on this one. 

So fancy that their soft drinks are water
Next was the beef carpaccio accompanied by a Parmigiano and garlic crostini and a light lemon dressing which proved to be Jason's favourite. And lastly, a caramelised pear, onion and goat cheese tart, beetroot jelly and microsalad. The pastry crumbled and melted in just the right way while the beetroot jelly was a cute little addition. Failed to see microsalad. Very micro indeed.

"Agnolotti del plin al sugo di arrosto" and "Gnocchi al Basilico, saltati al pomodoro, zafferano e aragosta"
Don't be scared by the names. They are delicious.

aka Pinched agnolotti pasta stuffed with marinated beef and beef jus
After the Antipasti came the Prima Patti -the pasta course. We were lucky enough to try two pasta dishes off the menu and Barolo certainly put their best foot forward. We started with an agnolotti pasta stuffed with beef and covered in a beef jus. We found the filling to be a little grainy, but the beef jus was delicious -sticky and sweet.

aka Basil gnocchi with saffron in a lobster tomato bisque.
This was, hands down, my favourite dish. I had originally been afraid that we would miss out on the lobster gnocchi by choosing the mystery menu, but I was very relieved when the smell of the flavour packed bisque came our way. The hand made gnocchi was soft and chewy and the flavour of the lobster bisque penetrated right through the center-oh the lobster bisque. Mmmmm. This is how all gnocchi should be done. 

By this time, I was feeling quite full and we were only half way through our courses. We take a little rest before our next course comes, wondering what will come next.

Filetto al Blue di Langa and Pancetta brasata alle nocciole
The Secondi consisted of a grilled eye fillet and braised pork belly. The eye fillet came atop a bed of creamy polenta, silverbeet and beef jus. The beef was very soft and the dish very rich.

aka Grilled eye fillet, soft polenta, silverbeet, Blu de Langa, beef jus and Pork belly braised in hazelnut milk, fennels, Jerusalem artichokes, baby radish
After this, we moved on to the braised pork. The crackling became a bit chewy because we had allowed it to cool down while we tended to the beef but the rest of the meat was very soft and came apart quite easily. 

Status update: near bursting. Jason had to eat about 20% of my meal.

From left: TiramisĂș, Plum and apple crumble, Caramel semifreddo, Hazelnut and chocolate mousse, red wine poached pears and Orange scented pannacotta. And a candied nut line. Don't forget the candied nut light.
Despite being near bursting point, we were still looking forward to the next courses. We sat like eager little kids for the dessert platter to arrive and I couldn't wait for the waiter to bring it to our table so I could dig in. Everything was presented beautifully, and it was hard to decide where to start!

Orange scented pannacotta, liquid toffee and candied orange pieces
I'm in love with citrus flavoured things so of course we had to start with the pannacotta. The crunchy toffee was a very welcome addition to the soft, creamy texture and mouthfuls of candied orange provided nice bursts of extra citrus flavour.
Caramel semifreddo, lemon broth and wild berry coulis
I have to admit that I didn't eat very much of this. As well as being very full, I found that the coulis was a bit too tangy for my tastes so I stuck to the semifreddo while Jason worked on it. We try the candied nut line with each of the desserts and find that it's the perfect accompaniment.

Hazelnut and chocolate mousse, red wine poached pears
One of my favourite elements of the dessert platter were the red wine poached pears. They were soft and provided a nice alternative to the very creamy desserts that surrounded them. The chocolate mousse was the equivalent of eating a cloud made of hot chocolate -so light and bubbly with a soft sponge base.

A degustation of six Piedmontese cheeses with mustard fruit and crackers
By this time we were so full that we became a little delirious, giddy and barely had the capacity to form full sentences. An incomprehensible mumble told our waiter that we were ready for the last course -Formaggi (aka cheeses).

And then I realised that the cheeses were the main focus of this course.
"Start from the left and work your way clockwise from the mildest cheese to the strongest" suggested our waiter. The cheeses were all very creamy and I would have asked what each one was called had I been in a state to form proper sentences.

Status update: We have now been at Barolo for 3 hours -we were the first ones to arrive and are now the last ones here. 

"Best meal of my life" -Jason 2011

If you, too, want to have a real eating experience, Barolo can be found in the Langham hotel on 83 Symonds St, Auckland, New Zealand.