Monday, October 13, 2008

Don't Get the Bird's Nest

It's been brought to my attention that my nascent blog hasn't covered the topic of food yet -- unlike, say, my Facebook status which seems to convey my cravings on an hourly basis. There have been some highs and some lows in the culinary department, so I figured I'd give you a smattering of my experience from the past week.

A few things you should know before I dive into my meals:
  1. ALL types and ethnicities of foods are available in HK. Coming from a dining mecca like New York (anyone up for Indian at 3am?), I was definitely worried it would be "dim sum in the morning, dim sum in the evening, dim sum at suppertime." Au contraire mon frer. (Editor's note: I don't speak a lick of French!) So far, I've had: tagliatelle with ricotta and spinach, a cheeseburger, omelets galore, a club sandwich, pizza, salads and smoothies-- in addition to some yummy Asian food. Also -- and I say this with immense pride -- I haven't had McDonalds once. Haven't even craved it. (Foo, you know I was *dying* to drop to the a-bomb right there!)
  2. 99% of menus are in both Cantonese and English. It's a little disconcerting when, in the local joints, you can read that they offer pig skin, fish balls and cow tongue. Otherwise it's pretty damn helpful.
  3. 98% of wait staff speak English. Those that don't are very resourceful at finding someone who does.
  4. Many stores hang dead animals in their windows in an attempt to lure in hungry patrons. I can't say I was surprised when I saw it here, since NYC's Chinatown does the same thing -- mostly with ducks and chickens. But to see tongues (my guess is of the cow variety) stacked on top of each other five-high and ten-deep and a large snake hanging from the curtain rod, well, let's just say I wasn't running in the door.
Now that THAT's out of the way, here's my all-time Hong Kong culinary highlights and lowlights.


The Flying Pan -- I woke up my second morning here with a Texas-size hankering for an omelet. I'm not really a breakfast person, so this took me by surprise, although mostly I just thought, "Where in the hell do you get an omelet in Hong Kong?" and, better yet, "What kind of gross things (see cow tongue above) will these people put in them?" Feeling 1/3 adventurous and 2/3 ravenous, I went out on my own to find this breakfast unicorn. On my way up the Mid-Levels escalator, what do I spy in the distance but a big sign with a frying pan that says, "The Flying Pan -- Breakfast 24 hours". I still believe this was divine intervention at work. I walked into what is basically a diner plucked out of some college town like Boulder or Ithaca (complete with Obama poster hanging in the window!) There were free newspapers and magazines for diners to read, a menu that offered every kind of breakfast food imaginable (although it was clear eggs are their specialty), the hum of boisterous conversation at tables (just loud enough to be comforting but not so loud as to be annoying) and vintage Red Hot Chili Peppers playing in the background. Anyone remember "Suck My Kiss"?!

That was a week ago and I've been to the Flying Pan 4 times since! I've tried to order different things off the menu, but always get the same -- Spanish omelet with cheddar with OJ, wheat toast, Lyonnaise potatoes, fresh fruit and a bottomless cup of coffee. Breakfast utopia, plain and simple. This week my goal is to get the challah french toast. Baby steps...

Chinese in Causeway Bay -- Our friends Andy and Michelle took us out for a traditional Hong Kong-style Chinese dinner at a place in Causeway Bay. (Causeway Bay makes Times Square feel like a retirement community, so you can imagine how much I love it.) I digress... Andy is Korean-American and has lived in Tokyo and HK for a long time. Michelle is a Hong Kong local who's lived here her entire life. Needless-to-say Vin and I were very excited at the prospect of eating authentic cuisine with locals! First, the restaurant actually has 5 different restaurants all under the same name (which is escaping me) in a 2-block radius. So, even though we made a reservation, we had to go to all the restaurants to see who had room for us.

Obviously Michelle did the ordering. She chose the special, which was a 7-course meal that kicked off with the waiter bringing 2 enormous live crabs to our table. When they say "fresh" they mean it (and can prove it!) Then wave after wave of food started filling up our table. I think that when Marco Polo introduced Italians to noodles, he also pressed upon them the importance of courses. We had:
  • 1st course: salted peanuts and some sort of dried crawfish served in a small dish (the equivalent of olives at a Mediterranean restaurant). "Yay!" I thought. "I like peanuts." Then I watched as Michelle ate the peanuts with chopsticks. Folks, even the most seasoned guilo will find it impossible to eat peanuts with freakin chopsticks. I tried my best before dumping some on my plate straight from the small dish in exasperation. Then I proceeded to sneak them in my mouth using my hands when I thought Michelle and Andy weren't looking.
  • 2nd course: a dish in which half the plate had some form of squid (a long-standing Jess rule is to avoid eating anything with tentacles) and the other half had a stack of bright green "vegetables" which looked like tiny stems of grass with flowers on top that hadn't yet bloomed. Even Michelle hadn't seen them before. Regardless, I'm way more ballsy with fruits and veggies than I am with animals, so I plopped those dandelion stems on my plate and started chowing down. They actually tasted pretty good; had a surprising nuttiness to them.
  • 3rd course: our once-living-but-now-very-dead crabs which were covered in a kind of blackened minced garlic and green onions. I'm not a big crab eater, but these were delicious! (I can hear my dad crying with joy now -- he always said I'd learn to love seafood.) It was so mild and I can't tell you how they prepared this garlic, but it was damn good.
  • 4th course: ribs covered in a smoky, sweet sauce. quite good.
  • 5th course: mantis shrimp. where do I start with this one? Apparently Americans have been getting the shaft in the shrimp department all these years because shrimp in Hong Kong come in a variety of sizes -- as small as rock shrimp or as large as a lobster. I learned this when I remarked on what I thought was an albino lobster in the tank. Andy informed me that it was called a Mantis Shrimp because it looks like a praying mantis. (OK, I so didn't need that picture in my head...and since when are praying mantises the size of lobsters?!) When they brought it out all dissected on the plate, I took a pass. Lame American that I am, I prefer my shrimp bite-sized. For those of you who know my husband and his behavior around shrimp, you can probably guess that he has a much different experience with the Mantis Shrimp.
  • 6th course: noodles -- i don't know what was in them and didn't care. they tasted so damn good.
  • 7th course: sliced fresh watermelon
We opted for dessert at a chain that specializes in mango. Here I learned that "bird's nest" -- something I've seen on every menu since getting here -- is bird saliva, which people here eat by the boatload. To this day, no one has told me how they collect the bird saliva. I'm picturing someone sneaking up on a nest and trying to insert one of those dentist-like suction devices into a bird's beak.

Thai in Stanley -- I ventured to the south side of the island last Thursday and, sparing you all the details which will likely be captured in a different posting, I went into Stanley (China's version of the French Riviera) thinking I'd get some kind of salad. Instead I stumbled upon a Thai place and had the best noodles of my life. They had curry -- not something I normally go for -- and scrambled eggs in them (Jesus, what's with the egg obsession?!) along with lots of veggies. Almost as good as the noodles was the iced tea. Here's a picture of both because this description didn't do it any justice.


Spicy Chicken Vermicelli -- After Vin and I landed in HK , bleary-eyed from our 16-hour flight, drove into town, checked into our temporary apt and unpacked, we were starving. In our raving hunger (okay, MY raving hunger; he tends to be oddly rational when he's hungry) we opted to eat at the diner-looking place right next to our apt. Since everything on the menu was in fish soup (no thank you) we both decided to get the spicy chicken vermicelli. It's so damn spicy that I can't taste anything; I just start coughing and my eyes start watering. I like spicy food -- give me some wasabi and I'm a happy girl, but this was a whole other planet of spicy. Two hours after we left the restaurant my lips were still throbbing, so much so that I kept looking in the mirror to see if they were physically moving. Lesson #1 -- Spicy means spicy.

"Dim Sum" at Maxim's Palace -- I was really looking forward to celebrating our 3rd anniversary at a famous dim sum place that every tour guidebook and accredited news source called "the quintessential Hong Kong dining experience." After making a reservation for 7pm, we showed up to a room that can best be described as a Chinese cruise ship ballroom. It had tall ceilings, enormous gold dragon reliefs jutting out from the wall, tons of banquet-style tables set up (8-tops even for a party of 2) and lighting so bright you'd think you were going to be asked to perform surgery. Managing to brush this off, we were still giddy at the thought of authentic dim sum. Then the first words out of the hostesses mouth before even saying hello were,"No dim sum. Chinese food only." Turns out they only serve dim sum during the day (and apparently get a lot of confused customers so they opt to clear it up right up front). Moving on, we were ushered to a large banquet table and tried to order off the menu...but everything we ordered was intended for parties of 4 or bigger. This meant that an already restricting menu (it had a full page dedicated to bird's nest!) became even narrower when you couldn't get your first, second or even third choice. The final straw was when they brought out all of my food...with Vin's arriving 15 minutes later. Nothing like eating your fancy anniversary dinner solo as the other person watches you! Our friends Andy and Michelle have promised to bring us there for true dim sum (which I didn't realize means Sunday brunch)... as long as we bring them to the Flying Pan.

"Club sandwich" at Union Bar -- This is the one that really pisses me off, so pardon the seething anger as I recount my lunch experience today. I've walked by Union Bar many times and stopped to check out their menu, which seemed to offer standard lunch fare -- salads, sandwiches, burgers, et al. I settled into the bar, dug out my book and decided on the club sandwich, which for the record just said "Club sandwich" on the menu. Imagine my horror when what they put in front of me has roast beef (not turkey!) and seafood salad in it. I mean, if you're going to stray from the traditional club sandwich ingredients, let a sister know! I've never had a club sandwich that consists of: roastbeef, seafood salad, bacon, lettuce, tomato and mayonaisse. I don't mean to sound petty or childish, but I really look forward to my meals here and when something like this happens, it makes me think I should've just gone to the Flying Pan and ordered a freakin Spanish omelet!

So there it is. If you've made it this far through the post, you're either a foodie, bored or an incredibly loyal friend. All are accepted here at DHKH. :)


  1. Foodie, loyal friend AND avoiding work. Triple threat. Thanks for all the great grub details!

  2. Loving the blog - feel like I'm there with you - keep all the info coming. And I'm impressed you finally broke down and ate crabs!

  3. In full disclosure, I wasn't planning to have any of the crab, however Andy noticed and said, "JEssica, is something wrong with the crab? I notice you're not eating it." So I sheepishly took some and ended up really liking it!

    Thanks for the comments! I'm thrilled people are actually reading it!

  4. Here's a foreign food mix up for you. It was one of our first nights in Spain and we were starving. My friends were not so adventurous on the local cuisine yet, so one of my friends ordered a hamburger. He was really looking forward to that first juicy bite, until he got the hamburger, which ended up being a ham burger. Literally a thick slice of ham, grilled on a bun. It was so gross! He tasted it and nearly spit it clear across the room. I hope the next food experience goes better!

  5. PS Laughed out loud at the bird dentist comment.

  6. HA! i def had my burger craving moment! It ended up being okay; not great but not bad either. they have a bunch of burger spots here, though, so i'm planning to check them all out and do my own private taste test!