When In Roam

Carl Chu's Food & Travel Blog

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Better Apple in the Big Apple

Fall is in full swing in New York, and in the grocery stores here, it means lots of fresh local apples. At the Shop Rite (in Jersey City, actually), I bypassed the Red Deliciouses and Golden Deliciouses that you can buy everywhere, and found a bin of New York-grown “Macoun” apples in the middle of the produce area. I have never seen these before, not even during my undergraduate years Upstate.

Macoun is a muscular Macintosh with the sensibilities of a Fuji. In other words, it is a rather large apple, about fist sized, with a rosy complexion and a blush of green at the top. The flesh of the fruit is firm, with a pale green color, almost white. The flavor is robust and considerably sweeter than any apple I have ever tasted. Unlike the Macintosh, which can be mouth-puckering tart, Macoun has the perfect touch of tartness. And while the texture does not match the lovely crunchiness of a Fuji, it is firm and juicy in every bite—An absolutely adorable apple!

Stuff like finding the Macoun apple makes me miss the east coast, alas only briefly. When the air chills down and the foliage begins changing, nothing says more of the season than the scent of apples wafting through the air. That, to me, is what fall is all about.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Chiu Chow Rice Soup: Chao Zhou Restaurant, Flushing, Queens

I ate many a rice gruel for breakfast growing up. The Chinese call it “xi▪fan” (稀飯), which literally translates into “sloppy rice.” That’s because that’s exactly how it is made. Mother would just boil the leftover rice with some water until the rice grains began breaking down, and the entire slop thickened up. We ate xifan with a variety of preserved meats and vegetables ,including salted fish, fried pork “song” (肉鬆), and pickled mustard tubers. It was not a sumptuous breakfast by any means, but it was a traditional breakfast indeed.

Rarely, however, had I had the chance to eat Chiu Chow-style sloppy rice. A specialty of this eastern Guangdong city (today: Chaozhou; 潮州), the local style of sloppy rice is made by cooking the rice in a savory broth just so briefly, so that the rice grains do not break down, and the broth remains clear and thin. Some people call it “pao▪fan” (泡飯), which literally translates as “soaked rice.”

On the menu at Flushing’s Chao Zhou Restaurant, it is called “rice soup.” Today I ordered the “Rice Soup with Salted Fish and Minced Pork” ($6). It arrived looking like a steamy bowl of chicken broth, but stirring the bottom with my spoon, the rice surfaced to the top like gold dust. The salted fish—pomfret I suppose—had a strong and pungent smell, but that’s what salted fish is supposed to smell like. Combined with minced lean pork, which is mild in flavor, it is a perfect match of opposite flavors.

Is this a rice or soup dish? That’s a debate for the ages. Compared to the xifan that I grew up with, Chiu Chow rice soup is so thin that it eats like a soup. But unlike the Cantonese congee, in which the rice is boiled until the grains nearly dissolve completely, each grain of rice is firm and distinct, just like eating rice. However you categorize it, this slop is packed with sumptuous flavors such that I could look forward to eating it every morning.

Chao Zhou Restaurant is located at 40-52 Main Street, Flushing, Queens.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Meritage: 2003 St. Supéry Élu

On my visit to Napa Valley last summer, I stopped by St. Supéry Winery in Rutherford for the first time. The place immediately impressed me for its graceful and slightly irreverent aura—the apotheosis of the California spirit, in my opinion. The wines, no less, were memorable.

Even though St. Supéry has quite a reputation with their white wines, I took an immense liking for the Élu, the winery's proprietary red wine. It is a so-called “Meritage” wine—a word (from "merit" and "heritage") coined by Napa Valley wineries to mean wines made from Bordeaux type grapes grown in the valley. For reds, they are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and malbec. For whites, sauvignon blanc and semillon.

Like Bordeaux, the proportions of grapes used in a Meritage may vary from year to year, from winery to winery. In some years, some grapes are left out as well. As a result, Meritage wines are as varied as the wineries themselves, and through them you can learn a lot about the winemaker's philosophy—more so than from a varietal wine like merlot or cabernet sauvignon.

The 2001 Élu that I bought last year (67% cabernet sauvignon, 26% merlot, 3% cabernet franc, 4% petit verdot) is a balanced and intense wine with a ripe bouquet and fruity palate. Neither spicy nor effervescent, it is eminently smooth with soft tannins. Even though I would recommend drinking it now, I plan to keep a couple of bottles for five years and see how it will have matured at that time.

I came back to St. Supéry this year to sample the newly released 2003 Élu (75% cabernet sauvignon, 18% merlot, 4% petit verdot, 2% cabernet franc, 1% malbec). I liked this one even more than the 2001. To start, the 2003 has a soft, elegant bouquet that suggests this is something special. Then, in the palate, the wine starts with a nice combination of fruits and nuts, with a little spice piqued by moderate tannins. The hint of oak is neither contrived nor overpowering, and minutes after the initial sip, the palate still bursts with spring fruits of berries and cherries. The 2003 Élu is something to be enjoyed on special occasions. Yet, I wouldn’t rule out just sitting back with it on its own as a self-indulgent splurge. I am saving some bottles of this for ten years.

St. Supéry Winery is on Route 29 in Rutherford, California.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Brandy Ho's, San Francisco

San Francisco has some really unique Chinese restaurants, but don't look for them smack in the middle of Chinatown. Rather, consider looking "outside the box."

Start with Brandy Ho’s, located next to North Beach where the Italian restaurants are. It proclaims itself as a “peasant” Hunan restaurant, but at first glance the menu seems like another tourist trap. There are the predictable standbys of Sweet And Sour Pork and Beef And Broccoli, and it occasionally tries to lead you on with a fancy name like “Hunan Gon-Pou Chicken.” However, if you bother to read the description of that dish, you get the quick sense that it is just another iteration of Kungpao Chicken.

But deeper inside the menu exists an altogether different adventure: “smoked meats” made in-house. Meat-smoking is a Hunan specialty. In Chinese it is called “larou” (waxed meats), which is a method of preserving whole cuts of meat by drying and smoking them thoroughly so that they end up looking like blocks of wax. Almost any kind of meat can be “waxed”: pork, fish, chicken.

I order the "Smoked Ham" lunch special. The meat is sliced thin, and stir-fried with carrots, green peppers, and bamboo shoots. You can choose to have it prepared mild, medium, or extra spicy. I ask for medium, and the dish arrives suitably hot by adding a few dollops of fermented chili paste. The execution of the dish, by using carrots, green peppers, and bamboo shoots, is purely Americanized form. Even the fermented chili paste lacks true authenticity because Hunan peasants would have used fresh or whole chilies instead.

But my Smoked Ham dish also shows unmistakable Chinese characteristics. It is not draped under a heavily sauce, so that the flavors of the ingredients have a chance to stand out. The smoked ham itself is moist and tender, exuding a delightful aroma more pungent than American ham but less cloying than Cantonese charsui pork. Overall, it is a well-balanced, excellent Chinese-American fusion dish.

The lunch special also comes with hot and sour soup, onion pancakes, and pickled Napa cabbage.

Brandy Ho’s is at 217 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, California.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

On On: On the Cake Noodle

In Chinatowns everywhere you can get chow mein, lo mein, stir-fried noodles. But only in Honolulu can you get “cake noodle.”

The name is intriguing: is this a cake or a noodle? Turns out it’s both. Cooked egg noodles are pan-fried with a weight placed on top, so that it comes out looking like a cake. The noodles are fried slowly so that the outsides are brown and crispy, while the center remains firm and al dente. To serve, the cake noodle is cut into square pieces, and then topped with a sauce or some sort of stir-fry.

Invented by Cantonese immigrants who settled in Honolulu, cake noodle closely resembles classic Cantonese chow mein. However, by cutting it into square pieces, cake noodle is somewhat suggestive of American rice cakes, or even instant noodles right out of the package.

At On On Chinese Restaurant in Honolulu, a Cantonese place that claims to be cake noodle’s inventor, I order one with “Minute Chicken.” It is a simple stir-fry of white meat (chicken breast) and “choy sum,” the local word for what we call yu choi on the mainland. What makes it a “minute” is that the meat is cut into small pieces so that it only needs one minute of cooking inside a hot wok.

The dish is a little heavy on the soy sauce, which is the only seasoning I can detect. The cake noodle itself is about a half inch thick, browned nice and crispy on both sides, but cooked too soft to start so that the center does not have much of a bite to it. Oh, well, it’s not high class dining, but the ingenuity in creating the cake noodle, be it a take on chow mein or imitation of American rice cake, makes it an interesting discovery.

On On Chinese Restaurant is located at 1110 Mc Cully Street, Honolulu, Oahu.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Kona Joe Coffee

I didn’t come to Hawaii looking for coffee on this trip, but while grocery shopping for my stay, I came across this brand, Kona Joe Coffee, on sale at the Kaneohe Safeway.

Kona Joe markets its coffee as if it were a wine. “We believe coffee is like wine,” reads the back of the package. “We even grow it like the best vineyards.” As a pioneer in the industry, Kona Joe is one of the first coffee growers to put their coffee bushes on trellises. That is, the bushes are spread out along wires, allowing each plant to receive optimal sunlight. This produces, theoretically at least, more sugars in the beans and therefore more flavors in the coffee.

While Kona Joe is certainly good coffee, I am not sure if it is all that different from other Kona coffees on the market. The medium roast that I bought is mild, nutty, and slightly acidic, with a rich sweet aroma and long smooth finish. The beans are pale and not oily at all--excellent. An 8 ounce package costs $16, which amounts to $32 per pound. That, admittedly, is very expensive for everyday drinking.

Some people think Kona coffee is overrated. The consensus among them is that the flavors are too mild. For me, this is actually the best quality about it. A mild coffee allows you to savor its complex and penetrating flavors, without your tastebuds being overwhelmed by the extra oils, bitterness, and even astringency that come as result of longer roasting. Yeah, I know there is a tendency to believe a darker coffee to be the tastier, but for Kona coffee I prefer medium roast.

To serve Kona coffee, I like adding low fat (not skim) milk. The fat not only neutralizes the acidity, but also enlivens many of the coffee’s subtle characteristics. However, full milk and half-and-half are both too rich for Kona's delicate flavors. And I don’t add sugar, because it also covers up those precious qualities that make Kona coffee such an enjoyment in the morning.

While I generally maintain a "To Each Their Own" attitude toward how people take their coffee, I believe there are optimal ways of serving it. Just as white wines should be chilled and red wines go with steaks, Kona Joe may be right after all: Treat your coffee like you would treat your wine. For mild flavored Kona, buy a medium roast, and don’t instinctively add cream and sugar into every cup.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Trader Vic’s Mai Tai on United Hawaiian Flights

Okay, so it’s not like United installed a Trader Vic’s in the plane’s galley. Rather, they merely loaded his famous mai tai mix onto the beverage cart. But what mighty good mai tai it is. On flights between the mainland and the Islands, you can order one or three of this to get your mood right.

I have always found it difficult to describe a good mai tai. It has the tanginess of lime and the sweetness of orange, with layers upon layers of softness, subtleness, and sensuousness. But I never felt it tasted anything tropical--something you would naturally expect from a drink that instantly conjures up images of palm trees swaying along the white sands of Waikiki.

Wall Street Journal columnist Eric Felten wrote, the mai tai is not native to Oahu but rather Oakland, home of the original Trader Vic’s. The cocktail’s association with the Islands is purely marketing genius. While many people wrongly assume it as a concoction of tropical fruits like mango, pineapple, and papaya, the real culprits are sugar, lime, orange curacao, and an almond flavored syrup called orgeat. A good jigger of dark rum is also key.

I presume it’s the orgeat that had baffled me in the past. The nutty flavor, slightly suggestive of marzipan, and the taste of citrus make for an unusual combination. And indeed, there is nothing tropical about a real mai tai. Almond, a relative of peach, is not a tropical fruit, as are neither lime nor orange. In that regard, mai tai may be more of a quintessential California drink, because all of these these fruits grow abundantly here.

But that’s just academics. The reality is, when you go to Hawaii, you have a mai tai--a sensuous concoction of fruits, nuts, and sugar. Cool, cosmopolitan, a classic.

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