Saturday, February 26, 2011

Quest for brunch, part #2: Main Street Deli


Main Street Deli, Langham Hotel, T.S.T., Kowloon
Price: HK $500 or US $60 for two, including booze.
Would we go back? Yes, but on a rainy day.

Despite our overpriced disaster of a meal at the W Hotel, I haven't given up on our quest to find a good brunch spot on The Dark Side.
Earlier this week, I found myself at Main Street Deli at the Langham. (Why is it that, outside Central, hotels have a brunch monopoly?) A friend and I had gone to share a salad before a Hong Kong Arts Festival show at the Cultural Centre. I remembered how much I used to like this place. I also noticed that they had standard diner / deli brunch items: pancakes, French toast, corned beef hash, eggs, even smoked salmon and cream cheese on a bagel.
The only problem with the Main Street Deli is that it's essentially in a basement and sun-less. I know this doesn't bother most locals, who will close the blinds on the most beautiful sunny day, but we like natural light.
We made a deal -- if it was sunny, we'd go somewhere with a terrace, or at least a window. But since it was grey, we went to Main Street Deli.
It was generally a good experience. I like sitting in their big cushy booths (or "car-seats", as we call them here), which are private. You can linger as long as you want with your coffee and newspaper. It's unpretentious and quiet. It's not packed, meaning you don't have to deal with some hostess telling you there won't be a table for two hours.
The food is expensive for what it is -- but the portions are huge and, as we keep reminding ourselves, brunch is still special imported foreign food in Hong Kong. (If we want cheap, we can go Chinese).
Marc got the excellent corned beef sandwich. The meat is warm and tender, and served with mustard on proper rye bread with carraway seed.
I got the French toast, with hesitation. I don't understand the instinct here to fancy everything up by making simple dishes into multi-layered, stacked things with peaches, vanilla, yoghurt, honey and God knows what. Why can't they just dip some French bread into egg, fry and top with maple syrup? (Or stewed apples or berries. That's what I would do at home).
Anyway, it was pretty good. I knew what the description was on the menu and I asked for it. At least they got that basic texture right, and they did bring me maple syrup when requested.
I also knew that the advertised "Canadian bacon" was too good to be true. Real Canadian bacon consists of lean, ham-like slices, lightly crisped on the edges. (Maybe it's called peameal bacon in America?) What I got was plain 'ol supermarket streaky fatty bacon -- but one cannot have everything in life.
The bill for two was about HK $500, or US $64. It included the biggest, freshest orange juice I've had in a long time, plus coffee and two glasses of wine.

* Despite the fact that it's quite close as the crow flies, it's actually a bit of a pain getting from West Kowloon to T.S.T., since there's no direct MTR line. (To take the subway, we'd have to go through Hong Kong Island oddly). There is a mini-bus, but it takes forever.
So we have to take a cab and, of course, T.S.T. traffic is awful on a Saturday and the place is jammed with Mainland tourists.
The whole point of finding a Kowloon brunch place is to stay close to home -- but, given the commuting time, we could have taken the MTR two stops to Central and just about walked up to the F.C.C.

Cecilia Bartoli at the Hong Kong Arts Festival

A voice came over the packed concert hall and said something like, "We are afraid to inform you that Ms. Cecilia Bartoli has a cold and...."
What?
What?! I paid alot of money for these tickets. Oh, please don't let it be some local substitute.
"... will be singing anyway."
Oh, phew. I wonder why they even bothered to announce it?

Cold or not, she was extraordinary.
She sang songs that I -- and probably nobody else in that audience -- had ever heard before, rare arias originally written for the castrati.
Centuries ago, thousands of boys with particularly pure voices were castrated, so they could become singers with the high pitch of a young child (their vocal cords never developed), but the large lung capacity of a full-grown man.
Of course, that cruel practice is not done today -- but what happened to the music?
Bartoli reportedly went to great lengths to study and dig out these works.

The works Bartoli sang are considered some of the most difficult in Baroque music.
She also did it with no microphones (at least that my friend or I could tell) which allowed us to hear every nuance of her voice without the disruption of machinery. You will never get that in a recording. In fact, you don't even get that in most concerts. It was like hearing the opera star in a private small recital.
I don't know how to describe it without resorting to music critic cliche -- her voice poured out like honey. However challenging the music might have been, it seemed entirely natural. There was an unworldly beauty to some parts.
It wasn't the loudest performance -- there was no orchestra and even the lone piano had its top down. But imagine the power she must have to project to a room of more than 2,000 seats set around a circular stage, with some of the audience at her back.

I have to give points to the audience. This sort of performance requires patience and quiet -- and there wasn't a cellphone or whisper or anything to disrupt it.
It was the total opposite of a production of "Mulan" I saw in Guangzhou earlier this year. It wasn't the greatest opera I've ever seen, but it was the loudest. They had the amps turned up so high that when the soprano screeched out her high notes, I felt like I was being blasted out of my seat. Maybe it was drown out the people having conversations, chasing their kids up and down the aisles, etc.

Bartoli didn't pander to Hong Kong. She could very well have sung "Opera's Greatest Hits." But for most of the night, she stood there in a white shirt and black trousers, on a bare stage, and sang something obscure. I was proud of the audience for having appreciated it.
The faster pieces showed off her vocal skill more. But I liked the slower ones, like this one:




She was truly loved. One Hong Kong woman ran up to the stage to give her flowers. There were shouts of "brava!", standing ovations and calls for encores. And even though she was ill, she indulged us.
She ended with a crowdpleaser -- one of those very high, veeeeerry long notes that makes you wonder if Bartoli could have found a second career as a deep sea diver.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Man Asian prize & Ocean Park

Those two topics have nothing to do with each other, except that I wrote about both of them in brief stories recently. Not everything I write gets uploaded onto the IHT/NYT website, particularly "briefs" that appear in the Travel or People columns in the actual paper.
Granted, this isn't my finest journalism, but it's still nice for them to find an online home. So it's good I have Joyceyland.


Photo by Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

International Herald Tribune, Feb 18, 2011.

The shortlist of the Man Asian Literary Prize was announced in Hong Kong this week. The best known of the five finalists was the Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. The judges called his latest novel, ‘‘The Changeling,’’ ‘‘a richly complex work that centers on a tale of brotherhood and loss.’’ The least known was Manu Joseph, an Indian journalist who submitted his first novel, ‘‘Serious Men.’’ The other shortlisted writers were Bi Feiyu of China for ‘‘Three Sisters,’’ Tabish Khair of India for ‘‘The Thing About Thugs,’’ and Yoko Ogawa of Japan for ‘‘Hotel Iris.’’ The $30,000 prize will be presented in Hong Kong on March 17.
-- Joyce Hor-Chung Lau

***

Photo by me.

International Herald Tribune, Feb. 21, 2011

Local animal theme park edges out Disney with new record
HONG KONG -- Ocean Park, a theme park with a focus on animals and environmental conservation, had another milestone as it continued to edge out the Hong Kong branch of the U.S.-based Disney in popularity.
Leung Wai-man became the 100-millionth guest to walk into Ocean Park last Friday when he visited with his wife, two sons and relatives from mainland China. He was greeted by the park’s chairman, Allan Zeman, who gave the Leung family lifetime V.I.P. passes.
According to Bloomberg News, Ocean Park received a record 5.4 million paying visitors in 2010, compared with Hong Kong Disney’s 5.2 million during the same period.
-- Joyce Hor-Chung Lau

Friday, February 18, 2011

Women in the art scene

My, I'm behind on posting my stories. This was a pretty comprehensive report I did for the IHT/NYT arts pages on women in the local art scene. It came out Jan. 20, 2011.



Xiao Lu. Photo courtesy Hong Kong University Press

By JOYCE HOR-CHUNG LAU

HONG KONG — Men dominated the Chinese contemporary art boom that began in the late 1980s and early ’90s. While some women eked out artistic careers, none became the so-called blue chips who broke auction records and became quasi-celebrities. Even the era’s imagery — the military symbolism, Mao figures and giant leering faces — was macho.

Two decades later, as new studies look back on that early underground scene, many are asking when China will be ready to produce a truly iconic female artist.

The closest anyone came in the ’90s was Xiao Lu, whose thinly veiled autobiography called “Dialogue,” after the name of her best-known work, was published recently, in English and Chinese through Hong Kong University Press.

In February 1989, Ms. Xiao, a recent art school graduate, entered the National Art Gallery in Beijing — where a exhibition of avant-garde art had opened only hours earlier — took out a concealed firearm and shot two live bullets into her own entry in the show, an installation that involved phone booths. The performance earned her a brief jail stint and instant fame as a symbol of youthful defiance, particularly since it took place in the months leading up to the student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. The work is now in a Chinese corporate collection, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York has a photographic print.

“Dialogue” could be called China’s first major feminist contemporary work of art. It shows a man and a woman talking to each other in phone booths; between them is a red phone with its receiver dangling off the hook. For years, Ms. Xiao, now 48, left the work unexplained. In her book she writes that it refers to a confrontation she had with an older family friend, a man who had assaulted her when she was a virgin, only to have him hang up on her.

The book also explores the idea of the often dependent role women play in the art scene. Ms. Xiao was known as an “art school princess” because her father was a well-connected art professor. As “Dialogue” became better known, it was often co-credited to Ms. Xiao’s then-boyfriend, Tang Song. She let it go at the time, since she was trying to get him to Australia, where she emigrated after the political turmoil that followed the Tiananmen protests. When she later tried to re-establish the work as her own, she was tagged as a bitter ex-girlfriend.

Change is happening as more women become dealers, gallery owners, curators and experts. All those interviewed for this article, though, made a point of stressing that they chose to exhibit artists based on talent, not sex.

“I don’t show women because they happen to be women,” said Nicole Schoeni, who runs the Schoeni Art Gallery in Hong Kong’s Soho district. “I don’t think any good gallery would.”

“You could say that women artists have a different sensibility,” said Dr. Annie Wong, the doyenne of the Hong Kong art scene. “But the most important issue is the quality of the individual’s work. It’s about technique, education and effort, not whether someone is a man or a woman.”

For some, however, a nuanced perception was key. “Female artists are not different in the way they create works,” said Katie de Tilly, another Hong Kong gallery owner. “But they are different in the way they verbalize it.”

“They are better in tune with their personal experiences in life and able to communicate that as a whole,” she said.

Ms. Schoeni, a leading light on the contemporary art scene here, took over her family’s gallery when she was 23, after the death of her father, Manfred Schoeni, a veteran Chinese art dealer. She talks of a gradual change.

“When dad started working in the 1990s, 95 percent of his represented artists were male,” she said. “It’s better now; but if you looked at a list of top names now, that list would still be male-dominated.

“But maybe young women were not encouraged earlier,” Ms. Schoeni, now 29, added. “And most museums and galleries at the time were run by men.”

Gallery owners like herself also might be more willing to exhibit lesser-known female artists than their male counterparts.

Claire Hsu was 24 when she founded the Asia Art Archive in the Sheung Wan district of Hong Kong. Now 34 and the mother of two, she runs the world’s largest collection of documentation on contemporary Asian art, housed in an airy, high-tech library.

The AAA recently completed a major research project on the roots of contemporary Chinese art, in conjunction with MOMA in New York. “When we looked for artists to interview about the scene in the ’80s, there were very few women,” Ms. Hsu said, and many of those around then have since given up their craft. “The most famous names are still not women.” Nor was she spared stereotyping by the China art world. “I’ve had quite a lot of correspondence sent to ‘Mr. Hsu,”’ she laughed.

One of Ms. Schoeni’s favorite artists is Chen Qing Qing, known for her delicate renderings of Chinese dresses made from hemp and dried flowers. But Ms. Chen’s art isn’t always so classically feminine.

Ms. Schoeni used to accompany her father on art-scouting trips, and remembers visiting Ms. Chen’s studio with him. “Qing Qing was one of the first to do performance art in China. She was,” she said, “the kind of artist who would run around naked covered in blood.” An installation she saw there consisted of a coffin with a tiny door. When Ms. Schoeni peered inside, she remembers seeing a model of Tiananmen Square lined with troops — but each soldier was a tiny gold phallus.

Though her father never represented Ms. Chen, Ms. Schoeni gave her a solo show two years ago at her gallery.

Ms. Schoeni is also known for her ability to spot talent. “I travel regularly to China to visit art academies, which is really exciting,” she said. “Classes are now 50-50 male and female.” It was through an art school connection that she found Fu Yingying, a 20-something from Hebei Province who is showing at the Schoeni gallery through the end of January.

“When I met her, I got such a great sense of freedom,” Ms. Schoeni said. “She’s not burdened by thoughts of marriage or boyfriends. She’s from a generation of women who do what they want.”

The AAA’s artist in residence this year will also be a young woman, Doris Wong, who works in Fotan, a gritty industrial area on Hong Kong’s outskirts.

Ms. Hsu joked that, at one event, Ms. Wong was introduced as the girlfriend of her artist boyfriend. In response, she made a video in which she breaks chairs while surrounded by male colleagues.

Ms. de Tilly, the Hong Kong dealer, represents artists from across the Asia-Pacific. Her gallery, 10 Chancery Lane, is to re-open after a renovation in February with a large-scale installment by Christine Nguyen, a young Vietnamese-American artist whose parents were war refugees.

Over the past year, Ms. de Tilly has also shown Hung Liu, a Chinese-American artist whose works are collected by the Whitney and Metropolitan museums in New York, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

“These women — they’re pretty tough,” said Ms. de Tilly. “Hung Liu’s works explore difficult issues like wartime ‘comfort women’ and the Sichuan earthquake.”

"Sea Level" by Josephine Do. Courtesy of Art Beatus.

Josephine Do, 34, was eight months pregnant with her third child when an exhibition of her latest works opened on Jan. 5 at the well known Art Beatus Gallery in Hong Kong. Like working women everywhere, she showed up anyway.

In Ms. Do’s series, “China Climate,” which runs at Art Beatus through Thursday, chubby-cheeked Chinese babies are painted in an old-fashioned style, cherubic faces glowing with color. But those faces are also distorted and squished into bubbles that float over monochromatic Chinese landscapes.

“When I go to China now, I see such a huge difference in the landscape — how quickly it’s become industrialized and polluted,” said Ms. Do. “The children who live in these landscapes are the ones who are most affected.”

Ms. Do recently published a book of interviews with figures in the Chinese art world from the 1980s till now. “In Beijing, I really had to look for good women artists to interview,” she said. “I wanted a good gender balance in my book, but it was an effort.”

“Many women were no longer full-time artists, or were working as art teachers,” she said. “Women are still expected to look after the kids.”

Dr. Wong, the 80-year-old owner of Art Beatus, joined Ms. Do in making an appearance for the opening of “China Climate.”

Dr. Wong began painting at age 11, later training with masters of the Lingnan School, a style of 20th-century Chinese painting. A longtime promoter of Chinese art, she opened an art foundation in her name in 1996.

Still a working artist, Dr. Wong said she had no particular favorite piece, but pulled out a catalog of a show she had with Unesco on International Women’s Day in 2009.

“Female Boat-Haulers of the Sui Emperor Yang” (1996-97) is a 4.5-meter-long, or almost 15-foot-long, work based loosely on a painting by the Russian artist Ilya Yefimovich Repin of laborers pulling a barge.

Dr. Wong’s version is set amid a classic misty mountainscape. Two dozen women, yoked like cattle, strain to pull the Imperial vessel of a historic tyrant. The figures are rendered like the gentle beauties of traditional Chinese art, only their pretty faces are distorted with pain and anger.

“It was really unequal before,” she said of women in the Chinese art scene. “People say our society is equal now — but is it?”


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Flora, fauna, fora

I just learned a new word. Or, maybe another new word has emerged in English.
"Fora," as in the plural of " forum."
As in, "
...the incessant ragging and slagging in online fora." (That's from a hockey blog. I know nobody else here cares about hockey, except maybe my brother, but I find sports writing to be amusingly colorful).
***
"Flora and fauna" refer to the plant and animal life of a particular area. E.g. "With both kangaroos and rainforest, Australia's flora and fauna is unique in the world."
More generally, "flora and fauna" refers to a particular feel and life of a place.
Which is why I like pairing the phrase with the new-found "fora," meaning forums for the digital age that characterize a particular online community.
***
The fauna indigineous to Joyceyland is dominated by a single species, The Hugo Cat, seen here in his natural habitat, on a cushy armchair, on his favorite silk pillow, covered by a blankie.
The Hugo Cat is a protected species -- so protected, some argue, that he is actually spoiled rotten.

Click on Hugo to make him bigger.

Most of Joyceyland's flora is imported, due to the lack of arable land available in a typical Hong Kong flat. These rare golden Rainer cherries were harvested from a street-side fruit stand in North Point.

Attacked woman journalist -- news that makes me feel ill

You'd figure that after all these years in news, I'd have developed a stronger stomach for horrific stories. Well, I haven't. Sometimes I read stuff that makes my stomach turn.

[Note to my lovely Mom: I highly recommend that you skip this post].

I was walking home from my local mall in West Kowloon with a bag of TASTE groceries. There's a huge TV screen that I never look at, since it mostly shows noisy Canto-pop stars. But today, there was a news program with the logo of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and a pie chart showing a breakdown of male and female journalists. It's rare for local TV to cover these issues.

I went home and checked the news. From The New York Times:
Lara Logan, the CBS News correspondent, was attacked and sexually assaulted by a mob in Cairo on Feb. 11, the day that the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced from power, the network said Tuesday. [Note: She works for "60 Minutes"]

After the mob surrounded her, Ms. Logan “suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers,” the network said in a statement. Ms. Logan is recovering at a hospital in the United States.

The evening of the attack, Ms. Logan, 39, the network’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, was covering the celebrations in Tahrir Square in central Cairo with a camera crew and an unknown number of security staff members. The CBS team was enveloped by “a dangerous element” within the crowd, CBS said, that numbered more than 200 people. That mob separated Ms. Logan from her team and then attacked her.

Actually, I first read it in The Washington Post. What disturbed me is that the paper -- which is usually a good one -- ran a story about a brutal sexual assault in the "Style" section instead of in News with the other Egypt coverage. Why? The victim was a woman, so it must be some sort of light, fashion-y issue? Was it what she was wearing?

Oh, I joke -- darkly. But, apparently, quite a few WaPo readers blame it on the fact that she was blonde and dressed a certain way. (Note #2: She's a 39-year-old mother dressed to work for "60 Minutes.") I was disgusted with the majority of comments, which are so malicious that I can't reprint them here. I don't know what sort of idiot blames a woman for being mass-assaulted by strangers but, yeah... and it wasn't a single comment by one crazy. If you are morbidly curious, click on the above link.

**
All of us consume the news to some extent. And, for many people, it's easy to be cynical about the news and the people who produce it. After all, you flick on your laptop or TV and there it magically is. It's also easy to criticize the news from the comfort of your living room when you're not out there risking your life.

(God knows, I don't do life-threatening work, either. Though I have nothing but respect for those who do in order to get information out to the world).

This makes me incredibly sad. I'm sad when any journalist is hurt in the line of duty. My heart drops when I hear of my distance colleagues who are wounded -- like David Rohde, who was kidnapped by the Taliban, or
Joao Silva, the photographer who lost both his legs.

The fact that this case was a sexual assault against a woman touches me personally, as I'm a woman myself. I have no idea if Egypt is a particularly sexist society -- if sexual assault is common, or if this was a tragic freak occurrence.

Plus, it was so tempting to see the Egypt situation -- warts and all -- as something that would be broadly positive. Mister Bijou was right when he called me out earlier for talking about a "relatively peaceful" event when, actually, many people were killed or hurt.

WaPo's story adds that
an Egyptian photojournalist, Ahmed Mohammed Mahmoud, was shot and killed.

Also, Anderson Cooper of CNN, Christiane Amanpour of ABC and Katie Couric of CBS were harassed or assaulted, though not nearly as seriously. (Punches were thrown, a rock was thrown through a car windshield, etc).

I wonder if more journalists were injured -- those who don't happen to be as famous as the ones listed in the article. Or if other women were assaulted, but who didn't happen to be American journalists and who would never make the headlines.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Nice solution to the journalism "hong bau" problem.

I went to an interview with a local Hong Kong operation.
The lady I interviewed smiled, greeted me warmly and handed me two gold laisee (that's "hong bau") packets and wished me a Happy Chinese New Year. I thanked her and put them in my purse.
I thought in the back of my mind that this could potentially put me in a little bind. In Mainland China, the practice of handing out bribes in exchange for blindly positive and biased coverage is an unfortunate part of life. (I won't repeat the details and my opinions on it now. You can read my earlier post "Chinese Journalists and Laisee.") In the West, this practice is clearly not done by respectable journalists, and is condemned by most companies, including mine.
It is also generally not done in Hong Kong (non-media people here are often shocked when I tell them how common it is north of the border). That said, some trends in Mainland media have been seeping down to Hong Kong.

I say "bind" because Hong Kong is an in-between place. And "laisee" are an in-between issue. In America, either something is a bribe or it's not -- there's no tradition of handing out cash in envelopes. But Hong Kong follows a "laisee tradition" and there's nothing wrong with it per se. Like everyone, I hand out "laisee" as tips to staff or to kids as small gifts, kind of like Halloween candy or Christmas presents.
The question here is: Was the lady just being traditional and polite? Or was she trying to bribe me? What was the amount and the intention?

When the interview was over, I quietly went to a corner to see what was in the laisee. I was hoping it wouldn't be a bribe, because I'd then be in the awkward position of having to give it back.
If it were, I wouldn't march right up to the nice interviewee and say "HERE'S YOUR BRIBE BACK! I'M FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES! HOW DARE YOU BRIBE ME!" After all, not everyone is an expert on media issues and not everyone knows the way things are done internationally. I don't want to insult someone who was simply well-intended.
Instead, I'd slip it to one of the PR girls, and explain that it was against company policy for me to accept it. Or, I'd leave it quietly on the table before I left.

I was relieved that it was just a few coupons to be used at their store. The amount was scant, five HK $10 coupons, so US $6.
It was well under the US $50 limit my company puts on gifts. The price was similar to the small tokens I get as part of my daily work: bottled water or coffee served during an interview, a review copy of a book, an art catalog, promotional calendar, etc.

This company handled the situation well. On one hand, they had observed Chinese tradition. They did the polite thing. If local journalists expect a little token, they got it.
On the other hand, they didn't use Chinese tradition as a thinly veiled excuse to bribe or pressure journalists for better coverage. They left a wiggle room for international (or simply honest) journalists who cannot or will not take bribes. They didn't put us in a situation where we would have to awkwardly try to return it.
In essence, both sides saved face.
* They kept the amount to a comfortable low.
* They didn't hand over cold, hard cash, which would make me feel uncomfortable regardless of how small the amount.
* There was no "wink, wink, nod, nod" agreement that my taking the laisee would result in guaranteed positive coverage, or any coverage at all.

Anyway, I can choose to use the coupons, or not.
They are for a popular, affordable chain that everyone uses, so I might donate them to Mr. Chan, my lovely old doorman, who might find use for them.

Of course, I wish this didn't happen at all. We all have enough work, and enough to worry about, without having to spend time and energy stepping around the tricky etiquette of laisee vs. bribery. But if you're ethnic Chinese like I am, and work in this part of the world, eventually you will have to deal with it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Restaurant Reviews: French bistros

This post is ancient! I think it's originally from when Marc and I were running around SoHo looking for a special French meal so he could celebrate Bastille Day, which was in July. Thank God I'm finally cleaning out my "Drafts" folder.
Forgive me if some of the menu details have changed since this was written. But my general feelings on this trio of French bistros remain the same.
In summary, I put
Cafe de Paris way at the top, followed by Lot 10, with Brasserie Le Fauchon at the bottom.
***
Cafe de Paris, 23-25 Elgin St.
Dinner for two, including a very nice bottle of wine, was HK $1,200 or US $150. (Less alcoholic diners could probably get away for HK $800 for two.)
Would we got back? Yes, for a special occasion.

They got every detail right in terms of Parisian bistro ambiance -- dark wood paneling, mirrors, wicker bistro chairs, black and white checkered floor. Even the soundtrack was of old French songs that Marc remembered from his childhood. The service was friendly, gracious and knowledgeable. (We could ask for "escargot" and "entrecote" in French, without having to point at the menu).
The frog legs were really good -- well presented and tasty. Marc said they reminded him of the ones his mom used to make, which is about the highest complement you can get from a French guy. The escargot were fine (really, just an excuse to eat garlic-parsley butter). My chevre salad was not quite the frisee au lardons I was looking for, but it was OK.
The steak frites was authentic. Marc had minor gripes -- the bread wasn't quite Robuchon-quality, and some of the desserts were not strictly French -- but it was 90% spot-on.
It cost us about HK $600 a head. That said, we shared a bottle of 2004 St-Julian, which ate up alot of the bill. Two normal glasses of house wine would have made it more reasonable.
***
Lot 10, Gough St.
Similar to Cafe de Paris at about HK $500-$600 a head but, frankly, our party of six had a rather indecent amount of wine before moving onto the liquor. Someday I may return for a more sober price assessment. Non-boozers could probably eat for half that.
Would be go back? Maybe.

Lot 10 is one of those tiny places with a private-dining-ish feel. People RAVE about this place. We thought it was OK. The only really stand-out dish for me was an appetizer of salted cod on mini toasts, which had a surprising tomato-y bite. Also the potatoes cooked in duck fat are a good side.
The rest was, well, it's what you can get at any sidewalk bistro in any Francophone city. Sure, it was authentic -- and maybe that in and of itself makes it a stand-out in Hong Kong -- but it didn't show any great skill either.
The frog legs were fine (not as good as Cafe de Paris).
The starters we shared were pleasant for sitting outside on a warm night -- but not hard to prepare: Bayonne ham (slice and put on plate) and artichoke (trim leaves and boil). I used to make these artichokes, with a side of melted salted butter, when I was a student in Montreal.
What else did we have? Some sort of grilled meat. Cold rabbit terrine that very well could have come from a jar. (The homemade rabbit terrine we had in Quebec City was miles better). Bread basket. Plate with three salads (carrot, beetroot and celeriac -- which you can get from any French supermarket).
The bill came to about HK $600 a person. But, again, this was with a higher-than-normal amount of alcohol consumption.
***
Brasserie Le Fauchon, 45 Elgin St.
Honestly, I can't remember the price.
Would we go back? It was OK, but probably not, given the other choices in SoHo.

We were disappointed to see all sorts of non-French foods, like Caesar salad and risotto, on the menu. It's trading on some glamorous "French" name, while not being really authentic. One has the uncomfortable feeling that they're trying to fool Hong Kong locals, or maybe Chinese tourists, who don't know real French food. I have nothing against Caesar salad (which originated either in Mexico or Las Vegas) or risotto (which is Italian). But if that's what they're going to serve, then they should just call themselves a casual Western eatery.
***
Guess where this was from?

Voila! The perfect bistro platter -- assorted homemade pates, salads, pickled vegetables, farm cheeses, smoked Atlantic salmon and good bread. Note the pink stuff in the foreground: meaty rabbit rillettes that did NOT come from a jar. This is what simple, home-styled French food should look like -- perfect for sharing on a summer evening. And very reasonable priced compared to expensive Hong Kong. Too bad we had to go all the way to Quebec City for it. (I took the photo at Le Lapin Saute, a small restaurant there).
I'd love to see a Hong Kong French restaurant do this -- great-quality food without the pretension.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

On Egypt...

Who was it who said that much misery in the world was caused by old men clinging to power?

Someone close to me (perhaps intimated by the incredible amount of coverage we've done in the IHT/NYT) asked me to sum this complex story up for them.
Middle East politics is not exactly my specialty -- so please don't take this as expert opinion, and certainly not as journalism. But here it is, in my eyes, in a nutshell.

Hundreds of thousands of people marched to ask a president to step down. These were not radicals -- they were families, workers, teachers and students with mostly reasonable demands.
There was some violence, but it was largely peaceful given the size and length of the demonstrations (2.5 weeks) and the usual choas in the Middle East.
On Thursday night, they gathered, waiting for what they thought would be the end of it all. Even the military had said they would give into public demands.
Protesters interviewed said things like, "I can't wait for this to be over so I can go back to my job / wife/ kids / hometown". They seemed like normal people who wanted some justice before returning to their daily lives.
Then the president -- now aged 82, who has held onto power for 30 years -- said no.
"Leave! Leave! Leave!" the crowd chanted. But the old man seemed to hang on.
This was worrying. Would that "no" be enough to tip this precarious situation into the usual violence and bloodshed?

Now, I've just read that he has stepped down. He finally let go, to give his country a stab at stability. From reports I've heard, Egyptians are mostly relieved -- some jubilantly, some with reservation.
What will happen next? Military rule? Free elections? A good or bad ending? I don't know. Nobody ever knows what's going to happen in the news -- that's what makes working in news so frustrating and interesting at the same time.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Restaurant Review: Peking Garden

Peking Garden, various locations, including Alexandra House, Central; Pacific Place, Admiralty and Tsim Sha Tsui.

Lunch for two, about HK $500 or HK $250 per head. (US $60-65 for two, or US $30 per head).

Dinner for two with a glass of wine, about HK $800 or HK $400 per head. (US $100 for two, or US $50 per head).

Would we go back? Only if I have out-of-town visitors or colleagues I need to entertain. But probably not for my own personal enjoyment or with my family.

***

Peking Garden is one of those legendary restaurants that have been around for decades.

By coincidence, I'd eaten here three times in the last few months.

The first was a big group meal at Alexandra House -- Peking Garden is great for parties, particularly with visitors. They make a big deal of letting you break open the beggar's chicken with a hammer. They have Peking duck carvings and hand-pulled noodle making demonstrations. The visitors took lots of photos, and I really enjoyed myself. Also, a big group allows you to try a wide variety of dishes.


The second meal, also at Alexandra House, was only so-so, because it was just me and Marc. (At the very last minute, we were stood up by a guest we had invited). Take away all the fun group-dining / touristy stuff and the food is only OK, at least for those of us used to good Chinese food in Hong Kong. The garlic crispy chicken is nice, but you can get that anywhere. The dumplings had rather thick skins, which I don't like. We also had stir-fried greens (baby snow pea sprouts are in season -- order them off the menu) and rice. But hey -- I can have that meal for half the price elsewhere.


My third meal was with a media colleague at the Pacific Place branch. Funny enough, my host ordered exactly the same foods that we chose before -- garlic crispy chicken, steamed dumplings, stir-fried greens. The only difference is that we also had a corn soup. One thing Peking Garden gets right is consistency (that goes for all the Maxim's Group Chinese restaurants). If you're stuck in PP for a work lunch, this is a fine choice with comfortable interiors, quiet environment, reliable food and good service. Practical, but unspectacular.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Restaurant Review: Ginza Bairin

Ginza Bairin, International Finance Centre, Central.
We had dinner for five with no booze (OK, one beer). It came to HK $950, or HK $190 a head. (That's US $120 for five people, or US $24 a head.)
Are we going back? Yes.

This bustling restaurant in one of Hong Kong's Towers of Power specializes in
tonkatsu, or Japanese deep-fried pork. It's part of an ancient restaurant group from Ginza, Japan (so it's not one of those local copy-cat chains that just uses a Japanese name).
If you're vegetarian, or don't like deep-fried things, forget it. I deviated by having the Japanese deep-fried fish, but everyone else had the house specialty.
Ginza Bairin have perfected the art of flash-frying, so that the coating is crisp, light and airy, and not oily. Meals come with miso soup, pickles, green tea and all-you-can-eat rice and shredded cabbage salad. (Guys walk around with tubs of rice and salad for refills).
Portions are generous and the presentation is simple. There are three sauces on the table -- soy , sweet sauce for pork and peanut dressing for the salad -- and that's it. We loved it. I had three helpings of salad.
Ginza Bairin was recommended by my brother Will, and it was an excellent choice. It's not fine dining, but perfect for a family meal. It has tasty food, big portions and was good value, especially since it's in a Central high-rise.
A note on the service: They get extra points for accommodating Will's newborn daughter (even storing her trolley for us) and letting us sit there quite a long time (as we all took turns carrying the baby outside between courses). Even though it was busy and packed, the staff were gracious to my parents, patient with the infant, and didn't try to hurry us out.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Boutique hotel brunch: W can't make an omelet

Photo by Wing, via Wikipedia.

For some reason, I've squirreled away many half-written restaurant reviews in my "drafts" folder. So expect a bunch of them in the next few weeks. Here's one on my eternal failed quest to find a decent brunch in my neighborhood of Olympic / West Kowloon.

The Kitchen, W Hotel, Kowloon Station
Brunch for two: An astounding HK $1,200, or US $150. And we stiffed them on the tip.
Are we going back? Nope.

There's a disease spreading in restaurants -- all hardware, no software. Like the Chinese restaurant I took my parents to at Hyatt on the Bund in Shanghai. It was gorgeous, with live cooking stations and a wood-fired Peking duck oven. But we sent back the rice (so hard and stale it was inedible) and tea (for RMB 35 per person, they can get the leaves right). If you screw up the two basic elements of Chinese food, it doesn't matter how fancy your decor is.

And if you're advertised as a Western brunch place and can't produce an omelet, it doesn't matter how fashionable you are -- and that, in a sentence, is The Kitchen at W.

W is very pretty, filled with chic people, attractive staff and artsy decor. We were seated on a comfy couch next to The Kitchen's floor-to-ceiling windows and lounged there with our free South China Morning Post.

The a la carte menu was far too fancy and heavy for us. All we want at noon on Sunday are eggs, coffee, pancakes, etc.

"Don't you have brunchy-breakfasty foods?" I asked the waiter.
He said there was only one breakfast dish -- an expensive steak and eggs I didn't want.
"But I called specifically and they said there was brunch."
He said there was an brunch buffet, but in another place. Did we want to see it?
Did he mean a totally separate restaurant? we asked.
Yes, he said.
Marc the Metrosexual rolled his eyes, but we picked up our coats and bags and went.
Nope, the waiter was wrong. It wasn't another restaurant. It was simply the adjoining room. So we went back to our original table and ordered the buffet.

The buffet is gorgeously designed -- a big open kitchen with copper pans hanging in the background and cute touches, like fresh juice in individual glass bottles.

I asked the Egg Man for a mushroom omelet.
I could see it was a disaster. It had stuck the bottom of the pan so badly he couldn't possibly flip it. He dumped it in the garbage.
"Can I just bring you an omelet later?" he said.
"No thanks," I said. Like any home cook, I know that an omelet is very fast.
I picked at some baby cherry tomatoes in vinaigrette with my fingers and waited.
Egg Man abandoned the first burner and frying pan. He took a second frying pan and went to wash it in some water. Oh no. The last thing you want is a wet pan -- the oil will splatter and the eggs will steam before they fry.
"Maybe dry the water out and add a little more oil," I said, trying to sound helpful. "That'll keep it from sticking."
So he poured a huge glug of oil. (W have well-seasoned, heavy cast-iron pans, so extra oil isn't necessary -- but it's an easy trick for a beginner).
He started stirring the egg mixture way too vigorously. It was clear that the bottom wouldn't set if he kept fussing with it. It would just turn into scrambled eggs.
He knew it, too. He picked the pan off the fire, held it close to his face and stared at it, as if he had never witnessed eggs cooking before.
"Wei!" he shouted to a colleague. "Mm deem." (Which is Cantonese for "not working!")
It wasn't that he was overworked. I was the only customer at the egg station. I was tempted to leap over the little barrier and make the omelet myself.
He tried to throw Failed Omelet #2 into the garbage and I stopped him.
"It's fine," I lied. "I like scrambled eggs."
Actually, I was just hungry and unwilling to hedge my bets on Omelet Attempt #3.
The "scrambled eggs" were so oily, they were shiny.

Back at the table, I told Marc of my egg adventure. He pointed to his pre-made Eggs Benedict, which he likened to "a golf ball." His bacon was as stiff as cardboard. His cut of Sunday roast was fatty and grisly. His potato gratin was undercooked. (Hint to W: parboil the potato slices first.)

The manager must have overheard us and so he rushed over to ask if everything was OK. They do get a point for attentive service. But at these prices, they should be able to produce the same basic breakfast foods that any diner could.

Honestly, we make a better breakfast at home. We go out to brunch for relaxation -- after a long week, it's nice to be pampered, and not have to shop, cook, clean and refill your own coffee.

We lied and said it was fine, since we wanted to be left in peace.

Plus, I didn't want to rag on the poor Egg Man, since it wasn't his fault he was untrained. Hong Kong is ruthless and I didn't want him to lose his job. In these cases, I put the blame squarely on the management's shoulders, not on the hapless staff.
***
The crowd here is more Chinese than at our usual Central brunch places. The place was filled with hipsters more interested in being seen than in food quality. Judging by one customer who kept grilling a waiter on what an Egg Benedict was ("So.... the white stuff on the outside is the white of the egg?") the focus is not Western dishes. Maybe expectations are different. Hong Kongers love buffets because they offer a huge range and huge quantity.

Marc and I are the opposite. We want small portions, but executed well. Because we're light eaters, buffets are a bad deal for us.

I had:
* One plate of scrambled eggs with potatoes and a side salad.
* One plate of fruit and dessert. (Note to W: Your mini doughnuts are cute, but dry).
* 1 coffee and 1 orange juice

You can imagine that I nearly fell out of my designer chair when I saw the bill of HK $1,200. $1,200!
$1,200?!
OK, Marc got the all-the-booze-you-can-drink deal. And it was our fault for not asking the price in advance. We just automatically file "brunch" under the "unthinkably affordable" category. But still... $1,200! (That's US $150 for two).

In more than a decade of splurging on food, I don't think I've ever spent that on brunch in Hong Kong. We have some excellent regular Island-side places -- Classified / The Press Room, Post 97, the Foreign Correspondents Club. I don't think any come close. I will throw into that list Cafe Gray at The Upper House -- another boutique hotel option that has better food and better value.

As for the F.C.C., HK $1,200 would not only pay for full English breakfasts for two, plus drinks -- we could also throw in our monthly private club membership fee as well.

You can go to L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, one of the city's finest French restaurants, and get the celebrity chef's three-course lunch set for HK $390 (US $50) a head, and that includes amuse bouche, plus coffee/tea. Add two modest glasses of wine and service, and it would be about the same price of brunch at W.

Plus, Robuchon invests in training top staff. W's staff can't do what every "cha chaang tang" cook does for a fried-egg sandwich.

We're still looking for a brunch place near West Kowloon. As much as we love our regular Central spots, it's a pain to commute into the city
for one meal.

Next weekend, we're having blueberry pancakes, real Canadian maple syrup and link breakfast sausages -- at home. I think I'll manage to flip them in the pan properly.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Stupid instructions, part 2

Sign from Quebec City: In case you didn't know this was a fire hydrant, here's an unmarked sign of a fire hydrant.

Since Stupid Instructions, Part 1 seemed popular, here's another installment:

I was reading online about how to improve eating habits in the new year.
(I know Chinese New Year doesn't emphasize resolutions and self-improvement the way Regular New Year does, but I still take the opportunity to see how I can better my life.)

One column advised that, within reason, it was good to give into food cravings, since strict dieting can lead to deficiencies. If your body says, "Hey, I'd love a juicy hamburger," it might mean you are low on iron, protein or something else in red meat. (You can always stem that craving with a healthier alternative like a beef stir-fry).

But, since we live in an age where the authorities feel the need to warn us over every stupid little thing, this article added: "Do not follow your cravings if they involve a dangerous substance, like soil or paint chips." Paint chips! So remember, Joyceyland readers, if you feel the need to scratch off peeling-off plaster from your bathroom wall and put it in your mouth, just don't do it.

To add insult to injury, the column took on that peppy, "let's-talk-down-to-idiots" tone that so many advice columns do. "Remember!" it concluded. "Dirt is not a food!"

***
A British blog called The Funny Pages is much more dedicated to collecting stupid instructions, so go there if you want more.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Chinese New Year tradition: Groveling for cash

My, our doormen/doorladies have been awfully nice recently.
The other day, not one but two people -- a doorman and a security guard -- tried to open a door for me.
And the girl who can barely lift her head to say "Good morning" actually got up, walked out the door and accompanied me to the curb to get a cab. With a smile, even.
It's annoying because it's so
insincere. I do appreciate good service, but I hate obsequiousness, and the fact that people think I won't notice the sudden -- and temporary -- boost of courtesy just because it's laisee season.
(For those non-Hong Kong readers, laisee are envelopes filled with money that are given out during Chinese New Year, usually from older relatives to children, and from customers to staff. In a society with little tipping, this is the only "extra" that doormen, cleaning ladies, etc, get all year).
My only exception is the aging Mr. Chan, one of the night doorman. Mr. Chan helps with heavy bags, opens doors and gets cabs
all year round. He is genuinely cheerful even when I get home at midnight on a miserable cold night, and he's been standing there for hours.
In my purse, I have two sets of laisee envelopes, one with a small amount of cash I give as a mere courtesy, and a more generous one for people who really do their jobs all year, like Mr. Chan.

So, Hong Kong readers. How much cash do you give to doorpeople, etc.? How much to younger cousins? Do you give only to relatives you see, or to all younger relatives?
Do you give a CNY bonus to your amahs? If so, how much? Or, if you've already given a Christmas bonus, as we do, do you skip CNY?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Vacation from blogging, and staycation from work


My blogging hiatus -- I posted a record-low two times in January -- was partly planned. I just got so crazy busy with work, family and other things, I had to let something slide.
But now I'm back with a little more free time.
I've decided to take a week off of work for the Chinese New Year holiday, instead of my usual 2-3 days.
In the past -- in my long-gone youth! -- I would have booked a trip out of town immediately, especially since my folks are not in Hong Kong for CNY. But these days, I find myself taking more "staycations", and not only for financial reasons.
Vacations used to be for adventure; now they are for rest. And I can't believe how quickly the time goes.
This is already my fourth day off, and it's zipped by. I went out for brunch -- twice! That must be a record, since I usually work Sundays.
Small things whittle up entire days. Workers came over to do some minor repairs on the house. The Watson's water was delivered. I started going through my pile of neglected bills and papers. (Why did my 3 Mobile autopay suddenly cancel itself? Why?) I restocked my quickly dwindling supply of Clinique products. I did some grocery shopping. And bam! three days have passed.
One day, I took a nap and, when I woke up, it was already time to make dinner.
As for the rest of the week, I've made appointments to get my hair cut (it's reaching Cousin It levels) and my nails done. I've vowed to get back on the wagon in terms of emailing and blogging. My parents are still asking me when I'm going to post Christmas photos. "Soon, soon," I said. Then I turn around and am shocked that it's already February.
My God, it's already Chinese New Year and, on Thursday, I will go up to my father's ancestral village as I do every year. Where does the time go?