Friday, March 27, 2009

Highlight #161: Red cooked pork - Restaurant: Jesse (Shanghai)

For many Shanghainese, Jesse is almost synonymous with "classic home style Shanghainese" cooking. Unlike the much larger and fancier banquet halls, this twelve table spot does not go for glamor or variety, but rather excels in a few signature dishes. Its immense success over the years led to the opening of a number of child restaurants, but each still follows the same formula of limited seating and simple food. The most famous of Jesse's classic dishes is probably "grandma's red cooked pork," a textbook perfect rendition of the genre-defining cooking style.

Here the dish is served glistening in a clay pot. The color is of the most alluring deep dark red, a result of highly caramelized pork fat and what the Chinese call "red sugar" (kinda like brown sugar, but the molasses content imparts a more intense red than brown). If you look carefully, you can see my husband's chopsticks at the ready in the background. He couldn't wait for me finish the photo so he can dig in.

For red cooked pork or hong shao rou, the cut of pork used is as important as the cooking. By that I mean that it requires the most perfectly proportioned belly meat to provide a top layer of chewy skin, a huge cushion of translucent fat, and a comparably thinner layer of lean. Essentially, this dish is more about the treatment of the fat than probably any other part. Very slow cooking renders some of the fat, which combines with the red sugar and dark soy to create that lip sticking sauce. But the fat that remains turns completely soft and white jade-like in appearance and melts in the mouth like the most luxurious candy. (Imagine the melty fat part near the bone of a very tender bbq pork rib and you've pretty much got the mouth feel). My favorite part, however, is the skin. It chews like a savory and sweet gummy bear that makes your lips stick together.

At the bottom of the pot are these soy skin knots. Soften by the fat and soak with all the juices, they taste entirely meaty with a faint nuttiness.

To counter the intense luxuriousness of the red cooked pork, we also ordered a light vegetable medley and this village style chicken soup pot. While what you notice first is a whole chicken in the pot, this pot is more about the soup than the chicken. Just a slow rendering of chicken flavored with some goji berries, the soup illustrates the essence of a free range village chicken, which, unlike what you find at the supermarket, is largely comprised of dark meat, more prized here in China than the white bland stuff.

To illustrate that point, I've taken some meat from near the chicken breast here. I don't think you can really call this white meat.

The famous dessert here (although it's not billed as dessert on the menu) is the adorably nicknamed "soft and tender in the heart." The soft and tender part is a sweet mochi, which is stuffed inside a seeded red jujube. After boiling, the mochi stuffed jujubes are quickly glazed in a hot wok with molten sugar. It comes to the table scorching hot (they don't worry about possible burn liabilities here in China. Diners are responsible for injuries caused by their own lack of common sense or stupidity. What a concept! :)) The key is to eat this slightly cooled, but not too cold so that the sugar cause everything to stick together. It's quite a trick, but one worth mastering for the pleasure.

Every few years I return to Jesse for the same dishes to reinforce my memory of their goodness.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Highlight #160: the home of the original soup buns - Nanxiang Mantou Dian (Shanghai)

No matter how I prepare, I am never quite ready for the amount of people in Shanghai. Once upon a time, when I lived in the even more populous city of Chongqing, having people piled on top of me was normal, but now, I get sick of the pushing and shoving very quickly. This is not to say that everywhere in Shanghai is like that. There are just certain places, the places I generally try to avoid, where the crowd is simply unavoidable. One of these places is the old temple at Yuyuan, where Nanxiang, the famed soup bun place is situated.

Said to be where these delectable things originated, the hundred plus year old place draws lines like you wouldn't believe day in day out in an area already saturated with people (the old temple area is made into a pedestrian street eating destination).
On the first floor, Nanxiang has a takeout window, where most people get their soup dumplings. Next to the hundreds lined up to approach the window are these lucky ones who have already gotten their prize. Imagine the agony of having to wait next to them.
For those too weak to suffer the long line, there are plenty of Nanxiang wannabes nearby, selling everything from the classic soup-filled dumplings to the dramatic "large bao," from which you use a straw to suck out the juice. Truth be told, I personally feel that these are more for the drama than the taste as the soup to dough balance is way off and the dough is made thicker to hold in the juices.
Call me an elitist, but I'd rather pay double the price than to suffer the line. I am sure plenty of others would have done the same, had they know that they can simply head up to the second floor for table service. The service is really not much better up here and one must share the communal tables with lots of people, but still. Going as a party of one has its advantages too. As long as there is a stool, I am in.

As you can see, the bun skin is not as thin here as the more southern style soup buns from Hong Kong or Taiwan, but that's the intention. These are still supposed to taste a bit like the texture of mantou (unfilled buns), which is in the Nanxiang name. What's really great about these is the flavor of the soup inside. If you don't know what pork tastes like, you will not forget after tasting this. It's intensely porky and umami, in the way that pork, the white meat, is not. There is not an overwhelming amount of soup, but just enough to plump up the dough skin and coat the mouth with a thin layer of lard.

As satisfying as they are, I do feel that the long lines everyday may have caused the quality to slip a bit over the years. Or maybe my memory has painted the Nanxiang soup bun of some years ago in rosier colors. Regardless, this is probably still among the best that one can ever eat.

In some ways, I have come to prefer the thinner skinned version sold by Din Tai Feng from Taiwan, which also has a branch in Shanghai. But if I am lucky, I'll get to try another classic version from the famed Wang Jia Sha during my Shanghai stay before declaring that preference affirmatively.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Highlight #159: Going with the flow - snacking in Japan

It's terrible to find out on TV that a FedEx plane crashed on the runway of Narita airport in Tokyo. But I assure you that it's a lot worse to be told in the air that your aircraft is being rerouted to Nagoya because there is a fire on the runway where your plane is supposed to land (they didn't tell us then that the fire was from the FedEx plane). It gets even more crazy when the crew announces that despite your business class arrangement to Shanghai, you will have to go line up at the airport to figure out another way to get there and, get this, there won't be a hotel room waiting for you and even if you find one, they won't pay for it! Hmm... This is probably as bad as it gets.

So what's a girl to do once she fought her way through the crowd, waited patiently in line for a next day ticket to Shanghai (thank goodness), and even got lucky enough to score a room in Nagoya for the night (smoking, but the disparate can't be picky), she goes snacking!

First, I needed a bowl of hot ramen. Nothing like a steaming bowl of noodles to calm the nerves. This no name one room shop was not all that special, but the ramen was competently prepared to al dente and the egg was pleasantly soft in the center.

Content in the stomach, I went searching for sweets. A lack of luck in travel must have brought me luck in finding food. Without looking, I happened upon a traditional mochi shop with the short seasoned sakura mochi on display, which are only made during the cherry blossom (Sakura) season. The uniqueness of this mochi lies in that the rice is not pounded so the grains still glisten as individuals. Also the mochi is covered with a salted and preserved sakura leaf.

One bite convinced me that this is the best mochi I've ever had. The rice, despite not have been pounded, was ultra smooth and just slightly chewy. The rice layer was very well balanced against the creamy and not too sweet bean filling. The best part though was the faint saltiness of the sakura leaf that broke under the teeth like a thin preserved cabbage leaf, meaning that it was not at all mushy and had great texture against the mochi. It was so delightful, I could have eaten many more.

For variety, I also tried the regular mochi adorn with a candied strawberry. This one showed me that this shop simply turns out great mochi, regardless whether it's seasonal or not. This one again beat out all the others I've had (other than the sakura mochi above). Sweet, chewy, but not dense, it was just so wonderful to eat.

The lady serving me spoke very very little English, but assured me that the shop is very old and accomplished. Of that I had no doubt. I just need to do a bit of research on the Japanese name to figure out if I had indeed visited a famed shop.

I got a pretty lousy fifteen dollar airport coupon from NW for my 12 hours in Nagoya. Please tell me where the rest of the thousands of dollars that my firm paid for the business ticket went!!! Anyway, to spend my hard earned coupon wisely, I checked out all the possible sources and settled on the seasonal jelly gift set from Mochi Bun. Beautifully packed, I took the set to Shanghai to share with the husband, who was waiting at the gate when I arrived. Seriously, I can't remember the last time he waited for me at the gate. That was nice.

The sakura jelly was just beautiful and tasted light and refreshing with flecks of preserved leaf bits. I've really enjoyed this flower as dessert idea. Let's just hope I don't have to suffer this way to get some the next time.

Plenty more Chinese food to come in the week to come.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Highlight #158: My J's detox food - Restaurant: Pho Dai Loi 2

Unlike me, who always crave experience of the new and unknown, my J is a creature of habit. Once he finds a good thing, he likes to go back for that familiar comfort. Funny thing is my chosen career path, while providing plenty of challenges of its own, also affords a certain stability, while his life as an entrepreneur takes him across the globe to unfamiliar territories on a regular basis. Maybe that's why when he is back home, he sometimes craves simplicity and a sure thing. And that thing often turns out to be Pho Dai Loi 2.

To tell you the truth, we have never visited #1. Once we happened upon #2 and liked it, J never got curious about the original. From what I hear, we are not missing much. At 2, the atmosphere is that of vinyl and florescent lights. But there is a certain ease to it all, like going somewhere you can just be, whatever form you are in. We always order a big bowl of pho for J and a little one for me, and they always come out almost instantly. We split up the sprouts and greens and get to it without any ceremony. The broth never disappoints with its pleasant saltiness and that umami taste, doubtlessly due to some usage of MSG. Don't be surprised. If you have eaten at Asian restaurants, you have almost certainly had the stuff. In China, these magical white crystals are called the "essence of taste." So how can you do without? I don't think the Chinese have turned dumb or dropped dead because of it. Incidentally, higher amounts of glutamate naturally occurs in tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, and mushrooms, which are all valued in the western world for their flavor enhancing abilities. So you draw the connections here.

Anyway, we go to PDL2 to be comforted and it never fails to do just that.

4186 Buford Hwy. Ste G
Atlanta, GA 30345

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Highlight #157: AWESOME fries - Restaurant: The Hil

I've been having really good luck lately with food. Maybe it's because someone up there knows that I've been working hard, so I am rewarded when I do find the time to venture out for eats. Two Saturdays ago, I camped out on the sofa for twelve hours straight surrounded by loads of paper. When I finished, the sweet husband was at the ready to take me away for a long drive. Where are we going? He didn't say and I didn't care.

Half hour late, we were looking at the warming lights of Serenbe through the misty night air. Many new homes had sprung up since our last visit a couple of years ago. We drove for a bit to take in the modern day Pleasantville-ish setup. Then we came to a stop in front the brownstone house at a street corner, J said "let's eat here." And I was happy that he picked.

The inside was as warm as we thought it'd be. A hostess, comfortably sitting in the foyer, looking like she was at home, greet us so warmly, I thought she might have been expecting us. Into the dinning room we went and spotted this chocolate cake starring down the diners in the middle of the room (you may have to click on the photo to see it). "It's to let you know what's to come," said our waitress. J immediately smiled and declared "we are going to have that"! It's hard not to love a man who always endorses everything I want or haven't even realized that I want.

Of course, before that, we must have some proper eats. J couldn't help but fall for the highly recommended roasted chicken. It came on a very reasonably sized plate, almost a dainty woman's touch. As advertised, it was juicy and salted just right. J made sure that I had my fill of mashed potatoes. I ordered the pizza, which had a satisfying crust and was of a size to make it a great value. But it's not the best I've had.

But the fries you see at the top of this page really may the best I've had in recent memory. It had a strongly crunchy outer layer almost like no other I've tried. One wouldn't have expected that looking at the fairly neutral color, but, boy, was it crunchy. Despite that though, the inside was not so cooked through to turn dry. It was still creamy, very creamy. The best combo. Really. I had to ask our waitress what the secret was and the only thing she would tell me is that it took three days to make and involved pre-frying and freezing. Interesting.

After stuffing ourselves with pizza, chicken, mashed potatoes, and fries, we moved on to, what else, but the cake that had been looking at us the whole time. With so much anticipation, it's almost too hard not to be let down. But WE WEREN'T! This cake was literally as heavy as a brick. So dense, yet it didn't taste sickly rich. Instead, it tasted like very very smooth chocolate. Not too dark, and without milk. It was beautiful. Just simply beautiful.

I couldn't have ended my long day in a better way. Despite my lack of sleep, we went home to watch a movie and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Of course, the next day, my long day routine resumed, but it was all put in perspective by this great outing.

The Hil, a restaurant at Serenbe
9110 Selborne Lane
Palmetto, Georgia 30268

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Highlight #156: First crawfish boil of the season!

There was not a single ray of sunlight, it was too cold and wet to hang out outside, and I was too tired of having worked 7 hours by noon on a Saturday, but was I going to turn down the season's first crawfish boil? HELL NO!
Despite being busy with two little ones, C can't help but let her Louisiana instincts take over when the crawfish are fat enough to boil. She threw the most fun and casual boiling event, even when they newspaper had to be laid out inside the kitchen. These were still quite a bit smaller than the chubby ones she boiled up last year later in the season, but they were still plenty tasty. I peeled and sucked until my fingers and mouth hurt and my belly stuck out. Unlike with most other food, I can't stop eating these! I already can't wait for the next round later in the spring.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Highlight #155: Looking much better upskirt - Restaurant: Fritti

We visit Fritti more than any other restaurant in Atlanta. It's our neighborhood go to place when we don't feel like eating in and don't want to think up anything new to try. The pizzas have always been satisfying if not brilliant, the atmosphere always pleasant, and the list of wines by the glass definitely hit the spot.

A couple of weeks ago, I took some friends there on a casual weeknight and found something very different - the pizzas crust had gone through a major makeover. Even from the top, I was already able to see some changes. The edge of the pie looked thicker and doughier. When I took my knife to test the center, a former problem area where under cooking often occurs, I knew something was definitely different, my knife actually encountered something slightly crunchy under the cheese.

A peek up skirt confirmed my suspicion, the crust at Fritti had been reworked. Previously, the above shot would have revealed a more pale bottom that curves from the weight of the ingredients on top. Now, there are these awesome charred bubbles. With expectation raised significantly, we chewed our pie slowly. If you haven't been to Fritti recently, you need to go and try this, because I don't remember eating another pie crust quite like this in Atlanta. Of course, I never got the invite to try the famous Verrazano pies at his house that many other bloggers have raved about, but I can tell you that the toothsome feeling of this crust reminded me very much of the pie I had at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix (You can see my post on that here. Bianco is hailed by many as the best in the country, although I don't give the "best" type claims all that much weight. It's a good pie).

So what makes this crust special? The magic, for me, lies in the balance of char and chew. The slightly thicker crust allowed for a good bubbly char on the bottom and parts of the edge and still afforded chewy innards that are cooked through to the very center of the pie. The dough tasted pure, without any fancy seasoning.

Since we go often, I asked our waiter about the change in the pie and he told me that they've got a new pizza man in the back, who actually came out to greet us with limoncello in hand after dinner. We talked very little since I spoke no Italian and he spoke little English. But my friends who are more well versed in his tongue found out that he just came from Naples and is really excited to be making pies in Atlanta. Even without understanding, I got his excitement and the limoncello was a good touch.

So don't take my word for it, go try the pies and see what you think. Although I do have to note that the fried calamari, which I already liked here came out smelling just a little like it had been fried in oil that is a tad old that night.

309 N Highland Ave NE
Atlanta, GA 30307
(404) 880-9559

Monday, March 09, 2009

Highlight #154: the momofuku way of eating greens

David Chang's Momofuku ssam bar is my favorite place in New York for group celebrations. Any time the party grows beyond eight people, a bo ssam feast becomes very feasible and rather affordable. As long as one remembers to call ahead and order the $200 whole pork butt slowly roasted to tender perfection, a table will be waiting with the appropriate Korean fixings for making bo ssam lettuce wraps when your friends arrive. In a restaurant that is otherwise packed every night, this advanced planning is a wonderful thing. (photos of the bo ssam from my J's birthday last year can be found here. Look for the giant meat thing towards the end of the post surrounded by tongs, which are provided to allow all the hungry people to pull off their own portions for the lettuce wrap. That primal act of tearing meat alone is fun enough for a celebration.)

While the bo ssam is undoubted sublime, my favorite taste at momofuku is actually the humble roasted brussels sprouts. Not generally ranking very high in most people's desirable vegetable list, this version from momofuku is a mind changer. First, the sprouts are roasted at high heat to a state that almost looks burnt. This ensures a smoky and caramelized flavor that is rather addictive. Second, the sprouts are tossed with a rather unique dressing. Neither American or of any specific Asian origin, the fish sauce, sugar, mint, and cilantro combination sounds odd, but really works. For extra crunch, momofuku serves this with puffed rice on top. But at home, I often make do with fried onion bits. Although, the puff rice version is also not impossible to reproduce using puff rice cereal per the following recipe from SeriousEats. Try it and you may become as addicted to it as we are.

Momofuku Brussels Sprouts (recipe copied from

- serves 8 as a side dish -


For Brussels sprouts
2 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved lengthwise
3 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

For dressing
1/4 cup Asian fish sauce (preferably Tiparos brand)
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar (I have also tried honey and brown sugar, which worked great)
3 tablespoons finely chopped mint
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro stems
1 garlic clove, minced
1 (1 1/2-inch) fresh red Thai chile, thinly sliced crosswise, including seeds. (I used dried and halved the amount.)

For puffed rice (optional)
1/2 cup crisp rice cereal such as Rice Krispies
1/4 teaspoon canola oil
1/4 teaspoon shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven-spice blend)


1. Preheat oven to 450°F (I only turn up to 400, finding that the higher temperature renders the sprouts too soft) with a rack in the upper third of the oven. Trim and halve the Brussels sprouts, toss with oil, and roast, cut side down on baking sheet, for 20-35 minutes (I only roast for 20 as the burnt becomes too severe after that), depending on size and desired taste. They should brown but remain somewhat firm.

2. Meanwhile, stir together the ingredients for the dressing in a small bowl.

3. If making puffed rice, cook ingredients together in a small skillet until toasted and slightly browned.

4. When sprouts are done, transfer to a serving bowl and add just enough dressing to coat. Top with more chopped mint or cilantro, and puffed rice if using.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Highlight #153: Beautiful blog luck and celebratory eats - Restaurant: Market

It's a beautiful thing to wake up and realize that March 5 not only marks the 3rd anniversary of this blog and our six months anniversary of being married, it is also the day that site meter registered 30,000 visitors here. If that's not some extraordinary blog luck, I don't know what is. On such a sunny day, I am feeling grateful and happy. 30,000 visitors over a span of 3 years may seem rather trivial on a high traffic site, but to think that so many have came here and shared a little piece of MY LIFE is rather significant in the existence of this nibbler. So thank you all for making my day and supporting this hobby of mine!

J and I asked for no wedding presents six months ago because I absolutely cannot deal with "stuff" and our condo was already filled, if not over filled, with everything we could ever want. But we couldn't stop people's generosity (luckily most people refrained from the giving of "stuff" or picked out wonderfully indulgent things that we wouldn't otherwise splurge on. Thank you all so much!). Even six month after the wedding, we are still receiving treats, like the great dinner the Ramettas took us to at Market.

First, I still can't believe that Mrs. R, being my age, is the mother of three children and look this good! Time and again, people around me just insist on setting the bar very very high. That aside, I am so glad that the Rs took a night off from the little ones to enjoy some "adult conversation." :)

Before we got into our extra lively conversation, we all noted how "retro" Market looked, from the neon light decor to the sometimes neon-colored food presentations. But our service was definitely not old school. The staff all had a good sense of humor and attended to us closely without hovering.

Our first appetizer was my pick, the truffle pizza. Crusty and light, the dough was on the thin and crunchy side. The truffle smell definitely made a statement, but was not overpowering. We all quite loved this.

The prosciutto salad, however, was a disappointment. As you can see from the photo, the salad was pretty much drowning in a tangy white dressing that was too tart for my taste. My J devoured most of the greens, while the rest of us picked off the prosciutto. I am not saying that he loved the salad, but he was taught well by his mom to always eat lots of greens. :)

The most highly recommended dish, the roasted cod, let me down. While my first taste of the pureed peas and potatoes proved flavorful in their retro presentation, the cod itself was too firm and crusty for my liking. The seasoning was fine, and I didn't mind the neon look. It sort of glowed under the colored lights. What I really missed was the tender and flaky texture.

The other recommended dish, the short ribs, lived up to expectation. Fall apart loose, it was executed as it should. My little bite with mushroom was very satisfying.

The best dish of the night went to husband J's skate, which he picked without assistance. perfectly pan-fried with just a faint crust, it flaked beautifully. But it was the superb sauce that wowed us. I tasted a good quality fish sauce with all its nuances, which was balanced out by a little sweetness and perked up with some nice red pepper flecks. I couldn't help but sticking my fork over to J's plate again and again.

Mr. and Mrs. R are definitely dessert people. While they got the sharing memo, they didn't take it to mean that we don't each order one. :) Of the four we received, the panna cotta won on my score card with its lemony tartness and macerated berries.

The chocolate thing was a bit tiresome and slightly dry.

Mrs. R took to the very light cheesecake that came with some pretty wine jelly. It was certainly the most interesting of the bunch.

My order of banana cake was a failure with very dry crumb. No one ate more than a tiny bite of it. Although the wonderful salted caramel ice cream saved the whole dessert from being shunned.

Overall, the meal was the most enjoyable because of the company and the conversation. The meal itself provided some high points, but also a few let downs. If one navigates well, a very delicious meal is definitely possible.

Market at W Buckhead
3377 Peachtree Rd NE
Atlanta, GA 30326

highlight 152: Even better deal

(image from

Further to yesterday's post, I did a bit of searching of some local restaurant websites and turned up this deal. Sounds pretty good, no?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Highlight #151: No reason to stop eating out

There is no denying that times are tough, but we all still deserve to live a little, especially when restaurants all over town are running lots of specials to try to get us back in the door. So far, I've partaken in the $20 all you can eat mussels with a glass of wine at Dogwood and have heard about great deals at La Grotta, where $20 buys an appetizer, an entree, and a glass of wine on a weeknight, and $12 dollar pasta Sundays at Shaun's. I suspect that if you do a little research on your favorite restaurants, you'd uncover more value meals. So don't completely shun going out this year, let's just try to spend our money a little wiser. Here is to more great eating ahead!

Monday, March 02, 2009

Highlight #150: Mom's idea of casual Friday night dinner for four

So this is my mom's idea of what a casual Friday night dinner looks like for four people. I would have felt better about my nightly two dishes if my mom has been the spend-all-day-cooking housewife. But, no, she has done this through all the years she work full time. Sometimes I wish someone would just set a low bar for me, for once!

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Highlight #149: Wanting a warming bowl of shrimp and grits - Restaurant: JCT Kitchen

When the weather outside looks like this, it's very hard to keep my thoughts from drifting to that terrific bowl of shrimp and grits from JCT Kitchen a few nights ago.

Without the egg, I would have called this one of the best bowls I've had in a very long time. But with the egg pierced and yoke running so seductively into the grits, I am compelled to call this the best bowl for as long as I can remember. Mind you that I am no shrimp and grits connoisseur, but this was truly expectational. Creamy yet still texturally distinct grits doused in plenty of hot butter supported large shrimps also pan fried in hot butter. See a trend here? It's true, butter makes everything better. :) Of course, the icing on the cake was the expertly poached egg. Nothing pacifies quite like a perfectly runny egg. Any thoughts of calories would have ruined this meal, so I just closed my eyes and enjoyed the blissful mouthfuls. It's really pretty easy to do.

JCT Kitchen
1198 Howell Mill Road, Suite 18
Atlanta, GA 30318