Ramen Kan (Sydney, Australia)

Overall: 2.5/5

Sydney was the final leg of our Australian trip. Much like Melbourne, Sydney is a city of many influences. By then, I was tired and feeling weary from being constantly surrounded by fellow tourists and the enterprises shepherding them.

A craving for ramen led us to Ramen Kan, which had favorable reviews online and was relative close to our hotel. The place is obscure; it is located on the second (or third? or fourth?) floor of a curving block of shops and restaurants. An unassuming sign guides you into a narrow hallway. There, you take a slow and cramped elevator to the restaurant (or walk up a few flights of stairs).

Once you get in, I found a worn, but clean dining area with friendly hosts. The windows by the dining counter overlook Sydney’s Paddy’s Market. You order food from the tablets populated throughout the restaurant.

Ramen Kan 1

Spicy Agedashi Tofu

The tofu had a nice crust and was hot underneath. The dash underneath was interesting because it tasted like tonkatsu broth instead of the tentsuyu broth associated with the dish. The dish was spicy, which I attribute to a combination of chili peppers and Sriracha.

Ramen Kan 2

Tan Tan Ramen

Although meant to be spicy, I found the broth in the agedashi tofu to be spicier. The chili oil had little impact. The noodles were well cooked and chewy. The pork was tender and lean, but otherwise unmemorable. The ramen broth was light and only gave off a subtle pork flavor. Personally, I prefer the denser, oilier versions.

Ramen Kan 3

Karaage Ramen

The broth and noodles were the same as the tan tan ramen, except the soup base seem to have been shoyu-based here. Again, I found the broth to be too light for my tastes. The chicken karaage was fine – crispy on the outside with lean meat on the inside. I did find a piece that was mostly gristle that was unappetizing.

Ramen Kan offers recently priced eats at the cost of atmosphere and refinement. I did not check the operating hours, but this seems like the type of place where I would go late at night as a college student and eat a massive portion of oil and carbs before attempting to study some more. At the end of the day, I was slightly disappointed with Ramen Kan, but that’s ok.

Ramen Kan (Sydney, Australia)

Laksa Bar (Melbourne)

Overall: 3/5

Big cities are always full of pleasant surprises for food. After a day of sightseeing, we looked to grab a quick bite close to the hotel. This led to the unassuming Laksa King in an alley nearby. People were waiting for seats, usually a good sign of decent eats.

Laksa 1.jpg

The interior is simple and clean. The moderate din of conversation will require flexing of your vocal cords to make yourself heard. A great place for a quick, casual dinner. The food is moderately priced, with nothing topping over $15 Australian.

Laksa 2.jpg

Crispy Spring Roll with Prawn and Crab

These were an interesting take on spring rolls. The fried wrapper was crispy and flaky. It was closer to fried taro than flour. The mealy filling had some nice snap from the prawns, but I could not taste the crab. These came out a little cold, which made it less appetizing. The chili/sweet-and-sour sauce on the side did not make much of an impact either way.

Laksa 3

Seafood Clear Noodle Soup

You have seen this before: it is the seafood udon you would find in most Japanese restaurants. A generous portion of shrimp, scallops, mussels, squid, tofu, and vegetables with thick udon noodles and a light chicken/seafood broth. Nothing objectionable, but not great either.

Laksa 4

House Curry Laksa with Soft Shell Crab

When in Rome, right? Curry laksa uses coconut milk as the soup base instead of the sour asam variant. An enormous piece of fried soft-shelled crab accompanies bean curd puffs and two types of vermicelli (along with some vegetables and other seafood that I cannot recall). The broth was sweet with very mild heat from the chilis. The had a very thick batter that made it harder to enjoy the meat underneath. My exposure to laksa is limited which makes me a poor judge of authenticity. Still, I liked the dish and would have finished it were it not for the massive serving.

In the end, this is a joint where your dining experience is primarily defined by how you feel afterwards (full and content). Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Laksa Bar (Melbourne)

The Hardware Société (Melbourne, Australia)

Overall: 4/5

One of the charming aspects of Melbourne are the little alleyways that run through downtown. Restaurants, coffee shops, and bars dominate these streets, attracting significant foot traffic during peak times.I have nothing but the utmost sympathy for the poor drivers trying to navigate both the narrow streets and the flood of pedestrians – though masochism is the only reason I can fathom for turning on those streets in the first place. We watched with morbid fascination a garbage truck trying to make a three-point turn on one of these alleys that felt like a scene straight out of Austin Powers.

But, uh, I digress. Hardware Société (what a pain in the butt to type) is a French cafe tucked away in one of the aforementioned alleys (on Hardware Lane, original). Popular with locals and tourists, and well-regarded for its brunch, we arrived early on a Saturday morning to take see for ourselves.

IMG_0338-2.jpg

Note that long lines form quickly after opening, and the compact interior and porch makes the place unwieldy to very large parties.

IMG_0339.jpg

Poached Eggs with Mushrooms

Looks good, right? It tastes like how it looks. The braised shiitake mushrooms were tender and paired well with the goat cheese spread on the bread. These guys had the egg poaching down pat – the yolk oozed out at the slightest touch. The accompanying greens and walnuts did not add much, but were not a distraction.

IMG_0340.jpg

Tuna with Roasted Vegetables and Poached Eggs

This was the special of the day. And, like the dish above, it hit many high marks. Roasted vegetables (potatoes, red bell peppers, asparagus) rested on a bed of microgreens topped with seared tuna, poached eggs, and homemade tartar sauce. Baguette slices were provided to mop up the yolk. Again, tastes like how it looks, though I did not care for the tartar sauce.

IMG_1003.jpg

Nutella Cronut

At the checkout counter, I found these in the display case. Against better judgment, I took one of these back to the hotel, where it didn’t last long before it was consumed. A croissant with a touch more doughiness with Nutella, this is not meant for the faint of heart. Also, the sugar coating was overkill.

Overall, Hardware Société lives up to its sterling reputation. Paired with a young and friendly staff, it is a fine place to fuel up in the mornings.

The Hardware Société (Melbourne, Australia)

Cumulus Inc. (Melbourne, Australia)

Overall: 4/5

Melbourne was the second leg of our vacation in Australia last fall. A travel agent promised us that it was just like San Francisco.  Aside from the sudden shifts the elevation, the resemblance was there in terms of energy and diversity.

Melbourne is also known for its food scene. Touted as “Modern Australian”Cumulus Inc. in downtown Melbourne was at the top of list of the places I wanted to try after hours of searching.

The restaurant sits in a centuries-old rag trade building. Classical and minimal, he dining space is spacious vertically, though the tables are tightly packed. My poor jet-lagged wife graciously tagged along, even though she was ready to pack it in for the night.

The menu is designed to be shared small plates, and unless requested, food arrives in random order.

IMG_0955_Fotor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chilled Green Pea And Sorrel Soup

This was a lot of peas (phrasing, I know). Very bright, sweet, and dense.  The texture was so smooth it almost felt like a custard. The sorrel contributed a slight earthy taste underneath after the initial taste. Commendable execution to extract so much flavor from peas.

IMG_0229_Fotor

Kingfish with Mussel Escabeche

Kingfish is a type of yellowtail amberjack native to Australia and New Zealand. Cured in the briny escabeche, this was sashimi layered over an aioli.  Fish was fresh and buttery smooth. The aioli further emphasized the smoothness, but unnecessary.

IMG_0232_Fotor

Tuna over crushed pea salad

Continuing with the raw fish trend, this was another standout. The dressing on the fish had a touch of vinegar, oil, and soy sauce that complimented well. Also, this place likes peas. Not that I am complaining because they were good. Hard to see from the picture but it was mixed with spring onions to give it some fragrance. A mash-potato like spread, perhaps cream cheese, fanned around the plate.

IMG_0230_Fotor

Soft-Shell Crab Lettuce Wrap

This was one of the most memorable dishes in recent memory. The crab was perfectly prepared. The crunchy crust gave way to memorably tender crab meat. The batter included some pepper powder to give it some heat. The butter lettuce gave a cool contrast. It took some effort not to steal my wife’s portion.

As you can see from the photos, the portion sizes here are not very large.  This is intentional to encourage you to try as many dishes as possible. But, the tab can add up quickly, especially if you add alcohol to the mix.  If you are looking for a hearty, gut-busting meal, you should probably go elsewhere. Otherwise, you can do a lot worse than grabbing a few bites and a drink here next time you happen to end up in Melbourne.

 

 

Cumulus Inc. (Melbourne, Australia)

Mission Chinese Food (San Francisco)

Overall: 4/5

On a recent weekend trip to San Francisco, we took the opportunity to visit the much ballyhooed Mission Chinese Food. Apprehensive of long waits, we took advantage of the online reservation system and booked a table for six at noon on a Saturday.

As we ambled inside, we were greeted with a dim interior that was adorned with an eclectic mix of Chinese-themed paraphernalia, such as paintings of communist generals, or a paper dragon snaking through the ceiling. For good measure, a cutout of Michael Jordan was propped against at a corner of the restaurant.

The place was also empty.

One of the two cheerful waitresses that manned the floor gave us free rein to pick our table. I reflexively told the waitress seating us that we had a reservation, and ended up looking very silly doing so. As it turns out, it was explained to us that the place is actually pretty quiet during the day time. It’s the night-time, when revelers of the night seek to sober up by eating comfort food and sink into drunkenness even further by equal measure, does the place truly come alive.

Yeah, yeah, let’s get to the good stuff you say – I agree,

IMG_0171_Fotor

Tea-Smoked Eel – Fresh rice noodle, chinese celery, salted plum hoisin, braised pork cognac soy

What I noticed right away was the rice noodle. It was indeed fresh – sticky and chewy. The chinese celery was bright and provided very nice contrast in texture. With each bite, different flavor notes asserted itself moment to moment. The cognac-tinged soy, the salt of the pork, the smoked aroma of the eel. Considering that we were literally the first customers of the day, the advanced execution is to be commended.

IMG_0172_Fotor

Mongolian Long Beans ($12) – Xinjiang spices, horseradish, chili oil

The beans were well prepared. The wok heat had wilted and scorched the beans to a nice charred and soft texture. The beans were spicy, and perhaps overly salty from all of the spices. I really could not discern the horseradish, perhaps it was overwhelmed by the spices and chili. Also, it was a huge portion, capable of feeding four or five people.

IMG_0175_Fotor

Chongqing Chicken Wings ($11) – Explosive chili, crispy beef tripe

I had a lot of expectations for the wings, and I was slightly disappointed. The plentiful chili peppers were edible and lived up to the spiciness, but the spiciness was not imparted to the wings. The wings themselves looked to be coated with a five-spice based rub. The skin on the wings were crispy, but the meat inside were a little dry. This may be due to the fact that the wings were not very large. The tripe was deep-fried and were indeed crispy. It still had a slight offal taste to it, but did not do much for the dish either way.

IMG_0173_Fotor

Ma Po Tofu ($11) – Braised shiitake, aged chili paste, Sichuan peppers, scallions

Another solid dish. Everything here is generally on point. The silky tofu, the fragrant spices and scallions. The Sichuan peppers will start giving you the numbing sensation after a few bites. A couple distracting issues, however. Again, the dish was slightly too salty for my taste. Also, I could not identify the braised shiitake. Nevertheless, there was something very inviting and comforting about this dish. None of the issues I mentioned stopped me from eating most of this thing.

IMG_0174_Fotor

Forbidden Fried Rice ($13) – Roasted shiitake, fresh asparagus, egg

For the uninitiated, the “forbidden” part of the dish is actually in reference to the rice. Once reserved for Chinese royalty, forbidden (or black) rice is high in antioxidants and other nutrients. On the downside, it’s not as glutinous as regular white rice and has a more granular texture. The dish appeared to be topped with puffed rice. Again, the taste veered a little bit too salty for me. The only ingredient that asserted itself was the asparagus. Cut into one-inch stalks, the asparagus was indeed fresh and gave the dish some crunchy context. As a vehicle for the Ma Po Tofu and the Mongolian Long Beans, it was terrific. On its own, it was good but not great. But at least the rice is good for you.

Overall, it was a very satisfying meal. The place lives up to the hype with well-executed and comfortable dishes. The heavy touch with the salt had me searching for water for the rest of the day, but hey, that’s why the place serves beer.

Mission Chinese Food (San Francisco)

Bao Down (Vancouver – Gas Town)

Overall: 3.5/5

In the Gastown section of Vancouver is Bao Down. The unassuming storefront is easy to miss, but is located just steps from the Gassy Jack statue. The style of food can be best described as Asian take-out tacos. Instead of the tortillas, the transport vehicle is the bao – a type of steamed bread. At its best, its sweet, sticky, spongy, and dense. Really perfect for fatty meats such as duck or pork belly. Long story short, bao’s been around for a long time, people smarter than me have found creative ways for using bao, and here we are today. So, let’s assess the damage.

BaoDown3_Fotor

The YVR ($6) – Bao with sesame seared albacore tuna, wasabi mayo, baby pea shoots, avocado, sweet soy and double smoked bacon

This was pretty good. The caveat being that I am a sucker for tuna, so things have to get pretty messed up for me to hate this. The flavors that shone through were the bacon, avocado, and the tuna. In fact, the whole thing kind of tasted like a BLT. On the other hand, the dressings were not very noticeable, while the baby pea shoots added some unobjectionable color and some texture. As a general note, the bao itself was sweet and dense, though I would have prefer it to be a little warmer.

BaoDown2_Fotor

Japoyaki Poutine (Large $8) – Fries with curry sauce, cheese, jalapeños, seaweed, and sprouts

This is an example of fusion done right. Everything coalesced nicely here. The crunchy fries were worn down with the cheese and curry sauce, the jalapeños added heat, the seaweed added umami. My cholesterol level would be unsightly if this was more convenient to obtain.

BaoDown5_Fotor

VeVo ($5) – Shitake mushrooms, garlic pea shoots, sprouts, organic red kale, avocado, organic carrot & beet strings, ginger peanut sauce and toasted sesame seeds

This came courtesy of my wife, who does not eat meat. I appreciate places that accommodate people’s diets, but this did not do much for me. The main problem being that baos are just not the ideal vehicle for vegetables. As you bite through the dense bao, what you want is something greasy or crunchy to provide a contrast. This does not happen here. It’s competent, but not something I would go out of my way for.

BaoDown1_Fotor

Jaws ($5) – Coconut crusted catfish, kimchi tartar, microgreens & cabbage in a Thai vinaigrette.

This was pretty good as well. The catfish was crunchy and slightly flaky, though I couldn’t really discern the coconut from the crust. The tartar was tangy (but couldn’t discern the kimchi element, which might have drowned out by the vinaigrette). As you can see from the picture, the veggies were colorful and fresh.

Finally, it’s hard to tell from the pictures, but the baos are not very large in since, about a size of a fist in most instances. It will take about 2-3 bags to feed an average adult. The pricing is fair, but your bill may easily go north of $20 per person if you are really hungry.

Bao Down (Vancouver – Gas Town)

Sitka and Spruce

Overall: 4/5

Located in the back of Melrose market, Sitka and Spruce is part of chef Matt Dillon’s collection of restaurants. We had the chance to go there for brunch recently. The restaurant had high ceilings and a very rustic feel. The peace was limited but felt open at the same time. There was an interesting collection of vinyl records on the back wall.

IMG_0119

We started off with the young lettuces, ash roasted shallot, tarragon & hazelnuts. Nothing really to say except it met all the expectations of a nice salad. The dressing had a nice acidic tang to it and the salad was not overdressed. The shallots and tarragon was fragrant without overpowering. The hazelnuts were crunchy and gave imparted a smoky flavor.

IMG_0121

One of the mains was king boletes, soft scrambled egg, turnip greens & fresh ricotta. The eggs were definitely the star of the dish. Creamy and rich from the ricotta and perhaps butter, the dish was pretty filling. The boletes mushrooms were shaved thinly and raw, which was a little disappointing. Thicker slices and perhaps some char would have been nice.

IMG_0122

The other main was corned goat with roasted potatoes (7/10). Underneath the potato was something that resembled a bacon custard/mayonnaise. As with the other main dish, this was a pretty rich plate, when you think about the heavy condiment at the bottom, the starch, and the goat meat. It tasted like a very fancy corned beef hash. The goat was a bit too dry for my preference.

Overall, the experience at Sitka and Spruce was comfortable, and the food was flavorful and nuanced. Space is limited so do try to go during non-peak times for a better experience.

Sitka and Spruce

Agrodolce (Seattle)

Overall: 3/5

In the heart of the Fremont neighborhood, a few blocks from the bridge troll is Agrodolce, an Italian restaurant specializing in “organic Silician cuisine” from chef Maria Hines. The restaurant is inconspicuous, hidden off to the side on N 35th Street. A cheery and inviting “Fresh Pasta” attracts diners and other passerby.

In the mood for some carbs, we recently swung by for dinner. We started off with the house made foccacia ($3), with nash’s red wheat, olive oil, and sea salt.

IMG_0067

Nothing special here with texture and taste, but the sea salt on top gives the bread some nice flavor. Next is the caramelized broccoli with almonds, chili flakes, anchovy vinaigrette ($10)

IMG_0069

The broccoli had a nice charred flavor. The chili flakes and the vinaigrette gave the dish a nice mix of saltiness, acidic bite, and heat. Next appetizer was the pugliese burrata with marinated kale, citrus, focaccia croutons ($13).

IMG_0070

The burrata was rich and creamy, though we wish we had more of it at thirteen dollars. The kale was dried so it was crispy and broke off easily, and, along with the croutons, provided a nice contrast in texture. The citrus brought some nice notes of the sweetness to the dish. Heading into the main course, we ordered two shared the red wheat spaghetti & clams with chopped caper, calabrian chili, preserved lemon ($17).

IMG_0071

The texture of the pasta, to me, came in slightly under al dente. Although this could merely be the function of red wheat. The capers and lemons brought brightness to the dish, and the clams had a nice bite. It is hard to tell from the photo, but the dish perhaps had a touch too much of the pasta water, as there was a heavy starch taste that lingered after every bite. I liked the dish overall, but the starchy feel really stood out for me.

Overall, I find the food at Agrodolce to be generally well-executed, but slightly pricey. I hope to revisit again soon and try some more pastas and main dishes to complement this review.

Agrodolce (Seattle)