Crazy wing

177 Russell St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9663 6555

There seems to be a proliferation of new Chinese barbecue places in the last few months: Chinese Spicy and Barbie Kitchen, Crazy Wing and a new Oriental BBQ joint in Footscray to name a few. They seem to be influenced by Northern Chinese cuisine, and the grilled goodies come out on skewers, usually rubbed with spice mixes that are heavy on the chilli and/or cumin. I’m all for them, because food is always better on a stick. Roasting a pig? Better on a spit.

@thatjessho, @eatnik, @eatnik’s cousin and I went to try out Crazy Wing recently, because not only is the place all about food on a stick, it’s about chicken wings on a stick. And if you don’t like chicken wings, there’s probably something wrong with you. Or you’re a vegetarian. Or both.

Crazy Wing runs similarly to a hotpot place. You’re presented with an order form at the table, on which you fill in the items you want. I’m fairly sure you can add to that later, but we were already a little greedy in our ordering, so there was no need to find out if that was an option.

We started off with some ‘blotch’ soup. That’s the other thing I love about these places. The translations are invariably hilarious. It was basically a vegetable and egg flower soup, with little lumps of dough in it. It sounds worse than it was. I wasn’t a huge fan – it tasted of nothing – but @eatnik quite liked it, and @thatjessho did not. It’s a pretty big bowl though – we syphoned it off into four little bowls – so it might actually be good for dousing flames. You’ll understand later.imageBecause we were all starving, we ordered some cold dishes, and true to expectation, they arrived at the table quickly. The cucumber with garlic was awesome. Very garlicky, but I think the sauce had been cooked and then cooled, because the garlic didn’t have an overly raw taste to it. Note to self: order more of this next time.imageWe hoed into the Chinese cabbage and chilli before I had a chance to take a photo, but that’s just a testament to how good it was. It’s essentially kim chi, but it was a bit sweeter, and had less of a vinegar flavour to it.imageThen the grilled stuff started to arrive. There’s a wooden tray in the middle of the table, and the waitresses walk around the restaurant clutching bundles of grilled stuff on skewers which they dump on the tray. It’s all very practical, and I’m sure it saves them a lot of washing up. The first items to hit the tray were tripe, chicken livers and enoki mushrooms wrapped in bean curd skin. Out of these, I’d go the chicken livers again, but the other two weren’t that great. Despite having had them at Chinese Spicy and Barbie Kitchen and here, I’m still not sold on grilled enoki mushrooms. I much prefer them in soup or a stir fry. I feel they just end up a bit stringy when you grill them.imageThen came the grilled pork intestines. These were a-MAZ-ingly good. If you like offal, run, don’t walk, people. I mean if there’s an offal-on-a-stick Holy Grail, this is most likely it. The intestines were well seasoned, and grilled so they were just cooked; they were soft rather than chewy, and had a nice char to the outside.imageChicken hearts and chicken gizzards were next, which were alright, but a little dry and overcooked, I thought. imageThen came some calamari, which tasted good, but was a little rubbery. I think perhaps a thicker part of the squid would have been better?imageThen came the onslaught of wings. It was a Tuesday night, so the 2-for-1 deal – there’s a different one every night – was the Honey Spicy Wing. So we ordered four. Our original intention was that by ordering four, they’d charge us for two. Of course, they interpreted this as us ordering four, and so we got eight serves. With two wingettes in a serve, that was sixteen Honey Spicy chicken wings. Lucky they’re pretty great! I could eat these things for days. Oh yeah, there’s some grilled capsicum under there, too. It was a bit raw, which is to say, kind of gross.imageOf course, we had to try the signature ‘Crazy Wing’. I’d read that they were intolerably spicy, but of course, that sort of talk just egged us on. We ordered two serves, so we could each try one wing.image@eatnik’s cousin and Jess gave up after a single taste, it was that insanely – crazily – spicy. Jess labelled it “offensive”, and claimed to have seen God. I found them stupidly, uncomfortably, and insultingly hot, but funnily enough, the only thing which seemed to make it tolerable, was to eat more. I had run out of soya bean drink by then, you see. So I finished my wing, but I don’t think I’d eat another one soon, unless someone dared me to for money. Because putting things in my mouth for money is how I roll, right?imageSome grilled Chinese leeks and scallops with garlic also helped with the residual heat… as did grilled bread. Unfortunately, this wasn’t as soft, or sweet, as I was expecting. imageI’d definitely go back to Crazy Wing, not the least because there’s what seems to be a secret upstairs BBQ buffet. We couldn’t figure out if it was just a staff dining room, or if there was a Crazy Wing club that you could be initiated into – presumably by eating multiple Crazy Wings – before you were allowed to grill your own stuff-on-a-stick.imageOh yeah, I almost forgot. Don’t bother about the eggplant. It’s worse than the capsicum.

Crazy Wings on Urbanspoon

A wedding banquet at Tao’s

201 Bulleen Road, Bulleen
Phone: 9852 0777
My cousin Ivan got married recently. It was a joyous day, full of fun, sunshine and suckling pigs. Let’s kick this post off with a picture of one in the back seat of my car.
imageLet me tell you, had the groom’s brother not been in the passenger seat, I would have been tempted to skip the wedding and just drive off with the pig. But I guess that may have lead to a different and not altogether wholesome consummation in the back seat. Also, it may have jeopardised the Chinese ritual gaining of entry into the bride’s home, and therefore the wedding itself. Given that my cousin’s bride is a totally awesome new addition to the family, that would have been a bad thing.

The day’s festivities went off without a hitch, and it was great to catch up with a lot of my extended family whom I don’t see very often. There was a buffet lunch of various roast meats – including that saucy back seat swine – and various other Asian snackery, which of course led to an afternoon carb coma. I took a brief afternoon nap while some of my aunts and uncles whiled the afternoon away playing mah jong. Seriously, I love how Joy Luck Club my life gets sometimes.

That evening, we headed off to Tao’s, a restaurant which has been around in Bulleen for years, but has somehow flown under my radar all this time. With a name like Tao’s, I expected it to be a traditional Chinese wedding banquet – you know, with the crab, the abalone, the quail and the whole steamed fish. I should have known my cousin wasn’t quite that orthodox. This is a man who perpetrated a balut (fertilised duck egg) pizza on an unsuspecting crowd; a gastronomic experimenteur to be sure.

Tao’s serves what I suppose should be called Asian fusion food, as cliche as that sounds. The flavours are most definitely pan-Asian, but the presentation is most definitely not, falling into that ‘modern’ Western genre, with a definite nod to somewhere Patrick Bateman would eat.

The meal started off with a trio of amuses. From the left, we had some sort of flavoured mayonnaise, an oyster with a spring onion mignonette, and some sort of bacon-wrapped morsel; octopus? That would sort of make sense, with the smear of squid ink across the plate. You’ll have to forgive me, but my memory’s a little hazy. When I say my cousin got married recently, I mean a couple of months ago now. I remember the oyster being very good, and wishing I had another grissini stick for the mayo.

imageFrom this point on, we all started getting different dishes. Thankfully, I was seated with family members who were all very accommodating in letting me photograph their food before eating. I didn’t document it all, but sit back, this is gonna be a long post.

First up was the drunken chicken. Cute presentation with the little sherry glass, though I’m not sure what the gelatinous cube was. It was probably some sort of consomme, I expect.

imageThis was some sort of seared beef thing – the first of a number of dishes my younger second cousin received which caused his sisters to become very jealous. It looked pretty good, but I didn’t particularly understand the jealousy. He did seem to get all the red meat; maybe his sisters have an iron deficiency. This is also the first dish served on a tile. There were a lot of tiles this night. Unlike Jess, I quite like my food on tiles, if only for the fact it means the sauces tend to be less runny; serving a dish with a runny sauce on a tile would just be silly.

imageThere was also a soft-shelled crab in this course. Now this was the dish that incited food envy in me.

imageSo for each course, there were some feature dishes, and then a ‘default’ dish that half of the table would receive. The feature dishes were rotated for each course, so everyone had a different experience of the dinner. I thought this was a novel idea, but it seemed to cause a little confusion for the staff, and it didn’t help the pacing of food service, which is always a problem at large functions like weddings anyway. The default for this course were some panko crumbed prawns. They were OK, but the sauces were both a bit bland.

imageBut then, this course was served with a glutinous rice ball which was just delicious, so maybe it’s relative.

imageStuffed with a pulled braised pork, steamed and then lightly pan-seared, this was a total winner. Let’s be honest though, just about anything which has been thrice-cooked is going to be pretty awesome.

imageThe next course was soup. The presentation of this bonito broth was cute, though I would’ve felt a little weird drinking it like tea. My sister said it was a bit ‘meh’, but another of my cousins thought it was stellar.

imageI had a pumpkin soup, which was a touch on the bland side. It came in a cute little pumpkin bowl which was just on the right side of kitsch. I’m not a fan of pumpkin soup usually – I find it’s often too sweet – so it’s not surprising I wasn’t too impressed with this.

imageOnto mains! My sister got the pork belly, which looked great, but wasn’t really melting-soft, and also could probably have been a served little hotter. Again, just one of the problems inherent with function catering, I guess.

imageI got a corn and herb-crusted salmon, which was really quite good. The raked coriander sauce was a good match to the fish and the creamed corn topping – the little quenelle is more of the corn mixture – and the broadbean salad was pleasant, though those three rogue corn kernels were a little contrived.

imageI’m happy to report that the salmon was cooked reasonably well. About medium OK, it’s a touch on the done side for my liking, but I’ll eat just about any meat raw, so I’m hard to please in this department. Given the horror stories you hear about fish courses at wedding receptions, I’d say this was a good showing.

imageWhen this arrived at the table, its recipient was absent, so the rest of us spent a while trying figure out what it was. It was a teriyaki chicken, presented okonomiyaki style.

imageLet’s revisit my younger second cousin, who again got the red meat. A sizzling piece of beef fillet – I’m not sure if it was wagyu – on a hot rock, on some little rocks, on a crazily heavy plate. The staff at Tao’s have strong wrists.

imageWe all got a little pot of fried rice with our mains. It was cute, and tasty. Even if it was a little frustrating trying to eat it with that little spoon.

imageOn to desserts! Quite judiciously, the wedding cake – little red velvet cupcakes – was served along with the desserts. Now not that I don’t like Asian desserts, I’m quite glad these desserts weren’t given a fusion twist. First up was a great creme brulee, which my sister and her husband fought over.

imageI believe this was a chocolate cheesecake, though it might have been caramel, given the little pieces of popcorn on the top.

imageI got a little shortbread sandwich with fresh cherries. I’m a fan of fruit-driven desserts, as it usually means they’re not quite so sweet, and in this case, it was a boon, as the cupcakes were pretty sweet.

imageThe final dessert option was a pannacotta with a mango coulis. I think this would’ve been a great counterbalance for the cupcake, too.

imagePhew! Are you exhausted? I was, a little, after a long day of celebration. When I went to chat to my parents at the end of the night, there were exclamations of how full we all were, which is how my family expresses their satisfaction with food. That, or we burp loudly.

Anyway, I quite liked the playfulness of the food at Tao’s, and I suspect that it would be a much smoother experience dining there in a group of smaller than 100. All in all, it was an excellent end to a wonderful day, which was the start of what is sure to be a joyous marriage.

Congratulations, Ivan and Thanh!

Tao's on Urbanspoon

Sun Kee

352-354 Chapel Street, South Yarra
Phone: 9827 7110

My grandfather turned 93 this year. Ever since his 90th birthday, which I missed because I was in Viet Nam, but was apparently quite the to-do, each birthday celebration has become a big occasion. Which is fair enough, because who knows how many of them he has left, right? Not to be too morbid, but 93 is a pretty good run, by anyone’s standards. These birthday dinners usually involve the entire extended family, spanning four generations now that my cousins have kids, and this year, the added complexity of a pre-arrange seating plan – which was promptly abandoned when my generation decided we were re-instating the kid’s table, instead of sitting with our parents – and I kid you not, HALF AN HOUR of photos with Grandpa before sitting down to eat. I was starving and flash-blind by the time I sat down to eat.

Not to be disrespectful, but perhaps Grandpa should have chosen more wisely for his 93rd birthday. I doubt the family will be back to Sun Kee anytime soon. The food was passable, but not exciting, and the service was patchy and not very attentive. To be fair, our group was rather large – three tables of 10 – so perhaps they were a little under-staffed. Odd, seeing as it was a Saturday night, and wed booked ahead, but stranger things have happened. A little more disconcerting was the fact that the maitre d tried to serve us port which had been brought as a gift for Grandpa, at the start of the meal, as though it were red wine.

Of course, this is another in the series of ‘family dinner Cantonese banquet’ posts. For other versions, see my earlier posts about Vessel and Fu Long. I’d also like to caveat here: I’m probably being a bit harsh, but I’ve been to so many different Chinese restaurants in my life that serve this type of Cantonese food, that my standards are pretty high. Not unreasonably high, I would say, but perhaps I’m pickier than most when it comes to this type of food.

We started off with a soup. Seafood soup, with tofu and feathered egg. A reasonably standard soup, though not executed that well. There was very little seafood in there, and the corn-starch thickened broth in which it was swimming was flavoured with little else other than MSG.

imageThen came the crab. This wasn’t bad, but for some bizarre reason, the usual accompanying egg noodles were missing. I’m not a huge fan of crab – it’s too fiddly for my liking – but I am a huge fan of the egg noodles that come soaked in the ginger and spring onion crab gravy. Alas, not tonight. A theme of disappointment was setting in.imageOn to the main course parade. First up was a simple dish of scallops with sugar snap peas and carrot. This was not bad. The main problem was that we had to wait another five minutes for the waiters to bring the rice out, by which time the dish had gotten cold. Which wasn’t too pleasant, given the amount of oil coating everything. A shame, because the scallops were nice and sweet, as were the peas.imageFried whole prawns in salt and pepper arrived next, which are always a winner. That rule stood firm here, and these were probably my favourite dish of the night. Not too oily, and super crunchy, I enjoyed eating these things whole. Yes, I’m an itinerant prawn head eater, and poo-poo all of you who don’t at least suck the brains out. There’s a reason tha prawn heads are used to make a good bisque; that’s where all the flavour is!imageContinuing the fried theme, there was crispy duck with taro next. This is a roast duck breast which has been pressed onto a layer of taro, and then battered and deep fried. Yeah, it sounds sinfully awesome, huh? And usually it is, but the duck was dry and over-cooked here, and the dish was a little lukewarm when it arrived at the table. The accompanying sauce wasn’t particularly inspiring either; an insipid soy sauce gravy.imageShiitake mushrooms with bok choy and carrot brought about an end to the reign of deep fried supremacy. Again, another standard dish, which was done reasonably well. imageAfter that quick breather, like the short reign of a usurper with no heir, the deep fried dynasty was quickly re-instated. With another classic, though of slightly more dubious reputation. Sweet and sour pork. Now I’m not going to malign it because of its association with bastardised Margaret Fulton Chinese cooking, or because it’s a massive hit of a calorie bomb: fat AND sugar!? It’s just not that common that you will see this dish served in a Chinese banquet like this. I think it’s a little bit ballsy, in fact, and I commend them for it. And you know what? It was good. The problem with most sweet and sour pork dishes is that they’re too sweet, and not sour enough. And often the salty element is lacking, too. Not so at Sun Kee. The pork was well seasoned, and well cooked; the sauce was a good balance of sweet and sour. imageIt’s a shame that this moment of brilliance was quickly eclipsed by the next dish. Sliced fish – I think it was rockling – had been battered and deep fried, then smothered in a corn and egg gravy. This was just bland and gross.imageAs were the ‘seafood noodles’, which didn’t really have much seafood, and felt like a bookend with the disappointing soup opener. I have a feeling that this might actually be the intended concept, but when you execute both dishes this poorly, why bother having that concept in the first place?imageOh yeah, I skipped out before they served Grandpa’s favourite durian sponge cake with layers of fake cream, but I did manage to get a quick snap of these awesome crazy agar jellies my aunt made!imageSunkee BBQ Seafood House on Urbanspoon

Yum Cha at Dai Duong

Shop 5/64 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9689 9899

Regular readers of this blog will know that I, as a child of Chinese migrants, and as a thoroughly modern Melburnian, love yum cha. This Chinese version of brunch/lunch/morning tea is partly so awesome because you usually end up eating as much as you would if you were to combine all three meals. But also, it’s a great experience socially, with the ebb and flow of food punctuating the tea-lubricated gossiping that inevitable happens when you get together with old friends.

While I’ve heard lukewarm things about Master Restaurant and Golden Harvest’s yum cha services, and I’ve sampled Yummie Yum Cha’s moderately over-priced fare, until now, I haven’t really considered anywhere in Footscray as a decent yum cha destination. I would always either head in to the city, or out to Gold Leaf in Sunshine. But that might be about to change, as Dai Duong offers a close-by, lazy alternative.imageDai Duong has been in in the shadow of the iconic Franco Cozzo store at the city end of Hopkins St for years, and I think it has intermittently been offering yum cha. @jeroxie and I tried to go earlier in the year, only to find that they didn’t actually serve yum cha! But since March this year, they’ve started serving it. Daily, as you can see from the rather loud signage. Don’t be deceived by the address, either. Despite sharing a street number with a number of other shops, this is a pretty large restaurant, replete with dance floor (for countless Chinese/Vietnamese wedding banquets no doubt) and karaoke! I’m yet to find out if the karaoke is in private dining rooms – like they had in Sai Gon – or if you’re expected to sing for the entire restaurant… but I digress.

The place was pretty empty on a Sunday afternoon when we wandered in. It was probably a little after the traditional late Sunday morning family crowd, but there were still a few large groups enjoying themselves into the afternoon. Some rather friendly waitresses with steaming trolleys wandered past a couple of times, offering us their wares, while we waited for Ms D to arrive. Then the eating – and the gossip – began in earnest. We started off with some char siu buns, but not the steamed ones, the baked ones.imageThese were a little sweet, and thoroughly disappointing after having tried the ‘pineapple bun’ version of them at Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong. That’s not to say they were bad per se, they just weren’t great.

Next up, some tripe and a prawn-stuffed tofu topped with scallops. The tripe was nicely braised, though the flavour was a little boring. The tofu was wonderfully soft, and the twin seafood pleasures of prawn and scallop were both strong, and yet remained distinct from one another.imageThe loh baak gao (daikon cake) was a touch on the soft side, and I would’ve preferred a little more daikon in the mix. Still, it had a nice crust, and wasn’t too oily.imageOf course, we had to have the fried taro dumplings. I tried making a version of these on the weekend, and though they tasted pretty good, they were an utter failure in terms of getting the taro to puff and feather like these. I have new-found respect for yum cha fry chefs. The ones at Dai Duong clearly know what they’re doing. These were great, but it’s not often that fried taro dumplings are not, really.imageSteamed crab dumplings came next, and they were a little disappointing. I couldn’t really taste the crab. It was more like prawn, which is to say, it was more like a lot of other versions of a prawn dumpling that you’ll often see at yum cha. Not bad, just not what it should have been. The skins were nice and light, though.imageOne of my favourite dumplings at yum cha is the chive dumpling. Chives are such a perfect flavour match to prawns. A winner, every time. imageThen we had the classic siu mai. Probably the modern Aussie dim sim’s closes ancestor, the siu mai is the porkiest of yum cha dumplings. The siu mai at Dai Duong were big, plump and succulent.imageIl coinquilino hadn’t tried cheong fun (steamed rice paper/noodle) before, so I decided to order the zha leong, which is a Chinese donut and some Chinese broccoli wrapped in steamed rice paper. When it’s done well, like here in Macau, it’s pretty amazing. Unfortunately, Dai Duong’s version didn’t quite live up to that. The rice paper was a little thick, and therefore felt a bit claggy in the mouth. A good cheong fun should be light and ribbon-like. The donut was also a little cold, which made the dish even less pleasant. A bit of a miss there.imageFinally, for dessert, we had the egg custard buns. A perennial favourite, it’s a good option if you want to skip the cold dessert cart.imageThe steamed bread portion of this was excellent: light, fluffy, with just the right amount of sweetness. The custard, however, was a bit of a miss. It was rather grainy, and definitely over-cooked for my liking, being a bit crumbly, instead of like a thick jam.imageAll in all, I wouldn’t say yum cha at Dai Duong is great, but it’s definitely passable, and a good option for Footscray locals. And at around $15 a head between three of us, it’s excellent value. They’ve also got some pretty cheap crab specials on at the moment; it being crab season and all!

Dai Duong Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Dainty Sichuan

176 Toorak Road, South Yarra
Phone: 9078 1686

It’s been a long time between visits. The first – and until recently, the latest – time I visited Dainty Sichuan Food was in its first incarnation on Smith Street, in Collingwood. I still remember that night; it was the first  time I’d tried Sichuan food, and it was something of a revelation. We had ordered the Chongqing Chilli Chicken, and upon finding that is was a bed of dried chillies interspersed with miniscule chunks of chicken, we’d been a little disappointed. Though Dr D had the wisdom to take the left-over dried chillies home with him, and a couple of nights later made a fiery chilli soup which was a testament to just how much firepower those chillies contained.

Cut to about seven years later, and Dainty Sichuan is now Southside – a large contributing factor to my not having visited sooner – and about four times the size of the original shopfront. It’s gained a cult following, and the menu has expanded to match the new expansive restaurant. And yet it’s still hard to get a table on weekends! Luckily we’d booked, and we moseyed on down with our two bottles of sparkling – gotta love a BYO restaurant – from nearby drinks.

Normally I don’t comment too much about my dining companions’ chilli tolerances, but it’s relevant here. I like to think I can handle my chilli. I’m no lightweight, but nor am I a chilli fiend. My dining companions this night were otherwise. Mr I is something of a lightweight. I think it’s because he’s tall and lanky, like one of those sweet yellow peppers you can munch on as if it were a banana. Ms D, on the other hand, is a bonafide chilli hound. She’s little and fiery, like a Thai birdseye chilli. We like to joke – though it’s not a stretch of the imagination – that she likes to have yum cha because dumplings are a good accompaniment to the chilli oil. So in deference to Mr I’s delicate palate, we opted for some less challenging dishes.

First up was the kung pao chicken. This came in a massive metal dish, and when it arrived, we started to worry about the fact we’d ordered three dishes between the three of us.

I much prefer this dish to the signature Chongqing Chilli Chicken, largely because it’s not drowned in a sea of dried chillies, and the fresh green chillies are a much tastier option, IMHO. Also, you get much better chicken! Little chunks of thigh fillet, as opposed to the chopped up wing bits in the CQ Chilli Chicken. Finally, the peanuts in this are awesome, and come into their own when you hit that point where you’ve all ‘finished eating’ but all continue to pick at bits off the plate for the simple reason that food is still sitting in front of you. Peanuts rock in this situation! The dish overall had a nice balance of heat and saltiness, though – like most dishes in Sichuan food, I find – was heavily dependent on the steamed rice as a foil. I guess that’s the way the style of cuisine has been designed.

Having read enough blog posts about Dainty, I knew the one dish I had to try was the spicy eggplant. Though I’m a little disappointed with it, to be honest. I think I had a notion that they were going to be like eggplant chips. And they were, mostly. But the insides weren’t soft and gooey, and the glaze had a touch too much vinegar for my liking. Still, perhaps it’s just me, because the eggplant seems to garner universally glowing reviews.

The other dish we had was sliced pork belly, with bamboo shoot. This dish was a winner! The pork belly (winning here) was lightly salt-cured like bacon (winning there) and then stir-fried with bamboo shoot, garlic chives, leek and chilli (everywhere is winning).

As you can see, we had a lot of food.

We got through most of it, and even Mr I liked it. See? (That was on our way out.)

Dainty Sichuan on Urbanspoon

Vessel

Shop 2, 21 Andersons Creek Road, Doncaster East
Phone: 9841 8688

Recently, Jess Ho wrote what I’m sure will in time become a classic instructional piece for all first/second-generation Chinese migrant children. While so much of it rang true, I’m not sure about the final point, “You’re picking up the bill”. In my experience, that almost never happens, and only ever on occasions when the kids have somehow through a cunning plan of distraction, stealth and misdirection. My father and uncles seem to have an uncanny knack of ‘needing to go to the bathroom’ at the end of the meal, and of course on their way back to the table, often unbeknownst to all present, they’ve stopped by the cashier’s counter, and settled the bill.

As my generation has grown up, gotten jobs, and in some cases, spawned kids of their own, and my parents’ generation one by one have resigned themselves reluctantly to retirement – and subsequently taken up day-trading as a collective hobby – things have changed a little. Somehow, my generation hasn’t taken to the notion of trying to be the one who pays for everyone. It might be that we don’t see each other as much as we used to – my cousins and I aren’t as tight with one another as my parents are with their siblings – so you don’t exactly know when someone’s going to shout you a massive Chinese banquet in return. Not that it’s about keeping score, but there’s a part of our upbringing which ingrained in us the remembrance of our own debt to others, so we kind of live in the expectation that all others have the same morals. Anyway, these days the bills at big family dinners are split, and the largesse is, well, not so large anymore.

That’s not to say the feasting is any less extravagant or satisfying. Recently, we trekked out to Doncaster East for my grandmother’s birthday dinner. I arrived a little early, and started to promptly hoe in on some deep-fried signifiers of my youth.

Nothing like an atomic pink prawn cracker to whet the appetite. As the family filtered in, it was great to see the cousins whom I don’t spend enough time with, as well as their parents. It’s a funny thing, because we’re far from being a cold family, but my conversation with aunts and uncles very rarely extends beyond how are you doing, are you still working at [redacted] and the dreaded “so have you got a girlfriend?” which has increased in the past year since my sister got married.

Once we had all arrived, the ordering taken care of by a couple of aunts and uncles in secret council – if there are family members of an older generation at dinner, don’t expect to have a say in what you’re going to eat – and soon after, the obligatory first soup course arrived. It was a classic pork and dried bok choy broth, and it was another quintessential flavour from my childhood.

The next course was the obligatory seafood starter. Often it’s crab, but this time it was oysters and baby abalone. The oysters were steamed and hada classic black bean and chilli sauce, while the baby abalone – sorry, I didn’t manage to get a photo – were topped with an XO-tossed rice vermicelli. I prefer my oysters raw, but these were pretty good. The abalone was a touch over-cooked.

Then we moved on to the parade of dishes which form the main course. That’s the thing about a Chinese banquet. It may only be four courses, but that main course usually involves at least four dishes, eaten with rice, so it’s rare to ever walk away feeling anything but stuffed. This first dish was something of a mystery to me. I was told  that it was geoduck, but I can’t really imagine geoduck would have that texture. It seemed more like some sort of membrane than a sliced clam meat. In ant case, it was interesting and new in a good way, and well matched with the rather assertive garlic chives.

From the exotic and unfamiliar to the comforting and well-loved. Simple baak jaam gai – literally translated as white chopped chicken – is, for me, probably the perfect way to cook chicken. The chicken is basically boiled (or sometimes steamed) just to the point where it’s barely cooked. The sign of a good baak jaam gai is that the blood in the thicker chicken bones is still red. Once it’s gone brown, the chicken has been over-cooked. It’s most commonly served with a ginger and spring onion oil. The chicken at Vessel was superb. Cooked to perfection, with the meat juicy, silky and tender, and the skin gelatinous and plump.

Here’s a close up. Despite – or in fact, because of – its simplicity, this was probably my favourite dish of the night.

The next dish was much less successful. Choy sum in some kind of bland broth, garnished with what seemed to be dried scallop strands, but much too long to be dried scallop strands. Bizarre. In any case, the whole thing might have been good, were it not marred by a slick layer of oil which seemed to coat the whole dish.

Then there was an unexpected detour from dishes that I’ve encountered in the Chinese banquet arena. With the exception of a whole steamed fish, most dishes tend to be presented in a way that makes them easily shared; that doesn’t involve having to serve each other, though we always end up doing that anyway. Not so with the braised pork hock.

It’s a magnificent, impressive dish, I’ll grant you, but it’s a little messy to negotiate on a lazy susan, and the meat wasn’t as tender as you’d expect. It really needed those swathes of sauce on the plate.

Then there was a venison in honey and black pepper. The meat seemed to have been treated with bi-carb, and lost a lot of its meaty texture. Not as extreme as some dishes I’ve had in other restaurants, but noticeable. Is venison that tough that you need to use soda with it? Anyway, the flavours were quite good, and I like the mixture of wood ear fungus and snow peas.

Fried tofu with a crab meat sauce. The tofu could have been a bit smoother. Tofu is usually one of the dishes that my nanna adores, because it’s soft and she can manage it with her falsies. she didn’t really like this dish that much. Neither did I, but that was more about the cornstarch gravy being a bit too gluggy.

One of my favourite dishes in the world is geh jup haar look. In case you can’t figure out the first two syllables, I’ll give you a clue. It’s also spelled catsup. These whole prawns are deep fried, then coated in a ketchup based sauce. Sounds odd and altogether un-Chinese, but I assure you they’re amazing when done well. And Vessel does them very well, thank you.

At this point, as you can see, the table is full. And very quickly our bellies are reaching a state to match. But of course, there has to be a fish dish.

Plates were shuffled to accommodate the fish, which quite sadly, we didn’t manage to finish! It was a cod of some description, and it was steamed beautifully, the flesh just reaching the point where it flakes away cleanly.

After all of this, there was the customary dessert. It being summer, I thought they might have served something else, but no, it was the standard sweet red bean soup. Served warm, too. I don’t mind it served cold, but warm, it’s not so much cleansing as cloying I find.

Clearly, my cousin’s little daughter doesn’t agree.

Vessel on Urbanspoon

Happy Cook

165 Springvale Rd, Nunawading (on the same side of the road as Nunawading station)
Phone: 9894 1663

It was my mother’s birthday. It was also my birthday. Well, it was actually neither, but it was close enough. It seems my (slightly belated) 30th birthday present to my mother was labour pains. But another three decades have since passed, and she’s forgiven me. I’m not sure she’s forgiven me for the fact she’ll never have a daughter-in-law, but that’s not the point of this story. For our combined birthday dinner, we decided to go out for Peking duck. As a family, we’d been to Old Kingdom years ago and enjoyed ourselves, so the first intention was to try Simon’s Peiking Duck Restaurant, but it was fully booked when I called. I started trawling the foodblogs for other options, and came across Happy Cook.

Apparently the owners used to own a restaurant called Fortuna Village in the city, which was kinda big in the 80s? This is what my research told me. Given that I was living in rural Victoria back then, I didn’t really know – or care – that much about this ambit claim. All reports seemed to be pretty positive, so I went ahead and booked.

My sister got a bit lost trying to find the place, as a typo on some site had her looking on the other side of Springvale Road for it. And you could be forgiven for missing it even if you were looking on the right side of the road – it’s a pretty non-descript shopfront in a small strip of non-descript shopfronts next to Nunawading station. When I walked in, I was a little worried that I’d chosen the wrong place for a double birthday dinner. There were mismatched tables – some with white tablecloths and others red, and there were also decidedly 80s chairs with chrome legs. Of course, I should have known better than to judge a Chinese restaurant by its decor, and looking at the mostly-Chinese-families clientele, as well as the food on their tables, I was soon put at ease.

We had pre-ordered two ducks between five of us. I had pretty much assumed that we’d just have the two course duck – there’s no ‘spit soup’ as Jess Ho calls it, at Happy Cook –  and that would be it. Like at Old Kingdom, right? But the proprietor wandered over and suggested we try some other dishes as well. We resisted, though did order a dish of beans, as I was feeling like some more vegetables than the duck banquet entailed.

And then the duck arrived. A little disappointingly, it arrived completely carved – there was no table service theatre, unlike other Peking duck restaurants.
20110502-014137.jpgStill, you could tell they had just carved it out the back, because the duck was still warm and moist.

20110502-014314.jpgAnd there was a lot of it! Too much for the amount of pancakes;  I swear, these duck places must have a business model which is based on you ordering extra pancakes! The duck was moist, tender, and juicy. The skin was wonderfully crisp too, though – and it’s not often you’ll hear me say this – a little too fatty. It would have been great with a little more of the fat rendered out.

20110502-014355.jpgThe pancakes themselves had that barely-cooked wheat flour taste to them, which marries well with the rich muskiness of the duck, the sweetness of the hoisin sauce, and the cleansing lightness of the cucumber and spring onion. My mouth waters just recalling this.

The Peking duck involves a second course – you can choose to have duck meat (stripped from the carcass after the prime Peking duck slices have been taken) stir-fried with noodles, or with bean shoots. The speed at which this dish comes out after you’re done with the pancake course would suggest that you’re not actually getting the duck meat from your duck, but that doesn’t really matter that much, does it? The noodles weren’t that great – they lacked any assertive seasoning, and were just bland, for the most part. They were also a bit over-cooked, leaving them too soft, and a bit mushy. The bean shoot dish – which I forgot to photograph – was much better.  Bean shoot stir-fries are almost always great!

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These were the beans we ordered. They were pretty tasty, and well fried, giving them that slightly crispy, wrinkly outer shell that I love.

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All in all, was it worth the trek out to Nunawading? I’m not so sure. It was good, but not so much better than Old Kingdom, which is much less of a hassle to get to.

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Chinese Spicy & Barbie Kitchen

311 Racecourse Road, Kensington
Ph: 9372 5218

@eatnik got all excited when she told me about this place. We were meeting up at Chillipadi Mamak Kopitiam for a pre-pub trivia dinner, but we’d both arrived early, so we wandered up towards KFL so I could buy some pantry goods, and she could show me ‘the new offal place’. I was a little skeptical at first, because of their big printed lunch time specials poster in the window, and the fact they had spelled Barbie like the doll.

But a quick flick through the menu out the front took me from a state of skepticism to a state of anticipation. The menu promised all sorts of braised, fried and grilled offal, amongst an extensive selection of typically Sichuan and Shanghainese dishes.

Our fist visit was on a Saturday afternoon, and much to our chagrin, we were informed that the grilled items on the menu were only available at dinner. A couple of sighs later, we settled on – as you will see – a banquet of other goodies from the menu.

The menu is quite an interesting read. The translation into English seems to have been done by google translator, as it doesn’t quite build in the cultural nuance of Chinese dish names. Witness the prime example: Saliva Chicken.

A more common – and appetising – translation of this would be ‘Mouth-watering Chicken’. It’s boiled chicken, served cold, with a sauce of chilli and Sichuan pepper infused oil, with some chilli, garlic and spring onions. It’s meant to be served cold, but I thought it was a little too cold; in that way that eating chicken out of the fridge leads to chewing through meat which is super-solid. Flavour-wise, though, it was great.

There are also some glaring inaccuracies on the menu. This dish was described as beef lungs – they don’t mince words in their menu, be prepared to see the word gizzards a few times – but it was a mixture of liver, heart, and brisket. There might have been some lung in there too, but I’m not too sure. In any case, the flavour was good – spicy and salty, with a sour twang from some Sichuan pepper.

I wasn’t going to go to a restaurant that specialises in offal and not order tripe, right? This was tripe, served cold, in a chilli oil sauce. Seeing a trend here? This sauce didn’t have the Sichuan pepper, however. There was a bit of vinegar in there though, which helped cut through the richness of the chilli oil. I absolutely loved this dish. The texture of the tripe was great; springy and toothsome, yet soft and chewy. And let’s face it, when you’re eating offal, it’s often all about the texture.
Need some respite from the offal? How about some more conventional dishes. These are listed as leek pancakes in the menu, but the waitress explained to us that the chef prepares them differently. At this point, I was starting to wonder if they’d just taken the menus from some other restaurant. Anyhow, they came out more like little flat spring rolls. The filling was made of leek and egg, and they were delicious. Crispy and not too oily, the outside had that lightly flour-dusted feel to it, like on a good spring onion pancake.
We ordered a serve of the xiao long bao, which weren’t quite like your average XLB. Unlike the prevailing style, these XLB were fat and puffy, more like a bao (steamed bun) than a dumpling. They were somewhere in between, and they were awesome! We’d let them sit a little while, as the food was coming thick and fast by this stage, so unfortunately, the soup in them had been mostly soaked up by the bun casing. We had these again on our return visit though, and they were still juicy inside. So juicy I managed to squirt all over my t-shirt!
This was a bit of a weird dish. Bean curd skin strips and little bundles of rice vermicelli, swimming in a bowl of black vinegar sauce. It wasn’t terrible, but it also wasn’t worth trying, in my opinion. I think there might have been some sort of protein in there too – like fish? – but I can’t remember. Clearly, don’t waste your time or belly with this one.
The opposite goes for the next dish. Called the ‘Spicy ink fountain’, it’s a cold dish of baby squid, in a – you guessed it – sour, spicy sauce. I just want to point out that despite most of these dishes having a sour and spicy sauce, none of them actually tasted the same. The varying combinations of chilli (both dried and fresh), vinegar, salt and Sichuan pepper meant each dish had its own unique flavour. The baby squid was to die for. Again, served cold, this squid was just barely rare. Not chewy in the slightest, the texture was springy and delicate.
We thought perhaps we should have some vegetables with all of this protein, so we ordered some fried beans with mince. Yeah, this restaurant is not the place to go if you’re dining out with vegetarian friends. These beans were OK, but nothing special. I would have liked them to have been fried at a higher temperature, so they become a little more crispy, and get a looser skin, before they’re stir-fried with the mince and chilli.
This dish was something of an unexpected fail. We’d ordered a mushroom dish, but what came out was a dish of braised Chinese cabbage and belly pork. In all fairness the waitress had said something when we ordered it, but it was a little hard to decipher, so I just nodded. And it wasn’t a bad dish at all, it just wasn’t a dish of mushrooms. So just be aware if you order mushrooms from the menu, you might get pork.
The final dish, and for me, the absolute star of the spread, was the spicy deep-fried pork intestines. Fried so that the outside was crispy, yet the insides weren’t overly chewy, and then wok-tossed with five spice, chilli, garlic and Sichuan peppers, these intestines were so more-ish. They’d be a perfect beer snack, too. And even @eatnik, who isn’t a fan of intestines, was a fan of these. That being said, intestines are an acquired taste, and Mr J, who tried them for the first time here, wasn’t a fan.

A large part of the allure of this place is the extensive list of grilled items. So we organised for a return visit on another night. True to their word, the grilled items were available on our return visit, though there were some marinated duck gizzards which weren’t available either time.

We ordered some grilled baby squid, chicken hearts, and lamb kidneys. The servings are calculated per skewer, so if you’re not sure about something, you can still try it without committing too much! The stand-out here were the chicken hearts, but they’re always great, in my book. The lamb kidneys were a bit over-cooked, and dry, so I’d avoid them next time.

We also got some grilled eggs, which were dusted in turmeric and fennel seeds. I wanted to like these more, but they reminded me of son-in-law eggs, where the hard boiled eggs are deep fried, only instead of the crispy fried skin, these eggs had a tough, chewy exterior.
We also got a couple of skewers of enoki mushrooms wrapped in pork. These were great! The slightly charred pork, again liberally spiced with fennel and cumin, encased the enoki mushrooms, which remained juicy and soft.
Again, needing to up the vegetable quotient of the meal, we ordered a cold dish of cucumber and bean curd skin. This was tasty, but could have done with a bit more chilli.
I ordered the prawn dumplings, expecting something like a prawn version of a jiaozi or gyoza. What arrived was actually a version of a har gao. Not that I’m complaining, it was just unexpected. And the skins were a little too thick. The filling was tasty, though.
Finally, we ordered the ‘Three generations Fish’. This was slices of fish that had been coated in a thick batter before being poached – or maybe there was a flash-frying process involved – in the soup. There’s a similar version of this dish in most Sichuan restaurants, only the fish is usually swimming in chilli oil, amongst the detritus of dried chillis. Not so here. The omission of chilli – but not Sichuan pepper – meant the dish wasn’t stupidly hot, and allowed the flavour of the Sichuan pepper to shine. The fish, with its soaked batter jacket, was an interesting texture. I quite liked it, but @fatbooo wasn’t as much of a fan.
All in all, Chinese Spicy and Barbie Kitchen is an interesting place, with many items on the menu you won’t easily find elsewhere in Melbourne. If you’re a fan of chilli and spice, and you’re not perturbed by offal, definitely hit it up soon!

Chinese Spicy and Barbie Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Kimberley Restaurant

Kimberly Hotel, 28 Kimberly Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong
Phone: +852 2369 8212

When @eatnik first mentioned the Kimberley Restaurant, I thought she must have been a little mistaken. A hotel restaurant? Without a celebrity executive chef? Why would we waste our time? Hotel restaurants tend, for the most part, to be something like a sheltered workshop. The hotel rarely needs the restaurant to be wildly successful or profitable, it just needs it to gain its three-plus star status, and to have somewhere to serve a decent breakfast buffet. This is a pretty harsh, sweeping generalisation I know, but a lot of the hotel restaurants around the world will bear witness to its validity.

Ten seconds into our conversation, @eatnik mentioned suckling pig. Nay, glutinous rice stuffed suckling pig. My interest was piqued. Then she showed me this video. Oh, it was game on, and there was no way we were going to miss out on trying this on our #fatty adventure.

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology and social media, we’d managed to make a friend in @e_ting, another food blogger who from Australia who had moved to Hong Kong a while ago. She graciously organised a table for twelve, a motley crew, peppered with unexpected social connections. Still, the important thing here was actually the size of the group, as a table of twelve warrants a true Cantonese banquet.

As much as yum cha is probably Cantonese culture’s best known gift to the culinary world, for me, the traditional banquet that unfolds when large groups of Cantonese people get together is the epitome of Cantonese food to me. It starts out with one, two, or sometimes three entree courses. Sometimes it’s oysters or baby abalone, sometimes it’s quail, or as with our dinner at the Kimberley, it often starts out with an assortment of cold roasted meats.

With the full knowledge of the piggy pigging that was to come, thankfully we opted for just the single entree course. The char siu was pretty standard, and the fried tofu was a little out-of-the-ordinary – and nicely smooth – but the real surpsrise here was the little pieces of pig’s trotter (I think?) which were pretty much just braised pork skin with a sliver of fat, meat and cartilage.

At this point of the Cantonese banquet, the seafood course would come next. Often crab, or lobster, hopefully on a bed of egg noodles. But I digress. Because we were having the suckling pig,we opted for less extraneous courses, so the parade of main dishes started arriving at the table.

Garlic prawns with broccoli. This was pretty boring I thought, though cooked reasonably well. It was a filler dish, not a killer dish..

We had a vegetarian in our midst, so stir-fried bean curd with mushrooms was in order. I actually really enjoy Cantonese vegetable dishes, because they’re often a respite from the umami overload of other dishes. However, this wasn’t quite the usual oasis of chlorophyll in a desert of salt and MSG.
This, however, was! Snow pea shoots lightly braised in a light stock. I think I’ve talked about my love of this vegetable before, but it’s another one of those dishes which epitomises Cantonese cuisine to me. I love how it’s just so simple, and you can really taste the unique flavour of the vegetable.

The next dish to arrive was a huge pot of braised beef with lemongrass. A mixture of brisket and tendons – and other generally cheap cuts – all braised to the point where the meat was falling apart, and the collagen had melted into the sauce, making it stick to your lips like a good tonkotsu broth or a runny yolk. The chunks of vegetable in there were daikon (the big white carrot at the market) but I mistakenly identified it at first as winter melon. It was that sweet.

Another, smaller claypot came next. It was on the specials list, and despite us about to hoe into a suckling pig, we couldn’t resist ordering the braised pork belly. Pork fiends much? This was braised with fermented tofu, which gives it quite a strong, salty flavour, not unlike miso, but think even more pungent. Pungent and delicious, I mean!
I made a request to have a whole steamed fish, because for me it’s one of the things that the Cantonese do better than anyone else in the world. So simple, but so perfect. The irony of the situation is that I really have no idea what fish is what in English, because I only ever really had fish like this with my family growing up. So I know the Chinese names – which usually are just a descriptor of the type of pattern on the fish’s skin, or something to do with the size of its mouth, but I have no idea when I see a menu in English which fish I should be ordering. Thankfully, others at the table are more fluent in the ways of food translation, and I’m told this was a garoupa. The flesh was perfectly cooked, flaking at the touch, and still silky and sweet. You could taste the quality of the fish.

Finally, to the main event: the suckling pig, or Kimmy, as she was dubbed. She was wheeled out on a little trolley, in the same way that a Peking duck would often be, and we all marvelled at the sheen on her skin, and her cute little tail. She’d been pretty much de-boned and stuffed – she still had legs, but there was no rib cage or spine to navigate, and her torso had become a porky blanket to wrap around a sausage of tasty glutinous rice.

At this point, due to my inability/unwillingness to take sufficiently pornographic photos of Kimmy, I refer you to @e_ting’s post about this dinner. And re-watch the video from the top of this post. Mmm, crackling.

The crackling was crisp and crunchy, with the lightness that only the thin skin and baby fat that an infant pig’s hide can produce. Thank you Kimmy, for being such a wonderful specimen of deliciousness. The rice inside was also well seasoned, but let’s be honest, it was most definitely – figuratively and literally – a filler.

So yeah, you know what? Hotel restaurants… not always a bad thing!

Under Bridge Spicy Crab

Main branch: shop 1-2, G/f, Chinaweal Centre, 414-424 Jaffe Rd., Wan Chai, Hong Kong
Phone: +852 2834 6268
http://www.underspicycrab.com/

You can’t really go to Hong Kong and not eat crab at some stage. Crab is one of those staple banquet dishes that turns up at almost every dinner I go to with extended family. Usually, we opt for it stir-fried with ginger and spring onion, on top of a bed of egg noodles. The egg noodle’s actually where it’s at, for me. The sauce soaks up the flavour of the crab, and soaks through the noodles. While I like crab, it’s often a lot of work, unless you’re lucky enough to get one of the meaty claws. And since I have best quality heart, I take worst quality crab.

Anyway, I was staying in the Wanch, a convenient part of town, not only because it’s near the sleazy hooker bars, but because it’s the Under Bridge Spicy Crab heartland. Near the corner of Canal and Lockhart Roads is a ghetto of seafood restaurants, specialising in ‘Spicy Crab’. The original is on the corner of Canal and Jaffe, but it’s hard to tell, because there are three or four other ‘outlets’ owned by the same chef, all proclaiming to be the original, and all on the same block. I think the name ‘Under Bridge’ refers to Canal Road, which is an overpass cutting across Lockhart and Jaffe Roads.

Before heading out for a night on the town (read boozing it up in Lan Kwai Fong), @eatnik and I met up with the @eatdrinkstagger kids for some crabby action. As I was staying around the corner, I’d stopped in earlier in the day to book a table, and lucky I did, because the place was pretty busy, with people waiting for tables as we arrived. Despite booking, we still had to wait about five minutes, which we spent perched on stools out the front, perusing the menu. I’m fairly sure the branch of Under Bridge Spicy Crab we went to was the original, but it’s hard to say for sure!

We started off the evening with some beers. SOME ONE LITRE BEERS. Oh yeah.
First up were some stir-fried pippies in a sweet, salty, spicy cause. I don’t think it was XO, but I could be wrong. Whatever sauce it was, it was a perfect way to start the meal, as the beer had arrived, but not the rice. The only problem was that in the stir-frying process, a lot of the pippies had escaped their shells, so often you’d pick up a shell to find yourself just sucking the sauce off of it. That did mean there was a fair amount of pippie flesh floating around under the shell debris, so it just required some eagle-eyed hunting!
We also ordered the pigeon, which appeared to be lightly dusted with the obligatory five spice and then fried. I wasn’t much of a fan of this dish – it was pretty dry, and pigeon doesn’t have the gamey taste quail has, which I love.
Seeing as this was turning into something of a meatfest, we ordered the snow pea shoots, stir-fried with garlic. A pretty standard Cantonese vegetable dish, and one of my favourite. The shoots here were a bit more mature than I’m used to back in Melbourne. This made it seem more of a substantial vegetable, but on the down side, the snow pea flavour was less fresh and intense. Still, it was a good counterbalance to the saltiness of all the other dishes.
Everyone at the table was a fully qualified tofu fan, so it seemed prudent to order some tofu. Deep fried, with salt and pepper – and GARLIC CHIPS – these were a delight. They weren’t as airy and ‘puffy’ as most fried tofu I’d had before, instead actually maintaining a smooth texture inside. The seasoning made these very more-ish, and we polished off the lot.
Then came the main event: the ‘Typhoon Shelter’ style spicy crab. As you can see, the deep fried crab is COVERED with a blanket of fried diced garlic, and depending on your order, a varying amount of chilli. We ordered it medium, but we probably should have gone for hot. This is how it arrives at the table.
If you make enough of a nuisance of yourself by taking photos – especially if ALL FOUR OF YOU are taking photos, with varying degrees of photographic technology in hand – you’ll probably attract one of the more friendly waiters’ attention. And he’ll jovially offer to re-style the dish so that it’s more visually appealing. At least, that’s what this fellow did for us!
It was a little embarrassing, but also extremely amusing. And hey, we all think he did a pretty good job! What do you think?
I quite liked the signature spicy crab, though I think the deep frying actually dried out the meat a bit too much. But the fried garlic and chilli topping is addictive. Five minutes in, and we were all spooning the stuff on our rice. Luckily, we were all just hanging out for drinks together later, so we’d all have horrendous breath together. I feel a bit sorry for @alexobov with whom we met up with later.

If you want to know more about Under Bridge Spicy Crab, there’s a really good article on CNNGo.