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Friday 29 January 2016

The Exquisite Year of the Monkey Chinese New Year Menu at HKK

Name: HKK (Chinese New Year Menu)

Where: 1 Snowden Street, London, EC2A, http://hkklondon.com/

Cost: The Chinese New Year menu is available from 25th January until 20th February 2016. The food menu costs £88 per person with an option of £48 per person for drinks pairing.

About: One of my favourite Chinese restaurants in London, HKK is one of just a handful of restaurants I visit regularly whenever I crave top quality Chinese food.  

February is a great time of the year to visit such restaurants, as most will devise some exquisite menus to celebrate their most important calendar event of the year – the Chinese New Year. With that in mind, I hastened along to HKK for a sneaky peak at their 2016 Year of the Monkey menu and what is on offer until late February.

What We Ate and Drank: We kicked off with the Prosperity Platter which included a very refined version of the traditional prosperity salad. Typically served to start a family New Year meal, all the guests stand and toss the salad high in the air with their chopsticks while saying auspicious things to bring good luck, health and prosperity in the new year. HKK's version combined julienned pumpkin and daikon, crispy salmon skin, green and red seaweed, peanuts, pomegranate seeds and olive oil, all topped with some real gold leaf.

The second element of the platter was the 'fortune wrap' – this was a delectable dried Japanese oyster in Chinese leaf, with a scattering of black moss. The third and final item was a lovely little cube of Welsh organic pork belly, with a thin, crisp layer of fat, grilled and lightly spiced with sea salt, mustard and goji berry.

We opted for the drinks flight at £48 per person to partner each course. The Prosperity Platter was partnered with a glass of Japanese Mio sparkling sake. I love Mio sake and often serve this at my supper club - it made a deliciously refreshing, low-alcohol start to the meal, with delicate stone fruit and brioche on the nose, and an off-dry finish. 

The Tai Ji supreme seafood soup was served yin and yang-style, with one side consisting of crab roe and vegetarian shark fin, the other of egg white in broth, with winter bamboo, scampi and scallops served separately in a spoon. To eat, all three components are mixed together. This was warming, with delicate flavours of freshest seafood, and a refreshing crunchy texture from the winter bamboo.

To accompany, we had a glass of Clos la Cariziere Muscadet Sevre et Maines 2014. I'm not normally a huge fan of Muscadet, but this was a fine example, with a nose of green apple, lemon, and some luscious pineapple and tropical flavours on the finish. 

The Chinese believe that it brings good luck and happiness in the coming year to eat dumplings just after midnight - shaped like ancient Chinese gold or silver ingots, they are believed to bring prosperity. And who am I to argue, just give me the dumplings, please! HKK's dumpling trilogy included white (deep fried dumpling of chicken and abalone), orange (steamed dumpling was of scallop and Chinese chive) and green morsels (steamed dumpling of Dover sole with Imperial caviar).

Cleverly, the pastry cases were naturally coloured with gai lan juice (for the green dumpling) and carrot juice (for the orange). These were very well made, with finely textured cases and delicate, well flavoured fillings.   

We had a 'bitter fortune' cocktail with Tanquery Number 10 gin, Aperol, rhubarb liqueur and fresh grapefruit juice. Deliciously astringent, this was able to cut through the diverse flavours and textures of the dumplings.

Next up was HKK’s wonderful roasted cherry wood Peking duck - the signature dish of the restaurant. The duck is prepared over 2 days, with a complex, multi-stage process that ends with skin as crisp and thin as caramel, with the flesh still utterly succulent. Served with a delicious little salad of micro-herbs and fragrant pea shoots, this was as wonderful as I recall from an earlier visit. If you would like to try this amazing duck over a four-course lunch with a bottle of Champagne thrown in, the restaurant offers a special Peking Duck menu on Saturday lunch times only, reviewed here.

The duck was matched with a glass of Tsarine brut rose Champagne, that had refreshing strawberry and redcurrant notes.

My favourite course of the evening was HKK’s lobster noodles with an XO sauce, dried prawns and scallop, Parma ham, garlic and shallot. It was served with 'longevity noodles', symbolic of a long and healthy life. The lobster was magnificent - a generous serving, tender and with many layers of umami flavours from the dried seafood and XO sauce.

To accompany, we were served a glass of Chablis, Domaine Bernard Moreau et Fils, 2012. Full bodied, and aged in French oak, this was a rich, creamy wine with gentle tropical fruit on the finish. It had more than enough depth of flavour and complexity to match the richly flavoured lobster. 

To finish the mains, we were served an outstanding dish of Welsh lamb with Sichuan mala sauce (spiked with toban jan, a fermented soybean chilli sauce) that came with rice and pumpkin cakes, shiso leaves, and romanesco broccoli.

With the lamb, we were served a glass of Ribeira del Duero from Dominio de Atuata, Spain, 2011. Made from Tempranillo grapes, this had intense mint, black cherry and vanilla notes, but was well structured with plenty of tannin to balance the rich sweetness of the fruit. 

For our pre-dessert, we had vanilla and mandarin 'Tangyuan dumplings', with osmanthus and orange infusion. The round dumplings, and the bowls in which they are served, are said to represent family unity. With a crisp white chocolate shell and mandarin glaze, surprisingly filled with vanilla ice cream, this was wonderfully refreshing, served with pomegranate, lime caviar, an orange and osmanthus infusion, micro-coriander and a glass of orange and osmanthus iced tea.

To accompany, we had a glass of Diplomatico Reserva 8 year old rum from Venezuela which had plenty of spice and vanilla and made for an unusual but interesting pairing.  

Dessert proper was a green apple parfait, with cardamom cake, crispy apple noodle, apple sorbet and puree. This was an inventive, chefy with a surprising mix of textures and apple flavours, not so sweet or heavy as to overwhelm our palate at the end of the meal.

We were served a glass of luscious Samos Grand Cru 2014, Muscat Petit Grain, from the Greek island of Samos with our apple dessert.

To round off, we were brought the 'Tray of Togetherness' - these were a selection of delectable petit four, including grapefruit jelly, lime marshmallow, pandan choux, almond financier, white chocolate and passion fruit truffle, red bean choux, smoked salted caramel and dark chocolate truffle and yuzu jelly. I am not sure we were meant to have them all, we were asked to choose the ones we wanted, and of course I had to try the lot! They were all exquisite, but the salted caramel in particular was the star of the show in my opinion.

Likes: All the dishes were cooked with great skill, and were gorgeously presented. For me, particular highlights were the Peking duck and the lobster dish, but there wasn't a weak dish on the menu.

Dislikes: None

Verdict: For a great way to see in the Year of Monkey in 2016, I can't think of many other places I would rather be than HKK. This special Chinese New Year menu runs only until 20th February 2016, so hurry along if you fancy a fix of brilliantly cooked celebratory lobster, cherry wood roasted Peking duck and a selection of fine wines and Champagne. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 26 January 2016

Discovering Foodie Israel - a Culinary Voyage in the Holy Land

I watch in wonder as freshly ground sesame trickles down the 100 year-old stone grinders, the air thick with its aroma - tasting it, the intense flavour and richness of the seed is like no tahini I have tried before. For I am at Machne Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, Israel, at the start of a culinary tour that will take me from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and Galilee.

Halva made from tahini and flavoured in many ways at Machne Yehuda Market in Jerusalem

Tahini (or Tahina as the locals call it) is indeed at the heart of the Israeli kitchen, and as I was to discover, the cuisine has much more to offer including great local produce and some of the finest vegetable dishes anywhere in the world, but I’m getting ahead of myself - more of that later.

Hummus like no other!

I was invited with a group of international food writers to the country by Vibe Israel, a registered charity and philanthropic organization founded by Joanna Landau, a British-Israeli woman, with the aim of showing the many facets of Israel to the world in a completely non-political context.

My companions on this Israeli trip, from left to right - Aida (USA), Nu & Tata (Thailand), Sam (South Africa) and Manu (Spain)

A country the size of Wales, since its formation in 1948, Israel has gone from being a near desert nation to complete self-sufficiency in terms of food, water and energy. With a population that has grown from 800k to 8.5m today it has more start-ups per capita than any other country in the world, for its most important resource is its people.

The Holy City of Jerusalem

Chutzpah is a Yiddish word deriving from the Hebrew hutspâ, meaning insolence, cheek or nerve - this audacity is the characteristic which, for many, defines the Israeli people. In this troubled part of the Middle East, the whole nation has required a great deal of chutzpah simply to survive, let alone to prosper and become the cosmopolitan, vibrant and technologically advanced country it is today.

View of Tel Aviv's ocean front from the old town of Jaffa

Having lived near orthodox Jewish areas of north London for most of my life, I had a number of misconceptions about Israel before this trip. The Israelis I met on this trip were warm, and forthright, with a no-frills attitude I really came to appreciate.

L'haim! (cheers)

I was surprised to see how forward-thinking, tolerant and mostly secular the Israeli people are. In addition, they are very cosmopolitan, reflecting the inward migration of Jews from all over the world during the last 6 decades, as well the influence of the Muslim and Christian Arabs and the Druze, all of whom have lived there for centuries.

Friday afternoon in Tel Aviv - kicking off Shabbat Tel Avivian style

But what about the food of Israel, I hear you ask? Happily for me, the cuisine is a heady blend of Middle Eastern, European and Mediterranean, making for some of the most vibrant cooking on the planet.

Cherry tomatoes were created in Israel

In spite of many, seemingly irreconcilable political differences, food is the one thing that, to me at least, seemed to unite its people. Israelis from many different walks of life and ethnicities are proud of their food, and so they should be.

Shalom! (Hello/Goodbye and also Peace in Hebrew)

One thing that struck me was their use of vegetables. In Israel, vegetables are centre-stage in any meal - they are not mere accompaniments as in the West. As a carnivore to my core, it takes terrific cooking for me to rave about a platter of greens, but I was full of wonder at what I saw.

Take for example Israeli celebrity chef Eyal Shani’s burnt cauliflower. This humble vegetable has made his name, and has been heralded as one of the most innovative dishes far and wide, including by the New York Times. I was lucky enough to try his dish twice on this trip, to meet the chef, and to persuade him to give me the recipe, which I will be sharing in a later post.

Another visit that illustrated the focus on vegetables was to “Farma Cultura”, in Bnei Zion, near Tel Aviv.  Husband and wife Gil and Nadav, left Tel Aviv and purchased their abandoned plot of land three years ago.

They turned it into their organic farm, where they grow organic vegetables and supply many of the local families and restaurants. It is also the venue for cookery demonstrations, and pop-up events, as well as a place for kids to learn how to plant and cook.

We had a great meal here, the vegetables were bursting with flavour and accompanied by a number of delectable dressings including creamy tahini, garlic-flavoured goat’s yoghurt and hummus. It was also at Farma Cultura that we met Daphna Nissenbaum CEO & Co-Founder of Tipa Sustainable Packaging, who created the world’s first compostable plastic shopping bag and is one of the most promising of Israeli start-ups.

In Western Galilee, in the town of Ma’a lot-Tarshiha, we had a magnificent Arabic-Galilee lunch at Aluma Bistrot. Of all the great dishes we had, the one I will remember for a long time to come was another vegetarian offering - their kohlrabi carpaccio - made from paper thin slices of kohlrabi, spiked with lemon, salt and truffle oil, with a scattering of pistachio, black cumin, and shavings of Parmesan cheese.  What a fantastic and clever combination of flavours.

Lunch was followed by an afternoon of foraging in the nearby woods with Dr Uri Meir Chissik, a local food historian and forager.

Here was my first encounter with rubesa, a ubiquitous green leafy plant in Israel, and used in many different ways in cooking - luckily I was to try rubesa in more than one meal to come. It was surprising to see how fertile the land was, and we saw many other edible plants including mustard, wheat, chrysanthemum and even quinoa.

Rubesa - before
Rubesa - after

Most of the trip was based around Tel Aviv, but we also visited Jerusalem and Western Galilee, and in my own spare time I went to Haifa and Nazareth in the north of the country. I will be writing about these in more detail in separate posts, as well as giving my own recommendations on where to eat in Tel Aviv and a couple of outstanding Israeli recipes I came across.

Fruit stall at Sarona Market, Tel Aviv

With BA flights directly from London to Tel Aviv only 4 hours away, it has never been easier to visit Israel. The city is an ideal destination for a long foodie weekend away, or if you have a little more time, a fantastic base from which to explore a whole country and its cuisine.

Travel Essentials

Vibe Israel

Machne Yehuda Market, Jerusalem

Eyal Shani's North Abraxas (no website)
North Abraxas 
40 Lilienblum Street. +972 3 516 66 60

Farma Cultura

Aluma Bistrot

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Sun, Fun and Much Rum in the Dominican Republic (and Some Thoughts on All-Inclusive Hotels)

In the heart of the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic is a mere 8-hour flight from Gatwick, but it felt like another planet arriving from chilly London.  This Caribbean island offers everything from tropical rainforests to arid deserts and of course, total beach paradise.

Whether your thing is trekking, water-sporting, visiting beautiful colonial architecture (of which the capital Santa Domingo has plenty), or simply relaxing by the beach, there is much to keep you entertained for a good few weeks there. I also hear that the small quaint villages and mountain retreats of Jarabacoa and Constanza are well worth a visit if you have more time.

All-Inclusive Hotels – What Are Your Thoughts?

I don’t know how you feel about all-inclusive hotels - in my experience, they can vary from excellent to pretty mediocre. These mixed feelings stem from fantastic experiences in Mexico and Peru (reviewed here and here) as well as catastrophic ones like our stay in Cuba (reviewed here). 

The biggest attraction of all-inclusives can also be their Achilles heel. While its lovely to spend 24 hours a day being wined and dined without lifting a finger, this indulgence also provides a disincentive to many from getting out and about to explore the sites and culture and meet the locals, which after all is surely the whole point of travelling. But it doesn’t have to be this way, as any good all-inclusive hotel will offer a range of day trips and other activities outside of the hotel, some even included in the daily rate.

Whatever we might think about all-inclusives, sometimes I just want to relax and do nothing else - so for a week or two of total bliss by a gorgeous pool or at a private beach, catching up with my much-needed reading, I can’t think of anything better than checking myself into one of the finer examples of these places.

Living la vida at the all-inclusive Iberostar Grand Hotel Bávaro

The Iberostar Grand Hotel Bávaro, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

So a recent press trip to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic saw me at the all-inclusive Iberostar Grand Hotel Bávaro. One of the jewels in the crown of the Spanish family-owned Iberostar Grand Collection, the hotel is a 5-star and adults-only resort.

There are 272 suites in the hotel, all with direct access to or views of the seaside or the gardens. My room was one of these elegant suites, in tones of beige and white, with plenty of natural light and with a balcony overlooking the gardens.

The room was very spacious with a terrifically comfortable king-sized bed, a marble jacuzzi bath, and wonderful views. Throw in a proper coffee machine (no kettles in sight of course), a generous all-inclusive mini-bar and free Wi-Fi, and I was equally happy in the room as I was at the poolside.

Perfect spot for a bit of writing
Well, they did say the mini-bar could be refilled daily to my liking, didn't they? So....

The hotel is designed in a ‘U’ shape overlooking the sea, and within the grounds there are some impressive and beautifully-tended gardens, a huge artificial lake and a moored wooden ship.

The swimming pools are set amid the lush gardens, surrounded by huge palm trees – it is an idyllic spot.

I must admit I spent most of my week here at the poolside, drinking Coco-Loco cocktails (coconut milk, rum with tons of sugar), and toasting like a lizard in the sun. It was just a week before I started a whole season of supper club events, and this time really helped recharge my batteries for the hard work that was to come.

Coco Loco by the poolside....

If, unlike me, you are one of those people who cannot lie still for more than a few minutes, and the idea of being on a sun lounger at the poolside fills you with dread, there are plenty of other activities to do in or outside the hotel. There is a well-equipped gym and spa, and various scheduled activities including tai-chi, beach volleyball, dance classes, ping-pong, tennis and water polo. The hotel also has a magnificent 18-hole golf course.

Day trips can also be arranged by the concierge, and I went on a couple of these including a visit to a local cenote, and another at an aquamarine park where we had the opportunity to swim with dolphins.

I also discovered, sadly late in my stay, that an all-day trip to the capital Santo Domingo is also offered by the hotel, although by the time I found this out it was too late for me to reserve a spot. Santo Domingo is only a couple of hours’ drive from the hotel, and the trip will take you to museums and historical places in the town, as well as a restaurant that serves typical Dominican food. I learned about this from other guests who recommended it highly.

Dance classes are available throughout the day for those with energy to spare

Unlike many other all-inclusive hotels, Iberostar has a strong focus on gastronomy, culminating with a year-long IberostarChef on Tour campaign but more on that later. At any one time, the hotel has four à la carte restaurants, where reservations are required, open for dinner and catering from Italian and French to American and even Japanese cuisines.

La Perla's daily fresh salad buffet was excellent with a huge variety of salads and grilled meats and seafood

But for me, it was the simpler beachfront buffet restaurant La Perla, serving a generous selection of fresh salads, grilled lobster, seafood and meats, which really captured the great produce and cooking of the island. I had most of my lunches here.

Lobster galore!
A typical lunch at La Perla - grilled lobster, pork with crackling, beef short ribs & salads!

In addition to these, the Bella Vista international buffet restaurant offers breakfast, lunch and dinner to all residents without prior booking. 
The elegant Bella Vista Restaurant

Though it serves mainly international dishes, each evening the buffet has a particular theme such as Dominican or Italian cuisines, Fish & Seafood, etc. Cocktails, wines and digestifs are all included in the daily rate, with some special bottles being offered at extra cost.

Super friendly Dominican staff at the steak station

My favourite meal of the day was without a doubt the breakfast at Bella Vista – what an incredible array of delectable foods ranging from churros, to a huge variety of cold meats including hand-carved Serrano ham, cheeses, sweet tropical fruits, fresh and toasted sandwiches, you name it!

Fantastic breakfast buffet with about 20 different types of pork to choose from, heaven!

As much as I feel I should be having plenty of fruit and cereals at breakfast, at Iberostar I always ended up with 4 or 5 different types of pork, fried eggs and cheese.

But how could I have resisted all that pork? I loved what I thought was Calabrian Nduja every morning but learnt that it was actually Mallorcan ‘Sobrassada’, a mixture of left over pork made into a delicious paprika-laden spreadable sausage.

Other breakfast highlights were the deep-fried churros coated in sugar and topped with a thick chocolate sauce, and the super-refreshing and tart passion fruit juice (yes, I finally made it to the fresh fruit station!).

It was hard to tear myself away from the toastie station where freshly made ham, cheese and tomato toasts as well as French toasts (coated in egg and fried) were being dished up. Can anyone resist, hot, buttery toasties? I certainly couldn’t.

Probably my favourite breakfast station in the entire hotel - hot toasties!

Of the four à la carte restaurants, I visited two. The El Galeón Surf and Turf restaurant serves meat and seafood or, as the name suggests, a combination of the two. Better still was the Italian restaurant La Tentazione – where I enjoyed a gorgeously creamy pumpkin risotto among other dishes.

I had the opportunity to go behind the scenes in one of the hotel's busy kitchens and meet some of the chefs. Ivan, Rafael and Gladis were particularly welcoming and I even got to learn how to make a typical Dominican dish. Thank you so much Ivan!

Ivan, Rafael and Gladis

Mangu con enchilado de camarones - Banana & butter puree served with prawns in tomato and peppers
The IberostarChef on Tour Campaign – 2-Michelin Star Dining by Jordi Cruz

But the reason for our press trip was to report on the IberostarChef on Tour campaign. This gastronomic initiative by Iberostar aimed to export, through a number of dinners, the haute cuisine of Spain via 16 prestigious chefs (who together hold more than 20 Michelin stars) to its hotels’ residents in the Caribbean and Spain.

We were lucky enough to be at the Iberostar Grand Hotel Bávaro for the residency of Jordi Cruz and to meet the man himself. The second youngest chef in the world to gain a Michelin star (he now has four), he has three restaurants in Barcelona – AbaC, L’Angle and Ten’s Barcelona. He offers Spanish avant-garde cuisine, and is particularly passionate about cooking sous-vide, a subject about which he has written extensively.

Needless to say, the meal was spectacular, and a real show of Jordi Cruz’ technical skills. I loved his Bloody Mary on the Rocks, served with Bloody Mary foam and seafood. The Bloody Mary was made from tomato water rather than juice, obtained in a lengthy process by squeezing a huge quantity of tomatoes to extract their intensely-flavoured, clear water.   

The Parmesan gnocchi with wild mushrooms were also interesting – here Jordi Cruz created creamy little balls of Parmesan through a process of spherification. The “gnocchi” balls burst in the mouth, releasing a delicious cream of Parmesan onto the tongue. 

The beef fillet with foie gras and vanilla garlic confit was another highlight. Rich, perfectly cooked and full of flavour, this was served with a magnificent red wine reduction.

The IberostarChef on Tour campaign ran until October 2015, but if you plan a trip to an Iberostar property, do check out their website for any gastronomic experiences. If my trip was anything to go by, I would highly recommend attending one of these dinners during your stay. 

My stay at the Iberostar Grand Hotel Bávaro was the best all-inclusive experience I have had to date. This is an elegant hotel, with super friendly staff, delicious food and I would love to return to it one day.

Adios Dominican Republic, but I will be back!

What are your experiences with all-inclusive hotels around the world? Have you had any great or not-so-great experiences you would like to share? I would love to hear from you.  

Travel Essentials

Iberostar Grand Hotel Bávaro
Carretera Arena Gorda
Bavaro, Higuey - Dominican Rep.

I flew direct from Gatwick with British Airways, flights cost around £600-£800 per person in economy class. 

With thanks to Iberostar Hotels for their hospitality and for introducing me to the beauty of the Dominican Republic. 

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