HK’s favorite dining room
Shanghai restaurants are almost as ubiquitous as Cantonese ones in Hong Kong and with good reason, too. Its hearty combination of simple ingredients never fails to satisfy and is particularly enticing during these chilly winter days.
The only complaints, if we are picky, are that the same dishes keep reappearing. And, as in many local eateries, the more deliciously authentic the cuisine, the more the setting is bound to be a hole in the wall.
The Dining Room aims to change the bad rap that Shanghai food sometimes receives with a fresh take on both decor and menu. Situated in the brand spanking new Hysan Place, it is an airy 146-seat casual and contemporary venue that resembles a French bistro.
The entrance is decked out like a gourmet grocery store, with fresh fruit and vegetables spilling out from wooden crates. This is the theme throughout the restaurant, which extends the texture of the boxes into hardwood flooring and furniture.
Wrapping around a semi-open dim sum and cold prep kitchen, the dining area is infused with natural light from floor to ceiling windows.
Open shelves stocked with products used for menu items give the restaurant a neighborhood store ambience. A dado height brass rail with sheer drapes below add to the bistro feel, along with bric-a-brac, such as brass tea kettles and a wrought iron coat rack topped by a clock and weather vane.
Classic Phoenix bicycles manufactured in Shanghai are fun props, and I loved that there is a range of seating: counter-height tables with bar stools, communal wooden benches, sofas with low tables and white marble tables with cafe chairs.
The menu reflects the breeziness of the decor, with a number of new items created by executive chef Tony Huang. An alumnus of Shanghai New Asia Catering School, he is a specialist in dim sum and a former protege of Ge Xian’e – considered one of China’s best dim sum masters.
Our first taste of dim sum began with the soft and crispy bun with minced pork, bamboo shoots and Shanghai eggplant. I was very pleasantly surprised by the succulent eggplant, which was an excellent combination of sweet and savory. Served in a paper pocket, the flaky, very crunchy bun was a perfect envelope for its stuffing.
Next came a cold appetizer of candied whole mini pumpkin with lily bulbs. It was beautifully presented, with a gentle lily bulb taste that lingered on the palette and was just sweet enough to be refreshing.
My favorite was tofu with hairy crab cream. It was so silky and rich, I practically licked the plate clean. And it was a great way to enjoy hairy crab without doing any of the messy work.
Rice in soup with seafood in Shanghai style was a good choice for those who can’t decide between soup and more substantial fare. Each kernel was left whole, and the broth’s aromatic chicken flavor enhanced the generous assortment of shrimp, clams and squid.
Wok-fried shrimp with caramelized longjing tea leaves was equally delicious. The crisp leaves reminded me of deep-fried basil – only more fragrant, if that is possible. And the river shrimp was super fresh and lightly sauteed to retain its firmness.
Huang’s dim sum dexterity did not disappoint when it came to dessert, either.
I adored his crispy rice dumplings with pomelo, which was dusted with white sesame seeds and a melt-in-the-mouth filling of sweet pomelo. Artfully presented in mason jars, chilled puddings were available in jasmine, almond milk and mango, with the last being my personal pick to end things on a high note.
First Look at Ba Mien Bistro in North Houston
By Joshua Justice
Vietnamese pho shops are nothing new to even the far reaches of Houston — including the North Bammel and Klein areas of Houston, where no shortage of small, family-owned shops dot the strip centers along Veterans Memorial north of Beltway 8. For over 20 years, these small noodle and sandwich stores have enjoyed streaks of success and a constant customer base in the large Southeast Asian communities in and around Klein Forest and Aldine.
The challenge for small restaurant owners just north continues to be attracting the crush of traffic that buzzes up and down FM 1960 (I’m not calling it Cypress Creek Parkway, dammit). Families and lunchtime workers seem content to patronize fast food and fast casual chains while a steady stream of smaller restaurants of all shapes and sizes come and go seemingly unnoticed. Reasons abound for the continued failures, from poor marketing and bad locations to flat-out crummy food.
I’m as much to blame as anyone else. Having worked in and around the area for years, I was content to blindly pass small delis and barbecue joints for a fast meal at a chain down the street. Ba Mien Bistro, however, found a way — or ways, rather — to catch my interest well before they opened.
Driving by on my way to work last month, I noticed a bright stucco exterior along 1960 just East of Champion Forest Drive, a renovation of a former ramshackle barbecue joint. With a wrought iron fence, street lamp-style lights and a simple front awning out front, Ba Mien is a stark contrast from its previous incarnation and stands out from the adjacent strip center, which houses three different strip mall-style houses of worship (is this a new start-up business thing I’m not aware of? DIY church?), a barber shop and a tattoo joint.
Before long, banners hung on the newly-added patio area announced the impending restaurant along with something else that few small restaurants out here seem to bother with: Ba Mien has a dedicated, professional billboard front. Call me a sucker, but when business owners bother with the small yet important and often pricey details that present a complete product, I’m sold. It seems I’m not the only one, either: One week before I even noticed the place, a regular reader tipped off Eating Our Words to Ba Mien’s impending opening as well.
I visited Ba Mien a few days ago during their second full week of business to see what they had to offer. I was pleased to find that he attention to detail and upscale touches seen outside continue inside as well.
The husband and wife team — along with help from their children — have fully renovated the interior. A pristine marble counter complete with pastry case and small menu board greets you as you enter. The walls and trim have all been painted a glossy gray, offering an austere match to the stripped raw concrete floors. An arrangement of small gold frames softens the metal seating in the main dining room. The hard-meets-soft aesthetic is welcoming and light in its simplicity, something often missing in even professionally designed dining rooms at multi-million dollar restaurants — much less at a mom-and-pop pho shop.
Despite being a lifelong Houstonian, I won’t claim to be a banh mi expert and I’m not versed in the top 100 pho spots in Bellaire. I have, however, been eating the stuff since I was a teenager, so I do know what I like. Simple, fresh and well-seasoned are my keys to Vietnamese casual and Ba Mien is spot-on across the board. The vermicelli, served with two excellent egg rolls, was plenty for lunch (while probably small in comparision to some of the monster sized plates I’ve seen around town), leaving me to take my bánh patê sô to go.
Knowing I wouldn’t be back in the area for sometime, and having enjoyed my French patê pastry at home the night before, I visited Ba Mien again the next day to grab a quick banh mi. I found the sandwich every bit as enjoyable as the previous day’s lunch, served on a large, fresh, crusty French roll with massive hunks of chargrilled pork. My added fried egg was overeasy, its yolk streaming perfectly throughout my sandwich.
“Keep it simple, stupid” reigns supreme when dealing with banh mi sandwiches and this one was a textbook example of a genre in which “textbook” is a high compliment.
All in all, it’s a clever little cafe looking to spread away from the dozens of other shops just down the road. Clever touches on the outside hint at the care and attention to detail in the food. It’s nothing new, but it’s certainly something different.
Sassafras: Southern Hospitality, Hollywood Style
A haven for those who have outgrown the thumping Cahuenga Corridor club scene
by Elina Shatkin
Steeped in gilded decay, the newish bar from the vintage-obsessed 1933 Group (Bigfoot Lodge, Thirsty Crow, Oldfields, La Cuevita) feels like a hip version of Disneyland’s Blue Bayou. With its wrought iron gates, vine-covered smoking patio, and ornate drapery, it evokes a campy plantation charm.
A taxidermied bear in Knights Templar regalia watches over patrons, while “barrel-aged” cocktails in glass bottles go round and round on a repurposed dry cleaner’s rack.
Savvy libation lovers mingle with twenty- and thirtysomethings who have outgrown the thumping Cahuenga Corridor club scene. At the back bar, spin the roulette wheel for a chance to sip your mint julep or Grilled Peach Punch for free. Themed attire isn’t mandatory, but you won’t look out of place in ’20s threads.
More sophisticated than the typical Hollywood watering hole, this joint has style to spare, even after the gimmicks grow old.
The Garlic is the perfect place for a festive celebration
The Garlic, obviously, is a destination restaurant for folks from North Brevard to Central Volusia counties. Our Titusville companions recognized people sitting at several of the tables, and the arbor-covered walkway leading to the hostess stand was crowded with people waiting to get inside.
Entering The Garlic feels like stepping into a loud, festive celebration. The dining areas are big, dark and jam-packed. A long table runs down the center of the room, with various parties separated by a wrought-iron contraption designed to hold big bottles of olive oil and vinegar. Big booths line either side of the center table.
There’s entertainment nightly, and on the Saturday night of our visit, a guy was playing the guitar and singing classic rock standards.
In addition to menus, we were given a lasagna noodle with specials of the day handwritten on it.
We had a large party, and though it took a while for our server to get started, once everyone was in place he handled the multiple orders and separate check requests with polite efficiency.
Italian eatery finds a home in South Toledo
LaScola, approaching its fifth anniversary, is a South Toledo charmer, from the first step in the door (where the vestibule’s walls are lined with hundreds of intriguing old family photos), to the classy bar and contemporary Mediterranean dining areas. Amber lighting soothes, the never-too-loud sound track is Frank Sinatra/Perry Como-ish, and the decor has wrought iron, black leather, columns, and original art.
It’s a venture between veteran restaurateur Gus Nicolaidis and out-and-about chef Moussa Salloukh.
Most of what I had was terrific, so let’s start with that.
Lake Superior whitefish was scrumptious with a light crusty crunch of pecan/polenta. Magnifying the flavor was porcini-mushroom butter and a sweet drizzle of dark balsamic on the fillet. A handful of julienned, steamed peppers and zucchini was as good as it was attractive.
Eggplant parmigiana, was every bit of what one hopes for when ordering this odd vegetable: five big slices of lightly breaded eggplant with excellent marinara sauce, topped with parm and mozzarella over thin capellini noodles.
Chicken saltimbocca lived up to its “jumps in the mouth” translation. Tender chicken breasts are topped with salty prosciutto, sun-dried tomato pesto, fresh sage, and asiago: A combo that delivers bold flavor.
Hot bread and an herbed olive-oil dip is serve with meals. If you get a salad, ask for the home-made white balsamic dressing: It’s crisp and light with a bit of sweet and will soon be bottled and sold.
A fine appetizer was wild mushroom bruschetta; six slices of bread topped with three types of ‘shrooms, fresh basil, ricotta, and asiago, drizzled with the Mediterranean’s favorite oil. On one visit, we chose a side dish for an appetizer: a very good, warm, wild-mushroom risotto
Salmon with prosciutto on wide noodles with a handful of green peas was oily, heavy, and barely registered on the flavor-ometer. Salmon pieces, about an inch each, were good, but the dark prosciutto was chewy.
Sending both thumbs south was the roasted vegetable lasagna ($15.99), a leaning tower of veggies in need of judicious selection, more cooking, and a better sauce. It arrived as a big square, smothered in a pool of orange. “The pieces are getting bigger as the night goes by,” said our server.
Even with a serrated knife, negotiating this thing was work. I took most of it home for dissecting the next day, and could appreciate how it might have sounded good on paper: Single layers of lasagna separated a substantial clump of spinach, a mess of onions, red peppers, and tomatoes. The top layer was thick slices of hard squash.
Service was uneven: very good once; another time, it came on strong but petered out about halfway through.