Thursday, April 28, 2011

SPQR in San Francisco

Dazzling Italian Worthy of an Empire
1911 Fillmore St., San Francisco
Pacific Heights
PH: 415.771.7779
Open for dinner daily, 5:30–10:30 p.m. (till 10 p.m. Sunday); weekend brunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
(4% SF health tax added to bill)

With all the Italian pies I’ve been eating this past year in the Bay Area, it’s nice to be reminded sometimes that Italian cuisine isn’t always just about pizza. At SPQR, the Italian flavors shine in fresh California ingredients, delicate offal dishes and luscious pasta.

A few years ago, SPQR took over the spot of the once popular restaurant Chez Nous on Fillmore, but it firmly established itself as a trend-setter itself under the helm of Chef Nate Appleman. I’m sorry to say I didn’t get a chance to visit SPQR under Appleman’s tutelage, but it’s still inspiring under current Executive Chef Matthew Accarrino.

Accarrino, who’ve worked at Thomas Keller’s Per Se and Tom Colicchio’s Craft in Los Angeles, was working in the kitchen when I made my first visit to SPQR on a rainy day for a late Sunday brunch. The tiny restaurant once had a no reservations policy, so waits were long especially for dinner. But now reservations are accepted, although both times I visited I simply dropped in and pulled a seat up at the marble bar.

Side note: There’s also a chef counter in the back, but that’s so popular people actually request those seats when making reservations. So if you want to sit back there, I’d suggest making a reservation even if it’s just yourself.

SPQR (if you haven’t learned yet the letters stand for “Senatus Populesque Romanus” referring to the Roman Empire) features a menu of seasonal ingredients. For my brunch, I started with what was listed on the menu as a green salad ($10).

But when the salad arrived, it looked more than just a simple green salad. It was beautiful with a variety of seasonal greens with gorgonzola, pickled onions and apple slices. Dressed elegantly in a sherry vinaigrette, the salad had a lot of character and was quite filling. There were these interesting baby garlic croutons that were crunchy, but because they were so tiny many of them settled to the bottom of my bowl.

For my main dish I ordered the sunny side up eggs with crispy pig ears ($12), a simple but lovely presented dish of perfectly cooked eggs with the angular, thinly sliced crispy pig ears in a deep rust-brown color.

The soft yolk of the eggs oozed all over the pig ears and warm petite potato slices. The pig ears were sometimes inconsistent, with some pieces nice and crispy while others were chewy. But the overall dish was satisfying, accented by a mild chili vinaigrette that gave me a nice heat in the back but didn’t overpower everything.

I returned for dinner on a weeknight, again pulling up a seat at the bar since I didn’t have a reservation. I barely glanced at the menu because I was enticed by the special Assaggio di Primi, or pasta tasting menu. I’m always a fan of chef’s tasting menu, giving you a chance to sample a variety of dishes in small plates. And the price seemed fair at $46 for five courses. (The pasta tasting menu is available from Tuesday through Thursday.)

The first pasta dish of this night’s Assaggio di Primi was a cauliflower agnolotti that looked picture-perfect for spring. The agnolotti was stuffed with aged cheddar and the overall plate was complex with flavors coming from fonduta, cipolini agrodolce, wood sorrel, and of course the cauliflower. I cleaned the plate, eating everything, even the flower.

Next was the shellfish risotto, which had a primarily shrimp flavor and, unfortunately, a really shrimpy smell. The smell wasn’t fragrant as much as it was like raw shrimp. Although a beautiful looking dish with an interesting use of brussel sprout to add some texture, this was my least favorite dish of the night.

No problem, because the menu was redeemed by the ricotta proscuitto raviolo, which looked luxurious with the slivers of prune on top and crunch of hazelnut. But it was the quail egg inside, luxurious and perfectly cooked just like the eggs in my brunch dish, that made this raviolo so comforting.

The short rib pansoti was a pasta dish I haven’t tried before, basically folded pasta thinly filled with the short rib. The pasta had the color of what the menu listed as “bulls blood beet,” which made me feel like I was eating those blood cubes in Vietnamese soup. You can’t really see it clearly though because it was covered in a snow blanket of ricotta salata.

The last pasta dish was the most hearty – a linguini al cocoa with beer braised pork cheek and mimolette cheese. This cocoa linguini had the same dark hues of the previous pasta dish, but it gained a spot of brightness when I mixed the brown linguini with the broccoli crema, giving the pasta a nice spring green color. I have to say, I don’t remember eating much of the braised pork cheek, focusing more on the pasta.

After eating five plates of pasta (is risotto really a pasta?), I could have ended dinner there but I was tempted by the olive oil pound cake ($8). The slice of cake was so moist and delicious, but the bitterness of blood orange slices (the pith and peel was left on) was off-balance to the subtle sweetness of the cake and ice cream.

On the night I went for dinner, Chef Accarrino wasn’t in the kitchen, but his kitchen crew was firing on all engines because they still delivered impeccable dishes that supported Accarrino’s vision.

On both my visits, I found lots of regulars eating at the bar and had great conversations with them about why they keep coming back. A great neighborhood restaurant that maintains a cozy feel, SPQR seems to regularly serve up comfort with bits of surprise.

Single guy rating: 4.25 stars (Elegant Roman Cuisine)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

SPQR on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Chocolate Library in the Sky in Hong Kong

This is part of a series of reports on my recent gastronomical vacation in Hong Kong. Return every Monday and Tuesday to see some of the things I ate at this major Asian city on the other side of the Pacific.

One thing I’ve learned about this city is that it’s always looking forward, never backwards. That’s why there’s always construction going on and towers reaching to the heavens.

Hong Kong residents also love anything new, which is why new stores or restaurants get packed by curious onlookers. During my vacation, the new Ritz-Carlton hotel opened its doors. A hotel opening doesn’t sound like anything unusual, but this was atop the International Commerce Center (ICC), a gleaming skyscraper that towers 490 meters high (supposedly the fourth tallest building in the world) on the Kowloon side of this city.

With the hotel taking up the 102nd to 118th floors, the new Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong has an undisputed view of the city. The ICC, which also houses business offices and a high-end shopping mall called Elements on the ground levels, has been opening in phases over the last few years and the hotel is the final stage of construction.

The Ritz, which opened only three days before I arrived, boasts a Chinese seafood restaurant, an Italian restaurant, and a lounge and bar. I didn’t want to deal with the hassles of getting reservations at the new restaurants, so I decided to just drop in on an afternoon hoping to get some afternoon tea at the bar. But the flurry of activity prompted the well-dressed hotel staff to politely turn people away.

Undeterred, I asked if I could get tea at the Chocolate Library, which I’d also read about but wasn’t necessarily in a chocolate mood. But I came for the view, so I followed my escort (every guest is escorted onto the elevators and guided to the right place in case you start wandering around areas you’re not supposed to) who eventually turned me over to the host at the Chocolate Library.

After being seated at a table in what seemed like a mezzanine area overlooking the Italian restaurant, my host promptly told me they were out of the chocolate tasting menu. In these early days of the hotel, the kitchen was doing just a limited amount of food. (I guess they’re just getting adjusted to the crowds.)

So I ordered a pot of Earl Grey tea and reviewed the dessert menu, deciding on the chocolate gateau with bourbon vanilla ice cream and macerated strawberries (HK$110 or $15).

Side note: As you can imagine, the Ritz-Carlton was on the pricey side. When they ask if you want sparkling or still water, they mean from the bottle that they'll charge you for later. The total I spent for the chocolate gateau, pot of tea, and bottled water was HK$283 (including 10% service charge) or $36.

The setting was serene and the service friendly, and the d├ęcor was typical Hong Kong flashy metals and chandeliers. From where I sat, I had an awkward view of the city because the windows were decorated with some stenciling that blocked the view from my level (of course the people at the Italian restaurant below had an unobstructed view).

No matter, I just sat back and sipped away at my tea, poured in beautiful and delicate China. When my chocolate gateau arrived, my server was quick to tell me that cocoa crisps were sprinkled on the top.

The gateau was like a cross between a cake and a mousse. (Wikipedia says it’s a fancy word for cake.) It was extremely moist and decadent, and crispy bits on the top were a nice contrast in texture.

Funny though, the view from so high didn’t seem that much different from below. The city still seemed to be massive and overwhelming, even from the top. But the chance to step away and find a bit of peace in the afternoon did replenish me as I headed back downstairs to the MTR, back among the crush of people and the sounds of humanity.

The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong, International Commerce Centre, 1 Austin Road West, Kowloon, Hong Kong. (Nearest MTR: Kowloon station) PH: 852.2263.2263. Website

Monday, April 25, 2011

Australia Dairy Company in Hong Kong

This is part of a series of reports on my recent gastronomical vacation in Hong Kong. Return every Monday and Tuesday to see some of the things I ate at this major Asian city on the other side of the Pacific.

Serving the Masses Scrambled Eggs for Breakfast
G/F, 47-49 Parkes St., Kowloon (nearest MTR: Jordan)
Jordan neighborhood
PH: 852.2730.1356
Cash only

A traditional Chinese breakfast might often involve a bowl of hot jook (the rice porridge) and a side of cheung fun, or flat rice noodles sometimes filled with roast pork or shrimp. But another common breakfast in these parts is made up of macaroni soup with a side of eggs and toast.

Growing up in Hawaii, my mom (who’s from Hong Kong) used to make macaroni pasta in broth with some bits of ham and maybe peas. While oddly satisfying, I wondered how my mom came up with the idea to make macaroni in a plain soup. But when I started seeing people slurping down bowls of macaroni in broth with slivers of ham, everything all finally made sense.

A highly touted spot for this classic Hong Kong breakfast is a cha chaan teng called Australia Dairy Company on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. There’s been so much buzz about this place that there’s always a line forming outside. But I followed a tip from a blogger who said to go before 9 a.m., so I was there by 8:30 a.m. and, sure enough, there wasn’t a line but the place was packed.

Now, a cha chaan teng or tea restaurant is known for its no-nonsense food and service. So that means you’re often hustled into open seats by barking waiters and then you find yourself at a forced communal table with strangers. A waiter pointed me to a four-top where two people were just finishing their breakfast and standing up to leave. I sat down and joined two other people waiting for their food, and another waiter quickly wiped down the table in front of me and handed me a menu (all in Chinese).

Also on the walls are breakfast sets, again all in Chinese. But because Australia Dairy Company has been so widely written up on the web, I knew its specialty is basically the breakfast set that includes macaroni soup, scrambled eggs with toast (you can ask for a sandwich during breakfast) and a drink, usually coffee or tea or a combination of both.

I went ahead and ordered the macaroni soup, a scrambled egg sandwich, and lai cha, which is black tea with milk.

Around me waiters ran back and forth with plates of orders and customers quickly ate their food, with the frenetic scene sometimes broken up by a man calmly reading his newspaper. I only had to wait for a few minutes before my macaroni soup arrived.

The bowl of macaroni is the Chinese’s answer to mac and cheese, but without the cheese supposedly because most Asians are lactose intolerant. So the pasta sits in broth and topped with slivers of ham. The soup was nice and hot and the pasta tender, but it’s nothing special. But since I ate this a lot as a kid, it was very comforting.

Then came my scrambled egg sandwich, with the yellow fluffy eggs pressed between two white bread. Australia Dairy Company is famous for its scrambled eggs, which some have called the most fluffy in town. While they were light and tasty, I didn’t really feel it was so extraordinary. It’s just good scrambled eggs. (I have to admit that the pressure to rush through your breakfast does make it harder to step back and reflect on what you’re eating.)

My lai cha came last (I had to flag a waiter down to remind him about my drink), and it was my first time having this classic breakfast beverage. And I actually enjoyed it (I usually drink black tea with just some sugar), with the black tea creating a deep flavor that becomes mild with the addition of milk. (I suspect this black tea is what the Chinese call “red tea” because it’s so dark that the leaves produce a red hue when steeped.)

My total breakfast cost HK$26 (or $3.50). To pay, you just ask any waiter (there are so many bustling around you don’t have to go to the same guy) for the check, and all he does is write down the total price. So basically you have a piece of paper with a number, which is the amount you pay when you go up to the register.

Despite all that’s been written up about Australia Dairy Company, nobody has a real good explanation about its name. The place is also known for its sweet steamed milk desserts, which are freshly made each morning and is popular for afternoon tea. In the window you see bottles of milk, but I don’t know if people actually buy that or if they're just for show.

While everything in my breakfast hit the spot, it wasn’t necessarily anything spectacular. A visit to the Australia Dairy Company is really a chance to soak in the local flavor and get some quick, cheap traditional breakfast. But don’t expect to sit around and people watch because it’s all about churn here.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (Dining on breakfast and HK's bustle)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Test Kitchen: Antojito's Sea Scallops in Saffron and Chipotle Salsa Recipe

This month's Test Kitchen was an attempt to get me excited about Mexican cuisine. So I picked the "Antojitos" Cookbook that I got as a gift from my sister. It's a cookbook by some New York chefs who owns the Manhattan restaurants La Palapa's.

Of the three recipes put up on the poll, more than 42% of you voted for the Sea Scallops with Saffron and Chipotle Salsa. (It was followed closely, or 30%, by the Guajillo Chili-rubbed Chicken and hardly anyone felt like the Chilled Avocado Soup, 27%.)

Scallops are always a guaranteed winner (and lately a bit expensive), and here's how it went when I tried this recipe for dinner recently.

The recipe tells you to prepare the scallops by using a pairing knife to remove and discard the small, tough membrane from the side of each scallop. You know what's weird? I've never done this before. Every time I've cooked scallops before, I never realized there was a tiny tough part on the side. I probably was such a big that I ate it and just though, "geesh, this scallops kind of tough." So when I looked at the scallops, I realized there was this really separate part that's slightly tougher. So I just cut it off. Now I know to always prep my scallops.

The recipe says to roll the scallops in some all-purpose flour to coat before pan-frying them in a skillet. First you season it with some salt and pepper, then roll them in the flour, shaking off the excess. Then place all the scallops over high heat with olive oil. The recipe said 1/4 cup and that sounded a lot and you know my issue with grease and oil, so I just used enough olive oil to create a thin layer in the pan. I cooked it following the recipe, which says 5 minutes untouched.

This is how the scallops look all golden brown. Then I cooked it for 3 minutes longer and reduced the heat to low and cooked it for another 2 minutes. I placed the scallops on a platter and kept it in the microwave to stay warm while I worked on the saffron and chipotle salsa.

The recipe starts with 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (keep in mind I made half the recipe as usual) in a skillet (I only had a small saucepan) along with 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat, then lowered the heat to medium to add one shallot that I minced, cooking it for 2 to 3 minutes. (Do not brown.) Then I stirred in 2 tablespoons of adobo sauce from a can of chipotle pepper. (Again, the recipe just wanted the adobo sauce, so I just froze the chipotle peppers to use later.) The recipe says to boil the sauce for about 2 minutes to let it thicken, but I have to say it barely thickened during that short time. The recipe then says to take it off the heat and add a pinch of saffron threads, leaving it to sit and infuse.

Then I plated up the scallops and drizzled the sauce over it. That's the end of the recipe, and in the cookbook there wasn't a photo so I didn't know how it should look when plated. But I knew it sounded boring with just the scallops drizzled in sauce. So I decided to dress it up myself by adding toasted sunflower seeds and ripped pieces of cilantro. Pretty huh?

My tips and warnings about this recipe:

  1. Don't be so exact about the cooking of sea scallops. Go with what you think should work for your stovetop and the size of your scallops. I followed the timing exactly, and my scallops turned out overcooked. Probably because my new stove gets super hot on high, and maybe my scallops were smaller than what the recipe expected. So just brown for how long you think it should take, keep in mind seafood doesn't take that long to cook.
  2. I think the sunflower seeds and cilantro did the trick with garnishing. I think it would have been totally boring without it. If you don't like sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds would also seem appropriate.
Ease of cooking: This is a very simple recipe, although there are added steps that I really wonder about, mainly the directions to coat the scallops in flour. That does help the scallops get crispy a bit, but I've seared scallops naked (the scallops, not me!) without flour and they seemed crispy, especially when using butter. I may skip that step next time. Also, the sauce didn't thicken the way it should have, so not sure if it's really that fast to make sauce in 2 minutes.

Taste: The scallops, of course, were great because like I mentioned, how wrong can you go with scallops. But the sauce, which should have taken the scallops to another level, was actually mild and didn't seem to add a lot to the overall dish.

Overall grade: B-. I love scallops and the recipe was simple, but maybe too simple. And I was annoyed having to deal with the whole flour coating thing, and the sauce that never really thickened. And unfortunately, I don't think it inspired me to do more Mexican cuisine.

Don't forget to vote for next month's Test Kitchen in the upper right column. I delve into another Iron Chef cookbook, choosing recipes from Chef Michael Symon, who came out with his "Live to Cook" cookbook last year.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

San Francisco International Chocolate Salon 2011

This past weekend I was called up to the Show. For you baseball fans, you know what I mean when you get called up from the minor leagues to the majors, or "The Show." That's what I felt like when I graduated from being a judge for last fall's Luxury Chocolate Salon to the larger San Francisco International Salon at Fort Mason.

This time I was ready, eating lunch before I went, pacing myself and surveying the different chocolate vendors. I made sure to take notes after each bite, and not necessarily gorging on two many chocolates from one chocolatier.

Luckily, the Chocolate Salon (by TasteTV) has been good in the last few years in controlling the crowds and the list of vendors. So instead of being overwhelmed, the number of vendors this year made tasting more manageable.

As part of the tasting panel, I just had to vote for my favorites in 21 different categories. There were a lot of other judges, so in a way it was like people's choice awards.

Here are some sights from the salon, and a few of my favorites.

Amano Chocolates of Utah is consistently a winner at the chocolate salon. It's no wonder, because its chocolate bars (primarily dark chocolate) are especially luxurious and rich in flavor. (I've tried some dark chocolate bars at other vendors that tasted dry because of the bitter chocolate levels.)

Socola Chocolatier is from San Francisco and it had several different flavored truffles, with some unusual flavors like stout beer and durian. I did try the stout beer but didn't get the chance to try the durian.

Here are truffles from Salt Side Down Chocolates, another chocolatier from the Bay Area. Its truffles have salt sprinkled on the bottom. I tried them in the fall luxury salon, and was excited to try a couple of new flavors with some unusual names like Sweet Fungus Among Us and Number 5: Umami. Both were amazingly complex.

Not sure why, but the booth for William Dean Chocolates had the longest line throughout the salon. They definitely have the most beautifully decorated chocolates but I didn't feel it was necessarily that different than other luxury chocolates out there. Not sure if it was one of those situations where the line started and everyone just kept jumping in because it was the only vendor with a long line. Or maybe they were just slow with passing out samples? Hard to say.

One of the toughest category to judge was "Best Fair Trade Chocolate," partly because it was hard to find a chocolate maker using fair trade chocolates. But the chocolate from Alter Eco got my vote. I liked their chocolate bars and their name.

I like flavored truffles that wake me up, like this new product from Gateau et Ganache. It was a sour cherry truffle. Nice.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Won Ton Mein at Mak An Kee in Hong Kong

This is part of a series of reports on my recent gastronomical vacation in Hong Kong. Return every Monday and Tuesday to see some of the things I ate at this major Asian city on the other side of the Pacific.

Can something so simple be so beautiful? Sometimes something so ordinary and everyday can be so extraordinary and special.

Have I hyped up this post enough yet?

One of the most iconic dishes from Hong Kong has got to be the won ton mein – springy thin egg noodles in broth along with dumplings made of shrimp and pork. If Japan has its ramen, Hong Kong has its won ton mein.

And yes, in Hong Kong there’s a won ton mein shop on every block. It’s one of the favorite bowls of noodles for lunch, an afternoon filler or late night snack. I went hunting for a bowl of won ton mein one afternoon, probably just two hours after I had just finished lunch. (That’s just how busy my eating schedule was on this trip.)

After doing research, I decided to visit Mak An Kee, which my cousin who lives in Hong Kong says is one of the most traditional of won ton mein restaurants. You might read a lot about Mak’s Noodles, which has become so popular that it has several locations. The story is that Mak’s Noodles is a spin off of Mak An Kee after an alleged family dispute. Or maybe it’s the other way around? (In fact, when doing a Google search, sometimes people will mix up Mak An Kee for Mak’s Noodles.)

But Mak’s Noodles has gotten some mixed reviews, so that’s why I focused on Mak An Kee.

Mak An Kee is an old, divey, tiny noodle shop hidden in an alley in the Central district of Hong Kong. Mixed in with the downtown skyscrapers are winding alleys filled with stalls of vendors hawking cheap goods. But those alleys also have actual stores, and Mak An Kee is at the end of Wing Kut Street off the main thoroughfare Des Voeux Road Central.

When I arrived at Mak An Kee, the waitress greeted me with that typical gruffy love of a woman who has seen it all. She pointed to an empty table and started off by warning me that they had nothing to drink. “We don’t even have a cup of tea,” she said. I didn’t know if that was just a one-time thing or a part of the routine of Mak An Kee.

Side note: Despite the grungy environment, they had air-conditioning, which is vital in hot and humid Hong Kong. Who can eat a hot bowl of noodles in the heat?

The menu is only in Chinese, but I knew what I wanted. So I just ordered a bowl of won ton mein. My waitress asked if I wanted a small, and I said yes since I had just come from lunch. And that was the extent of our relationship.

A few minutes later, my bowl arrived, with a pile of noodles covering up the won ton dumplings (the above photo shows the bowl when it first arrived at my table). The aroma of the hot broth came through, with the toasty shrimp roe that’s distinctive in this area (I wish more won ton noodle shops in the United States go through the extra effort to add the roasted dried shrimp roe). A few finely sliced slivers of leeks added to the overall fragrance.

I pushed back the noodles to unveil the won ton, some of the largest dumplings I’ve seen made of thin pasta sheets and filled with a whole shrimp in each perfectly cooked dumpling. But while the bowl is named for the won ton dumplings, it was the noodles that stole the show for me.

Springy and hair thin, these were noodles to eat with an endless stomach because you’d never get full from these light, tasty mein. My relatives in Hong Kong describe the perfect won ton noodles as “crunchy,” but it’s not exactly that. Sure, they’re firm with some pull, but you can bite into them without breaking your teeth. You’ll just break into a smile.

The small order of won ton mein at Mak An Kee is HK$26, or just $3.50. I had the goal to try another won ton shack in Hong Kong to compare, but I just couldn’t squeeze another one in. Looking back, I don’t know why I felt I needed to. Mak An Kee’s won ton mein is made with fragrant broth, fresh dumplings, and springy flavorful noodles. Simply the best won ton mein I’ve eaten in my life.

Mak An Kee, 37 Wing Kut St., Central, Hong Kong (closest MTR: Sheung Wan). Cash only.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Din Tai Fung in Hong Kong

This is part of a series of reports on my recent gastronomical vacation in Hong Kong. Return every Monday and Tuesday to see some of the things I ate at this major Asian city on the other side of the Pacific.

Refined and Comforting Shanghai Cuisine
G/F, Shop 3-9, 68 Yee Woo St., Hong Kong
Causeway Bay neighborhood (closest MTR: Causeway Bay)
PH: 852.3160.8998
Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
No reservations, major credit cards accepted
10% service charge


While Hong Kong is known for its Cantonese cuisine, which emphasizes the seafood of the area, it’s also the gateway to other Asian cuisines like Sichuan, Shanghainese, and more.

So during my vacation here, I went searching for my current obession – xiao lung bao, or Shanghai soup dumplings. The place known for its xiao lung bao in Asia is the Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung.

This chain has even made it to the shores of the United States, with branches in Los Angeles and Seattle. And while it’s probably easier for me to travel to those cities, I was already in Hong Kong so I just took the subway to Causeway Bay, the mega shopping neighborhood that features the newest location of this popular dumpling house.

Din Tai Fung has a prominent spot on the ground floor of the same building that houses the Regal Hong Kong Hotel, and an open kitchen in the front lets you see the many chefs folding up dumplings and steamed buns for the crowds waiting outside.

Since they don’t take reservations, I went just as the restaurant opened for lunch to be among the first seated. I was given an order sheet so I could mark what I wanted. The sheet is written in Chinese, but the server gives you a menu with English and photos, and the number of the items on the menu corresponds with the numbers on the order sheet.

The dining room is an elegant space with beautiful China and utensils, which matches the one Michelin star rating Din Tai Fung received last year. While the server provided me with a nice, light tea to drink, I decided to order one of the many fresh juices because it was a warm day. The watermelon juice I got was wonderfully refreshing with a lot of body.

From the appetizer section, I started with a plate of the String Beans with Minced Pork (HK$28 or $3.75). The tiny plate of string beans was cute as a starter, but the actual string beans were a bit soggy for my taste. I like them with more of a bite, and these were not. Still, the minced pork provided a nice, familiar flavor (it's not just minced pork but the salted type) so I didn’t have a problem finishing them.

Then came an order of the famous xiao lung bao, or steam pork soup dumplings (6 pieces for HK$48 or $6.25). The dumplings looked nicely folded, although a bit slumped from the steaming.

Of course, the xiao lung bao has the soup inside, and here’s a shot of the soup after I took a bite. While the pork was delicious and plentiful, the skin delicately thin, and the soup clean and simple, it didn’t have an amazing fragrance. In a way, they weren’t as memorable as the recent xiao lung bao I had in San Francisco at Dumpling Kitchen. While good, they were on par with some of the best xiao lung bao in the Bay Area.

So was my lunch a disappointment because I traveled all that way to get xiao lung bao that I could get back home? No, because my next dish saved the day.

I decided to get a bowl of noodles, and ordered a classic: noodles with pickled vegetables and shredded pork (HK$35 or $4.50). I love pickled vegetables and the combination with pork is classic. Din Tai Fung’s bowl of noodles came out looking elegant, a beautiful combination of perfectly julienned pickled vegetables with the shredded pork. The pickled vegetables were light in flavor, not overpowering the pork, balanced with fresh bean sprouts and a few Chinese elephant ear mushrooms for crunch.

But the highlight of the bowl was the noodles. Here’s a shot of the noodles underneath. The hand-made noodles were amazing, with the uniformity and texture all hitting the right notes. The flavor of the sauce underneath accented nicely with the pickled vegetables and looking at this photo I have a bit of regret that I did not go back to Din Tai Fung for another bowl of these delightfully comforting noodles.

While I was quite satisfied from the xiao lung bao and the bowl of noodles, I still saved room for dessert. Din Tai Fung has a nice selection of traditional Chinese desserts (mostly sweet soups), and I ordered a bowl of Chilled Sago Soup with Coconut Milk and Fresh Fruit (HK$28 or $3.75).

Few Hong Kong restaurants offer up chilled soups, so it was a nice change to drink the soup with the sago, which you probably know as tapioca pearls. The light soup had just the slightest hint of coconut and wasn’t too sweet. The only downside was the fruits, which tasted and looked like cantaloupe balls but were crunchy and not really ripe.

Side note: The service at Din Tai Fung is top-notch. After you place your order, the head waiter leaves a print out of your order at your table, which the servers mark off when your item arrives. This way there’s no dispute if you’re waiting for a dish that hasn’t arrived yet, but the way Din Tai Fung’s kitchen pumps out the food, there’s probably no problem with getting your food.

Even though Din Tai Fung’s Shanghai soup dumplings weren’t necessarily life-changing, its noodles make the entire experience worth it. Eat in a clean, refined setting that makes you feel pampered but without busting your travel budget.

Single guy rating: 4 stars (dumplings and noodles galore)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner