February 25, 2015

Bucketlist review: The Lobby, Peninsula Hotel

Every food blogger has that one place they've always wanted to go. Irregardless of whether they get to write about it, or talk about it, or even take photos of the experience, every blogger has that one spot they've always dreamed of visiting and writing about. 

Mine is The Lobby's famous Afternoon Tea, of the Peninsula Hotel Hong Kong. 

I've gone to Hong Kong quite a few times in my life. At one point, I've visited Hong Kong twice in a year, then annually for four consecutive years. That's how much I love the place - I love it. It's in my bones to yearn for Hong Kong, to visit her, eat her food, watch her streets fill up with people through the night, be with her people.

However, despite the many times I've been to Hong Kong - I've never once tried to visit The Peninsula to see if I could secure a table for their afternoon tea. It is famously crowded, the queue forming long before the commencement of tea time at 2pm, and I just never went. I've been to the Peninsula for a visit once, but I never plucked up the courage to join the queue and ask for a table. I'm not too sure why myself - perhaps I had an underlying fear it would not live up the hype, or it just was never the right time for me. 


This time, however, it was the right time.


If you've ever seen The Peninsula, and you may well have, in several films - you'll know its a historical place in Hong Kong. Opening its door in 1928, it is one of the oldest heritage hotels in Hong Kong, seeing and surviving the start then end of a war, and having its name forcibly changed then returned to it when Hong Kong was restored from the Japanese to the English. Heavily colonial in its decor, and even its in service, this hotel has seen much of Hong Kong and lived to tell the tale.

The iconic English-styled afternoon tea remains one of the things left behind by its colonial masters of the past, and till today many still visit The Peninsula in the hope of securing a table for some afternoon tea while listening to the live orchestra play.


Oh, how we waited. Me and my long-suffering father took turns in the queue while my mother spent the two hours relaxing on the armchairs provided in the hotel lobby. A whole two hours, inching closer to the head of the line from the queue formed all the way to the back of the hotel, snaking around the corner as another waiter stood to help any lost customers. 

If you are a guest in the Peninsula Hotel, don't fret - you are able to make a reservation. Since I was not a guest (yet), I bid my time and watched as people came and left in the rush of the afternoon. 

After a grand total of two hours, we finally got our table - a smiling, understandably amiable young man led us to our table, gently coaxing us through the weave of other guests' tables, pulling out our chairs and presenting us with the menu. His expression was one I recognised, he knew we had waited an obscenely long time and he was not about to rush us for anything in the world.


As my parents relaxed while I ordered up our afternoon tea sets, our waiter nodded and smiled through my entire request. Extremely well-mannered, and alert despite the crowd he had been and was still serving, he calmly answered our questions in excellent English, and recommended the different teas to us without doubt or pause. Dressed in a sharp white suit, he quickly left to get our order in, sharply instructing a junior staff to dress our table with the suitable cutlery. 

I watched as the wait staff worked their way through the afternoon tea rush - they never ran, they never frowned, they never hesitated. They walked briskly from their stations to the tables, smiled as they poured tea and refilled glasses, never piling their glinting silver trays with excessive things - placing items onto tables with not a clink nor a splash. 

They had been trained, and trained well.



Now, if you find yourself in the same situation as I am, know that the afternoon tea menu is not extensive. It doesn't boast a dictionary of tea selections, or a huge selection of food to overwhelm. They simply list off the items and ingredients, and allow you to make your decision. 

One doesn't come here to just eat and drink - you do so in an atmosphere that's been catered to the English for over 80 years, and what an atmosphere it is. High ceilings, gold finishes, the lull of the orchestra playing on the balcony, watching the bellboys with their white suits and gold buttons, and those beautiful chandeliers - all add to the experience of afternoon tea in this hotel.

What you must notice, are the gargoyle faces on the sprawling, majestic columns along the hotel lobby. There are 76 in total - and they have been the one key feature to remain through the years, preserved and cared for till today.


A waiter arrived to set our table, setting the cutlery and the place-mats without a sound. He was precise and unassuming, never touching the cutlery at the wrong end, placing the beautiful plates down exactly in the middle of the place-mats and nodding to us as he exits to carry on the rest of his duties. 

He did not need our approval nor did he seek it. He knew he was doing just fine - or he would not leave the table.



The cutlery, of course, was suitably marked with the signature Peninsula logo - polished, heavy silverware, delicate chinaware with clever and pretty finishing and details. Shiny and fancy, with the slight flair of coloured detail to get your attention. 

Their teapots are all polished silverware, heavy and vintage. If you peer inside the pots, you'll notice that its stained, not dirty, from the countless amounts of tea served from them.


As our drinks arrived, the waiter poured our teas - an Earl Grey for my mother, while I ordered the Tangerine Rooibos. Both were incredibly scented, smelling absolutely divine, and tasting just as lovely as they smelled. 

I particularly loved my Tangerine Rooibos - heavy with the scent of fresh tangerines, sharp and acidic yet soft and sweet on the palate. I can still smell it now, a distinct scent, like someone peeling an orange next to you, the scent cutting through the air and refreshing your sense. (Also, I think the waiter knew I was taking a photo so he poured the tea slower and longer than he needed to.) 

As he gently placed the tea strainer away, I saw little specks floating lazily up to the amber surface of my tea - red strands of tangerine peel, adding depth to my sips.




My father had a cafe au lait, or a latte I guess, served in a pretty glass holder. It tasted pretty great as well, if my dad's word counted for anything. He quite liked the coffee, and he's quite the coffee drinker, so we'll have to take his word for it. 

As we sipped, and sighed - our food arrived.


The first of which was The Lobby Club sandwich (HKD$200) - a recommended dish, coming with a side of chilli fries. By chilli fries I mean hot crispy chips with savoury chilli powder sprinkled generously over them. By club sandwich, I mean crispy-soft, toasted seven-grain bread, with bacon, herbed egg omelette, shaved ham, lettuce, tomato and a light smear of sauce folded and clasped into the whole thing. 

They also serve the sandwich with a side of coleslaw and a pickle to make sure you don't stay hungry after your sandwich. That's pretty considerate.


I also ordered their signature Blueberry Cheesecake (HKD$150) for my father - who is a huge cheesecake fan. I felt the need to reward him for helping me with the endless queue for this meal, and he was very inclined to accept my reward. 

The cheesecake came presented like a work of art - creamy, crumbly cheesecake resting just barely on a crisp Speculoos biscuit, pebbles of blueberries, a wave of puff pastry sitting across the middle of the entire plate, a quenelle of lemon sorbet sitting on a biscuit crumble (also Speculoos), finished with a dramatic swirl-drag of blueberry sauce.

They were clever with this - they knew the cheesecake might be heavy for some - so they used the lemon sorbet to cleanse the palate and provide a refreshing accompaniment.




My mother, being vegetarian for the day (it was the first day of the Lunar Chinese New Year) - ordered this Coconut Sticky Rice (HKD$165). Served in a baby coconut, with dollops of sticky rice, tart chunks of mango and sweet, soft slices of coconut flesh, this was creamy and heavy, and reminded me heavily of the Thai version. The only difference was that this variation was much creamier, wetter and sweeter than the Thai version. 

It was very strange, but we didn't hate it. It's not something we could finish solo, but we shared this and we didn't hate it.






Finally, we arrive at the Pièce de résistance - The Peninsula Classic Afternoon Tea for two (HKD$628).


A three-tier spectacle of sweet and savoury, sitting in the middle of our table, demanding my attention like a spoilt cat. The top level were the sweets, strawberry pudding, chocolate hazelnut cake, raspberry cakes, and a peach tart - with the 'peach' actually being peach-flavoured syrup encased in a thin membrane structure, running down your tart like an egg yolk as you bite into it. 

I can't go into every one of the elements individually, but I make special mention to the chocolate-hazelnut cake concoction. It was lovely, velvety dark chocolate on sponge with hazelnut cream, and a touch of crisp wafer. That was very enjoyable for me. 


The savory second tier was a smattering of sandwiches, and a sort of weird egg and vegetable quiche. I didn't find the quiche very appealing as it was quite tasteless, and the sandwiches were basically sandwiches. Ham fillings, smoked salmon, some cucumber and cream, the basics.

There wasn't anything that particularly stood out for me on this plate, but it wasn't like I didn't just have an amazing Club sandwich.


As with all afternoon tea sets, there must be scones. Scones, scones, scones. 

I'll be honest with you - these scones straight up blew my mind. They were, visually, much taller than the regular butter scone, and their deep-browntops were lovely and tore off easily, crumbling very little. These observations immediately indicated to me that this would probably not be scones that were too dense, and perhaps more cake-like in texture. 

I was half right - the scones were fluffy, but retained a level of density in their texture. Buttery on their own without overwhelming, not absorbing the lovely clotted cream and jam - both with just a touch of sweetness so they didn't turn me off - as I spread the mixture onto the surface. Not too dense that you would feel it sticking to your teeth as you chewed, and not so fluffy that it would be too light and become a cake instead of a scone.



Absolutely perfect scones. I literally had no time to process my thoughts about these scones because I was too busy shoving them into my mouth-hole.



We ate a lot on this day.

I had long conversations with my parents as we sipped tea and made our way through the delights presented to us on this day. We nibbled and chewed and laughed as my dad plopped too much jam on his scones, and our little table almost ran out on space to put any extra plates or cups. 

It was a very peaceful, very comfortable time for me.





What else could I possibly add to this review that could articulate my happiness of simply being here, let alone being able to dine here after so many years of missing it and thinking of it?

Service is impeccable, the food is delicate, simple but delicious - complimenting their teas. Their cutlery is aesthetically beautiful with an old-school charm, which extends to everything they do, serve and decorate with. It isn't possible to say anything I would dislike about the Afternoon Tea at The Peninsula. I could gripe about the queue, but why would I when I expected it? That's like me complaining about having to queue at the bank. 

I hope you have the opportunity to experience this - I'm not talking about experiencing having afternoon tea at the Peninsula. I'm talking about being able to experience finally fulfilling your One Place, of finally being there and knowing it was exactly as you imagined and so much more. It was unforgettable for me how I felt at that moment, and I want everyone to be able to feel the way I did at some point in their lives, whether its at the Peninsula, or any other place.




The Lobby can be located at:

G/F Peninsula Hong Kong
Salisbury Road, Tsimshatsui
Hong Kong, SAR
Tel: +852 2696 6772

香港半島酒店
香港九龍梳士巴利道

Hours
7:00 am - 12:00 am (Sunday to Thursday)*
7:00 am – 1:00 am (Fridays and Saturdays)*

*Afternoon Tea: 2-6PM 

(No reservations for Afternoon Tea, smart casual attire.) 

January 21, 2015

Food Review: O.BBa

Following my review on Palsaik Samgyupsal in Seoul and Seoul BBQ Buffet in Perth, I only think it's fair that I wrote something about the Korean Barbeque scene in Singapore. Since the Korean popularity boom, Singapore has seen a huge amount of Korean specialty grocery stores increasing all around, making it easy for the kimchi lover (like myself) to obtain Korean food and snacks. Needless to say, Korean restaurants of all sorts opening all over our little island - the most prevalent of all, doubtless, are the Korean BBQ restaurants. Ask anyone who loves Korean food and immediately they can name up to five Korean-styled BBQ eateries in various locations with various specialties.

A little unbelievable to many, perhaps, since the idea of sitting around a hot pan frying various meats is not an ideal way to cooling off in the humidity and heat of Singapore.

Personally, I have tried a few Korean-styled BBQ restaurants, some cheap, some expensive, all serving around the same things - but none of them have enticed me to return for any reason. 


Until I tried O.BBa.



O.BBa is different. I am writing this because I have returned to O.BBa four times since me and my friends first had dinner there late last year. My friend recommended it to us at whim since we were in the Tanjong Pajar area, and we have yet to stop wanting to go back when the craving for Korean cuisine strikes us. 

Firstly I have to admit, that O.BBa needs more exposure. Competition is stiff, and O.BBa is not a large restaurant, so it actually does need exposure and word-of-mouth recommendations. If you have ever been to the roads of Tanjong Pajar, there are plenty of Korean restaurants lining the streets - most of whom are always filled with people, and then some. For some reason, O.BBa's crowd is manageable despite the dinner rush, even on Friday evenings. I've always found it strange, since even some of the worse restaurants in the area have larger crowds then this humble little shop.

Secondly, I think if I've been here four times, it's a pretty clear sign for me to write a bloody review.


As with all, if not most, Korean restaurants, you get the usual fix-ins once you get situated in. Depending on the lady boss, and head chef of O.BBa, these assorted sorts of kimchi will vary. Of course, the standard nappa cabbage kimchi will remain a constant. O.BBa will serve up to eight dishes and gladly refill them should you overdose on your appetizers. 

My favorite, other than the standard cabbage kimchi, is the long beans (or french beans, or green beans) kimchi - which is not spicy at all but extremely addictive, and the forever lovely, crunchy-delicious mung bean sprouts. During my last visit, we also tried some variations in the form of preserved diced oyster mushrooms, crunchy and tangy with bursts of spiciness. You will also get some in the form of seaweed, or chives, and perhaps even brinjal. We indulged in these dishes with gusto, while sipping on chumchurum and waiting anxiously for our meals to arrive. 

All delicious, all different, with one similar, sole purpose of whetting your appetite for the meats headed your way. Boy did they.



We ordered up a set meal, the Special Beef Set, which costs $99. It comes with a small hotpot soup of your choice (we had the spicy kimchi soup), a similar sized steamed egg dish, five different cuts of beef with sliced oyster mushrooms and onions for grilling, finished with a complimentary bingsu, or shaved ice dessert. 

Additionally, we also ordered a side of jap chae and yuk hwe, since it was a table of four hungry, hungry ladies.

The steamed egg has always been the first to arrive all the times I've been here, and this time it was no different. A more rustic version of the Japanese Chawanmushi, less silken then the Chinese egg custad, the steamed eggs are kept warm and inflated like a pseudo-souffle within the hotpot as presented, with speckles of red and green peppering the top in the form of spring onions and carrots. It's a simple dish, lightly flavored, hot and comforting.

The Jap Chae also arrived - a plateful of sweet potato noodles stir fried with crunchy slivers of various vegetation, semi-soft cabbage, meat of your choice (pork, beef or chicken), topped with toasted sesame seeds. Aromatic sesame oil, soy sauce with a big punch of sweetness from added sugar and the sweet potato noodles, or dangmyeon. To be honest, this was ordered as a filler since we were waiting for the meat to be ready, but I personally think it's too delicious to even be called a side dish.



Our meat platter arrived, and as the server started the fire for cooking, we feasted on our sides and our appetisers, watching the server deftly light the charcoal, and another who started setting our table for the meat time. Several sauces were placed on either side of us, small dishes of chilli paste, marinated raw onions and dipping oil. 

We chatted as the charcoal heated up, and once it was, the server flipped a grill lid on to the flames, scattering the onions and mushrooms around it, waiting for the grill to heat up properly before he could apply the raw meat. It was safe to say we may have scared several servers with our extremely boisterous, almost uncontainable excitement as he started putting meat to hot grill.



Before we go into the meats, let me actually go into the meats for you. 

As I mentioned, we ordered the Special Beef Set, a slightly pricier version since it was four of us this time, allowing for five cuts of raw beef. Two of which were marinated in special sauce, and all of which had varying sizes and slices. I'm not too good with my beef cuts (I'm good for eating them, however), but I'm going to attempt to identify them for you, dear readers, and should you find anything wrong, please feel free to correct me. 

Our beef platter included: 
- Galbi, marinated beef rib, bone, rolled in sauce and last to be cooked on the pan. 
- Chadolbaegi, sliced beef brisket,  curls of it often being iconic in most Korean grills and barbeques. 
- Deungshim, a whole, heavy, succulent rib-eye steak.

The remaining two meats, I simply don't know what cuts they are - one being marinated and one not. I do think that the marinated beef cubes are perhaps brisket as well, or some tougher cut as marination in Korean food is done for the tougher cuts. The other, also served in smaller bites, is intensely marbled and delicious on its own when cooked.



As the first batch of meats went on the pan, we also saw the arrival of the Yuk Hwe - a Korean version of beef tartare, raw beef mince served with sesame oil, soy sauce, a raw egg yolk and either nashi pear or apple slices. It would be mixed well, then served cold. 

I love, love, love this. The best still comes from Perth's Seoul BBQ Buffet, of course, but this was not too shabby. The beef mince was fresh with no aftertaste, with a lot of texture since it was not minced too fine - thick slices of pear, strong hints of raw garlic and silky egg yolk keeping it all together. Some of the versions I've had are served with pine nuts, or without raw garlic, and perhaps even sliced or minced more fine, but O.BBa's version is lovely with an enormous amount of freshness and flavor with no raw aftertaste. 

I did lament the missing pine nuts, but this was bolstered by the fresh meat and lovely pears of the dish.


As we went full speed ahead with the meal, I have little to say about the rest of the meats since absolutely all of them were delicious. The meats were not frozen, and if they were, they have been defrosted to room temperature to ensure the right cooking time and the absolute amount of taste and freshness. Along with the tiny pot of garlic, softened onions and slightly charred mushroom slices - pile anything you fancy into the provided greens, have it with any sauce, since the creation of any taste sensation is possible for these meats.

If I had to nit-pick, it would be that we didn't have enough meat. Additionally, that the marinated meats were not as exciting for me as the cuts left alone. However, I think that's a matter of personal preference, but whatever preference you have towards beef or meat, O.BBa's meat platters will not disappoint you.


Seriously, the amount of marbling I saw on the raw cuts of beef steaks and slices were a good indication to me of the food served here. There is little more satisfying than the white strips of fat turn translucent and liquid over charcoal heat.

We were so absolutely devouring the meats that we almost didn't leave any chance for the server to come in and change the pan (He succeeded, in the end, after fearing for his life and fingers). I have to say their service is unequivocally Korean - they paid attention to the food and meats more then the customer, ensuring that we, ultimately, did not f**k up the cargo with over enthusiastic cooking. 

Woe betide, he or she who manages to burn their Korean BBQ meats.



Finally, after all the meat was cleared, and all of us reclined in our seats and started having the meat sweats (don't ask, don't google), our server made quick work of cleaning up the table and asking us if we would like our dessert. I had almost forgotten at this stage about the bingsu, but was not too fussed.

Essentially, as I had some of the dessert, it was shaved ice with various sorts of toppings on it. Ours was red beans, pineapples, some sort of sweet sauce, and rainbow sprinkles. I can't say much more on this, since it tastes about as uninteresting as I described it to be. If this was to be bingsu, which it was supposed to be, the ice definitely needed to be shaved better and the toppings given much more Korean elements in terms of variety.


With the very weird bingsu, we ended our meal with a bill of $180, which included one beef platter set meal with the fix-ins, one yuk hwe dish, one jap chae dish, and a bottle of chumchurum soju. Split four ways, that amounted to about $45 for a person.

Also, one should note that this establishment closes late. I turned up once, after 10 in the night - and the server did not even blink, quickly showing us to our booth. She mentioned that they close around 1am, but it may change. I don't actually even have an official closing or opening time for O.BBa, but I do hope you visit!



O.BBa can be located at:

63 Tanjong Pagar Road
Singapore 088484

+6564639262