Sampling Michelin-star takeout food in Hong Kong

Michelin-starred takeout food

“Imagine living inside a giant pinball machine where the object isn’t to win but to eat.” — Anthony Bourdain on Hong Kong’s cuisine

We’ve embarked on some memorable culinary adventures in Hong Kong this week, where it’s been said that great food is a birthright. And as for the pinball machine metaphor,  we’ve eaten delicious food in all sorts of places: from food stalls to cafes to the most upscale restaurants (a lavish dinner buffet at the Verandah restaurant at The Peninsula was mind-boggling).

Some of the memorable dishes on our trip: tea-smoked duck, sashimi, dim sum, Indian curry, and The Pen’s mango soufflé and housemade chocolates (more on that in a later post).

Another standout was the crispy roast goose and roast pork at Kam’s Roast Goose (甘牌燒鵝)  on Hennessy Road on Hong Kong Island — a Star Ferry ride from our home base in Kowloon. Hongkongers enjoy goose for its crispy skin and tender, juicy flesh — and Kam’s is a standout.

Kam’s is a modest, “no-frills” 30-seat restaurant on a bustling street, much like the eateries that are ubiquitous in San Francisco’s Chinatown — except that Kam’s is the winner of a coveted Michelin star. (For comparison’s sake, Michael Mina in San Francisco — where “the caviar parfait never goes out of style” — also is a Michelin one-star restaurant).

“The Kam family name is synonymous with their famous roast goose restaurant,” according to the Michelin Guide. “This little place is owned by the third generation of the family and he wisely hired his father’s former chef to ensure the goose is as crisp and succulent as ever. With only 30 seats, don’t be surprised to see a queue.”

Added the South China Morning Post: “One of the grandsons of Yung Kee founder, Hardy Kam Shun-yuen opened the restaurant to serve quality roast goose in a casual setting with rice or rice noodles, either thick (lai fun) or thin (mai fun).

“The birds are sourced near Dongguan, as Kam believes the weather and climate is better there. The geese are roasted in a gas oven as opposed to traditional charcoal, but the classic flavour for the most part is retained.”

The geese are freshly delivered every morning and roasted in a gas oven instead of the traditional charcoal way. The day’s roasted meats are displayed in the window.

“A Symphony of Skin”

Anthony Boudain at Kam’s. We recognized the woman to his left; she took our order

Anthony Bourdain (who is now deceased) ate at Kam’s. His conclusion was: “A symphony of skin.”

We were prepared for a “queue” when we arrived, but not for one that was over an hour wait. So we ordered takeout and brought it back to our hotel room. Kam’s takeout is a popular with locals. We served ours with a split of The Peninsula’s “house” champagne. (The house champagne is an amazing Deutz Brut Classic).

Our takeout, served on The Pen’s china

The goose and pork is crispy on the outside with juicy meat on the inside. It comes with a house-made special sauce (which includes secret spices and bean paste) as well as a fruity plum sauce for dipping.

This video offers a view of Kam’s Roast Goose, the cooking process, and an interview with Hardy Kam Shun-yuen:

Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions: “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore”

HONG KONG —Just a five-minute walk from the five-star Peninsula Hotel where we’re staying sits the one-star Chungking Mansions on Nathan Road—well-known as one of the cheapest accommodations in Hong Kong, among other things.

I’d long been wanting to check it out. It was featured in Wong Kar-wai’s well-regarded 1994 film Chungking Express, and in an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown about Hong Kong that intrigued me.

This place met our expectations as a one-of-a-kind experience — a bazaar, food court, guest quarters and foreign exchange office (among other features), all wrapped into one.

It was anything but homogenous Asian culture (which was more evident on a previous visit to Tokyo, even Shanghai). People from all over the world, and all walks of life, were milling about.  And it was mysterious, including some of the food in the stalls, which looked like “mystery meat,” despite some favorable reviews. As Dorothy would put it: “Toto we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

“A gathering place for traders, small-time entrepreneurs, travelers looking for cheap accommodations, and migrants from around the world, it has gained a reputation as a seedy enclave, where dodgy underground transactions are conducted in dark corners,” said Bourdain (now deceased) in a May 2018 episode about Hong Kong.

“But for many of its occupants, Chungking Mansions is a place of opportunity. Thousands of migrants and asylum seekers have come here, finding cheap rents and opening businesses—restaurants, DVD shops, and trading companies among them—and have built new lives and communities there.”

Added the South China Morning Post; “To Time magazine, it’s ‘Asia’s best example of globalisation in action.’ Chungking Mansions in Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, is a warren of shops, cheap guesthouses and places to eat spread across five blocks. A popular destination for visitors on a budget, the mansions famously featured in Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express.” A special report in the newspaper is here.

The 17-story building in Kowloon, built in 1961, epitomizes the “melting pot” of Hong Kong, a mix of old and new, along with being a gathering place for the city’s ethnic minorities, including South Asians, Middle Eastern people, Nigerians, Europeans, Americans and others.

Chungking Mansions has a resident population of about 4000 and an estimated 10,000 daily visitors. More than 120 different nationalities – predominantly South Asian and African – pass through its doors in a single year.

A standard single room goes for as little as 300HK or about $38.  According to Lonely Planet, “Though standards vary significantly, most of the guesthouses at CKM are clean and quite comfortable. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that rooms are usually the size of cupboards and you have to shower right next to the toilet. The rooms typically come with air-con and TV and, sometimes, a window. Virtually all have wi-fi and some even offer daily housekeeping and luxuries like toothbrushes!”

Another review — “the smallest room I’ve ever stayed in” — is here. The conclusion: “For me personally, I doubt I would stay again. My decision has more to do with the size of the rooms rather than feeling unsafe.”

(A notice on Chungking Mansions’ website offers this warning: “We remind visitors before choosing please confirm the guesthouse has obtained the Government License for legal purposes. In addition, we provide services supervision on our members and we recommend visitors to choose our members.”)

Cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whose works include Chungking Express,  shares his thoughts on Chungking Mansions here. He concludes: “As a filmmaker, this is a metaphor for our differences, which are united in a space. This is why I love this place, because to me film is about location.”

Four nights at the Peninsula Hong Kong

HONG KONG — The Peninsula Hong Kong (香港半島酒店), located in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong, is our home base for this “excellent adventure.” It opened in 1928 was billed “the finest hotel east of the Suez.” It combines colonial and modern elements, and is notable for its large fleet of Rolls-Royces painted a distinctive “Peninsula green.” More historic details here.

The building was completed in 1927 and the hotel opened in 1928. It offered unobstructed views of Nathan Road and Lion Rock at the rear. That has changed, and the “Grande Dame” now is surrounded by high rises. A brief history is here.

This is the view from the hotel’s swimming pool and spa on the 7th and 8th floors, looking out on Victoria Harbor:

Our “room with a view”:

The South China Morning Post and The New York Times are offered at breakfast. The newspapers come with hand towels. Who wants newspaper ink on their hands after reading the newspaper?

The hotel is filled with wonderful artwork. One example,  below, is Botero Sojourn’s “Picnic.” The Peninsula Hong Kong has teamed up with the Peninsula Shanghai to showcase Botero’s world-class works in 2019. Fernando Botero was born in Medellín, Colombia, in 1932 and attended a matador school in his youth, according to his bio. He later studied art at Madrid’s Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. After his art began to achieve international acclaim in the 1970s, Botero moved to Paris.

Today, his paintings and sculptures are exhibited around the world such as Park Avenue in New York City, the Champs-Élysées in Paris and Central Harbourfront in Hong Kong.

The hotel also is known for its fleet of Rolls Royce Phantoms.​ “The emerald green Phantom VIII is known for its curb appeal, but its less visible features make it perfect for navigating the city streets: active anti-roll bars, electrically controlled air springs, and a road-scanning camera that helps anticipate bumps (and potholes) in the road before they actually hit the wheels makes for a drive so smooth you’ll feel like Jasmine or Aladdin,” according to Conde Nast Traveler. More details here.

The Lobby is considered one of the most elegant meeting places in Hong Kong. The revered tradition of afternoon tea is accompanied by The Lobby musicians, playing live daily. We heard them at night too, when we returned from a music concert at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Here’s a video and audio clip of their music:

 

Aboard Cathay Pacific Flight #893

FlightAware

“I’d love to get you on a slow boat to China.” — Bing Crosby

Hello from aboard Cathay Pacific Flight #893 from SFO to Hong Kong.

Contrary to being on a “slow boat to China,” we’re jetting to Hong Kong aboard a new Airbus A350-1000 aircraft (“all jet, no lag.”) Our plane still has that “new car smell.”

The wireless internet up here is a little sluggish but decent. I like to track our progress on Flight Aware, and it shows we’re flying at 447 mph, at 40,000 feet, on our 14-hour, 47-minute journey. You also can track the flight on the touch screen, seat-back entertainment system — albeit with less detail.

I love airplane travel. One memorable trip was being invited on the delivery flight of a Pacific Southwest Airlines BAE-146 from England to SFO (via stops in Iceland and Green Bay, Wisc.) in the mid-’80s when I was the airline writer for The San Francisco Chronicle. The plane had not even been painted (we nicknamed it the “green weenie”), we played board games on the floor, and slept on the floor too in our sleeping bags. A few seats had been installed to meet requirements.

On this flight the airplane cabin is minty green, or more of an emerald green — Cathay Pacific’s famous colors — and it is a bit more fashionable than the “green weenie.”

This was a semi-spontaneous trip. Cathay Pacific’s  “CyberMonday” offer in November was too good to refuse: less than $700 roundtrip in “premium economy,” a savings of about $500.

We celebrate our 28th wedding anniversary this spring — or that was the excuse. Our dog is in good hands with our housesitter and dog sitter, and our son is in good hands with his anut and uncle in Nevada City. We cut the trip down to less than a week, partly out of guilt.

The “premium economy” cabin is full, but it is roomy and semi-private — a   “cabin within a cabin” with just 32 seats out of 334. “Padding is substantial, legroom is exceptionally good, entertainment screens are large and remotes are easy to use,” as one reviewer notes, adding “The seats control offers multiple pre set flight positions, with both foot and calf-rest support. Most importantly, there’s a USB and separate universal power port for each traveler. No fighting required. ”

We didn’t figure we’d be too hungry when our flight took off at 12:15 a.m., so we ordered fruit plates, but the menu for hot items looked good too.

Time goes fast. I watched Bohemian Rhapsody, listened to some classical music, read and slept about 6 hours. Now we’re traveling down the coast of mainland China toward Hong Kong. Our arrival is set at 6:46 a.m.

The Peninsula Hotel has promised us a “day room” if our room isn’t ready, and the hotel has a spectacular-looking indoor pool to “kill some time,” if you could call it that. Happy Hump Day (though it’s Thursday here)!

Returning to UCLA for a campus tour

WESTWOOD — I am spending the morning reading the Daily Bruin newspaper with a cup of coffee during a visit to UCLA this weekend. It is a celebration of our family’s past — and its future.

We are here with our son for an organized campus tour, part of our family’s ongoing visits to college campuses throughout California and elsewhere. We are here to explore for the weekend, also visiting — shhhh! UCLA’s arch-rival USC for a shorter visit. Our son is a STEM student, though he is enjoying his American literature course this semester.

We are staying at the UCLA Luskin Conference Center, a glorious new building on campus that features 254 hotel rooms, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant, and more than 25,000 square feet of event space.

My mom and dad went to UCLA, so I grew up regularly visiting the campus, and attending basketball games at Pauley Pavilion (and football games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the site of the Olympic Games).

The visits to UCLA in my youth largely coincided with the era of legendary basketball coach John Wooden (AKA, “The Wizard of Westwood”). I went to the weeklong Wooden basketball camp one summer, a memorable experience.

My mom grew up on Kinnard Ave. in Westwood, not far from campus. She went to University or “Uni” high; one of her classmates was Andy Williams. Dad grew up in Santa Monica, on 21st Place. It was during what I’d call Southern California’s “golden era.”

Westwood has changed from the years when it was a more sleepy “village.” A bookstore we frequented, Campbell’s, is gone, along with the Hamburger Hamlet and other places. (Stan’s donuts is still around). But there are wonderful new additions to what is now a bustling metropolis within the metropolis of greater L.A.

A mix of old and new

The two-year-old Luskin conference center — named after generous UCLA donors — is located on campus. The walls of the handsome brick building are adorned with artwork and photos celebrating UCLA, from iconic Royce Hall to basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabar. The collection also includes nearly 60 pieces by artists who are UCLA alumni and faculty members.

The conference center even has its own robot, “Lara,” to welcome guests and give directions. The lobby includes a concert piano, with live music on some weekdays. The rooms have free, lightning-fast Wi-Fi, new flat-screen TVs, original artwork and wood paneling. There’s 25,000 sq. ft of event space, accommodating up to 960 guests. There’s also a gym, a business center and a campus shuttle.

The Daily Bruin is a robust mix of news, arts, sports and opinion. The UCLA magazine has a feature on basketball great Bill Walton (“still truckin'”) and a feature on the Ethnic Studies Center celebrating its 50th year.

The campus tours are led by students. They last about two hours, including a 30-minute admission presentation and 90-minute walking tour.

While here, we’ll also visit some other sites on campus, Westwood Village and the surrounding neighborhoods. I lived in Westwood during the summer of ’82 when I was working as a correspondent at Time magazine while I was a senior at UC Berkeley.

Along with Cal, UCLA ranks as one of the nation’s top public universities. The overall admission rate for 2018 was around 62 percent, but it was just 59 percent for in-state freshmen, down from 63 percent in 2017, as the Mercury-News points out. Just 12 percent of in-state applicants to UCLA gained admission in 2018, and just 17 percent of would-be Cal students were offered a spot, a decline from last year in both cases.

It is exciting to return to reminisce about the past, but also consider the future.

 

Los Pellines, Chile: “A magical place”

We have traveled to Chile, visiting Santiago, where I was invited to speak at Diego Portales University about the boom in digital media as a founding editor at CNET. On another trip we crossed the border into Chile from Argentina while visiting the Patagonia region. We enjoyed Torres del Paine National Park.

I did not know that a valley in Chile shared our name, however: “Los Pellines.” ROFLOL!

A video is below. The translation reads:

“Promotional video of Los Pellines valley. Images in aerial view.

We have to take care of this valley because it is threatened by hydroelectric companies that want to destroy it. Our purpose is to take care of this space for the education of children and young people of our country. More than 28,000 children and young people have visited Los Pellines, a magical and fragile space.

http://www.lospellines.cl

A visit to the United Nations: The “knotted gun” vs. our gun culture

photo We enjoyed our visit to the United Nations this week. I joked to my wife that the UN is anathema to western Nevada County, where the gun culture reigns. But on our never-ending quest to introduce our son to multifaceted perspectives, we trudged onward.

The UN tour began with a big security check, then a walk along the promenade of the East River, with artifacts that included a good-sized chunk of the Berlin Wall.

Once inside we were introduced to a presentation on Palestine, “School in a Box,” FreeRice.com and “Plumby Doz,” and a Security Council meeting room where UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was present.

The School-in-a-Box has become part of the UNICEF standard response in emergencies, used in many back-to-school operations around the world. The kit contains supplies and materials for a teacher and up to 40 students. The purpose of the kit is to ensure the continuation of children’s education by the first 72 hours of an emergency.

As for helping the hungry, one variety (Plumpy’Doz, by Nutriset) comes in tubs containing a weekly ration. Another (Plumpy Sup, also by Nutriset) comes in one-day sachets. Both can be eaten directly from their containers and are designed to be eaten in small quantities, as a supplement to the regular diet.

At FreeRice.com, for each answer you get right, the group donates 10 grains of rice through the World Food Program to end world hunger.

photo-1A highlight of our tour was a mosaic based a on a work by American artist Norman Rockwell, long a favorite attraction on tours of the United Nations that was re-dedicated following its restoration during the recent reconstruction of the headquarters complex.

Entitled “Golden Rule,” the work was presented to the UN in 1985 as a gift on behalf of the United States by then First Lady Nancy Reagan. The half-ton mosaic depicts people of different nationalities standing together with the words “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is inscribed on the surface.

We also were introduced to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. Colombian musician Cesar Lopez created the unique Escopetarra musical instrument and the only escopetarrist in the world out of an AK-47 rifle, which was on display.

In addition, while exiting the UN grounds, we saw the work shown in the photo above — a 45-caliber revolver with its barrel knotted that is titled Non-Violence and is frequently referred to as the “knotted gun.” It was created by Swedish sculptor Carl FredrikReutersward in 1980.

A cast metal version was gifted by Luxembourg to the United Nations in 1988. The piece makes an immediate impression, with its message quite clear. The inspiration for the piece was the death of John Lennon, a friend of the sculptors.