A month ago, I wrote that the sushi, tempura, yakitori and tonkatsu we ate in Japan were significantly better than the versions we get in the DC area. (I’ve never eaten at Makoto so I can’t comment on DC’s kaiseki meals.) I also wrote that my husband and I didn't feel an equivalent divide between the food we'd been eating in Beijing and the food we eat at XO Taste (XOT). I promised to report back after we had eaten in Taiwan and Hong Kong, arguably the cities with the best Chinese cuisine. Now, I'm making good on that promise.
We ate beef noodle, the national dish of Taiwan, in the company of a Taipei native at his favorite beef noodle place, Silver Mark. We thought this homey dish was one of the best things we've ever eaten. The stock was both insanely rich after a long simmer with plenty of meat and bones and beautifully seasoned to achieve a nice balance of beefiness with faintly sweet and faintly spicy flavors. (The guide who had been taking us around the island also joined us for dinner, but she wasn't too enthusiastic about this version. When we later asked her what was wrong with the taste, she said that she -- and the younger generation -- prefers the level of chili spicing to be so high that it becomes painful to eat. We’ll agree to disagree!) I have no idea whether there is an equivalent dish that is part of Hong Kong cuisine and whether XO Taste offers it. We'll definitely be on a local quest since we’ve become great fans of this dish. So, as an aside, if anyone knows of a good source of Taiwanese beef noodle, preferably in N. Virginia, we'd appreciate a recommendation.
I'm happy to report that XO Taste very much holds its own against the food we ate in Hong Kong. What makes this comment even more interesting is that I’m comparing a local neighborhood restaurant to Michelin-starred restaurants in Hong Kong. Here are the details.
XO Taste doesn't offer dim sum, so it’s irrelevant that the ones at Fragrant Rice in Kowloon are wonderful, even if they are. However, I can make a head-to-head comparison with the marinated jellyfish that began our meal. We ate jellyfish for the first time at XO Taste the night before we left for our trip. A friend, a Hong Kong native, had been enthusiastic about XOT’s version claiming it tasted “just like home.” With a recommendation like that, we had to try this dish before our trip. We agree; the version at XOT is just like Fragrant Rice’s version.
I could legitimately say that XO Taste’s congee was better than the version we ate in Hong Kong, but that would be manipulating the data. We ate congee as part of a buffet breakfast at our hotel in Hong Kong. While the buffet version was tasty enough, it was tepid and, therefore, not as good as the dish when served fresh from the kitchen at XO Taste. The add-ins at the buffet were different from the enoki mushroom and corn versions that we have enjoyed at XOT, but the hotel options were also appealing.
As I said, our three dinners in Hong Kong were at Michelin-starred restaurants; Yung Kee, Golden Leaf and Man Ho all earned one Michelin star in the 2010 guide. (These were chosen for their proximity for out hotel.) The service and décor at the last two places were leagues better than that of XO Taste. However, food-wise, the difference between these Michelin-starred restaurants and XOT was not as great as the difference we noted in Japan. In fact, none of the restaurants I listed served a meal that dish and after dish was significantly better than a meal from XO Taste. Golden Leaf produced a meal that included two super-star dishes, including the best barbecued pork and duck we’ve ever eaten. Everything else was enjoyable. At Man Ho, we ate a meal that included two super-star dishes. The remaining dishes were, similarly, completely enjoyable. At Yung Kee, we also had two extra-ordinary dishes accompanied by one truly indifferent dish and rounded out by other very good dishes. Typically, my husband and I eat at XO Taste once a week. I don’t believe we’ve ever ordered a meal containing two swoon-inducing dishes; however, we usually hit one such dish per meal and the other food is really appealing. The sublime dishes from XO Taste are every bit as swoon-producing as those we ate in Hong Kong, and their routine level of cooking isn’t that far below the routine level of the remaining dishes we ate in Hong Kong.
Incidentally, our evening at Yung Kee was notable for two things: our server’s assumptions about our exposure to Chinese food and confirmation that a Michelin-rating in Asia seems to be based on the food much more than on the other aspects (e.g. service, or thickness of the fabric used as the tablecloth or the dimensions of the napkin) that come into play for Western rankings.
Server’s assumptions: When we asked for recommendations at both Yung Kee and Golden Leaf, the first words out of the server’s mouth were “sweet and sour pork.” At the former, I asked if she had recommended that dish to us simply because we were Americans or whether there was something special about Yung Kee’s version. Then, I asked each server to recommend some other dishes. The Yung Kee server apparently took offense at my question because she walked away without offering a recommendation, and we literally never saw her again the entire meal. My husband and I made our choices after reading the menu and, then, sat for a considerable amount of time until a different server came over to take our order. The server at the Golden Leaf restaurant recommended the grouper with conpoy (dried scallop) and onions in red wine. That turned out to be one of the two amazing dishes of the meal.
Michelin standards: At Golden Leaf and Man Ho, the décor and service are Asian versions of Michelin-restaurants in Europe. However, neither Birdland, a Tokyo yakitori restaurant, nor Yung Kee looks like a Michelin-rated restaurant. I had expected this based on reading the China and Japan Chowhound boards. We certainly don’t require that our restaurants be fancy, and frankly, we appreciated the fact that prices at those two places were more moderate than the prices at the fancier places so this is an FYI rather than a complaint.
I’ll end with a disclaimer. I’m not in any way connected with XO Taste in spite of the cheerleader tone of my post. By my standards, we have a local restaurant that gets on-the-ground food right, and this detailed account of our trip is my effort to back up that claim.