Chuan Lu Garden – Orlando, FL

Sometimes you self-advocate to an actuality which causes a questioning in your ability to tell good from great. There are far too few noodle shops in Central Florida. No debate there. Yet, there are fewer still who actually offer homemade versions of their namesake, and few do it at high levels of expertise. By few I mean one.

Chuan Lu Garden, a no frills, microscopic jewel, is perched directly at center stage of Orlando’s Asian food version of Main st. I had to ask myself, “Is it great on its own merits or is it great to me because there’s no other Northern Chinese noodle show in town?” Well, let’s look at the facts. They insist on making all of their hand pulled noodles in the back, just through the swinging doors leading to a furiously busy kitchen. This review may be short, but it doesn’t take long to highlight the value of a handmade product. I ordered just two things, hardly enough to form a complete picture of a restaurant in most cases. However, based on the high levels of craft found in each of these items, I feel confident enough to give it our stamp of approval. If you’re wondering how to tell if something is made by man or machine, I have an easy test. Look for imperfections. If you receive an order of six dumplings, and no two look the same, (except maybe at Din Tai Fung) you’re in good hands. If your siu mai are identical, you’ve got knockoff purses on your hands. Dumplings are like snowflakes. No two are alike.

Chuan Lu spread 1

As for the noodles, not only are they made in-house, they’re perfectly tender with just enough bounce, due to the reaction of sodium bicarbonate and flour. I ordered my noodles as one should in a place that specializes in Northern Chinese and Szechuan provincial delights; fermented black bean sauce mixed with minced pork, scallion, cilantro and cucumber. In most places you’ll find it called Zhajiangmian. It’s difficult for mt heart to praise a place so highly when I can literally look out the front window of Chuan Lu Garden and see the building that houses Ming’s Bistro, my favorite Chinese restaurant in Orlando. The good news is that these two don’t really compete head to head. Northern Chinese cuisine has very specific characteristics, stemming largely from the climate. This food was made to warm up your insides during the harsh winter. Luckily it has the added benefit of obliterating my debilitating pollen induced head congestion.

Chuan Lu spread 2

This proved to be the case in my second visit when I insisted we re-order the Zhajiangmian so my compadres could sample the springy noodles. We also asked our waitress for her favorite dish on the menu. After a little coaxing she graciously admitted her preference for cumin lamb, strips of tender lamb shoulder, wok seared with onions, leeks, lemongrass and a generous handful of chilies. The most powerful flavor was the potent Szechuan peppercorn. These berries aren’t used in many other cuisines that I’ve seen. They’re flavor is aggressive, asserting itself above all others the second it hits each of you 10 thousand or flavor rescepticles. The peppercorns cause a strange buzzing sensation in the mouth. They aren’t spicy hot per se. No, instead they enhanced the rest of the dish with the most welcome strangeness. The other dish that must be noted on the second visit was a different kind of dumpling called steamed juicy pork bun. They remind me of a cross between a soup dumpling and baked pork buns, with a layer of crispy crepe batter circulating on the bottom. Its the only place I’ve ever had them so they are a must!

Chuan Lu spread 3

Amidst the many quality restaurants in this area of Orlando, it can be a chore to stand out. I’ve seen so many good enough type restaurants in this corridor fold because they just weren’t good enough to cut the tight battle raging on Mills and Colonial. Chuan Lu Garden offers something truly special and easily warrants return visits. At the very least it should make it on your list for a multicultural Colonial Drive food crawl!

Click to add a blog post for Chuan Lu Garden on Zomato

Eat a Duck in Singapore

I recently returned from a trip to Singapore, tagging along with my parents as they attended an aviation conference.  I’d researched the country ahead of my visit to gain at the very least, a basic understanding of the culture and history. It was a British trading post, separated from Malaysia making it it’s own city-state, and resulting in English becoming the official language.  There are four major cultures in Singapore: Malay, Japanese, Chinese and Indian.  As you’d imagine, as a result of this collision of culinary cultures, the food is remarkable.  I was told that Singapore is very much a city of commerce and cosmopolitan life, not the normal nitty-gritty, cheap and dirty Asian experience I have come to crave and love. In fact, Singapore has earned the nickname “Asia-Lite.”  Armed with this information, I sought out Anthony Bourdain per the advice of my dear Diana.  Surely he would find the food culture I was searching for, and boy, did he.

Maxwell Food Center spread

I was the first to touch down, arriving at 7 am. After a morning nap following my 20 hour trip, I set out in search of a meal.  Bourdain’s first stop was the Maxwell Food Centre, a bustling set of hawker stalls all under one roof. One of the famous dishes in Singapore is chicken rice, which is exactly what it sounds like.  Chicken on top of seasoned rice with various condiments. I chose the Hong Xiang chicken stall, which came highly recommended by Bourdain and did not disappoint. The chicken was beautifully moist laying on top of a bed of steaming rice.  The lady at the stall took out a spray bottle and sprayed my entire dish before handing it to me.  I don’t know what it was, but I assume it was a spray bottle of delish. Accompanying the chicken rice was an extremely thick hoisin sauce and chili sauce. It was heaven, a perfect glimpse into what Singaporean food would hold in store.

Our next adventure into Singaporean cuisine was recommended to us by our cab driver. We were headed to Long Beach restaurant on East Coast Park only knowing that we wanted the best chili crab Singapore had to offer.  Obviously picking up on our ineptitude, he recommended drunken prawns, boiled in a cognac stock, the fried rice and black pepper crab. Not all cab drivers are to be trusted, but in this case, our man knew his stuff.  The cognac stock was so smooth, and had us lapping it up long after the prawns had been devoured.

Long Beach spread

Chili crab was the star of this trip. Crab, steamed and smothered in a tomato, garlic, chili sauce. Equal parts sweet and savory, this sauce was everything you could ever want, worthy of being used on any food item throughout the day, we couldn’t get enough. The same driver recommended we order sweet buns with which to sop up the sauce after we were done with our crabs, like I said, he was a smart man. Next came black pepper crab. This is the same dish as chili crab but with a black pepper paste smeared liberally over the steaming crustaceans. This version was much spicier and in your face, and perfect counterpart to its sweet chili crab cousin. While you’re eating these two dishes, be prepared to get extremely dirty. Sauce all over your face, arms and hands, but gladly so.  It proves you’ve truly enjoyed your dish.

It seems inevitable that any tourist to Singapore will hang around Marina Bay for a little while. Within the Marina Bay Shoppes is a great food court featuring various cuisines from around the continent, but of course, I went for dim sum because, well, I am Jimmy’s sister. The siu mai and shrimp har gao were up to par. It was a perfect, close spot to beat the heat and grab some delicious food as well.

Iced coffee is definitely a must when exploring Singapore. It is HOT, crazy hot, and the combination of ice and caffeine kept me running. It’s available pretty much anywhere, but I preferred to grab it at the hawker centers.

Marina Bay dim sum

Since the shopping is near legendary in Singapore, my Mom and I hit up Robinson’s, the big department store, where we discovered delicious snacks like green tea kit kats and squid jerky.  On the basement level of Robinson’s we stumbled upon a gyoza restaurant called Gyoza-Ya. There was a hefty list of delicious things to try but we had to settle on a select few.  We started with chilled eggplant with miso paste. Give me anything with miso paste. The eggplant was delectable, tender, but almost too difficult to grab with chopsticks, as the thick, savory miso paste made for a slippery affair. Next was cucumber with miso paste. Those delicious Asian cucumbers. You can really tell the difference. The miso paste on this dish was presented in little pearls that broke apart in your mouth, spreading the heavenly miso all over your palate. I ordered what was described on the menu simply as “Ramen Egg.” I thought it was going to be some sort of egg drop ramen soup. I’m so glad I was wrong. The waiter sets down a chilled soft-boiled egg on a plate in front of me, and I look at Mom not knowing exactly what to do. What I can infer after taking a bite is, the egg was soft-boiled, and then marinated in some sort of ramen stock or soy sauce? I don’t know for sure but holy whoa it was delicious. The white of the egg flavored with sesame paired with a silky, runny yoke on the inside was perfection. I want it for breakfast daily. Of course we ended this lunch with both vegetable and pork gyoza. It was Gyoza-Ya after all.

Gyoza-Ya spread

Still, the chili crab lingered in our mouths and brains.  So this time, we sought out Jumbo Seafood restaurant, recommended by multiple former Singapore residents. We ordered all the usual suspects, chili crab, black pepper crab, fried rice, shrimp in miso paste (I can’t quit the miso paste) and steamed Snapper with cilantro.  The crabs here were much larger than at Long Beach, but I’m at a loss as to which restaurant prepared them better. I just want access to chili crab at all times.

Jumbo spread

Our flights were extremely late at night, so our last dinner was back at Maxwell Food Centre, since the parentals hadn’t been. This time I had ban mian, a soup with pork and rice noodles and of course, plenty of condiments with which to customize your dish. I washed it all down with starfruit juice, something I’d never seen before but had to try. Our meal was accompanied by three old dudes drinking beer with their portable radio blaring, chilling at the table next to us, like I assume they do every night. True, Singapore doesn’t have an abundance of cultural sites, but it definitely makes up for it in an abundance of delicious foods.

 

Blackbrick – Miami, FL

I think it’s high time we got back to our roots here at Eat a Duck. I mean it’s been what, TWO posts since we featured dim sum around here! Well not to worry, we’d never let the dumplings disappear for long, and neither will Richard Hales, chef and owner of Blackbrick, Miami’s sorely needed dim sum mecca. Chef Hales, best known for the popular Korean joint, Sakaya Kitchen and its mobile counterpart, Dim Ssam a GoGo, clearly saw the gap in Miami’s dining landscape. Until now, finding truly great dim sum was a chore at best, and nearly impossible at worst.

Sure, you’ve got Mr. Chow on Miami Beach, but who wants to drop $13 on a plate of siu mai? Alternatively you could make the trek out to Tropical dim sum on Sundays for one of the only dim sum cart services I’m aware of, but neither of these options are ideal. What Miami needed was a centrally located spot, within a few minutes drive and preferably near other like-minded restaurants for obvious food crawl possibilities! Chef Hales found the perfect spot, nestled right in between the design district and Wynwood, two of the hottest neighborhoods in town.

Blackbrick spread 1

At first glance, the large Target shopping center where Blackbrick is located may seem like another bland, prefabricated Florida “village”. Clearly though, someone did their homework. Instead of bringing in the typical corporate restaurants like Brio, P.F. Changs and Cheesecake Factory, they opted for independent, local talent. Granted, there’s still a Five Guys and a World of Beer, but for the most part, the dining options in Midtown are something to be excited about.

Blackbrick is one of the places warranting the most excitement, not only for the crew of Eat a Duck, but for food lovers around the country, even being nominated for Bon Appetit’s 50 Best New Restaurants in America. The reason behind the buzz is no secret, as Blackbrick combines tradition and creativity seamlessly.

Blackbrick dim sum

Their dim sum selection, while not exhaustive, is of a quality you won’t find anywhere else. Each item is cooked to order, so while the wait may be more than some veteran dim sum-o-philes are used to, the resulting flavor makes it all worth it. The wrappers of the har gow and pork siu mai are perfectly cooked, tender and toothsome. The fillings are equally well executed. The shrimp and scallop dumplings are fresh, leaving none of the low-tide aftertaste some lesser establishments might offer.

A couple of instant favorites are the fried pork cheek dumplings (pictured in the first spread) with its succulent filling and drizzle of slightly sweet sauce, and the jade Peking duck dumpling, an idea which I’m upset I haven’t found until now. Both of these manage to find their way to my table during each visit. Do we have any bao fans? Blackbrick makes a mean steamed bbq pork char siu bao with that wonderfully sweet meat filling. A couple of these for breakfast would start any day off right.

Blackbrick spread 2

But Blackbrick isn’t simply a dumpling house. Looking for some comfort food, why not take a look at their selection of fantastic fried rice that will expand your opinion of what the dish can be. Not content to match your neighborhood Chinese take out joint, Chef Hales spikes his rice with things like rock shrimp, lobster tail and duck. Another exciting option pairs bacon with kim chi made by sister restaurant Sakaya Kitchen.

The Chinese brunch, once dominated by dim sum alone is now joined by a bevy of options including a breakfast fried rice of sausage, eggs and country potato, shrimp and grits made with cornmeal congee, bacon and a poached egg, and my personal favorite Chinese fried chicken and fortune cookie waffle with a scallion, ginger maple syrup. Don’t forget the salt and pepper tots! Here they’re prepared simply with peppers and onion, achieving a level of spice that gets your brow moist but keeps you coming back for more.

My favorite dish however, might be Blackbrick’s take on Dandan Mian, a Sichuan dish usually consisting of a spicy, chili oil tinged sauce, minced pork and scallions. Here it resembles a Chinese version of ragu alla bolognese. This is one of those dishes I could eat for the rest of my life and be a happy man. Chef Hales chose bucatini, a stout noodle that can stand up to the mountain of fiery pork and scallions.

Blackbrick spread

After a half-dozen visits to Blackbrick, it’s solidified itself in my pantheon of go-to Miami restaurants. Over the past few years, the food scene in there has grown by leaps and bounds, leaving behind the tired, stodgy cuisine of the late 1990s and early 2000’s in favor of a vibrant blend of traditional fare, executed well and bold new creations destined to become classics. Blackbrick is indicative of this trend and stands among the leaders of great dining establishments in South Florida.

Click to add a blog post for Black Brick Chinese & Dim Sum on Zomato