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!

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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.

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Eat a Duck Weekly Recap #7

Every so often, the boys of Eat a Duck are bestowed with incredible meals in rapid succession. Sadly we couldn’t share in any food-ventures over the last few days, but if the spread below is any indication, I’d say we still had a successful week in eating.

The wife and I snuck in a visit to Boca: Kitchen, Bar & Market in Tampa and Café Boulud in West Palm Beach before heading down to Miami to see my parents off for the summer. If I’m not eating with Logan, I’m probably eating with Jep, and we did some fine work this weekend. Dim sum at Blackbrick, incredible Japanese spiked Peruvian fare at La Mar and a long-awaited trip for pizza Napolitana at Stanzione 87 were all on the menu. A simple dinner at home with some home-made pesto over fusilli and antipasti of burrata, heirloom tomato and prosciutto from San Daniele.

Logan made his rounds to some of the best eats in Lakeland with Vietnamese from Pho Tan, and BBQ from Fat Maggie’s. Concord Coffee and their Poor Porker supplied pastries seems to be a weekly affair, and who can blame him? The food scene in his town is really starting to show some promise, so I’m sure you’ll be seeing a lot more Lakeland restaurants making their way into the recap in the weeks to come.

Look out for some full length pieces in the next few weeks featuring some of the new Miami joints we’ve teased here!

EAD Weekly #7

St. Petersburg Food Bonanza

I’ve recently been tasked with some work that requires some traveling for the next 3 months or so. Sadly it’s meant that the lights at Eat a Duck world headquarters have been off for much of the past month. However, traveling means new restaurants, and as I’ve a moment to catch up on my latest food-ventures, I thought I’d share.

St. Logansburg

My first assignment was in St. Petersburg, a city I’ve come to love over the years due to constant trips back and forth from home to concerts. As food goes, ten years ago, downtown St. Petersburg could have been the inspirational backdrop for Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, a desolate wasteland. You had bars and concert venues, the occasional jerk chicken shack and not much else. After I got married, my wife and I developed a mutual love of the local baseball team. We searched for places to eat before the game, but it was an ordeal to find those great local places back then, as we had only word of mouth from friends and associates to rely on.

Nowadays complete strangers are more than willing to give you insight into just about every dining room, hot dog-cart, or kitchen that exists. From those strangers I’ve conversed with over the most years, some of them have actually become great friends. I give my most heartfelt gesture of respect to these new friends I’ve met along my journey, with a goal to eat the best that I can, every single day. Of course there’s James (my bro and co-conspirator), always spit balling with me about anywhere either of us eat. It’s less a question of needing the approval of the other to eat at any place in particular, and more of a desire for that stamp or blessing from a trusted friend that good eats are ahead.

To Mr. Jeff Houck of Tampa Tribune fame, who is a walking Gastropedia, as well as Todd Sturtz, who proves every week, that he can out do any of us when it comes spending one’s per diem.  For me though, on this trip, I have to tip my pickled daikon filled hat to Ms. Marissa Nguyen, a true ambassador to the greater St. Pete food scene. I felt bad, but almost everyday she would get a message, asking where I’d be going for lunch? With her recommendations in hand, I ended up eating my way through her stomping grounds, 4 out of 5 days. That’s why we’re better for wear when it comes to technological advancement. I probably would never have discovered all the fantastic places in neighborhoods like as Pinellas Park and off everything off 4th st, as those areas have just never pinged on my radar.

How about some food?

The banh mi stands alone at the top of my sandwich pantheon. When you get a great baguette, fresh herbs and pickled vegetables with some sort of fabulous pork product, well, things don’t get much better. You’ll end up feeling like King Friday XIII or Queen Sara Saturday living in the magical world of make-believe.

Banh Mi Neighbor small

Here are three banh mi’s, so tasty they’d make Mr. Rogers slap his Viet-ma-knees! I ate four banh mi from three different places on my lunch breaks, each one having a distinct personality that made me love em all.

Banh Mi Trio

This first one is the special banh mi from Season’s Café & Bakery. Tightly packed and full of sliced pork, pork skin and a smear of paté.

Second,  the meatball sub from Saigon Sandwich. I was hesitant about this one since I hadn’t received much feedback and the place was empty. I’m happy to report that the meatballs had great texture and the generous amount of mayo was sweet and lemony which helped soften the interior of the bun.

I tried going to Thuy Café on Wednesday but they were closed. Timing was off until my last day when I got this lemongrass and grilled beef beauty. The bread here was superior. However, each banh mi offered distinct qualities worth going back for. On my way out of Thuy Café, I stopped in the market next door for a drink. What I found was a lesson in marketing with the most amazing impulse buys laid out for the taking. BBQ pork soft baked buns and shrimp sui mai sitting at the register as I made my purchase. At just a buck, I couldn’t pass up that deal son.

Impulse Dim Sum

Sandwiches are well represented in St. Petersburg. Although I didn’t photograph everything, it’s worth mentioning the many bread encapsulated lunches, from the imposing hunk of burger at El Cap, to the Bones Brigade meets haute cuisine manner Z Grille presents their unreal burger, to a possible top 5 best cuban sangwich ever had at Bodega on Central.

Everyone has that one place to get a classic burger, where they’ve been making it the same way for decades. It’ll never let you down and will always amaze. If you don’t have that, move. El Cap, St Petersburg’s version. Get it all the way for a perfect condiment conglomerate.

El Cap & Z Grille Burgers

Z Grille was my first dinner as it was highly recommended. My buddy Todd even decided to meet me for this one. I think he tried to kill me, because our choices were anything but light fare. We started with sweet and tender, leperous-like Dr. Pepper ribs. I say that because the meat was cooked so exquisitely, that it fell right off the bone. The name got me immediately as I’m a huge fan of any soda boasting 23 unique flavors. They were better than I could have dreamed. We followed that by a couple of entreés, that of sage and cornflake crusted chicken and waffles and Chef Zack’s attempt to kill a couple of Tampa food stalwarts in one fell swoop, by way of house ground steak burger. The chicken and waffles were great on their own, as they remained crispy throughout the meal, even after been drenched in a fantastic peppercorn infused maple syrup. The syrup initiated the most conversation, as it was thought provokingly floral as syrups go. The burger, on the other hand, hit us like a Peterbilt. It’s not enough that they make it using fresh ground ribeye and brisket, or that there’s a plank of Neuske’s bacon and house roasted garlicky tomatoes topping it off. Ordering it “Z style” will also afford you the opportunity to add a slab of pork belly, an over easy egg, as well as a nice seared piece of foie gras. Oh and they serve it with a side of truffle frites.

Z Grille Spread

The next meal was at Nitally’s. I’d heard this was a must try from multiple friends. If you love food with spice, I think you’ll meet your true love, as Nitally’s mashes up the cuisine of Mexico and Thailand in a way I’ve never seen before. The menu is vast and I was mentally exhausted after working extremely long hours. I put the decision in the hands of my waitress. You should only do this if you trust them implicitly…or if you’re just too wiped out to read the menu. A good measuring stick is to ask them what they like to eat. If the response is lightning quick, you’d do well to heed their recommendation. If you hear a lot of ums and uhs, it probably means that A. They don’t eat there much, or B. The food sucks. I was treated to a whirlwind of geographic cuisines as she brought me Mexican baos filled with grilled pork, with an abstract slathering of sweet and hot sauces. My main course was red curry pad Thai. More of an ode to Southeast Asian, however I didn’t care where the food came from at that point, just as long as it blew my mind. The heat from the chiles made me sweat and I was only halfway though the plate, but the flavor kept me coming back for more.

Nitally's Spread

My last dinner was at La V. It might have been the most modernized Vietnamese restaurant I’ve ever been to. It was a nice change of pace to what we’re used to, as I felt more relaxed in this setting. At least for me, Vietnamese food is set aside for a hurried day time meal with no fuss, it’s get in and get out!! With La V, I was more inclined take my time. The wife made the trip for this one, so we agreed this was going to be the place for us. She ordered the lemongrass bùn, and proceeded to devour it so quickly I failed to get a shot! We shared the garlic and sweet chili wings, which our host basically insisted we order. He was right, they ruled. Me and the little guy shared a fajita-like seared filet  with mushrooms and onions. This five year old is a definitely a steak snob, as nothing but filet will do. I wonder who he got that from? Couldn’t be his dad, as I will eat any part of the cow set aside for legal consumption in the state of Florida. These were fine dishes and a pleasant departure from the norm, with a touch of elegance. Looking back, dang I ate a ton of cilantro..

La V Spread

Honestly, almost every place I went last week deserves a full-blown slow clap review, picking all the finest points about why we should all be eating there now. Nitally’s is going to get that somewhere down the line, the same goes for Z grille. As always, every restaurant that graces the pages of Eat a Duck is approved for your future consideration. Be on the look out for more of my travels as I go all over the west coast this spring! If you’re interested, come out and meet me one night so I’m not so lonely. If you have a place in mind that I missed, let me know and I promise to hit it up!

Red Egg – New York City, NY

Restaurants that have built their reputation on serving traditional food at the highest level of quality are always a joy to visit. There’s nothing better than tasting the finest example of any given cultures cuisine, the way its creators intended. It takes courage then, to take that cuisine and start playing around with the tradition and methods proven over centuries. Well recently I visited the folks at Red Egg, and I can say that their courage has paid off.

Red Egg interiorphoto 1: www.restaurantsinyc.com • photo 2: www.redeggnyc.com

Red Egg, on the border of Soho and Chinatown is a shining example in the world of Chinese cuisine, specifically dim sum. Naturally, rumors of delectable dumplings is what drew me to them in the first place (though I heard of Peruvian influences, I didn’t see those sneak into the dim sum menu). Now, don’t misunderstand, Red Egg isn’t reinventing the wheel here, they’re not bastardizing dim sum the way many sushi restaurants do by adding sugary sauces to their maki rolls filled with strawberries, cream cheese and fried shrimp. They’re simply elevating it, coaxing even more delicious flavor from the same quality ingredients, the same dishes that we’ve all come to love. It’s the little things that make all the difference. You’ll see it right on the dim sum menu, this isn’t your daddy’s dim sum house, where women roam the aisles with steam carts full of dumplings that may have been made much earlier in the day. Dim sum, like sushi, is always better when eaten immediately after its made, the longer you wait, the more the flavor deteriorates. That’s why Red Egg wraps and steams/fries each set of dumplings to order, giving you your tiny purses of joy at their peak of freshness.

Honestly, I was a bit skeptical when I read this on their website. For years now, I’ve been a huge fan of the traditional cart service that you find in many dim sum houses in Hong Kong, London, New York and San Francisco. Cooked to order dim sum sounded promising, but it still felt like a break from tradition. I mean, there must be a good reason for steam carts as a delivery method! Maybe the dumplings are par-cooked in the kitchen and then finished in the steamer? I don’t know, all I do know, is that the dim sum being made at Red Egg is extraordinary. I’m saying this after hurriedly ordering take-out and rushing back to my office before it got cold. If their take-out impressed me that much, I have to imagine they’re even better eaten in-house.

I ordered three types, pork and cilantro, pork Siu Mai (I have to try this old favorite everywhere, it’s like a measuring stick), and “Red Eggs shrimp”, which, as I suspected turned out to be a great example of Har Gao. I have had all of these in some form or another at other restaurants over the years. These were excellent examples, surpassing many dim sum eateries in terms of freshness and flavor (perhaps all but Maison Kam Fung). The pork in the Siu Mai was juicy and almost sweet thanks to being paired with pieces of shrimp. There were even traces of chopped watercress for a little crunchy nuttiness. The fat from the pork infused the entire dumpling with a wonderfully buttery texture which lent the wrappers tenderness.

Pork & cilantro and Red Egg's Shrimp

Everything I ordered was delicious, my only regret was that I didn’t have the time to sit down and sample some of their larger plates, the Peking duck sliders caught my eye as well as the shredded duck mei fun (admittedly I am a tad bit obsessed with that bird). Another intriguing item is the Durian Puff. For those of you who don’t know, the Durian is a large, spiky fruit from Southeast Asia which some either love or hate based on its custard-like pulp and unique (to some, off-putting) odor. Nonetheless, I have wanted to try the Durian for some time, and sampling it in dim sum form seems like a fantastic opportunity. Alas that will have to wait until my next visit. As far as dim sum goes, Red Egg is absolutely worth the visit. As for the rest of the menu, I’ll get back to you when I have a chance to chow down on some chow fun.

Red Egg on Urbanspoon

La Maison Kam Fung – Montreal, QC

Dim sum has been something of a mainstay topic here at Eat a Duck. We’ve discussed Ming’s Bistro countless times, but Logan and I are always in search of the next big thing, not content to believe that we’ve found the best. This persistent searching brought the discovery of a wonderful dim sum house nestled deep in the bowels of a nondescript shopping center in downtown Montreal. La Maison Kam Fung, located at 1111 Saint Urbain Street, Montreal, QC, has captured the look, feel and most importantly, taste, of some of the best dim sum houses in Hong Kong. At least as closely as you can get on the opposite side of the planet.

Welcome sign to La Maison Kam Fung

If you happen to find yourself anywhere inside a 60 mile radius of Montreal, I suggest you take the day and visit this place. As you cross the threshold of the indoor Chinatown mall, you’re immediately greeted by a Chinese pastry shop on one side and a roast pork and duck joint on the other, you’re on the right track. After a short trip up the escalator, you begin to hear the muffled roar of hungry dim sum patrons and the circus hawker like voice over the P.A. announcing a newly vacant table. The turnaround at this place is staggering. You weave your way through the crowd of people until you arrive at the maitre’d podium, over her shoulder you can see the steaming carts of succulent dumplings zipping in and out of the crowded dining room. No words are exchanged except a short “15 minutes!”. She hands you a small piece of paper with a number, you promptly find your place among the masses and wait. Sure enough, after 15 minutes your number is called and you’re whisked away to your table, already cleaned, dressed with new linen, glassware, napkins and chopsticks.

The fun begins immediately. Most likely a cart will already be passing your table, offering two or three choices of steamed or fried deliciousness. The food is on the table and the cart is gone before you’ve taken your jacket off. Why can’t all restaurants have this kind of service?! As with any respectable dim sum establishment, the best time to visit is around 11:30-1:00 on Sunday. This is when you can be certain to find all your favorites and more at the peak of freshness. The insanely quick turnover means that nothing is sitting on racks in the back getting soggy and stale, they steam and fry and send the food out at a such a frenzied pace that the time between cooking and eating is a matter of seconds. The staples are always available, Siu Mai, Ha Gao, Char Siu Bao, Taro, Bok Choy with hoisin. If you don’t see the cart carrying what you’re looking for, just ask and they’ll either run in the back or find the cart that has it and bring it back to you. My favorite, Cheong Fun, has a cart all to itself, with three variations, pork, BBQ beef and shrimp.

La Maison Kam Fung dim sum 

The best part about Kam Fung is the unexpected dishes, the things you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere. Shrimp balls wrapped in bacon with a mayo dipping sauce, shrimp and green onion patties tucked between two rice noodles with a side of hoisin, Szechuan peel n’ eat shrimp and more. There are literally so many items it would take many trips to sample them all.

Fried crab balls and Szechuan shrimp

Hong Kong, San Francisco, New York, London, all places with a fine track record of awesome dim sum. Well now we can add Montreal to the list, as La Maison Kam Fung is a must-visit eatery if you find yourself there. Just goes to show, when you think you’ve found “the best place ever”, make sure to keep searching, you’ll be glad you did.

Kam Fung on Urbanspoon