Sometimes it takes a few broken eggs
THE HUNGRY TOURIST
THERE’S no excuse for good hotels to serve bad scrambled eggs.
Some of the best hotels in the world serve the worst scrambled eggs. It may have something to do with the fact that rapid growth and random staff intake means almost no one in hotels has been sufficiently trained.
Even in tonier establishments, chefs who’ve just donned a crisp white toque stare at you as if you’ve asked to elope with the mackerel when you mention scrambled eggs.
Scrambled eggs will almost always end up a perfect omelette that chefs everywhere love to mould, slowly rolling up the viscous liquid before trium- phantly sliding it, golden and steaming, on to your plate. So what happened to my scrambled eggs? Sofitel properties are a valiant exception where French culinary hubris prevents visiting such profound discomfiture on free-range chicken eggs that abhor straitjacket delivery. At Sofitels, they’ll make eggs, free style, any style, and brilliantly.
The problem with good food is rent. High rents have forced some of the greatest ( not the most expensive) establishments out. And these have been replaced by humdrum assemblyline operations where the same generic orange sauce appears on the pork cutlet as on the spaghetti bolognaise. It will miraculously reappear with the sweet and sour stir-fry and it mayarrive as a side with the salad. Orange sauce is ubiquitous. Especially in Hong Kong, where I live. Economies of scale favour whoever bottles ( or invented) this nasty stuff, but not the customers who end up slurping the goo simply to justify their purchase.
For travellers, finding good food has become a quest even more noble than entombing the hotel general manager. But where to begin?
As already described, the first thing is to avoid high-rent establishments, especially those where the upwardly mobile brandish iPads and heavenly women with heavenly pouts toss back brightly coloured cocktails. This could be a recipe for disaster. Bars are not the best hunting grounds for gourmets on the go. As chowhound Tyler Cowen wryly notes in his offbeat book An Economist Gets Lunch, beautiful women attract men for reasons other than quality food and such establishments exploit it to the hilt by watering down drinks and palming off average food. Here you come to see and be seen. You may well get your face smacked for impertinence, but the food will never be lip-smackingly good.
I exaggerate, of course, but the point is fairly straightforward, despite wonderful exceptions to the rule such as Basilico at The Regent Singapore or Made in China at Grand Hyatt Beijing.
Cowen’s tips? Figure out ‘‘where supplies are fresh, suppliers are creative and the customers are informed’’. And look for low-rent areas near highrent customers. Cheaper family establishments in a highly competitive environment where several small and busy establishments produce similar food are more likely to deliver the goods than fancy restaurants in malls where the focus is on kids’ palates — and we all know what a frightening thought that is: bland, with a dollop of tomato sauce and a hint of chewing gum.
Street food can beat restaurants hands down. Taiwan is one fabulous example. India too, though you may need to book an ambulance rather than a Rolls-Royce to get around. In India, look for cooked foods (read boiled, cremated, burned, fried) and stay away from ‘‘fresh’’ salads and greens that have probably been washed in suspect water. Refuse ice, insist on freshly boiled tea, stay away from places crammed with wide-eyed foreigners, frequent establishments with a long queue of locals, and you’ll be fine. In Shanghai, pootle over to Yunnan Road not far from People’s Park where government-run restaurants ensure you do not imbibe any recycled gutter oil. And in Tokyo, head straight for the railway station concourses, where an abundance of cheap and flavourful holes-in-the-wall cater to a throng of salarymen never too tired to appreciate a good bento box or bowl of ramen.
Smart hotels are trying outsourcing to professional food operators who have made their names and garnered a loyal following. The InterContinental Hong Kong, for example, has Nobu Matsuhisa’s eponymous restaurant and SPOON by Alain Ducasse. Arriving next year, GHM Hotels’ The Aayu Mumbai, perched high up a Worli skyscraper, will employ the gastronomic guile of Japanese heavy-hitter Hide Yamamoto and the Michelin-starred French maestro Joel Robuchon. Hong Kong-based Vijay Verghese runs SmartTravelAsia.com.