Some­times it takes a few bro­ken eggs

THE HUN­GRY TOURIST

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Food Issue - VI­JAY VERGH­ESE

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.

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