October 20, 2010

The annual pilgrimage to the Russian department store

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It's been close to a year, but we're back in hairy crab season again, and it calls for a return to Tien Heung Lau (天香樓).  Some of my friends have been waiting to come back for a while, so I gathered the troops and trekked across the harbor for dinner.

Those of us who have been coming here for the last couple of years have grown to love a specific set of dishes, and have weeded out the ones we feel are overrated - stir-fried prawns with tea leaves (龍井蝦仁), beggar's chicken (富貴雞) and braised pork belly (東坡肉) in particular.  My past blogposts basically show the same items... but there is a good reason for this.

The restaurant has been around for some years, and so have the waiters - which can lead to some issues.  When the waiter hands over the menu, one immediately notices that only about 20% of the printed items have prices written next to them - don't even bother trying to order anything else.  And even then some of those items with prices may not be available, depending on the season.  The waiter will always steer you towards the same 10 or so items when you order.  I joked that this place is like a Russian department store of the old Soviet era - with very few items on the shelves and the "take it or leave it" attitude.

We seem to run into familiar faces when we come here.  For our Thanksgiving dinner here last year, Chua Lan (蔡瀾) was sitting at the next table.  Tonight I saw Mr. Zee - a former chairman of the Kiangsu Chekiang and Shanghai Residents (H.K.) Association (香港蘇浙滬同鄉會).  So the old-timers keep coming to this place... and we were definitely the table with the youngest average age by far.

Chopped Indian aster and tofu (馬蘭頭) - always a crowd pleaser, but I thought it was a little dry today.  Still get the fragrance of the vegetable and also the sesame oil.

Drunken pigeon (醉鴿) - still very good, but curiously not popular with this crowd tonight. I was tempted to take a couple of spoonfuls of the wine and drink it...

Country paté (肴肉) - this was OK but again not really popular...

Deep-fried freshwater eel (爆鱔背) with garlic brown sauce - maybe it's because I got to the dish late and only took the pieces soaking up the sauce at the bottom, but I found the eel to be softer and not as crunchy as I remember from previous visits.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but it raises the question regarding consistency.

Deep-fried frog legs (炸田雞腿) - poor Resident Froggie had to put up with our potshots ever since her "incident" here last year, and finally decided that she's had enough.  The sight of those wide-spread legs on the plate just made my mouth water...

I knew which dish was coming our way without even looking... Smoked yellow croaker (煙薰黃魚) really is my favorite dish here, and that smoky fragrance just permeates the air around the entire table - and manages to float over to neighboring tables, too.  The flesh has just enough seasoning to make it perfectly delicious, and the smoky fragrance is only partially transferred into the flavor.  A perfect dish.

In all my previous visits to the restaurant - and with my professed love for hairy crabs - I have never thought about ordering a whole crab here.  I still remember hearing about people paying USD 100 for a single crab back before the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, and I'm just not willing to pay that kind of price.  Hairy crab (大閘蟹) is something one can easily steam at home for a fraction of the cost.  There's no skill involved and therefore no reason to pay the restaurant a premium.

Tonight half the crowd wanted crabs so I reserved a few.  When some guests dropped out at the last minute, I forgot to adjust the number of crabs so we ended up with an extra.  As no one else was stepping up to take it and it has already been steamed, I gave in to temptation and grabbed it.  Unfortunately, it proved to be another overpriced choice.  The amount of tomalley was a little disappointing, although there was a decent amount of translucent sperm.  I'll probably never pay USD 80 for another one of these again.

The next few dishes were served while half the table was having crab, so that the rest of the group would would have something to do instead of sitting around waiting.  I had to pause periodically from destroying my crab to reach out for a spoonful of each of these.

Braised shark's lips with sea cucumber (紅燒海參魚唇) - OK so I'm still not clear whether this is made from the lip or the tail of the shark, but in any case it's just gelatin.   It's a dish where everything is soft and wobbly... Great for your complexion.

Stir-fried rice cakes with shredded pork and leafy mustard (雪菜肉絲炒年糕) - we know the kitchen can fire up a dark soy version of the rice cakes, but the waiter insisted that this is all that's available.  Did someone say "Russian department store"?

Then came the perennial highlight of the meal - stir-fried hairy crab roe with noodles (蟹粉撈麵).  No way you won't feel full after a bowl of this.  Just absolutely wonderful.  Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure I wolfed this down and displayed very poor form and table manners...

It's still too early for my favorite Shanghainese veggie (塌窩菜) so we had to make do with some stir-fried pea shoots (清炒豆苗).

As a result of our experience last year - when we finished our meal relatively late and didn't get our free dessert - Mrs Dyson decided to ask the kitchen to send out dessert before everyone was done with the meal.  She was able to enjoy three bowls of the glutinous rice balls in fruity fermented rice soup (什果酒釀丸子)... and was definitely a happy camper!

I thought we'd be able to finish more wine, but I guess only a couple of us are actually alcoholics...

2005 Marc Morey Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Referts - nose of minerals, sweet and really ripe.  A little hot on the palate but with a slightly acidic finish.  Nicely balanced.

2002 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Vintage Rich - definitely "richer" and sweeter than your average Brut, since this is Sec.

2007 Ram's Hill Sauvignon Blanc - I think most people had no idea who made this wine, so had very low expectations.  This limited production "reserve" wine from Marchese Lodovico Antinori - who makes a very delicious New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc under the Mount Nelson label - blew us away.  It was intense and rich, with an explosion of fruit like muscat and white grapes, minerals, flint and green apple.  The only other New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc which gives me this much pleasure is Cloudy Bay's Te Koko, but some of us think Ram's Hill may be even better.  I think this calls for a blind tasting face-off!

2005 Hétszőlő Tokaj Late Harvest - lots of honey, marmalade, acetone and floral notes.  Pretty sweet since it's a late harvest wine.  I was always under the impression that Tokajs are made only with Furmint, but that just shows you how little I know... This was made with 95% Hárslevelű and definitely very fragrant, thanks to maceration with the skin.

A very good dinner overall, but considering that the crab cost as much as the rest of the dinner, I don't think it was a very good trade.  Will continue to eat them at home from now on!

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