December 18, 2014

A shocking revelation about Cantonese restaurants

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Tonight I met up with a friend from college on his first trip to Hong Kong.  I haven't seen Mike since our days back in Spittsbush, and not surprisingly, I was antisocial enough to have never met his wife on campus.  It was a rare opportunity to catch up with people I knew from yesteryear...

I picked them up at their hotel, hopped into a cab, and headed for the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong.  It's been a while since I was last at Tin Lung Heen (天龍軒), and I figured it would be a nice place to take my visitors.  The views from just the hotel entrance - never mind that from the 102nd floor - were spectacular.  I did tell my visitors that the place would be bling, and so I was a little disappointed that no one showed up in gold lamé or sequins as promised...

Dinner was little more challenging than usual.  I was told in advance that my friend's wife's dietary restrictions included "no creatures of the forest or meadows" and no shellfish, but that fish, vegetables and carbs were fine.  After further inquiries, I was told that even meat stocks - which are sometimes used even in vegetable dishes in Cantonese cuisine - would be no-no.  I initially told Mike that it would be a "piece of cake", since many Chinese are vegetarians - especially the devout Buddhists among us.  But I decided to be very careful while ordering, and was very specific about these restrictions to the staff who took my order.  Thankfully we were at a Michelin-starred restaurant in a 5-star hotel!

Our amuse bouche came in a little bowl, and contained deep-fried anchovies with pumpkin in black vinegar.  The fish tasted very familiar, and I found that they were actually Osbeck's grenadier anchovy (鳳尾魚) - little fishies that I grew up eating out of tins.

Char-grilled barbecued Iberian pork (蜜燒西班牙黑豚肉叉燒) - the one meat dish I ordered for Mike and myself, because you can't come to Hong Kong and not eat good char siu.  Our waiter helpfully suggested that we take just a half-portion, since only two of us were eating pork.  Very fatty and tender, and very sinful.

Stir-fried pea shoots (清炒豆苗) - pea shoots are in season and can be deliciously tender.  Often this is served after blanching in superior stock - which is simply ham broth.  Of course that's not kosher for this table, so I asked for it to be simply stir-fried.  During dinner though, I was constantly wondering whether the kitchen had forgotten our instructions and had added some chicken bouillon powder, because it sure tasted a little more than just simply pea shoots, salt, and oil...

Steamed Hakata eggplant with dried tomato and red dates - this was surprisingly good.  We loved the flavors of the eggplant itself, but this was made even better by adding the tanginess of the sun-dried tomatoes and contrasting it with the sweetness and richness of the jujubes.

Stir-fried noodles in soy sauce (豉油皇炒麵) - definitely safe with neither meat nor shellfish... Pretty decent, and I definitely tasted the wok hei.

Steamed spotted garoupa (清蒸東星斑) - OK, not the most environmentally-friendly choice, but there really is a dearth of choices at high-end Canto restaurants when it comes to fish... pretty much everything is on the WWF's "Avoid" list.  We took one that was just about 1 catty, and our helpful waiter spared my friends the chore of getting the meat off the bones.  A good chunk of the fish was divvied up into three bowls, with all the bony parts coming to me... And the waiter wasn't kidding when he told me that he made sure that my American friends didn't get any bones, because they were all in MY bowl!

The head, neck, tail and fins were moved to a small plate and left on the table, with the head facing me.  I ended up nibbling on the tail and took the meat off the neck, but I did offer the cheeks to my friend's wife.

We shared a bottle of wine over dinner, and given the distinct lack of meat in our diet, I naturally chose a German Riesling.

2012 Schloss Johannisberg Riesling Kabinett Rotlack - nice and floral on the nose.  Palate just a little off-dry with a touch of sweetness.

The food was delicious tonight, and I have to thank the staff at the restaurant - both the front of house as well as the kitchen - for their outstanding service in their effort to accommodate our very specific dietary restrictions.  While it's fairly easy to avoid dishes with shellfish, meat (which my friend's wife does not eat for ethical reasons) is much more difficult than one thinks due to the potential presence of meat stock in dishes.  The kitchen took every care to ensure that every offending ingredient was removed from our food.  However, what I found out while discussing this with our waiter left me more than a little shocked...

I always thought that some the dishes in the "vegetarian" section of the menu - especially ones which were "braised" - were not strictly vegetarian.  The waiter explained to me which ones from the menu needed to have their sauces made from scratch for us, but when he apologized to us for the steamed fish taking a little longer because the marinade needed to be specially made for us, I was dumbfounded.  Huh?  Isn't the marinade for Cantonese steamed fish just soy sauce and cooking oil, which is why it's sometimes referred to as 豉油蒸?  Well, apparently not only does the kitchen make liberal use of chicken bouillon powder in its cooking, this apparently extends to the classic steamed fish as well!

Now, I've been told long ago that Cantonese chefs in town think nothing of using MSG or chicken bouillon powder in their cooking (some claim they don't use MSG, but conveniently ignore the fact that many brands of chicken bouillon powder contain MSG as an ingredient), but I would have thought that high-end Cantonese restaurants - especially one such as this, in a 5-star hotel, with two Michelin stars to boot, would make their own stock instead of relying on factory-made powder.  How naive I was!

I still remember more than a decade ago, on my first tour of the Gaddi's kitchen as part of their Chef's Table program, I was shown the three gigantic pots in which the restaurant made their own stock.  I would imagine that no self-respecting chef at a top French restaurant would be caught dead using bouillon powder, just like no self-respecting chef at an Italian restaurant with Michelin stars would be caught using tomato sauce from a can.  So why do chefs at a Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant think it's OK to use chicken bouillon to steam fish, never mind to cook other dishes?!  And now my fish tastes like chicken...

I must admit that I was overcome with a certain sadness... like a young child who was told for the very first that that Santa Claus doesn't actually exist.  This was a rude awakening, and now I may have to re-evaluate my opinion of some top chefs at Chinese restaurants in town...  Sigh.

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