January 26, 2015

Hell week day 1: Malicious East and Venomous West

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Today is the start of "hell week", when somehow I've managed - despite my best efforts to space out my feedings - to schedule 6 consecutive days of eating out... 6 dinners out plus a lunch.  I really need to find time to burn off the extra calories!

Of all the meals this week, dinner tonight was arguably the most interesting experience of the bunch.  The MNSC boys gathered for an "impromptu" dinner - meaning that we all chip in and bring a bottle... and Kwan Kee Clay Pot (坤記煲仔小菜) was suggested as the venue.  Yes, that Kwan Kee.  The Hong Kong institution famous for their clay pot rice, where throngs line up when the weather turns cold.  For a wine dinner.  The idea is even more novel than me wanting to bring fine wine to a burger lunch... But hey, a couple of the boys have apparently done this before, so why the hell not?!  Hours before dinner, I even checked with the boys again to make sure that this would be kosher with the restaurant, since they're not exactly used to customers hogging the table for 2 or 3 hours...  I was assured that we'd be fine as long as we ordered enough food.

A couple of the guys arrived early and took up half of the table at the corner furthest from the entrance - which is basically Siberia.  Given that it takes up to an hour to cook the clay pot rice, the boys placed the order as soon as they sat down.  We had brought our own glassware, and a couple of bottles were already open and on the table.  The first clay pot dish had arrived, so I dug in as soon as I sat down.

Clay pot with fatty beef and rice vermicelli in satay sauce (沙爹粉絲肥牛煲) - what's not to like about beef in satay sauce, especially when it's fatty beef?!  And the rice vermicelli makes it even better.

Clay pot with braised tofu (紅燒豆腐煲) - pretty decent, with shiitake mushrooms and shredded pork.

Then 5 clay pots arrived bearing the restaurant's famous rice dishes - we had ordered double portions of 3 types of rice, but only 5 of them came this round.  We would find out the reason later.

I was surprised that no soy sauce of any kind was poured onto the rice while still in the pot.  At some other clay pot rice places, the lids are put back onto the pots after pouring in the soy sauce, enabling the pots to retain heat while the sauce drips to the bottom and hardens.  I guess they don't have that ritual here...

Clay pot rice with eel (白鱔飯) - not bad, but I'm generally not a fan of this type of eel...  Two of these.

Clay pot rice with beef and egg (窩蛋牛肉飯) - always a crowd favorite, with tender slices of beef and an egg on top.  Two of these, too.

Clay pot rice with pork ribs and egg (窩蛋排骨飯) - some more no-nonsense goodness.  Two of these.

This place takes their time to cook the rice, and the result is an even layer of rice crispies - a beautiful sight to behold.  And delicious.

Clay pot rice with preserved meats and chicken (臘味滑雞飯) - I'm not sure we ordered this, but somehow it found its way to our table so we took it.

Clay pot with mutton brisket with tofu skin (支竹羊腩煲) - this is a great dish for cold weather, and of course we had to get this.

The mutton was good and tender, and worked well with the bamboo shoots and tofu skin.  Besides cooking Chinese lettuce in the bowl to have it soak up the sauce, we also ended up pouring the mutton sauce onto the rice...  Yum!

Clay pot rice with preserved meats (臘味飯) - can't leave here without having some of this!  Winter means eating preserved meats like pork sausage and liver sausage, plus preserved pork belly (臘肉).

The theme for tonight was Rhône, and the 6 of us brought 7 bottles - with 5 bottles coming from Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

2009 Comte Lafon Meursault 1er Cru Charmes - opened about 5½ hours prior to serving.  Nose of lemon, oak, flinty. Nicely balanced on the palate.

1985 Beaucastel - opened 2 hours prior to serving.  Some fruit here and pretty nice.

1986 Henri Bonneau Réserve des Célestins - as someone said, this was "101% corked"... and the cork actually was loose and dropped into the bottle.  Nose of sweet grass and cardboard.

1994 Beaucastel Hommage à Jacques Perrin - very farmy, pretty strong animal notes, savory and smoky.  Absolutely perfect with the mutton brisket.

1998 Rayas - what a beautiful wine!  Really sweet and jammy on the nose, with lots of strawberries and lychee.   Body was much lighter than I remembered from previous bottles, but that nose!  Pure, unabashed decadence.  My favorite wine of the evening, just edging out the Célestins.

1998 Henri Bonneau Réserve des Célestins - double-decanted 2 hours prior to serving.  Good fruit here, but also plenty of concentration.  A little smoky and savory.  A beautiful wine.

1991 Guigal La Landonne - a little smoky, exotic, plenty of coconut butter, almost seemed a little cooked, and slightly "dirty".  Surprisingly not my favorite wine tonight, but still drinking well.

Our two favorite wines of the evening were clearly the pair of '98s.  The interesting point is that both wines were made from the same grape - grenache - but they could not be more different stylistically.  At another dinner 5 years ago, we made the analogy between these same two wines (from the 1990 vintage) to two very different types of women.  Tonight the wines were described as the Malicious East and the Venomous West (東邪西毒) - a reference to characters from the novels of Jin Yong (金庸) - although looking back I think the comparison to women still applies...

Tonight was undoubtedly one of the most unique evenings in the history of MNSC - and we've had plenty of fun over the last 15 years.  This was soooo different from our run-of-the-mill dinner at fine dining establishments, and I think most of us would love to do it again!  Yeah man, we be slummin' it!

Finally, at the risk of making the MNSC boys look like a bunch of entitled spoiled brats - which, admittedly, we probably are - here are some takeaways from tonight:

I always worried whether the restaurant would put up with a bunch of guys leisurely drinking bottles of wine over a couple of hours, since this is a very local joint serving moderately priced food for the masses, and these places turn over their tables pretty quickly.  Sure enough, not long after we started bringing out the bottles, someone (who may have been the owners' daughter) came over and scolded us for bringing so many bottles.  She got more upset when more bottles piled up on the table, and kept telling us not to open any more bottles (even though all the corks had been popped already).

Our resident Canto Clooney tried to discuss this point with her, but she was immune to his charms and would have none of it.  Eventually she came and told us that she didn't want us hanging around just drinking, since they need to turn the table.  This was a fair point, and we fully understand the restaurant's need to bring in revenue.  So we offered to order more dishes to make up for not turning the table quickly enough, and at one point someone even suggested that we pay them a chunk of money as corkage, despite the fact that we had brought our own glasses and there wasn't any wine service.  She rejected this offer.  It seems that just throwing money at them - something we'd do without a second thought, and which would seem to address the revenue issue - wasn't the right solution.

After the first round of clay pot rice came (we eventually got the 6th pot), we wanted to order some more food, including more rice.  This was our way of making it up to the restaurant.  It was flatly rejected by the boss lady, who complained that she's already allowed us to order 6 pots of rice... and that was a lot for one table, since usually 2 or 3 diners share a pot of rice.

I was scratching my head in disbelief at first, wondering why there seemed to be limitations on what we could order, until the boss lady explained that the restaurant only has five burners for cooking clay pot rice (which seems like a small number for a place that specializes in clay pots).  She had already allowed us to order 6 pots in the first round - thus monopolizing all five burners for our table during the long cooking process.  Were we to order more pots of rice, their resources would be disproportionately allocated to our table, which would be unfair to other customers.

So that illustrates the way they run their business, it's not about catering to anyone who can throw money around.  It's about making as many customers happy as possible, and building a wide customer base for long-term sustainability versus short-term gains from a few fat cats.  That is a very wise strategy, and certainly makes much more sense than some of the places we often hear about.

At one point, we wondered whether the current market value of the wines on the table would exceed the restaurant's entire take for the night.  I'm not sure that it would, but it certainly would be more than the revenue from one turn, maybe even two.

Anyway, the boss lady eventually relented and allowed us one last pot of rice, but were chided and warned not to do this again.  We all had a pretty good time, as the wines were superb and the food matched up pretty well.  On the way out I settled the bill, and decided to leave a tip just shy of 20%.  I'm not sure that it meant anything to the boss lady, but it's my way of showing appreciation.  As to whether you think it's just another case of the entitled crowd throwing money around... I leave that up to you to decide.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting blog. I am surprised but am impressed by the owner's thinking. May be that is why the restaurant is so well regarded. Makes good material for a HBR case study in small business management.

v said...

I remember the Queen once wanted to try yumcha at 陸羽 and was rejected because they don't want to displease their usual customers and the Queen is nothing to them.

I think this is the sweet thing for local businesses. It's an interesting experience for rich class but if everyone does that they will lose their common customers in the long run

v said...

PS. I should have made it clear that the Queen wanted the whole place for herself (security reasons apparently)

Jon said...

Yum, almost everything looks good. The only thing I am not a fan of is the eel- I generally don't like any type of eel.


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