I can't tell you the number of times over the last 3 months I've been asked if I have eaten at VEA. It is arguably the hottest new opening in Hong Kong, and during the soft opening period my social media feeds were flooded with pictures and posts about the place. The PR for the restaurant had also very kindly invited me to go for a taste but, as usual, I preferred to wait and go on my own dime.
So I finally succumbed when some friends invited me to join them tonight. They had had a very good meal there, and were eager to introduce me to the place.
I arrived to find that, regrettably, we had counter seating. Now, for someone who chases after good food all the time, I am surprisingly ambivalent about open kitchens. During a good meal, I'm so busy with my photography, tasting, taking notes, and trying to carry on conversations with my dining companions... that I actually don't have a lot of time to observe and watch what is being done by the kitchen staff.
The downside here is that the counter is raised pretty high, so we end up sitting on these tall, awkward bar chairs. Since I'm pretty particular about taking pictures of my food, and do it from different angles, I found myself getting off the chair to try to shoot from a low angle for just about every single dish. And the process of getting in and out of my chair became really tedious... especially when, at every instance, the staff thinks that you're trying to go to the men's room.
Anyway, I'm pretty sure no one else would have this problem... I'm just the weird and picky one.
We started with a series of snacks, some of which were already on the bar in front of us:
The quail eggs pickled in Japanese vinegar and smoked. Nice and runny yolk.
There was a good mix of textures here, from the soft and creamy sea urchin, to the tuna, then the cucumber and crunchy pickled radish, to finally the hard bits of what seemed to be black wild rice. Good contrast of flavors, too... with the sweetness of sea urchin paired with the acidity from the pickled radish, and the little bit of spice from piment d'espelette.
The abalone from local waters was indeed very tender. It sat on a bed of risotto that wasn't cooked with any cream (interesting, because this novice cook who burns his food doesn't remember adding any cream to any risotto he has ever cooked...) because the creaminess was meant to come from the fish cum... which was, of course, absent from my plate at my request. There's also a puddle of red onion consommé to provide more flavor. Garnished with sansho leaves (木の芽), perilla flowers, and wolfberries. Delicious.
OK, so basically this is a deconstructed 羊腩煲. Normally I am a HUGE fan of deconstructed dishes, but in this case there were just too many elements... and it's pretty difficult to fit them all into one bite to get back the combined flavors from the sum of the parts. So in that sense, this came up short. But there was no fault with the execution here... just a philosophical difference.
As Hello Kitty keeps telling our friends, "beetroot and us aren't friends". Neither of us are fans of the earthy flavors that we find in beetroot so we'll never order it, but we usually won't ask the kitchen to remove it, either. In this case, the rose flavors completely dominated and overpowered the beetroot, so this turned out to be perfect for us. It's very rare that both of us can love a dish with beetroot as an ingredient. Bravo!