March 5, 2016

Living up to the hype

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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 leaves were made with pesto, farro, egg white, and pine nuts.  The flowers were made with sour cream, potato, and beetroot.

The grissini branches were made from black olives and black pepper.  These were a little too crunchy and hard for my liking.

These clam tarts were made with Chinese fermented black beans (豆豉), clam juice, coriander, and pickled chili.  Tasted a little salty at first.

Crispy chicken skin with tom yum powder, coconut cream, and citrus.  They definitely got a kick!

The quail eggs pickled in Japanese vinegar and smoked.  Nice and runny yolk.

Then the dishes started coming:

Tuna, Hokkaido uni, espelette, burnt cucumber jelly - the first dish certainly made a real visual impression.  A bed of tuna tartare with piment d'espelette emulsion and mixed with crispy multigrain, topped with tongues of Hokkaido sea urchin, discs of fermented radish, cucumber discs and balls, multi-colored edible flowers, scallion purée, and covered with a layer of cucumber jelly.

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 frozen longan was provided on the side to deliver a sweet and refreshing finish.

Abalone, goji berry, risotto, shirako - it's good that I took a second look the menu and noticed one of my few forbidden items on the list of ingredients for this dish!  No fish cum for me, please!

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.

Langoustine, kohlrabi, fennel, custard apple - the New Zealand langoustine was pretty sweet and tender, served with a reduction made with the langoustine head.  The kohlrabi is homegrown and roasted in beurre noisette.  Garnished with fennel, fennel pollen, and homegrown begonia.  The chunks of custard apple were pretty sweet, but judging from the texture they seemed to be atemoya instead of the sugar apple varietal.  Nice acidity here for balance.

Egg, truffle, Parmesan, caviar - Taiyouran egg yolk raviolo on a bed of  homegrown spinach and cheese mash, surrounded by Parmesan foam with truffle oil dots and topped with a quenelle of sustainable Italian white sturgeon caviar.  Very rich and creamy.  Very good.

The deep-fried Chinese cruller was flavored with truffle oil was crunchy and delicious, although it was a little more greasy (but thankfully not soggy!) than I would have liked.  Perfect for mopping up the Parmesan foam.

Guinea fowl, celeriac, black truffle, hazelnut - Bresse guinea fowl roulade stuffed with foie gras and Périgord truffle, on a pile of truffled cabbage, with Tasmanian cherries and truffles and some gremolata with hazelnuts, and sauce Périgueux.  Note the separate rings of dark meat (thigh) and white meat (breast) for the roulade surrounding the foie.  Very, very tender... with wonderful flavors from browning the exterior.

The truffled cabbage was particularly delicious.  Oh and of course the sauce Périgueux was hearty and felt very "winter-ish"...

Baby lamb, fuyu, bamboo, water chestnut - this was the weakest dish of the evening, despite drawing inspiration from clay pot with mutton brisket (羊腩煲) - a local favorite in winter.  Starting from the left is a disc of water chestnut pickled in Japanese vinegar; braised Chinese lettuce topped with shiitake mushroom roasted in beurre noisette; local bamboo shoot poached in olive oil; baby lamb brisket wrapped in tofu skin (支竹) and topped with lamb skin puff.  The sauce streaking across the plate was made from fermented miso (isn't all miso fermented by definition?) and fermented tofu sauce (腐乳).  At the top of the dish was a slice of roasted lamb loin, served with powdered konbu (昆布) to add a little umami/MSG.  The puddles are basically sauce made from the lamb bones, with some chopped lamb skin.

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.

Strawberry, beetroot, rosemary, yogurt - a whole lotta different forms of all the ingredients, with macerated strawberries, candied beetroot, roses made from beetroot, rosemary sablé, quenelle of strawberry and yogurt sorbet; strawberry and rose royale snow in the middle.

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!

Milk jam, salted duck egg, quinoa - milk jam ice cream on a bed of toasted quinoa, topped with shavings of salted duck egg yolk.  This was beautiful, with the delicious interplay of the savory and sweet flavors.  The quinoa was really toasty and crunchy.

What looked like the napkin we got at the beginning of the meal turned out to be a lychee cocktail with a rose marshmallow this time around...

The petits fours came in a ball-shaped container with stacked trays, opening up to reveal three different layers:

Orange Earl Grey madeleines - very good, but the madeleines are slightly on the dry side.

Salted kumquat macaron and chocolate caramel truffle - the macarons were really interesting, since I love preserved kumquats.

Condensed milk mochi

For tea I chose peridot, which was a blend of verbena, kumquat, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves.  Very fragrant, and a perfect girlie drink for me to finish the evening.

While this place was meant to be known for their cocktails (and cocktail pairings), us winos only want to drink our own wines... And the five of us ended up opening (only) four of the five bottles we brought along...

2000 Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill - ripe and caramelized nose, with a little bit of straw and some marmalade.  Nice acidity on mid-palate and finish.

1990 Trimbach Riesling Clos Sainte Hune - classic nose of petrol, flint, rubber, and white flowers.  Very lean and almost monolithic.  Beautiful.

1996 Comte George de Vogüé Musigny Vieilles Vignes - opened but not decanted for 1½ hours.  Still closed on the first pour, almost a little green.  Put into a decanter for the rest of the evening.  Showed a little of the vanilla oak much later, and after three hours it finally opened up.

1971 Palmer - popped and poured.  Lovely nose showing smoke, savory notes like black tea, pencil lead, with some nice fruit and a little green capsicum.  Almost a little coffee, with a final bit of farmy and stinky notes at the end.  A beautiful and elegant wine.

A lovely evening with delicious food and wine, and the only thing that kinda detracted from our 4-hour experience was the pain of me getting up and down the bar chair... but that is easily fixed by booking a table on my next visit.  I never got around to tasting Chef Vicky Cheng's food at his previous establishment, but VEA is certainly one of the most exciting new venues to have opened up in the last 6 months.

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