April 27, 2016

Three star Chinese menu for gweilos

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A globe-trotting foodie was coming to town, hitting all 6 of the Michelin 3-star restaurants in Hong Kong and both of the 3-stars in Macau in the span of four days.  I figured it would be interesting to meet someone who was close to his goal of having eaten at every single one of the 3-star restaurants in the world, so I invited myself to dinner at Lung King Heen (龍景軒) tonight.

Most of my friends know of my opinion about this place.  Yes, it's a good Cantonese restaurant, but it was never a 3-star in my book... and the only time it came close was a particular dim sum lunch about 5 years ago.  Maybe I am unfairly unprejudiced against this place, but I was never 'wow'ed come dinner time.  I wanted to give the place another try and see if I'd feel differently.

Unfortunately, things went the other way.  I came away from dinner fuming.

However much I bash this place about their food - or about their undeserved 3-star status - I have to give them credit for service.  I'm lucky enough to know both of the restaurant's sommeliers, and once I was recognized, we were pampered for the rest of the evening.

Ordering for Chinese food is never easy for small groups, and given there were only three of us - with two of the three being Caucasian - it was natural for the manager to suggest that we take their Chef's Tasting Menu.  This was when I experienced a bit of sticker shock.  The price of the menu was a little bit more than HKD 2,000 per head.  Another set menu - with bird's nest and braised abalone - came in around HKD 2,700 per head.

Now, I'm not really known for being stingy when it comes to paying for food, although I generally eschew the "big five" of expensive Chinese ingredients due to my inability to fully appreciate them.  I've shelled out this kind of price before for a Chinese dinner, but I was somewhat skeptical after taking a look at the list of dishes.  In the end, as the visitors seemed to have no objections - and I would never have taken a menu like this under normal circumstances - I decided to go with the manager's suggestion so that I could finally have a similar experience to what overseas visitors are likely to get when they come here.

Crispy Scallop with Fresh Pear and Yunnan Ham (龍帶玉梨香) - this is one of the restaurant's signature dishes, and I had it at my very first dinner here.

This was alright, but I didn't really quite get it, again.

Lung King Heen Appetiser Combination (廚師燒味拼盤) - this came with three different types of roast meat:

Roast Goose with Plum Sauce (潮蓮靚燒鵝) - not bad, but falls far short of my favorite roast goose at Yat Lok (一樂燒鵝).

Crispy Suckling Pig (片皮乳豬件) - this was not bad, although it was interesting to have a perilla leaf at the bottom.  Since our waitress took the care to tell us that the leaf was edible (duh...), I decided to eat it together with the crackling and pork.

Barbecued Pork with Honey (蜜汁燒茶燒) - I wondered if this were from the collar (脢頭肉), as it was slightly marbled and very, very tender.  Pretty good.

Crab Meat and Tofu Soup with Lobster and Bamboo Piths (龍蝦竹笙蟹肉豆腐羹) - you know, I had to explain to the visitors... it's not that this type of soup isn't "authentic Chinese".  It is most certainly Chinese.  But it's rare that these heavily-starched egg drop soups actually show up on a menu that we regularly put together.  Most of us actually prefer double-boiled soups.  Of course, it's not to say that these soups can't be delicious.  They are.  But putting this on the menu kinda perpetuates the perception that all Chinese soups are full of egg drops and starch... like the ones that usually show up at Chinese restaurants in the US and elsewhere.  So it kinda annoys me.

Simmered King Prawn with Seafood Sauce (梅辣蝦球皇) - and things get worse from here.  Crystal king prawns (玻璃蝦) makes frequent appearances on fine dining menus, but the classic Cantonese preparation has it cooked in superior (ham) broth.  Drizzling hot and sour sauce on it doesn't make it unauthentic, but in my opinion it panders to gweilos who think that Chinese food means hot and sour soup (酸辣湯) and kung pao chicken (宮保雞丁).  And what's with the silver foil on top?!

But the prawn itself was pretty tasty, if just a touch overcooked.  It sat on a hollowed out section of hairy gourd (節瓜), and with a ring of leafy amaranth (莧菜).

Braised Abalone with Star Garoupa Rolls in Supreme Oyster Sauce Cuvèe (蠔皇鮑魚星斑卷) - this looked and sounded kinda creative, wrapping two thin fillets of spotted garoupa (東星斑) around two strips of abalone.  Unfortunately, while the garoupa fillets were fine, I wasn't fond of the way the abalone was prepared.

Wok-Fried Superior Australian Wagyu Beef Cubes with Sarcodon Aspratus and Bell Peppers (黑虎掌菌彩椒爆澳洲特級和牛柳粒) - although "superior" Aussie wagyu was supposedly used here, the execution was off.  Yes, the centers of these beef cubes were still tender, but the exteriors were definitely overcooked and tough.  Served with bell peppers, yamaimo (山芋), shishito peppers (獅子唐辛子), and of course the "black tiger paw mushroom (黑虎掌菌)".

Shredded Chicken and Vegetable Dumpling in Superior Pottage (皇湯雞肉蔬菜餃) - interesting how they've taken a very homey dish - the humble meat and vegetable dumpling - and tried to make it more "fine dining" by serving just one... and have it sit in a small bowl of rich and intense chicken broth.  I do love that broth, though.

Chilled Milk Custard with Tomato (蕃茄鮮奶凍布甸) - surprisingly good.  Loved the savory and acidic flavors from the tomato.  A very nice way to finish the meal.

Petits fours - the baked cream custard puff (楓葉奶黃酥) was good as usual, and the osmanthus and wolfberry jelly (枸杞桂花糕) was nice, too.

I brought a couple of bottles of wine to share with my hosts tonight.  But before we even got to my bottles, Bernard the sommelier very kindly came over to offer us a sip of a rare bubbly.

Charles Dufour Avalon, dégorgée à 14 octobre 2014 - a blanc de blancs brut nature with zero dosage.  Nose was very fragrant and toasty.  Beautiful.  What a treat to taste this!

Paul Dethune Cuvée a l'Anciennedégorgée janvier 2012 - nose was very caramelized and toasty.  Creamy and smooth, full on the palate.  Delicious.

2005 Ponsot Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Charmes - decanted for about an hour prior to serving.  Nice fruit, with animal and leather notes.  Nice acidity here but obviously still tannins here.  Not bad but a little young.

I had a good time tonight, as I really enjoyed the conversation and the company of my hosts.  But at the end of the meal I couldn't help but feel disappointed - and a little upset.  With the exception of the beef, most of the dishes were fine tonight.  But I couldn't shake the feeling that we didn't get our money's worth... and that I could have done better elsewhere.  Yes, this is a restaurant with 3 Michelin stars in a 5-star hotel, and good Chinese restaurants and chefs definitely deserved to get paid the same way as good French and Japanese restaurants.  But the reality is that I'm paying a lot more for food that isn't head and shoulders above some of the other places in town, and there was too little "wow".  When I sent the menu to some of my friends and told them the price, their reactions were similar to mine.

As Happy Gilmore once said to Bob Barker: "The price is wrong, bitch!"

But I haven't given up yet.  I'll keep coming back to Lung King Heen once in a while, and hope that just once, they will deliver such a knock-out that I will finally understand why it's held 3-star status for the last 8 years.

P.S. My hosts had dinner at The Eight in Macau the following night, and sent me a message during dinner saying something like: "Three courses into the signature menu and already 10 times better than last night".  Having just been there 3 days ago (and quite a few times over the years), I whole-heartedly agree!

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