July 9, 2017

Master and protégé Tasting

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A friend was coming to town from France and wanted to meet up for a meal.  We were looking for more unique experiences for her when I suggested that we try booking my favorite private kitchen.  She also suggested the possibility of having Chef Alain Ducasse join us, and this made for a very interesting proposition.  Having been unable to secure the chef of my favorite private kitchen for this evening, the Great One suggested that we take our guests to Tasting Court (天一閣) instead.  At this point we roped in The Man in White T-Shirt to help with the arrangements - which seemed perfectly fitting since he had once worked for the legendary French chef.

So as it turns out, out of our party of 8 only Hello Kitty and myself were strangers to Monsieur Ducasse.  I cracked a joke about the two of us being the nobodies who were just tagging along, but it was pretty much the truth.  And Hello Kitty finally got her chance to go to Tasting Court after their relocation.

It's been some time since my first and only visit to the restaurant, and I was glad to have the opportunity to try a few of my favorites from last time, and get an introduction to new favorites.

Abalone and eburna areolata Sichuan style (蜀香鮑魚拌東風螺) - pretty nice.  The textures of both abalone and babylonia were nice, and there was just enough spice to get the tongue tingling.

Spicy stir-fried clam with peppercorn and chili (椒香炒蜆) - this looked beautiful, except that when the waitstaff divided up the portions, they decided not to give me any...  In the end they had to send up an extra serving from the kitchen.  The chili was definitely spicy, but otherwise this was really tasty.

Chinese grilled pork chop with soybean (西班牙黑毛豬叉燒) - this was marinated with a combination including Chinese black olives (欖角), black beans (豆豉), and aged mandarin peel (陳皮) instead of the honey glaze that one sees around town.  This delivered much deeper and savory flavors while the Iberico pork itself was very, very tender.  What a great dish!  The slices of pickled radish on the side were once again arranged in the shape of a rose.

Dried sliced beef marinated with house-made soy bean sauce (三日熟成牛肉) - this was very, very good.  Marinated and then air-dried.  It came with a 10-spice salt in a shaker on the side, which I thought was unnecessary because the beef was beautiful enough on its own.

Baby pigeon smoked with osmanthus and Longjing tea (茶燻雛鴿) - very heavy smoky flavors, and very, very tasty.  The pickled ginger on the side was good, too.

Steamed orange stuffed with crab meat and scallop (白玉紅蟳釀金盞) - we were advised to spoon some of the Huadiao and minced ginger sauce at the bottom of the bowl onto the contents inside the orange.  The stuffing came with kaffir lime leaves, water chestnut, and Chinese celery.  Wonderful combination and contrasts of flavors and textures.  Very fragrant.  Very delicious.

Slow-cooked whole melon stuffed with wild duck and dried peel (陳皮水鴨冬瓜盅) - this was a totally different type of winter melon soup from what I'm used to.  We've got a whole duck inside, along with aged tangerine peel and coriander which delivered delicate and beautiful fragrance.

Winter melon is great for cooling down the body in the summer, and someone smiled sheepishly while confessing that he had three bowls of the soup...

Steamed fresh flowery crab with aged Shaoxing wine served with rice noodle (香醉紅蟳) - this was always going to be one of the highlights of the meal, and it certainly impressed all the guests.  Steamed with 25-year Huadiao wine along with chicken fat, the sauce was so delicious that we couldn't help but drink it by the spoonful.  The flat rice noodles (陳村粉) did a pretty good job soaking up the sauce so they were pretty popular.  Needless to say the flower crabs themselves were delicious and sweet.

When we were done with the dish, the waitstaff took the plate away and brought back the two leftover pieces of crab in a small bowl.  A one point later in the meal, I caught Monsieur Ducasse grabbing one of the pieces and chomping on it.  It was obvious that he enjoyed the crab so much - and had probably been eyeing the leftovers... until finally he could resist no longer!

Steamed fish (蒸海魚) - this was certainly an interesting preparation for the leopard coral trout (東星斑).  The Man in White T-shirt called the sauce on top "Cantonese tapenade" for the benefit of our French guests, and he wasn't far from the truth.  It was made with a combination of preserved olives, black beans, and soy bean miso (味噌).  Very rich flavors here.

Slow-cooked meat ball in chicken soup (葵花斬肉) - this was one of the highlights of my last meal here.  Made from a mixture of meat around the ribs and brisket, then hand-chopped until all the fibers are broken down in order to deliver that amazingly soft texture.  Cooked at a low temperature for 6 hours.  A much more refined version of the Shanghainese "lion's head (獅子頭)".  Delicate.  Delicious.

Vegetable scalded in fish soup (魚湯浸時蔬) - I don't think I've ever had the leaves of chili peppers before, and these were a little earthy.  Came with soft tofu skin, ginkgo, and garlic.  Another dish with delicate flavors.

Prawn roe stirred noodle with prawn and shallot essence oil (蝦子蝦油蔥油撈麵) - I loved these noodles last time, and they were once again amazing tonight. The noodles themselves were soooo tender without being mushy, made by kneading the dough with a bamboo pole (and therefore referred to as 竹昇麵).  Thankfully they're devoid of any of that alkali flavor that I dislike.  Instead they're packed with flavors from the dried prawn roe, prawn oil, scallion oil, raw scallions, caramelized onions, and ginger.  Something I could have eaten more than a small bowl of.  In fact, I don't even need anything else.  Just give me the whole plate of this!

Blended jujube coconut juice pudding (椰汁棗茸糕) - a simple dessert that wasn't too sweet, and came with a small cup of Huadiao with dried jujube dessert drink (花雕紅棗飲).

We were treated to some of the restaurant's 25-year-old Huadiao wine (花雕酒) throughout the meal, which was very, very smooth and delicious.

But I also brought wine.  Lots of it, so it seemed.  Given the number of people we had, I figured magnums were the only way to go, but wasn't sure what Monsieur Ducasse wanted to drink... so I brought FOUR magnums for him to choose from, along with a half-bottle of dessert wine.  In the end we finished all the wines, which was a pretty good amount for the 8 of us.  But hey, I always assumed that the French could drink... especially when it comes to French wines.

Krug Grande Cuvée, en magnum - nice and toasty nose.  Good acidity balance.  Can never go wrong with Krug.

2000 La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion, en magnum, ex-château 2013 - very prominent pencil lead, smoke, a hint of savory minerals and soy sauce.  Fairly smooth on the palate, along with some fruit.  Classic claret.  Served slightly chilled, which Monsieur Alain Ducasse felt was perfect.

2004 Didier Dagueneau Silex, en magnum - nice and mineral, flinty.  A little light on the palate but more than and rounded than expected.  Later on showed good acidity and turned leaner.

2000 Laville Haut-Brion, en magnum, ex-château 2013 - a little acetone in the nose at first, pretty ripe, flinty, with lovely lemon citrus notes.

1997 Chapoutier Hermitage Vin de Paille, en demi-bouteille - surprisingly dark brown in color with a lot of sediment.  Plenty of sugarcane in the nose.  Very rich and sweet on the palate.

This was a really, really excellent dinner. Every single dish was à point tonight, and our French guests - including Monsieur Ducasse - were admiring the complex yet subtle plays among the flavors.  It was also a unique opportunity for us - and The Man in White T-shirt in particular - to show what high-end Cantonese cuisine outside five star hotels - made by people who care deeply about their craft - could deliver.  I was simply honored to have been able to sit at the table on this occasion.

P.S. Here's an interview that took place a couple of months ago between the mentor and protégé.

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