June 28, 2008

Heavenly Fragrance

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Last night I got together with a couple of friends to pay a visit to one of Hong Kong's top Chinese restaurants, Tien Heung Lau (天香樓). This is a very old establishment specializing in Hangzhou cuisine, which is kinda similar to Shanghainese cuisine. I had always known that this place was famously expensive, especially for anything related to hairy crab (大閘蟹), and I relished at the opportunity to finally give it a try.

We started with a pitcher of their aged Shaoxing wine, which has been warmed up. A lot has been written about the quality this vino, but it really is very good and has a very long finish. The fragrance of the wine also lingers in your mouth...

The cold appetizers we started with were vegetarian goose (素鵝) and soy-marinated duck (醬鴨). The vegetarian goose, made from tofu skin, was delicious. The meat of the duck was nice, but too salty for my liking.

The first dish to arrive was a plate of freshwater shrimps stir-fried with Longjing tea leaves (龍井蝦仁). As is typical of traditional Jiangsu and Zhejiang cuisine, the chef uses very small freshwater shrimps, removes the shells, and coats them with a small amount of corn starch. The result is a plate of shrimps with very, very tender flesh. While the shrimps were fresh, the flavoring was just a tad too salty, so that it masks the flavor of the tea. Short of actually chewing on the tea leaves, I couldn't really detect the subtle fragrance of the tea. I'm a bit disappointed here, as much has been written about this dish in cyberspace.

We also order the deep-fried freshwater eel (爆鱔背), with a garlic brown sauce that was a bit sweet. Delicious stuff, and the crunchy eel goes down very well with the Shaoxing. I probably could have used a second order of this...

The dish I looked forward to the most was the smoked yellow croaker(煙薰黃魚). This is a fish that is very difficult to find, and it is a childhood favorite of mine. Mom used to make it at home and it's a dish that you pretty much only see it in upscale restaurants serving Shanghainese/Hangzhou/Zhejiang cuisine. Anyway, it has been years since I had a nice experience with this fish, and I LOOOOVED what I had here last night. The smoky fragrance of the fish arrived even before the plate hit the table. The skin of the fish was so full of flavor, and the flesh was so soft and tender. Unbelievable! While mom never smoked the fish at home, just having this dish brought back a lot of memories. I could return to this restaurant just to have the fish.

After finishing the fish, I dug into the plate of stir-fried young hairy crab (毛豆炒六月黃). These are not fully-grown hairy crabs, but the size is reasonable. Fried in the usual sweet, dark sauce with the beans. Pretty tasty but honestly this is something that can be had in other restaurants.

The other highly-anticipated dish was the stir-fried hairy crab roe with noodles (蟹粉撈麵). I was a bit surprised at the noodles being used, since they were a bit wider than I expected and were more yellow - not exactly typical Shanghainese. But the crab roe was very delicious, and having it over the noodles was definitely the way to go. I'm sure it will go well with rice, too, but the texture of the noodles just go so well with the grease... I think as long as you have the right ingredients (you can buy boxes of frozen hairy crab roe from most Shanghainese restaurants in town), you can make this at home. So I'm going to try my hand at this in the fall.

For veggie, everyone seems to order the same dish with the salted pork (鹹肉塌窩菜). I am genuinely surprised to see this dish in the middle of summer, as I know that 塌窩菜 is a winter vegetable. But it is something that I love and only find in certain restaurants, so it's great that I am having it. Later on I discover that the restaurant buys large quantities of the stuff in winter, store it and serves it year round, removing the leaves on the outer rim which may not be in the best condition. So you end up paying a premium for having the vegetable out of season, but at least you will be assured of the high quality of the ingredients.

For dessert, the restaurant always serves the glutinous rice balls in fruity fermented rice soup (什果酒釀丸子). It's not bad, and hey, it's free! Nothing's ever cheap at this place so you take the free stuff while you can get it.

Was this meal everything that I had hoped it to be? Almost. The yellow fish was by far my favorite, and the biggest reason to return in the future. I will need another occasion to try out the braised fatty pork (東坡肉), and this will probably be in the fall when hairy crab is in season. Let's see how much they will charge for the crab then...


b said...

i had a very similar dinner at 華庭 in wanchai just a few days ago! it was my first time trying the smoked yellow fish, and it was very good. don't know how it compares to this place though.

Eric Wolfinger said...

Just stumbled on your blog this morning. How are you so prolific despite having a job that eats up so much of your time? Impressive.

Peech said...

Eric, I guess this means that my life outside of work is a little one-sided...or that I actually spend very little time at work!


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