November 27, 2008

Why have turkey when there's beggar's chicken?

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Once again on Thanksgiving Day, I have chosen to have chicken instead of turkey. This year the venue is Tien Heung Lau (天香樓), my favorite Hangzhou restaurant. What a dinner this turned out to be!

A few of us arrived early, and started with a small plate of country paté (肴肉) and vegetarian goose (素鵝). This was pretty standard and did its job of toning down our hunger... Of course, those who arrived late never saw any traces of this plate...

We decided to skip a few "classic" dishes which didn't measure up to our standards on previous visits. The freshwater shrimps stir-fried with Longjing tea leaves (龍井蝦仁) got passed over for not being fragrant enough. The Dong Po Pork (東坡肉) was also nothing special.

As usual we started with some selection of cold appetizers, which was a combination of malantou (馬蘭頭, chopped Indian aster and tofu), soy-marinated duck (醬鴨), and another portion of vegetarian goose. The malantou is as good as it's ever been, while the duck was less salty than a previous visit.

Sadly the deep-fried freshwater eel (爆鱔背) wasn't available today, but we made up for it with the deep-fried frog legs (炸田雞腿). This was really nicely done, very light and one can really taste the true flavor of the flesh. Our resident Froggie thought this was much better than the grenouille that she is used to having...

Twice-cooked pork is something we ordered for the first time, as I seem to remember reading about it on the internet...but unfortunately I didn't care for it. The pork just wasn't fat enough for me...

One of the highlights of a meal here is the smoked yellow croaker (煙薰黃魚), and it never fails to elicit praises from the crowd. The smoky fragrance stays with you for as long as there's skin left on the plate...and the soft, supple flesh is just amazing. I would say that this dish gives the traditional Cantonese steamed fish a good run for the money as the best way to do fish.

There were 7 of us tonight, enough to share another traditional highlight - the beggar's chicken (叫化雞/富貴雞) - which had to be pre-ordered. This being our Thanksgiving dinner, of course the chicken has become all-important. And it certainly did not disappoint. Why anyone would choose to have roast turkey instead of this chicken is beyond me... (OK, so there are certain traditions that people keep to...) The minute that the chicken is taken out of the pot and unwrapped, the fragrance hits you and there is no doubt as to why the restaurant is so named ("heavenly fragrance").

The waiter finishes opening the chicken and reveals the mushroom stuffing inside - kinda similar to the turkey, innit? - all the while steam keep rising from the plate. Soft and moist meat seemingly from a banquet in the heavens is yours for the taking.

Lest we forget, this is hairy crab (大閘蟹) season and we are in a Hangzhou restaurant. As some of us are not crab lovers, we pass up steamed hairy crab and opt for the classic stir-fried hairy crab roe with noodles (蟹粉撈麵) instead. There isn't anything more that I can say about this dish which hasn't already been said. I quickly wolf down my bowl of noodles and secretly rejoice when one of us chooses not to have the crab roe...

Two veggie dishes complete this great meal, although we would have preferred the veggie with salted pork (鹹肉塌窩菜), unavailable as 塌窩菜 is not yet in season. Stir-fried winter bamboo shoots with pea shoots (冬筍炒豆苗) is great as both are in season. Alfalfa stir-fried with wine (炒草頭) is interesting as the texture reminds me of sweet potato leaves. This is stir-fried with Chinese rose wine (玫瑰露), which is used in the production of Cantonese sausage (臘腸, 潤腸).

We are served the complimentary dessert of glutinous rice balls in fruity fermented rice soup (什果酒釀丸子), which everyone enjoyed despite being stuffed.

I brought a bottle of the 2006 Dr. Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese, which I thought went down easy with Hangzhou food due to its sweetness. We also enjoyed some Huadiao wine (花雕), which has been blended by the restaurant using something of a solera system employed by sherry producers. The oldest vintage dates back some 20-odd years. Wonderful stuff with served warm.

This was a great meal that everyone enjoyed immensely. And yes, I was thankful for my good fortunes this year as well as my good health.

1 comment:

Changunnie said...

And you forgot to mention that we rushed to the Korean grocery shop next door to buy instant noodle!


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