January 18, 2009

Flavors of Hangzhou

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I'm entertaining some out of town guests tonight, showing them the best of Chinese cuisine in Hong Kong. I chose to take them to Tien Heung Lau (天香樓), the best Hangzhou restaurant in town. My guests have lived around Geneva for many years, and it would be interesting to give them a taste of something that they normally can't find in their part of the world.

We sipped on some warm Huadiao (花雕) - Chinese yellow wine - while we waited for everyone to arrive. The restaurant has their own stock of aged wine and it's a chance for my guests to try some.

We started with the usual selection of cold appetizers - a plate each of malantou (馬蘭頭, chopped Indian aster and tofu) and soy-marinated duck (醬鴨). Indian aster is an unusual vegetable eaten mostly by the Shanghainese, and as it happens I just bought a big bag of it earlier in the afternoon to take home to mom in Taipei. My guests have never heard of the veggie, but found themselves appreciating this cool and refreshing dish. Unfortunately, the duck today was the salty version, and the plate remains largely untouched.

A plate of freshwater shrimps stir-fried with Longjing tea leaves (龍井蝦仁) came, and disappeared rather quickly. I normally would have dispensed with ordering this, but tonight I thought that my guests might appreciate the tenderness of the small shrimps without the shells. Surely they use bigger shrimps in Europe and elsewhere, which result in slightly tougher, chewier texture...

The dish that actually disappeared in record time was the deep-fried frog legs (炸田雞腿). Granted, there was only one pair of legs for each of us, but these were snapped up with such eagerness I was taken by surprise. Everyone wanted to get these while they were piping hot. And yes, the resident Froggie gave her thumbs-up with her free hand on this one (the other hand was busy)...As for myself, I thought this was good but slightly inferior to what I had last time. Oh and the deep-fried leaves (雪菜, a type of Indian mustard) were also popular as some sugar has been sprinkled on top while frying.

Smoked yellow croaker (煙薰黃魚) arrived and I was immediately transported to heaven. I could never get tired of the smoky fragrance of the fish, which was concentrated on the skin. The moist flesh was yummy...and I got busy taking down the parts of the fish that my guests were too polite to touch, like the pectoral fin and the tail. No way I was gonna let the best parts of the fish go to waste!

We paused for a bit while we tried to clean up the dishes and sip some red wine. The 2000 Arietta Variation One would be something very unusual for most people. This Californian winery makes an interesting blend of Syrah and Merlot that, in my opinion, works very well. The tasting conditions tonight were not ideal, and I (surprisingly) didn't bother to take notes, but I still liked the wine a lot. There was plenty of the sweet vanilla coming from new oak barrels, and clearly the wine was going to be pretty concentrated with a lot of good fruit.

I made sure that the waiter broke out the beggar's chicken (叫化雞) in slow motion while my guest filmed the process. What a wonderful dish...one that I would always pre-order while booking a table. Some parts of the chicken today - particularly the breast - were a bit drier than I would have liked, but overall the meat was still soft and moist. And the fragrance was just unbelievable. Unfortunately we were missing two members of our posse, so while normally there would nothing left of the chicken's carcass, we actually left enough meat on the bones tonight...

We added an extra order of deep-fried freshwater eel (爆鱔背) with garlic brown sauce halfway through the meal. This was really nice...crunchy and the brown sauce was great, although someone thought that the eel tasted even better with some vinegar on top.

I was really happy with the veggie with salted pork (鹹肉塌窩菜) tonight. This was another Shanghainese veggie but only in season during the winter. I had missed it terribly during my last dinner at the restaurant, but it was worth the wait. There was only a hint of bitterness, and the sauce was awesome as it was infused with flavors from the salted pork... Too bad I was already pretty full at this point.

To contribute to everyone's cholesterol level, we finished with a bowl of stir-fried hairy crab roe with noodles (蟹粉撈麵). This is very, very sinful because you get hit with lots of carbs plus the cholesterol, but I can't imagine a meal here without it. Best taken with lots of sweet vinegar and chopped ginger...

My guests seemed to appreciate the glutinous rice balls in fruity fermented rice soup (什果酒釀丸子). For Chinese people who are used to having the glutinous rice balls for dessert, this is unusual in that the restaurant has chosen to add fruits into the soup, with strawberries, orange and banana bits.

As we were finishing up the meal, I got to chatting with our waiter. He has been here for more than 30 years, serving the same classic dishes to loyal clients day in and day out... The funny thing is that this restaurant no longer has a full menu. Not that I am complaining about the food, but it's quite an experience looking at the menu which has a ton of different dishes printed on it, and noticing that only a few of these actually have prices written down... The reality is that this place prefers to prepare some ingredients a certain way, and your waiter will tend to steer you towards the same few classic dishes. Even if you ask for something different, they are either not available or you will find yourself being convinced that the classic way is the best way...

This was a really enjoyable meal, and I think the 6 of us had enough food for 8 people. However, I think I will take a little break from this place as I have been here 4 times in the last 7 months... Surely there are other Shanghainese restaurants in town that are worthy of my business?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Peech,

Well, there's always Shanghai Garden! It has a Michelin star! (i'm joking!)

sounds like a great meal, sorry i missed it.


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