October 25, 2014

Reptile night

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A few weeks ago I received an email from a group of friends, trying to fix a date for our next gathering.  After a round of discussions, it was decided that we would go for some Chinese food.  I suggested we try the private entertainment facility next to my office - IF I could manage to book it.

When I called the number for reservations, the lady at the other end of the line asked me whether I had ever been there - as they are not open to "public".  When I told her that I had been there at the invitation of the organizer of my first dinner - and specifically mentioned the date - it was apparent to me that she checked the booking history to verify my claims.  After she was satisfied that I was kosher, only then was I allowed to make a booking.

A few days ago, I received a copy of the menu from the chef.  I was happy to the point of giddiness.  Listed among the other items was the snake soup that I had been longing to try - especially given the pedigree of the chef.  There was also the mountain turtle which I didn't get to have at the last two dinners, plus a host of other stuff.  When My Favorite Cousin saw the menu, her response was simply: "reptile night is it?"

Barbecued Iberico pork (黑毛豬叉燒) - once again dinner started with a plate of this.  Some people complained that the char siu wasn't fatty enough, although they admitted that even the lean meat was tender and not tough.  In the end there wasn't very much left on the plate, so I guess people did enjoy the caramelized and charred edges...

Pan-fried medallions with birds' nest (琵琶燕窩餅) - I really enjoyed these the first time, and glad they were on the menu again tonight.  The blend of crab meat, egg white and birds' nest were nicely pan-fried at high heat.  I even tried to dab a little chili sauce on one of them just to see if it would work, and it wasn't bad!

Stir-fried tripe with mixed vegetables (七彩炒肚尖) - tonight this dish was just as good as when I had it the last time.  Finely diced ingredients stir-fried at very high heat, and you could definitely taste that.  Yeah, definitely better than my old favorite at Tim's Kitchen (桃花源).

Braised mountain turtle (紅燒大山瑞) - so the first of the "exotics" tonight... I've had mountain turtle at high-end Cantonese restaurants before, butt not like this...  This was an 8-catty turtle that was about 7 to 8 years old.  Pretty damn big if you asked me... And the dish came with pieces of the "skirt" on top.

The skirt was reasonably thick, and it was so full of collagen that we jokingly called it "turtle jelly"... but of course it wasn't quite like the Chinese herbal jelly 龜苓膏.  I also had some of the meat, and it was a little dry and fibrous, not unlike lean pork.  There was a ton of ginger which, together with cooking via braising with soy sauce, covered up most of the gamey flavors of the turtle.  The pea shoots and bamboo shoots that came on the side were absolutely delicious.

Imperial scholar's five-snake soup (太史五蛇羹) - this is it.  I'm told by people with first-hand knowledge that the chef used to work with Chef Lee Yuk-lam (李煜霖) at Hang Seng Bank's Penthouse banquet hall (博愛堂) during snake soup season.  Chef Lee Yuk-lam had learned his trade under the legendary Chef Lee Choi (李才) - the last chef who had worked in the kitchen of the imperial scholar Jiang Kongyin (江孔殷).  Anyway, to cut a long story short, if there were still authentic versions of the famous snake soup around, I would expect this to be one of the very few.  Expectations were very high...

...and not only met, but exceeded.  I don't remember much about the snake soup I had in the private room at Cuisine Cuisine (國金軒) in IFC, which was supposedly cooked by Chef Lee Yuk-lam himself, but this could very well be the best snake soup I have ever eaten in my life.  It certainly blows Tim's Kitchen out of the water with ease.  First of all, there were actually five different types of snakes used - but don't ask me to name them all...  All the ingredients were shredded to such a fine degree.  Unlike at Tim's Kitchen the seasoning here was nicely balanced, which allowed the delicate flavors of all the ingredients to come through - including the aged tangerine peel.

The usual condiments of crispy deep-fried dough (薄脆), white chrysanthemum petals, coriander and kaffir lime leaves arrived, and we were all amazed at the incredibly fine chiffonade of the lime leaves.  This was some of the finest knife work I have seen and incredible attention to detail.

Yes, I had a second bowl.  And took away a third bowl for another day.

Steamed sole (清蒸海方利) - this was a premium item indeed.  A fresh-caught sole that was easily 3-catties.  Each of us had a piece of the back as well as the fins.  The fins were incredibly tender thanks to the collagen.  The actual meat of the fish, though, was a little over-steamed.

Braised hundred-treasure duck (百寶炆大鴨) - another classic, and one which require advanced order at most restaurants.

The recipes for eight-treasure duck varies but tonight we had shiitake mushrooms, egg yolk, barley, lotus seeds, chestnuts, ham...  The leafy mustard stems on the side were lovely, too.

Stir-fried Chinese lettuce (清炒唐生菜) - the chef once again showed his knife skills.  This was a simple dish of stir-fried veggies, but the amount of effort put into this dish isn't something you would find in even some of the high-end restaurants in town.

Fried glutinous rice with preserved meats (生炒糯米飯) - ah yes, another winter favorite!  This was just seriously good.  While the individual rice grains weren't as chewy on the inside as I perhaps would have liked, the flavors were simply intense and rich.  Without a doubt this was stir-fried at very high heat to generate that wok hei (鑊氣) we expect, nay, demand from this dish.  It almost seemed to me that some of the duck liver sausage (膶腸) used in the dish had been pulverized so that the rice grains themselves were covered in tiny little bits of sausage.  Sooooo freakin' good!

I saw a smile come across on I Love Lubutin's face - a rare occurrence at Chinese meals.  We also had someone break down and have the first mouthful of carbs in several weeks - who then proceeded to have seconds (and thirds)...  Before the dish arrived, I was confident that there would have enough leftovers for someone to take home.  There was none left, at least not after I Love Lubutin cleaned off both the spoon and the plate...

The dessert of jujube soup with longan apricot kernals (南北杏龍眼紅棗湯) was simple, but double-boiled so ensure maximum flavor.

We didn't do too much coordination in terms of wine tonight, and despite our best efforts, we consumed less alcohol than I had hoped...

Kikuhime Kukurihime from isshobin (菊姫 菊理姫 一升瓶) - the top-of-the-line Kikuhime I carried back from Tokyo.  Seimaibuai (精米歩合) of 50%.  Sweet with strong rice flavors at first, but became very dry and spicy (辛口) after warming up a little, with a long finish.  Unfortunately, we did not finish this bottle...

Kaiun Daiginjo Den Hase Shohiki (開運大吟醸 伝 波瀬正吉) - seimaibuai (精米歩合) of 35%.  Sweeter on the attack, softer on the palate and not so dry.

2007 Hospices de Beaune Clos de la Roche Cuvée Georges Kritter mis en bouteille par Domaine Ponsot - nice and fruity, with a very fragrant nose.  A little animal and forest notes, too.

1996 François Lamarche La Grande Rue en magnum - higher acidity, more astringent on the palate.

2011 Willi Schaefer Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese - slightly sweet on the palate, with classic nose of polyurethane and plastic, along with floral notes.

What an incredible evening!  Needless to say I was completely stuffed, but really, really happy.  The only dish I wish could have been done a little better was the steamed sole, but that was more than made up by the highlights like the rice and, of course, the snake soup that I finally got to have.  The one downside tonight was that the cost shot up significantly compared to my previous visits, thanks mainly to the exotic reptiles tonight, but also because the 9 of us were paying for a 10-person dinner.

I think I need to come back at least one more time while snake soup is still on offer this season... and definitely think it's time for me to revisit Cuisine Cuisine at IFC, so I could refresh my memory on their snake soup.


Linda said...

You have a very nice blog. Thank you so much for sharing.

lucy jon said...
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