January 20, 2016

Good wine, good vegetable, shit service

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Tonight I paid my very first visit to the newest fine dining restaurant operated by the Lai Sun Group, and had a fantastic dinner.  But this was also my last visit, since I won't be going back there.

Why? You ask.  In a word: service.  I don't go back to restaurants where the service is shit, no matter how good the food is.

I had heard about Howard's Gourmet (好酒好蔡) opening up in Hong Kong quite a few months ago.  News of its imminent opening buzzed around town, and a few of my friends were talking about it.  Although I was initially tempted to dismiss the place as another nouveau riche Chinese restaurant serving expensive ingredients for the sake of pumping up the bill, a couple of my friends had had good meals at the restaurant in Guangzhou, so the food seemed to be legit.  Then I found out that the local partner is the Lai Sun Group, and for me, that is as good of a quality guarantee as one can get in Hong Kong.

But I wasn't in a hurry to pay them a visit.  Word was that the price of dinner ranged from HKD 2,500 to 4,000 a head, depending on how many of the premium ingredients were included.  Since I'm never eager to pay for things like whelk, bird's nest, abalone, and shark's fin - the latter is on my forbidden list for environmental reasons - this place wasn't high on my priority list.

We were getting together to celebrate a couple of birthdays with some old friends, and some of them wanted to try the place out, so I went along with the group decision.  Dinner service was in private rooms only, with a minimum of HKD 16,000 per table, so the seven of us ponied up tonight.  The restaurant was told about my dietary restriction - the fact that I refuse to eat shark's fin - and had prepared a substitution.

I was poured some bottled water the minute I sat down.  I had never had Krystal before, but the bottle clearly screamed "premium and expensive water"... and when your tagline is "The pinnacle of luxury and health in a bottle", I just know these guys are selling pure bullshit to people who just have more money than taste or sense.

Having said that, the water tasted mildly alkaline, and the texture seemed very soft and rounded on the palate.

Tonight's menu: (N.B. the English descriptions are the result of my poor translation skills)

Amuse bouche (前菜):
Specialty soup for stomach-warming (特色暖胃湯) - a decent pumpkin soup.

Seasonal duo of small bites (時令兩小碟) - pickled radish on the left, and dried cuttlefish (乾墨魚) on the right that was pretty chewy and spicy.

Starters (頭盤):
Savory bites (一口鮮) - these were actually battered and deep-fried Bombay duck (九肚魚), commonly found in Cantonese restaurants.  This version seemed to employ a lighter batter, and was very delicious on its own.  Also nice with the kumquat sauce provided.

Protagonists (主角):
Crispy sea cucumber (脆皮婆參) - I believe these are white teatfish (豬婆參) from Australia.  The sea cucumber was first rehydrated in a mix of mineral water and dried shrimp water (蝦米水).  Then it was braised in a pressure cooker, in a stock made with pork chop and old hen.  Finally, the exterior was seared with a torch.

I'm not an expert on sea cucumber dishes beyond those that mom makes at home, and don't usually order it in restaurants.  I gotta admit that this was one of the best sea cucumbers I've had.  Ever.  The braising had made the texture gelatinous, as expected, and the collagen was soon coating the inside of my mouth.  But the torch had made the exterior a little more crispy, so that the sea cucumber held its shape well... while delivering a slight smoky flavor.

The sauce in the bowl was, naturally, full of sticky collagen.  Since there was no rice or bread around to soak it up, I actually copied ILove Lubutin by dipping my index finger into the bowl to deliver the sauce to my tongue... before finally using a spoon.  Yes, it was that good.

Sliced whelk in consommé (清湯螺片) - another ingredient normally not on my menu is whelk.  High end restaurants in town can sometimes charge up to HKD 1,000 per slice (yes, that's one slice and not a whole whelk...), and I just don't feel that I am able to appreciate this ingredient enough to justify shelling out that kind of mulla.

But this... is something entirely different from what I've had before.  The slices tonight are relatively small compared to what is normally served in other restaurants, even though they come from whelks weighing two catties or more found in the waters between Kaoshiung (高雄) and Chaozhou (潮州) / Shantou (汕頭).  But size isn't everything, is it?!  The whelk had what I thought was the perfect texture - just the right balance between tenderness and crunchiness.  Flavors were sweet.  The chicken consommé was beautiful and pure.  Those long ribbons of celtuce stem (萵苣) were nice and crunchy, and they also added a beautiful hue to green to the bowl.

This dish changed my mind about whelk.  I might well be willing to pay for this bowl again.  And we were told that they also serve "whelk steak (螺扒)", where each one of these large whelks yield only two such slices...

Braised hasma (紅燒雪蛤) - I normally don't care for the fatty issue around the frog's fallopian tubes, but as I had chosen not to have shark's fin, this was served in lieu of it.  Nice, gelatinous chunks that melts in the mouth.  Not bad.

Black preserved sausage with cheese (芝士黑臘腸) - I dunno why this starter was served out of place, after all three "protagonist" dishes... but whatever.  The appearance, honestly, was a little WTF... with squiggly lines from a squeeze bottle on top that had been lightly torched.  It reminded me of some Taiwanese restaurant's penchant for baking seafood with mayonnaise on top...

Anyway, our waitress told us that the sausage looked black because it had been dyed with squid ink.  And pork was added to the sausage.  Really?!  Chinese preserved sausage (臘腸) was made from pork?!  I did not know that...

When I inquired about the squiggly lines on top, I was told that it was cheese.
Me: What kind of cheese?  
Waitress: French soft cheese.

Well, that certainly cleared it up... because there was only one type of soft cheese made in France, riiiiiight?!

Thanks to the appearance of this dish, and given the crowd tonight, one should not be surprised that inappropriate jokes about bbc made an appearance... especially given the soft, white stuff on top.  Although to be honest, the size doesn't exactly fit the description of a bbc...

Supporting cast (配角):
Stir-fried beef with preserved leafy mustard (咸菜炒牛肉) - the beef was fully cooked but still tender.  The preserved leafy mustard comes from Chaozhou (潮州).

Shredded fish in black fungus sauce (木耳汁魚絲) - instead of shreds of fresh fish as I had expected, the bowl contained strips of fish cake.

The sauce was made from blended black wood ear fungus (黑木耳), and had an abundance of black pepper to deliver a pretty strong kick.

Simmered pea shoots (香燉大豆苗) - I've had a lot of pea shoots, and this bowl has to rank near the top.  Just incredibly soft and tender... as if it were about to melt in my mouth.

Staple dish (主食):
Braised pig trotter with rice cake (豬手炆年糕) - we finally get to the carb dish - usually served just before dessert, and tonight it came with one of my favorite ingredients - pig trotters!

Our waitress began introducing the dish, telling us that:
"Spain has Parma ham.  Since they discard the trotters after slicing the ham, we take these trotters and cook with them."


How the hell did it take me till the mid-forties - just when I started wearing bifocals for the very first time tonight - to find out that Parma ham is actually from Spain?!  And all this time I always thought that Parma ham or prosciutto di Parma was from Italy.  Silly me.

Well, whatever the case, this was absolutely delicious.  The trotter was very, very tender... with lots of collagen.  The thin slices of glutinous rice cake were right up the alley for this quarter-Shanghainese...

Dessert (甜品):
Bird's nest with pink guava sorbet (胭脂紅官燕) - ah... bird's nest.  Another ingredient that I'm too cheap to pay for.  To me it's just a bunch of colorless and flavorless jelly - easily replaceable with agar agar - although my parents (along with millions of Chinese people) swear by its health benefits.

There was a scoop of sorbet underneath, made with a cultivar of pink guava called 胭脂紅.

A cup of tea was the final act.  This fragrant cup of Oolong tea (烏龍茶) comes from a mountain near Chaozhou (潮州) called 雙髻娘山, and is grown at an altitude of 1,036 meters.

I dunno nothin' about tea, but even I knew that this was good shit...

Finally, it was time for our two birthday boys to blow out the candle and cut the cake.  Our organizer once again arranged for something from Lady M, and tonight it was their Gâteau Nuage.

I normally only like the thick, dense New York cheesecake... and totally pooh-pooh those fake, fluffy, and tasteless things that the Japanese love to churn out.  But this... this I am happy to eat any day.  It was thick and rich enough in terms of flavor, but at the same time slightly more fluffy and airy.  Yum.

Besides bringing our own cake, I also brought along a few bottles to help celebrate the birthdays...

1988 Von Schubert Maximin Grünhauser Herrenberg Riesling Auslese - unfortunately a little corked, showing some wet cardboard in the nose.  Some aeration helped and it was less noticeable.  A little petrol and white pepper on the nose, and later on some white flower notes.  Good acidity on the palate for an auslese.

1970 Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Riesling Spätlese - drier and leaner on the palate.  Not quite steely, with white flower notes.  Later on the texture was quite rounded on the tongue.

1997 Etude Heirloom Pinot Noir - nose of sweet fruit, with black cherry notes.  Alcohol was a little sharp on the nose.  Fragrant and a little floral, with some hawthorne notes.

So... as I said at the beginning, the food was fantastic.  A few of the dishes were incredibly memorable, and some even changed how I perceived certain ingredients.

But our waitress completely failed, and totally pissed me off.  She also managed to piss off our organizer, which is not a position one wants to find oneself in...

I'm very picky about service, and my expectations for good service increases along with the price of the meal.  Tonight was a disaster.

First: our waitress knew dick all about ingredients.  She was given a simple script by the restaurant, and kept extolling the greatness of "Master Cai".  Meanwhile, she couldn't tell me the type of cheese that was being used on the sausage, and confidently told us that Parma ham comes from Spain.  Absolutely unacceptable for a restaurant charging this level of pricing, supposedly catering to discerning diners.  Maybe they just assume that their clientele are Mainland Chinese 土豪 who know nothing about food, but are nevertheless willing to blow lots of money to impress their guests.  Well, that doesn't work in Hong Kong.  People who are willing to spend this kind of money on a meal often really know their shit when it comes to food.

Second: she repeatedly ignored my instructions on wine service.  When I tell you that I needed a certain bottle of wine opened and/or decanted, I want it done NOW.  Not 10 minutes later, after you've cleared a round of plates from the table and then served the next dish.  My wines need sufficient time to air so that they drink well, and that means they need to be opened as I instructed - not at the waitstaff's leisure.

Third: I fucking hate it when people hard sell.  It is the very reason why I don't willingly go back to Chiu Tang (潮廳) - another of Lai Sun Group's restaurants.  When I run out of wine, I don't need you to put two bottles of whisky on the table and try to get me to buy one.  And please check your facts before you start telling me that Master Cai bought the Scotch distillery.  It's more likely that he bought a few barrels and put his own label on them.

And what is totally unacceptable is that, even after we told you that we didn't want the whisky, you bring the whiskies back out AGAIN at the end of the dinner - right before we settle the bill - to push us into buying them.  We already told you "No" once.

Finally: I did not witness this first hand - this was described to me by the person who settled the bill - but it is also completely unacceptable that the waitress makes a face showing her displeasure at being given what she considers to be a small tip - on top of the 10% service charge as well as the HKD 400 per bottle corkage.  Make no mistake: I am under no obligation to pay you any extra tips, and anything I give you on top is at my pleasure, not yours.

So... NO, I had a fantastic meal here, but I won't be going back anytime soon.

1 comment:

Mike Goldstone said...



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