October 28, 2016

Eat with Gaggan

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I'm a terrible friend.

A group of old friends - all of whom have known each other for 15-20 years - got together for one of several annual birthday gatherings tonight.  The dinner was fixed about a month ago, and I was looking forward to catching up with the boys (and girl) over some delicious yakitori.

Then the Great One pinged me and told me that our friend Gaggan Anand is in town, and he'd like to go out for a Cantonese dinner tonight.  Since a proper Cantonese meal - unlike some of those single-portion tasting menus offered by certain hotel restaurants - require more than a couple of mouths around the table, I decided to bail on my old friends on less than twelve hours' notice to accommodate Gaggan.  I was out of town and missed the opportunity to join the party when Gaggan came to town last, and I didn't want to miss it a second time.  Besides, I figured (perhaps it is presumptuous of me) that my old friends would forgive me for ditching them...

Coming up with an interesting venue for Cantonese food on same-day notice is tough, especially when it's Friday night.  None of our favorite high-end private kitchen could be secured on short notice, especially when there were so few of us.  We tossed out another couple of popular options, and I suggested Kin's Kitchen (留家廚房).  The food there can be interesting, especially with off-menu items that we won't find on many of the high-end restaurants in town.  So the Great One arranged a table with the boss.

I was the last person to arrive at dinner, and I could see that owner Lau Kin-wai (劉健威) was already seated at our table, sipping from a wine glass.  I greeted our guest of honor, plopped my bottle of wine on the table, and waited for our food to arrive.

Barbecued pork with honey glaze (蜜汁叉燒) - these were really, really good.  Mr. Lau is proud of the fact that, unlike many other restaurants in town, they use neither red food coloring nor any tenderizers to treat their pork.  They also use the tips of the pork shoulder (脢尖) - where the marbling naturally makes for a very tender texture.

Deep-fried custard with hairy crab roe (蟹粉戈渣) - these custards are normally made simply with corn starch, eggs, and chicken stock.  But there was a special seasonal ingredient added tonight...

Hairy crab roe is clearly visible here.  Of course this immediately upped the game in terms of flavor, while still maintaining the soft, wobbly texture of the deep-fried custard - with a nice and crisp exterior.

Crispy fried Osbeck's grenadier anchovies (酥炸鳳尾魚) - Hello Kitty just about jumped for joy when this arrived at our table.  This is a childhood favorite for both her and myself, even though we were in different countries.  So glad to be able to have these fresh, and it's really tough to beat crispy, deep-fried little fishies.  I made sure that Hello Kitty got a little bit more than her share...

Pea shoot soup with crab meat (蟹肉豆苗羹) - we were told by chef and owner Lau Chun (劉晉) that the pea shoots were frozen to -20°C before being puréed with a Pacojet.  The result is a smooth and incredibly flavorful liquid.

Salt-baked chicken with ganbajun mushrooms (乾巴菌鹽焗雞) - this is one of the signature dishes of the restaurant, and the exotic fragrance of the mushrooms hit me seconds after the dish arrived.  Gaggan seemed very intrigued by these mushrooms from China, and checked out the raw ingredient.  I do have to say that the chicken was as tasty as I remembered from a couple of months ago, and tonight I made sure to have more than a couple of pieces.  The accompanying gizzard and liver were also pretty good.

Stir-fried spinyhead croaker with Chinese lettuce hearts (生菜膽炒獅頭魚) - another dish that made Hello Kitty very happy.  Fillets of a fish that is deemed unworthy of banquet tables or finer establishments.  The presence of aged mandarin peel (陳皮) is immediately apparent, and yellowed chives also add their distinctive flavors to the mix.

Braised winter melon with bird's eye chili (野山椒炆冬瓜) - this dish has got some kick!  Along with chunky slices of winter melon and termite mushrooms (雞㙡菌), there was also Chiuchow-style preserved olive mustard leaf (潮州欖菜), as well as pickled wild mountain peppers.  Pretty tasty, but not good for a wine-tasting palate.

Steamed wild-caught Japanese eel (清蒸海白鱔) - this is wild-caught from the ocean and not farmed eel, so the texture was unlike what we would normally see at other Cantonese restaurants around town.  Indeed the texture was incredibly springy and bouncy, with a certain level of crispness.  Normally I dread the thought of having Japanese eel at Chinese restaurants, because inevitably I would be faced with the taste of mud on my tongue.  Not tonight.  There wasn't the slightest trace of that unpleasant taste whatsoever, and of course the presence of preserved mandarin peel also helped.  Very nice, and one of the best plates of this I have ever had.

Steamed mustard green stems with preserved leafy mustard (梅菜蒸芥膽) - this was an interesting dish because it featured essentially the same vegetable with two different parts and preparations.  The lower part of the stem of mustard green was kept fresh, while the leafy portion was diced and preserved.  The preserved mustard greens (梅菜) was rather crunchy compared to what other restaurants tend to use.

Stir-fried rice flour noodles with beef (干炒牛河) - Gaggan mentioned that this is his favorite dish in Cantonese cuisine, and he would order it multiple times whenever he's in Hong Kong.  So of course the kitchen immediately whipped up a plate for us.

Yellow croaker and preserved leafy mustard noodle (雪菜黃魚麵) - this is actually not Cantonese but a Shanghainese dish.  Yellow croaker is one of my favorites since childhood, and pairing it with preserved leafy mustard (雪菜) just works perfectly.  Gaggan inquired about the milky broth for the noodles, and was surprised to hear that it's simply the result of cooking fish for an extended period of time.  Very yum, but we really didn't need TWO noodle dishes at the end...

We declined the generous offer of dessert, although I saw Gaggan try out the coconut milk jelly (椰汁糕) brought out as mignardises.

The Kat and I each brought a bottle of wine to dinner, which was a pretty relaxed evening for us...

Roses de Jeanne Côte de Val Vilaine Blanc de Noirs, vintage unknown - very smooth and slightly sweet on the palate.

1996 Dugat-Py Charmes-Chambertin - opened 1 hour prior to serving, not decanted.  Very smooth on the palate.  Fragrant with cedar notes, a little sweet fruit, almost a little vanilla.  Pretty good but was kinda expecting a little more.

It was a lot of fun catching up with Gaggan.  He seems to be chock full of stories so it's no surprise that he's often the life of the party.  Looking forward to catching up with him in Bangkok again soon!

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