February 5, 2018

Master of elegance

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I received a very happy invitation on New Year's Day to join a group of foodie friends for dinner at Cuisine Cuisine (國金軒) in IFC.  It has been a long time since I last stepped foot inside, and this time around we would have the honor of having our dishes cooked by master Chef Lee Yuk-lam (李煜霖). Chef Lee isn't in the restaurant much these days, so it's quite a treat to have him personally look after us.  This is a meal I have been looking forward to for the last month, and it became more special after I had the pleasure of dining with Chef Lee last week.

Not counting Chef DaRC or The Great One, we had 4 current chefs in the house with us tonight - including Dashijie (大師姐) who, as the "number one disciple" of the late Pearl Kong Chen (江獻珠), would certainly appreciate the cooking of "Brother Lam (霖哥)" more than any of us.  After all, Brother Lam had learned his craft under legendary Chef Lee Choi (李才), who was the last chef to have worked in the kitchen of Mrs. Chen's grandfather - the imperial scholar Jiang Kongyin (江孔殷太史).

But all was not well even before we sat down at the table.  A few of us had brought wine to share with the table, ranging from Champagne, whites, reds, to whisky and brandy.  I had asked our waiter to go ahead and pop open the Champagne, while The Man in White T-shirt asked the waiter to open up a bottle of whisky to breathe.  Guess whose request was ignored?

Yup... the idiot went ahead to open the whisky first instead of the Champagne.  Then the guy walked away completely and left the bubbly in the ice bucket... while we stood around with nothing to drink.  I had to go grab the guy again, and asked him - in a sterner tone this time - to open the first bottle of Champagne.  Minutes later we decided to open the second bottle of Champagne ourselves, since he was clearly useless.

Sautéed crystal king prawn (水晶大蝦球) - the menu says "big prawn ball (大蝦球)" but the one on my plate was at least 2 sizes smaller than what my neighbor had... and seemingly more like a 中蝦球...  I realized that the biggest ones all went to the ladies, while a couple of us guys got the smaller ones.  Fair enough, I guess.

Regardless of size, it was certainly a beautiful prawn - both in terms of how it was scored as well as the taste.  The use of superior broth (上湯) enhanced the natural flavors of the prawn quite well.  Texture-wise it struck a very nice balance between tenderness and the need to have enough bite or springiness.

Sautéed diced pig stomach with bamboo soot and celery (七彩炒肚尖) - Chef DaRC and I discussed the dish, and felt that the tougher texture of the stomach tip was not due to the ingredient itself, but comes from being slightly overcooked.  It was certainly lacking the same level of springiness that we had come to expect from the dish.  Perhaps part of the reason is the smaller dicing size of the ingredients here.  But the upside was that I didn't get a puddle at the bottom of my bowl from all the vegetables that "sweat"... In terms of flavor, this was noticeably sweeter compared to the private kitchen we frequent, thanks to the liberal use of sweet pickled mustard stems - which were surprisingly pretty sweet.  I was also a little surprised at the inclusion of chopped ginger here, but didn't feel the need for it to muffle any potential "stink" from the pig stomach.

Traditional braised assorted snake soup (正宗太史五蛇羹) - this is where we start to see a clear difference between Chef Lee and his younger, one-time assistant.  It starts with the shredding and knife work, and in this regard our favorite private kitchen is much more consistent.  I had reached the same conclusion 3 years ago when I dined at both places within the space of a week, and it held true tonight.

In terms of flavor, this was much, much more delicate and elegant.  The color was much lighter and the base much more clear.  The fragrance and flavors of the shiitake mushrooms were much more prominent in this bowl, but the other flavors seemed more subtle.

Oh, and this paired very well with the X.O. that Chef DaRC very kindly brought along.  He was right!

I passed on the stir-fried shark's fin (桂花炒魚翅) and put the bowl up for adoption.  I've had this dish prepared by Chef Lee once before, and on that occasion I did not give up my bowl.  I already know how good it is, and it's enough to have tasted it once.

Steamed crab claw with winter melon (冬林鮮蟹箝) - like the king prawn, my crab claw came a couple of sizes smaller than my neighbor's.  But that doesn't detract in the least bit from how good this was.  While the texture of the merus and carpus was a little more overcooked, the actual claw was JUST.PERFECT.  I felt I was eating a fluffy, pillowy bite from heaven.  Once again, the flavors were so elegant... and struck a balance between the natural sweetness of the crab itself and the delicious chunk of winter melon infused with the heavier, savory flavors of preserved ham. While the seasoning for the melon was strong, I couldn't resist spooning the broth into my mouth...

Braised giant grouper tail (生炆龍躉翅) - another delicious and - yes, I keep repeating myself - elegant dish.  The flavors here could have been a lot more heavy had the chef made liberal use of shredded ham, mandarin peel, and shiitake mushrooms, but that wasn't the case.  Everything was just right, and the coat of batter seemingly melted in the mouth.

Braised pea shoots with bamboo piths (竹笙扒豆苗) - a simple dish of vegetables this may seem to be, but it was no less beautiful than the other dishes.

Crispy chicken (脆皮炸子雞) - OH YES!  THIS was a damn good chicken...  That paper-thin skin, the tender meat... Yes, even the breast meat.  The only issue I had - which is my problem with so many of these crispy chickens - was that the 'underside' had been over-seasoned.

Stir-fried glutinous rice with assorted preserved meat (生炒糯米飯) - this was as good as I had remembered.  The rice grains were a little on the soft side, and the sweetness in the finely diced preserved sausages were very prominent.  Overall, a more delicate (and yes, elegant) version of the dish compared to many others - especially the version from my favorite private kitchen.

Longan and lotus seed soup (桂圓蓮子茶) - this was very sweet - the way I like it - and the lotus seeds were much sweeter than I had expected... almost as if they had been candied.

The steamed jujube pudding and pan-fried stuffed glutinous balls were both pretty good.

We finished with some old Puer tea that a friend generously shared with us. A great digestif, as always...

We brought along a hodgepodge of wines from 4 different regions in France.  In fact, there were bottles which we didn't bother opening as we knew we could never finish...

1983 Philipponnat Grand Blanc - prominent nose of salty plum, and minerals.  Beautiful nose, lovely and floral.  Very mature now.

2000 Philipponnat Clos des Goisses Brut "L.V." - this was clearly much more complex.

2012 Lucien Le Moine Corton Blanc - really big and toasty nose as expected, with lots of lemon citrus.  Good acidity here, but also very buttery.  Absolutely delicious.

Remy Martin Centaure Extra, from 1980s - very fragrant, with lots of sweetness on the nose.  Our waiter opened this rather carelessly and managed to destroy the cork.  The owner of the bottle was a little miffed...

2012 Domaine Long-Depaquit Chablis Moutonne, en magnum - cleaner on the palate, with crisper and higher acidity.  A little more pungent on the nose.

2007 Mugnier Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru Clos de la Maréchale Rouge, en magnum - cool fruit, with a little violet, animal, leather, and eucalyptus on the nose.  Relatively lean on the palate.  Drinking very nicely right now.

2009 Faiveley Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru Les Porêts-Saint-Georges - initially rather muted, with even cooler fruit, more cedar and woodsy on the nose, more smoky.  Much later on the wine showed strong coffee notes.  Needed time to open up.

2003 Rauzan-Ségla - very fragrant, with smoky and cedar notes, but not quite pencil lead here.

A very good evening with great company and delicious food.  Very, very happy to have come back to taste the master's dishes once again, and grateful to our organizer for having included me for this special occasion.

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