November 10, 2018

Stuck on the Ashes of Time

Pin It

This dinner has been waiting to happen for a long, long time.  More than 2½ years after my first visit, I finally found occasion (and company) to re-visit VEA.  Vicky Cheng's cuisine has been getting a lot of attention lately - due in part to the constant, heavy marketing assault by the PR - and I had been keeping track of all the dishes that I had not been tasting.  So I convinced the Film Buff - who originally introduced me to the restaurant - to accompany me.

We were once again seated on high chairs in front of the counters, because they are meant to be the best seats in the house.  I had a real issue with this last time, as I kept having to get out of my chair to take pictures of the food.  Now that I've switched to a camera with an articulating screen, things were a little easier tonight.

As usual, there was a whole slew of snacks to start us off:

Corn and sweet potato chip

Red capsicum chip

Bread stick

Fish skin - the dehydrated fish skin came topped with diced abalone that had been slow-cooked, abalone liver purée, coriander, pickled chilis, and covered with a layer of dashi (出汁) jelly.  The fish skin itself was really nice, and the abalone was certainly tender, while I didn't notice any kick from the chili.

Deep-fried cuttlefish with salt and pepper - our server stressed that no MSG was used in this dish, but some lime zest was shaved on top.  Crunchy texture, and certainly nicer than what one usually finds at local seafood restaurants.

Quail egg - marinated (or should it be pickled?) in Japanese vinegar and soy sauce, before being smoked with apple wood. 

“Without the Two of Us (分分鐘需要你)" - next came a dish that infuses the first of many of Vicky Cheng's childhood memories.  Apparently this is the latest variant of a dish that is always on the menu, and was inspired by the classic tune by George Lam (林子祥).  The lyrics mention salted fish and bok choy (白菜), so these two ingredients are always featured in each variant. 

The palmiers came on a a bed of leaves presented in a music box playing the namesake song.  The pastries had bits of salted fish hidden in the folds, and came with some bok choy purée, spring onions, and coriander.  This was a little on the greasy side, which wasn't surprising to me given my previous experience.

The accompanying tea is made using dried bok choy, carrots, and water chestnuts.  It was pretty sweet, and reminded me of simmered radish with dried shrimp.

Mantis shrimp, smoked cauliflower, uni, pistachio - the puff pastry at the bottom came with mantis shrimp and mantis shrimp jelly, which was then topped with a layer of Hokkaido sea urchin mixed with pickled onions and chopped pistachio.  Finally a layer of mantis shrimp and smoked cauliflower mousseline.  To make the dish truly Instagrammable, we've got tiny perilla flowers and leaves neatly arranged on top.

Threadfin "ma yau", Sichuan chili oil, fermented cabbage - the seasonal fourfinger threadfin (馬友) was pan-fried until crispy on the skin side, then served like Sichuan-style "Chinese sauerkraut fish (酸菜魚)", with baby Napa cabbage fermented for two weeks mixed with rice crispies (鍋巴), cabbage juice as well as fish head stock and Sichuan chili oil.

While the execution of the fish was fine, I found the hot and sour sauce to be rich and creamy, and totally delicious... with good crunch coming from the rice crispies.

On the side there is a "salad" of different types of citrus fruits, longans (龍眼), celtuce stem, fennel, radish, sansho leaves (木の芽), dill, and perilla leaves.  While Vicky explained that the salad was meant to counterbalance the spiciness of the sauce, I found it fanciful and unnecessary - even as someone who isn't capable of handling very spicy food.  If I found the dish to be too hot to handle, I'd just take a few more gulps of water.

Roasted sea cucumber, flowery crab, egg white, 22yrs Hua Diao wine - FINALLY!  After seeing gazillion pics of this dish on social media, it was finally my turn to try it.

The spiny sea cucumber had been braised before having its top turned crispy.  It was served on a bed of steamed egg white, then our server proceeded to add a sauce made with the stock of flower crab and chicken fat - before using a perfume atomizer to spray a measly amount of 22-year-old Huadiao (花雕) wine on top.

The sea cucumber was actually stuffed with a mousseline made with flower crab.  I gotta say that this was pretty tasty... with a good contrast of textures between the crispy top layer and the gelatinous nature of braised sea cucumber.  This reminded me a little of the signature sea cucumber from Howard's Gourmet (好酒好蔡).  As for the combination of flower crab, chicken fat, and Huadiao?  Well... The Chairman (大班樓) has been serving this up since 2009, so by now we are all familiar with how they all come together.

Fish maw, caviar, quinoa - instead of the "regular" Taiyouran raviolo I've already tasted last time, I opted for one of the two "premium" alternatives which came with an additional HKD 780 supplement.  I was really curious about how Vicky would do fish maw, even though I would have preferred that it didn't come with the now-ubiquitous caviar...

The 10-year-old African fish maw braised with fish stock was tender, and our server proceeded to mix some chives, quinoa, and caviar from Lake Qiandao (千島湖) into the emulsified fish stock before drenching the fish maw with it.

Thankfully the deep-fried Chinese crullers which came with the dish wasn't as greasy as the one I had last time.  But as someone who grew up eating these for breakfast, I am only happy when they're made à la minute.

It's a shame, though, that the dish came lukewarm... because otherwise it was rather tasty.

Drunken pigeon, salt and pepper tofu, goji berry, bean curd - the leg was barbecued over charcoal with a sweet (coconut?) glaze that tasted like Chinese five spice.  On the plate we've also got pickled wolfberries, salt-and-pepper deep-fried tofu, a tofu skin roll, and pumpkin purée.

The execution of the pigeon breast was faultless, and it was marinated in Chinese wine as "drunken pigeon".  But honestly I couldn't taste the alcohol at all.

The sorbet was made with these candied apricots (蟠桃果) which are iconic in this part of the world.  More childhood memories from Vicky.

Kagoshima wagyu, fox nut, XO chili jam, fried rice - I joked that we were having pizza for our next course...  The wagyu carpaccio came with pickled ginger and ginger flower, a variation of garlic which included black garlic, garlic wafers, and garlic flowers, then chives and olive oil.  This was OK, but I didn't really get it.

The grilled eggplant was deglazed with sorghum vinegar, and came with puffed barley and tomato confit.  Kinda interesting.

The fried rice was made with fox nut (雞頭米), glutinous corn, and X.O. chili jam, and crispy beef fat.  This was pretty good, because... how could it not be when you've got crispy fat?!

By the way, how exactly did these three separate elements tie in together?

Japanese persimmon, mandarin, ginger, shiso - once again we have a "variation" of the ingredient.  There were persimmon slices marinated in ginger and vanilla syrup.  Then there was the persimmon sorbet stuffed inside a tube of mandarin jelly, which sat on top of some panna cotta with salty butter crumble.  You've also got fresh mandarin wedges, along with salted and semi-dried persimmon and crispy perilla leaves.  As if this wasn't complicated enough, the dish was finished with ginger and mandarin ice cream that was freeze-dried in liquid nitrogen.

By this time I felt bewildered, and wondered how all these ingredients and their flavors all tied together.

Baked chestnut, grass jelly, evaporated milk, pork salt - I see this and immediately think of Nat King Cole singing The Christmas Song.  Well, Christmas may be still some time away, but 'tis the season for chestnuts... and these were roasted with coffee and muscovado.  I love that they were served up in a brown paper bag, just as they would be on the street.  Yet another childhood memory, no doubt.

Meanwhile, we have a chestnut brûlée with pork fat that was quite smoky.  Around this we've got pearls made of grass jelly (涼粉), wholewheat sponge cake, and condensed milk ice cream that I found too frozen and hard. 

Vicky came over with a box and played candyman... and served up yet another childhood memory - candy and coconut wrap (糖蔥餅).  He placed strips of candy "scallions" on pancake wrappers, added coconut ice cream and a powder mix with sesame and desiccated coconut, and wrapped it all inside the ubiquitous brown paper bag.  Yum.

Rose marshmallow and Oolong tea.

The mignardises still come in this multi-level spherical box.

Condensed milk mochi

Mango sago pomelo - sago is presented as a crispy cracker.

Cocoa and preserved mandarin cake - this was very interesting... Instead of the "usual" combination of orange and chocolate, we've got the Chinese preserved mandarin peel (陳皮) providing some savory notes.

Salted duck egg madeleine

We were pretty civilized and only opened 3 bottles, including a pair of 1998 Châteauneuf-du-Pape I wanted to taste side-by-side.

1995 Moët et Chandon Cuvée Dom Pérignon Œnothèque, dégorgée en 2006 - kinda toasty nose.  Mature on the palate with nice depth.

1998 Henri Bonneau Réserve des Célestins - opened for 1½ hours, then decanted 15 minutes prior to serving. A little more open on the nose, more opulent.  A little sweet on the palate.

1998 Roger Sabon Le Secret de Sabon - opened for 1½ hours, then decanted 15 minutes prior to serving.  More smoke on the nose, and almost a little savory.  Good depth on the palate and seemed more clean, and certainly more cool fruit.  Appeared younger and more reserved than the Célestins.

The Film Buff and I discussed our thoughts about this dinner, and while the dishes were reasonably tasty, we both felt that Vicky hasn't reached that breakthrough moment... and is still stuck at The Ashes of Time (東邪西毒) stage.  The dishes are still way, way too complicated - with too many elements which don't necessary come together to make things better meaningfully.  Echoing another comment I heard earlier in the week, "He tries too hard".  A few days ago, another friend wondered out loud whether these complicated dishes - sometimes featuring certain premium ingredients which appear eye-catching on social media - are driven by aggressive marketing campaigns designed to generate buzz.

A prime example would be the persimmon dessert tonight.  Look, I get that a chef wants to showcase different textures of the same ingredient, so you have it marinated, made into a sorbet, salted, and semi-dried...  I'm OK with that if you end up showing me the purity of the flavors - the way Malcolm Lee of Candlenut gives me 5 different textures of coconut but nothing else.  What I didn't need was adding 3 different variations of mandarin, 2 different variations of ginger, then throw panna cotta and butter crumble into the mix, before trying to dazzle me (it didn't work, by the way) with liquid nitrogen.  We call that 花拳繡腿 in Chinese.

In some ways, we both agreed that the two young chefs named Vicky in this town (Cheng and Lau, the latter of Tate Dining Room and Bar) are very similar in their approach.  Both have included plenty of Chinese elements and flavors into their dishes, incorporating their own memories to make their respective cuisines very personal.  Both chefs place heavy emphasis on aesthetics and presentation, and in some ways it starts to border on theatrics.  Both manage to churn out very "Instagrammable" dishes, but as the Film Buff and I discussed, sometimes they are just too fanciful and feel too contrived.

When we look at world-class chefs who have risen to the top of their game, more often than not their dishes look deceptively simple while the various elements come together seamlessly.  We keep mentioning Sato-san from Ta Vie旅 as an example, and certainly Gert de Mangeleer of Hertog Jan qualifies with his "Simplicity is not simple" mantra.  We wonder when the younger generation of chefs would reach their "Eureka!" moments...

But hey... both Vickys have their legions of fans, and their restaurants don't seem to be short of customers who happily upload pictures of pretty dishes to social media.  So what the fuck do I know, eh?

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails

TripAdvisor Travel Map