April 22, 2021

More than meets the eye

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Thanks to the ongoing pandemic, it's been a long, long time since we organized a social event for the team.  In fact, only half of us are currently in Hong Kong... and we look forward to the day when borders reopen and we can, once again, travel without quarantine.  However, we figured it was time to have a night out and just do some bonding away from our desks, and so a team dinner was planned.

With the pandemic still with us and not everyone fully-vaccinated, a private room was preferred.  It also made sense that we chose somewhere close to the office.  I figured China Tang (唐人館) would be a venue which fit our requirements, and thankfully Chef Menex Cheung (張嘉裕) was able to help us secure a room.  I left the menu up to him, hoping there would be some surprises. After all, the chef has a repertoire that includes flavors from Sichuan, which is rather unusual for what people see as a Cantonese restaurant.

First came the appetizers (唐 ∙ 拼), which were served in individual bamboo steamers with dry ice underneath, releasing a light scent of chrysanthemums and roses.  Everything came in bite-size portions, on a rather thick and fluffy bed of hydroponic greens.

Fresh abalone, Chinese rice wine (酒糟凍鮮鮑魚) - nice and crunchy texture. A little smoky, which was a nice surprise.

Chilled tomato, mustard sesame sauce (胡麻醬拌鮮黑蕃茄) - the tomato from Belgium was as nice as I remembered, although I would have liked to have had a bigger wedge with more sauce.

Barbecued pork, honey sauce (唐人館叉燒) - the pork was also from Belgium, and this was pretty good.

Marinated white bitter melon, lemon sauce (鮮檸白玉涼瓜) - the bitter gourd from Taiwan was surprisingly not really bitter, thanks to the lemon marinade.

For the soup (養 ∙ 生) part of the meal, these bowls from the Ruyi Gastronomy collection of Legle came with seafood inside. Then our servers poured the actual soup into the bowls from individual glass teapots.

Braised comprador soup, seafood (金必多海鮮濃湯) - I haven't come across the term comprador since the last time I read James Clavell's Noble House, and it certainly recalls a time when Chinese men occupied powerful positions in British and Portuguese hongs. If the stories about the origins of the dish are true, then this would be one of the earliest examples of fusion cuisine - where Chinese ingredients like shark's fin were used in a cream-based soup.

I don't recall ever having had this soup elsewhere before, even though I'm a big fan of the classic "soy sauce Western (豉油西餐)" cuisine. No doubt tonight's version is a reasonably luxe version - with lobster, scallops, crab meat, and of course some gold foil to make it bling. I'm actually pretty glad that Chef Menex chose to serve this tonight, as I definitely learned a little bit of culinary history.

Five hot dishes (火 ∙ 藝) followed:

Braised wagyu short rib, homemade Chinese gooseberries sauce (私房仁稔醬燒脆皮牛肋骨) - to be honest, this dish didn't look like anything special at first glance. I've had beef battered and deep-fried before and quite a few places do it well. I was a little more curious about why it was served atop some hand-shredded Chinese pancake, which were kinda like scallion pancakes (蔥油餅) without the scallion, or 手抓餅 or 一窩絲餅. It would be all too easy to overlook the one little detail that is the sauce. Made with yellow mangosteen (仁稔) by the chef, it's an old school ingredient not commonly seen in restaurants today. I myself have only seen it once at Ming Court (明閣) a few years ago, and it's certainly foreign to those of us whose heritage does not include Guangdong. I'm happy that Chef Menex chose to carry on this tradition.

Not surprisingly, the wagyu beef short ribs were very, very tender.

Braised chicken, preserved vegetable, handmade rice sheet (鹹菜鬍鬚雞伴手工陳村粉) - the Huxu chicken (鬍鬚雞), aka Longgang chicken (龍崗雞), was certainly very tender and tasty. The use of preserved leafy mustard (鹹菜) and diced bamboo shoots in the sauce was pretty interesting. The rice flour rolls (陳村粉) seemed more delicate than the ones I've had at The Chairman (大班樓).

Simmered garoupa fillet, bean curd, Sichuan pepper, sun dried chili, chili oil (天府豆花東星斑) - this was the only main course I've had before, on my visit last year.  As someone who's not well-versed in Sichuanese cuisine, I was pleasantly surprised by the dish then.  The sugar from the sweetened tofu (豆花) helped to neutralize the mala (麻辣) and spicy flavors from the dried chilis and Sichuan peppercorns. I especially loved the crunch of the deep-fried soy beans.

Wok-fried lily bulb, baby cucumber (黃瓜花炒九年百合) - another dish that could easily be overlooked as "just another veg dish". Little do people know how precious these lily bulbs - which likely came from Lanzhou (蘭州) and have been allowed to mature for 9 years to achieve a high level of starchy sweetness - really are to lovers of this root. Simple treatment of stir-frying with baby cucumber allowed the purity of flavors to come through.

Simmered watercress, fish broth (魚湯浸有機西洋菜) - this was, of course, as common as they come in Cantonese cuisine. But it's always nice to have something simple and organic.

For the rice/noodle (廚膳) portion, we've got something special I've never had before.  Knowing that this would be too spicy for some, the waitstaff asked each of us whether we wanted the "full strength original" or preferred to have the heat toned down.

Braised rice, fish maw, abalone, sea cucumber, shark's fin, Sichuan sauce (川香佛跳牆燴絲苗) - OK, so I've only been having Buddha Jumps Over the Wall (佛跳牆) from one source over the last couple of years, and the chef there knows I don't eat shark's fin... so it never hit me that most high-end places do serve shark's fin as part of the dish. This would be the first time I've had shark's fin in perhaps 10 years or more.

And adding Sichuan mala brings an interesting twist. I'm glad I asked for the "mild" version, as I was able to gobble up the entire bowl.

It seems that some of our team members - including one whose physical size is larger than mine - have small appetites.  They didn't finish the rice, so naturally the dessert (甜 ∙ 沁) part of the meal would be too much for them...

Chilled ice jelly, brown sugar sauce (唐粉) - bing fen (冰粉) is a dessert from Sichuan, and actually pretty similar to Taiwanese aiyu (愛玉) jelly. Served with lots of fruits, this was very refreshing and much appreciated at the end of the meal.

The petits fours here come in a playful presentation of cat and mouse game (貓捉老鼠), including cat paws made with black sesame and mice made with coconut.

I brought a few bottles from my cellar to share with the team, but clearly the boss thought I wasn't being generous enough... so we ended up adding a couple of bottles from the restaurant's wine list.

1996 Tarlant Saga, dégorgée en novembre 2004 - wonderful nose of aged tangerine peel, savory, mineral, and toasty notes. Beautiful to the end.

1988 Maximin Grünhauser Riesling Abstberg Spätlese - tons of white flowers, really lovely, with classic petrol notes along with some lemon. Definitely slightly sweet and mature on the palate.

2007 Biserno, from magnum - decanted 1 hour after opening, and served 45 minutes after decanting. Absolutely beautiful! Soooo fragrant with lots of cedar and woodsy notes, very sweet and plenty of vanilla on the nose, almost jammy. Still full-bodied and concentrated.

1998 Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon - popped and poured after decanting. Nice and fragrant, woodsy, slightly savory, a little smoky. A little ripe on the palate, with a very nice balance between sweetness and maturity.

A very fun evening out with the team. The food was certainly interesting as I had expected, and the wines all drank very well. Looking forward to the next outing... and more drinking games.

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