August 28, 2021

All crows are black

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The Candidate has been wanting to visit Yong Fu (甬府) for the better part of last year, but somehow she had missed out on joining us for our last visit. When I felt it was time to return and try out their beautiful cuisine - following a break of a few months after a less-than-satisfying meal - I suggested that we meet here tonight for our little drinking session.

As usual, I asked the restaurant manager to get the kitchen to suggest a menu for us. Given what happened last time, I reminded myself to pay more attention to the dishes being proposed to make sure that they would be suitable for my palate. As it turns out, I still fell a liiiittle short on this.

We started dinner about a half-hour later than originally planned due to some late arrivals, but I figured we still had about 2½ hours until we had to vacate the premises. That should be plenty of time and we could still have a relaxing and enjoyable evening. I could not have been more wrong.

Sankala was munching on the snacks while we waited for the others to arrive. We were pretty hungry.

It is customary in Shanghainese/Jiangsu/Zhejiang cuisine to lay out the series of appetizers all in one go, or at least in quick succession. I'm used to that so no issues here.

Fresh walnuts with sun-dried shrimp (蝦皮拌鮮核桃) - this was surprisingly good. The sun-dried shrimps - about the size of sakura shrimp (桜海老) - were definitely tasty.

Marinated bamboo shoots 'Ninbo' style (奉幫油燜筍) - I absolutely loved this. This is one of my mom's staple dishes, and if you looked inside her fridge at home, chances are it's there during a third of the year. After more than a year and a half of not being able to eat mom's cooking, this just felt like home to me - pure comfort food, and I was really, really happy.

Traditional wheat gluten (傳統烤麩) - can't go wrong with this. I've been eating this at home since as far as I could remember. Mom uses more shiitake mushrooms instead of wood ear fungus, though.

Boiled asparagus with Sichuan pepper (玉釵萵筍) - HUH?? Asparagus?! No, madam... please don't use Google Translate for your menu. This is celtuce, which is nothing like asparagus. And we love it. Love the crunch, and with a few drops of Sichuan peppercorn oil the flavors here were just perfect - the right amount of numbing sensation to make things interesting without killing one's taste buds.

Drunken mantis prawns (冰鎮溏心蝦姑) - the flavors of these mantis prawns are always nice, thanks to the alcoholic marinade, which also delivers a good amount of sweetness.

Braised assorted delicacies wit brown sauce (黃燜三寶) - OK, so I probably should have asked what the "three treasures" were when the menu was proposed. As it turns out, one of them was shark's fin. It was a little too late to turn this down, so I sucked it and ended up eating shark's fin for the first time in years. Mea culpa!

We've also got thick chunks of fish maw, as well as the skirt of softshell turtle. Gotta say this was very, very tasty. Interesting that the vinegar came in caviar made with spherification.

Prawns fried in stone pot (石鍋油鹽海中蝦) - this was really, really good. The shrimps were just the right size, and very, very tender. I actually ended up eating all the heads and shells, too. Just a simple dish with good ingredients, with spring onions, ginger, and caramelized shallots. Served with Yu Kewn Yick (余均益) chili sauce on the side. Too bad none of us got to the dish while it was still piping hot, as there was too much food on our table already.

At this point I thought the kitchen was sending out dishes a little too quickly, since we had plenty of time before needing to vacate the premises, so I asked the staff to pause for a little. Unfortunately the kitchen had already cooked the next dish, so we had to quickly dig in to the new dish while leaving the previous dish as it sat around. Thankfully the shrimps came in a hot stone pot which was able to keep the contents relatively warm.

Deep-fried cuttle fish (脆皮墨魚) - this was pretty interesting, as the slice of cuttlefish was encased in a layer of fluffy and crispy batter.

I wish that the cuttlefish came in a thicker slice for a more satisfying bite. The batter was also a little on the greasy side. But overall still pretty tasty.

I made sure we paused for long enough to finish off the food that was already on the table, and also to allow us more time to just chat and drink some wine.

Little East Sea yellow croaker with salted vegetable (雪菜燒東海小黃魚) - LOVED this. I grew up eating yellow croakers at home, and mom served them up with a sauce that was similar to this. Another dish that reminded me of home... even though mom didn't really use bamboo shoots and preserved mustard greens (雪菜).

As usual, I took down a second portion of fish because Sankala eats fish like a white girl... So yeah, I was pretty stuffed.

Signature sauteed green vegetable (甬府捨得) - this was originally meant to be purple caitai (紫菜苔) but somehow we got these young Shanghainese cabbage (青江菜). Just beautiful and sweet with a slight hint of bitterness. The chicken broth was wonderful. I would be so happy to just have this everyday.

Stir-fried preserved pork with chives and dried tofu (韭花豆干炒臘肉) - pretty nice, and once again the flavors were very familiar.

Baked rice with Iberico pork (伊比利亞黑毛豬焗飯) - I don't see how this rice was "baked", but the server finished putting this together with a portable burner away from our table.

Pretty tasty for sure, crunchy and fragrant thanks to the Chinese celery.

Ningbo sesame glutinous rice balls (寧波湯圓) - this was as good as I remembered from previous visits, with a rich black sesame filling.

Hawthorn and pear drink (山楂雪梨飲)

Winter jujube (冬棗) - nice and crunchy, slightly dry. Delicious.

For the second time in a row, I was fairly upset with my meal. The difference with my last visit was that tonight the food was absolutely perfect. It was the service that upset me, despite the fact that the manager knows my name, placed us in a private room for privacy, with a dedicated server at our beck and call. So why did I still think that service failed?

Well, we're here on a Saturday night, dining at a high-end restaurant, and as usual we've brought our own collection of wines. This was my fourth visit, so they know that we enjoy dining out and that we really care about the food. So why did they choose to rush our meal? Barely 30 minutes had passed from the time we told them to start sending dishes out until I asked them to pause, and we had gone through the 5 starters as well as the first three main dishes - with only another 3 main dishes to come before the rice and dessert. We had almost 2 hours before the 10 p.m. deadline - which was a lot of time to go through the few dishes which remained. So why did the kitchen insist on pacing the meal this way?

If they had done their homework - as any fine dining restaurant would - they would know that we prefer to take our meals slowly, as there were the equivalent of 5 bottles of wine tonight. There was no way that we could polish off all the wines along with the food in about an hour's time. That's not what a fine dining experience should be. When you dine out at an establishment like this, and fork over this kind of money, you are not just paying for the food but the whole experience. It should be relaxed and enjoyable, as this is a "night out", with good food, good wine, good company and conversation. If I wanted that "Wham! Bam! Thank you ma'am!" type of experience, I'd go somewhere else at a much lower price point. So was this a case that the kitchen just wanting to knock off as early as possible, with zero regard for what the diners want? Was there just no communication between the front of house and the kitchen about how to deliver a good experience for the diner, which happens at so many Chinese restaurants that I have since refused to patronize?

I really wonder if we're just not the target clientele for this restaurant. Maybe they prefer to cater to the type of diner - and there would be many in this town - who just want all their food to arrive as quickly as possible, finish eating, and bugger off somewhere else. That's certainly a very "Chinese" (and I meant this in an ethnic/cultural sense, not in terms of nationality) way of dining out, but that isn't what my friends and I enjoy. If this is how things are done here, maybe I am better off going somewhere else for a more enjoyable experience. As I proclaimed years ago, I am not big spender... and I'm sure the restaurant won't miss not having my business when there are plenty of rich customers in town.

We were, of course, trying to enjoy some nice wines with our food:

2007 Comte Lafon Meursault Clos de la Barre - very tosty nose, ripe on the nose, nice acidity on the palate. One hour in the nose was very buttery and beautiful.

2009 Hospices de Beaune Corton-Vergennes Cuvée Paul Chanson, elevé et mis en bouteille par Lucien Le Moine pour El Bulli, en magnum - the nose was very oxidized, very fragrant with lots of vanilla and caramelized sugar. Still got the acidity on the palate and definitely pretty alcoholic. Improved after more aeration and chilling. Showed more toast on the nose about 1½ hours in.

2018 Philippe Charlopin Corton-Charlemagne - much younger with more fruit, more tropical stone fruits. Very ripe and buttery on the palate, and actually really ripe and alcoholic on the nose, too.

2017 Rose and Arrow Pinot Noir Gathered Stones Hopewell Hills - very, very fragrant with lots of sweet fruit, some leather, almost a bit floral. Rich but not quite jammy - although going in that same direction. Beautiful and open, with lots of toast on the nose.

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