May 28, 2024

Old Napa night

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The Prince of Napa is back in town as he spends time at Vinexpo. I haven't seen him since that morning when we drank a few bottles while watching TayTay at the Superbowl, so he invited me to join a dinner where the wine theme is "old Napa" - specifying that the wines have to be older than 1990. This isn't a theme that comes up often among the wine circles in Hong Kong, so I found myself a bottle and agreed to join in the fun.

I laughed out loud when my friend showed me that a booking was made at The Merchants (嘗申匯), the restaurant purportedly serving Shanghainese cuisine inside the complex known as Forty-Five. When this place launched more than a year ago, PR8 sent out a press release declaring it to be “Hong Kong's most exciting new food and beverage lifestyle destination in a generation". I laughed out back then and inched my friend about the hyperbole. Since then, feedback from friends who were invited to tastings have been pretty lukewarm, with comments like "might as well go to Shanghai Fraternity Association (上海總會)" being a common refrain. Most tellingly, I don't recall any of my friends returning to the restaurant after their initial visit. If they did, there haven't been any posts on social media gushing about their meals. Meanwhile, I have had zero desire to pay the place a visit on my own dime.

But hey, I'm not the host of the event so I just went along with it. I did share my reservations with the Prince of Napa, who has, in the past, accompanied me on a couple of "take down (踢館)" meals. While I have a reputation of being the Arrogant Prick, I do believe that the Prince of Napa is even worse when it comes to fine dining restaurants. So... this was going to be interesting.

Somewhere along the line, my friend asked me whether there was anything that I wanted to pre-order. NOOOOO... I wouldn't want to do anything to detract from a "real" experience at this here restaurant.

We were seated in one of the private rooms, with commanding views of the city. I suppose that's why people come here, although personally, the view during the meal is not one of the factors I use to judge a restaurant.

We started with a trio of appetizers, but as I don't normally touch raw crabs, I gave my portion of drunken crab with 25-year Hua Diao wine (廿五年花雕醉膏蟹) to my neighbor.

Crystal pork terrine served with vinegar (水晶肴肉) - this was pretty nice, and probably the best version I've had in a while.

Braised wheat gluten with black fungus and mushrooms (四喜手撕烤麩)

Wok-fried river shrimps with snap peas (甜豆河蝦仁) - the black vinegar has been converted into little pearls via spherification. Ferran and Albert's lasting legacy reaches even to places serving Shanghainese cuisine.

Shanghainese chicken with scallion oil (手撕上海蔥油白斬雞) - interesting to find them using green Sichuan peppercorn oil (藤椒油) for this. I guess they chose to update "authentic" Shanghainese taste with a little pickup in flavor.

Osmanthus honey glazed Jinhua ham with crispy bean curd sheet (桂花蜜汁火方) - this was... too small of a portion and not substantial enough for my taste. As the old saying goes... "not even enough to fill the gaps in my teeth (塞牙縫都不夠)".

Duck stuffed with eight delicacies (八寶鴨) - curious that they shaped it like a calabash (葫蘆) when stuffing the duck...

OK lah...

Braised meatball in sweet soy sauce (紅燒獅子頭) - this was just wrong in my book. I know that Shanghainese cuisine tends to be sweeter, and believe me, I grew up eating it for more than 50 years... but I think this has to be the sweetest "lionhead (獅子頭)" meatball I've ever had in my life. Maybe this is what they do in Shanghai these days, although it's been some years since my last trip there.

Like most of the dishes tonight, this was served without any introduction - and there was no printed menu on the table, so I had no idea what this was. Looking at the menu at the end of the meal, I guess this could be stir-fried bamboo shoots with shepherd's purse with shrimp roe (蝦籽薺菜炒冬筍), but I could neither taste the shrimp roe or see any. The produce was pretty nice, though.

Likewise, this braised leafy amaranth with chicken consommé (上湯莧菜) was also not introduced. I did like the young and tender amaranth.

I have no clue what this rice was... just that it came with hairy crab roe (蟹粉) and some fish maw (花膠). OK lah, but not traditional Shanghainese when you start adding things like fish maw.

Traditional red bean paste pancake with aged tangerine peel (老年陳皮紅豆餅) - no one else wanted any dessert but I was curious. WTF. The menu says 'aged tangerine peel (老年陳皮)', but what I got was nothing of the sort. This was young tangerine peel (果皮) and definitely not aged more than 3 years, as it was without any of the complex aromatics that comes from properly aging the peel for years. I felt very cheated at the end of this ho-hum meal, and left with bitterness instead of sweetness in my mouth.

But tonight was about the wines, and we had a collection of 10 bottles that drank very well.

1985 Silver Oak Alexander Valley - popped and poured. Still pretty fresh and lively. The nose was very minty, smoky, with lot of cedar, and really sweet, with beautiful notes of tobacco. Acidity was slightly on the high side on the palate. My wine of the evening.

1976 Silver Oak Alexander Valley - also popped and poured. This was more mature and more developed compared to the 1985. Nose of stewed fruit, still got the sweetness on the nose, but this has started to develop savory notes like black olives. The nose was still pretty fragrant but the palate wasn't as good as the 1985, with pretty high acidity. The nose had a little more vanilla, and oxidized like old Madeira.

1974 Freemark Abbey Cabernet Bosché - popped and poured. The nose was showing a little game and leather on the edges, with a hint of savory olive, a little bit of smoke, and nice fruity notes. The palate was on the savory side.

1976 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve - served about 1½ hours after double-decanting, which was much later than anticipated. This was a decent showing for the wine, very soft on the palate, niced aged, with a nose that was oxidized and on the savory side. Some 3 hours after decanting the nose was still showing OK, and 4 hours after decanting the nose was pretty savory by then.

1977 Beaulieu Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon - this was fresher and cleaner on the nose, with more sweetness. There was a little more body on this wine compared to the 1976, and then also started to show savory notes. More than 3½ hours after opening the nose was showing plenty of savory soy sauce, which was pretty nice.

1970 Heitz Martha's Vineyard - served some 45 minutes after opening. The nose showed nice and ripe fruit, with leather and also nice smoky notes. My third favorite wine of the night.

1976 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve - served about 1½ hours after opening. The nose was a little more green than the other wines, but not in a bad way. Pretty open and fragrant nose showing woodsy notes. Really showing nicely some 3 hours after opening, with a bit of sweet grass and almost floral notes. My second favorite wine of the evening.

1984 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon - drank about 1 hour and 15 minutes after opening. This was really nice after about 2 hours, showing some sweet fruit on the nose.

1985 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon - drank about 1 hour and 15 minutes after opening. The nose was bigger than the 1984, with more savory notes, but still showed a good amount of sweet fruit.

1986 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill - drank about 1½ hours after opening. The nose was nice and woodsy, showing a bit of savory profile. The wine was drinking really nicely some 3½ hours after opening.

To be fair, this wasn't a bad meal, but I completely understood people's comments about preferring to go to Shanghai Fraternity Association - which serves up delicious fare at a lower price point. Like members of the other club, our hostess has also paid a fee to join the membership here, which was why corkage was waived on all 10 bottles tonight. Taking the corkage waiver and the private dining room into account, I suppose the pricing seemed a little more fair and would be more than reasonable for some people who entertain in Central, but at the end of the day, I am just not rich enough to be their target clientele... 

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