Monday, September 8, 2014

Dining at a True Private Kitchen

We were at this "secret" private kitchen in Central one weekday evening recently, joining a group of new and old friends who shared a common passion for food and wine and cooking for a feast featuring some classic Cantonese dishes.

In Hong Kong, there's no shortage of restaurants labeling themselves as "private kitchen" or "speakeasy", partly to circumvent the complicated licensing requirement for a proper restaurant, and partly to add to the mystique factor as a way to attract its clientele. But this one, on the other hand, is a true "private kitchen" - you can try google it and you probably can't find any reference to it; same if you went on Openrice or WOM guide or any restaurant directory; it's located right in Central but even if I tell you the address, you wouldn't know there exist such a building let alone a tastefully decorated place to eat as you go up this narrow and dim staircase inside.

This private kitchen - which didn't really have a name - was headed by Chef Tak, a 20-plus year veteran who apprenticed in the legendary Hang Seng Bank banquet kitchen famous for its classic Cantonese cooking, with an array of chefs coming through that "school" now heading some of the best restaurants or serving some of the most prominent families in town. Now Chef Tak primarily works as the personal chef for a wealthy businessman who converted this old building into the family's own private "canteen". This is why access to this place is strictly by referral only.

Sauteed Mushroom Duo - termite mushrooms and matsutake (香煎雞樅松茸雙菌)
Our friend RC organized this dinner while he's in town and worked with the chef to design the menu beforehand, then asked a few of his friends to join him - all we did was to show up with empty stomach and the wine we were asked to bring. It's a pleasure to be in the company of some of the great food and wine fanatics in town.

We started off with two dishes of sauteed fresh mushrooms imported from Yunnan province. Both Termite Mushroom and Matsutake mushroom were considered a delicacy in Chinese cuisine and well-known for their intense aromas and tastes (and medicinal value in Chinese medicine too). And this evening, both mushrooms were prepared in their simplest form - just thinly sliced and pan sauteed with the slightest hint of salt, letting the heat releases the original aroma and taste of the seasonal treasures from underground. I couldn't quite tell which one I preferred actually with both prime in season and exhibiting their unique characters - while the aromas of the matsutake mushroom was enticing, I also liked the sweet and strong umami flavor of the termite mushrooms. Of course there's little doubt the quality of the mushrooms was top-notch - they were brought in by our friends at the table who happened to be the top local supplier.

Iberico Pork Char-siu (黑毛豬叉燒)
These days a few places in town boasted the char siu made with Iberico pork as their signature dish (for example, Tin Lung Heen and Mott 32, to name a few), but the one by Chef Tak remained one of my favorites since I tried the same dish here last year. It's layered with good amount of fat - the way I liked it - with a well-charred crust and a balanced, smokey flavor, not over sweetened with honey basting like many places did. It's mouth-watering even when I thought of it now as I write.

Bird's Nest and Crabmeat "Meringue" Cake (琵琶燕窩餅)
The Iberico char-siu was probably the only "forward" dish of the evening, one that made use of modern ingredients. The rest of our dinner was dedicated to old-school Cantonese cooking, with traditional dishes that only a few in town mastered these days. "Bird's Nest Cake" was a very crafty dish requiring long preparation time and skills, with bird's nest and fresh crabmeat carefully picked, mixed with egg white, steamed into meringue consistency, then spooned into quenelle shape and lightly-fried in a pan. (as if I knew how to cook Chinese food - I am sure in reality it is 10x more complicated as I just described) Anyway, the texture was amazing - almost like a soft, "pillowy" custard yet firm enough to be easily held up by chopsticks, and the flavors were spot on - light yet well-seasoned to emphasize the primitive and delicate tastes of the ingredients.

Sauteed Pig Tripe with Vegetables and bamboo shoots (七彩炒肚尖)
If the "Bird's Nest Cake" was the top dish of the evening (which in my opinion it was), then the sauteed pig tripe was probably a close second. Once again, this was once upon a time a common Cantonese dish served in banquets but slowly fading away, because of the effort required to chop and cut all the ingredients (slightly pickled celery, bell peppers and bamboo shoots, to name a few) into the right shape, marinated, seasoned and cooked to the right done-ness, plus people's been avoiding innards for health concerns. This was definitely a finer version among the ones I tried before, with everything finely diced to give different flavors and textures in a small spoonful, and once again, the seasoning and cooking were perfect. 

Double-boiled Winter Melon Soup (百寶炖冬瓜盅)
The double-boiled winter melon soup was also excellently done - the superior broth took hours to make, and then it's ladled inside the gigantic winter melon and continued to be double-boiled with pork, ham, roast duck, lotus seed, crabmeat and "night fragrant flower". This is a perfect summer soup - winter melon (a summer vegetable despite its name) was said to be thirst quenching and could release the "heat" inside your body. It's one of my favorite soups and I was happy to have a couple bowls of that.

Crystal King Prawn (玻璃大蝦球)
The Michelin starred Tim's Kitchen - with its head chef receiving the same training as Chef Tak did - was said to make the best Crystal King Prawn in town but I reckon Chef Tak's version was far better. The king prawn was de-shelled, de-veined, butterflied, slowly deep-fried and finished with a light, clear gravy. It's then served with chives on the side, and dollops of oyster sauce and dried prawn paste. The texture is succulent and bouncy (but not overdone), and it's loaded with umami flavor from that of the prawn itself and the sauces. 

Crispy Chicken (脆皮炸子雞)
The crispy chicken was made the most traditional way, with hot oil repeatedly poured over the chicken in the wok, so the meat could be cooked without being dried up and the skin was uniformly crispy. I personally think the chicken was a little too lean but it's still very decent - I think I was among the last trying to finish the remaining of the dish towards the end of our meal.

Stewed Seasonal Vegetables with Ham and Mushrooms (雲腿扒四寶蔬)

Sauteed Rice Rolls with Minced Beef in Satay Sauce (沙爹牛肉炒腸粉)
After a lovely vegetable dish of seasonal vegetables with mushrooms and jinhua ham - I particularly loved the braised batonnet of turnips soaked up with superior broth flavor inside, and also the pair of steamed wild green wrasse fish we had before the chicken, we finished our savory courses with a gorgeous sauteed rice rolls with minced beef in satay sauce. Simple and unsophisticated as it may sound - rice rolls were better known as a dimsum dish or street food - this is another perfectly executed dish, with the soft steamed rice rolls combining well with the minced beef and the right kick of the spicy and nutty satay sauce. It's delicious beyond description - I certainly didn't mind having a second serving even when we were already so full.

Dessert was a lovely bowl of the almond and egg white "sweet soup" with lotus seeds - it's smooth with just the right amount of sweetness to draw the meal to a conclusion.

A few of us contributed quite a number of wines to go with the dish, so by the end of the meal everybody did get quite tipsy - in a good way, definitely. It was an excellent flight, starting with an easy Isojiman Junmai Daiginjo (my only contribution - an acquisition from Hasegawa Saketen in Tokyo during a recent trip), to a couple of absolutely lovely bubbly, a Riesling which complemented well with the soup, then a few reds of various vintages, and finished with a sweet sauterne and whisky. The ones that made a particularly lasting impression to me were the pair of champagnes - first the multi-vintage rose by Henri Giraud was fruity on the nose with a hint of spice (turmeric was the first that came to mind), a long and pleasant aftertaste well held up by its acidity, then the Egly Ouriet Traditional Grand Cru Brut came equal to it with the same level of richness and a distinct toasty aroma with a hint of ripe stone fruit character - somewhat reminded me of a baked summer peach tart. They worked well rounding up the fatty char siu and the couple delicate hot dishes that followed.

With interesting conversations from traditional Chinese cooking to travel to wines to food, it's past midnight when we realized we have to call it a night reluctantly. But no worry - we already set up another dinner gathering date next month to try some of the other Chef Tak's signature dishes - including the famous snake soup. No doubt it will be another epic evening of food and wine waiting for us then which I am already looking forward to.

The rest of the pictures in my Flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/sets/72157646721411917/

Same meal experience as shared by my friend Growing Boy on his blog: http://www.diarygrowingboy.com/2014/09/the-speakeasy-next-door.html

Menu:
Sauteed Mushroom Duo - termite mushrooms and matsutake (香煎雞樅松茸雙菌)
Iberico Pork Char-siu (黑毛豬叉燒)
Bird's Nest and Crabmeat "Meringue" Cake (琵琶燕窩餅)
Sauteed Pig Tripe with Vegetables and bamboo shoots (七彩炒肚尖)
Crystal King Prawn (玻璃大蝦球)
Double-boiled Winter Melon Soup (百寶炖冬瓜盅)
Steamed Wild Green Wrasse (清蒸海青衣)
Crispy Chicken (脆皮炸子雞)
Stewed Seasonal Vegetables with Ham and Mushrooms (雲腿扒四寶蔬)
Sauteed Rice Rolls with Minced Beef in Satay Sauce (沙爹牛肉炒腸粉)
Almond and Egg White Tea (蓮子蛋白杏仁茶)

Drinks: (partial)
Isojiman Daiginjo Junmai (磯自慢酒造 大吟醸純米 エメラルドボトル BY25)
Champagne Henri Giraud Fût de Chêne Brut MV Rosé
Egly-Ouriet Tradition Grand Cru NV Brut
2011 Egon Müller Riesling Scharzhofberger Kabinett
1988 Chateau Clinet
2012 Chateau Gruand Larose
1980 Chateau de Fargues
Laphroaig 15 Year Old 1996 - Old Malt Cask Single Malt Whisky


1 comment :

Peech said...

I no longer order the crystal king prawn at Tim's Kitchen these days.

Thanks for the invite!

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