Thursday, September 10, 2015

Be full and drunk

There's an old Cantonese saying "Eat, drink and be full and drunk" (飲飽食醉) which we often used to describe a perfect meal. Of course, there's some merit to that - after all we belong to a culture which treats feasting as the most important social activity, and how can one be completely satisfied if there's no sufficient food or drink on the table for everyone? But then, it seems to be too easy if all we needed were a full stomach and a light-headed mind - even a few bowls of plain rice and a bottle of cheap vodka would have done the job. So what constitutes a perfect meal?

That's something I have been pondering after what I would describe as a near-perfect evening we had a couple weekends ago. It's been almost a year since the same group of people convened at this hideaway, private kitchen in Central for a phenomenal feast featuring some of the best Cantonese dishes, so our friend and unofficial convener RC proposed that we do a repeat, and we managed to find one Sunday evening before the summer ended when everyone's in town and available.

We were more than happy to let RC sort out the menu and logistics with Chef Tak - all we did were to each show up with a bottle of wine (or two) on the night. We ended up with a 10-course feast featuring some tried-and-true dishes and a couple new ones. Food-wise, the highlight of the evening was no doubt a traditional Chinese casserole known as "Buddha jumps over the wall" (佛跳牆). Originated from the old imperial court, this is a dish made with more a handful of delicacies - abalone, sea cucumber, tendons, fish maw, to name a few - slowly simmered to perfect tenderness with the sauce reduced to gravy consistency, taking in all the flavors from the ingredients. It's said to be so good that a devout Buddha would have yielded to the temptation and jumped over the wall to get a taste of this.

"Buddha Jumps Over the Wall" Casserole - Individual Portion
Over the years there were different interpretations and variations of this dish elsewhere - some used different ingredients or made into a double-boiled soup - but this is said to be done in the most traditional way and that was definitely the best I have had anywhere. The only key ingredient we have left out was the shark's fin, which most of us at the table agreed that the intended exclusion - out of concerns for the sustainability of sharks - was hardly noticeable to the overall delicious-ness.

Sauteed Yunnan Mushrooms
Sauteed Pig Tripe with Vegetables and Bamboo Shoots
Sweet and Sour Pork with Pineapples
Almost all of the rest of the dishes were phenomenal as well. I shamelessly asked our other friends at the table who were a major local importer of Yunnan mushrooms whether they could bring along some for an additional dish, so we started off our evening with a dish of sauteed termite mushrooms and Matsutake, both in their prime season at this time of year. The room was immediately filled with the earthy aroma from the mushrooms as the dish was presented, and I loved their rich flavors with a hint of sweetness. We didn't order the Iberico Pork Char-siu this time, which was one of my favorite dishes here, but instead we had the sweet and sour pork and it was just as good, if not better with a well-balanced flavors and perfect meat texture, taken from the fatty part of the boston butt. And I dare say no one in town came close to making a better dish of Sauteed Pig Tripe with Vegetables and Bamboo Shoots than Chef Tak with complex textures and flavors all packed into every bite.

Crystal King Prawn
Steamed Wild Sole
You don't see steamed sole on menu in restaurants these days often because a good one is few and far between to come by, let alone one that's caught in the wild, but this evening we not only had one but two, and both were of excellent sizes and they were delicious with delicate meat and perfectly cooked. Well I did say it's a near perfect meal because there were a few minor misses - my last bite of the Crystal King Prawn left a rather unpleasant, alkali after-taste, possibly from the baking soda used to give the prawn some extra bouncy textures. The dish was still in a league of its own, but it's just not as good as the same dish we had last year. And I thought the Crispy Chicken was not as juicy and succulent as the ones we had before - more to do with the ingredient rather than techniques, I reckon. 

Special-Edition Mooncakes - Lotus Seed Paste with Lard Filling, with Indian Almonds and 3 Salted Egg Yolks
The traditional Chinese Moon Festival is just round the corner and our friend DST, herself a famous culinary figure known for her exquisite taste and knowledge of Chinese cuisine, brought along a couple special mooncakes from her own kitchen for us - one filled with lotus seed paste mixed with lard and 3 salted egg yolks, as opposed to the regular ones using vegetable oil that she normally made for general retail sale. Super evil yes, but super delicious too with the soft pastry shell filled with just the right punch of sweetness and a glaze of smooth oil creeping through the filling inside, leaving us wanting more after each bite.

With this gang at the table there's no shortage of good wines to go along with the dishes. Both champagnes were particularly delightful and I loved the interesting pairing of a young Sauternes with the rich "Buddha jumps over the wall" casserole for that acidic-sweet and savory contrast. The bottle of Barolo we contributed probably can do better with some more time sitting in the cellar even though it's approaching ripeness already.

Granted, the food tonight was more than delectable and we were quite tipsy after the whole evening of drinking excellent wines, so yes, we were sufficiently full and drunk, and hence satisfied. But there were definitely more to that, making the evening particularly enjoyable. After much soul-searching, I guess it came down to our shared passion for good food and drink, and we let our love for culinary pleasure radiate across the table. That accented by a little dose of humor, a bit of gossips and lots of laughter.

"Great company" sounds like such a cliché thing to say, but no doubt it played a big part. And this must work both ways - as much as you like to enjoy the company of others, you have to be a good company to others as well in order to create the atmosphere for a perfect meal for everyone. To us, it's almost as vulgar eating with people who don't like food as with people over-indulged with their own food and nothing else - a "food narcissist" so to speak. Sometimes I wonder how well I did in being a good dining companion to others, but from my points of view, this is a great night with everything right - food, drink and company. I reckon this happens not often enough - never enough, unfortunately.

More photos on my Flickr album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/albums/72157657942623942 or read what my friend P has to say for the same evening on his blog: http://www.diarygrowingboy.com/2015/08/private-buddha.html, especially if you want detailed tasting notes on the food and wines.

Menu: (* were the ones not on the original menu)
*Sauteed Mushroom Duo - termite mushrooms and matsutake  *香煎雞樅松茸雙菌
Sauteed Pig Tripe with Vegetables and Bamboo Shoots 七彩炒肚尖
Crystal King Prawn 玻璃大蝦球
Traditional "Buddha Jumps Over the Wall" Cassserole 古法佛跳牆
Double-boiled Winter Melon Soup 原個燉冬瓜盅
Steamed Wild Sole 清蒸海方利
Crispy Chicken 脆皮炸子雞
Braised Chinese Cabbage with Yunnan Ham  雲腿津白菜
Sweet and Sour Pork with Pineapples 菠蘿古老(咕嚕)肉
Steamed Rice Wrapped in Lotus Leaves 飄香荷葉飯
Gingko and Lotus Seeds Dessert 銀杏燉湘蓮
*Mooncakes with Lotus Seed Paste with Lard Filling, with Indian Almonds and 3 Salted Egg Yolks *三黃欖仁豬油蓮蓉月餅

Drinks:
Champagne Jacques Selosse Brut Initial NV
Champagne Tarlant Saga Extra Brut 1996
Kistler Vineyards Chardonnay Dutton Ranch 2006
Chateau Rieussec 2009
Domaine Bernard Morey Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Vide Bourse 2000
La Chapelle de la Mission Haut Brion 2000 (Magnum)
Luciano Sandrone Barolo DOCG "Le Vigne" 2003 (Magnum)
Domaine Weinbach Pinot Gris Altenbourg Quintessence de Grains Nobles Cuvée d'Or 2005 (Half-Bottle)
Chateau Bouscaut 2004
Chateau Bouscaut 2005

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