Saturday, November 28, 2015

VEA-ry Impressive Dinner

There is always a constant stream of new restaurant openings throughout the year in Hong Kong, but to me, so far in 2015 there is none more exciting than this new place near Sheung Wan, which opened its door a couple of weeks ago.

This new restaurant, called VEA, is a collaboration project between Chef Vicky Cheng (formerly of Liberty Private Works) and mixologist/bartender Antonio Lai of The Quinary. I am a fan of Chef Vicky's creative cooking since his early LPW days so I am eager to find out his next move since he left the old venture early this year after over 4 years at the helm. And I came here for the dinner tasting during their soft opening period last week at the invitation of their PR.

VEA took up the top two floors of a new building at the junction of Wellington Street and Queen's Road Central. Downstairs (29th Floor) is the more relaxing bar and lounge completed with a small kitchen for casual food, while the upper level is their fine dining section, with most space dedicated to the long show kitchen along with more than a dozen counter seats, with a few regular tables near the entrance and a private function room at the far end.

Compared to Chef Vicky's old restaurant, I found this new venue more spacious - both the seating and cooking areas - and a touch more elaborate. There are separate hot and cold stations inside the kitchen, allowing dishes to be prepared and plated with much ease by the team, even with everyone arrive at different time. The counter seats were surprisingly comfortable, and allowed diners to have an unobstructed view of all the kitchen actions. The downstairs lounge area looked like a perfect place for after-work drinks and some casual bites, with spectacular view from the little balcony which doubled as the herb garden.

Being forewarned it's going to be a long dinner with numerous courses, we started a bit earlier than usual so we didn't have to rush through. At the restaurant, only tasting menu is being offered every evening, which I was told will change from time to time plus the team is able to accommodate any special dietary requirements.

Amuse Bouche
The trio of amuse bouche got the dinner off to a flying start. The crispy chicken skin may not be something revolutionary but I thought this was well-executed with dots of smooth chicken liver mousse on top. The quail egg was presented under a glass dome filled with apple-wood smoke and had a lovely balance of flavors. I was most impressed with the third one, with steamed clams sat on top of a shell-shaped pastry tart with a small piece of pickled chili and dots of Chinese black bean puree. It's a play to the classic local dish "stir-fried clams with black bean sauce and chili" (豉椒炒蜆) and it was brilliantly prepared, both in terms of presentation and taste.

Hairy Crab - Shiso, Apple, Black Vinegar
We then moved to a number of savory courses served in tasting portion, going from the lighter seafood dishes first then to the richer meat courses. The Hairy Crab was an particularly interesting one among the three seafood dishes, making use of a popular seasonal ingredient - the Shanghainese hairy crab - in a set of 2 dishes presented simultaneously as one single course. On the plate was a pair of "crab sushi" made of the picked crab meat, rolled with shiso leaves, and topped with slightly charred crab roes and pickled ginger. In front of the plate was a crunchy kanikko, or Japanese baby crabs, which was pulled alive from the tank in the kitchen and deep-fried, and shiso-infused apple vinegar being poured by the table-side just as the dish was presented. On the side was a small cup with a warm chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) with hairy crab roes and black vinegar. It was rich and smooth.

Egg - Truffles, Parmesan, Caviar
The raviolo with egg yolk has always been a signature dish by Chef Vicky. This time it's simply presented with parmesan cream and a quenelle of caviar on top, with a fried dough with truffles served on the side. The raviolo was delicious and I loved the combination of the oozy Taiyouran egg yolks with the caviar. While I liked the idea of adopting local street food (as in the fried dough or yau ja gwai 油炸鬼 in Cantonese) into the course, I wish there were more distinct truffle aroma and flavor inside.

Pigeon - Smoked Eel, Blood, Cabbage

Wagyu - Black Garlic, Tomato, Ginkgo Nuts
Both the meat courses were more than decent. The chef came to explain that the pigeon breast was marinated with wine, aged for 12 days then cooked sous-vide, before it's sliced thick and served with a piece of smoked eel, figs, and sauteed cabbage, potato puree and a thick sauce made with blood and reduced meat jus on the side. The Wagyu was presented two ways served side by side on the same plate - one was flash-grilled on the outside and the other was braised sous-vide, with black garlic puree, ginkgo nuts and a dehydrated yuba crisp on the side. Both pieces have great textures and I love this interesting combination of ingredients, bringing in an exotic touch.

Raspberry - Pistachio, Lemon, Meringue
Two desserts were served - both scored high on the wow factor in their own unique ways. The first one featured ingredients presented in various forms and textures - raspberry was served as the whole fruit and as a frozen mousse chilled with liquid nitrogen; likewise with the pistachio, which came in the form of cream and also powder. Then there was a quenelle of lemon icecream and cracked meringue chips to complete this impressive display of sweets.

Milk Jam - Salted Duck Egg, Quinoa

The second dessert - called Milk Jam - looked simpler but was equally amazing. A mild Dulce de leche icecream was served with puffed quinoa underneath and topped with frozen salt-cured duck egg grated on top. It was creamy, has just a good balance savory-sweet flavor and well thought out by the chef. The quartet of Mignardises were cute too. My favorite was the marshmallow and a shot of rosewater syrup, which looked exactly liked the napkin presented in the beginning of the course, for a little surprise at the end.

Langoustine - Salsify, Fennel, Custard Apple with Cocktail Pairing (Pinot Noir Agave)
A good wine list was available, but I opted for the cocktail pairing option, with each drink customized to the dish presented by Antonio. I felt instead of being a good complement, the cocktails became a seamless part of the course. My favorite was the pinot noir agave, with pinot noir carbonated and mixed with agave syrup and a dash of lemon juice, served on a tall flute. The acidity worked well with the slightly sweet sides which came with the Langoustine course. The Shiitake was another good one - a lukewarm "cocktail" with the earthy mushroom consommé with a touch of whisky. It was paired with the raviolo, working well with the egg yolks inside, and also the hint of truffles in the fried dough that accompanied the dish. I guess my only complaint was the cocktails being too timid in alcohol.

VEA Signature Tea
I was also amazed at the impeccable attention to details with all the fancy tableware being used in different courses. The cold starter was served in a frozen plate which was both practical and pretty to look at; the steamed egg custard with crab was served in a little bamboo basket - reminiscent of the basket used to keep and transport Shanghainese hairy crabs, and so on. Our tea at the end of the dinner was served in a handmade ceramic cup by a local artist with a neat hourglass put by the side to keep track of the blooming time needed for the tea - those who have been to my place would know why I particularly appreciated this set-up. Great minds think alike?
There were quite a handful of restaurants around trying to push the boundary either with avant-garde cooking techniques and unique combination of ingredients. I felt Chef Vicky has mastered in both categories and struck the right balance of being creative without going over the top. The dishes were delightful to look at, well-executed in many aspects and left me with plenty of good surprises. Bravo to the team and I have a feeling that this place will be the talk of the town soon once more people had the opportunity to check it out.

More photos in my Flickr album:

When? November 24 2015
Where? VEA, Level 29-30, The Wellington, 198 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Hairy crab, shiso and black vinegar; Pigeon with smoked eel, blood and cabbage

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