Friday, January 5, 2018

Celebration at VEA

I was surprised at how packed the dining room of VEA was when I walked in for my dinner reservation on a random Monday night, which was usually the quietest day of the week for restaurants. I have been back to the place a few times for drinks and snacks since my first visit when they opened a little more than two years ago but never sat down for their proper dinner menu since that time so I figured this is a good excuse to do that as part of our annual celebration.

The place was literally filled to the capacity with every single seat at the counter occupied, so while it's probably not the most ideal date night setting with other people sitting next to you shoulder to shoulder, the high chairs were comfortable and we could see all the cooking and preparation actions in the open kitchen from our counter seats. Only one tasting menu was served (which changes fortnightly), but Chef Vicky Cheng and the team adjusted to individual customer's preferences - from what we saw what others were eating everyone seemed to have something slightly different.

We began with a series of small "Snacks" bites - first the tartlet with dried salted fish, cabbage and potato and rice puree. It's said to be inspired by a 80's Cantopop love song by the legendary George Lam and served with a shot of cold-brewed jasmine tea on the side, because "even with true love there are times of slight bitterness", as explained by the wait-staff who brought the dish over. It's followed by squid-ink toast topped with picked virgin mud crab meat and Kaviari Kristal caviar, with good contrast of different flavor from the sea. Our last amuse-bouche course was the smoked quail egg, served in a nest-like container under a glass dome filled with smoke. I liked that combination of acidity (from the Chinese vinegar use as marinate) and smokey aroma (from the applewood smoke) in the perfectly-poached quail egg with the slightly runny yolk inside. 

Mixing and matching western and Asian cooking techniques and ingredients with the contemporary-style presentation has been the signature play of Chef Vicky and formed the basis of his menu served at the restaurant. Our first course was shimaji, or striped jack, with the "blob" of tartare wrapped with sashimi slices dotted with shiso and shiso flower with a lemon balm-longan syrup in semi-frozen gel consistency served in a frozen plate. The short-necked clams was a common item found in local seafood market and here it's served with Taiwanese candied tomatoes with the herb-infused creamy clam juice sauce and burrata "pearls". One off-menu course was brought to us afterwards, which is a "sushi" served in a small bowl with XO sauce, local oyster escabeche, squid and also albacore tuna from Chef Vicky's adopted hometown of Vancouver. All of them were refreshing with interesting flavor combination.

Perhaps nothing is more symbolic to the chef's unique "East meets West" style with the sea cucumber dish he created recently which I first tried a couple of months ago on another occasion. Sea cucumber and crab were typically served as delicacy in Cantonese cuisine, and here it's presented in an entirely different way while keeping the spirits of the traditional cooking. The whole Japanese sea cucumber was deep-fried and served with crispy crab mousseline underneath and the sauce made with crab bisque, chicken oil and 12-year shaoxing wine. At the bottom was some flat rice noodles to mob up the sauce, just like the Cantonese version of steamed flower crab with chicken oil and rice noodles. Work of genius really.

The menu may change regularly but there were still some staple dishes that constantly appeared, including the egg raviolo that has always been Chef Vicky's signature course, with the oozy Japanese Taiyouran egg yolk and ricotta wrapped inside the thin pasta rough and topped with a quenelle of caviar and the creamy parmesan foam. But this time chef let us finish the sauce with a few shaves of the seasonal white truffles as he walked by our seats, in addition to the usual piece of youtiao (Chinese deep-fried bread dough) with black truffles served on the side to go with the sauce. The subtle truffle aroma always worked well with eggs, I reckon.

I felt the poultry course was a little bit overcrowded with too many things going on – pigeons were done 2 ways (leg deep-fried and grilled on charcoal, breast roasted, smoked then sliced thin and served with lardo on top), chicken offals roast with liver coated with popping candy and heart basted with a sweet glaze (like charsiu), and celeriac was served in chunks and in puree with the pigeon jus and nespresso reduction. Individually each individual components tasted great and maybe they could be 2 separate courses.

The beef dish was interesting, with slices of Australian wagyu short ribs cooked sous vide served with a block of crispy winter gourd at the bottom. On top was girolles, pickled onions and Tonkin flower (a.k.a. “night-fragrant flower”), inspired by the Taiwanese beef noodles and the Cantonese winter gourd soup. I have never thought of this combination before but I really enjoyed this. I commented on Chef Vicky's Instagram post earlier about the fresh humpback grouper he got from the fish market and he's so kind to let us have a try of that as an extra course. Just a quick poach in oil on the pan and finished with a beurre blanc with chives for a straight forward presentation with great texture and flavor.

We brought our own bottle of wine - and of course, none is more appropriate for celebration than a bottle of champagne, especially one from the house of Krug. Opened to a rich fragrance with good minerality, full-bodied with toast, brioche and pear notes. Served in the specialty glass recommended by the champagne house. That’s in addition to a couple of cocktails their mixologist Antonio created to start off our dinner.

The desserts were a tad bit less elaborate but equally impressive – first the pink pomelo sorbet paired with cucumber espuma, bits of pomelo and honey comb, then the chestnut mousse with salted Hokkaido milk icecream, a round puff pastry crisp and slices of winter black truffles for the slight savory-sweet taste. We started with a few amuse-bouche bites, and we finished in a similar manner with a few sweet petit fours served in a multi-layered porcelain box with snacks in each layers. (my favorite was the mini madeleines baked fresh and still warm)

Service was great too - we were seated at the far end with a perfect view of the hot station of the kitchen, and the front and back teams worked in such harmoniously like a well-oiled machine despite streams of customers started to come in, many with special requests. Pace was a bit slow, some might say, but this is not the kind of place you want to rush through your meal (our dinner lasted almost 4 hours with over 10 courses). Our dishes were brought in promptly once they were ready with everything explained to us clearly. Chef Vicky ought to be proud of the team working in such high level. And we left with a little card with our menu printed inside that we could take home with, which was a cute touch too (plus the bon-bons served on a pot of flowers with the words "Happy Anniversary" written on the plate)

It's a day worth celebrating for us and the dinner made it extra memorable. We came on the heels of Michelin Guide's announcement for their 2018 edition and VEA retained their one-star they earned last year. From my dining experiences at this place so far, including this dinner, they are well worth the recognition and probably destined for more given time to evolve further.

Complete collection of photos can be found in my Flickr album:

When? December 4 2017
Where? VEA Restaurant & Lounge, 29 & 30/F The Wellington, 198 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Australian Wagyu Short Rib, Water Melon, Girolles, Garlic Chives
Drink? 2000 Krug Brut Champagne (ID 411050)

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