Thursday, July 10, 2014

Nostalgia is overrated - so is Tai Ping Koon

Yes, I have always been extremely biased against Tai Ping Koon, almost with a grudge (so please turn away if you happen to like the place - I am not here to start any argument with anyone) I even think it is borderline ethical that they were allowed to serve such overpriced, overrated food with such poor quality, preying on customers' desires to go down the memory lane.

But last Sunday I decided to give it one more try, wanting to judge it purely on the food and dining experience, without taking account into what they claim to be serving (classic western cuisine?) nor the scandalous price they attempt to extort from customers for the food.

We walked in to a half-empty dining room upstairs at their TST branch on the busy Granville Road during lunch hour (not that I care) and found ourselves a booth by the window. It's almost an open secret that to have a chance of better food here one needs to skip the set menu (which came with soup, main course, dessert and coffee/tea) and went for the a la carte choices, as they varied greatly in portion and quality. Okay, I got the portion bit since the set menu is cheaper, but quality? Really? I just don't get it - if they want to discourage people to order from set menu, then just don't offer that option. Why subject them to inferior food?

Anyway, we ordered a few a la carte dishes to share. The first dish to arrive was the stir-fried flat rice noodles with soy sauce and beef. You could describe the presentation of the dish as minimalist, since there's nothing other than the noodles, beef, a handful of string beans and a few thin shreds of fried eggs on top as garnishes. The noodles were fried very well without sticking together, and with good flavor from that of the sweetened dark soy sauce, but wait... where's the beef? There's hardly any other than a few pieces on the top. And I promised I am not going to mention what kind of price they are charging for this...

Corned Ox Tongue was actually the better dish we had that afternoon. Again, it's presented in the same plain, "minimalist" manner - with boiled cabbage and a thick slice of potatoes being the only garnishes we had next to the four thick slices of ox tongues. The ox tongues were poached in salt water and served without any sauce or additional seasonings - nonetheless it's surprisingly tender and tasty. Reminded me of a similar dish we had in Macau at a Portuguese Restaurant some years back. Simple as it looked, dealing with ox-tongues was a time-consuming process one ought to appreciate more so I am giving this a passing grade just for that.

Many people raved about the "Chicken Wings in Swiss Sauce" dish here, calling this their signature dish, a timeless classic yaddi yaddi yadda. Well, I like the sauce - one really couldn't go wrong with the combination of dark soy sauce with rock sugar as long as you got the portion right - which I guess they did given they have been doing this for decades - and the sauce was reduced to the right consistency, but other than that, I felt there's nothing to write home about for the dish, to be honest. I am sure the chicken wings spent a good deal of time braising in the "Swiss" sauce, but surprisingly the flavors from the sauce never went beyond the skin. The meat was tender no doubt but it's literally tasteless inside without another dip into the sauce. I figured any good old Chinese "lo sui" (滷水) marinate would have been much better than this. I wouldn't even bother to touch the garnishes of half a boiled potatoes and a single floret of broccoli, which looked like they were overcooked and under-seasoned.

I guess I was playing along the nostalgia theme by ordering a red bean ice-cream float - a classic drink in Hong Kong "Bing Saat" (冰室) in the old days (which literally mean ice room - neighborhood cafe equipped with a refrigerator and can serve ice-cold drinks) and later in cha chaan teng as a staple local afternoon tea item. And it's done the classic way - 2 parts of sweetened red beans, 1 part of evaporated milk with ice, and one "generous" scoop of "old-fashioned" vanilla ice cream. Every now and then I do miss the taste of "fake vanilla" ice cream that I grew up with (made using cheap vanilla-flavored extract as opposed to the real thing) from the good old Dairy Farm and with this I had satisfied my cravings. Without mentioning its price, this was actually excellent. Maybe next time I should just come for this and this alone - if there's a "next time".

And don't expect any service in this restaurant - despite the day we went there were actually more waiters than tables with customers, the service was scarce at best. Just an example - when my tea glass went empty at one point, I asked the waiter standing right behind me to have it refilled, but that fell into the deaf year (who knows - it might have been literally so). I then repeated myself while gestured to him by holding the empty glass high in his direction, and he literally walked right by without acknowledging. Unbelievable. We also overheard them giving a little lecture to the customers sitting right behind us, who wanted to order something rather simple that he claimed to have been eating here for years. The waiter first insisted they never did such a dish ever, and later when the customer explained in details how it was done before, he sarcastically dismissed this as something no one would order these days hence they took it off in the new menu. "Time has changed, you know, and people moved on" said the waiter, implying that his customer failed to keep up. Well, at least he didn't kick them out the restaurant like the Soup Nazi would have done - so they should be thankful, I guess?

I never had any fond nostalgic feeling over such "faux-western" (or dubbed "Soy Sauce Western") cuisine - they played a part in our history no doubt but it's not something we should be too proud of, I reckon. Nostalgia is treasurable only when there are special memories associated with it, but not everything's good for old time's sake. That's why I was quite unforgiving about the food at Tai Ping Koon - biased or not I personally just don't find it special at all.

Sorry - another time I tried, another time I was not convinced. Perhaps I have long moved on, just like what that waiter has suggested.

When? July 6 2014
Where? Tai Ping Koon, 40 Granville Road, Tsimshatsui, Kowloon

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