Saturday, October 24, 2015

Chasing the Roast Goose

There's no food as iconic in our culture as "siu mei" (燒味), the traditional Cantonese roast, and it's one of those dishes that transcends all boundaries. From an unassuming box of char siu (barbecued pork) served with hot steamed rice and dressed with soy sauce, one could be had for as low as 20 Hong Kong dollars at a casual cha chaan teng, to the whole roast suckling pig brought in to each table with much fanfare at the most luxurious wedding banquet at a hotel ballroom, siu mei is enjoyed by locals of all generations and walks of life. And anyone new to town should be aware that raising the topic of where to find the best siu yuk (roast pork with crispy skin) among a group of Hongkongers should by all means be avoided, if you don't want to get caught in a heated discussion, as everyone here seems to have their own opinions of their favorite place.

It was in a similar context which led us to an afternoon gathering at a friend's place, trying to settle one question in our minds - where we can find the best roast goose in town. A couple weeks ago one of our friends K shared a recent article about this topic on her facebook timeline. A slew of comments followed with each throwing in their preferences and suggestions, and soon enough, another friend AL suggested that we convene a tasting on our own.

And we were dead serious to make sure the tasting was done in the most systematic manner as possible and that the contest was 100% fair and objective - it didn't help with AL is literally a judge by profession. In our so-to-speak "pre-trial review" through numerous exchanges of messages, rules and scoring system were drawn in details; logistics were discussed and sorted out; specific instructions were given as in when the geese were to be ordered and picked up in each of the "participating" restaurants, packed in identical, unmarked containers, and delivered to a "neutral" venue at equal travel distance to ensure all of them were under the same conditions. And we were to conduct our judging session by "blind tasting", no one would have any prejudiced information (like the source or price) regarding the goose they were tasting until the scores were tabulated and winner decided and revealed.

To simplify the selection process, the field of entry was largely based on those listed in the article mentioned, and I think they do represent the general opinion for the top roast goose restaurants in town. Yung Kee of course is the legendary one and probably the first to come to mind for many when it came to Roast Goose, so naturally they were in. The village of Sham Tseng (深井) on the west side of Hong Kong is well-known for its few restaurants specialized in roast goose done by traditional charcoal grilling, and among those, Yue Kee is perhaps one of the better known. The Michelin Guide threw in their take on this subject by bestowing two local roast restaurants - Yat Lok in Central and Kam's Roast Goose in Wanchai - with a star last year, so on this occasion we wanted to see them go against each other head-to-head. And to round this up, we also had Mott 32, one of the newer upscale Chinese restaurants in Central, and The China Club, a private member club not far away known, among many other things, for their barbecued dishes. That rounded up our field of six "contestants".

And on a Saturday afternoon, thirteen of us convened at our host K and AY's house in Sai Kung with six roast goose dishes - each picked up and delivered by car within an hour apart - were put on an unmarked plate referred to only by coded labels, with jus/sauces and condiments arranged in front of us. No reheating was done except for the jus which were each slightly heated up. We were each given a scoring sheet with six criteria - appearance/cut, aroma, skin, meat, jus and condiments - based on which we would evaluate each of the bird presented and determine the "winner".

Collectively we also contributed a flight of wines of various types - from vintage champagne to oloroso sherry and a few others in between - so we could judge which wine would pair best with the roast goose. Other dishes were available on the side for a few "poor souls" who don't eat goose and those who prefer some variety of food to accompany the crispy birds. 

I am not going to divulge the exact final "ranking" of our tasting - sorry if that disappointed some of you - but let me just share some of our general findings. I think most of the roast geese we had was decent and represented a respectable contest field, but only when we do a side-by-side comparison did we realize how different in style and taste (and preference) the same dish could be prepared at different places.

As much as many people discrediting the Michelin Guide for being ignorant of local dining scene and hence irrelevant, turned out the two they awarded a star with, Yat Lok and Kam's, were also our top choices, along with Yue Kee from Sham Tseng which rounded up as our Top 3 (listed not in particular order) Well I personally thought the meat of Yat Lok's goose was a bit on the salty side but I too agreed the one at Kam's was excellent - overall well above average and particularly with the best meat texture and taste. And Yat Lok's goose did taste much better when paired with some hot steamed rice - as that's what most people ordered at their restaurant perhaps it's their intention to make the goose a bit stronger in taste. 

Mott 32 was the one with split decisions among us - some disliked for the meat being too tough and skin not crispy enough, but I think they had the best condiments - a marmalade-like citrus sauce - and I also liked the firmer meat giving the piece more of a bite. Yue Kee was the one that surprises me most - before I did the tasting I thought it wouldn't come close when compared with the others, but actually turned out they weren't bad at all, and I thought they had the best skin - not the overly crispy type but one that didn't turn all sad and soggy even after a couple hours off the grill.

Wine List: 2003 Dom Perignon, Jacques Lassaigne Les Vignes de Montgueux Blanc de Blancs NV, 1992 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, 2007 Domaine Christian Clerget Morey Saint Denis, 2002 Chateau Montrose, 2005 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, 2007 San Filippo Brunello di Montalcino, Emilio Lustau East India Solera Sherry
We also tried a few different wines to see how they match with the roast goose. My favorite pairing was the champagnes with the acidity seems to cut through the goose fat well, bringing everything in good harmony. We rounded up our feast with fresh fruits and a nice passionfruit cheesecake for a satisfying afternoon. 

The tasting and party was all good fun - done in the name of truth-finding. I am sure from now on every time we have a decent roast goose, first thing in our minds would be "remember that time when we did a blind tasting of six geese?" Can't wait for our next challenge event - what dish should we do next?

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