Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Snake Soup at a Warm Winter Night

With temperature still hitting the high 20's during the day even as we approached late November, it certainly didn't feel like we were at the right season for the old-fashioned Cantonese snake soup, but that didn't stop our friend Growing Boy from rounding up a gang of friends for another night of snake soup dinner at our favorite private kitchen in town last week.

A number of us have come here a few times before, so we became quite familiar with the repertoire of classic Cantonese dishes prepared by the chef-in-residance Master Tak. Our host graciously took up the responsibilities to sort out the menu with the chef in advance, picking out a few dishes from that list of tried-and-true dishes.

We started out with the tradtional char-siu made with Iberico pork. I wish the pork was a bit fattier this time but I loved the smokey flavor and the slightly burnt crust. This has been one of my favorite dishes here and it still is. Next up was the Sauteed Pig Tripes with Vegetables and Bamboo Shoots. I thought the dish was a tad too sweet this time but overall it had great textures and flavors.

Snake Soup might be the primary reason we came for dinner this time but we couldn't resist an encore of the "Buddha jumps over the wall" casserole - something we have tried here for the first time a few months ago. Once again, scores of Chinese delicacies, including abalone, fish maw and sea cucumber, was combined with pork, pig tendons, ham and goose feet, which was slow simmered to become the ultimate stew in southern Chinese cuisine. I secretly hoped there's enough leftover so I could take away some for the next day, but everyone just spooned up every bit of the sauce left on our plates and inside the pot, with rice or just on its own.

Of all the excellent dishes I have tried here, none is more special than the snake soup, which arrived after we finished with the buddha casserole. Those who have tried the soup here swore by this being the top in town, something I can attest. The soup base, made with snake bones, chicken and ham, was rich but refreshing with a hint of dried mandarin peel, and the other ingredients, snake and chicken meats, bamboo shoots, wood-ear mushrooms and so on were cut super-thin and slow simmered in the soup. It's such a time-consuming process that many chefs just don't bother to do anymore, but all those skills and efforts did give the soup a balanced flavor and almost a smooth texture. The trio of herbal condiments - chrysanthemum petals, Chinese cilantros and fine chiffonade of kaffir lime leaves - all gave the soup a good aroma when added on top to balance the earthy snake taste, along with the fried dough, which was added for a crunchy texture. 

The rest of the dinner was just as amazing. It's hard to find a sole of such size - over 1kg - at the local market, let alone a wild-caught one, and this one was steamed to perfection as usual. I wouldn't have expected less from Chef Tak and he delivered. I found the crispy chicken a bit dry last time but the salt-baked bird this time was spot-on, with plenty of offal on the plate for us to fight over. 

The pea shoot sauteed with chicken oil was fine and came in substantial portion, though we suspect pea shoot was still not in its prime season yet and still has a slight, almost unnoticeable bitter after-taste on the stems. Damn you warm weather. I have seen a better fried sticky rice by Chef Tak before - this one was not dry enough I reckon - but this still handily beat any other one in town. Those were just the only minor flaws all evening if I need to be super picky. And we finished our meal with a hearty dessert soup of longan and lotus seeds, and cakes hauled back from Kyoto by our friend, the famous social media personality I Luv Lubutin.

Somehow we went light on the wines and consumed only half a bottle each person on average. The surprisingly sweet riesling auslese paired with the rich buddha casserole was an interesting one, and the dry daiginjo nihonshu from Fukushima served cold was just perfect for many of the savory dishes and also the snake soup.

Overall this was a satisfying meal. A bit of a splurge yes, but for the quality of cooking and ingredients, I think it's well worth it. Now I am hoping for a repeat when it gets colder - there's nothing I want more to warm me up than a bowl of perfectly cooked snake soup in the coldest winter days.

More photos on my Flickr album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/albums/72157660865572179

When? November 23 2015
Menu Highlights? Traditional Tai-shi Five-snake Soup (太史五蛇羹)
2004 Champagne Delamotte Blanc de Blancs
2008 Champagne Roses de Jeanne Cote de Bechalin
2006 Selbach-Oster Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Auslese
Kaeikura Daiginjo, Suehiro Sake Brewery, Fukushima Prefecture (嘉永藏大吟釀 - 福島県 末廣酒造)
1990 Maison Camille Giroud Pommard Premier Cru Clos les Epeneaux

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