Saturday, March 19, 2016

Char Siu and Whisky Challenge

The stage was set at our friend’s house for another weekend afternoon of eating and drinking – with 10 plates filled with Char Siu, or Cantonese barbecue pork, at one table, and 10 different bottles of whisky at another. A few months ago we tried to settle the long-standing question of where to find the best Cantonese roast goose in town by running our own blind tasting session, and this is the sequel as we tried to do the same for char siu, another local favorite.

Ten different char siu from all over Hong Kong - arriving at our tasting venue at around the same time
We made the selection partly based on "extensive" due-diligence research and words of mouth. Char siu is a common roast dish in Hong Kong so we wanted to be able to sample a fair selection from different places - from the popular chained cha-chaan-tengs to the most high-end restaurants and hotels. We largely divided the field into two categories - the specialist siu-mei (Cantonese roast) stalls and the hotel/restaurants and we didn't include any of the places we tried for roast goose the last time.

Char Siu from Joy Hing in Wanchai - to me they are always on the leaner side but has good "crunchy" texture and a firm crust outside. 
For specialist siu-mei stalls, we picked a few places from all over Hong Kong. Many of my foodie friends has said that Sun Kwai Heung (新桂香), hidden in Chaiwan at the eastern tip of Hong Kong Island, serves the best char siu in town, and Joy Hing (再興) in Wanchai is one of my go-to barbecue stall and mentioned in The Michelin Guide, so both were in. On the Kowloon side, we have Wing Hap Lung (永合隆), a popular shop in Mongkok famous for their roast pork and one of the few remaining shops in Hong Kong using a charcoal grill. We even have one up north from the New Territories, the original Yat Lok in the old town of Tai Po (大埔一樂) and the sister restaurant of the Michelin-starred branch in Central. To round up the entry field, we picked one up from Tai Hing (太興燒味), one of the bigger cha-chaan-teng chains specialized in Cantonese roast for a mainstream representation.

West Villa's "Big Brother" Char Siu
On the other hand, we ordered a few from hotels and restaurants which named Char Siu as one of their signature dishes. First came to my mind were West Villa (西苑) and Fu Sing (富聲), the pair of old-school Cantonese restaurants we frequented with a few branches in town famous for dimsums and roast. Likewise for Tsui Hang Village (翠亨村) which roast their own meat on premise in each of their restaurants so they all came out warm and fresh. We also had Ming Court (明閣) at The Cordis in Mongkok, which many considered as one of the top hotel Chinese restaurants in town with 2 Michelin stars to show forth.

Char Siu from Tsui Hang Village (Central) - I love the tasty fatty meat and the honey glaze! 
I think some of you have raised your eyebrows when I told you the last entry was from The Canton Room at Gloucester Luk Kwok Hotel (六國酒店粵軒). Most either haven't even heard of the hotel, or those who has been around long enough to see the better times of the hotel in the 70s and early 80s probably thought its heyday has long passed. Well the reason why it’s included was a few weeks ago I saw the news about the owner of the hotel spent 3 years to perfect the bowl of "Rice with Char Siu and Fried Egg" (dubbed 黯然銷魂飯, or the rice to die for, in one of the local comedy movies released a few years ago) so I was curious how their char siu would fare as a result given the owner's dedication.

We tried to judge each of the dishes based on tangible criteria such as appearance, aroma, texture and flavors, but at the end, it all came down to overall impression each of us had on the individual pieces. We also had steamed rice and veggies on the side to balance our protein-rich meal. With every restaurant use a slightly different set of ingredients, cut of the meat, and methods, there's no surprise that the presentations vary greatly.

Char Siu from Sun Kwai Heung - the People's Choice
The outcome was rather interesting as we compiled the score. The first three were almost too close to call, with Sun Kwai Heung, Ming Court and West Villa sharing the honor evenly. It’s interesting that when our friend picked up the Char Siu at Sun Kwai Heung in the morning, she casually asked them to pick out the best piece for us for our little contest, and the owner just said they would definitely win no matter how. Sounded a bit cocky but turned out he was spot-on – it’s the most popular based on total consumption and half of our group actually named Sun Kwai Heung as their top choice. To me, they had great appearance and good texture with the right balance of fat, just that the strong soy sauce flavor (I suspect it was Maggi seasoning) and a bit of tough tendon tipped them off my top vote (I picked them as third)

Char Siu from Ming Court - a close runner-up
The Ming Court one was excellent – appearance was great with color resembling a slightly charred Japanese grill eel. It has the best cut (taking up the lower loin piece) and was the most tender – something I realized immediately when I cut it from the whole piece without much effort required – with good crust and good flavor using maltose as the final glaze. I personally rated this as my second best. West Villa was the one with the most interesting sauce like a syrupy base. The meat has excellent taste, and my only complaint was the crust not charred enough.

The Canton Room at Gloucester Luk Kwok Hotel - the Honorable Mention
Slightly behind the top three was our surprise entry of Gloucester Luk Kwok, which was my personal favorite. The crust was amazing with good charred "corner". There's good amount of fat mixed in the meat, and the overall flavor was well-balanced with a hint of smokiness. I felt they have the best balance of the taste of a classic char siu, and the tender texture more common in the new style cooking.

Char Siu from Tai Hing - Definitely not the best we have tried that day
On the other side of the scoring table saw Yat Lok in Tai Po and Tai Hing nailed at the bottom. The Yat Lok one has a soft and mushy texture and lack flavor, and the Tai Hing one has the poorest appearance of all with a dull color resembling Chiuchow-style marinated goose, the meat was too lean, got almost no burnt corner and again, lack any flavor from both the meat and the marinate. With the Central branch of Yat Lok winning our Roast Goose contest the last time, we were somewhat surprised and disappointed at its poor showing this time around. While the rest didn’t particularly stand out in this ultra-competitive field, I thought they were all very decent - that showed how high the general standard is out there. Among those I personally thought the one from Joy Hing and Tsui Hang Village were those leaving a good impression in their respective category.

Also worth noting was the large discrepancy in price each place charged for their char siu - as you would expect, the cheapest ones came from the street-side barbecue stalls, which went from around HK$13-16 per 100g (Joy Hing, Wing Hap Lung and Tai Hing) to $92 charged by Ming Court (based on their dine-in menu). Others fell somewhere in between, with most at around $40-50. Just another thing to think about in terms of value for money.

In addition to the tasting of food, we decided to check out some whisky on the side at the same time, assembling an interesting flight from all over the world to pair with the meat. Of course we had a few Scotch from different regions and in different styles, but we also had a few others from Japan, Ireland, Taiwan, United States and even India. And we have a surprise winner too: the Amrut Fusion Single Malt from the India was by consensus our favorite of the afternoon, while my personal favorites were the Nikka Taketsuru 21-year-old Pure Malt from Japan and the 18-year-old Glenlivet. In particular, the hint of sweetness from the Glenlivet seems to work extremely well with the barbecued meat.

Of course, one shouldn't treat this result too seriously. To start, we weren't able to try every single restaurants and stalls to determine the best. I could think of at least half a dozen other places which would be worthy of consideration that we missed out. For example, my friend Bernice called Island Tang her favorite when she gave her take on the Best Char Siu in Hong Kong in a recent article published on SCMP. We didn't include it because of logistics constraint (they opened kinda late) Nonetheless it was a good exercise to check out how same dish made from different places compared to one another at a side-by-side blind tasting and to know your own preference.

After the hard work of tasting and determining the winner, we finished our meal with the whole leg of Iberico ham and some of our favorite cheeses. We all had a good time with some interesting conversations going on while enjoying the food and drink, and in our mind, we are already thinking what to do next for our challenge event.

Our "nominees" for the Best Char Siu:
(Specialty Roast Stalls)
1. Yat Lok (Tai Po) - G/F, Block A, Po Wah Building, 5 Tai Ming Lane,, Tai Po
2. Joy Hing (Wanchai) - G/F, 265-267 Hennessy Road, Wanchai
3. Sun Kwai Heung (Chaiwan) - G/F, 345 Chai Wan Road, Chai Wan
4. Wing Hap Lung (Mongkok) - 392 Portland Street, Mongkok
5. Tai Hing (multiple locations - ours was from Central) - Shop A, Man On Commercial Building, 12-13 Jubilee Street, Central
1. Tsui Hang Village (multiple locations - ours was from Central) - 2/F, New World Tower, 16-18 Queen's Road Central, Central
2. The Canton Room at Gloucester Luk Kwok (Wanchai) - 1/F, Luk Kwok Hotel, 72 Gloucester Road, Wanchai
3. Ming Court at The Cordis (Mongkok) - 6/F, Cordis, Hong Kong at Langham Place, 555 Shanghai Street, Mongkok
4. West Villa (multiple locations - ours was from Sheung Wan) - G/F, 16-20 Bonham Strand, Sheung Wan
5. Fu Sing (multiple locations - ours was from Sheung Wan) - 1/F, Grand Millennium Plaza, 181 Queen's Road Central, Sheung Wan

Glenfiddich Solera Reserve Pure Single Malt Aged 15 Years
Nikka Taketsuru 21 Years Old Pure Malt
Amrut Fusion Indian Single Malt Whisky
Tullamore D.E.W. Irish Whiskey
Johnnie Walker Gold Label The Centenary Blend 18 Years
Jack Daniels Single Barrel Select Bourbon
Macallan Fine Oak 12 Years Old Single Malt
The Glenlivet Aged 18 Years Single Malt
Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique Cask Strength Single Malt
Glenfarclas 17 Years Single Malt
Champagne Vilmart et Cie Grande Reserve NV

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