Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Tai Hang's Second Coming

Compared to Sai Ying Pun or Kennedy Town on the west side, the once trendy neighborhood of Tai Hang has been relatively quiet lately. But that was about to change for a second coming of sorts, with a few new buildings near completion and along with that, new restaurants and bars openings bringing the limelight back to this cozy area with a fine mix of old and new businesses.

We were in one of those new restaurants called Second Draft last week, a gastropub project by two bright, locally-brewed culinary minds: May from Little Bao and James from The Ale Project, both on separate missions but a common goal to bring a creative spin to the local flavors, and both hugely successful in their own rights and fields. That gave this new place instant credibility already and something I was eagerly looking forward to trying.

Second Draft took up the space on the ground floor of a trendy condo building at a corner facing the main street. I loved the decor of the place, with the feel of a traditional British neighborhood pub with a long bar on one side offering numerous beers on tap (probably one of the widest selections in town) while retaining the nostalgic vibe of a good old Hong Kong-style cha chaan teng with the color scheme resembling the now-demolished Star Ferry Pier completed with the unmistakable stencil painted signs on the wall.

We didn't wait for everyone to arrive before we started ordering. The Tai Hang Fries was the first to arrive, with a small bowl of shoestring fries mixed with pickled takana mustard, cumin "dust" and dried chillis, served with an aioli dipping sauce. A bit on the salty side but works just well with the pint of beer. We soon found ourselves wanting a second bowl.

Mapo Burrata was another creative east-meets-west dish, replacing the soft and silky tofu with the creamy burrata for this Sichuan classics for this cold appetizer with pork ragu in spicy mapo sauce, along with a side of baby spinach salad. The Hong Kong French Toast drew inspiration from the local Cha Chaan Teng staple of "French Toast", using the same thick slices of white bread, deep-fried after dipping in an egg wash, drizzled in the golden syrup from the familiar bottle, but replacing the slab of cold butter with one made with foie gras. It was devilishly sumptuous.

May was around when we were there and she dropped by to give us a run-down of the menu. We ended up sticking with most of her recommendations. The Fried Chicken was essentially the glorified version of McNuggets, with boneless pieces from the regional bred "Three Yellow Chicken", deep-fried with well-seasoned batter and served with a sweet and mildly punchy Foo Yu (fermented tofu) Roasted Garlic Dip.

I could definitely see traces of Pasta Carbonara and the Shanghainese Sai Pang Xie (賽螃蟹) in the dish of Flower Crab Pasta, with picked crab meat served with egg yolks and the sweet dark vinegar mixed inside the thick and round Shanghainese rice noodles. It was one of the lightest dishes we ordered but I quite liked this combination (but I would definitely prefer a bit more crab meat or even scrambled egg white to stay true to the original Shanghai version)

The buffalo wontons is an interesting attempt integrating a classic pub food flavor (buffalo wings) with another traditional Sichuanese dish Hong Yao Chao Sao (紅油抄手 wontons in red chili oil). I thought the spicy and thick buffalo sauce probably worked even better with a deep-fried wontons (or even a pan-fried one, sticking with the tradition of pot-sticker dumplings) but this version was delicious too.

Most of the dishes in the menu were served in tapas portion, more suited as pub snacks than for full, proper meals, except the two at the bottom of the menu called Chinella (as in Chinese Paella) which was said to serve 4-6 persons. Rice was prepared Shanghainese style with cabbage mixed in and cooked in a wide, shallow cast iron pan (similar to the traditional paella dish) then combined with either slow-cooked lamb shoulder or pork leg and mixed in with plenty of gravy sauce. The portion can easily feed 8 persons. I love the subtle malty, beer flavor infused into the pork leg but I thought some basting with the rich gravy sauce onto the skin probably would have helped to enhance the flavor further. And the portion of the well-charred crispy rice was just right mixing with the rest.

They finally received their liquor license a week ago, so we were able to sample a vast selection of craft beers, many served on tap in their optimal serving temperatures. Most of the selection came from the local Young Master Ale microbrewery but there were also other choices, from both local breweries or elsewhere. I began with a glass of "Summer of 1842" with a pleasant floral nose and smooth, hoppy flavor, followed by a super-light "Momo Wit", the seasonal brew from Young Master Ale. I prefer the first but both were just fine.

No desserts were available on the menu at the time of our visit, and I hope that situation will change in the near future. (A special edition of dessert "bao" similar to what's offered at Little Bao would have been perfect) And this time, we just made a short walk over to our favorite dessert spot a couple blocks away to fix our cravings for sweets.

When? August 3 2015
Where? Second Draft, G/F Little Tai Hang, 98 Tung Lo Wan Road, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Pork Leg Chinella

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