Friday, November 4, 2016

The Exquisite Tasting Court

Everyone was a bit concerned with the amount of dishes we were having after seeing the long menu for our dinner at Tasting Court, a private kitchen located in the quiet residential neighborhood of Happy Valley. But we went ahead as originally planned after our foodie friend C and J sorted out the menu and rounded up 12 of us altogether to share the table, for a total of 15 courses.

The place may be a bit awkward to reach, but the venue seems to be fitting for a restaurant operating like a private kitchen, with only a handful of tables in a cozy setting on one level and the kitchen located downstairs. On the night of our visit, we shared the floor with two other smaller group of customers.

We began with a couple deep-fried dishes. The deep-fried shreds of enoki mushrooms were fluffy and worked well as an addictive snack to munch on with our champagne, and the prawn cake with fatty pork was outstanding with delicate flavor and not greasy at all - reminding me of the traditional deep-fried "fan gwo" dumpling in Cantonese dimsum. The deep-fried crab claw was another traditional Cantonese dish, but it’s served with balsamic vinegar instead, bringing in a hint of sweetness.

The charsiu dish was unlike the version we were familiar with - instead of using marinated tofu, rose rice wine and sweet glaze, it's prepared with fermented soybeans using an old recipe, and roasted in the same way, giving the meat a darker color, richer taste and the same tender texture as I would have expected, given Iberico pork shoulder was used. The dish was served with thin slices of pickled daikon, plated as a flower on the side.

The large bowl of soup was presented at our table, then the staff took away and portioned the soup into individual small bowls with the rest of the ingredients served as a separate course. It's double-boiled with chicken stuffed with pigeon and quail eggs, and with scores of Chinese herbs and Shaoxing wine. The alcohol taste of the wine has long evaporated after the slow cooking process leaving the soup with a mellow flavor along with the unmistakable taste of the traditional dried herbs. The chicken and pigeon was carefully carved at the table - the meat was mild and tender and those quail eggs were tasty and fragrant.

The flower crabs were the most mind-blowing dish of the evening. It came with very decent size – all three of them – and steamed with chicken oil then served with a bouillabaisse-like sauce with Shaoxing wine. The meat was juicy and sweet but the sauce was even better, taking in much of the umami flavor from the meat and the shells with a splash of the delicious wine. Our chef friend D was known for his bouillabaisse dish at his former restaurant, but we were joking that the crab dish we had at Tasting Court would definitely give him a run for his money. We mopped up every bit of the sauce with bowls of rice (like a risotto) and egg noodles.

The slow-braised meatballs were listed as its old name of "kui hua zhan rou" (葵花斬肉) instead of the more common name of "shi zi tou” (獅子頭), or Lion's Head and served in individual portion instead. An adoption of the signature dish in Huiyang Cuisine, a balanced portion of fat and lean minced pork was mixed and formed into a small meat ball then slow-braised in a clear chicken consommé for an extended period of time. It was then served with some Shanghainese cabbage in a deep dish. It has a light and delicate texture, and full of flavors from the meat itself and the braising liquid.

Two additional poultry dishes were served side by side – the salt-baked chicken was wrapped in a meringue-salt “dome” to cook, trapping all the meat jus in, and served with minced ginger and green onion sauce; and the baby pigeon was roasted and smoked with osmanthus and longjing tea. I thought the chicken was a bit over-seasoned (the sauce was excellent though) but the pigeon was spot-on with a delicate tea fragrance coming out of the steamer basket and the meat succulent, tender and juicy. That’s my second favorite dish, after the crab, and I also loved the medium-diced pickled young ginger served on the side to balance the deep smoky flavor from the pigeon.

The short ribs casserole was probably my least favorite dish of the evening - the thick slices of boneless beef short ribs were super-tender but I thought they didn’t have enough flavor to show forth, even after a sprinkle of sea salt on top. The stir-fried jelly noodles is an old-school Cantonese home-style dish with simple set of ingredients yet requires good skills to cook well. Here, picked crab meat was added and the egg was fried fluffy and soft like a pillow like what it should be, and the bean sprouts provided the crunchy texture to the dish.

The tiger prawns was another interesting dish, with the giant prawns baked with shells on with salivating Szechuan peppercorns giving them a bit of kick, and everyone was impressed by the dish of braised black mushrooms and broccoli, with each mushroom as big as palm and well infused with rich flavors after braised with duck jus. At the end of our long dinner (lasting over 3 hours) we finished almost everything with ease and everyone was happy with the quality of ingredients used and excellent cooking, especially those hard-to-find classic dishes that no one knows or care to make these days.

The dessert of jujube-coconut pudding cut in diamond shape arrived steamy hot with good fruity flavor without overloaded with sugar, and the warm 25-year-old Shaoxing wine with red date served in an espresso cup was soothing with the right sweetness to conclude such an exquisite meal at this exceptional private kitchen.

More photos in my Flickr page:

When? November 1 2016
Where? Tasting Court Chinese Cuisine, Mezzanine Floor, Bonny View House, 63-65 Wong Nai Chung Road, Happy Valley, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Steamed Flower Crab with aged Shaoxing Wine
2006 Champagne Agrapart Mineral Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs
2008 DuMol "Chloe" Russian River Valley Chardonnay
2006 Albino Rocca Barbaresco Vigneto Brich Ronchi
2005 Long Shadows "Feather" Cabernet Sauvignon
2000 Barnett Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
1970 Domain Dujac Marc de Bourgogne

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