Friday, April 28, 2017

Newest on the Block

We kicked off the Easter long weekend with a visit to a new restaurant in Soho. We loved both the previous restaurants by Chef May Chow (of Little Bao and Second Draft), so we expected great things from Happy Paradise, her newest project not far away from the ever-popular Little Bao, one that shot her into fame with contemporary, playful twist to the traditional Chinese cooking.

Well, call me old school, but it did take some acquired taste to adapt to, let alone appreciate, that funky neon lighting of Happy Paradise, up on the second floor round the corner at the junction of Staunton and Elgin Streets. The interior reminds me more of a diner with retro-looking tables and chairs, and the bar in the center. Or like a Austin Powers movie set (yeah, baby). With the no-reservation policy, we were a bit worried about not able to get a table for dinner before the long weekend, but turned out since we arrived early, the place was relatively quiet and we were seated straight away once the whole party (of three of us) arrived.

I was secretly hoping the food and drinks would be somewhat more acceptable to me than the lighting, and thank God they did. We started off at the bar with a couple of drinks from their menu, all based on classic cocktails with a twist using local ingredients as much as they could, with exotic stuff like burnt kumquat, snake wine, or even soy sauce being used in some of their drinks. The food menu followed a similar trait, leaned more in traditional Chinese cooking, but in a modern presentation, with sections of appetizers, main courses and side vegetables available on a la carte basis.

Among all the dishes we had the braised pomelo skin must be the most "interesting" one. Based on the traditional version of braising then served with gravy and topped with dried shrimp roes, here the pomelo skin was covered with black sesame foam. Beyond its look (that combined with the funky lighting didn’t look all that pleasing, to be honest), it’s actually quite tasty. Use of black sesame in a savory dish was not common but I thought they pulled this off well, adding to the richness of the dish, with the pomelo skin cooked to the perfect texture – just soft enough but not too soft that it became mushy.

The scallop "cheung fun" was one May sent us as comp after spotting us at the bar after we walked in. I don't even think it's on the menu quite yet. The scallop was cooked sous-vide than cut into thin slices and rolled up like the traditional Cantonese "cheung fun" (rice roll), and served with red hot chili oil, similar to the one we had with Shanghainese steamed wontons. I was surprised how soft the scallops were and they did taste like cheung fun somewhat.

Both the poultry dishes were recommended to us by the waiter and both were brilliant. The pigeon was cooked sous-vide then roasted and smoked with tea. The meat was cooked medium rare with a good bite and the skin was crisp and tasty with a soy sauce basting, plus the tea smoking added another dimension of flavor too. The slow-cooked chicken with glutinous rice wine was the new interpretation of the Hakka dish of "Chicken Wine" (雞酒), with the whole local chicken seasoned with glutinous rice wine and slow-cooked, then served with puffed rice. The meat was tender with the fragrance sauce well-infused with the traditional Chinese wines (glutinous rice wine and Shaoxing wine). That’s our favorite dish of the evening for sure.

The Char Siu rice was the one with split opinions at our table. To start, that must have been the most expensive char siu rice we have ordered – almost 3 times more than what a typical local chachaanteng would charge. But in their defense, it’s probably one of the fancier versions, with the char siu made with lean pork cooked sous vide with marinate, served with scrambled egg white and rice mixed with egg yolks. On the side were two types of condiments, the pork lard and the sweet soy sauce from Kowloon Soy Company. I personally thought that was okay, but I was told I was being too generous with my opinion.

We were a bit disappointed that no dessert was available in the menu – at least not just yet, as May told us. Guess we just had to wait to see what they could come up with since I think it’s their intention to move away with the icecream bao that everyone ordered at THE other restaurant. To me overall I personally still preferred Second Draft more, both for their food and their drinks and the combination of both, but I could imagine Happy Paradise would be a hmm... happy place to hang out every once a while, especially if you don't mind the neon glare.

When? April 13 2017
Where? Happy Paradise, 52–56 Staunton Street, SoHo, Central.
Menu Highlights? Slow-cooked Chicken, Glutinous Rice Wine, Shaoxing, Chrysanthemum

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