Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Old School Hangzhou

I am always on the fence about the food at Tin Heung Lau (天香樓), the old-school restaurant sitting in this quiet street in Tsimshatsui for as long as I remembered. Some friends swore by this humble-looking place serving the best Hanzhou cuisine in town, but from the couple of times that I went, it was a rather meh experience – pricey, apathetic service and quite ordinary in all aspects to be honest.

I think the disparity may be due to the fact that the restaurant tends to give preferential treatments to their regulars, often at the expense of those who aren’t. That’s not uncommon for many old restaurants that have been around since forever, but remained one of the biggest pet peeves of mine. Anyway, my visit was quite a revelation to me, as I finally caught a glimpse of the fuss others have been talking about this restaurant. Of course it helped when the one who booked the tables for us is a regular customer.

We began our meal at 7pm sharp, just as what our friend D has commanded when she sent out the message to confirm the dinner. We started with two classic cold appetizers, Kalimeris and tofu salad (馬蘭頭豆乾) and “vegetarian goose” (素鵝). Kalimeris (a.k.a. Ma Lan Tou in Cantonese) is known for its slightly bitter aftertaste (similar to rocket) and it’s done by blanching then finely-chopped along with the hard tofu, mixed with mild seasoning of salt and sesame oil. There were many variations of this tofu roll dish known as “vegetarian goose”, but here it’s in the simplest form with layers of soft tofo sheets served with a drizzle of dark vinegar. I felt right at home with these old-style dishes.

The wine-marinated pigeon (醉鴿) has great flavor from the Shaoxing wine marinate, though the meat was slightly dry, probably has to do with both the cooking time and the age of the bird used. Sauteed river shrimps with longjing tea (龍井蝦仁) was perhaps the most well-known dish in Hangzhou cuisine, and it’s perfectly cooked with the subtle tea flavor well infused into the shrimp.

The sautéed river eel (生爆鱔背) was first deep-fried than stir-fried with a mild soy gravy. The meat was plump and fat with a well-balanced taste. The smoked yellow croaker (煙煄黃魚) is one of the signature dishes here, which announced its arrival with the enticing tea smoke aroma leading the way just as the dish was brought to our table. And I love the contrast between the strong smoky flavor and the delicate, silky meat.

Then it’s a pair of deep-fried dishes – the frog legs (炸田雞腿) and tofu rolls (炸響鈴) – served hot right off the fryer. The frog leg was not as meaty as I thought despite of its size but the batter was done perfectly, and I couldn’t stop picking up the tofu rolls and dip into the sweet and sour sauce served on the side. We caught the end of the spring bamboo season but the sautéed spring bamboo (油炆春筍) was still very tasty with delicate flavor, despite a slightly bitter aftertaste. Next came the crab roe noodles (蟹粉拌麵). Again, we were not yet in the prime season for crabs (that’s around 6 months away), but the sight of loads of crab roes being carefully spooned into small bowls of noodles was still a decadent scene and it was delicious, matching well with the dark vinegar.

We finished with the duck soup slow-cooked with Jinhua ham and served with wontons and fishballs (雲吞鴨湯), plus the traditional dessert of sweet dumplings in glutinous rice wine soup (鮮果酒釀丸子). I love both for the forgotten yet familiar taste, especially the slices of ham which was one of the best I have had for a long time, still full of flavor after being slow-cooked in the soup for a long time.. Glad I had made it to this dinner, it's good to catch up with old friends and new, and now I know who I needed to go with to have the true experience at this classic culinary institution.

More photos here:

When? May 17 2017
Where? Tin Heung Lau, G/F Kiu Fung Mansion, 18C Austin Avenue, Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Smoked Yellow Croaker 煙煄黃魚

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