Saturday, March 10, 2018

Celebrity Chef Dinner - Eating at Ding's Kitchen

It’s hardly a surprise that this new private kitchen called “Ding’s Kitchen” in Causeway Bay became the talk of the town lately as owner/chef Steve Lee (aka Ding Yeh 鼎爺 or Grandpa Ding) ran a hugely popular cooking show “Grandpa Kitchen” (阿爺廚房) on local TV, showcasing some impressive techniques in old-school Cantonese cuisine. The menu at his restaurant didn’t come cheap by any means, but tables were snapped up quickly since it opened late last year, with many eager customers/fans/groupies wanting to try the dishes they saw on the show and to see him cooking in person.

The other night we joined our friend C who managed to get a table at the restaurant in rather short notice (who knows how he managed such a feat) To be real honest, I didn’t come with particularly high expectation since I have heard a few mixed reviews about the place and the food, and we have not watched a single episode of Grandpa Ding’s show ourselves, but nonetheless, we were curious how this hyped-up place fare against the other high-end Cantonese restaurants in town. That plus Grandpa Ding was quite a character that we would love to meet, with a colorful career stretching over a few decades behind the silver screen as an actor and kung-fu master, an equestrian specialist and now, a celebrity chef.

The place is located in a new commercial building right at the heart of Causeway Bay. The décor was simple with a contemporary design, with a small dining area which can hold maybe 3-4 tables and then the private rooms – the set-up reminded me of Celebrity Cuisine in Central which we went a few months ago. We were seated in one of the private rooms, the one right next to the kitchen which we could have a peek of through the glass window inside the room with the "smoke screen effect" (we were told this is the most sought-after table – I can imagine why).

Menu has to be pre-arranged and based on one of the many set choices available – the dishes were said to be changing quite regularly based on seasonal ingredients, and we had one of the 10-courses menu, including the appetizer platter and dessert, plus two additional courses which made it a full dozen. To begin, four small appetizers were served in a platter – among them the drunken abalone (秘製醉鮑魚) was my favorite with the whole piece of abalone slow-cooked with infusion of the Guo Liang liquor for that rich taste with a hint of sweetness. Two different cuts of char siu (barbecued pork) were prepared in the old-fashioned way using local pork, and I prefer the thicker, belly cut for more fat and better texture. The deep-fried carp meatballs were fine, mixed with kaffir lime for the refreshing taste, coated with crispy rice and served with the fermented clam sauce. The fourth one was cold jellyfish with pickled cucumber – I wasn’t a fan of this really as it lacked flavor with just the crunchy texture to show forth.

We then moved on to a few seafood courses in a row. The spotted prawn stuffed in bamboo pith (竹笙釀花竹蝦扒鮮拆蟹肉) was my favorite of the evening, and it’s served with a light crystal gravy with picked crab meat. I loved that slightly crunchy texture of the bamboo pith with the prawn stuffed in between, along with the sauce made using superior soup, ham and goji berry with plenty of crabmeat. 

Immediately following was another crab dish, this time the classic steamed egg white with crabmeat served in the flower crab shell (蟹蓋蒸蛋白). The presentation was beautiful, as you could imagine and it tasted fine, with the silky egg white mixed with crab meat with a gentle brush of the gravy sauce on top. But I thought the egg white was slightly overcooked and I wish they took more time to remove all the non-edible innards from the shell for a cleaner taste.

The soup which arrived next was pleasant with a hearty flavor, with pork and sea conch double-boiled with Chinese herbs and longan fruit (沙參玉竹圓肉燉螺頭湯). That’s typical home-style soup in any Cantonese kitchen and it was comforting. 

Just as we finished up the soup, Chef Grandpa Ding made his appearance in the kitchen (with the window cleared up so we could see inside) and prepared our next dish which was a scrambled egg with chives, shrimps and crab (鮮蟹肉蝦仁韭菜炒滑蛋) “in front of us” (which we could see through the window from our table). Everyone was just happy to see him in person cooking for us and stopped by for a curtain call in our room delivering the dish to us so everyone could take a snap with him for the meet-and-greet moment. And as the dish itself? It’s "okay la" I would say – it’s a straight forward dish that would be really hard to wow people over, but chef did cook with a rather timid fire on the stove, leaving the eggs with a softer texture. 

After this we moved onto yet another seafood dish, this time the whole sole wrapped in lotus leaf and steamed with shiitake mushrooms, julienned pork and dried mandarin peel and pickles, the old-fashioned way (古法荷葉蒸方利). The fish came in good size which was not common to find in the fish market, and the meat has a delicate texture and I like the combination of the other ingredients. The lamb casserole (黑草羊腩煲) was a typical winter dish and unfortunately this was just average – I usually prefer this to be piping hot but it only arrived lukewarm, and the lamb was overcooked in pressure cooker leaving in with a tender, almost mushy texture (I like it a bit firm and bouncy) and overall I think there’s tad bit more sugar added to the sauce making this off-balance.

We have passed the prime season for pea shoots and this showed in our next course with the vegetables sautéed with chicken oil. (蒜蓉雞油炒豆苗) It’s okay but nothing to write home about - and again, probably a bit too generous on the sugar which should just be enough to balance the salty taste. The chicken dish (吊燒片皮雞) was an unique one, which looked like a hybrid between the crispy chicken and gold-coin chicken (both classic Cantonese dishes) with the whole chicken deep-fried with oil, then filleted and served with cucumber and chicken liver on top of a crispy toast. I actually enjoyed it, especially the perfectly crisped chicken skin. Our last savory course was millet porridge with sea cucumber (遼參小米粥). I have never tried this dish before and I thought it’s okay – a bit bland but it’s soothingly smooth, giving this a nice contrast with the whole sea cucumber which has more of a crunchy bite. After so many dishes I guess it's good to have something lighter to finish off. 

We then have two desserts – first the "birthday buns" with lotus seed paste, followed by the sweet almond soup with tofu and egg white. The buns were surprisingly good, soft and steaming hot, and the filling has a good balance of sweetness. The sweet soup was unlike the ordinary version, with a thin layer of steamed tofu custard on top with the almond soup at the bottom along with egg white in the bowl, giving this additional taste and texture.

With my lowered expectation, I think the meal actually fared better than I thought. Felt right at home with a series of well-executed classic dishes in a comfortable space. Nothing over the top but it was enjoyable. And to the million dollar question of whether the meal’s worth the fuss of month-long waiting list and the premium, let’s just say if one enjoyed Grandpa Ding’s TV show (which from I heard was actually pretty good) and would like the opportunity to check out some of the dishes showcased in the program and to see him in person, they won’t left disappointed and that to some could be a priceless experience. And we did have a good time enjoying the food and wine and the company.

When? February 24 2018
Where? Ding’s Kitchen, 21/F V-Point, 18 Tang Lung Street, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Spotted Prawn-stuffed Bamboo Pith with Picked Crabmeat (竹笙釀花竹蝦扒鮮拆蟹肉)
Champagne Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Brut NV
2006 Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pauillac AOC
2011 Chateau Lascombes, Margaux AOC

No comments :