Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Hidden Treasure in Foshan

We came all the way from Hong Kong to the town of Foshan just southwest of Guangzhou for the sole purpose of checking out “102 House”, the speakeasy restaurant by the passionate restauranteur-chef team of Jimmy Yao and Jing-ye Xu, which has been getting quite some raves from a few foodies in the know.

The place was a bit hard to find – turned out it took us two taxi rides, and a few online maps to hunt down the exact location – but we arrived just about on time, to meet up with our friend J, who has already spent the last few days following them around to eat and shop for ingredients as part of covering a story about the restaurant and chef. The décor of the two-storey stone house, set right next to a small fishing pond, was tastefully done. The entrance led to a courtyard and further back is a tea room decorated with wooden furniture and porcelain figurines made from the kilns in Shiwan, a famous ceramics town once upon a time not far away from Foshan. On the other side of the courtyard was the kitchen with the window overlooking the fishing pond right outside – I haven’t seen a Chinese kitchen with a better view than that. The kitchen itself looks a bit compact but neat and well-equipped – with only a small kitchen team and dishes based on the freshest ingredient, the size seems more than adequate to cope.

Being here early meant we could spend some time chatting with Jimmy and Chef Xu before we started eating, over some nice oolong tea served in their fine tea-ware collection. Just by hearing them share the story of how this restaurant began and their philosophy of preserving traditional Cantonese cuisine and strive to transform and improve over time already worth our journey.

As sun began to set, we moved upstairs into the dining area and Chef Xu began preparation for us and for other dinner guests who arrived at the separate private room. The restaurant worked purely by pre-booking and only a handful of tables were served each night. According to Chef Xu and Jimmy, that’s the only way to keep the consistent and high quality of service and execution by keeping this in small scale. The menu was based in traditional “banquet-style” Cantonese cuisine with specific serving order and rules that passed on through generations on presentation, choice of ingredients, cooking methods etc, almost similar to how Japanese Kaiseki meal was organized. Chef Xu was particularly interested in the culinary history so many of the dishes were based on the heirloom recipes with slight modifications.

Over the course of the evening, we had 12 courses, each done with such finesse that made this one of the most memorable meals this year to date. There’s little doubt the presentation and taste were top notch, but that’s only half the story. The rest was in the details, which Chef Xu passionately shared with us story of each of the dishes as they were presented. He insisted on using the freshest ingredient based on seasons, which meant the menu was constantly changing, sometimes as often as every week with minor adjustments, depending on what’s available in the farm, from the sea or in the market which he visits daily as part of the meal preparation.

We began our meal with a couple of cold appetizers, served in an antique tired porcelain box which resembles the Japanese Jubako. On top was the poached shrimp wrapped in cucumber ribbon with a light vinegar dressing, and at the bottom, slices of crispy smoked duck. That’s followed by a warm starter course, this time, a “sandwich” of pigeon breast, shiitake mushrooms and candied ham gently steamed in a small bamboo basket with lotus leaf underneath. The complexity in tastes and textures were subtle, but the tender poultry meat with the earthy, almost meaty mushrooms, the slight savory-sweet kick from ham and the clean aroma from the lotus leaf in the background worked together beautifully within the few bites.

The sweet tone continued with the next course of lychee stuffed with pork and shrimp mousse. It’s not a particularly complex dish per se, at least not in Cantonese cuisine standard, but again, the beauty was in the details, with the right balance of meat and shrimp filling provided the perfect texture and a touch of umami flavor, then it’s paired with fresh and super-sweet lychees, a local fruit which just came into season as we approached the hot and humid summer in the region. Chef Xu pan-fried the lychees briefly to give a them a slightly crispy, charred bottom, like a gyoza, for an extra dimension of caramelized flavor.

The presentation of the soup course seems naturally casual but it was stunning – a piece of round lotus leaf was lined on a porcelain bowl with wide rim, and in it was the traditional winter melon clear soup with pork, shiitake, picked crabs, lily bulb and bits of Tonkin flower (“night-fragrant flower” as it’s known locally) I swear you won’t find a more aesthetic version of this dish from any Michelin-starred Kaiseki restaurant in the world and to me this soup captured the essence of summer flavor in Cantonese cuisine with the combination of refreshing taste and aroma like a gentle breeze.

We then moved towards a few dishes with more substantial portion, but along the same theme of subtle flavor to highlight the seasonality of ingredients with no details overlooked. The sautéed river shrimps reminded me somewhat of a similar dish well-known in Hangzhou cuisine, but this one was mixed with crushed walnuts and Tonkin flowers for a touch of crunchiness and rich toasty taste.

Just by the appearance of the steamed chicken I knew is bursting with flavor with that enticing golden-color skin and the soft meat underneath, and it was. “Plain Chicken” (the literally meaning of the dish name of 白斬雞) usually came with some sauces served on the side, but accordingly to Chef Xu, for this chicken there’s hardly any extra seasoning needed. He went on and told us the chicken came from a nearby farm set against a sunflower garden and the chickens were fed with sunflower seeds to give that nice skin color and the intense meat flavor. And it’s not the fatty type laden with oil underneath the skin, with just a thin layer adding to the tenderness and taste, paired well with the smooth marrow in between the soft bones. That was due to the fact that the chicken was kept slightly longer than usual to keep its fat ratio under control before being butchered. The dish is memorable and having ingredients like this handy in the proximity of the area certainly made life in the kitchen much easier.

Sweet and sour pork was said to be the signature dish of the restaurant and one available all year long with variations season by season. In early summer Chef Xu chose strawberries as accompaniment and now, it became chunks of locally-grown pineapples. But the most amazing part was the pork itself. While most other restaurants chose the leaner shoulder part for this legendary dish, Chef Xu stayed to the tradition and used the fattiest bit (the part with “90% fat, 10% meat” according to him, similar to one used to make cracklings). It was cut into cube-sized pieces and then slow-poached to remove the oily taste, put on a thin coat of batter and sautéed with pineapples and bell peppers, and finished with the traditional gravy sauce with rice vinegar. The pork was soft like marshmallow but at the same time crunchy with some textures in it. And the sweet pineapples provided the perfect balance to the acidity from the sauce and the contrast in textures. It’s a pity that no one does sweet and sour pork like this anymore, as pork cracklings (豬油渣) is now considered by many as inferior and unhealthy.

And in between the courses, a small dish of summer bamboo shoots and Shanghainese cabbage was served, gently sautéed and finished with a crystal gravy made by a ham broth reduction. That worked well as a palate cleanser of sorts, with the clean, unblemished taste of the delicate chunks of bamboo shoots and a hint of sweetness from within. After the sweet and sour pork, we moved into the second soup course, this time, a double-boiled consommé-style soup with dried scallops, lotus seeds, bamboo shoots, winter melon and frog leg. The taste was much more mellow than other double-boiled soup I had before, but the tastes of various ingredients came through, including the subtle umami flavor from the frog leg, put in to the soup at the last minute to preserve its delicate texture. Chef Xu went on to explain he put the ingredients in separately and cooked in different length of time so each were cooked just right with the perfect texture and taste. That’s the details in execution that’s hard to find elsewhere in the assembly-line-like setting in most commercial kitchens.

Our last "main course" was the steamed honeycomb grouper 金錢斑, wild-caught at the estuary in brackish waters of the river delta region. It’s not particularly big – around half a catty or 300g – which means the meat was usually soft and delicate. It's the type quite commonly found in the region but has excellent flavor. To finish, chef put on a gently splash of superior broth and garnished with julienned dried tangerine zest, shiitake mushrooms and cilantro. Quite a different taste than the conventional one using soy sauce.

To wrap up, we were served a bowl of rice vermicelli in soup with vermicelli deep-fried than soaked in a soup made with dried flounder 大地魚 (deep-fried and ground to powder) and served with mushrooms and roasted duck, and then it’s our dessert of “almond tofu” in a glass bowl. It’s the traditional version made with grounded almond thickened with arrowroot (more commonly used in Japanese cuisine nowadays, known as Kuzu) and served in a mild syrup infused with tea. We all thought this slightly chilled dessert with subtle flavor was just ideal in summer heat like this evening we were in.

We were served a few bottles of sake to go with our dishes – smart choices as I thought the mellow flavor of Japanese sake paired perfectly fine with Cantonese dishes. All bottles came from a brewery in Osaka Prefecture, starting with an unpasteurized junmai ginjo nama genshu with rich palate and high acidity (resembling an aged sake) then moving towards a few different glasses of Junmai Daiginjo served slightly chilled, with more aroma, lighter body and cleaner taste. And at the end of our meal, we were poured a cup of the Yunnan purple tea brewed using unfermented pu'er leaves for the milder, comforting taste.

We had our expectation high given the distance we need to travel for the meal and praises we heard from those who have tried Chef Xu's dishes, but as we looked back it’s well worth the effort. People have been talking about "Eating Local" but observing also the seasonality of various ingredients available with dishes to match required a whole new level of knowledge, closer to what the true concept of "Terroir" was about, and I salute Chef Xu and the 102 House team’s efforts in thriving to reach and to educate all of us to appreciate more of that. Thanks J for letting us tag along for a marvelous dinner and a great learning experience.

When? May 21 2018
Where? 102 House, 1-1 Shi Ken Huang He Fang, Nanhai District, Foshan, Guangdong, China
壹零貳小館 中國廣東省佛山市南海區桂城石啃黃河坊一巷1號
Menu Highlights? Sweet and Sour Pork
(All by Daimon Shuzo, Osaka Prefecture) 
55 Junmai Ginjo
45 Junmai Daiginjo
35 Junmai Daiginjo
55 純米吟醸, 45 純米大吟醸, 35 純米大吟醸 - 大阪府 大門酒造

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