Thursday, November 7, 2019

Off Menu at The Chairman

I don’t like pulling strings to make restaurant booking but this time I made an exception by reaching out to my friend DY for help. Some friends and we were organizing a Sunday lunch with the group at The Chairman so I wanted to see if DY could arrange for us a few off-menu or new items at his restaurant, now many considered to be serving some of the finest Cantonese dishes and most true to the traditions.

And he's kind enough to work out a special menu for us with mostly new dishes plus one signature that everyone ordered, and asked Chef Andy and his team to take care of us on that day. I think this is the first time I came here during daytime, and unsurprisingly, the place was packed with almost all tables occupied. Altogether 10 courses were served (9 in the original menu DY proposed plus one extra we ordered at the end - just because we wanted to try).

We began with a small bowl of pickled young ginger as snack/amuse-bouche. Young ginger came into season in mid/late summer and that's when people made pickles out of them using rice vinegar and sugar. It's crunchy with the perfect balance of acidity and sweetness, and not a hint of fibrous texture, and just worked extremely well with the glass of champagne that was poured as our first wine.

We then moved to a cold appetizer duo - the "lo sui" marinated baby squid and pig's head roll. The squid looked simple at first - it's rooted from Chiuchow cuisine and nowadays more commonly seen as street food item - but the marinate was exquisite with a combination of mild soy sauce and rice wine plus a hint of Sichuan peppers, and the baby squid was soft with a bite, and well infused with the marinate flavor through slow cooking then served slightly chilled. The pig's head roll is another old-school Chiuchow dish similar to the British pig's head terrine, with bits of meat and fat and cartilages from pig's head and ear braised until soft, pressed into a mold, chilled to set and then served as a thin slice. I felt one had to realize the complicated cooking process in order to properly appreciate this dish.

I like the next dish was described as "fragmented tofu" in English rather than the literal translation from Chinese as "stinky tofu". This is one food item that often drew polarized opinions even to locals, depending on how one perceived the pungent smell is, which may range from sweaty socks or rotting garbage to something like a strong blue cheese or salted fish. Essentially this is tofu that went through extra aging (hence the odor from the fermentation). It's then mashed, mixed in with bits of water chestnut and salted fish, battered and deep-fried in bite-sized pieces. They were served with sweet soybean sauce on the side as per the conventional way of eating. It's definitely not the smelliest one I have tried, and I loved the texture and the savory, briny flavor.

I specifically asked DY for the char-siu as I know they have been experimenting with their new oven for Cantonese roast in a dedicated space down the street from the restaurant. Two different cuts were served - one from the shoulder area and the other hock with the tendons attached. What's most distinguished was the lingering smoky aroma from the wood firing and the marinate made mostly from soy sauce and Cantonese rose wine, which gave the meat a slight tint of natural red when cooked. It's finished with a gentle basting of glaze which was not as sweet as the one often used elsewhere - more close to the old-school way of making char-siu. The hock and tendon was softer and fattier while the shoulder cut was meatier with balanced fat and a good burnt crust – it’s perfect that we got a little bit of both.

Next was a good example of local cooking using common local ingredients and turned into something special. Pomelo came into season in early fall and in Cantonese cuisine, its skin was often turned into a savory dish through a lengthy cooking process which involved soaking, boiling and braising in stock, turning into something soft (without being mushy) and tasty. In the version served here, the thick slice of pomelo was served with braised winter gourd and topped with “pang kei” (蟛蜞) sauce, a traditional local seasoning made with freshwater Sesarmine Crab meat and roes. Compared to the similar Shanghainese Xia Fen made using the bigger hairy crabs, Pang Kei sauce was much milder but creamier, with the recipe probably passed down through generations by villagers living in Southern coastal provinces where the crabs were in abundance near the river delta. It’s my first time trying this dish and I found it absolutely enjoyable.

Two main courses were then served. My foodie friends often said “don’t tell people you have been to The Chairman if you haven’t tried their steamed flower crab”. This time we were served a double portion of the giant flower crab with the flat rice noodles and aged Shaoxing and chicken oil sauce. Each of the crabs weighs slightly more than a catty (give or take - around 700-800g) and they were great as always. And with extra portion meant we got extra sauce that we could mob up with the rice noodles and the extra bowls of rice we ordered. The whole table went silent as we began working on the crab - just a testimony how tasty it was - and everything – including the extra bowl of sauce served on the side – were gone in no time.

Just as we thought the crab was going to be THE highlight of the afternoon, our second main course came with the whole goose was shown to us at the table then carved carefully into pieces to serve. The whole room was filled with the deep smoky aroma as the goose arrived and even more so when it’s cut up. Only the head, neck, back and thighs were brought to the table and it’s probably one of the best goose I have tasted. The skin was done paper-thin and delicately crisp with just a thin layer of fat underneath. The meat was tender and juicy, cooked perfectly well and fell out of the bones – the result of careful brining and on-point roasting on a vertical oven using camphor wood fire. There’s a hint of spices somewhere - probably a gentle rub on the skin before roasting - but was done just right not to the point of overwhelming. Apparently DY instructed the staff not to serve the breast meat to customers (“because they are too dry and rough”, we were told) – but being the disobedient bunch we did stole a few pieces from the “forbidden cut” and while I know where the comments came from, they were just fine to me. I reckon it could easily turn into a Cantonese-style cassoulet with nothing but those meat (and maybe preserved sausages and the dripping goose oil).

We continued with a few more dishes – the choi sum was simply poached in fish broth and served with fried dough (yau ja gwai) and fresh bean curd sheet, and then the steamed sticky rice with sakura-ebi and topped with picked flower crab meat (for our third dose of crabs in one menu). Chef Andy told us the rice’s been stir-fried before steaming in lotus leaf wrapping so as to achieve the right stickiness and flavor. The combination of dried shrimp and fresh crab meat provided the rich umami flavor. We then ordered a second rice dish, which was the “Triple Shrimp Fried Rice”, in which shrimp roes, shrimp paste and fresh sakura ebi were used. I like the balanced flavor with only a tad bit of shrimp paste was used to get that hint of savory umami taste. At last we finished with a dessert trio – a small cup of freshly made almond sweet soup, hawthorn berries cake and mung-bean "cookies".

Each of us contributed wines for the group so we had a good flight throughout the afternoon, starting with a mineral rich old champagne, extra dry with some pear and oxidation on the palate (“like licking on a stainless steel spoon” was my first reaction) followed by a Rhone Valley white (slightly corked so tasted flat). We went though three bottles of red – 2 from Bordeaux and one from the New World (Argentina). The 2014 Pichon-Longueville came right of age with lively black fruit characters and a hint of smoky aroma. The young Bordeaux blend from Mendoza was big as you would expect, ripe fruit forward, jammy with black cherries and some sweet tannins. Our friends D and J were kind enough to grace us with a bottle of 1995 Mouton-Rothschild – drank after about an hour or so decanting and it’s beautiful. Still full-bodied but soft, dominated by red fruit and cassis and I loved the velvety tannins – soft but encroaching and a sweet after taste. May not stand well against a big slab of steak, but for goose, it’s just the perfect match and I think the dish did justice to such a fine bottle too. Finished with a 30 year old Sauternes from one of my favorite chateau, deep golden color in the glass, fragrant like perfumes with a lot of honeysuckles and sweet orange peel on the palate. Plus the easy going Japanese whisky.

Reckon this is a well-aligned meal with everything just exceptional and everyone was happy, which is of course the most important thing. Sorry for the long post - because this remarkable meal deserves it.

More photos here:

When? October 27 2019
Where? The Chairman, 18 Kau U Fong, Central
Menu Highlights? Camphor Wood Smoked 7 Spiced Whole Goose
Domaine Vouette et Sorbee Blanc d’Argile Extra Brut (harvested 2008, disgorged Nov 2010)
2007 Domaine E.Guigal Hermitage Blanc, Rhone Valley, France
2004 Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Pauillac, France
2012 Luigi Bosca Finca Los Nobles Cabernet Bouchet, Mendoza, Argentina
1995 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac, France
1989 Chateau Suduiraut, Sauternes, France
Kirin Distillery Fuji Sanroku Tarajuku Genshu 50 Blended Whisky

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