Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Right Time

From the onset Hop Sze Restaurant in Sai Wan Ho looks just like any neighborhood eatery serving home-style Cantonese dishes, but one got the hint this one stands out in this old and worn district, either by a quick glance at their menu with a separate section filled with extravagant ingredients, or by the fine wines on display in the cabinet or brought in by their customers.

We heard good things from our foodie friends who came here regularly, so we organized a dinner gathering of our own by making a reservation a few weeks in advance - yes that's how long it takes to get a table there these days.

The restaurant could be a bit hard to spot with its small and unassuming shop-front despite located right on the main thoroughfare. The dining area was as cramped as it could possibly be - understandably they are trying to squeeze as many customers/tables in the tiny space, but it's not too uncomfortable nonetheless - at least it's not elbow-to-elbow tight. Their menu was surprisingly big for the restaurant of such size - there were simple dishes like sauteed vegetables or classics like sweet and sour pork, but there were items slightly more delicate such as steamed fish or crab casserole or abalones which required pre-ordering.

At the end we went for a mix of those and I must say all of them were more than decent. Food was served in no particular order and as soon as the dishes were ready from the kitchen. First to arrive was the soy sauce chicken, which was made ahead and served slightly warm. It was tender and juicy - slow-cooked using fresh local chicken with regular basting of dark soy sauce to get the flavor well infused. This is one dish that could rival those from just about any top Cantonese restaurants in town. The pork ribs were another dish recommended to us - done with a coating of shrimp paste batter and deep-fried with rich flavor. Served coming straight from the kitchen while it's piping hot.

We hesitated to order a second pork dish but at the end we couldn't resist asking for their signature sweet and sour pork. The highlight was definitely the pieces of pork with layers of belly fat, cut into bite size, battered and deep-fried before stir-frying with the rest of the ingredients (pineapples, onions and bell peppers) and a tangy sauce made with vinegar and ketchup. I probably still prefer the version in places like Luk Yu or Shun Tak Fraternal Association around town, but this one was solid with excellent texture.

Crab casserole was another dish we ordered ahead of time. The female mud crab came in very generous portion and the right size for the 5 of us. Early autumn is the prime season for crabs and the one we had came with plump meat with a hint of sweetness and the rich fatty roes right beneath the shell. It’s sautéed in a clay casserole and served with “Cheung Fun” rice flour rolls at the bottom, taking in all the umami flavor from the crabs. I was just as happy finishing all those “cheung fun” as picking the crab itself.

We also reached the season for Chinese dried sausages, so we finished our meal with the stir-fry sticky rice mixed with bits of sausages and shiitake mushrooms. Sticky rice, if done properly, could be a time-consuming process and required some skills on the wok to cook to the right done-ness without burning the dish – that’s why many chefs cheated by steaming the rice before-hand to ensure they were thoroughly cooked within a shorter period of time. But here it’s prepared the traditional way with the rice in perfect firm texture and every grain coated with a thin layer of oil and mixed with plenty of ingredients.

The chef took no shortcut even for simple dish like the sizzling vegetable casserole by sauteing the chunks of mustard green (gai lan) with onions, dried shrimps and a spoonful of red bean curd (nam yu) sauce instead of parboiling the vegetables first like many would do. So the vegetables came extra crunchy and flavorful. It's in small details like this showed the chef's dedication and skills.

The restaurant’s name “Hop Sze” (合時) literally means “the right time”, one virtue in achieving culinary excellence by going the right dish with the right ingredients depending on the time of the year. With just a few casual dishes we ordered this time, they showed they put words into action with outstanding seasonal dishes in a humble setting. Will definitely be back more often if not for the long waiting list.

When? October 21 2019
Where? Hop Sze Restaurant (合時小廚), 39 Shau Kei Wan Road, Sai Wan Ho, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Cantonese Stir-fried Sticky Rice with Preserved Sausages
Drink? 2018 Tasca d'Almerita Grillo di Mozia Sicilia IGT

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