Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Half Year Celebration

"Name one restaurant in town that you think is truly exceptional and worth a special journey" - every now and then I have such curve-ball questions being thrown my way. While I do have not one but a few in my pocket and the list does change from time to time, Chef Vicky Cheng's VEA has always been among the top that came to mind. I have never had a bad meal there and every time I was blown away by his solid execution and innovative interpretation using traditional Chinese ingredients and cooking style. 

Our last visit came a few weeks ago when I was asked that question by our friends A and W and I suggested to go eat there together as a double dinner date. The timing turned out to be perfect as we were told that Chef Vicky just rolled out the new seasonal menu so this gave us the opportunity for an early preview of something different.

The first course was described simply as "Snacks" on the menu, where in fact there were altogether 5 different mini-courses served in quick succession. The first to arrive was the salted fish and cabbage amuse-bouche, the theme Chef Vicky has been sticking with for a number of years in numerous reiterations using the same major ingredients. This time it's in the form of deep-fried sesame ball (a.k.a. Jin Dui) plus the broth made with dried vegetables. Didn't get much of the salted fish flavor in the savory-sweet pastry made with glutinous rice flour and coated with toasted sesames, but I love the intense flavor from the broth served in a small glass. The rest of the small bites were cute and delicious, especially the foie gras mousse filling inside the mini crisp cannoli rolls with pistachio and pickled apricot kernel (an old-school local snack which often came in small boxes), and the mini steamed mantou bun topped with Oscietra caviar. 

The proper dinner courses started with a series of seafood dishes. The oyster was refreshing - filled with mineral flavors and delicate texture with small Ebisu oysters mixed in soft and silky almond tofu custard (in panna cotta-like texture) and top with seasonal snap peas. Chef Vicky did an outstanding job with the Mackerel too, just slightly cooked with warm smoke and served with ribbons of daikon and celtuce plus salmon roes on top. I love that contrast in textures and flavors between the ingredients on top and bottom. On the side, a sweet coulis made with the seasonal wampee was poured in - the tangy sauce worked nicely with the smoky flavor of the fish and brought everything together. All in a stunningly beautiful presentation too. 

Sea Cucumber was next - that's Chef Vicky's signature dish and one of my favorite dishes in all of Hong Kong. He changed the dish slightly depending on the time of year and this time it's served with Alaskan King Crab mousseline underneath with the ever-rich bisque-like sauce and the spray of 20-year-old local Huadiao wine on top. The Blue Lobster dish was said to be inspired by the local dish of steamed lobster with garlic and vermicelli - here, the piece of Britanny lobster tail was gently poached and served with a thin "tartlet" made with onions, vermicelli and topped with slow-baked garlic cloves, giving this a sweet hint and a kick of spicy flavor. My only complaint would be the serving temperature being slightly off - a bit lukewarm to me - but it's still a decent dish by any means. 

It's only the first time trying Chef Vicky's Abalone Pithivier but it merely took half a bite to be blown away by it. The pie was beautifully made with the perfect pastry shell, and in the center was the braised Japanese abalone and sweetbread. Dried abalone is perhaps one of the trickiest ingredients to tackle in Cantonese cuisine even to the top masters with slow cooking required to turn it into the perfect bouncy texture with a soft center and the intense flavor from the superior braising broth infused. And this prepared by such a young chef trained in western kitchens was unbelievable. And the jus probably took as much effort to make with a nice silky texture thickened only by the fish maw that's added to the broth base along with ham and meat and more and went through nice and slow cooking. This alone was worth the trip over wherever you are. 

Our main course of the evening was the pigeon, which came after the palate cleanser of salted plum sorbet. The dish was said to be inspired by the traditional Chiuchow style sugarcane-smoked poultry dish with the piece of Racan pigeon breast seared with the skin-on, topped with crispy quinoa and finished with warm smoke of sugarcane pulp which gave the meat a faint sweet aroma from the residual cane sugar. The pigeon legs were served as a side dish, dusted with Shichimi Togarashi and Chinese Five Spices powder and presented in a mini habichi grill with smoking charcoal underneath - more for the theatrical effect but the smoky aroma did work well with the food. Finishing off as the last savory dish was the off-menu item, a small bowl of rice served with sauteed Fish Maw done Sichuan style with the sweet and spicy chilies - it's hearty with a good kick. 

Two desserts were presented in totally different styles. My favorite was the chocolate mousse infused with shiitake mushroom and lapsang souchong and yogurt ice-cream. I couldn't recall having shiitake as a dessert course but I like that exotic combination of adding a sense of earthiness and smokiness to the rich chocolate flavor. Bold move by the pastry chef but I think she pulled it off well. Concluding our meal was another series of mini-bites, this time in the form of mignardises - the nostalgic sugar crisp with coconut icecream filling was always the fun one to have, and so was the chocolate-soy sauce tartlet and mini pineapple buns with caramelized pineapples.

Went with a few glasses, some from our own bottles we brought in and some from their wine menu. Turned out the flight without any prior coordination matched with the food well. The champagne - from their long list of bubbly available by glass - aged well with good grip of acidity and a hint of mineral and some wheat on the palate. Alex their sommelier poured us a glass of chardonnay from China's Ningxia Province to go with our lighter courses. It's surprisingly well-made - full bodied and well-rounded with some ripe lemon, stone-fruits and big on minerals. Reminded me of Meursault or Napa-style chardonnay. The elegant burgundy red went well with the rich abalone pithivier and pigeon, with the red fruit served as perfect backdrop to the intense flavor of the sauces and one couldn't go wrong with a well-aged sauternes which paired nicely with the dessert of two different styles. 

It's been an eventful half year for everyone, but I thought we ended it on a high note with this fabulous meal with everything just lined up perfectly. Truly worthwhile and it's proven time and time again. 

More photos here:

When? June 26 2020
Where? VEA, Level 30, 198 Wellington Street, Central
Menu Highlights? 27-head Dried Abalone Pithivier with Sweetbread
2005 Champagne Raphael et Vincent Bereche "Cote" Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs
2017 Silver Heights Family Reserve Chardonnay, Ningxia Province, China
2005 Domaine Faiveley Gevrey Chambertin Premier Cru Clos des Issarts
1998 Chateau Guiraud Sauternes

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