Saturday, March 20, 2021

Three Hour Sharp

We made the dinner reservation at VEA as soon as the local dining restriction was lifted, but that still meant we need to wait for almost a month for the earliest possible timeslot (in early March). That showed how popular the restaurant has been despite the challenging COVID situation. 

Being able to eat out at night again gave me the optimistic feeling that things are slowly getting back to normal, and it’s good to see Chef Vicky’s team in full swing behind the open kitchen counter as we walked in and were ushered to our seats right in front of the hot station. This time we went for the Tasting Menu the team has prepared for us along with the wine pairing by their sommelier Alex. 

We began with the series of bite-sized savory snacks served on small plates and the familiar wooden tray with the music box underneath, playing off the tune of a Cantopop oldies with the words “(with you) a meal with just salted fish and bok choy can taste so good”. And on top was exactly that, a canape which changes from time to time with the same set of that two simple ingredients. This evening it was the soy sabayon with salted fish broth, bok choy puree and crispy quinoa underneath, and it was fun and delicious. I also liked the distinct aroma and flavor of the sea-snails which was marinated in Chinese herbal Wujiapi liquor (五加皮酒) and served chilled. 

Next was another cold appetizer, with halved abalone (from South Africa and still in very good size) slow poached with stock for the tender yet bouncy texture with the Hokkaido sea urchins on top of some hand-pulled egg noodles. Instead of the thick, gravy-like liver sauce that many chef loved to pair with abalones these days, chef Vicky opted for a lighter one, more like clear broth with a touch of vinaigrette but with just the same intensity of sea water and umami flavor and more harmonious with the rest of the dish. The second course was jokingly introduced to us as “steamed sashimi” with buri (wild amberjack) sashimi served with the light soy sauce more commonly used in Cantonese steamed fish) and on top, avocado puree, bits of ginger and Kristal caviar. I like how the fatty slices of fish paired with the sauce and a touch of ginger flavor. 

We went on with a few more seafood dishes. Chef Vicky’s signature Sea Cucumber course needs no introduction – the piece of Hokkaido dried sea cucumber was slow poached in Chinese supreme broth for the tender texture and flavor, then it’s stuffed with mashed kuruma ebi (tiger prawn), baked and finished with the boiling hot oil to crisp up the top along with the rich prawn head sauce served underneath. The ingredient of the filling rotates frequently for different textures and tastes, and this time it’s a bouncy one with nice, slightly sweet flavor of the local prawns coming into season this time of the year. 

The threadfin fish was another extraordinary course. This local fish species (called Ma Yau) was said to be the best one would find in local waters, especially the big one. The fillet piece came from a 9kg fish (15 catty) with a firm, flaky texture, having grilled in low heat and finished on the pan skin-side down for the crispiness on top. The condiments were inspired by the popular Sichuan-style “Hot and Sour Fish” (酸菜魚) with pickled mustard greens and brothy sauce with a touch of chilies. It really captured the essence of chef’s cooking philosophy of presenting something combining Chinese and Western cooking styles in a non-compromising yet harmonious manner. 

That same Western-Chinese theme continued with more courses coming our way. The crab and rice flour rolls was something not on our original menu but something Chef Vicky brought over for us as preview. On top was the golden crab sauce mixed with crab tomalley (reminded me of the Shanghainese Tei Huangyou, or 秃黄油) with the pan-fried rice flour rolls (cheong fun) underneath and a side of dark vinegar mixed with finely diced ginger. So it’s a whole spoonful of rich crab flavor with an accent of acidity from the vinegar.

Fish maw was another new dish on the seasonal menu, with the local delicacy of dried sturgeon swim bladder cooked in a beurre blanc sauce. The fish maw was softened and took in the buttery flavor and the sauce took in the thickened collagen texture from the fish maw as a result. In the mix were the thinly sliced Ratte potatoes (off mandolin) which was roasted and julienned black truffles mainly for the aroma but also for the crunchy texture. I like this unique combination, using ingredients that normally didn't cross each other's path. 

We were offered a choice of main courses. Given we already tried the Abalone Pithivier last time, we opted for the other one which was Averyon Lamb. The whole piece was presented to us in a casserole, nicely scored on the skin, marinated and smoked with sugar cane pulp, cumin and other spices, and it was then taken away to be carved and served. The lamb was perfectly done, with the skin slightly crisped with a hint of sweetness and herbs that reminded me of licorice and hawthorn, and the meat was just done with the tint of pinkish color. On the side was chunks of bamboo shoot, cooked in a similar manner as artichokes, with the unique refreshing taste, tender and slightly crunchy. There’s also the huge morel mushrooms stuffed with lamb sweetbread, a sweet quenelle of pumpkin puree and the rich jus reduction. The dish were reminiscent of the traditional Cantonese winter lamb casserole where the lamb belly was cooked with bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms in gravy sauce – I have a feeling that this may be where Chef Vicky drew the inspiration from originally but ended up creating something that’s unique and wonderful. After the main dish, there’s also a mini second course with the sauce made with bits of lamb belly and rice – done similar to Japanese zosui more so than an Italian risotto with more the soupy texture. 

Moving onto the sweet courses. First was something we had before – the Hokkaido milk panna cotta with Bird’s Nest and Japanese musk melon - giving us something refreshing to start. Then it’s the pear tart with Chinese almond Tarte Brisee base served with a scoop of black truffle ice cream on the side. The tart was beautifully baked but the star has to be the black truffle ice cream – we were told that 15% of black truffles by weight was grated into the custard base before it’s churned into ice cream for that intense earthy truffle flavor. That’s absolutely mind blowing and I thought the cream and the sugar and the truffles worked perfectly well. By this time we got awfully close to the government-stipulated restaurant closing time of 10pm, but that didn’t stop us from finishing the meal with the series of mignardises, including the sugar crispy with coconut ice cream, which is always my favorite. 

I love the wines being chosen to go with the dishes – for a well-curated wine menu I always look for something less predictable and they delivered just that. Always a good idea to start with a glass of Krug – subtle aroma of white flowers, some citrus, nuts and brioche on the palate in this 168th edition. The majority of the bottles were white – understandably so given the seafood-centric menu – but they came from some usual places like Provence, Hungry, with a Tokaji dry white, or China with a Chardonnay from Xinjiang Province, and even a rare Chateauneuf-du-Pape blanc that went with the fish maw course. 

For our lamb main course a pair of red were poured with two distinct characters that we could taste side by side. First was from a Burgundy made with the rarer pinot fin grapes, showing much elegance and more fruit-forward on the palate. Second was the Crozes-Hermitage from Rhone Valley, which was a more traditional pairing for lamb dishes. Deep ruby color, full-bodied, nice complexity with red fruits, sweet tobacco, black peppercorns and some tannins. At the end for the desserts it was the Sauternes, served in a fancy Zalto glass. Plenty of honeysuckle and white flower aromas, notes of marzipan and well-balanced acidity.

Three hour flew by just like that with good food, good wine and good company with the team kept us entertained with all the kitchen actions and fine service, and dinner promptly finished at 10pm sharp as per government COVID regulations. At the end of the meal, Chef Vicky dropped us a hint about his new restaurant downstairs in a totally different direction which will be opened real soon. We can't wait to try when it's unveiled. 

When? March 5 2021
Where? VEA, Level 30, 198 Wellington Street, Central
Menu Highlights? Threadfin Ma Yau, Sour Cabbage, Chili Oil
Champagne Krug Grande Cuvee Brut MV 168eme Edition
2018 Chateau Simone Blanc AOC Palette
2016 Oremus "Mandolas" Tokaji Dry
2017 Domaines Schlumberger Riesling "Saering" Alsace Grand Cru 
2017 Tiansai Skyline of Gobi Chardonnay Reserve
2018 Domaine de Cristia Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc
2018 Domaine Perror-Minot Bourgogne "La Gouzotte" Pinot Fin
2014 Paul Jaboulet Aine Domaine de Thalabert AOC Crozes-Hermitage 
2016 La Chapelle de Lafaurie-Peyraguey AOC Sauternes

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