Friday, October 22, 2010

Yum Cha with a view

Hong Kong, arguably, has some of the best food in the world. It has, I believe, the best yum cha in the world, too, but finding the ultimate yum cha restaurant is a task harder than first thought. What I have found, though, is probably one of the better ones, with prices similar to what is being paid in Sydney (at places like Kam Fook and Marigold), but with much, much higher standards.  Not surprising, because yum cha is a popular breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch option, with at least 2 or more restaurants offering yum cha within the same shopping area--a lot of shopping centres, especially those along the MTR line, are interlinked. Competition is fierce, especially during non-peak periods (before 11am and after 2pm), and with frugal housewives and pensioners on the hunt for great deals, prices are kept low too, without too much sacrifice to quality. Come weekends, though, most families will look for quality--yum cha, in that sense, would be a family treat, and sometimes an opportunity to catch up with extended family and friends. With the economy on the rise, more and more people are now looking for higher quality, and willing to pay the premium for both food, service and ambience.

Cuisine Cuisine (國金軒), located at one of the most highly sought real estate in Hong Kong, the IFC at Central, meets this demand. With views of the Victoria Harbour, the chic interiors and smartly dressed waitstaff reflects the philosophy behind the food: traditional Cantonese food modified to suit the modern palate...and sometimes, the budget. Yum cha is no budget affair here: one of the regular dim sum offerings is abalone siu mai, where chunks of abalone is mixed in with the usual pork and shrimp filling, topped with a reconstituted, dried abalone the size of a fingernail. More regular fare is offered too, made to the same standard of excellence. 

 The seasonal menu

Once seated, tea is ordered and appetisers served. Also on the table are the chili oil and spicy soy, both house specialties. Dim sim is made to order, and a few moments is usually given before the waitstaff approaches again.

First to arrive is the steamed BBQ pork buns (叉燒包 Char siu bao). White, fluffy, and piping hot, each one is split into almost perfect halves. The buns are soft, light, and with just the right amount of chew, encasing a sweet-savoury filling of char siu that actually tastes of meat.

One of the modern reworkings of a yum cha classic is the steamed vegetarian rolls in tofu skins (蒸腐皮齋卷). Topped with a thickened shantang broth, it is light but packed with umami, the interplay of textures of the tofu skin, carrots, mushroom and shaved asparagus lettuce (萵筍) is a reflection of both skill and thought in this healthier version of the classic pan-fried vegetarian rolls that proliferate Sydney yum cha.

Mini char siu pineapple buns (迷你叉燒菠蘿包) is the fusion of the steamed BBQ bun with another Hong Kong favourite, the pineapple bun. The egg and sugar topping on the soft buns, cracked under the oven to resemble the exterior of a pineapple (hence the name) brings out not only the sweeetness of the char siu filling, but also the umami of the pork itself. It has become a favourite dim sim at yum cha, and the version at Cuisine Cuisine is one of the best in town.

Prawn dumplings (蝦餃 har gao) is a perennial favourite. Beneath the translucent skin lies a filling of fresh prawns and bamboo shoots, with the smallest amount of pork to bind it all together. The contrast of the chewy skin and the slight crunch of the filling is perfectly complemented with a small dab of the chili oil. A good prawn dumpling should have 18 pleats, the skin should not break when poked lightly with chopsticks, and offer a degree of resistance on chewing. This, I'd say, satisfies all three requirements.

Spring rolls (春捲) have been experiencing a renaissance in the dim sum world. Many newer restaurants now offer versions that are slender and long, rather than short and stumpy, with a filling of prawn paste that is, well, quite bouncy. Lightly fried, the skin is earthshatteringly crunchy and textural contrast with the prawn paste filling makes this one of the best reworkings I've tasted.

Siu mai (燒賣) is another yum cha classic. Hand minced pork and prawn is mixed in with chopped shiitake to make the filling, topped with roe before being steamed. Texturally, the filling is not as soft and dead as the ones made with machine minced meat, with small pockets of diced meat in the filling that actually lets you taste exactly what you are eating. As only the freshest meat is used, having not experienced the snap chill as Australian meat does, the pork and prawns exhibit extra umami from the freshness.

The stir-fried beef rice noodles with abalone sauce (鮑汁濕炒牛河) provides the carbs for the meal. I wouldn't say it is brilliant--the beef had too much bi-carb in the marinade (good quality beef shouldn't need any with a good chef). Nonetheless, it was still tasty, with the unconventional addition of compacted tofu skin which soaked up the abalone sauce.

Sure, similar, if not the same dishes can be found in Sydney for around the same price (25AUD per person). But the quality of food and service would be vastly different. And with the dollar nearing parity, it makes a lot of sense to save up for a trip to places like Hong Kong where the currency is pegged to the greenback, and splurge there instead.  

3101, Podium level 3,
IFC Mall, Hong Kong
Ph: +852 23933933

Bookings essential for yum cha.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Now this is crab

If you ever need proof of me being a massive procrastinator, well, here it is now. This is a long overdue post from July.

Coming from a family of rather spontaneous travellers (say, for example, our first trip ever to Kanto region of Japan was planned within 2 weeks, accommodation and flights confirmed a week before departure), we made the decision to go on a cruise about 2 days after it was suggested by a family friend. A 7 day cruise on the Diamond Princess, up the Alaskan Inner Passage from Vancouver to Anchorage. Unfortunately, I was the only one against the plan (what 20-something year old would want to be stuck on a ship for 7 days?) but given the overwhelming majority, I was overruled.

But I'm glad I went. And all because of this one dish. Or should I say, bucket.

Real Jumbo Alaskan King Crab.

After half a day on an el cheapo local tour (our pre-booked helicopter glacier excursion was cancelled due to heavy fog), we found ourselves rather cold and hungry (Alaska summer temperatures = Sydney winter climate). The Hangar on the Wharf Pub was suggested as a good local hangout for a beer and pub food, so that was where we found ourselves. Hearty food, awesome burgers, great local beers, at reasonable prices.  
Having had "crab legs" on the ship the night before, the Alaskan King crab legs on the menu at $65US for 4 legs (not including tips and taxes) seemed a bit too pricey. We were ready to grab the bill and go when we spotted another table being served the jumbo king crab legs.

The legs that were served on the ship the night before were tiny compared with the jumbo legs. That one leg had the same amount of meat I managed to scrape from my serving of about 2 dozen leg segments. The legs were so incredibly fresh, it didn't need much after being steamed.

With the legs were segments of fresh lemon, and, to our confusion, a tapas pot of melted butter. While the rest of the table went for the lemon (all being overly health conscious), I was the only one who went for the butter. Oh man, crab and butter ... it worked so well. The meat was actually quite delicate, so the acidity of the lemon juice actually was too harsh and didn't complement as well. The butter brought an extra dimension of richness and silkiness to the perfectly steamed meat, and heightened the sweetness and briny freshness of the crab even more. Mum had always said "whoever was the first to eat crab was a true food adventurer"; well, the consensus after the meal was "whoever came up with having crab with melted butter was a true food genius".

It was also the first time I had a dark beer. This is a local dark from the Alaskan Brewing Company, a rich, slightly bitter, nutty concoction that strangely had a Coke-ish aftertaste. It really cleansed the palate between each bite of crab, and brought out the nuttiness of the butter quite well.

To be honest, this was the best meal of the entire trip. Ship food was lackluster, other food on the land excursions weren't that memorable. As for the famed Alaskan salmon, it really is quite different to the salmon we get here in Australia. The King is a rich, fatty, delicately flavoured variety, and so probably better cold smoked, and the Sockeye much more robust and stronger in the salmon taste, and my preferred one for hot smoked. Unfortunately I forgot to take photos, but there really weren't any of the fresh fish at the time I visited, and not a lot of point taking photos of the pre-packed stuff.

Hopefully I'll be less of a procrastinator on my next trip, which is happening in less than 2 weeks!

The Hangar on the Wharf Pub
2 Marine Way #106
Juneau, Alaska
(907) 586 5018

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Healthy desserts?

It probably doesn't look like much, but this is one of the best winter dessert in my repertoire.

Sweet potato in brown sugar ginger tea.

Ginger, according to doctrines of Chinese medicine, warms up the body. Brown sugar helps with blood circulation, which in turn improves the flow of chi in the body. Sweet potato helps with reducing water retention in the body, and being high in fiber, helps also with digestion.

The ginger tea featured here is one I brought back from Taiwan. Sold in bags, it resembles nothing like the sugar we are familiar with in Australia. 

Sold in 5cm blocks, this is basically enough to make 2 large mugs of sweet ginger tea. The perfect balance of sugar, the spiciness of ginger, with the aroma of dried dates and longan (both improve circulation and warm the body), the perfect winter drink.

With all the rich and fatty food we tend to consume in winter, and general colder weather, this is a delicious way to restore a balance of health.

Sweet potato in brown sugar ginger tea
Serves 2-3
1 small sweet potato, cut into bite sized chunks
4 heaped tablespoons brown sugar (adjust to taste)
1 knob of old ginger, sliced thinly
3 dried red dates or 2 dried black dates
4 dried longan
1 litre water

1. Wash the sweet potato thoroughly, scrub the skin with steel wool to ensure most of the surface dirt has been removed. Cut into bite sized chunks, then place into a pot with the cold water, and set to the boil.
2. After the sweet potatoes have come to the boil, add the sugar, ginger, dates and longan, and simmer until the sweet potatoes are soft (10-20 minutes). Serve immediately.

1. Dried red dates, dried black dates, and dried longan should be available from all good Asian grocers. You should be able to find them at the Chinese or Korean ones.
2. Old ginger should be used for this recipe rather than young ginger. Look for large knobs, golden skin, with wide stripes on the skin. Adjust the amount of ginger to your preference by adding the ginger little by little, keeping in mind the more you cook the ginger, the spicier the tea will become.
3. If you can find Okinawa brown sugar (沖縄黒糖) for cooking (and not as candy), that can be used as well. Otherwise, normal brown sugar from CSR is ok.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


It's Election Day. Have you cast your vote yet?

If Crackles was a political party and running in this election, there would have been no doubt at all which party I'd vote for. (Ok, so that was lame...)

Last week, a tweet by Pat Nourse caught my eye. "Today's best reason to leave the house: crisp-skinned slow-cooked kurobuta pork belly rolls at the Crackles stand at the Rozelle markets." The tweet, apparently, has since gone viral, though the virality has nothing to do with my actually going for a roll myself. I trust Pat Nourse and his tastebuds. A man who recommends Sang Kee cannot be wrong about crisp-skinned slow-cooked kurobuta pork belly rolls.

And the fact that they were set up at my nearest polling station was an extra incentive.

So we wandered there at 9:15, hoping to be overwhelmed by the smell of roasting pork. Maybe it was the wind, maybe it was something else, but it was really hard to smell anything at that end of the market. So we wandered around looking for the polling place (turns out there was a last minute change and we had to walk 2 blocks down), cast our votes, and came back. 9:45. We were about to give up and head down a block and grab something from Zumbo, when I saw one of the boys in chef's whites pulling out a roll.

Cue yygall, rushing over with arms full of newspaper, for one pork roll.


And there was a barbecue full of that!!!

I watched in awe with saliva dripping down my shirt as the pork was cut, pulled, and de-fatted. A sprinkling of Murray River Salt (it was pink!) over the meat, then everything was piled on top of a fresh bread roll stuffed with salad. When the crackling was cut...HOMG. I swear my heart fluttered.


The bread roll was crusty and crunchy on the outside, but really soft inside. Salad was crisp with a fantastically tangy dressing. But the pork! The pork was juicy, tender, and meltingly soft. And the crackling earthshatteringly crisp and fragrant. I totally understand why Pat Nourse said it was "the best reason to leave the house". I would leave the house for that every day.

Best Election Day breakfast ever.

PS: I think we may have ran into our local Liberal candidate as we came out of the market stuffing our faces into the pork rolls. Who cares about politics when there's good food to be had?

Much thanks to Crackles for allowing the photos. And not charging for them. Hehe.

Saturdays: Rozelle Markets

Sundays: Frenchs Forest Organic Food Markets

Pork/Lamb rolls $8
Plate of pork $10
(Prices as of 21 August 2010, subject to change without notice)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Comfort Food

As a child, I hated the bland, tasteless rice gruel that Mum made whenever I was sick. Gloopy, and always too hot, the thought of having congee alone made me determined to stay away from bugs as much as possible.
There is one type of congee I will never say no to, though. Sang Kee.
As a kid growing up, it was always a treat when we went out to Sang Kee for congee. Back then there was one tiny storefront, in the back streets of Sheung Wan in Hong Kong. This place was a favourite of my father, back when he was working in the vicinity in his early career in business. I'm not sure how often he went, but considering the current owner/proprietress still remembers him, I'd say it was pretty often.
A couple of years ago, they started expanding. First they merged with another nearby shop selling beef brisket in clear soup, and became Sang Kee Congee and Beef brisket noodle experts. Business was so good that they soon took over 2 more store fronts. Then it was the opening of the Kowloon branch near Yau Ma Tei station, and then a third store at North Point. I make an effort to go to Sang Kee at least once for the congee each time I go back to HK; a trip to HK is not complete without having a taste of my favourite congee.
For such humble beginnings, though, I can say they are world renowned. Regularly featured in guidebooks to Hong Kong (very prominently in Japanese one; and I recall seeing an entry in Lonely Planet also), Pat Nourse named it as one of the must-visit eateries of Hong Kong in the Gourmet Traveller. Chua Lam (avid Iron Chef viewers may recall that he is featured occasionally as a taster on the judging panel) is a regular visitor, and often writes about it in his magazine and newspaper columns. Speak to 10 Hong Kong gourmets, at least 9 of them will recommend it as a favourite, I reckon.
While they are famous for the fish bone, pork fry and fish ball congee, I've grown up with the beef congee, partly because I lack the patience and skill in eating segments of fish with large pieces of bone attached, and only just recently acquired a taste for fish balls in general. The beef is tender, packed with umami, and the congee scaldingly hot with the subtle sweetness of the pork bone, conpoy, bean curd and gingko seed soup base used to boil the aged jasmine rice coming through. The rice is cooked until it has almost completely disintegrated, forming a thick, soupy goodness that settles any stomach, and calms the mind.

The experience is not complete without a side order of fried dough sticks (you tiu). Soak a few pieces in the congee, the gaps become filled with the hot gruel, and becomes a fantastic vehicle of experiencing the ricey goodness, especially when sprinkled with a few drops of their special soy sauce.

Having been to both the Sheung Wan and Yau Ma Tei shopfronts, I still think it is best at its original location, the hole in the wall where it all started. The atmosphere is completely different: but that may be the memories talking. Taste wise, they are all the same. The head chef spends his day travelling to the three stores, to maintain their famed quality, so there should be no difference.

Sang Kee Congee and Noodles
Ground Floor, 9 Tung Fong Street (Opposite YMCA)
Yau Ma Tei
Yau Ma Tei MTR Station D exit

Friday, July 23, 2010

Mid-morning snacks and random ramblings

When I got back to Australia last week, it was a nice surprise to find good quality fresh lotus roots available at the Asian grocer. I am a huge fan of lotus, from root, to leaf, to flower and seeds. It's one of the few plants that can be used from root to tip.

One of my favourite dishes is glutinous rice stuffed in lotus root, a Shanghai classic. It's simple enough, with only a handful of ingredients, but a great test of judgment, skill, and of patience. Before anything, the right root must be chosen. It can't be too long, or too short; there can't be splits or cracks in the body. The length of the root must be complete, with no holes at each end where the rice may fall through. The rice must first be washed carefully, drained and allowed to dry; the root cleaned and the skin scraped off carefully with a sharp knife. A small section of the top is cut off, and rice patiently filled into the holes of the root. Too much rice, the root may burst or it won't cook properly; too little, everything will collapse and spill out of the root once it is cooked and cooled The top is then reattached, fixed in place with toothpicks, and the entire thing is boiled in water for several hours, until everything is completely cooked. Once cooled to room temperature, it is sliced, and served with a sprinkling of osmanthus sugar.

The entire process takes several hours, and the end result unknown right up until serving. Needless to say, I have had my fair share of disasters with this dish, particularly as I prefer mine to be more packed with sticky rice goodness than some others, making it more prone to undercooked bits of rice still being present in an otherwise healthy and filling dish.

Despite the simplicity of the ingredients, though, I am yet to discover a place in Australia that serves it, despite the abundance of Chinese (specifically, Shanghainese) restaurants here. Served as a "cold dish" or entree at the start of a classic Shanghai banquet, it is a dish that can be found anywhere, from the most humble of homes to the classiest of restaurants in the Jiangsu area. Then again, the 8 styles of Chinese cuisine is poorly represented here, despite the abundance of restaurants...a somewhat disappointing fact despite the importance of food in Chinese culture. (The 8 styles of Chinese cooking...perhaps that calls for series of posts on each? An idea for another day.)

And yes, I went on a holiday. Expect a few posts about it in the near future.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

new beginnings

A change of name, on a whim. Actually, "just the way it is" was always a working name, until I could come up with something a bit more..."me".
Obviously the creativity department is lacking.
But I'm happy with it. At least now it's a bit more personal, recognisable, and hopefully memorable.

On my table right now is a big, warm cup of tea. At one stage, I was a big coffee drinker, when $2 cappucinos still existed and were within easy access. Now I can't have a cup of standard coffee without suffering strange effects that are not dissimilar to, say, Parkinsons. The full mental awareness but physical inability to stop limbs from shaking. And that weird, queasy feeling of heart palpitations and the sensation of near-collapse.

Naturally, tea becomes the answer.

Tea bags were never a favourite. It was always too weak, too messy (even the drawstrings), and lacked the oompf of the fragrance that should define a tea. When I moved into college, one of my first purchases was a teapot and cup set for one, an adorable bone china set. I cried when the saucer broke in the sink towards the end of my first year, consoling myself with a lovely Japanese tea tray and more bits and pieces of china on the subsequent trip to HK.

Now that exams are coming up, tea is featuring more and more prominently. It must be a loose-leaf. Preferably single origin, but I'm partial to good blends. I still remember the subtle differences between English Breakfast and Afternoon Ceylon blends from Harrods, a gift from an aunt on a trip from London. Earl Grey must be taken with lemon, never milk. The tea has since long gone, but the tins remain, and perfect for keeping the Dilmah loose leaf that come in vacuum packs.

One benefit of loose leaf tea is that the strength of each pot can be adjusted according to one's mood. An extra spoonful for strong. Half a spoon less for weak. The leaves are larger than that in tea bags, and in their unrestrained state are able to fully show off their perfume and flavour.

Perfect with a buttery shortbread cookie.

Exam season starts soon. Books are piling, and 24 hours no longer enough per day. Even the windowsill is now being used for book (and notes) storage, though I will clean up before the last minute cramming (and summarising and panicking) sets in. This window has been next to my desk for the past year and a half. Even though it faces a full west, and so gets unbelievably hot in summer, I am still grateful for a window that actually lets in light, a bit of a rarity in this college building I spend so much of my time imprisoned in.

A random time to say new beginnings, considering the end has not even come. But new beginnings is more an emotion, a feeling, a decision, rather than a mere milestone, is it not?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Adriano Zumbo 21st May, 2010

Tiramisu: hazelnut sable, flourless chocolate biscuit, mascarpone creme legere, coffee brulee, baked hazelnut creme with a shot of coffee.

I must admit, tiramisu is one of my favourite desserts of all time.
There's something irresistable about the combination of smooth mascarpone and sabayon, the soft lady fingers soaked in rich espresso and liqueur, with a liberal dusting of shaved dark chocolate.
So simple.
Tiramisu was, for 3 years, my birthday cake of choice. In fact, I refused to let my family buy a cake for that day, insisting on making my own tiramisu. It was my annual therapy. The rhythm of whisking eggs and sugar and mascarpone, the anxiety in dipping lady fingers in coffee and hoping they won't break (inevitably cringing when they do, but that's easily fixed), and slipping that little extra bit of tipple for that extra bit of flavour...then some more.
A crowd pleaser, every time. Guaranteed.
Yet, despite its simplicity, it is still butchered and slaughtered by so many. I've lost count of the times I've ordered a tiramisu and was disappointed. Some were thick, others dry. Then there are those which contained no mascarpone--only stiffly whipped cream loaded with gelatin. The final blow came when a family friend dropped off her tiramisu: a sickly yellow concoction that was overly sweet and warm. Warm!
I guess that was the main reason I bought the tiramisu from Zumbo last week, instead of the mandarin and rose (macarons and rose-flavoured food stuffs...they deserve their own stories). That last tiramisu had pushed me over the edge. I needed to be reassured that tiramisus are generally done well. And who better than Adriano Zumbo, patissier extraordinaire?
On presentation, I was not disappointed. It was an adorable thing, with the chocolate circle and disc, perfectly tempered. The baked hazelnut cream was speckled with vanilla, a tad sweet for my taste, but wonderfully nutty. The espresso shot was surprising--one to be experienced, for sure. I admit, the sable was a bit difficult, resisting attack from my fork most of the time, but it was addictive. As was the chocolate biscuit. And the mascarpone.
This has to be one of the better desserts I have tasted from Adriano Zumbo (my favourite remains the dark chocolate Sacher--wonder if it'll be available over the Queen's Birthday weekend?). Like its predecessors, it was a tad too sweet for my taste (more to do with me, love sweets, but can't have them too sweet) but the elements worked wonderfully together. So much so I'm actually looking forward to trying a few more from the current collection this time.
More overwhelmingly, I want more tiramisu now. Perhaps a trip down to Bar Italia, for the best tiramisu gelato next time I'm in town?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

MasterChef Challenges

What does a busy uni student who just got back to her dorm room after attending (and catering) for a 150 person event on a cold Wednesday night do? Turn on Masterchef, join the Masterchef chat hosted by Chocolatesuze on, and take on a challenge posed by one of the chatters.

Cook a student meal for $4 in less than 10 minutes.

(Without resorting to mee goreng.)

The result?


Just to prove it was less than $4, here's a breakdown of the costs:
1 chicken thigh, $1.80
1/2 onion, around 50c
1 egg, 50c
Water, sugar, soy sauce, 50c (max).

If anyone is as pedantic as I am, the declaration was made at 8:06pm, I was back on the chat at 8:17pm (allow me a minute to travel to and from the computer to the kitchen!).

Oyakodon (serves 1)
1 chicken thigh, cut into bite sized pieces
1/2 onion (any variety), sliced
1 egg, lightly beaten
4 tbsp hot water
1 tbsp light soy
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 cup cooked rice (white, brown or combination of both)

In the smallest frypan or saucepan you can find, place the water, sugar and soy and boil over high heat. Slice the onion, and place in the sauce. Cut the chicken thigh into bite-sized pieces, and put it in the pan. Turn over the chicken after it 3 minutes (it should have cooked on one side), and allow to cook for 3 more minutes. In the meantime, heat up the cooked rice in a bowl. Beat up the egg lightly, and drizzle over the meat and sauce. Allow to cook for 30 secs to a minute. Serve the lot over rice. Feeds one hungry (and picky) uni student.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Secrets...just the way it is.

Those little juicy bits of fact you just want to keep for yourself. Or are just too embarrassing or painful to share with others. Then there are those which seems to pass themselves off as fact and public knowledge, but no one could verify
or confirm their existence or accuracy.
Like private dining.
Sure, there are those which are pretty much open to all. Unlicenced restaurants. Paying for "friends" to cook you a meal in their "home". (I am not trying to cause offence, merely to say that friends are not really friends but acquaintencs and homes are not homes but also function, well, as something else.)

Then there are those we've heard then laughed.

Private dining, that works on much the same principles as calling on geishas in Kyoto. No fresh faces; you have to be a guest of a regular. And just
because you've been there once does not warrant you a welcome: you have make a reservation through the regular, or become a regular yourself. And even if you are a regular, you still need to book months in advance.

Then there's the food.

It's not your regular fare.

A note of warning: if you're adverse to the consumption of certain seafood products such as dried shark fin, abalone, etc, LOOK AWAY NOW.

Yes, you read right, shark fin and abalone. Dried sea cucumber and fish maw are also available. And that's only what the new regulars know about. Old regulars, well...

But, once you have been there, you will understand the obsession with shark fins and abalone. And snake, sea cucumbers, goose feet and all the "wacky" food in Cantonese banquets.

Needless to say, this private dinner was unlike any other. The food speaks for itself.

First course: Stir fried stomach with Chinese celery 唐芹炒肚尖

Only the thickest, fleshiest part of the stomach of a pig (called the "sharp" stomach) was used, each stomach has about only a square inch or two which can be used. The thickness works well in providing not only flavour, but also texture, resulting in a tender but bouncy, totally ungamey and refreshed by the crispness and fragrance of Chinese celery. Chinese celery has a more intense, concentrated flavour than normal celery, and works well in countering the wok's breath, a deep, smokey aroma that rounded off the whole dish. Even though I'm not normally a fan of offal, this was absolutely fantastic.

Course Two: Fresh local Hong Kong lobster in Salt and Pepper sauce 椒鹽本地龍蝦

I know, we rave on about how awesome Australian lobster is. And in most cases, I agree. But this totally changed my view. Hong Kong local lobster is much smaller than Aussie lobster, somewhere between a yabbie and a lobster in terms of size. The shell is removed, without cooking the lobster, and the tail meat used for stir-frying. It is not chopped into bite sized pieces--it does not need to be. This served a table of 14, with 2-3 pieces of lobster per person: that's right, this dish alone has the meat of around 30 lobsters. And the taste? The sweetest, tenderest lobster imaginable, with delicate strands of meat and absolutely no strain of bitterness at all. This is what lobster is all about.

Course Three: Shark Fin braised in Superior Broth 上湯火腿魚翅

It was thick, luxurious, full of umami awesomeness and collagen goodness. Unparalleled. Incomparable. Unforgettable.

The great thing about shark fin in a private dining context is that you get what you pay for. If they say they're giving you 1.25 kilos (dried), they're giving you 1.25 kg. Our table of 14 had 2 bowls of this decadence each.
Before you start asking why I haven't mentioned the customary red vinegar that seems to accompany all shark fin soups everywhere else, it's not there. Because properly braised shark fin needs no adornment. Apart from maybe just a couple of drops of the finest cognac you can find, to lift the fragrance to an even higher level of enjoyment. I was told that the former president of ATV HK was the one who started the practice.

Palate cleanser: Superior broth 極品上湯

After that collagen and umami packed experience, it's only understandable one would want to cleanse the palate. In this case, it is a bowl of the superior broth used to braise the shark fin. Packed with organic, free range fresh chicken, Kam Wah (or Jin Hua) Chinese ham (the best stuff, think Iberio Jamon), and a whole bunch of other secret ingredients, it is simmered for hours (if not days), and made without a grain of salt added. The result? The best damn chicken broth you have ever tasted.

Course Four: Steamed Brown Marbled Grouper 清蒸老虎斑

Unlike the generic Cantonese steamed fish you get at most Chinese restaurants, this grouper was steamed using the superior broth that was also the palate cleanser, so that the flavours of the shark fin carry through the meal. The grouper was steamed to perfection, a feat in itself and also a mark of the chef's skill, for the larger and thicker the fish, the harder it is to steam. It was moist, flakey, melt in your mouth and silky smooth. Even the skin, which I would normally discard, was absolutely delicious, the silkiest sheet of collagen goodness ever. I didn't even complain when served the fins for seconds. They were definitely the best part, with the cartilage steamed so perfectly it was melting with gelatinous collagen chopstickfuls.

Course Five: Braised Abalone and Goose feet 吉品鮑魚扣鵝掌

It was stunning. Rich, glossy brown gravy from the braising smothered the abalones (15 in total), on a bed of goose feet.

It's not clear in the photo, but each abalone was bigger than my palm. It was thick and meaty, with what the Chinese call a "sugar heart" (溏心), which is basically the equivalent in abalone terms to medium rareness in a well dry-aged good cut of steak. Pink in the centre, the aroma of the abalone in one's mouth was overpowering, but pleasantly so. Tender, yet chewy, rich but not greasy, each chew extracted more and more flavour from the bite. I didn't want to swallow it at all.
The goose feet may seem to be just a larger version of the familiar phoenix claws at yum cha, but it was definitely much more. The skin was cooked until it was gelatinous, but not melting, rough with the dimples but soft in each bite, and not a speck of fat in sight. A few strands of meat still on the bone provided a great contrast, the fibers injected with the awesome sauce, resulting in almost a tasting plate of abalone, three ways. The choi sum topped off the experience with freshness, sweet with just the right amount of bitterness to cut the richness of the dish.

Course Six: Fried Free-Range Young Chicken 炸子雞

Organic, free range chicken. Fresh, and never been in the freezer. Fried to perfection. The skin was crispy, the meat tender and moist, light on the salt after the umami packed courses that preceded it. Not an extra drop of oil was in sight. An absolute joy.

Course Seven: Fried Glutinous Rice 香炒糯米飯

This has to be one of the hardest dishes to prepare. One version, which I had on my previous visit well over ten years ago, was to start the cooking process with raw glutinous rice in the wok, adding ladleful after ladleful of stock to the rice as it was stir-fried. While this might sound like cooking risotto, it is much, much harder, as so many things can go wrong in the stir-frying process. Nine out of ten of my attempts ended in failure.
A decade (and some years) later, the fried rice is still great, but not as fantastic as before. Cooked rice is used, so that less oil is required in the cooking process, a healthier alternative. Chopped Chinese sausages, spring onion, specks of egg and prawn meat provide flavour and an interesting contrast of textures, a great source of carbs from a protein-loaded dinner.

Course Eight: Chinese lettuce in Superior broth with Chinese Ham 上湯火腿唐生菜

Chinese lettuce looks like something between a cross of cos and iceberg lettuce. It's small and long like a cos, but with the intense flavour of iceberg. Quickly cooked in boiling superior broth and topped with shaved Chinese ham. Refreshingly sweet, with just a hint of bitterness from the chlorophyll, and not too salty, it was a great finishing dish for the savoury courses.

Dessert: Red Bean Soup with Lotus seeds 蓮子紅豆沙

The Chinese for this dessert actually translate more closely as Red Bean sand: it is supposed to be a tad grainy on the palate, like a fine semolina, in a thick soup that coats the tongue. This was just that. Sweet, thick soup made from red beans that have completely disintegrated, with no bean shell at all to get stuck between teeth. The lotus seeds may seem to be whole, but one gentle push of the tongue broke it down completely, a powdery oversized pellet with a hint of bitterness that is unique and addictive. The host knew it would be so good, he had the good sense to order two pots instead of the usual one.

This was certainly not the usual Western perception of Chinese food to be just sweet and sour pork and lemon chicken. This was the real deal. A once in a lifetime experience, that could never be replicated at a Chinese restaurant for the same price, or even the same quality. Sure, my environmental concerns did come to mind when I heard about the shark fin and abalone, but considering that the owner inherited the dried goods, and has not made an order for new stock for at least five years, I would hate to see good food go to waste.

A note on the owners: this private dinner is owned and operated by a brother and sister pair, who inherited it from their father. Their grandfather was master to a famous Hong Kong chef, who has won accolades from all over the world. Their father learned his skill from the grandfather, and passed them on to his son, who is now the chef. His daughter heads the service, a most interesting person to talk to, with years of gossip and a great judge of character. She is also an avid photographer, the hobby has taken her to very interesting corners of the world. So not only the food was great, the company and service was also tops, something that simply cannot be repeated in a restaurant context.

Unforgettable, just the way it is.