Friday, December 30, 2011

1MB Travels: Hong Kong: Xi Yan (Public & Private Kitchens)

As 2011 draws to a close, and I continue to chomp my way through the amazing food in Hong Kong - I thought it time for a little "Blog Sorbet", a virtual palate cleanser if you will - before I dive into recaps of all the great eats this holiday.

This came from realizing I had dines from my trip last year I still have yet to capture - semi-consciously saving best for last, I just never got around to posting about them, and they were some of the most incredible meals (not just last year, but perhaps, ever!).

So, let's start with Xi Yan - sites of some of my favorite 'modern' Chinese meals ever both in 2010 and 2009. 2009 was before the blog, but the meal was so amazing I feel compelled to share it even now (as you will see, one of the dishes became the header for my blog!).

Xi Yan is truly one of a kind, started by Jacky Yu, a former graphic designer in advertising who decided to give up a high-paying career to pursue his passion as a chef.

His unusual background makes its presence known in several critical ways: a distinct aesthetic from decor to menus, great branding, and well 'designed' concepts for dishes along with playful, marketing savvy puns / updates of traditional dish names.
Getting his start as a cafe attached to the popular, smartly branded G.O.D. nostalgic home furnishings and gifts store, the Xi Yan concept (Chinese for 'banquet') quickly found a large and loyal audience, and expanded to several branches across Hong Kong. Also recognizing the private kitchen trend and chance to experiment with new dishes to a limited set of 'test' diners in a more intimate setting, Jacky opened a private kitchen with just 6-8 tables tucked away in an office building in Wanchai.

We managed to score reservations months ahead of a holiday vacation - we expected to be impressed, but the meal went far beyond in creativity, taste and overall experience!

The prix fixe menu:

The meal overall was amazing - to avoid a novel-length rave I will just include highlights here:

Braised Abalone in Japanese Sake and Soy Sauce - while abalone is iconic to any Chinese banquet as a luxury item (usually as a giant 'steak' in starchy broth), we'd never seen it served like this, amuse bouche sized, in a seashell topped by a stroke of fusion genius - uni (sea urchin) and ikura (salmon roe), ingredients more typical to sushi. The fusion of two historically politically opposing cultures were reinforced with the mixing of Japanese sake and Chinese soy sauce for the base. Beautiful dish - our mouths were definitely amused and pleased.

Braised Pork Belly my love of pork belly aside, this dish was the show-stopper and mind-blower of the evening and is the most creative presentation I have probably ever encountered in Chinese cuisine.

Example of Chinese
Shan Shui painting

Jacky took a classic, very rustic Chinese dish, braised pork belly with preserved vegetables, and elevated it to a work of art inspired by traditional Chinese "shan shui" (山水 mountain, water) paintings. Veggies were molded into a tall tower, then meticulously enrobed in thinly sliced pieces of lush, fatty pork belly in the shape of a mountain - then placed in a serene looking 'lake' of sauce studded with additional pieces of meat to evoke boulders in the water. Then he gave it a Chinese name that was just as beautiful - translation won't do it justice, but the general gist is "Rolling east hills above the clouds intoxicates for a thousand leagues" (the key pun being the Chinese words for 'pork belly', 柬玻which phonetically also sound like the words for East Slope/Hills). Clever and so gorgeous we could barely bring ourselves to eat it.

Crab on Savory Radish Cake - crab is typical in a Chinese banquet. Radish cake is typical in dim sum lunches. We had never seen the two together until Xi Yan - steamed crab resting on a bed of radish cake and broth. This one was milder in flavor, but beautifully refreshing in its lightness after the heavy, bold flavored pork and preserved vegetables dish. And it had another exquisite name - which translates to roughly "beautiful spring slumber" with the pun in Chinese on the 'red' of the crab's shells being part of a phrase that means 'beauty'.
Deep Fried Grouper with Fragrant Paste - steamed whole fish, head, tail and fins on, is another luxury item usually served at Chinese banquets. Frying is unusual - as well as service with anything other than light, clean soy sauce with some ginger and scallions.

Here Jacky first steams the fish, then deep fries it for a salty crunchy exterior, while the inside is so tender it could make you cry. And whole fish is usually served on its side - but here it's served 'upright', as if still alive - a little scary looking even for us who are used to seeing whole fish, so we can only imagine the reception by non-Asians. In any case, this fish was pretty damn delicious, and taken over the top with the western inspired touch of citrus coming from the original use of pomelo. It made so much sense we wondered why no one had thought to do it like this before?

As a palate cleanser, we got a Red date and Jujube Sorbet with Bird's Nest, ingredients traditionally used in hot liquid desserts, served cold in a shot glass, topped by a dehydrated slice of pineapple for bit of tartness with the sweet.

All in all, an amazing meal that inspired us with its creativity on all levels - creativity backed by taste and talent both in the kitchen and out. No wonder the private kitchen became fairly public knowledge (and objects of desire) pretty much instantly.

When I returned the following year to Hong Kong for the annual holiday trip, we went to visit their then 'new' public restaurant branch in Taikoo Shing, which has a more fast casual, less high-concept vibe and offerings but was also an incredibly delicious meal. With a group of 6 people, we got to try a ton of dishes - gotta go to sleep so I will start with the pictures here, and fill in the recap shortly!

Fried Spring Rolls with Radish and Dried Oysters

Dan Dan Mian in soup (left), no soup (right)

Grilled Thai Pork (charcoal grilled pork neck)

Deep-Fried Crispy Chicken
with Fermented Bean Curd Sauce

Seaweed and Shanghai Noodles
 in Prime Fish Soup

Custard Glutinous Dumplings with
Sweet Potato Ginger Soup

Clockwise from top left: Red Bean Tofu Pudding,
Milk/Banana Ice Cream, Banana Pudding, Glutinous Rice Pudding

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6.5 bites
Presentation - 6.5 bites
Originality - 6.5 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6.5 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100%

Coming up shortly: Review of lunch at Xi Yan Restaurant


Hong Kong

Xi Yan Private Kitchen

3rd Floor, 83 Wanchai Road., Wanchai, Hong Kong
Ph: 852-2575-6966

Xi Yan Restaurant ("East" branch)
Shop G505 & G508, Ning On Mansion, Stage V Taikoo Shing, Hong Kong

Ph: 852-2380-0919



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