Chinese food. Of all the foods of the world I’ve tasted, I have to admit that Chinese was the one I’ve enjoyed least. I ate plenty of it growing up… but what we shovel onto plates at 5$ buffets in Abilene, TX is worlds away from anything authentic and should hardly be counted. In my limited exposures to it I’ve always found it overly heavy, too fried, or involving unappetizing ingredients (sort of like the American food of Asia ).
I don’t want to overly sell my experience at The Chairman in Hong Kong. I’ve read many a review calling some slightly innovative dish a revelation and thought somehow they’d cheapened the word. A foam on a plate of food is hardly revelatory But my meal at The Chairman challenged not only what I thought of specific, classic Chinese (Cantonese) dishes, but also how I viewed Chinese food as a whole.
I’d never heard of The Chairman prior to my last visit to Hong Kong. I wouldn’t have heard of it if not for a fortuitous seating arrangement at the Miele Guide Gala launch party in Macau. We had taken our seats earlier than everyone else and found plenty of time to talk with those seated with us at the table. A duo from Tokyo, two from D’Sens in Bangkok and two from The Chairman. The conversations went immediately to food with everyone asking us our opinions on Singapore cuisine. I was honest, telling of how though I enjoyed Chili Crab… I found the sauce too thick and masking the tender meat of the crab. Our new friend agreed and began to unfold a description of a beautifully simple crab dish that was a specialty at her Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong. I casually said I hadn’t made plans yet for lunch tomorrow and she wrote her personal number on a business card and told me to call her… she’d ensure I had a seat.
It was only later that evening that I googled the restaurant and discovered the usual three month waiting list to get a table.
I arrived at the restaurant and found it simple and clean. White walls, white tables, and none of the garish decorations commonly associated with Chinese cuisine. We sat and were promptly greeted by our servers. Tea and towels were immediately at the table, and we were talked through the house specialties. We’d come for crab, but they were so passionate about other classic Cantonese dishes and everything sounded so good. Except two items on the menu I was planning to give a pass to… the century egg and pigeon. Squab I’m OK with, Chinese-style pigeon has just never done it for me. I was gracious and decided if it’s a signature I might as well give it a polite bite and tuck it into my napkin when no one was looking.
First out was the century egg. For those who don’t know, this is the infamous egg commonly believed to have been buried for a hundred years in horse urine. This was due to the ammonia aroma usually found in the egg. There’s no urine involved today, rather an alkaline agent that changes the composition of the egg. The egg is simply more or less pickled. I think of it as ancient Chinese Molecular Gastronomy. This egg was lovely. The accompanying pickled ginger was good enough to eat by the plateful. I’m not kidding you. It was one of the freshest, cleanest tastes I’ve ever had in my mouth. One of the owners explained that it was harvested during a small window of 2 precious weeks locally in the summer and then using only the most slim part of the ginger, the fingers, it is pickled in house. The ferry back from Macau had been choppy, leaving my stomach a bit queasy. The ginger settled me down and got me ready for the feast coming our way.
Next out were Deep-fried Taro Cake with Smoked Duck & Water Chestnut. They were lighter and more delicate than the name would suggest with a delicate creamy filling.
Then came another challenging little dish: Crispy Small Yellow Croaker served with Balsamic Dressing. Not challenging in taste in any way. I didn’t grow up eating a lot of fish and still have slight mental hangups when it comes to eating whole fish with bones, heads, eyes and all. This one was beautiful, light and the balsamic dressing lifted flavors I didn’t expect to find in such a tiny fish. Because the fish is marinated at length, the bones soften and the fish can be eaten whole. .
Now was time for my old nemesis. The Chinese pigeon. I’ve shot many a Thai-Chinese wedding and this is always on the menu. I’d quietly think to myself, OK this is a traditional dish from back in the day when they had to eat anything they could find, but now they can have chicken or quail so why do they keep eating “flying rat”. These pigeons were far removed from the statue shitters found in your favorite city. These were young, under 20 days old. The skin was crispy and the flesh was moist due to a delicate tea smoked preparation. It made a believer out of me.
Now it was finally time for the crab. I worried about room at this point. It was only noon after all and I hadn’t planned for a multi-course lunch having just had a four-course feast and more than a couple post-Gala beers. But one look at the crab somehow made my stomach find ample space.
They do crab differently here. The crab itself is a special local crab called the flowery crab and only a small amount are caught everyday in Hong Kong. Further there is no heavy masking sauces. The crab is cooked simply in a bath of Aged ShaoXing Wine & Fragrant Chicken Oil. The sauce gives a slight lift to the dish. You can still taste of bit of fresh ocean in the tender flesh. At this point the table had devolved into a caveman like frenzy. No conversation, just snaps of shell, sucking and slurping of meat and an occasional (though hidden) lick of the fingers.
The crab is served with accompanying broad, flat noodles used to mop up the remaining sauce. Mmmmmm. I don’t care how much food you’ve had previously. You will put all this down. Just seeing it sitting there still waiting will have you reaching continuously for another spoonful… just one more you say, till the plate is empty.
We rounded out the meals with a seasonal veg, some spare ribs, and a dessert. They were all lovely. I was exhausted, but each one carried me a little bit further than I thought I could go.
Our new friend from the Gala had arranged for another owner, Danny Yip, to speak with us during the meal. He made it out between courses to discuss a bit about the restaurant and guide us through the meal. He was a gracious host and very informative. I don’t normally associate Chinese food with local, fresh produce, but he told us that this is actually the hallmark of Cantonese’s cuisine arising from the history of being close to abundant vegetation and fresh seafood. So the cuisine developed with a lighter touch to showcase the freshness and natural flavor of the ingredients… not mask the low quality like what you’d find up north with their super sweet sauces. Everyone at The Chairman was committed to this idea of excellence in ingredients. They charter a private boat to line fish for their seafood. They revisit the menu seasonally to take advantage of what’s best. You’d think it was some snooty San Francisco restaurant with the way they talked about food… but amazingly it wasn’t some fusion abomination… it was packed with locals.
I adjusted my belt a notch, paid and walked slightly dizzy into the street. The meal might not have had the showy flourishes of a Robuchon meal, but easily trumps any other Hong Kong dinging experience I’ve had, Chinese dining… and probably ranks among the top-5 just all around best meals I’ve ever had. Just the kinds of meals that leave you happy, satisfied, and opening your eyes to new foods and ingredients you previously wouldn’t consider.
I look forward to returning. I can still taste the pickled ginger, smokey pigeon flesh, and that fresh, seawater crab. I wish them much success, but I also kind of hope it stays bellow the radar, before the critical haters roll in wanting to have their unique voice and tear it down. There’s something special going on with the food here and I just hope I can always get a seat
?????18???18, Kau U Fong, Central