Sunday, 29 May 2016

A. Wong

Last autumn we went to a cookbook festival. Cookbook Confidential had a bunch of talks, demonstrations and panel discussions, and it was brilliant. Diana Henry and Kay Plunkett-Hogge talked about how to write a cookbook, in such an inspiring way we immediately went home and pre-ordered Kay's book Heat (which has now been released and is wonderful. Diana didn't have a new book out). And Richard Turner, Dan Doherty and Andrew Wong talked about their food heroes.

Paul fell a little bit in love with Andrew Wong. Something about the way he talked about his approach to food really captured Paul's imagination, and he's been keen to get to A. Wong ever since, but somehow dinner in Victoria has never quite been the right thing. But on Friday night we did it.
I started with a Harbin cocktail, which was a take on a margarita - absolutely divine. I ended up having two, because the bottle of Gewurztraminer Paul ordered was so nice he didn't want to share...

We couldn't be bothered with menu reading or decision making, so we ordered the ten course "Tastes of China" menu. Which was, I think, an absolutely brilliant idea.
smoked halibut
Before the ten courses began, we were served a couple of snacks. A little bite of something crisp, with smoked halibut and crunchy jellyfish, and a prawn cracker. It's the first time I've had a prawn cracker that actually tasted of prawn.
Not your average prawn cracker.
Chilli sauces
We were also given a pair of chilli sauces - one made with fermented bean curd, one made with shrimps - but the prawn crackers had so much flavour we only tasted these out of curiosity.

Then the menu proper began. The (completely charming and lovely) waiter introduced each course explaining where the original dish came from and some information about that region of China. Tastiest geography lesson ever.
Dim sum duo.
Dim sum duo
The menu began in Hong Kong, with an incredibly delicate har gau and delicious siu mai. I am not generally a fan of foams, but the light citrus foam on the har gau was a very good friend to the sweet, bouncy prawns. The siu mai was firm and very porky. Neither one bore a lot of resemblance to the dim sum we buy frozen in Asian supermarkets.

The second course was listed as 茶叶蛋 63 degree ‘tea egg’ with shredded filo and satay powder but we were told that Andrew wasn't happy with his eggs and so something else would be served. I'm always absolutely delighted to be told that - even if it is something I am looking forward to, and to be honest, this was the course I had my doubts about because of Paul's known soft egg aversion - it just shows that the chef really cares about the quality of what they are sending out.

Instead, we were served 成都豆腐花 - Chengdu street tofu, soy chilli, peanuts, preserved vegetables. 
Chengdu street tofu
The waiter told us how when he was growing up, little old ladies would travel through the streets with a yoke over their shoulders: fresh soft tofu on one side and a variety of tasty toppings on the other. This was so delicious. This was the dish that tofu naysayers should be offered to cure them of their heresy. The tofu was a light, soft curd, the preserved vegetables gave a toothsome crunch and deep savour, and the peanuts added another level of crunch, fat and flavour. I committed my first crime against table manners for the evening and drank the remaining juice from the little bowl. It was so good I almost wept. I did actually comment to the waitress who cleared our plates that I didn't see how the meal could get any better after a dish like that. It did.

Shanghai steamed dumplings, ginger infused vinegar. 
Shanghai soup dumplings

I have never had a xiao long bao like these. Never made quite as much mess with one either. The "caviar" on top was a spherification of something delicious, I think. Ginger maybe? And in picking mine up I ruptured the silky fine skin and ended up having to drink the broth off my plate. I like to think that the staff viewed it as an appreciation of their skill and not me being a complete pig.

红烧臭鳜鱼, 蝦醬什菜 
Anhui province red braised fermented fish belly with mixed vegetables and dried shrimps
Apparently the thing in Anhui province is fermenting fish for days. Which sounds a bit like Surströmming - so I wasn't at all disappointed when the waiter told us that this was an interpretation of the dish, with the fermented flavour present in the sauce, to be dabbed on the shatteringly crisp fish skin and delicate braised flesh. It was very good, but the best thing about the dish was the accompanying vegetables, cooked with dried shrimp butter. I want to eat those vegetables again and again and again.

What the dish really needed was a bit of bread so we could fare la scarpetta - the sauces were so good and it was sad seeing so much go back to the kitchen. Even a spoon would have helped.

Braised abalone, shitake mushroom, sea cucumber and abalone butter
Braised abalone
I like to think I am a pretty open-minded sort of eater, but  sea cucumber... When I was a child, we had a holiday in the Cook Islands and I am still traumatised by standing on sea cucumbers in the sea around Rarotonga. I was not a bit sure about this dish! But everything else had been so delicious, and the story of how abalone is prized in China for its resemblance to old Chinese gold coins lulled me into taking a bite. And it was very nice. I think the small brown squares were the sea cucumber, but I couldn't really tell. They certainly weren't horrifying. The slices of braised abalone and the slices of shiitake mushroom were very well matched for flavour and texture - tender with a subtle chewiness - the crisp shreds of deep fried greenery added a lovely extra dimension, and the buttery abalone juice was just wonderful. You don't tend to taste much butter in Western Chinese restaurant food, but it's a very nice addition.
Shaanxi pulled lamb ‘burger’ with Xinjiang pomegranate salad
The Muslim population of Shaanxi have contributed lamb dishes, fragrant with cumin, to the cuisine. I've tried it in a couple of different forms: as tender slices of fillet, crusted with cumin; as a murky hotpot with firey sauce and luscious chunks of meat to be sucked from the bones. 

This version - pulled lamb in a rich sauce, with lots of lovely accompaniments, to be stuffed into little buns - was the nicest take on the pulled meat trend that is swamping London restaurants, and a really enticing interpretation of the flavours.
Yunnan seared beef with mint, chilli and lemongrass served with a pulled noodle cracker and truffle
Technology came to the party for this course. Our waiter had an ipad and showed us a short clip of Andrew pulling the noodles for these crackers. Mesmerising. Mine lacked structural integrity (or Paul had a knack that I lacked) and crumbled all over the table and my face, but the flavours and the crunchy noodles topped with soft mushrooms were excellent. If the Yunnan black truffles on top were not augmented with truffle oil, they are the most intensely flavoured truffles I've ever had, I think.
The seared beef with mint, chilli and lemongrass was a tribute to Yunnan's proximity to Vietnam, and the exchange of flavours along that border. It tasted very much like a combination of Chinese and Vietnamese food, with a sweet-ish but not gloopy chilli sauce and the freshness of mint (both raw and fried to crisps) and cucumber.

四川香辣手撕茄子, 宫保雞丁
 Sichuanese aubergine with Gong Bao chicken, roasted peanuts and ‘hot pot’ essence
Gong Bao chicken
I'd lost track of the number of courses we'd had at this point, but as soon as I saw the bowl of rice I knew that this was the last of the savoury dishes. We were instructed to eat the Gong Bao chicken (and told that it was very definitely not Kung Pao or Hong Bao) first, with our fingers, and then the aubergine. Which was most certainly the right way around. The aubergine, perfectly silky and luscious, had so much of the málà numbing fire sensation that I wouldn't have been able to taste the chicken. The plain rice was very welcome as a bit of a palate cleanser before the desserts.

北京 酸奶, 菠蘿
Chilli barbequed pineapple with Beijing street yoghurt

Apparently the reputation that China has for not using dairy products isn't entirely accurate - in Beijing, yoghurt is a very popular street food. This was a very nice one. Tangy but not too sour, a little gingery syrup and a chunk of warm, sweet, spicy pineapple.

雪圓子, 荔枝, 檸檬雪酪
Poached meringue, lychee granite, mango puree and orange sorbet

The final dessert was a cheffy play on the idea that the Chinese finish a banquet with a fruit platter. An orange made from two hemispheres of poached meringue, filled with a blood orange sorbet and coated in a crisp sugar shell. A fresh, perfumed mango mousse, a crunchy lychee granita (definitely to my taste - the aroma of the lychee without the excessive sweetness or slimy eyeball resemblance) and a red envelope of sugared lotus root crisps. We were told that when lotus roots are pulled up they are very long and keep coming and coming, so they are seen as a symbol of longevity. And as oranges are seen as symbolic of wealth, it was a wish for us to be long-lived and prosperous. Which is just about the nicest thing a waiter has ever said to me.
Sugared lotus root crisps
There was one more little treat in store though. A white chocolate mah jong tile, filled with strawberry ice cream. So pretty and just the right touch to end a very memorable meal. 


Suelle said...

That sounds an amazing meal! I'd have to pass on the abalone course but everything else sounds so intriguing - a modern take on the classics.

Kavey said...

Oh I really need to go back there and do the tasting menu, great write up, ma'am!

The Cat's Mother said...

My word! What an amazing meal.
Funny thing Bill tried sea cucumber when we were in Adelaide. I left him to it.

Alicia Foodycat said...

Suelle - it was SO good.

Kavey - I want to go back for a la carte now too! And they do a duck menu, but it wasn't on when we were there.

Mother - really quite something. As I said, best since Flower Drum!

Anonymous said...

Gasp - I NEED to visit!


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