Monday, April 11, 2011

The Chairman in Hong Kong

This is part of a series of reports on my recent gastronomical vacation in Hong Kong. Return every Monday and Tuesday to see some of the things I ate at this major Asian city on the other side of the Pacific.

Subtle Elegance in Cantonese Cuisine
G/F, No. 18 Kau U Fong (at Aberdeen Street), Hong Kong
Central/Noho District (closest MTR: Sheung Wan)
PH: 852.2555.2202
Open Monday to Sunday, noon to 3 p.m. and 6 to 11 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
10% service charge


Often when looking for refined food in a luxurious setting in this city, most people make a beeline to the many international hotels. But with the notorious rent, it’s no wonder that many restaurants find themselves in little alleys or tucked away in neighborhoods on the edge.

The Chairman is one of those restaurants. While hunting this place down for a quiet lunch, I followed the winding streets in the heart of the city, through side streets with open market stalls and alleys selling an assortment of tourist goods to find the tiny street called Kau U Fong (it helped spotting a tiny sign off the main road of Aberdeen).

The Chairman (aka Dai Pan in Cantonese) is one of about four restaurants across the street from a government health building. But the Chairman is definitely the most expensive, catering to the executive business crowd. Opened in late 2009, the Chairman is part of a new wave of modern Chinese cuisine emphasizing local, sustainable ingredients.

On its website, the owners note that they source only the highest-quality ingredients, from the soy sauce to the free-range poultry from a local farm in the New Territories.

For lunch, the Chairman offers an executive three-course lunch for HK$148 (about $20) or four courses for HK$168 (about $23). From a limited one-page menu, my friendly server highlighted some of the restaurant’s specialty dishes.

When reading up on the Chairman, I had read that it made a specialty dish out of pomelo skin, which is a common citrus fruit in Asia similar to a large grapefruit. Since I’d never heard of this dish, I knew I wanted to order it, which is among the entrees on the Chairman’s menu.

But I thought it wouldn’t be enough to order just pomelo skins for lunch, so I wanted to order another dish. But my server thought it would be too much. So he offered to ask the chef if I could just get a half order of the pomelo skin, leaving me room for another entrée.

Side note: The service was extremely attentive and formal, matching the white tablecloths and black ties of the waiters. But despite the formality, everyone was friendly and approachable, and my server was especially helpful.

My first course was the pan-fried minced pork cake with salted fish. This is actually a common comfort dish eaten by a lot of kids, and my mom would make a big plate of this for us growing up. The Chairman puts a sophisticated twist to these local favorites, serving up the pork patties like little crab cakes plated simply and served with an aromatic balsamic vinegar.

While the pork cake had a nice crispy edge to it, I did feel the flavor was subtle when I was expecting to be hit with the pungent flavors of salted fish.

Next came the pomelo skin, which is known as “yau pei.” The pomelo peels are braised for hours to soften them and then served with toasted shrimp roe. (At other restaurants around town, you have to pre-order this dish because it takes so long to braise the skins.)

Served up in a cast-iron casserole dish, the pomelo skins gave off the distinctive aroma of the shrimp roe when the server removed the cover. The actual peels were almost spongy in texture, but soft to cut through, reminding me of a really well-cooked squash or winter melon. Pomelos can sometimes be a tart fruit, like grapefruit, but the braised peels had a light flavor and the tart flavor came almost near the end, again with just a subtle touch.

Under the pomelo skins were goose feet, which were thrown in with the peels during the braising period to add more flavor. I’m not sure if it added much flavor, and since I don’t usually eat goose feet (or even chicken feet), I barely touched these.

For my second entrée, I went with a recommendation of my server who suggested the braised layer beancurd with Morel and Chinese mushrooms. The layered beancurd under the pile of mushrooms was an intensely flavored tofu, but because it was layered, it was like eating a pile of yuba, the rare tofu skins skimmed from the freshly made tofu.

The Morels and other mushrooms were tasty and filling, but the overall flavor of the dish again was quite subtle, with nothing really tugging at my palate. Everything was very refined and clean.

Lunch is served with either a side of steamed rice or plain jook, the Chinese porridge often eaten for breakfast but served plainly and slightly watered down during lunch or dinner in lieu of rice, which some local HKs are realizing may be too much on their diet.

The third course of the set lunch menu could have been a soup (Chinese people love drinking soup to start their meals) or dessert. Because it was a warm day, I went for dessert and didn’t go with the traditional Chinese dessert of sweetened soup and instead just went with ice cream.

My server delivered to the table two scoops of ice cream. One had a beautiful pink color with bits of deep pink color, and my waiter told me to eat that first because it had pickled ginger – an intense flavor that he thought would awaken my palate before trying the next scoop. The pink color comes from the Wolfberry, aka goji berry. I’d never had this fruit, and it was quite lovely but not overly sweet. The bits of ginger (I am a fan of ginger) was a nice surprise here and there.

The second scoop was lemon custard, which is another popular local flavor and I wish more people would make this flavor in the United States because I love it. Not too sweet but creamy like custard, it’s distinctly Hong Kong in my memories.

Overall, all the dishes were nicely executed and the environment is an elegant space to relax and be pampered. But don’t come here expecting bold flavors. The Chairman is more about sublime modern cooking, which again is a nice escape from the cacophony of the city outside.

Single guy rating: 3.75 stars (sophisticated simplicity)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Diner notes: The Chairman, like other premium restaurants in the city, provides two chopsticks at the table setting. One black and one white. Because most Chinese people go out eating with groups of friends or family members, one pair of chopsticks is to use to grab food from the center of the table during a family-style setting while the other is to use to eat. What color to use for what doesn’t matter, but the differing color is supposed to help you remember which pair of chopsticks is for reaching and which goes in your mouth.


Nate @ House of Annie said...

Wow, braised pomelo skins, paired with shrimp roe! That is certainly an interesting dish. You certainly made it sound alluring.

As for the minced pork with salted fish, I'd want mine to be more salty too. Interesting that they served it with balsamic vinegar. Was it a good pairing?

Thanks for taking us along.

foodhoe said...

An interesting sounding meal, nice that the service let you split up your first course to try more dishes. Was the menu in english? The lemon custard ice cream sounds delicious.

Single Guy Ben said...

Nate, the balsamic vinegar was actually really nice. It smelled great, really balanced, and actually paired nicely with the pork cakes because it helped to cut into the richness.

Foodhoe, the menu does have English subtitles! :)

Carolyn Jung said...

The braised pomelo skins are so interesting. What a great way to use something that would normally just get discarded. But what's this? You're not a chicken feet-eater? You're missing the best part! ;)

James said...

This travel series has been really fun to read! Braised pomelo skin is something I never would have imagined.

Foodnut said...

We dined at this restaurant for dinner a couple weeks ago and found your description spot on.

Outstanding Dishes we found included the Steamed Fresh Flowery Crab with Aged ShaoXing Wine, Fragrant Chicken Oil & Flat Rice Noodles (Market Price HK$530) and The Chairman’s Soy Sauce Chicken (HK$148).

Unfortunately they did not have the signature dish Crispy Small Yellow Croaker that day.