Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Nanhai No. 1 and Eyebar 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.

Dining on the View at iSquare
30/F, 63 Nathan Road, Kowloon
Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood (closest MTR: Tsim Sha Tsui)
PH: 852.2487.3688
Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
10% service charge


In a city of skyscrapers, where there seems to be a new one every year, there are several options when you’re looking for dinner with a view.

When I decided I wanted to splurge and have a dinner high in the sky, I made reservations at the one Michelin star Nanhai No. 1 and Eyebar, a restaurant whose name just yells hip. Named after the ship of a 15th Century Chinese explorer, Nanhai is on the 30th floor of the relatively new iSquare fashion and dining complex.

Located in the touristy Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood, iSquare takes up a whole block across the street from the historic Peninsula Hotel. After taking the elevators to the 30th floor, I entered the dimly lit and lounge-like settings of Nanhai No. 1.

With the club music getting me in the mood, I decided to try one of the restaurant’s specialty cocktail. I ordered the Grape Expectations (HK$80 or $10.25), made with gin, fresh lemon and lemongrass syrup, along with muddled green grapes and fresh basil. I took a sip and enjoyed the view for a few minutes before I started to study the extensive menu (in English and Chinese with photos).

Nanhai’s menu book emphasizes the fresh seafood catch from the South China Sea, prepared in a mix of traditional home-style Cantonese dishes to modern fusion creations.

I started my dinner with the corn and crab soup (HK$60 or $8 for an individual serving), a common Cantonese soup popular with children because of the corn. The soup seemed really thick when I stirred it with my spoon, and I worried that it was thick from cornstarch – often a sign of poorly made Chinese cuisine in the United States.

But when I ate it, it didn’t taste that bad and the thickness didn’t seem to affect the texture of the soup as I drank it. There was a strong corn flavor, but very minimal crab meat.

Next came an appetizer from the bar menu: the roasted goose. In Hong Kong, most restaurants serve goose instead of duck, so I wanted to see what the difference was between the two. I was worried it might have been too much for me to eat goose alone, but my server assured me that this was just a quarter goose (HK$98 or $12.50).

The goose looked lovely with the crispy skin on top, but not every piece of skin was crispy or crunchy. But the overall flavor and tenderness of the goose were perfectly delicious. It really tasted very similar to duck, and maybe just a bit more gamey, if anything.

Next came my main entrée and one of Nanhai’s specialty, the simmered geoduck with consommé (HK$368 or $48). It was a pricey dish, but one of the most interesting. Geoduck is the large clam-like shellfish that really looks like an elephant trunk spiraling out of a clam shell.

At Nanhai, the server brings out a generous dish of thinly sliced geoduck in its raw state for you to inspect. Then at tableside the geoduck pieces are mixed with the consommé, which then lightly cooks them.

My server was nice enough to split my geoduck into two servings so not all of the geoduck would sit in the consommé too long. So I ate two bowls of this dish with the slightly crunchy geoduck slices in a light orange-colored consommé that was bold in flavor, with the essence of the sea that strongly tasted like mussels.

There were fresh bean sprouts at the bottom of the bowl to mix in with everything, but one of the highlights were tiny crunchy yau ja gwai pieces that added a nice contrasting crunch to the entire meal. Yau ja gwai are the large airy bread sticks served locally with jook, the breakfast rice porridge. But Nanhai’s homage to the yau ja gwai was incredible because even after soaking in the consommé, it remained crunchy. It was brilliant.

Along with steam rice (note: they do charge for rice), I rounded off my meal with some vegetables. I asked my server what was fresh and she mentioned something called “yin choi,” which I’d never heard of so I decided to try it. When ordering vegetables, most restaurants will ask how you like them prepared? Stir-fried with garlic, or black beans, or in my case with some fresh mushrooms and oyster sauce.

The dish of yin choi looked incredible with the beefy shiitake mushrooms sitting on top. Again, the mushrooms looked like they were drenched in cornstarch because of the glaze, but when eating them I barely detected any heaviness from the sauce. The yin choi were a kind of thin greens that reminded me of ong choi. (Later I asked my cousin what was yin choi, and she wasn’t sure what the English name was but her husband searched the Web and thought it might be Amaranth.) Whatever it was, this large plate of vegetables (HK$140 or $18) at Nanhai was satisfying and filling.

Side note: The buzz on the Web about Nanhai was mixed with some complaining about the service, but I had an incredible server who was helpful and sweet. I don’t know if it was because I spoke to her in Cantonese, but she made me feel comfortable and guided me through creating a nice meal.

By now I was ready for dessert, and the interesting thing about dining at Chinese restaurants is sometimes they’ll provide dessert on the house. I was ready to order dessert at Nanhai, which with its formal settings and white tablecloths made me think it was very Westernized. But when I asked my server about ordering dessert, she said it was already on its way. I don’t know if it’s always complementary or if she was just being nice, but I didn’t ask.

She delivered a duo of desserts to my table. First was a traditional nut-based soup that’s served warm. Tonight’s version was made of walnut, which I’ve never had before but enjoyed. I also liked the balance of sweetness.

Along with the soup was malay gou, or Malaysian sponge cake. This was one of my favorites when eating at dim sum restaurants, and my dad would always be sure that I got the first pick when the bamboo steamer filled with the fragrant light malay gou came to our table.

Nanhai’s version is made with brown sugar, so it has a dark brown color compared to the pale yellow color I’m used to seeing in the malay gou of my childhood. But the fresh flavor and warmth from each bite just took me back to those days eating dim sum with my family. It was a perfect ending to my dinner because it was also my birthday. So without knowing it, my server made me feel like a child again.

Nanhai No. 1 has a few hits on its menu, but its everyday dishes seem to be a bit overpriced for their simplicity. Still, it’s a special room with an amazing view of Victoria Harbour. Nanhai seems to be a destination restaurant for those special occasions.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (Somewhat ordinary food with a hip vibe)

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: When making reservations, you need to specify whether you’d like a table near the window, which is what I did. But Nanhai requires that you order at least HK$500 (or $65) when taking up the prime window tables. But really, that’s not a problem when you include the drinks and any of its specialty entrees. You can’t beat the view, though, especially if you’re still dining around 8 p.m. when the city throws a laser light show every night with the city’s skyscrapers serving as a backdrop.


Nate @ House of Annie said...

That's a fantastic setting for a fantastic meal.

The yin choi looks to me like sweet potato leaves. I would have had it with garlic, but the fresh shiitake mushrooms and oyster sauce sounds delicious. I like that they gave you whole mushrooms instead of sliced.

We had a similar walnut soup dessert at Imperial Treasure Super Peking Duck in Singapore.


suenjca said...

Happy belated birthday! Glad you had an awesome dinner.

Rui said...

Happy belated birthday! As a keen follower of your blog and youtube channel, I hope to read more of your gastronomical adventures in the year ahead!

Carolyn Jung said...

What a wonderful dining experience. Dining alone can be awkward sometimes, but a great server can put you at ease just as this one did. The geoduck consomme and the steamed sponge cake look fabulous. Thanks for letting me eat vicariously through your lovely descriptions.

Carroll said...

Happy Belated Birthday, Chef Ben! I'm sort of sorry you had to eat dinner all by yourself on that special occasion, but sort of envious that you did it up right anyway. Good for you, and here's to the happy memories of your childhood :-)

Janet said...

Happy Belated Birthday. YinChoi is referred to as Chinese Spinach by food network. My mom grows it in her garden; and it's delisicious simply boiled and a little oil/oyster sauce over. The mushrooms in yours looksd so good.

I want to go to HK now.

Single Guy Ben said...

Thanks everyone for the birthday wishes! I spent the day in HK not really thinking it was my birthday, and then the cake at the end of the dinner brought it all home, but in a good way. :) And don't worry about me going out on my own, I'm used to it, I'm the Single Guy!!!

Janet, that's an interesting reference, Chinese spinach. I like that, makes some sense because have the same lightness and texture. But doesn't taste like spinach at all.

Unknown said...

Happy Belated Birthday Ben :) It sounds like you had a wonderful trip. I also found this when searching for yin choi:

Chinese spinach = hiyu = hon-toi-moi = yin choy = een choy = amaranth = hsien tsai Notes: This is similar to spinach, only it's prettier, tastier, and more nutritious. Look for it in Asian markets. Substitutes: spinach (This isn't as delicate as Chinese spinach) OR callaloo

Your birthday dinner made my mouth water and I loved the pictures you took throughout your trip ... the next best thing to being there!

agent713 said...

I'm only just getting to this post now. Happy Birthday! I love dishes that remind you of your childhood. Glad your day ended so well!