Monday, May 02, 2011

Tbls Kitchen Studio 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.

A Private Dinner with Monthly Surprises
7/F, 31 Hollywood Road, Hong Kong
Central/Soho area
PH: 852.2544.3433
Dinner from 7 p.m. Monday to Saturday
Reservations recommended, prix fixe menu

First of two parts

Nestled among the antique stores and just a few steps from the popular Mid-Level Escalators in Hong Kong’s touristy Central district is a non-descript building with a 70s-look of jade and gold paint. You might think it’s just a residential building, and it might be, but on the seventh floor is the kitchen studio for Chef Que Vinh Dang.

Chef Dang, born in Vietnam but raised in the boroughs of New York, has created his culinary playground in his private kitchen-like restaurant called Tbls (the shorthand for tablespoon). Opened in January 2010, Tbls showcases Dang’s love for comfort food but with a refined and creative touch honed through years working in Manhattan restaurants such as Union Pacific.

Tbls is considered by local foodies as a private kitchen, restaurants in private homes that have sprung up all over the city as rents have gone up like the local skyscrapers. Even though Tbls has a speakeasy feel (you get a code when you make your reservations so you can enter the building), Chef Dang says he is fully licensed.

In the tiny space that seats just 20 people, one wall has framed images of New York while the opposite side is the open kitchen where Chef Dang and his team can be seen preparing that night’s dinner. Tbls only offers one seating (although you can dine at different times after it opens at 7 p.m.) and the menu is a six-course prix fixe dinner for HK$620 (or $80), plus a 10% service charge.

Chef Dang changes the menu every month, and likes to play with memories from his childhood (like a Sloppy Joe menu) or culinary themes from around the world (like food from Spain). His menus have garnered such buzz that the New York Times mentioned his restaurant as a place to visit in the paper’s 36 Hours travel feature.

That’s how I found out about the place a few days before I was about to leave for my trip to Hong Kong. I quickly emailed the restaurant, but they were fully booked. (In fact, they’re booked as far out as two or three months in advance because of the small space.) But while in Hong Kong (this is why it’s good to bring your laptop to check email), I was contacted by Tbls about an opening at the bar counter (there are just two seats at the bar). I grabbed it and, with the building code, headed for dinner on my last night in the city.

On this particular night, Chef Dang just started the month’s new menu, which was an homage to his mother and the Vietnamese food he ate growing up. Along with the intimacy of the restaurant, Dang adds a personal touch (like you’re visiting his home) by coming to each table with each course to introduce the dish.

First up was an amuse bouche – a tiny cube of twice-cooked pork with pickled daikon radish and coriander. The bite was refreshing and had the hallmark flavors of Vietnamese cuisine, so even though the presentation will be more refined than traditional Vietnamese dishes, Chef Dang was signaling that the tastes will be as authentic as possible.

The first course plays on the two most highly identified food items in Vietnam – pho and banh mi. The pho, traditionally a soup noodle dish, came as a broth soup with the flavors of crab and tomato. Dang chose not to make his own pho noodles, and instead focused on just the broth of what is traditionally known as bun rieu (a tomato-based pho with crab paste).

Bun rieu is actually one of my favorite pho, and the flavor was exactly spot on. The color even looked like bun rieu, with the crab paste and bits of scrambled egg. All that was missing was the noodles, but the richness of the broth was satisfying enough that I didn’t really miss the noodles.

Dang’s version of the banh mi, the popular sandwich of meat with pickled vegetables on a crusty French roll, came looking more like a mini hamburger. Some banh mi is made with pate, and Dang played with that by creating a mini banh mi with crab and foie gras.

The small bits of crab and foie gras held together nicely and was perfect with the bits of pickled vegetables, but I really wished the bun was more like a crusty French roll.

The next course Chef Dang called “Mom’s Spring Rolls,” and it was the deep-fried spring rolls served with a salad of vermicelli threads, pickled vegetables and shredded lettuce. This was the most traditionally looking dish, and Chef Dang made sure I got an extra serving of the traditional fish sauce dipping sauce (which was already used to dress the side salad).

So you know I’m not a fan of deep-fried foods and generally don’t eat fried spring rolls because of this, but when on vacation all rules go out the window. Plus, the spring rolls were fried perfectly, which is surprising given the small kitchen space Chef Dang works in. I could tell the heated oil was just right because the spring rolls were crispy but not greasy at all.

The third course called “By the Sea” were seared tiger prawns with a lemongrass and coconut broth. I wasn’t sure what Vietnamese dish this was supposed to represent, but it was a nice reflection of the simple preparation of fresh seafood with the subtle flavors of Southeast Asia in the lemongrass and coconut broth. Adding a twist, Chef Dang included a ravioli that looked more like a globe and was filled with bits of clams.

The fourth course was a dish Chef Dang said he grew up eating – shredded pork with sticky rice. The sticky rice had a nice aroma with some creative ingredients like shiso dressing and water spinach (you can't really see the rice in the photo, but it's behind the pork slices). And on top of the sticky rice was a big chunk of pan roasted pork loin that had all the flavors reminiscent of Vietnamese grilled pork. (Chef Dang can’t grill in his tiny kitchen because he doesn’t want to smoke up the space.)

The next two courses are desserts, so to transition from the meats to dessert, Chef Dang brought out a house-made chili-lime sorbet as a palate cleanser. Again, the flavors were distinctively Vietnamese, especially the lime, and the chili provided a nice heat but not so much that it overwhelmed the sorbet.

The first dessert course was a banana sorbet with coconut tapioca pearls, with black pepper strawberries on the side. Even though the menu called the scoop of banana a sorbet, it was creamy like ice cream with a nice banana imprint in flavor. The tapioca pearls were also interesting because they were cooked to such a delicate texture, not gummy at all. They looked like glass on the plate. In fact, I thought they were crystals keeping the sorbet cool when the plate first arrived.

The last course was Chef Dang’s play on traditional Vietnamese coffee. Instead of just serving the intense coffee typically with sweetened condensed milk, he made a macaroon with espresso ice cream in the center. While I don’t drink coffee, I love coffee-flavored desserts and the ice cream was just right, although the macaroon shell was a bit tough, making it hard to bite into the entire thing.

Despite the minor blip with the macaroon, my overall dinner was a pleasant discovery in Hong Kong. After a week of eating noodles, dim sum and buns, it was a nice transition back to the Bay Area by dining in a chef-driven restaurant, similar to some of my favorite spots back home.

Tbls’s minimalist surroundings play on the speakeasy-feel, and the difficult-to-get-reservations feed on Hong Konger’s desire to have what they can’t get. But in the end, it’s a space serving up dishes that celebrate refined cooking and delicious flavors.

Single guy rating: 4 stars (refined surprises)

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

I found Tbls so interesting that I did an interview of Chef Dang to find out more about the man behind the private kitchen. Return tomorrow for that interview.


Foodhoe said...

Ooh that looks like fun, I love the clandestine secret dining club aspect! How cool that you got a last minute seat. What were the other diners like, tourists, locals, world travelers like yourself?

Single Guy Ben said...

Foodhoe, it was fun, and they only do one seating (even though you can come at various times) so that means you can stay as long as you like. The guy next to me just arrived from the airport from Australia, and then there was a big table of what looked like "foodies" because they all seemed like they were gathering for a special dinner. The crowd was mostly young, and a bit mixed with Chinese and foreigners who are working in HK, so a mix of English and Cantonese heard. But since the chef goes around introduces the dishes in English, I would say English was the prevailing language.