Best Meal of the Year, so far

Food, Travel Add comments

I recently came back from Hong Kong, a city that in my and many of my travel-savvy friends’ opinion is in the top five destinations in the world.  It’s a dazzling, vibrant, breathlessly fast-paced city where the whiff of money, ambition and futuristic visions permeate the air more than tradition, history, or East Asian exoticism do.  The limitless energy and intoxicating buzz of the city is unmatched by very few other world capitals (New York City and Tokyo come to my mind), and these qualities extend to a dynamic, diverse food scene.  In my opinion, there is absolutely no possibility of getting a bad meal in Hong Kong. The city has 63 Michelin-starred restaurants (in contrast, New York City has 57 and Chicago has a surprisingly paltry 23).  Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon have flagship restaurants in the city, while Hong Kong superstar chef Alvin Leung has the highly-acclaimed Bo Innovation, the preeminent Asian take on molecular gastronomy.  Spectacular food can be had in its many teahouses and dimsum restaurants as well as in its unique dessert-only cafes, and dai pai dongs or the cooked food stalls in street markets. And then there are Hong Kong’s private kitchens, unlicensed, covert restaurants housed in residential flats or within the upper floors of commercial buildings.

Sure, underground dining has sort of been de rigueur in most of the major dining cities in the world right now (I’ve written about two in Chicago) but Hong Kong, in its arguable, but indisputable, role of arbiter of our stylish cultural future, had private kitchens in place and thriving long before anyone in the US thought of stringing together the words “underground supper club”.  In the late 1990s, as a response to high commercial rents, restaurateurs and chefs began operating these dining “speakeasies” under the radar of the city government, but the city’s sophisticated diners immediately embraced them as an alternative yet crucial element of the dining scene.  Private kitchens have been embedded so deeply in the city’s dining-out fabric that some of them are not as underground or as secretive as they used to be anymore.  Additionally, there has been a noticeable change in the type of cuisine that the chef/owners of the newer private kitchens have been putting out:  the first private kitchens like Yellow Door specialized in regional Chinese cuisine such as Sichuanese or Shanghainese, but the city’s newer private kitchens are creating superb food that is contemporary, cross-cultural, and experimental.  I had already decided to schedule a dinner in one of these, Yin Yang, with the friends I was meeting in Hong Kong, former Chicagoan Lauren in the Lion City and her boyfriend Louis, when the week before our reservation, the New York Times published an article profiling the “new incarnations” of private kitchens, and ecstatically raved that “The best way to describe the Yin Yang experience is simply this: Your meal will blow your mind.”  Well, I must say the New York Times demonstrated once again that it knew its stuff because our meal at Yin Yang was the best meal I’ve had so far this year (surpassing the already unforgettable evenings I’ve had at Chicago’s Next and Mexico City’s Restaurante Pujol).

Yin Yang’s chef-owner, Margaret Xu Yuan, is a former advertising executive who is a self-taught cook.  She also owns an organic vegetable farm in the New Territories area of Hong Kong, whose produce she showcases in delightful ways at Yin Yang.  The private kitchen was in an unmarked three-story circa 1930s townhouse in a small side street off the busy Wanchai district of Hong Kong island.  We were frenzied and sweaty when we arrived (Hong Kong in May is as bad as Chicago in July) but once we stepped into the small, quiet, soothing, memorabilia-filled space of Yin Yang, we felt transported to a Wong Kar-Wai film set in the 1960s in which Cantonese songs were on the soundtrack and the kitchen and dining rooms were authentically period.  This stylish ambience and the relaxed service complemented the food beautifully.

And what food it was!  In addition to using organic products (a practice that was not as prevalent in East and Southeast Asia as it was in the US), Margaret and her team prepared most of the dishes and its components by hand and utilized traditional Cantonese cooking implements such as a terra cotta urn for roasting chicken and pork, iron pots to cook rice, and a stone-ground mill to create flour for the desserts.  We had to pick our menu several days in advance because as their website mentioned, it took a day to put together our seven course meal.  Yin Yang was a place where food was lovingly, respectfully prepared, setting it apart in a culinary world where even the best restaurants gadgetized, blowtorched, and pressure-cooked anything and everything.

We started off with a bounty of appetizers which were stunningly presented, and which I thought was going to crush our fragile table (which I wouldn’t have minded, since with this kind of food, I would have licked the floor clean!).  A plate containing a bevy of the produce from their organic farm was simple but satisfying:  it contained the sweetest, most ethereal roasted beets I’ve had in years; juicy, freshly-plucked tomatoes with an unobtrusively light creamy sauce; crunchy, sweetish-glazed stringbeans.  Then there was the “bizarre pork belly” – breaded, deep fried pork belly which was rich and muscular but surprisingly greaseless topped with sweet-sourish Hakka preserves.  But the star of the first course was the egg custard with a surprisingly substantial piece of raw truffle and raw sea urchin – luxurious, sensuous, the flavors constructed complexly, the soft textures of the custard marvelously mingling with the earthiness of the truffle and the pristine saltiness of the sea urchin.  It was definitely one of my most memorable dishes of not just the trip, but of the entire year.   The photo at left shows the Starter “buffet”  (front to back)- the vegetables (Spring Sensations), Bizarre Pork Belly, Tofu Blues (tofu with spring onions), the unforgettable Sampan Custard, and Stone n’Satin (scallop in jelly).

 

The main courses were a dazzling highlight after another.  Yin Yang’s justly famous roast chicken which came whole from the terra cotta urn was juicy, tender, succulent, with skin crispy yet almost diaphanous (photo at right).  And the server hand-shredded the chicken tableside which again demonstrated the restaurant’s impressively painstaking approach to dining.  A roast pork leg also came from that terra cotta urn and it was, like the poultry, magnificently delicious in its seeming simplicity but meticulous technique – the skin deliriously crunchy, the flavorful meat a headily perfect ratio of firm flesh and sweetish fat.  A spring duet of vegetables from the farm, spinach and eggplant drizzled with a light garlic sauce, was refreshingly pure, tasting of nature’s generosity.

Then there was the “interlude” between the main courses, the brilliant, astounding “Soup without Water”, a surprisingly flavorful broth resulting from the liquids that formed when a pot of vegetables were “sweated” for hours.  Bracing, nurturing, enchanting, the New York Times article justly heralded it as the one dish you would be thinking of for months.

I thought the lobster dish was highly theatrical but too subtly flavored for my taste (barely alive lobsters were brought to the table and doused with chrysanthemum tea to cook them), and the desserts (which included a love-it or hate-it spinach ice cream) were fine, but not unforgettable.  But Yin Yang, more than any restaurant I’ve been to this year, created deliciousness out of graceful simplicity, treated what the diner ate with so much care, tenderness, and virtuous patience, and masterfully paid homage to fast-disappearing Chinese culinary traditions while incorporating and embellishing them with contemporary notes and undulations.  It was the one dinner I’ve had this year that I wouldn’t mind going back to again and again.  What’s even more startling for me was that these were a chef and a restaurant thriving in a frenetic, forward-hurtling, always-about-the-cutting-edge and the-day-after-tomorrow city – Margaret and Yin Yang unmistakably proved that the best meals didn’t come from devices and flashy culinary techniques, but from soulful touch, high-quality ingredients, and forging connections with the diners.

Yin Yang is at 18 Ship Street, Wanchai, Hong Kong.  www.yinyang.hk

 

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