Tinkering with IQ @ Fa Zu Jie, Hong Kong

Date of Visit: May 31 2013

A visit to Hongkie Town would inevitably involve some time being spent in the company of Mom’s fabulous besties from her high school and their families. I really admire their enduring friendships, I mean how often do you get in touch with your friends all the way from junior high? They are women on top of their game – one of them who could not join us was a scientist at NASA, I’m always humbled by her remark that ‘anyone launch a rocket, it’s only when there is an emergency that you need a PhD!”, that is a very cool remark don’t you think?

I am always thrilled to meet them and knowing that we all love a good night out with good food and conversation, I chose Fa Zu Jie (法租界) – Chinese for French Concession –  from Asia Tatler’s list of best private kitchens in Hong Kong.  A marvellous idea since with Shanghainese background, no doubt these BFFs would have a lot of fun and personal opinions in regards to the French twist.

Our reservation was secured a month beforehand and we received an email from Chris (one of trio partners) regarding our menu and a detailed map on how to reach the elusive private kitchen a week prior.  The trek to the 2nd floor private kitchen was not as difficult as anticipated, we walked into a stall selling plastic gears and followed the noise from the establishment of a popular new Mexican eatery at the back, then up the stairs to the white door on the 2nd floor.

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Directions to Fa Zu Jie emailed to me by Chris

The interior of Fa Zu Jie is intimately cosy with white walls and low ceiling, tables are set a respectable distance apart.  Since we are a large group of 8, we took up for the central location in front of the open kitchen, with the another group of diners taking up the enclosed outdoor terrance at the back.  There were bri-a-bracs of antiquities and old empty bottles of fine wines including magnums of Lafites  lining the shelves and floors, making a pleasantly lived-in feel.  The price of dining there is $578 per person with no corkage and service charge.

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Open kitchen with marble bench top

What is a ‘private kitchen‘? 

“Well,  private kitchens have a long history in Hong Kong forming part of the local dining scene which is being revived in earnest recently due to the high rental costs.  They operate in a legal limbo: They’re not full-fledged licensed restaurants but they’re not shady speakeasies either. They’re typically small, serving between 10 and 30 diners at one set time, and located in residential buildings in less-expensive parts of town. Often they’re in converted apartments— sometimes even in the chef’s home.”

Without ado, when all the guests have arrived and seated, our first course arrived. 

Shanghainese cuisine use alcohol liberally.  Seafood and chicken are ‘drunken’ with shaoxing wine and are briskly cooked/steamed or served raw.  The first course is a light and refreshing dish of carpaccio of drunken octopus, drunken abalone and drunken razor clam, whimsically named…

Sea Genius. Saint. Mr Da Lian. All are half drunk.  It quickly became the darling of our table.  This dish is a direct translation of Chinese to English.  We were instructed to eat from right to left starting from the mild abalone to finish off with the springy  and so SO delicious la mien in Chinese shaoxing wine. The sweet fragrant liquor reminded me of the drunken cockles that my grand aunty in Shanghai used to send me in Hong Kong.

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Sea Genius. Saint. Mr Da Lian. All are half drunk.

The second play-on-name is on the country of origin.  Straw Mushroom. Morocco. Shrimp Skin. You guessed it!  Couscous!  We have here a plate of Straw Mushrooms and mixed mushrooms marinated with Chinese vinegar, couscous, dry shrimp skin and Chinese celery, parmesan cracker.  I find it  unusual since I can’t recall either Shanghainese nor French ever uses couscous traditionally, but the mushrooms were very fresh with the parmesan crackers imparting the salty crunch.

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Straw Mushroom. Morocco. Shrimp Skin

The third course is a game on imagination.  Ocean Front. A Little Hut with a Field. This is basically deep fried Miyazaki chicken, shrimp quenelle with seaweed and spring roll with kalimeris indica mashed potato.  Miyazaki chicken is apparently the world’s tastiest chicken according to the article here.  The chicken was succulent enough but as I had said earlier, dining with the BFFs will bring on some constructive criticism – Mom reckons that the spring roll with kalimeris indica mashed potato should use tofu skin instead.   Kalimeris indica or ma lan tao is a popular Shanghainese cold starter, usually chopped very finely and presented as a mould.  This is my favourite appetiser by the way (and I’ve found a recipe blog here)

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Ocean Front. A Little Hut with a Field.

We had a slight tweak to our menu for our fourth course.  My Mom requested for Lion’s Head, which she reminisces.  To make this meat ball perfectly required mastery.  Here, we were all oohing and aahing the Jinhua ham consommé, which is full of depth and flavour (and aromatic to to boot!), the meat ball was made of hand minced pork and fat and crunch bits of what I presume to be water chestnut.   It was very soft, fluffy and very porky.

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Lion’s Head

Shanghai people are delicate eaters, so servings are usually quite small.  However, if you have a big appetite and still have room for more…  wait for our next course!

Braised pork knuckle is ubiquitous in Shanghainese cuisine and a firm favourite in our household. My gran would insist for one each week. Thus the mixing up of countries and their national dish is our name-game for our fifth course of Shanghainese Pickle. Italian Stew. German Rice.  We have braised pork knuckle in Shanghainese style with risotto (Italian) and German sauerkraut.  The pork was yieldingly tender and moreish when paired with the punchy sauerkraut.  This dish really filled me up!

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Shanghainese Pickle. Italian Stew. German Rice.

To round off our delightful meal, we were served traditional Shanghainese sweets with a twist.  Fermented Sticky Rice. Preserved Plum. And More…   marking our final time putting on our thinking hat for the night.  Calamansi and jiuniang yoghurt ice-cream, preserved plum butter cake with almond and chocolate coating topped with sesame tuile.  Jiuniang is sweet fermented sticky rice wine usually eaten with glutinous balls (one of my favourite dessert.  I also mix jiuniang with yoghurt and muesli for a boozy brekkie sometimes!)  The trail of finely grinded pistachio nuts is a whimsical play on the *dot*dot*dots* of  ‘give me more’…  And thus ended our fun night of guessing each course which were cleverly labelled with a play on words.

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Fermented Sticky Rice. Preserved Plum. And More…

Address: Fa Zu Jie. 1/F., 20A D’Aguilar Street, Central.

Revisit @ Liberty Private Works, Hong Kong

Date of Visit: June 4 2013

A splendid meal back in February at Liberty Private Works (my review here) and hearing more positive feedbacks from friends who went there on my recommendation prompted a revisit. Seeing familiar faces working on the night is a testament to the restaurant that they are able to retain quality staff for long periods of time. The familiarity in turn immediately brought a sense of ease as we climbed onto our high stools at the bar.

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After being seated, we were given a test tube and a ‘tablet’. I know from my experience at Takazawa (my review here), that I have to pour this cold liquid over the ‘tablet’ which soon unravelled itself to be a towelette. It was very thoughtful of the restaurant to refresh us with the cold refreshing towelete smelling of lemongrass in order to prep us for the dinner ahead. While waiting for our 7:30pm group to start, we were given crackers with guacamole dips to nibble on.

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Our evening of visual tantalisation and clever platings started with the pretty Amuse Bouche of Oyster in citrus ponzu foam and jelly (on an oyster shell, of course).

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Tuna, Sea-Urchin, Espelette, Rice
This is a regular feature and also the signature dish in LPW’s menu. One starts with the frozen grape on the left towards the tuna and sea-urchins on a bed of amazingly crunchy puffed rice to finish the course with the frozen longan. I am absolutely delighted with my serve of briny-sweet sea urchins. The textures afforded by the puffed rice when matched with the sea urchin and tuna were just sublime. Sucking on my frozen logan, I am excited to see what follows.

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Langoustine, Frog, Chanterelle, Wheat Berry
This dish somehow conjured up an imagery of ‘Wind in the Willows’. The fried frog drumstick was classy dressed in the pool of spinach puree. Matched with sweet langoustine and chanterelle, this effectively transformed the frog into a very exciting offering.

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Monkfish, Bone marrow, Pancetta, Maitake
The unusual pairing of the fish with pancetta and bone marrow, made each bite the more enticing and each bite the more tempting and enjoyable.

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Egg, Truffle, Parmesan, Caviar
Next up, is a classy breakfast-sey spinach and ricotta raviolo sous-vided with egg. It came with caviar and to be eaten with a freshly baked baguette. This is also one of LPW’s signature dish that we had on my first visit, and one which I really enjoyed.

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Pigeon, Smoked Eel, Pea, Morel
Yet another unusual pairing of tender pigeon breast with smoked eel. The clever accompaniments of pea and morel are used for balancing the different flavours and textures of the pigeon and eel.

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Iberian Pork, Beetroot, Plum, Hoisin
The Iberian Pork continued the “wow” factor that remained consistent with all of the courses throughout the evening. I really had to start questioning whether or not the pork was ultimately going to be my favourite dish in the end. This pretty dish bursting of fruity flavours is also the last of the savoury course.

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It was An evening of fun watching the chefs hard at work.

Finally desserts arrive… LPW makes the most awesome desserts and we have 2 dessert courses.

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Banana, Blueberry, Mascarpone, Peanut Butter

Stylish presentation

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I am a sucker for theatrics and enjoyed watching the chef preparing instant ice-cream with liquid nitrogen.

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Final presentation

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Chocolate, Caramel, Chilli, Salt
I must say that this is my new favourite dessert. What a marvellous idea to pop the olive bubbles in our mouths to smoothen the chocolate crumbs, caramel, chilli and salt!

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Petit Fours
Too full to eat anymore, I did manage to savour one Orange Madelaine.
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This has to be one of the most comfortable dining experiences that I have had, more so encouraged by the very attentive and smooth service team. My palate was challenged by the combination of new tastes that I never thought would complement one another , new intelligence was found and most importantly the entire experience led to the hours to fly by as pleasant conversation was enhanced by positive experiences. What impressed me was that everything from the food, drink, service and ambiance was elegant and not over the top. LPW is a clearly my firm favourite in Hongkie Town!