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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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!
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.