Thursday, December 29, 2011

Da Ping Huo - Inspired by Sichuan

Mapo doufu
I'll be honest, I used to cringe every time I saw Da Ping Huo mentioned in articles that can be searched via the words "Hong Kong" and "private kitchen". I thought it was so gwailo (foreigner/westerner). The artist host, the opera-singing chef, it was all a big cliche. I continued to feel this way until I came back this time, after a long, long hiatus, to have dinner with some of my favourite food buddies.

Cold mung bean noodles
I told myself to keep an open mind, to think about why this place has been so successful despite what I think of it. And you know what, it worked. I enjoyed dinner quite a bit. Of course, it helped that I had great company, but as far as the food goes, I realised you mustn't think of it as Sichuan food.

Cucumber in vinegar
Sichuan-inspired is probably the way to think about it. The names of the dishes will sound Sichuanese, but what comes will not be the same dish you had in Chengdu. Nor is it simply watered down though.

Pickled vegetables
Admittedly, heat levels have been toned down, but Sichuan food is more than just heat and numbing peppercorns. It's the fragrant mix of myriad spices too, and by toning down the heat, you tend to appreciate those more.

"Saliva" chicken
"Saliva" chicken, in case you're wondering, is called so because its flavours and spices are supposed to make your mouth water. A similar story says it's so tasty that seeing it makes your mouth water. Most restaurants that serve spicy Chinese food (be they Sichuanese, Hunanese or otherwise) seem to serve their own version of this dish. This isn't the best I've had - the chicken seemed like a chilled/frozen one instead of fresh. While it didn't have any funky fridge flavours, I thought it was devoid of any distinctive chicken flavour, which meant the sauce was just there as a veil rather than a complement.

Pork and cabbage soup
But aside from that, everything was qualified as what I would call "good food". It's not authentic, but I've never been a subscriber to the authenticity side of the debate. Works for me as long as it's delicious.

Steamed spare ribs with pumpkin
By authenticity, I mean the traditional way of doing things, not the postmodern authenticity that Noma spearheads. That said, I do believe in documentation of traditional ways - without tradition, there are no grounds for innovation.

Mapo doufu
Again, the heat here was only average, but thankfully it wasn't the gloopy stuff that's corn-starched to the hilt. Nor was it orange! They used cloth-wrapped tofu rather than the wood-plank/block variety, and it was a slightly firmer tofu, not silken (but it's not the "firm tofu" you find in supermarkets outside of Asia - that's for tofu burgers - eww). Some of the advantages of cloth-wrapped tofu are that, a) you don't get so many sharp corners that break off in the cooking process, and b) there's more gradation in the firmness of the tofu - you get a drier, thicker "skin", which protects the softer, silkier centre.

Chilli braised beef
My favourite dish was this chilli beef. You'll see big "lantern" chillis bobbing on the surface (about 8 o'clock in the bowl) but it wasn't actually that hot. The beef is slow-cooked, I think there were tendon-y brisket bits in the beef, and probably rump. They're cut into big chunks, which retains a nice amount of juice, and makes it pretty satisfying for carnivores.

Pea shoot soup
A palate cleanser of sorts, and a moment of peace for sensitive tastebuds, haha. But seriously, you've got to be pretty tame to think that everything here was spicy...

Dumplings in "red oil"

Finally (before the dessert, which I forgot to take a photo of - oops), in typical Chinese fashion, there were carbs. Not sure what to think of these dumplings. The wrappers were thick, yes, but that's normal for central/northern fare. What bothered me was that the wrappers seemed a bit too dense and hard. It wasn't horrible though, just a thought.

A fresh look helped then, though I think this goes to show that even with the new perspective, there are some very technical/practical things that can't hide behind a "nouveau" facade.

I should probably also note that service was great. The host (the artist-husband) was always cheery and graceful (though his art... well, each to their own), and even though by the time we left, the chef (wife) didn't come out to sing, she did make a round on the floor to greet us. I recently (actually just yesterday) heard a rumour that the husband wasn't exactly keeping his mm-hmm in his pants, and that the couple had split up. I don't know what the story is, but they were both there when I had this dinner (a couple of weeks ago), so I hope everything's okay with them...!

Da Ping Huo
LG/F 49 Hollywood Rd (enter on Graham St)
Hong Kong
+852 2559 1317

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1 comment:

  1. I know what you mean about traditional/authentic. In the past I could get too hung-up about this, but I have come round to the way of thinking, like you, that it's OK if it works. So I'm all for wasabi being used in Chinese restaurants (as long as it works)!

    What gets on my nerves is when cheap substitutions (courgettes for pea aubergines in Thai curries) and expedient shortcuts (ketchup in Pad Thai) are used. These rarely work and add nothing to a dish. Which is why, as you say, it's important to document the traditional recipe/method.

    PS: Love the intrigue about the owners. What would've have been a giveaway is if the wife started singing a song about broken hearts/cheating husbands!