Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Celebrity Cuisine - Quintessential Cantonese Luxe

Chicken wings stuffed with birds' nest
We've all heard stories of misguided visitors looking for chop sui in Hong Kong (hey you, the guy looking for Peking duck in Hong Kong, don't you dare chuckle either), but sometimes even locals don't know where to find good, classic Cantonese food. Restaurants like Celebrity Cuisine and Manor are the last bastions of traditional Cantonese fare in Hong Kong. This is one restaurant that the Hong Kong Michelin Guide was finally right about - Celebrity Cuisine is a star-worthy restaurant (although whether it should have 2 stars is arguable). For a restaurant that specialises in the traditional, it's relatively new - didn't open till 2007 - but the chef, Cheng Kam-fu, has been in the biz for more than two decades; he was the private chef of late Hong Kong tycoon, Lim Por-yen.

Pan-fried turnip cake
If I were to summarise what Cantonese food is about, I'd say it's about using the freshest possible ingredients and cooking them in a way so as to preserve or maximise their own flavours. Geographically, the Pearl River runs through Guangdong (Canton), making it great for freshwater fish, and the humidity and mild temperatures are generally easy for agriculture, so we've always been a lucky lot.

Almond and pork lung soup
Guangdong is also known for its vibrant trade, and where there is money, there is the need for gourmandise. The things Cantonese consider prestigious delicacies are either rare, take a lot of luck and effort to find, or take a lot of expertise to prepare, or all of the above. So while we love a simply* steamed fish caught in the wild, we also love things like pork lung, that takes hours of draining, poaching and washing before it can be finally put into a soup and double-boiled (ie. submerged in a bain marie) with almond milk.

Chicken wings stuffed with birds' nest - an inside look
Things stuffed inside one another is another thing that is "proof" of elaborate preparation and is therefore seen as a luxury. While this can spiral wildly out of control (see my pics from Chow Chung's Private Kitchen), it can also work really well, in the case of this chicken wing. Deep-fried to dark caramel, crisp perfection, I would have been pretty happy with a plain ol' wing. I've had chicken wings stuffed with glutinous fried rice before, but the bird's nest trumps rice as it adds a light, bouncy texture (also, by the way, something very important in Canto cuisine, but that foreigners find hard to get used to) - it keeps the chicken juicy and moist inside, and the fact that it doesn't have a flavour of its own works, as this chicken was full of tasty oils.

Lamb brisket claypot
The lamb claypot pot was also a winner, with plenty of chunky, crisp bamboo shoots, tofu sheets, as well as meltingly soft lamb brisket slow-cooked with a great balance of chu hau sauce (a sauce with a Chinese miso base) and fermented tofu. Rich and comforting, but not too salty. Lamb is popular in winter as it's seen to have a warming effect on the body. (Oh yes, another thing - the effect food has on a person is also integral to Chinese cuisine (not just Cantonese). Everything has at least one quality, be it cooling, warming, cleansing, restorative or otherwise, according to the principles of Chinese medicine).

Pan-fried fish
Instead of steamed fish, we went for pan-fried - a method usually used with fish with firmer flesh - with a basic soy, sugar, oil, spring onion sauce/dressing.

Snake soup
Another classic winter dish, as snake is good for the body in winter. If you've never had snake before, you probably wouldn't even realise these julienned strips of meat were snake. The texture is kind of half-way between chicken and fish, or just a firmer fish. It's often cooked with ginger and mushroom, and served with white pepper. The ginger and pepper in particular are for neutralising any funky fishy tastes of the snake, but if it was cut and treated properly and none of the innards burst onto the flesh, there shouldn't be funky tastes at all, just the taste of fresh seafood. And check out the crisps on top - see, texture.

Steamed minced pork
You can't really get more home-style than a dish of steamed minced pork. There are myriad versions - you can preserved vegetables, salted fish, salted egg yolk, dried mandarin peel, water chestnut, even mashed up tofu - each family as their preference, but the main thing is the fat-to-lean meat ratio, which keeps the pork moist (it can "dry out" during steaming). Mincing it by hand also tends to give it more bounce, so it's preferred, although nowadays even the most traditional butchers have a mincer at the stall.

Eight treasure duck
Another example of how stuffed things can be terribly good. This is a whole deboned duck, stuffed with things like pork, ginko nuts, chestnut and lotus seeds then deep-fried.

Eight treasure duck - inside
Like the chicken wings, it's the light, crisp exterior of poultry skin subjected to high heat combined with a soft interior that won my heart. I love the slightly sweet starchiness of the chestnut and the fall-apart lotus seeds (low quality lotus seeds are hard and chewy, no matter how long you cook them).

Fried noodles with soy
This type of noodles are what we call "dry fried" - it doesn't come covered in sauce. One of the most common problems with dishes like these is excessive grease, but these were indeed "dry", with just enough soy sauce to cover each and every noodle (and every inch of every noodle!) and none of the noodles clumped together. It's just fried with julienned scallions, but don't let that fool you into thinking it was bland.

Almond and egg white sweet soup
To finish, aside from some chocs and macarons one of us had brought (we'd also brought a lot of alcohol - it was a birthday), we had an almond and egg white soup, supposedly very good for your skin. How we ate so much is a mystery, maybe if I'd had pig's brains in my soup I'd have a better idea.

High-end Cantonese food can be a little daunting, especially if you were thrown into the deep end, with things like fish maw, goose web and sea cucumber. Bird's nest in chicken wings and eight treasure duck aren't bad introductions, and Celebrity Cuisine is a good place to try them. You'd need to go with a large-ish group though, and book ahead because they only have about 5 tables (each can fit 8-12 people).

*Actually, steamed fish is anything but simple. Freshness and quality of the ingredients are a given, but how fast your water is boiling (fast), the size vs. exact amount of time needed to ensure that it's just cooked (not even 30 seconds over or under), whether you open the lid to check on the doneness (best if you don't) all matter. Simple maths will tell you that just a three variables gives you nine results, and there are definitely more than three variables...

Celebrity Cuisine
Lankwaifong Hotel (not to be confused with Hotel LKF, which is decidely more chic)
3 Kau U Fong
Central / Sheung Wan
Hong Kong
+852 3650 0066

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  1. Was in HK in December and visited LKF, that place is gold! The 8 Tresure ducks looks fantastic:)

  2. Visited this place once. Chef Cheng Kam-Fu is really a great Chef! Need a big group to enjoy so many dishes though. I would like to try the duck with all the treasures in. Looks so yummy.

  3. Hmmm - trying to think of a nice Canto place for lunch where I haven't been and this might be the one.

    Better reserve ahead given HK and lunch times. Can't believe you are not there next week. Terrible.