If I listed out the world's most popular kinds of cuisine, there is no doubt that Cantonese cooking would take pride of place among my top 3 favourites.
Most of the dishes and flavours we typically associate with refined "Chinese" food - dim sum classics, barbequed pork, duck and goose, sweet and sour combinations of soy sauce, plum sauce, hoisin sauce and lightly steamed seafood with ginger and scallions all come out of the Cantonese kitchen of South East China, as opposed to the more greasy, spicy and strongly flavoured Szechwan creations that originate in the country's South West.
But like all real classics, it's often hard to reinvent perfection. A walk down the streets of Hong Kong, scented with the fragrance of caramelised pork, deeply flavoured beef broths and steamy noodles and dumplings will easily have you wondering if there even is a need to step off the streets and venture into any of Hong Kong's more glamorous dining sanctuaries to gain a deeper appreciation for Cantonese food.
I am a street foodie at heart - nothing gives me greater pleasure than finding a hole-in-the-wall char siu bao king or a wonton master famed for his thin-skinned, succulent parcels, but I have to admit there is a certain charm in discovering traditional flavours inventively re-imagined for the contemporary diner... especially when they are well executed.
Which is why I was incredibly pleased with selecting The Mira Hong Kong's flagship Cantonese restaurant Cuisine Cuisine for a taste of what Hong Kong's modern crop of chefs are doing with the region's classic flavours.
Ok, so the restaurant's name may not be the most striking (I much prefer my Chinese restaurant names to demonstrate the culture's rich grasp of the joys of homophonic puns) but the food was definitely on the money.
One of my biggest fears when picking contemporary Asian restaurants, be it Indian, Thai or Chinese, is that the chefs mistake "contemporary" for fancy plating and deconstructed dishes that lose their real essence and end up being just a pretty plate of pretty washed out flavours.
Thankfully, Cuisine Cuisine didn't fall into that trap. Far from it! We were recommended the tasting menu by Chef Jayson Tang to more fully taste our way through the menu without having to order a litany of family-sized dishes more suitable for a table of eight (another problem Chinese cuisine shares with that of India!). Yes the meal was daintily presented, but it was also richly flavoured and accompanied by a superbly-paired list of wine that was specifically chosen to enhance the umami flavour of each dish.
The Cantonese kitchen's love for sweet, tart and smokey flavours was well represented in the opening course - a trio consisting of grilled cod served with a marmalade-like pomelo sauce, a succulent slab of honey-glazed BBQ pork blanketed in a light layer of fat and a surprising star of the show - ribbons of delicate asparagus lettuce topped with black truffle.
The smokey flavours were unusually carried over into the wine for the next course, a Chateau Baret, Pessac -Leognan Bordeaux Blanc 2009. The smokey, slightly oaky and salty flavours seemed like a strange choice at first but made complete sense when paired with the plump Hokkaido scallops served with a burst of wasabi and onion - a near perfect wine pairing if I ever tasted one and a course that opened up a great conversation with Cuisine Cuisine's restaurant manager William Chan - an expert Hong Kong sommelier who is obviously passionate about finding the perfect wine to go with the often hard to match flavours of the Asian kitchen. And someone who believes Port should be served chilled in tropical countries - demonstrated by a very generous CHILLED glass of Tawny Port to accompany our Portuguese-inspired dessert. Thank you Mr Chan! :)
Chef Jayson Tang's tasting menu was obviously high on the umami quotient, best showcased in the next dish - a meaty Carabinero red prawn presented in "supreme broth" - a rich, full-flavoured stock that beautifully enhanced the tender prawn flesh and clean winter melon with which it was served.
Next up was another favourite wine course pairing - diced Kagoshima wagyu beef, flavourfully caramelised on the outside and served with a sweet rice cracker and strongly flavoured garlic crisps and a 2011 Chateaux Le Puy Emilien Bordeaux Rouge that hit the nose and palate with... rather surprisingly... the distinct scent and flavours of jallab.
The last savoury course - fried rice with Alaskan crab meat and pumpkin - to me didn't particularly stand out and I would have perhaps much rather preferred one of the more seasonally appropriate rice and cured offal dishes, but that was just me. My dining companion (who is a fried rice fan) loved its lightness.
Dessert veered back to pretty classic territory with a Hong Kong egg tart (tarted up with bird's nest and gold leaf) and a Cantonese sweet soup or tong sui made out of chilled sago cream whose mildness was well complemented with tiny tart chunks of Chinese pomelo.
Sadly I was a little too early to catch the restaurant's Chinese New Year specials - including the sweet steamed coconut puddings and special turnip and ham puddings that are a Hong Kong hallmark.
I so wish I was still in Hong Kong for the New Year festivities next month. I can't think of a more perfect place to bring in what the Chinese believe will be a year of big changes - the 2016 Year of the Monkey - and taste my way through the season's many delicious treats. Even though I stayed in Hong Kong for 10 days, I don't think I made even a dent in its list of must-try delicacies. And believe me I tried :)
Stay tuned for more platetrotting picks from this unabashedly foodie city.
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