Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hong Kong Eats: My Favorite Restaurant (food, HKFall10)

This place has been my favorite Cantonese restaurant for the last 15 or so years even back when it was known as 新兜記, a smallish sized restaurant in Jordan mostly catering to the late night crowd and was cash only. In its current incarnation as 新斗記 (roughly phonetically: Sun Dau Gei), it moved to a much larger, brighter space still in Jordan, and is often packed and sold out of food items early in the night. This was the only place we went to during my short trip to Hong Kong where we said immediately that we had to revisit before I left. The pictures below include dishes from both visits.

I almost always get preserved eggs with ginger when they're available. These were good.

Their barbecued roast meats are supposed to be good, but every time I asked them about roast goose they said they were sold out, including the time we were one of the first tables for the night's service! My guess is they have to be specially pre-ordered for a large group. We did get one soy sauce braised squab to take home. It was meaty and flavorful, but came out a bit salty, probably because it had been soaking in the sauce on the ride home.

Pea shoot leaves cooked in broth (上湯豆苗) was very tender and the dish was filled with vegetables.

The chinese broccoli with ginger juice (薑汁芥蘭) was unique because of what they did with the vegetables. The harder outer layer of the stem was practically all peeled off, leaving essentially the heart of the chinese broccoli, like choy sum (菜心). I guess they really like tender vegetables there.

The soy sauce based stir fried goose intestines (豉油王鵝腸) were good, with that soft crunch (爽) texture that Chinese people really like. There was just a little too much corn starch in the sauce, making it a little too goopy for our tastes, but it wasn't a deal breaker.

The thing that separates this restaurant from others is not its Cantonese dishes, but that it's a place that offers good quality Cantonese dishes along with a fresh seafood collection that's comparable to seafood specialty places right off the water at Sai Kung (西貢) and Lei Yue Mun (鯉魚門). Everything was fresh, alive, and swimming, including a large fish tank of fish, as well as a whole mess of large prawns (花竹蝦), fresh abalone (鮑魚), mantis prawns (賴尿蝦), giant razor clams (大刀蜆/聖子王), and many more.

Giant razor clams sauteed in black bean and pepper sauce (豉椒炒聖子王) was tasty with that perfect clam texture that gives you a bite but tender enough to not be chewy.

A look at the marvellous array of fishes in the fish tank. It's important in Hong Kong for fresh fish to be swimming, whereas in NYC even whole head-on fish put on ice at Greek restaurants is already a big deal.

Look at this behemoth of a fish. That red-orange fish next to it is already a decent sized fish.

The prized catch of the day was this napolean wrasse (蘇眉) which retailed at HK$80/tael, or approximately USD$7.7/ounce. Ours came in at roughly 2.5lbs, and cost about USD$300. The need for fish to be swimming to be considered truly fresh in Hong Kong is a big factor as to these astronomical prices. It's much more perishable than any flash frozen fish, and you only get one chance to cook it right. If you mess up, you can't just go grab another. Another factor in the price for this specific fish species is its scarcity.

Napolean wrasse steamed Cantonese style. This is the preferred method to cook fresh fish in Hong Kong, and brings into focus not only the flavor of the fish but the texture, the preferred texture being a smooth, silky, firm flesh that gives way when you bite into it.

Our super expensive fish opened up. Like I said before, the chef really can't afford to mess this up, so they usually err on the side of undercooking it slightly, and let the customers spoon the hot soy sauce and oil onto it to finish it off. It was delicious and had the perfect texture. The fish's cheeks and lips were also tasty.

For those who do not want to spend a fortune on a fish, the other specialty of the house is the made to order roasted suckling pig. It's not exactly roasted to order, but there is a guy who continuously roasts them throughout the night, so they're probably fresher than roasted suckling pigs you'd get elsewhere. They come in different sized orders with the basic (例牌), quarter pig, half pig, and whole pig. I recommend getting at least half a pig because it's more likely that you'd get a fresh one made to order.

Here's our cute half piggy. There is a good amount of meat left underneath that skin, and it's pretty tasty too, though on one of the occasions we ordered it there were pieces of meat that seemed underseasoned. As the seasoning rub gets applied from the underside, meat closest to the bones had the most salt.

The key part of Chinese style roasted suckling pig is the skin. This skin was extraordinary both times we had it. When they sliced the skin off, notice that they took care to remove the fat as well, so that you can focus on that crisp piece of skin. The genius here is that it's not only a crisp piece of skin, but that it's also begun to puff up, so that it kind of melts in your mouth as well.

Here is the pig roasting master himself. He's important not only to ensure that the pig gets cooked through, but he also continually bastes the pig and pokes holes in the skin with a needle to allow it to aerate and develop that puffed up melty texture. They told me that he roasts up to 30 pigs a night!

Now that the restaurant is much more accessible than it was in its past life, I strongly urge everyone to go give it a try. Even if you only go to have the suckling pig, I think it's worth it. The place does get packed quickly, so if you're also interested in the many seafood options, I suggest you make some reservations and get there early.

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