Sunday, November 26, 2006

Slow Food - A Night at Xi Yan

The excuse for this particular expedition was ostensibly HM's birthday but really these things need no justification. As far as degustation menus go, Xi Yan's $88 per head deal for 12 courses sounded like a good bargain, that is, of course, if degustation menus are your cup of tea to start with. They're not everyone's, not even amongst foodies, judging from the comments on the local food blogs. Amidst the glowing reviews of Xi Yan's culinary excellence, there were the inevitable complaints about being told what to eat. One went so far as to describe it as nazi-styled. Personally I think that there's a place for degustation menus in our culinary landscape. If you really want to experience what a chef has to offer, allow him full control over his vision. It's not like a family restaurant nor is it a familiar favourite that you return to ever so often and therefore need variety. And you wouldn't expect to tell a theatre director which scenes you'd like to see, would you?

Anyway, enough of a digression. Let me proceed with the evening's culinary delights.

Xi Yan is the culinary brainchild of Jacky Wu, the Hong Kong restauranteur. I guess you could call it modern or updated Chinese cooking. It attempts to marry the freshest of produce with the best of Chinese/French/Japanese techniques. We were eager to see if this would add up to something unique and special.

Japanese Tomatoes in Sesame Sauce

The first of the appetizers was indeed something different. Each of us had two wedges drenched in sauce. As promised, the tomatoes were organic, and although huge, they were tasty in and of themselves. Nevertheless, it was the sauce that really made this dish memorable. We were off to a good start.

Cold Tofu Pork Floss

The next appetizer was an innovation on a homecooking classic. Those with Cantonese mums will recall having cold tofu in a sesame oil/oyster sauce combo, sometimes topped off with spring onions. Often this is spooned over rice for a simple but tasty meal. This version was topped off with pork floss and crumbs of salted egg yolk. It was good - pork floss and salted egg yolk really go together! - but no big deal.

Foie Gras Somen

This was again something different - lightly panfried French foie gras, with a touch of zhejiang vinegar, on top of Japanese somen. It wasn't bad, although we did wish the portions were larger... yes yes we know it's an appetizer but really, foie gras just melts in your mouth and one teeny mouthful is just not enough...

Roast Pork Cheek

Back to an updated classic - cha siew but with meat from the cheek/neck. Mmm, the sinfully fatty cut was melt in your mouth goodness. The honeyed barbequed flavours went well with the inhouse chilli sauce and the lime bits provided.

And then came the big guns - the main courses.

Pan-seared Ribeye with Mint Sauce

In a twist on the traditional ang mo lamb and mint partnering, Xi Yan substituted beef. HM wasn't too crazy about this one. The beef was very lightly seasoned with just pepper and salt, to allow the flavour of the beef to come through more fully (waitperson's explanation). I liked it well enough, but HM complained it was too beefy.

Salted Yolk Prawn

This was the unqualified hit of the night. The prawns were super fresh and generously coated with salted egg yolk. The result was surprisingly good. The clear prawn taste and smooth springy texture were juxtaposed against the richness and the coarse texture of the egg yolk. The waitperson told us this was the newest dish added to the menu. We say it's a keeper.

Salivating Chicken aka Mala Chicken

This is one of the three Xi Yan signature dishes. the other two being the tomatoes and the cold tofu. It was easily the most complex of the dishes, comprising cold blanched chicken on soft konnyaku noodles, accompanied by crushed peanuts and wedges of century egg, and bathed with sesame oil and chilli oil. It was scrumptious, although I have to say, we kept our heat level to mild. Even that was enough to set the mouth tingling and to send one unfortunate (and admittedly rather useless) member of the party spluttering and reaching out for water. If it had been any spicier than that (the restaurant offers two higher levels of heat), it may not have been such a pleasant experience after all!

Crab Roe Glutinous Rice

This dish reminded us of lotus-wrapped rice (hor yip fan) but topped with a crab. I can't say there was much crab roe involved. Perhaps it was mixed in the rice, but you really couldn't tell... The rice was fragrant and chockfull of ingredients like mushrooms.

Soursop Sorbet Intermezzo

Then came the palate cleanser. On the menu, it was listed as Lychee Sorbet Intermezzo, but as the waitperson candidly told us, the lychee sorbet would not be available as it held melted... The soursop sorbet sat on a layer of syrup which in turn rested on a layer of diced fruit. The sweetness was refreshing, just the thing to set the taste buds up for a bowl of Cantonese soup.

Lotus Root Chicken Soup

Ahh, just the kind of thing that Grandma would make - double-boiled soup with mature chicken (sic), herbs and slivers of lotus root. Heartwarming, comforting soul food...

Young and Old Happy News

This obtusely named dish baffled us. According to the waitperson, the young referred to the dou miao which was garnished with a salty preserved vegetable, the old. In the end, we didn't think much of the preserved vegetable - what did it add to the dish? And without it, the stirfried dou miao, though competently prepared, was little more than what you would get at any good Chinese restaurant.

Xi Yan Tang Yuan

And to round things off, there were the Xi Yan tang yuans. According to the waitperson, these were no ordinary riceballs. Other than the usual groundpeanut filling and the ginger infusion, there were four other ingredients in the dish which we were asked to guess. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the tang yuans were lovely.

All in all, the food was great but not quite spectacular. Even though the prawns, the chicken and the tomatoes were real gems, somehow the entire menu did not add up to more than what the other top end Chinese restaurants would be capable of. Item for item, we can all recall similarly memorable dishes such as Min Jiang's Peking duck, Chef Chan's chicken and Tung Lok's sharks fin soup.

As for the total fine dining experience, I'd say Xi Yan has some way to go. I did like the fact that the space was atmospheric yet cosy, not intimidating like My Humble House. And though we shared the space with one rather raucous drunk group the night we were there, we were shielded from their shennanigans by a discreetly drawn curtain.

The service though could be improved. Not that the wait staff weren't enthusiastic and attentive, they were, from running us through the menu to the changing of plates. But the thing about fine dining is that the clientele's expectations go up. It is not quite nearly enough for the wait staff to be thoughtful and considerate. There's a certain standard of professionalism that comes only with training and experience. Couldn't the waitperson who discovered that one of us had inadvertantly dropped some sesame sauce into his tea cup have discreetly resolved the matter without alerting the whole table to the matter? He actually explained the situation to the culprit in tones loud enough for everyone to hear. How difficult would it have been to quietly whisk his cup away and replace it with another, or replace everyone's? Shouldn't the waitperson have been able to recommend us a wine that would complement the upcoming dishes, instead of that disastrous Cloudy Bay pinot noir which was totally overshadowed by the beef and chicken dishes? The mistake with the wine was particularly galling because the bottle of wine was $108 a pop, not exactly what we would have paid for dishwater, and it wasn't even the wine's fault. It was simply too light and delicate to stand up to all that meat.

Still, Xi Yan's a good place for a special occasion. It would be a unique experience for most people, since fine dining hasn't quite caught on yet - 3 hours of slow eating, some ooh and aah-ing over presentation, many opportunities to talk about food. I'd even go as far as to recommend it for elderly parents. The food isn't so new-fangled as to upset the ol' folks more accustomed to traditional Chinese cooking,and the layout and decor is quite friendly, once you get past the climb to the first floor. (My mother likes to remind me that My Humble House is not a good place to bring elderly folk to, not with the dim lighting, the walkways over water and the many little steps up and down.)

Spot the "birthday cake"



Blogger Jeffrey Siow said...

agree abt the tea! was gonna keep quiet and drink cos didn't want to trouble him...and there he goes and announces to everyone. grr stupid waiter

11:27 pm  
Blogger blobbes said...

Well I guess you have to give him credit for being attentive, just not very subtle... lol

8:39 pm  

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