Dinner on Feb 1, 2005
Lets start this review by not beating about the bush. Jacky Yu, owner chef of Xi Yan, is in the vanguard of Hong Kong's culinary current, flat out. Xi Yan, with Jacky as the helmsman, is one of the kind even amongst private kitchen.
When Xi Yan started about 4 years ago, many wondered if Hong Kong is ready to sustain a speakeasy (a.k.a. private kitchen) of the caliber that Xi Yan aspired to be. Four years and countless speakeasies that came and went later, Xi Yan's pull proved to be ever soaring. Testimony one: it is the only speakeasy in Hong Kong to have its chef co-hosting a TV food show. Testimony two: it still has the longest waiting list in town even after the expansion -- they are constantly booking out over two months in advance, the longest in Hong Kong (it was 6 months before the expansion)!
Unlike so many so-called "private" kitchens that shout for attention, Xi Yan prevails solely by word of mouth. Unassuming outlook is an inadequate description, unnoticeable is more accurate: there is no signage for the whereabouts of it on the streets, not even on the very building it resided. Yet with the information, the address given by your friend, you’ll find it on the third floor of a run-down commercial building in Wanchai, quite, secluded and exclusive. Enter, sit down and enjoy and you’ll understand why this dining room that seats fifty at a stretch is blustered with gourmands of Hong Kong every evening.
The interior is pleasing to the eyes. Small and dandy with designer-chic decor in redish tone. Walls are cramped with modern Chinese paintings with a whirligig touch. You enter with the resonance that you’re having dinner in a stylish dining room of a trendy Asian friend of yours.
As with most speakeasies, there’s only pre-fixe menu available. On the night we tried, there were 5 starters, one soup, 6 main courses and one dessert. It ran the gamut from Sichuanese to Cantonese to, well, French with dishes infused with inspirations or ingredients from Japan, Korea, Vietnam and etc. It sort of reminded me those discovery/tasting menus in the Michelin-starred restaurants where every dish come in diminutive portion so that the clientele can sample more of the chef's virtuosity in one setting. Much to our gang of diners' delight, all the dishes were executed with care and precision.
We instigated the dinner with a succession of starters, a stream of five, that were unlike any I have ever had in a Chinese dining table, opening our palates for what followed...
2. Nutmeg "a la Classic." More an amuse bouche than an appetizer. It is a kind of nuts akin to olive in size, lightly marinated in grandma’s way. It's skin reminded me of fig's, but firmer; its flesh reminded me of prune's but oozed a more aromatic flavor. Very pleased for the re-discovery of a fading classic.
3. Homemade cold bean curd. Bean curd (a.k.a. tofu) bathed in a homemade soy sauce mix anointed with yolk of salted eggs and dried shrimps. It scored perfect 10 for look and taste. 100 per cent refreshing, 100 per cent ambrosia.
4. Deep-fried pork belly with red tofu sauce. After three cold starters, this hot entree stirred a contrast to the our palates. The fried belly, in perfect portion of fat and lean -- the fat and the skin part was crispy and crackling while the lean and flesh part was tender and moist.
Next up were the main courses, which were equally good.
1. Sichuan chili chicken. A staple in the menu. The menu changes every other night but this spicy chicken is a stalwart. Two versions are available: the super hot one and the milder one. A more modernized and eclectic cover of an otherwise Sichuan blase, in my opinion. Some minced preserved eggs and peanuts were added as well. Normally I would join the queue for fusion-bashing but this time I liked it very much.
2. Glutinous rice steamed with beef shank. The beef was marinated the night before so every drops of the condiment was embedded. The glutinous rice, steamed together with the beef, absorbed the essence of the beef to the fullest. Another Sichuanese fare brillantly taken.
3. Deep-fried grouper on a bed of shredded pomelo flesh. The grouper was lightly coated with shrimp roe puree and marinated with lemongrass before the deep-fried. A Vietnamese inspired fare, may I suggest? The presentation shown Jacky was totally in his element: the fish so skillfully fried that it was still in a lively posture when brought to table. And the timing was perfect too. Crunchy on the skin yet moist on the flesh.
5. After the ice-cold sorbet was the steaming hot chicken consommé with ginseng. Posting an stark contrast to the palate with cold and hot. A perfect take of a Korean classic.
6. Homemade fish and lotus root pudding. Elegant in presentation. However, prepare for the only snag of the night: our gang of diners conferred and agreed this was the one of less compelling dishes of the meal. The pudding was too soft and the flavor wasn't distinctive to draw admiration.
7. Stir-fried pea shoots. Lightly fried organic greens dotted with a tad of preserved turnip chops. Simple but refreshing.
The finale, was the homemade dessert of sweetened cashew nut cream soup. Flavorful and smooth.
In all, the dinner was a showcase of Jacky's modernized interpretations of traditional cuisine, presented afresh for a new generation. After the meal, I understood why the full name of Xi Yan is called Xi Yan Culinary Art. Instead of naming itself a private kitchen, the use of the name culinary art shows exactly what, after all, Jacky, cares about. And like the name suggest, a dinner there was indeed a Xi Yan, meaning "a banquet of joy" in English.
3/F, 231-233 Queens Road East, Wanchai
Tel: (852) 9020 9196