July 16, 2017
Ask any millennial in Hong Kong and more likely than not there is a lack of passion when the subject of Cantonese food is brought up, especially by outsiders looking for which Michelin-starred restaurant to try. Yes we would occasionally have dim sum for lunch, but beyond work or family obligations very rarely would we pick Cantonese food when dining out.
Cantonese cuisine is a highly communal affair. Food is of course the focus, but equally important are the sharing and social aspects of a meal. To properly sample a menu you would need 8 – 12 people to share the large plates, and even with that many people the cost is often substantial when seafood or other delicacy is involved. Simply put, the cost and hassle factors are often too high. But what if there is a tasting menu that is around $800 per head? It is certainly not cheap, though far from outrageous when a cold crab at a rundown Teochew diner easily cost the same. A work associate introduced me to Tasting Court (天一閣), a private kitchen on the second floor of a residential flat in Happy Valley close to Amigo.
Both reservation and confirmation of menu is done through WhatsApp. Tasting Court only serves one round a night, so everyone can have their tables through the entire evening, a rarity in Hong Kong. The small dining room fits four tables and around 40 people, a far cry from its previous location in Jordan where 200 customers was the norm. Asked why Happy Valley over Jordan, two neighbourhoods without much in common, the floor manager’s response was 200 people was a nightmare for quality control and many affluent clients refused to travel to Jordan. Despite raving reviews the previous location only lasted a few months.
Our 11-item menu began with deep fried enoki mushroom. Immediately we were taken about by the substantive portion — it could feed half a dozen people. After removing the moisture of enoki, much of which is composed of water, the result was the crispiest chip with seemingly only air under the batter. We ended up finishing 3/4 of it despite knowing better.
The other starter was Babylonia areolata in Sichuan style. I have never been a fan of the sea snail’s gummy texture but at least the numbing and spicy sauce packed a punch.
The popular trend of making char siu (barbeque pork) at upscale restaurants is to make it as sweet and tender as possible, quite apart from the traditional version which tends to be much firmer. Using Iberico pork, Tasting Court’s char siu was expectedly tender, although the choice of seasoning with soy bean and miso was unconventional. The taste was a little too heavy for my taste and I much preferred the side dish of pickled daikon radish shaped like a flower.
Double-steamed in individual urns, the chicken soup with fish maw and conch was a pure essence of umami and sweetness. I needed this after the first few strong-flavoured dishes.
Despite vehemently denied by the floor manager, the Steamed Flowery Crab with Rice Noodle was undoubtedly a carbon copy of Chairman’s (大班樓) signature dish. I have been told that the owner of Tasting Court is the son of a former partner of the Chairman, which again the manager denied. I believe my source more on this one.
Flowery crab is neither the meatiest or most blessed with roe; it is however arguably the sweetest among the local varieties. Here it is steamed with 25 year-old Shaoxing wine and chicken fat. The timing was just right — the meat could be easily peeled off from the shell yet retained a smooth texture. Just as good was the noodle, which we used to mop up most of the sauce.
“Lion’s head” is one of the most iconic Shanghainese dish, an exotic name for the humble meat ball. Using sparerib and belly and slow-cooked in chicken broth, this “Lion’s head” was the best I have had, flavourful and soft without being excessively oily like the traditional ones often found in Shanghai.
Once a set menu begins there is no stopping. In spite of being 100% full we survived two more dishes in the form of soy sauce chicken and stir-fried kale before arriving to the last savoury dish — Prawn Roe Stirred Noodle with Prawn and Shallot Oil. It matched well with the Shaoxing wine sauce, which the kitchen reheated for us. Desserts were jujube and coconut juice pudding and Huadiao wine boiled with dried jujube.
The challenge of managing a typical Cantonese restaurant is the wide-ranging amount of dishes a kitchen has to handle on a daily basis. By serving only tasting menu, Tasting Court could focus on a handful of dishes and truly master each and everyone of them. While I find the menu to be a little too meat-focused, there is no arguing that every dish was well prepared.
There might be some subtle changes to the starters and desserts but the main courses will stay constant. While I might not revisit Tasting Court anytime soon unless I have a serious craving for its crab or meatball, I had one of the best Cantonese meals in Hong Kong there and I would wholeheartedly recommend anyone to give it a try.
Address: M/F, Bonny View House, 63-65 Wong Nai Chung Road, Happy Valley
Opening hours: 18:00 – Midnight