Friday, February 3, 2012

Once Upon a Time in the Summer Palace (a Michelin rated restaurant in Hong Kong)

Published by AsianTraveler Magazine, 2009
Images by Nana Arellano-Aoyong

He hardly spoke English. Fortunately for us, his dishes spoke a thousand words. While he made gestures and required a translator to express his thoughts, he needed no explanation for his deep fried chicken wings or his chilled sago cream with fresh mango juice and pomelo. His specialities broke the language barrier. The flavours were both universal and unusual.

A chat with HK's "god of the kitchen"

The Summer Palace’s Chef Lee Keung after all is the “God of the Kitchen”, a title given to him by the Hong Kong culinary world. And a god finds little use for words. His creations say it all.

Following the flitting firefly

Far from intimidating, he greeted us with kind humour in his eyes. Not the kind of god I imagined at all. With a sense of excited urgency, he motioned for us to sit down. Suddenly, the gates of the palace were opened for us.

Waiting to be seated outside the gates of the palace.

We settled into our gilded scarlet chairs and marvelled at the opulence of Island Shangri-La’s Summer Palace. A two-star Michelin rated restaurant, Summer Palace rightfully sits atop Island Shangri-La along Supreme Court Road in Central, Hong Kong.

Around us, the restaurant gleamed in elegance, calling to mind the Imperial Chinese of old. The décor however was in no way outdated. By the entrance, a large carved screen, depicting a mythical scene of a golden phoenix soaring in the heavens, welcomes guests into a world of whimsy and gastronomic adventure.

Inside the Michelin rated restaurant.

Everywhere were tales of wonder. Golden embroidered butterflies seemed to dance on the silk wall panels. Their reflections peek through the fancy ironwork covering the mirrors. By our table, a curious rabbit, looking up at a bird perched on a tree, is delicately painted on a silk canvass. Similar stories are found in almost every corner. The screens, the plush blue carpet, and the door panels – a floor to ceiling gold network of carved branches with blossoms - are designed to mirror the four petal flower motif of the Summer Palace in Beijing. We were transported.

Nana, our photographer, ran around, snapping away like a child running after a flitting firefly giving everything it alighted on a soft glow. Overhead, a Viennese teardrop chandelier sparkled. Its oriental accents of brass and jade rings seemed to shimmer every time the flash went off.   It was as if we stepped into an old Chinese fairy tale, and we were enthralled. The dishes however told the best stories.

The tale of the dumpling

Chinese pride and history unfolded on the table, one dish after the other. A master of Cantonese cuisine, Chef Keung is all about tradition, of old recipes he figured out himself through numerous tries like the classic chilled crystal ham. The traditional Zhenjiang delicacy made of cubed pressed ham and stock was a cool and unusual starter that whetted our appetite for something warmer. Out came a bamboo basket of soup dumplings.

We were treated like royalty in this house of food worship.

Once served, the bun quivered in my bowl, suggesting a surprise waiting inside. I pierced through the little fat pouch’s translucent skin, and a stream of amber colored liquid trickled out. The soup is made by wrapping solid meat gelatine inside the skin alongside the meat filling. When the dumpling is steamed, the gelatine melts into a soup that subtly tasted of the diced meat, shark’s fin, and vegetables, leaving me wanting for more.

Food for the gods.

Soup dumplings, or xialongbao as they’re called in China, are traditional baozi Chinese fare which was invented by the military strategist Zhuge Liang back in third century AD. Chef Keung regards the centuries-old tradition with great respect. He uses only the freshest ingredients and stays true to traditional Cantonese methods of preparation which includes braising, stewing, and double boiling. To some, these methods are too tiresome and painstaking, but the chef is a man of great patience and hard work. He, after all, started in the lowest of ranks as a chopper, doing nothing but dicing vegetables for four years before he was finally allowed to touch the stove. All these started at the young age of 15. There were no stories of old-age recipes handed down from generations past. His story was all about waiting patiently, learning the revered ways on his own, and rightfully earning his title.

Delicate, delectable, delightful

Rushing in and out of the kitchen, Chef Keung brought out the dishes himself. With the modesty of a server, he carefully set another delicacy on the table: sliced barbequed suckling pig served with soft white pastry. The skin slices were so delightfully crispy that I almost forgot I was snacking on pork. It was like chewing on sweet and salty golden wafers that crackled in the mouth.  There was not a trace of oil in the thin slices. While pork always brings to mind the words “oily”, “greasy”, or “fatty”, Chef Keung’s suckling pig could only suggest the words “delicate”, “delightful” and of course, “delectable.”

Dining in opulence

After the light treat, we were served something more heavy and rich: scrambled egg white in fresh milk with diced scallops and crab coral. The creamy texture was quite surprising after the palate had been teased with the crispy pig skin. The mildly sweetness of the scallops blended perfectly with the creaminess of the dish while the crab coral offered texture and a more pronounced saltiness.

scrambled egg white in fresh milk with diced scallops and crab coral

Each dish presented was just as surprising if not delightful. Stir fried minced vegetables with pine nuts were served on fresh cabbage leaves. Each crispy bite was punctuated with the crunch of the pine nuts. I imagined the cabbage rolls would be a perfect refreshing snack on a summer day, and I eagerly made another roll to challenge my host’s ribbing that I ate like a tiny bird.

cabbage roll: a refreshing start

On the contrary, in spite of my diminutive frame, I had been known to “eat like a truck driver”, wolfing down everything that got in the way, but this was not the place for such decorum. Everything around me called to be relished and savoured; besides, the piece de resistance was still on its way.

The story of the succulent wing

It seems quite odd to think that one of the thinnest parts of the chicken should be stuffed; a god can do whatever he wills apparently. And kitchen deities usually do come up with something short of spectacular.

behold, a god's masterpiece: deep fried chicken wings

The chef revealed that the deep fried chicken wings with crab meat and shark’s fin required a long and complicated preparation. He explained that he had to remove the bone and the meat from each wing, careful not to tear the fragile skin. Then he would stuff in the crab meat and shark’s fin before deep frying the wing. The result is a crispy succulent drummette, that I had one too many. He probably wipes off each wing down before serving because again, there was not a hint of grease on each, and all I could savour was the skin’s crispiness and the meat’s sweet and tender juiciness.

Palate play

 A cook of over 50 years, this 64-year-old is all traditional, but he does not shy away from innovations. During a visit to Singapore, he tried a mango dessert that inspired him to create his own. The result was the highly acclaimed chilled sago cream with fresh mango juice and pomelo. Although I am not a big fan of saccharine treats, I dipped into the gold-trimmed crystal bowl with eagerness and was delighted with the first spoonful. The citrusy pomelo reduced the creamy sweetness. Every spoonful was a play for the tongue as it sought out the tangy surprise of the pomelo.

After we dined with deity.

Such dreamy creations have not only earned Summer Palace the much coveted Michelin rating, but several other citations. The Summer Palace was named one of “Hong Kong’s 50 Finest Restaurants” in 2008 by Hong Kong Tatler and one of the ten “Great Hotel Restaurants” in the world by HOTELS Magazine (US) in 2004. But it appeared that the recognition didn’t matter to Chef Keung that much. All he seemed to care about was that I polished off my plate. As much as I didn’t want to insult the god of the kitchen, I had to beg off on account of a bulging tummy. I had to break the dream. All good stories must end after all.


Probably one of the best things about your writing is how you captivate and keep your readers' attention as early as the first sentence!! This is my inner critic speaking, refusing to be silent. :P

yum-yum-yum, yum! deliciouso!!! sarap basahin!!!

missing Hong Kong ! I can't believe it has been 4 years already!

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