VEA stands for Vicky et Antonio, aka chef Vicky Cheng and mixologist Antonio Lai, who bring us delicate food and thoughtful drinks in the best of both worlds.
Text by Tiffany Chan, food photos by Joe Kwong
When celebrated chef Vicky Cheng left Liberty Private Works, many people wondered where he’d gone. For several months, he ate his way through Europe with his wife, followed by several weeks of waking at 4am to learn to make Chinese fried doughnuts at a local congee shop. But mostly, he prepared for VEA, his new passion project with award-winning mixologist Antonio Lai.
Encompassing the top two levels of The Wellington – the 29/F lounge, and 30/F chef’s table – VEA is as much about Cheng’s thoughtful, delicate dishes as it is about Lai’s ingeniously inventive cocktails. This marriage of food and drinks manifests in an eight-course tasting menu of dishes seamlessly paired with cocktails, such as hairy crab with vinegar-tinged hua diao cocktail. Taking it a step further, VEA has also taken on Noma-trained Leszek Stachura as beverage creative director.
When asked what’s different about the food at VEA, Cheng says: “It’s still just my food … but I took time to review the reasons why I came to Hong Kong in the first place. It was the most time I’d taken off since I started cooking. I explored quite a few local restaurants, which gave me inspiration.”
Beyond the food and drink, it’s the exquisite attention to detail that makes the experience. There are branded battery packs for avid Instagrammers, thoughtful phone mats and then there are the toiletries.
“Sometimes I’ll sit inside the washroom and ponder what I would need if I brought a girl here on a first date: a few refreshments maybe, mouthwash, a toothbrush,” he says. “We never envisioned opening a restaurant just to feed people. It’s not just dinner. You will remember these experiences for the rest of your life, really.”
As for our experience, we recall vividly the chefs congregated around the plates, fastidiously perfecting each element with miniature medical tongs, their hands as steady as surgeons’. And we will remember always the joy of watching the food come to life under the light of the brass heat lamp.
Tuna belly, Hokkaido uni and espelette emulsion are blanketed in a paper-thin, blistered round of cucumber jelly. Cheng’s interpretation of a spicy tuna roll is served on a tailor-made frozen plate so it takes on a somewhat stiff texture, and we cut through it cleanly like a steak. Eaten together, we loved the fatty tuna, briny uni, crunchy rice and acidic radish. The palate cleanser that followed – a longan stuffed with a Riesling-poached grape – was beautiful, delicate and delicious.
We visited during hairy crab season. Male hairy crabmeat is tightly rolled in steamed dried green shiso and paired with baby sawagani crab, but the impressive element was the chawanmushi on the side. Light and silky smooth, it incorporated fragrant crab roe and stock made from the shells and dashi, which give it a delicate sweetness. Beyond the taste, we appreciated the holistic use of the best of male and female hairy crabs.
Traditional raviolo stuffed with spinach and ricotta is topped with rich, flavourful Tanyourian egg and white sturgeon caviar for saltiness and served with a large fried Chinese doughnut. The doughnut gave exactly the crunch the dish needed. Aerated, dense and with the clever use of truffle, it was the perfect carb to mop up the sauce. Rich as it was, we liked this immediately and found it rather addictive.
The food that blows us away is often the least expected. The last course was the most straightforward with the fewest ingredients: carbonised milk ice cream with shaved duck egg and puffed quinoa. Taking a spoonful from the bottom, we were surprised at the wonderfully contrasting textures – the puffed quinoa was crunchy rather than grainy, the frozen salted duck egg shavings imparted the slightest savoury flavour. It’s a most unlikely combination of flavours, but did it work? Absolutely.
Shiitake, Tea Longan and Rosehip Hibiscus
Our three favourite cocktails were the Shiitake, Tea Longan and Rosehip Hibiscus. In Shiitake, warm mushroom consommé is poured into whisky for a cocktail that is at once earthy and heartwarming. The Tea Longan seamlessly combines oolong tea, honey and rum in an endlessly smooth, throat-soothing drink that was somewhat medicinal, but pleasantly so. Paired with the desserts, the punchy Rosehip Hibiscus is a gin-based, floral cocktail served in a limited edition Hendrick’s Gin mug on a clear stem.
VEA Restaurant & Lounge
29/F & 30/F The Wellington, 198 Wellington Street, Central
Tel: 2711 8639
*Featured in Crave’s February 2016 issue