Howard Cai brings his modern, science-based delicate Chinese cuisine across the border to Hong Kong.
*Featured in Crave’s March 2016 issue
Text by Tiffany Chan, photos by Samantha Sin
In our last issue, innovative restaurateur Howard Cai talked about his vision for modern Chinese cuisine. This month, we visit his first restaurant in Hong Kong, which opened in December amid much fanfare.
While Howard’s Gourmet Workshop in Guangzhou has just six tables, Cai’s Hong Kong venture can seat up to 120 guests in six dining rooms. Designed by Sir David Tang, the palatial interior exudes extravagance without being kitsch – think soaring French windows, bold patterned carpets and hefty, curvy chandeliers. The menu, which changes daily according to what’s available and is tailored to each party, starts at $800 per person for lunch and $1,680 for dinner.
Diners get a taste of Cai’s experiments over the past decade to apply science to his cooking and perfect Chinese dishes. “Very few people in China touch this eld, all they do is cook,” he groans. And despite all his meticulous experiments and complex technicalities Cai believes simplicity is key. Fundamental to his “delicate Chinese cuisine” is the quality of the natural ingredients (“good food is never produced,” he says), and how one treats it to bring out its essence.
Take his signature sea cucumber dish, for instance. “Many people say they don’t like to eat sea cucumber, because it has no taste, or they don’t like the texture. If you make it well, sea cucumber is chewy, like fish maw or rice cakes, not pig skin,” he says. “Most chefs blanch it until the sea cucumber is 2.5 times the size; they overdo it and it’s all broken and rubbery inside. Then, they mix a lot of things to cover it up – what I call applying make-up. I blanch it only until it’s 1.5 times the size to keep the fibre and gelatin intact. This results in a sticky texture, which is different to the chewiness we’re traditionally used to.”
As we leave, Cai repeats: “Food is ultimately about making something delicious.”
“In China, we like to say: colour, aroma and taste. In modern society, taste is important above all else. If it looks good, you might like it for a moment. If it smells good, you might feel as if you’ve been tricked. But if I give you something delicious, you’ll be grateful,” he says.
1. Golden Bite
Nine stomach fish is usually served fried with salt and pepper, but Cai lightly sears the fish in a pan before deep- frying in tempura batter. The result is hot, tender fish encased in a thin golden tempura skin that remains crispy even a few minutes after serving. We’d half expected the moisture from the fish to soak through the tempura skin, but we loved how crispy it was while still being able to taste the fish itself. Dipping it in the tangerine sauce gives it a slightly sweet acidity, but is not entirely necessary.
2. Signature Crispy Sea Cucumber
Traditional sea cucumber is rubbery and generally not well-loved, but this version had an unusual texture – sticky and chewy like rice cakes inside, and crisp on the outside. The light sauce is thickened not with cornstarch but with chicken, pork and Yunan Kam Wah ham in a pressure cooker for a clean, concentrated flavour. Our table unanimously concluded that we had never tasted sea cucumber like this before. Cai’s signature did not disappoint.
3. Cod Fish with Ginger and Spring Onion
French cod is pan-fried on both sides and served on creamy sauce garnished with deep-fried Chiu Chow jun jiu choi, or pearl vegetable. Cai incorporates the juice of ginger and spring onion in the sauce rather than piling the dish with slivers of ginger and spring onion which often overwhelms the fish and can add unwanted spiciness from the ginger. We loved the clever use of the ginger juice and found this a balanced and much-improved version of the traditional fish dish.
4. Hot and Sour Noodle Soup
The highly anticipated hot and sour noodle soup is one of Cai’s signatures. We were surprised at the large portion given how late into the meal it was served, but we loved every mouthful. Cai uses lemon juice instead of vinegar for acidity, balancing it with home-made chilli sauce and Facing Heaven chilli. It had a soft, rounded sour-spiciness that lingered in the mouth. The home-made noodles were chewy and absorbed the soup wonderfully. The basil and onions are so finely chopped they’re hardly visible, but their pungent fragrance was unmistakable.
5. Taro with Lap Cheong
After the sour and spicy comes the sweet and savoury. Steamed taro with lap cheong or Chinese sausage is a traditional Chiu Chow dish at Lunar New Year. The sweet-salty dish can be strange, but when done well, it’s very good. The taro is steamed in rock sugar for the slightest sweetness, and the lap cheong pan-fried to add aroma. We’d never had this combination of taro and sausage before, but it blended well. It was too heavy for us to finish, but was delicious nonetheless.
5/F CCB Tower, 3 Connaught Road, Central
Tel: 2115 3388