Converted by high-end Cantonese cooking, The Globe and Mail

 

Converted by high-end Cantonese cooking, The Globe and Mail

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By Alexandra Gill

I’ve
always been of two minds about high-end Cantonese cooking. On the one
hand, I appreciate the fresh, clean flavours stripped down to their
simplest essence through deceptively complicated, time-consuming
techniques. On the other hand, all that purity can sometimes taste
incredibly bland.

Then I visited Hoitong Chinese Seafood Restaurant. At this small,
unassuming, family-owned establishment tucked in the back corner of a
Richmond strip mall, austerity and intensity collided in the most
savoury salt-based chicken I have ever had the pleasure of devouring.

Over
the years, I’ve eaten many salt-baked Chinese chickens (which are
usually roughly cleaved, not torn into strips). I’ve had them
salt-poached and served cold with dimply skin and ginger sand on the
side; roasted and piled on a pyre of bones with a crispy hide stretched
over top; and marinated in spicy Szechwan pepper, sesame oil and wine.

The
best renditions are free-range and locally raised with yellow skin, a
thin layer of fat and tender meat that tastes profoundly like chicken.
Not salty, not sweet, not sour – just pure chicken.

But none has
come close to matching Hoitong’s juicy morsels of breast and crunchy
golden wings, lightly bathed in a clear, deeply concentrated, velvety
mouth-coating, smile-inducing chicken sauce multiplied to the 10th
factor. It’s sheer umami bliss.

We arrive early on a Saturday
night, about a half-hour before the restaurant’s seven tables fill up.
(Reservations are highly recommended.) A sharply dressed waiter happily
informs us that the chef is in a good mood.

Yiutong Leung, now in
his early 70s, was once a top chef in Hong Kong, where he worked in
several exclusive clubs, including the private dining room at the Hong
Kong Stock Exchange.

Long admired among a certain set of
discerning diners who don’t mind paying top dollar for sophisticated
Cantonese cooking, Hoitong has recently begun capturing mainstream
attention.

At the 2012 Vancouver Magazine restaurant awards, it
earned silver for best casual Chinese. It also made an impressive
showing at the 2012 Chinese Restaurant Awards, winning three gold medals
in the critic’s choice signature dish awards – for dailang fried milk,
bitter melon omelette and pork belly with pickled vegetable and soy
beans, all of which we are about to try.

Dinner starts off with
that sublime salt-baked chicken. Oh, wait. First, there is a small plate
of peanuts that the chef earnestly roasts himself.

Palates
primed, we move onto a rarefied version of old-school mashed taro duck,
which you need to order in advance. The multilayered terrine has a
sliver of crispy skin on the bottom topped with flattened duck slowly
steamed off the bone, a thick middle of whipped taro root and a lacy
head of fried duck-taro flakes.

What sets this version apart from most taro ducks is that it seems to be assembled in separate layers.

Next up is fluffy dailang
fried milk, a soft creamy cloud stir-fried with egg whites, tossed with
fresh picked crab, and dusted with dried seafood and finely minced
cured ham.

It’s followed by bitter melon omelette, actually more
of a frittata, stuffed with gently sautéed, mouth-puckering melon that
works its strange magic on the bitter fanatics in the group – while
efficiently cleansing the rest of our palates.

 

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