19 January 2016

Southern celebrity

Southern celebrity
The sampler from Sun Tung Lok in Beijing (from top): French beans, braised beef short ribs, amarnath leaves with scallops and siew mai. Photos by Pauline D. Loh / China Daily

A three-star Michelin Chinese restaurant from Hong Kong challenges the north with a branch in Beijing. Pauline D. Loh explores the menu and the stories.

Two white stone lions guard the entrance, and red ribbons tied around their necks announce that the restaurant is officially ready for visitors, finally. Sun Tung Lok is now in Beijing. As is fitting for a Chinese restaurant that has won the rare honor of being awarded three Michelin stars in its native Hong Kong, Sun Tung Lok comes with major baggage - its formidable reputation. Its owners, the Yuen family, are from a culinary dynasty that has been in the business for more than 40 years, and they are setting out to conquer the capital with a carefully planned strategy.

The first step was location.

Sun Tung Lok in Beijing is housed in Xianliang Si, the Temple of the Sage and Virtuous, on Jinyu (Goldfish) Hutong in Wangfujing. Just a stone's throw away from the Palace, this was the residence of Prince Yi, the 13th brother of the Emperor Yongzheng (1722-1735).

But it was Li Hongzhang (1823-1901) who really made the place famous. The leading statesman of the last imperial dynasty lived here for more than 30 years, during which he shaped Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) foreign policy and mooted China's military and industrial modernization as the viceroy of Zhili and superintendent of trade.

After he signed the debilitating treaties with foreign powers in the aftermath of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, he died in his bedroom, sick and heart weary.

The current courtyard is just a small part of the residence, with most of it demolished in the 1990s and replaced by a modern hotel.

According to its owners, Sun Tung Lok spent an undisclosed sum leasing the place, but it cannot have come cheap.

A short corridor just inside the entrance presents a pictorial history on the walls, and diners may pause here to soak up a bit of the ambience. The main dining room to the left is a picture of modern comfort, but small.

Most of Sun Tung Lok's clientele prefer private dining rooms, and it is these elegantly furnished spaces that take up most of the courtyard.

Ancient trees of apricot, persimmon and pomegranate are planted in the courtyard gardens and there is even a 300-year-old bignonia tree that still stands outside what was once the viceroy's bedroom. It is protected under National Natural Heritage laws.

Li Hongzhang's boudoir is now suitably furnished as a private banquet room and a carved copy of his calligraphy looks down upon a huge table that can seat 12, or more.

It is all rosewood, ebony and ivory, and the room is a mini-museum of the rare and beautiful.

Other private rooms are just as carefully coutured, less opulent but hardly plebeian. Suitably impressed by the setting, we took time to look at the food more closely. This is, after all, the main act.

Sun Tung Lok first made its name with "bao, shen, chi" - abalone, beche de mer and sharks fin. These were in less politically correct times, surely, but heritage - culinary and otherwise - must be respected.

To the restaurant's credit, its room captains are politely discreet. While the abalone, sea cucumber and shark fin dishes are colorfully highlighted in the menu, they are not actively pushed.

Instead, the captains smilingly introduce dishes that have helped win the Michelin stars in Sun Tung Lok's Tsimshatsui outlets. These include stuffed flower crab, a beautifully braised beef short-rib and its signature king prawn tempura.
For me, the best test of a chef's skill comes with the simplest dishes. At Sun Tung Lok, the proof arrived with a platter of French beans with pork.

This is a classic vegetable dish that is extremely popular, and offered from roadside hole-in-the-wall eateries to five-star hotel food and beverage outlets.

Few do it well because it's all in the details, but the kitchen team at Sun Tung Lok is obviously proud of its craft.

The French beans are carefully topped, tailed and stringed and quickly deep-fried - a classic Cantonese cooking method that is called "running through oil".

What results are tender beans with slightly crinkled skin. They are also surprisingly clean tasting as the hot oil slips off the beans and do not stay on the vegetables.

The pork is carefully hand-cut into tiny, tiny cubes and not stuffed into the mincer. This is important because mincing the pork would make it clump and the meat mixture would not thoroughly coat the vegetables, as is intended.

This is a dish where the vegetables are the main attraction, and the meat is flavoring. Incidentally, I also detected strips of mui choy, a sweet pickled vegetable that added a nice piquancy to the dish.

Further proof of Sun Tung Lok's kitchen artistry was another vegetable dish.
This was a bowl of tender amaranth leaves topped with delicate slivers of white bamboo boletus and golden shredded scallops. It is a luxurious indulgence of fresh, palate cleansing flavors full of the subtle fragrance and sweetness of dried scallops.

We also sampled the signature braised beef short ribs, which was part of the Hong Kong Michelin-star menu.

A generous chunk of fork tender rib on the bone is served in a pool of honeyed sauce and accompanied by zucchini batons. The table actually fell silent as each diner got busy with the dish - always a good indicator.

The spouse suddenly raises his head and asks for a bowl of rice. The flavors were rich and strong and a bowl of rice, or even mashed potatoes, would have allowed us to enjoy the intensity even better.

Sun Tung Lok offers a classic selection of dim sum, including shrimp dumplings or har gow, and meat dumplings, siew mai.

To cater for northern palates, the chefs had included a few new dishes that will never appear on their Hong Kong menus. One of them is a palate-numbing hot smashed cucumber salad.

I beg to disagree. If diners wanted northern dishes, they would hardly go to Sun Tung Lok. By choosing the restaurant, they want what it does best - Hong Kong Cantonese flavors that concentrate on fresh delicate tastes and tested kitchen skills.

It is a pleasure to savor the winning skills of Sun Tung Lok chefs in Beijing and it certainly brings back memories of childhood treats at its original flagship restaurant at Causeway Bay.

Chinese sages say success depends on tianshi, dili, renhe - perfect timing, a profitable location and human harmony. At the Temple of the Sage and Virtuous, these seem to be mostly in place.

Cang Lide contributed to the story.