05 January 2016

Summer lights

Summer lights
Turbot fillet, drizzled with salted black bean sauce, is the centerpiece of the meal prepared by chef Ku Chi-fai with Yu Chinese Restaurant in Beijing.[Photo by Fan Zhen/China Daily]
Summer lights
Vegetable soup is cooked in Cantonese style. [Photo by Fan Zhen/China Daily]

In the hot, humid summer, appetites flag and even the most delicious offerings on the table can go untouched. It takes an exceptional chef to tempt them, and Pauline D. Loh meets one.

It would have been a run-of-the-mill food tasting, except this was Ku Chi-fai's new summer menu at the Yu Restaurant of the Ritz-Carlton. By the time the soup was brought to us, we were convinced once again that he is one of the most outstanding Cantonese chefs in the capital.

His influences are many but he has drawn deep into a provincial culinary heritage that promotes the fresh and seasonal.

Summer lights
First up was a delightful appetizer that was indeed fresh and luxurious - small bites that titillated, but did not overwhelm.

One perfect scallop was halved and pan-grilled, and accompanied by slim, tender lotus shoots, a bud of broccoli and an asparagus spear.

However, it was the side dish of sour plum-marinated peeled tomato that woke our palates.

It was a flavor burst that literally opened our eyes, and we marveled that no one had thought of this combination before.

Every dish after that followed the same pattern. What seemed like quite ordinary ingredients were made special by the surprising pairings. All were light, but slightly decadent and exactly what would brighten up summer for the jaded gourmet.

Take the thin slices of Kurobuta pork that came with lychee and pineapple balls. The rich, almost bacon-like slices were balanced out by the summer fruits. Lychee added sweetness, and it was the tart, tight balls of pineapple that sliced through the fat and cleansed the taste buds.

The fish dish was delicate fillets of snow-white turbot lightly drizzled with a traditional salted black-bean sauce, a very Cantonese seasoning that lifts the appetite. All of these sat on top of barely wobbling egg-white custard.

The mastery of this combination frankly took my breath away. It was art on a plate, and a treat for the palate.

Imagine soft, sweet fish dissolving on your tongue, and suddenly biting into a solitary deeply salted black bean. Then imagine cooling the after-taste with delicate custard that glides down your throat. It's like stroking mink.

The next dish brought us to a different time zone. It was curry, but a mild sweet curry rich with coconut milk crowned with two lightly fried king prawns.

It was the side dish that gave us a hint of how the chef wanted us to enjoy the dish. Tiny squares of deep-fried mantou, or Chinese bread, invited us to soak up the sauce with them.

Instantly, images of seafood restaurants along a tropical seashore floated to consciousness, and we were back in Singapore eating curry fish head and chili crabs.

Chef Ku brings the diners back home with a traditional-style soup.

Of course, that touch of luxury was still apparent in the suckling pig used to make the stock, but the dried mustard greens and the sweet water chestnuts were definitely part of the Cantonese grandmother's kitchen repertoire.

The meal ended with a classic Cantonese fried rice topped with shredded scallop jerky, and an amazing vegetable that made us tip our hats a final time.

Winter melon, or wax gourd, is a very common summer vegetable, but it can be very bland, not being an exciting ingredient at the best of times. Chef Ku braised it with a hot chili bean sauce and minced pork, and that immediately elevated the melon batons into a gourmet experience.

In a city that is fast becoming one of the gourmet hubs of a huge country, many excellent chefs compete for attention in Beijing. It is hard to stand out, and it is even harder when you come up against a chef like Ku. Compliments to the chef.