PRIDE OF THE SOUTH

New ho­tel restau­rant shines with art­ful takes on Can­tonese and Shang­hai fare, Mike Peters dis­cov­ers.

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - Con­tact the writer at michaelpeters@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Rocky Le­ung is a play­ful chef, de­light­ing in sur­prises even as he shep­herds the tra­di­tions of Chi­nese cook­ing in his kitchen atManHo.

Our re­cent visit to his brand-new restau­rant at the Mar­riott Hangzhou in­cluded, for ex­am­ple, fried chicken meat­ball with straw­berry sauce and herbs. If this sounds as gauche as Colonel San­ders smear­ing cheap jam on ground chicken, wait un­til you taste it. Fresh in­gre­di­ents and a del­i­cate touch make the dish light and lively.

While Hangzhou’s fa­mous cui­sine has a prom­i­nent place on the menu, Le­ung’s heart and culi­nary roots are in Shang­hai and Guangzhou. That sug­gests his sig­na­ture dishes will fa­vor sweet­ness and soy over the vine­gary edge of­manyWest Lake spe­cial­ties.

All three cuisines cel­e­brate the va­ri­ety of fresh seafood avail­able to chefs in those re­gions. That pen­chant— and Le­ung’s pretty whimsy — are per­fectly shown in the au­tumn-menu tur­bot. The del­i­cate flesh is cooked two ways, then pre­sented in a flour­ish with the skele­tal “shell” of the fish as a crun­chily ed­i­ble bowl.

Next in the pa­rade of dishes: fish soup Shunde style.

Both a re­gion in Guang­dong prov­ince and a style of cui­sine, Shunde has been called “the back­bone of exquisite Can­tonese cook­ing”. Del­i­cately bal­anc­ing taste and tex­ture, tech­niques that can be com­pli­cated turn sim­ple dishes into culi­nary tri­umphs.

Le­ung takes a clas­sic fish­head soup, then adds ul­tra­ten­der carp flesh that has been both fried and poached to give the soup a rich, creamy color. Sim­ply sea­soned, the rich sweet­ness of the fish is a sen­sory delight in both aroma and taste.

Next came a burst of fresh­ness, a salad-like course of mar­i­nated “as­para­gus let­tuce” with sesame oil. The veg­etable is cel­tuce, a cul­ti­var of let­tuce grown pri­mar­ily for its thick stem, not the leaves. It’s par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar in China ( wosun in pinyin, but of­ten called youmaicai in the south), and on a plate it’s al­most un­rec­og­niz­able as the plant sold whole in wet mar­kets. The stem is usu­ally har­vested when around 3 to 4 cen­time­ters thick: It is crisp, moist and mildly fla­vored — usu­ally pre­pared by slic­ing and then stir-fry­ing with more strongly fla­vored in­gre­di­ents.

Our sec­ond main course was Le­ung’s ver­sion of crispy pork belly.

Once again, a twice-cooked process de­liv­ered great con­trast. The meat at the heart of each morsel is very ten­der and sur­pris­ingly lean. Le­ung packs the pork’s sin­ful side in the crispy top, brit­tle after a flash broil­ing and salty thanks to a bast­ing of rich soy sauce. The re­sult is not guilt­free, but it’s far from the ex­ces­sive cel­e­bra­tion of fat’s de­li­cious­ness that is of­ten served up else­where.

And why go to a fancy restau­rant with­out some guilty plea­sure?

Speak­ing of guilty plea­sure: Don’t for­get dessert. The mango and pomelo served in sago cream is a light and re­fresh­ing fin­ish that won’t leave you too full.

PHO­TOS BY MIKE PETERS / CHINA DAILY

Fried fish takes an ele­gant form in the chef’s hands, and even ap­pe­tiz­ers beau­ti­fully bal­ance taste and pre­sen­ta­tion.

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