PRIDE OF THE SOUTH
New hotel restaurant shines with artful takes on Cantonese and Shanghai fare, Mike Peters discovers.
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.
Fried fish takes an elegant form in the chef’s hands, and even appetizers beautifully balance taste and presentation.