A night with chef Fei at Li Feng

The Jakarta Post - JPlus - - Between The Lines - WORDS AND PHO­TOS KEVINDRA PRIANTO SOEMANTRI

Just call him Fei, un­less you want to twist your tongue. Fei is the pro­pri­etor of the Jiang restau­rant at the Man­darin Ori­en­tal ho­tel in Guangzhou, China, and he re­ceived an award in 2015 that gave him the ti­tle of no one less than China’s Best Chef. When Li Feng — a lav­ish Can­tonese restau­rant — was built as the new face of the Chi­nese restau­rant at the Man­darin Ori­en­tal Jakarta, re­plac­ing the Xin-Hwa restau­rant, Fei was asked to be­come the con­sul­tant Chi­nese chef for the ho­tel. The food at Li Feng dif­fers from that at Xin-Hwa or any other typ­i­cal grand Chi­nese restau­rant. Since its open­ing a few months ago, the Li Feng has be­come the talk of the city, merely be­cause of it’s cui­sine: art­ful, thought­ful yet de­light­ful. On Nov. 13, Fei paid a visit to Jakarta to bring his cook­ing skills to the Li Feng. He greeted me with his sig­na­ture smile. Although not flu­ent in English, Fei tried his best to ex­plain his idea be­hind the evening’s menu, with the help of the restau­rant’s ex­ec­u­tive chef, Loy. Sap­phire was the ti­tle of the menu.

We be­gan the evening with a plat­ter of what could be con­sid­ered an ap­pe­tizer: slices of braised beef shanks in soya sauce. Beef shank is one of the tough­est types of meat, yet skill­ful cook­ing can trans­form its hard­ness into a de­lec­ta­ble prod­uct, as Fei proved. He braised the shank with Chi­nese soya sauce, with a hint of smok­i­ness and just a light taste of lay­ers of Chi­nese spices, with just the right mea­sure of salti­ness.

After the beef, we moved on to the honey wal­nuts in the mid­dle: a nice heap of golden, shiny wal­nuts coated with honey and se­same. Salty and sweet, crunchy and yes, ad­dic­tive. So we ar­rived at the last ap­pe­tizer item, two ruby stone-like cherry toma­toes in a pond of co­conut milk. I won­dered what that might taste like, given the quite un­usual com­bi­na­tion of rich and distinc­tive co­conut milk with the sour, tangy cherry toma­toes. It turned out to be a pe­cu­liar de­light when sweet­ness of the cherry tomato mar­ried with the earth­i­ness of the co­conut, and when the juicy tomato liq­ue­fied the milk, a fine strike of sour­ness bal­anced it all out.

My eyes rolled in a pleas­ing man­ner, trig­ger­ing my col­league’s re­sponse of the night: “The fla­vor is unique, isn’t it?”

As we fin­ished the plat­ter, Nathalia, one of the smartest and most thought­ful wait­resses in the city, brought to our ta­ble some­thing fa­mil­iar, but we knew that when Fei made some­thing, it would never be just your usual meal. It was Can­tonese boiled chicken, sliced and topped with a grainy sauce of spring onion and gin­ger. It was silky, sexy to the ap­pear­ance, with sheen from its own nat­u­ral oil of the per­fectly cooked skin and moist flesh.

Chi­nese boiled chicken has never been as but­tery and de­light­ful as this; it slid down right away after en­ter­ing the mouth, leav­ing only a sense of want­ing more. The gin­ger and spring onion sauce was just a nice ad­di­tion to the chicken.

“What a perfect dish to eat on rainy Jakarta day,” said Mar­lene Danusut­edjo, di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Man­darin Ori­en­tal Jakarta. To warm us up from the heavy rain, Fei pre­sented the next dish from his Sap­phire menu, stewed mat­su­take, dried scal­lop and fish maw in a crys­tal clear soup. Sip­ping up the broth was com­fort­ing; the fla­vor just right to tease your palate and prompt you to go for more.

Re­spect for sim­plic­ity and an em­pha­sis on re­fined taste is the way Fei deals with ingredients. As I thought the next dish would be over­whelm­ing, a pan fried lob­ster with em­peror black soy sauce, it turned out to be bril­liantly sea­soned, ac­cen­tu­at­ing the nat­u­ral sweet­ness of the lob­ster in a sa­vory, so­phis­ti­cated way — a true in­dul­gence.

It is not Asian food with­out rice, so the next course was fluffy Ja­panese rice, cooked with soya and just the sim­plest of spices.

“Now it’s com­plete,” I told Mar­lene, who re­sponded with a nod. Atop the rice sat a gem of Chi­nese seafood cui­sine, braised abalone. Nice, chunky tex­ture, but not gummy, a marsh­mal­low of the sea.

Us­ing only the best seasonal ingredients, im­pec­ca­bly pre­pared ac­cord­ing to time­honored tra­di­tions, Fei has cre­ated a menu that ex­cites and de­lights in equal mea­sure. So if you hap­pen to visit Guangzhou, do pay a visit to Jiang, ar­guably the city’s finest Can­tonese restau­rant — as I will also do.

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