A night with chef Fei at Li Feng
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.