Restaurants & Bars 3

Sichuan Da Ping Huo (Hong Kong) - long report

foodfirst | Dec 3, 200311:00 PM

There's alleged to be a report on this restaurant on the board already, but a search turned up nothing so....
This small restaurant off of Hollywood Road was included in Saveur's 2003 "100 Best" issue. As a lover of homestyle Sichuan food I'm pretty mistrustful of anything "upscale", so I was a little fearful that this place was nothing more than a hype. At the very least, since I had chosen the setting for our first meal in HK in over two years, I was leery of being blamed by my partner for "wasted" meal. Nonetheless, reservation was secured a week ahead and we went last Saturday. It turned out I needn't have worried.

The setting is indeed industrial chic as described in Saveur (but not overly "cold"), and the walls are graced with the paintings of the husband half of the two owners (Wang Hai). His wife is the chef and after-dinner singer. Wang almost dances around the dining room during service to make sure everything is in place (straightening our chopsticks and extra napkins between courses more than once) and that the waiters are on their toes. He speaks a little English but is obviously much more comfortable with Mandarin --- when I noticed the tables of Hong Kong diners getting full descriptions of all their courses, and then indicated that we could understand Chinese, we got the full descriptions too. Here I would suggest that for non-Chinese speakers who have a real interest in Sichuan food a printed English menu of the night's dishes might be a nice touch.

There are two seatings, 6:30 and 9:15. We chose the latter and arrived on time but were asked to come back in 10 minutes (there is no bar or waiting area in the restaraurant, beer fans can walk just a few steps up Hollywood Road to the Globe, which offers a wonderous range of beers in bottles and on tap, and wine too now). Pple were still arriving at 9:40 and service didn't start till about 9:45. Not a problem.

I didn't take notes on our meal (too busy eating) but we did manage to reconstruct the menu the next day over dim sum:

cool appetizers of sweet and sour raw cucumber, small rolls of fried bean curd skin filled with fresh soft tofu and anise-y mushrooms, among other things, and jellyfish in spicy oil

rich chicken soup with lots of napa cabbage and egg

cooled poached chicken breast (skin on) bathed in chili oil

cool wide rice noodles in a spicy-sour sauce, topped with deep-fried soybeans

chili beef -- chunks of beef with plenty of fat, and crisp-tender fresh bamboo shoot slivers, in a very garlicky red chili broth, flavored with a shower of coriander (something like a water-cooked beef, but without the copious topping of huajiao)

sliced pork stir-fried with black beans, Chinese celery, and fresh peppers

a whole crab stir-fried in chili and garlic crab

pea greens in a very light broth spiced with black pepper and ginger

two (per person) large, silky-skinned pork dumplings floating in a bath of sweet soy-chili oil

dessert: a small bowl of "pearls" made of sticky/chewy tangyuan dough, finely diced Asian pear, and a few pieces of various dried fruits, in a sugar-water "broth"

Service was excellent and everything was beautifully presented (the crab, for instance -- resconstructed on the plate and garnished with glistening fried chili peppers of various hues that set off the colors of the crab shell). All dishes were served family style except for the dessert and the dumplings. The food was, quite simply, delicious. This is not precious, prettified, or toned-down Sichuan food --- the flavors are authentic, many dishes reminding me of cooking that I've had in homes in Chengdu, and most dishes were spicy --- many very very spicy. (This made me happy, that no concessions were made to diners who might not be up to the lip-tingling, tongue-frying whallop that Sichuan cuisine can pack, in spite of the fact that the entire population of the 7-tabled dining room was obviously of western or of Hong Kong/Cantonese origin. There are already enough Sichuan restaurants in Hong Kong that *do* tone it down, I think.) The dishes are also authentically oily ... perhaps not as oily as those in restaurants in Sichuan, but stir-fried dishes left a thin slick of red oil on the white plates.

Ingredients were top-notch, flavors so fresh and lively. Huajiao was used liberally but not indiscriminately (always whole, rather than ground), anise appeared in a few of the dishes but never overpowered and, though chili oil and solids were used in most of the dishes they all tasted quite distinct from each other. My list of courses doesn't do justice to the dishes themselves. For instance, the pork and black bean stir-fry included not only red and green pepper but also wok-blistered, whole fresh heaven-facing chiles with their very distinctive Sichuan-origin flavor, and the thinnest slivers of an unidentifiable very crispy, pleasantly pungent preserved vegetable. The chicken soup, so plain-sounding, was marked by one of the most richly-flavored (double-boiled, perhaps?) broths I have ever eaten, and the napa cabbage was perfectly cooked, very very soft but not mushy. The beef was melt-in-your mouth tender. The unexpected crunch of deep-fried soybeans in the soft, slippery rice noodle dish. The pea green soup was a delightful surprise, bec. it's rare to find in Chinese restaurants abroad this sort of simple, very light (I suppose the broth could have been described as looking a bit like dishwater) vegetable soup meal finisher. The thick skin of the cucumber in the appetizer was not scraped off, so as to bring it's own bitter flavor and thick, knobby texture to the dish.

If I had any complaints it would be that the sweet-sour cucumber was too sweet (and the sugar in the dressing not completely dissolved), and that the dumpling skins were a bit too tough (but the filling and the hongyou sauce were divine). And maybe that each course was too generously sized (but surely my own fault for finishing every single morsel and/or drop in every single course --- we were stuffed when we left.)

250 HK dollars per person, very reasonable IMO. The restaurant has an extensive wine list that we chose not to mine (you can also BYO, don't recall the corkage but I remember being rather shocked at how high it is), opting for a large bottle of pleasantly hoppy Yujin beer instead. There are also three or four grades and vintages of Shaoxing wine on offer (this would be my choice next visit), the most expensive being about U$50.

Service lasted about 2 and a quarter hours, and finished with a heartfelt aria by the wife-chef. A wonderful evening, after nearly rolled down the hill to Connaught Street and back to our hotel.

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