The Fussy Eater
Shui Hu Ju Restaurant
G/F, 51A Graham Street, Central.
Tel: 2869 6927
TUCKED AWAY ON the steep slope that is Graham Street, slightly removed from the mainstream SoHo scene, are a pair of huge wooden and metal embossed Chinese village doors. Enter here and you are in a tiny, cramped restaurant kitted out with huge charm as an old-fashioned rural dining room. Somehow dining room describes it better than restaurant. It has a clubby, personal feel, as if one has been invited home to dinner.
The food is Shanghainese-inspired but slightly reinvented. The handwritten menu is short - for a Chinese restaurant. You just know that the two partners who work the room with laid-back efficiency and enthusiasm want you to have a good time and love their food.
Start with Shanghainese-style cold dishes. The marinated cucumber with hand-shredded chicken ($88) was excellent, with clean, fresh flavours and served with a pungent dipping sauce. Also successful was the dish of eggplant batons smothered in crisp fried garlic ($58). Eggplant absorbs huge amounts of oil in cooking, but these had been steamed to keep them light and greaseless, with the flavour coming from the garlic blanket.
The partners were proud of their squid braised in its own ink ($88), which was black and briny, with a blast of flavour.
A platter of Beijing-style crispy mutton ($128) turned out to be a treat. Each mouthful combined a thin layer of rich gelatinous fat sandwiched between crisp, crackling skin and tender, melt-away meat. It was a dish that had to have been cooked long and slow to reach this quality of textures, and then blasted quickly at high heat to crispen the skin.
On a previous visit, we had enjoyed another slowly cooked dish - braised beef (a section of veal knuckle, as in osso bucco) in a sweet soy sauce. Tiny china spoons were brought to dig into the marrow and steamed bread to mop up the sauce.
Vegetables are treated with care and reverence. Batons of bland winter melon in a 'milky' broth were garnished with shards of salty Chinese ham. A dish of what the owners called 'jade' vegetables ($78) turned out to be the shredded stem of a pale green Yunnan vegetable (they were a bit vague on the name), stir-fried with just enough oil to give it a shine and gleam. Right through the meal it was noticeable that oil had been very sparingly used.
They cook well at this place. Flavours were bold and intense as one would expect from Shanghainese-style food, but they also knew how to show appropriate restraint. The cooking was innovative without letting innovation rule for its own sake. Each dish had a little surprise, a little twist or personal touch. Their food was thought through and well-executed.
A guest commented that the restaurant looked like a teahouse from a classic kung fu movie. It did rather, and the owners had a keen eye for detail so that it all looked and felt just right. It wasn't a concept-theme restaurant put together by consultants and designers - so common in SoHo - and that's refreshing.
It only opens in the evening and they try to have two seatings, one at 6.30pm and the other at 8.30pm. Dinner for four was $886.