Restaurant review: Jiang's Hunan Chef - hottest newcomer to Kennedy Town
It's 4pm and staff at Jiang's Hunan Chef are finally taking a break before the restaurant opens again in two hours. But they are not completely free: one of the waiters has to finish picking through several large plastic bags of chilli peppers - which he says weigh about 20 catty (12 kilograms) in total - all to be used that night.
The opening of HKU MTR station has brought an influx of restaurants to newly trendy Kennedy Town and, at least judging by the spiciness of the cuisine, Jiang's Hunan Chef is literally the hottest newcomer. Opening at the end of March, the venue has already attracted a loyal following - nightly queues of diners awaiting their fiery fix are routine.
Simon Zhao Xiaobin and Jasmin Jiang Zhiming, the husband-and-wife owner operators, attribute their Hunanese restaurant's popularity to Zhao's precise market vision. "As a food paradise, Hong Kong can take pride in the excellent quality and choices of Cantonese and international cuisines available," says Zhao. "But in terms of mainland regional cuisines, it has a great deal to catch up on."
After living in Hong Kong for two decades and seeing their daughters grow up and leave home, they decided the time was ripe to fill the gap in authentic Chinese regional cuisines. Although the lack of competition and the sheer number of possible regions to choose from gave the couple plenty of options, they eventually settled on Hunan cuisine, known as Xiang for short - it's their own absolute favourite.
"Xiang cuisine is unique. The routine step of sealing ingredients in a generous amount of oil - for fragrance and removing any undesirable taste - and the liberal use of spices thereafter make the dishes some of the most addictive you can ever find," says Jiang. "Hunanese dishes may seem similar to some well-loved Sichuanuese dishes many locals are familiar with, but they will love the former better once they've tried it, as many are not a big fan of such spices as the Sichuan peppercorn."
The decision also makes a lot of sense as Zhao is Hunanese: quality control is easy when you have grown up with the cuisine. So when Zhao suggests a dish for you, such as the chilli-covered head of a bighead carp, a personal favourite of his, you know it's a recommendation you can trust. The meaty flesh remains smooth and silky after steaming, and its freshness is enhanced by two toppings - one half with some bright red zhi tianjiao, the other with some golden xiaomijiao, an even hotter green chilli.
Those two types of chilli peppers are preserved and stir-fried in advance using the chef's own recipe. They are the soul of most of the dishes, but each dish has a different blend of seasonings and preparation so that diners won't end up feeling all the dishes taste the same.
Despite his decades of cooking experience, the chef decided to hone his Hunanese skills with a spell at the Guangzhou branch of mainland restaurant chain Xiang Cun Guan.
Other popular dishes include griddle-cooked frog and sautéed spare ribs with cumin. While the former comes sizzling on a chafing dish, with a tantalising aroma from garlic shoots and bean paste, the latter has very tender meat with a pleasantly complex marinade. If you're feeling adventurous, try the scrambled eggs with green peppers as there is no avoiding the chilli and every bite of the creamy egg explodes with heat.
The acidic century egg with chilli is an appetiser you don't want to miss. At the other end of your meal is the chef's fried rice. Even when everyone is so full, the smoky fragrance from the diced preserved meat - another signature ingredient in Hunan cuisine - and the fluffy, grain-by-grain texture of the rice will keep luring you to reach for more until the plate is empty.
And while we don't recommend it, most dishes can be made in mild versions as everything is made to order.
Jiang is glad that the venue is doing so well simply by word-of-mouth and despite a lot of challenges - including the high costs of rent, labour and raw materials - they are looking to open new branches around Hong Kong as soon as they can.
G/F, Fu Ga Bldg, 13 Yat Fu Lane, Sai Wan, tel: 3956 8873