In Hong Kong, rich and decadent cuisine makes a comeback
After years of talking up lean cuisine, local chefs are losing their inhibitions about putting decadent food on our plates
Dietary advice can be a minefield for the layman, especially for its apparent ability to change on a whim and its use as the rationale behind some fairly faddish diets.
The latest apparently clear advice - bearing in mind I'm no doctor - is that for most of us there is no need to worry about dietary cholesterol. This news comes not long after the blame for many health problems has been switched from fat to sugar.
It seems a happy coincidence that this advice comes as Hong Kong chefs are losing their inhibitions about putting rich, decadent food on our plates.
A phrase we're hearing quite often from chefs is: "I cook what I like to eat." What chefs like to eat seems to be packed with seafood, red meat and fatty dairy products - if it's not the fried chicken currently experiencing a boom.
It also seems as though some Hong Kong chefs want to put the smiles back on Hongkongers' faces in difficult times. The Stone Nullah Tavern is abandoning its modern American menu to concentrate on New England and east coast classics, meaning a menu stuffed with dishes such as pork cheek chilli with melted cheddar, king crab legs with drawn butter or maple barbecue glazed ribs with gorgonzola slaw and dill pickle.
That menu is not exclusively rich but plenty of other decadent dishes have caught our attention recently.
How about the foie gras and prawn cutlets on toast at Lai Bun Fu? Some would say that the whole menu is rich, in the sense that you need to have a fat wallet to eat at the former chief executive's chef's restaurant, but this dish is especially striking in its decadence.
Arguably, it's a great way to limber up the stomach for the extra special hot pot with fish maw, abalone, sea cucumber and goose web or traditional style steamed chicken stuffed with abalone, dried scallop, fish maw, sea cucumber and shiitake mushroom.
Western restaurants are putting tradition back on the menu as well. Old-world-style cocktail bar Stockton has a classic baked camembert on the menu, while The Butchers Club Deli goes back to the 1970s on Wednesday nights with chicken liver pâté, lobster thermidor, beef Wellington and Black Forest gateau. It's rare to be served a warm lobster dish in Hong Kong and this one is very flavoursome.
The beef Wellington is a three-inch thick slice of fillet wrapped in a mushroom duxelle and pastry. The foie gras that is often part of the wrapping for the beef is here used in the sauce. Too much sauce would be overwhelming but the portion is judicious, unlike the dessert which is so rich it's difficult to finish.
Richness is no obstacle for Sean Mell, the new executive chef at Nobu at the InterContinental Hong Kong.
Dishes appearing on his new Osusume, or chef's menu include prawns wrapped in shredded filo pastry and topped with caviar, a Greek twist on Nobu's contemporary Japanese cuisine, and foie gras with pickled cherry on home-made bao toast, a play on the classic French pairing of the foie gras with fruit. Lobster comes in a truffle dressing and crispy shiitake mushrooms that the chef jokingly calls "mushroom bacon" because of their decadence and their umami flavour. The presence of a large mound of lettuce is initially puzzling, but the dish needs something plain to balance its decadence. One of many outstanding dishes sampled is a baked king crab leg with uni butter. "When I say uni butter, it's about 90 per cent uni and 10 per cent butter," the chef says.
Many people naturally associate the cooking of Venice with seafood, as the city sits on a lagoon, says chef Enrico Bartolini, who develops the modern take on traditional regional recipes at Sepa Bacaro Veneziano restaurant. "But the Venetian republic extended to Milan and had a huge inland. Rich traders and nobles had estates with beef, game and lamb. They were all part of the cooking culture."
Despite this, one of the richest dishes on the venue's new spring menu is sea urchin spaghetti, a generous smear of the iodine rich and creamy seafood on perfectly al dente pasta. It would be unfair to say this dish characterised the menu, as other plates, such as the spaghetti with smoked eel or the veal tongue, mustard and salsa verde in a bread roll are definitely lighter.
Historically, Venice has also been known as a home to duck hunting, enjoyed by writer Ernest Hemingway among others and duck tagliatelle has been on Sepa's special's board since the opening. The ragu for the dish is made by skinning the duck and rendering the skin for fat to brown the meat in. The meat is then braised in a stock made from the duck bones.
At Alibi - Wine Dine Be Social, chef Tim Bruges is another who cooks what he likes to eat and it seems as though the New Zealander likes to tuck it away. Snacks feature a bruschetta topped with lardo di Colonnata - a cured lard or pig fat. This, in turn, is topped with honey, thyme and truffle and is very moreish. So is the braised wagyu bone marrow truffle that comes with crostini and a fig and whiskey chutney. I am told this dish is designed for sharing. The manchego and bomba rice fritters, a Spanish take on Italian arancini, or the crispy Spanish anchovies with sea urchin mayonnaise might spark a "discussion" or two over who is getting the last one.
Of course, if you are going light on the starches, then Bruges' steamed chocolate pudding, served in a dim sum basket, might seem tempting.
Alas, the salted caramel sauce makes it a no-no for weight watchers - at least according to this week's health advice.