Sunday, January 11, 2009

postcard from hong kong

"So where is this restaurant?"
"In IFC."
"We're going to IFC? For soup dumplings? I thought we were headed someplace more... hole-in-the-wall."
"No, it's in IFC. Don't worry, it's good."

Welcome to another episode of the Adele-and-Lucille show. It's the same routine, but this time, Lucille's taking charge. We're back in Hong Kong for winter vacation, which puts me firmly on her territory.

Unlike me, Lucille chose not to spend her high school years at boarding school in the middle of nowhere, New England. She knows Hong Kong far more intimately than I do. If she claims that there's a restaurant in the International Finance Center that serves good soup dumplings, I'll just have to take her word for it.

The International Finance Center, despite its impressive name, is really just a high-end shopping mall. I follow Lucille up and down escalators, past stores selling expensive shoes and designer swimwear, until we pull to a stop outside a storefront with windows of patterned frosted glass. There's a small crowd of people milling about by the entrance.

Lucille eyes the crowd and immediately darts up to the reception desk. She comes back with a numbered slip in hand. "We'll have to wait, but it shouldn't be too long," she says.

I take the time to look around. The restaurant has the rather unwieldy name of Crystal Jade La Mian Xiao Long Bao. It does make their specialties obvious, however: la mian are hand-pulled noodles, and xiao long bao are soup dumplings.

Xiao long bao, literally "small basket dumplings," are a specialty of Shanghai cuisine. They're also known as soup dumplings: not because they're served in soup, but because they contain soup, of a sort. Xiao long bao contain the standard dumpling filling of ground pork, but they also contain a spoonful of jellied broth. Once the dumplings are steamed, the cube melts, and the pork is bathed in the resulting liquid.

When done right, xiao long bao have skins so tender you have to be careful lifting them from the steamer basket; just a little force is enough to make them burst open in a flood of rich, savory soup. Lucille has promised me that this place, despite the unpromising location and unwieldy name, definitely does them right.

Half an hour passes, and Lucille is just starting to get antsy when our number comes up. A waiter shows us to a table in the middle of the dining room. Like all good Chinese restaurants, it's brightly-lit and noisy, and the tables are set closely enough together that you can see what your neighbors have ordered.

I'm all for ordering few steamers of xiao long bao and adding a plate of whatever it is that the table to our left is eating (some sort of seafood, I think), but Lucille has other ideas. She opens the menu and starts scanning it with fierce concentration.

"We should get the chicken salad. And the egg dish with scallops."
"Chicken salad? Egg dish? What kind of restaurant have you brought me to?"
"On the first page."

I open my menu warily. Not only does Lucille know Hong Kong much better than I do, she also reads more Chinese. Fortunately, the menu at Crystal Jade is written in both Chinese and English, and even has a color picture of each dish. A quick scan reveals that Lucille's "chicken salad" is a cold appetizer of liang pi (a kind of glass noodle) tossed with shredded chicken and cucumber in a peanut-sesame sauce. The "egg dish" is egg white cooked with conpoy (dried scallops), sauced with egg yolk.

After a brief discussion, Lucille flags down a waiter, and we put in an order of liang pi with shredded chicken, egg white with compoy, fried la mian with eel, and three steamers of xiao long bao. Lucille settles back in her chair and sighs in happy anticipation.

"How did you find this place?"
"My co-workers brought me here during the summer."
"I thought your friends told you about it."
"No, they came here for lunch all the time."

Our waiter arrives with the liang pi, and Lucille eagerly turns her attention to her chopsticks. The dish is a tangle of wide glass noodles in peanut-sesame sauce, topped with shredded chicken and julienned cucumber. The cucumber is cut into thread-fine shreds, which is a good sign: it takes impressive skill to turn out vegetables with that kind of delicacy using a traditional Chinese cleaver, the sort that is hefty enough to cut through large bones.

I reach for my chopsticks and pick up some of the salad. The glass noodles are firm without being too chewy, and they contrast nicely against the crunch of the cucumber and the softness of the chicken. The sauce is rich and thick, but avoids the gluey peanut-butter-on-the-roof-of-the-mouth sensation. If the salad is any indication, this is going to be an excellent meal.

Lucille and I make quick work of the liang pi, and our waiter clears away the plate to make room for the egg white with compoy and the fried la mian with eel.

Lucille grabs the serving spoon for the eggs, so I turn my attention to the fried la mian first. The hand-pulled noodles are deliciously chewy, and the soy sauce seasoning works nicely with the sweetness of the eel strips. The dish is salty and greasy in the best way, and I imagine that it might be the perfect dish for a quick lunch.

The egg white with compoy is unlike anything I've ever eaten before. The texture is reminiscent of scrambled eggs or silken tofu, but the flavor is very umami from the scallops, with an underlying richness from the egg yolk. I'm working my way through a second helping when the xiao long bao arrive.

Our waiter sets down a stack of steamer baskets and dishes of ginger. We add vinegar to the ginger from the little jug on the table, and ready our spoons and and chopsticks.

To prepare a soup dumpling for consumption, you begin by using your chopsticks to carefully (very carefully) lift a dumpling from the steamer basket, and place it on your spoon. You then nip off the top of the dumpling, and pour in a dribble of gingered vinegar.

From here, the methods are as varied as the ones people use to consume Oreos. You can sip the soup from the dumpling before eating it, or you can bite a hole in the dumpling skin to let the soup out, use your chopsticks to pick up the dumpling, and then drink the soup left in the spoon. As long as it gets the dumpling from the spoon to your mouth without spilling any of the soup, it's fair game.

Lucille has made good on her promise. The xiao long bao have lovely translucent skins, encasing a remarkably light meat filling with plenty of flavorful broth. The table lapses into silence as we settle into a rhythm: pick up dumpling, nip the top, add the vinegar, eat.

When the last dumpling is gone, Lucille signals to the waiter for the check. Most Chinese restaurants don't have much in the way of dessert options, and there's still a crowd outside the door, so we'll make our exit speedy. We settle the bill and leave the restaurant, making our way back through the mall.

"Did you like it?"
"Yes. The soup dumplings were perfect."

Lucille refrains from telling me "I told you so." I guess I'll have to let her play restaurant guide more often.


Virgin In The Volcano said...

Sounds terrific.

Julie said...

If that restaurant were any closer than half way across the world I'd already be making plans to eat there. That lunch sounds wonderful.

adele said...

Virgin - My sister and I have discovered that we actually get along pretty well when there's a table between us.

Julie - If you're ever in Hong Kong...

Yulinka said...

Sounds great. You're lucky to be able to spend winter break in Hong Kong!