Hunan Garden Restaurant

The large dining room of Hunan Gardens looks impressively grand and historical, with wood paneled walls bearing large oil paintings, white pillars, and big chandeliers hanging down from the ceiling above. It’s all fake, of course. The restaurant’s actually high up in the anonymous, modern sleekness of one of Times Square’s towers. But once sat at one of the elegantly laid tables, it’s not too hard to suspend disbelief and feel you are actually in a magnificent colonial mansion.

The menu is equally decadent, with a good twenty pages worth of Hunanese, Sichaunese and other Chinese dishes including exotic items like frog and shark’s fin and numerous others bearing large price tags.

Our Hong Shao Rou (Red Braised Pork Belly) had meat that was nice and tender with flesh that showed none of the dryness or stringiness it can still have at some places. The large top pieces fat were juicy and slightly sweet tasting. But the pieces of meat didn’t really have that rich and potent flavour that slow cooking can given them. They lacked the fragrant notes of the chinese rice wine they are braised in and didn’t have even the slightest tingle from the chilies, which I felt could almost have been added to the dish at the end here. I also thought that the sauce was just a tiny bit on the thick side, not so much as to make it really gloopy, but still a little heavy. Overall, though, the delight of eating such luxuriantly soft, fatty pork won through these slight limitations in its taste.

The Rice Crackers And Shrimp In Tomato Sauce used fresh, whole tomatoes and the sauce still had some only partially broken down pieces in it. This made it wonderfully fresh tasting. The puffed rice crackers soaked up this bright, healthy feeling sauce. The crackers had a crispness to them with contrasted with the soft smooth texture of the shrimp in a really satisfying way. This combination of ingredients in this dish, with cool fresh vegetables and light tasting seafood, felt very different to most Chinese dishes I have had in the past. In my opinion, it was something that worked really well.

We also had Chicken With Walnuts In A Broad Bean Sauce. This presented a really satisfying contrast of textures, between the spongey pieces of chicken breast and the crisp pieces of knobbled walnut. It was a combination that worked brilliantly. That said, I agreed with one of my companions who felt that the ratio of walnuts to chicken leant too much towards the former. The nuts tended to clump together because of the sticky sauce, forming big clusters that were less pleasing to eat. The sauce itself was good however. Often I have found that the pungent taste of broad bean sauces is a bit overpowering, but here it was nicely restrained, with just a little bit coating the meat and nuts and helping to sort of lubricate the dish.

The Sei Gwai Dáu (Green Beans With Minced Pork) were also very good. The beans were cooked nicely al dente, so that they still had a crisp bite to them which added to their fresh taste. They were just lightly scatter with flavourful pieces of mince pork, unlike in some restaurants where there is a huge heap of very bland meat.

Overall, I feel that Hunan Garden offers above average food which just about matches its mid-range prices. While some of the dishes fall down in certain aspects, and are not as good as those you would get in a higher end place or a private kitchen, they all show some real care in their cooking and exhibit some really interesting tastes and textures. Hunan Gardens is a good place to try a wide range of different Hunanese and Sichuan food and feel confident you are getting close to the real thing.

Directions

13F Times Square, 1 Matheson Street, Causeway Bay

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Chili Fagara

 

Entrance to Chili Fagara - Form Over Function?

Entrance to Chili Fagara - Form Over Function?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About 

I apologise to anyone expecting a real review of this place. I didn’t actually eat there. 

 Because the restaurant was full, we were brusquely ushered to a table right in front of the door.  I was given a couple of menus, covered in finely embroidered Chinese style cloth. I looked down the list of items, fairly standard Sichuan things given elaborateness in their English translations.

Then I saw the prices! Dan dan mihn was about $98, while a lot of the other dishes were way up about the $100 mark.  These were ordinary dishes – some the more ‘special’ things were even higher up the scale. I began evaluating whether it was still worth staying to try this place. I realised that for the price of two or three dishes here I could be having a nine course Sichuan meal at Mum Chau’s or a feast of food at Sijji.

These dishes would have to be really good to make it worth such prices. I looked around at what other people had, glimpsing small bowls and fancy cutlery, and wasn’t convinced. So I did something I very rarely do. Stood up and left.  After we got out, my Japanese friend asked me why I’d wanted to leave so much.

“Too expensive,” I said, “Dan dan mihn for $100”

He laughed and, being an ex-food exporter, did some sums out loud. “Yeah, noodles only cost $4 and meat maybe $10, and vegetables $5, so where’s the extra 81?

Instead, we wandered down the hill to one of the dai paai dongs on Graham Street and ordered a feast of different freshly made dishes, none of which cost more than $40. I sat as the rain tumbled down outside the umbrella, enjoying this food and authentic Hong Kong atmosphere.

I’ll go back to Chilli Fagara sometime, to see if it really justifies such extravagant prices. But for now, I’m glad I walked out.

Directions

G/F, 51A Graham Street, Central District, Hong Kong

Notes

Tel: 28933330

 

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Ariel Sichuan BBQ Restaurant

 

Chongqing Fish

Chongqing Fish

About

 Located in a slightly dingy Sheung Wan mall, this restaurant hasn’t really done much to distance its decor from the functionality of the shops around it. The owner greeted us enthusiastically in English honed during past years living in Canada, and overall the waistaff were eager to please. 

Chongqing style barbecue fish is quite difficult to get in Hong Kong, so this restaurant already has one big draw. This dish looked magnificent when it arrived. The big fish was sunk into the deep red chili broth, a dark mass of Sichuan peppercorns, crushed peanuts, ginger and garlic piled over its back, promising that intense spiciness that only Sichuan food can deliver. The flavours didn’t quite live up to this bold display, but they still proved satisfying enough.

Gentle barbequing had given the fish skin a slightly ashen crispiness, going well with flesh which broke apart into soft chunks and tasted extremely fresh.  Heated from beneath, the fish slowly sunk down into the chili broth around it, its spongy white flesh soaking up some of the powerful spice.

The broth wasn’t toned down into blandness like some imitation-Sichuan food can be. But even with the Sichuan peppercorns scattered into it, the flavour still wasn’t quite as wonderfully intense and bold as that of some versions. Getting the tingling ‘mouth numbing’ flavour meant eating a lot of the peppercorns with the broth.  A few more of the slightly sparse Sichuan chili peppers might have added to the sauces power.

The sour Fish also made an extravagant entrance, scattered with a forest of fresh green coriander and big white rings of onion. Like the Chongqing dish, it gained in appeal as the different vegetables diffused their flavours into the broth and the fish soaked up the flavours.  The fresh vegetables gave an intriguingly sour flavour to the broth, but this always remained too subtle. It was tempting to keep turning back to the Chongqing dish for its more powerful flavours.

Overall, the dishes offered fresh fish well prepared, but both were lacking something hard to define that would make them really spectacular. It was pleasing however to sit and pick pieces of tender flesh from the fish, watching as the broths bubbled and their flavours grew gradually more intense.   

Sour Fish

Sour Fish

Directions

Shop A18, 1/F Broadway Plaza, 2-12 Queen’s Road West, Sheung Wan

Price  

HK$ 150 per person

Notes

Tel: 2851 7397

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Little Chili

 

 

The Laat Zi Gai at Little Chili

The Laat Zi Gai at Little Chili

 

About 

This is a good solid sichuan restaurant in North Point. The food’s not quite as good as that at Sijie or Mum Chau’s private kitchens, but it also costs a lot less. Its easily possible to have a meal here for under HK$100 each and there are big bottles of Chinese beer for HK$10. The English menu was a little lacking in guidance, but they has most of the standard Sichuan dishes.

The dan dan mihn came in a huge bowl and was excellent value for HK $18 – a meal on its own. The noodles, although not home made, had a satisfying doughiness and were much better than instant noodles. The sauce lacked the complex flavor of some version’s I’ve had, but it was thick and enjoyably spicy, much better than the translucent, oily sauces some places try to pass off. Plenty of broken peanuts and chopped spring onion, added good texture.

 The laaht zi gai came in a large metal pan, justifying the HK $68, and giving you that immensely satisfying job of fishing through heaped chilis to pick out the nuggets of meat. The restaurant got the first fundamental law right by using chicken on the bone. The pieces weren’t that meaty, which is a double edged sword; giving the meat more flavor but meaning you need Cantonese chewing skills to tear it off.

With much less oil than most versions, the meat was beautifully dry and crisp. There were plenty of chilis and peppercorns to give flavor, but these were disappointingly supported by salt and an ambiguous reddish powder. The resultant, exciting spiciness, came close but fell just below, the spiciest version I had in Beijing. 

Directions

Take the MTR to North Point and get off at exit A1 – turn left on the street in front of the exit (Java Rd) and walk along here for two blocks. The restaurant is on the corner of Java Road and the perpendicular North Point Road – It is easy to spot because it has a neon sign with three chilis at the front. 

Cost

About HK$50-HK$100 per dish.