|Salt Baked Chicken||Dominic Armato|
There's one business lunch left in the lineup (and one more China post before moving on to Japan), and I wanted to break it out on its own because as far as Cantonese meals go, it was definitely the standout of the trip.
In my experience, there's often a kind of backwards logic in China when it comes to restaurant size versus quality. We always think of our finest restaurants as small, intimate affairs, where an auteur of a chef can carefully oversee and control every plate that goes out to the dining room. Restaurants in China often take a very different approach, opening enormous spaces that seat multiple hundreds of people, and then hiring an army of chefs that are highly specialized, some of whom may only make one or two dishes. Some of the most amazing meals I've had have been in these restaurant stadia, as it were, and while I'm not sure it's a system that would be effective for Western cuisine, I find myself forced to throw out the conventional wisdom that a place that seats 200 is basically catering.
|Beef Broth||Dominic Armato|
Haiba Restaurant (Harbor Restaurant?) is not one of these monsters, but it's a breed of hotel restaurant that seems to be based on the same bigger, more, better philosophy, and pulls it off. This was not the legendary downtown Shenzhen feasts of visits past. In general, this trip was a little more low key. But this felt like one of them in spirit -- cleanly executed classics and slightly contemporary riffs thrown together with killer results. We started off with another broth. Lord, I'll never tire of these broths. Though this was a dark poultry stock, which I've seen a lot less often. Beautiful, rich flavor. We also got started with a very typical BBQ plate, char siu on the left, tender belly with a hard crust in the center, and roast duck on the right. When you get this very dish over and over again, it's easy to stop appreciating how good it is, each offering simple and juicy with just enough of an accent on the surface to highlight the meat.
|Roast Pork and Duck||Dominic Armato|
Another very typical traditional dish, again done very well here, was the salt baked chicken. Salt baking had a bit of a coming out party in the States perhaps five or six years ago, but for those who aren't familiar with the technique, the meat in question is essentially buried and packed in moistened salt, sometimes mixed with egg white (I believe simply to facilitate its removal), before being roasted. It's one of those magical techniques that yields absurdly intense, natural flavors, all of the essence of the beast locked in and held close as it cooks. For years, we wondered how they could get such an intense flavor in a simple roasted chicken. Once somebody explained the process, it all made sense. Succulent, tender chicken, tasting of nothing but itself, sitting in a shallow bath of a sort of salty chicken stock... when it's done well like this, it's one of my favorite ways to eat a chicken.
|Salt Roasted Shrimp||Dominic Armato|
And then we got something we'd never, ever seen before. Salt baked chicken, sure. But salt baked shrimp? This was a new one. A couple dozen shrimp had been skewered and wrapped in parchment along with a little slivered onion and a splash of soy sauce. It appeared that this package had then been buried in salt and roasted. And these little fellows were dynamite. You pulled a skewer out of the quiver and ate the shrimp whole, right off the stick. The flavor was intense, the interior meat moist, the shell crisp enough to eat, and the head retained all of its briny juice. It would seem there must have been another step to the process, since the shells were crisp but still wet with soy. Had the soy been squirted into the packet after the fact? I'm not sure, but I'd love to know. These shrimp were one of the best preparations I can remember, so simple and so full of flavor. This was one of my favorite dishes of the entire trip.
|Clay Pot Lamb||Curry Beef||Dominic Armato|
Which isn't to say the meats were slacking. When ordering, our host asked if we were okay with lamb, and seemed surprised when we responded, yes, anything. "Frog?" he asked, mildly incredulous. "Definitely." "Snake?!" "Absolutely." He seemed surprised, but satisfied. No doubt other visitors have been less open to all the menu has to offer. In any case, he would skip the frog and snake on this particular day (too bad), but the lamb arrived in a clay pot, brimming with mushrooms, and stewed in a thick almost gravy-like sauce that was barely sweet, but tasted mostly of lamb. The meat was tender and rich and really, really exceptional. We also received a plate of beef short ribs, flanken cut and then further diced into bite-sized pieces, swimming in another thick, meaty sauce that was heavy with black pepper and lightly scented with curry. This was meat you had to work for, gnawing it off the bone and then working it for a while, and I will never understand why so many people back home seem to abhor the natural pleasure of actually chewing, particularly when cuts like this provide so much more flavor.
|Beef with Mushrooms||Dominic Armato|
We still hadn't hit the end of the meaty parade, and the next beef dish was a kind you never see back home. I couldn't even begin to identify the cut. It was a plate full of massive, bony chunks, as though they'd been sawed off the end of an appendage, or were part of a joint. More surprising was that the meat was tender, yet dry, almost like spent stock meat, so much so, in fact, that I wonder if that's precisely what it was. If so, it had been artfully repurposed, cooked with a breed of mushroom I don't recall encountering before, long (some as many as 8-10") almost stringy stalks, a texture like overcooked asparagus, with small caps, but with a gentle mushroom flavor. It was served with a small bowl of soy sauce for dipping. This is a piece of meat that we'd ordinarily consider finished. But it has its own charms, brought out by a little care and a cultural habit of letting nothing go to waste. I can't call it my favorite of the afternoon, but it was undeniably delicious, and enlightening to boot.
|Teriyaki Fish||Dominic Armato|
Having already consumed three or four steamed fish that week (much as I adore them), it was a pleasure to try a new preparation, and this one struck me as very unusual for the region. The fish had been battered, fried and then cooked with a sauce. Though contrary to our habit of leaving battered and fried items naked for dipping, it's common practice there, sacrificing much of the crispness but adding a sort of full texture to the fish. The sauce, however, was what threw me off. It was soy based, thick and extremely sweet, almost like a teriyaki. Really, it played more Japanese than Chinese, and I have to wonder if that was the inspiration. Of course, soy sauce is used all of the time in Cantonese cooking, but most often, it seems, as an accent, or to deepen a sauce, or to add salt. Rare are the dishes that put it in a featured role, much less as prominently as this. And yet that's all this was -- soy and sugar -- plus some aromatics. It's been a while, but I can't recall ever encountering a dish like this in China. And yes, it was delicious.
|Fried Rice||Dominic Armato|
A plate of fried rice is often, if not usually, an indication that the meal has come to a close. And again, it's so enlightening to experience a dish like this that you had so many times growing up -- the same ingredients, the same flavors -- but executed and balanced in such a manner that it's like a completely different dish. In capable hands, this isn't filler, it isn't a pile of greasy carbs, but a light and nuanced dish that's completely irresistible. I certainly can't think of a better way to complete a great meal. And it was a great meal... not the mindblowing experiences that I've had in years past at more prestigious restaurants in the city centers, but unusually delicious, unusually refined and unusually creative for a hotel restaurant on the outskirts of Dongguan. It was undoubtedly my favorite business lunch of the week, and an excellent way to close out the week, if not quite our stay in China... but there's one more post about that.
|Shipai, Dongguan, China|