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October 28, 2007

Da Ping Huo

Dominic Armato
Odd as it may seem, this last trip to China -- at least as far as Chinese food was concerned -- wasn't particularly memorable... with one grand exception.

Da Ping Huo has taken on a certain air of mystery in internet circles. While searching for something interesting to try on a rare free evening, I came across mention of a very small, difficult to find "underground" restaurant of the Sichuan persuasion, run exclusively by a husband and wife team. The place was reputedly swanky, modern, inexpensive and exceedingly delicious, complete with entertainment in the form of Chinese opera, performed by the head chef herself at the conclusion of your meal. How do you pass THAT up? It's been top of my list of Hong Kong restaurants to try for almost two years, and it took three or four trips to finagle a free night, but I finally got there to give it a try.

Dominic Armato
"Underground" is pushing the spirit of the term somewhat, though it is difficult to locate. I swear, there's a building across the street and three doors down with the same address. If you find yourself standing on the corner looking for the place, walk downhill and look for this. We happened upon Da Ping Huo their first night open after closing for renovations. While I can't speak to whatever changes were made, I can say that I love the feel of the place. It's a small, largely concrete basement room that looks like it could be somebody's living room, if that somebody were a highly design-conscious curator for a modern art museum. Clean lines, lots of monochrome and exposed wiring, Chinese antiques scattered about for color and warmth -- frankly, it's a delight just sitting down for dinner with the 20 or so people who will be joining you at one of the night's two seatings. The husband of the team, who runs the front of house, is a stylin' older fellow, with modern red glasses, a simple dark polo shirt and jeans that are torn in all the right places. Always gracious and smiling, he makes sure everybody is comfortably seated before the food starts to arrive.

Dominic Armato
The first course (two, if you want to get technical about it) was a hot and cold pairing, and I couldn't possibly have been happier about it. This was only partially because it was awesome (and rest assured, it was awesome), but mainly because I have an unhealthy obsession with Chinese pickled cucumbers and these were spectacular specimens. The cold dish, pictured in the rear, consisted of chilled baby cucumbers that had been lightly pickled with, among other things, soy, vinegar and an obscene amount of sugar. I believe the sauce had reached total sugar saturation, given that the bottom of the dish was covered a few millimeters deep with a sugary sludge. And yet, the cucumbers were perfectly crisp and light. I resisted the urge to slurp the sauce once the cukes had been devoured. Their companion, in the foreground, was the first of many oily chile / Sichuan pepper dishes we'd taste. In this case, the ma la was applied to shredded jellyfish, along with a little carrot and celery. The difference between good Sichuan and bad Sichuan is that bad Sichuan is just hot, whereas good Sichuan achieves a wonderful balance and depth of flavor with incredibly aggressive ingredients. And it's hot.

Dominic Armato
The next dish was our second ma la dish of the evening, this time a noodle dish in a spicy sauce with soybeans, sesame, diced fresh peppers and scallions. Though the sauce was spicy, slightly sweet and intensely delicious, this dish was really an exercise in texture. The noodles were of a somewhat gelatinous nature, dense, thick and slick with a pleasing, chewy body. But the crunch of the fried soybeans, small bits of toasted sesame and fresh crispness of minced bell peppers and scallions gave the dish almost a munchy quality, like a snack food suspended in liquid. Perhaps that isn't the most appetizing description, but trust me, it's apt. A wonderful dish, even setting aside the textural aspect, but put it all together and this is a dish I'm going to remember for quite some time. Really delightful.

Dominic Armato
One of the things that always astounds me about Sichuan cuisine is how you can eat your way through a series of dishes that all seem to be comprised of the same basic ingredients, and yet with the subtle introduction of supporting flavors and careful balance, they're completely distinct. Our next dish was the third oily ma la dish in a row, and the second that also featured sesame and scallions, and yet I didn't get the slightest sense that our hosts were repeating themselves. The chile flavor on this dish was much more earthy, whether because it was made with a different breed of chiles or because the chiles were toasted somehow, I'm uncertain. But the chile sauce adorned some simply cooked and sliced chicken, skin, bones and all. Not my favorite of the evening, but as carefully balanced as the previous two and really quite good.

Dominic Armato
After hitting us with three spicy dishes in a row, our hosts provided us with a brief respite in the form of a small bowl of chicken broth, along with some stewed greens, pungent roots of unidentifiable origin and a bit of shredded chicken on the top. Sad to say, this is the first dish that disappointed me. One of my favorite dishes in all of China is a simple chicken broth. The Chinese make incredible broths, due in no small part, I'm sure, to the fact that they haven't bred all of the flavor out of their chickens like we have at home. Da Ping Huo's, however, came off as a little flat. In any other country it would have been a lovely dish, but in the context of other clear chicken soups I've had in China, it was an underachiever. Salt would've helped. But it was a nice refresher, nonetheless.

Dominic Armato
Aaaand, back to the spicy. Mildly so, this time, in the form of braised beef and potatoes in a spicy beef broth. I have no idea what cut of beef we ate, but it was a fatty one. For the record, I consider this a good thing, though I would have preferred the dish if it had been braised a little longer. The connective tissue hadn't quite broken down, so the meat was a little tougher than I would have liked. The flavor, however, was spot on. Unlike the chicken dish above where the intense flavors of the sauce were the star, everything here was about emphasizing the natural flavor of the beef. The broth was pure liquid cow accented by chiles, and it moistened the meat and soaked into the potatoes. After eating the succulent meat and vegetables, I grabbed a spoon that had been left behind and ate the broth as a soup. Whether or not this was intended, it was clearly the way to go. Throw out the rest, and the broth would've been good enough to stand on its own.

Dominic Armato
I couldn't resist any longer. I'm not much of a beer drinker, but chiles need beer, hence, the Tsing Tao hiding behind our next dish, the shrimp. Fresh shrimp in China are so good that you really don't need to do a damn thing to them, but that doesn't mean I'm unappreciative when somebody does. Sadly, I waited a little too long to make this post and I don't remember much about the shrimp other than the fact that I enjoyed them quite a bit. The sauce was fairly light, imbued with shrimp flavor, and cooked up with finely diced vegetables. Incidentally, I'm not sure when I became a head sucker, but man, there's no going back. Fact is, the best part of the shrimp rarely hits your plate in the States, and that's a shame. It's gotten to the point where I ask my fellow diners to set any unused heads aside for my enjoyment. Their loss.

Dominic Armato
And what would a Sichuan meal be without some Ma Po Dofu? This is the essence of Sichuan cuisine right here, with all of its thunder and lightning and fiery complexity. Ma Po Dofu is to a Sichuan chef what tomato sauce is to Italian-American grandmothers -- the purest expression of the artist's style. Everybody makes it, and everybody's is different. Tony's Ma Po Dofu, over at Lao Sze Chuan, is bold and intense, but it deemphasizes the chiles and Sichuan pepper and creates a broad, complex base with fermented black beans, ginger and other ingredients. Iron Chef Chen Kenichi's is a searing, numbing slap in the face that absolutely explodes on the tongue... or at least what's left of your tongue after your first taste. The Ma Po Dofu at Da Ping Huo, while still quite intense, is a more humble, simple and restrained dish. This isn't the signature dish of a showy chef with a long resume, but rather the comforting specialty of an exceptionally talented Chinese grandmother. At least that's how I imagine it.

Dominic Armato
Our last substantial dish was another intermission of sorts. It was a large piece of minimally seasoned pork with a coating that brought to mind fried tempura batter that's been soaked in broth. China is a nation of pig eaters, and with all of the bold, fatty, unctuous preparations that seem to dominate the Chinese culinary scene, it's easy to forget that there are lean parts of the pig as well, of which this was one. In some ways, the texture reminded me of low and slow BBQ in that it was tender yet toothsome with every muscle fiber clearly defined. The flavor, of course, was quite different. It was a very humble and simple dish, expressing a mild and pure pork flavor. I thought it was almost a little too restrained. A little zip could've brought it out. But I enjoyed it, nonetheless.

Dominic Armato
As savory dishes go, our hosts saved one of the best for last. We finished the savory portion of the meal with absolutely beautiful Chengdu dumplings. Lightly seasoned ground pork was enrobed in velvety soft wrappers and dropped into an oily sauce at the limits of hot and sweet. I've had Chengdu dumplings before that were a lot less substantial, with thinner wrappers and less filling. I much preferred these. They had some body, a little doughy but still light, and I found them both more enjoyable to the teeth, and also better at grabbing and holding the dynamite sauce. With dishes like the beef, noodles and cucumbers on the menu, it's hard to call anything a favorite. That said, these were definitely in the running and I find myself thinking back on them more frequently than I'd like to admit.

Dominic Armato
And finally, our meal ended with a light and refreshing dessert. It was a warm dessert soup, slightly thickened, with soft tofu, diced water chestnut and cellophane noodles for texture. The flavor was exceptionally mild and just barely sweetened and, like the noodle dish, as much about the texture as the flavor. It was a great culinary finish that was accompanied, as promised, by a great artistic finish. Our host's female counterpart emerged from the kitchen and took her place at the front of the room. Folding her hands together, she then sang an aria for the assembled guests. I don't know the least thing about Chinese opera and I'm in no way qualified to judge whether her singing talents match her culinary talents. What I can say is that it didn't really matter. What mattered was that her willingness to share her talent made you feel less like a paying customer and more like a warmly welcomed houseguest, which was only reinforced when she then joined her husband and the two of them circled the room greeting and thanking everyone in attendance with enormous smiles that never dropped for a moment. Da Ping Huo is a special little place that's long on both flavor and character, and the fact that you're getting eleven courses in a stylish setting for an absurdly reasonable price (under $35 per person!) only makes the experience that much sweeter.

Da Ping Huo
L/G 49 Hollywood Rd.
Central, Hong Kong
+852 2559 1317
Tue - Sat6:30 PM, 9:00 PM (two seatings)

Comments

Thanks for the report. While I will probably never get to China, I loved reading about your visit. It is fun to live vicariously through the joy of the internet. :)

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