review: gnawing on brains…
If the little dish of fried walnuts was the fantastic opener to our meal at Man Wah, the Kung Po Bean Curd (HK$110) was the headliner. The tumble of fluffy cubes of tofu – thinly glazed with a crisp, fried sheen of spicy sauce and commingled with blistered red chiles and crunchy cashews – earned a salivating assortment of descriptions including fiery, savory, and comforting.
A surprisingly impressive Peking duck service followed, and a fantastic eggplant dessert closed out the evening on a high note.
Man Wah surprised me.
I guess it shouldn’t have, as it came highly recommended by a number of locals with good taste.
Having spent the day, mostly eating, in hot, steamy Macao, we hadn’t anticipated having such big appetites when we returned to Hong Kong. In fact, I had planned on ordering a couple of plates – namely, the Tea-Smoked Bresse Pigeon – to share with Mr. RBI and calling it a night.
But the menu – which is as extensive as any serious Chinese restaurant’s menu is wont – posed too many temptations. Here is what we ended up ordering to share. CLICK HERE for photos of all of the photos from this meal, or on the course hyper-linked course titles for the individual photos.
Superior Braised Shark’s Fin Soup
Crab roe. (HK$398)
Steamed Crab Claw
Winter melon. (HK$128)
Baked Stuffed Crab Shell
Kung Po Bean Curd
Peking Duck (Half)
In two services. (HK$248)
Wrapped and Prawn Crackers
Minced and Wok-Fried with Pine Nuts
Tangerine tea. (HK$48)
White sesame and ginger ice cream. (HK$ 48)
Let’s back up to those fried nuts that served as a pre-meal greeting: they were amazing.
Usually, Chinese honey-fried nuts are stale – worse, rancid – and never crisp enough. These were fresh and had that hallmark hollow crunch to them. Our server – the restaurant’s sommelier, Mr. Benson Yan – who proved to be knowledgeable about both food and wine, told us that the walnuts had been soaked in honey for a day and then deep-fried. I would have bought them by the bagful if the restaurant sold them.
The generous bowl of Superior Braised Shark’s Fin Soup that Mr. RBI and I split was pretty good. The crab roe, unfortunately, figured more as a colouring agent than as a flavor enhancer, though the roe did add a bit of body to the soup, which was thick and rich. The best part of this version of shark’s fin soup was the noticeable layer of xiaoxing wine, which added a subtle, sweet fragrance. Served with red rice vinegar on the side, it was a wonderful marriage of flavors.
The Steamed Crab Claw is supposed to be one of Man Wah’s best dishes. While many restaurants in the area pride themselves on their steamed crab claws, what makes Man Wah’s version unique is the ginger sauce that’s served with it. The claw was steamed to a good consistency, and the winter melon had been braised to the point of near collapse. But it was the underlying sauce, which had a fragrant infusion of ginger (and I suspect wine of some sort) that really set this crab claw apart (from, say, the one we had earlier that day at Tim’s Kitchen’s, which was easily 50% larger and cooked just as well).
In contrast, the Baked Stuffed Crab Shell was disappointing. This was basically a crab pot pie with a bland breadcrumb and grated Parmesan crust instead of a pastry dough top. The inside was a thick, creamy (perhaps thickened with flour?) mix of crab meat, mushrooms, ham, and onions. Curiously Western, it was utterly banal. Listed as a “signature” dish, I thought it represented the restaurant poorly.
I smelled the Tea-Smoked Bresse Pigeon before it was set in front of us.
Our server split the bird between Mr. RBI and me, and attempted to whisk away the head when I quickly caught him- the Philistine that I am – and asked for it back. He was a bit surprised – apologizing for assuming that a Westerner wouldn’t want it. I held the tiny knob by its beak and gnawed out the brains, then turned it around and made brisk work of the crunchy beak.
The smoking of the meat was, undeniably, well-done. The aroma infused into the pigeon without masking its natural flavor. While I prefer my pigeon just a tad less cooked, I understand that the smoking method of cooking doesn’t lend well to producing rosy pigeon. Nonetheless, this bird managed to be moist and flavorful. It came with little dishes of Worcestershire sauce and peppery salt for dipping. I much preferred the latter – a simple seasoning built for dishes like this one.
Our dish of Chinese Broccoli, simply sauteed in garlic, served as an interlude between meat courses. I love Chinese broccoli – crispy, yet meaty, the jadite-coloured stalks were threaded with velvety emerald green leaves. These were well-done, but had been ordered primarily for health’s sake.
Peking Duck, supposedly the restaurant’s pride and joy, is offered either whole or halved.
Our half was presented on a plate and then carved table-side.
First, the skin was deftly removed – a thin, bronze sheath that separated beautifully from the flesh with a gentle nudge by a broad Chinese carving knife. Our server stood by to assist the carver and to explained the procedure for Mr. RBI. The fat was trimmed from underneath the skin and the sheet was divided into smaller squares and set atop a mound of prawn crackers.
After the skin had been sufficiently stripped, the duck was taken back to the kitchen to be de-boned, minced, and then wok-fried with pine nuts for our second serving.
He served the neatly folded packets to us, two by two, seven in all, along with the platter of prawn crackers now glistening with duck fat. I was quite amazed by how crisp the skin remained inside the crepes.
The second service of the duck was a masterpiece in knife skills. The meat and fat had been minced with pine nuts and scallions into uniform tiny pieces and wok-fried. The server scooped large spoonfuls of the minced meat into crisp little lettuce cups, along with the styrofoam-like squiggles of deep-fried vermicelli. He finished each cup off with a dash of hoisin sauce. Crispy, meaty, a touch fiery, and a bit sweet, this tasty second presentation of duck produced enough for three lettuce cups each.
Like the dishes that preceded them, our desserts were quite good.
Served warm, my Double-Boiled Pear presented an entire cored pear poached just long enough to rendered it helpless against the weight of my spoon. The tangerine flavor in the tea syrup was a bit too faint; I wanted more of the citrus perfume. But, overall, this was a delicate, light, and satisfying ending to my meal.
Mr. RBI’s Caramelized Aubergine was more showy and packed more punch. It was also a far more interesting dessert than my pear. This dessert featured a slice of aubergine – skin on – completely suffused with the flavor and fragrance of white sesame. It was amazing. The texture of the aubergine was soft and silky – almost as if it had been confited or – more likely – candied in heavy syrup. Served cold, surrounded by sesame syrup, the aubergine was sided by a wonderfully creamy ginger ice cream with a rounded warmth (no sharp ginger snap here).
Two after-dinner sweets were served. One was a puffy, flaky puff pastry dumpling filled with creamy sweet milk custard. The other – a banded block of coffee gelatin that tasted just like a chilled cafe au lait – stole my java-loving heart.
Located on the top floor of the Mandarin Oriental in Central, Hong Kong, Man Wah’s dining room is somewhat outdated – it has not gotten a face-lift in two (maybe three?) too many decades. But it really doesn’t need one. Other than the eye-splitting pink linens and carpet (talk about totally eighties), the restaurant is quite elegant, paneled with black lacquered screens and hung with lanterns.
Our server – Mr. Yan – was quite good at what he does. Though we initially reported to a female captain, she seemed to sense that we had a better rapport with Yan and bowed out early on.
Mr. Yan’s wine pairings were pretty solid – nothing showy or show-stopping, but certainly complementary with the food. He started us out with Henriot Blanc Souverain Champagne to help cut through the richness of the braised sharks fin soup, progressing on to a Jean Noel Gagnard, Chassagne-Montrachet, Les Chaumes (this one particularly caught my fancy) for our two crab dishes, and finishing us off with a juicy Craggy Range Pinot Noir, Martinborough, New Zealand, 2006 for our last courses, beginning with the pigeon.
Though it was Sunday, the dining room was surprisingly empty. I noticed only two other tables when we walked in at half-past eight. A lone gentleman came in after us for a quick meal and was out before we had even gotten half-way through ours. We closed the place down near 11 o’clock.
Mr. Yan told us that the chef is relatively new – having just come from the Island Shangri-La (I have no idea which restaurant within that hotel) – but that the menu has remained largely unchanged for years. Whoever the new chef is, he picked up his charge well.
Why doesn’t Man Wah get more traction? That’s what the locals and I want to know.
That the restaurant has been overlooked by the Michelin inspectors for a star (meanwhile, the circus next door – Pierre – has a star) only evidences the gaps that the organization needs to bridge before it becomes a credible system in this part of the world.
Certainly, my experience at Man Wah was no revelation; I’ve had far more profound experiences in similarly situated restaurants elsewhere. But it was surprisingly good (I was especially surprised that the two best dishes we had in this Cantonese-focused restaurant weren’t Cantonese at all: Sichuan Kung Po Tofu and the Peking Duck) and the quality of the food and service merit recognition. If no one else will give Man Wah its due, I happily do so here.
Mandarin Oriental Hotel
5 Connaught Road
Central, Hong Kong
+852 2522 0111
Note: “Man Wah” is the Chinese name for the hotel “Mandarin Oriental.”