Wanchai, Hong Kong
Some restaurants exist solely by word of mouth. They are underground, known only among the dining cognescenti.
In Hong Kong, they’re referred to as “private kitchens,” though they are neither private nor a kitchen. They are restaurants, understated.
They are usually small, reservation-only. And they’re usually hard to get into. Some more than others.
Xi Yan (pronounced she YEN), in its heyday, was perhaps one of the hardest. At least this is what I understand from Yong, my friend who suggested it as a dinner option last year on my trip to Hong Kong.*
But can a restaurant be truly under the radar when the owner is one of Hong Kong’s most well-known celebrity chefs?
At its best, Yong claimed, Xi Yan was utterly spectacular.
But Jacky Yu’s pioneering “speakeasy” restaurant, tucked away on the third floor of a nondescript, commercial building in Wan Chai, could be uneven, he warned, especially when the chef wasn’t in.
We didn’t have a problem getting a reservation. In fact, when we arrived, the restaurant was empty, save another couple at the far end of the narrow dining room. Yong, who is acquainted with Yu, said that the chef wasn’t in. Given the empire he oversees, not to mention his television obligations, I’d be surprised if he were in.
Like most private kitchens, Xi Yan serves a set menu that varies from day to day. For HK$600, we were served four small courses, five “main courses,” and a dessert.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal, or click on the course titles for the individual photos.
In pickled olive and black bean paste with pork floss.
Stuffed with glutinous rice and abalone sauce.
Sichuan Spicy Chicken
Cellophane rice noodles, peanuts, chicken strips,
Chicken fat/skin, preserved egg, and a spicy Sichuan chile soy sauce sauce.
Chrysanthemum Mandarin Fish
Lemongrass calamansi sauce.
Red Date and Jujube Sorbet
Stewed Chinese Cabbage
Stir-Fried Mix Mushrooms
Custard Glutinous Dumplings
Sweet potato ginger soup.
The food at Xi Yan is rooted in Chinese “home cooking,” and it’s served family-style. It’s the kind of high-end cookery that is at once comforting and refined.
There is, for example, batons of “Crispy Duck” with abalone dipping sauce. These little fingers were made from deboned duck stuffed with glutinous rice. Pan-fried, the skin is crisped, sandwiching a warm layer of duck meat and rice imbued with duck fat. Delicious.
There, too, was “Braised Pork Belly,” sliced thinly and wrapped around a mound of fermented mustard greens in a spiral pyramid, a modern dong po pork with its trimmings. The pork was a touch dry, a disappointment. But the meat reduction, a collagen-rich sauce, was extraordinary, especially when spooned over a steaming bowl of sticky rice.
“Sichuan Spicy Chicken,” a faithful signature that appears nightly, is a reminder of a classic, summertime Chinese chicken “salad.” Served cold, this bowl is like the chicken sink of the Chinese larder: strips of chicken meat and chicken fat tossed with peanuts, thousand-year egg, cilantro, scallions, cellophane rice noodles, and a spicy chile soy sauce. Yu’s version is especially pretty, especially good. It’s got all different textures, flavors, and colors. You might not ever eat whole pieces of chicken fat again with the same unapologetic abandon. Saliva-inducing.
And for dessert, there were Yu’s famous “Custard Glutinous Dumplings,” a more well-crafted, more decadent form of a common sweet snack. These were filled with a buttery core of salted egg yolks, water chestnuts, and brown butter. They were served in a warm, bitingly spicy ginger broth.**
The food at Xi Yan was especially great when simple, showcasing one or two ingredients:
There was a steaming bowl of “Stewed Chinese Cabbage,” whole, jade-yellow wedges of napa cabbage bathing in a crystal-clear chicken consomme. Clean. Pristine. Perfect.
And tender cubes of well-marbled “Wagyu Beef Steak,” came with a crunchy, crisp seared crust. The meat was immensely flavorful, an unadulterated beefiness. The accompanying sauces – sesame and mint – were a bit sweet, a bit distracting for me. I enjoyed the beef with nothing more than a dash of salt.
Cold “Drunken Shrimp,” served and eaten whole, were alright – not bad, not great. So too a cube of tofu, which was less refined than I expected, topped with a tuft of pork floss and sauced with black beans paste with pickled olives.
The anemone-like “Chrysanthemum Mandarin Fish” was probably more novel than it was good, the one true disappointment. The tart, tangy lemongrass-calamansi sauce was strident, obliterating the fish completely. And though the fried “tentacles” of fish stayed crispy, there was very little fish meat beneath the thick batter crust.
Perhaps I got a glimpse of Xi Yan’s stunning potential in a couple of dishes, like the Sichuan chicken salad, or a bowl of meaty “Stir-Fried Mix Mushrooms” tossed with sweet pickled cucumbers. That was unexpectedly awesome.
Otherwise, with a few nits here and there, the fare here is good, more or less. The ingredients are top shelf, and the execution, for the most part, was spot on.
I get the feeling that Xi Yan’s days of intense hype are over, its novelty dulled over time. Has it lost steam, or did we catch it on an unusually quiet night?
Chef Yu popped out of the kitchen, unexpectedly, at the end of our meal to say hello. Lively and youthful (and, from what I understand, very well-preserved for his age), he spent a good while chatting with us, catching up with Yong. And a night of homey cooking ended with a homey hospitality; he walked us to the elevator and bid us good-night.
Chef/Patron Jacky Yu
3/f 83 Wan Chai Road
Wan Chai , Hong Kong
* Cha Xiu Bao penned a pretty great review of a meal he had in February, 2005. In it, he reported, “…it still has the longest waiting list in town even after the expansion — they are constantly booking out over two months in advance, the longest in Hong Kong (it was 6 months before the expansion)!”
** Apparently, these can be purchased in Hong Kong supermarkets in the frozen food aisle.