KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 11 — 'Tis the season for feasting... again! Say hello to lou sang and indulging in the best of Chinese cuisine, especially during that all-important reunion dinner with the family.
At Elegant Inn Hong Kong Cuisine, preparations for Chinese New Year start six months ahead.
There is the sourcing for the best ingredients, with the restaurant making their own waxed meats!
Many rounds of testing are done to prepare their kitchen for that crazy reunion dinner rush. This is a testament to owner Jeannette Han's eye for details.
Throughout its 20 years in business, Elegant Inn Hong Kong Cuisine is well known for its salmon lou sang that uses an abundance of fresh vegetables. The dish tastes like a well-made salad.
A medley of air flown salmon sashimi is paired with crunchy jellyfish and pearl clams to give texture.
Then there is their famous lap mei fan, a much-anticipated annual treat. For dessert, they will offer their pan fried traditional rice cake as well as hazelnut cookies.
You can select from eight different menus (for 10 persons) that range from RM1,588++ to RM9,988++. There are also festive menus for smaller groups, like two or four persons.
Han explained, "It is not an easy business. People think the chef will write up the menu, we do the costing and we're done."
In devising the various menus, Han's team considers all angles. This includes what is in trend.
Then there's the availability of ingredients and the perceived value for the menu. Even inflation is factored in.
Once the plans are drawn out, it's time for the kitchen to cook up the dishes to make sure it tastes good. Even the regular items go through a trial to reconfirm the dish is still the same.
Sometimes, the extent they go to testing things include cooking up the whole menu for 10 persons. They will then seek feedback like whether the amount of food served is enough for the diners.
Han is also particular about ingredients and their supply. For example, if there's a glut of an ingredient flooding the market that is cheaper than market price, she won't touch it with a bargepole.
"Once it is in cheap supply or easily available in the market, I definitely do not use it as I don't trust the supply."
She will only make an exception if it is a supplier she trusts and has had previous dealings with. A prime example was an exclusive batch of 888 pieces of Japanese dried abalones she bought after the tsunami.
It was a chance of a lifetime as the abalones were pre-tsunami stock. Each piece was sold for RM500 to RM600 per piece.
To date, they are left with 40 pieces, after selling them to discerning customers who seek such precious items.
For their braised abalone dishes, Han serves the prized tong sum abalones that has a pinkish, almost caramel-like centre, which abalone connoisseurs look for.
These abalones from South Africa are paired with large Japanese dried oysters, fish maw and flower mushrooms. The dish also features their own-made beancurd that absorbs all the goodness from the braised dried seafood and their in-house abalone sauce anointed with decadent crab roe.
In sourcing for these ingredients, Han feels it is important to "strike at the right time."
"For me, the most important is availability and quality as sometimes even if you're willing to pay for it, you cannot find it," explained Han.
This is especially true as some of their ingredients are mostly wild or seasonal, like the wild red Russula mushrooms used in their nourishing double boiled soups.
The ingredients are personally handled by Han who will spend time to pack and label them in an air-conditioned environment, once she brings them back from Hong Kong.
Every item is documented, making it easy for the restaurant to use them on a "first in and first out" basis.
Yes, that is the kind of attention to detail we are talking about here.
Synonymous with the Chinese New Year festivities is the lap mei fan. The rice dish is actually available from the end of November as customers clamour for it from October onwards.
The rice is cooked in a claypot over a hot fire. Once it is almost ready, a selection of waxed meats — preserved duck (lap arp), belly pork strips (lap yuk), pork sausage (lap cheong) and liver sausage (yun cheong) — is laid on top of it.
As the steam cooks the waxed meats, the rice grains get coated with the fragrant, savoury oil from the preserved meats.
At the restaurant, they age the jasmine rice used to cook this dish so you get fluffy individual rice grains. There's also the crust that forms at the bottom of the claypot so mix those crunchy bits together with the fluffy grains to enjoy the contrast of textures.
Han said that last year they faced a dilemma about whether they should serve the dish with China's African swine fever crisis.
"I was at the verge of deciding not to sell it but there were people who would tell me, if there is no lap mei fan, they won't come," said Han.
She decided to make their own waxed meats instead. Even though a huge selling point for the restaurant is their hand picked items, she had always wanted to do their own waxed meats since it allowed them to control the quality.
Moreover, their chef Wesley Ng had attended a course in Hong Kong on how to make waxed meats.
Initial tests weren't encouraging. They persevered. Issues cropped up such as the quality of pork used to make the waxed meats.
In the beginning, they tried to use fresh pork belly. However the layers of meat and fat were inconsistent. Eventually they settled for Spanish olive pork since the quality was more consistent. Iberico pork was considered too.
"Even though the price difference is two and a half times more, you can't taste it," said Han. She added, "I am very proud and I shout that we use one of the best ingredients available. On the other hand, value for money is also important so if we can get 90 per cent of this quality of product for 60 per cent of the price, why don't we pass this saving on to my customers?"
Since they started in November last year, none of their diners have any issues with the waxed meats. Some regulars have even said that it tastes better.
Indeed, there's a difference. The lap yuk isn't hard and it has pronounced layers of fat and meat, making it incredibly enjoyable.
Usually waxed duck found at most restaurant tends to be dry and salty (the salt is needed to preserve it) but here, the duck meat is tender.
Han said that they invested in a RM50,000 combi oven to dehydrate the duck legs to make the waxed duck.
Even their lap cheong has a lovely but not overpowering aroma of Chinese rose wine or mei kwai lou. They use the drinking grade wine since it tastes better with a higher alcohol level.
There's also no artificial colouring used for the waxed meats. Instead, they use red yeast rice to get the reddish hue. Molasses sugar and sea salt are also used.
That dedication to ensure the best is served doesn't just stop there. Each dish on their menu goes through much thought.
Take for instance, their golden boneless stuffed chicken. It took them up to two years of testing before Han was satisfied with the taste!
Inspired by a 1960s Chinese banquet dish where deep fried chicken skin is layered with fish paste or almonds, Han reworked it to give it finesse.
Elements like the crispy chicken skin remain. However, they elevated the dish with hand chopped prawn paste. Each bite yields a lovely contrast of crispy skin with the juicy prawns.
Even the chicken tomato salad served on the side wasn't just an afterthought. Each element was considered. Like how they slightly cook the tomatoes to soften them and pair it with the chicken meat and their own-made orange balsamic sauce.
Details. Details. Details.
Elegant Inn Hong Kong Cuisine, 2.01, Second Floor, Podium Block, Menara Hap Seng, Jalan P. Ramlee, Kuala Lumpur. Tel: 03-2070 9399/012-989 9975. The restaurant is open throughout the whole Chinese New Year season. https://www.facebook.com/ElegantInnhongkongcuisine/