Friday, January 29, 2010

Tim's Kitchen 桃花源

Last Friday, mum and dad visited the only Chinese restaurant that was promoted from 1 star to 2 stars in the latest 2010 Michelin guide, Tim's Kitchen 桃花源. This used to be one of their favorite restaurants, when it was located in a smaller shop just next door over six years ago. The seats were cramped but the food almost always lived up to their reputations. At the time, if you did not reserve a table, you still had a fair chance to get a table for two as walk-in customers.

P.S. - Tim is probably the Christian name / nickname of the chef-owner, 黎有甜. And he was the head chef at Hang Seng Bank's kitchen before opening this restaurant.

The intervening years have made a lot of differences. Now the restaurant has a strict time table for two rounds of customers, the first round being from 6:30p.m. to 8:30p.m. and the second round the following two hours. This seating arrangement is strictly adhered to as more often than not, the customers who hold the second round table would often be patiently waiting outside before their time slot. Chances of landing a table as walk-in customers are not good either. The new address is more spacious but if you are looking for hotel style comfort, you would be disappointed. The restaurant still does not own a liquor license, so it is a BYOB arrangement and they now have different varieties of glasses for the different occasions, champagne, white wine and red wine glasses are all available.

Mum pre-ordered a few of their signature dishes several days in advance and was excited about organizing the dinner with her food loving friends. As it was Friday, people were held up at work and by traffic, but they still managed to start dinner shortly after 7:00p.m. Half the table decided to indulge themselves in an extra course of snake soup 蛇羹 and that was served before anything else. Snake soup is one of dad's favorite dish and Tim's kitchen is famous for its snake soup (or more appropriately to differentiate its own recipe of snake soup, it is known as 太史五蛇羹). Unlike some other places, the snake soup here was always less heavy and had a cleaner taste. The soup had kept to its standard and highly recommended for the less squirmish. Dad finished the whole bowl before mum realized no photos were taken.

The first course that everybody had was winter melon crab crawl 冬瓜蟹鉗. The fresh crab crawl was cooked in an essence of winter melon. The refreshing winter melon sauce was a great complement to the full flavored crab crawl. The seasoning wasn't overpowering and never masked the meaty freshness of the crab. This was the most expensive dish, HKD180 per claw, of the night and worth every penny of it. It was delicious.

The next two dishes, crab meat in bamboo pith with egg-white 蟹肉扒竹笙蛋白 and fried asparagus with garoupa were not bad but nothing to write home about. The deep fried chicken 炸子雞 was high standard with crispy skin and tender meat. You would expect nothing less from a 2-Michelin-star restaurant. In fact, you might even expect more if you like to be a "food critic".

The "eight-treasure" duck 八寶鴨 is another signature dish. Mum and dad never had the dish during all their previous visits, since they never bother pre-ordering. The deboned duck body was stuffed full of lotus seeds, green beans, salted-egg yolk, chestnuts and other goodies then deep fried before being slow-cooked in a broth for many hours. Just when you think it's ready, the duck is taken to the steamer for another 3 hours before it is served. The stuffing was flavorful but not heavy and the duck meat was very tender as you will expect with such a long, arduous cooking process. For less than HKD800, with the preparation worked involved, this was a great value dish and definitely worth ordering in advance.

Starting just after 7:00p.m. and finishing before 8:30p.m. was a bit of a rush, and they barely had enough time to order an extra portion of curry crab fried rice and finished the small portion of spareribs. It was an enjoyable evening and a reasonably priced dinner. Mrs Lai, the owner's wife, still remembered mum from the days when she visited the old shop. The "food critic" might cast doubt whether it deserved a second star, but as in the Michelin guide the world over, the star system is often controversial and can never avoid a degree of subjectivity. At the very least, it is a guide that can generate such heated debate that no other restaurant guides can achieve. Compare with many of the Michelin starred restaurants in other countries, the Hong Kong and Macau guide seems to have set the bar lower. The local backlash against the 2009 guide might have been a lot worse if Michelin used the same yardsticks to measure restaurants in Hong Kong resulting in no 3-star (or just one 3-star in Macau) and perhaps half the number in 1-star. Just imagine the righteous backlash that would have stoked saying there's no business in foreigners judging Chinese cuisines in Hong Kong.

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