Sunday, 23 March 2014

Chinese Herbal Cuisine at Majestic Restaurant - A 2014 WGS Masterpiece

Last week at the Majestic Restaurant, I had one of the most unique dining experiences in recent memory. Cooking with Eu Yan Sang herbs, executive chef Yong Bing Ngen produced a masterful six-course showcase in Chinese herbal cuisine.  Paired with a selection of vintages from Hugel et Fils of Alsace, not only was this meal a true eye opener, but it also enabled a critical examination of one's own deeply-held prejudices.

Restaurant Majestic 大華
In the interests of full disclosure, I must say at the outset that I did not pay for this dinner.  Rather, I was asked by various stakeholders to attend a pre-event tasting and fix up the wine and food pairings for the Eu Yan Sang herbal dinner on 31 March 2014, part of the 2014 World Gourmet Summit lineup.  Cooking along with Yong will be international masterchef Arron Huang of Taiwan; Huang hadn't yet arrived in Singapore as at the date of my tasting so presumably he faxed his recipes over or something.  Which was perhaps only fair when it comes to my assessment of the dishes because Yong wasn't in the kitchen this evening either!

When I arrived at Majestic with my friend M, there was nothing on the table but an ice bucket full of Hugel wines, plus a bottle of Hugel 2009 Pinot Noir on the side.  This was an experiment, and we were the scientists, so how would we impose scientific controls on this process?  Simple!  We asked the waiters to pour out a glass of each and we mixed and matched them with each course as it came out, with very interesting results (I will note after each dish the name of the creating chef)

Appetiser: Fried Duck Breast and Prawn with Chinese Angelica and Licorice (Arron Huang)
Wine Pairing: 2010 Hugel Pinot Gris Tradition and 2007 Hugel Riesling Jubilee

The first dilemma: how do you pair a single wine with two dishes with such a massively different flavour profile?  The simple answer is that you don't.  The prawn had a strong, but very nice, dong kwai flavour, which brought out some lively flowery aromas in the Riesling (which, by the way, I think is drinking very nicely at this point after ).  Because of its bitterness, however, accentuated by the greens on the side, it brought out some aggressive uncharacteristic sweetness in the Pinot Gris.  Thankfully, the Pinot Gris found a much more willing dance partner with the duck breast, which did not have as assertive a herbal character as the prawn.

Soup: Double-boiled American Ginseng Soup with Chinese Wolfberry, Whole Conpoy and Fresh Oyster (Yong Bing Ngen)
Wine Pairing: None

This is a supreme Cantonese soup.  Rich with the extracted savour of chicken and conpoy, tempered only by the sweetness of wolfberry and ginseng, this was a soup that enchanted me as soon as I had the first taste.  The oyster was just set in the hot broth, adding a very nice textural element and a not at all unpleasant iodine-y, metallic flavour to the sweet soup.  Simply delightful, and a shoo-in for my Dish of the Month for March 2013.

As for pairing a wine with the soup, I will say only this.  One of my high school teachers had a habit of saying "fools rush in where angels fear to tread in armoured cars".  While I didn't have an armoured car on this occasion, I felt duty-bound to sample the wines with the soup, even though pairing wine with soup is, at the best of times, a challenging task.  Well, this wasn't the best of times and none of them worked, with the Riesling making the soup taste particularly evil.  When you already have perfection on a plate (or bowl in this case), there is really no need to dress it up further.

Baked Fish with Notoginseng Root & Licorice Dressing (Arron Huang)
Wine Pairing: 2007 Hugel Riesling Jubilee

Again, the herbal influence here is quite subtle.  The fish is the definite hero of this dish, and few wines go better with a light, fresh fish preparation than a dry Alsace Grand Cru Riesling.  I don't know the name of the odd-looking herb at the foreground of my photo, but biting into it is like sinking your teeth into a very thick piece of strong-tasting, crumbly dried mandarin peel.  Not much of this flavour appears to have rubbed off on the fish, though.

Stuffed Black Bone Chicken with Eu Yan Sang Bak Foong Pill, Codnopsis Root, Brown Rice and Solomon's Seal Chicken Jus (Yong Bing Ngen)
Wine Pairing: 2009 Hugel Pinot Noir Classic

A masterclass in subtlety and elegance, with an equally restrained broth poured over your dish at the table.  The colours of this dish may suggest deep, extracted flavours, but it is actually quite light on the palate.  The roulade of black chicken with brown rice, with its varying textures of gelatinousness (sic?), chewy skin and al dente brown rice, was enough to bring a tear to the eye of any Chinese gourmand.  It works a treat with the equally subtle Pinot Noir.  Alsace Pinot Noir is often the poor, forgotten cousin of the Alsatian wine family, often with good reason, but Hugel's basic 2009 label actually matches quite well with the black chicken preparation.

My only criticism of this dish is that the servers may need to take a little more care while pouring the broth over at the table (see the broth splashed outside the rim of the bowl)  There is not much point enhancing the experience with a little tableside theatre if the end presentation is compromised.

King Prawn with Tangerine Peel and Licorice Dressing (Yong Bing Ngen)
Wine Pairing: 2005 Hugel Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive

I am not normally prone to hyperbole, but have no doubts, this was an absolute explosion of flavour.  The coating of the prawn was heavily caramelised and sweet, piqued with the lightest hint of chilli.  The prawn itself was a princely specimen, meaty and fresh with lovely, creamy roe spilling from the head.  It killed all the wines that we had poured up to that point, and I was prepared to call it quits until we had a stroke of genius: let's pour the late-harvest Gewurztraminer and see how that fared!  Surely enough, the Gewurz VT had enough complexity, body and residual sugar to stand up to the sauce where the dry-style Gewurztraminer Classic had miserably failed.  For me (and I plead guilty to any accusation that I have a bit of a sweet tooth), this was a clear winner for the pairing of the night.

Dessert: White Tremella Mushroom Herbal Tea with Eight Treasures - Coix Barley, Gingko Biloba, Euryale Seed, Honey Date, Boat-fruited Sterculia Seed, Chinese Wolfberry, Longan Fruit and Fresh Lily Bulb (Yong Bing Ngen)
Wine Pairing: None

A very pleasant, soothing note on which to end.  The herbal tea tasted like a classic leung cha, sugary-sweet with herbal complexity at the finish.  I like the modern, deconstructed presentation of what is actually a very traditional Chinese preparation.  However, for me, the lily bulb and coix barley were a tad undercooked and could have done with a few more minutes boiling in the broth; the lily bulb was actually still crunchy and raw-tasting, which struck a discordant note with the rest of the orchestra playing in harmony.


I was not raised with Chinese herbs as a significant part of my diet.  That my father is a Western-trained doctor probably saw to that.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoy ginseng soup and a few other preparations (Chinese wolfberries and dates don't really class as herbs in my book), but before tonight, that would have been all I could have told you about Chinese herbal cuisine.

Lack of experience and knowledge leads, as in most cases, to simple prejudice.  Chinese herbal cuisine is not all about alien flavours and too much of them.  Judiciously used, they can add a lot of character and interest, putting a whole new spin on classic Chinese dishes.  I cannot imagine that the soup and the black chicken, to take examples of the night's best dishes, would have been the same without their influence.  And after a monstrous day at the office, I must admit I felt really energised after the meal; I am too much of a cynic to discount the fact that it may just have been the warm buzz after a good meal paired with some of my favourite wines, but maybe, just maybe, there is something to the oft-discussed restorative properties of Chinese herbs after all!  

Overall, I think Yong's dishes defeated Huang's, but I will wait till Huang arrives and is able to give his dishes full attention before I affirm that particular judgment.

If you do get the chance to attend this dinner on 31 March, (S$188+GST, with discounts for Citibank cardholders), do give it a shot because the food is excellent, and the wines provide most fitting companionship.  I didn't have the benefit of learning about the qualities gastronomic and medicinal of the herbs, but there will be a Eu Yan Sang representative on hand during the dinner proper to assist with any questions you may have.

There are not many seats left for this dinner as at the date of this post, so if you are interested, and you should be, please move quickly:

New Majestic Hotel
31 Bukit Pasoh Road
Singapore 089845
Tel: +65 6511 4718
Reservations Recommended

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