Posts Tagged ‘travel food’

By Daisuke Utagawa

I am often asked to name my top favorite restaurants/eateries in the world. Or, at least I think about what the top 5 would be time to time. Broken Tooth Shing in Hong Kong has always been my favorite top 5 even though last time I dined there was 2005, and I’ve had plenty of amazing meals elsewhere since then.

Broken Tooth is not a real restaurant, nor is it the real name of the chef. The Chef’s name is Lee Shing, and “broken tooth” is his nickname since he has one of his front teeth broken. It’s not a real restaurant because the establishment is not licensed and is in their small apartment in down town HK. What it is though is an eatery that can take diners through an amazing journey and even back in time –so to speak.

Broken Tooth only takes one group a night. Up to 18 guests. It will cost about $2500 for the 18 people not including the drinks. (Its BYOB) The place is booked months in advance and they wont take any reservations if you were not recommended by someone they trust. The guests sit in Chef Shing’s small living/dining/bedroom of his one room apartment. Not much of décor or comfort; big round foldable table and some milk crates with cushions to sit on. (Although the second time I visited, they had invested in some foldable chairs)

But none of these things matter because of the sublime food he makes and all doubt will be blown away at once when you walk in to the kitchen. The first time I went to the kitchen, I saw this old man crouching on the floor (wooden slats over concrete) cleaning fish. He was Chef Shing. I looked around and noticed that there was not a single gas or electric cooker, instead, there were several coal cookers of various size! I asked about this and the Chef told me that he doesn’t know how to cook with gas and the coal fire gives his food the right heat, and for him, its much easier to control the heat with coal fire. The only difficulty for him is that no one makes the coal range anymore so he has to special order them for his woks of various sizes.

Let me give you some background on Chef Shing. He was 86 years old last time I dined there in 2005. Chef Shing studied under a private chef of a well-known Chinese opera star. This was about 100 Years ago, and back then, all good chefs worked for someone rich and famous privately. This still holds true to some extent in today’s HK, as eating is one of the most important aspects of life in HK and people believe through eating well, one can live longer or even have a great fortune. The teacher of Chef Shing was famous for his skills. For instance he was the chef who invented snake soup with dried citrus skin, now a classic dish. Having such a chef as your own private chef was also a status symbol in those days.

Chef Shing learned all the techniques and secrets from his teacher. He also kept ingredients that is no longer available today such as dried giant grouper skin (I was told this type of fish is not found anymore in the area.) or dried scallops and dried fish maw from the time the sea was not polluted.

If you are lucky enough to get a table at Broken Tooth, they will ask you for your budget and you work out the menu outline with them in advance. Of course you can ask for some surprise dishes, but for me every dish was a surprise even if I thought I knew the dish very well.

My first visit, the meal started with:

A big plate (its all family style here) of something that looked like wokked (Stir Fried if you like) thick cellophane noodles with finely julienned celery. But it turned out these bean sprout sized noodles were actually sharks fin! I’ve never even seen sharks fin that fat!

And it followed with:

A dish of brazed dried abalone and sea cucumber with Shitake. So delicately flavored , the texture and the taste of those chunks of giant abalone as I sink my teeth in to it was something I can still recall today.

And then:

The famous snake soup. Chef Shing’s son who was serving told us that dried citrus skin which flavored the soup was from 30 years ago.

After that it was:

Steamed whole grouper together with some braised fish maw (also very old). The combination of fish maw and the fresh steamed fish was so complementary to each other that one enhanced the flavor of the other.

And still going with:

Turtle stew. A delicate collagen rich dish. Flavored with dried grouper skin.

And of course:

Couple of vegetable dishes, such as braised yellow nappa cabbage with dried scallops, and stir fried fresh greens.

Not to forget:

The most deluxe fried rice with sausages, and various seafood,  dried or otherwise.

And we finished with:

Sweet Red Bean Soup and some exotic fruits.

While I was eating, I had a sense that I was tasting history and a culmination of ages of great Cantonese cooking culture. Perhaps a sense that maybe Chef Shing is the last of the Mohicans so to speak. I’ve asked as delicately as I can if there was anyone who can carry forward his skills. His son said he learned everything from his father. I genuinely hope he did…

In the 90’s, I started pairing Burgundy red wines with Japanese food. I thought that the delicate tannins in burgundy reds helped define the elusive umami in Japanese food. And by tannins leaving the wine to pair off with umami, it unlocked the hidden flavors of the wine. The result was like a savory flavor of fish coming back on your palate holding a bouquet of fresh and exotic flowers. Philosophically speaking, I think wine making in Burgundy region and Japanese cuisine is essentially the same. Both practice the idea of refining what nature has to offer to show its true and best quality, rather than to “create the taste”. In Burgundy, they say the “expression of the terroir” in Japan, we say “to give life to the ingredients”.

Back then, I was just having fun with my wine friends but one day an article came out on Wall Street Journal about my efforts. The article itself was fairly written quoting those who have tried it (and liked it) and those who did not. But the article ended with a quote from some wine guy in Boston saying “I’ve never tried it but I think it would be a waste of a good burgundy bottle”. I was a bit ticked off by it and so I decided to bring Sushiko staff to France and cook for the winemakers themselves. Let them tell me themselves if its waste of their wines! Needing guidance of how to go about inviting the wine makers, I spoke with my friend Becky Wasserman, who is a bit like an Ambassador of burgundy wines and who also lives in Burgundy. Becky, without even trying the pairing herself, embraced the idea and told me that normally no one will come to such event but if she hosted it, the winemakers would have to come. So we decided to do it on one Sunday in November for lunch. I believe it was 1999.

When the day came, I thought to my self, “what the hell did I get myself in to?” The wine makers came with their own wines of course, but they were all visibly uncomfortable, some were down right angry. Burgundian wine makers are not the sort who masks their feelings when it comes to wines or food. Most of them came to me and actually told me that this is going to be a disaster! Of course it helped that I did not understand French back then. To make matters worse, since I did not know which wines from their portfolio each of the 6 wine makers would bring for the event, I had to taste them on the spot and pair them with our food. When I was done choosing the order in which these wines will be served, Becky came to me and politely asked me if I might had miss communicated the order of wines with the staff. I told her I did not. Well that did not go well with the guests as I have put some Grand Cru wines before 1er Cru wines. That is never done in France! “What a savage!” must have thought the guests. But I was more interested in the emergence of the third character the sum of wine and the food pairing, and its progression as the story unfolds rather than just the progression of wines or food alone. Of course the fact they all brought fabulous wines helped. (I knew they were not going to bring wines that did not show well to the event, after all, there are other wine makers there!)

By the time Becky introduced me and I gave my simple explanation of what my idea is about, we began. By this time, the crowd was super skeptical and rather upset. As a result when the first course was served, no one uttered a word or even a sound. Second course, a little murmur was heard in the dinning room. People were looking at each-other as if to say “do you taste what I’m tasting?” Third course, an explosion of complimentary adjectives! After the sixth course was all mopped up, all the winemakers got up and sang a burgundian harvest song in our honor! I had to hold back my tears…

Because of the overwhelming response, we did the same event for few years in a row after that. Always inviting different wine makers. Then the word spread and our team was invited to Japan to do the same event for Berry Brothers & Rudd, a prominent wine merchant from London, we even did a gig at the James Beard House as well. The funny thing is one day in NYC, I was having a dinner at a restaurant and the proprietor spotted the wine I was having and started to tell me about this “Old Chef in Washington DC who started the pairing of burgundy wine and Japanese cuisine, I had to tell him that the person in question is not old!

Daisuke Utagawa