Thursday, 9 January 2014
Red Star Restaurant 红星酒家 A Night to Remember Organised by Makansutra in Singapore
This is a very hard post for me to write. It is hard not to be emotional and nostalgic about Sin Leong 冼良 and Red Star 红星, and just focus on the food. Also, we ate a lot of different interesting stuff that dinner and there were so many dimensions to the night. So, this is an unusually long post - thank you in advance, for bearing with me.
I remember Sin Leong Restaurant 冼良酒家 in MacPherson. I can't remember how old I was, nor the food we had. Only that it was a wedding and the food was heavenly - partly because opportunities to eat at restaurants were rare and because Masterchef Sin Leong was special, even back then.
While that one time at Sin Leong left a deep indelible impression, life took me on paths where I had no further opportunity to enjoy their food again.
So, I was full of anticipation when I had the opportunity nearly half a century later (I wish I could say I am exaggerating :P) to attend the Nostalgic Classic Cantonese Cuisine Dinner organised by the Makansutra Makan Group.
I got far more from the dinner than I ever expected.
First, we got off to a great pre-dinner start. With the help of Andrew Wong, food bloggers were allowed into the inner sanctum of Red Star - the kitchen.
Me with my childhood hero, the legendary Masterchef Sin Leong
And, for first time I could speak with my childhood hero Masterchef Sin Leong.
I also got to know Masterchef Hooi Kok Wai too.
The Masterchefs are such gracious, generous people. They are not a bit fazed by food paparazzi running loose in the scared heart of their restaurant.
While engrossed in the rare opportunity to be let loose in Red Star's kitchen, grabbing as many shots as I could, the Masterchef softly beckoned me to follow him.
I followed him to the far corner of the kitchen, not knowing what to expect, and what happened next was well beyond my wildest guess.
Sin Leong showed me the altar of his Master 羅成 Law Seng (in Cantonese, the way Sin Leong pronounced it). Sin Leong said that he and his three brothers, Masterchefs Hooi Kok Wai, Tham Yew Kai and Lau Yoke Pui apprenticed under Law Seng in the 1950s. (Tham and Lau had since passed on.)
Everyday, Masterchefs Sin and Hooi still offer incense to their Master and to this day the spirit of Law Seng's artistry is still in Red Star's kitchen and their food.
Tonight also, something niggly that bugged me was resolved. You see, I was never totally comfortable with the Masterchef's fancy tag "Four Heavenly Kings 四天王". I thought it was just immodest self promotion which diminishes or adds little to their stature. I felt that my heroes have more than enough substance to do well without PR gimmicks.
So, I was very pleasantly surprised that the title "Four Heavenly Kings" was awarded by a reputable People's Republic of China Culinary Institute years ago in the 1970s - it was no self praise but an unsolicited external endorsement. From the very cradle of Chinese cuisine, no less. Wow!
Now, seated back in Red Star's cavernous banquet hall, the geometric patterns on the ceiling caught my eye.
The old style decor is still as they were, looking down at generations of diners through the years - weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, welcomes, farewells and other significant events. The entire ceiling at Red Star is plastered with the traditional Chinese motifs of bats and lettuce - I found them beautiful. The five bats (五隻蝙蝠) signify the five good fortunes (五福). The four lettuce leaves symbolise growth and prosperity (生财).
And, now we roll back the clock and let the feast of old time favourites begin. First to roll out were the four classic starter dishes.
Minced Venison on Rice Crust
I liked this puffed rice cracker a lot. The brittle, airy puffed rice crackled loudly between the teeth with each bite.
The sweet and savoury venison and vegetable topping was tender making this rice cracker treat simply delicious.
This dish has a very long name - Deep-fried Chicken Liver “Pate” and Salted Egg Yolk wrapped in Pig’s Caul Fat. Rarely seen nowadays, it is extremely tedious to make. But it didn't quite deliver the explosion of flavours that I was anticipating. More a salty ball of stiffened meaty mash.
I like this Drunken Chicken. The just done chicken flesh was tender and naturally sweet. The taste of liquor was robust, and even overwhelming for some people. I enjoyed it for the kick it gave, though I concur that it was an unusually generous dose.
When I was in the kitchen, I saw Sin Leong brandishing a good bottle of XO VSOP while instructing his chefs. But, I am not sure if every one of the nearly 20 tables was served the same privileged spirit :P
This so-called Gold Coin Chicken 金钱鸡 is made completely with pork - three layers of it in a stack. A slice of lean pork at the base, a slice of ham in the middle and a slice of pork fat on top. Sugary, savoury and meaty.
Steamed Triple Layered Garoupa
This is a premium Garoupa fish steamed and smothered in a mash of chopped mushrooms, ginger, carrots, cuttlefish and dried tangerine peels. The slits in the flesh were stuffed with slices of ham.
This style is likable though if given a choice, I would still opt for the Teochew style of just oil, good soy sauce, spring unions and coriander to accentuate the natural flavours of the premium fish.
The fish still managed to look menacing after we were all done eating.
Double Boiled Chicken Soup with Ginseng and Snow Fungus. Expensive chicken soup, lah :P
The hosts were generous with the prized root, thus infusing the soup and soft chicken with robust ginseng aroma.
My favourite dish of the night was the Three Legged Duck. A curious name but it actually means duck served with three types of feet (which were duck web, chicken claw and pork trotter).
All the meat and feet were braised till soft in a savoury and fragrant soy based braising sauce. I ate lots of gelatinous skin that night - it was an interesting jumble of textures, soft yet rough and smooth yet gummy. Love it.
Pan Fried Jumbo Prawns in BBQ Sauce
One bite into this big prawns reminded me of my dad. You see, to my dad, anything worth celebrating is celebrated with big prawns. The bigger, the better.
And, my dad stir fried the big prawns in a sweet savoury sauce until it formed a caramelised tacky layer on the shells. At the table, dad would pick out the biggest one with chopsticks and lay it on the bowl of rice of his favourite, my littlest sister. Well...., I never quite fancy dad's big prawns anyway. They were over done and too sugary sweet for my liking :P
But, today I realised something that I never knew before. Dad's big prawns tasted exactly the same as Sin Leong's jumbo prawn dish 干煎虾碌 (to me anyway). Dad must have felt quite a lot of pride that he was able to emulate a signature Sin Leong dish during the famous Masterchef's heydays.
Braised Pork Belly with Taro served with Mantou 香芋扣肉 came quite near the end of the dinner. I was nearing the point of surrender and was thus rather surprised that this dish was welcomed with glee at the table. Then, I reminded myself that I was after all at the table of food bloggers.
Indeed, the pork belly was braised to perfect savoury tenderness and the taro which sponged up the essence of the braising sauce's flavours had a nice paste-like texture. Obviously one of the favourites of the evening.
Hidden Treasure in White Jade 白玉藏宝 is Winter Melon flesh stuffed with roughly cut chicken, peas, carrots, ginkgo nuts steamed in a chicken/ seafood broth and embellished with a string of boiled quail eggs. Visually appealing, and rather subtle in flavours, which I like.
Celebration Braised Rice
It is the tradition at Cantonese wedding dinners to send the guests off on a full stomach. So, it is customary to have a heavy rice or noodle course at or near the end of the 10-course feast. This "Celebration Braised Rice" is boiled rice drenched in a starchy gravy mixed with shrimps, crab meat, green peas, carrots and others. There was a raw egg - a symbol of fertility - dropped in the middle of the bowl. I was told this dish was standard fare at weddings of years past.
If the idea was to have the guests leave happy on a full stomach, this dish still delivers. All of us were already passed full when this dish was served but a few of us reached for seconds as we couldn't resist the interesting blend of flavours and textures of this dish. Savoury, slightly sweet, and the rice was grainy yet tender, smooth and slick. Nice!
Green Bean and Barley Soup Cooked with Herbs
We found that the dessert had an interesting blend of flavours and textures - sweet and a very slight hint of burnt weed. It was not unpleasant at all but very intriguing. In fact, we rather liked it and it prompted some of us to whip out that handphone to quickly look up Wikipedia for what that special ingredient might be. The consensus was that it might be 臭草 or literary "smelly grass". None of us had an inkling that anything was amiss.
A day after the dinner, Andrew Wong conveyed Sin Leong's unreserved apology that the kitchen had accidentally burnt the dessert and had unknowingly served it.
Sin Leong's gracious handling of this glitch just raised my respect for the gentleman by a few notches :)
The last item before we headed home - it was the eve of Mid Autumn Festival (some call it Mooncake Festival). I like Red Star's rendition - not overly sweet and the lotus seeds made it interesting. This was better than the other famous name ones I had at home this year.
Throughout the night we were served by senior servers who were attentive and did their best in providing good service despite the huge crowd. Kudos to them!
Finally, my heartfelt thanks to Masterchefs Sin Leong and Hooi Kok Wai, Kf Seetoh, Andrew Wong, and Dr. Tony Lim for a night to remember.
Restaurant name: Red Star Restaurant 红星酒家
Address: Blk 54 Chin Swee Road (take the lift to the 7th floor where the restaurant is)
Hours: 7:00am to 3:00pm and 6:00pm to 11:00pm
Date visited: 17 Sep 2013
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