Vea: Breathtaking food, visually stunning

Vea

It’s the favourite restaurant for a lot of people I know here in Hong Kong.

It also seems to be the darling of the Michelin Guide, having secured a coveted Michelin Star in its first year of operation.  No mean feat!

The fact that it’s taken over a year for me to get in and check out Vea is a bit surprising; however, there is a story behind that.  It’s a tale of a frustrating and annoying booking system that this little food blogger gave up on when trying to book a table only a few weeks after the restaurant’s opening.

It’s a terrible system.

And to be frank, the only element that lets down what is a truly amazing restaurant experience!

Vicky Cheng is the head chef and culinary mastermind behind Vea; a native Hong Konger but classically trained by the likes of Daniel Boulard, Chef Cheng is a young man with a vision.  Embracing his Asian roots, Cheng uses contemporary and inventive French techniques but using Asian ingredients and provides a menu that tells an incredible tale.  What’s more, Chef Cheng embraces ingredients from China, lending a unique flavour profile the blends many styles and flavours.

We arrived at the very modern looking dining room, located on the 30th floor of the Wellington in Sheung Wan.  The first thing that stood out what the unique styling of the counter style dining tables, three semi circles ran along the side of the kitchen area, giving diners a bird’s eye view of Chef Cheng and his team preparing the tasting menu for which Vea had become so famous.

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Normally it would be just the girl and I sampling the restaurant’s fare, but we’d tagged along with a buddy who’d expressed his love of fine dining.  What better way to check out one of Hong Kong’s finest than with a crew that truely appreciated a fine meal.  It also gave the girl a drinking buddy, the pair eagerly agreeing to the matching wines, expertly paired by the restaurant’s Sommelier.

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The evening’s tasting menu was presented to us and we were asked the obligatory question about allergies, before settling in and enjoying the ambiance of the dining room.  Given it was a tasting menu, we didn’t have to make any decisions, save confirming that we certainly didn’t have any allergies.

We didn’t have any time to wait for our first taste of restaurant’s food, a trio of little snacks were already in place.  At first we thought they were just decorations, but a quick word from our waiter informed us that the cute little objects were in fact, edible.  A snowflake made from a garlic chip, a crostini shaped like a little twig and a tiny little marshmallow snowman were all consumed; leaving a smile on our faces at the inventiveness of the amuse bouche.  The snowman was particularly interesting, a light goats cheese and vinegar flavour contrasted with the sweetness of the marshmallow.

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Clever.

A series of savour snacks started coming to the table after a short time, and in an equally short time, it was clear that we were in for one hell of a visual and culinary journey!

The first piece of magic came in the form of a clear glass dome, the contents clouded by smoke; the contents of which astounded once the dome was lifted.  A birds nest, complete with quail eggs offered the first tantalising view of what lay ahead.  With instructions to eat in one bite, the sweet yolk contrasted against the smokiness to provide a wonderful and warming feeling, at once familiar but new.

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Tiny little cones were the next surprise, an Asian ginger salad with ginger and sesame sauce and edible flowers, again with instructions to eat in one bite.  The beautiful presentation left us speechless, the attention to detail in such a small package again demonstrating a kitchen at the height of its game.  A little crunch from the cone, a hint of ginger that hinted of heat but never too much and sweetness from the sesame left and incredible flavour in the palate and memory for later savouring.

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We were a little worried after the explanation of our third little treat to begin the meal.  Chef Vicky was on hand to describe the dish, which consisted of pork knuckle with pickled peanuts, roasted ginger, goji berry and red bean paste.  The three of us instantly recounting our experiences with red bean, a flavour foreign and distasteful to our Western palates.  However, the prominent flavour was of sweet pork and the textures mixed between the crunch of the casing and the slightly chewy pork.  The red bean was an under current that balanced against the sweet and savoury components of the dish.

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Our treats over, it was time for the main components of the tasting menu to arrive.  However, before our plates arrived, a tray that resembled a Christmas ‘holly’ was placed in front of us and ‘set alight’ by adding warm water to dry ice.  Once it was steaming away, our plates were placed in front of us, and I for one had my breath caught in my throat with the beauty of the wild mushroom dish, various styles and colours dominating the plate.  Our smoking ‘holly’ was for adding the final component, a matcha ‘moss’ that would add the bitter flavour to the otherwise sweet dish.

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Chef Vicky was again on hand to describe the dish, paying particular care to mention that he sourced his mushrooms from China; a feat that normal chefs would shy away from.  The textures of the mushrooms were wide and varied, as were the flavours.  However, there was an absolute standout on the dish, the buttered cauliflower sauce that had been prepared by roasting with a tub of butter, before being put through a cold press juicer and then blended together with it’s original butter concoction.  A huge effort for a sauce, but well worth it; it was central to pulling the dish together and super delicious.

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Our next dish was pretty, in a much more restrained way.  Consisting of a filet of Amadai, otherwise known as ‘horsehead’, with it’s scales puffed, sitting on a bed of semi dried oyster and a ‘har mi’ and shiso.  The fish was delicate and mild flavoured, the puffed scales providing texture that was a little challenging at first, but once you were used to the scratch texture, amazing.  Oysters provided a salty flavour and a contrasting chewy texture and a rich sweet sauce pulled the dish together.  It was lovely, but quite a bit more restrained than our opening dish.

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I’m always dubious when I see Sea Cucumber on a menu, but when it comes sitting atop a ‘log’ of langoustine puree and a bisque made from langoustine shells, the context changes considerably.  The dish looked a little weird, like a huge upside down caterpillar with tiny little legs pointing to the sky.  I did love the bowl the dish was presented in, looking much like an amoeba, it was the perfect match for the creepy looking main ingredient.  While it looked weird to my western eyes, it was much more familiar to my palate.  The sweet langoustine paste was wonderful, the bisque rich and full flavoured, the sea cucumber there more for texture than flavour.  We agreed that it was both weird and wonderful and we very much wanted to lick the bowl clean.

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Our next dish had an accompaniment to help us achieve just that goal.  Simply titled ‘Egg’,  a powerful aroma of truffle assaulted the senses once the dishes lid was lifted.  Visually, a perfect quenelle of caviar (again sourced from China) sat atop an expertly cooked egg which was surrounded by a truffle and parmesan sauce.  Our instructions were to break the egg and mix into the sauce, and we eagerly followed the direction.  It was a definite ‘wow’ moment, the beautifully decedent sauce vastly improved by the mixing of the rich yolk.  The caviar added a little hit of saltiness that was well appreciated.

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We were given a traditional Chinese dough to help mop up the remnants of the sauce, which was truely appreciated; I’m not sure I could have allowed any of that sauce to go to waste and may have made a pig of myself licking the bowl!

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The first of our two mains did divide our little trio a little; it was a dainty little pigeon dish that was served with bitter melon, salted duck egg and peach.  A sweet and darkly sticky sauce was poured over once the dishes were placed.  There were interesting colours on the plate, in particular from the pink of the peach and the dark sauce.  I think we all agreed that the pigeon was well cooked and wonderfully earthy in its flavour; the peach sweet and a great contrast to the earthy flesh.  It was the bitterness of the melon that had the girl questioning the dish, the flavour detracting from her overall enjoyment.

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Our final main of the night again had us arguing, but this time about who had made the smarter selection.  The standard option was for the New Zealand Venison, slow cooked then rubbed in charcoal, then served with a Sichuan pepper sauce, Yunnan ham and Jerusalem artichokes.  It was a pretty little dish segmented into quarters on the plate, separated by a line of artichoke puree.  It was also where we saw the slightly obsessive nature of Chef Vicky, getting his tweezers out before SH could devour his dish to move one of the components a few millimetres to meet his exacting standards of the presentation.

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While SH and the girl had chosen the Venison, I’d opted to pay a little extra for the wagyu rump cap, served with a black garlic puree, daikon, truffle and an XO sauce made from the bones of the cattle.  It was a spectacular delicious dish, where all of the components came together to form a complete dish much greater than the sum of its parts.  The rump cap is a special part of a cow that is the most tender and full flavoured available, and when it was mixed with that sauce, magic happened on my palate.  I fell in love with the dish.

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Which led to spirited debate about who had won and who had lost with our selections.  While we never did settle the debate, it’s probably safer to say that there were only winners on the night.

Our first dessert was an odyssey of epic proportions; driven by the humble strawberry.  We were presented with a plethora of strawberry options that ranged across the Asian continent and beyond.  With options from Mexico, Spain, Korea and Japan, we were asked to select a strawberry, which would form part of our first dessert.  We could have gone for different regions but there was something about the description of the Shizouka Japan strawberries; Chef Vicky explaining that they had a peach like flavour.

Once selected, we watched and listened as Chef Vicky described the process of cleaning the strawberries and placing them at the hear of what was actually the cheese course.  A soft cheese cake was shaped then coated in strawberry gel, giving the appearance of little strawberry lollies.  A quenelle of strawberry sorbet and dollops of sweet soft cheese all sat on one side of our plate, then the washed and trimmed strawberry was reverently placed on the plate ready for our consumption.  While we loved adding a small cut of the strawberry to the cream cheese, cheese cake and sorbet, it was best savoured on its own.

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Oh yes, the peach flavour came through very nicely.

I didn’t think I would like our last dessert, but it ended up being one of my favourite parts of the meal, and truth be told, one of the better desserts I’ve had in recent memory.  Titled Chinese Olive, the dessert was a creamy ice cream covered in different flavoured meringue ‘stones’, as well as small bites of marshmallow.  It was incredible, looking like a pebble cake, the sweetness of the ice cream was offset by the crunchy olive flavoured meringue bites.  I loved the presentation also, simple in a deep bowl that resembled the ‘stones’ and was very cold to the touch!

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While we contemplated the sphere that contained our petite four, the girl was (very easily) sold on a whisky to finish the meal; the single malt Glenlivet Nadurra (reportedly) going down very well and moving the girl from being a little tipsy (from the matching wines) to just a little pissy!

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We finished our meal with the small sugary bites that were hidden away in the gold ribbon encrusted sphere.  The pick of the bites came from the condensed milk mochi, which were like little pillows of heaven on the palate, however the cherry and black pepper tart was equally fabulous.

There were all sorts of little delights that supported the meal.  We kicked off dinner with little compressed towels that expanded with water poured from a little test tube.  As a little juxtaposition, the meal finished with the same little packet, this time the white round sphere was a piece of marshmallow to consume and the test tube filled with sweet rose water.

We also loved that Chef Vicky spent a lot of time with the diners, explaining the dishes and serving his food; definitely on point from a chef that was clearly at the top of his game and simply in love with what he’s able to do on a daily basis.

Surprise and delight for diners.

It troubles me that I’d not visited Vea prior; a restaurant that good, a meal that spectacular doesn’t come along every day.  It’s been sitting under my all this time!

Well, at least I can go back again real soon!  (I’ll even put up with that terrible booking system!)

http://www.vea.hk

@FoodMeUpScotty

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