Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee at Amoy Street
It has been a long time since my last food review…too long in fact. It is not that I haven’t been eating because, well, the waistline does not lie and my pants have certainly been getting tighter. It’s just that I haven’t really had the time to review the restaurants because work has been insanely busy plus I have been doing more general as opposed to food-related photography. Hopefully that changes over the course of the next couple of months, otherwise the money I spent buying this domain name will be utterly wasted. Hah. At any rate, the family headed down to one of our old Teochew haunts in Amoy Street for a combined birthday celebration for my brother and I, so I thought it was the perfect time to show that this blog is far from dead.
Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee is located at 74 Amoy Street and has been around for quite some time; I have memories of dining at this place since I was 7, which means that the restaurant is at least 22 years old. I suppose my memory isn’t quite as good I think it is because a quick check on the restaurant’s official website states that it moved to Amoy Street in 1993 (which would mean that I was 8, at the youngest, when we first ate there). Anyhow, the point is that this restaurant is pretty well established and must be doing something right to have remained opened all these years. I’m serious! It is quite hard to find, and I admit that I am unable to pinpoint, any restaurant which serves substandard food having remained opened for more than 10 years. To the contrary, there are many places that serve up excellent food, but which, nonetheless, don’t last more than a year (this is primarily due to greedy landlords who triple the rent every couple of years…but who is to blame them when there are suckers who actually still renew/sign the lease?).
The restaurant’s longevity aside, the proof is ultimately in the pudding, no? It’s all fine and dandy to suppose that a restaurant must be doing something right to be open this long, but ultimately the food is what counts. Some would (wrongly) say that it’s all that does. The fact is that good, as opposed to exceptional, food married with excellent service will always triumph over excellent food quality simpliciter). People want to go out and feel special – they want an experience. This is something that Chinese restaurants are generally not known for. I mean, when was the last time you dined at a Chinese restaurant and the chef came out and spoke to you? There may be a number of reasons why the kitchen staff rarely, if ever, come out to greet guests (one of them being that though there is a “head chef” in a Chinese kitchen, the cooks rarely ever break rank and play prima donna – at least not publicly) but I would also say that part of the reason is that it is simply not part of Chinese culture. Business owners want to go cheap and hire part timers, kitchen staff are busy churning out course after course and the economic philosophy ultimately boils down to this: Toyota makes more money than Mercedes, i.e. no one wants to make 100 excellent, flawless cars…they rather make 10,000 better-than-the-competition cars for cheap and sell at a greater margin.
Ok, I have seriously side-tracked. Back to the review.
In summary, the food was incredible. Huat Kee has the food quality and ingenuity to take Chinese dining to the next level. The restaurant (a) uses fresh ingredients; (b) has rare and expensive delicacies; (c) has a staple of die-hard fan favourites yet offers interesting, innovative specials; and (d) above average service. It is also not cheap…but then again, how can it be? When a menu lists prices that are too good to be true, the fact is that they probably are.
We started with the braised goose, which is a Teochew specialty. I grew up eating this dish and would wipe out in excess of three bowls of rice all because of the incredibly delicious sauce which this dish is served in. One of the places I loved to eat this the most was at Huat Kee.
The goose was tender enough, although I would venture to say it was slightly too salty for my taste – and that’s coming from someone who has a penchant for salt – to the extent that it overwhelmed my palate. I was disappointed by this seeing as this is one of my favourite Teochew dishes. Simply put, I expected to have been blown away but was left standing. Off day perhaps?
Rating: 3 / 5
Shark’s Fin Soup
The next course was shark’s fin soup…regrettably I do not have a usable photo of this. The shark’s fin was, however, amazing! The thing about shark’s fin soup is that the shark’s fin itself is tasteless…people usually enjoy it for its texture. This is where the importance of the soup itself arises as it is the foil for the fin and Huat Kee did not disappoint. It was clear to me that the soup had been carefully reduced, perhaps made from shark cartillage (or shovel nose ray cartillage), had that milky-silky texture and was viscous enough to provide an excellent accompaniment to the fin itself. It was good enough to rival the one I had at Peach Garden (OCBC Tower) and my only complaint was the presentation of the fin itself. The best way of presenting this dish is for a whole comb of fin to be present within the soup. In this case, though there was ample fin, it was broken up into chunks which gave a “cheap” look and feel to the dish, which was incredibly unfortunate as the quality was certainly there.
Rating: 4 / 5
Seared Sea Cucumber
This. Was. Amazing. How do I describe it? The sea cucumber collagen was soft yet firm and complemented beautifully by the seared exterior which lent a charcoal grill flavour that, surprisingly, worked. The sauce was thick and heavenly (which I believe was made from a reduction of abalone and Chinese mushrooms) and would have gone amazingly well with white rice (which I would have done if I didn’t already polish off my bowl when the goose came :P). Die Die Must Try!
Rating: 5 / 5
Huat Kee is famous for many things, one of them being its roast suckling pig. Again, no photo 😛 The family attacked it before I could snap anything! There’s not much to say though, this was beautifully well done with amazing crackling nestled on the sweet, savoury and succulent flesh of the pig itself. Unbeatable.
Rating: 4.5 / 5
Poached Rabbit Fish
The photo really does not do this dish justice. This had to be one of the best fish dishes I’ve ever eaten! It is a (deceptively) simple poached rabbit fish but Mr Lee kindly educated us on the background to this dish.
First, though it is a common fish that almost no one gives a second thought to, getting the fish at the right time and the right place is what makes all the difference. In this case, the fish was stuffed with roe as it had just come mating season. Second, the fish cannot be caught near shore as it retains a great deal of mud and sand in its stomach, giving it a terrible flavour. Thid, one has to wait for the school of fish to swim towards the shore and catch them before they do to ensure that there isn’t that muddy taste.
So get this. You have to wait for them to mate somewhere out in the ocean – wait for them to swim towards shore but catch them before they reach, perfectly poach them (which is no easy feat given that this fish is less than 2 cm thick) and serve it within minutes of the poaching process (which means, in the context of course-by-course dining, the timing and execution has to be perfect). All this was done to a T.
I spent 30 minutes carefully eating this fish and savouring every second.
Rating: 5 / 5
Wok-fried Leeks with Chinese Mushrooms
Again, another winner. There is nothing spectacular about this dish except for the fact that the ingredients were top notch and the execution (searing of the leeks) was perfect. If executed properly, as it was in this case, the outside of the leek is burned giving it the wok hei simultaneously rendering the inner layers of the leek sweet.
Rating: 4 / 5
And what would a Teochew meal be without yam paste (Orh Nee)? The yam paste was accompanied with gingko nut and what I can only describe as a ?caramelized?, slow-cooked whole orange. The orange is an ingenious addition as this dish is usually served with sweet potato. Mr Lee walked us through the complicated process of getting the orange done just right but for the life of me I can’t remember. It involves soaking the orange in sugar water, carefully removing the seeds, doing something else and then chilling it (I think). Whatever the case is, beautiful! And a many thumbs up for the ingenuity of this.
Rating: 4 / 5
On balance, this was as perfect, albeit pricey, a Chinese-style dinner as one could have hoped for. Excellent food, excellent service, ingenious and innovative cuisine married with traditional Teochew style, made this visit a winner. Did I mention that Huat Kee also has an impressive and extensive selection of wine for you to choose from? On this occasion we purchased a bottle of 2003 Montrachet. I can’t comment on the reasonableness of the pricing as I did not see the bill since it was my birthday treat but if you are a wine connoisseur, this place has the necessary offerings to keep you busy. Oh, and they also use Riedel glasses.
The following are some other shots taken at the restaurant.
Mr Lee (pictured in the centre) with my Dad and my brother.
Whisky of choice for the evening, the excellent Lagavulin 16.
Shots of Amoy Street
And finally….where is Huat Kee you may ask? Well it’s at 74 Amoy Street, right next to the, ahem, former employer of a rather notorious British man.
All images captured with the Leica M (typ 240) and Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH. Copyright of Alex Pang.