Yu Ting Yuan at Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok at Chao Phraya River celebrates the blend of daring precision and dedication to the rich cultural heritage of Cantonese cuisine.
Cantonese cuisine is all about subtlety. There is none of the flash-bang of Sichuan and Hunan or even the sharp contrasts of Shandong. It is about the freshest ingredients, minimal seasoning, and quick cooking, allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves. “The food is meant to taste like what it is. There might be a lot of manipulation, but the end product is meant to be something that tastes like itself,” the New York restaurateur and walking encyclopaedia on Chinese cuisine Ed Schoenfeld once commented on the Cantonese fixation for freshness.
“Cantonese cuisine is all about the details, the finesse,” agrees Qiu Xiaogui as he sets down a small platter in front of me. It’s a signature from his dim sum menu: baked abalone and chicken puff. The tart shell is buttery and flaky. The filling is a delightful, piquant mix resulting from boiling chicken, Chinese ham, scallops, pork and abalone together for four to five days. On top sits baked abalone from South Africa, silky textured and just a hint of sweet and salt.
Xiaogui is the head chef at Yu Ting Yuan, the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok’s signature restaurant. The design by award-winning architect and interior design legend Jean-Michel Gathy redefines the notion of a modern Cantonese restaurant. The floor-to-ceiling windows frame perfectly manicured gardens and a shimmering reflection pool with singular art pieces. The opulent interiors are rife with traditional Chinese architectural elements expressed in a contemporary style, ornate chandelier fixtures and modern artwork. Shadows interplay with light and reflection to boost the ambience, and service staff sashay around in stylish outfits from the fashion house of Ek Thongprasert.
It’s a dramatically gorgeous stage for this master culinarian to seduce diners with authentic Cantonese cuisine and regional favourites prepared with the freshest ingredients and presented in a refined way. Xiaogui’s team includes four other Chinese cuisine experts: Liu Guokun, the award-winning Chinese barbecue chef, dim sum chef Wang Yucheng, wok specialist Li Bude, and chopper Ma Xinbin.
“Put together, our team has more than 109 years of experience in Cantonese cooking,” Xiaogui explains. “From picking out the best ingredients, to the cuts on the vegetables, the sear on the barbecue, down to the plating; it is all about techniques that take years to master.”
The menu shines the spotlight on a choice of premium live seafood, a robust selection of abalone and regional favourites, and an extensive barbeque range, including Peking duck, crispy roasted pork belly with mustard and roasted goose in plum sauce. The star of the lunch period is the dim sums, all prepared á la minute. Like the lobster dumpling; a wrapper made from spinach purée is stuffed to bursting with prawn, Japanese scallop, red grouper, crab meat, and then topped by a generous hunk of Canadian lobster and ikura. The accompanying red vinegar brings it all together for an explosion of flavours.
Soup is an essential element in Cantonese dining, and Xiaogui wants me to sample his take on Bird’s Nest Soup, customarily served sweet. The swiftlet nest from Indonesia is soaked in water, then boiled in mineral water to remove any impurities. Chinese ham, chicken and its feet, scallops, and pork are steamed for eight hours to extract the goodness (read that as collagen) and create a rich umami broth. A consommé for the soul, though the chef insists it will also do wonders for my skin.
The braised asparagus in crab cream sauce is a pretty dish that will have you reaching for your phone. Carrot juice, crab meat, chicken stock and egg white make up the creamy bed for spears of green asparagus that has been only lightly blanched for some bite. In another expression of the simplicity of the cuisine, whole red grouper from Phuket, chosen for its meaty firm texture is just steamed. It’s served with freshly cut scallions and oil lightly infused with garlic. But what elevates it is the soy sauce made from a mix of dried mushrooms, chicken stock and fish sauce. I’m told the fish cheek here is the prized serving.
Don’t leave without sampling the barbecue section. Peking Duck is marinated in salt and the chef’s secret sauce, before being roasted in a traditional oven. It comes to the table, the fat rendered and the skin lacquered a shimmering mahogany. Xiaogui shows off his knife skills, deftly slicing and dicing, taking off the crisp, almost glass-like skin. Little rectangles are presented to us with a bamboo steamer of paper-thin pancakes, accompanied by slivers of spring onions, cucumber and hoisin sauce. One could eat this forever; the skin crackling under the teeth, then the potent caramel kick of the hoisin, tempered by the sweet-salty soy.
The Cha-Siu is also a crucial element in the Cantonese barbecue repertoire. The glossy, lightly spiced sweet-savoury roast pork is comfort food for Hong Kongers, who eat it either in a bun, with noodles, or over rice. At Yu Ting Yuan, the pork comes from pigs that are between 70-80 kgs for a balance of fatty and lean belly. It then sits in a secret marinade for eight to 10 hours. It is brushed with a maltose glaze as it grills slowly to perfection on a gas grill.
The sweet ending of chilled creamed mango, sago, and pomelo comes in an elegant, mango-shaped vessel custom-designed by ceramic artist Pieter Stockmans. It’s a refreshing culmination to the meal. But if you are a glutton for desserts, then the white chocolate puffed rice, lemongrass-infused pineapple with toasted rice ice cream and ginger foam makes for an excellent second choice.
I admit that Cantonese food didn’t previously top my list of food choices when dining out – until now. Qiu Xiaogui has a convert.
This story was first published in the March issue of Prestige Thailand.
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