Esther Sham would never say she is a rising star in the culinary world, but others have, including Richard Ekkebus, of the two-Michelin-starred Amber, who has taken her under his wing as an apprentice.
Says Ekkebus: “I met her again a few months ago [and] I mentioned it would be better for her now to scrub in a real kitchen to further evolve. I am a true believer that women make much better chefs than men, as they have a sensitivity often lacking in men. It is also unlikely for women to take short cuts; they are more thorough and consistent.”
On the days she is not working at Amber, this former model runs her own restaurant, Ta Pantry, a doll-house private kitchen in a nondescript apartment building on Star Street. Inside her Pottery Barn-inspired residence, she has a singular dining table that can seat six comfortably, eight at a squeeze. We sat on her patio awaiting the rest of our guests and studied the wine list: predominately Californian, with a few French and old worlds, and a Wine Spectator rating next to most bottles. There was also a rating column labelled “AS”, which stands for Andrew Sham, Esther’s brother, who is a wine distributor.
Like most private kitchens, booking in advance is essential. A deposit is required and you choose from two menus: Shanghainese or the Japanese (beginner foodies should start with the Japanese then progress to the Shanghainese). Each menu is comprised of dishes from Sham’s childhood, and she comes to the table before each course to explain the genesis of dish. Each five-course menu is $500pp, with a six-person minimum.
We sat sipping a Peju rosé, a Californian blend of red and white table wines, which technically should be labelled a ‘blended wine’ rather than a ‘rose’, at $260 a bottle. It was sharp and sweetish, great for a Sunday junk trip, but not with a meal. Inside, Esther dressed in her pink chef’s ‘whites’, was busy at the prep table. We all sat ceremoniously for the opening courses of ‘kor fu hand roll’, a thin rice crepe filled with marinated tofu and tied with a chive, and ‘Not so Shanghainese’ foie gras wontons. The dumplings were served in a clay pot filled with dried mushroom-scented broth. This is an updated version of her Shanghainese mother’s recipe, but I bet mom never used foie gras in her wontons. So excessive, so Hong Kong, this dish made it to our ‘50 meals you must eat this year’ list. The pretty dumplings (she’s obviously spent time doing origami) were rich with soft goose liver, while the deepness of the mushrooms cut the fat. Traditional egg strips also got a design upgrade, being tied into cute knots.
Speaking of cute, everything here is pretty and cute in an adult, novel way. From the upsidedown butter dish, to the milk-cow salt and pepper shakers, to her pink Kitchen Aid, to the twinkly bossa nova soundtrack playing on a loop, this place certainly gets points for style.
From the Japanese menu, we sampled the ‘tuna, tuna, tuna’, a trio of said fish done three ways: miso-mayo mille-feuille, diced in sweet-soy, and minced with black truffles. Each method was good, but could’ve – should’ve – been even better if the tuna had been of higher quality. Also from the Japanese menu: the miso cod sitting on a sweet daikon carpaccio and tomato coulis was a reminder of Nobu’s famous black cod dish, and in some ways made better with the coulis.
Next up, sweet peas topped a plate of uni spaghetti that was capped with nori strips and a sprinkle of Japanese spiced pepper from Kyoto. Now perhaps only obsessives like me get excited over this, but I can’t help but smile when a kitchen shucks their own peas. I love fresh baby peas with the little umbilical cords still on them; it’s a sign the chef really cares about the details of her dish, given frozen peas are an easier and more economical option. The naturally salty sea urchin, meanwhile, was mashed into a creamy ‘sauce’ which coated the hot pasta unevenly, but it was the A5 Kobe beef on the Shanghainese menu that stole the show: a small loin of seared, well-marbled steak accompanied – unnecessarily – by spicy mushrooms and sesame gai lan. The A5 Kobe was so rich that the chef didn’t dare let it touch a pan or grill, instead blow-torching the flesh so the beef tasted like beef, and nothing else.
Sham’s menu – like her fledgling restaurant – is still at an elementary stage, and experienced foodies may spot some dishes and techniques borrowed from other fine kitchens. On the other hand, you can also see glimpses of a creative, emotional mind at work. And that is what we champion on these pages: people who step out of the bored and familiar to try something, anything, different. Ta Pantry and its chef are names to follow as we’re betting her future menus will continue to tickle Hong Kong’s curious tongue.
Flat C, 1/F, Moonstar Court, 2D Star St, Wan Chai, 2521 8121. Reservations only.
Shanghainese set menu $500
Japanese set menu $500
|Venue name:||Ta Pantry|
Flat C, 1/F, Moonstar Court, 2D Star St, Wan Chai