Walking through the packed restaurant to our seats, we were greeted by a case of mint-flavoured dental floss and a box of Virjoy tissues on the table. A class act considering they’ve got loose toothpicks and toilet paper rolls on the tables in the restaurant next door. An extravagant glass wall with suspended bottles of wine acted as a partition to the private dining rooms, and a faux wine barrel mural gave the illusion of a wine cellar in the main dining room. As my dining companion pointed out, “This is the opposite of Chinoisery. It is the West seen through the eyes of the Chinese people.”
We had come to watch the show, to taste the pairing of discounted fine wines with Chinese food, and to meet the eponymous unshaven uncle behind this establishment. At first we were a bit put off by the Cantonese menu, which bored us with descriptions of dishes we could easily find at Peking Garden, but what perturbed us more was the discovery they only had two wines on the menu, house red or white. This can’t be right, we thought (it wasn’t).
Our first selection, a clay pot of live clams, came on a gas burner. The waitress tipped a carafe of sake into the pot and lit it. Minutes later, a wonderful scent of wine and clams seeped out, perfuming the table. The waitress came over with two plastic gardening spray bottles. “Eat the first clam naked, and then squirt the next one,” she told us. The first clam, wonderfully plump, still beating with life, went down like a dream, while the second clam – as instructed – was sprayed with mystery mist before being devoured. “Sake,” said Uncle, who’d magically appeared at our table, dressed in a stylish pairing of suspenders and neatly trimmed moustache, as he watched us play with the sprayer. “Hell, the alcohol cooks out of it, so you’ve got to add it back in.” He filled our glasses with Vasto 2008, a Chardonnay from Argentina, which had a faint smell of sake (or was that still the spray?) and matched perfectly with the drunken clams.
The next arrival was a pot of sweet almond-scented soup, making us afraid the waitress had brought us dessert before our mains. But after just one slurp, the soft meatiness of the pork lung came through. “Very good for the skin,” the waitress smiled. Then Uncle spun over and told us to polish off our glasses, as he poured us a 2006 Chilean Chardonnay. We wish they’d changed our glasses first, but no matter.
You get the sense that this is a fun place to work. Uncle does his dance around the room, pouring his prized wines for diners to sniff and slurp, and there’s a sense of pride when he shares his knowledge of food and wine – and the good life that surrounds it. Uncle’s ownership of the establishment seems focused on having a good time, rather than just profit margin alone, and the waitresses seem genuinely happy to be serving, an all-round pleasant vibe we picked up on almost immediately.
A dish of lotus root, black cloud’s ear and lily bulbs seasoned with shrimp eggs joined our meal. Fresh, crunchy and soft, it was a great way to wake up our mouths after two courses of soft stuff. This time Uncle came to our table with a plaque. It read: “The President of the United States of America welcomes the President of the Federal Republic of Germany to the White House, April 29, 1992.” We read the menu and wine pairings of this state dinner in awe, as Uncle poured us the Merryvale Starmont Cabernet Sauvignon that was served at the Bush-hosted event – though ours was the 2005 version, and not the 1990 vintage the dignitaries drank. We didn’t ask him where he’d found the plaque.
Probably the most ordinary of the dishes we ordered was the prawns in sweet, sour, bitter and chilli sauce (below right; $138). As it states on the menu, the first taste your receptors receive is the sweetness of a tomato-based sauce, followed by the sourness of vinegar, then the bitterness of the bitter melon, and finally the heat of the red chillis – no surprises here. Uncle poured us a sparkling merlot (Tapestry 2005) to go with this dish. Sweet like sangria, it reminded us of drinking red wine with soda.
The Chinese tea smoked chicken (far left; $178) was a plate of silky meat and skin. The smoky flavour hit the nose right away. At first bite the skin was slightly crispy while the chicken was buttery and smooth. The after notes were sweet while the wonderful juices coated your entire tongue and lingered around the back of the throat for minutes. It really came down to the yellowness of the chicken fat and the quality of the free-range bird that made this dish spectacular.
Already close to the point of bursting, we hadn’t originally ordered the ‘Golden Eighteen’ ($98), but since everything else was proving to be a hit, we took our waitress’ advice and ordered a closing dish. A platter of golden deep fried puffed rice arrived with a pot of soup. In the soup were chopped pak choy, gourd, salty egg yolk, bitter melon and little bits of ground pork. First the crispy rice went into the bowl, followed by a ladle of soup. “The rice doesn’t go soft,” the waitress warned. On first bite, the crispy rice crunched like cereal in our mouths, while the rich soup carried it like full-fat milk. Minutes went by and the rice puffs were still incredibly crunchy, like the crispy, burnt rice that lines the bottom of a Korean dolsot bibimbap. A truly ‘golden’ dining moment.
By now, the elderly residents in this booming foodie part of Sai Wan Ho had come out for their evening stroll, and were staring into a restaurant filled with a young generation of laughing Chinese, drinking and eating Cantonese food in a Western setting. They were probably thinking, “There goes the neighbourhood”; however our only thought was, “when can we come back?” Alan Wong
G/F, 35 Tai Hong St, Sai Wan Ho, 2967 6764. Daily noon-2.30pm, 6pm-midnight
|Venue name:||Uncle Moustache (Closed)|
G/F, 35 Tai Hong St, Sai Wan Ho