Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Extravagant gluttony

Sometimes a few magical words are all that's needed to capture the soul of an event. The meal that I am about to share with you is simply one of the most extravagant and gluttonous that I have ever taken part. And the most extraordinary part of this incredible meal was the spontaneousness of it.

Exhausted from a three day seminar tour, I said goodbye to my colleagues who will march on to yet another city and found myself with five hours of free time to spend in Shanghai before my plane takes off for Chicago. What to do? I was too tired to shop, but too young to go back to the hotel to nap. While waiting for the taxi to take me away from the seminar site, I pulled out the copy of Savour that I had picked up from the airport to flip. Guess which destination city was featured in Savour? Shanghai, of course! What's more, the magazine dedicated a four page center pull-out to one restaurant in particular, Whampoa Club. This is where it gets really weird, because I had just read about this place days ago in a fellow blogger's post as having the most innovative hairy crab tasting in all of Shanghai (November being the prime hairy crab season). So not wanting to fight destiny, I did the most logical thing, I went to Whampoa Club.

The place is huge, taking up an entire floor of an European style building on the main stretch of the bund. The interior is an interesting mix of upscale night club elements (e.g., low lighting, neon colored fiber glass partitions, etc.) with traditional Chinese architectural elements (e.g., carved redwood trims). A cheongsam-clad hostess led me down what seemed like a mile long grand hall to the main dinning room.

Once seated, I immediately ordered the multi-course hairy crab tasting. Time was of the essense when I have so many courses to chew through and a plane to catch in a few hours.

The chef sent out this little skewered ham roll on top of a sliver of fried tofu as amuse bouche. The presentation didn't wow me and since it had no crab elements, I wasn't too interested and only took a small bite. The flavor was not bad, the cucumber inside the ham roll provided a bit of vinegary crunch in contrast with the pleasant saltiness of the ham.

The actual tasting began with a gorgeous combo course. On the left was a drunken crab prepared in the traditional way of immersing raw crab in a seasoned rice wine concoction. I have never been a fan of the drunken method of "cooking." Somehow the alcohol never quite takes away the rawness, but rather imparts a sometimes unpleasant alcoholic after taste. This drunken crab, however, was more than delicious. The rice wine concoction had a lot more going for it than alcohol. The translucent crab meat picked up the saltiness of soy, the sweetness of sugar, the sourness of rice vinegar, and created the most amazing explosion of flavor in the mouth. Also on the plate was a crab/egg custard presented inside an egg shell. It tasted like a well-made egg drop soup that has been elevated to new heights by the addition of a most generous amount of hairy crab roe. It was heavenly.

Next came crab dumplings two ways. Floating in the clear mild broth were three crab dumplings with very delicate transparent skins. Perched on top a mound of stewed radish was a single fried dumpling. As much as I loved the crispiness of the fried dumpling skin, the delicate boiled dumplings took my breath away. The crab meat filling had a texture comparable to that of a soupy xiao long bao and the intoxicating smell unique to crab roe permeated my entire surrounding as I bit into it.

The next course was one I had been looking forward to this whole trip - whole steamed hairy crab (shown at the top). I was so upset that my waitress began to deconstruct the crab as soon as it arrived at my table before I could even protest. God, what did she think she was doing? Getting the crab open the way I like it counts for fifty percent of my enjoyment. I am sure she was more than startled by my "violent" protests because she never returned. :) After claiming my now opened crab back, I took my time cracking open the claws and picking out all the little morsels from the tiniest crevices. Boy, the hairy crab was small compared to the Maryland blue crab of my youth. But the flavor is definitely comparable and completely unlike that of the much rough meat of the larger crab varieties.

I couldn't remember the name of the course that came next. It had a soupy consistency, but was served on a plate, which made it very difficult to eat without a mopping agent such as steamed bun. The flavor was good and focused on the richness of crab roe. But after so many courses of crab roe, I was getting a bit tired.

The next course was shredded semi-dried tofu stir-fried with, you guessed it, crab roe. I have always loved the texture of this type of tofu and the shredding allowed it to better absorb the sauce. But again, I was beginning to experience taste bud fatigue from crab roe overload.

I was disappointed when I saw this last savory course. More crab roe and more dumpling? What happened to the climatic course? Thankfully, my disappointment was not long-lived. As soon as I bit into the pan-friend bun, my mouth was filled with the most delicious aged rice vinegar. How cool! The chef had worked the vinegar into the soupy filling and then pan-fried/steam the bun to achieve the puffy exterior. Brilliant. It was every bit the climatic course I had been waiting for.

Finally, I've made to the dessert course. To the western taste, Chinese dessert is nothing to get excited about. In the words of my best friend, Chinese desserts are all variations of something "gelatinous." It's true, we Chinese love the chewiness of gelatinous substances. I suppose the chef knew that too because his fusion dessert combined a very westernized creme brulee with candied glutenous rice balls filled with red bean paste. The brulee was pleasant, but I wish it had a more prominent sugar crust. The gelatinous rice balls were way too chewy and the candy stripping outside were hard as rock strains and created the an awkward contrast with the soft filling.

Overall, the crab tasting was more than worth it as a once in a life time experience. But like most things in life, too much of a good thing makes it harder to appreciate its goodness. I will not eat crab roe for quite a while I think.