Hoitong Chinese Seafood Restaurant
160-8191 Westminster Highway, Richmond
Prices: Family-style sharing plates from $16.80 and up
Cuisine: High-end Cantonese
I've always been of two minds about high-end Cantonese cooking. On the one hand, I appreciate the fresh, clean flavours stripped down to their simplest essence through deceptively complicated, time-consuming techniques. On the other hand, all that purity can sometimes taste incredibly bland.
Then I visited Hoitong Chinese Seafood Restaurant. At this small, unassuming, family-owned establishment tucked in the back corner of a Richmond strip mall, austerity and intensity collided in the most savoury salt-based chicken I have ever had the pleasure of devouring.
Over the years, I've eaten many salt-baked Chinese chickens (which are usually roughly cleaved, not torn into strips). I've had them salt-poached and served cold with dimply skin and ginger sand on the side; roasted and piled on a pyre of bones with a crispy hide stretched over top; and marinated in spicy Szechwan pepper, sesame oil and wine.
The best renditions are free-range and locally raised with yellow skin, a thin layer of fat and tender meat that tastes profoundly like chicken. Not salty, not sweet, not sour – just pure chicken.
But none has come close to matching Hoitong's juicy morsels of breast and crunchy golden wings, lightly bathed in a clear, deeply concentrated, velvety mouth-coating, smile-inducing chicken sauce multiplied to the 10th factor. It's sheer umami bliss.
We arrive early on a Saturday night, about a half-hour before the restaurant's seven tables fill up. (Reservations are highly recommended.) A sharply dressed waiter happily informs us that the chef is in a good mood.
Yiutong Leung, now in his early 70s, was once a top chef in Hong Kong, where he worked in several exclusive clubs, including the private dining room at the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
Long admired among a certain set of discerning diners who don't mind paying top dollar for sophisticated Cantonese cooking, Hoitong has recently begun capturing mainstream attention.
At the 2012 Vancouver Magazine restaurant awards, it earned silver for best casual Chinese. It also made an impressive showing at the 2012 Chinese Restaurant Awards, winning three gold medals in the critic's choice signature dish awards – for dailang fried milk, bitter melon omelette and pork belly with pickled vegetable and soy beans, all of which we are about to try.
Dinner starts off with that sublime salt-baked chicken. Oh, wait. First, there is a small plate of peanuts that the chef earnestly roasts himself.
Palates primed, we move onto a rarefied version of old-school mashed taro duck, which you need to order in advance. The multilayered terrine has a sliver of crispy skin on the bottom topped with flattened duck slowly steamed off the bone, a thick middle of whipped taro root and a lacy head of fried duck-taro flakes.
What sets this version apart from most taro ducks is that it seems to be assembled in separate layers.
Next up is fluffy dailang fried milk, a soft creamy cloud stir-fried with egg whites, tossed with fresh picked crab, and dusted with dried seafood and finely minced cured ham.
It's followed by bitter melon omelette, actually more of a frittata, stuffed with gently sautéed, mouth-puckering melon that works its strange magic on the bitter fanatics in the group – while efficiently cleansing the rest of our palates.
Garnished with retro parsley sprigs and maraschino cherries, the food is served by an attentive fleet of friendly waiters (who almost outnumber the customers). They clear dishes between each course and condense unfinished platters onto smaller plates.
When lingcod cooked two-ways arrives (our most expensive dish, at $48), it is delivered and portioned by Mrs. Leung, a slender waif in dark sunglasses (her eyes can no longer handle bright restaurant lighting).
The madam of the house appears to be in charge of all fresh seafood, the most prestigious offerings in any fine Cantonese restaurant. Throughout the evening, she darts back and forth between the dining room and a fish market on the other side of the mall, connected to the back of the restaurant. Hauling a white plastic bucket, she presents live, wriggling fish to the tables for approval.
Our gently steamed lingcod, served on a heap of crisp vegetables surrounded by battered bones fried to a cracker-like consistency, is exquisitely fresh. But it wasn't flopping when ordered. If you do come here (or anywhere else) for live fish, be careful about what you choose. The per-pound market prices add up quickly.
We conclude with lusciously fatty pork belly braised in dark brown gravy with preserved mustard greens that balance its sweet and sour notes.
The chunky meat may not look very appetizing, but it certainly appeals to the caveman instincts of certain male guests in our group, who glow from ear to ear after gobbling up the last sticky bites.
Me? I was still swooning over the chicken days later. It made me understand what excellent Cantonese cuisine is all about. And though it may not be one of Hoitong's award-winning dishes, in my mind it strikes gold.
No stars: Fair. Not recommended.
One star: Good, but won't blow a lot of minds.
Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.
Three stars: Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
Four stars: Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution.