Tuesday, May 31, 2005

HOT ROCK AFFAIR

Although it isn't my first encounter with hot stone cooking, our recent experience of dining on fresh, live tiger prawns and 'soon hock' (marbled goby) cooked a la minute was immensely enjoyable.

The novel and uncommon method of using stones that are specially sourced from Japan (they look remarkably like the ones you'd find in sauna rooms) is now being promoted at the Cheng Ho Court restaurant, Mines Beach Resort.

You can be assured that this table-side cooking presentation using a large bowl of hot stones will garner much curiosity from other tables once fellow diners witness the billowing clouds of steam and sizzling sounds emanating from it.

Firstly, a large stainless steel pot filled with several grey rocks that have been pre-heated up in the kitchen was brought to our table. A flat steamer tray was placed over the hot stones for the tiger prawns (RM10 nett per 100 gm) to be laid on top. Water was subsequently poured into the pot of hot stones, resulting in billowing clouds of steam that cooked the prawns really quickly, within just 2-3 minutes.

One can't help but inhale the enticing aroma exuded from the pot as the 'drunken' prawns were earlier marinated with some Chinese wine. It was certainly an acid test that ensured the inherent freshness of the seafood used as anything less than that would result in a powdery texture.

According to Leong, the restaurant team tried using other varieties of seafood for the hot stone cooking but only the tiger prawns and 'soon hock' can withstand this quick steaming method.

As expected, the prawns turned out to be very sweet and springy to the bite. Imbued with a pleasing, understated Chinese wine flavour, they tasted out of this world without the need for any other condiment. But they are just as exquisite when dipped into a special sauce concocted by Chef Chin Hock Seng. The palate-pleasing sauce, which has minced garlic, bird’s eye chilli, Thai sauce and some herbs in it, managed to perk up the natural flavour of the prawns without overpowering them.

The ‘soon hock’ (RM17 nett per 100 gm) was prepared a little differently as the fish has been deboned and came topped with ‘enoki’ mushrooms, sliced 'seng kwa' (ridged gourd) and ‘kei chi’ (Chinese wolfberries) before the dish was steamed in the pot of hot stones. The end result was a superbly cooked fish with just the right amount of doneness and its natural juices firmly intact.

I found myself imbibing every single drop of the nutritious, wholesome soup of double-boiled black chicken with bamboo pith, black mushroom, Chinese wolfberries, dried Chinese mustard, a whole dried scallop and ‘yok chok’ (a type of Chinese herb). Priced at RM23++ per bowl, this signature specialty of Cheng Ho Court is definitely worth every single sen.

Another popular item here is the ‘lat chee kwai fei kai’ or loosely translated as spicy imperial chicken. The dish actually comprises steamed chicken with pickled carrots and spring onion (RM26++ for half, RM52++ for whole chicken). Living up to its majestic name, the boneless, bite-size pieces of chicken with its nice yellow skin turned out to be surprisingly lean but fabulously scrumptious. What made this stood apart from other run-of-the-mill chicken dish was the ingenious pairing of pickled carrots and florets of fresh spring onion in it. The pickles’ mild sourness, the spring onion’s sharp flavour and the light, accompanying soya sauce lent a tantalising nuance to the succulent chicken and added a little contrast with their crisp, crunchy textures.

We also had a vegetarian dish of deep-fried ‘enoki’ or golden needle mushrooms with pine nuts and a sublime sauce. It was a most delicate dish in which the deep-fried mushrooms’ crispy ‘tempura’-like batter was aptly matched by the rich, nutty taste of pine nuts and bound together by the sweet-sour nuances of the accompanying sauce that was a concoction of hot bean sauce, vinegar and sugar.

Dinner concluded with some delightful dessert as the restaurant is famed for its chilled durian pudding (RM5.50++), herbal jelly (RM4.50++) and Chinese pancake.

Digging deep into the smooth durian pudding, I was delighted to discover the mouth-watering, aromatic durian purée underneath! Even the Chinese pancake was one of the best I have eaten as the outer layer of pastry was light and flaky with very little trace of oil. The lotus paste filling deserved special mention as the real taste of lotus seeds was more evident on the palate as the amount of sugar used to prepare the paste has been cut down considerably.

Credit must be given to Chef Chin Hock Seng who heads the kitchen team of Cheng Ho Court. With more than 20 years of experience under his torque, Chef Chin admitted that he is quite conservative in his approach to the culinary arts and prefers to remain grounded in the tried and tested Chinese cooking techniques.

“I read a lot to obtain new ideas. Sometimes brainstorming and discussing ideas with colleagues, fellow chefs and customers help tremendously,” he said.

Since Cheng Ho Court is a pork-free restaurant, Chef Chin admitted it was a challenge to ensure the taste of his Chinese dishes is not compromised. For example, he spent many more hours and expanded much effort in churning out a good superior chicken stock that acts as a base for many of his dishes. He also stressed that no monosodium glutamate (MSG) is used at all in the food preparation at Cheng Ho Court as the hotel owner will not permit it.

The 148-seat restaurant has two private dining rooms available and is renowned for its daily ‘dim sum’ for lunch.

CHENG HO COURT (pork-free)
MINES BEACH RESORT & SPA
Jalan Dulang
MINES Resort City
43300 Seri Kembangan
Selangor
Tel: 8943 6688

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