Qi – House of Sichuan (Hong Kong, Jan 2016)

Eating Sichuan food in Hong Kong is probably a bit like eating Mexican food in New York but we couldn’t resist. All the Cantonese food we’d eaten so far on the trip had been so superior to their analogues in the US that it didn’t seem unlikely that the Sichuan food would be too. Then there was the fact that stray dishes with Sichuan flavours that we’d eaten at early meals at Crystal Jade and Lei Garden had been very good indeed. And so we swapped out our original plan of eating a Shanghainese dinner with a reservation at Qi – House of Sichuan, a very well-reviewed restaurant that recently picked up a Michelin star. Even if it wasn’t likely to be as good as eating Sichuan food in Sichuan, we figured it would give our favourites in the San Gabriel Valley a run for their money. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. 

The restaurant is located in a tonier part of Wan Chai than Under Bridge Spicy Crab. It is part of the J Senses “dining and lifestyle” complex, located on the first floor—you go down a side street to get to an elevator that takes you up to the restaurant. The elevator door opens in the restaurant’s foyer and it feels more than a little like you’ve arrived on a Zhang Yimou set. You go down a dark, wood-paneled corridor from which open a number of small dining rooms, at least one of them rather striking (see the slideshow below). The dining room we were seated in was far more restrained, and quite elegant. They also have quite a lot of terrace seating. The staff are all quite fluent in English and we had no difficulties with communication.

This is not, I should say, in case it isn’t already clear, a cheap restaurant. A lot of money has gone into the decor and they seem, based on our limited experience, to be having quite a lot of success in attracting a well-to-do expat crowd. They also seem to be having success, in particular, in attracting quite a few Indian expats—there were a couple of tables full of stylish, young Indian executive types around us over the course of the evening. It made me wonder if the Sichuan and Thai restaurants around town (I’m not sure what the Indian restaurant scene is like) draw more expats from countries with more robust cuisines than the bigger name Cantonese restaurants do. Wouldn’t surprise me if if true, but who knows if it’s actually true.

It does seem, however, like the food at Qi has been fine tuned for the Cantonese palate—more on this below. See the slideshow for what we ate and brief descriptions. We were more constrained than we usually are in our ordering in that our hectic eating itinerary meant we couldn’t take leftovers back to our friends’ home (not when they weren’t in town to eat them), and since we also had the boys with us we had to order a couple of things they were likely to eat. Beyond that we went with our server’s recommendations of dishes that would show the range of the restaurant.

So, what was it all like? Well, the cooking was excellent and the ingredients were top-notch (and everything was attractively presented). But, as I noted above, things seem to have been toned down a little. Take the wontons in chilli oil for instance. These were by far the best wontons I’ve ever had in a Sichuan restaurant: from the wrappers to the steaming to the filling, there was nothing rushed about their preparation. But the dressing lacked the bright heat and mouth coating oiliness we’re used to and which we prefer. Likewise for the mouthwatering chicken—which similarly used the best poached chicken I’ve ever had in any version of the dish—and the mapo tofu—which also used far firmer tofu than we’re used to.

The menu too is very limited—leave aside the San Gabriel Valley stalwarts, there’s far less variety on it than on the menu of our Minnesota favourite, Grand Szechuan, and far, far fewer funky items. The restaurant says they’re trying to incorporate all the flavours of Sichuan cooking, not just the mouth-numbing and the hot, but it feels like there’s some concession made here to the milder Cantonese palate in the process of coming up with a refined version of Sichuan food; and the menu certainly also has a greater proportion of milder and sweeter Sichuan dishes than do those of the restaurants we are used to. This may also, of course, partly explain the Michelin star. I want to clarify that I’m not saying that Sichuan food cannot be refined or that it necessarily loses its “soul” when refined. Szechuan Impression in the San Gabriel Valley is a very good example of a restaurant that goes down that path while not sacrificing the more uncompromising aspects of the cuisine.

I will say that the most successful dish was probably one of the more Cantonese-friendly ones: the sugar glazed ginger and scallion beef; the sauteed fish fillet with glazed sugar and vinegar was also quite good but you should know that what you will get when you order it is essentially excellent sweet and sour fish. We were not expecting this—elsewhere on the menu sweet and sour chicken was named as such—and so were a little disappointed at first, but it was very well done.

So, though we enjoyed the food fine we left with the unexpected judgment that we preferred not only the best of the San Gabriel Valley (Chengdu Taste, Szechuan Impression) to Qi by some margin but also the Twin Cities’ own Grand Szechuan. This was also far more expensive than all those places: all the food above, some beer and tax brought the final bill to $118 (USD). I probably wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re visiting from some place with no decent Sichuan restaurants at all—which is also the only basis on which I’d recommend eating Mexican food in New York.

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