VEA: Franco Chinese Parade (8.8)

VEA is definitely a fitting place to take someone to on special occasions because its sense of ritual and the theater of its service are all top tier even for a city like Hong Kong where dinner bills upwards of $2000 per head are not so uncommon. Before coming to this place I had a slight feeling of angst that the food was going to look better than it tasted, especially given its Michelin star and all the hype that followed it. I don’t tend to go for tasting menus often, especially at night, as it gives me too little control over my macros and food preferences in general. That being said, the meal was an aesthetic feast and the mastermind behind the menu–Chef Vicky Cheng–had really put some thought into synchronizing unusual ingredients with nouvelle cuisine finesse and traditional delicacies.

Fernand Point, the father of modern French cuisine, wrote many recipes that were remarkably simple: he believed that great cooking was about highlighting the essential taste of each ingredient. His legacy has endured and generations of French chefs after him would be making refined dishes out of uncomplicated methods and earthy ingredients. Chef Vicky Cheng elevates simple foods with his whimsical imagination and a “less is more” approach, showing a marked talent for celebrating a grand culinary legacy and taking into account the global foodie zeitgeist that is thirsty for playfulness and innovation. Many of the courses were made with only a handful of ingredients and while their combination tended to be unconventional, there was rarely a sense that the idea of a dish or its Instagram-friendliness eclipsed how it really tasted.

In the end of the day, what we think about food at a restaurant might really be more emotional than it is gustatory. Who you spend the night with, whether you are in sync with the restaurant’s vibes and how hosting staff conduct themselves throughout the meal matter a great deal. On this front, I would add that the ambience was relaxing and moderately intimate while our host was attentive. The kitchen takes dietary requirements seriously and ensures nobody ever has the same tasting menu twice, that is even if diners are returning within a two-week window which is usually the duration of each menu rotation.

Despite Michelin’s hidebound reputation and perhaps even worse, the connotation that stars could more easily be achieved with financial prowess, I would happily recommend a trip to VEA for a culinary experience, if only because there aren’t many places around that specifically incorporates elements that are unique to Hong Kong which, at a time of crisis of the city’s sense of identity, might be more timely than ever.

Food Rundown

Snacks – Savoury selections

Glutinous puff rice ball with salted fish and dried pak choy purée on a music box, paired with a dried pak choy tea that is a blend of honey dates, carrots and Chinese almond. Glutinous rice balls are not my favorite kind of dish, but the tea was bittersweet and savory, which together with the personal message (unique for each diner) evokes much “food” for thought (the irony of the message from an upscale restaurant, for instance).

The message says: “salted fish and vegetables can be delicious too”, alluding to a Cantonese proverb that reminds us that poverty is not necessarily to be suffered.

Sea snail was drunken in Chinese huadiao wine and it was very sweet.
Spring roll with foie gras and pistachio had an outer shell that had grown a little old and lost some of its crunch, and I didn’t quite like how the combination of ingredients turned out.

Black caviar bun was slightly smoked and smelled divine. It was definitely the first time I had a Chinese bun with black caviar.

Tomato tart was just that, with tomatoes and crème on a buttery tart, supposedly refreshing the taste buds.

Ebisu Oyster, spring snap peas and almond tofu
Served cool, this was the first of six savoury courses and began on a mellow note. Tiny peas were extracted from spring snap peas and placed atop a layer of settled almond and tofu gelatin, which in turn was placed atop a raw oyster. It looked verdant and the flavors were sweet and fresh.

Mackerel, wampee, celtuce, salmon roe
Zest was introduced into the second course which, again, was served cold. The raw mackerel with a charred skin had a chewy texture and unlike its usual gentle-tasting and somewhat fishy flavor profile, had a tang that was highlighted by the subtle aromas of wampee (a Chinese, yellow-skinned fruit that tastes a little bit like pear) and celtuce. The mackerel was small and cut with such precision that its skin and flesh were perfectly intact and flawless. Salmon roe added color and complemented the fish quite nicely.

Sea Cucumber, king crab, 20 years Hong Kong yellow wine
This was one of the more savorous courses with a briny, reduced sauce that makes you feel complete. The roasted sea cucumber was firm and smokey, with a mildly burnt, crisp top. Its interior was stuffed with the delicate flesh of king crab. The mouthfeel was substantial and the aged yellow wine was very sweet in its own unique way.

Spiny Lobster, garlic, vermicelli
In addition to precise handling that renders the presentation of the dish practically symmetrical, both the texture and the flavor of the spiny lobster were perfect. The pinky white flesh was rich and delicate, and the garlic was a mix and match of pan-fried crispy and pickled sweet-and-sour.

Taiyouran Egg, morel, asparagus, black truffle
This was possibly my favorite course. Beneath the raw egg yolk is a piece of round daikon with a crispy outer shell and a tender interior. That, along with morel and black truffle sauce made for an intense experience in the mouth. Despite the simple ingredients used, the deep earthiness of the dish was sensational.

Taking a break with sorbet made from preserved prunes.

Ragan Pigeon, sugarcane, amaranth
The pigeon was a simple, scent-laden dish. The firm meat had a tender and meaty mouthful that was elevated by the crispy sugarcane crust. I love the flavor and aroma of wild birds, as always.

Bird Nest, muskmelon, Hokkaido milk
The flavor of the entire dish was mild and calming. A spoonful of diced muskmelon laid at the bottom and its floral sweetness stood out. Hokkaido milk jelly had a strong milkiness, as expected. An interesting combination that felt quite Japanese.

Lapsang Souchong, caramelized chocolate, shiitake, yogurt
This was a rather anticlimactic course. Every item suffered from an intense and chemical-like sweetness that would have ruined the meal had I cleared the dish. The menu designer may be paying tribute to the excesses of 19th century France where spun-sugar towers and sweet confections were all the hype, but today’s Hong Kong is increasingly sugar-shunning. If the final course continued to make fresh ingredients its focus and stayed light with sugar, it might delight its audience even more.

Mignardises – Sweet Selections

Pineapple bun with creme brûlée definitely sounded better than it tasted. There was too much bun. Lychee with peppercorn was divine. Soy sauce caramel tart with yuzu pepper was interesting.

On a final note, the menu was different for the two of us. Mine was seafood heavy, while the other diner had beef and pork instead of non-fish seafood. The cost per person is $1690+10% service charge and excludes beverages. Most diners are encouraged to pair their taster menu with a cocktail set, but we went for a bottle of 2008 red from Chateau Simard (which sits on the right bank of Saint-Émilion in Bordeaux). It was buttery rich and flat with a very smooth finish. Perfect even with my seafood taster menu.

VEA Restaurant & Lounge
30/F, The Wellington, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
$$$$, French, Cantonese