Maw the merrier: HK's Michelin-starred VEA elevates Cantonese cuisine with Chinese-French techniques

The contemporary restaurant by chef Vicky Cheng presents a current snapshot of the city's culinary moment.

Sea cucumber dish stuffed with tiger prawn, accompanied by a spritz of 20-year-old Shaoxing wine (Photo: VEA)

Auditioning for marriage can be daunting. Penning a romantic letter may expose one’s embarrassing penmanship, and gifting jewellery does not seem all that special. But to ask for someone’s hand through a love song, and translate it into a dish that you laboured over a hot stove, is a coded flirtation. Putting passion on platter, chef Vicky Cheng borrowed the sentiments from George Lam’s Fan Fan Jung Sui Yiu Nei (分分鐘需要你), an 1980s canto-pop anthem the 38-year-old serenaded his wife during their proposal, to create a triumphant amuse-bouche for his restaurant where the music cooks and the food sings.

Such artful nibbles that prime your taste buds for the main event are primarily vehicles to showcase a chef’s one-upmanship. At the one Michelin-starred VEA perched on the 30th floor of The Wellington in Central, Cheng’s opening salvo to our eight-course meal was more poetic as his one-bite tour de force — a combination of salted fish, Chinese cabbage, rice puree and a foam-like sabayon cradled in an egg shell — took inspiration from Lam’s moony lyric ham yu bak choi ya hou hou mei. It loosely suggests how eating salted fish and plain vegetables still tastes good when being with a significant other. Consider our palate, as well as our sentimental heart, teased.


Chef Vicky Cheng (middle) established the restaurant in late 2015 (Photo: VEA)

The argument that Cantonese cuisine, which usually revolves around a hanging menagerie of bronzed barbecue or tanks of live seafood, has been given short shrift is markedly unjust. Cheng’s updated classics, a gutsy riff on the nouvelle French techniques honed under the wing of culinary virtuoso Daniel Boulud, show Hong Kong gastronomy is not bereft of ideas. Eschewing the stiff-spined rectitude of European fine-dining and starched linen for a casualness that encourages occasional banter with guests, VEA serves a modern interpretation of Chinese cooking straight out of an open-concept kitchen onto unadorned table tops surrounded by brass fixtures and relaxed leather stools.

The menu’s heroes were traditional totems of a typical (lavish) Chinese New Year reunion dinner: sea cucumber, abalone and bird’s nest. Yet, the execution made convincing strides into the present with headliners such as aged fish maw (that will be the bladder) with Oscietra caviar in silky beurre blanc, and a slab of plump blue lobster perked up by a tiny island of sour cabbage that has the same funk as sauerkraut.


Fish maw with Oscietra caviar in silky beurre blanc (Photo: VEA)

Cheng demonstrates that top-dollar Asian delicacies, prized by generations for their nutritional and curative properties, should not be status symbols disconnected from taste. Nothing like the brown seafloor blob braised into submission, VEA’s sea cucumber dish was stuffed with tiger prawn before it hit the oil for 10 seconds to develop a satisfying crust. A spritz of 20-year-old Shaoxing wine, housed in a decanter similar to a perfume bottle, lightly fragranced the ensemble and imparted a caramel-like depth to a bisque so hearty it left room for little else. Every grandmother should try it.

VEA is not much for dogma, which explains why its alcohol pairing and food are not too alike, but instead different enough to bring out the best in each other. It is also the reason Cheng partnered legendary bartender Antonio Lai of The Envoy and Quinary fame (VEA stands for Vicky et Antonio, in case you’re wondering) to create playful cocktails, not wine, to accompany plates of experimental fare composed with almost painterly flair. For example, the warm shiitake consommé with whisky played off the earthiness of black truffles in a Noirmoutier potato and aged preserved turnip combo. The humble, all-star mushroom was more than a currency of texture and depth, it also paid dividends in the flavour department.


Blue lobster perked up by a tiny island of sour cabbage (Photo: VEA)

Cheng’s repertoire drew from numerous cultural outposts but certain elements stayed steadfastly nostalgic, as if we were eating an appealing memory. It was genuinely difficult to save room for dessert, until our server whipped out tong chong beng — a coconut candy wrapped in a crumbly white wafer slice previously sold in a transparent metal box around 1940s and 1950s Hong Kong. The requisite shredded coconut was replaced by a fancier sorbet version, capping off our meal on a cheery note that harked back to the first exuberant moments of childhood. A retro ice cream sandwich, albeit posher, is not unfamiliar to Malaysians, so what a pleasure it was to be reunited with that sensation.

With an inventive list of tipples scaffolding a well-curated menu, VEA has, perhaps, unintentionally prompted a rethink of the widely maligned image of Chinese fusion. The blending of geography and genre was seamless, reflecting the kitchen’s commitment to inject fun into the most prosaic-sounding ingredients that frequently end up in a double boiler or with a sigh. Granted, this is not a place you nonchalantly drop into because of its strict availability and substantial menu prices. But, as expected of a restaurant in tune with the times, it does radiate the promise of a happy ending.


The nostalgic tong chong beng (Photo: VEA)


Where to shop some of most premium ingredients in Hong Kong

For centuries-old Chinese liquor
The 145-year-old household name Wing Lee Wai, once the largest wine distillers in China, still holds onto its shopfront at 124 Wing Lok Street, peddling very rare 30-year-old Hua Diao alongside seasonal fruits and hairy crab.

For auction-worthy tea
Pu-erh, when mellowed with age and compressed into cakes, can fetch several thousand dollars apiece. Specialising in this highly sought-after tea is Lam Kie Yuen Tea Co, established in Sheung Wan around 1955. Cheng’s favourite is the mildly fruity Dan Chong oolong tea from Teochew.

For premium Asian delicacies
Row upon row of dried seafood in transparent jars, from abalone to scallops the size of macarons, have piqued the interest of many a foreign traveller at Central Hoi Mei on Wellington Street. Shop owner Guan has helped Cheng craft many dishes, whenever the young chef needs a jolt of inspiration.

This article first appeared on Aug 14, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.


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