Photos and Video by Ray Dembek
Two lions licked the portal to Hong Hua when it celebrated its first new year, then danced through its three rooms as revelers fed them packets of money.
Tradition is all-important at the Farmington Hills white-linen Cantonese restaurant, and the Chinese traditions that are meant to bring fortune and luck — such as the lion dance that’s the highlight of Chinese New Year — are many and centuries old.
But extraordinary food is no happy accident, just as fine service happens because well-trained people work at it. And while the tenets of feng shui and a Hong Kong fortuneteller’s advice complicated the owners’ task in laying out their new business, including a facade with a door built to precise “lucky” dimensions, it wasn’t luck that led to Hong Hua’s selection as HOUR Detroit’s 2002 Restaurant of the Year.
Open only since June of 2000, it’s easily the best of the new metro Detroit restaurants involved in the area’s most visible eating trend, Asian food, which has seen a blossoming of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai and Indian restaurants (there’s now even a Nepali eatery) in the last couple of years. Hong Hua is fascinating and first rate, elegant but very comfortable. It uses only top-quality ingredients in a kitchen run by a dancing wizard. Best of all, it hews to a hard line of authenticity in turning out one of the most ancient, complex and refined cuisines in the world.
And if you take its rarest delicacies out of the equation, it does all this at moderate prices. But it’s easy to understand why the various versions of gelatinous, intensely delicious shark’s fin soup are priced from $12 to $32 or more when you know that the fin costs from $80 to $200 a pound and the chicken broth that’s the base of the soup is gently simmered for 36 hours. Or that bird’s nest soup goes for $55 a bowl because southeast Asian swiftlets, whose hardened saliva forms the nests, build them high in very dark caves, and many of those who harvest them die in on-the-job accidents every year. Though a number of health benefits have been ascribed to them over the centuries, it isn’t incidental that a good number — maybe most — of those who happily pay for these expensive soups do so because both are famous aphrodisiacs.
“Most American people don’t believe that kind of stuff or pay that much money,” Hong Hua co-owner Shetwai Seto says. “But Chinese people and Japanese people love it.”
Look to the right as you walk through the lion-blessed front door into the foyer and you can see the menu’s most expensive ingredients — including dried fin and nest, as well as dried abalone — arranged in a still life behind locked glass panels. Continue into the main dining room, where the busy reception desk is discreetly walled off from those enjoying food, drink and conversation inside. If you have to wait for a table, you can do so in soft chairs.
Looking around the central dining room with its contemporary minimalist design, cherry-wood fittings and a sparkling bar at the back, it’s difficult to imagine this place was a Bill Knapp’s. It cost owner/chef Peter Chan, and owner/managers Seto, Gary Yau and Danny Yu $1 million to design and carry out the transformation.
Although the color red is deeply held as lucky in China, and became a cliché in the decor of thousands of “chop suey houses” that sprang up after the Chinese came here in great numbers more than 100 years ago to work on railroads, Hong Hua is much more subtle. The power of red is represented in the carefully arranged orange slices that ring many of the dishes. Any color in red’s range is considered lucky, the reason that tangerines and oranges are traditionally given as gifts for the new year.
Seto, Yau and Yu clearly regard Chan as the jeweled centerpiece of the operation. They speak of him sometimes in hushed, reverential tones, sometimes fairly cooing, always with admiration. The 42-year-old but boyish Chan, who started cooking in Hong Kong at 17, got much of his training in top-tier private clubs where the dishes and their presentation had to routinely please a very demanding clientele. Nothing leaves Hong Hua’s kitchen without a look or a touch from Chan.
There are four to five cooks per shift in Chan’s kitchen, but he mans the front wok, which rests atop a volcano-shaped cone whose inner fire comes from a unique gas burner that can be controlled like a blast furnace with a knee-high lever.
To see Chan’s tightly controlled dance, lifting and swirling the big wok, feeding it broths and sauces and spices, vegetables, meat, fish and poultry, while using one knee to coax intermittent powerful blasts from this fire-breathing monster, all in a blur of speed, is to begin an appreciation of his skill. The aromas coming from what some Chinese call the “breath of the wok” changes from one moment to the next.
But eating Chan’s food is what matters.
One seemingly simple dish of snow pea leaves and “tender bamboo” — the white, topmost pieces of the plant’s stem — is a good example of Chan’s artistry. The finished dish is a pleasing green and white, but frankly appears bland. Taste it, though, and there’s a complex melding of flavor. The clear sauce is chicken broth heated within seconds on Chan’s volcano to an intensely concentrated reduction, then flavored by a ladle of this and sprinklings of that, the combination of which enhances, but doesn’t overpower, the delicate bamboo and pea leaves.
Besides the exotics, 10 soups are offered at dinner, including the expected but exceptional hot-and-sour, wonton and egg drop, but also a thickish, rich pairing of shredded duck meat and golden and black mushrooms that was the first dish I tasted in the first of several visits to Hong Hua. It’s still one of my favorites.
So is the stir-fried yellow grouper fillet with vegetables — Chinese broccoli mostly, when I had it — that’s slightly sweet from the perfectly finished fish itself, and spicy with XO sauce, a comparatively new condiment that’s a favorite in Hong Kong. It combines dried shrimp and scallops, red chiles, shallots, garlic, oyster extracts, shrimp roe and spices in soybean oil. Its name is a cue to another Hong Kong favorite, XO brandy, though there’s none of it in the sauce.
Nearly all the fish used here are kept alive in aerated freshwater tanks in the kitchen until the moment they’re ordered. (Some Chinese are so insistent on freshness that they order their fish brought to the table alive, though the state draws the line at that in Michigan.) There’s always grouper, large and lively eels and silvery-green bass that’s steamed, garnished with thin-sliced scallions, black mushrooms and sweet, rich sauce served whole in a very traditional presentation. Whole fish always is served at Chinese New Year because, head to tail, it symbolizes a good beginning and ending for the year. Enough for leftovers the next day is intentionally prepared to signify taking extra into the coming year.
When whole fish is ordered at Hong Hua, it’s boned at the table, avoiding any chance of a diner’s faux pas — eating one side of the fish, then flipping it over to eat the other side. The Chinese have long considered this an omen of terrible luck, representing the capsizing of a fishing boat.
Almond boneless chicken is on the menu because it’s a favorite of those indoctrinated by Chinese-American takeout, but it doesn’t take much sense of adventure — only well-placed faith in the excellence of Hong Hua’s food — to try the bird in more authentic forms. Prepared as “white cut chicken,” using a very traditional and somewhat involved boiling technique, it’s served as part of a “cold cuts” plate with thin-sliced boneless ham hock and jellyfish (try it) sprinkled with sesame.
Another traditional dish is steamed chicken with preserved sausage and black mushrooms. This is one more ingredient that shows up at Hong Hua only in premium form, with a domed cap of off-white showing through slate-gray, and prized for the mildly spicy aroma it lends to dishes. It’s also reputed to lower cholesterol, Shetwai says, “better than green tea.” The best black mushrooms, the only kind used here, are sold dried for about $80 a pound. The chicken/sausage/mushroom dish is an $11 entrée.
There are 122 items on this menu, much of them intriguing enough that I haven’t yet tried any of the pork — though I’m a fanatical devotee of the pig — or nine spicy Szechuan dishes, including orange beef, General Tso’s chicken and the milder mu-shu pork. When that comes, I intend to get right to the mahogany glazed barbecued spareribs such as those I saw slowly cooking with ducks (call ahead, of course, if you want Peking duck) in the kitchen’s large upright roaster.
I already can gladly tout the mildly spicy stir-fried beef tenderloin with chunks of red and green bell pepper and tender-crunchy, syrupy-sweet litchi nuts. Also fork-tender octopus, scallops and prawns with macadamia nuts. Or stir-fried prawns with green pepper and snow peas in a just-sweet black bean sauce.
Same for the appetizers of “crispy shrimp on toast,” which tastes like so much more, and crab claws deep-fried in a scored jacket of breaded shrimp-and-crab mousse.
It’s worth pointing out that nothing prepared in Chan’s kitchen is cooked in water alone, unless a customer asks for the plainest of boiled vegetables. That’s a sorry thing to imagine when you know that another authentic and ancient vegetarian dish, Buddha’s Delight, is on the menu in two versions, one simply called stir-fried mixed vegetables, the other stir-fried assorted vegetables. Also a required Chinese New Year tradition, it’s rooted in the Buddhist practice of “cleansing” the body with only vegetables.
Virtually every dish gets careful presentation, whether with arrangements of sliced oranges, “floral” garnishes of carved vegetables or the fried noodle baskets used to serve stir-fries and other dishes that in lesser restaurants are simply slopped on the plate.
Green tea is used by the Chinese as a digestif after a meal and to clear the mouth and throat of whatever oils may have been used. Remember this if you choose to order from the bar or wine list.
Two noteworthy desserts: Litchi nuts served on ice with maraschino juice; and mango pudding, molded in heart shape, sauced with coconut crème anglaise.
Hong Hua’s partners are looking for a second Oakland County location, but with difficulty. It took two years to find the proper first location, what with the fortuneteller’s suggestions and such. They take that seriously.
Broken down into its two words, the name Hong Hua describes a symbolic bird — symbolic like the American eagle — perched atop a hardwood tree that can survive bad times as well as good, and weather whatever storms there might be.
Used together, the words mean “grateful.” The owners had that in mind for whatever luck came to their enterprise.
It may not have occurred to them that we’re the lucky ones.
27925 Orchard Lake Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-489-2280. L & D daily. Average entrée price, $13.
Bohy is HOUR Detroit’s editor, and chief food and restaurant critic.