It was a great honour to be yet again invited for this series of Hennessy XO Appreciation Grows, and I have to say, after attending five such events, this truly has to be the highlight, and the team at MHD and G2 are going to have a hard time topping this one.
In this "two part" event, some of us were privvy to the inception of this gala dinner, where we were the privileged few to follow Chef Michael Han on a street food trail of Penang's famed hawker food.
The novel idea was the Daring Deconstruction of Penang Hawker Food, for a Hennessy XO Appreciation fine dining experience, which would pair the sublime Hennessy XO with the best of Penang, and the best of Penang is encapsulated in its hawker food. Since this was to the the climax to the first trip, it was with great anticipation that we wondered what gastronomic delights and surprise Michael had in store, as during the last press interview, he revealed almost nothing, leaving everything to surprise. On this trip, I discovered that immediately after the last tour, he had already begun slaving in the kitchen, and for the next 15 hours or so, had worked on the amazing menu that we were about to partake.
As with all Appreciation Grows event, style and panache are the landmarks of the event. A string of trishaws assembled in front of the swanky G Hotel, where we were put up, to whisk us to a magical world just two blocks away really. What a novel idea, to be ferried, women in their gowns, and guys in their suits, in a trishaw, the icon of a Penang of yore.
The venue, the newly restored St Joseph's Novitiate, a heritage building, now housed within Gurney Paragon, a perfect venue for an elegant event such as this. As dusk fell, a surreal hue of amber enveloped the atmosphere...or was that the XO kicking in? I can't tell, but yeah, it was pretty nice.
The gorgeous Karen Ong of MHD and Ciki of CCFood Travel.
Pre dinner drinks, and the mingling of the glitterati, with local celebrity, Steve Yap. Of course the women were throwing themselves shamelessly at the man, to pose for photographs.
A lovely string quartet entertained us, as we waited for dinner, and flitted around with Hennessy XO in hand, until we were ushered into the great hall, which a few people said reminded them of Hogwarts, ...minus the floating candles, but how uber cool would it have been had there BEEN floating candles. Might have been a tad combustible though, what with all the alcohol in the room.
The smiling faces, aided of course by the continuous imbibing of that glorious XO, made me think of Louis Armstrong's song, What a Wonderful World.
And then, it began, the first of many - the first Deconstruction, Pie Tee, which wasn't overly deconstructed, and is still largely recognizable. Chutoro and Ginger. Eggs, on a base of fatty tuna, with an amazing herbed mayonnaise that was a marriage of dill, tarragon, parsley, chives and chervil. Of course, this being the first dish, disappeared rather quickly, not to mention it's so easy just to pop into the mouth.
I could've seriously had a couple more of them pie tees.
The next dish, was rojak. I think mine were missing some purple flowers, and I only realised this after looking at other people's photographs, but this dish is so painstakingly put together, one has to forgive the omission of the Violets. Makes it more masculine too I suppose, ahem, sans the violet hues. Sliced finely, and wrapped around a straw for even sizes, these cylindrical pieces of crunchy fruit and vegetables that are found in rojak, are plated, 30 each, to be exact on each plate, smothered with traditional rojak prawn paste sauce, sprinkled with crunchy biskut kacang (peanut candy). Apart from being aesthetically stunning, the dish is really deconstruction at its best, complete with a face lift too.
Of course, this was THE dish that everyone must have been waiting to see, Assam Laksa. Two plump seared scallops from Froya, (Where? The same country where Salmon spawn..Norway...) garnished with all the assam laksa herbs, with a 50ml bottle of stock in a medicine bottle. Gotta love the presentation.
The soup, much like your traditional assam laksa broth, a fish bisque, I suppose one could call it, is served at room temperature, so as not to further cook the scallops, (which really were seared to perfection). This would probably be my top two favourites for the night, although the prawn paste oil did make the dish a bit salty.
The team from MHD...
The inimitable Or Chien, with Duck Eggs and Smoked Oil. Two plump local oysters, fitted into one shell, pre cooked in buttermilk, adding to its creamy texture, deep fried Panko (Japanese bread crumbs), to render that crispy texture, chives and edible kelp, presumably to make the oyster feel at home with some marine company. Very unique, and to most, their favourite dish. The neat XO enhances the flavours if that is at all possible.
Then came that time of night, with the inevitable unveiling of the Mathusalem, in a light and sound show.
That is one huge bottle, and apparently there are only 6 or so in the world.
Hokkien Mee - Sakura Ebi and XO Sauce. Angel hair pasta, in place of traditional yellow mee, with this uncannily deconstructed soup of the hokkien (prawn mee, known in KL) mee. I actually loved this combination, but found the oil a bit too much. The lovely flavours of the Sakura Ebi, and XO Sauce really dances on your palate, though the texture of the angel hair was a bit too soft for my liking.
Finally, Nasi Kandar - Wagyu Cheeks, Onions and Ash. Basically a rendang sauce marinade, but the wagyu was oh so tender, cooked for 3 days, so had to be cooked in Singapore and vacuum packed. Shreds of Kaffir lime leaf, and rice crispies, (well, puffed rice), and melt in the mouth meat. A truly spectacular end to the main course.
Ice Kachang Dessert. Okay, a bit anticlimactic for me, as it was basically shaved ice, with some unusual condiments, such as rose hip, horseradish, and hibiscus.. It made for a refreshing dessert, but I wouldn't have minded something more decadent and fattening to end the meal. This was almost too healthy.
After dinner, Michael makes his grand entrance into the room to the applause of everyone.
The various faces of Michael Han. He seems painfully shy, and reserved, one suspects that the glare of the spotlight almost makes him feel uncomfortable. He's friendly enough, on a smaller group basis though, but still seems very shy.
He also invites his team on stage to drink a toast. And kudos indeed to him and his team, for a fabulous unusual creative innovative dinner, that will be talked about for years to come, and will set a new benchmark I feel, for all future Hennessy XO Appreciation Grows events.
We continue to party the night away, as long as there was Hennessy XO flowing.
The next day, we are invited to a smaller group press conference. Karen refers to Michael as a Star in the Culinary Constellation, which I fully agree. He is truly an artist, reflected in the superlative spread the night before. How I envy such talent. Karen also shares that it is the objective of these dinners to inject new and exciting concepts with suitable venues, hence the choice of St Joseph's, as a heritage building.
On that note, thank you to the MHD team and G2 PR for a wonderful and truly memorable event, and to the truly amazing Chef Michael Han. I now must make a visit to his restaurant FiftyThree as part of my bucket list.