Nobody handles fish and shellfish with the sensitivity, the timing and the nuanced technique of the Cantonese. Give Italians their miraculously juicy branzino baked in sea salt, and the Japanese their thrilling, animistic presentation of the raw. The Cantonese prepare the whole underwater menagerie in ways that reveal wondrous flavors and textures. No chefs do it better, which was exactly what I was I was thinking at Hong Kong Lounge II as I sucked the bright orange roe from the feathery underside of a large spot shrimp, whose flesh, steamed in its shell, was exquisitely sweet and succulent. Yes, readers, after forty years of eating and writing, this spot shrimp made me shed a tear of wonder.
I had arranged a banquet for ten food-obsessed friends with owner Annie Ho, who told me that she had sold the big Hong Kong Lounge on Geary at 17th Avenue six months ago and was concentrating her attention on the smaller Hong Kong Lounge II on Geary at Parker. Under her management, the kitchen produced a flawless meal with gracious and intuitive service. She knows me, but if her kitchen and staff can cook this way for me, they can for you, too.
Everyone in town is trying to make xiao long bao, the wildly popular Shanghai-style steamed pork dumpling with its gush of pork-enriched broth inside; and most get them wrong. At H K Lounge II, they have thick, tender wrappers that successfully contain the juice and pure pork filling. We started our meal with two rounds of them, so they could be served hot. The waiter carefully lifted each fragile dumpling with chopsticks and placed it on a flat spoon, drizzling it with Chinkiang rice wine vinegar infused with threads of ginger. He handed them around the table, and we ate them right from the spoons. There’s a technique: you bite a little hole in the wrapper, suck out the scalding broth with cooling air; then devour the rest.
Next the waiters stuffed delicate, steamed white buns with soft slices of braised pork belly, swabbing each bun with hot mustard and the belly’s syrupy cooking juices. Divine!
After that emotional spot prawn experience, two waiters slowly carried over a huge, pale green winter melon, filled to its carved brim with double-strength poultry broth, the freshly-picked meat from whole crabs, bits of duck and duck crackling and–a brilliant touch–chunks of cucumber. They scooped out hunks of the spongy flesh of the melon, deliciously infused with the broth, to make ten precisely-portioned bowls. Clean, flavorful and restorative, this paragon of soups reset our palates for the waves of food to come.
The dark, moist flesh of squab with burnished, lacquer-like skin, cut into quarters for easy eating, was further evidence of the technical prowess of this kitchen and its use of impeccable raw materials. Lobster, stir-fried with ginger and scallion just until the flesh set and came away from the shell, reprised the sensual pleasure of the spot shrimp. The lobsters were cleaved so that each piece cooked at exactly the same time.
Every bona fide Cantonese banquet ends with a whole fish, usually alive minutes before it hits the table. Mrs. Ho found a big, fresh-water black bass–the Japanese call it gandara–with the silky texture of sable-fish. It was steamed, then bathed in hot oil infused with ginger and spring onion, and finally topped with a garden of fresh cilantro–a perfectly-timed preparation that underscored the buttery quality of its flesh. Two vegetable dishes accompanied: tofu and crab dumplings arranged with baby bok choy, and mushrooms in tofu skin-wrapped packets paired with tender, long stems of Chinese broccoli. Clay pots of rice, with sweet Chinese sausage added to one and salted fish to the other, conferred the bonus of their coveted crisp bottom layers of rice.
Warm, sticky rice balls, filled with ground black sesame seeds and coated in peanut powder, are the best way to end a Cantonese feast–though a two-layer chilled dessert with green tea gelatin on top and yellow bean paste on the bottom also hit the spot.
This banquet cost $468–or $75 a person with tax, service and corkage ($15 a bottle for five bottles). There isn’t a restaurant in San Francisco where you can eat better at anywhere near the price.
I was so hungry for more of this Cantonese cooking that I dropped in for dim sum lunch a few days later with three others, unannounced. H K Lounge II’s dim sum turns out to be unique, with striking and original dishes that I have not had anyplace else. First and foremost are the baked pork buns ($3.95)–not steamed. These have a crunchy top that practically disappears into a sweet pork interior, so each bite has a satisfying ratio of bun to filling– a knockout. Another must-have is a clay pot of sauteed lettuce ($7.50), small sturdy heads of an escarole-like green, barely collapsed in chicken broth. Chicken wonton in clay pot ($11.95) brings huge wonton full of sweet shrimp in rich chicken broth with plenty of baby bok choy.
Practically every dim sum dish at HK Lounge II gets a twist. Steamed chicken feet ($3.50) are battered, fried and then braised with cinnamon and other sweet spices. I could spend an afternoon gnawing the cartilaginous flesh off the claws. Crispy black pepper pork riblets ($6.50) have heat, succulence and engaging chewiness.
You can order xiao long bao ($3.95) at lunch, as well as that divine braised pork belly ($8) with steamed buns. Just be prepared to drop everything the moment the steamer of Shanghai dumplings hits the table. Both our banquet desserts–the steamed sesame balls ($3.50) and the two layer green tea/bean cake ($2.95)–are available at lunch.
You may run into me at H K Lounge II, working my way through the five columns of the dim sum order sheet. I’ll be there before noon, when the small dining room gets crowded.
3300 Geary (at Parker) San Francisco 415 668-8802 Open for dim sum and dinner daily.