One of the best meals I enjoyed last year was a fabulous dinner at Howard’s Gourmet. While I am a great admirer of Chinese cuisine, I’m hardly an expert, so I was lucky to be taken under the wing of a Beijing friend, Liu Rui, who is a regular guest at this particular restaurant and considers the chef his culinary mentor. Howard Cai, who established the the eatery, aims to create what he calls “delicate Chinese cuisine,” and while he prepares many traditional dishes and works with many traditional ingredients, they’re often subtly re-thought to allow the fundamental quality of the products he works with to shine through more clearly. Presentation isn’t elaborate and seasoning is subtle, so it’s the fabulous ingredients that have center stage.
We began with a 36-month-old Shantou goose head that had been simmered in a savory broth, an ultra-traditional dish. These geese have a prominent basal knob that’s considered a special delicacy, but all the goose’s flesh had a uniquely dense, firmly gelatinous texture and thrillingly sapid flavor. I suspect it would make for a very interesting pairing with old Pinot Noir-based Champagne, a contention I hope to test on my next visit to Beijing, but it also worked very well with Emmanuel Houillon’s 2011 Arbois Pupillin Chardonnay, a complex, spicy wine with incisive acids and plenty of sapid qualities of its own after four years in old wood.
Next came sea cucumber, one of Cai’s signature dishes which he cooks for a considerably briefer time than most traditional preparations call for, keeping its fiber and gelatin intact for a stickier, less chewy result. A fish maw soup served alongside was deliciously pure and refined. And one of my favorite dishes followed, a 12-year-old whelk, which had been flattened wafer-thin and was served with a delicately buttery broth that amplified its natural flavors. The whelk’s gelatinous texture echoed that of the goose head with which we had begun.
These dishes, and a gourmand shark fin soup enriched with crab roe from the end of the Shanghai hairy crab season, were accompanied by a deep, textural 2001 Meursault Narvaux from Domaine d’Auvenay. This parcel has been in Lalou Bize-Leroy’s family since the mid-nineteenth century, and it invariably produces a wine that is at once powerful and incisive. The 2001 is beginning to develop some honeyed aromas and is drinking very well today. Liu Rui, who has consumed over a case, said he has encountered bottles with more tension and aromatic precision, but it still put on a superb showing.
After the rich, almost unctuous soup, a lighter course followed, consisting of a simply braised wild tortoise. As with so many of the dishes, it was the delicacy and complexity of the ingredient that took center stage; and like the whelk, the flavors were all the more interesting because this was a wild, mature animal. The tortoise made for a welcome intermission between the soup and Cai’s crispy pig’s trotter, a fat- and collagen-rich dish. The wines mirrored the wood, with a supple, satiny and fragrant 2005 Saumur-Champigny Les Poyeux from Clos Rougeard sandwiched between a broad-shouldered but savory, semi-mature 2000 Barolo Riserva Le Rocche del Falletto from the late, great Bruno Giacosa, and a heady, deep and concentrated 2007 Cuvée Syrah from Emmanuel Reynaud’s Château de Fonsalette.
To my palate, the 2005 vintage is the best of the decade chez Clos Rougeard, and while expressive, the Les Poyeux is still an adolescent. This cuvée derives from sandy soils and is matured in once-used barrels. It’s always the silkiest, most charming wine from the estate, and in the near- and medium-term I often prefer it to the iconic Le Bourg, a denser, oakier wine from clay-rich soils that takes longer to reach maturity. More powerful than the Les Poyeux, the Barolo Riserva Le Rocche del Falletto was not far from full maturity. Giacosa’s 2000s have evolved precociously and their tannins are melting and resolved, making them unusually delicious for young Nebbiolo, though I prefer the greater precision and depth evidenced by both his 1999s and 2001s. Decidedly the most youthful of the trio was the 2007 Cuvée Syrah from Château de Fonsalette, and inky, multidimensional wine that’s sumptuously textural and immensely intense. Its sense of integration and completeness ranks it as one of the finest renditions of the Cuvée Syrah—which is produced from Syrah left over after the blend of the Fonsalette Côtes du Rhône has been composed—that I have ever tasted. Every time I drink a bottle I wonder if, heretical though the suggestion is, it’s the most successful wine produced by Emmanuel Reynaud in the 2007 vintage? Certainly, its fruit tones, while decidedly ripe, don’t have the baked, sun-kissed quality that Pignan and Rayas display in their current phase of evolution.
We were about to conclude the meal with another of Cai’s signature dishes, his hot and sour noodles, when a passing remark about frogs’ legs in the Saone Valley elicited a fabulous dish of frogs’ legs in XO sauce. These were fleshier, meatier beasts than those served up in France—I presume derived from bullfrogs?—but just as toothsome. Then the regular order of service was resumed with the potent, invigoratingly spicy noodles.